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Goethe's Idea of a Research Community

Iris Hennigfeld (DE) Goethe is convinced that the real battles to resolve a crisis should not be fought on the battlefield, but in the intellectual sphere and - in a contemporary way - within the sciences. For him, the idea of a research community plays a key role in this. It is highly symbolic that Goethe continued his optical studies during the siege of Mainz in 1793, entrusted with the task of war correspondent, as he had done during the French campaign the previous year, and presented the various perspectives of scientists from different fields and artists on this subject. The fruitfulness of this collective is obvious: Goethe's color wheel takes shape for the first time in Marienborn, as can the written third part of his Contributions to Optics (1791/92) with the most important counter-theses to Newton's theory of the refraction of light can largely be concluded here. Throughout his life, the natural scientist Goethe engaged intensively with scientific and philosophical tradition. In addition, there was a personal oral and written exchange with naturalists of his time - especially in the areas at the center of his own research, such as biology, anatomy and physics. Goethe was not primarily concerned with using existing results and assumed prior knowledge for his own investigations without checking them and thus achieving applicable, externally promising results as quickly as possible. Rather, he is repeatedly "driven by contradiction"[1] with existing concepts and doctrines to a separate - one could also say unconditional - beginning in research. However, one's own presuppositions are not already conscious at the beginning of research. In the course of phenomenological research, they can become increasingly clear if the researcher constantly accounts for his or her own perspective and communicates in a research community that is committed to the same phenomenologically unbiased approach. Goethe's practice of contradiction does not (only) consist of a theoretical, written discourse about the things, or rather the opinions of others about things, but above all in first testing the acquired knowledge in one's own view and, if a contradiction arises, re-exploring it oneself in a variety of experiments. Prominent examples of established doctrines that challenge Goethe's explicit criticism are the taxonomy of the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné and Isaac Newton's doctrine of the refraction of light. In scientific-theoretical language, Goethe formulates the idea of a community of researchers in his essay The experiment as mediator of object and subject (1792). In this context, Goethe takes the view that "the interest of several directed to one point is capable of producing something excellent"[2]. Here, Goethe anticipates the message that the man with the lamp will proclaim three years later in his Fairy Tale (1795): "One individual does not help, but he who unites with many at the right time", it says here. If several people focus their interest on one point, Goethe's concern could be interpreted in phenomenological terms, this enables a multi-perspective view of one and the same thing and its truth, and thus at the same time the most comprehensive knowledge possible of the fullness of the essence of the thing in question. It is important that Goethe does not derive this community of researchers from a preconceived moral notion, but seems to demand it from the thing itself, i.e. from the essence of the scientific itself. For according to him, it is especially true in the field of science that "it carries many people, even if no one person can carry it"[3]. Goethe emphasizes the benefits of a research community not only for the object of interest, but also for the researcher's own personality. According to Goethe, the moment the researcher wants to interpret his experiences and move from perception to judgment in scientific practice, the various "inner dangers" of knowledge lurk. These include: "conceit, impatience, rashness, complacency, rigidity, thought-form, preconceived opinion, convenience, recklessness, mutability"[4]. Added to this are "envy" and "inordinate desire"[5], which results in personal ambition and competition. These "subjective opacities"[6] of the view in favor of a cooperation of renouncing people who strive for the same goal. This goal requires constant critical self-reflection on the part of the naturalist mind, which, according to Goethe, is "its own strictest observer" and "always suspicious of itself"[7]. Under this condition, this practice of self-renunciation could create the space for a debate that is entirely dedicated to the cause and no longer to self-centered goals. But what exactly is this thing that the researcher would have to indulge in? The point to which different people would have to direct their interest in order to form a community of researchers in the original sense cannot be any external object, a common theme or procedure in the usual sense, but that point, according to Goethe, is solely the idea. Only she is "eternal and unique"[8] and so it could be added, the same in all people who arrive at it via the various paths of their research. At the same time, this idea opposes any form of scientific reductionism. Rudolf Steiner expresses himself succinctly on the importance of the idea in Goethe's sense for a community of researchers in Introductions to Goethe's Scientific Writings: "It is not at all important that the individual judgments and concepts of which our knowledge is composed agree, but only that they ultimately lead us to that we swim in the fairway of the idea. And it is in this fairway that all people must ultimately meet if energetic thinking leads them beyond their special point of view."[9] References:


Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens. Münchner Ausgabe (MA). 33 Bände. Hg. von Karl Richter in Zusammenarbeit mit Herbert G. Göpfert, Norbert Miller, Gerhard Sauder und Edith Zehm. München 2006.

– Band 4.2: Wirkungen der Französischen Revolution 1791-1797. Hg. von Klaus H. Kiefer, Hans J. Becker, Gerhard H. Müller u.a.

– Band 17: Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre. Maximen und Reflexionen. Hg. von Gonthier-Louis Fink Gerhart Baumann und Johannes John.


Rudolf Steiner: Einleitungen zu Goethes Naturwissenschaftlichen Schriften. Rudolf Steiner Gesamtausgabe, Band 1. Dornach/Schweiz 1987.


Herbert Witzenmann: „Goethes Idee des Experiments und die moderne Naturwissenschaft“, in: Intuition und Beobachtung, Band 1: Das Erfassen des Geistes im Erleben des Denkens. Stuttgart 1977, S. 35-58.

[1] MA 18.2:443.

[2] MA 4.2:324.

[3] MA 4.2:324.

[4] MA 4.2:323.

[5] MA 4.2:323.

[6] Following Goethe and Rudolf Steiner, Herbert Witzenmann describes the process of overcoming oneself in his words: "When, by overcoming subjective obscurations, cognition becomes capable of grasping the essence of things, then the cognizer settles into the orders that pervade reality. The various strivers for knowledge come together in these orders and in accordance with them. For what separates them in their subjectivity, they overcome in cognition." Herbert Witzenmann: Intuition und Beobachtung, p. 47.

[7] MA 4.2:323.

[8] MA 17:783.

[9] Rudolf Steiner: Einleitungen zu Goethes naturwissenschaftlichen Schriften, S. 174.


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