Goethean Science (6): the Organism, Evolution, and Kant

When it is said that “all cows are grey at night,” the reason is, of course, that homogenous low lighting conditions fail to provide necessary conditions to perceive nuances of contrast. Similarly, a given philosophical system leaps into sharp relief directly it is juxtaposed against another. Goethe held it to be a fundamental mistake on Newton’s part to suppose light by itself was a sufficient condition for colour. No more was light alone a sufficient condition for colour than was the darkness, in which all cows are grey, which is to say, devoid of colour. Instead, Goethe argued that the counterposition of shadow against the light was necessary for the phenomenon of colour to manifest. In this spirit, we have sought not merely to study Goethe’s work eo ipso, but rather continually to contrast it with other conceptions. Newton has lent great service in this respect, offering his own studies into colour as a foil to Goethe’s. These approaches appear in the iconic images of Newton shutting himself in a dark room to isolate the variable of the single ray of light, and Goethe attempting to subject light to all manner of interplay with shadow and to follow these “deeds and sufferings of light” with his understanding. Yet another no less expressive scene of contrast between these thinkers presents itself in the iconic encounter that sparked one of Newton’s most influential contributions to science. One refers, of course, to the infamous (and perhaps imaginary) apple which was loosed from a bough one autumn afternoon in 1666, and proceeded to buffet the famous Cambridge physicist about the sconce withal. “Eureka! I’ve found it,” the great genius cried, “and I shall call it ‘Universal Gravitation.’” In fact one William Stukeley recounts that the question of falling bodies had been niggling Newton’s mind for weeks, and was indeed “occasion’d by the fall of an apple…‘Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,’ thought [Newton] to him self: ‘why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground?” [1]

Many centuries before, Aristotle famously remarked that “all philosophy begins in wonder.” He might have added as a corollary that the way in which one wonders determines the sort of philosophy one will subsequently undertake. We may indeed be struck by the fact that, in the face of the given phenomenon (i.e. falling fruit), this is by no means the only question that Newton could have wondered about. A person might just as well have posed what is arguably the far more interesting question—and the necessary complement to the one into which Newton actually inquired—namely, how did the apple get up there in the first place? Further still, one might wonder how there came to be such an altogether ingenious jewel of Nature to speak of.

Only a few decades after Stukeley published the words above, Goethe fled the stifling court-life of Weimar and set forth on a journey to the Mediterranean region. He was immediately struck by the uncanny similarity—or better: difference-in-identity—of the plant forms that he encountered in the more temperate climate. The same familiar species from Weimar reappeared in metamorphosed forms. One imagines the rarified plants of the northern lands appearing to have swelled and burgeoned to ample proportions under the rays of the Mediterranean sun. In a letter from 1787, during the period he refers to as “my Italian journey,” Goethe writes:

my old fancy suddenly sprang to mind: Among this new multitude, might I not discover the Urpflanze? (“archetypal plant,” “or-iginal plant,” or “ur-phenomenal plant”) There must be one. Otherwise, how could I recognise that this or that form was a plant if all were not moulded in the same basic pattern? [2]

The contrast of these two ways of wondering could hardly be more striking. Goethe’s interest was drawn by precisely what Newton simply took as a matter of course. Of interest to Goethe was not the physical interactions of preëstablished forms, but rather the formative forces that indwell, animate, and continually transform living things from within those living things themselves. Newton’s intentionality was that of an engineer; Goethe’s that of a plastic artist. One might dismiss Goethe’s approach by asserting that only determinate and well defined bodies lend themselves to scientific inquiry. Kant, for instance, in the same spirit, famously declared that “there will never be a Newton of the grass-blade.” [3] It is certainly not an unreasonable point that precision is a function of having a definite object to be precise about. Let “der Alte Von Königsberg” and his followers concede, however, that determination and strictures in a body are a characteristic of old age, and that every fixed body was fluid in its youth. Indeed, the former only arrived at its senile condition by way of the plasticising force of life going gradually extinct. No one would contest that Newton and Kant are scientific thinkers, only that their science is not the only science, and that Goethe offers to flesh out the skeletal laws of nature that convention recognises, with another way of knowledge—a knowledge fit to apprehend those very principles upon which the matters of common science depend.

