Steiner Online Library Spiritual Science for Human Evolution

On what may be won for our view of Goethe’s scientific work through the publications of the Goethe-Archive

First publication: Goethe Jahrbuch, 12th vol., 1891, pp. 190-210.
(GA 30, pp. 265-288)

Translated and contributed by Peter Stewart

The questions that arose for the scholar of Goethe's scientific writings were not easy to answer from the material available so far. The reason for this is to be found in the fact that only in the area of colour theory do we have to do with a fully elaborated, complete work of the poet from the sphere of science. From the other parts of his work, we have only more or less elaborated essays that comment on the most diverse problems, but of which it cannot be denied that they seem to present contradictions that are difficult to reconcile when it comes to gaining an all-round, comprehensive view of Goethe's significance in this field. The most important points that come into consideration here have therefore been interpreted in the most diverse ways by the researchers involved in the matter. Was Goethe a theorist of descent? Did he assume a real transformation of species, and to what causes did he attribute it? Did he think of his “Type” as a sense-perceptibly real being or as an idea? These are questions about which we have heard completely contradictory answers from various sides in recent decades. From the assertion that Goethe only thought of his “Type” as an abstract concept in the Platonic sense to the assertion that he should be regarded as a true predecessor of Darwin, all intermediate stages found their representatives. Whereas some despised him as a man who merely fantasised about nature, others praised him because he was the first to take that direction in natural science which is today regarded as the only one leading to the goal.

It must be admitted that the defenders of all these points of view were able to provide enough evidence from Goethe's works for their respective statements. Of course, it must not be overlooked that in each case only the most appropriate were selected, while other passages that justify a contrary opinion were simply omitted. We are far from reproaching anyone for this, but are rather convinced that what has been presented so far has made it extremely difficult to arrive at an unambiguous view of the matter, even if we cannot admit the impossibility of doing so.

For all those who have an interest in this side of Goethe's creative work, the question had to arise at the moment when the treasures of the Goethe-Archive became accessible: do the poet's papers that he left behind offer additional material? The writer of these lines finds that a thorough study of them provides us with the most surprising information, especially with regard to the above-mentioned points of view, which are quite suitable to bring about full satisfaction in this direction.

The noble owner of the archive, the Grand Duchess of Saxony, has graciously allowed me to use the available materials for the purpose of a preliminary, orienting work in this field, and so this essay has come into being, for which the necessary evidence has been selected from the treasures of the archive with the ongoing, kind assistance of the director of the Goethe and Schiller Archive, Prof. Suphan.

For the time being, we shall dispense with the Theory of Colours and the geological and meteorological writings and confine ourselves to the morphological works, which are the most important for the problems we have outlined. The purpose of our remarks is to show in a general outline what we can expect from the publication of Goethe's as yet unpublished essays and fragments in this field for the clarification of the poet's significance in the field of the organic science. We will avoid as much as possible going into contemporary views on these matters and refrain from any polemics. At this time, it may suffice to present Goethe's views purely in themselves, without any sideward glances at others.

Above all, however, we must reject a deeply rooted error, which Goethe had to struggle with many times during his lifetime. It culminates in the assumption that the poet did not arrive at his scientific results through methodical, logical thought, but "in passing", through a "happy idea". Goethe described the “History of his Botanical Studies” in detail mainly because he wanted to “illustrate” how he “found the opportunity to devote a large part of his life to natural studies with inclination and passion”. 1See the conclusion of the essay: Geschichte meines botanischen Studiums, in Kürschner’s "Deutsche National-Literatur", Goethes Werke, Vol. XXXIII, p.84.

No better illustration of this last sentence can be imagined than the pages preserved in the archives, which give us an insight into the course of Goethe's botanical work during his Italian journey. We can see from them how he achieved final clarity through innumerable observations and conscientious reflections on the objects of nature. These are records that point to the very opposite of random ideas or flighty haste, but rather to a careful and thoughtful step-by-step striving towards the goals he had set himself. Goethe is tirelessly engaged in seeking out plant specimens that are in some way suitable for guiding us into the laws of growth and reproduction. Things which are particularly characteristic are drawn, in order to discover the secrets of nature's activity through vivid imitation. We find noted with great care observations made about the importance of the individual organs, about the influence of the climate and the environment of the plants. If Goethe thought he was on the track of some law, he first set it out in the form of a hypotheses in order to use it as a guide for further observations. In this way, it should either be confirmed or refuted. He assigns such hypotheses a very special task in scientific research. We learn the following from an unpublished note: “Hypotheses are scaffolds which are erected before the building, and which are taken down when the building is finished; they are indispensable to the worker; only he does not have to regard the scaffold as the building.”

