Goethe’s Way of Science

3. Goethe's Way of Science

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: Goethe’s Way of Science

Author: Abdassamad Clarke

Publication date: 16/2/2013

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation and Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the third of 12 sessions which make up the Technique and Science module. The lecture will last approximately 40 minutes during which time you should make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture. 

Setting – Germany

We have seen Italian, French and English scientists whose history corresponds curiously to the arc of the history of banking, that banking which arose in Italian city states. This took place in the era characterised by Giovanni Arrighi as the ‘Genoese’ cycle.1

Descartes (1596-1650) lived out a good portion of his life in Holland in the second capitalist cycle, the ‘Dutch’. He sold his family estate and bought bonds on whose income he lived comfortably for the rest of his life. Newton (1642-1727) rose to become a part of the British élite during the third capitalist cycle, the ‘British’. Tellingly, in the stock market crash of 1720, he lost £20,000, a huge figure for the times.

In turning to Goethe, we first of all have to ask the question: why Germany? We must ask it because our course will introduce us to German scientists and thinkers, Heidegger and Heisenberg in particular, in upcoming lectures.

Because we set ourselves the task of following the thread of power in our approach to science and because our previous module, the Politics of Power on the rise of the nation-state, showed clearly the emergence of finance as a power, we have taken that as a given in this course. We are looking for threads that connect to finance, and the absence of such threads is as interesting as their presence. 

Initially we find no such thread in Goethe’s case and must then ask the question: if capitalism had not developed in Germany to a significant extent, why not?

The answer to the question is surprisingly simple: the Germans did not practise primogeniture, the exclusive inheritance of the first born male. It is primogeniture that allowed significant amounts of capital to agglomerate over generations into the extraordinary amounts that give us the modern world. Of course, other factors were at play: the interest charged on loans and the introduction of paper currencies, but primogeniture played a very considerable part. It is perhaps one of the reasons that the sharī‘ah takes such control of two-thirds of his wealth out of the Muslim’s hands and distributes it algebraically in fixed shares among family. No chance of disinheriting people or showing favouritism, and thus no chance for the development of the type of gross capitalism that is fashioning the modern world.

Thus Germany was to develop without many of the excesses of modern capitalism for some time. Is that unconnected to the astonishing flowering of culture and intellect witnessed there in the 18th and 19th centuries, even into the early and mid-20th century?


The second element that contributed to the significance of Germany is ‘aṣabiyyah. When one examines the ethnic make-up of Europe, there is the Celtic layer on top of the early unknown indigenous population, and then the Germanic tribes. The Romans affected Europe culturally and imperially but probably not a great deal ethnically. Germanic tribes, the Vandals, Goths and Franks etc., settled in almost every corner of Europe. All to some extent were absorbed by or mingled with the local populace, their language and culture. The northerners, the Scandinavians were too sparse a population to have significant effect, at least not until Viking times. So the ‘aṣabiyyah of the Germans resided in the people of Deutschland.

The German Language

A factor that would mould Germany enormously and mould Goethe, who in turn exerted an enormous effect upon it and give it back to his people, was the German language. When the Qur’ān divides languages and peoples into Arabs and non-Arabs – ‘Ajam, it is instructive that the root of the former is expressive of clear speech and the latter of mumbling and babbling in an unclear way. German we would have to say is of its nature a clear language akin to Arabic, where English is a strange mongol hybrid of various languages, its vocabulary and grammar coming from all sorts of different origins. A clear language permits clarity of thought, which in turn permits clarity of action. To this day, German retains this quality, much of it enriched by neologisms and quotations from Goethe which entered the language and culture as new vocabulary and epigrams.

Popular and Classical Culture

A mistake that is easy to make is to project our own age’s understanding back into other times. Thus, for our age, Goethe, Shakespeare and Beethoven are high culture for intellectuals. In their own time, however, people awaited a new Goethe book as people today might anticipate a new thriller from a celebrity author. People bought up sheet music by Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann and took it home to perform with their neighbours in homespun quartets much as today people look forward to new releases of the most exciting new acts. Similarly, in England, Shakespeare was not speaking the language of the élite but was holding audiences of the common spellbound in a way that even a very good Hollywood production can hardly match.

