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In Context #17 (Fall, 2007, pp. 9—10); copyright 2007 by The Nature Institute

Stepping Out of Old Ruts
Craig Holdrege

Bookcover of
Goethe's Science of Living Form

Nature Institute director, Craig Holdrege was invited to write the foreword to a new book by Nigel Hoffmann, an Australian scientist currently living in Switzerland. Hoffman’s book, Goethe’s Science of Living Form: The Artistic Stages, was published this year by Adonis Press ( We offer below the text of Craig’s foreword.

Having just celebrated, on August 28, 1786, his thirty-seventh birthday with friends in the spa city of Carlsbad, Germany, Goethe stole away in the middle of the night, incognito on a postal coach. His goal was Italy. Goethe had already gained fame as a writer and poet. He had served for ten years as a minister in the Dukedom of Weimar. And he had carried out an array of scientific studies. But he needed a change; he felt stifled. His answer was to gain fresh experiences and let the world breathe new life into him.

He crossed over the Alps and arrived in northern Italy, where he wrote in his journal:

I console myself with the thought that, in our statistically minded times, all this has probably already been printed in books which one can consult if need arise. At present I am preoccupied with sense-impressions to which no book or picture can do justice. The truth is that, in putting my powers of observation to the test, I have found a new interest in life. How far will my scientific and general knowledge take me: Can I learn to look at things with clear, fresh eyes? How much can I take in at a single glance? Can the grooves of old mental habits be effaced? This is what I am trying to discover. (Italian Journey, September 11, 1786, p. 21)

These sentences characterize beautifully Goethe’s approach to science. First, he had a keen interest in all sensory phenomena. He was a born observer. He wasn’t satisfied with single observations, but wanted to get to know things in all their variations. So, for example, when he was traveling — by horse-driven coach — over the Alps he noticed how familiar species of plants changed in their growth habits: “in the low-lying regions, branches and stems were strong and fleshy and leaves broad, but up here in the mountains, branches and stems became more delicate, buds were spaced at wider intervals and the leaves were lanceolate in shape” (Italian Journey, September 8, 1786, p. 15).

But Goethe was not only sensitive to sense impressions. He noticed how he interacted with the world as a perceiving, thinking, and feeling human being. When he asks, “How can the grooves of old mental habits be effaced?” he is aware that how we think about things can hinder experiencing them in fresh new ways. Goethe’s scientific writings are full of comments about the relation between the observer and the observed. This sensitivity toward the qualities of the phenomena and to his own interaction with them is captured well in his expression “delicate empiricism” (which Goethe first used in 1829—Miller 1995, p. 303). His goal was to let the phenomena speak. To this end he knew he had to be most delicate in the way he applied concepts — so that pre-formed mental grooves do not force the phenomena into particular conceptual frameworks.

Already in his time Goethe felt that the phenomena of nature were, on the whole, being molded to fit either into mechanistic or teleological frameworks. Goethe certainly recognized the value of anatomy—the dissection of an organism into parts. But he also realized that if you try to build up a picture of an organism starting with the already dissected parts, you end up with a mechanistic picture—the organism as a machine in which the additive functions of the parts “explain” the whole. Such an approach provides only a shadowy image of the reality of a living organism. At the same time Goethe was unsatisfied with teleological explanations of organisms, explanations that project a divine goal or purpose into things. Such explanations always presuppose an unknowable “beyond” and like mechanistic schemes, leave essential features of living organisms untouched.

Goethe’s desire was “to understand living formations as such, to grasp their outwardly visible, tangible parts in context, to see these parts as an indication of what lies within and in this way to get a hold of and behold the whole” (1817, p. 47). Since everything in the organic world is in a state of flux—developing, changing form, reproducing, aging, dying—we need to become mobile thinkers to gain understanding of the organic world. As Goethe put it, “if we want to reach a living understanding of nature, we must follow her lead and become as mobile and flexible as nature herself” (1817, p. 48). For Goethe, doing science well meant that the scientist must transform his or her own way of knowing to be adequate to the phenomena in question.

In this book, Nigel Hoffmann encourages us to look at nature with fresh eyes and to gain a new kind of mobility in our thoughts. His approach is to lead the reader into different ways of cognizing natural phenomena. He takes as his guide the ancient idea of the four elements—earth, water, air, and fire. Most of us think of these four elements as substances. Hoffmann shows, however, that already the Greeks saw them as ways of knowing—that by looking at the world in terms of water, the water qualities of the world reveal themselves. So Hoffmann characterizes the elements as different modes of cognition, each of which opens up new qualities of the world. If we only look at things in terms of “earth” qualities—such as solidity, enclosed form, inertia—we will miss “water” qualities of flow and ongoing transformation that also inform the world.

So by showing that there are different ways of knowing and choosing modes of cognition that are qualitative, Hoffmann’s approach does a manifold service. First, it helps us gain a mobility of thought by moving from one perspective to another. This helps “efface mental grooves.” Second, we become more sensitive to the limitations of any one perspective we or someone else might take. Third, by taking multiple perspectives we can begin to see and appreciate new aspects of the phenomena that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Fourth, because the four elements are qualities, they lead us more deeply into the qualitative features of nature, which have long been considered off-limits to scientific inquiry.

Hoffmann does not stay with a philosophical and methodological elucidation of a new approach. He has worked at practicing it. The last chapter of the book is dedicated to a landscape study—the Yabby Ponds in Australia—in which Hoffmann applied the four elements as perspectives to gain an understanding of this unique place. Through his descriptions the reader can get a sense of how one can actually look at topography, geology, plants, animals, and a whole landscape from four different vantage points, each of which opens up a new facet of the landscape.

Clearly, our human interactions with nature today are often destructive and yet we yearn for a deeper connection with nature. There is both a disconnect and a desire to overcome it. But, there is a problem. And, to paraphrase Einstein, we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Since most of our ecological problems stem from thinking of nature as a collection of “things” (resources) outside of ourselves that we can exploit at will, we need to transcend that mindset.

Hoffmann’s book shows that we don’t have to remain caught in traditional habits of thought. We can work to become more attentive to the qualities of nature. In as far as we recognize and take such qualities into our experience, nature as “mere object” disappears. Meeting nature qualitatively means meeting beings and relations that have their own integrity and that warrant our recognition and respect. This is a new kind of scientific-artistic practice. I put my hopes for the future in such practice because it plants seeds of a life-attuned thinking into the world that can help us to act in more life-engendering ways. It is not the “same kind of thinking” that created our present-day ecological problems. I hope this book finds readers who put it to the test, take it into their lives and into their fields of work. We need to develop new pathways into the world.


Goethe, J.W. (1982). “Zur Morphologie: Die Absicht wird eingeleitet.” In Schriften zur Naturwissenschaft. Stuttgart: Reclam. (Originally published in 1817. English translations by Craig Holdrege.)

Goethe, J.W. (1982). Italian Journey 1786—1787, translated by W. H. Auden & Elizabeth Mayer. San Francisco: North Point Press.

Miller, Douglas (ed). (1995). Goethe: Scientific Studies, Collected Works Vol. 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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