Goethe’s Organic Vision

Goethe’s Organic Vision ~ Henri Bortoft


Most educated people know that Goethe was a great poet, writer and dramatist, but many are unaware that he spent a great deal of his time on science. He developed an alternative kind of science, which he himself thought very important. Near the end of his life he considered that he was unequalled as a poet, but his scientific work was his greatest achievement, especially in his work on colour.

This judgement has been marked down as a mere eccentricity of the great man, and for a long time people simply took it that Goethe had misunderstood the nature of science and wasn’t really a scientist at all. But fortunately today we are in a much better position to understand him, largely because of the tremendous changes in our understanding of science that have taken place since the 1960s, after the seminal work of Thomas Kuhn and many others. This is usually referred to as the new philosophy of science, the new history of science, and so on. As a result, we are now in a much better position today to see how Goethe’s alternative science really is a science, not an alternative to science, and above all not simply a rather romantic activity you can go off and do if you don’t like science. It is indeed a kind of science that has its own discipline, its own modes of discovery, its own mode of conception.

It is not so easy to grasp the idea of an alternative kind of science because we all start off with a presupposition of what science is about. We are barely aware of this, owing to the unconscious nature of presuppositions but the task of philosophy is to bring presuppositions to the surface. In this case, our education and long-standing cultural viewpoint tell us that science began when people ‘came to their senses.’ Instead of speculating, they saw how they could gain knowledge of the world directly from sense experience. So the picture grew up that science was based on observation augmented by experiments, and that knowledge is built up in this empirical fashion.

The Development of Modern Science

If that were the case, it would be difficult to see how there could be an alternative kind of science. Surely there can’t be two different sciences? However, we have discovered in recent decades (although it was actually well known before – we can go back to Kant, and even long before that to Plato’s Thaetetus) that we do not actually gain knowledge directly from sense experience when it comes to doing scientific work. Modern science did not begin when people simply used their senses to find out about the world. From its very inception (let us take Copernicus as a convenient starting point for the modern scientific movement), science has been based on the idea that experience of the senses is illusory, and that reality is discovered by going behind the sensory to find out what lies beyond that in the form of mathematical relationships. These mathematical relationships are what in modern physics we call the Laws of Nature.

Copernicus maintained that what we see is entirely an illusion of the senses. We see ourselves as standing on a stationary Earth with the Sun going round, and so on. Copernicus says, No, that is an illusion; in fact the Sun is in the centre and is not moving; the earth is moving around the Sun, as well as moving round on its axis, and this produces the illusion we experience with the senses. So the first step in modern science was to say that the world as we experience it is an illusion. Do not trust the senses, they are not trustworthy, we must find out how to go behind them by various means of thinking, especially mathematical thinking.

Copernicus was looking for harmony and symmetry in the cosmos. In so doing he was reflecting the Renaissance aesthetic ideal, which was very familiar to people at that time in painting, architecture and sculpture. They recognised in his work an expression of the same ideal of symmetry and harmony applied to the structure of the cosmos. His was one of the reasons why it received so much positive attention from the small number of people who were able to take it on. Behind this idea of symmetry and harmony was the fundamental philosophy of Neoplatonism, which in one of its forms was responsible for the main transformation of thinking in the Renaissance. That philosophy expressed the idea that the Sun is the representative of God, and must therefore be the centre. Neoplatonism also contributed the idea that reality is not given in the appearances. The appearances are illusionary, and we must look behind them for reality in mathematical, numerical and geometrical relationships. This is just what Copernicus was doing.

