With the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Nietzsche announced the death of God. In the great panorama of history, Nietzsche’s admonition in the end of the nineteenth century appears as the counterimage of John the Baptist’s storied enunciation of God’s first advent in the flesh, which the former had issued nearly two thousand years prior to Nietzsche’s time. With the apocalyptic prophecy, Nietzsche both signalled the end of the epoch that his counterpart had fortold, and sounded the keynote for the one to come. In a characteristically sui generis demonstration of prescience, provocation, and discernment, Nietzsche diagnosed the postmodern descent into relativity, confusion, and finally into meaninglessness:
What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?
Nietzche’s expressive image of an earth “unchained from [its] sun” immediately invokes the demise of the Ptolemaic conception of the universe at the hands of Copernicus’ heliocentric doctrine. It also presents, by extension, an allusion to Immanuel Kant’s self-described “second Copernican Revolution,” articulated in 1781 with the groundbreaking publication of The Critique of Pure Reason. A century before Nietzsche’s diagnosis, Kant had asserted a fundamental rift between the world and its knowability. For thousands of years before Kant’s time, human beings had looked to the stars for reassurance of divine order, and furthermore had trusted in their looking. The acceptance of the Copernican model had shattered this paradigm of cosmic harmony. During the period to follow, the gradual assimilation of Kant’s sceptical epistemology had undermined all trust in cosmic truth. A superficial evaluation of the Copernican Revolution might lead one to conclude that, by ousting the Earth from her central station, it had put an end to celestial evidence of human self-importance. In fact, however, the old geocentric universe had assured Ancient and Mediaeval man that the Earth was not supreme, but lowest in the celestial hierarchy. The wandering stars, like buoys afloat on a cosmic sea, demarcated nested spheres of divine intelligence. The latter encompassed and kept watch over the Earth at their center. In this light, one can appreciate the true significance of the Copernican Revolution. It was a symbol of twilight not of anthropocentric illusions, but of the conviction that the universe made sense. By dividing reality from experience, Kant’s doctrine of critical idealism represented a consummation of this nightfall. The Earth was cut off from cosmic harmony by Copernicus; the mind cut off from the Earth by Kant.
With characteristic perspicacity, Nietzsche noted and enunciated this “straying, as though through an infinite nothing.” The twin Copernican Revolutions, astronomical and epistemological, represented historic landmarks in this darkling trend. The physicist Steven Weinberg has recently offered a most expressive articulation of its present state. In contrast to the Great Chain of Being, the scala naturæ, of Ancient and Mediaeval thinkers, in 1988 Weinberg describes the universe as a “a chain of accidents…a more-or-less farcical outcome…reaching back to the first three minutes [after the Big Bang].” Weinberg further characterises the postmodern condition when he writes that “[we are] all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe….The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
To understand the nature of this evolution—this unravelling of the fabric of meaning from Copernicus, through Kant, to the conception of our present time that Weinberg expressed—requires a special method of contemplating history. J. W. von Goethe set forth such a method in 1794 in Maxims & Reflections when he wrote that “The highest were: to grasp that everything factual is already theory. The blue of the heavens reveals the fundamental law of colour dynamics. One must not look past the phenomena for their teaching.”* Modern philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend have implicitly developed Goethe’s insight in a somewhat one-sided manner and articulated it in the phrase “all observation is theory-laden.” Goethe himself, however, bore his method out in both theory and empirical practice through his own scientific endeavours, and even today, few have surpassed him in understanding or achievement. Many will rightly point out that the majority of Goethe’s findings have been superseded. To conclude, however, that this invalidates Goethe’s contribution to science is to confuse a method with the findings that it may eventually deliver. To overlook the relation between these aspects risks flouting a tenet at the very heart of science as a discipline: progress through self-falsification. The spirit of science is one of self-overcoming. In the moment that the findings of science fail to reflect the dynamic nature of the method that generated them, we must begin to question that method. In fact, it is only the rare scientist who manages to apprehend and embody the restless spirit of his own discipline. Again, Goethe strikes us as an individual of exemplary understanding: “let us here acknowledge, that the history of science is science itself,” he wrote in 1810.**
A thorough inquiry into Goethe’s understanding of science will shed light on the propositions in the paragraph above, some of which may initially invite the reader’s incredulity. Specifically illuminating will be to consider Goethe’s conception of the term “theory.” In its usual meaning in a conventional scientific context, theory refers to something like “an hypothesis, but dignified,” or “an hypothesis exalted.” As it is ordinarily professed, the scientific method consists in (1) formulating an hypothesis and then (2) attempting to falsify the latter through observation and experiment. If the such an attempt fails, then the former is considered verified. The hypothesis then (3) graduates to the station of theory. We can trace this development in the following elementary example:
(1) “Gravitational acceleration is the same for all inertial bodies.”
