Goethean Phenomenology

Goethe is far better known as the author of Faust than as a scientist. Yet he made key scientific contributions, such as his discovery of the human intermaxillary bone, which showed that apes and humans are indeed related. Goethe’s insight came, he said, “by reflection and coincidence.” We get a better understanding of what he meant when we examine his scientific method, known as Goethean phenomenology. Below, I correlate the four steps in Goethe’s process with four levels of complex systems:

Complex System Level
Step in Goethe’s Scientific Process
Members or Parts: This is the “noun” or “thing” level, where we look at each of the pieces that, properly interconnected, create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts (i.e., one that exhibits emergent phenomena). Precise Sense Perception: We immerse ourselves in direct sensory experience of the phenomena (percepts), putting aside all concepts about them (that is, everything we think we already know about them, or concepts). At this stage, our observation is what is before us NOW. We take a snapshot in time, a static image. We simply soak in percept. Our question is, What is? Note that we DON’T start with a hypothesis. Thus, at this stage we purposely avoid, not only pre-assumptions, but conceptual analysis altogether.
Processes and Relationships (Dynamics): This includes both current dynamics and the time-flow (history) of the system. By imaginatively recapitulating that flow, we can imaginatively extrapolate into future states. Precise Sensorial Imagination: Here, instead of static, think dynamic. Still immersed within the sensory phenomena, we open ourselves up to their qualities of relationship, correspondence, and contrast, as well as movement, rhythm, flow in time, and transformation. Some questions might be: How does this aspect relate to that one? What processes are taking place? How do they interrelate? What preceded this moment and what will come after?
Gestalt: First having seen the system in pieces, then having looked at the dynamics amongst the pieces, we now view the system as a self-organizing whole. Of particular importance here are patterns (which are produced by rhythms, as patterns in the sand are produced by the flow of the waves). These indicate the true τέλος of the system. Seeing in Beholding: The first two stages had to do with the phenomena as parts, first static and then interacting. On this third level, our focus shifts to the underlying unity that “lies behind” the sensory phenomena. The information of the percept is still before us, but we use it as a window to peer through, into what unites and animates the multiplicity of interacting phenomena we are observing. Here we can also step back from the immediacy of the phenomena and become aware of the environmental context in which they are embedded. Some questions might be: What is the unifying character or quality of this wholeness? What is its personality or inherent gesture? What functions or products do the unity of these phenomena habitually bring about?
Paradigm: Paradigms are the core values of the system, the “laws” they follow in their functioning. (For Goethe, the archetypal plant, or Ur-pflanze, epitomized the Law of Metamorphosis.) We’re often surprised at what we find at this level: e.g., does our “free market” economic system really epitomize prosperity at all levels? Being One with the Object: In this stage percept and concept at last unite. Yet here we do more than arrive at an abstract understanding―we gain an insight into the essential nature of the phenomena. Goethe called this the Ur-phänomen, the primal phenomenon. But this is not primal in the sense of original or ancestral. Instead it is archetypal or essential, original in the sense that it is the ultimate source of the phenomena. Such unitive (unity of percept and concept) consciousness resembles the transcendent states of deep contemplation. In Greek, theoria means contemplation, so Goethe’s scientific method may be said to result in a kind of “theory” that goes beyond (but complements) mere intellectual understanding.

Goethean phenomenology is a demanding but rewarding practice. It makes us struggle with our western scientific education, most of which is derived from mechanistic rather than holistic and systemic worldviews. One might surmise that people always utilized such holistic approaches rather than modern scientific ones. It’s highly unlikely that ancient peoples discovered the healing (and poisonous) properties of plants by the steps of (1) hypothesis, (2) reduction to one variable, and (3) controlled experiment. Of course, they must have used trial and error, but shamanistic traditions suggest that their methods also cultivated and drew upon out-of-body relationships with the “beings” of plants, etc. We can question or reject such methods, but the science of indigenous peoples is nonetheless extremely impressive.

However, to be clear, Goethean phenomenology differs from many types of shamanism— which induce trance-like states through drumming, chanting, or psychotropic drugs. Instead, Goethean observation sharpens our perception through intense sensory focus, enabling us to progressively engage and develop an innate imaginative capacity that has, it would seem, been largely lost to our western scientific world. But this imaginative state is achieved in the clarity of a wide-awake consciousness that is both rational and, at times, supra-rational.

For those willing to immerse themselves in a challenging practice—transcending the mindset that almost all of us have grown up with—the fruits of Goethean phenomenology can be extremely enlightening and useful, leading to moments of clarity yielding essential insights. These insights can then guide us in creating systemic change (both personally and organizationally). They also help us to deeply understand our τέλος.

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