Andy Blunden March 2009

Goethe’s Romantic Science

“What is the universal?
The single case.
"What is the particular?
Millions of cases.”

In July 1794, both Goethe (1995) and Schiller had been attending a lecture at the Jena scientific society and as the audience filed out, the two poets found themselves embarrassed to be left facing one another. Embarrassed, because Goethe felt that since Schiller had “rapturously embraced” the Kantian philosophy, he had been betraying his art, approaching Nature subjectively, “from the standpoint of so many human traits,” rather than “actively observing Nature’s own manner of creating,” and much to the frustration of their mutual friends, Goethe had been refusing to speak to Schiller.

Conversation could not be avoided however, and when Schiller remarked that the current “mangled methods of regarding Nature would only repel the lay person who might otherwise take an interest,” Goethe readily agreed, adding that “there might be another way of considering Nature, not piecemeal and isolated but actively at work, as she proceeds from the whole to the parts.”.. And so the pair conversed as they made their way home together. By the time they reached Schiller’s house, Goethe found himself expounding his observations of the metamorphoses of plants, and to illustrate a point made a quick sketch on a piece of paper. “But,” Schiller retorted, “this is not an empirical experience, it is an idea,” drawing upon Kant’s distinction between the faculties of sensation and reason. Goethe fought hard to suppress his rising anger, and politely remarked: “How splendid that I have ideas without knowing it, and can see them before my very eyes.” Thus Goethe drew Schiller’s attention to the unsolved problem in the Kantian philosophy of the objective sources of conceptual knowledge. Then ensued a decade of close friendship and collaboration until Schiller’s death in 1805.

Though 25 years his junior, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was already an acclaimed poet before Immanuel Kant first gained his reputation as a philosopher with his “Critique of Pure Reason” in 1787. And Goethe would continue to nourish the education of German speaking people from Marx and Wundt to Freud and Jung. When Napoleon occupied Jena in 1807, the only German he wanted to meet was Goethe (Pinkard 2000). It is unquestionable that the importance of Goethe in European culture has been greatly underestimated in the Anglophone world.[1]

More than that, Goethe’s views on science and nature are only now beginning to come into their own after two centuries of eclipse, a fate to which Goethe himself was fully resigned. Goethe was not just a poet who dabbled in science. The study of Nature was for him a practice, ‘practice’ in the sense with which a Buddhist might utter that word, to be pursued diligently throughout his life. Goethe died about the time Lyell published his “Principles of Geology” and a quarter of century before Darwin published “Origin of Species” and Mendeleyev the periodic table of elements. These were the discoveries which really demonstrated the interconnectedness of Nature as a process of development and change. Science in Goethe’s day was engaged mainly in the collection and organization of data in botany, chemistry, zoology, etc., alongside the continuation of the Newtonian project, of rendering all the phenomena of Nature as the mathematical expression of metaphysical ‘forces’ and ‘vibrations’.

It was this latter tendency to which Goethe was most hostile. It was not that he was opposed to the use of mathematics in science; he admired the precision of mathematics, studied it and used it. But his vision for science he compared to the multiplicity of religious sects to be found in New York, where the many churches tolerated each other, each allowing that there was more than one way to the truth. But he saw that the kind of science which was organizing behind the banner of Newtonianism would establish itself as the one true model of natural science and would ultimately eradicate other modes of understanding and relating to Nature. Much of what Goethe had to say 200 years ago, has become commonplace criticism of the practice of natural science in recent decades.

There were a number of reasons for Goethe’s hostility to what I will call ‘positivism’, so as to avoid misuse of the name of Isaac Newton.

Firstly, and above all, the description and supposed explanation of a phenomenon in terms of some imperceptible force or ‘vibration’ is a form of metaphysics in that it makes something beyond perception into the cause and explanation for what is given in experience.[2] The same criticism could be made of Kant’s split between thing-in-itself and appearance. Goethe wanted to obliterate this gulf between idea and image because, as he saw it, understanding of Nature came from the study of Nature itself, not by looking for supernatural or metaphysical forces.

Secondly, mathematical representations of natural processes make the study of Nature the domain of a specialist elite. Goethe saw natural science as a public and collaborative enterprise, from which those who participated enjoyed a spiritual benefit. It was therefore important to use means of representation of nature which were accessible to the lay person and made sense to those without specialized training.