These words describe his scientific attitude, which is indeed wary of taking a fleeting remark for a law of nature.

The pages on which Goethe made his scientific notes during the Italian journey belonged to small notebooks, which were found torn apart, like other papers with notes from the same period, for example those on "Nausikaa". The latter were always arranged by Prof. Suphan according to the respective aim; the same has now occurred for those belonging to natural science.

Goethe often remained in the dark with his observations for quite a long time, and he wanted this in order to gain as broad a basis as possible for his theoretical construction. He studied the processes of germination, fertilisation, observed the various forms of the organs and their transformations. We can see sentences that later became integrating parts of his theory of metamorphosis in these papers in their first form, as he read them directly from the processes of nature, as it were, for example: “The plant must have a lot of watery moisture so that the oils, the salts can combine in it. The leaves must draw off this moisture, perhaps modify it.” Or:

“What the soil is to the root, the plant subsequently becomes for the finer vessels, which develop up in the air and which draw the finer strands out of the plant.”

“Aloe... the leaves are expanded by the air and the spaces between them suppressed... below towards the earth, the leaves are small, the spaces between them larger.”

After Goethe has worked his way through a series of observations in this way, his later view impresses itself on him as a hypothesis. On one page we find the note: "Hypothesis. Everything is leaf and through this simplicity the greatest diversity is possible.”

He now pursues this hypothesis further. Where an example from experience leaves him in doubt about something, he conscientiously notes it down in order to obtain the necessary information from a more favourable one. Such questions, which remain unclear and are saved for future observations, are encountered very often.

In any case, these pages provide evidence that a long period of thought and a not insignificant sum of experience lay behind Goethe when he finally raised the hypothesis of the archetypal plant to a decisive conviction in the middle of 1787. I have described in detail in the introduction to my edition of Goethe's scientific writings (Goethe's Works, in Kürschner's "Deutsche National-Literatur", Volume XXXIII) how he pursued this hypothesis further, how he extended the approach he had adopted to other organisms and how he published the first attempt in this direction in 1790.

Let us immediately turn to the question: what does Goethe mean by "archetypal plant"? On 17 April 1787, in Palermo, he wrote the following words about it: “There must be such a thing; otherwise how would I recognise that this or that form was a plant, if they were not all formed according to the one pattern”. 2See the conclusion of the essay: Geschichte meines botanischen Studiums, in Kürschner‘s "Deutsche National-Literatur", Goethes Werke, Vol. XXXIII, p.84. This sentence provides the proof that by the archetypal plant is to be understood that which appears to the human spirit as the same in all the plant forms which are different for sensory perception. We would not be able to recognise that all these forms belong together, that they form a kingdom of nature, if we could not grasp the "“archetypal plant”.

If we bear this in mind, we can immediately get an idea of what Goethe meant by experience. He not only wanted to carefully observe that which is accessible to sense perception, but at the same time he strove for a mental content that would allow him to determine the objects of it according to their essence. This mental content, through which a thing emerged from the dullness of sense existence, from the indeterminacy of external perception, and became a definite thing (animal, plant, mineral), he called the idea. Nothing else can be gleaned from the above words, and we are also able to substantiate our assertion by the following hitherto unpublished statement: “Time is governed by the swing of the pendulum, the moral and the scientific world by the alternating movement from idea to experience.”

