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Science & Art

Luke Fischer (AU)

The relationship between Goethean science and art can be considered from two directions: 1) the role of ‘artistic’ capacities within Goethean research or Naturforschung (Hoffmann 2013, Nassar 2022); 2) the significance of Goethean science for various art forms –architecture, visual art, music, poetry, ‘social sculpture’ (Steiner 1888, Lichtenstern 1990, Fischer 2011, Amrine 2018).

A Goethean study of a forest can begin by sensing the overall ‘atmosphere’ or ‘feeling’ of the landscape and season (Bockemühl 1992, Böhme 2017), such as the difference in mood between a coniferous forest in a cold mountainous environment and a tropical rainforest. Such atmospheres, which have long fascinated painters and poets, convey an initial impression of the specific qualities of an environment, which in the course of further research becomes more differentiated.

Goethean scientists often draw as a way of refining their observation of plants, animals, minerals, and the elements. A further methodological step is the practice of what Goethe calls ‘exact sensorial imagination’ (exakte sinnliche Phantasie). By precisely imagining the developmental sequence and morphology of a plant the Goethean researcher deepens their insight into the morphological continuity of its parts and the specific character of the whole. This is related to how a conductor imaginatively re-creates the musical idea of a symphony and thereby comprehends it as an internally differentiated and expressive whole.

The goal of Goethean science is not only to arrive at discursive facts (although factual research is well within its reach [e.g. Rosslenbroich 2014]). Most of all it is a contemplative method of understanding, which Goethe describes as a ‘higher empiricism’ in which the knower attains the experience of spiritual identity with the known and consciously participates in nature’s creative processes. The experience of the creative ideas of natural phenomena (e.g. Goethe’s Urpflanze) is related to the impulse towards artistic creation that nature can inspire in an artist, but the imagination of the Goethean scientist must remain cognitively focused on the subject of research.

For these reasons some Goethean scientists employ evocative forms of writing to communicate the ‘results’ of their research. Goethe’s poem ‘The Metamorphosis of Plants’ evokes for the reader’s imagination the temporal process and lawfulness of plant metamorphosis, which his scientific essay elaborates discursively (Böhme 1989). Similarly, when a Goethean scientist aims to portray the holistic character of a species of plant or animal (Holdrege 2023), they must find fresh language to do so.

In modernity there has been a tendency to regard science as objective and art as subjective, but Goethean research shows how artistic capacities can be trained to yield genuine insight not only into ourselves, but also into the natural world. Artists can, therefore, learn from Goethean research how to develop their imagination into an organ of real insight.

Goethe characterises art as the ‘spiritual organic’ (das Geistig-Organische). In this spirit, organic architecture, ecopoetry, the metamorphic sequence and holistic unity of a melody can be intensified expressions (Steigerungen) of the principles of living nature. Art can be understood as a human, spiritual evolution of the creative processes of nature (Steiner 1888, Lichtenstern 1990, Fischer 2011). Goetheanism holds the potential to heal rifts in modern culture and society between science and art, nature and spirit, the environment and humanity.

Further reading:

Amrine, Frederick (2018): The Music of the Organism: Uexküll, Merleau-Ponty, Zuckerkandl, and Deleuze as Goethean Ecologists in Search of a New Paradigm. Goethe Yearbook 22, 2018, pg. 46-72.

Bockemühl, Jochen (1992): Awakening to Landscape. Dornach 1992.

Böhme, Gernot (2017): The Aesthetics of Atmospheres (Ambiances, Atmospheres and Sensory Experiences of Spaces), ed. Jean-Paul Thibaud, London 2017.

Böhme, Gernot (1989): Für eine ökologische Naturästhetik. Frankfurt am Main 1989.

Fischer, Luke (2011): Goethe contra Hegel: The Question of the End of Art. Goethe Yearbook 18 2011, pg. 127-157

Hoffmann, Nigel (2013): Goethe’s Science of Living Form: The Artistic Stages. Ghent, NY 2013.

Holdrege, Craig (2023): Seeing the Animal Whole - and Why It Matters. Great Barrington, MA 2023.

Lichtenstern, Christa (1990): Die Wirkungsgeschichte der Metamorphosenlehre Goethes: Von Philipp Otto Runge bis Joseph Beuys. Weinheim 1990.

Nassar, Dalia (2022): Romantic Empiricism: Nature, Art, and Ecology from Herder to Humboldt Oxford 2022.

Rosslenbroich, Bernd (2014): On the origin of autonomy. A new look at the major transitions in evolution. Cham 2014.

Steiner, Rudolf (1888): Goethe as Father of a New Aesthetics. In: Art and Theory of Art: Foundations of a New Aesthetics, trans. Dorit Winter and Clifford Venho. Great Barrington, MA 2021.

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