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New Organs of Perception: Goethean Science as a Cultural Therapeutics

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Abstract

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's approach to science is a radical departure from the Cartesian-Newtonian scientific framework and offers contemporary science a pathway toward the cultivation of an alternative approach to the study of the natural world. This paper argues that the Cartesian-Newtonian pathway is pathological because it has as its premise humanity's alienation from the natural world, which sets up a host of consequences that terminate in nihilism. As an alternative approach to science, Goethe's "delicate empiricism" begins with the premise that humanity is fundamentally at home in the world: a notion which forms the basis for a Goethean science that gives primacy to perception, offers a more organic and holistic conception of the universe, and has as its goal the cultivation of aesthetic appreciation and morally responsive obligation to the observed. As an antidote to nihilism and as the basis for a more fulfilling and morally responsive science, Goethean science may serve as a kind of cultural therapeutics, a project which is necessarily interdisciplinary since it requires the integration of multiple ways of seeing from the natural sciences, the human sciences, and the humanities.
New Organs of Perception:
Goethean Science as a Cultural erapeutics
Brent Dean Robbins
Daemen College
Johann Wolfgang von Goethes approach to science is a radical departure from the Cartesian-New-
tonian scientific framework and offers contemporary science a pathway toward the cultivation of
an alternative approach to the study of the natural world. is paper argues that the Cartesian-
Newtonian pathway is pathological because it has as its premise humanitys alienation from the
natural world, which sets up a host of consequences that terminate in nihilism. As an alternative
approach to science, Goethes delicate empiricism begins with the premise that humanity is
fundamentally at home in the world: a notion which forms the basis for a Goethean science that
gives primacy to perception, offers a more organic and holistic conception of the universe, and
has as its goal the cultivation of aesthetic appreciation and morally responsive obligation to the
observed. As an antidote to nihilism and as the basis for a more fulfilling and morally responsive
science, Goethean science may serve as a kind of cultural therapeutics, a project which is necessar-
ily interdisciplinary since it requires the integration of multiple ways of seeing from the natural
sciences, the human sciences, and the humanities.
e human beings knows himself only insofar as he knows the world; he perceives the
world only in himself, and himself only in the world. Every new object, clearly seen,
opens up a new organ of perception in us.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Most of us are familiar with Goethe the poet, but Goethe’s approach
to natural science is far less known. His work has nevertheless been the
subject of some serious scholarship in the history and philosophy of sci-
ence. Among those who have commented on Goethes scientific endeavors,
there are various opinions about how his method of science relates to the
project of “modern science.” According to Amrine & Zucker (1987), there
are generally three assessments of Goethes science: (1) a few scholars argue
that it is not a genuine scientific approach to the investigation of nature;
(2) others assert that it was indeed a modern scientific enterprise, which
generated legitimate and important interpretations of natural phenomena;
and, finally, (3) there are those scholars—in fact, the majority of Goethe
scholars—who argue that Goethes way of science provides a model for a
viable alternative to modern science. I join with the scholars in the latter
category. I believe Goethes science is an approach to natural phenomena
Janus Head, 8(1), 113-126. Copyright © 2005 by Trivium Publications, Amherst, NY
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114 Janus Head
that addresses many of the problems raised in contemporary philosophy of
science. I go a few steps farther in saying that Goethes approach to the study
of nature provides a method for what I will call a cultural therapeutics.
As a method for a cultural therapeutics,I shall argue, Goethes method
provides a bridge between the natural sciences, the human sciences, and
the humanities.
Cultural erapeutics
e term “cultural therapeutics” is one I have borrowed from Robert
Romanyshyn (1985) and Michael Sipiora (1999), both of whom were in-
spired by J.H. van den Berg’s (1961) historical phenomenology (metabletics).
