Goethean Science (1): Introduction and an Evaluation of Methods and Principles



Socrates notoriously cautioned against the seductive power of the written word, which was the ape of wise discourse but was itself but a dumb idol: 

….the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not; They have ears, but they hear not; neither is there any breath in their mouths. They that make them are like unto them: so is every one that trusteth in them. [1] 

Socrates offers the story of the Egyptian god Thoth, who bestows on a great Egyptian pharaoh all manner of benefits. [2] “O King,” the mighty god announces, ‘here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.’” With these words, Thoth discloses to the pharaoh the art of writing. 

The judicious Thamus, however, seeing the horse’s teeth for what they were, replied: 

O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. 

In this manner, Thoth confronts us, like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, as the archetypal purveyor of all technology, and Thamus the intelligence that modern humanity might have hoped to possess, and may have possessed before it proceeded to methodically outsource it to its technologies. Socrates continues to explicate the situation in respect the the written word by arguing that memory, as an ability, depends on the exercise of memory as a function, and that every ability is analogous in this regard. In an implicit demonstrionem in modus tollens, Socrates suggests that the failure to invoke the memory will result in the failure to be able to invoke it. Further, Socrates points out that no one who reads the written word will recognise in it anything other than one is able to recognise in it. This is to say, one must be able to interpret what one reads. This one accomplishes by bringing it into an harmonious relation with what is already knownTo accomplish this conjugation, however, one must be able to remember what one knows. But if one is unable to remember what one knows because writing has divested one of this ability, then the situation will be as hopeless as it sounds. In living discourse, recourse could be had to the one whose words there were, but though “mouths they have, but speak not.” In this manner, the written word is akin to an idol. It is also akin to an orphan in that its father is absent to defend it in the face of criticism from those who fail to understand it. Despite what could seem like a condition with no prospects, the protagonist of Plato’s Phaedrus offers the following solution in an hint of dramatic irony: 

a discourse that is written down, with knowledge, in the soul of the listener; it can defend itself, for it knows for whom it should speak and for whom it should remain silent. 

In just such a manner do the following words of the great polymath Johann von Goethe strike the reader. Likely penned in the final years of a long and incomparable life, the aphorism below captures Goethe’s theory of knowledge in the most concentrated form: 

Das Höchste wärezu begreifendaß 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. [3] 

A translation by the letter reads roughly as follows: 

The highest were to grasp that everything factual is already theory. The blue of the heavens reveals the fundamental laws of chromatics. A man should not seek behind the phenomena; they themselves are the teaching. 

Whether we are those for whom Goethe’s aphorism “should speak [or] for whom it should remain silent” will depend on our ability to comprehend it. I have held Goethe’s scientific work in the highest esteem since I first encountered it nearly a decade ago in a remarkably fateful series of events. I expect no one would object to the claim that respect for something fosters understanding of it. Thus my esteem of Goethe’s contribution has allowed me to be instructed by his words. In this project I am deeply indebted to Rudolf Steiner and Henri Bortoft, who are without a doubt amongst the foremost exponents and commentators of Goethean science. Allow me to offer another translation of the aphorism above which has been still further dissolved into its spirit, as it were, before being brought again to crystallise in the foreign tongue: 

The highest were to grasp that everything phenomenal is already noumenal. [4] The blue of the heavens proclaim the principle of colour-theory. A man should not look past the phenomena, but allow himself to be instructed by them. 

On another occasion near the end of his life, Goethe compared many thinkers of his day who seek behind phenomena for an explanation in the form of atoms or “things-in-themselves” to children who, upon beholding their reflection in a mirror, directly turn it around to get at an explanation they expect to find on the other side.  Newton exemplifies the former type in the manner whereby he approached his own studies on colour, while Kant represents the latter with his doctrine of transcendental idealism, which stipulated specific conditions for knowledge and then proceeded to demonstrate the human being’s inability to fulfil them. In chapters to follow, we mean to address each of these approaches, not with the intention of providing an exhaustive commentary on either the Newtonian or the Kantian doctrines, but rather to juxtapose them with Goethe’s approach as foils that our subject may “like a star i’ th’ darkest night/Stick fiery off indeed.” 





