Goethean Observation as a form of Phenomenology
In this final section on phenomenological method I want
to present the way I developed an interest in phenomenology. This was
through an encounter with the ideas of Goethean science. I was looking
into this because it seemed to offer an alternative approach to science
and is claimed to be more holistic.
Whether Goethe's own work is a kind of proto phenomenology
is debatable, but certainly in the work I did with people developing something
derived from his suggestions, it presents us with a method of approaching
the world that shares many resonances with the kind of approaches we have
been looking at here.
I will give some historical detail, but focus mainly on
the method as it is practised today.
Some historical detail
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, although better known for his
poetry and plays, spent the years from 1777 until his death in 1832 engaged
in scientific exploration. His work on science includes investigations
in the areas of: geology, meteorology, osteology, botany and the study
of colour. He was also an early exponent of the study of the history (and
even a proto sociology) of science itself. Significant aspects of Goethe’s
scientific work that have been influential or at least confirmed by later
scientific work are his discovery of the intermaxilliary bone in humans,
his work on plant metamorphosis and his study of ‘what he called’
the psychological colours. Each of these reveal something of his radical
approach and the underlying theme of morphology – a word which Goethe
The intermaxilliary bone is evident in other mammals, but
was thought to be absent in humans, this absence was part of the evidence
that set humans apart from the animal world according to Goethe’s
contemporaries. Goethe showed that it was present in humans, although
by birth it was usually fused with the other bones of the skull. His intuition
that nature is one and does not have sudden inexplicable jumps coupled
with extremely good observational skills and a certain flexibility in
thinking meant that the bone was evident to him regardless of the weight
Goethe’s study of plants was unusual at the time,
because he did not use dead herbarium samples, but studied the plants
in their environments. This gave him particular insights into how the
plant adapts to its environment and from there to an appreciation of the
plant as an adapting organism. In opposition to theories that saw the
plant as unfolding from a seed and just carrying though the process of
unravelling by the germinal parts growing into their full size, Goethe
saw the plant as an active organism that begins as a simple structure
that then metamophoses it’s simple parts (leaves) into the more
complex forms such as petals and stamen etc. as the need arises.
The last of Goethe’s studies is now seen as his most
mature work, although it was the least respected at the time. Goethe’s
colour theory includes a polemical attack on the Newtonian approach to
colour and an explicit critique on the way science was developing. He
begins his study of colour as it is in the world with a detailed account
of the colours that were considered illusory even though they were understood
as a non-pathological feature of vision – after images. Taking the
phenomenon as experienced rather than attempting to absent the human experiencer
from the picture was an underlying theme of Goethe’s approach. What
he then attempted was to show how the experiencer had to guard against
those qualities of mind that would prevent clear observation such as an
over reliance on theory.
Does any of this sound familiar to the
approach we have seen in the reading and material above on method?
Goethe’s own scientific work is fascinating, but
I would like to focus on the current attempt to use and develop some of
his ideas, particularly about the method to use when trying to get to
know a phenomenon. For this purpose I will use the section that outlines
the method as it has been developed from a paper I wrote about trying
to apply this approach to the study of landscapes. (Brook 1998)
Any live and developing tradition will be in a constant
flux and Goethean science is no exception, but certain key aspects appear
to be constants within that flux. They appear in Goethe's own discussion
of science and are reiterated by Goethean scientists working today. These
distinctive features include:
observing with patience and rigor;
deepening a sense of wonder to the world;
using sensual and emotional awareness to experience phenomena as fully
attending to connections between phenomena;
acknowledging an ethical dimension to the practice of science.
Goethe points to all of these qualities when he speaks
of seeing phenomena with "a certain purity of mind."(Eckermann
1935:36) One should not make the mistake of assuming that Goethe recommended
a naive or pre-critical view.(1988:159) Goethe accepted the essential
role of the mind’s activity in rendering experience meaningful.
