This is the second of seven planned sessions (currently scheduled every two weeks) encompassing a collective reading of Bortoft’s book. Planned are the first two chapters – approximately the first half – of Part II “Goethe’s Scientific Consciousness”.
Although introduced in the first part of the book, this essay focuses in particular on Goethe’s approach to science, his scientific consciousness. Since Kuhn’s seminal essay The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd Enlarged Edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970) there has been more openness to approaches to science which are not necessarily fashionable, which is necessary if we are to understand how science has developed historically. Oddly enough, there has been more criticism of Goethe’s science from students of the humanities than from mainstream scientists themselves. Experimental psychologists of color, for example, look upon Goethe as one of the founders of their science, and his scientific method and the philosophy of science which it reflects are also taken seriously by modern physicists. What mattered to Goethe was the way of seeing which influenced the facts that were observed. What is experienced in this way cannot be grasped like an object (just like the meaning of a text cannot be grasped as an object), but rather what is encountered is the “organization or unity of the world” (p. 34). To understand Goethe’s way of seeing, we need to experience it for ourselves.
The first step in the investigation of this way of seeing is to review Newton’s own experiments and his subsequent theory of color, which was Goethe’s starting point as well. The fact that Newton himself viewed color as a sensation in the observer, his presentation of his results allowed his followers to quickly forget this idea. In the Copernican, and certainly Galilean desire to mathematize science, which had been further developed by the British empiricists, led to a distinction between primary qualities, (i.e., those which can be expressed as quantities) and secondary qualities (i.e., those which can only be expressed indirectly in mathematical terms). Newton’s notion of “refrangibility” enabled him to mathematize color. Goethe, on the other hand, required a more active attention to the phenomenon, that is, to truly “look” by putting our attention into the seeing itself. By replicating the observations entirely in one’s imagination – what Goethe called exakte sinnliche Phantasie, or “exact sensorial imagination” – one can penetrate deeper into the phenomenon. What one experiences in this way is what he referred to as the Urphänomen, or “primal or archetypal phenomenon”. In other words, “The world which we know is not in fact visible to the senses in the way it seems to be” (pp. 49-50). To the empiricists we know the world through experience, but Goethe’s approach demonstrates clearly that there is always a nonsensory factor in cognitive perception. As Bortoft phrases it, “purely sensory experience would be a state of difference without distinction, diversity without differentiation. It would be a condition of total multiplicity without unity […] a state of awareness without meaning” (p. 53).
What this points toward, according to Bortoft, is two distinct modes of consciousness: (1) the analytical mode, of science, which sees the world as composed of separate, solid bodies unrelated to each other; and (2) the holistic mode, which is dynamic, nonlinear, simultaneous, and intuitive, instead of verbal-intellectual. It is this latter mode of consciousness which opens a new dimension of the phenomenon, its depth. For Goethe, of course, this is not something which is given, so to speak, but “something to be achieved”, namely a perception attained by a change of consciousness, not by a process of rational thought (p. 72). This is, in effect, a shift from the intellectual to the intuitive mind, wherein the phenomenon becomes its own explanation.
Reading / Watching / Listening
Bortoft, Henri (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press), II. Goethe’s Scientific Consciousness, Chapter 1 (Introduction) & Chapter 2 (Making the Phenomenon Visible) (pp. 29-76).
(Alternately: Bortoft, Henri (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 6th printing, 2018.)
What is your own experience of modern science’s approach to knowledge and explaining reality? Do you agree with Bortoft that it is not so empirical as it would like to believe it is? Do you feel that overall there has been something of a change in its approach in your own lifetime?
What do you think of Newton’s approach to the theory of color? Do you find his theory and its presentation as incongruent as Bortoft claims? Why do you think there might be such a discrepancy? How significant do you think the discrepancy is: is this a cause to reject science outright?
What do you think of Goethe’s approach to the theory of color? Do you believe he is actually onto something or is this, as some critics maintain, a subjectivizing of the theory? Have you tried to practice this active mode of seeing yourself in any way, and were you successful or not?