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Facts as Theory: Aspects of Goethe's Philosophy of Science

by Arthur G. Zajonc - 1983

After showing that Goethe's declarations and admonishments concerning the scope and methods of science often foreshadowed later developments, the author reconsiders Goethe's own scientific efforts. Goethe continually strove to fully integrate human experience into all levels of scientific inquiry and discovery. (Source: ERIC)

Given as a paper at the Harvard symposium Goethes Science Reconsidered, and forthcoming in Goethe and the Sciences: A Re-Appraisal, ed. F. Amrine, F. J. Zucker, and H. Wheeler. It is a pleasure to acknowledge the very considerable assistance that Professor Frederick Amrine so willingly provided in matters of both content and style. His criticisms served always to clarify and strengthen this essay. I owe much also to conversations with Ron Brady, Alan Cottrell, and Christopher Bamford.

For many, the business of science is to search for causes. So when the would-be scientist Goethe declares to Schiller that we are not seeking causes but the circumstances under which the phenomenon occurs,1 he seems to be missing the point of the scientific enterprise. He only makes matters worse by maintaining that man in thinking errs particularly when inquiring after cause and effect; the two together constitute the indissoluble phenomenon.2 It is rightly said that the phenomenon is a consequence without a ground, an effect without a cause.3

It is clear immediately that Goethe takes issue with certain naively held convictions about the nature of the scientific enterprise. The scrutiny of the foundations of science, while common today, was not something practitioners cared to engage in during Goethes lifetime. Rapid progress was being made on many fronts, the scent of success was in the air. Yet it seems clear in retrospect that a careful reconsideration of the nature and means of scientific inquiry was in order.

By 1890 several philosophers and physicists had launched a critique of the commonly held notions of explanation, law, observation, fact, and so on. The undertaking is certainly even now not complete. In what follows, I hope first to show that Goethes declarations and admonishments concerning the scope and methods of science often foreshadowed later developments, and that his understanding of the business of science was often more thoughtfully conceived and consistent than that of his more orthodox contemporaries. After such considerations we may wish to reconsider Goethes own scientific efforts. In the second part of this article, just such a reconsideration is presented. In particular we must discern clearly that for which Goethe is searching in his scientific studies, and also how he proposes to attain his goal. As we address these aspects of his thought, Goethes unique and, I think, fruitful way of exploring nature will become evident. Its implications for education will also become clear only after these considerations. I hope to show that in his scientific efforts Goethe strove to fully integrate human experience into all levels of scientific inquiry and discovery. Rather than provide practitioners with a powerful mathematical or mechanical model abstracted from experience, he sought to elevate the human spirit through a methodology that remained always with the phenomena. In order that theory itself become a beholding, as the Greek root implies, human faculties must be fashioned, formed on the full, rich variety of natural phenomena. With these newborn faculties, the coherence and lawfulness of nature, moral as well as physical, become manifest not as reasoned abstractions but as beheld experience. In this sense, for Goethe, facts become theory and the task of education as well as science is redefined. But first we must gain some clarity concerning the climate of scientific thought in Goethes day and why the reception of his scientific work was then so negative.


When Helmholtz, in 1853, contrasts Goethes scientific investigations with those of his more orthodox colleagues, he does so in a manner that places him, Helmholtz, squarely in the tradition of mechanical philosophy begun in the seventeenth century. According to Helmholtz, Goethe, even as a scientist, is concerned solely with the beautiful show which makes it possible to contemplate the ideal. The true natural philosopher, on the other hand, tries to discover the levers, the cords, and the pulleys which work behind and shift the scenes.4 Clearly the task of the scientist, according to Helmholtz, is to look behind the scenes, to search out the true mechanical causes that drive nature. In this he is merely paraphasing an oft-enunciated Enlightenment ideal. Two hundred years earlier, in 1686, Bernard de Fontenelle employed the identical metaphor to describe both nature and the task of the scientist:

Nature is a grand spectacle which is like that of the opera. From the place where one sits, one does not see the theater at all as it really is. The scenery and machinery have been arranged so as to make an agreeable impression. The wheels and counterweights which drive all the movements are hidden from view. Nor do you concern yourself with how these machines are put into motion.5

But it is of great concern to the scientist just how nature contrives to create the phenomena we view. Although it is an exceedingly difficult task, Fontenelle enjoins modern philosophers to engage in the elucidation of nature in terms of wheels and counterweights: He that would see nature as she truly is, must stand behind the scenes of the opera. From such a vantage point, the universe becomes a clockwork mechanism complicated in detail but simple in principle. Seventeenth-century natural philosophy ends, as Fontenelle puts it, by taking the world to be in great, what a watch is in small.6 AS secretary of the Paris Academy of Sciences, Fontenelle, although not a scientist himself, reflects the common rising scientific world view of his age.

The rational, mechanistic explanation of natural phenomena represented for Fontenelle and his contemporaries a triumph over the ignorance of scholastic science. In place of Aristotelian physics, a new view of science was promulgated that would embody the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, and Descartes. In this new science, there was no room for the substantial forms or occult qualities of Aristotelian physics. The program of seventeenth-century science was one that sought to purge such metaphysical vagaries from the vocabulary of physical investigation. In order to do so, the very concept of explanation needed revision. Consider for a moment the Cartesian and Aristotelian explanations of the fall of a stone.7

