[RSArchive Icon]
Rudolf Steiner Archive Section Name Rudolf Steiner Archive & e.Lib

Highlight Words

Goethe's World View

Goethean World View: Part II: Metamorphosis

Goethe's Views on the Nature
and Development of Living Beings


Goethe's relationship to the natural sciences cannot be understood if one confines oneself merely to the single discoveries he made. I consider the words which Goethe addressed to Knebel on August 18, 1787 from Italy to be the guiding point of view in looking at this relationship: “To judge by the plants and fish I have seen in Naples and Sicily, I would, if I were ten years younger, be tempted to make a trip to India, not in order to discover something new but rather in order to contemplate in my own way what has already been discovered.” What seems most significant to me is the way in which Goethe drew together the phenomena of nature known to him into a view of nature that accorded with his way of thinking. If all the single discoveries he succeeded in making had already been made before him, and if he had given us nothing more than his view of nature, this would not lessen the significance of his nature studies in the slightest. I agree with Du Bois-Reymond that “even without Goethe, science would be just as far along as it is,” that the steps he took would sooner or later have been taken by others (Goethe and More Goethe). Only I cannot extend these words, as Du Bois-Reymond does, to include the whole of Goethe's natural scientific work. I limit them to the single discoveries he made in the course of it. All of these discoveries would probably have been made by now even if Goethe had never concerned himself with botany, anatomy, etc. His view of nature, however, is an outgrowth of his personality; no one else could have come to it. Goethe's individual discoveries also did not interest him. During his studies they forced themselves upon him of their own accord, because certain views held sway in his time about facts relating to these discoveries, which were incompatible with his way of looking at things. If he had been able with what natural science provided him to build up his view, then he would never have occupied himself with study of the details. He had to go into the particulars because what was told him about the particulars by natural scientists did not meet his requirements. And only by chance, as it were, did the individual discoveries result from these studies of the details. He was not primarily concerned with the question as to whether man, like the other animals, has an intermaxillary bone in the upper jaw. He wanted to discover the ground-plan by which nature forms the sequence of animals and, at the highest level of this succession, forms man. He wanted to find the common archetype which underlies all species of animals and which finally, in its highest perfection, also underlies the human species. The natural scientists said to him that there is a difference between the structure of an animal's body and that of man. The animals have an inter-mediary bone in the upper jaw, and man does not have it. But his view was that man's physical structure could differ from that of the animal only in its degree of perfection but not in particulars. For, if the latter were the case, then a common archetype could not underlie both the animal and the human organization. Goethe could do nothing with this assertion of the natural scientists. Therefore he looked for the intermediary bone in man and found it. Something similar can be observed in all his individual discoveries. They are never for him a purpose in themselves. They must be made in order to show that his picture of the phenomena of nature is valid.

In the area of organic natural phenomena the significant thing about Goethe's view is the mental picture he developed of the nature of life. The main thing is not his emphasis upon the fact that leaf, calyx, corolla, etc. are organs of the plant which are identical to each other and which develop from a common basic structure; the main thing is what mental picture Goethe had of the whole of plant nature as something living and how he thought of the particulars as coming forth out of this whole. His idea of the nature of the organism has to be called his most original and central discovery in the area of biology. Goethe's basic conviction was that something can be seen in the plant and in the animal that is not accessible to mere sense observation. What the bodily eye can observe about the organism seems to Goethe to be only the result of the living whole of developmental laws working through one another and accessible to the spiritual eye alone. What he saw about the plant and the animal with his spiritual eye is what he described. Only someone who is as capable of seeing as he was can think through his idea of the nature of the organism. Whoever stops short at what the senses and experiments provide cannot understand Goethe. When we read his two poems, the Metamorphosis of the Plants and the Metamorphosis of the Animals, it seems at first as though his words only lead us from one part of the organism to another, as though things of a merely external, factual nature are meant to be connected. But if we permeate ourselves with what hovered before Goethe as idea of the living being, we then feel ourselves carried into the sphere of the living organic, and the mental pictures of the individual organs grow out of one central mental picture.


As Goethe began to think independently about the phenomena of nature, the concept of life occupied his attention above all else. In a letter of July 14, 1770 from his Strassburg period, he writes about a butterfly: “The poor creature trembles in the net, rubs off its most beautiful colors; and even if one captures it unharmed, it lies there finally stiff and lifeless; the corpse is not the whole creature; something else still belongs to it, a main part still, and in this case as in every other a most major main part: its life.” The fact that an organism cannot be regarded as a dead product of nature, that there is still more in it than the forces which also live in inorganic nature, was clear to Goethe from the beginning. Du Bois-Reymond is undoubtedly right when he states that “the constructing of a purely mechanical world, of which science consists today, would not have been less hated by the poet prince of Weimar than the ‘systeme de la nature’ once was by Friederike's friend”; and he is no less right with his other statement that “Goethe would have turned away shuddering from this world construct which, through its spontaneous generation, borders on the Kant-Laplace theory, from the view that man arose out of chaos through the mathematically determined play of atoms from eternity to eternity, from the ending of the world in freezing cold, from all these pictures which our generation looks so unfeelingly in the face, just as it has grown used to the horrors of railroad travel” (Goethe and More Goethe). For sure, he would have turned away shuddering, because he sought, and also found, a higher concept of the living than that of a complicated mathematically determined mechanism. Only someone who is incapable of grasping a higher concept such as this and who identifies the living with the mechanical because he is able to see in the organism only the mechanical, only he will warm to the mechanical construct of the world and its play of atoms and will look unfeelingly upon the pictures which Du Bois-Reymond conjures up. But someone who can take up into himself the concept of the organic in Goethe's sense will quarrel just as little about its validity as he will about the existence of mechanical. One does not quarrel, after all, with the color-blind about the world of colors. All views which picture as mechanical what is organic fall under the judgment which Goethe has Mephistopheles make:

Who'll know aught living and describe it well,
Seeks first the spirit to expel.
He then has the component parts in hand –
But lacks, alas! the spirit's band.
(Priest's translation)


Goethe found it possible to occupy himself more intimately with the life of the plants when Duke Karl August presented him with a garden on April 21, 1776. Goethe was also stimulated by his walks in the Thueringen forest, on which he could observe how the life of the lower organisms manifested itself. The mosses and lichens drew his attention. On October 31 he asked Frau von Stein for mosses of all kinds, damp and with roots where possible, so that he could use them to observe their propagation. It is important to keep in mind the fact that Goethe, at the beginning of his botanical studies, occupied himself with the lower plant forms. For later, in conceiving his idea of the archetypal plant, he only took into account the higher plants. His doing so cannot therefore be due to the fact that the realm of the lower plants was unfamiliar to him, but rather was due to the fact that he believed the secrets of the plant's nature to be more distinct and pronounced in the higher plants. He wanted to seek out the idea of nature where it revealed itself most clearly and then to descend from the perfect to the imperfect, in order to understand the latter by the former. He did not want to explain what is complex by what is simple, but rather he wanted, with one look, to have an overview of what is complex as a working whole, and then explain what is simple and imperfect as a one-sided development out of what is complex and perfect. If nature is able, after innumerable plant forms, to make yet one more which contains them all, then also, as the spirit beholds this perfect form, the secret of plant development must be revealed to it in direct beholding, and it will then be able easily to apply what it has observed about what is perfect to what is imperfect. The natural scientists do it the other way around; they consider what is perfect to be only the mechanical sum total of simple processes. They start with what is simple and derive what is perfect from it.