According to Sipiora (1999), the aim of a cultural therapeutics is to own up
to our obligations to that which is unconscious yet continues to claim us in
our technological world. It is a matter of making explicit those responses to
the world that are covered over or concealed by layers of culture, but which
nevertheless continue to call us and which remain accessible only through
careful, critically engaged description of phenomena. e process of own-
ing up to our obligations is one that can be a healing process, a process of
coming home to ourselves; hence it is “therapeutic.
Goethe’s method of science is a form of cultural therapeuticsbecause,
arguably, it offers not only a different approach to science than modern sci-
ence, it offers a style of understanding nature that is therapeutic. When I say
that Goethe offers a therapeutic” approach to nature, I mean that his process
of studying nature is one that is potentially transformative for the scientist. It
is a therapeutic process because it is one that may potentially restore to health
and wholeness those who practice it. It is a cultural therapeutics because, if
it were taken up as a cultural practice and as a cultural worldview, it might
be curative and restorative for our entire culture.
Goethe is quite clear about his belief that science should be transfor-
mative of the scientist: “e human being knows himself only insofar as
he knows the world; he perceives the world only in himself, and himself
only in the world. Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ
of perception in us(Goethe, 1988, p. 39). ere is no question that, for
Goethe, observation has as its aim the development of the observer, who in
the process of careful and clear description of the object under investigation,
is in the process of schooling his or her faculties of observation (See also:
Brent Dean Robbins 115
Amrine, 1998). Quite literally, he or she is engaged in a process of realizing
nascent possibilities for seeing the world anew.
Modern Science and Substantive Rationality
Goethes approach to science, with its emphasis on the metamorphosis
of the scientist, stands in stark contrast to conventional images of science
as a means to gain mastery and control over the natural world. e origins
of modern science can be traced back at least to Francis Bacon, who as-
serted that the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the
vexations of art [i.e., artisanry, technology] than when they go their own
way” (Bacon, 1955, Aphorism XCVIII). Bacon implies that nature is best
understood in conditions when humans attempt to master and control it
(See also: Berman, 1981). Descartes (1961) was more explicit when he as-
serted that, through his practical philosophy as a basis for the sciences, we
could make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature(p. 37). Newtons
physics—which was the prime target of Goethe’s criticisms—was founded
on Cartesian principles, including Descartesproject of utilizing the sciences
for the purpose of prediction and control.
e problem with the modern scienceof Descartes and Newton is not
simply their use of prediction and control. e problem is that they set up
a science in which prediction and control become ends in themselves. e
sociologist Max Weber (1978) pointed out that modern society is charac-
terized by the collapse of “substantive rationality” into formal rationality.
Formal rationality refers to the calculability of means and procedures,
whereas substantive rationality refers to the value (from some explicitly
defined standpoint) of ends or results(Burbraker, 1991, p. 36). In other
words, modernity can, in part, be characterized by the reduction of all
values or ends to those that serve the purpose of calculating nature. e
means of calculation and procedure becomes ends in themselves rather than
a means to an extrinsic “good.” When prediction and control become ends
in themselves rather than means to some other purpose or goal, this means
substantive rationality has collapsed into formal rationality. When science
loses sight of the purpose of its calculations, and when calculations become
an end in itself, then science becomes monstrous. It begets the atom bomb
and ecological catastrophe. In general, we get an unsustainable technological
culture which becomes highly efficient at destroying the earth—and ourselves
along with it—in a very short time period.
116 Janus Head
e Alien in the Machine
e worldview of Descartes and Newton, moreover, is one based on
a variety of assumptions that largely remain with us today. Arguably, the
most important of these assumptions is the Cartesian view of the universe
as a machine separate from the souls of humans, who Descartes thought
were distinct from the mechanisms of the world. Descartesmechanistic
view depicts a world in which the human is alien rather than a partici-
pant. e universe, like a machine, is understood in an atomistic fashion,
through the breakdown of its various parts and through an understanding
of the relationship among these parts. Also, the Cartesian-Newtonian view
understands the world through a veil of mathematics. e world of human
perception is understood to be largely untrustworthy. e truth of the world
is discovered not by the qualitative experience of the human, but through
the quantitative analysis of phenomena in artificial, experimental conditions
that are designed to isolate variables in order to determine cause and effect
relations. e identification of these cause and effect relations, again, serve
the purpose of prediction and control.
