Goethe's Meteorological Conceptions
Just as in geology, so in meteorology it would be an error to go into what Goethe actually achieved and consider that to be the main thing. His meteorological experiments are in fact nowhere complete. One can only look everywhere at his intention. His thinking was always directed at finding the pregnant 70“Significant Help from One Single Intelligent Word” (“Bedeutende Fördernis durch ein einziges geistreiches Wort”) point from which a series of phenomena governs itself from within outward. Any explanation that takes manifestations, incidentals, from here and there in order to construct a regular series of phenomena was not in accordance with his approach. When confronted by a phenomenon, he looked for everything related to it, for all the facts belonging in the same sphere, in such a way that a whole, a totality, lay before him. Within this sphere, a principle then had to be found that made all the regularity, the whole sphere of related phenomena, in fact, appear as a necessity. It did not seem to him to be in accordance with nature to explain the phenomena in this sphere by introducing circumstances lying outside it. This is where we must seek the key to the principle he set up in meteorology. “More and more each day I felt the complete inadequacy of ascribing such constant phenomena to the planets, to the moon, or to some unknown ebb and flow of the atmosphere ...” “But we reject all such influences; we consider the weather phenomena on earth to be neither cosmic nor planetary, but rather, according to our premises, we must explain them as being purely telluric.” He wanted to trace back the phenomena of the atmosphere to their causes, which lay in the being of the earth itself. The important thing, to begin with, was to find the point where the basic lawfulness that determines everything else expresses itself directly. Barometric pressure provided just such a phenomenon. Goethe then regarded this also as the archetypal phenomenon and sought to connect everything else to it. He tried to follow the rise and fall of the barometer and believed that he also perceived a regularity in it. He studied Schrön's tables and found “that the aforementioned rise and fall follow an almost parallel course at different points of observation, whether nearby or remote, and also in different longitudes, latitudes, and altitudes.” Since this rising and falling seemed to him to be a direct manifestation of gravity, he believed that he saw in barometric changes a direct expression of the quality of the force of gravity itself. But one must not infer anything more from this Goethean explanation. Goethe rejected any setting up of hypotheses. He wanted to provide only an expression for an observable phenomenon, not an actual factual cause, in the sense of present-day natural science. He believed the other atmospheric phenomena should fit in quite well with this phenomenon. The formation of clouds interested the poet most of all. For this, he had found in Howard's teachings a means of grasping the ever-changing forms in certain basic configurations and thus of “firming up with enduring thoughts, something that exists as a changing phenomenon.” He still sought in addition only some means that would help him understand the transformations of the cloud forms, just as he found in that “spiritual ladder” a means of explaining the transformation of the typical leaf shape in the plant. Just as there the spiritual ladder was for him the red thread running through the individual configurations, so here in meteorology it is for him a varying “constitution” (Geeigenschaftetsein) of the atmosphere at varying altitudes. In both cases, we must bear in mind that it could never occur to Goethe to regard such a red thread as a real configuration. He was perfectly aware of the fact that only the individual configuration is to be regarded as real for the senses in space, and that all higher principles of explanation are there only for the eyes of the spirit. Present-day refutations of Goethe are therefore mostly a jousting with windmills. One attributes to his principles a form of reality that he himself denied them and believes one has overcome him in this way. But present-day natural science does not know that form of reality upon which he based things: the objective, concrete idea. From this side, Goethe must therefore remain foreign to present-day science.