Goethean Science (7): The Archetypal Plant

As part of our method of inquiry into Goethe’s way of knowledge, we have repeatedly invoked contrasting ways of science that the Goethean approach may be made manifest in its similarity and difference. Goethe provides an aperçu into one such contrasting conception of knowledge when he relates his now famous confrontation with the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller. During a meeting of Society for Nature Research in Jena, Schiller had criticised the fragmentary and anatomised view of nature that many of the researchers were propounding. He likely expressed a similar sentiment to that which he capture in a line from one of his poems:

Of your myriad suns and nebulae, tease me not with your amount,

Is Nature only mighty cause she gives you something you can count? [1]

In an instant, in light of Schiller’s comment, Goethe’s former antipathy towards the former evaporated and he recognised Schiller as a kindred spirit. Schiller’s remark had sparked a lively conversation between the two which they continued after the meeting adjourned and sustained all the way back to Schiller’s residence. Once there, Goethe enthusiastically seized a pen from Schiller’s desk and began to sketch the beloved Urpflanze, or archetypal plant, which had been germinating in his mind since his Italian journey. During that time of several years prior, the encounter with the familiar plant forms in myriad metamorphoses and transformations evoked by the warmer climate had sparked his philosophical imagination and initiated his studies into plant morphology. When Goethe finished the depiction, Schiller paused for a moment, and then only shook his head. “That is not experience, that is an idea.” (“Das ist keine Erfahrung, das ist eine Idee”), the former notoriously replied. His erstwhile antipathy towards Schiller at once rekindled, Goethe retorted: “How happy then that I may have ideas without knowing it, and even see them with my very eyes.”

In this exchange, two fundamentally different theories of knowledge are on display. Indeed, Schiller immediately recognised the difference. He later contrasted the two approaches in a letter to Goethe, distinguishing what he termed the “speculative” and the “intuitive” approaches, and in doing so bore out his speculative approach in practice. Goethe’s nature was more temperamental and childlike—to the verge of being naïve. As an intuitive soul, he is uncomfortable breathing the thin air of abstraction which is entailed in thinking about things. The former, rather thinks things; thinking for such a soul is become an experience. In fact, Goethe corroborates this distinction in a manner characteristic of his person:

… Dr. Heinroth speaks favorably of my work; in fact, he calls my approach unique, for he says that my thinking works objectively (Gegenständlich). Here he means that my thinking is not separate from objects; that the elements of the object, the perceptions of the object, flow into my thinking and are fully permeated by it; that my perception itself is a thinking, and my thinking a perception. [2]

Goethe complements Schiller’s conception of human types in terms of polarity (Polarität) with one in terms of evolution, or enhancement (Steigerung). Goethe distinguishes four degrees of enhancement that the human soul can undergo in its relation to knowledge: (i) utility, (ii) fact-finding, (iii) pondering, and (iv) comprehension. He explicates this schema:

(i) The utilitarians, advocates and seekers of things practical, are the first to plough the field of science, metaphorically speaking, and they aim at practical results. Self-confidence derived from experience gives them assurance; necessity gives them a certain breadth. (ii) Fact-finders, those who crave knowledge for its own sake, require a calm, disinterested gaze, an inquisitive unrest, a clear mind. They are in contrast with the first group, but work out the results from the scientific point of view exclusively. (iii) The ponderers are somewhat more original, for the mere increase of knowledge unwittingly fosters interpretation, and crosses over into it. Even the fact-finders, however much they may make the sign of the crucifix at the very thought of imagination, before they realize it are compelled to call upon this selfsame power for assistance. (iv) The comprehenders—in a deeper sense they might be called creators—are original in the highest sense of the term. By proceeding from ideas, they simultaneously express the unity of the whole, and it is almost the obligation of Nature to conform to the ideas. [3]

Having now established a polarity (Polarität) between the speculative and the intuitive approaches to knowledge, as well as one possible ladder that we may ascend in our approach to it (Steigerung), we will attempt to undertake the latter by intensifying the former. To accomplish this, it will be useful to characterise each of them in greater depth. A survey of Kantian philosophy will ultimately provide to best juxtaposition to Goethe’s way, and undertaking such a survey will be our task in the chapters to follow. Here, we will briefly introduce some of Goethe’s discoveries in respect to organic morphology in order to more thoroughly establish our thesis.