What he disagreed with was Kant’s contention that what is revealed
by the mind is not the things as they are in themselves but only their
appearance to the human intellect(1781). Although Goethe recognised the
many failings of our usual means to know the world he did believe that
a knowledge utterly in tune with the nature of things in the world was
possible. It was this knowledge toward which his science strove. The means
toward that end is an approach to phenomena that can be said to involve
four stages or modes of perception.
To clarify these stages, I first draw on the way this approach
to science is taught on courses organised by the School of Life Science.
In the teaching, the perceptual modes are more sharply distinguished than
when used by its experienced practitioners. Beginning to separate these
different perceptual modes and to experience their qualities is a large
part of what is distinctive about the Goethean approach. Once the observer
can consciously experience these processes, they can again flow into one
another in a less truncated way. The four stages are as follows:
1. Exact sense perception;
2. Exact sensorial fantasy;
3. Seeing in beholding;
4. Being one with the object.
Before the first stage of Goethean observation there is
a preparatory stage. In the preparatory stage there is a place for who
we usually are: our everyday likes and dislikes; our personal history
and this aspect of our ordinary encounter with things is acknowledged
and recorded. Care is taken to note the first impression that a thing
creates in ourselves as observers. This effort allows what is often a
very apposite observation some status. Recording and sharing first impressions
also acknowledges the observer as coming to the thing with a history of
other perceptions and memories. Placing the personal emphasis only in
the preparatory stage could be seen as a form of bracketing. Although
the focus for much phenomenological geography is an analysis of the lifeworld,
this method shares with transcendental phenomenology an idea of a purified
subjectivity as the instrument of investigation. Thus the individual subjectivity
is distinguished from a form of universal Subjectivity which is used in
the stages which follow.
Another aspect of this ‘first meeting’ with the phenomenon
is also used, by the observer, to chose what to study. It is when one
is struck by something —positively, negatively or with curiosity—
that the beginning of a penetrating observation can come. This is spoken
of as being drawn to or being spoken to by the thing; something about
it engages us and we want to know it better. This process is seen as circumventing
the possible arbitrariness of just being allocated an object of study.
Being able to find the thing that it would be fruitful for one to study
is not only a matter of waiting to be “spoken to”: it requires
a degree of patience and a child-like receptivity. Participants report
that it is often when they have stopped thinking about what they should
study - what would be pleasant or convenient etc. that they are suddenly
struck by something. The experience of being called to by a phenomenon
is also used in more mainstream phenomenological research techniques.(Moustakas
1. Exact Sense Perception
The first stage begins when we stand back from the personal
encounter that recording and valuing first impressions allows. Now the
observer attempts to approach the object from a clearer, more objective
standpoint. This stage was called by Goethe exact sense perception and
is characterised by a detailed observation of all the ‘bare facts’
of the phenomenon that are available to our ordinary senses. It is an
attempt to see what is present with as little personal judgement and evaluation
as possible. All our theories and feelings about a thing must be held
back in order to “let the facts speak for themselves.”
The question of there being ‘facts’, even before considering
whether they may be able to speak, is deeply problematic for us, but it
was not entirely a naive foolhardiness on the part of Goethe. His own
history of the Royal Society could be seen as a proto-sociology of science
and his writings on scientific method are always around the question of
the possibility of theory free observation. His own studies move from
what he termed his “stiff-necked realism” to the idea that
science should move towards what he termed “a delicate empiricism”.
An example of trying to let the facts speak for themselves
from Goethe’s own work is his extraordinarily detailed observations
of colour phenomena. Rather than draw hypotheses or work from a theory
his investigations involve colour as experienced by himself, as used by
artists, as created by dyers as used symbolically, as seen in animals
and plants, and so on.
For the student attempting to carry out this stage with
their own phenomenon, drawing can be a useful tool,
because in drawing our attention is brought to previously unnoticed detail
or patterns. For example, if our aim is to ‘see’ a particular
rose, these techniques help to circumvent our usual ‘seeing roses’
mode of perception. The categorised artefact created by our usual mode
perception must be ignored to let us see the rose as if we had not seen
one before. Drawing from memory is also used extensively. One may think
that one knows everything about the appearance of a thing only to have
that assumed knowledge disappear the moment the object is hidden from
view and one is asked to draw it.
