Remarks on Goethe's Philosophy of Science,
Number I

  1. Goals of Science
  2. Understanding with the Whole Human
  3. Discovering the Organizing Principles of Nature
  4. Quality and Quantity
  5. References

These are a few remarks on issues that came up in class last week or that we didn’t get to discuss.

Goals of Science

It might be argued that conventional science, with its heavy reliance on instruments, measurement, and quantitative theories, has proved its superiority to Goethean science by its usefulness in technology.  This raises, however, the issue of the goal or purpose of science.

Ever since the time of Francis Bacon (“knowledge is power”), the prevailing idea of science has been that it gives us information that is, at least potentially, useful.  Certainly, it has provided the basis for modern technology with its many benefits.  Is this the only reason to do science?  In ancient Greece science was considered a contemplative activity, more directed toward the personal development of the student of nature than at practical application.  (In fact, the ancient Greek word theoria meant “contemplation.”)  This seems to be part of Goethe’s conception of science, although he did not reject its practical uses.

An analogy may make this clearer.  What is the purpose of understanding our friends and family?  A very selfish and manipulative person might say that we try to understand them so that we can control them better in order to serve our selfish needs and desires, but most of us would disagree.  Although you should think about this question yourself and reach your own conclusions, I would suggest that some of the reasons we want to understand them is because they are important to us, and we want to be more in touch with what they are feeling and thinking, not to control them for our sake, but for their own sakes, to make them happier.  Partly, you want to understand them because they are important to you, and your understanding of them enriches your relationship with them.

What about other people?  Increased understanding of other people (especially people of other races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds) leads to an empathetic appreciation of their inherent dignity, and decreases the likelihood that you will exploit them for their utility to you (e.g., slavery).

You can extend the analogy to pet animals.  Typically we want to understand them, but it’s not because of any utilitarian purpose that they serve.  We might want to understand working animals or livestock so that we can use them for some practical purpose, but that is not usual for pets.  Rather, understanding them enriches your interactions with them and deepens your participation in each other’s lives.  Next, you can consider animals in nature from the same perspective.  Sometimes we want to understand them so that we can control them for some purpose, but we may also want to understand them because it enriches our relation with them.  So also for all of nature; fuller understanding deepens the interpenetration between nature and our lives.

The foregoing might help you to understand why scientific understanding might be something worth pursuing for its own sake, independent of any possible practical applications.  There are also obvious ecological implications.  Is nature to be valued only for its utilitarian potential?  Or do we recognize its value for its own sake and value scientific understanding as a way of enriching and deepening our participation in nature?

Understanding with the Whole Human

This analogy also helps us to understand why Goethe said that the scientist should try to understand nature by means of the totality of the human being (mind, body, soul, spirit).  In understanding another person, we do not use just our minds; we also use our emotions, intuition, empathetic identification, etc.  To some extent, we can use even our own bodies to understand the other person through their body (for we experience and act through our bodies in similar ways).  In relation to those closest to us, we do not neglect any modality through which we can increase our understanding.  So also in science, we cannot afford to neglect any means by which we might come to a greater understanding of nature (as will be explained further below).  Observation and calculation may be adequate for instrumental science (science directed toward practical ends), but it yields a limited, one-dimensional understanding.

Discovering the Organizing Principles of Nature

I wanted to reiterate some of the implications of the giraffe picture.  Although the raw data arriving on your retinas is the same in both cases, it can be seen in two different ways, either as disorganized blobs or as a giraffe.  So the difference is not “out there” (in the data in the world), but “inside” (in your mind).  If you didn’t see the giraffe until I told you it was there, then you see how knowing what to look for helped you to bring order to the perceptual data.  If you eventually saw it on your own without me saying anything, then your ability to see the form depended on your prior knowledge of giraffes, or at least of other animal heads.  (And I should probably mention that there is a special part of your brain dedicated to recognizing faces, especially human faces.)  In either case there was a contribution from your mind that brought order to the raw data in the world.

