Goethian Science

Henri Bortoft

This is the name given to the way of science developed by the German poet and dramatist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832). For a long time it was mostly rejected as the work of a naive dilettante in science, but in the past few decades there has been a rebirth of interest in Goethe's scientific work and how it could point toward a new direction in science. Partly this is a consequence of the transformation in our understanding of science which has emerged from the new history and philosophy of science, which has liberated us from what we now recognise as being a very dogmatic and unnecessarily restricted understanding of the meaning of science. But also it is because Goethean science is concerned principally with the wholeness and qualities of nature, instead of with analysing nature in quantitative terms and reducing her to the smallest units. Goethe said of his way of science that it "did not treat of nature as divided and in pieces, but presented her as working and alive, striving out of the whole into the parts". The aim is understanding instead of explanation, participation instead of manipulation and control. However, Goethean science should be see as being complementary to mainstream science rather than being antagonistic, and thus as having the potential to restore the imbalance resulting from the one~sided approach of science today.

Goethe's own studies of such diverse topics as colour, plant life, animal form, cloud formation, and geology, show how this can be done in practice. His methodology is quite explicit, and can be followed by anyone who wishes and is prepared to make the appropriate effort. There is also now a growing body of recent work by practitioners of Goethean science. All of these aspects are covered in the Key Texts below. The comments are intended to guide the potential reader to find what suits her or his level of interest. An indication is also given of where and to what extent a book has been written by an author who is committed to Anthroposophy, the school of spiritual science developed by Rudolf Steiner - who was the first to edit Goethe1s scientific writings for publication in a complete edition of his work. Confusion can easily be avoided here by distinguishing books on Goethean science which are written from a completely non-anthroposophical perspective - such as the book by Bortoft - from those written by anthroposophists, and then recognising that the latter fall into two categories for the most part: those which are primarily concerned with Goethean science, and those whose primary concern is with Anthroposophy. No books of the latter kind are included here.

Henri Bortoft is an independent researcher in the philosophy of science. Did research on the problem of wholeness in quantum physics with David Bohm, and on the perception of wholeness with J.G. Bennett. Interested in the transformation of perception which sees wholeness and unity in nature and its cultural implications.

Key texts

Bortoft, H. (1996). The Wholeness of Nature. Hudson, New York: Lindisfarne Press; Edinburgh: Floris Books. ISBN 0-86315-238-4. Widely acclaimed as the most accessible and comprehensive introduction to the philosophy and methodology of Goethean science, which sets it in the context of the historical development of modern science. If you only read one book, this should be it.

Seamon, D. and Zajonc, A. eds. (1998). Goethe's Way of Science, Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-3682. An excellent collection of essays by various authors, several concerned directly with doing Goethean science in practice, which gives the newcomer access to work which otherwise is difficult to get hold of - e.g. Riegner's essay on the extraordinary work on the mammals done by Schad, and Holdrege's essay on the work done at The Nature Institute (USA) on seeing the anirnal whole. Highly recommended.

Naydler, J. (1996). Goethe on Science. Edinburgh: Floris Books. ISBN 0-86315-237 -6. An short anthology of Goethe's scientific writings specially prepared for the general reader. The selection is carefully arranged, with a separate introduction to each of the sections, so as to give the reader a comprehensive impression of Goethe's scientific pathway in his own words. An ideal complement to Bortoft's book above.

Miller, D. ed. (1998). Goethe.' Scientific Studies. New York: Suhrkamp. ISBN 3-518-02969 - X. This is a much more extensive selection of Goethe's scientific writings for the specialist. More for the scholar than the general reader and newcomer, who is very well served by Naydler's book above.

Steiner, S. (1985). Goethe's World View. Spring Valley, New York: Mercury Press. ISBN 0-936132 - 71 - X. Written in 1897, this gives a very illuminating account of Goethe's place in the development of western thought, his view of the nature and development of living beings, and also the world of colours. Although some may now find the style a bit antiquated, it is not difficult to read and well worth making the effort to do so.

Lehrs, E. (1985). Man or Matter. London: Rudolf Steiner Press. ISBN 0-85440-430 -9. Published originally in 1951 by Faber & Faber, when it was praised highly by T. S. Eliot, this is a scientific book written by an anthroposophist, which introduces some anthroposophical ideas and terminology, but which is intended for the general reader. Based on Goethe's method of training observation and thought, chapter 5 on its own is the best short introduction to Goethe's way of science I have come upon.

Proskauer, H. (1986). The Rediscovery of Colour. Spring Valley, New York: Anthroposophic Press. ISBN 0-88010-088 5. Complete with prism and 16 black & white and multicoloured plates, this is a brilliant practical workbook for the general reader which gets you right into the heart of Goethe's work on colour. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to do this.

Sepper, D. (1988). Goethe contra Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521 -34254-6. An academic book by a philosopher of science, showing how Goethe's polemic against Newton has been misunderstood. A valuable corrective to the more usual simplistic treatments, it brings out how Goethe came to recognise the intrinsic historical dimension in science and how this leads to the need for a comprehensive approach in science in which different viewpoints are included.

Grohmann, G. (1989). The Plant, Vol.1. Kimberton, PA: Bio-Dynamic Farming Inc.. ISBN 0-938-250-23 - X. An accessible book, for both the general reader and the specialist, it shows how the individual plant and the plant kingdom as a whole appear in a new dimension when seen in the light of the idea of metamorphosis described by Goethe. The final chapter opens a door to a new approach to evolution.

Bockemuhl, J. and Suchantke, A. (1995). The Metamorphosis of Plants. Cape Town, South Africa: Novalis Press. ISBN 0-9583885 -2-0. A short book of four separate essays by two contemporary researchers in the Goethean tradition. Accessible to the general reader, it opens the way towards a new understanding of the implications which the dynamical wholeness of the plant has for the way that we understand time and evolution.

Colquhoun, M. and Ewald, A. (1996). New Eyes for P/ants. Stroud, Glos. Hawthorn Press. ISBN I - 869890-85 - X. A workbook for observing and drawing plants, this shows how science can be practised as art and how art can help science through using the holistic approach of Goethe. Includes many beautiful drawings, but the authors' intention is that you don't have to be an artist to use this book.

Kranich, E-NI. (1999). Thinking Beyond Darwin. Hudson, New York: Lindisfarne Books. ISBN 0 - 940262 - 93 - 2. Forget the title - the author underestimates the ability of Darwinians to counter objections, and even turn them to their own advantage. This is really a book on Goethe's idea of the dynamical type as a key to vertebrate evolution. Extremely accessible and clearly written, it is an excellent introduction to the intrinsic flexibility of organic thinking when this is practised in Goethe's way.

Post your comment

Comments

  • This is my first time i visit here. I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! keep up the good work.

    Posted by turbonacho, 30/12/2010 11:09am (3 years ago)