What is qualitative science?

 By John Barnes

We live in a science-based culture dominated by measurements, graphs, statistics and calculations. The more we think in terms of quantity, however, the more we value the richness of qualitative experience which we seek for in nature, the arts, in religious experience and in human relationships as an inwardly fulfilling, yet elusive antidote to our obsession with numerical accuracy. In the end, most of us would choose quality over quantity. But “subjective” qualitative experience is discounted in our “objective” science-based culture. Indeed it is thought of as the antithesis of scientific objectivity. Is there—can there even be—such a thing as qualitative science?

What are qualities?

We generally distinguish between good quality and poor quality when we judge almost anything: shoes, tools, even education and human relationships; food, water, soil, etc. Man-made products are of good quality when they are well made, durable, and fulfill their intended purpose well. Water is of good quality when it is uncontaminated and fresh and optimally fulfills its life-sustaining role. An apple is of good quality when it is of a crisp, firm consistency, is moderately juicy, and has a somewhat sweet and slightly tart taste. In this sense we might say that the quality of something depends on the degree to which it realizes its full potential.

But we also use the word to distinguish between, for example, the distinctive qualities of different colors, sounds, or smells, of different kinds of fruit, or of different medicinal herbs. Snowdrops, daffodils, and tulips are all spring flowers, yet each has its distinctive quality. Dogs and cats are both carnivores, yet in their form and behavior they too exhibit very different qualities. In this sense different qualities denote different ways of being.

We also speak of human qualities such as integrity or kindness, arrogance or selfishness. These are inner, moral qualities that, though no longer directly sense perceptible, nevertheless manifest in a person’s facial expressions, words, gestures, and actions. Though they cannot be measured, they are certainly potent realities.

Following this line of thought, one might say that qualities are the inwardly experienced manifestations of the essential nature, or innate organizational principle of things—manifestations of something internal, essential, or spiritual that come to expression in a more or less potent and complete way in the outer, phenomenal, physical world. Goethe spoke of qualitative experience as “a revelation that comes from within as we immerse ourselves in the outer world.”

Qualitative judgments are based on our experience of things and how we feel about them. If there is to be a qualitative science, however, it cannot be based on subjective personal reactions or preferences. And yet if it is to be a science of qualities, it must necessarily involve our human experience and feelings. A prerequisite of a qualitative science is therefore not only a highly sensitized and perceptive sensorium but also a highly cultivated, empathetic feeling capacity that has transformed its subjective experience of personal or acculturated likes and dislikes into an objective capacity to perceive qualities as they are: as manifestations of the essences of things.

How would a qualitative science differ from modern quantitative science?

One might say that modern science began with Galileo, who said: “Measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not measurable.”

All scales of measurement consist of identical abstract units—quantities—that can be placed into mathematical relationships.

These relationships can be formulated with great accuracy. This is especially evident in the realm of mechanics. Thus, for example, there is a precise mathematical relationship between the forces at work in a balancing beam or lever.

Qualities themselves cannot be measured. Measurements are abstractions; qualities are by nature concrete and experiential. Whereas measurements and quantitative analyses, if done carefully, are always exact and can be expressed in exact mathematical terms, qualities can only be directly experienced and expressed in terms that somehow convey, or point to, this experience. This is a major reason why, wherever possible, qualities have been eliminated from the exact sciences.

In materials science, the specific weight, hardness, tensile strength, malleability, melting point, electrical conductivity, etc., of physical substances can be measured. All such measurements, however, are indications of the qualities of a substance. Chemical reactions reveal aspects of the innate qualities of substances. A distinctive attribute of iron, for example, is that it oxidizes, i.e., undergoes a burning process, when it comes in contact with oxygen. When this chemical reaction is reduced to an abstract quantitative formula—4Fe2+ + 3O2→2Fe2O3 + heat—our understanding gains a certain accuracy but loses its concrete, experiential nature. A thin layer of this iron oxide, or rust, forms on iron’s surface over extended time. When an axe is sharpened on a grinding wheel, on the other hand, tiny fragments of steel fly into the air and immediately ignite as sparks. Rust formation and this sparking are quite different in quality: Rust formation is a slow, corrosive process, enhanced by water, that returns iron to its dull, inert earthly state (iron ore); sparking happens instantaneously, releasing light and warmth, and oxidizing iron in an excited state. Though they can both be represented by the same quantitative formula, the qualities of these two processes are polar opposite in nature.

