Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Goethe is probably the best-known poet and writer in the German language; he is German-speaking culture's Shakespeare.

Less well known are his efforts to establish a phenomenological approach to science. What interests us centrally at The Nature Institute is Goethe's method and, as a master of language, his ability to express his thoughts in such an original, non-schematic way.

For a bibliography of Goethe’s writings on science and books by other authors on Goethe’s approach, click here.

See also our program “Seeing Nature Whole: A Goethean Approach.”

Goethe’s seminal essay on the nature of scientific knowing and experimentation, “The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject,” is also available.

The following quotes give an impression of Goethe's way of looking at nature. They are mainly taken from Goethe: Scientific Studies (edited and translated by Douglas Miller, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). In some quotes the translation has been changed by Craig Holdrege (indicated with CH).

Goethe's approach to understanding nature: quotes from his writings

“After what I have seen of plants and fish in Naples and Sicily, I would be tempted — were I ten years younger — to undertake a journey to India, not to discover something new, but to view in my way what has been discovered.”

Goethe (CH; Letter to Knebel, summer 1787)

“If we want to behold nature in a living way, we must follow her example and becomes as mobile and malleable as nature herself.”

Goethe (CH; in Miller, p. 64)

“There is a delicate empiricism that makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory. But this enhancement of our mental powers belongs to a highly evolved age.”

Goethe (in Miller, p. 307)

“... Dr. Heinroth speaks favorably of my work; in fact, he calls my approach unique, for he says that my thinking works objectively. Here he means that my thinking is not separate from objects; that the elements of the object, the perceptions of the object, flow into my thinking and are fully permeated by it; that my perception itself is a thinking, and my thinking a perception.”

Goethe (in Miller, p. 39)

“If I look at the created object, inquire into its creation, and follow this process back as far as I can, I will find a series of steps. Since these are not actually seen together before me, I must visualize them in my memory so that they form a certain ideal whole.

”At first I will tend to think in terms of steps, but nature leaves no gaps, and thus, in the end, I will have to see this progression of uninterrupted activity as a whole. I can do so by dissolving the particular without destroying the impression ...

“If we imagine the outcome of these attempts, we will see that empirical observation finally ceases, inner beholding of what develops begins, and the idea can be brought to expression.”

Goethe (in Miller p. 75)

“[Morphology's] intention is to portray rather than explain.”

Goethe (in Miller p. 57)

“We conceive of the individual animal as a small world, existing for its own sake, by its own means. Every creature is its own reason to be. All its parts have a direct effect on one another, a relationship to one another, thereby constantly renewing the circle of life; thus we are justified in considering every animal physiologically perfect. Viewed from within, no part of the animal — as so often thought — is a useless or arbitrary product of the formative impulse.”

Goethe (in Miller, p. 121)

Goethe on Experimentation and Making Judgments

(From “The Experiment as Mediator Between Object and Subject,” written in 1772; in Miller pp. 11-17.)

“We can never be too careful in our efforts to avoid drawing hasty conclusions from experiments or using them directly as proof to bear out some theory. For here at this pass, this transition from empirical evidence to judgment, cognition to application, all the inner enemies of man lie in wait: imagination, which sweeps him away on his wings before he knows his feet have left the ground; impatience; haste; self-satisfaction; rigidity; formalistic thought; prejudice; ease; frivolity; fickleness — this whole throng and its retinue. Here they lie in ambush and surprise not only the active observer but also the contemplative one who appears safe from all passion.”

“I would venture to say we cannot prove anything by one experiment or even several experiments together, that nothing is more dangerous than the desire to prove some thesis directly through experiments. ... Every piece of empirical evidence we find, every experiment in which this evidence is repeated, really represents just one part of what we know. ... Every piece of empirical evidence, every experiment, must be viewed as isolated, yet the human faculty of thought forcibly strives to unite all external objects known to it. ...”

“We often find that the more limited the data, the more artful a gifted thinker will become. As though to assert his sovereignty he chooses a few agreeable favorites from the limited number of facts and skillfully marshals the rest so they never contradict him directly. Finally he is able to confuse, entangle, or push aside the opposing facts and reduce the whole to something more like the court of a despot than a freely constituted republic.”

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