Goethean Science (5): Fact and Theory

So far in our exploration of Goethean science, we have attempted to comprehend “the open secret” (das offene Geheimnis) what we have termed the Goethean maxim:

Alles Faktische schon Theorie ist.

Everything factual is already theory.

One manner in which we have attempted to accomplish this is (i) to counterpose Goethe’s way against the mathematical approach of Newtonian science as well as the mechanistic one of many of Goethe’s contemporaries. The origin of the latter approach may safely attribute to Galileo and Descartes, but Helmholtz provided the example for our present exploration. We have also striven (ii) to understand the Goethean maxim through application. In this project, we have attempted understand colour theory, as well as the theme of this very investigation itself. We have moreover (iii) offered various translations of Goethe’s original German formulation in attempt to flesh out diverse aspects, nuances, and connections. Finally, we have also (iv) attempted several direct conceptual explications of what it means to say that “everything factual is already theory,” “everything sensible is already intelligible,” or “everything phenomenal is already noumenal.” The last phrasing likely invokes the epistemological doctrines of Kant, which we will presently explore in connection with Goethe’s approach. First, however, we will attempt to marshal all of the momentum we may have hitherto acquired in this exploration and strive to apprehend the Goethean maxim itself as an aperçu into Goethe’s way of science.

Let first us consider something to which our comprehension is already adequate, like the fact that the blue of the sky reveals one polarity of the archetypal phenomenon of chromatics: namely, light lost in darkness. Let us next imaginatively unlearn to recognise this Urphänomen and let us then inquire how the blue of the sky appears to our eyes. The answer can only be that it appears to the senses in just the same manner whether we grasp the archetypal phenomenon or not. Nevertheless, there is obviously a difference between sensing something and understanding what is sensed. In this case the latter means recognising the meaning of the blue in its visual appearance. In essence, therefore, we must conclude the following: if we want to know what understanding looks like, the answer is just how the phenomenon appears what we are trying to understand. We can carry this notion further to say that the senses reveal how something appears while the intelligence apprehends what it is that is appearing. Understood in this way, the famous peripatetic axiom also gains new resonance:

Nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu

Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses [1]

The senses provide the text for which the intellect provides the reading of it. Indeed, intellect means just this: inter– “in,” “into,” or “between” + lectio “reading.” Goethe’s approach might, thus, be characterised in contemporary terms as “intellectual empiricism,” or “empirical idealism.” In the Middle Ages, the same would have simply been referred to as “realism.” It is, for that reason, hardly a surprise that the Scholastic representative nonpareil of the Realist school offers the most precise characterisations of this theory of knowledge: “Sensitive cognition,” writes Aquinas, “occupies itself with external, sensible qualities, while intellectual knowledge penetrates to the very essence of the thing, for the object of the intellect is the quiddity of a thing.” [2] “The quiddity of the thing” is “the thingness of the thing,” its “whatness,” or that which it is. Quid means “what” in Latin. Thus we can reformulate the above in Goethe’s terms with the understanding that by “Faktishe,” he refers to the empirical aspects of a thing, accessible to the senses, and by “Theorie” he refers to its ideal aspects, apprehended by the intellect: empiricism provides the “factual” side of the phenomenon to which idealism provides its “theory.” By “theory” we of course do not mean theorising or theoretical conjecture, as will certainly be clear by this point in the present exploration. We refer rather to theoria, or “the experience of the idea that provides for the recognition of anything as the thing which it is”—the concept which is the sine qua non of any intelligible perception. We know this is true because every experience is the experience of something. Otherwise, it would not be experience and it would not be anything. “Whoever reflects on what passes in his own mind cannot miss it. And if he does not reflect, all the words in the world cannot make him have any notion of it,” [3] to quote Locke on the matter of simple perceptions. “What about the experience of nothing?” a vacuous person might object. I answer that: the only manner by which this postulate may be rendered meaningful is by modifying the definition of “nothing” to mean “something,” and this is something other than is ordinarily intended by that term. For this reason it does not disprove what it intends to do, but rather affirms it.

