Why Goethean  Science?

 by John Barnes

We live in a science-based culture. The scientific discoveries of today shape the civilization of tomorrow. Our scientific methods ultimately determine our future.

For the past 500 years modern science has penetrated ever deeper into the measurable material aspect of the world, paving the way for the triumphs of technology. This has led to tremendous material progress but also to an impoverished, mechanistic view of nature that, in turn, has resulted in accelerating environmental degradation and escalating health and social crises.

What is needed today are scientific methods that treat nature not as isolated objects to be analyzed, manipulated, and put to use, but instead participate with all our human capacities in the processes, relationships and qualities of the phenomena until we begin to experience them from the inside out, as it were: as meaningful manifestations of their own creative principles – methods that of themselves foster an intimate, caring, moral relationship with the natural world. Such methods will not replace but rather complement the quantitative methods of modern science without abandoning their methodical rigor and cognitive transparency. Whereas conventional quantitative methods arrive at abstract models and formulae that can be applied to nature but comprise a world that is inherently foreign to it, Goethean methods come to see its forms, gestures, colors, sounds, smells, and tastes as expressions of its own essential nature. They thus expand the domain of science to the generative forces that shape, enliven, and ensoul it. By introducing artistic creativity and sensitivity into the scientific endeavor, they lead to a scientific world view that reveals the divine creative forces in nature and will gradually enable us to work with them. This will provide the basis for a new culture that will enrich and deepen our relationship with nature as well as our own inner life. 

Unbeknownst to most people today, such methods actually exist. They can be traced back to the great German poet/scientist Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) and his groundbreaking studies of color, of plant and animal morphology, and geology. Scientists who have followed in his footsteps have since contributed to what has become known as “Goethean science.” 100 years after Goethe developed his scientific approach, Rudolf Steiner recognized its seminal importance. He hailed Goethe as “the Copernicus and Galileo of the organic world” and formulated a theory of knowledge that provides Goethe’s method with a solid philosophical foundation.

Because Goethean science calls on new capacities and ultimately turns the modern scientific world view on its head, replacing the primacy of material mechanisms with the primacy of creative forces that orchestrate them, it has been ignored or rejected by the deeply entrenched materialistic habits of thought that dominate mainstream culture. There is in fact a hurdle that must be overcome in order to make the transition from materialistic to Goethean science. For the practice of Goethean science requires an activation and transformation of one’s thinking without which it is impossible to grasp living processes. Goethe achieved this dynamic mode of thinking in his research into the metamorphosis of plants. A further level of Goethean research requires the transformation of one’s emotional life into the selfless capacity to participate in the qualitative aspects of the world, a capacity that Goethe demonstrated at the last chapter of his Theory of Colors. Thus Goethean science involves more than an intellectual paradigm shift: It requires a transformation and further development of our cognitive capacities. As demanding and strenuous as this may be, it is, in my view, the only healthy way forward in the evolution of modern western science. In fact, it is already beginning to serve as a scientific foundation of such promising new developments as Waldorf education, Biodynamic agriculture, and anthroposophical medicine.

Particularly in the 100 years since Steiner, innovative research following Goethe’s methods has been accomplished mainly in German-speaking countries. Over the past 20 years Adonis Press has focused on translating and publishing this research in English, an effort that has resulted in many of the books found on this website. Some of the books included here were originally published in the 20thcentury and are old by current standards. They have nevertheless been included because they are enduring classics of timeless value. The publication of Wolfgang Schad’s monumental life’s work on mammals featured here can be seen as a culmination of our effort to bring central-European Goethean science to the English-speaking world.

Humanity stands at a crossroads: If we proceed down the road of conventional materialistic science without complementing it with Goethean methods we will not only destroy nature but also cut ourselves off from the rejuvenating sources of our own health and humanity. If, on the other hand, fearing materialism and technology, we abandon our scientific pursuits and seek comfort in a return to the spirituality of the past, we will lose our most precious capacities: the fully awake consciousness and inner freedom that we have gained through the scientific discipline of the last 500 years. Goethean science builds on the great achievements of the last 500 years and leads forward – through the activation of our newly-won inner capacities – from attentive observation of the phenomena, to conscious inner participation in their processes and qualities, to insight into the generative forces of which they are the outer, sense-perceptible expression.



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