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Principles of Organic Gestalt-Formation

Christoph Hueck (DE)

The development of an organic form is an incomprehensible enigma for the materialistic, reductionist conception of reality. We know that development of the form can be influenced by changing the genes (or developmental conditions), but we cannot explain form from the genes, nor from developmental conditions.

Goetheanism takes a phenomenological approach to describe Gestalt formation. To do this, one takes the observations seriously and does not try to reduce phenomena to material causes 'behind' them.

Phenomenologically, two main principles of organic formation can be distinguished: A building principle, through which organic matter is generated, and a shaping principle, which is often associated with degradation (cf. Hueck 2023). For example, the hand of vertebrates is formed in such a way that first the material for it is built up by repeated cell division, from which the fingers are then formed by degradation (apoptosis) of the interfinger substance (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Development of the human hand by growth and degradation (Husemann 2015, p.79)

The building-up principle works rhythmically and leads to repetitive, metameric structures of the organic body, the shaping and breaking-down principle leads to the formation of concise, integrated and in many cases highly mobile overall gestalts (cf. Portmann 1965).

Fig. 2: Shape development of the flowering plant between expansion and restriction.

The building principle can be seen clearly in the leaves of plants. It works temporally in the rhythmic repetition of leaf formation. The formative principle, on the other hand, leads to spatial integration of the organic material and thus to a concise overall form (e.g. the flower). In the flower, the vitality of the leaf area is almost completely lost and is exchanged for the spatial radiance of colours and fragrance as well as the mobility of the seeds. The vegetative principle of leaf proliferation is replaced by the generative principle of separation into the two sexes. In the flower we see contact of the plant with the soul life of animals and humans.

Looking closer at the form-change of the leaves (cf. metamorphosis of plant leaves), it can be said that the two principles of formation work together - albeit in an opposing "direction" (Fig. 2). Also the development of a single leaf can be described by the cooperation of these two formative principles (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Growth and design in the development of a leaf of Lapsana communis.

We can therefore describe two qualitatively different principles of formation, which work together with different weighting in every organism and in every stage of development: a vital, building up, substance-creating principle, which works relatively monotonously through temporal repetition, and a decomposing, shaping, dividing principle, which also spatially integrates individual elements of the organism into a wholistic form and leads to mobility and radiance.

Fig. 4: Correspondence between butterfly and plant: egg/seed, caterpillar/leaf, pupa/bud, imago/flower (Husemann 2015, p.157)

The same principles can be seen in the development of a butterfly (Fig. 4): the metamerically structured body of the caterpillar, which is very vital and often grows through repeated moults, and the transformation (through complete degradation in the chrysalis) into a wholistically integrated shape of the butterfly, which radiates into the surrounding spatial world through its ability to fly, its sensitivity to smell that extends over many kilometres and also through its colourfulness. In the butterfly, the asexuality of the caterpillar divides into the two sexes, which have lost almost all vitality except for the ability to reproduce.

Andreas Suchantke and Wilhelm Hoerner have described in detail the correspondence between metamorphosis in flowering plants and butterflies and the formation principles at work in them (Suchantke 1966, Hoerner 1991, cf. metamorphosis in plant and butterfly).

Goethe already referred to these two principles of Gestalt formation. Interestingly, he saw them in relation to the higher development of an organism: "The more imperfect the creature is, the more these parts are like or similar to each other, and the more they resemble the whole. The more perfect the creature becomes, the more dissimilar the parts become to each other. In the former case the whole is more or less like the parts, in the latter the whole is unlike the parts. The more similar the parts are to each other, the less subordinate they are to each other. The subordination of the parts points to a more perfect creature." (Goethe 1807, 1817, S. 15)

Once these two principles of formation and their interaction have been recognised, they can be found in many, indeed probably in all organic formations, although, as I have said, the weighting of the two principles can vary.


Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von: Bildung und Umbildung organischer Naturen. 1807; Zur Morphologie. Band 1 Heft 1, 1817. Berliner Ausgabe Bd. 24.

Hoerner, Wilhelm: Der Schmetterling. Metamorphose und Urbild. Stuttgart 1991.

Hueck, Christoph: Evolution in the Double Stream of Time. An Inner Morphology of Organic Thought. 2. rev. ed., Stuttgart 2023. Online-Version.

Husemann, Armin: Form, Leben und Bewusstsein. Einführung in die Menschenkunde der anthroposophischen Medizin. Stuttgart 2015.

Portmann, Adolf: Die Tiergestalt. Studien über die Bedeutung der tierischen Erscheinung. Freiburg i. Br. 1965.

Suchantke, Andreas: Die Metamorphose bei Blütenpflanze und Schmetterling. In: Elemente der Naturwissenschaft 4/1966, S. 1-7.

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