The Poet

Meeting Goethe the poet and scientist re-introduces us to a number of core themes which had slowly receded into the back of our consciousness as we pursued science’s ever narrower and yet more rigorous goals. 

But first of all we have to tackle this matter of his being a poet. That is held against him: he was a great poet, but as a scientist he was a dilettante, an amateur, a dabbler. We are, however, projecting back into history a perspective that did not yet pertain, or at least not to the extent that it does in our day. No one blames Copernicus or Mendel for being Christian clerics. For a great deal of history, science was an amateur’s pursuit. Newton and Leibniz were both to different extents self-taught mathematicians.

We have seen that the new science that appeared and began to detach itself from philosophy was peculiarly mathematical, and we will see next week that its mathematical nature is twofold. Knowledge had been articulated by speech, whose most essential intellectual discipline was philosophy. Philosophy itself had lost its poetic dimension and had become analytical and discursive. The element that it lost was the musical. Music and discursive speech represent two different dimensions of what we know as speech. Poetry had always retained a musical dimension, often being sung but otherwise retaining its rhythmic power. When one pursues the philosophers back beyond Socrates, one comes to the pre-Socratics. The Socratic philosophers were discursive philosophers, but the pre-Socratics – Parmenides and Heraclitus in particular – are closer to poetry than to philosophy as we think of it. So poetry is potentially, but not always actually, closer to the very nature of thought, language and being human. Above it is revelation, which is not poetry.

Poetry has two aspects in sharī‘ah judgement: 

7989 - إِنَّ مِنَ الشِّعْرِ حِكْمَةٌ
( حم ق د هـ ) عن أبي ( ت ) عن ابن مسعود ( طب هـ ) عن عمرو بن عوف وعن أبي بكرة ( حل ) عن أبي هريرة ) ( خط ) عن عائشة عن حسان بن ثابت ابن عساكر عن عمر 

Ubayy, Ibn Mas‘ūd, ‘Amr ibn ‘Awf, Abū Bakrah, Abū Hurayrah, ‘Ā’ishah, Ḥassān ibn Thābit and ‘Umar all narrated that the Messenger of Allah @ said: “Some poetry is wisdom.”

7954 - لِأَنْ يَمْتَلِئَ جَوْفُ أَحَدِكُمْ قَيْحاً خَيْرٌ لَهُ مَنْ أَنْ يَمْتَلِئَ شِعْراً
( حم ق 4 ) عن أبي هريرة ( حم م هـ ) عن سعد ( طب ) عن سلمان وعن ابن عمر )

Abū Hurayrah, Sa‘d, Salmān and Ibn ‘Umar narrated that the Messenger of Allah @ said: “That the belly of one of you should be full of pus is better for him than that it should be full of poetry.”

How do we reconcile these two aspects? The Arabic verg شَعَرَ  gives the clue: in essence it means ‘he perceived’ or he knew it; knew or had knowledge of it; was cognizant of it; or  understood it; … or he knew the minute particulars of it: or  he perceived it by means of [any of] the senses. It also means he said, or spoke, or gave utterance to, poetry; spoke in verse; poetized; or versified.2 In the Qur’ān, the expression مَا يَشْعُرُونَ ‘they do not perceive’ is a reproach.

2|9|يُخَادِعُونَ ٱللَّهَ وَٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ وَمَا يُخَادِعُونَ إِلَّآ أَنفُسَهُمْ وَمَا يَشْعُرُونَ

They think they deceive Allah and those who believe. They deceive no one but themselves but they are not aware of it.” (Sūrat al-Baqarah 2:9)

Thus, we can say that where poetry is a kind of knowledge or perception it is also a kind of wisdom, particularly where it concerns Allah, exalted is He, for Allah excludes from censure “except those who believe and do right actions and remember Allah repeatedly and defend themselves after they have been wronged? Those who do wrong will soon know the kind of reversal they will receive!” (Sūrat ash-Shu‘arā’ 26:227).3 And Goethe, as we shall see, was a person whose life was wrapped up in the Divine.