We will begin our exploration into Goethe’s way of science by examining his approach to colour-theory. In Goethe’s day, any scientific inquiry into colour demanded that the researcher come to terms with Newton’s work in that field. Newton described his foray into studies of light and colour in a letter of 1671: 

In a darkened Room make a hole in the shut of a window, whose diameter may conveniently be about a third part of an inch, to admit a convenient quantity of the Suns light: And there place a clear and colourless Prisme, to refract the entring light towards the further part of the Room. 

But, to determine more absolutely, what Light is, after what manner refracted, and by what modes or actions it produceth in our minds the Phantasms of Colours, is not so easie. And I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties. [6]  

Newton then proceeded to deduce from the fact that a “colourless Prisme” produced from pure light, the various colours of the spectrum, that in fact the light itself already contained the colour in a mixed state and that the prism served only to disentangle these various strands. Light, concluded Newton, consists in an “Heterogeneous mixture of differently refrangible Rays.” A comparison of this statement to the following from Goethe’s reveals that these two thinker arrived at strikingly different conceptions of light and colour. Goethe described light as “the simplest most undivided most homogeneous being that we know. Confronting it is the darkness.” [7] He explicitly distinguished his conception from that of the Newtonians, who “maintained that shade is a part of light. It sounds absurd when I express it; but so it is: for they said that colours, which are shadow and the result of shade, are light itself.” [8]  In the next chapter we will attempt to understand the significance of these contrasting conceptions; the differences, and also what the differences mean. In the present one, we will intend to create the foundation for such an understanding. 

By the publication of Opticks some thirty years after the letter quoted above, Newton had modified his hypothesis to affirm that, rather than refrangeability, corpuscle (i.e. atom or particle [9] size was to account for the divers colours of the spectrum. In this manner, Newton revealed himself to be the forefather of conceptions in modern physics, which alternatively conceptualises light as a wave and a particle. The former correlates with, though does not explain, [10] the various perceptible colours by mapping them onto the electromagnetic spectrum, of which the visible spectrum constitutes a small portion ranging from a wavelength of 400 nanometers at the violet end to 700 at the red end. The latter is conceived of as a quantum by contemporary physics, and rather deceptively described as a particle or “corpuscle.” Instead, a quantum is a discrete amount (i.e. quantum means “how much”) of energy and therefore not any thing. This is obviously problematic from the standpoint of rational coherence, since the universe is measured and conceptualised in light years, which are stipulatively defined as the distance that light travels in one year. Light, however, not being a thing, cannot exactly be said to travel. Indeed, the postulate of Einstein’s theory of special relativity and the time dilation that follows from it dictate that the properties of light constitute an asymptote of sorts. Thus, as the speed of an object approaches that of light, time slows relative to an inertial frame of reference. At the same time, the energy required to supply the impetus of that motion to a given mass increases exponentially. To achieve the actual speed of light, the mass must therefore be zero and the time dilation infinite. Thus light itself, according to this model, is no thing (i.e. zero mass) traveling in no time (i.e. infinite time dilation) and therefore would arrive at any destination at the same time as its departure. Obviously, this is as unthinkable as a circle whose diameter were ½ of its radius…but I came to cite Einstein, not to defend him. Before we contrast the Newtonian lineage to the Goethean one in respect to light and colour, which is our principle subject and which we intend to instigate in this chapter and unfold in those to follow, it is fitting to pursue this excursion to its end rather than to peal off in medias res. The reason that relativistic spacetime is unthinkable is that begins with derivative phenomena and then posits them as fundamental. One is reminded of Cartesius who, in his Meditations, clove asunder the world in order to attempt to put it back together again by his own ingenuity and with God as guarantor—but it was not the same world afterwards, as four centuries of inherited Cartesian dualism may serve as testimony. One is also reminded of Mary Shelly’s unforgettable protagonist, who cobbled together a being out of parts, but not a natural one. In the case of space and time, and space-time, one encounters a similar scenario. 