The above connection of sense and intellect naturally sheds new light on the nature of evidence. Newton, for instance, saw the spectrum as evidence of light’s composite nature, while Goethe saw it as evidence to the contrary. Let us consider what “evidence” means. Observations, facts, findings, data, or sensations are not by themselves evidence. Rather, eo ipsis, they are just what they are. The former only become evidence in light of a correlative idea or theory which they can be evidence for. An idea is the theory of which eventual evidence is its empirical correlative. Superficial thinkers often overlook their own theoretical participation in the act of measurement and observation and therefore suppose that evidence grounds itself irrespective of any theory. Such an assumption, however, is only maintained by ignoring the process of cognition itself as well as the meaning of the terms “evidence” and “theory.” In fact, evidence literally means “the external presentation of the idea or theory,” since ex– means “out” or “forth,” and vidēo means “to see” and it is the Latin cognate of the Greek idēa, and eīdos, which likewise means “to see,” as well as the Latin loanword in English, “vision.” Both are cousins of the Germanic word “wise.” Idea can also be enlisted as a noun, as it is in English. Thus the idea is what is seen while the evidence is that out of which it is seen, or how it is seen. Idea is the same as theory, or Goethe’s Theorie, while evidence is the same as Goethe’s “everything factual” (“alles Faktische”).

Having elucidated to some degree the internal relation of fact and theory, we are now in a position to understand the various possibilities for the corruption of this relationship. One example is found in the empirical tradition, which is the chauvinism of everything factual. Hume is the perfect representative of this school. The nature of the empirical approach renders it utterly unsuitable to scientific inquiry because establishing conceptual relations amongst sensible events is just what science is. Thus one cannot simultaneously deny the validity of conceptual relations and affirm the integrity of science, or anything else for that matter. As we indicated above, facts by themselves are not evidence of anything (even the lack of causal relations, as Hume wished to do). If atomic facts were to evince something, the latter would be just their correlative theory. The same archetypal phenomenon is operative in simple perceptions as in scientific ones. That the empirical tradition discounts the theoretical activity inherent in all perception only results in its suppression to the unconscious. That their theories are never argued for does not make them true. Indeed one-sided empiricism is tantamount to a dereliction of the philosopher’s office, or a blind shipwreck on the horn of Scylla.

Another corruption of the fact-theory complementarity is manifest in one-sided idealism or rationalism. The problem with this approach is that the book of Nature is written in the signs of the sense-world. While it is true that its comprehension is a noetic activity, such comprehension presupposes an as-of-yet-uncomprehended departure point, which is provided, at least in the initial stages of scientific knowledge, by the senses. No sophisticated idealist has doubted this fact, and the fact that such titanic figures of philosophy as Plato, Plotinus, and Augustine have been charged with a devaluation of the sense-world attests to a foregone bias of their interpreters and not to conceptions of these noble thinkers. “There is a great book,” declared Augustine in the 4th century, “the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made!” [4] Thus Augustine never discounts the Earth, but rather praises it as the matter which bears the seal of Heaven, and he does not belittle the testimony of the senses merely because its meaning must be apprehended by the spirit. When Kant writes, therefore, some fourteenth centuries later (at the same time as Goethe was undertaking his famous “Italian journey” during which he achieved the insight into the archetypal phenomenon of plant morphology, or den Urpflanze, which will be a subsequent topic in this exploration) that “[in] every department of physical science there is only so much knowledge, properly so-called, as there is mathematics,” [5] he is espousing an hopelessly abstract conception of science. Regrettably, the latter has exerted a perennial influence on developments in modern physics to the detriment of its internal coherence, akin to a burdening by the vortical strain of swirling Charybdis. [6] Kant is a very complex and seminal figure in modern philosophy and he was also a contemporary of Goethe, and thus he will receive more comprehensive treatment in the chapters to follow, when we will juxtapose his theory of knowledge against the Goethean conception. To elucidate the latter has been our task in this part.