Thirdly, experience of Nature was, in Goethe’s view, primarily about qualities, and quantities were obtained only by abstracting from these qualities. While there was a place for quantitative science, first place should be given to qualitative science. Goethe was concerned with the intensity and quality of our experience of Nature, therefore science required, not only training of the intellect and in the use of instruments, but training of the senses and the imagination.

Over and above his literary work, Goethe invented the science of morphology, and studied all the leading sciences of the time: mineralogy, geology, botany, comparative anatomy, osteology, psychophysiology, zoology, meteorology, and was at the cutting edge of the science of his day.

Goethe’s critique of positivistic science was extremely rich, but there are a few aspects which are germane to our theme, and should be mentioned here.

According to Goethe, natural science was a practice rather than a collection of truths. He saw science as formulating the metaphysical rationalization of a culture’s idea of reality and truth. So science develops historically and he went so far as to say that the history of science is the science itself, demonstrating this in his “History of the Theory of Colors.” “The greatest discoveries are made not by individuals but by the age,” because the claims and methods of science are an integral part of the whole culture. Consequently, he regarded all claims about Nature as partial, relative and historical.

Goethe advocated above all the study of development as the path to knowledge of a thing. He was the inventor of the Bildungsroman[3] - a novel which thematizes the development of the central character, and he lived his own Bildungsroman, continuously and publicly transforming himself, a living demonstration of the struggle to lead a truly human life. This included, not just having an active interest in natural science, but seeking to maintain natural science as a practice in which everyone could participate.

Goethe argued against the conception of gaining control over Nature, promoting instead humility and a cooperative relationship with Nature. At the same time as fighting a battle against positivist science, he was also an opponent of religious superstition. Not a militant God-denier like Holbach or Maréchal, he claimed: “As a poet and artist I am a polytheist; in my nature studies I am a pantheist ... When I require one god for my personality, as an ethical being, this is provided for also.”

But there are two of Goethe’s ideas in particular on which we must focus, both of which bear on his struggle to overcome the disjunction between phenomenon and idea: these are his notion of the Urphänomen[4] or archetypal phenomenon, and his insistence on proceeding from the whole to the part, captured in the word Gestalt.[5]

How was an understanding of Nature possible? How could Nature be intelligible? Goethe held that even though human beings were a part of Nature, the senses needed to be trained, and we had to learn to be as observant and unprejudiced as possible.

“If the eye were not sun-like,
How could we ever see light?
And if God’s own power did not dwell within us,
How could we delight in things divine?”
- Goethe (Heller 1975)

Although hypotheses could be used provisionally as a means of sharpening observation, scientific perception of an object obliged the observer to hold off so far as possible from making hypotheses, whilst expanding so far as possible the field of observation. He was more than aware that ‘every observation is already a theory’ (Goethe 1996), and that in more than one sense: people saw what interested them and what they expected to see, but as he had remarked to Schiller, theories could also be objects of perception. The close connection between sensuous perception and understanding was crucial to Goethe.

He vigorously opposed the method of abstract induction[6], the crude empiricism which substitutes for understanding, the simple registration of patterns in the data. But he was also vigorously opposed to the hypothetico-deductive method in which a hypothesis would be made and then ‘proved’ by means of selective experiments, which, he claimed, simply reproduced in contrived circumstances what was already observed: “Nature does not tell the truth under torture,” he said.

Nature had to be understood in its own terms, as experienced by human beings. Ideas - principles, laws, and so on - are not something behind appearances, but are contained within appearances.

Goethe held that the whole was present in every part, and every part was connected to the whole. The whole must therefore be perceptible in every part. Nature was not assembled from parts, but began as a whole, and from the whole came parts, and the same principle applied to perception: “In an organic being, first the form as a whole strikes us, then its parts and their shape and combination.”

Thus Goethe came to the idea of the Urphänomen or Archetypal Phenomenon.

