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In Context #18 (Fall, 2007, pp. 3-5); copyright 2007 by The Nature Institute

Toward a Participative Science
Arthur Zajonc

Arthur Zajonc is professor of physics at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1978. He has been visiting professor and research scientist at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, and a Fulbright professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. His research has included studies in parity violation in atoms, the experimental foundations of quantum physics, and the relationship between sciences, the humanities, and meditation. He is author of Catching the Light, co-author of The Quantum Challenge, and co-editor of Goethe's Way of Science. Since 1997 he has served as scientific coordinator for the dialogue with H.H. the Dalai Lama, whose meetings have been published as The New Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama (Oxford 2004) and The Dalai Lama at MIT (Harvard UP, 2006). He is co-founder of the Barfield School of Graduate Studies of Sunbridge College, and he currently directs the Academic Program of the Center for Contemplative Mind which supports appropriate inclusion of contemplative practice in higher education. He sits on The Nature Institute's Advisory Board.

The following remarks, slightly edited here, are taken from a 2003 interview with Arthur conducted by Dr. Otto Scharmer of MIT's Sloan School of Management. You will find the much longer, complete interview at

Do scientific models depict reality or not? In Goethe's period most scientists thought they depicted reality. People thought that models showed us the hidden way the world was. The world was matter and motion.

Goethe, by contrast, critiqued those assumptions, that basic attitude. And he took a much more phenomenological stance. That is to say, he thought that the data themselves were the reality. The models were useful, but they were basically a kind of scaffolding, as he described it. What one was attempting to come to was not a perfect model, but an insight. The moment of discovery, where one perceives the hidden coherence in nature, is the longed-for objective in science, as opposed to a model that somehow represents that insight in terms of a mathematical or mechanical system.

Goethe brought this critical function to science near the year 1800. You see this happening in the philosophy of science effectively around 1900, because Goethe was about 100 years ahead of the so-called golden era of the philosophy of science when the sciences underwent exactly this kind of critique in the conventional, academic disciplines. So he anticipated that.

Three Stages of Goethean Science

He also anticipated the phenomenologists, like Husserl and others. In Goethe's scientific approach, one sets aside models and systematically investigates the phenomena themselves through three stages - what he called the first stage of empirical phenomena, the second stage of scientific phenomena, and the third stage of pure, archetypal phenomena. Throughout these three stages, one moves from initial observations of empirical phenomena to a more systematic exploration achieved by changing the conditions of appearance, so that you can distinguish the essential from the unessential factors. That's the scientific domain. Then, after having made that whole journey, you come to a point when you stand before the archetypal phenomenon itself - where only the essential conditions of appearance are present in the simplest and most eloquent instance of the law, one you can see. That is, you're not writing the law down mathematically but actually perceiving it.

Here's an example. The world of color is filled with casual experiences of color. You open your eyes. It's a fall day, the fields are filled with beautiful colors of nature, and the sky is grey and blue with clouds. The sun is starting to set; it's late afternoon.

So you notice the world of color. You are in the world of empirical phenomena. You begin to organize those colors into categories. Some colors are associated with surfaces, like the color of the table, the books, or the leaves. Other colors are not, like the blue of the sky. There's no surface for that blue patch of sky up there. So we see a definite color, but it's not anywhere in particular. It's not located at one hundred meters in front of us, or one mile in front of us. It's a phenomenon, but it's not localized.

Goethe therefore made a distinction between what he called chemical colors on surfaces and physical colors like the blue of the sky. So what he called physical colors were physical only in the sense that a physical process was generating them, but not locating them on a surface, where chemical colors occurred.

The colors of a third group are physiological or psychological in origin. When you close your eye and press on it, you see colors. Dream colors are another example. Such colors don't depend on an outside stimulus.

So the first thing that starts to happen is that one moves away from naive experiences to classifications of experience. One begins to organize one's experiences based on their types and based on the conditions of appearance, as Goethe constantly remarked. And those conditions of appearance can be varied by the experimenter.