One of the essential qualities of the Greek element earth is, according to Aristotle, gravity. Although a rock may be constrained accidentally to sit on a shelf or in my hand, when that constraint is removed it is carried to its own natural place. We should not imagine that natural place is a cause. Place does not attract its corresponding elements in any modern sense. Rather, it [place] has some potency (dunamis).8 When Aristotle writes that the movement of each body to its own place is motion towards its own form,9 he locates the separate, moving body within a larger unity, its own form. Following Machamers perceptive analysis of natural place and motion, I understand the potency of natural place to be a result of the natural or organic unity that place confers on those things that are inherently alike.10 Objects alike by nature stand in a particular spatial relationship at any moment, but they also form an organic unity through the potency of their common natural place. The formal cause of natural motion thus becomes their organic unity. In moving toward its natural place an object is actualizing a potential. In the tuning of a musical instrument a potential is actualized. Likewise, in the motion of the stone toward its own form what existed only potentially becomes actual. Free fall is certainly not a matter of attraction. Rather, it is similar, Aristotle tells us, to other forms of generation and change, for example, the coming-into-being of a plant.11 One can maintain, as Furley does, that the efficient cause of natural motion was for Aristotle nature itself.12 For Aristotle writes, Nature is a cause of motion in the thing itself, force is a cause in something else.13 For centuries thereafter, from Philoponus to the young Galileo, nature was considered to be a principle inhering in the object and causing its natural motion. Even Galileo in his Two New Sciences conceived of the uniform increase of velocity with time as due to nature.14 Whether Aristotle saw nature as an efficient cause has been a matter of debate. Historically, however, the matter is clear. By the sixteenth century, the perceived lack of a proximate contact cause for natural motion had become a source of dissatisfaction. It was during this period that the modern concepts of cause and force developed. By the time Fontenelle composed his Plurality of Worlds at the end of the next century, Aristotles account of natural notion was considered no explanation at all. Motion of an object toward its own form, actualization of a potential, and so on all seemed only a smoke screen for ignorance. A program was therefore mounted by seventeenth-century natural philosophy to criticize scholastic science and to popularize the discoveries and explanations of the new science. The purge of metaphysical notions from natural science was to be complete. In its place a completely physical world comprised of matter in motion, whose single principle of causation is concussion, was elaborated. This is a view not without its own difficulties, of course. The year after Fontenelles Plurality of Worlds appeared, Newton published his Principia, with its rejection of Cartesian cosmology and his own cautious description of gravitation. Moreover, from our vantage point, it also seems clear that mechanical philosophy merely replaces one metaphysics with another. But more about this later. Let us turn very briefly to Descartess explanation of free fall as an example of the philosophy of which we have been speaking.

Descartess explanation of falling bodies rests on the explicit doctrine that a void is a logical impossibility. Since space is extended and extension is one of the primary qualities of matter, space must be filled with matter. The four Greek elements are conceived of as variously shaped corpuscles. Even the smallest remaining spaces are filled by a fine material plenum. Empty space is then, in Cartesian physics, an atomistically conceived fluid in which vortices and other motions can arise. One such vortex exists around the earth, reaching as far as the moon. It causes the phenomena we associate with earthly gravity. The propagation of light and electric and magnetic phenomena likewise finds explanation in terms of hidden corpuscular mechanisms.15 The forms of Aristotles physics are replaced in each instance by an explanation entirely in terms of mechanically conceived efficient causes.16 Thus when, at the start of the nineteenth century, Goethe turns away from such explanations and writes:

The highest thing would be to comprehend that everything factual is already theory. The blue of the heavens reveals to us the fundamental law of chromatics. One should only not seek anything behind the phenomena: they themselves are the theory,17

the scientific community of his day saw the specter of an ancient physics once again rearing its head. Goethe is clear in his intentions. His choice of methodology was not made out of ignorance. He was fully aware of the reigning scientific paradigm. Yet he chose consciously not to invoke what he considered but another kind of metaphysics in order to explain nature. He greatly distrusted scientific hypotheses, calling them the lullabies that the teacher uses to lull his pupil to sleep.18 Working hypotheses he granted as being of great use in the early stages of scientific inquiry. However, they should not be elevated to or mistaken for reality: Hypotheses are like the scaffolding erected in front of a building, to be dismantled when the building is completed. To the worker the scaffolding is indispensable, but he must not confuse it with the building itself.19 To free the human spirit from an hypothesis which causes it to see falsely or partially is already a great service.20 Goethe was convinced that many hypotheses had in fact been raised to the level of scientific dogma, the most infamous case being the Newtonian theory of color:

A false hypothesis is better than none at all. The fact that it is false does not matter so much. However, if it takes root, if it is generally assumed, if it becomes a kind of credo admitting no doubt or scrutinythis is the real evil, one which has endured through the centuries.21

Against this Goethe would place his own mode of inquiry with its special attention to phenomena. But let us delay that discussion slightly in order to explore briefly the role of hypothesis in scientific discussion.


Already in the General Scholium that Newton included in his Principia of 1687, the Cartesian doctrine of vortices, in particular, and Descartess whole mode of explanation in general came under attack. Newton, after indicating that the hypothesis of vortices is pressed with many difficulties, goes on to admit that he himself had

not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses: for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.22

There is, of course, still the subtle question of what counts as deduction from the phenomena. When Descartes deduces a material plenum from his observations concerning primary qualities and matter, Newton discounts the attempt. Likewise, when Newton deduces from the phenomena of refraction and dispersion of light through a prism the rays differently refrangible of his Opticks,23 Goethe will declare these to be hypotheses merely, not the true nature of light. What then is the proper place of hypothesis in scientific inquiry, and when if ever does a hypothesis become a true statement about reality? A brief consideration of the works of Duhem and Mach will allow us to appreciate better the positions of Helmholtz and Goethe.

Platos mandate to astronomers that they save the appearances presented by the planets begins the tradition we seek to investigate.24 From a neo-Platonic standpoint, the ontological status of the Greek astronomical hypotheses generated to save the phenomena was clear from the start. If sensory experience was viewed as at best only a semblance of eternal forms, then hypotheses invented to reproduce these appearances could have little claim to reality. The constraint placed on astronomers that they use circular, geocentric orbits was one derived by Aristotle from essentially theological considerations. As such it was expected to possess greater kinship with the true reality, whatever that might be. Greek and Hellenistic astronomers certainly did not conceive the planets as actually moving in the epicycles or along eccentric orbits as their theories described. It is abundantly clear from their careful discussions of the nature and role of hypotheses in astronomy that hypotheses were conceived of as human contrivances that, when theoretically elaborated, could match all the observations of the apparent motions of planets and stars. Moreover, this could be done with great accuracy. Indeed, by merely extending their methods using contemporary techniques of Fourier analysis, planetary and stellar positions can now be predicted to arbitrary accuracy. Ancient astronomers knew that two different theoretical bases existed by which the phenomena could be saved, epicycles and eccentrics. It becomes clear from this that any finite set of data can, in principle, be fit by several, indeed an infinity, of different theories. Such considerations put any theory that begins with hypotheses in an awkward position.

