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Training of Goethean Scientific Method

Christoph Hueck (DE)

"Goethe's method leads to an understanding of things as they appear in their natural context. In conventional science, an analytical approach is used to dissect observations and understand the resulting components as the cause of the whole. With Goethe's method, the details found through analysis can become more meaningful, because Goetheanism is a 'science of wholes'."[1]

(Guus van der Bie)

To get to know Goethe's method, it is hardly adequate only to read about it. One can only really become acquainted with this method by practicing it.

Guus van der Bie has described a number of exercises to practise the mental skills that are relevant in Goethe's method: precise perception, accurate memory, systematic comparison, moving imagination, contemplation and systematic pattern recognition.[1] These methods are summarized here.

I. Training perception

Goethe's method attempts to recognise the objects of research in their reality and thus in their wholeness. The recognising human being must be taken into account, because he or she belongs to the wholeness of reality.

Objects are perceived through the senses. Conventional science has a fundamental (and not unjustified) distrust of direct sense perceptions because they are regarded as subjective. Perception, however, can be practised in such a way that it becomes more and more 'objective'.

Exercise 1: Observe a natural object, e.g. a crystal, a shell, a leaf, a feather, as closely as possible, then cover it and draw the object as accurately as possible from memory. Try this with one or more other objects and you will notice that your ability to concentrate and your memory improve. Your perceptions become more and more precise, more and more 'objective'.

II. Differentiation between perceptions and concepts

In conventional scientific education, one hears or reads that submicroscopic components (atoms, molecules, DNA, proteins, etc.) are the causes of macroscopic phenomena. However, students are hardly ever told how this knowledge came about, i.e. from which perceptions the researchers formed their concepts.

The clear distinction between perceptions and concepts (facts and theories) is a basic prerequisite for scientific cognition. It is precisely this distinction that Rudolf Steiner based his epistemology on.[2] In a science of wholes, the conscious distinction between what you see (perception) and the meaning you give it (assessment) is particularly essential.

Exercise 2: The distinction between perceptions and concepts can be experienced and practised with the examples in Gestalt-Cognition: Percepts & Concepts. By consciously distinguishing between perceptions and concepts, one can learn to observe both elements of cognition separately and investigate their contribution to experienced 'reality'. Cognition itself becomes a field of research for the Goethean method. Many scientific questions appear in a new light when cognition itself is taken into account (e.g. the one about the nature of the living and its evolution).

III. Training memory

Through self-reflection one can realise and observe the differences between perception, memory, and assessment. Memory is a (re)creative faculty of the mind which can be trained to become an ever more exact imitation of a perceived object. Goethe called this faculty "exact sensual imagination" (exakte sinnliche Phantasie). He was aware that the exact mental reproduction of an object facilitates the finding of a realistic concept. "He who can transform the sight into an inner beholding will have greatly facilitated the concept" (Wer sich diesen Anblick in ein inneres Anschauen verwandeln kann, der wird sich den Begriff sehr erleichtert haben).[3]

Exercise 3: Repeat the above perception exercise several times with the same object, creating a more and more accurate and detailed memory image of the object. If you cannot remember some details, add them from your imagination. This exercise will greatly enhance your ability to memorize a perceived object.

IV. Systematic comparison

Organisms change their shapes in a lawful way. If we want to arrive at adequate concepts about organisms, then our thinking must adapt to this change of form. Goethe was well aware about this point.[4]

Exercise 4: The following figure shows three sets of leaf sequences (corn salad, smock, milk thistle, left to right). Look at individual leaf shapes from these sequences and first try to draw these shapes from memory as in exercises 1 and 3. Try to describe in words exactly how two neighbouring shapes differ. Which parts have become smaller, larger, etc.? Through this exercise you will develop an alert awareness of shapes and shape transformations. In recollecting how one leaf shape transforms into the next, the transitions that happen between leaf shapes also come into view. These changes, which do not appear visibly in the plant, become visible in your mind.

V. Moving imagination

The systematic comparison of the different leaf shapes shows that one observes a continuous transformation, a process in time. The leaves also appear on the plant one after the other in time (from bottom left to bottom right in the figure). This process can not be observed with sensual eyes, but it becomes comprehensible in the consciousness of the observer. One notices how the representations of the individual leaf forms become mobile. One observes the "metamorphosis". Without these moving ideas, the science of living things is incomplete. Only with mobile thinking does it become actual life science. This is what Goethe meant when he said that we have to "keep ourselves so mobile and pictorial, according to the example with which [nature] presents itself to us".

Time processes are characteristic of the living. They produce material forms that transform in time. Every organism has its own characteristic "pattern in time" which can be experienced as a whole just like the spatial organism is a whole.

