Goethean Science: From mere categorizing to interactive experiments

UPDATED DRAFT Why did Goethe feel a new way of seeing was needed?

Compared to centuries of earlier superstition and Alchemy fallen into mere witchcraft, one-sided, left-brain intelligence, exercised in the Enlightenment and Age of Reason was indeed a step forward.

However by 1750 Western philosophy had fallen into extreme one-sidedness.  Goethe was one of few aware of this flaw. He recognized it as an ethical and moral dead end.  More and more Goethe saw the consensual view of the human being falling into exclusively mechanical understanding and rhetoric.

Goethe believed every act of looking at a thing turns into observation, every act of observation turns into mentation, every act of mentation turns into associations. Thus it is evident we theorize every time we look attentively out into the world.”

For Goethe, the ultimate aim of science is nothing other than the metamorphosis of the scientist . In Goethean Science, experiment is the ‘mediator between object and subject.’ Experiments are two-fold, revealing more about the natural world; at the same time, revealing more about the experimenter to him or herself.

Where Cartesian-Newtonian science accepts only a single, practical syllogism about experimenters and research topics, Goethe stood for and demonstrated the practice of science as an art, an artistic practice directed towards partnership with Nature and refining the experimenter’s perceptions over time towards Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition.

Goethe’s method of science as art, of experiment as mediator between experimenter and Nature, can be applied to studies of every kind, in the arts and humanities as well as in science.

To cut through the vast sea of Goethe verbiage discussing his significance, I think the useful contrast for modern readers is between Goethe and Carl Linnaeus.

What did Linnaeus do? Carl Linnaeus was the founder of modern taxonomy. His books are the beginning of modern botanical and zoological nomenclature. Linnaeus drew up rules for assigning names to plants and animals. He made naming and identifying plants in the field more workable. “…he introduced the standard hierarchy of class, order, genus, and species. His main success in his own day was providing workable keys, making it possible to identify plants and animals from his books. For plants he made use of the hitherto neglected smaller parts of the flower” ~ Britannica online

“[His] folio volume of only 11 pages presented a hierarchical classification, or taxonomy, of the three kingdoms of nature: stones, plants, and animals. Each kingdom was subdivided into classes, orders, genera, species, and varieties. This hierarchy of taxonomic ranks replaced traditional systems of Linnaeus’s classification system has survived in biology.” His naming system was implicitly hierarchical. Each species is classified within a genus ~ Forgotten online source

Linnaeus’ impulse started or at least greatly accelerated, the left-brain science of making categories and nested sub-categories.

Before Linnaeus there was only a system of biological classification based on mutually exclusive divisions, or dichotomies, too simple to handle the wide diversity of sub-species existing in Nature.

The result? Naturalists everywhere had to use Linnaeus’ classifications directly or at least use them to determine if specimens in their collections were indeed new species or not.

Goethe’s concern was a narrowing of attention to mere category accuracy was a step sideway, not forward.

Specialization per se in science, emphasis on accumulation of mere data, in a merely mechanical manner, devoid of human creativity or human values, could not be by itself, a step forward to integrating Man and Nature.

To put words in Goethe’s mouth, he wondered, ‘How does such activity benefit or further human development of and awareness of the UR-human?’


For Goethe, any science defining itself exclusively by how well it presented information gleaned from only physical-material characteristics, selected external traits, was absent humanity. With the limited rhetorical tools available in his time, he fought against a narrowing-contracting interplay between humans and Nature.

Putting words in his mouth again, a science reducing human beings and human nature to merely collecting and tabulating Nature was a job clerks could do. The best and the brightest could exercise a much wider range of intelligences.

Again putting words in his mouth, what was needed, was a bigger idea, a workable comprehensive theory of how to bring ALL of the human explorer to ALL of the subject in Nature, he or she was studying.

I think it’s fair to say Goethe wished a rhetoric about how, in modern language, humans could surrender to Nature; and how in turn, Nature could surrender to human beings.

Implied in the above modern formulation of Goethe’s ideas is how in surrender, Nature will “give up” and reveal her secrets to human beings.

Conversely, human explorers can expect to surrender, have their own private, secret and unresolved issues and unanswered questions (mental-emotional, moral, ethical) uncovered, triggered and revealed.

Finally in Goethe’s comprehensive theory of holistic science–our words, not his–the end-product is a summary text–or better–artistic work, to share with other explorers and interested lay persons, the uncoveries of Nature’s secrets (the additive human knowledge fetch-quest so prized by left-brainers).

As well, share with other explorers and interested lay persons the uncoveries the explorers made into their own issues, the new personal realizations, the new ethics, the clarified morals, and what more of the UR-human was revealed, as individually defined.

In the above complimentary external-outer uncoveries and internal-inner uncoveries, Goethe saw a balanced use of human intelligences in “science.”  In modern language–this I believe was Goethe’s new way of seeing.

In fewer words, Goethe believed it’s natural, normal and healthy for the experimenter to be altered and changed by his or her observations and conclusions.  These “personal growth” benefits of experimentation ought to be celebrated and incorporated into reports and findings.

This did not go over well with left-brainers committed to the exclusively Ahrimanic strengths of “one-eyed, color blind, kinematic intelligence” (Ernst Lehrs).  For the exclusively left-brain thinkers, knowledge was all and only about facts, the more isolated the better.

For Goethe, the production of new knowledge was inseparable from the personal, ethical moral, and spiritual(?) growth of the experimenter.  In Steiner’s terms, a balance of Lucifer and Ahriman was called for. In modern terms, a whole-brained approach, a Team Human Approach, was called for.