What should Goethe mean by these words, if not this, that science cannot be content with experience, but must progress beyond it to the idea? The idea determines what the object of experience is; it cannot therefore be identical with it. That Goethe attributed to the mind an essentially active role in the production of ideas emerges from the following interesting division of the types of knowledge: "In order to orient ourselves to these different types 3of people according to the type of their knowledge and their behaviour towards the outside world., we will categorize them into: utilitarian, inquisitive, intuitively perceptive and comprehensive,

  1. The utilitarians, who seek and demand a use for things, are the first, as it were, to mark out the boundaries of the field of science, to grasp it in its practical aspect. Their empirical knowledge gives them certainty, and their need gives them a certain breadth.
  2. Those inquiring after knowledge require a calm, objective gaze, restless curiosity, and a clear mind, and are always related to the these; they process, in the scientific sense, that which they discover.
  3. Those who are intuitively perceptive already act productively, for as knowledge intensifies it demands intuitive perception, without our even noticing, it passes over into it. Those inquiring after knowledge may cross and bless themselves against imagination, nevertheless, before they know it, they must call on productive imagination to aid them.
  4. Those with comprehensive understanding, who in a proud sense might be called the creators, are productive to the highest degree; for in starting from ideas, they already express the unity of the whole, and it is to a certain extent afterwards the business of nature to fit itself into this idea."

What on the highest level of cognition is supposed to lead into the riddles of nature, the mind must bring to the things of sense perception in a creative way. Without this productive power, our cognition remains on one of the lower levels. 4Even if the above lines do not come from the time when Goethe began to pursue natural science, but probably from the end of the nineties, we can still justifiably mention them here. For they were written precisely in that period, when the poet was already reflecting on his research, when he became his own interpreter. They are therefore precisely suited to show how Goethe wants his approach to nature to be understood.

Goethe thus imagines with the archetypal plant an entity that cannot become present in our mind if we merely act passively towards the outside world. But what can only appear through the human mind does not necessarily have to come from the mind. For here an erroneous conception lies very close at hand. It is impossible for the majority of people to imagine that something, for the appearance of which subjective conditions are absolutely necessary, can nevertheless have an objective meaning and being. And the “archetypal plant” it is precisely of this latter kind. It is the objectively contained essence of all plants; but if it is to gain a manifest existence, the human mind must freely construct it.

But basically, this view is only a further development of the view which modern natural science also holds in the field of sense perception. Without the constitution and activity of the eye there would be no perception of colour, without that of the ear, no sound. Nevertheless, no one would claim that colour and sound do not have their own objective meaning and being. How one wants to imagine this in more detail, whether one, as an adherent of the wave hypothesis, regards the vibrations of bodies and the ether or the air as the objective essence of colour and sound, or whether one leans towards another view, is irrelevant here.

We only attach importance to the fact that, although the modern physiologist is convinced that sense perception can only enter into phenomenal, perceptible existence for us through the activity of the corresponding sense organ, they will not for a moment maintain that colour, sound, warmth and so on are merely subjective, are without a corresponding correlate in the realm of the objective. But Goethe's idea of the organic Type is only the consistent extension of this conception of the subjective generation of phenomenal existence to a field in which mere sense perception is no longer sufficient to arrive at knowledge.

The only reason why this matter is difficult to understand is that consciousness only begins at that stage of the human faculty of perception at which ideas are produced. We now know that we play an active role in grasping ideas, while the activity of our organism, where it mediates sensation, is entirely unconscious. But this circumstance is quite irrelevant to the matter itself. Just as colour, sound, warmth and so on have an objective meaning in rerum natura [trans. in the nature of things], although they cannot gain a meaning for us without the subjective activity of our sensory instruments, so ideas have an objective value, although they cannot appear in the mind without the mind's own activity. It is absolutely necessary that everything that is to appear in our consciousness first passes through our physical or psychic organism.

Assuming this, we recognise that, in the sense of Goethe's way of thinking, there must be a continual alternation between the influx of material provided by the senses and the archetype created freely by reason, and an interpenetration of these two products in the mind of the researcher, if a satisfactory solution to the problems of natural science is to be possible. Goethe compares this alternation with a systole and diastole of the mind, the continuous transition of which he presupposes in every true natural scientist. He says: "In the mind of the true natural scientist, it must always alternate like a systole and diastole moving in equilibrium.”

What has been said so far now also provides us with the opportunity to decide whether it is in accordance with Goethe's conception to identify the archetypal plant or the archetypal animal with any sense perceptibly real organic form that existed at a certain time or that still exists. The answer to this can only be a decisive “no”. The "archetypal plant" is contained in every plant, it can be obtained from the plant world by the constructive power of the mind; but no single individual form may be described as archetypal.

But it is precisely the “archetypal plant” (or also the "archetypal animal") that makes each individual form what it is; it is the essence. We have to keep this in mind if we want to fully penetrate Goethe's intentions.