Consider how we arrive at the notions of space and time. Illuminating in this respect is, in the first case, to picture an universe in which nothing was, and in the second, in which nothing happened. In both instances, the attempt to undertake the suggestion proves that it cannot be done. Faced with this scenario, one approach is to axiomatically postulate absolute space and time, like Newton, or absolute relativistic spacetime, like Einstein. The above brief Gedankenexperiment serves, however, to call into question whether this is justified. After all, one is advised against simply setting about postulating things at one’s convenience lest one land oneself in the quagmire of contemporary physics with its ever-expanding catalogue of particles and pseudo-particles, the evidence for whose existence is nothing other than the theory they are meant to account for. Suppose, therefore, that rather than postulate space and time, or space-time as principles, that we were instead to inquire into their nature. Given that an universe which consisted in nothing but space would be a contradiction in terms, we should be sceptical of the urge to abstract space from place and placement. In a similar manner, given that time without change reveals itself to be a concept with no content, we should adopt the same hesitation in abstracting time from happening, or kinesis (κίνησις), to adopt Aristotle’s term, which is often translated as “motion” or “change.” 

One brief comment on abstraction is in order before we enter more deeply into our exploration of space and time, in turn. The admonition above against abstraction is rather poorly conceived in that it was categorical where it ought to have been qualified. Indeed any manner of rational process implies some degree of abstraction. A global ban on abstraction, therefore, is tantamount to one on thought itself and for this reason, ill-advised and self-refuting. Effectual thinking has enough adversity to overcome as it stands without taking itself as its own enemy. The question of abstraction, therefore, is not one of whether, but how, or in what spirit? Here we can invite abstraction to discover its proper place within the court of cognition. Specifically, abstraction serves to distinguish aspects of entities which in the concrete world always appear united. Concrete literally means “grown together,” while abstract means “drawn away.” Con (“with,” “together”) + crescere (“grow”), ab (“away from”) + trahere (“draw,” “pull,” “bring.”) Thus we should conceive of manifest reality as the growing together of forms from the eidetic one. Perception grasps the unity while abstraction and sensation grasps the elements in their distinctions out of an undifferentiated pre-reflective plenum; elements of eidetic and sensible natures, respectively. The first, however, is conscious while the latter is instinctual (i.e. sensing is not something you do (ποιείν, “poiein), but something you suffer (πάσχειν, “paschein)). Abstraction, therefore, serves to distinguish elements of a thing which appear united in their concrete manifestation, and to do so without dismembering the said thing; without “murdering to dissect,” as it were. 

From the concrete experience of place, placement, or scenario, the elements of space and time are abstractable by “toposlysis.” [11] We are making a mistake, however, if we suppose that the two elements were waiting for us in an unmixed condition. We are also making a mistake to suppose that they could be divided in concrete, rather than eidetic, reality. This is the problem with physicists and physicians alike in that they reify (i.e. project into manifest reality) eidetic elements. Space, time, matter, natural laws, etc… are products of the former while Greco-Latinate diagnoses like “idiopathic brachycardia” are products of the latter, as are the designation of psychopathologies like “unipolar depression.” What is concretely real is the individual patient, and the nature of the pathology or diagnosis is abstract. Returning from this second order digression, space, time, pure matter, and natural laws, etc… are real ideally but not physically. Kant very famously set forth this proposition in 1789 in the Critique of Pure Reason, and we will consider his view on this question in Chapter 7. To conceive of space and time as ideal and not independently-existing is an inversion of the naïve view of the matter, which “misplaces its concreteness,” to borrow that useful phrase from Whitehead. We might reconceptualise the nature of physics in this light. Specifically, we might be finished with the superstition that the universe could be explained without appeal to mind. Rather we might understand the discipline of physics to imply the existence of mind for the reason that its foundations are contingent on consciousness for their methodology, grounded as the latter is in abstraction. This is because an abstraction without consciousness is a contradiction in terms because, as we indicated above, abstraction is to distinguish things which are not divisible without changing the same things into something else. What is regrettably not a contradiction in terms is an abstraction whose nature as an abstraction has fallen into unconsciousness and is thereafter ignored and posited instead as a concrete thing. As we have indicated, this is the rule rather than the exception amongst many of the sciences, and this is precisely what Goethe intended to counteract. We will unfold Goethe’s way of science further in the next chapters. Let us attempt to conclude this chapter by drawing together the various strands that we have recently introduced. 

