Goethean Science

What is Goethean Science?

Although this question has received diverse answers from practitioners of Goethean science, they often share a common form – the form of classification. Two species of the genera science are imagined, Goethean science and normal science (or modern science), and then differentia are sought to distinguish the two. Typical supposedly distinguishing criteria include mathematical vs non-mathematical, quantitative vs qualitative, reductive vs non-reductive and mechanistic vs holistic. The problem with this approach is that science itself is a heterogeneous collection of practices (a reason for the failure of the attempt in the first half of last century to define what science is and thereby demarcate it from alleged pseudo-science).

There are two problems with such an approach to saying what Goethean science is. Firstly, instances of qualities supposedly unique to Goethean science are found in normal science. For example, the experimental method of Francis Bacon, exemplified by Robert Boyle, is non-mathematical and qualitative, Newtonian mechanics and the theory of relativity are non-reductive, quantum mechanics is holistic. The second problem is that the question of what Goethean science is is inseparably bound to the question of what science is.

The approach taken here is based on the proposal that Goethean science is a particular method for answering the question of what something is. This allows us to use the Goethean method itself to answer the question of what science is, in general, and Goethean science, in particular. Taking Goethe’s answer that “the history of science is science itself”, I investigate what Goethean science is by locating it within the history of science. I’ll outline the direction of my answer below. This also shows why, despite the failure of the comparisons mentioned above to uniquely identify Goethean science, there is nevertheless good reasons for drawing such comparisons.

The Role of Analogies in Science

The philosopher Mary Hesse analyzed the role played by analogies in the history of science. Her approach yields interesting results for Goethean science and will be adopted here. We are usually unaware of the analogical nature of science. For example, a typical scientific answer to the question of what red is is that it is light of a given frequency. This answer is typically scientific because a given natural phenomenon, redness, has been explained in terms quite different from a description of the phenomenon itself. However, in order to do this we need to make use of an analogy—in giving a frequency for red light, we making use of an analogy between a chromatic phenomenon on the one hand and a mathematical model of an idealized fluid on the other.

The function of this analogy is easier to understand if we consider mechanical analogies, which were typical of seventeenth century experimental science. Mechanical analogies are based on the clock. The movement of the hands on the clock face are caused by the clock’s mechanism and a description of the shape and movement of the parts in the mechanism allows us to understand the movement of the hands. Natural phenomena too were explained in this way, although their parts, unlike those of the clock, were imperceptible and thus hypothetical. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, such mechanical explanations tended to be replaced by analogies with mathematical models, such as the answer given above. The ideal fluid (such as the ether of the nineteenth century and field theories of last century) was not a mechanism but a mathematical model – it does not correspond to anything found in nature – it only shares some properties with real fluids and is thus an ideal construction.

The Role of Analogies in Goethean Science

Goethe never gave a comprehensive methodological account of his scientific practice. When his friend Friedrich Schiller suggested such an undertaking, he replied that he would rather exemplify its application. The result was the Farbenlehre. Here we find not only Goethe’s own attempt to understand colour, but also an extensive critical comparison with Newton’s attempt and an historical contextualization. We also find key methodological ideas introduced for the first time. One of these is what Goethe called an “Urphänomen”, which is sometimes translated as “archetypal phenomenon”. A given phenomenon is to be understood by comparing it to an Urphänomen. It is the seeing of connections between phenomena that lies at the heart of Goethean science.

An Urphänomen is an exemplar that plays the role of the clock in mechanical explanations and the mathematical model in a mathematical explanations. Thus Goethean science, like other scientific practices, is based on analogies. However, the exemplar in Goethean science, unlike mechanical hypotheses and mathematical models, is not taken from a realm external to the phenomena in question, but is an instance of this kind of phenomena. This helps us understand Goethe’s distinction between explanations and descriptions. Goethean science gives descriptions because the exemplars (the Urphänomene) and the phenomena they elucidate are described using the same terms. Mechanical hypotheses or mathematical models, on the other hand, give explanations because the explanans and explanandum are described in different terms—we cannot describe redness as we would describe waves, but we can explain it that way, namely, by stating how many waves occur in a given interval of time. This is why practitioners of Goethean science sometimes refer to what they call “normal science” as “abstract”.

Seeing Connections, Participation and Creativity

This difference between Goethean science and science in general – the difference between descriptions and explanations – has important consequences for the Goethean method. The preference for mechanical hypotheses or mathematical models is due to their understandability – something unknown or obscure is explained by analogy with something perspicuous. The Urphänomene of Goethean science seem to have lost this function because am Urphänomen start out as an obscure phenomenon that is just as in need of elucidation as any other. However, by comparing a large variety of related phenomena in a process Goethe called “Vermannigfaltigung” (manifolding or multiplication), simple phenomena can be found from which the complex phenomena can be derived and thereby understood. The colours of the rainbow, for example, are derived from the two simple edge spectra that appear when a single boundary of light and dark is observed through a prism. This is why Goethe compared his method to proofs in mathematics in which a theorem can be derived from a few simple axioms.

Unlike other scientific practices, the Goethean approach does not simply require us to accept the legitimacy of a particular analogy, or kind of analogy. Rather, it requires us to see the connections for ourselves if the analogies are to render phenomena understandable. This analogical function of Urphänomene is always present, whereas in other scientific practices they become dead metaphors once the analogical use become established at standard. This is why practitioners of Goethean science sometimes call it “participatory”. The practitioner needs to direct their attention to the manifold forms of the phenomena if the connections are to be seen.

This activity, however, though necessary, is not sufficient. The configuration of the connections is not something consciously determined by the practitioner. Rather, the practitioner experiences themselves as passive in this respect—the configuration is experienced as coming from the phenomena themselves via participation. On the other hand, this process is sometimes described as “active thinking”. This places the emphasis on the creative element of seeing connections. While this is sometimes compared to the activity of poetry, Goethe’s comparison to mathematics is less misleading because the constructions of mathematics, despite also being the product of the human mind, are not regarded as antithetical to science. We could thus consider Goethean science—at least his colour science—not as a rejection of the mathematical method, but as its extension from quantities to qualities.

Troy Vine, Philosopher at Humboldt University of Berlin and Associate Researcher at the Field Centre.