Remarks on Goethe's Philosophy of Science,
Number III

Modes of Unity

Goethean science is often classified as “holistic” in contrast to the predominantly “reductionistic” emphasis of contemporary science.  This is because Goethe stressed that we should never lose sight of the whole (whole organism, whole ecosystem, whole personality, etc.), and that in our study of the parts we should not forget that they are subordinate to the whole.  In this sense the whole cannot be reduced to its parts.  To understand these ideas it’s useful to distinguish several senses of wholeness or unity.  (Some of these ideas are discussed briefly in Naydler, 10–12.)

Arbitrary Unity

The simplest unity is an arbitrary unity, that is, a collection of parts that are considered a whole on the basis of some accidental criteria.  Examples: (1) the objects on my desk, (2) students in our class whose names end with “y,” (3) the stuff in someone’s shopping cart.  The fact that I could describe these collections shows that they have something in common (e.g., being on my desk), but it is not inherent in the “being” of the parts, and the collection does not make an organic whole.  They are essentially arbitrary collections of things.

Abstract Unity (Unity in Multiplicity)

Second, we have abstract unities, which are defined in terms of some common property shared by all the members of the whole.  The result is a general picture or idea, which leaves out all the particulars of the members and retains only the common properties.  This is the common scientific process of abstraction.  One problem with it is that, while it can account for the commonalities among a group of things, it cannot account for their diversity, which has been left behind by the abstraction process.  Also, in an attempt to reach more fundamental ideas or causes, abstraction proceeds further and further from experienced reality.  So, for example, mathematical physics is constructed in terms of abstractions far removed from ordinary experience.  Abstract unity can be considered a form of nominalism, which says that a concept is no more than a name for a set of things sharing certain specified properties (perhaps with nothing more in common than the name itself, as in arbitrary unities).

Platonic Unity (One over Many)

Platonic unity is closely related to abstract unity in some ways, but different in others.  According to this kind of unity, concrete things belong to a whole by virtue of “participating” in a Platonic Idea or Ideal Form, which resides in a separate non-material realm.  (Thus, this is a dualist theory, for it posits two different realms of reality.)  For example, all individual horses are horses by virtue of participating in the ideal form Horse.  (Some philosophers identified these ideal forms with ideas in the mind of God.)  The ideal forms are the essences and causes of material things, so the properties of horses are inherited from the Ideal Horse.  However, because of the “recalcitrance” of gross matter, all physical horses are imperfect reflections or images of Ideal Horse.  This notion of unity can be described as “one over many,” because the ideal form stands over, as essence and cause, the many material things that participate in it and which are therefore inferior to it.  That is, immaterial reality is the most real (so this is called a realist theory of ideas, as opposed to a nominalist theory) and material reality is subordinate, derivative, inferior, impermanent, and inherently corrupt.

In spite of the fact that contemporary science is supposed to be thoroughly materialist, it has some similarities to Platonic idealism, for the ultimate constituents of physical reality (quarks, strings, etc.) are defined by idealized and perfect mathematical relationships, which generate, very indirectly, the complicated, chaotic world with which we are familiar.

Goethean Unity (Multiplicity in Unity)

The Goethean idea of unity differs from all of the preceding, and may be described as “multiplicity in unity” because all the diversity of the many is included in the one (and not excluded, as is the case with abstract unity).  This is a difficult idea, because it is a different way of looking at things, and so an example may help.  Consider the many individual horses (or people, if that works better as an example), those now living, those that have lived in the past, and those that might be born in the future.  They are all different, and yet they are all recognizably horses, that is, of the same kind.  And this is not just a superficial similarity, for we understand that they are all constructed according to the same plan, have the same physiology, behave similarly, etc.  Therefore, it makes sense to talk of the unity Horse, which is the essence and cause of all of these individual horses, but this unity does not exist separate from the multiplicity of horses.  That is, it does not exist as a separate ideal form above the individual horses (a Platonic one over the many), nor as a mental abstraction of common features (an abstract unity).  (Thus it is a concrete, as opposed to an abstract, mode of unity.)  Because individual horses are what they are by virtue of this unity, we can call this theory of unities “non-dualistic (or monistic) realism.”

It also makes sense to describe the Goethean view as “multiplicity in unity.”  This terminology is clearer if you think of an organism.  The organism is made up of its millions of cells, which make up a multiplicity within the unity of the organism.  They are the cells that they are (skin cells, blood cells, etc.) by virtue of having the same DNA codes and of being parts of that organism.  So, the parts make up the whole, but derive their nature from the whole to which they belong.  If you think about it, this holistic understanding can be applied to individual organisms, populations, species, societies, entire ecosystems, etc.

Goethean unities cannot be discovered, by a process of thinking, in a separate realm of Platonic ideas (or in God’s mind), nor can they be constructed by a process of mental abstraction of common features from particular individuals.  Rather, it is necessary to learn how to see the unity through the multiplicity, and Goethe’s scientific methods are directed to this end.  By careful and systematic observation of related natural phenomena, the unity within the phenomena comes to reside also in the mind of the scientist, and so it can govern (or in-form) the particular thoughts of the scientist in the same way that it governs the phenomena in nature.  Therefore the scientist and nature come into a holistic, participatory relationship, for the multiplicity of interior and exterior phenomena are parts of the same unity.  (Recall that reality is structured by this “resonance” of internal and external form, analogous to the giraffe example.)

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Last updated: 2005-04-21.