While studying plants Goethe developed his scientific method and chronicled his ideas in his book “The Metamophasis of Plants”, published in 1790. According to Goethe, when studying anything, especially life in the context of nature one must find the underlying creative process and not preferentially study the completed form. One must look beneath the surface and search for a unified unfolding pattern.
One must find their way “upstream”, and not focus on the various abstractions of completed forms and compare them to one another. That method is going “downstream” and one only studies superficial similarities, the deeper truth cannot be revealed. We must catch nature in the “Act of Becoming” in order to discern the underlying archetype. In this way one can determine the whole and find that each part reflects the whole.
Immanuel Kant, in his third critique of judgement, philosophized about the relationship between beautiful art and purposeful nature. He claimed that through “Artistic Genius”, humans can tap into the same creative power that gives shape to nature. Kant then went on to argue, that based upon the limitations of our mechanistic categorizing human mind, it is not possible to grasp nature and deeper knowledge of life processes. Kant, described the limitations of the analytical “Scientific Method”, as practiced by Isaac Newton but admitted it’s the best humans can do considering the limitations of their comprehension.
Goethe disagreed, stating that his “Artistic Senstitivities” provided him genuine scientific insights into the formative power of nature. Goethe believed we are capable of an “Intuitive Understanding”, or an “Archetypal Perception” via a participatory method of inquiry, and in this way genuine knowledge is revealed to us.
Goethe believed that we coud grasp nature through “Imaginatively perceived creative acts” that give shape to the analyzed facts, from the inside out. Goethe and Freidrich Schelling (Goethe a mentor to the young philosopher), expressed the idea as:
“In the usual view the original productivity of nature disappears behind the products,
The product must disappear behind the productivity.”
Whereas Newtons’ method is mechanical-mathematical, Geothe’s method is a metaphysical-dynamical approach to science thereby opening the door that Kant slammed shut. It allows for the re-discovery of the living dimension of nature, as studied in the middle age and in the earlier Rennaissance by hermetic alchemists prior to the Scientific Revolution.
Goethe incorporated the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza in his development of his Method of discovery. Spinoza, taking insights from Thomas Aquinas and the Arabic philosopher Averroes, borrowed the Latin terminology Nature Naturans (Nature in the Act of Naturing) and Nature Naturata (Nature already Natured) to illustrate his concept of Pantheism. Spinoza believed that God and Nature were the same, and modified Nature Naturans to mean the underlying infinite substance of divine nature, and Nature Naturata to mean the finite modes through which this substance makes its’ appearance in space and time.
Goethe tweaked Spinoza’s idea, and emphasized a “Dynamic Monoistic Polarity” between the “Product” and “Productivity”. As to Spinoza, God is a static being underlying nature, but not an active participant in it. To Goethe, and Schelling, the divine is living and dynamically at work in nature. The divine is an evolving subject participating in its own spiritual flowering as physical nature, evolving, creating and becoming eternally.
“Nature should be spirit made visible, Spirit the invisible nature.”
Whereas, Rene Descartes and Newton saw the cosmos as a machine, Goethe viewed the cosmos as a birthing process, a spiritual cosmogenesis, an incarnational movement of God into the world. Goethe believed, that our minds can be in harmony with the laws of nature.
In the mid-1790’s Kant developed his Transcendental Method of logic. He said that the human mind provides the transcendental condition for the experience of nature to be made possible. But beneath that experience we can not know, as the condition itself is “a priori” and existing before and outside the comprehension of our intellect. Through the application of human “Reason” we know that we cannot know, and the limits of human knowledge allows us as “Rational” beings to fully affirm our “moral freedom” without contradicting our understanding of nature. In this sense, Kant limits our knowledge to “Appearance” in order to make room for faith in an entirely invisible and otherworldly freedom.
Goethe disagreed, and argued knowledge of nature and God could be genuine and need not only be limited to appearances. To Spinoza, his system was an expression of intellectual love of God, and only by way of this love could the philosopher come to know the nature of the divine. The divine as it manifests in nature, as nature. Because this system of nature is nothing more that God’s “Knowledge of itself: insofar as the philosopher comprehends this system, he is identical with God.