Rather than the explanatory principle being some imperceptible force or energy, causing phenomena from behind, so to speak, the Urphänomen was itself a phenomenon, but it had to be the most easily understood, simplest, or archetypal form of the thing, a form which allowed the nature of the whole phenomenon to be understood. Despite a misunderstanding encouraged by Darwin himself, the Urphänomen is not to be confused with the first in time, the beginning of a Darwinian line; the Urphänomen is conceptually rather than genetically primitive. Every particular phenomenon is a manifestation of this one universal phenomenon, so the Urphänomen is a concrete unity, not a common ancestor.

And nor is the Urphänomen to be understood as a common empirical attribute shared by all manifestations, that is, as an abstract general category[7]. There may in fact be no shared attributes at all, for understanding goes to the essence of the thing, not its contingent attributes.

Goethe had observed that the progress of science made its great steps forward thanks to that rare perceptive insight, or aperçu, which somehow gets to the essence of a complex phenomenon. Such an insight was possible only on the basis of prolonged observation, but was neither a deductive or inductive process, but reliant on Anschauung[8] or active contemplation. The key to understanding natural processes through such insights was the discovery of the Urphänomen, which allows Nature to be understood in its own terms, and in terms of common experience, something which is easily communicated and shared with others.

It is this radically different conception of how to understand some complex process, through discovery of what is called the ‘cell’ of the organism, its simplest unit, is the great contribution Goethe made to science. But it was not until the 1830s, a few years after Goethe’s death, that advances in microscopy allowed Schleiden and Schwann to see and identify the cell as the basic unit of a living organism, already carrying within it all the characteristics of the whole living being. Goethe brilliantly anticipated this discovery and the word ‘cell’ is commonly used for the unit Goethe called Urphänomen.

As will be already clear, Goethe was adamant that understanding had to proceed from the whole to the parts, that in doing so scientific method emulated the processes of Nature itself, as well as ordinary human perception. In this context, we should further outline how Goethe saw this notion of the whole, usually referred to in English as the Gestalt:

In 1817, Goethe explained Gestalt as follows:

“The Germans have a word for the complex of existence presented by a physical organism: Gestalt. With this expression they exclude what is changeable and assume that an interrelated whole is identified, defined, and fixed in character.

“But if we look at all these Gestalten, especially the organic ones, we will discover that nothing in them is permanent, nothing is at rest or defined - everything is in a flux of continual motion. This is why German frequently and fittingly makes use of the word Bildung to describe the end product and what is in process of production as well.

“Thus in setting forth a morphology we should not speak of Gestalt, or if we use the term we should at least do so only in reference to the idea, the concept, or to an empirical element held fast for a mere moment of time” (Goethe 1996, bold added).

So, Gestalt is a transitory, developing form, whilst the real whole is the whole process of development; to know something means to comprehend its whole process of development.

But it was the idea that human beings perceived a whole Gestalt, independently of and prior to the parts, which was taken up. At first Kant observed in his Third Critique, that we perceive natural things as having a purpose, and it was fundamentally this conception of the natural purpose of organisms which allowed us to perceive forms as a whole (Kant 1914: §77). If we perceive things as related merely by mechanical cause and effect, then no concept of the whole can emerge. Much later, Christian von Ehrenfels took up the idea in a series of investigations which later gave rise to Gestalt Psychology.

Since antiquity philosophers had been troubled by the source of conceptual knowledge. We acquire a certain kind of knowledge through the senses, but from colors and textures and noises, how could knowledge of causes, of categories, of reason, religion and law be acquired? Kant was proposing that human beings possessed a separate, innate faculty of reason with access to the logical categories, working side by side with a faculty of intuition accessing the data of sensation (Kant 2007). Goethe was not alone in his dissatisfaction with Kant’s system, but Kant had posed the problem in a manner which retains its relevance to this day.

