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

Goethe's Conception of the World

Rudolf Steiner Archive & e.Lib Document




Highlight Words

Goethe's Conception of the World

Goethe's Conception: Chapter VIII: The Phenomena of the World of Colour

The Phenomena of the World of Colour.

The feeling that “great works of Art are produced by men according to true and natural laws” was an ever-present stimulus to Goethe to search for these laws of artistic creation. He was convinced that the effectiveness of a work of Art must depend on a natural conformity to law that it reveals. He wishes to discover this conformity to law. He wanted to know why the highest works of Art are at the same time the loftiest productions of Nature. It became clear to him that the Greeks proceeded according to the same laws which Nature follows when they developed “the circle of divine form out of the human structure” Italian Journey, 28th Jan., 1787.). His aim is to see how Nature brings about this form in order that he may understand it in works of Art. Goethe describes how in Italy he gradually acquired an insight into the natural law of artistic creation (Kürschner, Nat. Lit. Bd. 36.). “Happily I could always hold fast to certain maxims taken from poetry, which inner feeling and long usage had preserved in me, so that as the result of an uninterrupted perception of Nature and Art, animated conversations with connoisseurs of more or less insight, and the life I continually led in the company of more or less practical or thoughtful artists, it became possible for me, though not without difficulty, gradually to analyse Art for myself without dissecting it and to become conscious of its interpenetrating elements.” But one particular element will not reveal to him the natural laws in accordance with which it is active in a work of Art, namely colour. Several pictures were “designed and composed in his presence and carefully studied according to their parts, arrangement and form.” The artists were able to tell him how they proceeded with their composition. But as soon as it came to the question of colour everything seemed to depend on caprice. No one knew what relation prevailed between colour and chiaroscuro — light and shade — or between the single colours. Nobody could tell Goethe, for instance, why yellow makes a warm, pleasant impression, why blue evokes a feeling of cold, why yellow and reddish-blue side by side produce an effect of harmony. He realised that he must first acquaint himself with the laws of the world of colour in Nature in order from there to penetrate into the secrets of colouring.

The ideas concerning the physical nature of colour-phenomena which still lingered in Goethe's memory from his student days, and the scientific treatises which he consulted, alike proved fruitless for his purpose. “With the rest of the world I was convinced that all colours were contained in light; I never heard anything but this, and I never found the slightest cause for doubting it, because I had then no further interest in the matter” (Confessions of the Author. Kürschner. Nat. Lit. Bd., 36.2.). When, however, his interest began to be aroused, he found that he “could evolve nothing for his purpose” out of this view. Newton was the founder of this view which Goethe found to be prevailing among Nature investigators and which, indeed, still occupies the same position to-day. According to this view, white light, as it proceeds from the sun, is composed of colours. The colours arise because the constituent parts are separated out from the white light. If we allow sunlight to enter a dark room through a small round opening, and catch it on a white screen placed perpendicular to the direction of the instreaming light, we obtain a white image of the sun. If we place between the opening and the screen a glass prism through which the light streams, then the white circular image of the sun is changed. It appears as though distorted, drawn out lengthways, and coloured. This image is called the solar spectrum. If we place the prism so that the upper portions of light have to traverse a shorter path within the mass of glass than the lower, the coloured image is extended downwards. The upper edge of the image is red, the lower, violet; the red passes downwards into yellow, the violet upwards into blue; the central portion of the image is, generally speaking, white. Only when there is a certain distance between the screen and prism does the white in the centre vanish entirely; the entire image then appears coloured, from above downwards, in the following order: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Light Blue, Indigo, Violet. Newton and his followers conclude from this experiment that the colours are originally contained in the white light but intermingled with each other. They are separated from each other by the prism. They have the property of being deviated in varying degrees from their direction when passing through a transparent body, that is to say, of being refracted. The red light is refracted least, the violet most. They appear in the spectrum according to their degree of refrangibility. If we observe through a prism a narrow strip of paper on a black background this also appears deviated. It is at the same time broader and coloured at the edges. The upper edge appears violet, the lower red; the violet here also passes over into the blue and the red over into yellow; the middle is generally white. Only when there is a certain distance between the prism and the strip does this appear wholly in colours. Green again appears in the middle. Here also the white of the strip of paper is said to be resolved into its colour constituents. That all these colours appear only when there is a certain distance between the screen or strip of paper and the prism, whereas otherwise the centre is white, the Newtonians explain simply. They say: In the middle the more strongly refracted colours from the upper portion of the image coincide with those that are more weakly refracted from below, and blend to make white. The colours only appear at the edges because here into these portions of light that are more weakly refracted, no strongly refracted colours can fall from above, and into those portions that are more strongly refracted none of the more weakly refracted portions can fall from below.