So what you see has two components: the “bottom-up” raw data impinging on your sense organs, and the “top-down” expectations (either learned or innate) of what you will find in the world.  When your expectations change (e.g., when I tell you to look for a giraffe), then your perception changes as well.  Notice that the perception is not completely malleable: if I had told you to look for a car or a tree, you wouldn’t have seen it.  You can’t project any arbitrary image on the data; the data has to be capable of accepting the projection (conforming to it).  In a sense there has to be a meeting or a “resonance” between the external world and the internal forms or patterns.

In some cases there can be several different resonances, such as we find in the other ambiguous figures that I handed out.  In these cases the same data can be organized by your mind in two or more different ways.  Sometimes you will naturally perceive it one way, but by telling you the right story (i.e., giving you the right theory), I can help you to perceive it a different way.  (Bring the sheet with you next time and I’ll try to demonstrate this.)  Again, the possibilities are not endless; a certain resonance between the bottom-up and top-down processes has to occur.

The point is that the ordered universe that we perceive is a similar combination of the data from the external world and the organizing principles of our own minds.  To suppose we can do some sort of “pure observation,” i.e., independent of any contribution of our minds, is a mistake of naive empiricism.  Those who suppose they are making such unbiased observations are simply ignoring the contribution of their own minds, unconsciously and uncritically assuming, “This is the only way to see it.”  Thus, paradoxically, the effect of assuming you can make theory-independent observation, or collect neutral data, is not objectivity, but the subjectivity of unconscious (and thus unquestioned) theoretical assumptions.

Since the ordered universe, as we perceive it, is a composite of external data and internal organizing principles, to some extent we can understand the organization of the world by exploring the organizing principles in our minds.  Indeed, this is necessary, since there is much more to the mental organizing principle than can be revealed in a single observation.  For example, you know much more about the appearance of giraffes than that one image, and many different external data would resonate with that same (giraffe) organizing principle.  In effect that principle defines an infinite set of possibilities of perceptions of giraffes.  To understand this mental structure, we must systematically explore it, probe it, and map out its universe of possible perceptions.  In doing this, Goethe recommends that we not limit ourselves to observation and calculation, but make use of the full range of possible human responses to the phenomenon (e.g., emotional reactions).  (So, scientists might sometimes express their observations in poetry! )

To avoid this mental exploration being an arbitrary process of imaginative fantasy (and thus entirely subjective), we must constantly refer back to the external world and ensure that this mental exploration stays in resonance with sensory data.  “Creative imagination with all possible realism” (2.3, p. 38).  This is, at least in part, what Goethe is recommending, and why he says his method is objective.  However, he goes beyond naive empiricism in recognizing and taking very seriously the organizing contribution of the human mind, and his method is objective in mapping out the shape of this (objective) organizing principle.  This is the “inner nature of a thing” (1.16), which “is at the bottom of phenomena — such a discovery is infinitely fruitful” (1.12), because it goes beyond the observations actually made to yield an understanding of all possible observations of that phenomenon.

Finally, we can come back to the analogy with understanding a fellow human.  In Naydler’s selection 1.16 (p. 33), Goethe observes that we can never express (in words) the inner nature of a phenomenon, just as we can never completely describe a person’s character.  However, by sufficient observation of a person’s actions and deeds we can form an intuitive picture of their character, and thus understand them better.  (A key element of good characterization in fiction!)  In the same way, from sufficient observations of a natural phenomenon we may come to understand its inner nature (that is, the organizing principle that, in interaction with the external world, creates the phenomenon).

Quality and Quantity

The issue of quality versus quantity came up in class.  In general quality refers to how we perceive something to be.  So, if we are talking about the appearance of a surface, it is however it appears to us: its color, texture, brightness or dullness, depth of color, iridescence, shininess, transparency, etc., as well as suggestions of internal state (hardness, softness, ripeness, internal illumination, etc.).  Thus the quality of something’s appearance is the sort of thing with which a painter or interior decorator might be concerned.  We can compare this with color as measured by a physicist (e.g., the spectrum of reflected light when it is illuminated by white light, or its surface spectral reflectance).  Similarly we might compare the frequency of a sound, a quantity measured by instruments, to its quality as perceived by a musician, including pitch, loudness, timbre, and many other characteristics, including emotional tones and associations (e.g., trumpets and martial music).

