Theodore Roszak

In Goethe, the best of Blake and Wordsworth meet: Blake's transcendent symbolism drawn from the esoteric tradition(Gnosticism, Christian cabbalism, the Hermetica), Wordsworth's sacramental vision of nature. Only Blake, among the Romantics, matches Goethe's urgent concern for the modern crisis of consciousness. Both marked out Newton as their prime antagonist. But Goethe brought a greater philosophical subtlety to the encounter — and a greater care to salvage the Science of nature from militant reductionism.                      

Three related aspects of Goethe's natural philosophy: (1) contemplative non-intervention; (2) the primacy of the qualitative; (3) organic dialectics. The first two have to do with method; the last with worldview. 

1. Contemplative Non-intervention.

from Faust:        

Mystery-filled in the light of day,

Nature; won't have her veils stripped away.

Hide or show: it's hers to choose.     

She'll not be forced with rack or screws.

Goethe in his nature studies used microscope and prism — but always reluctantly. He was uneasy with the instruments, fearing they would distort the phenomena, do violence to the immediate reality of nature . . . or rather to the senses that have been formed in and by and for nature to gaze upon her in her "natural" scale and appearance.   

The instruments betokened for Goethe man's increasingly alienated stance over against nature — and the aggressiveness that follows therefrom.  "It is," he remarked, "a calamity that the use of the experiment has severed nature from man, so that he is content to understand nature merely through what artificial instruments reveal, and by so doing even restricts her achievements." For what can such manipulative procedures ever "prove" — except the possibilities of manipulation? which, as Bacon long ago promised, are tantalizingly great.

(Goethe would not even wear spectacles willingly, believing that eyesight is integral to the personality, a part of one's peculiar destiny, and not to be artificially standardized.)               

"The human being himself, "Goethe insisted, "to the extent that he makes sound use of his senses, is the most exact physical apparatus that can exist." An idea that could easily reach a fussy, foolish extreme — for nature composes some of her loveliest poems for microscope and telescope. But Goethe's suspicion of the instruments, of experimental constraints generally, is far from cranky; it leads to significant philosophical questions.

Does modern experimentation "discover" or "manufacture" the effects it studies? Eddington raises the issue (in his Philosophy of Physical Science), asking if advanced experimental equipment does not tell us how nature can be made to behave, rather than how she cares to act.

A tricky point. Perhaps the equipment is already a carrier of assumptions, for its job is exactly to isolate and focus — meaning, to screen out. On what basis? True, the equipment helps collect facts. But as Goethe knew: "everything tactual is already theory." Thus we find nothing but an objectified nature because that is all we look for: a universe whose only "meaning" is that of predictive regularity. The rest is "contamination", "experimental error" . . . mere "side effects." "In natural science the object of investigation is not nature as such, but nature exposed to man's mode of enquiry." (Werner Heisenberg)

Goethe, rejecting domineering analysis, preferred a radically different approach: "passive attentiveness" . . . with a sharp eye for the unique moment, the astonishing insight which finally crowns perhaps years of watchful waiting and which no amount of research could ever piece together. Nature (he knew) invites and rewards curiosity, but not aggressive probing. The trick is to get into the swing, the flow of the phenomena . . . gradually, patiently, receptively . . . even as we get to know-by-loving and love-by-knowing another person. Such knowledge does indeed seem to come "of itself," in startling quantum jumps: Gestalten. "One instance," said Goethe, "is often worth a thousand, bearing all within itself."

What happens in that unique moment? The discovery of what Goethe called the ''Ur-phanom๋n." (How we could use an English equivalent of that dark, throaty German Ur- . . . meaning ancient, primordial, basic, elemental, archetypal. Urphanomn — call it the "deep down phenomenon.") The "open secret" which nature co-operates with her respectful students to bring to light. . . like Wordsworth's "great consummation" that gracefully fits mind to universe. All these nature lovers are born Taoists.

For Goethe the deep down phenomenon always revealed an instance of organic dialectics . . . form in metamorphosis (more of this below). Contra-Kant, Goethe felt the human mind exists in nature to complete nature's forms, to discover her "ideal in the real" . . . as if the mind were an organ of sensuous perception . . . an inner eye that "sees" underlying ideas.

Does this not rank Goethe, then, among the founders of both Gestalt psychology and phenomenology? He did not much philosophize on his method; but (unlike most phenomenologists, who drown us in endless, abstruse, theoretical preliminaries) he did put the technique to work in studies of anatomy, botany, and the color spectrum.

