|Goethe observing the light|
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 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.