It might seem simple to define a color, such as green.  For example, we might look at a spectrum of white light and define green light as extending from 495 to 560 nm in wavelength.  However, recognizing that there are borderline cases, the blue-greens on the short wavelength side and the yellow-greens on the long side, we might loosen our definition to “green light extends from about 495 to about 460 nm in wavelength.”  In this case just one aspect of the (directly perceivable) quality (technically, its hue) has been reduced to a quantity measuring something that we cannot directly perceive (length of a light wave).  Unfortunately, this one-dimensional quantitative definition of green is a drastic reduction of the fullness of the concept as we experience it and as it’s used in ordinary language.  Further, there is the implication that green is really light of certain wavelengths (an objective abstract quantity), and so the green quality that we perceive is less than real (a subjective impression).

The following material, which is extracted from two papers I wrote a few years ago (MacLennan 1998, 2003), may help you to understand the qualitative richness of ordinary color terms as opposed to the poverty of the usual quantitative definition (but it also may be more than you want to know!).

We can look at the prescientific use of words for color and for particular colors, for there are advantages  to looking at languages that are not our own and at early color terms, whose meanings are uncontaminated by assumptions about a linear color spectrum.  For example, the Latin word color, which means appearance and complexion as well as color, comes from an Indo-European root that means to cover or conceal and also gives us such words as “hall,” “hull,” “helm,” “occult,” and “cell”; that is, color originally refers to “that which covers” an object (Watkins 2000, s.v. kel2).  Further, the primary meaning of the ancient Greek word chrôma is skin, and only secondarily complexion and color (Liddell, Scott & Jones 1968, s.v.).  It comes from the Indo-European root ghrêu-, which means to rub or grind; one form gives Greek chrôs (Watkins 2000, s.v. ghrêu-), which means skin, flesh, body, and only secondarily the complexion and color of the skin  (Liddell, Scott & Jones 1968, s.v. chrôs); chrôma also derives from this form.  Again, we see that the concept of color refers to surface appearance, especially as an indicator of internal state (as in complexion). 

Similar observations apply to words for specific colors.  Ancient Greek color terminology is notoriously complex (vol. 1 of Maxwell-Stuart 1981 is devoted to one word, glaukos).  Consider porphureos, commonly translated “purple”; it is famous as the royal color, the unauthorized use of which could be interpreted as treason (Gage 1993, p. 25).  But what color is it?  In addition to purple, lexicons list as its meanings dark red, crimson, and russet (Liddell & Scott 1889, s.v.).  Therefore we can see why Homer uses it to describe blood, but why is the stormy sea porphureos (Iliad,  I.482)?  And why the rainbow (Iliad, XVII.547)?  As Liddell & Scott (1889, s.v.) remark,  “the word does not imply any definite color.”  Rather, for Homer’s audience, the word  referred first to the gleaming, glancing play of light on disturbed water, and by extension  to any shimmering, lustrous, lurid, or glittering play of color; “royal purple” had this quality (Cunliffe 1924, s.v.; see also Gage 1993, pp. 16, 25-26, for more on porphureos). 

Also, many color terms began as univalent (one-meaning) material-substance concepts (e.g., names for minerals or dye stuffs), but appear to be polyvalent (have multiple meanings) when supposed to refer to optical color (Gage 193, pp. 34-35).  So, some Medieval scarlets are black, blue, green, or white in color (since scarlet was primarily a kind of fabric); purple (originally a kind of silk) may be white, yellow, blue, black, or green; sinople can be red or green (perhaps because these colors both derive from copper oxide coloring of glass); glaucus and ceruleus can be blue or yellow, both colors of woad leaves (Gage 1993, pp. 80, 90).  The historical reduction of color to a one dimensional predicate — wavelength — is partly a consequence of the scientific understanding of light, which began with Newton (and so offended Goethe), but we must not let this blind us to the fact that colors are primarily substances emergent from their complex meaning in our lives.