In the next chapter, we will consider to what degree Goethe can be hailed as “the Newton of the grass-blade.” Before we proceed, however, it is too pertinent not to note that the zoologist Ernst Haeckel affirmed that Kant’s prophecy had been overturned in Darwin. With the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859, Darwin had proposed “natural selection” as a mechanism whereby the evolution and speciation of living things could be explained without recourse to any purpose or intelligence inherent in them. In Haeckel’s estimation, and in that of the majority of contemporary scientists, the understanding of life which Kant had declared to be unattainable by human understanding, had been achieved by an English naturalist. This is not true, however. The reason that Kant held to the impossibility of a scientific understanding of life is precisely because he recognised its essential qualitative difference from non-living things. Without the recognition of such a difference, no Newton of the grass-blade would be necessary since the first Newton would have served just fine. Indeed, it is safe to assume that neither the majority of contemporary scientists, nor Darwin himself, [4] was familiar with Kant’s Critique of Judgement because in it the latter sets forth a prototype of the evolutionary theory (which was not at all uncommon amongst German intellectuals of his day) and then rejects it for logical and epistemological reasons that neither Darwin nor his successors are wont to address.

Logically, by attempting to explain the origin and evolution of species from inert matter and its processes, one has merely shunted the burden of the question from the living creatures themselves to the inert matter that ostensibly gave rise to them and to their metamorphoses. In Kant’s words:

[One has] then only pushed further back the ground of explanation and cannot pretend to have made the development of those kingdoms independent of the condition of final causes. [5]

Epistemologically, the fact that living things appear to live, develop, evolve, and act in a purposeful manner is prima facie evidence that they are indeed purposeful. Still, this evidence alone does not suffice for proof of the matter, since the apparent intelligence and goal-directness of living things could be an elaborate hoax. According to the precepts that Kant set forth earlier in the same work, it is impossible for human perception to apprehend whether behaviour, development, and evolution that seems purposeful is indeed so, or only appears to be. Initially, nothing could be more obvious than that all living things seem to embody purpose and goal-directed behaviour and development. Only a sophist would contest this and certainly not a farmer, who sows his corn in the autumn not because he thinks nothing will come of it. According to Kant’s conception of human understanding, however, it is not given to human apprehension to verify whether this purpose is indeed inherent to the organism or if it only behaves as if this were so. Kant called the first purposeful and the second purposive. The former is, in Kant’s terminology, a constitutive principle. This is to say that the principle is inherent to the beings themselves. The latter, by contrast, is a regulative principle, or a manner by which human being structures its understanding in order to perceive and categorise those beings. Darwin and his successors simply ignore the nuanced philosophical issue of justified knowledge and instead merely adopt as a postulate that nature has no purpose, entelechy, or final cause. Obviously, the postulate of Nature’s randomness is not the same as its proof.

One discovers an analogous phenomenon in the manner whereby a certain type of thinker treats the so-called “hard problem of consciousness.”  Namely, the former merely presupposes that mind must have emerged from mindless matter. Such a view fails to take into account the fact, however, that to grant such a proposition would entail a fundamental reconception of the nature of inert matter. If the exquisite functions and phenomena of mind were indeed to emerge from inert matter, then latter would have to be entirely reïmagined from the manner in which it is now pictured: inert matter would have to be conceived so as to be potentially conscious, or everywhere pregnant with mind. Otherwise one has failed to provide a cogent hypothesis for the single thing which cannot be called into question without rejecting the very investigation itself. Similarly, if it is supposed that organisms are blind to the processes that shape them, then the direction must come from Nature. But if Nature is also held to be operating without direction, then one is forced to account for variations over time by chance or random variation. This is exactly what contemporary evolutionary biologists posit. “Natural selection” is obviously a misleading term, therefore, since “selection” suggests an agency that is not present. To explain something as random is not to explain it. This is akin to asserting that the old German saw of “if the cock crows atop the manure pile, then either it will rain or it will not” is not vague because after the fact we will be able to supply a convincing account of the outcome. For this reason, such explanations do not offer what they often seem to do.