As Goethe looked around for a scientific guide for his botanical studies, he could find none except Linnaeus. We first hear about his study of Linnaeus in his letters to Frau von Stein in the year 1782. The interest he took in Linnaeus' books shows how serious Goethe was about his natural scientific strivings. He admits that, aside from Shakespeare and Spinoza, Linnaeus had the greatest effect upon him. But how little Linnaeus was able to satisfy him. Goethe wanted to observe the different plant forms in order to recognize the common element living in them. He wanted to know what made all these forms into plants. And Linnaeus had been content to place the manifold plant forms next to one another in a particular order and to describe them. Here in an individual case Goethe's naive, unprejudiced observation of nature ran up against science's way of thinking which was influenced by a one-sidedly understood Platonism. This way of thinking sees in the individual forms realizations of the archetypal Platonic ideas or thoughts of the creation, existing along side one another. Goethe sees in each individual form only one particular development out of one ideal archetypal being which lives in all forms. The first way of thinking wants to distinguish as exactly as possible the individual forms in order to recognize the manifold nature of idea-forms or of the plan of creation; Goethe wants to explain the manifold nature of the particulars out of their original unity. The fact that very much exists in manifold forms is immediately clear to the first way of thinking, because to it the ideal archetypes are already what is manifold. For Goethe this is not clear, since the many belong together, in his view, only if a oneness reveals itself in them. Goethe says, therefore, that what Linnaeus “sought forcibly to keep apart had to strive for unity, in accordance with the innermost need of my being.” Linnaeus simply accepts the existing forms without asking how they have come into being out of a basic form: “We can count as many species as there have been different forms created in principle”: this is his basic tenet. Goethe seeks what is working in the plant realm and creating the individual plants by bringing forth specific forms out of the basic form.

Goethe found in Rousseau a more naive relationship to the plant world than in Linnaeus. On June 16, 1782 he wrote to Karl August: “Among Rousseau's works there are some most delightful letters about botany, in which he presents this science to a lady in a most comprehensible and elegant way. It is a real model of how one should teach, and it supplements Emil. I use it therefore as an excuse to recommend anew the beautiful realm of the flowers to my beautiful lady friends.” In his History of My Botanical Studies Goethe sets forth what it was that drew him to Rousseau's botanical ideas: “His relationship to plant lovers and connoisseurs, especially to the Duchess of Portland, could have given his sharp eye more breadth of vision, and a spirit like his, which feels itself called upon to proscribe order and lawfulness to the nations had, after all, to gain an inkling that such a great diversity of forms could not appear within the immeasurable realm of the plants, unless one basic law, no matter how hidden it may also be, brought all these forms back into unity.” Goethe also sought just such a basic law as this which brings the diversity back into the unity from which it originally went forth.

Two books of Baron von Gleichen, called Russwurm, appeared back then on Goethe's spiritual horizon. They both treat the life of the plants in a way that could become fruitful for him: The Latest News from the Plant Realm (Nuernberg, 1764) and Special Microscopic Discoveries about Plants (Nuernberg, 1777-1781). They concern themselves with the fructification processes of plants. In them pollen, stamens, and pistil are carefully described, and the processes of fructification are presented in well-executed diagrams. Goethe now makes experiments himself in order to observe with his own eyes the results described by von Gleichen-Russwurm. On January 12, 1785 he writes to Jacobi: “A microscope is set up in order, when spring arrives, to re-observe and verify the experiments of von Gleichen, called Russwurm.” At the same time he studies the nature of the seed, as we can tell from a report to Knebel on April 2, 1785: “I have thought through the substance of the seed as far as my experiences reach.” These observations of Goethe's appear in the right light only when one takes into account that already then he did not stop short at them, but rather sought to gain a complete view of the processes of nature for which they were meant to serve as supports and substantiation. On April 8 of the same year he announces to Merck that he had not only observed the facts but had also “combined” these facts “nicely.”


An essential influence on the development of Goethe's ideas about the organic workings of nature was his participation in Lavater's great work, Physiognomical Fragments for Furthering Human Knowledge and Human Love, which appeared in the years 1775-1778. He himself made contributions to this work. In the way he expresses himself in these contributions, his later way of regarding the organic is already prefigured. Lavater stopped short at dealing with the shape of the human organism as an expression of the soul. From the forms of bodies he wanted to read the characters of souls. Goethe began, even back then, to look upon the outer shape for its own sake and to study its own lawfulness and power of development. He occupies himself at the same time with the writings of Aristotle on physiognomy and attempts, on the basis of a study of organic form, to determine the difference between man and animals. He finds this difference in the way the whole human structure brings the head into prominence and in the perfect development of the human brain toward which all the other parts point as though to an organ to which they are attuned. On the other hand, with the animals the head is merely hung upon the spine; the brain and spinal cord have no more scope than is absolutely necessary for carrying out the lower instinctual life and for directing purely physical processes. Goethe sought already back then the difference between man and the animals, not in one or another detail but rather in the different level of perfection which the same basic form attains in the one or other case. There already hovered before him the picture of a prototype which is to be' found both in the animals and in man, which is developed in the former in such a way that the whole structure serves animal functions, whereas in the latter the structure provides the basic framework for the development of spirit.

Goethe's special study of anatomy grows out of such considerations. On January 22, 1776 he lets Lavater know that “The duke had six skulls sent to me; have noticed some marvelous things which are at your honor's service, if you have not found them without me.” In Goethe's diary we read, under the October 15, 1781 date, that he studied anatomy with old Einsiedel in Jena and in the same year began to have Loder introduce him to this science in a more detailed way. He tells of this in letters to Frau von Stein on October 29, 1781 and to the Duke on November 4. He also has the intention of “explaining the skeleton” to the young people in the Art Academy, and of “introducing them to a knowledge of the human body.” “I do it,” he says, “for my sake and for theirs; the methods I have chosen will make them, over this winter, fully familiar with the basic pillars of the body.” One can tell from his diary that he also did give these lectures. Around this time he also had many conversations with Loder about the structure of the human body. And again it is his general view of nature which appears as the driving force and actual goal of these studies. He treats the, “bones as a text to which all life and everything human can be appended” (letter to Lavater and Merck, November 14,1781). Mental pictures about how the organic works, about the connection of human form with animal form, occupy his spirit at that time. The idea that the human structure is only the highest level of the animal one and that man, through this more perfect stage of animal structure, brings forth the moral world out of himself, this is an idea already incorporated into the ode, “The Divine,” from the year 1782.

Noble be man,
Helpful and good!
For that alone
Distinguishes him
From all the beings
That we know.

. . . . .

By iron laws
Mighty, eternal,
Must we all
Round off our
Circle of life.

The “eternal iron laws” work in man in exactly the same way as in the rest of the world of organisms; only they attain in him a perfection through which it is possible for him to be “noble, helpful, and good.”

While in Goethe such ideas as these were taking ever deeper root, Herder was working on his Ideas on a Philosophy of the History of Mankind. All the thoughts in this book were talked through by both men. Goethe was satisfied by Herder's conception of nature. It coincided with his own picture. “Herder's book makes it likely that we were first plants and animals ... Goethe is now digging very thoughtfully in these things, and each thing which has once passed through his mind becomes extremely interesting,” Frau von Stein writes to Knebel on May 1, 1784. The words which Goethe addresses to Knebel on December 8, 1783 show how very much one is justified in judging from Herder's ideas what Goethe's were: “Herder is writing a philosophy of history, as you can imagine, new from the ground up. We read the first chapters together the day before yesterday; they are exquisite.” Sentences like the following are entirely in the direction of Goethe's thinking. “The human race is the great confluence of lower organic forces.” “And so we can assume the fourth principle: that man is a central creation among the animals, i.e., that he is the form worked through in which the traits of all the species gather around him in their finest essence.”

To be sure, this picture was irreconcilable with the view of the anatomists of that time that the small bone which animals have in the upper jaw, the intermaxillary bone which holds the upper incisors, was lacking in man. Soemmering, one of the most significant anatomists of his day, wrote to Merck on October 8,1782: “I wish you had consulted Blumenbach on the subject of the intermaxillary bone which, other things being equal, is the only bone which all animals have, from the ape on, including even the orangutan, but which is never found in man; except for this bone there is nothing keeping you from being able to transfer everything man has onto the animals. I enclose therefore the head of a doe in order to convince you that this ‘os intermaxillare’ (as Blumenbach calls it) or ‘os incisivum’ (as Camper calls it) is present even in animals which have no incisors in the upper jaw.” That was the general opinion of the time. Even the famous Camper, for whom Merck and Goethe had the deepest respect, adhered to this view. The fact that man's intermaxillary bone is ingrown, left and right, to the upper jaw bone without there being visible any clear line there in a normally developed individual led to this view. If the scholars had been right in this view, then it would be impossible to set up a common archetype for the structure of the animal and of the human organism; a boundary between the two forms would have to be assumed. Man would not be created according to the archetype that also underlies the animals. Goethe had to clear away this obstacle to his world view. He succeeded in this in the spring of 1784 in collaboration with Loder. Goethe proceeded in accordance with his general principle, “that nature has no secret which it does not somewhere present openly to the eye of an attentive observer.” He found in some abnormally developed skulls that the line between the intermaxillary bone and the upper jaw bone was actually present. On March 27 he joyfully announced his find to Herder and Frau von Stein. To Herder he writes: “It should heartily please you also, for it is like the keystone to man; it is not lacking; it is there too! And how! I thought of it also in connection with your whole picture, how beautiful it will be there.” And when, in November 1784, Goethe sends the treatise he has written about the matter to Knebel, he indicates the significance for his whole picture of the world which he attaches to the discovery with the words: “I have refrained from showing yet the result, to which Herder already points in his ideas, which is, namely, that one cannot find the difference between man and animal in the details.” Goethe could gain confidence in his view of nature only when the erroneous view about this fateful little bone was cleared away. He gradually gained the courage to “extend over all realms of nature, over its entire realm” his ideas about the way nature, playing as it were with one main form, brings forth its manifold life. He writes in this vein to Frau von Stein in the year 1786.