This is the view from which Goethe could evolve nothing useful for his purpose. He had therefore to observe the phenomena himself. He went to Büttner in Jena who lent him the apparatus with which he could make the necessary experiments. He was occupied at the time with other work and was, at Büttner's request, about to return the apparatus. Before doing so, however, he took a prism in order to look through it at a white wall. He expected that it would appear in various degrees of colour, but it remained white. Colours only appeared at those places where the white contacted dark. The window-bars appeared in the most vivid colours. From these observations Goethe thought he had discovered that the Newtonian view was false, that colours are not contained in the white light. The boundary, the darkness, must have something to do with the origin of the colours. He continued the experiments. He observed white surfaces on black, black surfaces on white backgrounds. Gradually his own view was formed. A white disc on a black background appeared distorted on looking through the prism. Goethe thought that the upper parts of the disc extend over the adjacent black of the background, whereas this background extends over the lower parts of the disc. If one now looks through the prism one perceives the black background through the upper part of the disc as through a white veil. If one looks at the lower part of the disc it appears through the overlying darkness. Above, the light is spread over the dark; below, dark over light. The upper edge appears blue, the lower, yellow. The blue passes over into violet towards the black — the yellow into red below. If the prism is moved further from the disc the coloured edges spread out, the blue downwards, the yellow upwards. At a sufficient distance the yellow from below extends over the blue from above, and green arises from their overlapping in the middle. In confirmation of this view Goethe observed a black disc on a white ground through the prism. Now dark is spread over light above, light over dark below. Yellow appears above, blue below. As the edges are extended by placing the prism farther away from the disc, the lower blue, which gradually passes over into violet in the centre, spreads over the upper yellow and the yellow, as it extends, gradually takes on a reddish shade. The colour of peach-blossom arises in the middle. Goethe says to himself: what holds good for the white disc must also hold good for the black. “If the light is there resolved into colours here also the darkness must be regarded as being resolved into colours” (Confessions of the Author. Kürschner. Nat. Lit. Bd., 36.). Goethe now imparts his observations and the doubts which had grown out of them with regard to the Newtonian view to a Physicist of his acquaintance. The Physicist considered his doubts to be unfounded. He interpreted the coloured edges and the white in the centre, as well as its transition into green when the prism is removed further away from the object observed, according to Newton's view. Other Nature investigators whom Goethe approached did the same, and so he continued the observations in which he would have liked to have had assistance from trained specialists alone. He had a large prism of plate-glass constructed which he filled with pure water. He noticed that the glass prism whose cross-section is an equilateral triangle is, on account of the marked dispersion of the colours, often a hindrance to the observer; therefore he had his large prism constructed with the cross section of an isosceles triangle, the smallest angle of which was only 15 to 20 degrees. Goethe calls the experiments performed when the eye looks at an object through the prism, subjective. They present themselves to the eye but are not rooted in the outer world. He wants to add to these objective experiments. To this end he made use of the water-prism. The light shines through a prism and the colour-image is caught on a screen behind the prism. Goethe now caused the sunlight to pass through the openings in cut pasteboard. In this way he obtained an illuminated space bounded by darkness. This circumscribed beam of light passes through the prism and is refracted by this from its original direction. If one places a screen before the beam of light issuing from the prism, there arises on it an image which is, generally speaking, coloured at the edges above and below. If the prism is placed with the narrow end below, the upper edge of the image is coloured blue and the lower edge yellow. The blue passes over towards the dark space into violet, and towards the light centre into light blue; the yellow passes over towards the darkness into red. In this phenomenon, too, Goethe derived the appearance of colours from the boundary. Above, the clear light-beams radiate into the dark space; they illumine a darkness which thereby appears blue. Below, the dark space radiates into the light-beams; it darkens the light and makes it appear yellow. When the screen is moved further from the prism the coloured edges get broader, the yellow approaches the blue. Through the streaming of the blue into the yellow, when there is a sufficient distance between the screen and the prism, green appears in the middle of the image. Goethe made the instreaming of the light into the dark and of the dark into the light perceptible by agitating a cloud of fine white dust which he produced from fine, dry hair-powder along the line by which the light-beam passes through the dark space. “The more or less coloured phenomenon will now be caught up by the white atoms and presented in its whole length and breadth to the eye of the spectator” (Farbenlehre, Didactic Part., para. 326.). Goethe found that the view he had acquired of the subjective phenomena was confirmed by the objective phenomena. Colours are produced by the working together of light and darkness. The prism only serves to move light and darkness over each other.