(2) One sets about in search of exceptions.
(3) If none is found, then what was first affirmed provisionally is set forth conclusively.
The above presents a famous insight by Galileo Galilei in the sixteenth century, which overturned the Aristotelian notion that a falling object’s acceleration would transpire in direct proportion to its weight. As plausible and straightforward as the Galilean hypothesis may initially appear, and in spite of history’s testimony to its truth, nevertheless it is not true in the manner of an incontrovertible fact. An exhaustive critique of the scientific method would take our inquiry too far afield from its purpose. Still, a few remarks are in order insofar as they reveal the value of Goethe’s contribution to science. Let us first note, therefore, that an hypothesis can never be proven. This unprovability is an incontrovertible fact. Considering the logical nature of an hypothesis reveals the reason: to prove an hypothesis would mean that it should hold true through every possible instance. This would necessarily require empirical verification and this is impossible in principle because it would require one to perform infinite measurements in a finite amount of time. Because it is impossible to establish an hypothesis by positive verification, one sets out rather to disprove it, and thus to arrive at one’s epistemological end by via negativa. This enterprise places one at a logical advantage, for, while only infinite instances could prove an hypothesis, even a single counterexample will suffice to refute it. In case that no counterexample to a given hypothesis is readily found, however, one may wonder what number of observations in support of the hypothesis constitutes sufficient grounds for its confirmation. Obviously more than one but fewer than infinity. Between these bounds, however, any specific number (and any actual number will be a specific one) is ultimately arbitrary, in a logical sense. Therefore, the determination that an hypothesis has been confirmed is largely at the whim of the experimenter.
Furthermore, even direct contradiction of an hypothesis is often not taken as grounds for its dismissal. If, in the course of experimentation, an observation presents itself in direct contradiction to the working hypothesis, the latter is often not, for this reason, taken to have been disproven. Instead, the hypothesis is simply modified to account for the new finding. So, for instance, when Galileo stood atop the Leaning Tower of Pisa with a miniature cannon-ball in one hand and a goose-feather in the other, and then proceeded to release them, the brute observational fact that one of them accelerated faster than the other did not compel Galileo to dismiss his hypothesis. (In fact, Galileo discovered isochronic motion inside of the Tower of Pisa by observing the uniform periodicity of its swinging chandelier; his experiments on gravitational acceleration were actually performed with rolling brass balls.) Instead he simply modified it to account for the discrepancy between hypothetical expectation and empirical finding. Thus it became: “gravitational acceleration is the same for all inertial bodies, provided that air-resistance remains negligible.” This example reveals the interesting fact that, while we generally imagine that an hypothesis is subject to counterevidence, it is not. Instead, the interpretation of observational data as counterevidence is subject to the experimenter.
Thus, while conventional understanding of the scientific method affirms that although hypotheses cannot be proven, yet they can indeed be disproven, this is not nearly so straightforward as it first seems. Indeed, evidence and its converse are relative terms; they are relative to a way of conceptualising a situation. Goethe sometimes used the word “Vorstellungsarten” to refer to the various manners of conceiving—or literally “representing”—a given situation. Kuhn famously meant to indicate something similar in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions with the concept of “paradigm.” The risk of using the word “paradigm,” however, is that it will tend to lead us into overlooking our own active role in the process of conception. A word like “paradigming” would encourage us to experience paradigms as the verbs—the acts of conceiving—that they are. Since “paradigming” is an uncouth expression, however, we must simply resolve to sustain our awareness of the dynamic quality of a paradigm, or employ a different word, like Vorstellungsart.
Having won through to an understanding of hypotheses, paradigms, and Vorstellungsarten, we are now much closer to understanding Goethe’s meaning with the word “theory.” A theory is way of rendering intelligible a world that without such theories is actually no world at all. We could also call the theory an “idea,” by which we also mean “a way of seeing” and “a means of perceiving.” Indeed, Goethe seemed to use the words “idea” and “theory” in a very similar manner. “Theories,” for Goethe, relate to “the Idea” as colours to light: “The Idea is eternal and unitary…All that of which we see and of which we can speak are only manifestations of the Idea,” he wrote in 1831. Both words indeed refer to sight through their etymological origins. “Theory” shares a root with “theatre,” as well as with “species,” “spectacle,” “speculation,” and “spectator,” via its Latin counterpart. “Idea,” similarly has Latin siblings in the words “video” and “vision,” and even a Germanic cousin the word “wisdom.”