The book of nature becomes ever more legible to Goethe after he has correctly deciphered this one letter. “My long efforts at spelling have helped me; now suddenly it is working, and my quiet joy is inexpressible,” he writes to Frau von Stein on May 15, 1785. He now considers himself already able to write a small botanical treatise for Knebel. The trip to Karlsbad which he undertakes with Knebel in 1785 turns into a journey of formal botanical studies. Upon his return the realms of mushrooms, mosses, lichens, and algae are gone through with reference to Linnaeus. On November 9 he shares with Frau von Stein that “I continue to read Linnaeus; I have to; I have no other book with me. It is the best way to read a book thoroughly, a way I must often practice, especially since I do not easily read a book to the end. This one, however, is not principally made for reading but rather for review, and it serves me now excellently, since I have thought over most of its points myself.” During these studies the basic form, from which nature produces all the varied plant shapes, also takes on some outlines in his spirit even though they are not yet clear ones. A letter to Frau von Stein on July 9, 1786 contains the words: “It is a becoming aware of the essential form with which nature is always only playing, as it were, and in playing brings forth its manifold life.”


In April and May 1786 Goethe observed through a microscope the lower organisms which develop in infusions of different substances (banana pulp, cactus, truffles, peppercorns, tea, beer, etc.). He takes careful notes on the processes which he observes in these living entities and completes drawings of these organic forms. One can also see from these notes that Goethe does not seek, through such observation of lower and more simple organisms, to approach knowledge of life. It is entirely obvious that he believes he can grasp the essential traits of life processes just as well in the higher organisms as in the lower. He is of the view that in an infusorian the same kind of lawfulness repeats itself which the eye of the spirit perceives in a dog. Observation through a microscope only makes us familiar with processes which in miniature are what the unaided eye sees on a bigger scale. It provides an enrichment of sense experience. The essential being of life reveals itself to a higher kind of seeing, not to any tracing of sense-perceptible processes back to their smallest component parts. Goethe seeks to know this being by studying the higher plants and animals. He would without a doubt have sought this knowledge in the same way, even if the study of plant and animal anatomy had been just as far along then as it is now. If Goethe had been able to observe the cells out of which the plant and animal body builds itself up, he would have declared that in these elementary organic forms the same lawfulness is manifest which is also to be perceived in what they constitute. He would also have made sense out of the phenomena of these little entities by means of the same ideas by which he explained to himself the life processes of the higher organisms.

It is in Italy that Goethe first of all finds the thought which solves the riddle presented to him by organic forms and transformations. He leaves Karlsbad on September 3 and travels south. In few but significant sentences he describes, in his History of My Botanical Studies, the thought which his observation of the plant world stimulated in him up to the moment when, in Sicily, a clear mental picture revealed itself to him about how it is possible that to plant forms, “with all their self-willed, generic, and specific stubbornness, there is granted a felicitous mobility and pliancy, such that they are able to give themselves over to the many conditions which work upon them around the earth and can form and transform themselves accordingly.” In his journey over the Alps, in the botanical garden in Padua, and in other places, “the changeability of plant forms” showed itself to him. “Whereas in lower-lying regions branches and stems were stronger and thicker, the buds closer to each other and the leaves broad, higher in the mountains, branches and stems became more delicate, the buds moved farther apart so that there was more space between nodes, and the leaves were more lance-shaped. I noticed this in a willow and in a gentian and convinced myself that it was not because of different species, for example. Also, near the Walchensee I noticed longer and more slender rushes than in the lowlands” (Italian Journey, September 8). On October 8 he finds various plants by the sea in Venice in which the interrelationship of what is organic with its environment becomes particularly visible. “They are all at the same time both thick and spare, juicy and tough, and it is obvious that the old salt in the sandy ground, but even more the salty air gives them these qualities; they are bursting with sap like water plants, and they are firm and tough like mountain plants; if the ends of their leaves have a tendency to form spines, as thistles do, then they are exceedingly sharp and strong. I found such a bush of leaves; it seemed to me to be our innocent coltsfoot, but here it was armed with sharp weapons, and the leaf was like leather, as were the seedpods and the stems also; everything was thick and fat” (Italian Journey). In the botanical garden in Padua the thought takes on a particular form in Goethe's spirit as to how one might perhaps be able to develop all plant shapes out of one shape (Italian Journey, September 27); in November he shares with Knebel: “My little bit of botany is for the first time a real pleasure to have, in these lands where a happier, less intermittent vegetation is at home. I have already made some really nice general observations whose consequences will also please you.” On March 25, 1787 he has a “good inspiration about botanical objects.” He asks that Herder be informed that he will soon be ready with the archetypal plant. But he feared “that no one will want to recognize the rest of the plant world in it” (Italian Journey). On April 17, he goes “to the public gardens with the firm, calm intention of continuing his poetic dreaming.” Only, before he is prepared for it, the being of the plants seizes him like a ghost. “The many plants, which I otherwise was used to seeing only in tubs or pots and for the greater part of the year only behind glass windows, are growing here fresh and happy in the open air, and since they can totally fulfill what they are meant to be, they become more definite and clear to us. With so many new and renewed forms in front of me, my old fancy took hold of me again: as to whether I could not, after all, discover the archetypal plant among so great a multitude? There must after all be such a one! How would I otherwise know that this or that formation is a plant, if they were not all formed according to the same model.” He makes every effort to distinguish the varying forms, but his thoughts are always led back again to the one archetype which underlies them all (Italian Journey, April 17, 1787). Goethe begins to keep a botanical journal into which he enters all his experiences and reflections about the plant realm during his journey. The pages of this journal show how untiringly occupied he is in trying to find plant specimens which could lead him to the laws of growth and of reproduction. If he believes that he is on the track of some law or other, he sets it up first of all in a hypothetical form, in order then to let it become confirmed in the course of his further experiences. He carefully notes down the processes of germination, of fructification, of growth. It becomes more and more clear to him that the leaf is the basic organ of the plant, and that the forms of all the other plant organs can best be understood when one regards them as transformed leaves. He writes in his journal, “Hypothesis: everything is leaf, and through this simplicity the greatest manifoldness becomes possible.” And on May 17 he communicates to Herder: “Furthermore I must confide to you that I am very close to discovering the secret of plant generation and organization, and that it is the simplest thing one could imagine. One can make the most beautiful observations under these skies. I have altogether clearly and beyond any doubt found where the germ is located, and that is the main point; I also already see everything else as a whole, and only a few points must still become more definite. The archetypal plant will be the most wonderful creation in the world for which nature itself will envy me. With this model and the key to it one can then go on inventing plants forever which must follow lawfully; that means: which, even if they don't exist, still could exist, and are not, for example, the shadows and illusions of painters or poets but rather have an inner truth and necessity. The same law can be applied to all other living things.” “... Any way you look at it the plant is always only leaf, so inseparably joined with the future germ that one cannot think the one without the other. To grasp, to carry, to discover in nature a concept like this, is a task which puts us into a painfully sweet state” (Italian Journey)