* * * * *

After these experiments Goethe cannot adopt the Newtonian conception. His attitude to it was the same as his attitude to Haller's Encasement Theory. Just as according to this theory the developed organism with all its parts is contained in the germ, so the Newtonians believe that the colours which appear under certain conditions in the light, are already contained in it; Goethe could use the same words against this belief which he used against the Encasement Theory, that it “is based on a mere invention, devoid of all element of sense experience, on an assumption which can never be demonstrated in the sense world” (Essay on K. Fr. Wolf. Kürschner. Nat. Lit., Bd. 33.). To Goethe colours are new formations which are developed in the light, not entities that have merely developed out of the light. He had to reject the Newtonian view because of his own mode of thinking in conformity with the idea. The Newtonian view has no knowledge of the nature of the idea. It only acknowledges what is actually present, present in the same sense as the sensible-perceptible. Where it cannot establish the reality through the senses it assumes the reality hypothetically. Because colours develop through the light, and thus must already be contained ideally within it, the Newtonians imagine that they are also actually and materially contained in it, and are only called forth by the prism and the dark border. Goethe knows, however, that idea is active in the sense-world; therefore he does not transfer what exists as idea into the realm of the actual. Idea works in inorganic just as in organic Nature, but not as sensible-supersensible form. Its external manifestation is wholly material, merely pertaining to the senses. It does not penetrate into the sensible; it does not permeate it spiritually. The processes of inorganic Nature run their course according to law, and this conformity to law presents itself to the observer as idea. If one perceives white light in one part of space and colours that arise through the light in another, a causal connection exists between the two perceptions and this can be conceived of as idea. When, however, this idea is given embodiment and transferred into space as something concrete which passes over from the object of the one perception into that of the other, this is the result of a crude mode of thinking. It was this crudeness that repelled Goethe from the Newtonian theory. It is the idea which leads over one inorganic process into another, not a concrete thing that passes from the one to the other.

The Goethean world-conception can only acknowledge two sources for all knowledge of the inorganic processes of Nature: that which is sensibly perceptible in these processes and the ideal connections between the sensible-perceptible which reveal themselves to thought. The ideal connections within the sense-world are not all of the same kind. Some of these connections are immediately obvious when sense perceptions appear side by side, or after, each other, and there are others which can only be penetrated if one traces them back to others of the first kind. In the phenomenon which presents itself to the eye when it beholds darkness through light, perceiving blue, Goethe thinks he recognises a connection of the first kind between light, darkness and colour. It is just the same when light is perceived through darkness, and yellow arises. One can perceive in the border-phenomena of the spectrum a connection which becomes evident through direct observation. The spectrum which shows seven colours in a sequence from red to violet can only be understood by realising that other conditions are there as well as those which give rise to the border-phenomena. The single border-phenomena have united themselves in the spectrum into one complicated phenomenon which can only be understood if one deduces it from the basic phenomena. That which stands before the observer in the basic phenomenon in its purity, appears impure and modified in the phenomena complicated by the additional conditions. The simple facts can no longer be directly recognised. Therefore Goethe seeks everywhere to lead back the complicated phenomena to the simple and pure. To him the explanation of inorganic Nature lies in this. He goes no further back than the pure phenomenon. An ideal connection between sensible perceptions is revealed therein — a connection which is self-explanatory. Goethe calls this pure phenomenon the primary or basic phenomenon (Urphänomen). He regards it as idle speculation to think further about the primary phenomenon. “The magnet is a primary phenomenon which one need only express in order to explain it” (Prose Aphorisms. Kürschner. Nat. Lit. Bd., 36.). A compound phenomenon is explained when we show how it is built up out of primary phenomena.

Modern natural science sets to work differently from Goethe. It seeks to trace back processes in the sense-world to movements of the smallest parts of bodies and in order to explain these movements it makes use of the same laws which it applies to the movements which transpire visibly in space. It is the task of mechanics to explain these visible movements. When the movement of a body is observed mechanics ask: By what forces has it been set in motion? What path does it travel in a definite time? What form has the line in which it moves? It tries to present mathematically the relations between the force, the path traversed, and the form of its path. The scientist says: Red light can be traced back to the vibratory motion of the tiniest parts of a body, and this motion is propagated through space. This motion becomes comprehensible when the laws discovered in mechanics are applied to it. The science of inorganic Nature considers its goal to be a gradual and complete passing over into applied mechanics.