Goethe’s morphological studies and insights were consummated with his 1790 publication of The Metamorphosis of Plants. In fact, Goethe coined the word “morphology.” No one had used it in a biological context before Goethe’s time. Linnaeus, for instance, had concerned himself with classification, not the plasticising principles of whose operation the categories of Linnaean taxonomy were the final issue. It is pertinent to note that in the methodology we outlined above for our inquiry into speculative, and intuitive approaches—which one could also call and “reflective” and “poetic,” or “the Moon” and “the Sun,” respectively—are embodied the same principles that Goethe identified in the organic development of plants. In other words, we are attempting to understand Goethe’s way of knowledge in the same manner that he attempted to understand plants—with an eye to their inwardness and their life. The difference being, of course, that plants grow by themselves while a philosophical inquiry depends on our initiative, but it need be none the less objective for it. This observation will provide the keystone of the new approach to knowledge which we will outline at the end of this exploration. The common principles operative in living things are Polarität, which we might call “polarity,” “antithesis,” or “counterposition,” and Steigerung, which could be translated as “ascent,” “intensification,” “enhancement,” or “sublimation.”

In these two principles, one may recognise the same spirit out of which Hegel precipitated his famous dialectic. In fact, Hegel himself was keenly aware of Goethe’s influence on the evolution of his own thought: “When I survey my own spiritual [geistigen] development, I discover your presence at every turn, and with pleasure do I call myself on of your sons,” Hegel wrote in a letter to Goethe in 1825. [4] In respect to finding the proper nomenclature for Goethe’s meaning: the reason I have found it necessary to list so many possible translations is that one all too easily supposes that one has grasped a meaning once one has learned the word. But, like Aristotle was so insistent of reminding his students, “‘being’ (τὸ δὲ ὂν) is said in many ways.” [5] Meaning is not unlike the archetypal plant. Just as the latter assumes diverse forms according to the particular environmental conditions of its incarnation as well as the species that it means to express, so in its transposition to language, meaning must respect the context into which it finds itself cast. In the past such lexical multiplicity would not have presented such an imperative. Language itself was more malleable because it remained closer to its origin in the heart of the speaker. Ancient speech was not-yet-lignified, as it were. Indeed, as a sapling hardens over winters, so the advent of such technologies as writing, paper, and the presses, printing and digital, are like benchmarks towards the scleroticisation of speech. [6] Indeed we opened this very exploration on Goethean science by quoting the admonition of Socrates against just such a tendency in language. Today, indeed, language has grown old and one cannot always mean with the same word irrespective of context. Language is perhaps too brittle for that today. The perfect harmony of youth and structure likely accounts for the particular pleasure that Elizabethan and Jacobin English strike the ear of the listener withal, and it is therefore unlikely that neither Shakespeare, nor the King James Version of the Bible will ever be replaced. To put it plainly, “to everything a season” and a “glorious summer” of fruition, [7] including language.

Returning to the principles of Polarität and Steigerung: the reader may recognise them from earlier chapters on colour theory, both formally and materially. Formally, we sought to intensify our understanding by establishing polarities between different approaches. Materially, we may recall that Goethe faulted Newton precisely for overlooking the principles of polarity and enhancement in his optical studies, and supposing rather that an analysis of light alone was sufficient to yield the rainbow spectrum. For Goethe, colour was the interplay of a polarity (Polarität) between light and darkness, and the enhancement (Steigerung) of mere shadow. The same principles of light and darkness, transposed into the morphology of plant-life, yield the phenomena of expansion and contraction. Their interplay results in the growth of the plant, which embodies a Steigerung from seed to root to stem to leaf to bud to flower. The flower presents the most rarified organ of the plant, and therefore the ultimate expression of the light principle. From this pole, the Steigerung itself undergoes a polar inversion and the plant swings to the ultimate contraction, which culminates in the seed nestled in the dark bosom of the earth. This fact of seasonality which the plant embodies demands the recognition of another principle which we may call “rhythm,” “pulse,” or “periodicity.” If Goethe had named it, he may have called it “Schwingung.” To experience the plant’s being as a structured doing, a continual transformation with innate periodicity, a “being-at-work-in-order-to-remain-itself,” to invoke Aristotelian scholar Joe Sach’s expressive translation of Aristotle’s term energeia (ενέργεια, or actuality in Latinate English), is to enter into Goethe’s intuitive mode of perception. The concept of “life” itself must imply such transformation through time else it is incorrect. In the latter case, one is only using the word “life” but meaning “inert matter.” “‘Life’ can be said in many ways.” [8]

