Goethean science

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Goethean science is the scientific approach that was implicit in the writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and later developed by Rudolf Steiner. It continues to be developed by the Natural Science Section of the School for Spiritual Science with world headquarters at the Goetheanum in Switzerland and active local groups around the world[1].

Goethe's Contributions

Goethe authored several works on science, most notably "The Metamorphosis of Plants" and his "Theory of Color". In these it was implicit that the observer had to simultaneously pay close attention to the actual observed phenomenon while also emphasizing the importance of what happened in the active observer during this process. Artistic activity and reverence is coupled into this way of science. One tenant of Goethean Science is that it is impossible to completely divorce oneself from the phenomenon being studied. In this sense Goethe is the founder of a truly holistic science[2].

"To grasp the phenomena, to fix them to experiments, to arrange the experiences and know the possible modes of representation of them—the first as attentively, the second as accurately the third as exhaustively as possible and the last with sufficient many-sidedness—demands a moulding of a man’s poor ego, a transformation so great that I never should have believed it possible.” Goethe, Letter to Jacobi.

“In so far as we make use of our healthy senses, the human being is the most powerful and exact scientific instrument possible.” Goethe

Unlike conventional science which considers to be real only that which is measurable (so color in its reality is seen as only a wavelength of light. This is called reductionism.), Goethean science places emphasis on the reality of the phenomenon.

These [secondary qualities] were held to exist only in the conscious experience of the subject and not to be present as such a part of the object. Thus nature was drastically impoverished. But so too was humanity, for these secondary qualities were thought to be of no significance compared with the primary ones which alone were part of nature—a nature which was now reduced to matter[3].

Goethe is most well known for his morphologic work showing that the intermaxillary bone was present in the human skull. Goethe's contemporaries thought that this bone was a notable difference between animals and humans.

Goethe also developed the idea of the "Urpflanze"- the key essence of the plant that is essential to all plants. Plant forms were all a transformation of leaf.

Goethe's Theory of Color set itself in opposition to Newton's idea that white light had all the other light colors inside itself already. Goethe saw color as "the deeds and sufferings of light". Blue was a lightening of black while red was a darkening of white.

Figure 1 showing the two color spectra from Goethe's Color Theory. From Whitelegg, M. (2003). Goethean Science: An Alternative Approach.

Goethe approached color from a different perspective. He saw color as active and dynamic and with profound effect. Bortoft (1996) related how Goethe began by looking through a prism (as did Newton) but also at the objects around him, under ordinary circumstances using his own senses and he observed that colors only occurred on the edges of objects, particularly where there was a significant change in shading from lighter to darker. Goethe remarked that, for colors to arise, both light and dark were needed. He saw dark not just as absence of light but a “real” entity that was opposed to light. Goethe simplified the circumstances of observation to a black-and-white border. This is an interesting exercise to follow and a very surprising one. If you observe the central line in the two figures shown in Figure 1 through a prism, the figure on the right (Fig. 1B) will show red, orange, and yellow and the left (Fig. 1A) will show blue, indigo, and violet. To investigate further, Goethe abandoned prisms as a complicating factor and looked for explanation of the phenomenon through observation only with the senses—remaining with the phenomena, not going beyond them. He experimented until he reached the Urphaenomen, which he found in the colors of the sky. He proposed that color is an active and dynamic process of the “tension” between light and dark—a “coming into being” out of light and dark. The colors are not already present in light (as Newton thought and as Bortoft explained [1996]. The work Newton did was rather analyzing what had already become). Goethe observed thus: For the blue spectrum, the color of the sky is not a uniform blue. It is lighter at the horizon, darker overhead, and, from a high mountain, it is more purple. The medium varying the color is the atmosphere, which is catching the light ([outer] space beyond the atmosphere is black. We only see the sun’s light when it reflects on something). In the case of the sky, when we look through less atmosphere (up a mountain), we see dark lightened (by a little atmosphere) to purple. From further down, we see darker blue overhead—dark through an atmosphere that is causing the sky to lighten but not as much as at the horizon, where we look through more atmosphere and where the blue is consequently lighter still. Astronauts, descending on reentry through Earth’s atmosphere, see changes in color from black to violet to dark blue to light blue—not that Goethe knew that! Hence, the blue spectrum is created from the lightening of darkness. Conversely, for the red spectrum, atmosphere darkens the sun’s light; hence, overhead the sun will appear to be yellow and, as it falls to the horizon, viewed through increasingly more atmosphere, the sun will change through orange to red—the reduction of light.[4]

Relevance of Goethean Science to Integrative Medicine

Goethean science is used as a method of finding and developing natural remedies in Anthroposophic medicine. In physician trainings Goethean science is practiced which involves three elements- self development of the observer, use of artistic modalities to unite with the object studied, and a precise method of describing the phenomenon.[5] Holistic nursing care has also been inspired by Goethean science with an emphasis on embodiment and holism in nursing in recent journal articles[6]. Patch Adam's emphasis on love as a force that fulfills the patient-physician interaction (and the antiquated concepts of transferrence and counter-transferrence) also has clear links to Goethean science's main theme that the subject and object are actually part of the same whole and cannot be dealt with as separate abstract entities[7].

References