Colors, tones, smells, tastes, and warmth or cold are sense-perceptible qualities that arise in connection with physical conditions. Tones arise in connection with vibrating material and are propagated through space by mechanical air waves. Depending on how they are produced, tones can evoke feelings that range from the painful to the sublime. Mechanical vibrations are physical phenomena in space that can be measured and counted. Tones are experienced through a highly developed organ—the ear—and speak directly to our feelings. A similar relationship exists between color and electromagnetic oscillations and between smell or taste and certain chemical substances. In each instance, an intimate relation exists between a sense perceptible, yet inwardly experienced, quality and a measureable, quantifiable physical substrate.

Qualities play a vital role in the arts. The arts are human creations and are deeply bound up with human sensations, feelings, emotions, and intentions. Musicians will tell you, however, that music is lawful and, though it springs from the deepest sources of human experience, it is by no means an arbitrary creation. Much has been written about the qualities of various musical instruments, of different keys, and different musical compositions.

Early prototypes of non-quantitative science

Around 1800, at a time when modern science was just about to plunge into materialism, the great German poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe developed fundamental aspects of a non-quantitative scientific method rooted in human experience that leads to a dynamic and qualitative understanding of nature.

In botany, he developed his view of the metamorphosis of plants, a morphological approach based on exact imaginative participation in the development of individual plants throughout their life cycle. To Goethe, with his strong imaginative capacities, it soon became clear that there were often transitional forms between seed leaves and fully developed foliage leaves, for example, or between petals and stamen. By inwardly recreating the sequence of developing organs in his imagination, he came to see them as the result of the continuous transformation, or metamorphosis, of a leaf-like organ-forming potential that usually manifests physically only in the discrete regular organs of the actual plant but sometimes also in unusual transitional forms. For Goethe, metamorphosis was not only nature’s way of creating the various organs of individual plants but also her way of creating the immense variety of plant families and species out of a formative potential that he called the "Urpflanze," or “archetypal plant.”

However, while Goethe’s dynamic morphology is phenomenological and requires active inner imaginative participation, it is not yet qualitative. The fact that the organs of the blossom are metamorphosed leaves or that lilies are specific manifestations of the archetypal plant tells us nothing about the particular qualities of blossoms or lilies. Whereas metamorphosis is preoccupied with the dynamic generation of forms, qualitative science seeks to identify the essential nature of things as qualities that manifest in every aspect of their outer appearance.

Goethe does venture into qualitative science, however, in his greatest scientific work, his Theory of Colors.  In the sixth and final section of this extensive and thorough study of color, a section entitled “the sensory-moral effects of colors,” he investigates the qualities of colors and color combinations. In introducing his method of inquiry, he writes in § 763:

"In order to experience these particular effects optimally, one must surround the eye completely with one color, for example in a room of one color, or by looking through colored glass. One thus identifies oneself with the color; the color attunes the eye and mind with itself so that they are in unison."

In his “Verses in Prose,” he writes of this qualitative science:

"There is a delicate empiricism which identifies itself intimately with the object and, in doing so, becomes the actual theory. This heightening of our spiritual capacity, however, belongs to a highly cultivated age."

Empirical perception is only the first step. It needs to “identify itself intimately with the object,” i.e., one needs to deepen, enliven, and thus inwardly unite with one’s empirical experience. In order to become scientific knowledge, this experience then needs to be compared and contrasted with a range of other qualities in its field. Finally the lawfulness inherent in these experiences and their interrelationships needs to be formulated. This cognitive process, however, never separates from the qualitative experience. The thinking involved never becomes abstract. Instead it brings order into the richness of experience. Thus a “feeling understanding”[1] arises. Finally, the “actual theory,” the lawfulness of the experience, can be formulated. 

