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Exploring Goethean Science

SCHUMACHER COLLEGE
An International Centre for Ecological Studies

Exploring Goethean Science at Schumacher College
by Natasha Myers

Schumacher course: Living Science Creatively
Teachers: Henri Bortoft, Margaret Colquhoun and Brian Goodwin
Course dates: May, 1997

Why we need a new Science

You are standing quietly in the woodland below a majestic beech tree. It is autumn and the leaves resonate in magnificent colour before they are released into the air and succumb to the earth. Mosses flow over the rocks of the forest floor like rippling water under the sea. Mushroom creatures sprout in dancing circles; lichens breathe new life on blackened tree stumps. The air is rich and moist with decaying bracken which has fallen in broken heaps of burnt orange and burgundy. You can almost feel the earth churning with life under your feet. There you can see the soil feeding the tree, feeding the soil…

Stop. Now, what if I were to tell you that none of this is real? That this is all just an illusion of your senses? That there is no truth in this, your ‘subjective’ experience of qualities? And that this experience is invalid, that it doesn’t count? That this forest is just a random collection of species competing for resources, whose sole purpose is reproduction, whose most important feature is the linear sequence of their genetic code?

This is precisely what science tells us today.

As we fly through this age of information flow, genetics and molecular technology, people are becoming increasingly alienated from a meaningful understanding of the natural world. Science has been vigilant in its interrogation of the natural world to wrest answers from her depths of mystery. It is a quest for more and more data to fill our mountainous logbook of Knowledge, written in the language of objective fact, number and the genetic code. However, this is the knowledge of a world which has been so fragmented, so dissected by our analyses, that we can no longer recognise how this myriad of independent parts relate in the larger picture.

Most problematically, meaningful understanding of the world is lost because our ‘objective’ analyses have denied the language of human experience in this canon of ‘truth’. Meaning however, is manifest only in the context of interrelation. The ‘objective’ lens of the scientist enforces the separation between the observer and the observed and thus denies the web of relationships which we experience in life. It is not surprising then, that nothing remotely resonant with our living experience has emerged out of this vast array of inert information. It is not surprising that we find ourselves in a time of ecological crisis and alienation from nature: through this veil of objectivity we have severed our meaningful relationships with nature, and therefore, the obligation to interact with her responsibly. How then do we transcend this mechanistic world view and heal our relationship to the earth?

The Schumacher course, Living Science Creatively, addresses this concern and proposes a platform for a new kind of science. This emerging discipline is a “science of qualities”, which values human experience and depends on sense perception to paint a meaningful picture of life. There is in fact, nothing new about this kind of science. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and his Romantic contemporaries worked diligently to hold on to a scientific methodology which valued qualitative experience of phenomena, just as the Scientific Revolution with its quantitative, mechanistic vision of the world was gaining ground. The course, “Living Science Creatively”, helps us to step out of this now dominant, mechanistic paradigm by introducing us to Goethe’s ideas in the context of the newly emerging holistic sciences. The doors of science are opened to all with curiosity, questions, fascination and reverence for the natural world. We enter into relationship with the phenomenon as scientists, and our discoveries come alive with meaning, brought forth through the creative language of deepened experience in the natural realm.

Goethe’s Science

Goethe was best known as a poet and playwright. His contributions to science, however, were far reaching. Goethe’s extensive research in colour, plant development, morphology and embryology, breathed life into our scientific knowledge. Most influential of all is his particular ‘way of doing science’, which provides the tools for us to transcend the reductionist paradigm. Fundamental to Goethe’s approach to science, and in contrast to the mechanistic doctrine, is his insistence that the scientist is not a passive observer of an external universe; that there is no ‘objective truth’. He saw the individual in a reciprocal, participatory relationship with nature, and valued the contribution the observer brings forth to the observed. Goethe’s science requires that we actively engage our senses, and trust that they can reveal the real world. Goethe worked towards opening up new ‘organs of perception’ which would expand our understandings of the world into an integrated whole. This is a science of relationship, of quality and of wholeness. And we can use this kind of science to ask questions about all forms and functions of life.

The Leaf Sequence: Seeing wholes to reveal plant gesture

We are always fascinated by how organisms grow. How does the magnificent beech tree arise from its tiny seed? How do we explain its form as it changes through time? Biologists are always looking for explanations to get at the mechanisms behind the phenomenon. Goethean scientists on the other hand, seek an understanding of processes by delving into the phenomenon experientially. Goethean observation of the leaf sequences of plants demonstrates one way in which we can come to understand plant development.