The laws of the organic must not be sought in the same field as those of the inorganic. In the science of inorganic nature, I have completely fulfilled my task if I have succeeded in explaining what I perceive with the senses according to its causal connections. In organic nature, I must subject to explanation those facts which are no longer perceptible to the senses. Anyone who wanted to look at a living being and explain it only through what he perceives with his senses, would not be sufficient before the forum of Goethean science.

It has often been claimed that the organic can only be explained if the laws of the inorganic are simply taken over into the realm of the living. Attempts to establish a science of living things in this way are still on the agenda today. It was Goethe's great flight of thought, however, that made him realise that one need not doubt the possibility of explaining the organic even if the inorganic laws of nature should prove inadequate for this purpose. Should our ability to explain only extend as far as we can apply the laws of the inorganic? What Goethe wanted was nothing other than to banish from science all dark and vague ideas such as the vital force, formative impulse and so on, and to find laws of nature for them. But he wanted to search for the laws of the organic as they have been found for mechanics, physics, chemistry, not simply adopt those existing in these other fields. He would destroy the realm of the organic if he simply allowed it to merge into that of the inorganic. Goethe wanted an independent organic science that had its own axioms and its own method. This idea became more and more firmly established in his mind, and “morphology” gradually became for him the epitome of everything that must be applied to a satisfactory explanation of the phenomena of life. As long as one could not derive all the phenomena of movement from natural laws, there was no mechanics; as long as one was not able to summarise the individual places occupied by the celestial bodies along lawful lines, there was no astronomy; as long as one is not able to understand the expressions of life in the form of principles, there is no organics, this is what Goethe told himself. He had in mind a science that would place the organic at its centre and reveal the laws of its various forms. He did not want to understand the forms of the organs alone, nor the metabolism and its laws, nor the anatomical facts for themselves; no, he strove for a total conception of life from which all those partial phenomena could be derived. He wants a science to which natural history, natural science, anatomy, chemistry, zoonomy, physiology only act as preparatory stages. Each of these sciences deals with only one aspect of the body of nature; but all of them together, thought of merely as a sum, do not exhaust life either. For this is essentially more than the sum of its individual phenomena. Anyone who has grasped all aspects of organic being with the help of the individual sciences mentioned is still missing the living unity. In Goethe's view, it is the task of morphology in the broader sense to grasp this unity.

Natural history has the task of imparting "knowledge of organic natures according to their habitus [trans. bodily constitution] and according to the differences of the relationships of their forms"; natural science is responsible for "knowledge of material natures in general as forces and in their local relationships"; anatomy seeks "knowledge of organic natures according to their internal and external parts, without regard to the living whole"; chemistry strives for "knowledge of the parts of an organic body in so far as it ceases to be organic, or in so far as its organisation is regarded only as producing matter and as being composed of matter"; zoonomy requires: the "consideration of the whole, in so far as it lives and this life subordinates a particular physical force"; of physiology the "consideration of the whole, in so far as it lives and acts"; of morphology in the narrow sense “consideration of the form both in its parts and in the whole, its correspondences and deviations without all other considerations”. Morphology in the broader and Goethean sense, however, wants: “Considering the organic whole by visualising all these aspects and linking them through the power of the mind.” 5These sentences are borrowed from a surviving manuscript that outlines in broad strokes the idea of such a morphology and was apparently intended to serve as an introduction.

Goethe is fully aware that he is setting up the idea of a "new science" according to its “point of view and method” However, it is not new in terms of content, “for it is the same which is known”. But this means nothing other than that it is, taken purely in fact, the same as that presented in the previously characterised auxiliary sciences. What is new, however, is the way in which this content is put at the service of a comprehensive view of the organic world. This is again important for the definition of Goethe's “Type”. For the Type, the law underlying the organic, is the object of his morphology in the broad sense. What the seven auxiliary sciences have to achieve lies in the realm of what is attainable through the senses. Yet, precisely because they remain in the realm of what is accessible to the senses, they cannot go beyond a knowledge of the individual aspects of the organic.

Thus, we are forced to acknowledge that Goethe attributed a lawful nature to the organic world that does not correspond to that which we observe in the phenomena of inorganic nature. We can only visualise it through a free construction of the mind, since it does not coincide with what we perceive through the senses of the organism.