In order to explain the phenomena of life Goethe takes a path which is totally different from those usually taken by natural scientists. These can be divided into two categories. There are defenders of a life force, which works in organic beings and which, with respect to other natural causes, represents a special, higher form of forces. Just as there is gravity, chemical attraction and repulsion, magnetism, etc., so also there is thought to be a life force, which brings the substances of the organism into such interaction that it can maintain itself, grow, nourish, and reproduce itself. The natural scientists who hold this view say that the same forces are working in the organism as in the rest of nature, but that they do not work as though in a lifeless machine. They are taken up, as it were, by the life force and raised to a higher level of working. Opposing the proponents of this view, there are other natural scientists who believe that there is no special life force working in organisms. They regard all manifestations of life as complicated chemical and physical processes and cherish the hope that some day they may succeed in explaining an organism like a machine by tracing it back to the effects of inorganic forces. The first view is called “vitalistic,” the second one “mechanistic.” Goethe's way of grasping things is totally different from both. That in the organism something else is at work besides the forces of inorganic nature seems obvious to him. He cannot adhere to the mechanistic understanding of the phenomena of life. Just as little does he seek some special life force to explain the workings of the organism. He is convinced that a different way of looking at things is needed for grasping life processes than is used in perceiving the phenomena of inorganic nature. Whoever decides to acknowledge a life force does indeed see that organic processes are not mechanical, but at the same time he lacks the ability to develop in himself that other way of looking at things by which the organic could become knowable to him. His mental picture of the life force remains dim and indefinite. A recent adherent of vitalism, Gustav Bunge, believes, “In the smallest cell, and all the riddles of life are already present in it, and in the investigation of the smallest cell, we have already reached our limits with the tools we have now” (Vitalismus und Mechanismus, Leipzig, 1886). It would be completely in accordance with Goethe's way of thinking to answer this in the following way. That kind of seeing which only knows the nature of inorganic phenomena has, with its tools, reached the limits which must be transcended if one is to grasp what is alive. This kind of seeing, however, will never find within its domain the means which could be capable of explaining the life of even the smallest cell. Just as the eye is needed for perception of color phenomena, so, in order to grasp life, one needs the ability to behold directly, in what is sense perceptible, something which is supersensible. This supersensible something will always escape the person who directs only his senses upon the organic forms. Goethe seeks to enliven the sense perception of plant forms in a higher way and to picture to himself the sense-perceptible form of a supersensible archetypal plant (see The History of My Botanical Studies). The vitalist takes refuge in his empty concept of a life force, because he simply does not see anything in an organism except what his senses can perceive. Goethe sees the sense-perceptible permeated by something supersensible just as a colored surface is by color.

The adherents of the mechanistic theory are of the view that we could someday succeed in creating living substances, in an artificial way, out of inorganic materials. They say that not too many years ago people maintained that there are substances in the organism which cannot arise through artificial means, but only through the working of the life force. But today, they say, one is already able artificially to create several of these substances in a laboratory. In the same way it could be possible some day, out of carbonic acid, ammonia, water, and salts, to produce a living protein, which is the basic substance of the simplest organisms. Then those of a mechanistic persuasion believe it will be irrefutably proven that life is nothing more than a combination of inorganic processes and the organism nothing more than a machine which has arisen in a natural way.

From the standpoint of the Goethean world view one would reply that the adherents of the mechanistic view speak about substances and forces in a way that is not justified by any experience. And one has become so accustomed to speak in this way that it becomes very difficult in the face of these concepts to let pure experience have its say. But let us look, without any preconceptions, at some process in the outer world. Take a quantity of water of a definite temperature. How does one know anything about this water? One looks at it and notes that it occupies space and is contained within certain limits. One sticks one's finger or a thermometer into it and finds that it has a definite degree of warmth. One touches its surface and experiences that it is fluid. Those are statements which our senses make about the state of the water. Now heat the water. It will begin to boil and finally transform itself into steam. Again one can gain knowledge for oneself about the nature of the object, the steam, into which the water has transformed itself, by perceiving it with the senses. Instead of heating the water one can apply an electric current to it under specific conditions. It transforms itself into two bodies, hydrogen and oxygen. One can also learn about the characteristics of these two bodies by what our senses tell us. One therefore perceives certain states of things in the world of objects and observes at the same time that these states pass over into other ones under certain conditions. Our senses instruct us about these states. If one speaks about something other than these states, which transform themselves, then one is no longer limiting oneself to the pure facts, but rather one is adding concepts to them as well. If one says that the oxygen and hydrogen, which an electric current has caused to arise from the water, were already contained in the water, but so intimately united with each other that they could not be perceived as they are by themselves, then one has added to one's perception a concept by which to explain to oneself how the two bodies can arise out of one body. And if one goes further and states that oxygen (Sauerstoff) and hydrogen (Wasserstoff) are substances (Stoffe), which one does already by the names one gives them, then one has likewise added a concept to what one has perceived. For, factually, in the space occupied by the oxygen, there is present to perception only a certain number of states. One thinks the substance to which these states are supposed to be connected and adds it to them. What one thinks of about the oxygen and hydrogen as already present in the water, i.e., the substantial, is something thought which one adds to the content of perception. If one combines hydrogen and oxygen into water through a chemical process, then one can observe that one group of states passes over into another one. If one says that two simple substances have combined into a compound one, then one has attempted a conceptual explanation of the content of one's observation. The mental picture “substance” receives its content not from perception but rather from thinking. The same is true of “force.” One sees a stone fall to earth. What is the content of that perception? A certain number of sense impressions, of states, which occur in successive places. One seeks to explain to oneself this change in the sense world and says that the earth pulls the stone. It has a “force” by which it draws the stone to itself. Again our spirit has added a mental picture to the state of affairs and has given a content to it which does not stem from perception. One does not perceive substances and forces but rather states and their transitions into one another. One explains these changes of state to oneself by adding concepts to the perceptions.

Imagine that there were a being who could perceive oxygen and hydrogen but not water. If we combined oxygen and hydrogen to form water before the eyes of such a being, then the states which he had perceived about the two substances would disappear before him into nothingness. If we now also described to him the states which we perceive in the water, he would not be able to picture them to himself. This proves that there is nothing in the perceptual content of oxygen from which the perceptual content water can be derived. To say that a thing consists of two or more other things means that two or more perceptual contents have changed into one unified content which, however, is a totally new one with respect to the original contents.

What would therefore be achieved if someone succeeded in artificially combining carbonic acid, ammonia, water, and salts into a living protein substance in some laboratory? One would know that the perceptual contents of many substances can combine into one perceptual content. But this perceptual content is absolutely not derivable from those contents. The state of living protein can only be observed in this protein itself and cannot be developed from the states of carbonic acid, ammonia, water, and salts. In the organism one has something totally different from the inorganic parts out of which it can be constructed. In the arising of a living being, sense-perceptible contents change into contents which are both sense-perceptible and supersensible. And someone who does not have the ability to make mental pictures for himself which are both sense-perceptible and supersensible can know something about the being of an organism just as little as someone would be able to experience something about water if a sense impression of it were inaccessible to him.


In his studies of the plant and animal worlds Goethe strove to picture to himself the organism's germination, growth, transformation of organs, nourishment, and propagation as a process both sense-perceptible and supersensible. He noted that this sensible-supersensible process in its idea is the same in all plants and that it takes on different forms only in its outer manifestation. Goethe could observe the same thing in the animal world. If one has developed in oneself the idea of the sensible-supersensible archetypal plant, then one will find it again in all individual plant forms. Diversity arises through the fact that something which is the same in idea can exist in different forms in the perceptual world. The individual organism consists of organs which can be traced back to a basic organ. The basic organ of the plant is the leaf with the node upon which it develops. In its outer manifestation this organ assumes different forms: seed leaf (cotyledon, Keimblatt), leaf (Laubblatt), sepal (Kelchblatt), corolla “leaf” (Kronenblatt), etc. “Whether the plant is sprouting, blooming, or bearing fruit, still it is always only the same organs which, under many different conditions and often in altered forms, are obeying the orders of nature.”

In order to gain a complete picture of the archetypal plant Goethe had to follow in general the forms which the basic organ goes through in the process of a plant's growth from germination to seed maturation. At the beginning of its development, the whole plant form rests in the seed. In it the archetypal plant has taken on a shape by which it conceals its ideal content, as it were, in its outer manifestation.

