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The 4 Elements as Modes of Cognition and the Metamorphosis of Plant Leaves

Nigel Hoffmann (AU)

Rudolf Steiner wrote: “The understanding of natural science up to now has limited itself to this one element, Earth, and now we must find the way back [to the elements Water, Air and Fire]”.[1] To understand what Steiner means by this statement is to discern a pathway for Goethean phenomenology. On this pathway the sculptural, musical and poetical faculties are intensified into organs of cognition.

We begin with what Goethe called the empirical phenomenon. This "earth stage" is founded on the clear unbiased perception of the “cold, hard facts”. The rigorous, logical, analytical kind of thinking from which modern science develops in its search for precise mechanism is what Steiner called “solid thinking”.

Fig 1.: The four leafing processes – stemming, spreading, differentiating, pointing (Hoffmann 2007, cf. Bockemühl 1982, 1998).

A true life science must take us beyond this “solid” mode. Organisms grow and transform; plant and animal forms undergo metamorphosis. Our thinking must be like growth to authentically think growth. This is a mobile, water-like plastic form of thinking, a thinking which can participate in living forms and transformations. It can be called a sculptural thinking, a thinking which can model itself to one form and reshape itself to the next.

In the phenomenological pathway there is a threshold moment; thinking becomes receptive and air-like. The physical form becomes transparent to the organising principle of living form which Aristotle called the entelechy. This organising principle is comprehended as a language of gesture. We can, for example, read leafing processes in plants musically; these processes are most distinctly found in herbs. We could call it the time body of the plant.

Fig. 2. (Hoffmann 2007)

In the seed we “hear” the prime – “the restfulness of unison with itself”. A state of potential.

In the second we hear the gesture of away from in the time body. This is stemming.

In the third, the minor third in particular, there is expansion but the beginning of a turning inward, the creation of a uniqueness. This is spreading.

In the fourth the uniqueness consolidates and a new centre of gravity is established. This is the gesture of differentiating.

In pointing we hear the gesture of not yet in the time body of the plant. The sixth, and particularly the seventh, are entirely governed by the future, by the potentiality of the octave. The leaf gathers itself back to the stem in anticipation of the flower.

The octave sounds the “returning to the same which is different”. In the octave we hear the completion of a going through; the seed potential of the prime has been realised. In the time body of the plant the not yet of the seventh draws the flower-octave to the plant from the future.

The final stage is what Goethe called the archetypal phenomenon; knowing becomes a form of creating. It is not the form which is perceived physically but the formative idea which gives rise to the form. The philosopher J.G. Fichte conceived this most apt expression: “An activity into which an eye has been inserted”.[2] The Aristotelians called it nous poietikos – the poetically-inspired thinking which gives expression to the inherent creative activity of living form.


Hoffmann, Nigel: Goethe’s Science of Living Form: The Artistic Stages. Adonis Press, Hillsdale, 2007.

[1] Steiner, Rudolf: Therapeutic Insights, Earthly and Cosmic Laws (GA 205), Mercury Press, 1984, p.17.

[2] Quoted in Amrine, Frederick: “The Metamorphosis of the Scientist”, in Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature. SUNY, 1998, p.41.

[3] Bockemühl, Jochen: Bildebewegungen im Laubblattbereich höherer Pflanzen. In: Goetheanistische Naturwissenschaft II. Botanik. Stuttgart 1982, S. 17–35.

Engl: Transformation in the foliage leaves of higher plants. In: Goethe's way of science. A phenomenology of nature. New York 1998, pp.115-128.

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