It will be evident from the above that by “lily,” for instance, one cannot mean any specific form of the lily. Put another way, “lily” must be understood as a verb and not a substantive. That is because if one were to indicate a bulb in February and a blossom in August, each is the same lily despite that they could not visibly appear more different. “Lily” therefore, must mean the plastic power that assumes this spectrum of forms in relation with the seasons and surroundings. It is the same with “rose.” Indeed, apples are roses. Both are expressions of the Rosaceae archetype. This family resemblance [9] is easily overlooked in the cultivated rose given the intentional selection of phenotypes in which the stamens of the wild rose have metamorphosed into a profusion of petals. If one compares the apple blossom to the dog rose, however, and follows their parallel ripening through the summer months, rose hips will leap forth to one’s apprehension as tawny applets. In this manner, one may attempt to grasp the Urros, which is itself a determination of the Urpflanze. In truth, “grasp” is not an appropriate term because it implies that the archetypal plant is a fixed form, which it is not. As we indicated above, the Urpflanze is rather much more appropriately imagined as the melody of a brook, and perceived as the potency to become all forms through myriad transformations. Goethe explains to proper method:

When I see an object before me which has come into existence, wonder about its genesis, and measure out the course of its becoming as far as I can follow it, I become aware of a series of stages which I cannot perceive next to each other, but which I must make present to myself in memory as a certain ideal whole. At first I am inclined to imagine distinct steps, but since nature makes no leaps, I am finally compelled to intuit a sequence of uninterrupted activity as a whole by sublating (aufheben) the individual parts, but without destroying the impression.

The archetypal plant, therefore, is a form and a transformation, which is to say, a form in time as well as in space. On a side note, one again discovers in Goethe’s insights the seeds which will germinate in future thinkers. Aufhebung, for instance, ordinarily translated as “sublation” or “negation,” is a critical term in conception of Hegelian dialectic. Hegel, however, was a speculative and not an intuitive type. Indeed, he captured the reflective sentiment in the most expressive manner with his image of the Owl of Minerva, who “spreads her wings only with the falling of the dusk.” [10] Goethe, by contrast, was always a springtime thinker and rarely took Athena as his muse—Persephone, perhaps, with a retinue of Proteus and Pan. Goethe expresses his own approach “If we want to behold Nature in a living way, we must follow her example and become as mobile and malleable as Nature herself.” [11] For Goethe, everything was transformation, everything gestation and bringing forth. Nature was perennial nativity and the potency for perennial metamorphosis.

Goethe expressed this potency (Aristotle’s δυνάμεις, “dynamis”) for metamorphosis with the term Blad, which means “leaf,” when it is operative in a particular plant. His journal entry from the Italian journey captures this insight: “in the…leaf lies the true Proteus who can hide or reveal himself in all vegetal forms.” What we ordinarily call the leaf is the most generic form of the same esemplastic [12] potency which metamorphoses into all other organs as well. Just as the Urpflanze becomes all plants, so the leaf becomes all plant-organs. “Organ” is Latin, from Greek “ergon,” which means “work.” In fact, “work” is a cognate of “ergon,” just as the apple is a cognate of the rose. To discover this family resemblance, one may imagine the “k” of “work” metamorphosed into a “g,” and then the similarity will be apparent. Just as Persian flower-growers influenced the proliferation of petals in the wild rose, so from “ergon,” Aristotle moulded his signature term, “energeia” by adding a prefix and employing the verb form. Energeia is usually translated into English as “actuality,” from actualitas, following the Latin influence on Aristotelian commentary of the medieval Schoolmen. Thus every organ of the plant presents the potency of the archetypal leaf “enworkening” in an actual form.

Goethe’s words depict the metamorphosis of the archetypal leaf:

Whether the plant grows vegetatively, or flowers and bears fruit, the same organs fulfill nature’s laws throughout, although with different functions and often under different guises. The organ which expanded on the stem as a leaf, assuming a variety of forms, is the same organ which now contracts in the calyx, expands again in the petal, contracts in the reproductive parts, only to expand finally as the fruit. [13]

To recognise the “deeds and sufferings” of these archetypal principles and forms in every plant requires an intensification of the scientist’s perceptive faculties. Goethe describes the method of “delicate Empiricism (zarte Empirie), which renders itself identical with its object, and thereby becomes true theoria.” He immediately concedes, however, that our own faculties of perception must undergo a Steigerung or intensification akin to that of the blossoming plant if we are to truly behold objects in this manner. “Nevertheless,” he writes, “this intensification of spirit pertains to an highly-evolved age.” [14]