Leaf sequence of a musk mallow, from the book New Eyes for Plants,
by Margaret Colquhoun & Axel Ewald

To make a leaf sequence we simply lay each leaf out in the temporal sequence in which it was formed, from the oldest, most basal leaves to the newest most apical leaves. Careful inspection reveals that all the central stem’s original leaves are dramatically different shapes and sizes. Then, as our eyes move from leaf to leaf, we realise that there is no one representative leaf. Rather, there is a fluid spectrum of shapes which appear to morph into one another, flowing in sequence through time. There is a wholeness in this sequence of individual leaves and a necessity to the order of the forms. This oneness of a ‘multiplicity of forms’ would be disturbed if we were to change the order. (You can try this by shuffling the leaves around into a different sequence. What happens to the flow?)

In our minds, we can fill the gaps between each leaf shape with our imaginations, as we would viewing the still frames of a moving picture. This metamorphosis is a process which is otherwise invisible to our eyes; we normally see plant as it stands frozen in one moment in time. We can however, begin to experience the dramatic movements of plant growth in our imaginations. Goethe called this way of seeing ‘exact sensorial fantasy’; it is the active process of merging ourselves with the phenomenon. This experience reveals a unique ‘gesture’, a movement characteristic of the plant, telling us ‘who’ it is as it dances its way into being. Goethe’s science seeks this gesture of organisms, and it is this quality which shows us the ‘inner necessity’ of the growing plant. In this way of doing science we do not need to layer an explanatory mechanism over top of the phenomenon, we can intuitively and non-invasively understand how the plant grows.

Doing Goethean Science: Studies in the plant world

Materials
A group of curious people and a plant.

Methods
Goethe advocated intensive observation of the physical realm and called this way of seeing ‘exact sense perception’. His method of active seeing however, also required the use of our imaginative faculties to explore the realm of process which lies between the solid forms of the living, physical world. His methodology presents a learning sequence which takes you from seeing physically (exact sense perception), to seeing fluidly (exact sensorial fantasy). In reality, there are no necessary distinctions between these two levels of experience: in wholeness, they are experienced simultaneously. This structured approach, however, allows us to experience the difference between meeting the boundaries of the outer, physical world, and dissolving those boundaries in order to experience wholeness.

When we study plant life in this way, we must first encounter the plant and thoroughly describe its physical manifestation in fine detail as it appears to our senses. This is a process of painting the plant into our mind, so that we know the outer shapes, colours and textures of the root, shoot, leaf, flower and fruit. This mode of observation is similar to the methods of the artist, who is able to see, and therefore paint, with such insight into the whole. With a vivid picture of the plant as it stands in this world, we can then begin to experience the plant as a life process through time. Through the practice of visualising the plant in our mind’s eye, we can actively melt the boundaries between each part and experience the plant in the whole of its developmental processes; the plant growing through time. Therefore, what was invisible to our outer physical experience — for example, the metamorphosis of shape between each leaf — manifests as real movement, real flow in our imagination. Thus we move from perceiving the plant directly with our senses as a solid, separate object, to exploring the mysterious fluid realm of its metamorphosis through time as it grows within us. This experience is often accompanied by a strong physical sense of the plant-being growing within you: you can feel the seed bursting; the roots searching and gripping; the upward striving of the shoot; the lilt and lift of the unfurling leaves; the burst and expansion of the flower; the contraction of the whole plant at the end of its cycle into the seed; and its new beginning. In this realm of exact sensorial fantasy, you ‘become’ the plant and it feels as if the plant is ‘growing you’. It is in this way that we can begin to experience the inner necessity and gesture of the organism. Thus, this scientific exploration of qualities opens up the realm of “meaningful knowing”. This is a knowledge that is held in relationship to ourselves and our experience, devoid of the analytical level of abstraction which separates us from the phenomenon.

The merging of science and art

By doing science in this way we have begun transcend the reductionist paradigm. This is possible because we have stepped out of our analytical mode of consciousness; we’ve stopped applying our equations, our notions of linear causality, and even our sense of time. We’ve dissolved the boundaries analysis necessarily delineates, and have begun to see wholeness in nature. What is essential to remember though, is that this is still a science: we are gaining knowledge of the world through empirical observation. What is different is the mode of consciousness we must enter to make these discoveries. This holistic mode of consciousness allows for the experience of the oneness in nature because it opens experience to the web of relationships which form our reality. Only then can we fully appreciate the phenomenon in and of itself, open ourselves to the beauty in nature and the flow of life which breathes through

This science of understanding wholes must flow into a mode of communication which does not compromise our deep experience of the phenomenon. This must be a language of quality and gesture. It is here that science meets art. Gesture can be captured and conveyed through our writing, painting, sculpture, music or dance. Whether we discover key developmental processes or important medicinal qualities of the plants we study, we can bring these discoveries into the world in creative ways, in a language which is both accessible and meaningful. And this way, we can begin to live science creatively.

About the author:
Natasha Myers was a participant on the Living Science Creatively course at Schumacher College and has recently returned to the college as a helper. As a biologist, currently studying the molecular genetics of flower development at McGill University, (Montreal, Canada), she is interested in finding ways to merge this discipline with Goethean science, towards addressing more meaningful questions of the plant world.

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