Now the question arises: under these conditions, how does Goethe relate to the diversity of organic species?

This question cannot be answered without first establishing the relationship of the Type (archetypal plant, archetypal animal) to any single individual. "The individual is not singular, but a plurality." 6See: Goethe's scientific writings (Kürschner's "Deutsche National-Literatur"), Goethes Werke, Vol. XXXIII. And indeed a plurality of details that are outwardly quite different from one another. How is this possible? How can the different parts be a unity after all? Or more specifically: how can one and the same organ appear at one time as a stem leaf, then again as a flower petal or as a stamen? Anyone who understands unity in the sense of an abstract concept, a schema or the like, will of course not be able to grasp it. But it is not in the Goethean sense. It is a lawfulness which, as such, leaves the form through which it expresses itself in the sensory world completely undefined. Precisely because the actual core, the deeper content of this lawfulness does not merge into that which becomes apparent to the senses, it can express itself in different sensory forms and yet always remain the same. On the contrary, an infinite field is open to organic lawfulness in its appearance as an external phenomenon, as is possible. But since the substances and forces of inorganic nature must enter into the service of this lawfulness, if real organisms are to come into being at all, it follows of itself that only those forms are possible which do not contradict the conditions lying in those substances and forces. And in this respect the forces and substances of inorganic nature are the negative conditions of organic life. Through them and in their forms, organic life brings itself to bear as well as they allow. With this, however, the necessity of an infinite diversity of organic forms is already given. For the outward face of existence is not something that stands in a definite connection with the inner lawfulness. Yes, from this point of view one can even raise the question: how is it that there are species at all, that each individual is not different from every other? We shall come back to this later. In any case, it is certain that Goethe's view, as characterised, cannot speak of constant forms of the organic, because that which gives a form its definiteness does not flow from that which makes it an organic form. Only those can assume a constancy of form who see something essential in the form itself.

But what is not essential to a thing does not necessarily need to be retained. And thus, the possibility of transforming existing forms is derived. From Goethe's point of view, however, nothing more could be given than the derivation of this possibility. Darwin provided the empirical observations for this. That is always the relationship between theory and experience, that the latter shows what is and happens, and the former shows the possibility of how such things can be and happen.

In any case, on the basis of the material available in the Goethe-Archive, no other relationship between Goethe and Darwin can be thought of than this.

But he who regards organic forms as changeable is confronted with the task of explaining the forms that actually exist at a given time, that is, of stating the causes why certain forms develop under the conditions which are presupposed, and further, of explaining the connection between these existing forms.

This was completely clear to Goethe, and we see from the papers he left behind that he was thinking of shaping his views in this direction when he intended to continue his morphological work. Thus, a scheme for a “Physiology of Plants” contains the following:

“The metamorphosis of plants, the basis of their physiology. It shows us the laws according to which plants are formed. It draws our attention to a twofold law:

1. the law of inner nature by which plants are constituted.

2. the law of external circumstances, by which the plants are modified.

Botanical science makes known to us the manifold formation of the plant and its parts, and from the other side it seeks out the laws of this formation.

If the efforts to arrange the great multitude of plants into a system deserve only the highest degree of applause, when they are necessary to separate the unchangeable parts from the more or less accidental and changeable ones, and thereby bring the nearest relationship of the different species more and more into the light: those efforts are certainly also praiseworthy which seek to know the law according to which those formations are produced; and though it seems that human nature can neither grasp the infinite variety of organisation, nor clearly comprehend the law according to which it operates, yet it is good to exert all one's powers, and to enlarge this field from both sides, both by experience and by reflection.”

According to Goethe, every particular plant and animal form can be explained by two factors: by the law of inner nature and by the law of circumstances. Since these circumstances are given at a certain place and time and do not change within certain limits, it is also explainable that the organic forms remain constant within these limits. For those forms that are possible under those circumstances find their expression precisely in the beings that have once arisen. New forms can only be brought about by a change in these circumstances. But then these new circumstances must not only submit to the law of the inner nature of the organic, but must also reckon with the forms which have already arisen and which they confront. For what has once arisen in nature henceforth proves to be a contributory cause in the context of facts. From this, however, it follows that a certain power to preserve itself will be inherent in the forms once they have arisen. Certain characteristics once adopted will still be noticeable in the most distant descendants, even if they cannot be explained by the living conditions of these beings. This is a fact for which the word heredity is used in more recent times. We have seen that in Goethe's way of looking at things a conceptually strict correlate can be found for what is connected with this word.