As to the blameworthy aspect of poetry, that is perhaps made clear in the famous āyats on poetry at the end of Sūrat ash-Shu‘arā’ in which Allah says that which means: “Do you not see how they ramble on in every style and say things which they do not do?” (Sūrat ash-Shu‘arā’ 26:225-6) and in Sūrat aṣ-Ṣaff “It is deeply abhorrent to Allah that you should say what you do not do.” (Sūrat aṣ-Ṣaff 61:3)

The Greeks, for their part – and we approach them because ‘poetry’ is from the Greek word poesis or even poeisis – had a very different matrix of terms. First, poeisis: Latin poesis "poetry, a poem," from Greek poesis "composition, poetry," literally "a making, fabrication," variant of poiēsis, from poēin, poiēin "to make or compose".4 Heidegger tracks the root down to its source as a ‘bringing forth’ whereas:

Physis [from which we get our term ‘physics’] also, the arising of something from out of itself, is a bringing-forth, poiesis. Physis is indeed poiesis in the highest sense. For what presences by means of physis has the bursting open belonging to bringing-forth, e.g., the bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself (en heautoi) .

As a poet, Goethe was engaged in poiesis, but as a scientist, he was gazing at physis.

This is only in the lecture for us to see that the roots of these thoughts are much deeper and more primordial than we ordinarily think of when we say a ‘poet’ or a ‘scientist’.

Goethe added another dimension to this which dispels any idea of the ‘romantic’ Wordsworthian myth of a poet, with all due respect to Wordsworth who is not responsible for that myth: he was first a privy councillor at the court of Carl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, and later served in higher offices and in a number of governmental roles.

All of this is to set the scene for an understanding of Goethe’s scientific work. We have already established in our first lecture that the narrative is important if one takes the position that science is a creative process of modelling rather than simply a discovery of a pre-existing patterning in the creation. However, study of Goethe, while strengthening the view of the importance of the person who is the scientist, will also convince us that this simple dualism is not really adequate to describe this endeavour. Heisenberg says:

Goethe feels very strongly that the basic structures have to be of such a kind that one cannot decide if they belong to the objective considered world or to the human soul because they are the condition for both.5

Goethe’s Approach

He summed up his approach in often pithy statements epigrams.

"One instance”, he wrote, "is often worth a thousand, bearing all within itself."6

"The highest is to understand that all fact is really theory. The blue of the sky reveals to us the basic law of color. Search nothing beyond the phenomena, they themselves are the theory."7

Rather than being mind-numbing paradoxes, Goethe’s insights are in complete harmony with the Greek root of the word ‘theory’:

…from Greek theoria "contemplation, speculation, a looking at, things looked at," from theorein "to consider, speculate, look at," from theoros "spectator," from thea "a view" + horan "to see"8

In harmony with this allowing things to be, rather than denying them, or interpreting them to be the opposite of what they are, Goethe argued that “the history of science is science itself.”9


Goethe first became known for scientific work with his study on the morphology of plants. In this, he harks back to a classical perspective which was just beginning to be lost: that things are made of substance and form, for with physics, substance was pursued as if form did not matter until today we have a completely extrapolated ‘theory of the real’ in terms of substances and their interactions. Thus, as we saw, Newtonian mechanics is reducible to the interactions of two objects, disregarding other objects in the process. Physics dealt with the plethora of objects such as masses of molecules in gases by statistical population studies, and by eventually abandoning causality and looking for ‘correlations’ established statistically between, for example, a certain gene and various characteristics.

