Concluding Remarks on Goethe's Morphological Views
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
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
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
(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.