In refusing, at least in his Principia, to espouse a hypothetical cause, Newton consciously joined a long astronomical tradition. Even though he is conscious of the dangers of hypotheses, Newton often does not recognize that certain hypotheses are hidden within the central propositions of his mechanics. For example, when Newton puts forth his second axiom or law of motion, he clearly does not intend to introduce any hypothetical entities: The change of motion is proportional to the motive force impressed; and is made in the direction of the right line in which that force is impressed.25 Newton goes on to use force throughout as the dynamic agent of his mechanics. His universal law of gravitation is framed in terms of it; objects fall because of the universal force of attraction between masses. Even here Goethe saw the insertion of a hypothesis, namely force, which is then taken to be a fact. In 1793 he wrote:

No one, no matter who, can undertake to give out an explanation, theory or hypothesis as a fact. That the stone falls is fact, that it occurs through attraction, is theory. One may be deeply convinced of the theory, but one can never experience, never see, never know it.26

In this distinction Goethe anticipates Ernst Mach, who takes Newtons second law as the definition of force rather than a law of motion.27 Goethe then goes further than Newton in carefully distinguishing facts from other theoretical components of scientific inquiry. Thus it is not surprising that if Newton was pointedly accused of reinstalling occult qualities into science by refusing to frame hypotheses, Goethes own efforts at developing a methodology free from hypothetical constructs met with even less sympathy. Newtons immediate followers often chose not to imitate his care in framing hypotheses. Their cosmos was often far more explicitly mechanistic and materialistic than their mentors, as Robert Schofield hasshown.28 Helmholtz, writing 150 years after the Principia, appears as part of this later mechanistic tradition and so he and his contemporaries possess little understanding for the critique that an outsider, Goethe, gives of their methods and modes of explanation.

By the end of Helmholtzs life, the place of hypothesis, the traditional concepts of law, theory, and explanation, were all undergoing a penetrating analysis, not because of Goethes admonishings, but rather at the hands of physicist-philosophers like Duhem and Mach. This critique and its consequencesthe so-called golden era of the philosophy of scienceare important for us if we are to reconsider Goethes scientific work properly. Many of the conclusions reached then were anticipated by Goethe. Yet while both Duhem and Goethe dismantle a native nineteenth-century science, the new understandings of science they separately put forth-its methodology, its goals, and its ultimate scope-differ radically. I will be at some pains to point out these distinctions as they shed profound insight into Goethes struggle with science. They may also allow us to appreciate why he considered these pursuits so significant for his own development: Without my efforts in the natural sciences, I would never have come to know man, as he is.29


When Newton refuses to advance a hypothesis as to the cause of gravitational attraction, he does so, at least in part, because his concept of scientific theory is other than that of his Cartesian contemporaries. In place of what the physicist Rankine would later term hypothetical theories,30 such as those supplied by mechanical philosophy, Newton utilizes an axiomaticor abstractive method to establish a representational theory. Imitating the presentations of Euclidean geometry, Newton constructs an abstract set of absolute magnitudesspace, time, impressed force, and so forththat may be related to their empirical sensible measures by rules of correspondence. Thus the empirical world of common or laboratory experience is set in correspondence with a purely abstract or formal system of axioms, definitions, and theorems. The theoretical physicist may solve a problem by framing the abstract counterpart of his problem-say orbital motion-in terms of his formal system, which relates the space and time coordinates of an abstract mass to its initial conditions and the impressed forces via the three laws or axioms of Newtonian mechanics. Once this is done, the equations of motion may be solved to give the coordinates of the mass at any later or earlier time. These may then be set in correspondence with their sensible measures.31 The program has not changed materially since Newtons time. One may replace impressed force (as a hypothetical entity) with various potential functions like Lagrangians or Hamiltonians; but whether one uses Newtons original or more advanced formulations, the procedure is essentially the same. One is not concerned with the cause of gravity or of the impressed force in general. The laws of motion in no way depend on whether we are harboring atomistic or field-theoretic visions of reality. We are, in this view, merely representing what we see abstractly, elaborating a theory in terms of definitions we deem helpful, and positing laws axiomatically according to their usefulness and success in unifying certain groups of phenomena.

By the end of the nineteenth century, scientists such as Ampere, Fourier, and Fresnel had indicated their support for such representational or abstractive theories in place of explanatory or hypothetical theories such as those offered by mechanical philosophy. Robert Mayer would write to Griesinger: Concerning the intimate nature of heat, or of electricity, etc., I know nothing, any more than I know the intimate nature of any matter whatsoever, or of anything else. 32 Mayers declaration stands in sharp contrast to the attitudes of many of his contempories. Lord Kelvin is a famous instance of someone with a predilection for mechanical models: I never satisfy myself until I can make a mechanical model of a thing.33 Neither Mayer nor Goethe is debating the usefulness of models. As evidenced by a previous quotation, Goethe, like Rankine, sees these as productive beginnings, but they should not be taken as an endpoint, nor mistaken for reality. Rankine would have a mature science advance from hypothetical to abstractive theories. To ascribe reality or a genuine ontological status to hypotheses or models is for Duhem and others, ironically, to imbue physical theory with metaphysical content. Seventeenth-century mechanical philosophy, which rode the wave of anti-metaphysics, thus finds itself criticized by positivist philosophers and scientists as importing metaphysics into physical theory! All aspects of science are now subject to careful scrutiny as to implicit theoretical or metaphysical content. The mistaken ascription of reality to primary qualities and to the hypothetical schemes of the seventeenth century Whitehead calls the error of misplaced concreteness. As a result of the ensuing confusion, he declares, modern philosophy has been ruined.34