Important here: the fruitful notion that knower must blend unobtrusively with known . . . rather than manhandle his subject. Obviously, this means getting in close, working with the grain, trusting, merging . . . like the fish in the water.

By contemplation of an ever-creative nature, we might make ourselves worthy of participating intellectually in her productions. Had not I myself ceaselessly pressed forward to the archetype, though at first unconsciously, from an inner urge; had I not even succeeded in evolving a method in harmony with Nature?

(Compare with Bacon's sense that nature, deceitful and hostile, must be ambushed and coerced into giving up its secrets.)

The wisdom of (Goethe's approach has been abundantly demonstrated in the new humanistic social sciences, where participative involvement flow replaces objective neutrality. Also in ethology, where at last we study the animals in their environmental field on their own terms . . . only to discover they are far smarter, more dignified, more communicative than we ever guessed. Yet this is only the "method" our "primitive" ancestors, used as they meditated on the ways of the beasts.

A deep question: how far can such contemplative nonintervention carry us in the understanding of nature? To what levels of reality? How much can we de-objectify (recover from the alienative dichotomy)? Theodor Schwenk's studies of water and fluid forms take us beyond the plants and animals: an attractive new prospect. (See his Sensitive Chaos.)

Abraham Maslow has recommended the I-Thou relationship generally as a new "paradigm for science." He calls it "fusion knowledge," a "caring objectivity":

.  .  .  if you love something or someone enough at the level of Being, then you can enjoy its actualization of itself, which means that you will not want to interfere with it, since you will love it as it is in itself. . . if you love something the way it is . . . you may then see it (or him) [or her] as it is in its own nature, untouched, unspoiled, i.e., objectively. The greater your Being-Love of the person, the less your need to be blind. (Maslow, The Psychology of Science)

Goethe, all the way.              

But the approach implies limits — demands respect for those limits: a discipline of the sacred. . . patience, forbearance, perhaps renunciation.

The ability to allow nature its mysteries . . . because mystery is truth's dancing partner . . . because a respect for mystery may go deeper than our knowledge ever can . . .  and because our knowledge, where it pretends to replace mystery, may only be an arrogant caricature of truth. So Goethe's "respect for the unfathomable."  Beyond, the Urphanom๋n, he said, lies "the realm of the Mothers." Probe further, and you only bring back manipulative tricks: levers, buttons, and switches.

Does the brainwasher who can expertly maneuver your behavior  (via electrodes, chemicals, behavior therapy) really "know" what you're all about? Or does he "know" you less and less, precisely as he becomes more proficient?

Obviously there is no formal way to draw the implied limit. We must be guided by the spirit, not the letter. But the rough rule of thumb, the feel of Goethe's studies through-out: nature is neither machine nor dead carcass; treat her always as you would a beloved friend. For so she is . . . if we only knew.

2. The Primacy of the Qualitative.

Trust to what the senses show.

There's nothing false in what they know

If Understanding stays awake.      

Joy and freshness in your vision couple.

Roam free afield, stay sure and supple.

See what riches are yours to take.  

                                    (Goethe, Vermachtnis)

Goethe kept his natural philosophy innocent of mathematics, of all reductive abstractions. (He once called mathematics, "a scientific coffin.") His sensory data, were never measurements taken, but qualities savored. He worked from the qualities — always from the qualities: color, texture, above all form . . . the sweet nourishment of the senses: Artists soul food. His eye for form and color was almost voluptuous; it caressed what it studied and felt its way in deep.

Goethe called it his "exact sensory imagination" (exakte sinnliche Phantasia) — an intuitive power within the senses which can alone midwife the Urphanomn.

The idea is much like Wordsworth's "language of the sense," which (paradoxically) transcends the "bodily eye" only by working through it, toward a deeper sensory participation. And like Wordsworth's "great argument," the idea is a direct rejection of Kant. Deliberately so on Goethe's part. For Goethe, like Wordsworth, enjoyed "the power of a peculiar eye."

Hence, Goethe's impassioned attack, on Newton's theory of light and color. Charles Gillispie has called Goethe's own color theory "the painful spectacle of a great man making a fool of himself." Very nearly. But why did Goethe — untrained in optical research and mathematics — decide to run the risk?

Because he astutely saw in Newton's Opticks, in the exclusiveness of that ingenious study, an early example of what would become the dismal scientific rule: empiricide  the subordination of qualitative experience to quantitative generalization - to the extent that "empiricism" finishes as no more than a checking of measurements . . . often no more than a reading of meters.