To conclude, therefore, let us recapitulate Goethe’s approach to knowledge and to the world, which he conceived of as truth: “if I know my relationship to myself and to the outer world, then I call it truth.” [7] This is because “myself” is the theatre of the idea, the “place of the forms,” or locus specierum intelligibilium, [8] or τόπον εἰδῶν (topos eidos/eiden), [9] while the “outer world” is the manner by which these ideas appear to the senses, [10] and the act of cognition is to establish their proper relation, which relation is truth. Apprehending the truth, therefore, depends on understanding the nature of this relationship. One says “the truth” and one does not say “a truth” or shy away from the subject altogether. This is a topic to take up in the next chapters in dialogue with Kant. Suffice it here to establish that facts or findings cannot contradict themselves. They cannot do so principle. Only theories can generate contradiction. If facts could contradict themselves, then we could doubt truth. Since they cannot, we can only question the completeness of our science. When findings appear to contradict themselves, we have mistaken theories for facts. In Goethe’s words, “the senses do not err, judgement does.” Because the facts contain no contradictions, we know that the world is coherent, harmonious, and true, and that the omega of science is to realise this factual wholeness in theory. Put another way, the aim of the scientist is to recognise the impossibility of contradictory facts as an outer sign of their inner unity. The latter is what the facts mean, the facts themselves are how they mean, and the relation between them is reality. Thus, Goethean science is intellectual empiricism, or empirical idealism, which is to say, realism.

Photo credit: C. W Treinen

Goethean Maxim:

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.

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.

The highest were to grasp that everything phenomenal is already noumenal. 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. 

[1] Thomas Aquinas’s De veritate, q. 2 a. 3 arg. 19.

[2] Cognitio sensitiva occupatur circa qualitates sensibiles exterioris, cognitio antem intellectiva penetrat usque ad essentiam rei; objectum enim intellectus est quod quid est.  (Sum. Theol., 22a, q. 8. n. 1.)

[3] An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IX.2.

[4] Sermon 126.6 in the Angelo Mai collection, Miscellanea Agustiniana 1:355-68, ed. G. Moran (Rome, 1930), in Vernon Bourke, trans. The Essential Augustine, Hackett, Indianapolis, 1974, p.123.

[5] “Preface” to his The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, 1786

[6] Consider for instance the relation of observation and hypothesis in Big Bang cosmological model, in which the hypothesis of expansion is posited to account for the red-shift of stars and the detection of cosmic microwave background radiation, and simultaneously enlisted as evidence from which to extrapolate the Big Bang. Thus the hypothesis is serving double duty. Richard Feynman summed up the general situation today in respect to another field of contemporary physics in an elegant manner when he stated, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” We evaluated the philosophical underpinnings of quantum mechanics on a prior occasion.

[7] Maxims and Reflections, 346.

[8] Aquinas’ “Questiones Disputatae de Anima”

[9] Aristotles’ “topos eiden,” or “place of the forms,” cf. De Anima 429a27-29

[10] Cf. Aquinas’ locus specierum sensibilium

“The Idea is eternal and unitary…All that of which we see and of which we can speak are but its manifestations,” he wrote in 1831. [Hamburger Ausgabe XII, 366, no. 12]


Est enim proprium objectum intellectus ens intelligibile, quod quidem comprehendit omnes differentias et species entis possibililis; quidquid esse potest intelligi potest”

The proper object of the intellect is the intelligible things; it comprehends all the differences and possible species of being, for whatever can exist can be understood.


The proper object of intellect is intelligible being, which includes all possible differences and species of being, since whatever can be, can be known.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    I’ve always found it humorous, that the so-called “empiricists” contributed, on the whole, very little to scientific knowledge while the derided “idealists” often, on the whole, contributed far more to scientific knowledge.

    “No sophisticated idealist has doubted this fact, and the fact that such titanic figures of philosophy as Plato, Plotinus, and Augustine have been charged with a devaluation of the sense-world attests to a foregone bias of their interpreters and not to conceptions of these noble thinkers.” This, I think, is something very important for people to know. I don’t tend to hide my affinity with the Idealists. But in the English-speaking world, they get a bad rap for a whole laundry list of reasons. It is my honest view, that in time, the children of Bacon and Darwin will die out, and we will see a new flourishing of empirical idealism, as you call, or sacramentalism, per traditional Christianity, and we’ll see a “re-enchantment” of life.

    “The more souls who resonate together,/the greater the intensity of their love,/and, mirror-like, each soul reflects the other.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Yes, great point. I think the obvious connection is that science involves thinking about things and not just looking at them.

      It reminds me of ROMA and AMOR: the material and spiritual civilisations, which are in some respect, inversions of one another just like Inferno & Paradiso. Aeneas was the founder of the latter and Romulus the former. Is there a connection with Augustine’s two cities?