If we begin with concrescence in contrast to abstraction, we can proceed in the following manner to inquire into the genesis of space and time. Any concrete entity implies with itself an environment by which it is distinguishedthough not ultimately divided, from what is not it. One deliberately enlists the term “distinguished” in contrast to “divided” or “separated.” As we indicated above, much of what passes as science isin fact, a manner of nescience since it subverts the implicit relation that is intrinsic to any act of distinction, thereby anatomising concrete unities into abstractions, which invariably deprived them of their life. Consider, for instance, what the physicist Arthur Eddington meant when he said in his famous 1927 Gifford Lectures that his “scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed; but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself,” or when the physicist Ernest Rutherford, in the same decade, made a similar statement about the atom itself, comparing its nucleus relative to the volume of its electron cloud to “a gnat in Royal Albert Hall.” In both cases, they have, with more or less-conscious intentionality, distinguished various elements out of an unity and thereby generated space or “emptiness” as the ghost of the said act of distinction. It is incorrect to imagine “sparsely scattered electric charges rushing about at a great speed,” or comparatively minuscule nuclei buzzing around in a great expanse of vacuity, without simultaneously bearing in mind the context from which these differentiations were drawn. In a similar vein, one might consider that the liver which the anatomist may disclose did not pre-exist the application of his scalpel any more than did a bust of Prometheus the sculptor’s chisel. A liver by itself is an abstraction which is conceptually separable or divisible, but concretely not. A source of confusion is that we lack a lexical distinction between the liver of a body and the liver of a corpse, and thus we tend to use the word equivocally. A liver qua organ implies the organism to which it pertains. From an undifferentiated unity, one may distinguish the liver and thereby concomitantly relate it to the symphony of organic function that it participates. But if one supposes one may divide the organ from its environment, one has fallen into a grave error, and graves are for the dead, not for the living. 

Distinction, therefore is correlative to relation as a necessary and sufficient condition. In other words, distinction creates relation. Relation is not homogenous. Instead, the world is constituted in an whole hierarchy of relations, together which form a qualitative gradient. Lowest in the hierarchy is purely external relation. As a limiting case, one may imagine a distinction between two entities that share nothing in common except this fact of distinction. The same is also a relation albeit of the most external sort. If we inquire into the nature of this relation, we discover space. Pure space is the spectre of external relations. 

From this field of merely external relations, we may ascend the hierarchy to the first rung on the ladder of relation. In this, we will discover that relation intensifies into causality with the first order of intensification or inwardising. We will discover this the be the derivation of time and memory; in fact memory in German is Erinnerung, which is literally “rendering inner” or “inwardising.” The reason is that, if two things are related not merely in virtue of their distinction, but also in a relation of sequence such that the existence of one term of the distinction depends on that of the other, then their relationship is obviously one of time. Time, therefore, is the first order of internal relation. Pure time, therefore, is the shadow of sequence and the ghost of causality. Neither space nor time, nor space-time pre-exists, or are divisible from, the distinctions and relations out of which they, as a fabric, are woven. One has to presume the contrary in order to conceive of an elastic space-time fabric without regard for the strands of relation that weaved it. One is then disposed to pen statements like the following: “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion,” which Einstein wrote in consolation to the family of a dear friend who had recently passed away. [12] With due respect to the great physicist, I hope I have convincingly suggested that this is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.  

