The Incommensurability of Nature and Beauty of Thought: Goethe’s Scientific Method

By Renata Schellenberg.

Published by The International Journal of Science in Society

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Goethe’s scientific method can be best described as eclectic, for it appropriates the practices of a wide spectrum of scientists, while also showing traces of a variety of scientific traditions. It is also problematic to anyone attempting to define science in a singularly objective way, having elicited a mixed response from critics who accuse Goethe of methodological imprecision and inappropriate humanistic bias. In their analyses they focus on the inherent contradiction in a scientific method that combines strains of Neo-Platonic thought and an ad-hoc commitment in empiricism. More importantly they also question the motivation of a scientist who was also a celebrated author, and whose credibility needed to be brought under constant scrutiny, because of his shared loyalties between the realms of literature and science. Predictably, the results of these critical queries are regularly inconclusive, if at times caustic, for there is no definite way of categorizing Goethe’s scientific activities.
However, rather than reducing Goethean Science to the misguided ambitions of a poetic mind, and dismissing it so easily out of hand, one can also regard it as an essentially progressive (and modern) mode of thought for the way it sought to integrate two seemingly opposite ends of the scientific spectrum: intuition and insight. His scientific narratives were deliberately constructed to be broad enough to encompass both literary rhetoric and empiricism, and they consciously brought together two modes of discourse and two very different cultures of thought. In doing this, Goethe was not merely arguing the importance of his own subjective experience of nature; he was asserting that knowledge ought to be mediated by some other means than numbers alone, anticipating the necessity for a more reflective and meaningful epistemological approach.

Keywords: Goethe, Science and Literature, Two Cultures, Eighteenth Century Germany, History of Science, Philosophy of Science

The International Journal of Science in Society, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp.45-58. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.695MB).

Dr. Renata Schellenberg

Associate Professor of German, German Section, Modern Languages Department, Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada

I am an Associate Professor of German with a specialization in eighteenth-century literature and culture. I have published on scientific literacy and scientific modes of writing in German Enlightenment literature as well as on topics pertaining to Word and Image. I am deeply interested in Museum Studies, Print and Book Culture in the eighteenth century. I am currently investigating the literacy of collecting practices in eighteenth-century Germany. I am also a great Goethe enthusiast.