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In Context #9 (Spring, 2003, pp. 20-24); copyright 2003 by The Nature Institute

To Explain or Portray?
Stephen L. Talbott

What Goethe said of his pioneering morphological research is often repeated of Goethean science as a whole: "its intention is to portray rather than explain" (Goethe 1995, p. 57). Difficult words. The idea seems to be that description—or at least description of the right sort—leads by itself to scientific understanding. This is implied more strongly in another of his oft-repeated koans: "everything in the realm of fact is already theory .... Let us not seek for something behind the phenomena—they themselves are the theory" (p. 307).

Surely, however, there is nothing special about the terms "portray" and "explain." Both words have a wide range of meanings, and what Goethe means by portrayal could easily be construed as a type of explanation. In other words, Goethe is contrasting a particular sort of portrayal with a particular sort of explanation, and is suggesting that the portrayal is a fuller, more adequate form of explanation. What I would like to do is to sketch briefly, as I see it, the contrast between Goethean portrayal and the constricted sort of explanati