* * * * *

Modern physics enquires after the number of vibrations in unit time which correspond to a definite colour. From the number of vibrations corresponding to red, and from the number corresponding to violet, it seeks to determine the physical connection of the two colours. The qualitative disappears before its gaze; it observes the spatial and time elements of processes. Goethe asks: What is the connection between red and violet when we disregard these spatial and time elements and consider only the qualitative? The Goethean mode of observation presupposes that the qualitative is also actually present in the outer world, and that it forms, with the temporal and spatial, one inseparable whole. Modern physics, on the contrary, has to proceed from the basic conception that in the outer world only the quantitative, dark and colourless processes of motion are present, and that the qualitative only arises as the effect of the quantitative, on an organism endowed with sense and mind. If this assumption were correct, the ordered connections between the qualitative could not be sought in the outer world, but would have to be deduced from the nature of sense-organs, nervous mechanism, and organs of presentation. The qualitative elements of processes would not be the object of physical investigation but of physiology and psychology. Modern natural science proceeds along the lines of this assumption. According to this view the organism translates one process of movement into the sensation of red, another process into that of violet according to the constitution of its eyes, optic nerves and brain. The external aspect of the world of colour is thus explained if the connection between the processes of movement by which this world is determined have been perceived.

A proof of this view is sought in the following observation. The optic nerve experiences each external impression as the sensation (Empfindung) of light. Not only light but also a blow or pressure on the eye, an irritation of the retina by a quick movement of the eye, an electric current conducted through the head — all these things give rise to the sensation of light. Another sense (organ) experiences the same stimuli in a different way. If blows, pressure, irritation, or electric currents stimulate the skin they cause sensations of touch. Electricity excites in the ear a sensation of hearing, on the tongue one of taste. It is concluded from this that the content of sensation arising in the organism as the result of an influence from outside differs from the external processes by which it is caused. The colour red is not sensed by the organism because it is united with a corresponding process of movement outside in space, but because the eye, optic nerve and brain of the organism are so constituted that they translate a colourless process of movement into a colour. The law expressing this was called by the physiologist, Johannes Müller, who first enunciated it, the Law of the Specific-Sense-Energies.

This observation only proves that the sense-and mind-endowed organism can translate the most diverse impressions into the language of the particular senses on which they fall. This does not, however, prove that the content of each sense-experience exists only within the organism. Irritation of the optic nerve causes an indefinite, wholly general stimulus which contains nothing that causes us to localise its content outside in space. The sensation arising as the result of a real impression of light is, by its content, inseparably united with the spatial-time process corresponding to it. The movement of a body and its colour are in quite the same way contents of perception. When we conceive of the movement per se we are abstracting from all else which we perceive in the body. All the other mechanical and mathematical conceptions are, like the movement, drawn from the world of perception. Mathematics and mechanics arise as the result of one portion being separated off from the content of the perceptual world and studied by itself. In reality there are no objects or processes whose content is exhausted when we have comprehended in them all the elements that can be expressed through mathematics and mechanics. All that is mathematical and mechanical is bound up with colour, warmth, and other qualities. If physics has to assume that vibrations in space, of minute dimensions and a very high velocity correspond to the perception of a colour, these movements can only be thought of as analogous to the movements which go on visibly in space. That is to say, if the corporeal world is conceived of as in motion, even to its most minute elements, it must be conceived of as endowed with colour, warmth and other qualities also down to its most minute elements. Those who regard colours, warmth, tones and so on, as qualities which only exist inwardly as the effects of external processes on the sensitive (vorstellenden) organism, must also transfer everything mathematical and mechanical connected with these qualities to within. But then there is nothing left for the outer world. The red which I see, and the light vibrations which the physicist indicates as corresponding to this red, are in reality a unity, which only the abstracting intellect can separate from each other. I should see the vibrations in space which correspond to the quality “red” as movement if my eye were organised for this. But united with the movement I should have the impression of the red colour.

Modern Natural Science transfers an unreal abstraction, a vibrating substratum devoid of all perceptual qualities into space, and is astonished that it cannot understand what causes the receptive (vorstellenden) organism with its nerve apparatus and brain to translate these indifferent processes of movement into the variegated sense-world, permeated by degrees of warmth and sounds. Du Bois-Reymond assumes, therefore, that man, because of an insuperable barrier to his knowledge, will never understand how the fact: “I taste something sweet, smell the fragrance of roses, hear the tone of the organ, see red” is connected with definite movements of the tiniest molecules in the brain — movements which in their turn are caused by vibrations of tasteless, odourless, soundless and colourless elements of the external corporeal world. “It is absolutely and eternally incomprehensible that it should not be a matter of indifference to a number of Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen atoms how they are placed and move, how they were placed and moved and how they will be placed and will move” (Grenzen des Naturerkennens. Leipsig, 1882. S. 35.). But there are no boundaries to knowledge here. Wherever a collection of atoms exists in space in a definite movement, there also necessarily exists a definite quality (e.g. Red). And vice-versa, wherever red appears, there the movement must exist. Only the abstracting intellect can separate the one from the other. Those who think of the movement as actually separated from the remaining content of the process to which the movement belongs, cannot rediscover the transition from the one to the other.