e discoveries of Newtons science have come to ‘rape the senses,’ so
that the world that it produces is one that is largely at odds with the world
we live as humans. e abstractions of Newtons physics come to replace the
concrete experience of our immediate contact with the world. e experience
of color, for example, comes to be understood as epiphenomenal—a mere
product of the human mind—while the abstract concept of light waves,
which we do not directly experience, comes to be the scientific truthof
color. When there are protests that the modern sciences fail to do justice
to immediate experience of the world, the modern scientist asserts that our
immediate experience of the world is illusory—that, in effect, it fails to
predict and control—and re-asserts the value of the Cartesian-Netwonian
paradigm as one that produces “truth” in the from of utility. It performs in
other words what philosophers have come to call reductionism”: it comes to
explain the world of human experience by ‘reducing’ its meaning to causal
events ‘behind’ the phenomena. For example, what you see are colors, but,
in reality, there are nothing but’ waves of light. Reductionism, in this sense,
is the disease of ‘nothing-but-ness.” “Nothing-but-ness” is another term for
nihilism (Frankl, 1997).
e project of modern science is one that claims it is seeking to dis-
cover the truth of a human-independent or human-transcendent world, an
objective” world that exists outside of subjectivehuman concerns. Yet,
Brent Dean Robbins 117
in fact, the worldview of modern science is not objective,but a peculiar,
historically contingent style of seeing the world (See: Berman, 1981; Roma-
nyshyn, 2001, 1990). It is a world that comes to be increasingly disclosed
through a veil of abstractions. For example, content analysis of scientific
journals has found that the only variable that distinguishes the supposedly
“hardsciences from the “soft” sciences is the relatively more frequent use
of graphs in “hard” science journals (Smith, Best, Stubbs, Archibald &
Roberson-Nay, 2002). What is remarkable about this trend is the fact that
the observation of graphic depictions of a quantified nature have come to
replace the direct and immediate observation of the phenomena of nature
itself. e map has become increasingly confused with the countryside. As
Werner Heisenberg (1979) noted, . . . science sacrifices more and more the
possibility of making ‘livingthe phenomena immediately perceptible to our
senses . . . . [W]e must admit that a blind man may learn and understand the
whole of optics and yet he will have not the faintest knowledge of real light”
(pp. 36-37). Of course, if we look closely at what the products of modern
science depict, they of course depict graphic representations of the causal
relationships between objectified and reified units of natural phenomena.
In other words, they serve in the project of prediction and control.
Modern psychological science belongs in the tradition of Newtons
physics. Like Newtons view of nature, it tends to depict the human being
as a mechanism determined by causal forces both within and outside of
its organism. In contrast to Descartes, who saw the human soul as distinct
from the mechanics of nature, modern psychology rejects the notion of an
immaterial soul and injects the human into the Cartesian machine. us,
when psychologists speak of human values, such as morality or aesthetics,
these values are understood to be epiphenomenal—that is, nothing butthe
product of external or internal causal forces. As phenomenologists such as
Husserl and Merleau-Ponty have noted, this deterministic view of modern
psychology is philosophically untenable, because such a position undermines
its own foundations: the very assertion of determinism would not be a rea-
son for human behavior but rather the result of causal forces indifferent to
human concerns, including concerns about the reasons for human behavior
(Merleau-Ponty, 1964). If we start from such a deterministic position, the
inevitable result is the problem Weber announced: the reduction of the ends
of science (substantive rationality) to mere means (formal or instrumental
rationality): Prediction and control for the sake of prediction and control,
with no extrinsic meaning or purpose.
