Goethe on Science

Source: Goethe. The Collected Works, Scientific Studies, Volume 12, Edited and translated by Douglas Miller, 1988.

Outline for a General Introduction to Comparative Anatomy §II (1795)

The similarity of animals to one another and to man is obvious and widely known, but more difficult to see in practice, not always directly apparent in detail, frequently misunderstood, and sometimes even denied. Differing view are therefore difficult to reconcile, for there is no norm to which the different parts may be compared, no set of principles to profess.

All the work of comparing animals to man and to one another was directed to some particular end; the accumulation of detail made it increasingly difficult to attain some sort of overview. Many would find examples of this in Buffon, Josephi’s work, and that of others, should be equally considered. Thus it was found necessary to compare all animals with every animal with all animals – and we can see the impossibility of reconciling things in this manner.

Hence, an anatomical Urphänomen will be suggested here, a general picture containing the forms of all animals as potential, one which will guide us to an orderly description of each animal. As much as possible, this Urphänomen must be established physiologically. The mere idea of an Urphänomen in general implies that no particular animal can be used as our point of departure; the particular can never serve as a measure for the whole.

With all his exalted perfection as an organism – in fact, just because of this perfection – the human being cannot serve as a gauge for the imperfect animals. Instead let us proceed as follows.

Empirical observation must first teach us what parts are common to all animals, and how these parts differ. The idea must govern the whole, it must abstract the general picture in a genetic way. Once such an Urphänomen is established, even if only provisionally, we may test it quite adequately by applying the customary methods of comparison.

Animals have been compared to one another, as have animals to man, the races of man to one another, the two genders to each other, the principal parts of the body (e.g. upper and lower extremities), and the subordinate parts (e.g. one vertebra to another).

We may still make any of these comparisons after we have established the Urphänomen, but then more consistently and with more meaning for the whole of science. They can even serve to test earlier results and organize observation found to be true

Comparison to the established Urphänomen may be undertaken in two ways. First, by describing individual species in terms of the Urphänomen. Once this is done there is no need to compare animal with animal, for when the descriptions are placed side by side the comparison will be made. Second, a particular part of the Urphänomen may be traced descriptively through all the major genera, thus giving us a thorough and instructive comparison. But if studies of either sort are to bear fruit, they must be as complete as possible. ...


The above really refers only to the comparative anatomy of mammals, and ways of making this study easier. But in establishing the Urphänomen, we must look further afield in nature; we will be unable to form a general picture of mammals without such an overview, and by calling on all of nature, when we construct this picture we will be able to modify it by regression to produce pictures of less perfect creatures. ...

Experience and Science, 1798

“Empirical breaks must often be disregarded in order to preserve a pure, constant phenomenon. However, as soon as I permit myself to do this, I am establishing a kind of ideal.

“Nevertheless, a vast difference exists between disregarding whole sequences in favour of a hypothesis, as theorists often do, and the sacrifice of a single empirical break in the interest of preserving the idea of the reine Phänomen.

“Since we, therefore, as observers never see pure phenomena with our eyes, since much depends instead upon our own state of mind, on the state of the organ itself at the moment, on light, air, weather, bodies, treatment, and a thousand other things, it would be like attempting to drink up the ocean if we were to fasten upon each and every phenomenon with the intention of observing, measuring, judging, and describing them individually.

“In my observation and contemplation of Nature, especially of late, I have remained as faithful as possible to the following method. ...

“... (3) the pure phenomenon now standing forth as the result of all experiences and experiments. It can never be isolated, appearing as it does in a constant succession of forms. In order to describe it, the human intellect determines the empirically variable, excludes the accidental, separates the impure, unravels the tangled, and even discovers the unknown.

“Here we would reach the ultimate goal of our powers, if human beings knew their place. For we are not seeking causes but the circumstances under which the phenomenon occurs. Its logical sequence, its eternal return under a thousand conditions, its uniformity and mutability are considered and accepted; its definiteness is recognized and redefined by the human intellect. And in my opinion such work is certainly not mere speculation, but rather the practical and self-correcting operation of ordinary common sense as it ventures out into a higher sphere.”

Theory of Colours (1810)

§174. The principal phenomenon outlined in the above discussion might be called a fundamental or Urphänomen. With the reader’s permission we will proceed at once to clarify what is meant by this.

§175. In general, events we become aware of through experience are simply those we can categorize empirically after some observation. These empirical categories may be further subsumed under scientific categories leading to even higher levels. In the process we become familiar with certain requisite conditions for what it manifesting itself. From this point everything gradually falls into place under higher principles and laws revealed not to our reason through words and hypotheses, but to our intuitive perception through phenomena. We call these phenomena Urphänomen because nothing higher manifests itself in the world; such phenomena, on the other hand, make it possible for us to descend, just as we ascended, by going step by step from the Urphänomen to the most mundane occurrence in our daily experience. What we have been describing is an Urphänomen of this kind. On the one hand we see light or a bright object, on the other, darkness or a dark object. Between them we place turbidity and through his mediation colours arise from the opposites: these colours, too, are opposites, although in their reciprocal relationship they lead directly back to a common unity.

§176. In this sense we consider the error (reasoning from the decomposition of white light by a prism) which has sprung up in scientific research on colour to be a grievous one. A secondary phenomenon has been placed in a superior position and an Urphänomen in an inferior one; moreover, the secondary phenomenon itself has been turned upside down by treating what is compounded as simple and what is simple as compound. In this manner the most bizarre complications and confusions have come topsy-turvy into natural science, and science continues to suffer from them.

§177. But even where we find such an Urphänomen, a further problem arises when we refuse to recognize it as such, when we seek something more behind it and above it despite the fact that this is where we ought to acknowledge the limit of our perception. It is proper for the natural scientist to leave the Urphänomen undisturbed in its eternal repose and grandeur, and for the philosopher to accept it into his realm. There he will discover that a material worthy for further thought and work has been given him, not in individual cases, general categories, opinions and hypotheses, but in the basic and Urphänomen.

§718. Earlier ... we mentioned this important observation in passing, and we are now at an appropriate place to repeat it. There is no worse mistake in physics or any other science than to treat secondary things as basic and (since basic things cannot be derived from what is secondary) to seek an explanation for the basic things in secondary ones. This gives birth to endless confusion, jargon, and a constant effort to find a way out when the truth begins to emerge and assert itself.

§719. There the observer, the scientific researcher, will be bothered by the fact that the phenomena always contradicts his notions. This philosopher however, can continue to operate with a false conclusion in his own sphere, for no conclusion is so false that it could not somehow be valid as a form without content.

§720. But the physicist who can come to an understanding of what we have called an Urphänomen will be on safe ground, and the philosopher with him. The physicist will find safety in the conviction that he has reached the limit of his science, the empirical summit from which he can look back over the various steps of empirical observation, and glance forward into the realm of theory, if not enter it. ...

§918. We can also sense that colour is open to mystical interpretation. The scheme depicting the multiplicity of colours points to archetypal relationships which are as much a part of human intuitive perception as they are of nature. These associations could no doubt be used as a language to express archetypal relationships which are not so powerful and diverse in their effect on us. The mathematician values the worth and utility of the triangle, the mystic venerates it. ...

From Morphology. The Content Prefaced (1817)

“I surrounded myself with a collection of older and more recent remains, and on trips I carefully looked through museums and small collections for creatures whose formation as a whole, or in part, could prove instructive to me.

“In the process I was soon obliged to postulate a prototype against which all mammals could be compared as to points of agreement or divergence. As I had earlier sought out the archetypal plant I now aspired to find the archetypal animal; in essence, the concept or idea of the animal.”