Goethe on Science

Image by Alix Roosen

Goethe on Science
by Jeremy Naydler

Modern Science and our Relationship to Nature

Today, one of the greatest obstacles facing people who are wanting to develop a more intimate relationship to nature is, paradoxically, the extraordinary ‘success’ of mainstream science. In the twentieth century, we have learned to distrust our own immediate experiences of nature, for we are educated into the belief that the world is not really as we experience it. Science has persuaded us that ‘real reality’ is a more or
less abstract world behind the world we normally perceive – a world which lacks the qualities such as warmth, colour, taste, hardness or softness, by which we know and relate to nature in our ordinary lives. This world is accessible only to experts and specialists who have undergone the training necessary to see through the qualitative
sheen that nature presents to us, to the substructure of essentially qualityless particles and processes which can only be adequately understood using mathematical concepts. It is a realm consisting of such things as protons, neutrons and electrons, quarks, leptons and probability waves, genes and DNA. The vast majority of people will
never have even the remotest experience of them, for they can only be encountered under laboratory conditions, in a most indirect way. And even then only by people who have undergone the requisite training in order to interpret the phenomena they are observing. The rest of us have meanwhile fallen into the grip of a kind of paralysis regarding our relationship to nature. We no longer trust our own perceptions, and feel
that to see the world ‘as it really is’ would require submitting ourselves to the arduous  disciplines of the sciences. Convinced of the essential inferiority of our direct experience of nature, we have learnt to relinquish the challenge of deepening this experience in favour of turning to textbooks and encyclopedias in which the authorized definitions, classifications and interpretations of nature are preserved.


The advances in specialized scientific knowledge have thus had the unpredictable effect of encouraging a chronic laziness with regard to our everyday observation of nature. This applies not only to non-scientists, but equally to scientists themselves outside their particular area of specialism. There is now a widespread tendency to bring concepts to bear on our experiences in such a way that the experiences
themselves are effectively undermined. This can happen either through our deferring to some underlying imperceptible agency described in the scientific textbook as the true cause of what we are experiencing, or by the conditioned reflex that makes us transpose our perceptions into something pre-defined and pre-classified. Before we allow ourselves the possibility of fully entering into them, and making them our own,
we surrender our perceptions to a standard that is extraneous to our actual perceptual experience. In our Western scientific culture, we have reached a situation in which there is no longer a mental openness to phenomena, because we are so ready to defer to the pre-existent categories of established science.

The modern relinquishment by individuals of responsibility for their
perception of nature has adversely affected the way in which our whole culture interacts with the natural world. Overwhelmed by the sheer quantity, complexity and brilliance of scientific knowledge, this interaction has become increasingly ignorant and insensitive. Here, then, is an aspect of the relationship between science and the contemporary ecological crisis which is critical, but is often overlooked. Unless we
address it, any attempt to heal our wounded natural environment is unlikely to succeed. The re-sensitization of our day-to-day consciousness of nature has become a task that nature herself is pressing upon us. It is a task both more profound and more
far-reaching than political legislation, economic strategy, or technological intervention. It is the key to restoring a harmonious relationship between ourselves and the natural world.


What Goethe had to say two centuries ago about nature and about science is, I believe, even more relevant now than it ever has been. For it bears directly on an issue which increasingly impinges on the lives of everyone: this issue is not simply the degradation of nature, but the degradation of our awareness of nature. Goethe was deeply concerned with science. But his concern was with a side of science which
already, in his time, was being pushed to the periphery of what was generally regarded as having research value: namely, the intensification of our actual experience of the living world of qualities and forms, to a point at which one becomes aware of their spiritual, as distinct from their material, basis. For Goethe, this could be a perception as objective as the analysis of the chemical constituents of a body, but it required a training not only of the mind and senses but also of the imagination, and
the moral and aesthetic sensibilities of the human being, all of which would be utilized by him in his researches. Science, for Goethe, was a method of consciousness-raising, but it could only function as such when brought into living connection with all his human faculties. None of these were excluded; rather, all were directed towards instilling vitality into the act of perception.

