Goethe is probably the best-known poet and writer in the
German language; he is German-speaking culture's Shakespeare.
Less well known are his efforts to establish a phenomenological
approach to science. What interests us centrally at The
Nature Institute is Goethe's method and, as a master of
language, his ability to express his thoughts in such an
original, non-schematic way.
bibliography of Goethe's writings on science and books by
other authors on Goethe's approach, click here.
See also our program "Seeing
Nature Whole: A Goethean Approach."
To read Goethe's seminal essay on the nature of scientific knowing and experimentation, "The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject" click here.
The following quotes give an impression of Goethe's way
of looking at nature. They are mainly taken from Goethe:
Scientific Studies (edited and translated by Douglas
Miller, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). In
some quotes the translation has been changed by Craig Holdrege
(indicated with CH).
Goethe's approach to
understanding nature: quotes from his writings
"After what I have seen of
plants and fish in Naples and Sicily, I would be
I ten years youngerto undertake a journey to India, not
to discover something new, but to view in my way what has
Goethe (CH; Letter
to Knebel, summer 1787)
"If we want to reach a living
perception of nature, we must become as living and flexible
as nature herself."
Goethe (CH; in Miller,
"There is a delicate empiricism
that makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby
becoming true theory. But this enhancement of our mental
powers belongs to a highly evolved age."
Goethe (in Miller,
Dr. Heinroth speaks
favorably of my work; in fact, he calls my approach unique,
for he says that my thinking works objectively. 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."
Goethe (in Miller, p. 39)
"If I look
at the created object, inquire into its creation, and follow
this process back as far as I can, I will find a series
of steps. Since these are not actually seen together before
me, I must visualize them in my memory so that they form
a certain ideal whole.
I will tend to think in terms of steps, but nature leaves
no gaps, and thus, in the end, I will have to see this progression
of uninterrupted activity as a whole. I can do so by dissolving
the particular without destroying the impression
"If we imagine the outcome
of these attempts, we will see that empirical observation
finally ceases, inner beholding of what develops begins,
and the idea can be brought to expression."
Goethe (in Miller p. 75)
"[Morphology's] intention is to portray rather than
Goethe (in Miller p. 57)
"We conceive of the individual
animal as a small world, existing for its own sake, by its
own means. Every creature is its own reason to be. All its
parts have a direct effect on one another, a relationship
to one another, thereby constantly renewing the circle of
life; thus we are justified in considering every animal
physiologically perfect. Viewed from within, no part of
the animalas so often thoughtis a useless or arbitrary
product of the formative impulse."
Goethe (in Miller, p. 121)
Goethe on Experimentation and Making
(From "The Experiment as Mediator Between Object and
Subject," written in 1772; in Miller pp. 11-17.)
"We can never be too careful in
our efforts to avoid drawing hasty conclusions from experiments
or using them directly as proof to bear out some theory.
For here at this pass, this transition from empirical evidence
to judgment, cognition to application, all the inner enemies
of man lie in wait: imagination, which sweeps him away on
his wings before he knows his feet have left the ground;
impatience; haste; self-satisfaction; rigidity; formalistic
thought; prejudice; ease; frivolity;
throng and its retinue. Here they lie in ambush and surprise
not only the active observer but also the contemplative
one who appears safe from all passion."
"I would venture to say we cannot
prove anything by one experiment or even several experiments
together, that nothing is more dangerous than the desire
to prove some thesis directly through experiments
Every piece of empirical evidence we find, every experiment
in which this evidence is repeated, really represents just
one part of what we know
. Every piece of empirical
evidence, every experiment, must be viewed as isolated,
yet the human faculty of thought forcibly strives to unite
all external objects known to it
"We often find that the more limited
the data, the more artful a gifted thinker will become.
As though to assert his sovereignty he chooses a few agreeable
favorites from the limited number of facts and skillfully
marshals the rest so they never contradict him directly.
Finally he is able to confuse, entangle, or push aside the
opposing facts and reduce the whole to something more like
the court of a despot than a freely constituted republic."
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