Thursday, February 26, 2015

Goethe and the scientists

Goethe observing the light
I recently got hold of the "Naturwissenschaften" supplement to the Goethe-Handbuch, edited by Manfred Wenzel. I am very impressed, especially since the editorial team was a small one. The volume includes an introductory apparatus, followed by 290 pages of "overview" essays, starting with the writings on morphology, followed by sections on color theory, geology (before 1800), meteorology, general "Naturlehre," and the reception of Goethe's scientific writings. The largest part  (pp. 291-720) is a dictionary and people and terms. The volume is rounded out with indexes (contemporary reviews of Goethe's writings, contents of the Leopoldina edition, places of publication) and a chronological table. The appendix includes a short bibliography, an index of illustrations, a section of color plates, and an index of names. I am especially looking forward to going through the dictionary, which begins with Abel, Johann Gotthelf Lebrecht; Abglanz; and Abstraktion and ends with Zshokke, Johann Heinrich Daniel; Zucker; and Zwischenkieferknochen.

The section that most interested me right off the bat concerns the reception of Goethe as scientist, a 38-page essay authored by Bianca Bican and Manfred Wenzel. I am only about half way through, as I keep getting held up by following some of the writers who have opined on Goethe's scientific activities. I am familiar with some of the big names in this regard: Helmholtz, Heisenberg, Ernst Haeckel, Emil De Bois-Reymond, and Rudolf Steiner, but I had never heard of Jacob Hermann Friedrich Kohlbrugge, whose Historisch-kritische Studien über Goethe als Naturforscher was published in 1913. According to the article, Kohlbrugge subjects Goethe's scientific writings to a "herber Kritik, indem er sie weitgehend as Plagiate bezeichnete, denen nur Opportunisten ihren Beifall schenkten." I found Kohlbrugge's book online –– the photocopy from the University of Toronto library was massively marked in the margins –– and read it.

Kohlbrugge was a biologist, and he  states that he wrote out of a spirit of opposition to all of the books claiming Goethe as a pathbreaking scientist, including in regard to evolution. Kohlbrugge makes a nice distinction concerning the term "pre-Darwinist," which only applies to those scientists who asserted actual evolutionary descent or "Abstammung" before Darwin. According to Kohlbrugge, it was Rousseau who first stimulating thinking about this possibility, which was taken up by French materialists and writers of the Encyclopédie. The debate on the origins of language in the 18th century also made some people consider the possibility. Herder, writes Kohlbrugge, struggled with the idea as well. Later, in  Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1785) he wrote: “Der Menschheit jüngere Brüder sind die Tiere.” However, he opposed Rousseau’s idea that men were once four-footed creatures, believing in the “Unveränderlichkeit der Art.” Goethe had read Rousseau carefully, and he gave much thought to the relatedness of man and ape, which led to the studies of the jaw bone. But he did not publish his manuscript for 34 years, which show that he changed his opinion about the relationship of man and animal. He turned his back on the “Abstammungstheorie,” in the sense of a blood relationship, and seems never to have considered the possibility of unlimited new species through exterior influences.

Kohlbrugge is indeed very severe on Goethe as a scientist and contends that “Kunst und Naturbetrachtung waren bei Goethe stets innig vereinigt.” His study, however, is a thorough presentation, including many, many 17th-, 18th-, and early 19th-century sources, while placing Goethe's efforts within the context of the time in which he was working.

There are two things that strike me about Goethe's scientific efforts. The first is that he did not engage in the kind of experimentation that led to any practical applications. For instance, as I have learned from an article by John Moyker on the intellectual origins of modern economic growth, “The great Lavoisier worked on assorted applied problems, including as a young man on the chemistry of gypsum and the problems of street lighting.” Moyker also mentions “Linnaeus's belief that skillful naturalists could transform farming was widely shared and inspired the establishment of agricultural societies and farm improvement organizations throughout Europe.” Goethe's experiments did not contribute to the accumulation of facts or knowledge that propelled the scientific revolution. On the other hand, he was responsible for bringing important scientists to the university at Jena.

This brings me to the second thing: his lucubrations were in the realm of "Weltbild," and he seems to have regarded his work in science as fundamental to the understanding of nature. Thus, his desire for recognition by serious scientists, and his bitterness at their dismissal of him as a scientist. Their "natural laws" had nothing in common with Goethe's, which, according to Kohlbrugge, were “nicht mechanischer Art, sondern psychischer, ganz wie die Formen eines Kunstwerkes durch die Psyche des Künstlers bestimmt.”

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