Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is best known as a poet and playwright but Goethe himself saw his principle contribution to culture as its approach to science. His scientific research span the fields of geology, meteorology, osteology, botany and colour perception. He authored many works on science, notably The Metamorphosis of Plants, his Theory of Colour. Goethe stressed that one had to start with the actual phenomenon, and that it is impossible to divorce oneself from participation in nature, contrary to the method of contemporary science which was then emerging. So Goethe's approach to science is a form of phenomenology. It seek an understanding of processes by delving into the phenomenon experientially.

Though best known for his superlative poetry and plays, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) also produced a sizable body of scientific work that focused on such diverse topics as plants, color, clouds, weather, and geology. Goethe's way of science is highly unusual because it seeks to draw together the intuitive awareness of art with the rigorous observation and thinking of science. Written by major scholars and practitioners of Goethean science today, this book considers the philosophical foundations of Goethe's approach and applies the method to the real world of nature, including studies of plants, animals, and the movement of water.

Goethe's science seek an understanding of processes by delving into the phenomenon experientially. It requires stepping outside of theory and common place preconceptions and actively engaging the full range of human abilities, senses and imagination, in perceiving the real world. Any phenomena, for example, rocks, plants, animals or humans - any relationships between things or social relations, or the nature of form and function, can be explored using Goethe’s method of approaching phenomena. The approach bears similarities to the phenomenology of Husserl and his successors. However, it is in its practical use that the approach to phenomena has the potential to change the way we, for example, interact with the land, teach science or develop our human potential. Goethe spoke of opening up or growing new 'organs of perception' which would expand our understandings of the world into an integrated whole (this is an idea that Steiner developed into "supersensible perception" and which he saw as the next stage of human evolution). Goethean science is therefore also a spiritual path, an integration of science and art, a science of quality and of wholeness, the development of a science of compassion.

Goethean science is an approach to knowing the world, that serves as an intuitive or "right brain" (so to speak) complement to the traditional rationalistic "left brain" science. Goethe's particular way of doing science is interesting, because it is was opposite the mechanistic and reductionistic paradigms of his contemporaries such as Newton and Laplace.
Fundamental to Goethe's approach to science was his insistence that the scientist is not a passive observer of an external universe, but rather engaged in a reciprocal, participatory relationship with nature, and hence the observer is able to interact with the observed.

Goethe's science was not well received. His wave theory of light lost out to the particle theory of Newton and others (now of course we have both, thanks to quantum physics, but that is only after along dark journey through reductionistic materialism). . There were botanists who used his work on plants, and his theory of colour later gained respect in the fields of psychology and visual arts. But the most active and enthusiastic exponent of his work was Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, who in the first few decades of the 20th century combined Goethe’s science with Rosicrucianism and Blavatskyian Theosophy. Some of Steiner's successors have further developed this stream of neo-Goethean thought, and today the Anthroposophical movement is the most active and creative exponent of Goethe’s science. They even have a "Goetheanum" (designed by Steiner) in Switzerland.


The Leaf Sequence ia the most well-known example of Goethean science is observation of the leaf types of plants, demonstrating a new intuitive way of understanding plant development. This takes a number of different leaf morphotypes and puts them in a sequence, revealing a hidden pattern of morphogenesis. The following is a series of growth stages in a leaf.

Leaf sequence of a musk mallow, from the book New Eyes for Plants, by Margaret Colquhoun and Axel Ewald reproduced from Exploring Goethean Science at Schumacher College.

We can fill the gaps between each leaf stage with the imagination, creating a smooth continuum. In the physical world the plant as it stands frozen in one moment in time. But mental visualisation enables the linking of these disjointed "frames" (the different morphotypes) into a smooth continuous metamorphosis from one form to another. In this way the movement of plant growth can be experienced in the imagination. One can intuitively and non-invasively come to an understanding of how the plant grows. Goethe called this way of seeing "exact sensorial fantasy"; an active process of merging ourselves with the phenomenon. This experience reveals a unique "gesture", a movement characteristic of the plant, telling us 'who' it is as it dances its way into being. In theosophical/New Age parlance one could say we are attuning to the "deva" of the plant. Goethe's science seeks this gesture of organisms, and it is this quality which shows us the 'inner necessity' of the growing plant.

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Created by Arjun Rao
Copyright: Dept. of Physics, Vanderbilt University
Last Modified: 6/12/2001