Late 19th century scientists wanted to resolve these problems by finding the source of concepts, or at least form, in sensation itself. In his influential “Analysis of Sensations,” published in 1897, Ernst Mach went so far as to hypothesize additional sense organs which could acquire visual or auditory forms, alongside ‘elements’ like color, pitch and so on (Mach 1914). Drawing on Goethe’s idea, von Ehrenfels proposed that the whole form of a thing could be represented to consciousness, not just separately and alongside its elements, but prior to its elements (Anderson 1980). The Gestaltists, such as Köhler, insisted that mind itself had to have gestalt properties in order to apprehend the gestalt properties of phenomena (Herrnstein 1965), but nonetheless, for Gestalt Psychology the problem remained within the framework of an individual organism analyzing a perceptual field. In the meantime, the problem of the source of conceptual knowledge had been quietly reduced to that of perception of the form implicit in sensuous stimuli. The idea of a whole which is prior to its parts did lay the basis for a structural conception of consciousness, however, and a theory of development marked by structural transformations. But the general idea of the mind as a gestalt structure, and problems of perception remained the only domains where Gestalt Psychology made real progress.

Goethe was far more profound. Goethe was concerned not just with form, but with how the understanding of phenomena was inseparably connected with the perception of form, principally because the human body is a part of Nature, we need nature and we cooperate with Nature. The conception of the Urphänomen offered the prospect of a scientific approach to the problem of perceiving the whole in the part, of solving the riddle of the apparently unbridgeable gulf between sensation and conception, of building a scientific understanding without metaphysics and of promoting a style of scientific enquiry which is neither dogmatic nor elitist.

It must be granted that Goethe did not fully work out this idea as an approach to science in general. But as Daniel Robinson so aptly put it:

“[Hegel] and Beethoven were born in the same year. One set Goethe to music, the other to philosophy” (Robinson 1995: 287).

Goethe was one of the first people to systematically develop what is known as “Romantic Science,” but the problems to which Romantic Science addressed itself in the early 19th century by no means disappeared as science was inundated by the triumphs of abstract empirical and positivist natural science. Goethe was personally a direct influence on Hegel, Marx, Vygotsky and Luria, each of whom frequently cited Goethe in their own work. As will be demonstrated, what were with Goethe some brilliant insights and some generalities, through Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky developed into a rounded out and powerful approach to science with gains that stand on their own merits to this day.

In particular, Goethe’s claim that complex phenomena could be understood only by means of a simple prototypical phenomenon which captures the properties of the whole process of development, was to be taken up by Hegel, and later by Karl Marx and Lev Vygotsky, each in turn giving it a more definite worked-out formulation. And what we must do now is trace the development of this idea through the work of these writers and up to recent times.

1. Not in Russia though; Vygotsky, for example, directly cites Goethe 35 times in his Collected Works, compared with 26 citations of Hegel, all indirectly.

2. For example, to say that an object falls with the acceleration g due to the force of gravity actually explains nothing, moving the explanation from the plane of observation to an invisible and hypothetical force. This criticism was ultimately vindicated by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

3. Bildung is a uniquely German word meaning the process of acquiring and maintaining the culture of one’s times. Originally, Bildung referred only to the shaping, forming, cultivating of objects, but took on the meaning of ‘education’ in the 18th century, and it became a central concept for Herder, Hegel, Schiller and &c. So Bildungsroman = personal development story.

4. Urphänomen is unique to Goethe; the prefix ‘ur’ means primitive, original or earliest, and is usually translated as ‘archetypal’. Phänomen means phenomenon, that is appearance or apparent thing. It is represented as ‘abstract notion’ in Hegel’s Logic, and exemplified by the ‘commodity relation’ in Marx’s critique of political economy.

5. Gestalt is a very common word in German, usually translated as ‘form’ or ‘shape’ or ‘formation’, but in this context roughly means ‘figure’ as in the expression ‘What a fine figure of a man!’ The word is used in other languages in the sense of Gestalt Psychology, meaning ‘an integral whole’.

6. Abstract induction would be, for example, observing a correlation between parental social status and performance in IQ tests and drawing the conclusion that intelligence is hereditary.

7. An abstract general category is a grouping of things according to a common attribute, for example, "red heads," even though the common attribute may be incidental to the things being grouped.

8. Anschauung is usually translated as ‘intuition’. The verb schauen means to see or view, and entered philosophy when Meister Eckhart translated the Latin contemplatio, the activity of contemplating something, especially the divine. Kant however took Anschauung to be exclusively sensory, rejecting the possibility of intellectual intuition, so the senses were the only source of form or shape.


Goethe (1995). The Collected Works, Volume 12, Scientific Studies, "Fortunate Encounter," pp. 18-21.