Goethe contrasts with the Darwinists and with Kant. Goethe never attempts to transpose the explanation of organisms and their ontogeny, phylogeny, and evolution to the realm of mindless processes. Darwin offered a manner of conceiving the evolution of living things without appeal to their life, but rather to blind environmental pressures which directionally influence reproductive success of individuals of a species and thereby effect the propagation of specific heritable traits to future generations. This “natural selection” is “natural” in the sense of Newton’s nature, and “selective” only in an anthropomorphical metaphor, as one might call an apple “selective” of whose head is under it when it falls. Indeed, Goethe does not really try to explain the organism at all, but rather to comprehend it. Of course, the comprehension of an organism entails its “deeds and sufferings,” its ontogeny, phylogeny, and evolution. Otherwise, one would not have understood the organism in the first place. One would rather have merely represented to oneself in a fixed and static form something that is purposeful and metamorphic by nature. In other words, the principles of purpose and change are inherent in the idea of the organism itself. One who supposes to see an organism without such principles, at least in their rudiments, is failing to recognise the organism at all. Instead he is merely perceiving a certain quantity of substance. As we indicated, Kant denied the capacity of human apprehension to grasp such constitutive principles of the organism, calling it “an adventure of reason” to attempt this. In essence, Darwin responded to Kant’s ultimatum as to the limits of human knowledge by lowering the goal. Goethe, by contrast, confronted with the Kantian threshold, undertook an “adventure of reason” in an attempt to transcend it. As we also indicated, Goethe’s “Italian journey” represented a symbolic enactment of Kant’s challenge. Goethe’s true adventure commenced, however, upon the completion of his journey when he set about his philosophical work on plant morphology which was to culminate in 1790 with his publication of the Metamorphosis of Plants (Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären). The degree to which Goethe accomplished this adventure we will continue to evaluate in the next chapter.

[1] “Life of Newton,” Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life, 1752

[2] Palermo, 17th April, 1787.

[3] Critique of Judgement, 1790.

[4] Apparently Darwin had pursued one of Kant’s ethical works at the behest of Francis Power Cobbe, as a letter of 23 March 1870 attests: https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-7145.xml. Cobbe was one of the seminal figures of animal welfare.

[5] Ibid. Chapter 75.

Kant’s original German from The Critique of Judgement:

Es ist für Menschen ungereimt…zu hoffen, dass noch etwa dereinst ein Newton aufstehen könne, der auch nur die Erzeugung eines Grashalms nach Naturgesetzen, die keine Absicht geordnet hat, begreiflich machen werde….

The full paragraph from which the above is excerpted reads as follows:

Here it is permissible for the archaeologist of nature to derive from the surviving traces of its oldest revolutions, according to all its mechanism known or supposed by him, that great family of creatures (for so we must represent them if the said thoroughgoing relationship is to have any ground). He can suppose the bosom of mother earth, as she passed out of her chaotic state (like a great animal), to have given birth in the beginning to creatures of less purposive form, that these again gave birth to others which formed themselves with greater adaptation to their place of birth and their relations to each other; until this womb becoming torpid and ossified, limited its births to definite species not further modifiable, and the manifoldness remained as it was at the end of the operation of that fruitful formative power. — Only he must still in the end ascribe to this universal mother an organisation purposive in respect of all these creatures; otherwise it would not be possible to think the possibility of the purposive form of the products of the animal and vegetable kingdoms.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    It would have been more appropriate, rather than an apple blossom, if you had used a white rose instead! 😉


    1. Max Leyf says:

      Do you mean:
      “In forma dunque di candida rosa
      mi si mostrava la milizia santa (i beati)
      che nel suo sangue Cristo fece sposa;”

      Or was Newton a Yorkist sympathiser?


      1. Hesiod says:

        Oh definitely Dante! One of my great loves. Plus, the whole white rose of celestialism is so important for understanding – in my mind – that which is often missed among the German Idealists.

        I figured you’d be able to catch my drift, especially since you recognize the religious intensity to Fichte (et al.) and some weeks ago posted a hermetic meditation. I get the apple image, but the more spiritual side to Goethe I find better suited to “finishing” with the rose. After all, it is what we’re all journeying towards. At least, those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear?

        As for fruit in general, from the apple of discord to the tree of knowledge of good and evil to the obvious fertility and agrarian imagery of the parables of Christ through the Christian aesthetic and artistic tradition, probably deserves more meditation than a vague elaboration recycling the stories and saying that there’s obviously some deep connection going on here. Given the Passover Mysteries are culminating I suppose this is providential timing to dwell upon those mysteries too!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Max Leyf says:

        “We say ‘purity’
        We say ‘rose,’
        But behind it all lies the nameless,
        Our true form and place.”


        There is quite a lot to contemplate in the symbolism of the apple. I will likely bring this up again soon. I agree that the season is fitting. I also feel that the season is fitting to contemplate Goethe’s way science, which is what I am attempting to do.


    2. Max Leyf says:

      On a very pertinent note, the understand Goethe’s metamorphic thinking, you have to see how the rose and the apple are the same (Rosaceae) archetype expressed differently, and to trace the resemblance from bud to flower to fruit, etc… It’s harder to see the iconic pentagram in the cultivated rose because its stamens have metamorphosed to more petals. But the wild rose and the apple blossom are sisters.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Max Leyf says:

      I am meditating on the similarities and differences between to two instances of fruits imparting “knowledge” to humans. I would love to hear your thoughts.


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