In Goethe’s color circle the six primary and secondary colors are arranged in such a way that neighboring colors blend one into the other and opposite colors are complementary. While gazing for a time at yellow for example, the eye generates violet, the complementary color, which appears as an after image when one shifts one’s gaze from the yellow onto a white surface. Green is at the bottom of the circle; magenta, or pure red, at the top. Inherent in this arrangement are fundamental dynamic relationships between the colors, all of which Goethe had previously explored—relationships that include, indeed in a sense culminate in, their “sensory-moral” qualitative aspects:

Goethe characterizes yellow as warm, expansive, and cheerful or major in mood; blue as cold, receding, and sad or minor in mood. When yellow intensifies to gold, orange, and red, it grows in strength and power as it darkens. When cyan intensifies, merging into royal and deep blue, then into violet as it darkens, it takes on an increasingly intense inwardness.  Where the red and violet merge at the top of the color circle, a pure red appears that inclines neither toward orange nor toward violet. When lightened, it becomes magenta, or rose-red. In this pure red the restless intensity of the orange-red and violet is resolved into a heightened peacefulness. Goethe describes its quality as “ideal satisfaction.” By contrast, green is achieved through the passive mixing of yellow and blue, and he characterizes its quality as “real satisfaction.”


Thus through his “delicate empiricism” Goethe discovered a complex of lawful, theoretically transparent interrelationships between the qualities of the colors of the color circle.  In his essay “Colour is where you see it,”[2] Michael Wilson describes these interrelationships as "an interplay of forces which we feel and see, even though we cannot measure them directly. These are not abstract mental constructions, superimposed on the phenomenon of colour itself; they are direct perceptions of the very nature of colour as part of the objective structure of the world.” 

In life we are constantly called upon to make qualitative judgments. In all cases, qualitative judgments arise when a kind of echo is called forth from within us in response to an experience that comes to us from the outer world. Our judgment arises as we attune what comes from within us to the outer experience until they resound unisolo, as Goethe put it. This process occurs according to the ancient principle: “Like knows like.” In other words: We can only recognize a quality in the world if we have it within us. Ultimately, the human being is potentially a microcosm of the world. Goethe, as a poet, playwright, and scientist, was well aware of this principle and its profound implications for human life. He often warned of the danger of restricting our world view to what can be ascertained by a purely quantitative science:

Insofar as we make use of our healthy senses, we ourselves are the best and most exact scientific instruments possible. The greatest misfortune of modern physics [and I would extend this to all of modern science J.B.] is that its experiments have been set apart from the human being, as it were; physics refuses to recognize nature in anything not shown by artificial instruments, and even uses them to limit and to prove what nature can accomplish.” [3]

Quantitative science has brought us technology and mastery of the material world. But it has also separated our understanding of the world from our experience of it and reduced its qualitative richness and depth to mechanistic concepts. Thus we have become accustomed to viewing nature as natural resources to be exploited rather than as manifestations of divine creativity. This isolation of the human being from the fullness of reality has led to increasingly severe environmental, health, and social problems. It is therefore becoming a matter of increasing urgency that qualitative science be recognized and practiced as a complement to quantitative science. Qualitative science will re-connect us with the world and lead us forward to a culture that recognizes and works with the creative spiritual sources of reality while maintaining the rigor and conceptual clarity that we have gained through quantitative science. Qualitative science and the healing culture it will usher in will rest upon two pillars of experience: rigorous meditative and artistic practice that enlivens and deepens our inner life, and the practice of Goethean “delicate empiricism”: openness to the richness of experience that comes to meet us from the outer world.


[1] A formulation of Rudolf Steiner’s borrowed from his lectures on color.

[2] In What is Colour?, the posthumous collected works of Michael H. Wilson, edited by Laura Liska and Troy Vine.

[3] Goethe, Maxims and Reflections.


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