Goethe’s Method of Doing Science

Jeff Carreira New Paradigm Thinking 8 Comments

Although Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is best know as a towering literary figure he was also a scientific genius. His method of doing science was in some ways diametrically opposed to the methods of many of the other great scientists of the Enlightenment era. The dominant mode of science that was developed during the 16th and 17th centuries was a method of objectification.

Science in the objective mode is an attempt to separate from the world, to assume a detached uninvolved stance and from that perch to make observations that are free from personal bias. For science in this form the ultimate verification of the truth of an observation is to have it repeated by another scientist. If two or more scientists can repeat the same observation then it is verifiably objective. It is not the imagination of one person because now two people or more have repeated it.

Objective science of the type we are all most familiar with has of course radically improved our world. The debt that we owe to science for the advancement of human civilization over the past few centuries cannot be overestimated. The success of this method of science does not, however, mean that it is the only form of science possible. Goethe thought that there was another way to do science and that for some things it would yield better results.

The method of science that Goethe practiced was in certain respects diametrically opposed to the objective science described above. Goethe believed that the outer physical world and the inner world of our senses were mirror images of each other, the inside view and the outside view of the same reality.  Therefore, paying attention to the outer world leads to necessary inner responses in us that tell us directly about qualities of what we are observing. The science that Goethe advocated was also one of deep observation. The difference that Goethe brought was that the scientist, while observing the outside world, would pay attention to their own inner responses which would reveal essential elements of what was being observed. It was in a sense a science of subjectivity, or what you might see as a mystical approach to science.

When for instance Goethe spent time observing plants he saw deeply into their nature. By looking at the leaves he saw how the leaves of any given species of plant grew through the repetition of a unique pattern of unfolding. This particular pattern repeated itself again and again throughout the development of the entire plant.

To Goethe all of life unfolded through the repetition of patterns. The essential nature of any object or being was its unique pattern of unfolding. By observing deeply into anything we will eventually see its unfolding pattern and that will be the key to understanding its essence.

To me this is a beautiful vision of the propagation of reality – patterns that repeat and each unique pattern generating a unique type of being or entity. Everything that exists is a record of a unique pattern of unfolding. The development of human beings also occurs through the unfolding of unique patterns of growth.

As I have come to understand Goethe (or misunderstanding him as the case may be) we are each a singular pattern of unfolding. Human growth at all levels from the physical body, to the development of the personality, to profound spiritual growth, all occur through the natural unfolding of our unique pattern of being.

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liesbeth
liesbeth
8 years ago

Re: while observing the outside world, [scientists] would pay attention to their own inner responses which would reveal essential elements of what was being observed. Reading your post I immediately had to think about his book ‘Italian travels’ which is a great example of his way of observing. It shows essences and patterns of being in the nobility of his time. Goethe is part of the nobility and in this book we see the world as it is through his eyes: every noble family builds his own tower and to be different people start to built tilted towers. They also… Read more »

Judy Fox
Judy Fox
8 years ago

Beautiful! Thank you.

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Barbara
Barbara
8 years ago

Successful science is both subjective and objective, both detailed observation and flashes of brilliant inspiration.
Teaching of the “scientific method” as how science really works has decreased the quality of modern science and driven away some of the best minds. By preventing the observer’s biases don’t impact the observation, we generate meaningless statistics and little understanding. By ignoring intuitive insights, we miss the Einsteins.

ftkl1234
8 years ago

What seems to have happened is that Science and the scientific method discredited anything that can’t be proved materially so that metaphysics, mysticism and mystics, and spirituality were drummed out of being reputable areas of concern by most intellectuals, deeming themselves too cool to be spiritual. Many succeeded in so discrediting metaphysics and spirituality as to consider them unworthy of being considered seriously by intellectuals, being too cool to engage in that kind of nonsense and has greatly contributed to secularism and any regard for spirituality. I contend that this has done great disservice to unity of the human spirit… Read more »

Eb
Eb
7 years ago

Hi Jeff,
Great post! You are right, many people do not know about his scientific aspirations, but he was quite into it and also influenced Steiner in his thinking. I feel he was also pointing to our ability of grasping – in some myterious way – the nature of the object that we would observe. As you are describing it beautifully the nature of its unfolding. Which I guess one could also describe as looking deeply into the soul of a being and even “thing”.

wileywitch
wileywitch
7 years ago

Great scientists and mathematicians are often like artists. Mandelbrot saw that what was often described as “chaos” was a natural order that could be mathematically described. Rather than drawing an apple with an abstract symbol of an apple, to use a metaphor, he looked very closely at the apple as it was, not what it was thought to be.

segurelha
segurelha
7 years ago

Once I did a PhD in hardcore science. But as it was hard, I couldn’t harden anymore. Eventually I broke away and went somewhere else. Science was dead. But I was alive. I know one day, I will be dead, but science will continue lively. However, in spirit, science is dead, and I remain alive. And we all do.