So you begin to realize which conditions are important and which are not. This helps you to separate out a certain class of color experiences that share a certain set of essential conditions of appearance. And then there's another class that has a slightly different set of conditions for appearance, or maybe very different conditions.

Now you've got a set of domains. Let's say in one of those domains - for example, the domain that includes the blue of the sky - you ask yourself: Is there a way to understand, in terms of actual perception, the simplest features that constitute the blue sky experience, or the red sunset experience, something like that? What are the elements that must be present in their simplest number? There might be complexities that come in, but we look for the simplest conditions that produce, say, the blue experience of a physical color, like the color of the sky.

For Goethe, the three conditions were light, darkness, and the turbid medium. You have the light of the sun, which enters into the turbid medium of the atmosphere. One looks through that turbid medium, illuminated by light, into darkness, namely, the depths of space. Take the light away and you have just the depths of space behind, the night sky. Or take away the turbid atmosphere as on the moon and again the blue sky disappears. Bring in the combination of light and atmosphere, look through that turbid medium now illuminated by light, and you see the blueness of the day sky.

So, an essential condition of appearance is the luminous quality of the sun, a second is the turbid medium of the atmosphere, and a third the dark depths of space into which one looks. However, look through the turbid atmosphere directly toward the sun instead of toward the blackness of space, and you don't see blue any longer, but the reds of the sunset. This triad of light, darkness, and the turbid medium provides the elementary factors that, in one set of relationships, give the blue of the sky and, in another, give the red of the sunset.

You can take a fish tank filled with water, shine a light through it, and put a little milk or some kind of turbid element into the water. As you gradually increase the amount of milk, the transmitted light goes from yellow through orange and, just before extinction, gets quite red. The sun moves through that same color sequence because as it sets it's moving through more and more of the atmosphere and the light path is longer and longer through the atmosphere.

You can take that same turbid medium and, instead of looking toward the light through the turbid medium, you can look through the fish tank from the side, perpendicular to the direction of the light. First the water is clear, and then as you put a little bit of milk in it, the milky water gradually takes on a bit of a blue color, especially if you turn off the room lights and put a piece of black paper or something dark behind the tank. It's not as dramatic as the blue sky, but it definitely has a blue cast.

It's the same thing you'll see in a smoky pool hall where there's a kind of blue haze. There are shaded lights shining on the pool table and a turbid medium - the smoke passing through the air. You're looking through that light into the dark perimeter of the pool hall, which is typically not well lit, and you see a kind of blue haze.

Any time you have a light-filled medium, such as water with a bit of milk in it or a hazy, smoke-filled room, and you look through that light into the darkness behind, you'll get the blue tint. If it's of sufficient depth, then you get the blue of the sky and the blue of the ocean.

Such experiences became for Goethe an archetypal phenomenon. The archetypal phenomenon is still "just" a phenomenon, but it provides an occasion for insight into the essential conditions of appearance. That is to say, you see the blue as both phenomenon and as idea. At the same time that you see the blue of the sky, you also see the relationship. You can either see the blue of the sky knowing it's an archetypal phenomenon or you can see it simply as a blue sky. What distinguishes a blue sky being seen as an archetype is that, while you're seeing it, you also bring the cognitive dimension of light-darkness-turbidity. And you see that triad co-present with the phenomenon of the blueness of the sky. You see the enabling condition.

Of course, you don't really see the archetypal phenomenon with your eyes, because it's a pure ideal. But, on the other hand, you do see it, because the blue of the sky and the enabling conditions, that triad, are co-present and have to be there in order for the blue to appear.