Goethe fully shares Whiteheads concern regarding the error of misplaced concreteness. He writes in his Theory of Colours: The investigator of nature should take heed not to reduce observation to mere notion, to substitute word for this notion, and to use and deal with these words as if they were things.35 But Goethe goes much further than Duhem, Mayer, or Rankine when he writes: Yet how difficult it is not to put the sign in the place of the thing; how difficult to keep the being (Wesen) always livingly before one and not to slay it with the word.36

We find here and elsewhere not only a warning against Rankines hypothetical theories characteristic of seventeenth-century mechanical philosophy: Goethe is also cautioning against abstractive or representational theories that may even explicitly deny any measure of reality to their formal constructs. When N. R. Hanson writes, What is it to supply a theory? It is to offer an intelligible systematic, conceptual pattern for the observed data,37 he is stating a commonplace, and yet one that is nevertheless different from Goethes view. For Goethe, the distinction so casually drawn between observed data and conceptual pattern is less an essential characteristic of reality than an accident associated with human cognition. The full sensual experience of nature that Goethe embraces can only suffer at the hands of an abstractive science. Nor will Goethe rest satisfied with a purely descriptive or instrumentalist rendering of natural phenomena. His is a search for the True, an attempt to catch nature showing an Idea in a pure primordial phenomenon. Goethes criticisms of hypothetical entities may sound like Mach or Duhem, but we must not confuse his view of nature or the scientific enterprise with theirs. Goethe was certainly no positivist born ahead of his time. He was remarkably perceptive as to the hidden assumptions of science as he knew it in his own lifetime. But his response was to develop a method of inquiry different in nearly every respect from the positivist school that would follow him. That the positivist program has had its difficulties is well known. It is now time that we explored Goethes own scientific writings with an eye to the questions, what does Goethe take as theory and what is its cognitive status?


The first chapter of the didactic part of Goethes Theory of Colours concerns itself with physiological colors; that is, those colors that belong to the subject-to the eye itself. 38 The discussion he presents is a lucid and vivid account of color phenomena. These same phenomena stand even today as primary in the field of color vision research. The attention Goethe gave to these phenomena led to the birth of a new discipline, for which he has often been given great credit. For our purposes, however, the important point is that in beginning with physiological colors Goethe stresses immediately that his concern is with seen colors rather than with a physical theory or model of color generation. All subsequent experiments and observations are to be viewed with the healthy human faculty of sight. The phenomena investigated are always phenomena seen.

For Goethe, therefore, the primitives or elements of his color studies are authentic perceptions. Red, for instance, may appear in many shades and with varying purity. It is initially with this individual appearance of color that Goethe deals. Even when pure red is presented and discussed as a kind of ideal color, it occurs as a limiting process of vision, something that is still seeable, although rarely if ever truly manifest in nature. There is never, by any kind of Gestalt switch, a time when red is replaced by rays differently refrangible or by waves of suitable wavelengths. The difference between Goethe and Newton in this is obvious, but it can remain a source of confusion. Contrary to some claims,39 Newton does not stay with the phenomena throughout. Although he frames no hypotheses, his is, as we have seen, an abstractive or representational theory. Goethe may idealize or exalt phenomena, but he does not represent a color by anything other than itself. Rather than penetrating through to some true, hidden, mechanical reality supposed to be at work behind the scenes, or generating an abstract, formal system corresponding to observation at the necessary points, Goethe pursues his own unique path. His is neither a hypothetical nor an abstractive theory. Instead he proposes to let the facts themselves, when fully perceived, be the theory. Before following up this point, I think it important to clarify briefly certain specifics of Goethes and Newtons color studies.

One of the critical misconceptions in the Goethe-Newton controversy centers around the correct scientific understanding of white light. Newtons logic is absolutely rigorous in this instance. He maintains that he has proven color does not arise through a modification of the rays either by the medium or the shadow.40 He is fully aware that this assertion is contrary to the constant and general Opinion of Philosophers.41 Rather, the rays, whose colorific qualities give rise to the sensation of color, keep those their original Properties perpetually and the same without alteration.42 Any color we see must, therefore, be a mixture of such primary immutable elements-colorific rays. Here is a color atomism that Newton, in one of his more speculative moments, makes explicit in his well-know Query 29,43 and that subsequently became the corpuscular theory of light advanced by his students. The spirit that pervades the argument is that of the inventor of infinitesimal calculus. In gravitational theory one considers a large mass as the infinite sum of infinitesimal masses. Likewise, when explaining edge spectra, a broad light source is decomposed into the infinite sum of infinitesimal slits, each producing its own full spectrum.44 It is against this proof of the immutability of rays that Goethe battles. Recall that if this were merely a hypothesis there would be little argument from Goethe. But when theory is taken as fact, a grave error inserts itself and Goethe will protest. In his essay Ueber Newtons Hypothese der diversen Refrangibilitaet (On Newtons Hypothesis of Diverse Refrangibility) of 1793, Goethe sets forth his objections.

Newton has in no way shown that colorless light is compounded out of other lights which at the same time differ as to color and refrangibility. I consider, rather, diverse refrangibility only as an artful hypothesis which must fall before exact observation and critical judgement.45

Goethe goes on to write that although Newton may begin by considering his ideas as only a theory, by and by he binds himself so in spirit to his doctrine that he gives out diverse refrangibility as an actual fact. Newtons followers continue in the same manner, taking what is theory as actual fact. By trying to prove that the cause of spectral phenomena must lie with the light itself and is not due to a modification of white light by the prism, Newton falls, according to Goethe, into this his first and greatest error. It is an anticipation of the mind against which Bacon warned and which only becomes more firmly entrenched by Newtons skillful arrangement of selected experiments. Newton produces an idol of the study, and it is taken for scientific fact throughout the following centuries.

