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--| Light Course > Three Ways of Science |--- 

An Introduction to Goethean Science

...It was in the early nineties. The 'Frankfurter Freier Hochstift' had
invited me to speak on Goethe's work in Science. I then said in introduction
that I should mainly confine myself to his work in the Organic Sciences. For
to carry Goethe's world-conception into our physical and chemical ideas, was
as yet quite impossible. Through all that lives and works in the Physics and
Chemistry of today, our scientists are fated in regard, whatever takes its
start from Goethe in this realm, as being almost unintelligible from their
point of view. Thus, I opined, we shall have to wait till physicists and
chemists will have witnessed - by their own researches - a kind of "reductio
ad absurdum" of the existing theoretic structure of their Science. Then and
then only will Goethe's outlook come into its own, also in this domain.

In today's lecture it will be my specific aim to help you understand that
contrast between the current, customary science and the kind of scientific
outlook which can be derived from Goethe's general world-outlook. We must
begin by reflecting, perhaps a little theoretically, upon the premisses of
present-day scientific thinking altogether. The scientists who think of
Nature in the customary manner of our time, generally have no very clear
idea of what constitutes the field of their researches. "Nature" has grown
to be a rather vague and undefined conception. Therefore we will not take
our start from the prevailing idea of what Nature is, but from the way in
which the scientist of modern time will generally work.

The scientist today seeks to approach Nature from three vantage-points. In
the first place he is at pains to observe Nature in such a way that from her
several creatures and phenomena he may form concepts of species, kind and
genus. He sub-divides and classifies the beings and phenomena of Nature. You
need only recall how in external, sensory experience so many single wolves,
single hyenas, single phenomena of warmth, single phenomena of electricity
are given to the human being, who thereupon attempts to gather up the single
phenomena into kinds and species. So then he speaks of the species "wolf" or
"hyena", likewise he classifies the phenomena into species, thus grouping
and comprising what is given, to begin with, in many single experiences. Now
we may say, this first important activity is already taken more or less
unconsciously for granted. Scientists in our time do not reflect that they
should really examine how these "universals", these general ideas, are
related to the single data.

The second thing, done by the man of today in scientific research, is that
he tries by experiment, or by conceptual elaboration of the results of
experiment, to arrive at what he calls the "causes" of phenomena. Speaking
of causes, our scientists will have in mind forces or substances or even
more universal entities. They speak for instance of the force of
electricity, the force of magnetism, the force of heat or warmth, and so on.
They speak of an unknown "ether" or the like, as underlying the phenomena of
light and electricity. From the results of experiment they try to arrive at
the properties of this ether. Now you are well aware how very controversial
is all that can be said about the "ether" of Physics. There is one thing
however to which we may draw attention even at this stage. In trying, as
they put it, to go back to the causes of phenomena, the scientists are
always wanting to find their way from what is known into some unknown realm.
They scarcely ever ask if it is really justified thus to proceed from the
known to the unknown. They scarcely trouble, for example, to consider if it
is justified to say that when we perceive a phenomenon of light or colour,
what we subjectively describe as the quality of colour is the effect on us,
upon our soul, our nervous apparatus, of an objective process that is taking
place in the universal ether - say a wave-movement in the ether. They do not
pause to think, whether it is justified thus to distinguish (what is what
they really do) between the "subjective" event and the "objective", the
latter being the supposed wave-movement in the ether, or else the
interaction thereof with processes in ponderable matter.

Shaken though it now is to some extent, this kind of scientific outlook was
predominant in the 19th century, and we still find it on all hands in the
whole way the phenomena are spoken of; it still undoubtedly prevails in
scientific literature to this day.

Now there is also a third way in which the scientist tries to get at the
configuration of Nature. He takes the phenomena to begin with - say, such a
simple phenomenon as that a stone, let go, will fall to earth, or if
suspended by a string, will pull vertically down towards the earth.
Phenomena like this the scientist sums up and so arrives at what he calls a
"Law of Nature". This statement for example would be regarded as a simple
"Law of Nature": "Every celestial body attracts to itself the bodies that
are upon it". We call the force of attraction Gravity or Gravitation and
then express how it works in certain "Laws". Another classical example are
the three statements known as "Kepler's Laws".

It is in these three ways that "scientific research" tries to get near to
Nature. Now I will emphasize at the very outset that the Goethean outlook
upon Nature strives for the very opposite in all three respects...

The Science of our time makes experiments; having thus studied the
phenomena, it then tries to form ideas about the so-called causes that are
supposed to be there behind them; - behind the subjective phenomenon of
light or colour for example, the objective wave-movement in the ether. Not
in this style did Goethe apply scientific thinking. In his researches into
Nature he does not try to proceed from the so-called "known" to the
so-called "unknown". He always wants to stay within the sphere of what is
known, nor in the first place is he concerned to enquire whether the latter
is merely subjective, or objective. Goethe does not entertain such concepts
as of the "subjective" phenomena of colour and the "objective"
wave-movements in outer space. What he beholds spread out in space and going
on in time is for him one, a single undivided whole. He does not face it
with the question, subjective or objective? His use of scientific thinking
and scientific method is not to draw conclusions from the known to the
unknown; he will apply all thinking and all available methods to put the
phenomena themselves together till in the last resort he gets the kind of
phenomena which he calls archetypal, - the Ur-phenomena. These archetypal
phenomena - once more, regardless of "subjective or objective" - bring to
expression what Goethe feels is fundamental to a true outlook upon Nature
and the World. Goethe therefore remains amid the sequence of actual
phenomena; he only sifts and simplifies them and then calls "Ur-phenomenon"
the simplified and clarified phenomenon, ideally transparent and

Thus Goethe looks upon the whole of scientific method - so to call it -
purely and simply as a means of grouping the phenomena. Staying amid the
actual phenomena, he wants to group them in such a way that they themselves
express their secrets. He nowhere seeks to recur from the so-called "known"
to an "unknown" of any kind. Hence too for Goethe in the last resort there
are not what may properly be called "Laws of Nature". He is not looking for
such Laws. What he puts down as the quintessence of his researches are
simple facts - the fact, for instance, of how light will interact with
matter that is in its path. Goethe puts into words how light and matter
interact. That is no "law"; it is a pure and simple fact. And upon facts
like this he seeks to base his contemplation, his whole outlook upon Nature.
What he desires, fundamentally, is a rational description of Nature. Only
for him there is a difference between the mere crude description of a
phenomenon as it may first present itself, where it is complicated still and
untransparent, and the description which emerges when one has sifted it, so
that the simple essentials and they alone stand out. This then - the
Urphenomenon - is what Goethe takes to be fundamental, in place of the
unknown entities or the conceptually defined "Laws" of customary Science.


- Rudolf Steiner, Light Course, Lecture 1, Stuttgart, 23rd December 1919.

- The Goethean Wolf
- Invisible Humans

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