Goethe's Way of Science

From a letter to a friend, excerpted by permission. Plus, I append a few not unrelated rambles out of my journal.

...I enclose one of the more intelligible passages from Robert M. Haralick, The Inner Meaning of the Hebrew Letters (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1995).

Was Goethe a mystic? Yeah, though sort of a maverick mystic. Goethe was fascinated with science, but appalled by the rationalism & reductionism which in his day (late 18th & early 19th century) were considered synonymous with science. At the same time, in religion he was neither any name-brand of orthodox nor any name-brand of heterodox-- I think in today's barbarous cant he would be called "spiritual rather than religious," though his thinking was too incisive and critical to commend itself to today's "New Age" types. He had been influenced in earlier adulthood by the kabbalah(?) and alchemy.

Goethe's approach to science has sometimes been interpreted in today's philosophy of science by translating it into terms of Husserlian phenomenology, Wittgenstein's later philosophy of "language games," and suchlike. It is not overtly mystical, though I think mystical elements do lie not far beneath the surface. One is always attempting to discern the whole-- or rather, the "primal phenomenon"-- "in, with, and under" the individual concrete phenomena. And these individual phenomena become in turn a virtual "natural sacrament" of the Urphänomen as it unfolds. I remember my reaction on first encountering Goethe's Theory of Colors, several years ago, was, "I'd be surprised if this didn't have a vogue back in the Sixties!"

Though once again, Goethe's approach would perhaps have been too tightly disciplined and critical to appeal to the Sixties. From what (very, very) little I know of them, the "Ignatian Exercises" of the Jesuits might display a closer affinity with Goethe's "way of science": though imagine the Ignatian Exercises directed toward the book of nature instead of toward the book of revelation.

The other day, I made a fantastic book find, a copy of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. "Edited in an all English text by Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith." New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1927. Have been looking for my own copy of this for years. Burton was an Anglican clergyman, a scholar at Oxford in Elizabethan England. This is a magnificent book, everything you ever wanted to know about the misfiring, and cure, of souls, in eminently browsable form. Together with a lot of early 17th century quaintery about leeches, the "four humours," etc.

Have you ever noticed, there are certain books that lend themselves to inexhaustible browsing? I think especially of Boswell's Life of Johnson; Thoreau's Walden; or even William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, one of my longstanding "laundromat books."

Ever since I was a young whippersnapper, I have noticed that there seems something quite different-- okay, something "qualitatively" different-- about such books, as compared with books that are written chiefly to be read straight through from front to back. Not better, not worse, but distinctively different. One might describe it as the difference between the flight of an arrow toward its target, and the flight of a honeybee from flower to flower. One strikes the bullseye, the other gathers nectar.

In Christ,

(s) Paul

I got in my car (by this time the heat was intolerable) and drove clear across town to Borders West. Spent quite a while browsing there too, and came away with that book I'd sighted recently on Goethe and science [Goethe's Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, edited by David Seamon & Arthur Zajonc]. $25 for a paperback of only average thickness? But thanks to the gift certificate, I got it cheap, cheap, cheap.

Have only just begun to delve into the book, but it looks "right up my alley"-- and confirms many of the intuitions I've had about Goethe's approach to science. It turns out there are a number of books in print on this topic-- though you could comfortably seat everyone who's working in this field around the table in the conference room at work. If I could locate some of these books at used book stores... I begin to see here a subject area that could become another one of my "pocket specialties."

I've always had an odd penchant for out-of-the-way topics which only a few people have researched, and on which only a handful of books have been published. Classical board games and card games, including the obscure likes of shogi and mah jongg. Synæsthesia and the march realms of the senses. Jack Kerouac. Metaphor as semiotic heterodyne. Play and liminality. The theory of pragmatic paradox. The kabbalah. Hell, even my interest in Charles Peirce.

Now I can see that I could well add Goethe to this list. Well, from the time I first heard of his Farbenlehre, I knew it would fit in with my interest in synæsthesia and the senses. And once I actually got my hands on the book and read it, I was enthralled. Both by the topic itself, and by the growing intution that Goethe was using color and optics as a "for instance," a "staging area" for a much broader agenda: what he was propounding was nothing less than a whole new take on how to do science, a take that (unlike most of modern science) does not suffer from the Cartesian subject-object split. And "the medium is the message": as I had long realized, putting a subtle "tone" or "tint" on how you say something, in fact modifies what you are saying, and may open up new dimensions of insight that would otherwise have remained closed to you. In short, I could see that Goethe was handling "heap big medicine."