Only what is movement in a process can again be derived from movement; that which belongs to the qualitative aspect of the world of light and colours can also only be traced back to a qualitative element within the same sphere. Mechanics leads back complicated movements to simple movements which are directly comprehensible. The theory of colours must lead back complicated colour-phenomena to simple colour phenomena which can be penetrated in the same way. A simple process of movement is just as much a primary phenomenon as the appearance of yellow from the inter-working of light and dark. Goethe knows what the primary mechanical phenomena can accomplish towards the explanation of inorganic Nature. He leads back that which is not mechanical within the corporeal world to primary phenomena which are not of a mechanical nature. Goethe has been reproached with condemning the mechanical consideration of Nature and limiting himself simply to the observation and classification of the sensible-perceptible (Cp. Harnack's Goethe in der Epoche seiner Vollendung. S. 12.). Du Bois-Reymond (Goethe und kein Ende. S. 29) finds that “Goethe's theorising limits itself to deriving other phenomena out of a primary phenomenon, as he calls it. It is rather like one shadowy picture following another without any illuminating causal connection. What was wholly lacking in Goethe was the concept of mechanical causality.” What does mechanics do, however, but derive complicated processes from simple, primary phenomena? Goethe has accomplished in the region of colour just what mechanics perform in the realm of movement. It is because Goethe does not consider all processes in inorganic Nature to be purely mechanical that he has been accused of lacking the concept of mechanical causality. His accusers merely show that they themselves err concerning the significance of mechanical causality within the corporeal world. Goethe remains within the qualitative realm of the world of light and colours. He leaves to others the quantitative and mechanical elements which can be expressed mathematically. He “endeavoured throughout to keep the theory of colours apart from mathematics, although clearly, certain points arise where the assistance of the art of measurement would be desirable. But this very want may in the end be advantageous, since it may now become the business of the ingenious mathematician himself to ascertain where the doctrine of colours is in need of his aid and how he can contribute to the complete elucidation of this branch of physics” (Farbenlehre. S. 727.). The qualitative elements of the sense of sight — light, darkness and colours — must first be understood from out of their own connections. They must be traced back to primary phenomena; then at a higher level of thought it is possible to investigate the relation existing between these connections and the quantitative, the mechanical-mathematical element in the world of light and colours.

Goethe seeks to lead back the connections within the qualitative element of the world of colours to the simplest elements, just as strictly as the mathematician or mechanician does in his sphere. “We have to learn from the mathematician the careful cautiousness with which he proceeds step by step, deducing each step from the preceding one and even where we employ no calculation, we must always proceed as if we had to render account to the strictest geometrician. For it is really the mathematical method which, on account of its cautiousness and purity, immediately reveals any gap in an assertion, and its proofs are in truth only detailed affirmations that what is brought into connection has already existed in its simple parts and its entire sequence, that its whole range has been examined and found to be correct and irrefutable under all conditions” (Kürschner. Nat. Lit. Bd., 34. Versuch als Vermittler vom Subjekt und Objekt.).

* * * * *

Goethe derives the explanatory principles for the phenomena directly from the sphere of observation. He shows how the phenomena are connected within the world of experience. He rejects conceptions which lead out of and beyond the realm of observation. All modes of explanation that overstep the field of experience by drawing in factors which, by their very nature cannot be observed, are contrary to the Goethean world-conception. Such a mode of explanation is that which seeks the nature of light in a medium which cannot itself be perceived as such but can only be observed in its mode of working as light. To this category also belong the methods which hold sway in modern natural science, where light vibrations are executed, not by the perceptible qualities revealed to the sense of sight but by the smallest parts of an imperceptible substance. To imagine that a definite colour is united with a definite process of movement in space does not contradict the Goethean world-conception. But the assertion that this process of movement belongs to a region of reality transcending experience, i.e. the world of substance which can be observed in its effects, but not in its own being, contradicts it absolutely. For an adherent of the Goethean world-conception the light vibrations are processes in space and have no other kind of reality than that which inheres in any other content of perception. They elude immediate observation not because they lie beyond the region of experience, but because the organisation of the human sense-organs is not subtle enough to have direct perception of movements so minute. If an eye were so organised that it could observe in all details the oscillations of a body occurring four hundred billion times a second, such a process would resemble a process in the crude sense-world. That is to say, the vibrating body would manifest the same properties as other objects of perception.