Goethe as a Scientist

Goethe turned his attention to an extraordinarily wide range of natural phenomena. Mineralogy, geology and botany were all subjects of intense study in his late twenties when, having settled in Weimar at the invitation of Duke Karl August, his official duties included overseeing the local mines, and his official residence was a Gartenhaus in a park on the edge of town. It is typical of Goethe’s personality that these  circumstances of his Weimar life provoked in him a fascination respectively for rocks and plants. His interest in plants was further stimulated by his getting to know the nearby Thuringian forests, as well as by the herbalists whom he met in the woodland countryside.


However, Goethe’s first serious contribution to science was to be in the field of anatomy – a subject in which he had been keenly interested for many years. This was his discovery of the intermaxillary bone in the human jaw in 1784, the existence of which had hitherto been denied. For Goethe, it was a discovery of great significance, for it proved that there was a basic anatomical model which human beings shared with all other higher animals, thus validating his intuitive belief in the underlying
unity of nature. At about the same time, Goethe was writing on granite, and pursuing his studies of plants. Goethe had a deep admiration for Linnaeus, and through the 1780’s (while he was in his thirties) was constantly consulting his works. However, the type of minute analysis characteristic of Linnean botany was not to be Goethe’s way. In 1790, he produced his classic study, The Metamorphosis of Plants, in which he followed the development of the plant through archetypal stages of alternating contraction and expansion. Goethe was attempting to see beyond the individual, and beyond the species, to more fundamental processes of growth in which all plants share. This is not to say that his method was un-empirical; rather, he was striving for a kind of empiricism which attended to subtle processes and developmental patterns with which traditional taxonomy was little concerned.

The following year, Goethe published his first essay on optics, a subject which was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life, and which led to his monumental study of colour phenomena, Zur Farbenlehre, or The Theory of Colour (eventually published in its entirety in 1810). This work, more than any other of his scientific writings, has given him a place – a somewhat ambivalent place – in the history of science, and remains the subject of heated controversy. For it is a model of a type of scientific
thinking utterly opposed to that of Newton, whose Optics dominated the field in Goethe’s day. The essential difference in the methods of the two men is that Newton sought to explain the phenomenon of colour in terms of the measurable angles of refrangibility of colourless rays of light, whereas Goethe had no desire to reduce colour phenomena to what was measurable but colourless. His approach consisted in
trying to understand colour in its own terms, and in terms of how we actually experience it as arising in nature. Zur Farbenlehre has always appealed more to artists who work with colour, than to scientists. But it also appeals to those unorthodox scientists and laypersons interested in developing a qualitative approach to nature, no less rigorous than the mathematical methods of the Newtonians and their descendants,
but committed to maintaining faith with lived experience. 


Zur Farbenlehre was not well received by the scientific establishment in Goethe’s lifetime, and later physicists have often been less than sympathetic. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Du Bois-Reymond, for instance, dismissed it as ‘the stillborn plaything of a self-taught dilettante’ while Helmholtz, although he understood that Goethe was attempting to save the truth of direct sense-experience,
nevertheless accused Goethe of failing to understand what constituted a scientific explanation. In his essay ‘On the Natural-Scientific Works of Goethe’, Helmholtz was to comment tellingly:

Since we never are able to perceive the forces themselves, but only their effects, in every explanation it is necessary for us to abandon the sensory realm and to pass over to the imperceptible, which is determined through concepts alone. 1

To judge from these reactions of establishment physicists, one suspects that Goethe, in his refusal to abandon the sensory realm in his pursuit of scientific knowledge, exercised a certain fascination over them. They could not ignore him,because he stood for a type of scientific investigation which they had rejected. They had rejected it in order to pursue what they knew was a one-sided knowledge of nature, and they felt it necessary to justify the one-sidedness of their approach by denouncing the man who represented the other, neglected side of the scientific ideal. It was precisely Goethe’s refusal to abandon the sensory realm that gave to his scientific endeavours a freshness and an accessibility that their science lacked, and indeed so much contemporary science lacks. Goethe was pursuing a type of
knowledge that human beings can claim as their own, a type of knowledge that enriches rather than impoverishes human experience of nature.