118 Janus Head
Goethes Antidote
Goethes approach to science is an antidote to the resultant nihilism of
modern science. e horizon of Goethe’s method is one of a participatory
stance with regard to nature. His science begins with the assumption that
the human being is fundamentally at home in the world. e cosmos is a
space of belonging. Goethe’s worldview, in this sense, shares an affinity to
the contemporary movement of Deep Ecology, where the self is experienced
as integrated with the whole of nature(Deval & Sessions, 1984, p. 302-
303). e self is acknowledged as the the world knowing itself.” As Joanna
Macy (1991) celebrates: We can relinquish our separateness. We can come
home again—and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and
poignantly beautiful way(p. 14; see also: Gottlieb, 1994). As a participatory
approach to nature, Goethes method stresses that the process of scientific
investigation should be a matter of becoming increasingly “at home” with
the phenomena (Seamon, 1998, p. 3).
Goethes participatory approach to nature is one that is rooted in a
sense of nature as sacred. By sacred, I join with Reason (1993) in his
description of sacred inquiry as one that is “based on reverance, in awe and
love for creation, valuing it for its own sake, in its own right as a living pres-
ence” (p. 276). Sacred inquiry, according to Reason, involves four aspects:
1) giving primacy to experience as sacred, 2) using representations of that
experience in such a way that it brings beauty, 3) developing understand-
ings of that experience that are not alienated, and 4) initiating action and
forms of engagement that heal ourselves and our planet. Goethes approach
to science includes each of these aspects and so can be considered a form
of sacred inquiry. Goethe affirms his perspective of nature as sacred when
he asserts that: “Natural objects should be sought and investigated as they
are and not to suit observers, but respectfully as if they were divine beings
(Goethe, 1971, p. 57).
Goethe calls his style of sacred inquiry a delicate empiricism(zarte
Empirie), which he contrasts with “the gloom of the empirico-mechanico-
dogmatic torture chamber” of Newtons science (Goethe, quoted in Heller,
1952, p. 18). ere are at least two aspects to Goethe’s notion of a delicate
empiricism.First, it is an empiricismin the sense that it gives primacy to
perception. Secondly, Goethes empiricism is “delicate” to the extent that it
gives itself over to an ethically responsive obligation to the observed.
Brent Dean Robbins 119
e Primacy of Perception
Goethes science grants a primacy to perceptionin the same sense
as phenomenology (Hensel, 1998). As Merleau-Ponty (1962) wrote, All
consciousness is perceptual . . . . e perceived world is the always pre-
supposed foundation of all rationality, all value and all existence” (p. 13).
Consciousness, in this sense, is not an interior realm of meaning, but rather
the life-world that surrounds us and sustains us. Consciousness, from the
phenomenological perspective, is always turned primarily toward the world,
turned toward things; it is above all a relation to the world” (Merleau-Ponty,
1962, pp. 116-117). As Gurwitsch (1970) notes, “We do not, so to speak,
move within a self-contained domain of interiority(p. 243); rather, “It is
the thing itself that presents itself . . . and with which we are in contact” (p.
366). ese sentiments of Merleau-Ponty and Gurwitsch repeat a theme
of Goethes: that, in essence, human perception is not an impediment to
scientific investigation but always already presupposed in every empirical
observation. ere is no such science capable of rendering nature separate
from its own intentionality, that is, it’s constructions. And, yet, we are not
locked in upon ourselves as solipsism would have it; rather, we are in direct,
fleshy contact with the things of this world and, indeed, have our being only
through our intertwining relations with other beings, each of us sustained
by the founding soil of the earth.
Because we become who we are in our essence through our relations
with the surrounding world and its beings—and, indeed, because our bodies
are formed of and by this encompassing earth—our organs can be understood
to be the flesh of the world emerging into consciousness of itself, like an
infant examining for the first time the back of her own hand and gaining
sudden insight that the flailing limb is her own. And so in a certain manner of
speaking the beauties of nature which appear through perception—the colors
of the rainbow, the pungent scent of the forest after a Spring rain, awe before
natural disasters, and the endless expanse of darkness receding infinitely into
the depths of the night sky—are not merely subjectivephenomena; they are
of nature because we are of nature, and they exist only in a relation between
the vacancy of consciousnesss and the plenitude of being. ey are gifts of
the natural world to itself. And they may even be gratuitious gifts, without
reason or purpose beyond the immediate enjoyment and inspiration they
engender (Robbins, 2003). Indeed, these meanings cannot be reduced to
simpler or more fundamental phenomena—say atoms or genes—without
120 Janus Head
losing their essence as relational phenomena, constituted in the intertwining
of nature upon nature in the coming to awareness of itself.
