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Goethean Science

Goethean science is an approach to knowing the world, that serves as an intuitive or "right brain" (so to speak) complement to the traditional rationalistic "left brain" science.

As the name suggests, it was founded by the German poet Wikipedia link Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who was in turn influenced by earlier philosophers like Spinoza and Leibniz. Although Goethe was best known as a poet and playwright, he actually spent many years (from 1777 until his death) engaged in scientific pursuits. His research and ideas spanned such diverse fields as geology, meteorology, osteology, botany and plant development, morphology and embryology, and the nature of colour and vision.

Goethe's particular way of doing science is interesting, because it is was opposite the mechanistic and reductionistic paradigms of his contemporaries such as Newton and Laplace.  Fundamental to Goethe's approach to science was his insistence that the scientist is not a passive observer of an external universe, but rather engaged in a reciprocal, participatory relationship
with nature, and hence the observer is able to interact with the observed.

Goethe's science was not well received.  His wave theory of light lost out to the particle theory of Newton and others (now of course we have both, thanks to quantum physics, but that is only after along dark journey through reductionistic materialism). There were botanists who used his work on plants, and his theory of colour later gained respect in the fields of psychology and visual arts.  But the most active and enthusiastic exponent of his work was Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, who in the first few decades of the 20th century combined Goethe’s science with Rosicrucianism and Blavatskyian Theosophy.  Some of Steiner's successors have further developed this stream of neo-Goethean thought, and today the Anthroposophical movement is the most active and creative exponent of Goethe's science.  They even have a "Goetheanum" (designed by Steiner) in Switzerland.

Goethe's Spiritual Science

Goethe's science seek an understanding of processes by delving into the phenomenon experientially.  It requires stepping outside of theory and common place preconceptions and actively engaging the full range of human abilities, senses and imagination, in perceiving the real world. Any phenomena, for example, rocks, plants, animals or humans - any relationships between things or social relations, or the nature of form and function, can be explored using Goethe's method of approaching phenomena.  The approach bears similarities to the phenomenology of Husserl and his successors. However, it is in its practical use that the approach to phenomena has the potential to change the way we, for example, interact with the land, teach science or develop our human potential. Goethe spoke of opening up or growing new 'organs of perception' which would expand our understandings of the world into an integrated whole (this is an idea that Steiner developed into "supersensible perception" and which he saw as the next stage of human evolution).

Goethean science is therefore also a spiritual path, an integration of science and art, a science of quality and of wholeness, the development of a science of compassion.

An example of Goethean Metamorphosis - The Leaf Sequence

The most well-known example of Goethean science is observation of the leaf types of plants, demonstrating a new intuitive way of understanding plant development.  This takes a number of different leaf morphotypes and puts them in a sequence, revealing a hidden pattern of morphogenesis.  The following is a series of growth stages in a leaf.

Leaf sequence of a musk mallow, from the book New Eyes for Plants, by Margaret Colquhoun and Axel Ewald

©, reproduced from Exploring Goethean Science at Schumacher College

We can fill the gaps between each leaf stage with the imagination, creating a smooth continuum.  In the physical world the plant as it stands frozen in one moment in time.  But mental visualisation enables the linking of these disjointed "frames" (the different morphotypes) into a smooth continuous metamorphosis from one form to another.  In this way the movement of plant growth can be experienced in the imagination.  One can intuitively and non-invasively come to an understanding of  how the plant grows. Goethe called this way of seeing "exact sensorial fantasy"; an active process of merging ourselves with the phenomenon. This experience reveals a unique "gesture", a movement characteristic of the plant, telling us 'who' it is as it dances its way into being.  In theosophical/New Age parlance one could say we are attuning to the "deva" of the plant.  Goethe's science seeks this gesture of organisms, and it is this quality which shows us the 'inner necessity' of the growing plant.

My own meditations

I have to admit this whole Goethean approach interests me, mainly because long before I found out about Goethe's methodology I was doing exactly the same thing regarding the phylogenetic Palaeos com evolution of life.  I would meditate on a life-form, living or extinct, and become aware of it evolving and metamorphosing through various species and evolutionary stages, the whole thing being a single dynamic continuum, what I called the "time organism" because it's movement (change) is through time rather than space.  My original inspiration for this was actually something I read in Trevor Ravenscroft's Spear of Destiny - Ravenscroft was in influenced by Steiner, who drew from and further developed Goethe, so the whole thing is a big cycle.

Now, Goethe is talking about ontogeny or metamorphosis within growth (in his day the idea of biological evolution was not really known or accepted).  Whereas what I meditated on was phylogeny - the evolution of the lineage.  Yet there need be no incompatibility here.   Ontogeny, the development of the individual organism, and phylogeny, the history of the race as a whole, are two sides of the same process, which repeats itself fractally on every level.  Hence the dictum of the great 19th century biologist Ernst Haekel - "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny".  e.g. the embryo passes through all the evolutionary stages of its racial history.  So the human embryo and fetus for example pass through a stage where it actually grows gill slits, and where it has a tail.  Modern research has shown that things are not so simple, and Haekel actually committed the most heinous crime a scientist could do - he falsified some of his results (he has not been the only one to do so).  But I feel that the principle of what he proposed still sands, even if things are not so obvious on the reductionistic mundane level.

Goethean and Conventional Science

Goethean and Conventional Science sit uncomfortably with each other.  Conventional Science would see Goethean science as no more than a historical oddity, long since disproved.  Goetheans have the same either/or attitude.  Since they are right, conventional science must be wrong.  This is the annoying polemical attitude Poppelbaum takes in his otherwise fascinating study in Goethean-Anthroposophical zoosophy, A New Zoology.  The idea is that the Goethean does not need to superimpose a rationalistic or reductionistic explanatory mechanism over top of the observed phenomenon, but rather simply takes the intuitive imaginative experience at face value.

To me this approach is very limited.  It harkens back to the tale of the blind men and the elephant, in which each blind man presumes the little bit of the elephant he has hold of constitutes the entire beast.  There is really no contradiction between Goethean/Anthroposophical and Conventional Science.  The Goethean position pertains to the etheric and the inner physical level, the conventional scientific to the material/mundane and the external physical.  They are like yin and yang, wave and particle, the two brain hemispheres or the two psychic functions suggested by Stan Gooch.  A true understanding of nature, and a true universal science, needs and requires both.

Web Goethian Science Links Web

web page Goethean Science - short intro

web page What is Goethean Science? - short intro and annoitated bibliography

web page Exploring Goethean Science at Schumacher College - by Natasha Myers - a really good and practical hands-on intro

on-line essayTranscending Darwinism in the Spirit of Goethe's Science: A Philosophical Perspective on the Works of Adolf Portmann - by Hjalmar Hegge

web page Goethe comes to New York - by Judith Krischik

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text content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 11 Feb 2000, last modified 19 July 2009