Any explanation which derives objects and processes of experience from others lying beyond the field of experience can only attain to adequate conceptions of the realm of reality, lying beyond observation, by borrowing certain attributes from the world of experience and carrying them over to what cannot be experienced. Thus the physicist carries over hardness and impenetrability to the tiniest corporeal elements to which he also ascribes the power of attracting and repelling similar elements; on the other hand he does not ascribe to these elements, colour, warmth and other qualities. He believes that he explains a process of Nature which can be experienced by tracing it back to one that is not capable of being experienced. According to Du Bois-Reymond's view the knowledge of Nature consists in tracing back processes in the corporeal world to movements of atoms brought about by their forces of attraction and repulsion (Grenzen des Naturerkennens. 1882. S. 10.). Matter, the substance filling space, is regarded as being endowed with movement. This substance has existed from eternity, and will exist for all eternity. Matter itself does not belong to the realm of observation but lies beyond it. Du Bois-Reymond, therefore, assumes that man is incapable of knowing the nature of matter as such, and that because of this he derives the processes of the corporeal world from something whose nature will always remain unknown to him. “We shall never know more than we do to-day as to what ‘haunts’ space where matter is” (Grenzen des Naturerkennens. S. 22.). This concept of matter dissolves into nothingness before a more exact consideration. The real content given to this concept is borrowed from the world of experience. Man perceives movements within the world of experience. He feels a pull if he holds a weight in the hand, and a pressure if he places a weight on the surface of the hand held horizontally. In order to explain this perception he forms the idea of force. He imagines that the Earth attracts the weight. The force itself cannot be perceived. Its nature is ideal, but it belongs, nevertheless, to the realm of observation. The mind observes it because it beholds the ideal relations among the perceptions. Man is led to the concept of a repelling force if he presses a piece of india-rubber and then leaves it to itself. It re-assumes its former shape and size. He imagines that the compressed parts of the rubber repel each other and again assume their former volume. The mode of thinking of which we have spoken carries over conceptions which have been drawn from observation to a region of reality transcending experience. Thus it does nothing in reality but derive one experience out of another, only it places the latter arbitrarily in a region lying beyond experience. It can be shown in regard to any mode of thought which speaks of a transcendental region that it takes certain fragments from the region of experience and relegates them to a sphere of reality transcending observation. If these fragments of experience are removed from the conception of the transcendental there only remains a concept devoid of content, a negation. The explanation of any experience can only consist in tracing it back to another possible experience. Ultimately we come to elements within experience that can no longer be derived from others. These cannot be further explained because they are in no need of explanation. They contain it within themselves. Their immediate being consists in what they present to observation. To Goethe light is an element of this kind. According to his view, whoever freely perceives light in manifestation has understood it. Colours arise in light and their origin is understood if we show how they arise therein. Light itself is there in immediate perception. We know what is ideally contained in it if we observe the connection that exists between it and colours. From the standpoint of Goethe's world-conception it is impossible to ask concerning the nature of light, concerning the transcendental element corresponding to the phenomenon “Light.” “It is really useless to undertake to express the essential nature of a thing; we perceive effects, and a complete history of these effects would in all cases comprise the nature of the thing.” That is to say, a complete account of the effects of an experience embraces all the phenomena which are ideally contained therein. “It would be useless to try to describe a man's character, but put together his actions, his deeds, and a picture of his character will stand before us. Colours are acts of light, its active and passive modifications. In this sense we may expect from them some illumination concerning light itself” (Farbenlehre. Didactic Part. Preface.).

* * * * *

Light presents itself to observation as “the simplest and most homogeneous, undivided entity that we know” (Correspondence with Jacobi, p. 167.). Opposed to it there is darkness. For Goethe darkness is not the complete, passive absence of light. It is something active. It opposes itself to light and interplays with it. Modern natural science regards darkness as a complete nullity. The light which streams into a dark space has, according to this modern view, no opposition from the darkness to overcome. Goethe imagines that light and darkness are related to each other like the north and south poles of a magnet. Darkness can weaken the light in its power of action. Vice-versa, light can limit the energy of darkness. Colour arises in both cases. A physical view which conceives darkness as perfect passivity cannot speak of such an inter-working. It has therefore to derive colours out of light alone. Darkness appears as a phenomenon for observation just as does light. Darkness is a content of perception in the same sense as light. The one is merely the antithesis of the other. The eye which looks out into the night mediates the real perception of darkness. If darkness were the absolute void, there would be no perception on looking out into the dark.

Yellow is light toned down by darkness; blue is darkness weakened by light.

