Goethean Science (3): Goethe contra Newton

In the last chapter we compared the approach which these two great thinkers took in their respective studies on colour. We presented the scene of Newton, closing himself in a darkened study to isolate the single ray of light, and of Goethe, striving to follow with his comprehension the generation of colours out of the interplay of light and shadow. In this juxtaposition, we also discovered an aperçu: a keyhole through which we might peer for insight into two fundamentally different approaches to science. In this respect, we have born out the maxim of Goethean science: that “everything factual is already theory.” In other words, an understanding of the natures of Goethean and Newtonian science, is implicit in every account of them. And we can learn to recognise this archetypal sign, but not by looking for it somewhere else: the facts are the theory. The above indicates that the scope of Goethean science is not limited to any particular field or subject. Goethe himself brought his approach to bear chiefly in the realm of chromatics and plant morphology, both of which endeavours yielded extraordinary insights which thinkers to follow him have further developed. One could imagine, however, that Goethe should have poured his scientific efforts into other subjects altogether and yet attained comparable results. Goethean science, therefore, is not a subject, but a way. 

Despite the promise of discovery that a Goethean approach can offer even in fields beyond those which conventionally fall within the purview of science, Goethe nevertheless did bring concerted focus to the same territory that receives treatment in conventional scientific studies. Whether Goethe’s approach can indeed be chacterised as the “stillborn fiddling of an autodidactic dilettante,” merely “because it departed from the concept of mechanical causality,” [1] as the Emil du Bois-Reymond described it near the end of the nineteenth century, is a question that one hopes to settle by the end of this exploration. Needless to say, the present author finds the eminent physiologist’s reasoning unpersuasive. Naturally, however, my own opinion on the matter ought not to decide this question one way or the other. But it is, of course, not merely my opinion that Goethe’s work deserves the highest regard. Werner Heisenberg, for instance went so far as to say that Goethe’s greatest fault was that he did not take his scientific work further: “If one should wish to reproach Goethe, it could only be for not going far enough—that is, for having attacked the views of Newton instead of…the whole of Newtonian Physics.” [2]  Several years before his death, Goethe himself declared that he held in higher esteem his scientific work than all of his artistic achievements: 

As for what I have done as a poet, I take no pride in it whatever. Excellent poets have lived at the same time as myself; poets more excellent have lived before me, and others will come after me. But that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours—of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many. [3]

These words must strike readers as a surprise from one who was without a doubt amongst the most famous poets ever to have lived, and who had a greater legacy of influence on German literature than did Shakespeare on the English. It is also an irony given that Goethe’s scientific work was more or less forgotten until the Rudolf Steiner’s editorial work and exegesis nearly three-quarters of a century after the Goethe’s death in 1832. Even to this day, it remains largely unknown except in select circles. Still, no one could have predicted the Florentine Renaissance in the fifteenth century even the greater part of a century after Petrarch’s iconic summit of Mont Ventoux, and long after a retrospective historical survey would conclude that it had already begun. Thus, the rebirth of Goethean science may already be underway. For this reason, it is meet to inquire deeper into its nature. Corollary to this inquiry is to address certain objections that prominent thinkers have raised, including du Bois-Reymond’s caustic appraisal cited above. Despite that Goethean science implies an holistic and humanistic approach to knowledge, Goethe did indeed make scientific claims and thus must be held accountable by the same standard as anyone else. 

In fact just over two decades after Goethe’s death, and on very similar grounds as his contemporary whom we cited above, the physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz rejected altogether that Goethe could be called a scientist. Instead, Helmholtz described Goethe as a Romantic artist, whose interest was besotted by “the beautiful show,” and who sought “to contemplate the ideal” at the expense of rigorous investigator. Helmholtz contrasted Goethe to the bona fide scientist, who “tries to discover the levers, the cords and the pulleys which work behind the scenes and shift them.” Helmholtz continues (in what some might decry as surreptitious bulverism), to explain the subliminal motives that fostered Goethe’s delusional approach: 

Of course, the sight of the machinery spoils the beautiful show, and therefore the poet would gladly talk it out of existence, and ignoring cords and pulleys as the chimeras of the pedant’s brain, he would have us believe that the scenes shift themselves or are governed by the idea of the drama. [4]

Helmholtz enunciates his standpoint (which he evidently shares with du Bois-Reymond) in no uncertain terms: the ultimate goal of natural science is to reduce all phenomena to mechanics—“sich in Mechanik aufzulösen.” 