Goethe turned away from this approach and began to look at the whole form. This calls into thought the relationship between part and whole, between part and form.10 That in turn would call the thinking person to reflect on his being a part of a whole: his family, his community, the human race and the universe. By that I mean reflection and not to suggest any dogmatic conclusion. Thus, it is illuminating to reflect on Goethe’s life and how much it embodied this theme, most obviously his leaving Frankfurt at a comparatively young age, already a successful novelist, to begin a role he would continue in for the rest of his life, that of counsellor to Carl August, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar and member of his small duchy. What the reader might glean from biographies of Goethe is laid out before him if he is ever fortunate enough to visit Weimar and spend time there. The degree to which Goethe was absolutely a part of, not just the court of Weimar, but the community of which the Duke was the head. There are few places in Weimar which do not carry some impress of Goethe’s ‘footprint’, even down to the public lending library which he and Duchess Amalia established there.

In his study of the metamorphosis of plants, Goethe initially was inspired by the work of the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus who had carefully and systematically organised living forms into kingdoms, which “were divided into classes and they, in turn, into orders, and thence into genera (singular: genus), which were divided into Species (singular: species)”.  Later zoologists add further branches, sub-species, while botanists added varieties. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote about Linnaeus: "With the exception of Shakespeare and Spinoza, I know no one among the no-longer living who has influenced me more strongly."11 But the mere systematic arrangement, as characteristic as it is of the European scientific mind and as fascinating as it was to Goethe initially, palled and he was drawn more to working with the issue of form, morphology, but more properly metamorphosis, i.e. rather than study of the static form he looked at the dynamic transformation of plant forms. Famously, he posited the existence of an Ur-phenomenon, an Urpflanze, but this was not a static form but a dynamic form-in-time, a process as much as a thing. Our cosmos is more a verbal noun than a noun, for many nouns are in fact verbal nouns, thus kitab ‘book’ is actually ‘writing’.

The Ur-Phenomenon

With his understanding of the Urpflanz, Goethe said: “With this model and the key for it one can invent plants endlessly, which - even if they do not exist - could exist and have an inner truth and necessity.”12

But he was always on the guard against evil creeping in unanticipatedly. He said:

“Even if such an original phenomenon should be found, still the evil stays, that it will not be accepted as such, that behind and above it we are looking for something more, while we should first here admit to the limits of our view. The scientist must leave the original phenomena in their silence and beauty”.13

Goethe explains that his “‘Urphänomen’ is not equal to a principle which determines various consequences but rather it has to be considered as a basic phenomenon in which the variety can be seen. Looking, knowing, surmising, believing, and however man is connecting with the universe, must interact altogether if we want to fulfil our important and difficult profession.”14

Heisenberg said:

Schiller made clear to him in that famous first meeting in Jena in 1794 in which the friendship with Goethe was established, that his “Urphänomen” was in fact not a phenomenon but an idea, an idea in the sense of Plato’s philosophy and in our time we would replace the word “idea” which has a rather subjective flavour by the word “structure”. The “Urpflanze” is the basic form, the basic structure, the creative principle of the plant which we can of course not construct with the mere mind but rather become sure about while looking at it.”

Heisenberg even allows himself to speculate that perhaps DNA fulfils the requirements of Goethe’s Urpflantz. 


A consistent theme of Goethe’s, much emphasised by Heisenberg, is his justifiable fear of the evil that may lurk in abstraction, and particularly the abstraction of mathematics and the physics it engendered, a fear that Heisenberg in spite of his great skill in and devotion to some of the most abstract of mathematical physics treats with great respect.