Another tool used is to ignore some knowledge, for example,
the names of things, such that they can be seen and described outside
of some of our learned classifications. This restriction on nomenclature
is used throughout the shared observation sessions. Attempting to find
another word to describe the part you are indicating to someone else often
leads to a looking again, an effort to find a similarity with something
else. Bracketing out prior knowledge is not forgetting it, but trying
to put it aside for a few minutes. An example of this was a participant
describing a plant and including in the description of a leaf stalk the
caterpillar that was walking along it, as if part of the plant (bracketing
her obvious awareness that this was not the case). Just attempting to
see it that way can lead to insights about the relationship between the
caterpillar and the leaf and other boundary relationships. The intention
is to free up the habitual categories and possibly see new elements in
the relationships between things.
In comparison to a more orthodox scientific investigation
the attempts to step outside of prior knowledge, theory driven observation
and hypothesis testing are striking, but some of the procedures carried
out may appear orthodox, e.g., measuring and recording quantities. Another
possible departure from orthodox methods in this first stage is that all
the senses are used. For example, with plants, the sense of smell will
be helpful and touch can be very important. The use of the non-visual
senses is common in phenomenological studies as sound and smell etc. they
are said to bring a greater engagement with the phenomenon.
It is impossible to continue in exact sense perception
forever. To register all the great amount of variety and detail would
be, as Goethe said “like trying to drink the sea dry.” Just
amassing facts about the phenomenon as a static object at the moment at
which we are looking will not allow us to really see what the thing is
or come to any firm idea of it. Exact sense perception is only the foundation
on which the following stages rest and to which they return when necessary
to verify conclusions reached by other means.
2. Exact Sensorial Fantasy
The second stage of looking at the phenomenon is what Goethe
called “exact sensorial fantasy” (Exakte sinnliche Phantasie).
An aspect of this activity is to perceive the time-life of the phenomenon,
i.e., to see it as a phenomenon in time. This means no longer seeing the
thing in an objective frozen present as prompted by the first stage, but
as a thing with a history. That history can be drawn from the phenomenon
with the use of an imaginative faculty that cultivates temporal and physical
relationships. For example, those between the skeletons of one animal
One way to gain practice with exact sensorial fantasy is to produce, imaginatively,
a leaf which fills a developmental gap between those that are evident
in a plant.
can do this easily by taking a plant, groundsel is useful for this as
it has a very clear metamorphosis and is often pulled up as a weed, and
studying it carefully. You can also remove each leaf from the main stem
and set out the sequence as shown.
This exercise helps to shed light on the process of discontinuous metamorphosis
in the plant as opposed to recording only its form. The leaf sequence
can be experienced as if one is living in the changing forms of the leaf
rather than seeing the individual static representations.
Such examples can attune one to seeing movement and thus seeing things
The difference between this type of observation and, for
example, viewing separate slides of a micro-organism to build up a picture
of how it has developed, is that the former seems to be happening in the
thing whereas the latter is more consciously reasoned out. The shift between
the two modes of seeing is a small one, but the world does look very different
when seen in a state of flux.
The difficult part of this way of seeing is to bring to
awareness these flowing processes in, for example, the plant without freezing
them with the solid nature of the exact sense perception. The aim is not
to use the static recognitions of the first stage, but rather, to take
those solid objective qualities into the new realm of movement and allow
them to flow into one another.
The imagination in this phase can be used as a tool to
vary what is seen and attempt to imagine it otherwise. The obvious link
to phenomenology here is with the use of free imaginative variation. First
suggested by Husserl, this is a means of deriving the essence of a phenomenon
by pushing the eidos of the thing beyond what can be imagined.
The second stage could be seen as a training of the imaginative faculty
in two directions. Firstly to free up the imagination and then to constrain
it within the realms of what is possible for the phenomenon being studied.
