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Goethean Science: A Book Review

Stephen L. Talbott

(The following review appeared in Worldviews, vol. 5, pp. 105-110.)

Review of Goethe's Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1998). 324 pages + preface (2 pages) + front matter. See SUNY Press listing for book.

The more sympathetic introductions to Goethe's scientific works usually begin something like this:

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is best known for his poetry and plays, described by many literary critics as some of the most perceptive and evocative imaginative literature ever written. Fewer people realize, however, that Goethe also produced a sizable body of scientific work that focused on such diverse topics as plants, color, clouds, weather, morphology, and geology. Goethe believed that these studies, rather than his literary work, would some day be recognized as his greatest contribution to humankind.

That, in fact, is the opening paragraph of Goethe's Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature. To lead readers from this modest opening to anything like a full appreciation of Goethean science is a massive undertaking. Actually, it is an impossible one, since what is true of the practice of Goethean science is also true of the attempt to grasp what Goethean science is: I cannot be "led" to the necessary understanding; I achieve it only so far as I find it within myself to become a different kind of person. "For Goethe, the ultimate aim of science is nothing less than the metamorphosis of the scientist" (Frederick Amrine). [Unless otherwise indicated, all author citations refer to essays in the volume under review.]

It is not hard, however, to glimpse the fact that Goethe's science was far removed from most of today's practice. Many of his contentions stand out as perplexing riddles for us. For example, he believed that

  • Theories, in the usual sense of the word, serve little useful purpose and are likely to mislead. "The phenomena...themselves are the theory."
  • The quest for a decisive experiment is misconceived. The more decisive a single experiment is thought to be, the less real significance it is likely to have.
  • Scientists should not seek "causes" and distinguish them from effects. Phenomena must be contextually understood, as seamless wholes.
  • Nature can have "ideas," such as that of the Urpflanze, or archetypal plant.

These contentions alone should be enough to establish Goethe's science as "radical," for what do scientists do if not formulate theories to explain the causes of things, and then look for a decisive experiment to prove the theory -- all while assigning ideas solely to the domain of the subject? This may not, in fact, be quite what they do, but the natural sound of the formulation says a lot about how we regard the scientific enterprise, and it is a formulation Goethe wholly rejects.

At the same time, Goethe was, in some respects, remarkable for his modernity. He fingered, for example, what Whitehead would later identify as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness:

[The student] should form to himself a method in accordance with observation, but he should take heed not to reduce observation to mere notion, to substitute words for this notion, and to use and deal with these words as if they were things. (Theory of Color)

(We would do well to bring this advice into current genomic discussions, where the singling out of the gene as a discrete, well-defined, and decisive causal entity often obscures the organism's integral functioning. In this functioning the gene, whatever it is, by no means plays the only leading role.)

Second, Goethe anticipated the truth that our observing is already a thinking: "In every attentive look on nature we already theorize." It is not, then, that he rejected theorizing as such, but only theories, insofar as they lead us away from the phenomena to models of what supposedly lies behind the phenomena, or to the mere reification of our own abstract language. As Arthur Zajonc puts it:

Goethe valued the rational as well as the empirical dimension of science. He sought to bring the rational element consciously into science, but not as an autonomous activity operating upon observation. Rather, he endeavored to embue seeing itself with the rational. The result was what he termed a "gentle empiricism" possessed of perceptive seeing rather than mathematical techniques.

In other words,

Although current dialogue recognizes that observation is "theory-laden," this is understood in most quarters of science to refer to the interpretation of perception made by the observer after the event. Goethe understood, however, that the intentional idea [the conceptual element the observer brings into his observation, that makes the observation possible] structured the event itself and realized the implication for science. (Ronald Brady)

This points to a third aspect of Goethe's modernity. Nearly everyone today claims to have rejected "Cartesian dualism" -- which is a fair indication that this dualism retains its hold on us. We have hardly escaped the assumption, as Walter Heitler puts it, that there is, "first, an external object independent of us that can be imagined as a mechanism, and, second, our own inner life." Yet it remains true that

Sense perception can be understood neither by natural science as it is practiced today, which studies only "external objects," nor by psychology, which studies only "inner experiences." The Cartesian split completely blocks the path to understanding. Only a mode of thought that overcomes this split and perceives the unity of "outside" and "inside" in all our everyday perceptions can gain insight into this problem.