In the investigation of color, we do violence to the meaning of color
when we consider it epiphenomenal and reduce its ontological meaning
to the by-product of something behind the phenomena. “e blue of the
sky reveals to us the basic law of color,writes Goethe (1971). “Search
nothing beyond the phenomena, they themselves are the theory(p. 76).
When I see the color green, the meaning of the color green is immediate to
my perception, and any conceptualization of the color green beyond that
perception is not that color precisely as it appears within my life-world.
us, Goethe asserts, in a variety of ways, that science must be based upon
a fundamental faith in experience. “e human being himself, to the extent
that he makes use of his senses,writes Goethe (1988), “is the most exact
physical apparatus that can exist” (p. 311). Elsewhere, he asserts that, “We
are adequately equipped for all our genuine earthly needs if we will trust our
senses, and develop them in such a way that they continue to prove worthy
of our confidence” (Goethe, quoted in Amrine, 1998, p. 45). e senses do
not deceive us, he argued, judgement does (Hensel, 1998, p. 74).
To say that Goethes delicate empiricismgives primacy to perception
is not to say, however, that the object of investigation will give itself over
to us all at once.
For Goethe, nature is always in the process of becoming (natura natur-
ans) and never a finished product (natura naturata) (Amrine & Zucker, 1987,
p. 382). Yet the becoming of nature is a process that cannot be reached only
through ideas or mathematical abstractions; it can only be reached by careful
observation and, in particular, observation that utilizes what Goethe termed
exact sensorial imagination.” e method of exact sensorial imagination
when observing a phenomenon is a matter of retaining past forms of the
phenomenon while anticipating the forms the phenomenon will likely take
as it unfolds into the future. It is, in other words, a matter of grasping the
temporal structure of the phenomena. Indeed, the method of exact sensorial
imaginationis actually a refinement of the natural process of perception,
which is always already infused with memory and the imaginative projection
of future possibilities. As Arnheim (1986a) noted, “Perception turns out to
be not a mechanical recording of the stimuli imposed by the physical world
upon the receptor organs of man and animal, but the eminently active and
creative grasping of structure(p. x). By refining our natural predilection
for sensorial imagination, Goethe makes it an exact sensorial imagination,
Brent Dean Robbins 121
a move which elevates his delicate empiricismto the precision necessary
for it to be a science.
e structure grasped by the exact sensorial imagination” leads even-
tually to an insight into the essential structure of the phenomenon, which
Goethe called the Ur-phenomenon: “an ultimate which can not itself be ex-
plained, which is in fact not in need of explanation, but from which all that
we observe can be made intelligible” (Lehrs, 1958, p. 125). When Goethe
studied plants, for example, he would examine the plants from the time they
were a seedling until they matured. He would also examine them in differ-
ent contexts. Taking each of these perspectives into consideration, he aimed
to disclose the archetype of the plant. Grasping the archetype of a plant, as
Goethe did in his examination of plant morphology, is not unlike grasping
the essential structure of a musical score. A musical score can be produced
with great variation: it can be played upon different instruments, at soft
or loud volumes, in different settings with different acoustics, introducing
various forms of reverberation and echo, and so forth. Yet, amongst all these
variations, the musical composition maintains a certain structural necessity, a
necessity that would be disturbed if notes were omitted, added or rearranged.
Likewise, a plant can be introduced into various environments, but the
temporal unfolding of the plant maintains a certain structural necessity—a
structure that can only be grasped through careful, meticulous observation
of the plant over time and in different environmental conditions.