      1. Hesiod says:

        One can probably draw a connection out of The City of God; Augustine latches onto the Romulus and Remus myth because it synthesizes well with Cain and Abel story and the whole establishment of earthly cities premised on material domination. While he critiques Aeneas as having a similar ethos (after all, he does slaughter Turnus), he routinely cites Virgil’s Aeneid and its spiritual side. In this respect, as he recounts in Book 19 iirc, even Marcus Varro was right to connect the cardinal virtues as being spiritual. Augustine does see a spiritual heart to Rome, reflected by such pious souls like Scipio, Cato the Elder and Younger, Seneca, and Virgil, etc., and calls on the true Roman spirit to see Christianity as the fulfillment of their yearnings. It is undoubtedly great irony that Roma and Amor, the two archetypes, are spelled the same and are inverses of each other as you note!

        As I’m prepping a manuscript, I flat-out say that our contemporary crisis is a spiritual crisis. Anything short of this acknowledgement falls flat on its face and just repackages the ROMA/ROMULUS-ENOCH/CAIN mythology. It’s also my personal view that the vitality of culture is measured in its acceptance of “myth.” Once the spiritual myth (proclamation/Word/word) is brushed aside and satirized, if not blasphemously mocked, a culture is in terminal decline. But to hold such views as you, and I, or others, may have, is to invite scorn from the ‘scientific establishment.’ Which, I think, shows us just how lost we are as a wayward culture.

        I have essay slated for publication on April 15 dealing with the ecological crisis as, essentially, a spiritual and aesthetical catastrophe and all this talk of “Green New Deals” etc., will do nothing but fall way short of the predicament we’re in. Not on DM, but with a publication I have a relationship with.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Max Leyf says:

        That’s an extremely import point about the nature of the challenges we face. One hears scientific types claiming that science does not have an ethical stance, but anyone who says this is lying through his teeth. I treated this to some extent in my exploration of so-called “hard problem.”

        “To suppose physics can be divorced from metaphysics is an error we have attempted to illustrate in this investigation…We must also affirm that science (and physics, and metaphysics, etc…) cannot be divorced from ethics without conceding our confidence in the former’s ability to tell us about the world or the latter’s ability to tell us how to live in it…

        Morality is a question of how to live in the world, and it is a question which cannot even be posed unless we know what sort of place the world is. “Ex fructibus eorum cognoscetis eos.” In other words, a continual mindfulness of our operative paradigm confronts us not only as a scientific, but as a moral imperative. Indeed, that these two appear divisible is, in the first place, an immediate function of interpreting the question through the very paradigm that methodologically divides them. The same paradigm that ignores gradients of qualitative value as a methodological tenet has nothing to offer one who with concerns in this respect, and we all have concerns in this respect, since “Sorge (“care” or “concern”) is the structure of Dasein itself.” Thus, when Metzinger asserts that “there is a new image of man emerging out of genetics and neuroscience…It is strictly unmetaphysical,” he is not merely making a scientific statement. Indeed, he acknowledges that the “self-knowledge” that modern science has delivered challenges traditional notions of the human being, Western or otherwise. Metzinger himself seems intuitively aware of the implications as he continues:

        [Neuroscience suggests that] “There is no such thing as a soul,” and “You are basically a gene-copying device,” and it is not clear what that will do to us. A chasm will open between the rich, educated, and secularized parts of mankind on the planet and those who for whatever reason have chosen to live their lives outside the scientific view of the world, and outside the scientific image of man.

        In this light, what may have hitherto struck the reader a confusion of issues between the hard problem of consciousness, the history of science and philosophy, and human nature itself will justify itself in this revelation of implicit unity. The hard problem is a single facet of something for which one finds no suitable name. A naïve realism supposes there is a world on one side and consciousness on the other, but we have already revealed the superstition inherent in this manner of thinking. Given there exists no plausible explanation for the emergence of consciousness from unconscious processes (or qualia from non-qualitative stuff etc…), one were better off not to posit it in the first place. It is arbitrary to posit a world outside of consciousness. Instead, they are correlative. The hard problem of consciousness, therefore, is a problem of the world itself.”



  2. Hesiod says:

    Yep, I had to double-check it; Augustine, in appealing the Romans to embrace amor (in Christianity) appeals to The Aeneid as prefiguring the spiritual reality of the celestial city: His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono; Imperium sine fine dedi.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      America is the same, with the Eagle (Amerigo) versus the Dove (Columbia)


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