If you saw the wonderful poster that Hajj Khalil prepared for this lecture series, you may have noticed the photograph on the left hand side looking through a succession of rooms in Goethe’s house. You will have registered the beautifully vivid but not jarringly bright colours and the sense of harmony the whole displayed. This contains something very important to grasp about Goethe. He was very far from being an abstract person. Heisenberg quotes him thus:

… the mere sight of a thing can not advance us. Every sight is changing into a contemplation, every contemplation into a thinking, every thinking into a connecting, and so we can say that we already theorize with each attentive look into the world.15

This is important. Goethe was looking. He was doing what we always thought scientists were doing: observing. But Goethe did it all the time. The portraits of him are sometimes very striking. He is gazing out at the viewer with dilated pupils, the gaze of a man who loves, but not this one or that one, but simply loves and gazes on what he loves. That was who he was and what he did. As we saw previously, the scientist has, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, been working from a mental model about which he then interrogates nature. Goethe looked. That was why he was not sure until after the Italian journey whether he was a poet or a painter. He thought his looking was that of the painter. Later he discovered it was something much greater.

This looking led him to appreciate the appearances of things and investigate them, then to reflect more deeply. It was not a looking that denies the appearance seeking the ‘real truth’, but one which took in the appearance and made sense of it.

The Colour Teaching

This is the other thing for which, scientifically speaking Goethe is both most famous and most notorious: after Newton he came up with a different way of looking at light. But what we have to get away from here is that which every translator of Goethe’s book on colour, Farbenlehre, has always got wrong: they always translate it as the Colour Theory, thus placing it squarely within the current paradigm and so in direct competition with Newton. However, although Goethe, in that same book, waged a polemical war on Newton’s theory, he was not setting up in competition. Rather, Goethe’s great unread book – I have not read it – rather than being a series of propositions and arguments is a series of observations in nature and in experiment with varieties of prisms and coloured objects, which the reader is asked to work through. Goethe is not telling the reader what to see, but is content that if he follows his footsteps, he will see what Goethe has seen and from that he will come to know what Goethe knew. We do not presume to judge whether he was right or wrong in his work and in his understandings, for rather what is important is that he saw what he saw and we can also see that. This is a very different way of working which is not abstract and not necessarily in opposition to the senses and the arts in the way that Newtonian science has become. Indeed, it is not necessarily in opposition to Newton and his descendants. What is striking is that there is more than one way to see things. The theoretician of the history and philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, thought of a succession of paradigms and the transitions between them, but it may be necessary to admit that two or more paradigms can exist at the same time and both be true.

What Goethe observed was that colour emerged from the interaction of light and dark in a variety of ways. The event that set this all in motion was itself quite innocent. He had borrowed a prism from a friend because he was eager to see the spectra that Newton’s work promised. However, a busy timetable meant that he did not get to use the prism and then his friend asked for its return. A glance through it before returning it shocked him, because he thought that he would see a wonderful colourful display of the spectra, whereas what he did see was pretty much the usual picture with, however, little coloured spectra around the edges. This set him on twenty years of study that would emerge as his Farbenlehre.

Goethe and Power

We have seen in our module the ineluctable relationship between science and power, whether in accord or opposition. We saw Galileo (1564-1642) whose most famous relationship to power was in his opposition to the Papacy, however timidly expressed, but who had another much more substantial connection: his patronage by Cosimo II, aristocratic inheritor of the banking dynasty that had arguably spurred the Renaissance into motion.

The nature of the relationship between these scientists and the emerging power nexus of capitalism, or in Arrighi’s scheme, its cyclical revolution, is perhaps not direct and causative, but, in the fashion of the science of our times, correlative. That in turn, their work should have been useful in a variety of fashions to the men of finance, ranging from applications to industry and the new armaments of war, to setting the tone for a new agnostic and thus amoral culture open to banking, cannot have been coincidental either.

Be that as it may, Goethe also had a quite contrary but explicit relationship to power. First, he did not live in one of the great centres of the capitalist cycles, nor does he appear to have had much to do with capitalism itself. Indeed, in a visionary far-sighted section of Faust II, Goethe outlined the main motor of capitalism as a scheme of Mephistopheles, to wit: paper money. An Emperor strapped for cash, his community weighed down because of the poverty brought on by lack of funds, turns to Mephistopheles’ suggestion simply to print money, and thus immediately there is the economic growth that new credit always brings, before the unpayable bill is presented for payment.

