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Goethean Science

Goethean Science: XIII: Goethes Basic Geological Principle

On-line since: 16th February, 2002

XIII
Goethe's Basic Geological Principle

Goethe is very often sought where he is absolutely not to be found. Among the many other areas where this has happened is the way the geological research of the poet has been judged. But here more than anywhere it is necessary for everything that Goethe wrote about details to recede into the background before the wonderful intention from which he took his start. He must be judged here above all according to his own maxim: “In the works of man, as in those of nature, it is actually the intentions that are primarily worthy of attention” and “The spirit out of which we act is the highest thing.” Not what he achieved but rather how he strove for it is what is exemplary for us. We are dealing, not with a doctrine, but rather with a method to be communicated. Goethe's doctrine depends upon the scientific means of the times and can be superseded; his method sprang from his great spiritual endowment and stands up even though scientific instruments are being perfected and our experience broadened.

Goethe was introduced into geology through his occupation with the Ilmenau mine, which was one of his official duties. When Karl August became ruler, he devoted himself with great earnestness to this mine, which had been neglected for a long time. First, the reasons for its decline were to be thoroughly investigated by experts and then everything possible was to be done to revive the operation. Goethe stood by Duke Karl August in his undertaking. He pressed on most energetically with this matter. This led him often into the Ilmenau mine. He wanted to familiarize himself completely with the state of affairs. He was in Ilmenau for the first time in May 1776 and often thereafter.

In the midst of this practical concern, there now arose in him the scientific need to arrive at the laws of those phenomena which he was in a position to observe there. The comprehensive view of nature that worked its way up in his spirit to ever greater clarity (see his essay Nature) compelled him to explain, in his sense, what was spread out there before his eyes.

Here right away a deep-lying characteristic of Goethe's nature manifests itself. He has an essentially different need than many investigators. Whereas, for the latter, the main thing is knowledge of the particulars, whereas they are usually interested in an edifice of ideas, in a system, only insofar as it is helpful in observing the particulars, for Goethe, the particulars are only intermediaries to a comprehensive, total view of existence. We read in the essay Nature: “Nature consists solely of children, and the mother, where is she?” We also find in Faust (“See all the working power and seeds”) the same striving to know not only the immediately existing, but also its deeper foundations. In this way, what he observes upon and beneath the surface of the earth also becomes for him a means It of penetrating into the riddle of how the world is formed. What he writes to the Duchess Luise on December 23, 1786, ensouls all his research: “The works of nature are always like a word that has just been spoken by God: and what is experiencable to the senses becomes for him a writing from which he must read that word of creation. In this vein he writes to Frau v. Stein on August 22. 1784: “The great and beautiful writing is always legible and is indecipherable only when people want to transfer their own petty images and their own narrow-mindedness onto the infinite beings.” We find the same tendency in Wilhelm Meister: “But if I were now to treat precisely these cracks and fissures as letters, had to decipher them, were to form them into words, and learned to read them fully, would you have anything against that?”

Thus, from the end of the 1770's on, we see the poet engaged in an unceasing effort to decipher this writing. The goal of his striving was to work his way up to a view such that what he saw separated would appear to him in inner, necessary relationship. His method was “one that develops and unfolds things, by no means one that compiles and orders them.” It did not suffice for him to see granite here and porphyry there, etc., and then simply to arrange them according to external characteristics; he strove for a law that underlay all rock formation and that he needed only to hold before himself in spirit in order to understand how granite had to arise here and porphyry there. He went back from that which differentiates, to that which is held in common. On June 12, 1784, he writes to Frau v. Stein: “The simple thread that I have spun for myself is leading me beautifully through all these subterranean labyrinths, and is giving me an overview even in the confusion.” He seeks the common principle that, according to the different conditions under which it comes to manifestation, at one time brings forth this kind of rock and another time brings forth that. Nothing in the realm of experience is a constant for him at which one could remain; only the principle, which underlies everything, is something of that kind. Goethe therefore also endeavors always to find the transitions from rock to rock. One can recognize much better from them, in fact, the intention, the tendency of their genesis, than from a product that has already developed in a definite way, where nature in fact reveals its being only in a one-sided way, indeed very often “goes astray into a blind alley by specializing.”