Despite that by the end of this life, Helmholtz had begun to look much more favourably on Goethe’s work, [5] his objection above is very apt. Is it not the very purpose of science to pull back the curtain, so to speak? An endeavour like Goethe’s would appear, in this light, as the attempt of an “autodidactic dilettante” to assume the façade of science without also taking up its demands in spirit. Newton lived before Goethe and thus was not granted the opportunity to respond to Goethe’s polemics (just as Goethe could not respond to the scientists in the latter part of the nineteenth century who criticised him). Still, one can infer from Newton’s reactivity against any of his contemporaries who challenged his views, that Newton would have pulled no punches, so to speak, and therefore would have been no more charitable than the likes of Helmholtz and du Bois-Reymond. One can safely conclude that Newton would have sided with the latter against Goethe, and as a result we can treat Helmholtz’s criticism as a more-or-less representative one. [6] This is fortunate for our purposes, since Helmholtz’ dramatic metaphor is supremely illuminating. 

Let us contrast the manner of knowledge that two general approaches to a drama could deliver: the (i) first attending to the deeds and sufferings of the characters in the spirit of “the play’s the thing,” and the (ii) second inquiring into the material and efficient causes of the production. Helmholtz refers to the latter as “machinery” and “cords and pulleys” in the excerpt above, and to the former as “the beautiful show.” As he indicates, an inquiry into the one is conducted at the expense of an inquiry into the other. In other words, one cannot both experience a play and also dissect its machinery backstage. In fact, the performance itself would strike an investigator of the latter persuasion as a distraction. Helmholtz’ metaphor is particularly fitting to its subject given that, as we mentioned in the last chapter, Newton’s interest in colours was sparked by trying to get rid of them because they were an hindrance to the perfection of telescopes. [7] For the great physicist of Cambridge, therefore, “the beautiful show” (of colour) was a problem to be solved. For Goethe, by contrast, it was a phenomenon to be perceived. Nature’s show of colour was a performance to which the scientist was to lend her attention as theatre. 

Evidently, these paradigmata present starkly contrasting conceptions of scientific method, which is to say, the manner whereby knowledge may justifiably be attained. As to whether the paradigmz could be complimentary, nothing logically precludes this possibility. Nevertheless, a necessary condition for such coöperation is a sustained clarity over the nature of these respective methods; a clarity that is sustained in their application as well as through the interpretation of their eventual findings. Goethe describes this spirit in a most expressive manner in the introduction to Zur Farbenlehere: 

Every regarding [Ansehen] goes over into a contemplating [Betrachten], every contemplating into a reflecting [Sinnen], every reflecting into a linking, and thus one can say that with every attentive gaze into the world we are already theorising. To do this with awareness, with knowledge of ourselves, with freedom, and—to use a risky word—with irony, we need to be adept in this way, if the abstraction which we are afraid of is to be rendered harmless and the hoped-for results of experience are to be truly vital and useful. 

Because “awareness,” “self-knowledge,” “freedom,” and “irony,” are qualities of the investigator as a subject, and because it is a methodological tenet of physical science to disregard the same in its quest for objectivity, therefore it is hardly a surprise that the potential of an integral science remains largely unrealised. 

What does it mean, “an integral science”? Put another way, what is necessary for scientia to mature into sapientia? One way to approach this question is to return to Helmholtz’s ingenious metaphor. Despite that he enlisted it to fault Goethe, the image itself is sufficiently illuminating to shed light on the aspect which Helmholtz himself left in the dark. 

Fundamentally, the drawback of experiencing a play without inquiring into the mechanics of its production is that one would not subsequently, and without further inquiry, find oneself possessed of the knowledge to stage similar productions. Transposed into social life, history demonstrates that a share in scientific reductionism pays dividends in the form of technology. It is unlikely that Goethean science could deliver a competitive rate of technological yields (which is the true “opiate of the masses” of our time). Analogously, one who merely followed the beautiful show, even with devoted attention and keen regard for subtlety, would not ipso facto learn anything about what was taking place behind the scenes. In fact, anyone with thorough interest in the play might find “the cords and pulleys” comparatively uninteresting and therefore not even care. Furthermore, mechanics allow themselves to be precisely quantified in a manner that dramatic performance does not. Thus, prescribing one’s scope of inquiry to the aspects of nature that lend themselves to quantifications is eminently convenient. One only wonders if this situation is in any manner akin to that of the clever Mullah who seeks his keys under the street-lamp despite losing them on his porch “because the light is so much better here.” 