I mention this because it is an example of the formative effect of cultural-historical context on the very form which scientific knowledge takes. For a long time this has been missed out in accounts of science, which therefore make it look as if Copernicus must have made some new observations. If you look in his work there are no new observations whatsoever in it. We have now discovered that science possesses an intrinsic historicity, which means scientific knowledge contains a historical dimension within it. We all know that science is extrinsically historical, – we can say, for example, the Ørsted discovered electro-magnetism in 1819, or whatever. But in this case we are saying something much more profound: that there are cultural-historical factors entering into the formation of scientific knowledge, giving it the shape that it has at a particular time, and therefore that science is intrinsically historical. Quite astonishingly, Goethe understood this and, as a result of his disappointment at the reception of his work on colour, he made a very thorough investigation into the history of science. This investigation has never been published properly in English because it tends to be missed out of the various editions of the Colour Theory. Goethe came to the conclusion that ‘the history of science is science itself’. He came to understand that scientific knowledge was not empirical in the way that he and others understood had believed, but depended on factors from the cultural and historical context to give it is form. This is astonishingly modern: we have to leap ahead a century and a half to Kuhn and others before we begin to get a similar appreciation of this factor.

The Mathematical Movement

The mathematical movement in science developed out of this neoplatonic context. The key thing to remember about modern science, (the science from the early part of the 17th century and the Renaissance), is that it is mathematical. Its empiricism is the empiricism of experiments, which are mathematical projects because they are concerned with measurement. Mathematical physics, the great success story of the last few centuries, starts off from the illusions of the senses. Galileo said that our sensory experience of motion is an illusion; a force isn’t needed to keep something moving, which of course is completely contrary to common sense. The great missionary figure of mathematical physics, Descartes, went the whole hog. By incorporating the philosophy of atomism from ancient Greek philosophy lock stock and barrel (as also did Galileo) he maintained that more or less everything that we experience in our world is an illusion. It’s all an illusion produced by the senses – colour, smell, taste, sound: these things are simply not there in the world. The real is what can be handled by mathematical methods. This is the basis from which modern science developed.

Now we can see what Goethe did. He said that you didn’t have to follow this pathway once you saw that science does not in fact have its own intrinsic foundations. There is no scientific method that has an absolute foundation which guarantees its own validity. Science itself is a cultural-historical movement. Once that is realised, we see that we can approach nature in this mathematical way – and it is a great achievement to do so, we allow it to be in its mathematical mode. However, we can also see that there must be other modes of approach to nature with appropriate means. Many of the conclusions of physics are actually methodological, reached because we can’t deal with qualities mathematically. We disguise this fact by saying they’re not real but merely subjective.

However, Goethe saw that this was unnecessary; we need not falsely ontologise what is really a methodological distinction. He saw that we could do what all of us, through our normal education, believe that science does anyway, but which science in fact doesn’t do: to start with experience. He said that everything we need to discover about the world is to be found by going into experience directly, not by looking behind it or beyond it. There is more to the world than meets us at first sight; there is a depth within the world as it appears, but that depth is to be found within the world and not behind it. Goethe took an entirely different approach and found wholeness in the depth of his experience of natural phenomena – hence the title of the book I have just written (The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science).

Cultural Influences on 18th Century Thought

Setting aside Goethe’s work on colour, I want to focus on the way that his work on plants illustrates a new, organic way of thinking. To understand this we have some work to do, because it is only too easy to misunderstand Goethe as a result of seeing him through our familiar ways of thinking. We are somewhat in the position of the son who saw double (in the traditional story of Idries Shah), whose father said to him, ‘Son, you see two instead of one’. ‘How can that be?’ said the boy, ‘for if it were I would see four moons up there instead of two’. That is our position at the moment! We are seeing a lot of things that we actually believe are part of the fabric of the world but which in fact we are bringing to it by our way of seeing. This happens when people approach Goethe, and consequently they often interpret Goethe in ways which eclipse his organic thinking. We must recognize our own way of seeing. We must first be clear about the mathematical style of thinking that is so important in the development of the modern Western mind. The English in particular are shy of mathematics, but I shall not talk about anything mathematical. I shall talk about a style of thinking, the style that developed as a result of the great success of mathematics in the modern period, especially through its greatest achievement – mathematical physics.