So Newton had objectified the study of light and color. He had made the spectrum a matter of variable refraction (eventually to be measured out as wavelengths), had atomized light into theoretical corpuscles. A brilliant achievement. But what had become of the feel of vision: the evocative aesthetic action of light and color in the eye . . . the living experience? Where was the sense of beauty in Newton's research? Where were the rich emotional and symbolic associations — the very meaning of color?

Shelved. Crowded out. Become suddenly — less real . . . merely subjective . . . uninteresting from the scientific point of view. Dissipated among the colorless, unobservable particles of light.

Goethe bridled at the loss. . . and rebelled. He would, he said, "rescue the attractive study of colors from the atomistic restriction and isolation in which it has been banished, in order to restore it to the general dynamic flow of life and action which the present age loves to recognize in nature."

For who were these "mathematical opticians" to pretend they alone know the truth about color?

. . . they no longer continue to ask if there are in this world painters, dyers, someone who observes the atmosphere and the colorful world with the freedom of a true physicist, or a pretty girl, adorning herself to suit her complexion.

The attack on Newton is much too shrill, totally out of keeping with Goethe's usual Olympian calm. But he would not see the colors abandoned to objective consciousness. He loved them too much — as an artist, poet, visionary philosopher . . . as a child loves them. For they are a sensuous joy and a superb symbolic vocabulary. But only if they survive fundamentally as qualities of experience.

Consider how Newton studied light. By hiding away in a dark room, trapping a single ray of sunshine in his prism — and then (in cold blood) committing measurements upon it. But what sort of way was this (Goethe asked) to seek an understanding of light, something so simple and universal . . . it fills the wide air and bathes the earth . . . and that is its natural habitat. (Again the question: does the experiment "discover" or "manufacture" its effects?)

Goethe's mocking response: the poem Murky Law (where "your teacher" = Newton).

Friends, leave behind that darkened room 

Where light of day is much abused,   

And, bent low by crooked thought and gloom,

Our sight is anguished and confused.    

The superstitious gullible

Have been with us quite long enough;

Your teacher has but filled you full

With spectral, mad, delusive stuff.  

An eye that seeks the broad daylight

Becomes itself a heavenly blue;

In the Sirocco's late twilight

Pure fire-red the sun's last hue.

There nature gives away her glory

Gladly to whole hearts and eyes. 

And there we'll ground our color theory

upon a truth that never dies

In no respect does Goethe's alchemical background shine through more brightly than in his defense of the qualities. For alchemy, being a science of meanings, is the science of qualities: a visionary complex wherein art, science, religion mingle and no one level of consciousness is expanded at the expense of the others. (What a strange notion that must seem to the research specialist!)

Goethe referred to his alchemy as "my mystical-cabbalistical chemistry." R. D. Gray observes: "The degree to which alchemy had established control over Goethe's interests in early manhood can scarcely be over-emphasized. . . Almost the whole of his scientific work might well be described as a more logical development of traditional alchemical ideas." (See his Goethe the Alchemist.) 

"What is the hardest thing of all?" asked Goethe — and answered: "What seems the easiest to you: to use your eyes to see what lies in front of them."

Strange remark. And yet. . . was there ever a culture that granted less reality to the sensory life than does the scientific west? Have we not been persuaded ever since Galileo-Descartes-Locke that sense qualities are "secondary" . . . merely subjective? Does not physics (which is, after all, the basic science) teach us that real reality is brittle atomic bits, ghostly oscillations, vibrations, matter waves  . . . "unobservables'' that theoretical intellect cunningly deduces from indirect observation? Even time and space are not what experience make of them, but weird mathematical enigmas.

. . . neither the immediate sense perceptions, like red, blue, bitter, sweet, resonant . . . nor the consciousness itself of which they are part, appear as such in the objective picture of Nature; they have here formal representatives of a totally different kind, namely, electro-magnetic vibrations, frequencies, chemical reactions . . . and the physiological function of the central nervous system. {Erwin Schrodinger,  What Is Life?}

I once asked a theoretical physicist in what sense he — in this most basic of all sciences — ever "sees" nature. In this wise, he said:

1. Somewhere in the world there is a cloud chamber.

2. A camera takes pictures of events in this chamber.

3. Hired student assistants routinely "scan" the photographic plates, hunting for certain hen-scratches thereon.

4. Their results are measured up and often run through a computer to digest the results.

5. The computer produces a print-out.     

6. A senior experimentalist looks over some selected plates and the print-out, decides what's what, and tells a junior member of the team.

7. The junior member writes up a report.          

8. The report is published. 

9.The report is abstracted.  

10. My friend has an assistant who surveys the current literature and abstracts the abstracts. 

11. My friend reads, the abstracts of abstracts, and proceeds to do basic research.        

Empiricism. . .

