In your time zone: 2021-04-15T17:00:00Z
ZOOM video conference: https://www.cosmos.coop/zoom/cafe
This is the third of seven planned sessions (currently scheduled every two weeks) encompassing a collective reading of Bortoft’s book. Planned are the last two chapters – approximately the second half – of Part II “Goethe’s Scientific Consciousness”.
The first half of this essay focused on a comparative study of Newton’s and Goethe’s approach to their study of light and color, highlighting the cultural-historical influences which deeply influenced both approaches. We should remember that these are not competing ways of seeing the world, but rather should be understood as complementary to each other. In the second half of this essay, though, the focus shifts more specifically to Goethe’s organic vision, including both plants and animals. This leads necessarily to a summary discussion of Goethe’s understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge itself.
Goethe saw nature much more holistically than we have been raised and educated to see it. Whereas elementary botany considers the flowering plant as an external assemblage of different parts – leaves, sepals, petals, stamens, etc. – which are separate and independent of one another, what Goethe discovered is that it could be described as continuity of form (pp. 77-78). All parts are manifestations of what he called an Urorgan (a primal or archetypal organ) which is neither a mental abstraction (internally subjective) nor externally objective (a primitive organ). It was his achievement to see the plant in terms of itself. Instead of comparing numerous examples in search of their common elements, a static, inflexible unity in multiplicity, Goethe is describing the dynamical, infinitely flexible multiplicity in unity (analogous to the hologram, described in the first essay to the volume).
Goethe coined the term “morphology” to describe the study of form in both the plant and animal kingdoms. As with his study of plants, Goethe discovered that the mammal, for example, is disclosed as well in terms of itself, thereby becoming its own language (p. 99). The connections between the various characteristics of a given animal are not just contingent, as they are seen for example in Darwinian terms (any given feature could randomly mutate into something else), but are rather necessary, incapable of being otherwise without altering the animal itself into something other than it is.
For Aristotle, knowledge is not knowledge of what happens to be true, but rather what cannot be otherwise and hence must be true (p. 104); and the same applies to Goethe. Knowledge should not be understood as a mere subjective state of the knower independent of phenomenon in question. Instead, for Goethe, “the state of ‘being known’ was to be understood as a further stage of the phenomenon itself” (p. 108). In this state of knowing, it is clear that the knower and the known cannot be considered external to each other, but rather constitute an indivisible whole. Consequently, Goethe’s view could be called “organic” since it sees knowledge as a further development of the phenomenon itself, and as such it is particularly well-suited for studying Life.
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 3 (Goethe’s Organic Vision) & Chapter 4 (The Scientist’s Knowledge) (pp. 77-115).
(Alternately: Bortoft, Henri (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 6th printing 2018.)
The notion of “intuition” continues to play a significant role in Bortoft’s presentation of Goethean science. How has your own understanding of the notion perhaps shifted in the course of your reading? Do you think this is the best term for what is being described?
What do you think of Bortoft’s contrast between “unity in multiplicity” and “multiplicity in unity”? Is the distinction clear and meaningful for you? Is it a helpful distinction?
The theme that the whole can only be understood in terms of the part and vice versa is recurrent throughout this reading. One distinction which Bortoft highlights in relation to this is between “extensive” and “intensive”, especially as the latter term is used in a way that is most likely new for most of us. What do you think about this part of the discussion? What new insights have you gained as a result of it?
The notions of “contingency” and “necessity” play an important role in this reading as well. What are your thoughts on the notions of “evolution” that these imply? Did the contrast impact your own understanding of evolution in any way? If so, how?
The analytical way of knowledge of modern science has brought about many technological developments which are impacting our lives in many ways, both positively and negatively. In which practical ways do you think Goethe’s organic way of knowledge might have positive effects on our lives? Do you see potential for less than favorable developments as well?