Goethe's phenomenology of nature: a juvenilization of science

Riv Biol. May-Aug 2009;102(2):169-97.


Empirical science is not a mere collection of facts. It builds theories and frames hypotheses within those theories. Empirical theories are stated as plausible answers to questions we pose to nature. According to the Galilean-Baconian tradition within science, these questions should basically explore the causes of observed phenomena, and further be restricted to the measurable and quantitative realm. Thus, the answers are generally expected to explain the effective causes behind the actual phenomena. By framing falsifiable hypotheses, the theories are tested against the empirical foundation on which they rest. In this way we try to relieve science from false theories. Thus, we have two epistemological levels: First, the theoretical level; the scientific theory explaining the phenomena, and second, the empirical level; the phenomena or facts verifying or falsifying those theories. According to the poet and multi-scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), there is however another way of science, namely an approach where these two levels fuse and become one. Goethe intended this approach to be a complementation of the Galilean-Baconian method, more than an alternative. He considered his "hypothesis-free method" to be a more comprehensive and secure way to understand nature. Whereas the Galilean-Baconian method aimed at explaining the effective causes of natural phenomena, in order to control and exploit nature for technical and industrial purposes, Goethe aimed at an exposition of the inherent meaning of the phenomena.We will explore, exemplify and discuss this approach with reference to the inherently Goethean phenomenology of evolution credited to the Dutch anatomist Louis Bolk (1866-1930), later commented and complemented by Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) and Jos Verhulst (1949 ). In the course of this presentation we will outline the Goethean approach as a method representing a juvenilization or in Bolk's terms, a fetalization of science.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Biological Science Disciplines*
  • Empiricism
  • Hominidae*
  • Humans
  • Primates