Goethe catches the paradox of it all in his epigram: "Empiricist: Who would deny you've chosen the surest road of all? But yet you grope like a blind man along that best paved road."

Undeniably, it is a prodigious feat on the scientist's part to "think away" the qualitative display of nature. And of course it was necessary to read the qualities out of primary nature if scientific man was to gain the state of objectivity (alienation) which power-knowledge demanded. But Goethe and the Romantics were more concerned, for what was lost than gained.

Move through the chemist's periodic table. What is the difference there between the elements? Their atomic number: a purely quantitative shift. But we do not experience the elements or their compounds as a matter of more-or-less. (e.g., gold as merely something more of whatever oxygen is.) No more than we experience red as being something more or less of what blue is.

Our senses (and here is one of the deep mysteries) grasp the differences as qualitatively spaced and segregated: differences radically of kind, not of degree. And this too is a reality: what Goethe called "the true illusion." There is surely a troubling gap here.

. . . quantum mechanics implies all the properties of copper sulphate; but it would be difficult indeed to deduce the blue color of copper sulphate from quantum mechanics. And yet copper sulphate is blue, and insofar as science is a description of the world, our science is imperfect if it ignores the blueness of copper sulphate. [Alvin M. Weinberg, Reflections on Big Science]

The trouble with qualities: they will not be added and subtracted. Quantities can be counted (which is objective); qualities must be evaluated (which is subjective). Of course, qualities can be reduced to quantifiable causes; that is what Newton did with color. But then they are no longer qualities. We do not see wavelengths; we deduce them.

The difference between Goethe's and Newton's color theories rests mainly on the fact that Newton considered light and colors "indirect phenomena," whereas Goethe considered them addressed, i.e. "direct phenomena," [Adolf Portmann, New Paths in Biology]

"Addressed". . . like something laid out played out before us . . . a presentation. Perhaps (so alchemy insisted) a message, subjective but universal: a script of qualities, there to be read. Newton and his heirs translated the script into another language, killing the poetry. Goethe the alchemist preferred to read the original . . . and was led inevitably to other meanings.    

3. Organic Dialectics.

Joyously, so long ago,

My eager mind did strive

To study and discover

Nature in her works alive:

She, the everlasting Oneness

In the manyness divined.

Big minuteness, tiny bigness,

All according to its kind,

Ever changing, ever constant

Near and far, far and near,

Shaping and reshaping . . .

Why but to wonder am I here!  

[Goethe, Parabase]

"Goethe's sense of nature was an awareness of one pervasive pattern of process, of formation and transformation, which was equally evident to him by introspection and by observation. His entire life was devoted to the clarification of this sense of . . . unity in process . . ." (L. L. Whyte)

"Unity in process" — the study which Goethe invented and named morphology: a remarkable new vision of nature — and Romanticism's most characteristic contribution to science. For morphology requires the Romantic relish for organic aesthetics, for fluid, never-quite-complete, creative shapings . . . as if one were watching nature sculpture itself from within, flowing through invisible, projective patterns . . . striving toward a higher end.

Morphology holds a permanent place in biology, thanks to "Goethe's Metamorphosis of Plants. And without the Romantic fascination with organic form and flux, no Darwinian breakthrough. Evolutionary theory builds on the morphological eye for unity in process. Goethe himself had no doubt whatever about evolution via adaptation to the environment:

. . . we shall eventually regard the whole animal kingdom once more as an element in which one species is supported on and by means of another, if not actually originating one from another.

But Goethe paired environmental selection with the internal factors of evolution: life striving against the odds to realize its archetypal form, its Urphanom๋n. Goethe's conception of evolution, merging internal thrust with external pressure, destiny with selectivity, was more sophisticated than Darwin's . . . but (seemingly) less "objective" because involving the notion of inner purposive tendency: Bildungstrieb.

(Darwin objectified evolution by simply reading Malthus and the rigors of cutthroat capitalist competition into the "mechanism" of selection — a classic example of scientific "neutrality" adapting itself naively to the social ethos of the day.

But for Goethe, morphology reached beyond botany. It was the key to a universal process, which included the inorganic as well. Morphological dynamism was nature herself. It was the moving signature of the cosmos. 

The meaning of that signature? Polarity and synthesis — the energy behind all formative tendency: the divine rhythm. As in Blake: the strife and reconciliation of Los and Enitharmon.

Goethe's major scientific speculations — in botany and color theory — grow from his vision of polarity moving toward an "intensified" union of opposite's: a "higher third." The paradox-logic of synthesized contraries which flows so richly down through Hegel, the post-Kantians, Marx, Freud.