Stephen Toulmin’s excellent book, Cosmopolis – The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, has developed this with some thoroughness. He points out the, at the time of the development of mathematical physics, cultural contextual factors made it so propitious for mathematical factors to fill the vacuum left by a period of extreme scepticism during the Thirty Years War; the fight between Protestantism and Catholicism. People no longer knew what to believe and had come to the conclusion that knowledge and certainty were impossible. Descartes and others thought that this vacuum could be filled by mathematics. They had the idea that a mathematical approach would enable them to reach certainty. That was the cultural mission of mathematical physics, which became so influential.

The mathematical style of thinking tends to decontextualize everything. We talk about numbers, we talk about five, six, seven and add them up in various ways, but we don’t really particularly care if they represent five apples or five motor cars; they are decontextualized. Any concrete situation becomes abstract, which means that it is independent of space and time. Then there is the idea that there are foundations from which we can proceed by means of a method that gives us certainty. For example, in geometry Euclid’s Elements had just become more accessible at this time. It was thought to be a wonderful thing, and would have an exciting effect on men’s way of thinking. They could, for example, prove theorems about triangles. This was an astonishing idea developed by the Greeks: actually to work things out in the abstract. So here we have an idea of certainty which is divorced from experience.

But in considering Goethe’s science, the crucial idea is unity, which is carried with the mathematical way of thinking. The mathematical idea of unity is the idea of ‘unity in multiplicity’, or of a ‘unity underlying multiplicity’. If we were to draw, for example, various triangles and attempt to look at them in purely sensory way, we would see that they actually looked quite different. But if we take these triangles (they are, in fact, merely images of triangles, because the lines of a mathematical triangle have zero thickness), we can make discoveries about what all triangles have in common, e.g. the sum of the interior angles is equal to two right angles – a unity underlying the multiplicity of all triangles. This is the kind of idea of unity that we have. We take a multiplicity of different things, and subtract from them all the respects in which they are different to leave what they have in common; then we say that is the unity underlying multiplicity. We are looking for what is self-identical in all different particular cases. This is how the mathematical laws of nature are conceived. Any particular case has no interest in itself, i.e. its particularity has no interest. It is only of interest in as much as it is seen as an instance of the universal. So the particular in the mathematical style of thinking is always subsumed under the universal. The universal is the authority and the particular does as it is told.

We are reminded here of the language of Platonism, and Western philosophy is full of this kind of thinking. We remember the importance of mathematics for Plato, and how Plato talks about ‘the one over the many’. The idea that there is a unity underlying multiplicity is a principle that applies to many different instances, but these are no more than instances of that principle. Here is a quotation from one of Plato’s early dialogues, Laches, which is concerned with the virtue of courage: ‘what is the common quality, which is the same in all these cases, and which is called courage?’ And here is another, this time from the dialogue Euthyphro dealing with piety: ‘Isn’t it true that in every action piety is self-identical?’ In both these cases we can see that unity is conceived in the form of ‘unity in multiplicity’. Again, in the dialogue Meno, where Plato (Socrates in the dialogue) is concerned with virtue itself, and not with particular virtues, we find him asking the question: ‘What is the character in respect of which they don’t differ at all, but are all the same?’ Clearly this takes the form of looking for unity in multiplicity by getting rid of all differences to find what is the same, self-identical, in all of them. This is the language of Plato’s dialogues, which expresses the same style of thinking that we find in mathematics. In Plato this subsequently (in the Republic, for example) crystallized into a separation into two worlds (at least it did in the way that Plato was understood in the West) – the absolute world of the universal and the transient world of the particular. So there is the Platonic Idea of absolute Good, absolute Beauty, and so on, with a two-world dualism which came to dominate the Western metaphysical tradition. Furthermore, this ontologically dualistic style of thinking is found at the heart of mathematical physics in the 17th century, where the Platonic Ideas become identical with the mathematical laws of nature, and are conceived as being ontologically distinct from the matter they act upon. As one contemporary philosopher, Gary Madison, succinctly puts it: ‘Metaphysics is alive and well and lives in modern physics’.