From a contemporary perspective, Newtons theory is helpful for a limited range of simple color phenomena, but Goethe rightly stated that when one considers a truly full range of color effects, the theory is found wanting. Certainly this is no disgrace, but rather an attribute of all theories. Light is mutable. Colors do arise through the modification of that input energy we call light by the medium. The spectral decomposition of light, whether performed by a prism or mathematically through Fourier analysis, tells one about the prism or about the character of the formalism used, but not about light itself.46 One can only muse what might have been Newtons reaction to second harmonic generation in which red light enters a crystal only to be refracted so as to come out violet. The immutability of rays is truly a hypothesis. In view of the above, what is Goethes contribution to color science? As was already indicated, we must not attempt to conceive it as just an alternative representational theory. Rather, his is a nonrepresentational theory in which hypothetical entities have no place. We are not to be surprised when Goethe declares white and black to be primary and unitary in nature. One works throughout with what one sees. It becomes then rather a question of transforming the organs of sense for a more comprehensive and deeper vision. With genuine phenomena as a starting point, how does one proceed, according to Goethe, to a higher view that unifies a diverse realm of phenomena?


Although his own thought evolves in this matter, especially under the influence of Schiller, the main features remain clear. In his essay Experience and Science, sent to Schiller in 1798,47 Goethe maintains that one begins with ordinary empirical phenomena, the simple ordinary observations any attentive observer might make. From these we can rise to data of a higher type by varying the conditions under which the phenomenon appears and noting the essential preconditions necessary for the effect to arise. These he termed scientific phenomena. Some would suggest that one rest content with these, writes Goethe, presenting the instances of appearance and nonappearance.48 But he would seek a still higher logical level on which to experience phenomena; this he termed the pure phenomenon, later to be called the archetypal phenomenon.

In writing of scientific phenomena, Goethe probably has in mind Francis Bacons tables of presence, absence in proximity, and degrees that are to act as the basis for induction to intermediate and general axioms. That Goethe owed a great deal to Bacon is certain. Yet he is also highly critical of Bacons inductive method and the sterility of any approach based on pure classification. Bacon captures a highly important aspect of the enterprise, but, according to Goethe, his position is unbalanced: He [Bacon] still has an excellent influence, so long as we appreciate that his doctrine is one-sided and allow the mind to exert its influence also.49 The mind too must play its part, not in the reduction or representation of phenomena by hypothetical entities, but rather in the search for pattern and constancy in the phenomena. The constancy of the phenomena is the one important thing; what we think about them is quite irrelevant.50

From these scientific phenomena one mounts to a still higher class of phenomenaGoethes well-known pure or archetypal phenomena. Such primordial phenomena stand as the ultimate goal and endpoint of any field of Goethean research. With this the pattern stands fully before one as experience:

In order to describe it [the archetypal phenomenon] the intellect fixes the empirically variable, excludes the accidental, separates the impure, unravels the tangled, and even discovers the unknown.51

By thus moving from one logical level of phenomena to another, Goethe successfully meets an important criterion for explanation. As N. R. Hanson points out, it is impossible to express causal relationships, or in any sense to explain through language, if all words are on an identical logical level.52 There must exist a hierarchy allowing certain words, or in Goethes case phenomena, to exhibit meaningful theoretical content when experienced in a particular context. They become theory-loaded, to use Hansons term. If Goethe wishes to refrain from reducing observation to mere notion, to substitute words for this notion, 53that is, if he wishes to remain within the phenomenal, then phenomena too must be theory-loaded. I hasten to add that by this I do not mean that nature is seen in terms of a theoretical model such as is very often the case in orthodox science. Rather, through the process of investigation itself, certain otherwise ordinary phenomena become representatives or symbols of very general relationships or principles which manifest themselves within a finite phenomenal realm. We should recall that the simple process of seeing is not an uncomplicated one.

Consider Duhems lovely example of someone walking into an electrical laboratory and innocently asking the scientist present what he is doing.54 We see the bits of copper, batteries, vessels of mercury. Our eyes register accurately the forms and colors of all objects in the room. Yet the surprising answer is, I am measuring the electrical resistance of a coil. Implied in this simple statement is a huge body of electrical theory of which we may be unaware. Scientists often see phenomenameter movements, a flickering light, and so forthin terms of the dominant theory. It becomes the language and conceptual grid onto which all raw experience is projected. The collection of rods, batteries, and other paraphernalia is seen as an ohmmeter. Seeing is obviously more than opening ones eyes.

In like manner the recognition of a pattern or ideal form is the prerequisite for any further analysis and is often based in tacit knowledge.55 For the craftsman or artisan the recognition is sufficient in itself; for the scientist it is usually merely the beginning. Hanson puts it this way:

Perceiving the pattern in phenomena is central to their being explicable as a matter of course. . . . This is what philosophers and natural philosophers were groping for when they spoke of discerning the nature of a phenomenon, its essence; this will always be the trigger of physical inquiry. The struggle for intelligibility (pattern, organization) in natural philosophy has never been portrayed in inductive or H-D [hypotheticodeductive] accounts.56

What Hanson describes as the trigger of physical inquiry becomes for Goethe the goal and end point of scientific inquiry. The moment of discovery, of seeing a pattern in the phenomena, falls outside of inductive and H-D accounts.57 The Apercu is, for Goethe, the explanation. Therefore when Goethe explains the phenomena of prismatic colors, he does so by tracing them back to an antecedent and simpler one, namely the archetypal phenomenon of light meeting darkness within a turbid medium. The archetypal phenomenon is a natural form in the Aristotelian sense. Light, darkness, and the turbid medium are parts of an organic unity or form that also includes the warm colors on the one hand and cool colors on the other. When light, darkness, and a semitransparent medium configure themselves, or are configured by an experimenter, in the proper way, the form is complete only when the requisite colors appear. It is never a question of efficient or mechanical causality. The division of the monochord into two equal parts entails the octave. Likewise, if the conditions of appearance are present for certain colors, they will manifest.

