[This review originally appeared in Parabola, 22, 3 (Fall 1997): 90-91].
Henri Bortoft. The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. Hudson, NY: Lindesfarne Press, 1996.
The eminent poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) also produced a sizable body of scientific work that moved away from a materialist approach to nature and emphasized, instead, direct experiential understanding. Physicist Henri Bortoft's latest book, partly a compilation of his earlier writings, compares and contrasts Goethe's way of science with conventional scientific and philosophical outlooks and asks what the world becomes through Goethe's respectful, holistic approach to nature.
To examine and evaluate Goethe's way of science, Bortoft breaks his discussion into three parts. In part I, he relates Goethe's work to the search for authentic wholes and a way to study nature in a deeper, more heartfelt way. He argues that one of the most important values of Goethean science is to foster understanding. To understand, says Bortoft, is to see the way things belong together and to see why they are together as they are.
In part II of the book, Bortoft examines Goethean method in greater detail, drawing on Goethe's studies of color and plants. Bortoft describes how conventional scientific awareness, illustrated by Isaac Newton's theory of color and light, is grounded in analytical consciousness, which emphasizes distinction, separation, and causality. In his work, Newton concluded that colorless light is a mixture of all the spectrum's colors, even thought he presented no experiment "in which this separation of the colors can be seen directly with the senses." Rather, he attempted to prove this mixing is what happens "by reasoning based on experiments."
Goethe sensed intuitively that Newton's approach was not in contact with the way light and color actually happened in the everyday world of nature. Goethe was interested in how light and the various colors expressed themselves together in their day-to-day appearances and relationships, thus he was struck by the sky's blueness and the sun's changing colors from red to yellow and back to red as it rose, reached noonday height, and then set.
This way of looking, says Bortoft, illustrates a second mode of consciousness‑-an intuitive way of seeing that allows the elements of a phenomenon to belong in authentic relationship. Bortoft explains:
knowledge is not achieved by the senses alone. There is always a nonsensory element in knowledge, and this must be so whether this element is verbal-intellectual [analytical] or intuitive. The difference is that, whereas the verbal-intellectual mind withdraws from the sensory aspect of the phenomenon into abstraction and generality, the intuitive mind goes into and through the sensory surface of the phenomenon to perceive it in its own depth. It is by first going into the full richness and diversity of sensory detail that the intellectual mind is rendered ineffective, so that we can escape from its prison into the freedom of intuition.
In part II of the book as well as in later chapters, Bortoft examines Goethe's research on plants and considers in more detail how Goethe made use of sensory experience to understand phenomena in an intuitive way. In his studies of plants, for example, Goethe carefully observed their growth and gave special attention to their changes in form, especially in the leaves. Once Goethe had studied these changes, he would visualize them in his mind as they happened both forward and backward in time. The result would be a clear understanding of how a plant expressed itself in different forms in different moments of growth.
Goethe called this approach "exact sensorial imagination" and emphasized that it is one practical means whereby the intuitive mode of consciousness can hold the phenomenon and discover underlying commonalities that mark seeming differences. This way of looking begins with sensory experience but then works with it in creative ways to discover relationships and underlying patterns. In the case of plant form, this method led Goethe to the conclusion that the essential archetypal form of the plant is leaf, in terms of which the plant's many different stages and parts can be understood. This approach, says Bortoft, is intensive rather than extensive and allows one to see:
multiplicity in the light of unity instead of trying to produce unity from multiplicity.... [W]hereas extensively we see many in the form of one (i.e., uniformity), intensively we see One in the form of many. Hence in the intensive perspective each of the many is the very same One, and yet in a way which includes difference instead of eradicating it. This is the difference between a genuinely holistic perspective and the analytical counterfeit.
The third and longest part of Bortoft's book considers Goethe's work in terms of the historical development of science. Bortoft discusses the ways in which Goethe's science differs from the dominant scientific world view and explores Goethe's perspective on the nature of scientific understanding itself. Science, says Bortoft, does not have some set of absolute foundations established by an intrinsic "scientific method."
Rather, broader societal factors always enter into the very form that scientific knowledge takes. There is established what Goethe called a Vortstellungsart‑-a taken-for-granted conception of knowledge whereby the world is interpreted from one particular vantage point rather than some other. In this way, the fundamental organizing scheme of science gives "the form that what counts as scientific experience can take."
In a series of creatively-conceived chapters, Bortoft demonstrates how the concept as to what science is has shifted according to broader historical and cultural trends. For example, when Copernicus incorporated the Renaissance concern for harmony and symmetry into his new astronomical theory of a Sun-centered cosmos, he also introduced a new vision of science as the discovery of mathematical harmonies hidden from the senses. In turn, when Galileo transferred this Copernican vision from astronomy to physics, the result was a mathematical science of quantity in which things were broken into units "external to one another, separate but juxtaposed."
Bortoft demonstrates that this emphasis on measurement, an integral part of contemporary science, is in no way intrinsic to nature but, rather is simply one way in which nature can be interpreted. Yet this unquestioned mathematical reduction allows the scientist to calculate the natural world and to manipulate it for human ends, often in destructive ways. In contrast, Goethe sought a manner of qualitative understanding in which nature is dynamic, undivided, and worthy of careful listening and seeing grounded in firsthand experience unfiltered by analytical thinking. In this sense, Goethe hoped to foster a complimentary scientific Vorstellungsart‑-what Bortoft succinctly calls "a science of the wholeness of nature."
Bortoft's book is a significant contribution Goethean science because its very form of presentation works to activate the intuitive mode of consciousness through experiments and exercises that readers can do for themselves. The book assumes some familiarity with Goethe's color and plant research but, for the newcomer, Bortoft overviews this work and relates its significance to his larger theme of ways of knowing.
Current studies in Goethean science draw largely on the Anthroposophic tradition of the Austrian philosopher and spiritual teacher Rudolf Steiner. Bortoft reviews some of this work, including the exceptional research on animal form done by the biologist Wolfgang Schad in his insightful Man and Mammals (1977). Bortoft's book is significant, however, because it avoids the psuedo-positivist language that Goethean studies grounded in Anthroposophy have tended to favor. Instead, Bortoft borrows from the 20th-century philosophical traditions of phenomenology and hermeneutics to develop a Goethean phrasing that is more intuitive and poetic because it is grounded in the everyday language of nature as one directly encounters it before the distancing, reductive action of analytical mind.
Bortoft's book is a landmark contribution to the philosophy of science and is perhaps the most original interpretation of Goethean science since Ernst Lehr's seminal Man or Matter, written in the early 1950s. Through his thoughtful explication and lucid presentation of how Goethean science can actually be done, Bortoft demonstrates the extraordinary value of an innovative way of understanding that is for the future rather than of the past. He believes that Goethe's approach to knowing may help us to empathize with and care for nature and thereby provide a powerful means for healing our fractured world.