It is an error to believe that one has refuted this method of Goethe by indicating that present-day geology does not know of any such transition of one rock into another. Goethe, in fact, never maintained that granite actually passes over into something different. What is once granite is a finished, complete product and no longer has the inner driving power to become something else out of itself. What Goethe was seeking, however, is in fact lacking in present-day geology, and that is the idea, the principle that constitutes granite before it has become granite, and this idea is the same one that also underlies all other formations. When Goethe speaks therefore of the transition of one rock into a different one he does not mean by this a factual transformation but rather a development of the objective idea that takes shape in the individual forms, that now holds fast to one form and becomes granite, and then again develops another possibility out of itself and becomes slate, etc. Also in this realm Goethe's view is not a barren theory of metamorphosis but rather concrete idealism. But that rock-forming principle can come to full expression, with all that lies in this expression, only within the whole body of the earth. Therefore the history of the formation of the earth's body becomes the main thing for Goethe, and all the particulars have to fit into it. The important thing for him is the place a given rock occupies in the totality of the earth; the particular thing interests him only as a part of the whole. Ultimately, that mineralogical-geological system seems to him to be the correct one which recreates the processes in the earth, which shows why precisely this had to arise at this place and that had to arise in another. Geological deposits become of decisive importance for him. He therefore criticizes Werner's teachings, which he otherwise reveres so highly, for not arranging the minerals according to the way they are deposited, which informs us about how they arose, but rather according to incidental external features. It is not the investigator who makes the perfect system, but rather nature itself which has done that.

It should be borne in mind that Goethe saw in the whole of nature one great realm, a harmony. He maintains that all natural things are ensouled with one tendency. What is therefore of the same kind had to appear to him as determined by the same lawfulness. He could not grant that other forces are at work in geological phenomena — which are in fact nothing more than inorganic entities — than in the rest of inorganic nature. The extending into geology of the laws of inorganic activity is Goethe's first geological deed. It was this principle which guided him in his explanation of the Bohemian mountains and in his explanation of the phenomena observed at the temple of Serapis at Pozzuoli. He sought to bring principle into the dead earth crust by thinking of it as having arisen through those laws which we always see at work before our eyes in physical phenomena. The geological theories of a Hutton, an Elie de Beaumont were deeply repugnant to him. What was he supposed to do with explanations that violate all natural order? It is banal to repeat so often the empty remark that it was Goethe's peaceful nature which was repelled by the theory of rising and sinking, etc. No, this theory affronted his sense for a unified view of nature. He could not insert this theory into what is in accordance with nature. And he owes it to this sense that he early on (in 1782 already) arrived at a view that professional geologists attained only decades later: the view that fossilized animal and plant remains stand in a necessary relationship with the rock in which they are found. Voltaire had still spoken of them as freaks of nature, because he had no inkling of the consistency of natural lawfulness. Goethe could make sense of a thing in one place or other only if a simple, natural connection existed between this thing and its environment. It is also the same principle that led Goethe to the fruitful idea of an ice age. (see Geological Problems and an Attempt at their Solution) 69 ] He sought a simple explanation, in accordance with nature, for deposits of granite masses widely separated over large areas. He had indeed to reject the explanation that they had been hurled there by a tumultuous upheaval of mountains lying far behind them, because this explanation did not trace a fact of nature back to the existing working laws of nature but rather derived this fact from an exception, from an abandonment, in fact, of these laws. He assumed that northern Germany had once had, under conditions of extreme cold, a general water level of a thousand feet, that a large part was covered with a layer of ice, and that those granite blocks were left lying after the ice had melted away With this, a view was expressed that is based upon known laws experiencable by us. Goethe's significance for geology is to be sought in his establishment of a general lawfulness of nature. How he explained the Kammerberg, whether or not he was correct in his opinion about the springs of Karlsbad, is unimportant. “It is a question here not of an opinion to be disseminated, but rather of a method to be communicated that anyone may make use of in his own way as a tool” (Goethe to Hegel, October 7, 1820).




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