Goethes notion of the Ur-phenomenon challenges one of the earliest and
most fundamental claims of Western metaphysics, namely, Aristotles claim
that actuality is metaphysically prior to possibility. Aristotle’s metaphysics,
when retained within and incorporated into the context of Newtons sci-
ence, projects nature as a standing presence, composed of discrete, isolated
and determinate objects. However, as in the existential-phenomenological
philosophy of Heidegger (1962), Goethes Ur-phenomenon implies that the
phenomenon is an event or happening, a process of becoming, in which
actuality and possibility are fused and gathered by the thing as it is revealed
to the perceiver within the context of the life-world.
e Cartesian-Newtonian worldview is completely closed off to the
experience of the Ur-phenomenon. Instead, it remains fixated upon a world
abstractly conceived to be composed of discrete, extrinsically related ob-
jects, the meaning of which are reducible to the determining forces of prior
causal effects. Beginning with such a conception of the world forecloses
the possibility of grasping the essential structure of the phenomenon. Such
122 Janus Head
conception relies upon a kind of ‘judgment’ which has distanced itself from
the phenomena as they appear in their most immediate contact with us
through our participatory engagement with them. Yet, when we attend to
the phenomena with a fidelity to their giveness to us in our most immediate
contact with them, they appear fundamentally as a process of unfolding; a
temporal, emergent event that we can honor best through our imaginative
capacity to retain past forms and project them into the future. At the best
of times such a close attunement to the fidelity of things, and our relation
with them, can produce in us a kind of genuine, deeply felt pleasure—the
kind of experience common to encounters with the aesthetic and perhaps
most appropriately named ‘joy’ (Robbins, 2005).
For the Goethe, the disclosure of the primordial archetype of the phe-
nomenon is fundamentally an aesthetic experience. As Goethe writes:
e archetypal plant shall be the most marvelous creature in the world,
and nature shall envy me for it. With this model and the key to it one
can invent plants ad infinitum that must be consistent, i.e. that could
exist even if they do not in fact, are not just picturesque shadows, but
have instead an inner truth and necessity. (Goethe, quoted in Amrine,
1998, pp. 39-40).
In this passage, Goethe expresses his experience of the archetype’s profound
beauty. e beauty of the archetypal phenomenon can be understood in
light of Rudolf Arnheims theory of aesthetics. e perception of beauty, for
Arnheim (1986b), is the result of the interaction of two tendencies in the
perception of form: on the one hand, a tendency toward tension-increasing
articulationand, on the other, a countertendency toward equilibration(p.
822). e experience of beauty occurs when the meaning of a phenomenon
is revealed so that there is a perfect balance between tension reduction and
tension enhancement (p. 823). e Goethian Ur-phenomenon is the ideal
of beauty in that it reduces tension through its depiction of the essential,
harmonious simplicity of a phenomenon as pure possibility while enhancing
tension by virtue of its rootedness in the actual, concrete and conditioned
nature of the phenomenon in all its particular manifestations. For example,
the archetypal plant is the essential structure of all possible plants, and yet
this essential structure can only ever be realized in the concrete, individual
form of any given plant.
e scientist is transformed through the process of disclosing the
Brent Dean Robbins 123
archetypal structure of the phenomenon. Indeed, as Amrine (1998) notes,
the process of Goethian science “is more important than the end result.
Experiments must be concentrated, ongoing experiences through which
one learns new ways of seeing” (p. 42). Indeed, we are given new organs
of perception.In this sense, Goethian science is closer to the humanities
than to Netwonian science. Whereas the Newtonian worldview attempts to
empower what we already are,” Goethe provides a means of investigation
which permits us to “grow beyond ourselves” (Brady, 1998, p. 109).