But for Goethe this split held no substance. For example, color -- and qualities generally -- belong both to the inner and outer worlds, which are an indivisible unity. As Goethe expressed it poetically:

In the contemplation of nature you must
Regard the One as All;
Nothing is within, nothing is without.
Grasp thus without delay
A holy open secret

The paradox of Goethe's remoteness from and nearness to modern scientific thinking is only accentuated by another puzzle. "It is a commonplace of the history of science," writes Brady, "that Goethe's work is an expression of [Romantic nature philosophy], and suffers from the same weakness -- that is, that it is more philosophic and speculative than empirical." And yet, as Brady goes on to point out, Goethe had his own problems with normal scientific practice, faulting researchers for speculating beyond the phenomena. "Surely there is something significant in the fact that Goethe and the representatives of modern natural research accuse each other of the same mistake."

The blindness in this mutual criticism, according to Brady, must be assigned to the practitioners of our own day. The search for objectivity has led them to embrace antagonistic principles: "one, the principle of experience, which demands that an empirical science limit itself to what is given by experience; two, objectivity, which postulates that the external world has no share in mind or in any other content that is derived from the constitution of the observing subject."

If everything we can know comes through experience, and if objective reality is alien to experience, then our two principles pose a problem Brady puts the matter succinctly:

The qualities of immediate experience cannot be divorced from the formulaic activity of the mind, but the "outness" [externality and objectivity] of experience is itself such a quality....If the Cartesian split between mind and outer world is itself a formulation of mind, it does not disclose an objective realm beyond mind....we might just as well suspend the objectivity postulate to allow a total restriction to experience. After all, my experiences are manifestly there, which is a good deal more than I can say for the unperceived world that may be the ultimate cause of these experiences.

The fact, noted above, that qualities reside both in us and in the world gives us an approach to Goethe's statement that "Each phenomenon in nature, rightly observed, wakens in us a new organ of inner understanding." The quality in the world is not a different thing from the quality in us, and in awakening to the quality in the world we must at the same time awaken the capacity in ourselves that can express this quality. Goethe saw no limit to this awakening and expansion of capacity, which gives us new powers of perception. His optimism in this regard contrasts with the conviction still very much at work today, which philologist Owen Barfield elsewhere calls "that ultramontane creed of the positivists" to the effect that "men can only ever observe what they already know how to observe." ("What if," Barfield asks, "Galileo, too, had been among the faithful?")

A great deal about Goethe's scientific project becomes clearer when you realize that he pursued a qualitative science. This must be a very different thing from a science that both aspires to the greatest achievable extreme of quantification and rejects the world's qualities as outside the purview of the respectable researcher. The question whether a Goethean science is possible is the question whether a qualitative science is possible -- and there's not much in the literature of conventional science and its philosophy to answer this question.

In the end, of course, we will know that a qualitative, Goethean science is possible only to the degree we succeed in producing it. Unfortunately, the "Doing Goethean Science" section of this book is not as strong as the philosophical section -- or so it seems to this reviewer. But it is hardly surprising that we do not yet have a cornucopia of "Goethean results," given the small (if growing) number of researchers who have taken up his methods, and given how strongly these methods run counter to conventional scientific training. Little in our society, for example, prepares us for the artistic discrimination that must play such a major role in any qualitative science. Every qualitative manifestation in the world is an expressive gesture, and for us to work with these qualities in a disciplined way requires the artist's rigorous sense for reading and employing gestures.

I should add, however, that this volume does give some exciting glimpses of what a qualitative science might be like. I personally have taken great inspiration from the essay on "The Horse and the Lion: Seeing the Animal Whole" by my Nature Institute colleague, Craig Holdrege. It also needs remarking that Goethe himself produced a substantial body of work, particularly on plant morphology and color, that is highly regarded within a widening circle of scientists today.

The list of contributors to Goethe's Way of Science is itself testimony to the variety of scholars and researchers who have felt Goethe's pull: There are three physicists (Henri Bortoft, Walter Heitler, Arthur Zajonc), four biologists (Jochem Bockemühl, Nigel Hoffman, Craig Holdrege, Mark Riegner), a physician and professor of physiology (Herbert Hensel), two specialists in Germanic studies (Frederick Amrine and Alan P. Cottrell), one philosopher (Ronald Brady), one sculptor (John Wilkes), and one professor of architecture (David Seamon).

As an introduction to "Goethe's way of science," this book serves wonderfully well. The historical and philosophical surveys in it contain ample bibliographical material for further exploration, and if the practical studies (on certain plants and animals, and also on water) inspire you to begin looking upon the bits of nature in your own backyard or neighborhood park with new eyes -- "new organs of perception" -- well, Goethe could hardly have wished for more.

Steve Talbott :: Goethean Science: A Book Review

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