A special light is shed on this view, however, by the way Goethe conceived the reproduction of organisms in connection with the other principles of their development. He imagined that the inner capacity for development of an organic being is not yet completed with what we assume to be an individual, but that reproduction is simply the continuation and a special case of this capacity for development. That which expresses itself as growth on a lower level is reproduction on a higher level. Goethe already had the view that procreation was only the growth of the organism beyond the individual.

This, too, can be proved from his own notes: “We have seen that plants reproduce in various ways, which species are to be regarded as modifications of a single species. Reproduction, like the continuation that takes place through the development of one organ from another, has occupied us mainly in metamorphosis. We have seen that these organs, which themselves change from an external similarity to the greatest dissimilarity, have inwardly a virtual similarity...” "We have seen that this continuation via sprouting in perfect plants cannot go on into infinity, but that it leads by degrees to the summit, and produces, as it were, at the opposite end of its power, another mode of reproduction, by seeds." Here, then, Goethe sees the continuation from one part to another in one and the same plant and reproduction by seed as only two different kinds of one and the same activity.

“In all bodies that we call living, we notice the power to produce their own kind,” says Goethe; but this power also completes its cycle several times, as it were, during the growth of an individual, for, Goethe wants to produce the “proof” that “from one node to another the whole cycle of the plant is essentially completed”; when we then "become aware of this power in its divided state, we call it by the name of the two sexes". Starting from this view, he sketches the course of his lecture on growth and reproduction as follows: “In considering the plant, a living point is assumed which eternally produces its own kind. In the case of the smallest plants, it does this through repetition of the same. Further, in the case of perfect plants, by progressive formation and transformation of the basic organ into ever more perfect and effective organs, in order finally to produce the highest point of organic activity, to separate and detach individuals from the organic whole by procreation and birth. This is the highest view of organic unity.”

This also shows that Goethe does not see reproduction as an essentially new element of plant development, but only as a higher modification of growth.

The passage cited is, however, remarkable in another respect. In it, Goethe speaks of an “organic whole&lrquo; from which the individuals separate and detach themselves. He calls understanding this the “highest view of organic unity”.

Thus, the sum of all organic life is described as a unified totality, and all individual beings can then only be described as members of this unity. We are thus dealing with a continuous kinship of all living beings in the truest sense of the word. And this is an actual relationship, not merely an ideal one. The “organic wholeness” is a unified one that has within itself the power to produce its own kind in perpetual external change; the diversity of forms arises by continuing this capacity for production not only beyond individuals but also beyond genera and species.

It is only in the exact sense of Goethe's remarks when one says: the force by which the different plant families come into being is exactly the same as that by which a stem leaf changes into a petal. And this force is to be imagined as a real unity acting within the emergence of one species from another.

The organic species and genera can be traced back to a true descendant through a perpetual change of forms. Goethe's view is a theory of descent with a deep theoretical basis.

But one must by no means think that it is implied that the subsequent developmental forms are already lying within the earlier ones. For what runs through all of the forms is precisely the ideal organic lawfulness, in which one cannot speak of those forms at all. Precisely because the essential nature of the organic has nothing to do with the way it appears in forms, it can realise itself in them without having to unroll them from out of itself. An organic being does not form the form out of itself, but forms itself into it. That is why these forms cannot have any pre-existence, not even according to their predisposed nature. Goethe was therefore an opponent of the Encasement theory, which assumed that the entire multiplicity of the organic was already contained, hidden witin the germ.

“To think of this many 7The diversity of organs and organisms. as if successively nested within the one, is an imperfect conception and not suited to the imagination as well as to the intellect, but of development in the higher sense we must admit: the many in the individual, on the individual; and (thus) this no longer puts us in an awkward situation.”

Development consists precisely in the fact that a unity continues to develop and that the forms it takes in the process, appear as something completely new. This is because these forms do not belong to the unified principle of development, but to the means it uses to manifest itself. The forms of development must all be ideally explicable from the unity, even if they do not actually emerge from it. That Goethe was thinking only of an ideal state of inclusion is proved, for example, by the assertion that "these various parts are thought to have sprung from an ideal archetypal body, and to be gradually formed in various stages..."