VI. Contemplation

Exercise 5: Try to imagine a particular leaf shape exactly and then let it merge inwardly into the neighbouring one. Then try to inwardly recreate the whole series of leaf-changes. This exercise requires a lot of concentration, but it has a rich result: it leads to the inner experience of the formative forces that also work in the plant.

VII. Systematic pattern recognition

If you compare the three rows of leaves, you can see that although the shapes vary greatly from species to species, there is a common transformation movement. All three rows of leaves start with small leaves with a relatively long petiole and rounded shapes of the blade. Then the surface of the blade becomes differentiated (notched). The petiole becomes successively shorter (in the case of milk thistle, the leaf base widens). Then the shapes become simpler again and more and more pointed, finally disappearing almost completely below the flower. (Jochen Bockemühl has described these leaf-forming activities in detail, calling them "stemming" (forming stems), "spreading" (enlarging the surface), "articulating" (differentiating the forms) and "pointing" (retiring of the leaves).

Exercise 6: Try to observe leaf metamorphosis in other (dicotyledonous and flowering) plants. Through this exercise, you will be able to observe the dynamic process and the law of formation of leaf metamorphosis more and more clearly.

Goethe's approach enables you to assess universal phenomena, such as leaf metamorphosis. It may strike you that this assessment is based strictly on what you experience in perception, recollection, comparison, self-reflection and contemplation. Goethe's method demonstrates that the researcher can objectively read into a phenomenon. By allocating a meaning through this particular thought process you can transcend 'subjectivity' (personal bias). Goethe called this moment of intuitive assessment the stage of "systematic pattern recognition" (anschauende Urteilskraft). As an investigator you experience it as an activity of the object in your mind. The investigated object itself, in this example the plant, generates the intuitive concept of leaf metamorphosis in the mind of the researcher.


Systematic pattern recognition gives the experience of a process in its entirety as an integrated whole. It is an intuitive inner experience, an insight. The systematic comparative study of perceivable phenomena leads to an 'inwardly visible' experience that brings all related phenomena in a comprehensible context. A purely analytical examination will not convey such insight.

The intuitive assessment in systematic pattern recognition is not instantly recognizable for everyone since it must be attained by a concerted personal effort. Metamorphosis is not perceptible to the senses. Its perception occurs as an intuitive insight when we "recreate creative nature" and complement it with introspection. It is the methodological basis of a 'science of wholes'. Goethe's scientific method provides the basis for developing an intuitive and scientific understanding of the living.

Systematic pattern recognition is relevant in all areas where we deal with living development and organization, e.g. in medicine, agriculture, pedagogy, social science and others.


[4] "If we consider forms, especially the organic ones, we find that nowhere is there is a resting, a closed thing, but rather that everything fluctuates in a constant movement. This is why our language uses the word 'formation' (Bildung) pertaining to both what has been brought forth and the process of bringing-forth. If, therefore, we wish to introduce a morphology, we must not speak of form, but if we use the word, we must at most think only of the idea, the concept, or of something held in experience only for the moment. What is formed is immediately transformed again, and we must, if we wish to attain to some extent to the living perception of nature, keep ourselves so mobile and pictorial, according to the example with which it presents itself to us." (Betrachten wir aber alle Gestalten, besonders die organischen, so finden wir, daß nirgends ein Bestehendes, nirgends ein Ruhendes, ein Abgeschlossenes vorkommt, sondern daß vielmehr alles in einer steten Bewegung schwanke. Daher unsere Sprache das Wort Bildung sowohl von dem Hervorgebrachten, als von dem Hervorgebrachtwerdenden gehörig genug zu brauchen pflegt. Wollen wir also eine Morphologie einleiten, so dürfen wir nicht von Gestalt sprechen, sondern wenn wir das Wort brauchen, uns allenfalls dabei nur die Idee, den Begriff oder ein in der Erfahrung nur für den Augenblick Festgehaltenes denken. Das Gebildete wird sogleich wieder umgebildet, und wir haben uns, wenn wir einigermaßen zum lebendigen Anschaun der Natur gelangen wollen, selbst so beweglich und bildsam zu erhalten, nach dem Beispiele mit dem sie uns vorgeht.) [4]


[1] van der Bie, Guus: Wholeness in science. A methodology for pattern recognition and clinical intuition. Driebergen 2012.

[2] see e.g. Steiner, Rudolf: Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung. Dornach 1979.

[3] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von: Über die Spiraltendenz der Vegetation. In: Goethe. Berliner Ausgabe, Ergänzungsband 17. Berlin 1965-1978, S. 153–174.

[4] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von: Bildung und Umbildung organischer Naturen. 1807; Zur Morphologie. Band 1 Heft 1, 1817. In: Goethe. Berliner Ausgabe 17. Berlin 1965-1978, S. 11–21.


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