Thus Goethe makes abundantly clear that his science is not the ordinary science of his time, nor have the centuries since Goethe’s time seen any general embrace of Goethe’s injunction for the scientist to intensify his own faculties of perception. Indeed even in Goethe’s day, it was conventionally assumed that human senses were feeble instruments and conveyed only subjective, secondary qualities to the observer. For this reason, science has always wedded itself with technology to compensate for this mistrust in the senses. We indicated in our investigation of Newton’s research of colours that it was sparked by trying to get rid of them in order to build a better telescope. How much more has this trend intensified today, when physicists employ a roughly 10 billion-dollar particle accelerator in hope of fleshing out their theories with “facts.” One places this term in parentheses because it seems an equivocal usage of that term when the “facts” that the Large Hadron Collider delivers following an experiment are in the form of terabytes of data encoded in a computer hard-drive. “‘Fact’ is said in many ways.” The situation of modern science represents the antithesis of Goethe’s way; a discrepancy that was evident to Goethe even in his own day:

Man himself, to the extent that he makes use of his healthy senses, is the greatest and most precise physical apparatus that can exist. And this is just the trouble with modern physics: that the experiment has as it were been sundered from the human being, and knowledge of nature is sought merely in that which artificial instruments display. [15]

One may compare Goethe’s sentiment to that of Galileo from 1632, whom one might call the Romulus of the contemporary scientific empire:

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 that which their reason dictated to them, to that which sensible experiments represented most manifestly to the contrary. …I cannot find any bounds for my admiration, how that reason was able in Aristarchus and Copernicus, to commit such a rape on their senses, as in despite thereof to make herself mistress of their credulity. [16]

One is forced to wonder if these two ways of science can ever be reconciled. If it were merely a question of findings or method, the resolution would be easily forthcoming. Instead, one is confronted with what appear to be expressions of two fundamentally different conceptions of what kind of place the world is and, as an intrinsic corollary, what is the human being’s place in that world. One is reminded of a quote from one of Goethe’s contemporaries, J. G. Fichte, who wrote that “ultimately, the kind of philosophy a man chooses will depend on the kind of man that he is.” One person who attempted to reconcile experience and science—though not by Goethe’s way—was Kant. In fact, recalling Schiller’s distinction between the reflective and the intuitive souls, one might even posit that as Schiller was to Goethe, so was Kant to Schiller. Indeed it was precisely Schiller’s familiarity with the philosophy of Kant the initially evoked such resistance to Goethe’s notion of an intuitive experience that was at the same time an idea, or “thinking that is at the same time a perceiving.” This connection will be readily apparent once we have navigated the labyrinth of Kantian philosophy, which we hope to accomplish in the next chapters.

[1] From the poem titled “To Astronomers.”

[2]“Significant Help Given by an Ingenious Turn of Phrase.” Goethe: Scientific Studies, edited and translated by Douglas Miller, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

An alternative translation reads:

My thinking does not separate itself from the objects; the elements of the objects, the intuitions, must enter into my thinking and be intimately informed by it, so that my intuiting itself becomes a thinking and my thinking an intuiting.

The connection between “perceiving” and “intuiting” will become apparent in the next chapter following an explication of Kant’s theory of knowledge.

[3] Goethe, Botanical Writings, 9

[4] “Denn wenn ich den Gang meiner geistigen Entwicklung übersehe, sehe ich Sie überall darein verflochten und mag mich einen Ihrer Söhne nennen
—Hegel, in a letter to Goethe, 24 April 1825

[5] Metaphysics, Book IV: “τὸ δὲ ὂν λέγεται μὲν πολλαχῶς.”

[6] One might even imagine, following its lignification, a decay of language with the advent of Twitter, Snap-chat, and text-message, as though English, like a flower in late autumn, has passed the inflection point towards degradation.

[7] Phrases from Ecclesiastes and Richard III, respectively.

[8] The present author has explored this notion in November of 2018 in the series of essays titled “What is Life.”

[9] Wittgenstein describes his notion of family resemblance in the famous passage from Philosophical Investigations:

Consider, for example, the activities that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball- games, athletic games and so on. What is common to them all? – Don’t say: “They must have something in common, or they would not be called ‘games’” – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them, you won’t see something common to all, but similarities, affinities, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think but look! (§66)

[10] “Preface” to The Philosophy of Right.

[11] Miller, 69.

[12] Coleridge coined the term in Biographia Literaria, after Schelling’s use of the German word Ineinsbildung, “forming into one.” Coleridge coined the word from Greek ἐς ‘into’ + ἕν + πλαστικός (from πλάσσειν ‘to mould’).

[13] Miller, 96.

[14] “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)

[15] Maxims and Reflections, 53.

[16] Thomas Salusbury translation (1661) p. 301 as quoted by Edwin Arthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (1925)

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