The next thing that must impress itself upon us after the above sentences is to find out in what way the two factors: the inner formative principle and the outer conditions are involved in the coming into being of an organic form. For only when the rightful share of both sides is given can one speak of an actual explanation of such a form.

Without a doubt, one must first know the external conditions according to their true reality through experience. Goethe lists among these conditions: the temperature of a country, the amount of sunlight, the quality of the air in the surroundings and more. Observation shows us that a certain form is shaped under the influence of a certain series of facts. Goethe says that the Type undergoes a certain "limitation". But once we have recognised in this way that under certain external influences some particular form comes into being, then we are faced with the problem of explaining it, of saying how it could come into being. And here we must take the idea of the Type as a basis for explanation. We must be able to derive this particular form from the general form of the Type. If we are not able to say how the special case is connected with the general case of the Type, if we are not able to say, through this or that form of action, the Type has developed in this particular way, then knowledge of the external conditions is worthless.

These conditions provide the opportunity for the organic to appear in a certain way; knowledge of the inner laws provides the explanation of how precisely this particular form of reality could come into being. Goethe says in a way that cannot be misunderstood, that the form of an organism can only be explained “out of itself through the interaction of its living parts". And as a method of explanation he very often recommends in the most definite way: inform oneself of the external circumstances and then to ask about the inner conditions that appear as a formative principle which is under the influence of these.

An explanation that would only accept external influences as the cause of organic transformations would therefore have to be decisively rejected by Goethe.

We have confined ourselves to simply presenting Goethe's view. How it relates to Darwinism in its present form, we leave it to the reader to form a judgement about this. 8We have elaborated on this relationship, admittedly without knowing the materials of the Goethe-Archive at the time, in the introductions to Goethe's scientific writings (Kürschner's "Deutsche National-Literatur"), Goethes Werke, Vol. XXXIII and XXXIV. We will only conclude by saying a word about the method by which Goethe arrives at his results. Goethe's scientific views are based on results of research into the ideal that rest on an empirical foundation. 9The more detailed definition and proof of this sentence can be seen in Goethes Werke (Kürschner’s "Deutsche National-Literatur"), Vol. XXXIV, p. XXXVII ff. The Type is the result of such research into the ideal. We know from that often-cited conversation with Schiller that Goethe firmly emphasised the empirical character of this "Type". He became angry when Schiller called it an "idea". It was at a time when the ideal nature of it was not yet quite clear to him. He was only aware at the time that he had arrived at his "archetypal plant" through careful observation. But he did not yet realise that he had arrived at an "idea" in this way. He still held to the view of the one-sided empiricists who believe that the observable is exhausted in the objects of external sense perception. But it was precisely Schiller's remark that prompted him to think further about this point. He said to himself: "If he thought that what I expressed as experience was an idea, then there had to be something mediating, something related between the two! The first step had been taken." Namely, the first step towards arriving at a satisfactory solution to the question through further reflection: how are the ideas of the Type (archetypal plant, archetypal animal) to be held fast if one wants to remain strictly on the ground of observation, of empirical science? How is the harmony between the method and the basic character of the result to be established? By observing things in the usual way, we only come to know mere individual details and not the Types. What modification does observation have to undergo? Goethe had to be driven to a "theory of observation". He needed to determine: how must one observe in order to obtain scientifically usable results in the above sense? In this investigation, Goethe had only one predecessor, whose way of thinking, however, was quite foreign to his own: Francis Bacon. Bacon showed how one must approach the phenomena of nature in order to obtain not random, worthless facts, as they present themselves to the ordinary naive view, but results with the character of necessity and natural law. Goethe tried the same thing in his own way. Up to now, the only known fruit of this reflection is the essay: “The experiment as mediator between object and subject”. 10See Goethes Werke (Kürschner's "Deutsche National-Literatur"), Vol. XXXIV, p.1021.