Ethically Responsive Obligation to the Observed
When we open ourselves to become transformed by the phenomenon,
then we also enact the second aspect of Goethes “delicate empiricism.” We
develop the capacity to become ethically responsive to our obligations to the
observed. As Shotter (2000) has asserted:
To ignore our own, initial, responsive relations to living phenomena
in our inquiries into their nature is to cut ourselves off from the very
spontaneous calls and invitations they exert upon us in their way of
coming-into-being—and thus to deny ourselves the kind of knowledge
we need if we are to answer their calls in ways that they can understand,
that are appropriate to their nature. (p. 242)
Shotter refers to Goethe’s method as a relationally-responsive understand-
ing, which he contrasts with the “referential-representational under-
standing” of Descartes and Newton. With a referential-representational”
approach to phenomena, we act as if we are separate from the world, as if
we are not called or claimed by the objects of our study, and as if we were
not therefore obligated to the phenomena under our investigation. With a
relationally-responsiveattitude, on the contrary, we stay closely attuned
to the way the phenomena claim us. When we allow ourselves to be claimed
by phenomena, we open ourselves to feel our relational obligation to them.
In other words, we become morally engaged with them. Indeed, when we
spend time in deep contemplation of the structure of a plant, for instance,
we come to appreciate the plant as an end in itself rather than a mere means.
We come to better understand ways that we can live harmoniously with
the plant. We sensitive ourselves to actions that may violate the value of
the plant. And through the wisdom we gain, we create a space not only to
124 Janus Head
improve our own lot, but also ways to improve the plant, which we come
to understand as an extension of our own existence, indeed, as part of the
ground of being that sustains us.
Goethean Science as a Cultural erapeutics
Clearly, Goethe has given us a powerful method to carry out what I
defined above as a cultural therapeutics.” Whether we realize it or not, we
continue to be claimed by the natural world around us, but for a variety of
reasons these claims often remain unconscious. To the extent they remain
unconscious, we run the risk of failing to respond to our obligations to the
natural world. In our technological world, the call of the natural world can
get drowned out by the abstract theoretical concepts that have increasingly
come to replace our receptivity to the concrete claims of the phenomena that
compose our life-world. rough formal education, we learn to ignore our
immediate perception of the world, and we come to forget how to remain
relationally-responsive to things. Yet, Goethe provides us with a concrete
practice for cultivating the “organs of perception” we will need in order to
heal ourselves and the planet.
In contrast to the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview, arguably a symp-
tom of our cultural illness, Goethe offers a viable alternative. In place of an
alienated consciousness, he grants us a vision of ourselves at homeand
belonging with the things of the natural world. In contrast to an approach
to science that creates a chasm between the world of our conceptions and
the world of our perceptions, Goethe offers us a science that gives a pri-
macy to the meaningful world given to our senses. In place of a universe
conceptualized abstractly as a vast machine, Goethe offers a more intuitively
satisfying description of the world as a vast organism which is constantly
in the process of becoming, a process in which we participate and disclose
through our careful observation. rough that careful observation, we also
come to understand a world composed of beauty which obliges us to moral
action to protect and care for it. And, finally, Goethe offers us a way out of
the implicit nihilism that results from the collapse of substantive rationality
into instrumental rationality. Goethes method aims not merely to predict
and control, but has its end, rather, in the aesthetic and morally responsive
obligation to the observed.
ese aspects of Goethian science close the gap between natural sci-
ence and the humanities since both come to share the tasks of schooling our
Brent Dean Robbins 125
faculties of observation and cultivating wisdom. e natural sciences and the
human sciences become united in Goethian science because the observation
of nature is always also a process of self-discovery. rough that process of
self-discovery, we may come to better realize more sustainable practices of
living with nature and with each other. As a cultural therapeutics, Goethian
science is an interdisciplinary affair.
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Author’s note: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Brent Dean
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... Goethe represented a radical shift in scientific observation, which departed from the traditional Cartesian-Newtonian scientific methods, which disassociated the scientist from that which was being observed (Robbins, 2005). Goethe's worldview assumed a participatory stance in which observers are deeply connected with the natural world and are thus not separate from what they observe but are rather in an ongoing relationship with the phenomena. ...
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