* * * * *

The eye is adapted for transmitting to the sensitive organism the phenomena of light and colour and the relations between them. It does not function passively in this connection, but enters into living interplay with the phenomena. Goethe endeavoured to cognise the manner of this inter-working. He considers the eye to be wholly living and seeks to understand the expressions of its life. How does the eye relate itself to the individual phenomenon? How does it relate itself to the connections between phenomena? These are questions which he puts to himself. Light and darkness, yellow and blue, are opposites. How does the eye experience these opposites? It must lie in the nature of the eye that it experiences the mutual relations which exist between the single perceptions. For “the eye has to thank the light for its existence. The light calls forth out of indifferent auxiliary animal organs, an organ that is akin to itself; the eye forms itself by the light for the light, so that the inner light can meet the external light” (Farbenlehre. Didactic Part. Introduction.).

Just as light and darkness are mutually opposed to each other in external Nature, similarly the two states in which the eye is placed by these two phenomena are also opposed to each other. If we keep our eyes open in a dark space a certain lack is experienced. If, however, the eye is turned to a strongly illuminated white surface it becomes incapable, for a certain time, of distinguishing moderately illuminated objects. Looking into the dark increases its receptivity; looking into the light weakens it.

Every impression on the eye remains within it for a time. When we look at a black window cross against a light background, we shall, when we shut our eyes, still have the phenomenon for some time before us. If while the impression still lasts, we look at a light grey surface, the cross appears light, the panes, on the contrary, dark. A reversal of the original phenomenon thus occurs. It follows from this that the eye has been disposed by the one impression to produce the opposite out of itself. As light and darkness stand in relation to each other in the outer world, so also do the corresponding states of the eye. Goethe thinks that the region in the eye on which the dark cross fell is rested and becomes receptive to a new impression. Therefore it is that the grey surface works more intensely on it than on the rest of the eye which previously received the stronger light from the window panes. Light produces in the eye the inclination to dark, dark the inclination to light. If we hold a dark object before a light-grey surface and look fixedly at the same place when it is removed, the space it occupied appears much lighter than the remaining surface. A grey object on a dark ground appears lighter than the same object on a light ground. The eye is disposed by the dark ground to see the object lighter, and by the light to see it darker. These phenomena are indications to Goethe of the great activity of the eye, “and to the passive resistance which all that is living is forced to exhibit when any definite state is presented to it. Thus inbreathing already presupposes outbreathing, and vice-versa. The eternal formula of life is also manifest here. When darkness is presented to the eye, the eye demands light; it demands darkness when light is presented to it and manifests thereby its vitality, its fitness to grasp the object by producing from itself something that is opposed to the object” (Farbenlehre. S. 38.).

Colour perceptions also evoke a reaction in the eye in a similar way to light and darkness. Let us hold a small piece of yellow paper before a moderately illuminated white surface, and look fixedly at the small yellow patch. If after a little while the paper is removed, we shall see the space which the paper had occupied as violet. The impression of yellow causes the eye to produce violet from out of itself. Similarly, blue will produce orange as reaction, and red will produce green. Thus in the eye every colour impression has a living relation to another. The states into which the eye is put by perceptions stand in a connection similar to that of the contents of these perceptions in the external world.

* * * * *

When light and darkness work on the eye this living organ meets them with its demands; if they work on things outside in space these interact with them. Empty space has the property of transparency. It does not work on light and darkness at all. They penetrate it unhindered. It is different when space is occupied with objects. This occupation of space may be of such a kind that the eye does not perceive it because light and darkness shine through it in their original form. Then we speak of transparent objects. If light and darkness do not pass through an object unweakened, the object is designated semi-transparent. The occupation of space by a semi-transparent medium furnishes the possibility for observing light and darkness in their mutual relation. Something bright seen through a semi-transparent medium appears yellow, and something dark, blue. The medium is a material substance which is illuminated by the light. It appears dark, compared with a clearer, more intense light behind it, and bright compared with a darkness passing through it. When a semi-transparent medium is thus presented to light or darkness, then brightness and darkness are present and really work into one another.

If the transparency of the medium through which the light shines gradually decreases, the yellow assumes a yellowish-red hue and finally a ruby-red colour. If the transparency of a medium through which darkness penetrates increases, the blue passes over to indigo and finally to violet. Yellow and blue are primary colours. They arise through the working-together of light or darkness with the medium. Both can assume a reddish hue, the former through decrease, the latter through increase, in the transparency of the medium. Thus red is not a primary colour. It appears as a hue of yellow or blue. Yellow, with its red shades, which deepen to pure red, stands near to light; blue with its shades is allied to darkness. If blue and yellow mingle, green arises. If blue intensified to violet mixes with yellow deepened to red, purple arises.

Goethe followed up these basic phenomena in Nature. The bright sun orb seen through a haze of semi-transparent vapour appears yellow. The darkness of space seen through atmospheric vapours illuminated by the day-light presents itself as the blue of heaven. “Similarly, the mountains appear blue to us; for when we behold them at so great a distance that we no longer distinguish the local colours, and no light from their surface works on our eye, they resemble so many dark objects, which owing to the interposed vapours appear blue” (Farbenlehre. Para. 156.).