Let us explore the possibility for someone who ignored the play in order to discover its mechanics. Such an one would discover “the cords and pulleys,” costumes, props, and backstage preparations. One would discover actors—not characters—rehearsing in their dressing rooms. As the Crick and Watson announced that they had discovered “the secret of life” (to enlist a not altogether unfitting metaphor from the discipline of molecular biology) when they isolated the DNA molecule in 1953, so to the one seeking to penetrate behind the veil of stage production, finding the dramatic script itself lain on a three-legged stool in the unassuming appearance of a stack of papers would be akin to happening upon the holy grail of the whole investigation. 

Still, it is tempting to imagine that the script bears greater significance than it in fact does, as the hype over DNA demonstrates in the field of biology. A living organism is a sufficient condition for DNA, but the converse does not necessarily hold. In other words, the notion that life could spontaneously emerge from sequences of base-pairs, which themselves spontaneously emerged out of spontaneity itself is an unsubstantiated hypothesis, provided that “spontaneity” can be called an hypothesis at all. In an analogous manner, a script by itself does not create the play, to say the least. It does not even create itself. In fact, the play creates the script in the sense that it serves as the latter’s formal cause, which the playwright materially instantiates in the form of writing and paper. The correlation between the script and the play itself is a real relation, but not in the manner of Newtonian physics or efficient causation. By the same token, DNA is not exactly “the secret of life” in the manner that many have supposed, and likewise, having correlated colours to quantifications of light rays (or corpuscles, or degrees of refrangeability, etc…) is not the same thing as having explained or understood it. Instead, it means having determined the signature of colour phenomenon in a more or less correlative medium. In light of this relation, one must conclude that Helmholtz’ standard of science as a study of “the cords and pulleys behind the scenes” and not “the beautiful show” is, in the most charitable interpretation, the issue of a false dichotomy. 

Moreover, if it is to mean anything, the script would still have to be read, and not merely dissected…which is exactly what Goethe enjoined us to do in all of our scientific researches. Another shortcoming of the conventional approach is that irrespective of what “machinery” one discovered “behind the scenes,” one would inevitably find oneself again beholden to penetrate behind the scenes of that machinery in the interminable quest for its elementary components. In other words, if the production is understood by discovering the cords and pulleys behind the scenes,” how does one in turn understand the cords and pulleys? The latter would have to be anatomised in just the same manner as the production itself. Such is the endless festival of dissection that constitutes analytic science. In the last chapter we quoted Keats’ supremely expressive image of “unweav[ing] the rainbow” to illustrate this point. Once one has analysed colour into a wavelength (or degree of refrangeability, or corpuscle size, etc…), one would still have to analyse the wavelength. Ultimately one might expect to arrive at a description in terms of fundamental forces of physics, or the output values of Schrödinger’s wave-equations, but it is extremely questionable, to say the least, whether this constitutes a true understanding of the phenomenon that was one’s object of inquiry in the first place. And pray do not, in the manner of Hamlet, inquire “how likest thou the play?” because the technician will have nothing in response to such a question. After all, it was his method to ignore it. In other words, the methodological framework of this approach demands that the investor disregard the very reason that all of the machinery was gathered in the first place. 

Helmholtz’ metaphor of the drama served to bring into sharper relief the contrast between a Newtonian and a Goethean approach to nature. The decisive question must be, therefore, what sort of thing do we think nature is? If we are confident to assert that nature is analogous to cords and pulleys, and other mechanical artifacts, then a method that approaches them purely in terms of quantifiable mass and force relationships will be sufficient to understand them. If, however, we think that “nature” implies anything more than this, then a Newtonian approach will be inadequate to the task of science. As a result, it will demand an approach like that of Goethe to complement it. 

I can not imagine how a person would arrive at the conclusion that purely quantifiable external relations of the sort described above could ever provide an exhaustive description of nature. After all, such a conception does not even account for its own existence, since concepts are not accounted for within a system of quantifiable external relations. It also fails to account for what it appears to be asserting, since any conception of nature is attempting to establish an internal coherence amongst phenomena, and as such, is no longer merely a system of external relation. [8] It strikes the present reader that the only way one could know that conventional science is adequate is if one already knew that Nature was the kind of thing which would lend itself to exhaustive description in terms of external relations. But such knowledge is ostensibly just what the general scientific endeavour is attempting to attain. A tree that had to grow its own earth would not be a tree of any living kind. Similarly, a science the justification of whose process was contingent on the fruition of that same process will have to import its grounds from elsewhere—from faith or dogma, perhaps, but not from knowledge. In principle, there is nothing that should preclude this. After all, one must begin somewhere. Nevertheless, it does demolish Helmholtz’ division between the Goethe—who attempts to understand “the idea [by which] the drama [is governed]”—and the bona fide scientist, who attempts to discover its mechanics, for only the idea that the drama was governed by mechanics could have encouraged the scientist to seek them. Furthermore, as we indicated above, the mechanics themselves would have to be penetrated in just the same manner and it is a rare phenomenon that is not ultimately dissoluble by analysis. 