The physicist might wish to formalize the discussion by modeling turbidity in terms of scattering from dispersion electrons sited on regularly spaced atoms or from randomly spaced particles in the atmosphere. Light and color then become suitably weighted integrals of the spectral intensity over a large wavelength range, and so on. One might ask; Has the physicist through this program actually increased our understanding of light and color? Goethe writes in a letter of 1823 to Soret: In science, however, is the treatment null, and all efficacy lies in the Apercu.58 The moment of insight expands into genuine understanding for Goethe. Any subsequent reconstruction of the perceived regularity in terms of hypothetical or abstracted constructs is gratuitous and distracts from the phenomena themselves. Seeing, the highest sense, becomes when fully developed a metaphor for the much rarer faculty of intuition: Ordinary vision (Anschauen), correct inspection of earthly things, is an inheritance of the general human understanding; pure vision of the outer and inner is very rare.59

The manner of scientific inquiry, then, that Goethe proposes is one that begins by thoughtfully exploring and arranging the circumstances and facts of experience. From these, knowledge of essential relationships arises. They are not to be expressed abstractly by such rules as: If these conditions prevail, then such-and-such occurs. Rather, the elements light, darkness, turbidity, and color are all seen as a unity. Only our intellect breaks them down into cause and effect. In his late-nineteenth-century study of Goethes science, Rudolf Steiner connects this with Kants distinction between Verstand, understanding or intellect, and Vernunft, reason:

Let no one be deceived on this point, the [mathematical] unit is an image created by our Intellect (Verstund) which separates it from a totality just as it separates effect from cause, and substances from their attributes.60

Goethe was well aware of Kants distinction and interpreted it in his own manner. After a full empirical investigation, the highest faculty of the mind, reason, may grasp the newly perceived unity in a moment. In so doing it reaches beyond pure sense data; it reaches beyond the visible pattern to be discerned in nature itself. It reaches, for Goethe, to the ideal. The felt kinship between prismatic and atmospheric colors is possible only because reason has given us, through the archetype, a perception of the ideal. In conversation with Eckermann, Goethe says:

The Intellect (Verstand) cannot reach up to her [Nature]; a man must be able to rise up to the highest plane of Reason (Vernunft) in order to touch the Divine, which reveals itself in archetypal phenomena-moral as well as physical-behind which it dwells, and which proceed from it.61

The divine idea stands behind the archetypal phenomenon. It may manifest through natural phenomena or in the mind as concept. It quietly structures our very seeing and speaking:

The Idea is eternal and unitary. . . . All that of which we become aware and of which we can speak are only manifestations of the Idea; concepts, we express and in as much as we do so the Idea itself is a concept.62

The archetypal phenomenon is also unitary. Its impact can be so powerful that in the heat of discovery one meets it not so much with wonder as with fear and the faculty of analysis:

Before the archetypal phenomenon, when it appears unveiled before our senses, we feel a kind of shyness bordering on fear. Sensible people save themselves through wonder; quickly, however, comes the busy pimp Verstand and would procure in his way the most precious with the commonest.63

The unitary idea can, however, manifest and be left unmolested if we use reason in place of the intellect. Then also we will not be tempted to treat the achetype as just another theory from which to make deductions and predictions or draw conclusions. Five years before his death, Goethe wrote to Christian Dietrich v. Buttel:

Moreover an archetypal phenomenon is not to be considered as a principle from which manifold consequences result, rather it is to be seen as a fundamental appearance within which the manifold is to be held.64

Thus is the archetypal phenomenon neither to be arrived at by pure induction, nor from it are we to deduce consequences. It can, I think, be more fruitfully understood as akin to Aristotles doctrine of forms, so dreaded by seventeenth-century philosophers. By this I mean that the seeming independence of empirical phenomena actually reveals an organic or unitary form after one rises to the level of archetypal phenomenon. Certainly one can go on to model the individual elements and establish mathematical relationships. In so doing one is not explaining phenomena, but only re-expressing selected aspects in a theoretical language. Much is lost in the translation, although doubtless the procedure is highly useful and even harmless if undertaken with philosophical maturity, or as Goethe says, with irony. If one were to follow Goethe, the archetypal phenomenon would be left in its native purity and simplicity. For the natural scientist

should forbear to seek for anything further behind it: here is the limit. But the sight of an archetypal phenomenon is generally not enough for people; they think they must go still further; and are thus like children who after peeping into a mirror turn it round directly to see what is on the other side.65

Heinrich Henel characterizes Goethes attempts as one which wished to gain universals without abstraction.66 Goethe, with Schillers help, came to realize fully the boldness of this attempt. To bridge the gap between the real and the ideal, between the universal and particular, to bring these two worlds closer together seemed an unavoidable necessity:

We live in an age when we feel ourselves more compelled everyday to regard the two worlds of which we are a part, the upper and the lower, as linked; to recognize the Ideal in the Real, to assuage our occasional discontent with the Finite by an ascent into the Infinite.67

In his essay Indecision and Surrender, Goethe wavers before the task and takes flight into poetry.68 Yet the next day we find him composing his little essay Intuitive Judgement, confident that he in his science had embarked on the adventure of Reason that Kant reserved for the intellectus archetypus, that faculty of the mind which proceeds from the synthetically universal and advances to particulars.69 The cognitive status Goethe affords his theorythe beholding of archetypal phenomenais then quite other than that associated with instrumentalist or positivist positions. Goethe is no nominalist. The ideas of which he writes are real and potent, and are not to be confused with their sensible reflections in nature, nor with their mental image as concept. He is searching for the True and not just the fruitful. If he finds the former, he is confident the latter will follow. We do not have direct access to Truth: The True is god-like: it does not appear unmediated, we must guess it from its manifestations. . . . Only in the highest and most general do the Idea and the Appearance meet.70 In the archetypal phenomenon we may hope to unite what arises within as concept with that which confronts us as percept so that the Idea itself stands in experience.