In Toulmin’s book there are many illustrations of the impact of this style of thinking from the 17th century onwards. He shows how the abstract, decontextualized style of thinking, for which the universal takes the form of a unity underlying multiplicity, leads to the idea of a universal method of science: a universal science of medicine, universal principles of law, universal moral principles, and so on. In the latter case this reaches a peak in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. When we look at it (also knowing Kant’s own predilections and his keenness to put mathematical physics on a firm epistemological foundation in his earlier Critique of Pure Reason), then we can see that Kant’s second Critique is effectively the mathematical physics version of moral philosophy – but very well disguised, because we have to look at the style of the thinking, not the content. We say that he is dealing with moral judgements, and he is, but he is dealing with them in a style of thinking which is mathematical. The ultimate expression of this is the very idea of universal human reason, the key idea of the Enlightenment. If we look at what was said about this, we can easily recognize that it is the apotheosis of the mathematical style of thinking. It was believed that this would provide a sure foundation on the basis of which different people would come to the same conclusions about moral principles, aesthetic values, principles of government, etc. – in the same kind of way that they would come to the same conclusions about the geometrical properties of triangles. In other words, they would find a unity in the multiplicity that would be free from all relativity and hence true for everyone under all circumstances.

Multiplicity in Unity

Having laid this foundation, we can now begin to explore Goethe’s way of seeing the organic world. I want to focus on his fundamental idea that, in some sense, all the different organs up the stem of the growing plant (leaf, sepal, petal, stamen, etc.) are one organ. We must understand in just what sense they are ‘one organ’. The term Goethe uses for this in German is Urorgan, which is usually translated into English as either ‘primitive organ’ or ‘archetypal organ’. Both of these are unsatisfactory: the former because it too easily evokes a Darwinian image, and the latter because it is inevitably associated with Platonism. It is this idea that I want to focus on, because it clearly conceives the Urorgan in the in the form of unity underlying multiplicity. Goethe went further and considered the entire plant kingdom as being in some sense one plant, which he called the Urpflanze. Here again, we find this usually translated as ‘primitive plant’ or ‘archetypal plant’, and the same problems apply. It is difficult to avoid thinking of ‘archetypal plant’ in any other a Platonic way, as a unity underlying the multiplicity of plants.

Goethe has usually been interpreted through this mathematical style of thinking. In any one of a number of widely available books we read that Goethe was seeking the underlying unity beneath the diversity of living forms, that he was seeking a general plan common to all plants and the simplest form from which all specialized organs had been removed. I remember in one case reading that Goethe, under the influence of Plato’s theory of universals, was transfixed by uniformities and commonalities in nature. As we shall see, you can’t get further from Goethe than that!

It is quite understandable that Goethe should be interpreted in this way, for we have seen how modern science developed in a cultural-historical context of Neoplatonism, and that the mathematical style of thinking expresses and reinforces this, leading us to conceive unity in the form of unity underlying multiplicity. However, around the time when Goethe was developing his ideas on morphology (he coined the term), there was a growing interest in what came to be called ‘unity of plan’ in anatomy – in Germany it was called ‘transcendental anatomy’, and ‘philosophical anatomy’ in France. As Adrian Desmond has shown in his extraordinary book, The Politics of Evolution, this kind of thinking had a quite considerable effect in England in the decades before Darwin. The ‘unit of plan’ morphology of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, for example, was popular in some circles because it was thought that it would lead to the discovery of laws of the organic; this would be the biological equivalent of the laws of physics and would confer proper scientific status on the doctors coming out of medical schools. But ‘unity of plan’, as we have seen, is reached by removing all differences to arrive at what is common; if this is thought to be the archetype, then that is Platonic, mathematical thinking.