Now, however, we learn from a letter Goethe wrote to Schiller on 17 January 1798, 11Correspondence between Schiller and Goethe, 2nd volume, p.10 ff. that the former enclosed an essay with his letter that contained the principles of his scientific method of research. I assumed from Schiller's reply of 19 January 1798 that this essay must contain important information about the question of how Goethe had conceived of the fundamental structure of natural science, and then tried to reconstruct it according to Schiller's explanations in the introduction to my second volume of Goethe's scientific writings. 12Goethes Werke (Kürschner's "Deutsche National-Literatur"), Vol. XXXIV, p. XXXIX ff. To my particular satisfaction, this essay was found in the Goethe-Archives in exactly the form I had previously constructed. It does indeed provide detailed information about Goethe's fundamental views on scientific methodology and the significance and value of various kinds of observation. The researcher must rise from common empiricism through the intermediate link of abstract rationalism to rational empiricism. Common empiricism stops at the immediate facts of experience: it does not arrive at an estimation of the value of the individual details needed to comprehend the laws. It registers phenomena according to their course, without knowing which of the conditions that come into consideration are necessary and which are accidental. It therefore provides little more than a description of the world of appearances. It only knows what must be present for a phenomenon to occur, but it does not know what is essential. Therefore, it cannot represent phenomena as a necessary consequence of their conditions. The next thing is that one goes beyond this point of view by appealing to the intellect, and thus one wants to become clear about the conditions by way of thinking.

This point of view is essentially that of hypothesising. The rationalist does not look for the causes of phenomena; he invents them; he lives in the belief that one can find out why a phenomenon occurs by thinking about it. This, of course, brings him to nothing. For our intellect is a merely formal faculty. It has no content apart from that which it acquires through observation. Whoever, on the condition of this knowledge, strives for a necessary knowledge, can only concede to the intellect a mediating role. He must grant it the ability to recognise the causes of phenomena when it finds them, but not that it can invent them itself. This is the standpoint of the rational empiricist. It is Goethe's own standpoint. "Concepts without intuitions" are empty, he says with Kant; but he adds: they are necessary in order to determine the value of individual intuitions for the whole of a world view. When understanding approaches nature with this intention, and compiles those factual elements which belong together according to an inner necessity, it rises from the contemplation of the common phenomenon to a rational approach, which is directly an expression of the objective laws of nature. Goethe's empiricism takes everything that he uses to explain phenomena from experience; only the way in which he takes it is determined by his intuitive perception. Now we understand more fully how he was able to speak the words communicated above about his intended morphology, that it contained the idea of a "new science", "not in its content" but in its "point of view and method". 13Cf. Goethe's letter to Hegel of 7 October 1820 (Fr. Strehlke, Goethes Briefe, Erster Teil, p.240): "We are not speaking here of an opinion to be enforced, but of a method to be communicated, which each one may make use of as a tool according to his own kind".

The essay in question is thus the methodological justification of Goethe's method of research. In this respect, it complements everything Goethe has written about natural science, because it tells us how to understand it.

With these remarks we wanted to point out, for the time being, the pleasant fact that through the material of the Archives, Goethe's scientific view is cast in a brighter light from two sides: firstly, the hitherto noticeable gaps in his writings are filled in, and secondly, the nature of his research and his whole attitude to nature are illuminated anew.

The question: what was Goethe looking for in nature and natural science, without the answer to which the understanding of the whole personality of man is not possible, will have to be answered in a completely different form after the publication of the “natural science section” in the Weimar Goethe edition than has often been done so far.

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"You can see from this, my dear friends, what mischief will be set on foot if the truths of Spiritual Science are withheld. For man will be exposed to the forces of evil, and he will only be protected from it by giving himself up to the spiritual life of the good. To withhold the spiritual life of goodness from men is to be no friend to humanity. Whoever does this, be he Freemason or Jesuit, is no friend to humanity. For it means handing men over to the forces of evil. And there may be a purpose in doing so. This purpose may be to confine goodness to a small circle, in order by the help of this goodness to dominate the helpless humanity who are thus led by evil into the follies of life."

—Rudolf Steiner,
Spiritual Science Notes On Goethe's Faust, Vol. II, No. 273-8.

Spiritual Exercises

Calendar of the Soul

In 1912 Rudolf Steiner offered a “calendar of the soul” with weekly verses that express how the changing seasons in both the outer natural world and our inner lives help humanity evolve. Download and read the verses in four translations with commentary by Eloise Krivosheia of the Los Angeles Branch of the Anthroposophical Society.


2022-2023 Calendar Dates