Clearly Goethes science strides far beyond the normally accepted bounds of strict scientific inquiry. About this one must be utterly frank. He is expanding the horizons of science to include the ideal in reality, to place spirit back into nature. He embraces metaphysics, but his is a perceptual metaphysics in which the ideal, Schillers criticisms notwithstanding, does become experience. In this undertaking Goethe stands in a long tradition, as Ernest Cassirer mentions;71 one that surfaces periodically and at times even dominates Western intellectual history. Goethe recasts the tradition in a highly unique and sophisticated manner. In his scientific investigations he seems everywhere to move patiently to-and-fro in the sense realm rising from empirical through scientific to archetypal phenomena. The phenomenal world thereby becomes transparent for a supersensible reality: We cannot escape the impression that underlying the whole is the idea that God is operative in Nature and Nature in God from eternity to eternity.72 Goethe in his studies of that whole is seeking his God not so much behind the scenes as through or even within the scenery of Nature.

One final important question remains: how are the boundaries of natural science or, more generally, of human cognition to be expanded? If Goethe is indeed hoping to rise to the ideal while remaining within the perceptual, through what means can such a development take place? The answer will be through the transformation of man. The very method of investigation Goethe has chosen may give rise to new faculties or organs of cognition.


When confronted by any group of raw sense impressions, how is it that we come to see them? It is a rich and complex question, one beyond our means to summarize, but we need a few results from cognitive psychology for a proper understanding of Goethe. The notion that we receive raw sensory reports and subsequently sort and order them according to a master algorithim leading to cognition has been discredited for the most part by vision research itself.73 Even a minimum of experience with ambiguous figures like the Necker cube leads one rapidly to the conclusion that sight at least is far from a simple linear process. Studies of subjects surgically healed from lifelong blindness support the conclusion that there is a great deal more to seeing than a properly functioning eye. Phenomenologists have taken Brentanos concept of intentionality as a basis for the discussion of the mental activity operative in vision. In that view the confused, swarming, chaotic field of colors and forms is structured unconsciously by the individual. From this standpoint we can ask whether one ever sees anything without seeing it as something. The central question of interest to us here is, if we do in some sense intend our own reality, then is it perhaps possible to develop that faculty of intentionality so that reality is restructured in another and perhaps more illuminating way?

This turns on its head the usual view that the goal of clear-headed research is to free oneself from all preconceptions and prejudices. Hans-Georg Gadamer was perhaps the first to point out that while there are indeed bad prejudices, we must recognize the fact that there are legitimate prejudices, if we want to do justice to mans finite, historical mode of being.74 To use the metaphor developed by Rorty, 75 we must free ourselves from the idea that the mind is a mirrorlike glassy essence to be polished and freed of all imperfections. If we were truly to succeed in this undertaking, we would with the moment of success banish cognition or seeing from the psyche as well. Obviously this is not to imply that we may entertain prejudices without consequences. Quite the contrary. As we now realize that prejudices are, in fact, the biases of our openness to the world,76 we appreciate the power of bad prejudices to create misunderstanding. Still, a tabula rasa registers nothing. In this view, it is through our prejudices that we know the world at all. But let us drop Gadamers dramatic use of the word prejudice and focus rather on mans historical mode of being.

That we see is due to our historical mode of being. In other words, that we have lived as sentient beings in this world for twenty or thirty years is not without its consequences. In this facet of our nature, memory certainly plays an important role. But by memory different capacities can be meant. I may remember, for example, that the sum of any sequence of odd integers is a perfect square (1 + 3 + 5 + 7 = 16). Certainly, at one time at least, I thought about this fact even if was only to puzzle over what my mathematics teacher said.

I may also remember that my wife has red hair, but to do so presupposes that I noticed the color of her hair. Very few of us possess the faculty of eidetic imagery, photographic memory, which would allow us to recall details we have not thought about. Things thought about, whether percepts or concepts, are then one class of memories. They form one aspect of our historical mode of being. They do not, however, by any means exhaust it. Here we come back to the concept of tacit knowing developed by Polanyi. When I sit down at the piano struggling to remember a two-part invention, I am certainly not calling forth a score into memory. I am not sure what happens, but musical memory translates immediately into actions, into will, without ever rising up into full consciousness. Examples can be multiplied easily: language learning, bike riding, writing, and even more subtle abilities such as oratorical skill. Each of these faculties arises with practice, that is, from work in or amongst the elements of that field. This is then a second aspect of our historical mode of being. It is like memory in that it connects past actions with the present, but is unlike memory in that it need not rise up into consciousness. To do so may in fact be fatal, as any good sports car driver will tell us.

It may be somewhat bolder to maintain that our normal faculty of sight arises in a manner analogous to this second aspect, but this has been cogently argued. What is of most importance for this discussion is the light it throws on the practice of Goethean science. From the preceding discussion we may recognize a concept familiar to us from the Romantic Period, namely that of Bildung or the cultivation of faculties. The travels and apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister provide him with much more than a head full of memories. The protagonist of a Bildungsroman deepens and matures through his travels. He sees the world differently for having passed through countless struggles. Odysseus returns home profoundly changed and it is that change, more than his specific conquests, which is of first importance.

Likewise for Goethe in his scientific writings, neither the eye nor the mind is viewed ahistorically. Rather, each can be understood only in the context of historical development. Organs and faculties are shaped by their corresponding natural elements. The eye is shaped by the light:

The eye owes its existence to the light. Out of indifferent animal organs the light produces an organ to correspond to itself; and so the eye is formed by the light for the light so that the inner light may meet the outer.77

Very revealing in this regard is Goethes uncompromising position taken in a conversation with Schopenhauer concerning the active nature of light:

What he [Goethe] once said to me, staring at me with his Jupiter eyes, Light should only exist in as much as it is seen? No! You would not exist if the light did not see you.78

The active character of light or of phenomena more generally is central to a proper understanding of Goethes Weltanschauung. Although in a distant past light may have called forth from passive animal organs the organ of sight, in the present day we must be active ourselves in the development of new faculties. We may possess innate talents, but these must be developed and schooled. The organs of human cognition so created move through the world as a magnet drawing forth from isolated natural phenomena their hidden unity:

