He explains how the natural scientists of his day proceeded. They were interested in categorising, looking for causes behind phenomena, and observing phenomena to arrive at the ‘laws’ of nature. Goethe did not proceed in this way. He was not interested in looking for and speculating about unknown causes or categorisation. He looked at nature and observed how it was forever changing and studied this metamorphosis in great detail. He wished to stay within the observable to ask what it could tell him without speculating about any laws or hidden world behind the one observed.
The natural science are forever looking for pointwise forces to explain life. But, according to Steiner, life cannot be explained in this way. Life is formed out of the universal peripheral forces. These forces are not the same as the mechanical pointwise forces which are open to measurement. Steiner explains it thus:
Say you were studying the play of forces in an animal or vegetable embryo or germ-cell; with this method you would never find your way. No doubt it seems an ultimate ideal to the Science of today, to understand even organic phenomena in terms of potentials, of centric forces of some kind. It will be the dawn of a new world-conception in this realm when it is recognized that the thing cannot be done in this way, Phenomena in which Life is working can never be understood in terms of centric forces. Why, in effect, — why not? Diagrammatically, let us here imagine that we are setting out to study transient, living phenomena of Nature in terms of Physics. We look for centres, — to study the potential effects that may go out from such centres. Suppose we find the effect. If I now calculate the potentials, say for the three points a, b and c, I find that a will work thus and thus on A, B and C, or c on A’, B’ and C’; and so on. I should thus get a notion of how the integral effects will be, in a certain sphere, subject to the potentials of such and such centric forces. Yet in this way I could never explain any process involving Life. In effect, the forces that are essential to a living thing have no potential; they are not centric forces. If at a given point d you tried to trace the physical effects due to the influences of a, b and c, you would indeed be referring to the effects to centric forces, and you could do so. But if you want to study the effects of Life you can never do this. For these effects, there are no centres such as a or b or c. Here you will only take the right direction with your thinking when you speak thus: Say that at d there is something alive. I look for the forces to which the life is subject. I shall not find them in a, nor in b, nor in c, nor when I go still farther out. I only find them when as it were I go to the very ends of the world — and, what is more, to the entire circumference at once. Taking my start from d, I should have to go to the outermost ends of the Universe and imagine forces to the working inward from the spherical circumference from all sides, forces which in their interplay unite in d. It is the very opposite of the centric forces with their potentials. How to calculate a potential for what works inward from all sides, from the infinitudes of space? In the attempt, I should have to dismember the forces; one total force would have to be divided into ever smaller portions. Then I should get nearer and nearer the edge of the World: — the force would be completely sundered, and so would all my calculation. Here in effect it is not centric forces; it is cosmic, universal forces that are at work. Here, calculation ceases.
This lecture was given just over a century ago and so the terminology is a bit dated and science has made a vast amount of progress since then, but his points still stand.
The difference between Goethe’s scientific method and the standard methods of natural science is the same difference that separates the practice of Euclidean geometry from that of projective geometry. In the former, lengths and angles are measured and calculated, in the latter there are no measurements as such, it is concerned with the mobility and transformation of form as it is expressed between point and plane.
Goethe takes natural science beyond its self-imposed limits just as projective geometry takes Euclidean geometry beyond its limits.
Feel free to read or listen to the lecture linked to above and comment as you see fit.