Simple was the force in the seed; a beginning model
Lay, enclosed in itself, bent over under its husk,
Leaf and root and germ, half-formed and without any color
Thus the seed holds dry and protected peaceful 1ife,
Wells striving upward, entrusting itself to mild moistness,
And lifts itself out of the surrounding night.

Out of the seed the plant develops its first organs, the cotyledons, after it has more or less left “its husk behind in the earth” and has established “its roots in the ground.” And now shoot follows shoot in the further course of growth; node after node tower one above the other, and at every node there is a leaf. The leaves appear in different shapes. The lower ones are still simple, the upper ones variously serrated, notched, composed of several leaflets. At this stage of its development the archetypal plant spreads out its sensible-supersensible content as an outer sensible manifestation in space. Goethe pictures to himself that the leaves owe their ongoing development and refinement to the light and air. “While we find those cotyledons which are enclosed in their seed husks, to be, as it were, only stuffed with raw sap, to be not at all or only crudely organized and undeveloped, so the leaves of plants which grow under water appear to us as more crudely organized than other ones which are exposed to the open air; in fact, the same species of plant develops smoother and less refined leaves when it grows in low, moist areas, while, when transferred to higher regions, it brings forth rough, hairy leaves which are more finely developed.” In the second period of growth the plant draws together again into a narrower space what it had previously spread out.

Now it allows in less sap, it narrows its vessels,
And the shape introduces tenderer workings thereto.
Silent the drive of outspreading edges recedes,
And the ribs of the stalk become more fully pronounced.
Leafless, however, and quickly arises the tenderer stem,
And a wondrous shape attracts the observer to it.
Gathering around in a circle, counted and without
Number, the smaller leaf joins with its fellow.
Ordered round its axis, the rising chalice commits itself,
And its highest shape in colored crowns releases.

In the calyx the plant shape draws itself together; in the corolla it spreads itself out again. Now the next contraction follows in the stamens and pistil, the organs of propagation. In the previous periods of growth the formative force of the plant developed itself in the single organs as the drive to repeat the basic form. This same force divides itself at this stage of contraction into two organs. What is thus separated seeks to find its way back together again. This occurs in the process of fructification. The male pollen present in the stamens unites itself with the female substance which is contained in the pistil; and through this the germ of a new plant is given. Goethe calls fructification a spiritual anastomosis (union) and sees in it only another form of the process which occurs in the development from one node to another. “In every body which we call living, we note the power to bring forth its own kind. When we become aware of this power in a separated form, we apply the name of the two sexes to it.” From node to node the plant brings forth its own kind. For node and leaf are the simple form of the archetypal plant. In this form the bringing forth is called growth. If the force of propagation is divided into two organs then one speaks of two sexes. In this way Goethe believes he has brought the concepts of growth and procreation closer to one another. In the stage of the forming of the fruit the plant achieves its final expansion; in the seed it seems to be contracted again. In these six steps nature completes the circle of plant development and begins the whole process again from the beginning. In the seed Goethe sees only another form of the bud which develops on the leaves. The side branches which unfold from the buds are whole plants which stand upon a mother plant rather than in the earth. The mental picture of the basic organ, transforming itself in stages from seed to fruit as though upon a “spiritual ladder,” is the idea of the archetypal plant. Almost as though to prove to physical vision the basic organ's ability to transform itself, nature, under certain conditions and at a particular stage, allows an organ to develop different from the one which should arise in the regular course of growth. In the double poppy, for example, at the place where stamens should arise, petals appear. The organ, which according to the idea was meant to be a stamen, has become a petal. In the organ, which in the normal course of plant development has a definite form, there is also contained the possibility of taking on a different form.

Goethe considers the Bryophyllum calicinum to be an illustration of his idea of the archetypal plant; this is the ordinary life plant, a species which came from the Molucca Islands to Calcutta and from there to Europe. Little new plants develop from the indentations in the plump leaves of this plant and grow into complete plants when detached. For Goethe this process shows sense-perceptibly that in idea a whole plant lies in the leaf.

Whoever develops within himself the mental picture of the archetypal plant and keeps it so mobile that he can think it in every possible form compatible with its content can, with its help, explain for himself all the configurations of the plant realm. He will grasp the development of the individual plant, but he will also find out that all families, species, and varieties are formed in accordance with this archetypal picture. Goethe developed this view in Italy and recorded it in his book, An Attempt to Explain the Metamorphosis of Plants, which appeared in 1790.


In Italy Goethe also makes progress in developing his ideas about the human organism. On January 20 he writes to Knebel: “I am somewhat prepared for anatomy and have acquired, though not without effort, a certain level of knowledge of the human body. Here, through endless contemplation of statues, one's attention is continuously drawn to the human body, but in a higher way. The purpose of our medical and surgical anatomy is merely to know the parts, and for this a stunted muscle will also serve. But in Rome the parts mean nothing unless at the same time they present a noble and beautiful form. — In the big hospital of San Spirito they have set up for artists a very beautifully muscled body in such a way that the beauty of it makes one marvel. It could really be taken for a flayed demigod, a Marsyas. — It is also the custom here, following the ancients, to study the skeleton, not as an artificially arranged mass of bones but rather with the ligaments still attached from which it receives some life and movement.” Even after his return from Italy Goethe industriously pursues his anatomical studies. He feels impelled to know the developmental laws of animal form in the same way that he succeeded in knowing those of the plant. He is convinced that the unity of the animal organism also rests on one basic organ which can assume various forms in outer phenomena. If the idea of the basic organ conceals itself, then the basic organ appears in an unformed way. It then manifests as the simpler organs of the animal; if the idea masters substance in such a way that it makes the substance totally into its own likeness, then the higher, nobler organs arise. That which is present in the simpler organs as idea reveals itself outwardly in the higher organs. Goethe did not succeed in drawing together the lawfulness of the entire animal form into one single mental picture as he was able to do for the plant form. He found the developmental law of one part of this form only, the spinal cord and brain, along with the bones which enclose these organs. He sees in the brain a higher development of the spinal cord. Every ganglion, every nerve center, represents for him a brain which has remained behind on a lower level. And he interprets the skull bones which enclose the brain as transformations of the vertebrae which surround the spinal cord. It has already occurred to him earlier that the posterior cranial bones (occipital, posterior, and anterior sphenoid bones) are to be regarded as three metamorphosed vertebrae; he maintains the same about the anterior cranial bones after finding on the dunes of the Lido in 1790 a sheep'-s skull so felicitously cracked open that the hard palate, the upper jaw bone, and the intermaxillary bone seem to present directly to his view three transformed vertebrae.

The study of animal anatomy had not yet progressed far enough in Goethe's time for him to be able to cite any creature which actually has vertebrae instead of developed cranial bones and which therefore manifests in a sense-perceptible picture what is present in the higher animals only as idea. Through the research of Carl Gegenbauer, published in 1872, it is possible to point to such an animal form. The primitive fish or selachii have cranial bones and a brain which clearly show themselves to be end parts of the spinal column and cord. According to findings about these animals, a greater number of vertebrae do seem to have gone into the head formation (at least nine) than Goethe had assumed. This error in the number of vertebrae has been brought forward against the validity of the Goethean idea of the transformation of the spinal cord and column, as has the fact that in its embryonic state the skull of the higher animals shows no trace of being composed of vertebra-like parts, but rather develops out of a simple cartilaginous sac. It is acknowledged indeed that the skull has arisen out of vertebrae. But it is denied that the cranial bones, in the form in which they manifest in the higher animals, are transformed vertebrae. It is said that a complete fusing of the vertebrae into a cartilaginous sac has occurred, in which the original vertebral structure has totally disappeared. The bone forms observable in the higher animals have then developed out of this cartilaginous capsule. These forms have not developed according to the archetype of the vertebra but rather in conformity with the tasks which they have to fulfill with the developed head. Therefore if one is seeking the explanation for one or another form of the cranial bones, one should not ask how a vertebra has metamorphosed in order to become a cranial bone but rather, what determining factors have led to the fact that this or that bone shape has separated out of the simple cartilaginous capsule? One believes in the formation of new shapes, according to new formative laws, after the original vertebral form has dissolved into a structureless capsule. Only from the standpoint of a fanaticism for facts can one find a contradiction between this view and the Goethean one. That which is no longer sense perceptible in the cartilaginous cranial capsule, i.e., the vertebral structure, is nevertheless present in it as idea and reappears as soon as the conditions for it are present. In the cartilaginous cranial capsule the idea of the basic organ in its vertebral form conceals itself within sense-perceptible matter; in the developed cranial bones this idea comes again into outer manifestation.