Although it seems inevitable that Goethe would have been understood in the light of this context, he was in fact doing something radically different. This is why it is so important that we begin by recognizing that, as a consequence of our own cultural-historical context, we see unity in the form of unity in multiplicity, and that, in a manner akin to the son with double vision, we project this into what is there. To understand Goethe’s organic vision we have to turn the idea of unity and multiplicity, the one and the many, inside out to our accustomed mode of thinking. Here are some of the things Goethe said about the plant – and again, it’s important to experience the form of what he says by listening to the language. At the beginning of The Metamorphosis of Plants, he says that by careful observation we shall learn to understand the laws of transformation by which nature ‘creates the most varied forms by the modification of one single organ’. He refers to ‘The process by which one and the same organ presents itself to us in manifold forms’, which amounts to what has been called metamorphosis. Elsewhere, he wrote that ‘It had occurred to me that in the organ of the plant which we ordinarily designate as leaf, the true Proteus is hidden, who can conceal and reveal himself in all forms. Forward and backward the plant is only leaf’; ‘It is a growing-aware of the form with which again and again nature plays, and in playing, brings forth manifold life’, and finally ‘The thought becomes more and more living that it may be possible out of one form to develop all plant forms’. It is clear just from these fragments that Goethe is thinking in a thoroughly dynamical way, and that the dynamical mode of unity is such that, far from excluding difference by looking for what is common, it includes diversity within it.

In his book Goethe’s WorldView (1897), Rudolf Steiner said that Goethe sought to see in a way which ‘brings the diversity back into the unity from which it originally went forth’. Now if we follow the form of this we can see that it is quite different from saying that he looked for the unity underlying diversity, for what the diversity had in common. In fact, here we are coming at it from the other side. Goethe doesn’t start with the finished product as if he were an onlooker. It is a key part of his thinking to try to follow its coming into being: he doesn’t start with different organs or different plants, and ask what they have in common; he tries to get into the process to participate in the coming into being, so that he can see these different organs (or plants) emerging from an original unity. He comes to the view that there is, in the case of the organ, only one organ and that it manifests differently in different places on the plant. So for him the vegetative leaf, the petal, the stamen are one organ manifesting differently. He comes at it from the other side: instead of looking for unity underlying multiplicity he turns it round and looks for ‘multiplicity in unity’. He tries to come out of the unity intuitively into multiplicity, instead of trying to derive the unity intellectually from the multiplicity. This has the effect of turning the one and the many inside out, from ‘unity in multiplicity’ to ‘multiplicity in unity’.

Organic Thinking

However, this does not mean that Goethe thinks that this unity is broken up. We have to learn to think in a new way. We can gain some assistance here from the process of hologram division. Everyone knows that if a hologram is divided into two, say, then instead of having two halves of a hologram we have two whole holograms – even though each is physically half the size of the original. The result is quite uncanny: whatever the original hologram was of, the subject, we would now have two. It has been divided materially, but optically it is indivisible because it remains a whole. How different it would be if we divided a photograph! But how many holograms are there after the division? To begin with we would want to say that there are two, and there are materially, but optically there is only one, not two, because each is the very same one. Because we can’t do this process of division in the same way with a photograph, we would have to make a copy instead, – and then there would be two photographs, one and another one. But this is not so with the hologram, where it’s more like ‘one and the very same one’ instead of ‘one and another one’. This is multiplicity in unity in which there are not two, there is one, but it is not one numerically. There is another kind of one, which is one in the form of two.

This is what happens organically in the process of vegetative reproduction. We can take a fuchsia plant, for example, break in into pieces and grow each bit into a new plant. Each of these new plants is organically the original one. The plant is divided and yet remains whole (so really it is indivisible!), so that here again we have one in the form of ‘multiplicity in unity’, where each one is in fact the very same one because there is only one plant. In England there is a species of potato called the King Edward. This is not allowed to pollinate but is propagated vegetatively by planting seed potatoes. This means there is only one King Edward potato plant, and it is the original one that by division has now turned into billions of potatoes – each of which is still the original plant. In his book The Countryside Explained, John Seymour says that ‘It would be interesting to know how many billions of tons that first King Edward plant has developed into during its life!’