3. Seeing in Beholding
The first two stages of the Goethean method could both
be characterised as an engagement with the phenomena, first by objectively
seeing its outer static appearance and then by experiencing something
of its inner processes. In the third stage one attempts to still active
perception to allow the thing to express itself through the observer.
We attempt to step outside of what has gone before and make a space for
the thing to be articulate in its own way. The previous stages are supposed
to form the ground from which one enters this third mode of perception.
The detailed information is somehow transcended, but just as exact sensorial
fantasy requires exact sense perception to anchor its dream like activity,
seeing in beholding needs the content and the preparation of the other
two stages if the researcher is to articulate the thing. Goethe terms
the changes that are necessary to our everyday consciousness as the development
of “new organs of perception”. An analogous process would
be exercising to develop the muscles necessary to dance and the dancing
What is striking about the experience of the third stage
is that insights which come can counter one’s usual thoughts. It
is exhilarating, as what comes can seem so foreign to oneself that it
feels given and as if from nowhere. This stage is expressed in emotional
language although it is paradoxically said to be the furthest from the
subjective of those stages that I have described. What is expressed is
the being of the phenomenon, something of its essential nature. This “seeing
in beholding” or “heart-felt getting to know” can be
expressed in many ways, but its inspirational nature is usually reflected
in the use of poetry, painting or other art forms.
To experience the being of a phenomenon requires a human
gesture of “self-dissipation”. This effort is a holding back
of our own activity —a form of receptive attentiveness that offers
the phenomenon a chance to express its own gesture. The result of this
effort may be an inspirational flash or Aha! Participants use such expressions
as “it was so obvious”, “it was there all the time"
and “why had I never seen the connection before”.
4. Being One with the Object
The first three stages of the Goethean method involve different
activities and ways of thinking, and these could be characterised as first
using perception to see the form, second, using imagination to perceive
its mutability, and, third, inviting inspiration to reveal the gesture.
The fourth stage uses intuition to both combine and go beyond the previous
stages. In terms of a Goethean methodology each of the stages is dependent
upon those which precede it. Therefore it is not surprising that each
stage is more difficult to explain outside of the context of having experienced
the previous stages.
Being One With the Object in this fourth stage allows the
human ability to conceptualise to serve the thing: we lend it this human
capacity. When the phenomenon being explored does not have the ability
to think it is the most participatory part of Goethean observation. This
reveals the importance of a thorough knowledge of the phenomenon drawn
from the previous stages. Our ability to think creatively and to initiate
future action is the faculty being used here and thus the dangers of abstract
creation not tied to a phenomenon are great.
What becomes possible at this stage of perception is, in
the inorganic realm, the appreciation of laws and, in the organic realm,
the appreciation of type. Type is, for Goethe, more than a descriptive
plan shared by plants or animals and thus requires more than an exploration
of the outer form and its constituent parts. Being one with the object
allows an appreciation of the content or meaning of the form as well as
the form itself. This content is only available to thinking as only in
the process of thinking can the outer appearance of the thing and its
inner content be combined by conceptualisation. At this stage of the process
of Goethean observation it is acknowledged that the phenomenon is at its
least independent of human reason.
With some forms of study the process does not end with
the fourth stage. For example, if with the study of a landscape the process
is to involve future developments and buildings then a further 3 stages
are necessary. These three stages mirror the 3rd, 2nd and 1st as described
above. For example, the 6th stage would mirror the second by trying out
in imagination and with different models and plans the various design
options to see which could “grow” in a particular place. In
this situation the 4th stage is a switching point from what the place
is saying to what can be developed there. The moral implication of being
empowered to act by having an intimate knowledge of another being is often
experienced by participants as an awesome responsibility.
It’s obvious really, but why not have a
go at the first two stages. Choose a particular phenomenon, the colour
of the sky, the pattern on your cat’s fur!, whatever suggests itself
to you, and see if you can experience something of the change in perceptual
depth that is suggested here.
Warning: it takes time.
Web notes by Isis Brook updated March 2005