The idea or theory constitutes the intelligible aspect of the world and in this way represent necessarily conditions for our activity of perception. As suggested above, the idea or theory does not serve this function, however, merely in a static manner. Instead, a theory informs our activity of perception in the same manner that an adverb or adverbial clause modifies a verb. Thus, Aristotle saw bodies striving to become more fully themselves. A solid body sought to fall because falling is a function of the Earth element, whose nature it was to strive downwards. Thus to release a cannonball from the Tower of Pisa was to allow that body to express its nature—to become in actu what it was before in potentia. Aristotle looked immanently and therefore saw the same: his Vorstellungsart was integral. Galileo began to look extrinsically and his discoveries must be understood in the light of this idea. Galileo developed an analytical Vorstellungsart. Galileo saw the cannonball fall under the extrinsic compulsion of a natural law; Aristotle saw the cannonball fulfilling its inborn nature.
It was Goethe’s genius to recognise the theoretical activity that is correlative to every object of experience. Edmund Husserl, generally considered the father of phenomenology, called these correlates “noesis” and “noema,” respectively. We have seen, however, that Husserl is one of Goethe’s many sons. Therefore, Goethe’s is the grandfather of phenomenology. Goethe’s work, however, was always empirically grounded. Goethe conceived of the experiment as the venue for the noesis and the noema to mutually reveal one another: “No phenomenon explains itself according to and out of itself; only many together overseen, ordered in methodical fashion, deliver at last something, which could pass as theory.”*** Thus, while Isaac Newton is famous for asserting that he did not hypothesise—“hypothesis non fingo!”—Goethe developed a method that allowed him to practice what Newton professed, but without sacrificing the rigour appropriate to scientific inquiry. Goethe strove to order an experiment so as to provide for discrete observations to reveal their essential relation. The latter appear as unity when they are contemplated in the light of a suitable idea or theory. A successful experiment allows what first appeared as isolated facts to suddenly spring to life in the same way that discreet notes concresce as a unified melody. In another metaphor, when beheld by the light of a suitable idea, the phenomena become like a mirrors in which it finds reflection. The phenomenon simultaneously works back upon the theory in whose light it is being disclosed, as the example of Galileo’s process demonstrated.
The mutual influence of idea and observation constituted an essential element of Goethe’s scientific method. Through this healthy balance, Goethe avoids the Scylla of “Nominalism” or “Empiricism,” and the Charybdis of “Rationalism” or “Idealism.” The latter forsakes the observational element of science. Thus it manages to form logically-coherent models of reality irrespective of empirical evidence for them. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s Monadology presented one such conception, as do the majority of the theoretical conceptions in the field of physics like the Standard Model itself, as well as such elaborations as String Theory and the Big Bang Theory. The empirical school, in contrast, tends to neglect the ideal aspect of a phenomenon and supposes that “the phenomenon explains itself according to and out of itself.” Francis Bacon famously inaugurated the tradition of modern science when he set forth the “inductive method” in this spirit. “Natural science,” declared Bacon in 1605, “doth make inquiry, and take consideration of the same natures : but how? Only as to the material and efficient causes of them, and not as to the forms.” Bacon here draws on the Aristotelian distinction between form (morphē) and matter (hyle), which is in perfect a concordance with Goethe’s distinction between fact and theory. Where Aristotle and Goethe distinguished these two aspects, Bacon divides them. Thus he continues:
Matter rather than Forms should be the object of our attention, its configuration and changes of configuration, and simple action, and laws of action or motion, for Forms are figments of the human mind, unless you call those laws of action forms.
Bacon‘s conceives of measuring the “configuration and changes of configuration, and simple action, and laws of action or motion” of objects in the world while disregarding what the things under calculation actually are. Thus, Bacon posited a method of science that studied exclusively the material, which is to say, the quantifiable aspect of reality. As surprising as this may sound, precisely such a gradual exchange of actuality for abstraction—or reality for calculability—describes the very arc of science’s history. We can discern the unfolding of this trend in Galileo’s sundering of a body’s motion from its nature in the sixteenth century, through John Locke’s division of “primary” and “secondary qualities,” René Descartes division of res extensa and res cogitans, and Isaac Newton’s uniform extrapolation of mathematical laws in the seventeenth and his quantification of colour in the eighteenth, etc… These events in scientific history suddenly string together like notes on a musical score when we evolve the proper theory to read them withal. We may furthermore perceive science’s emperial march of quantification continue in the eighteenth century with the joint elaboration of the Kant-Laplace theory, and John Dalton’s formalisation of the atomic theory and Lord Kelvin’s articulation of the law of conservation of energy in the nineteenth. In our time, the method of explaining nature by means of quantitative reduction that Bacon first set forth has largely been adopted a tacit standard.
