Johann Von Goethe (1749 to 1832) is best known as a German poet and playwright. However, he was also a keen naturalist and observer of the natural world. He proposed a scientific method which encompasses the whole of lived experience as a means to understanding life. This was different than the emerging scientific method of the time, in line with modern science, which seeks to eliminate the subjective observer and only look at physical reality as providing evidence for our understanding of life.
Goethean science questions the objectivity of the observer in the discovery of knowledge. Different from the modern scientific method we are familiar with, it seeks to acknowledge and include the observer’s subjectivity as a valid path to discovery. Goethean science proposes that subjective experience manifested as intuition, imagination and inspiration are just as real as physical reality. By combining the external (objective) as well as internal (subjective) worlds a true representation of reality can emerge. This is not in opposition to modern science, but an analogy might be that modern science gives us one piece of the puzzle and Goethean science can be a means to revealing a more complete picture.
Goethean science assumes that all knowledge already exists. As the famous Japanese poet Basho says “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo.” On a practical level this creates what Emma Kidd calls a democratization of knowledge. You don’t have to be an expert to learn about a plant if you are interested in learning about it. You don’t even need books, although they can always be helpful. All you need to do is be open and take the time to observe the plant with your whole being. Intuition, inspiration and imagination can become tools of communication between yourself and the plant.
A complete Goethean plant study is done over at least one growing season. It involves an initial meeting of the plant followed by a very detailed study of the physical aspects of the plant including shape, colour, texture and size. Physical study can include detailed botanical drawings. Drawings can over time take on an increasingly subjective and expressive nature. The plant can also be tasted and one can learn directly from their physical experience of the plant. One is encouraged to watch the plant change through the seasons and make notes on how the plant grows. One should be able to imagine the plant growing like flipping a flipbook of memories. The ultimate goal is to arrive at a moment where you can distinguish what impressions come from yourself and what impressions come directly from the plant. This is possible because part of ourselves lives in the plant and part of the plant lives in us. This observation has come from the experience of people throughout the ages, but is now substantiated through biochemistry and genetics that proves we really are made up of a lot of the same stuff.
It is my belief that our recent reductionist mindset has caused us to lose sight of the whole and true nature of reality. The deep interconnectedness of all things is so incredibly complex; I do not believe reason alone is sufficient to fully grasp what this means. I think it is because we are only seeing with part of our senses that we continue to destroy and plunder our planet, often with little remorse or understanding of what we have done. Goethean science provides a means for change. With a new understanding comes new possibilities and new solutions for a changing world.
Goethe was hardly the first and will not be the last to awaken to what it means to be fully connected to all things. I leave you with the full quote from Basho written in Japan a good 100 years before Goethe’s time:
“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”
References and resources:
Emma Kidd, 2016, https://www.wisdomhub.tv/first-steps-to-seeing#tab-speakers (Interview)
Keith Robertson, 2003, The Evaluation of Goethean Science as a Methodology for the Investigation of Medicinal Plant Properties with Specific Reference to Hawthorn [Crataegus species] (Dissertation)
Pishwanton: The Northern European Centre for Goethean Science http://pishwanton.org/
C. S. Song, 1986, Theology from the Womb of Asia