Goethe attempted to demonstrate that Newton was looking through the wrong end of the prism in respect to the latter’s studies in optics, and Goethe’s criticism in this respect follows from the same principles that we have set forth in this chapter. Next we will more thoroughly explore the fruitful contrast of these two great spirits—Goethe and Newton—for the light their disagreement can shed on physics (i.e. and science in general), and thereafter we will explore the contrast between Goethe and Kant for the insight into metaphysics (i.e. and epistemology and philosophy in general) that such an inquiry may provide. Finally, with hope that the breath of the muses continues to inspire, we will explore the manner in which Rudolf Steiner fructified Goethean science with the philosophical impulse of Fichte, thereby to bear it forward into further evolution…one hopes daß, “Das Ewig-Weibliche/Zieht uns hinan.” 

[1] Psalm 135

[2] Plato. c.399-347 BCE. Phaedrus. Pp. 551-552 in Compete Works, edited by J. M. Cooper. Indianapolis IN: Hackett.

SOCRATES: The story goes that Thamus said much to Theuth, both for and against each art, which it would take too long to repeat. But when they came to writing, Theuth said: “O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.” Thamus, however, replied: “O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”
PHAEDRUS: Socrates, you’re very good at making up stories from Egypt or wherever else you want!
SOCRATES: But, my friend, the priests of the temple of Zeus at Dodona say that the first prophecies were the words of an oak. Everyone who lived at that time, not being as wise as you young ones are today, found it rewarding enough in their simplicity to listen to an oak or even a stone, so long as it was telling the truth, while it seems to make a difference to you, Phaedrus, who is speaking and where he comes from. Why, though, don’t you just consider whether what he says is right or wrong?
PHAEDRUS: I deserved that, Socrates. And I agree that the Theban king was correct about writing.
SOCRATES: Well, then, those who think they can leave written instructions for an art, as well as those who accept them, thinking that writing can yield results that are clear or certain, must be quite naive and truly ignorant of [Thamos’] prophetic judgment: otherwise, how could they possibly think that words that have been written down can do more than remind those who already know what the writing is about?
PHAEDRUS: Quite right.
SOCRATES: You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.
PHAEDRUS: You are absolutely right about that, too.
SOCRATES: Now tell me, can we discern another kind of discourse, a legitimate brother of this one? Can we say how it comes about, and how it is by nature better and more capable?
PHAEDRUS: Which one is that? How do you think it comes about?
SOCRATES: It is a discourse that is written down, with knowledge, in the soul of the listener; it can defend itself, and it knows for whom it should speak and for whom it should remain silent.

[3] Maximen und Reflexionen 488, 1833

[4] From a letter to his secretary Eckermann, Conversations of Goethe, entry: January 4, 1824; trans. Wallace Wood:

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.

[5] Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, No. 80 (19 Feb. 1671/2)

[6] Ibid.

[7] From letter to Jacobi.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Electrons were not discovered-invented until the end of the nineteenth century.

[10] In “The Mystery of the Sensual Qualities” Erwin Schrödinger writes:

Scientific theories serve to facilitate the survey of our observations and experimental findings. Every scientist knows how difficult it is to remember a moderately extended group of facts, before at least some primitive theoretical picture about them has been shaped. It is therefore small wonder, and by no means to be blamed on the authors of original papers or of text-books, that after a reasonably coherent theory has been formed, they do not describe the bare facts they have found or wish to convey to the reader, but clothe them in the terminology of that theory or theories. This procedure, while very useful for our remembering the facts in a well-ordered pattern, tends to obliterate the distinction between the actual observations and the theory arisen from them. And since the former always are of some sensual quality, theories are easily thought to account for sensual qualities; which, of course, they never do. (p. 164)

[11] Original with concrete place is also change, motion, or kinesis, since the former is determined by its relations to what is not it. Indeed, Aristotle even defines physics as the study of kinesis. (Physics I.2, 185a12-13 ta phusika). From the immediate experience of change, one derives location and sequence in the first order, and then space and time as second order abstractions.

[12] Letter to the Besso family in condolence over the death of Michael Besso in April 1955.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    Very good to see Goethe getting his due. Will be interesting to see where you go from here, especially given — in my mind — Goethe’s relevance for understanding the ecological crisis we find ourselves.



    1. Max Leyf says:

      ThAnk you for the comment. I hope you’ll not be disappointed. I have written often on Goethe before. Here is a piece from last fall, for instance:



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