The philosopher Henri Bortoft reflected on the situation in the end of the twentieth century:
In fact, “nature” was replaced by “matter” long ago. Although scientists often refer to “nature,” this only hides the fact that nature has been reduced to matter by modern science, so that we now think they are the same thing. But whereas there can be an atomic theory of matter, there cannot be an atomic theory of nature. This is born out by the fact that, according to modern science, most of what we attribute to nature, color for instance, is really not in nature but in human beings. It is reclassified as only a subjective experience. When that which seems to belong to nature is relocated in human beings, what is left is matter and not nature at all. There is little wonder that the development of modern science has led to the crisis of nature!
The “crisis of nature” that Bortoft describes is also a crisis of the human being’s place in relation to nature: for this reason, the crisis of nature is necessarily a crisis of meaning. Having retraced, albeit in a cursory manner, the coming-into-being of the condition that Nietzsche announced with the death of God, we have also revealed the inevitability of the sentiment that Weinberg’s remark expressed—that “[the] more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” It was a methodological principle of the scientific method from its inception to abstract the world’s quantifiable aspect from its meaning, and to orient its efforts of understanding exclusively to the former aspect while ignoring the latter. It is therefore hardly a surprise that the world from which meaning had been methodologically effaced should appear pointless. The philosopher Immanuel Kant offered a definitive expression of the spirit behind this effacement when he equated knowledge with mathematisation. In the words of the Sage of Königsberg: “In every department of physical science there is only so much science, properly so-called, as there is mathematics.” Thus, for Kant, what is knowable of reality is what is quantifiable.
Through his philosophical endeavours, Kant placed himself squarely in the lineage of scientific thinkers who set up limits to knowledge through an implicit hypostasis of methodological abstractions. Such thinkers posit the latter in a reality beyond comprehension while they simultaneously deny veracity to the objects of immediate experience. Whether the former be called “things-in-themselves,” or “pure Matter without Form,” their very definition, as stipulated, renders them unexperienceable. The “thing-in-itself,” for instance, is prevented from becoming an object of consciousness by the very conditions of experience that Kant first posited. Similarly, “pure Matter,” defined as sheer “primary qualities,” or mere quantity from which all qualities—which are the very facets of any object of experience—have been methodologically stripped. In both cases, the human being bears witness against herself: reality is denied to immediate experience and conferred instead on ectophenomenal ghosts.
Even as Kant was articulating these doctrines so central of the evolving thought-current of modern science, and even as the theories of Galileo and Newton were establishing themselves as the standard of the age, Goethe was developing an entirely different possibility. Although he was Kant’s contemporary, Goethe’s approach to science could not have differed more in its nature nor, by its comprehension and assimilation by thinkers to follow: Goethe did not hypothesise the essence of phenomena to be outside of the experience of them and his way of thinking was and largely remains at odds with our conception. Goethe’s method of science demands more energetic engagement with the world of experience than many of us are wont to give. Instead of seeking the reality of phenomena apart from their appearance, Goethe’s method consists in experiencing those phenomena with increasing qualitative intensity. Indeed, Goethe criticises the tendency of many thinkers to look outside of their experience for knowledge that can only be had within it:
But as a rule men are not satisfied to behold an Urphänomenon (i.e. “original” or “archetypal phenomenon”). They think there must be something beyond. They are like children who, having looked into a mirror, turn it around to see what is on the other side.
Goethe’s words as recorded by his secretary Johann Eckermann provide the most telling contrast to the philosophy expressed by Galileo in 1632, whose way of looking has become our way of seeing:
I cannot sufficiently admire the eminence of those men’s wits, that have received and held it to be true, and with the sprightliness of their judgments, offered such violence to their own senses, as that they have been able to prefer what their reason dictated to them to that which sensible experiments represented most manifestly to the contrary.