To Goethe, this comprehension is no less emotional than it is intellectual, so one must approach God with an appropriate attitude to have the knowledge of nature revealed. Goethe romanticizing Spinoza, sought to gently reveal natures secrets through love imbued perception, rather than violently extracting them from her through disinterested and anesthetized objectification.
Goethe, sought to make the sensual desire motivating his artistic work fit a precise and rigorous scientific observation. Like the alchemists before him, Goethe believed love and imagination were crucial for scientific discovery. But he did warn against the uncultivated and unconscious use of imagination in scientific endeavors.
Goethe was a harsh critic of Newton as he described Newton as implicitly as imposing his mechanistic image onto his observations. This image was interfering with Newton’s ability to properly perceive what his experiences were actually revealing to him. Goethe remarking on Newtons’ wrong judgement:
“Here at this pass of the transfer from experience to judgement is where
all of mans internal enemies lie in wait, imagination which lifts him to
the heavens on its’ wings even when he believes he is still on solid ground.”
Commenting on Newtons’ study of light, Goethe remarked that his mechanized imagination caused him to implicitly project his thoughts into nature. Newton believed his perceptions were derived directly from his experiences as though he was standing on solid ground. Conversely, Goethe sought to consciously attune his imagination to his perceptual experience.
Frederick Armine, who translated Goethe’s “Metamorphasis of Plants” in 2009 commented;
“For Goethe, one does not abandon nature herself and fancy a mechanism and then test this hypothesis via an artificial experince that tears individual meaningful manifestations out of the whole as Newton did. Instead the scientist must adopt a living approach that can enter into the phenomenon and “Discern” the underlying pattern. He must allow the phenomena to show themselves as to their inherent order and logic which is about movement and activity rather than objects. While this Method is not seemingly objective in the sense of quantification, it is none the less equally rigorous in regards to the matter of qualities.”
Newton’s abstract method was a preconceived mathematical model that provided him a lens through which experiments are observed. Instead Goethe developed what he termed,
“Exact Sensorial Imagination:
A method of active looking, or reversed seeing that enables the mind
to reanimate the finished facts of nature by inwardizing them as acts of imagination,
recreating in the wake of ever creating nature.”-Goethe
“Exact Sensorial Imagination is setting ones mind in motion, in a motion corresponding to the plant under observation, so that the same living idea that has expressed itself in the metamorphasis of the plant comes to life and visibility in the mind as well. What was successive in ones empirical experiences, then becomes simultaneous in the intuitively perceived idea. Instead of an onlooking subject knowing an alien object, this is knowledge through participation, or even identification of observer and observed.”
-Gordon Miller, appendix of the translation of Metamophasis of Plants 2009
(This phenomenon is so closely reminiscent of the particle-wave theory in physics. When the scientist focuses on the particulars a particle is revealed, when they step back the fluidity of the wave can be seen)
“Knowing things from the inside, our spirit stands in harmony with those simpler
powers that lie deep within nature and it is able to represent them to itself just as
purely as the objects of the visible world are formed with a clear eye.
A deep connection linked the mind of the scientist to the natural world.”
While surveying some mines that he managed for Duke August, Goethe came to the following realization:
“If properly prepared the human hearts’ the most recent, most valuable,
most changeable, most quaking part of creation, could come to know
the oldest most stable, deepest, most unshakable son of nature.”
Knowing nature for Goethe required first knowing oneself.
“The senses and not mathematics are the door and key to science.”
Goethe’s is no empirical method of Hume or Locke, but rather a re-envisioned form that moves away from the verbal intellectual and towards the sensuous and intuitive mode of experience.
“Standard empiricism is all too often unaware of the habitual projections and constructs obscuring their perceptions of phenomena. Before we learn to pay proper attention to the influence of imagination, what we think we are perceiving may actually be the residue of prior experiences. Children not yet spellbound by the power of language to substitute general concepts for particular percepts still encounter a living and mysterious world. Adults once they’ve learned the names for things begin actually to perceive the world in terms of those abstractions, neglecting the animate presence that lies beneath.”
Goethe here describes the exact mechanism of the left mind. Through the indoctrinatation of reason over the natural character of humanness, we effectively shut down our right mind In deference for the limited view of the left mind. Goethe, in his method indirectly argues for the exact inverse operation.