I'd never been able to prove it, but I kept having a nagging suspicion that Goethe's Farbenlehre had enjoyed a vogue in the late Sixties. However, like many another of my "pocket specialties," little had been written on the subject, and so I was left wondering.

Now I get my hands on this book of essays, Goethe's Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature. And bingo! I was right! This book, though only just published, has been thirty years a-borning. Date that from the late Sixties! And I gather that the essays therein will confirm and extend many of the hunches I've had about just what Goethe was up to.

Further hunch... I am beginning to see that my reading these past months all ties together. I suspect that one could draw fruitful comparisons between Goethe and Peirce on science and "a phenomenology of nature."

And moreover, all this begins to tie in to what I have seen as one way out of the tar pit of modernity. How have I put it elsewhere? "What is called for is a core meltdown of the imagination. Rousseau got it half right, but he only found how to trigger the Dionysian side of it. What is needed is a meltdown that is just as strongly Apollonian as Dionysian, a meltdown to which discipline is just as integral as enthusiasm, intellect just as integral as feelings, the head just as integral as the heart." Yeah, meltdown of the imagination, meltdown of the soul. Rousseau got it half right, the Dionysian half-- and two centuries after him, the Beatles and Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman brought that half of it near to the core-critical meltdown boiling point. But the Apollonian half? Today, that side of things is in considerably worse shape, is considerably weaker than it was 30 years ago. Our whole culture has dumbed itself down, way down.

I have realized, for some years, that one application of many of my rambling but interwoven intellectual researches would be to sketch out the what, perhaps even the how, of a core meltdown that was just as much Apollonian as Dionysian. Much of my reading these past months has wobbled out around the perimeter of such concerns. Concrete, pre-rational, pre-narrative symbolic structures? The interplay between low and high focus thinking? Epistemic access to unfathomable tacit knowledge-- à la Polanyi, Hayek, Popper, and for that matter Peirce-- via semiotically vague low-focus "affect linking"? Neoplatonism, kabbalistic sephiroth, Peircean musement? Even my "latter turning"?

And now to all this Goethe contributes linchpin insights into how all this might be woven together, concretely, into a way of knowing that is just as powerfully Apollonian as Dionysian...

Oh, my God! I think my skull is going to explode!

What in the world, all these years, have I been in the process of stumbling upon?

That book about Goethe is turning out to be everything I had expected. And can it be interfaced with Peirce? I suspect the answer is yes, I suspect that Goethe's Urphänomen is nothing other than what I, in years past (back before I even ran across Peirce), used to call (by an abuse of terminology) a "saddle point" on an n-dimensional manifold. And that Goethe's technique amounts to a wholistic way of laying out "benchmarks" on the manifold so that one can triangulate one's way toward the saddle point.

In Peirce's terminology, the "manifold" would be called a legisign. (Cassirer called it a symbolic form.) And one could detail, in Peircean terms, the whole process of working one's way toward the "saddle point" of that legisign which would prove fruitful for an indefinite long run of interpretation...

I would really like to investigate Goethe in depth. I have the impression that I'm really onto some kind of a mother lode here. And by the time I was done knitting Goethe to Peirce, would I have a real pipe-bomb of an idea? A "spiritual atom bomb of infinite power"? I remember once remarking to Steven that one of the chief flaws in Ted Kaczynski's thinking was that he resorted to actual physical bombs. Whereas what is needed is an idea, a purely noetic and cultural force. What is needed is not the Weather Underground, but rather something more like the Rolling Stones.

And, as I was remarking yesterday, a version of the Rolling Stones that speaks just as insistently and integrally to the head as to the heart. Tell me, do you know how to encode the calculus in the driving rhythm of a drumbeat? Yes, I know, a vibrating drumhead embodies the Bessel functions, and x²d²y/dx² + xdy/dx + x²y = 0, and dJ0(x)/dx = -J1(x), or somesuch. But I mean, encode the calculus in a drumbeat for the listener, with no loss of noetic content. So that truly to assimilate that drumbeat would be truly to assimilate in your bones not only the driving beat, but also the calculus, the Bessel functions, the differential equations.

If you can figure out how to pull that off, how to package it, how to spark it as a spreading cultural brushfire, then you can overthrow both modernity and its bastard offspring, post-modernity.

I can tell that this project has taken me. Indication: last night I had a dream of Goethe receiving thousands of plant silhouettes which someone was sending him for study...