Out of his deep penetration into the works of Art produced by painters, there arose in Goethe the need to understand the laws which dominate the phenomena of the sense of sight. Every painting presented him with riddles. How is the chiaroscuro related to the colours? What relations do the single colours bear to each other? Why does yellow produce a joyful, and blue a serious mood? The Newtonian doctrine of colours could yield no point of view able to elucidate these mysteries. The Newtonian theory derives all colours out of light, places them side by side in sequence, and says nothing about their relation to darkness or of their living relations to each other. Goethe was able to solve the riddles presented to him by Art by the insight he had acquired along his own paths. Yellow must possess a bright, gay, mildly stimulating character because it is the colour nearest to light. It arises through the gentlest moderation of light. Blue indicates the darkness working in it. Therefore it produces a sense of coldness, just as it “is reminiscent of shadows.” Reddish-yellow arises through the intensification of yellow towards the side of darkness. Through this intensification its energy increases; the gaiety and brightness pass over into rapture. With the further intensification of reddish-yellow into yellowish-red, the gay, cheerful feeling is transformed into the impression of power. Violet is blue striving towards light. The repose and coldness of blue hereby change into unrest. This restless feeling increases in blue-red. Pure red stands in the centre between yellowish-red and bluish-red. The violence of the yellow quietens down; the passive repose of the blue is animated. Red gives the impression of ideal satisfaction, the equalising of extremes. A feeling of satisfaction also arises through green which is a mixture of yellow and blue. The satisfaction is purer here than that produced by red because the gaiety of the yellow is not intensified and the repose of the blue not disturbed through the red shade.

* * * * *

The eye, when confronting one colour, immediately demands another. When the eye looks at yellow the longing arises for violet; when it perceives blue it desires orange; when it looks at red it yearns for green. It is comprehensible that the feeling of satisfaction should arise, if by the side of one colour presented to the eye there is placed another which the eye desires in accordance with its nature. The law of colour harmony is an outcome of the nature of the eye. Colours which the eye demands in juxtaposition to each other work harmoniously. If two colours appear side by side, the one of which does not demand the other, then the eye is stimulated into opposition. The juxtaposition of yellow and purple has something one-sided about it, but the effect is that of brightness and magnificence. The eye demands violet by the side of yellow in order to express itself according to its nature. If purple appears in the place of violet the object asserts its claims against those of the eye. It does not accommodate itself to the demands of the organ. Juxtapositions of this kind serve to draw attention to the significance of things. They will not satisfy unconditionally but they characterise. Characteristic combinations of this kind demand colours which do not stand in complete contrast to each other, and yet do not merge directly into each other. Juxtapositions of the latter kind impart a kind of characterless element to the objects on which they occur.

* * * * *

The origin and nature of the phenomena of light and colour were revealed to Goethe in Nature. He found the same thing again in the creations of painters, where it is raised to a higher level, translated into the spiritual. Goethe acquired a deep insight into the relation of Nature and Art as the result of his observations concerning the perceptions of sight. This may well have been in his mind when, after the conclusion of the Doctrine of Colour, he wrote concerning these observations to Frau von Stein: “I do not regret having sacrificed so much time to them. I have thereby attained an education which I could hardly have got elsewhere.”

Goethe's doctrine of colour differs from that of Newton and of those physicists who build up their views on the basis of Newton's ideas, because it proceeds from a different conception of the world. Those who do not bear in mind the connection that has here been demonstrated between Goethe's general ideas of Nature and his doctrine of colour will be unable to hold any other opinion than that Goethe came to his view of colour because he had no understanding for the physicists' true methods of observation. Those who perceive this connection will also realise that within the Goethean world-conception no other doctrine of colour is possible. Goethe would have been unable to think differently about the nature of the phenomena of colour, even if all the discoveries made in this sphere since his time had been laid before him, and even if he had been able to make use of the experimental methods in their present perfection. Although he could not embody Frauenhof's lines wholly into his conception of Nature after he had become aware of their discovery, neither this nor any other discovery in the realm of optics is an objection to his conceptions. In all these things it is merely a question of so elaborating Goethe's view that these phenomena can find their place in it. It must be admitted that physicists who adhere to the Newtonian point of view can make nothing of Goethe's views of colour. That is not because they possess knowledge of phenomena which contradict Goethe's conception, but because they have grown accustomed to a view of Nature which prevents them from understanding the real aim and object of Goethe's view.




Last Modified: 01-Dec-2019
The Rudolf Steiner Archive is maintained by:
The e.Librarian: elibrarian@elib.com
[Spacing]