As well as his work on colour, which occupied him from the 1790’s onwards, Goethe continued to busy himself with studying and writing on osteology, comparative anatomy, geology, botany, zoology and, later, meteorology. He also wrote extensively on scientific methodology, the focus my book Goethe on Science. All of this work was by no means a merely peripheral hobby or pastime to Goethe. It was integral to his way of being in the world, a way of being in which he sought always to extend his embrace of nature through intensified experience and deepened understanding. Towards the end of his life, Goethe wrote:


For more than half a century I have been known as a poet, in my own country and undoubtedly also abroad; or at any rate I have been permitted to pass for one. But the fact that I have busily and quietly occupied myself with Nature in all her general and organic phenomena, constantly and passionately pursuing seriously formulated studies – this is not so generally known, still less has it been accorded any attention. 2

Goethe the scientist is still little known, but it may be that the full significance of his contribution is now beginning to dawn on us.
Goethe and the Troubled Conscience of Modern Science
Interestingly, with the collapse of the Newtonian paradigm in the twentieth century, Goethe’s scientific work has received far more sympathetic attention from physicists than it did in the nineteenth century. Physicists such as Walter Heitler, Carl Friedrich von Weisäcker and Werner Heisenberg have all written on Goethe, Heisenberg in
particular being aware of Goethe’s voice almost as the troubled conscience of the modern scientist. In his essay ‘On the History of the Physical Interpretation of Nature’, Heisenberg writes of the basis of scientific progress since Newton’s time as having involved a sacrifice of ‘living and immediate understanding’, and accepts that this ‘was the real reason for Goethe’s bitter struggle against Newton’s physical optics
and his teachings on colour.’ He continues:

It would be superficial to neglect this struggle as unimportant, there is a good reason for one of the most eminent of men using all his power to combat the achievement of Newton’s optics. One can only charge Goethe with a lack of consistency. He should not only have combated Newton’s views but he should have said that the whole of Newton’s physics, optics, mechanics and gravitational theory was the work of the
devil. 3 

For Heisenberg, there need be no conflict between accepting the findings of modern physics and ‘following Goethe’s way of contemplating nature’. For the two ways are less opposed than complementary. Within the world of biology, Goethe’s reception in
the twentieth century has generally lacked this degree of broadmindedness. Sir Charles Sherrington, in his essay ‘Goethe on Nature and on Science’ written in the 1940’s (just a few years after Heisenberg was writing his thoughts on Goethe), gives a fairly typical verdict on Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants: 


Now the study of the development of a plant, or animal, is at root an affair of following its cellular development. The cell-theory had not arrived in Goethe’s time ... When later the progress of botany in due course obtained facts competent for the question, the theory was found not to be borne out. It fell, therefore, into the doleful category of unlucky guesses. 4

This has not stopped some more recent biologists, opposed to the reductionist tendency endemic in modern biology, to come out openly in support of Goethe. Notable amongst these are Agnes Arber, Adolf Portmann and Brian Goodwin. It is not Goethe’s specific discoveries or ‘theories’ that draw them to him, but rather the whole manner in which he conducted his investigations. Above all, it is Goethe’s methodology that remains his lasting legacy to us. And it is precisely over his
methodology that scientists either feel compelled to dismiss him as a poet who made a fool of himself dabbling in matters beyond his competence, or find themselves irresistibly attracted to him as a pioneer of a holistic and qualitative science of nature. It is worth quoting Portmann here, for he expresses succinctly the inspirational role
that Goethe can play today. At the end of his essay on ‘Goethe and the Concept of Metamorphosis’, Portmann writes:

It is high time we rediscovered the exemplary nature of an attempt such as that which Goethe has given us in his Metamorphosis of Plants ... The accelerated development of biological research in the direction of genetic engineering, that investigates the visible realm in order to achieve mastery over the processes of nature – this unavoidable development will result in a horrifying impoverishment of our relationship to nature if we do not begin immediately to take to heart the value of an extensive experience with living form for the cultivation of the soul. New forms of science of nature are called for, a science of nature which is not a pale reflection of today’s science, but rather leads to a deepened experience with the realm of living forms and makes nature for us a true home. 5

It was Goethe’s commitment to the revitalization of our perception of the world so that we again find ourselves at home within nature instead of studying her as if we were aliens from another planet that is his major contribution to science and, more broadly, to our beleaguered scientific culture today. 