Polarity and synthesis: the master image of Goethe's natural philosophy. Thus the plant (the ideal plant: the Urpflanze) is seen as an infinite series of variations on one basic form (the leaf) driven forward by the polarity of expansion and contraction . . . expansion and contraction up through seven cycles from cotyledons to flowering fruit. And back to Seed again.

Very late in life, Goethe switched his botanical morphology over to another polarity, which opposed the vertical to the spiral tendencies in plant growth. But the basic ideals the same: 

When we see that the vertical system is definitely male and the spiral definitely female we will be able to conceive of all vegetation as androgynous from the root up. In the course of the transformations of growth the two systems are separated, in obvious contrast to one another, and take opposing courses, to be reunited on a higher level.    

In Goethe's color theory, the polarized tension is between dark and light: 

"Darkness and light have eternally opposed each other, one alien to the other . . ."           

We see on the one side light, brightness; on the other darkness, obscurity: we bring the semi-transparent medium between the two, and from these contrasts and this medium the colors develop themselves . . . directly tending again to a point of union.

The "point of union" here is the "intensification" of the spectrum to a pure red (Purpur) which is the "true reconciliation" of all color contrasts: "the acme of the phenomenon."

Further: Goethe was impressed by the polar character of magnetism and electricity — a fascination that works its way through German Naturphilosophie into Faraday's (non-mathematical) research on the electromagnetic field, the first break within science from strictly mechanistic models. (See L. Pearce Williams, The Origins of Field Theory.)

From the Color Theory:

To divide the united, to unite the divided, is the life of nature; this is the eternal systole and diastole, the eternal contraction and expansion, the inspiration and expiration of the world in which we live and move.

To see all nature as a rhythm of opposites, a vital pulsation ("I compare the earth and her atmosphere to a great living being perpetually inhaling and exhaling") moving toward higher organic unity . . . this again is Goethe the alchemist speaking.       

For alchemy is grounded in such an organic dialectics. Goethe's Urpflanze is the Hermetic androgyne. Union of the masculine and feminine powers, the yin and yang. His color theory is modeled on the three major stages of the alchemist's Great Work; the blackening of the prima materia (the nigredo), the whitening (the (albedo), and finally, surmounting the black and white, the 'reddening' (the rubedo), which is embodiment of spirit.

Both the Urpflanze and the colors "climb up the spiritual ladder" to the point of maximum "intensification" (Goethe's Steigerung — the alchemical term). 

But all this  for Goethe as for Blake and Wordsworth — belongs to the "eyes of the spirit. ("The observer does not see a pure phenomenon with his eyes, but more with his soul.") The natural object becomes, like the alchemist's Great Work, a mandala-like focus for meditation: studied into and through, until the senses are themselves "intensified"  by the object . . .  so the transcendent correspondences emerge . . . and, at the highest stage, the harmony of the Whole: "the open secret."

Science of nature has one goal:

To find both manyness and Whole.

Nothing "inside" or "Out There,"

The "outer" world is all "In Here."

This mystery grasp without delay,

This secret always on display.

The true illusion celebrate,

Be joyful in the serious game!

No living thing lives separate:  

One and Many are the same.

[Goethe, Epirrhema]  

More than any artist before or since, Goethe made the heroic effort to integrate science with traditional wisdom. He sought a disciplined nature study which might yet be artistically and morally "useful": a science of the whole person, the base for a unified culture.  

Goethe's model was alchemy, but an alchemy purged of its musty bookishness and distracting metaphorical Confusion, better to see the sacramental vision: the splendor of the chemical marriage, always there in the background of his art and thought. And what is natural philosophy without that?

Goethe tried. But orthodox science is after all no natural philosophy; only a "productive research" in pursuit of "hard results." As Charles Gillispie observes (disdainfully): in Goethe's nature "everything blends into everything . . . not to be embraced by measurement but to be penetrated by sympathy."

The sensuous imagination yields joy and poetry; it discovers meaning . . . but little power. And that little is only what comes of moving with the grain. Which requires much trust, much love. As it turns out, too much for the likes of most of us moderns.              

So Goethe's lament for the age:

Woe, woe!                       

You have shattered it,

This lovely world,

With mighty fists.

It reels, it collapses!

A demigod has smashed it



From Chapter 9 of Theodore Roszak's book, 

Where the Wasteland Ends:

Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society


The Voice of the Earth


Although Goethe's "lament for the age" (above), is not a poem that would necessarily be thought of as suitable to put on wedding invitations, it is very expressive in a different kind of way.