Goethe hopes that the laws of development of the other parts of the animal organism will reveal themselves to him in the same way as did those of the brain, spinal cord, and the parts enclosing them. About his discovery at the Lido he asks Frau von Kalb, on April 30, 1790, to tell Herder that he “has gotten one whole principle nearer to animal form and to its manifold transformations, and did so through the most remarkable accident.” He believes himself so near his goal that in the same year which brought him his find, he wants to complete a book on animal development which could take its place beside the Metamorphosis of the Plants (Correspondence with Knebel). On a journey in Silesia in July 1790 he pursues his studies of comparative anatomy and begins to write an essay, On the Form of Animals. Goethe did not succeed in progressing from this felicitous starting point to the laws of development of the whole animal form. No matter how many attempts he makes to find the prototype of animal form, nothing analogous to the idea of the archetypal plant emerged. He compares the animals to each other and to the human being and seeks to gain a general picture of animal structure which nature uses as a model to form the individual shapes. This general picture of the animal prototype is not a living mental picture which fills itself with a content in accordance with the basic laws of animal development, thus recreating, as it were, the archetypal animal. It is only a general concept, which is abstracted from the particular phenomena. It ascertains what the manifold animal forms have in common; but it does not contain the lawfulness of the animal realm.

All the parts develop according to eternal laws,
And secretly the rarest form retains the archetypal picture.
(Metamorphosis of the Animals)

Goethe could not develop a unified mental picture of how this archetypal image, by lawful transformation of one basic pan, develops itself as the archetypal form, with many parts, of the animal organism. His essay, Animal Form, and his Sketch of a Comparative Anatomy Proceeding from Osteology, written in 1795 in Jena and given a more detailed shape later as Lectures on the First Three Chapters of the Sketch of a General Introduction to Comparative Anatomy (1796) contain only preliminary instruction as to how animals can be purposefully compared in order to gain a general picture by which the creative power “produces and develops organic beings” in order to gain a norm by which “to work out the descriptions” and to which the most varied forms can be traced “by abstracting this norm from the various animals.” On the other hand Goethe showed how, with the plants, one archetypal entity develops itself lawfully through successive modifications into its complete organic shape.


Even though he was not able to trace nature's creative force in its forming and transforming power through the different parts of the animal organism, still Goethe did succeed in finding individual laws to which nature holds in the development of animal forms which do adhere to the general norm but which are different in their manifestations. He pictures to himself that nature does not have the ability to change the general picture at will. If nature develops and forms one part with particular completeness, this can happen only at the expense of another part. In the archetypal organism all the parts are contained which can occur in any animal. In the individual animal form one part is developed, another part is only suggested; one is particularly well elaborated, another is perhaps totally imperceptible to sense observation. In this last case Goethe is convinced that that part of the general prototype which is not visible in each animal is nevertheless present as idea.

If you see in one creature an exceptional trait
In some way bestowed, then ask at once where it suffers
Elsewhere some lack, and search with investigative spirit.
At once you will find to each form the key.
For never did beast, with all kinds of teeth his upper
Jaw bone bedecking, bear horns on its forehead,
And therefore a horned lion the eternal mother
Could not possibly fashion though she apply her full strength;
For she has not mass enough, rows of teeth
To fully implant and antlers and horns also to push forth.
(Metamorphosis of the Animals)

In the archetypal organism all the parts are developed and maintain a balance with each other; the diversity of the individual organisms arises through the fact that the formative power expends itself on one part and therefore does not develop the outer manifestation of another part at all or only suggests it. Today one calls this law of the animal organism the law of the correlation or compensation of organs.


Goethe thinks the whole plant world to be contained as idea in the archetypal plant, and in the archetypal animal the whole animal world. From this thought there arises the question as to how it comes about that in one case these particular plant or animal forms arise, in another case other forms do. Under which conditions does the archetypal animal become a fish? Under which conditions a bird? The way science pictures things in order to explain the structure of organisms is repugnant to Goethe. The adherents of this way of picturing things ask with respect to each organ how it serves the living being in which it occurs. Underlying a question like this is the general thought that a divine creator or nature has prescribed a specific life's purpose for every being and has then given it a certain structure so that it can fulfill this purpose. A question like this seems just as nonsensical to Goethe as to ask what purpose a rubber ball has in moving when it is struck by another ball. An explanation of its motion can be given only by finding the laws by which the ball is set into motion by an impact or by some other cause. One does not ask what purpose the motion of the ball serves, but rather where its motion originates. In the same way, in Goethe's view, one should not ask for what purpose the bull has horns but rather how he can have horns. By which laws does the archetypal animal appear in the bull in a horn-bearing form? Goethe sought the idea of the archetypal plant and that of the archetypal animal in order to find in them the basis of an explanation for the diversity of organic forms. The archetypal plant is the creative element in the plant world. If one wants to explain an individual plant species, one must show how this creative element is working in a particular case. The mental picture that an organic being owes its form not to the forces working and shaping within it but rather that its form is imposed upon it from outside for certain purposes, this picture positively repels Goethe. He writes, “Recently I found, in a pitiful, apostolically monkish declamation of the Zurich prophet, the nonsensical words that everything which has life lives by something outside itself. Or it sounded something like that. Now a missionary can write down something like that, and when he is revising it no good spirit tugs at his sleeve” (Italian Journey, October 5, 1787). Goethe thinks of an organic being as a little world which is there through itself and which shapes itself according to its own laws. “The picture that a living being is brought forth for certain outer purposes and that its shape is determined by an intentional primal force to this end has already held us back in our philosophical consideration of natural things for several centuries, and still holds us back, although a few individuals have vigorously disputed this picture and shown what obstacles it lays in our path. . . It is, if one may put it so, a trivial picture, which, like all trivial things, is trivial precisely because it is comfortable and sufficient for human nature as a whole.” It is, of course, comfortable to say that a creator, in creating a species, has given it an underlying purposeful idea and therefore a definite shape. But Goethe wants to explain nature not by the intentions of some being located outside nature but rather by the laws of development lying within nature itself. An individual organic form arises through the fact that the archetypal plant or the archetypal animal gives itself a definite shape in a particular case. This shape must be such that the form, under the conditions in which it is living, can in fact live. “... the existence of a creature which we call fish is only possible under conditions of an element which we call water ...” If Goethe wants to grasp what laws of development bring forth a particular organic form, he then holds on to his archetypal organism. Within it lies the power to realize itself in the most diverse outer shapes. In order to explain a fish Goethe would investigate which formative powers the archetypal animal uses in order, out of all the shapes which lie in it as idea, to bring forth specifically the fish shape. If the archetypal animal were to realize itself under certain conditions in a shape in which it cannot live, then it would perish. An organic form can maintain itself under certain life conditions only when it is adapted to them.

Therefore, shape determines the way of an animal's living
And this way of living works back mightily, firmly,
Upon all shapes. Thus ordered formation manifests firmly.
That to change inclines through outwardly working beings.
(Metamorphosis of the Animals)

The enduring organic forms in a certain life element are determined by the nature of this element. If an organic form were to come out of one life element into a different one, it would have to change itself accordingly. This can occur in particular cases, because the archetypal organism underlying the form has the ability to realize itself in countless shapes. But the transformation of the one form into the other, in Goethe's view, is not to be thought of as though outer conditions directly reshape the form in accordance with themselves but rather as though they become the stimulus by which the inner being transforms itself. Changed living conditions stimulate the organic form to reshape itself in a certain way according to inner laws. Outer influences work indirectly, not directly, upon the living being. Countless forms of life are contained as idea in the archetypal plant and archetypal animal; those forms come into actual existence upon which outer influences work as stimulus.