Kant describes a similar approach to science in The Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, which stands in just as striking juxtaposition with Goethe’s as did the approach of Galileo. Kant writes:
Reason must approach nature with the view, indeed, of receiving information from it, not, however, in the character of a pupil, who listens to all that his master chooses to tell him, but in that of a judge, who compels the witnesses to reply to those questions which he himself thinks fit to propose. To this single idea must the revolution be ascribed, by which, after groping in the dark for so many centuries, natural science was at length conducted into the path of certain progress.
Goethe’s philosophy could not be more different than the one set forth by the two thinkers above. Rather than establishing an adversarial relationship with one’s subject as it manifest itself in one’s experience, Goethe describes a method of meticulous sensory engagement. The latter may achieve such intensity that it transcends the initial conditions of observation: “There is a sensitive empiricism (“zarte Empirie”), which joins itself in identify with its object and therewith become true theory.”**** Goethe acknowledges, however, that the achievement of such a communion is the end and not the beginning of the scientist’s labours—the fruit of sustained and diligent efforts: “Yet, such an apotheosis of our capacities belongs to an highly-evolved age,” he adds.
Given the demand that the Goethean method makes upon the its practitioner, the persistent popularity of a method that demands less of the scientist is of little wonder. Nevertheless, the shadow side of the conventional scientific method is becoming more apparent by the day, manifesting itself in ecological and existential malaise. Still, even as the old year’s growth withers and its harvest is plundered to the pith, the seeds of a new season are being prepared. We may hope that Goetheanism may usher in a springtime of science in the coming age. Nietzsche proclaimed the onset of a winter of discontent some 150 years ago, and he also suggested the only direction of deliverance:
How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
In this manner, Nietzsche enjoins us to take our evolution into our own hands: that which was once provided from without we must now accomplish from within—by the strength of our own spiritual initiative. Nietzsche felt that men of his day were not yet ripe from such an undertaking:
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet.”
A century and an half since Nietzsche’s enunciation, may we rise to shoulder this terrific responsibility? To borrow Nietzsche’s most evocative image for the human condition, we find ourselves negotiating a tightrope that is strung between devolution and apotheosis—“a tightrope over an abyss.” May the human spirit, in our time, become in actuality what it has been in potentiality? This highest of questions has no answer before we give it one, for the next chapter of history is yet to be written, and its composition will be the work of no other hands than ours. Goethe has showed us a path of spiritual evolution that we might undertake, in which the soul takes itself as its own object for metamorphosis. In his studies in plant morphology, Goethe observed the principle of Steigerung, by which the seed becomes cotyledon, the cotyledon becomes shoot, the shoot becomes bud, and the bud becomes blossom. Steigerung means what the example of the flower expressed: something like a phenomenon striving to manifest its ultimate or archetypal form, to which Goethe gave the name “Urphänomen.” Steigerung is German for “scaling,” “ascension,” or “climbing,” but the scope of its figurative meaning extends to include the concepts indicated by such words as “enhancement,” “sublimation,” or “intensification.” Whatever word we chose to employ in English, we must allow the meaning as described above to inform our experience of it if we are to grasp Goethe’s intention. Then we can behold our own selves undertaking just such a Steigerung. In Goethe’s theory, we can experience ourselves as striving to scale a spaceless ladder in an ascent to attain our archetypal forms. To accept the mantle of our own spiritual evolution is to intensify our empiricism until it becomes theory, to intensify our theory until it becomes theoria, our theoria until it becomes theosis. Then phenomenology will also be theophany, for “as a man is, so he sees.”
The asterisks in the text denote my translations from Goethe’s original German:
* “Das Höchste wäre, zu begreifen, daß alles Faktische schon Theorie ist. Die Bläue des Himmels offenbart uns das Grundgesetz der Chromatik. Man suche nur nichts hinter den Phänomenen; sie selbst sind die Lehre.” (Maximen und Reflexionen 488, 1833).
** “…laß uns hier behaupten, daß die Geschichte der Wissenschaft die Wissenschaft selbst sei.” (Zur Farbenlehre, 1810).
*** “Kein Phänomen erklärt sich an und aus sich selbst; nur viele zusammen überschaut, methodisch geordnet, geben zuletzt etwas, was für Theorie gelten könnte.” (Maximen und Reflexionen 500, 1833).
**** “Es gibt eine zarte Empirie, die sich mit dem Gegenstand innigst identisch macht, und dadurch zur eigentlichen Theorie wird. Diese Steigerung des geistigen Vermögens aber gehört einer hochgebildeten Zeit an.” (Maximen und Reflexionen 509, 1833).
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