The faculties (die Organe) of man freely and unconsciously combine the acquired with the innate through practice, teaching, reflection, successes, failures, challenge and opposition and always again reflection, so that they bring forth a unity which astounds the world.79

The development of such organs of cognition demands profound transformations of the human psyche. Such transformations are effected precisely through scientific investigation. Goethe stands in awe before the magnitude of the change. In a letter to F. H. Jacobi he writes:

To grasp the phenomena, to fix them to experiments, to arrange the experiences and know the possible mode of representations of themthe first as attentively as possible, the second as exhaustively as possible and the last with sufficient many-sidednessdemands a moulding of mans poor ego, a transformation so great that I never should have believed it possible.80

The transformation of the human psyche occurs through concourse with natural phenomena. Just as the eye as sunlike organ is created by the light, so organs of the mind may be created by each and every object about us. Each new object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ within US.81 Moreover, the pedagogical task which nature constantly enacts can be imitated and furthered in human creations. The formation or cultivation of human sensibilities becomes then the task of the arts, as Shelley will argue in his essay Defense of Poetry.82

Hence the boundaries of natural knowledge are pushed back in Goethes science not by prosthetic devices such as telescopes, microscopes, photomultipliers, and the like, but by the transformation of the individual human psyche. The most important business of education then becomes the schooling of faculties, not the mastery of information.83 Long after facts as explicit knowledge have disappeared from active memory, we will continue to perceive patterns, solve problems, and make discoveries by means of the faculties we have acquired. Polanyi will go so far as to declare that all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.84 The profound similarity between perception and scientific discovery that I have attempted to elaborate with regard to Goethes struggle toward archetypal phenomena has been developed at great length in an independent context by Polanyi:

I maintained that the capacity of scientists to perceive in nature the presence of lasting shapes differs from ordinary perception only by the fact that it can integrate shapes that ordinary perception cannot readily handle.85

The recognition that scientific discovery proceeds by cognitive acts essentially similar to perception opens up a new route for the understanding of Goethes archetypal phenomenon. It is what Polanyi would call a perceived coherence. Goethe would perhaps go further and call it the universal in the particular, the ideal in the real.

The German poet Novaliswho, we must recall, was also a mining engineerwrites eloquently concerning the organs needed for a full and profound vision of nature:

But it is vain to attempt to teach and preach Nature. One born blind does not learn to see though we tell him forever about colors, lights and distant forms. Just so no one will understand Nature who has not the necessary organ, the inward instrument, the specific creating instrument,

no one who does not as if spontaneously recognise and distinguish Nature everywhere in all things, nor one who does not with an inherent lust of Creation mingle himself by means of Sensation in manifold relationships with all bodies, and feel his way into them simultaneously.86

Although atrophied, the needed organs can be developed so that one may become a sentient instrument of natures secret activities because, as Novalis writes, association with the forces of Nature, with animals, plants, rocks, stones, and waves must of necessity mould man to a resemblance of these objects.87

With the refusal to translate seen phenomena into a hypothetical or abstract theory, the full value and content of the phenomenal world remains. The Ideal is not projected onto a limited conceptual grid that stands ready to hand. Rather, faculties adequate to the Idea are formed by reflection, practice, and observation in the phenomenal field itself. The retention of the full value or content of phenomena was essential for Goethe, who, we must always remember, comes to the arena not only as scientist but also as artist. For the artist is interested not only in conditions of appearance, but also in the psychological value of colors, their effect on the soul, both individually and more especially in combinations. The seen archetype still possesses that value. It is a phenomenon and as such we need only shift our center of interest from the sensory to the moral (sittlich) aspects of color. The dynamic polarity of light and darkness then becomes a metaphor for the vacillations and struggles of the soul. In this sense the final chapter of Goethes Theory of Colours connects with the introduction in which he tells us that colours are the deeds and sufferings of light.

That Goethes vision of science possesses educational implications seems obvious. I have discussed a few of them elsewhere as they pertain specifically to science teaching.88 But I think it clear generally how arid and desiccative our approach to education has become when compared with the rich and vital self-education Goethe provided for himself. Every aspect of a childs education should be brought into life. There is geometry in movement, arithmetic in rhythm; history lives in folk tales, national and religious traditions, legend and epic. In place of pale-blue mimeo worksheets, the child should create its own text and school books with color and imagination. Canned audiovisual instruction should make way again for the noble profession of teacher. It is the teacher whose gifts and failings stand as symbol of what each child may become, and whose ideals and concerns may warm the hearts and enliven the minds of those in their charge. If we would provide an education for the full child, then the classroom and teacher must stand as exemplar for the whole earth. The forces that shape and mold may reside within the child but they are brought into movement and activity by its surround. First through pure imitation and gradually by more conscious reflection and judgment, the child unfolds its native gifts, establishes an emotional balance and a moral discernment. Each of these demands an environment worthy of imitation.

Such educational ideals can be embraced in any school but they have established themselves most successfully in the Waldorf or Rudolf Steiner schools.89 That so little is known about these schools or their educational philosophy within the academic community is astonishing. With over 300 schools worldwide, 35,000 students in West Germany alone, and 50 schools in the United States, Waldorf education is certainly, after sixty-four years, one of the most significant educational experiments in this century. If education departments would present a survey of educational philosophy, theory, and practice, then certainly Waldorf education must find a place in that account. Steiners ideal of education as an art would, I think, be embraced by Goethe. For art entails the creation of the beautiful through faculties and gifts schooled on the beautiful. In the dialogue between teacher and pupil both become artists: the teacher as re-creator of the world, the child as creator of itself. The intellectual vision, the emotional balance, and the moral strength that arise from their joint work is the foremost concern of education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 2, 1983, p. 251-274
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 862, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 3:00:02 PM

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About the Author
  • Arthur Zajonc
    Amherst College
    ARTHUR G. ZAJONC is assistant professor of physics at Amherst College. His areas of research include laser and atomic physics, and the history of science. He is particularly interested in the scientific work of Goethe.
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