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Goethean Science: V: Concluding Remarks on Goethes Morphological Views

On-line since: 16th February, 2002

Concluding Remarks on Goethe's Morphological Views

When, at the end of this consideration of Goethe's thoughts on metamorphosis, I look back over the views that I felt compelled to express, I cannot conceal from myself the fact that a very great number of outstanding adherents of the various tendencies in scientific thought are of a different view than I. Their position with respect to Goethe is completely clear to me; and the judgment they will pronounce on my attempt to present the standpoint of our great thinker and poet is quite predictable.

The views about Goethe's strivings in the realm of natural science are separated into two opposing camps.

The adherents of modern monism with Professor Haeckel at their head, recognize in Goethe the prophet of Darwinism who conceives of the organic completely in the Darwinian sense: as governed by the laws that are also at work in inorganic nature. The only thing Goethe lacked, they believe, was the theory of natural selection by which Darwin first founded the monistic world view and which raised the theory of evolution into a scientific conviction.

Opposing this standpoint there stands another, which assumes that Goethe's idea of the typus is nothing more than a general concept, an idea in the sense of Platonic philosophy. According to this view, Goethe did indeed make individual statements that remind one of the theory of evolution at which he arrived through the pantheism inherent in his nature; however, he did not feel any need to go all the way to the ultimate mechanical foundations. Thus there can be no question of finding the theory of evolution in the modern sense in Goethe.

As I was attempting to explain Goethe's views, without taking any definite standpoint beforehand, purely out of Goethe's nature, out of the whole of his spirit, it became clear to me that neither the one nor the other of these two camps — extraordinarily significant as their contributions have been toward an assessment of Goethe — has interpreted his view of nature altogether correctly.

The first of the two views characterized above is entirely right in asserting that Goethe, in striving to explain organic nature, combats the dualism that assumes insuperable barriers to exist between organic nature and the inorganic world. But Goethe asserted the possibility of this explanation not because he conceived of the forms and phenomena of organic nature in a mechanistic context, but rather because he saw that the higher context in which they do stand is in no way closed to our knowledge. He did indeed conceive of the universe in a monistic way as an undivided unity — from which he by no means excluded the human being — but he also therefore recognized that within this unity levels are to be discerned that have their own laws. Already from his youth up, he reacted negatively to efforts to picture unity as uniformity, and to conceive of the organic world, as well as everything that appears as higher nature in nature, as being governed by the laws at work in the inorganic world (see History of my Botanical Studies). It was also this rejection that later compelled him to assume the existence of a power to judge in beholding, by which we grasp organic nature, in contrast to the discursive intellect, by which we know inorganic nature. Goethe conceives of the world as a circle of circles, each of which has its own principle of explanation. Modern monists know only one single circle: that of inorganic natural laws.

The second of the two opinions about Goethe described above recognizes that with him it is a matter of something different than with modern monism. But since the adherents of this second view consider it a postulate of science that organic nature is explained in the same way as inorganic nature, and since from the very start they reject with abhorrence a view like Goethe's, they regard it as altogether useless to go more deeply into his strivings.

Thus Goethe's high principles could gain full validity in neither camp. And it is precisely these principles that are so outstanding in his work, which, for someone who has recognized them in all their depth, do not lose in significance even when he sees that many a detail of Goethean research needs to be corrected.

This fact now requires of a person who is attempting to present Goethe's views that he direct his attention away from the critical assessment of each individual thing Goethe discovered in one or another chapter of natural science, and toward what is central to the Goethean view of nature.

By seeking to meet this requirement, one comes close to possibly being misunderstood by precisely those by whom it would be most painful for me to be misunderstood: by the pure empiricists. I mean those who pursue in every direction the factually demonstrable relationships of organisms, the empirically given materials, and who regard the question as to the primal principles of the organic realm as one that is still open today. What I bring cannot be directed against them, because it does not touch on them. On the contrary: I build a part of my hopes precisely on them, because their hands are still free in every respect. They are also the ones who will still have to correct many an assertion of Goethe, for he did sometimes err in the factual realm; here, of course, even the genius cannot overcome the limitations of his time.

In the realm of principles, however, he arrived at fundamental views that have the same significance for organic science that Galileo's basic laws have for mechanics.

To establish this fact was the task I set myself.

I hope that those whom my words cannot convince will at least see the good will with which I strove, without respect to persons, attentive only to the subject at hand, to solve the problem I have indicated — explaining Goethe's scientific writings out of the whole of his nature — and to express a conviction that for me is uplifting.

Since one has made a fortunate and successful beginning at explaining Goethe's literary works in that way, there already lies in that the challenge to bring all the works of his spirit under this kind of study. This cannot remain unaccomplished forever, and I will not be the last among those who will heartily rejoice if my successor succeeds better than I. May youthful and striving thinkers and researchers — especially those who are not merely interested in breadth of vision, but who rather look directly at what is central to our knowing activity — grant my reflections some attention, and follow in great numbers to set forth more perfectly what I was striving to present.

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