What we begin to catch here is a sense of multiplicity within unity as an intensive dimension – a dimension that is within One self. It is helpful to distinguish this from the numerical ‘one’ by writing it with an initial capital letter, so that we can distinguish the intensive dimension of One from the extensive dimension of many ones. This is the way that Goethe is seeing when he talks about the Urorgan and the Urpflanze, not in the way that looks externally for unity underlying multiplicity. When he says the ‘one and the same organ presents itself to us in manifold forms’, and calls this organ Proteus, then he is thinking in the mode of this intensive dimension of One of an organ which is always the very same One but differently. There is now difference within unity, which is therefore self-difference – in contrast to the unity that excludes difference in favour of self-sameness.

This notion of self-difference can be further illustrated by means of the hologram. It is possible to make a multiple hologram in which several different images can be formed on one and the same hologram without being confused – as would happen with multiple exposures in a photograph. Each different image is the whole hologram, not part of it, and by changing the angle at which it is viewed, a series of images unfolds, one after the other, as if it were one image metamorphosing into different forms of itself. This provides us with an almost uncanny way of catching the idea of self-difference of multiplicity in unity. Goethe himself described a dynamical experience of this kind. He tells us that he closed his eyes and visualized a flower ‘right at the centre of the organ of sight’. When he did this ‘new flowers sprang out of this heart. With coloured petals and green leaves’, and that ‘there was no way of stopping the effusion, that went on as long as my contemplation lasted, neither slowing nor accelerating’. We should read this intensively, not extensively as if it were many plants, one after the other. This is One Plant, manifesting itself differently. What Goethe means by metamorphosis – whether in the organs of the plant, the members of a single plant family, or the plant kingdom as a whole – is just this dynamical self-difference in which the One produces different manifestations of itself (Proteus). He does not mean that one manifested organ turns into another one in an extensive sense – as if a petal turned into a stamen, for example.

Anyone can practice this way of seeing for themselves. It is, for example, possible to see a particular family of plants in its organic mode. It is an enlivening experience to observe the different members of a family such as the Rosaceae (rose, blackberry, strawberry, apple, etc.) and begin to see them as One plant in the form of multiplicity in unity. How different the experience of this from that of looking for what these different plants have in common. But sometimes even quite a simple situation can provide us with what David Bohm used to call a ‘template for thinking’ in a new way. An ambiguous figure such as the duck/rabbit is a case.

The whole figure can appear as a duck or as a rabbit – the duck is not part of the figure and the rabbit another part. Playing with this can quickly give us a sense of the intensive quality of self-difference and multiplicity in unity – there are always some who object that this is ‘only subjective’, but it is only being used as a ‘template’. However, when we work with the organic then in addition we find that it is intrinsically dynamical – as in Goethe’s experience of unfolding plant forms – ‘becoming other in order to remain itself’ in Ron Brady’s succinct phrase. Darwin also seems to have come up to this point, especially in his work on barnacles, but then to have missed its significance: instead of seeing the phenomenon he wanted to explain it.

This is Goethe’s organic style of thinking, in contrast to the mathematical style. The key to it is in the way that he turns unity and multiplicity inside out, so that something can be different from itself without becoming other than itself. His organic vision thereby escapes from the limitation of the one-sided kind of Platonism, with its emphasis on what is always self-identical, a mode of thinking that has had such a impact on the development of the modern mind. In particular it liberates us from that impoverished unity which is reached by excluding difference in favour of what things have in common, which is an ontological cul-de-sac from which nothing can come for the simple reason that everything has been excluded from it. Just as mainstream science has affected our whole way of thinking in all aspects of our culture, then so too could Goethean science, with its organic style of thinking, have an effect on other areas of our culture beyond the confines of science. Now that we are moving towards one world in the form of cultural homogeneity, becoming everywhere the same as a consequence of global technology, Goethe’s organic vision of a different kind of unity may well be timely. When Goethe died, it was said that he would not be understood for a hundred and fifty years. I suggest that this time has now come.

Reprinted with the kind permission of Henri Bortoft and The Scientific and Medical Network – Originally from Network, No. 65, December 1997, pages 3-7.

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