IEP 405: Phenomenology and Environment

AWAYMAVE - The Distance Mode of MA in Values and the Environment at Lancaster University

Week 8. Goethean observation as phenomenology

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 introduced.

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 of opinion.

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.

Rodin's thinkerThink

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)

The method

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 as possible;
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 1994: 74)

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 drawing of planttool, 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 and another.
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.

leaf sequenceYou 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 in transition.

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 itself.

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.

Rodin's thinker

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

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