Another, but especially informative, example is the Greek word chlôros, nominally translated “green.”  We are not surprised that wood and seawater may be described as chlôros, but why is it applied to sand, people, cheese, fish, flowers, fruit, gold, tears, and blood (Liddell, Scott & Jones 1968, s.v.)?  Some of these usages can be explained by assuming that the range of hues includes pale green, greenish yellow, yellow, and perhaps any pale color.  However, the core meaning is revealed by its Indo-European root ghel2, which means to shine and by extension any bright material; from this root we also get such words as “yellow,” “gold,” “gleam,” and “gloaming” (Watkins 2000, s.v.).   However, in ancient Greek the meaning is further extended in a way that is easy to understand, for we use “green” similarly: to describe something that is moist (as in green  wood), living, fresh (or unsalted), freshly cut or picked, blooming, unripe, etc. (Liddell,  Scott & Jones 1968, s.v. chlôros).  Thus we understand how cheese, fish, flowers, fruit, and blood can be chlôros. Similarly, when we speak of a “green rider,” we are not referring to their hue.

Here we come close to the crux of the matter: these supposed color terms have semantic  fields that refer to a range of ecologically relevant appearances (correlated with underlying properties, such as freshness), which correspond only loosely with reflectance types.  If we try to reduce the meanings of such terms to a narrow physical property, such as reflectance, we will be ignoring much of their meaning.  It’s the standard bait-and-switch: replace a complex concept by a simpler one, explain the simpler, and claim (or leave to be inferred) that you have explained the more complex. 

One may assume that color is primarily a simple, abstract physical property, such as  surface spectral reflectance and that all the rest is inessential complication, connotation, association, and other psychosocial baggage, but I think the evidence points in the opposite direction.  Color is fundamentally concrete, material, and deeply embedded in the lives, ecologies, and evolutions of the organisms that perceive it.  Abstraction comes  later, if at all, from an attempt to give a simple scientific description of the phenomena.   This is the reason that color does not enter into any fundamental physical theories: it is not a physical, but a psychobiological category.  Much of the difficulty with color arises from trying to reconstruct a folk concept as a scientific or philosophical concept.  This is unnecessary.  We have or can define the scientific concepts that we need, such as surface spectral reflectance and productance.   Further, to attempt such a reconstruction is counterproductive, for it diverts us from the interesting and important task of elucidating the rich and concrete phenomenology of color as it is actually experienced by humans and other animals.


  1. Cunliffe, R. J. (1924).  A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect.  Glasgow & Bombay, Blackie  & Son. 
  2. Gage, J. (1993). Color and Culture:  Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction.  Little, Brown & Company.
  3. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By.  University of Chicago Press.
  4. Liddell, H. G., and R. Scott (1889).  An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon.  Oxford,  Oxford University Press. 
  5. Liddell, H. G., R. Scott and H. S. Jones (1968).  A Greek-English Lexicon, ninth ed.   Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  6. MacLennan, B. J. (1998).  Finding Order in Our World:  The Primacy of the Concrete in Neural Representations and the Role of Invariance in Substance Reidentification.  Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21: 78–79. 
  7. MacLennan, B. J. (2003).  Color as a Material, not an Optical, Property. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 26: 37–38.
  8. Maxwell-Stuart, P. G. (1981).  Studies in Greek Colour Terminology, 2 vols.  Leiden:  Brill. 
  9. Watkins, C. (2000).  The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, second  ed.  Boston & New York, Houghton Mifflin Co.
  10. Zajonc, A. (1993). Catching the Light:  The Entwined History of Light and Mind.  Bantam Books.

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