The Goethean method as a complement to conventional science

Modern science is in danger of fragmentation and of becoming a study of artificial abstractions which become increasingly severed from reality.

As translated from Maurice Merleau-Ponty in  L’Œil et l’Esprit


“Science manipulates things and gives up living in them. It makes its own limited models of things; operating upon these indices or variables to effect whatever transformations are permitted by their definition, it comes face to face with the real world only at rare intervals. Science is and always will be that admirably active, ingenious, and bold way of thinking whose fundamental bias is to treat everything as though it were an object-in-general – as though it meant nothing to us and yet was predestined for our own use.”


Introducing the Goethean method brings back the connection between the investigator and the subject under investigation.

This review by Bo Dahlin investigates science education in relation to a phenomenological approach.

An example of the two approaches to investigation can be seen in the contrast between Newton and Goethe in their methods of studying colour. There has been much debate about the rights and wrongs of these approaches with sides being taken. Would it not be more fruitful to look at both, not as competing theories but as two different ways of looking at the phenomena. Newton is trying to exclude the investigator from the processes while Goethe is trying to understand how things stand in relation to the investigator. They are not investigating the same thing. Goethe was studying colour while Newton was studying optics.

With the advances in knowledge brought about by modern science we can now apply the Goethean participatory method to the world around us with added wonder. By including the pole of Goethean science, modern science is rescued from its one-sidedness and we get science which is unified in its polarity.

104 thoughts on “The Goethean method as a complement to conventional science

  1. CharlieM,

    I’m still missing what additional benefits “Goethean” science brings to scientific endeavour. Additional, Charlie, I emphasize.

  2. CharlieM: Rhesus macaques can be studied in the field or they can be studied in a lab. These are two different methods of investigation and a researcher can do either or both of them.

    I fail to understand. If successful scientists have already incorporated the worthwhile aspects of Goethean science as you appear to claim, then what exactly is the point of this OP?

    CharlieM: In order to understand brain processes you had to learn about them. In composing the paragraph above you have used thinking to bring the knowledge you have gained into a conscious relationship. Certainly brain processes were involved in this conscious activity, but what was it that was using these processes?

    That was me.

    CharlieM: I look up at a thrush singing in a tree. Where in the brain is the coordinated impression of the sights and sounds that enters my consciousness as the meaningful ideation of the thrush?

    KN already told you: the coordinated processing of sights and sounds in your brain IS what you consciously experience as the ideation of a trush. You might as well ask where among all those falling drops of water the rain exactly can be found.

  3. Kantian Naturalist
    : Suppose I’m looking at a coffee cup. I perceive the various sensible qualities it has, unfolding over time as I look it, reach out my arm, prepare my fingers to grasp the handle, prepare the right muscular tension in my arm for lifting it, wrap my fingers around the handle, and bring the mug to my lips, where I slowly tilt it until the desired amount of coffee is gently poured into my mouth.

    On the Steinerian story, the job of the intellect is to take all of the sensory images and combine them in order to yield an exact replica of the real, mind-independent object. My question is, how can we ever verify that we have done so correctly? How can I ever determine whether the coffee mug as I have reconstructed it in my imagination based on sensory images exactly matches the real coffee mug?

    It seems to me that this would require that the intellect has a capacity to veer around the sensations, and look at the world directly without any sensory or imaginative component, and thus be able to compare the real mug with the imagined one.

    But unless the intellect has such a capacity, there is no way of comparing the imagined mug with the real mug, and thus no entitlement to say that one does or does not correspond to the other.

    In the way that Steiner advocated the Goethean method we do not just take the mug, examine it and create a mental image of an imagined mug. What we should be doing is adding the idea of the mug, the concept “mug” to the perception. What does this entail? What is the specific mug telling us?

    If I had the mug pictured below in front of me and was examining it using the Goethean method, I would say that it is an object that has been designed and takes the general shape of drinking vessels that have been designed by humans throughout history. It is an earthenware object and somebody has decided on its size, shape and pattern. A glaze has been applied to It which makes it suitable for containing liquid, and it has been fired in a kiln or oven. I would call it a mug rather than a cup because of its straight edge design. Although both mug and drinking cup would come under the concept of drinking vessel. I can go on thinking about it and I can separate everything which is essential from that which is non-essential in its attributes as a vessel made for the purpose of drinking hot liquids. The idea of the mug involves its history and its relationship to human creativity.

    The replica in my mind is dependent on me alone, while the idea of the mug does not depend on my subjectivity. The Goethean method goes far beyond making mental replications. It adds that which rightly belongs to the entity under study but has been left out in the perceiving.

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