The Goethean scientist takes the opposite approach, attempting not to dissect, but to lend his intellect to the phenomena so that it may serve as their mouthpiece. The idea, theory, or noumenon that is implicit in the factual phenomenon becomes explicit in the mind of the researcher: “Alles faktische schon Theorie ist.” Perhaps the definition of “science” precludes the Goethean approach. In this case, Goethean science is scientia come of age, or sapientia. Goethe demands such qualities as “awareness,” “self-knowledge,” “freedom,” and “irony,” in the scientist. Such apparently moral injunctions likely strike any conventional scientist as entirely out of place. Scientific investigation concerns the object of inquiry and not the subject or investigator. If conventional science seeks knowledge of Nature (in a more or less problematic fashion, as we have indicated above) by disregarding the one who is doing the knowing, Goethean science reconciles this omission. In this respect, it offers a more complete, or integral approach. Moreover, because knowledge supervenes on method, it also offers, therefore, more integral knowledge. Given that the fruits of the tree of conventional science increasingly appear to render infertile the very earth from which that tree grows—for ecological degradation is an aperçu into the essentially destructive theory of conventional science, based as it is on analysis—it would appear that the time is ripe for another approach, and it is my hope that the present exploration is advancing such a possibility. 


In the following chapters we will consider Goethe’s theory of knowledge in greater depth, and as a consequence will be obliged to enlist a foil other than Newton since the latter’s regulae philosophandi are best characterised as post hoc justifications in an attempt to ground theories that Newton already held to be firmly established. For a critical counterpart against which to compare Goethe, therefore, we will gradually shift our emphasis to the latter’s contemprary, der bekannte Immanuel Kant, “the Sage of Königsberg.” 

“The Flammarion engraving.”

[1] “Goethe und kein Ende,” 1882.

[2]Quoted in Ernst Lehrs, Man or Matter. London: Faber and Faber, 1951, p. 28.

[3] Conversations with Eckermann, 1829.

[4] “Goethe’s Scientific Researches,” 1853.

[5] Helmholtz explicitly said this. The seeds of such a reversal, however, seemed to be implicit even earlier in his work when he criticised Goethe. One of Helmholtz’ many contributions to science was his work in the perception of acoustics in which he, among other findings, discovered that a linear increase in the amplitude of an aural perception corresponds with an exponential increase in its physical amplitude. In correlating perception to physics in the realm of acoustics, Helmholtz represented the Newton of sound. Unlike Newton, however, this ingenious correlation that Helmholtz established never led him, however, to attempt to collapse the perceptual aspect of sound into the quantitative one. Indeed, he is surprisingly forthright about his limitations, calling himself “a dilettante in music” despite his expertise in the field of aural physiology, and calls on others to pursue the aspects of sound that his approach did not address:

I have chiefly felt myself a dilettante in Music. Art and Science are essentially distinct in their external aspects and technique ; but I am none the less convinced of the profound internal relations between them. Art, too, strives to acquaint us with reality, with psychological truths, though it expresses them in the wholly different form of sensual manifestation, and not in that of concepts. Eventually, however, the complete phenomenon connotes the conceptual idea, and the two are ultimately united in the whole.

“The Physiological Causes of Harmony in Music,” 1859.

[6] The critical difference is Newton’s satisfaction with an explanation in terms of quantitative relations even without appeal to mechanical interaction. Cf. 1713 “General Scholium” in the second edition of Principia: I have not yet been able to discover the cause of these properties of gravity from phenomena et hypothesis non fingo….It is enough that gravity does really exist and acts according to the laws I have explained, and that it abundantly serves to account for all the motions of celestial bodies.

[7] The concave lenses generated colour phenomena through refraction, which were a detriment to the acuity of the apparatus. Newton undertook his studies in optics with the intention of improving the dioptric telescope.

[8] Newton did not have to confront this contradiction because he simply appealed to the almighty Creator, of which empty space was its “sensorium.”


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