Real Knowledge is Seeing

So in some ways, it's the crossing point between the phenomenal and conceptual domains. You're at that threshold. That moment of seeing is the moment of discovery, of insight, of aperçu, as Goethe called it. Everything hangs on this aperçu, on the possibility of such a perception. Real knowledge is, for Goethe, a kind of seeing. It's not just opening your eyes and seeing what's around you in the naïve sense. But it's basically moving oneself inwardly to the point where one can stand before the blue of the sky, seeing it not only as simple blue but also as the co-presence or instantiation of these three factors.

So, one lives in this liminal space between perception and theory - but theory in its original sense of "to behold." Theory does not mean to compute or to model or to calculate. In its Greek root it actually means "to behold." We still have that in our colloquial expression, "Oh, I see," when we mean "I understand." You didn't see it at first. Now you get it, now you see it.

And theory is basically the Greek way of saying, "Now, I see." To do theory means to come to the place where one sees more deeply, where one beholds. So it has, in that sense, a direct encounter associated with it, as opposed to one mediated through what we would normally call theory, namely, a model that stands between us and experience. It's quite the obverse. One actually heightens experience to the point of true, intimate beholding.

Distancing versus Participation in Science

This view works wonderfully, I think, across the grain. The whole idea of science is, of course, based on objectification - to become objective in your knowing, which typically means distancing. Conventional science objectifies by taking an experience and replacing it by a set of more "fundamental" objects such as atoms, molecules, interactions, and so forth. So, as opposed to the blue of the sky, physics says it's Mie scattering and the blue results from small, polarizable molecules interacting with electromagnetic fields, setting up secondary waves. This leads to a differential scattering cross-section with a dependence on the fourth power of the frequency. In this way you have an objectified account. And now it's been protected from the dangers presented by my subjective experience. Namely, I see blue - and I like blue a lot (or whatever other subjective association might be there).

Goethe took a very different approach. He was aware of the dangers of personal interpretation and inappropriate subjectivity. So he sought to mitigate those dangers in a variety of ways. But, as I see it, his resolution of the problem was contrary to the above goal of objectification. Rather than becoming distant from phenomena by taking models as the intermediary, Goethe sought to refine and cultivate the investigator's capacities for perception.

Science says to step back and gain a distance, because you're inevitably going to make a mess of the subject you are investigating. Goethe said, no, become more graceful, become more delicate in your observing. He called it a delicate empiricism. He said that there exists a delicate empiricism in which the observer becomes united with the observed, thereby raising observation to true theory. He said this ability belongs to a very highly cultivated age in the future.

So this delicate empiricism allows one to come close to the phenomenon under investigation, as opposed to having to move further away. One actually unites with the object under observation. Rather than disconnecting from nature, one is participating in it. Through that participation, something happens. Here's one of the other elements from Goethe that is key for me, what I call Bildung, which has two meanings in German: on the one hand it means "education," but really it means "formation."

By attending to an object or phenomenon, one moves into and participates in that phenomenon and, as a consequence, brings an activity into one's self which is normally outside. I see the blue; I bring the blue into my self. There's a blue experience. That blue experience actually cultivates something in me. The closer I attend, the more shades of blue I will be able to discern. The conditions of appearance will become more apparent. So, through the process of attention, there's also a process in me of transformation.

Goethe said, "Every object well-contemplated creates an organ within us." So contemplate the object well; that creates a capacity within. That capacity is then required for the last step of perceiving the archetypal phenomenon. If you don't have the organ, you won't be able to perceive it; you'll just see the blue sky.

So there's a kind of hermeneutic circle in which I attend to the outside with the capacities I presently have. That attention then cultivates capacities within that are built on the rudimentary - you might say elementary - forms of capacities and organs I currently have. It cultivates them and develops them into a new, more vigorous and attentive form of cognition. I bring these to bear on the phenomenon before me, and it goes again through another cycle.

Goethe's notion of science is transformative. You do not come with a pre-existing set of capacities that include, say, rational, deductive capacities, as well as eyes and ears and so on - the physical senses. Rather there's a kind of organic, dynamic sense of the human being and the human being's potential. That potential is cultivated and actuated through an active engagement with the world.

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