The mental picture that a species of plant or animal transforms itself into another in the course of time under certain conditions is fully justified within the Goethean view of nature. Goethe pictures to himself that the power which brings forth a new individual through the reproductive process is only a transformation of that form of power which also causes the progressive reshaping of organs in the course of growth. Reproduction is a growth above and beyond the individual. Just as the basic organ during growth undergoes successive changes, which in idea are the same, so also, in reproduction, a transformation of the outer shape can take place while holding on to the ideal archetypal picture. When an original form of an organism was present, then its descendants could change over, through gradual transformation, in the course of great periods of time, into the diverse forms which populate the earth today. The thought of an actual blood tie between all organic forms does flow out of the basic views of Goethe. He could have expressed it right away in its complete form after conceiving his ideas of the archetypal animal and plant, but when he touches upon this thought he expresses himself hesitantly, even vaguely. One can read in the essay, Attempt at a Theory of Comparison, which was probably written not long after the Metamorphosis of the Plants, “And how worthy it is of nature that it must always employ the same means of bringing forth and nourishing a creature! Thus one will progress upon these same paths, and, just as one only at first regarded the unorganized, undetermined elements as the vehicle of the unorganized beings, so will one from now on raise one's contemplation and again regard the organized world as an interrelationship of many elements. The whole plant realm, for example, will again appear to us as an immense sea which is just as necessary for the qualified existence of the insects as the oceans and rivers are for the qualified existence of fish, and we will see that an immense number of living creatures are born and nourished in this ocean of plants; in fact, we will finally regard the whole animal world again as only one great element where one generation after another and through the other does not arise newly yet does maintain itself.” Goethe is less reserved in the following sentence from Lectures on the First Three Chapters of the Sketch of a General Introduction to Comparative Anatomy (1796): “This we would therefore have gained, that we could fearlessly assert that all the more perfect organic natures — by which we mean fish, amphibians, birds, mammals, and at the peak of the latter, man — are all formed according to one archetypal picture, which more or less diverges one way or another only in its permanent parts, and which still daily develops and transforms itself through reproduction.” Goethe's caution about the idea of transformation is understandable. This thought was not foreign to the age in which he was developing his ideas. But this age had developed this thought in the most muddled way. “But that was a darker age,” Goethe writes in 1807, “than one now pictures it to be. It was asserted, for example, that if the human being wanted to he could go around comfortably on all fours, and that bears could become human beings if they held themselves erect for a time. The audacious Diderot dared to suggest ways of producing goat-footed fauns to serve in uniform on the coaches of the rich and mighty, to bestow particular pomp and distinction.” Goethe wanted to have nothing to do with such unclear mental pictures. He was anxious to gain an idea of the fundamental laws of the living. In this it became clear to him that the shapes of the living are not rigid and unchangeable but rather are involved in continuous transformation. Goethe did not have enough data from observation to establish in detail how this transformation occurs. It is Darwin's investigations and Haeckel's intelligent reflections which have first shed some light on the actual conditions by which individual organic forms are related. From the standpoint of the Goethean world view one can only agree with the assertions of Darwinism, insofar as they relate to the actual emerging of one organic species from another. But Goethe's ideas penetrate more deeply into the being of the organic than does the Darwinism of our day. It believes it can do without the inner driving forces in the organic which Goethe pictures to himself as a sensible-supersensible image. Yes, Darwinism even denies that Goethe was justified in speaking, from his postulates, of any real transformation of organs and organisms. Jul. Sachs rejects Goethe's thoughts by saying that he transfers “the abstraction which his intellect has i made onto the object itself, by ascribing to the object a metamorphosis which actually has occurred only within our concept.” According to this view, Goethe did nothing more than bring leaves, sepals, petals, etc. under one general concept, and label them with the name “leaf.” “The matter would be quite different, to be sure, if ... we could believe that in the: ancestors of our present plant forms the stamens were ordinary leaves, etc.” (Sachs, History of Botany, 1875). This view arises from the fact fanaticism which cannot see that ideas belong just as objectively to the things as what one can perceive with the senses. Goethe is of the view that one can speak of the trans formation of one organ into another only if both, besides their outer manifestation, contain something else which is common,; to them both. This something is the sensible-supersensible 1 form. The stamen of a present plant form can be called the transformed leaf of its ancestors only if the same sensible-supersensible form lives in both. If that is not the case, if on the present plant there simply develops a stamen at the same place where a leaf had developed on its ancestors, then nothing has transformed itself but rather one organ has taken the place of another. The zoologist Oskar Schmidt asks, “What is it then in Goethe's view which is supposed to be transformed? Definitely not the archetypal picture.” (Was Goethe a Darwinian?, Graz, 1871). Certainly the archetypal picture does not transform itself for it is after all the same in all forms, but precisely because it remains the same, the outer shapes can be different and still represent a unified whole. If one could not recognize the same ideal archetypal picture in two forms which have developed away from each other, then one could assume no relationship between them. Only through the mental picture of the ideal archetypal form can one connect any meaning to the assertion that organic forms arise by developing out of each other. . Whoever cannot lift himself to this mental picture remains stuck in mere facts. In this mental picture lie the laws of organic development. Just as through Kepler's three basic laws the processes of the solar system are comprehensible, so through Goethe's ideal archetypal pictures are the shapes of organic nature.


Kant, who denies to the human spirit the ability to penetrate with ideas a totality which brings forth diversity in phenomena, calls it a “daring adventure of reason” to want to explain the individual forms of the organic world from some archetypal organism. For him, man is only able to draw together the diverse individual phenomena into a general concept, by which the intellect makes itself a picture of the unity. But this picture is only present in the human mind and has nothing to do with the creative power by which the unity really allows diversity to go forth from itself. The “daring adventure of reason” would consist of someone's assuming that the earth first releases simple organisms from her mother's womb which are less purposefully formed and which then give birth to more purposeful forms. That furthermore, still higher forms develop out of these all the way up to the most perfect living beings. If someone did make such an assumption, in Kant's opinion, he could not avoid positing an underlying purposeful creative power which gave such a push to development that all its individual members develop purposefully. Man perceives, after all, a multiplicity of diverse organisms; and since he cannot penetrate into them in order to see how they give themselves a form adapted to the life element in which they develop he must then picture to himself that they are organized from outside in such a way that they can live under these conditions. Goethe attributes to himself the ability to recognize how nature creates the individual out of the totality, the external out of the internal. He therefore wants courageously to undertake what Kant calls the “adventure of reason” (see the essay, The Power to Judge in Beholding). If we had no other proof that Goethe accepted the thought of a blood relationship of all organic forms as justified within the limits indicated here, we would have to deduce it from this judgment about Kant's “adventure of reason.”


One can guess, from Goethe's sketchy Outline of a Morphology which still exists that he planned to present in their successive levels the particular shapes which his archetypal plant and archetypal animal assume in the main forms of living beings. He wanted first of all to describe the being of the organic as it came to him in his reflections about animals and plants. Then, “starting at one point,” to show how the archetypal organic being develops itself on the one hand into the manifold plant world, on the other hand into the multiplicity of the animal forms, how the particular forms of the worms, insects, higher animals, and the human form can be drawn forth from the common archetypal picture. Light was also meant to be shed upon physiognomy and phrenology. Goethe set himself the task of presenting the outer shape in connection with inner spiritual abilities. He felt moved to trace the organic drive to develop, which presents itself in the lower organisms in a simple outer manifestation, in its striving to realize itself stage by stage in ever more perfect shapes until in man it gives itself a form which makes him able to be the creator of spiritual productions.

This plan of Goethe's was not carried out, nor was another one which started with the fragment, Preliminary Work for a Physiology of the Plants. Goethe wanted to show how all the individual branches of natural science — natural history, physics, anatomy, chemistry, zoology, and physiology — must work together in order that a higher kind of contemplation may use them to explain the shapes and processes of living beings. He wanted to establish a new science, a general morphology of organisms, “not, indeed, with a new subject matter, for this is known, but rather with a new outlook and methodology; this new science would have to give a distinctive form to its findings and also indicate its place relative to other sciences ...” The individual laws of nature provided by anatomy, natural history, physics, chemistry, zoology, and physiology should be taken up by the living mental picture of the organic and placed on a higher level, in the same way that the living being itself takes up the individual natural processes into the sphere of its development and places them on a higher level of working.