Goethean Science as a Path of Spiritual Development


As conceived by Goethe, science is as much an inner path of spiritual development as it is a discipline aimed at accumulating knowledge of the physical world. Rather than simply making new discoveries and propounding new theories on the basis of ever more refined techniques of physical observation, the aim of science is, for Goethe, to open the eyes and mind of the beholder of nature to what is spiritually at work within, or at root of, the observed physical phenomena. It therefore involves not only a rigorous training of our faculties of observation and thinking, but also of other human faculties which can attune us to the spiritual dimension that underlies and interpenetrates the physical: faculties such as feeling, imagination and intuition. Science, as Goethe conceived and practised it, has as its highest goal the arousal of the feeling of wonder through ‘contemplative looking’ (Anschauung), in which the scientist would come ‘to see God in nature, nature in God’.

Such an experience does not depend on the observer having accumulated vast amounts of knowledge. Nor does it rest on the deployment of elaborate scientific instruments. For Goethe, the human being is ‘the most powerful and exact instrument’ if we but take the trouble sufficiently to refine our sensibilities. This means that the
practice of Goethean science is not necessarily the province of specialists and experts, but is open to everyone who is seeking to deepen their relationship to nature. 


From a Goethean standpoint, the ecological crisis is above all a crisis of our relationship to nature. The extent to which nature is in need of being healed corresponds directly to the extent to which our consciousness of nature is sick. The Goethean approach to nature rests upon the development of human consciousness towards a more wholesome perception of, and ever more subtle degrees of attunement to, the creative and formative forces within nature. Goethe shows us a path in which the healing both of nature and ourselves is implied in the ‘delicate empiricism’ which he espouses. It is essentially a reverential path, not a path of manipulation and control. It is a path in which human beings may become whole again in an experience of nature which opens to the sacred, and which thus becomes the means by which nature herself is re-sanctified. Above all, Goethe’s scientific path is a path which keeps faith with human experience, and seeks less to move from experience to idea or theory, than to intensify experience as such. It is through this intensification of our experience of nature that her spiritual dimension is revealed.


1 H. von Helmholtz, ‘On the Natural-Scientific Works of Goethe’ quoted in Fred Amrine, ‘Goethe’s Science in the Twentieth Century,’ in Alexej Ugrinsky, Goethe in the Twentieth Century (New York: Hofstra University, 1987) p.88.

2 ‘The Author Relates the History of His Botanical Studies’ translated in Bertha Mueller, Goethe’s Botanical Writings, (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1952), p.164.

3 Werner Heisenberg, ‘On the History of the Physical Interpretation of Nature’ in Philosophic Problems of Nuclear Science (London, Faber and Faber, 1952), reissued as Philosophic Problems of Quantum Physics (Woodbridge, Connecticut, Ox Bow Press, 1979).

4 Sir Charles Sherrington, Goethe on Nature and on Science, (Cambridge University Press, 1949) p.22.


5 Adolf Portmann, ‘Goethe and the Concept of Metamorphosis’ in Fred Amrine, Goethe and the Scientists: a Reappraisal (Dordrecht, D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1987), pp.144-45.

This article is an edited version of the Introduction to Goethe on Science
(Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1996) by Jeremy Naydler, reproduced here by kind permission of Floris Books. The book can be purchased HERE

Goethe was pursuing a type of knowledge that human beings can claim as their own, a type of knowledge that enriches rather than impoverishes human experience of nature.

The re-sensitization of our day-to-day consciousness of nature has become a task that nature herself is pressing upon us. It is a task both more profound and more
far-reaching than political legislation, economic strategy, or technological intervention.

It was Goethe’s commitment to the revitalization of our perception of the world so that we again find ourselves at home within nature instead of studying her as if we were aliens from another planet . 

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