Q: Was Goethe closer to the nebulous older alchemists and mystics?

A: Ernst Lehrs and other Goethe literature suggests, no, this was not the case. Goethe knew well the dangers of superstition, the dangers of ‘too warm’ thinking, with no emphasis on consistency, rigor or precision. In his late teens he made a study of alchemy:

quote In his autobiography, Goethe half-apologetically admits the youthful enthusiasm he experienced for alchemical and mystical readings: Georg von Welling’s obscure Opus Mago-Cabbalisticum et Theosophicum and the anonymously published Aurea Catena Homeri, as well as works by Paracelsus, Basilis Valentinus and van Helmont ~ Goethe the Alchemist: A Study of Alchemical Symbolism in Goethe’s Literary and Scientific Works (Cambridge Library Collection – Literary Studies)

The result? He learned the limitations of this overly-subjective insufficiently objective thinking. A little symbolism might be tolerated. Too much spoils the soup. Goethe was not a closet-Alchemist. He was a throw forward to thinking which mostly did not come again until 1975, our first holistic, whole-brained thinker.

As a whole-brain thinker–my term, not his–knowledge separated from Nature and from human Thinking~Feeling, from Imagination, Intuition and Inspiration, was ‘dead thinking,’ thinking only natural to soulless automatons.

Arranging material phenomena in logical linear sequence is a valid scientific method.  Why separate it? Why carry out the activity in isolation from your own Thinking~Feeling development?  Aren’t you interested in sharpening your powers of observation, in how new facts help us correct our own faulty conclusions, fuzzy ethics and weak moral development?

In a fantastic image, imagine Goethe in his time machine visiting the Manhattan Project.  You would see him making notes for for a Faust Part Three.  He would have seen the one-sided thinking of the A-bomb scientists as a dramatically tragic illustration of left-brain thinking mostly devoid of and separate from natural human powers of self-correction, ethical and moral development.

Goethe’s middle way between cold and warm thinking was a living interaction with Nature “the labor of experimentation”.

I imagine Goethe seeing only very occasional use for the cold machine of first coming up with an abstract hypothesis; then, setting up an artificial experiment to test the hypothesis ‘to see if it works or not.’

Today we recognize this kind of one-sided experiment as vulnerable to narcissism, arranging facts and observations to line up with our own hypothesis. Alternatively, we recognize one-sided left-brain experimenting as having the sole intention to invent new products corporations can market, the use of experimental method solely for commercial purposes.


Since 1970s at least we recognize the usefulness of “whole system analysis” seeing the parts within the natural whole.

In the educated West at least, a lean towards more holistic science suggests a workable directon for the evolution of human thinking, away from the cold-only thinking of Galileo-Descartes-Newton and towards warmer whole-brainedness, back towards Goethe and his experimental method.

Q: Does Goethean Science’s altered value system regarding quantification, cause it to have less rigor in its experimental method compared to Galileo-Descartes-Newton science?

A: It’s a needed question. If whole-brained Goethean Science was easy to do, we would have done it yesterday. Goethean Science is more rigorous about experimental method than conventional scinece.

Why? How? In addition to conventional Second Order standards and criteria for studying external phenomena quantitatively, Goethean Science asks its experimentalists to be rigorous in two additional realms:

1) The subjective realm of:

– Monitoring personal biases and prejudices,

– Monitoring personal Aha!s gained thru the observations and experiments,

2) The moral-ethical realm (Third Order Science) of how observations and experiments in the outer world are changing the experimenter’s inner life of morality and ethics, if any.

The above suggests a balance of quantitative observation and qualitative observation.

Q: What’s an example where practitioners of such balanced science can be observed?

A: Agriculture, farming and Biodynamics. Scratch the surface of any humanistic agriculture; such as, https://www.biodynamics.com/what-is-biodynamics and you quickly find discussion of ethical questions relating to sourcing fertilizers, pest control, etc.

50 years after Goethe’s death, Rudolf Steiner became Goethe’s student and editor of his scientific works.

RS absorbed enuf of Goethe’s holistic method to become a throw-forward, our second modern holistic thinker. His best-known legacy? A Goethean Psychology of human development, child development and K-12 schooling, curiously titled, “Waldorf-methods education.”

Goethe challenged the view experimentalists can look on their target devoid and naive of their own theoretical and personal context.

He likewise challenged the assumption shared common language in science research and innovation was fully evolved, in its final form. In more modern language, Goethe at least intuited each person perceives uniquely; therefore, scientists talking and using language as if everyone thinks and perceives the same was dangerous illusion. Further, new generations were going to think a bit differently, hence shared common language in science research and innovation would respond to this as well.

== Essence and Ur phenomena ==

For Goethe when scientists adopt a more living, more humanistic, approach, capable of entering into the living essence of Nature, expressed in the phenomenon studied, this leads the experimenter towards a face-to-face meeting with an essence of Nature, crucial underlying archetype-patterns (”Ur-phänomen”).

The Goethean Experimenter does not try to define or explain the essence; he or she reads the essence, appreciates the essence as you would gradually get to know the character and preferences of your own newborn child, revealed over some time.

The inherent order and logic of a very young child’s character, talents and preferences while invisible, are clearly objective not subjective, not invented by the experimenter. The very young child is not defined or explained; they are “read;” or better, “appreciated” and later understood in terms which can be shared with others.


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