Goethe’s most obvious connection to power is his service to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar for the greatest part of his life, right up until his death. But the texture of that service can only really be seen in Weimar, for here was no great sumptuous aristocratic élite but rather one that was very much bound to its community. When the Duchess Amalia had been widowed and acted as regent for her infant son Carl August, she found the coffers empty and the local people in a parlous state. Rather than shopping in Paris, as those of her standing did, she basically bought the local community back on to its feet. So Goethe was not just at the service of the aristocracy but placed among a community whom he also served throughout his life with the numerous offices he was entrusted with by Carl August.

The Divine

The most striking aspect of Goethe is his very immediate sense of the Divine presence and his un-theological understanding of that immediacy, which has mistakenly been characterised as pantheism. That he was no longer a Christian, we have his own words for, because in July 1782 he described himself as "not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian." 

In parallel with that, we have the figure in Fausففt of Mephistopheles, the shayṭān who is charged by the Divine with the task of putting Faust to the test. Here, it is most striking that Goethe stands the Book of Job in the Bible on its head. Rather than the terrible afflictions of disease that Job must suffer to be proved true, Faust is tested in the way that modern man knows: he gets everything he wishes for, with the proviso that whenever he says to a moment “Stay! Don’t go!” then his soul belongs to Mephistopheles and is damned. But Goethe’s sense of the Divine and his conviction of His essential goodness and mercy overwhelmed his genuine alarm at the potential for shayṭān he saw in the science, art and culture of his time.

Heisenberg writes: “…in Goethe’s conviction man is confronted in Nature with the visible divine order. The experience of nature by the single human being was not important for the older Goethe although it fulfilled him as a young man, but rather the divine order which becomes discernible by this experience. …In this light we have to understand the search for the basic phenomena as the search for the divine structures on which the phenomena are based and which cannot be constructed by the mere intellect but rather can be seen, experienced and felt immediately.” 

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. Recommended reading includes Werner Heisenberg’s essay, “Goethe’s Conception of Nature and the Technical-Scientific World” which will be placed in the Member’s Area of the website and “Authentic and Counterfeit Wholes” Part I of The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Science, Henri Bortoft. These are two quite opposite approaches to Goethe which are extremely complementary. The subject of our next lecture is Logic and the Mathematical for which I recommend you to read my essay “Mathematics’ Imperious Sway” and the Introduction to Prof. Morris Kline’s Mathematics, the Loss of Certainty. Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.

1 “Four systemic cycles of accumulation will be identified, each characterized by a fundamental unity of the primary agency and structure of world-scale processes of capital accumulation: a Genoese cycle, from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries; a Dutch cycle, from the late sixteenth century through most of the eighteenth century; a British cycle, from the latter half of the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century; and a US cycle, which began in the late nineteenth century and has continued into the current phase of financial expansion.” Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century, p.6

2 Edward Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon p.1559

3 In another reading, when one starts this āyat afresh after stopping on the previous one, then the āyat can mean “However, those who believe…” and thus not be making an exception for poets who believe, and Allah knows best.

4 Online Etymological Dictionary: http://etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=poetry&searchmode=none

5 Werner Heisenberg, “Goethe’s Conception of Nature and the Technical-Scientific World.”

6Goethe's Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, David Seamon & Arthur Zajonc, p.3

7Goethe's Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, David Seamon & Arthur Zajonc, p.4

8 http://etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=theory&searchmode=none

9Goethe's Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, David Seamon & Arthur Zajonc, p.33

10 This theme is very thoroughly treated in the “Authentic and Counterfeit Wholes” Part I of The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Science, Henri Bortoft.

11 Goethe, Geschichte meines botanischen Studiums (History of My Botanical Studies)

12 Werner Heisenberg, “Goethe’s Conception of Nature and the Technical-Scientific World.”

13 ibid.

14 ibid.

15 Werner Heisenberg, “Goethe’s Conception of Nature and the Technical-Scientific World.”