Goethe arrived along paths of his own at the ideas which helped him through the labyrinth of living forms. The dominant views on important areas of nature's working contradicted his general world view. He therefore had to develop mental pictures about these areas for himself that were in accordance with his nature. But he was convinced that there is nothing new under the sun and that one “could very well find indications in earlier works about what one is becoming aware of oneself.” For this reason he shares his writing on the Metamorphosis of the Plants with learned friends and asks them to inform him whether something has already been written or handed down on this subject. He is happy when Friedrich August Wolf draws his attention to a “first-rate precursor” in Kaspar Friedrich Wolff. Goethe acquaints himself with Wolff's Theoria Generationis, which appeared in 1759. But one can observe, precisely with this precursor, how someone can have a correct view about the facts and still not come to the complete idea of organic development unless he is able to grasp the sensible-supersensible form of life, through an ability to see which, is higher than that of his senses. Wolff is an excellent observer. He seeks through microscopic investigations to enlighten himself about the beginnings of life. He recognizes the calyx, corolla, stamens, pistil, and seed as transformed leaves. But he attributes the transformation to a gradual decrease in the life force, which supposedly diminishes to the same degree as the vegetation unfolds and then finally disappears entirely. Therefore calyx, corolla, etc. are for him an imperfect development of the leaves. Wolff came on the scene as an opponent of Haller, who advocated the doctrine of preformation or incapsulation. According to it all the parts of a full-grown organism were supposed to exist pre. formed already in miniature within the germ, and even in the same shape and interrelationship as in the complete living being. The development of an organism, consequently, is only the unfolding of what is already present. Wolff accepted as valid only what he saw with his eyes. And since, even with the most careful observations, he could not discover any incapsulated state of a living being, he regarded development as a truly new formation. The shape of an organic being is in his view not yet present in the germ. Goethe is of the same opinion with respect to outer manifestation. He also rejects the incapsulation doctrine of Haller. For Goethe the organism is in fact preformed within the germ, not as outer manifestation but rather as idea. He also regards the outer manifestation as a new formation. But he reproaches Wolff with the fact that where Wolff sees nothing with his physical eyes he also perceives nothing with his spiritual eyes. Wolff had no mental picture of the fact that something can still be present as idea, even if it does not come to outer manifestation. “Therefore his efforts are always to penetrate by microscopic investigations into the beginnings of life formation, and to trace in this way the organic embryos from their earliest manifestation up to full development. But no matter how excellent these methods may be, by which he has accomplished so much, still the admirable man did not think that there is a difference between seeing and seeing, that the spiritual eyes must work in continuous living alliance with the physical eyes, because one otherwise runs the danger of seeing and yet overlooking. — In plant transformation he saw the same organ continuously contracting, growing smaller; but he did not see that this contraction alternated with an expansion. He saw that this organ diminished in volume, and did not notice that it ennobled itself at the same time and therefore, nonsensically, he considered atrophy to be the path to perfection.”


To the end of his life Goethe remained in personal and written contact with numerous investigators of nature. He observed with keenest interest the progress of the science of living beings; he was happy to see how in this realm of knowledge ways of picturing things arose which approached his own ways and also how his expositions on metamorphosis were recognized and made fruitful by individual investigators. In 1817 he began to gather his works together and to publish them in a journal which he founded under the title, On Morphology. In spite of all this he no longer achieved through his own observation or reflection a further development of his ideas about organic development. He was only stimulated two more times to occupy: himself more deeply with such ideas. In both cases his attention was caught by scientific phenomena in which he found a confirmmation of his thoughts. One was the lectures which K. F. Ph. Martius held in gatherings of natural scientists in 1828 and 1829 on the Vertical and Spiral Tendency of Vegetation and from; which the journal Isis published excerpts; the other one was a natural scientific dispute in the French Academy which broke I out between Geoffrey de Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier in 1830.

Martius thought that the growth of plants was governed by two tendencies, by a striving in the vertical direction, which; governed root and stem, and by another one which caused leaf and blossom organs, etc. to array themselves on the vertical organ in accordance with the form of a spiral line. Goethe took up these ideas and brought them into connection with his mental picture of metamorphosis. He wrote a lengthy essay in, which he brought together all his experiences of the plant world; which seemed to him to indicate the presence of the two tendencies. He believes that he has to take up these tendencies into his idea of metamorphosis. “We had to assume that a general': spiral tendency holds sway in vegetation through which, in connection with the vertical striving, every structure, every formation of plants is completed according to the law of metamorphosis.” Goethe grasps the presence of spiral vessels in the individual plant organs as proof that the spiral tendency inherently rules the life of the plant. “Nothing is more in accordance with nature than the fact that what it intends as a whole it brings into activity down to the smallest detail.” “In the summertime go up to a stake driven into the garden upon which a bindweed (convovulus) is climbing, winding up around it from below, and follow its lively growth with close attention. Think of the convovulus and the stake as both equally alive, rising out of one root, alternately bringing each other fon, and in this way progressing ceaselessly. Whoever can transform this sight into an inner beholding will have made this concept much easier for himself. The climbing plant seeks outside itself what it should be giving itself but cannot.” Goethe uses the same comparison on March 15, 1832 in a letter to Count Sternberg and adds the words, “To be sure this comparison is not entirely apt, for at the beginning the creeper would have to wind around the rising stem in hardly noticeable circles. But the closer it came to the upper end the more quickly the spiral line would have to turn, in order finally (in the blossom) to gather together in a circle into a disk, as in dancing where quite often, when young, one was squeezed against one's will, even with the nicest children, breast to breast and heart to heart. Pardon my anthropomorphism.” Ferdinand Cohn remarks about this passage, “If only Goethe could have experienced Darwin! ... how this man would have pleased him who through rigorous inductive methods knew how to find clear and convincing proofs for his ideas ...” Darwin believes himself able to show, about. almost all plant organs, that during their growth period they have the tendency to spiral-like movements, which he calls circummutation.

In September 1830 Goethe refers in an essay to the dispute between the natural scientists Cuvier and Geoffrey de Saint-Hilaire; in March 1832 he continues this essay. In February and March 1830 in the French Academy the fact fanatic Cuvier comes out against the work of Geoffrey de Saint-Hilaire, who, in Goethe's opinion, had “attained a high level of thinking in accordance with the idea.” Cuvier is a master in making distinctions between the individual organic forms. Geoffrey's efforts are to seek the analogies in these forms and to furnish proof that the organization of the animals “is subject to a general plan, modified here and there, from which their differences come.” He strives to know the relatedness of the laws and is convinced that the particular can gradually be developed from the whole. Goethe regards Geoffrey as a kindred spirit; he expresses this to Eckermann on August 2, 1830 in the words, “now Geoffrey de Saint-Hilaire is also definitely on our side and with him all his significant students and adherents in France. This event is of inconceivably great value to me, and I am right to jubilate about the final victory of something to which I have dedicated my life and which is pre-eminently also my own.” Geoffrey practices a way of thinking which is also Goethe's way; in his experience of the world he seeks to grasp, along with the diversity of what is sense-perceptible, also the idea of the unity. Cuvier holds fast to the diversity, to the particular, because when he observes them the idea does not arise for him at the same time. Geoffrey has a right feeling for the relationship of the sense-perceptible to the idea; Cuvier does not have it. He therefore labels Geoffrey's comprehensive principle as presumptuous, yes, even declares it to be inferior. One can have the experience, especially with natural scientists, that they speak derogatorily about what is “merely” ideal, thought. They have no organ for what is ideal and therefore do not know the sphere of its working. Through the fact that he possessed this organ in an especially well-developed form, Goethe was led from his general world view to his deep insights into the nature of the living. His ability to let his eyes of the spirit work in a continuous living alliance with the eyes of the body enabled him to behold the unified sensible-supersensible being that extends through organic development; it enabled him to recognize this being even where one organ develops out of another, where, through transformation, an organ conceals and denies its relatedness, its sameness with the preceding one, changing both in function and form to such a degree that no comparison of outer attributes with the preceding ones can any longer take place. Seeing with the eyes of the body transmits knowledge of the sense-perceptible and material; seeing with the eyes of the spirit leads to the beholding of processes in human consciousness, to the observation of the world of thoughts, of feeling, and of will; the living alliance of spiritual and bodily eye enables one to know the organic which, as a sensible-supersensible element, lies between the purely sense-perceptible and the purely spiritual.

The Rudolf Steiner Archive is maintained by:
The e.Librarian: elibrarian@elib.com