Let us go back to his younger years, when, with alert attention and omnivorous interest, he had begun his lifelong pursuit of science. Few of us have known that Goethe devoted more time to scientific investigation and compositions than to all his poetry and prose combined.33 He had studied medicine and physics at Leipzig, chemistry at Strasbourg; he took up anatomy in 1781; and for years he wandered about Thuringia gathering mineral and botanical specimens and observing geological formations. In his travels he noted not merely men, women, and art, but also fauna and flora, optical and meteorological phenomena. He took a leading part in establishing laboratories in Jena. He rejoiced or grieved as intensively over his victories or defeats in science as over his successes or failures in literature.
He did something about the weather. He organized meteorological observation stations in the duchy of Saxe-Weimar, helped to set up others throughout Germany,34 and prepared instructions for them. He wrote essays on “The Theory of Weather” and “The Causes of Barometric Fluctuations.” He persuaded Duke Karl August to begin the collections that formed the core of the Museum of Mineralogy at Jena. After studying the geological strata at Ilmenau he argued that they confirmed Abraham Werner’s theory that all the rocky formations on the earth’s crust were the result of the slow action of water. (This “Neptunist” theory has had to be combined with the “Vulcanist” theory of change by violent action.) He was among the first to suggest that the age of strata might be judged from the fossils imbedded in them, and to defend the view that the great boulders now erratically distributed in high places had been swept up there by surges of ice coming down from the Arctic Zone.35
In 1791-92 Goethe published in two volumes Beiträge zur Optik (Contributions to Optics). “My purpose,” he wrote, “has been to assemble all that is known in this field, and to undertake all the experiments myself, varying them as much as possible, making them easier to follow, and keeping them within the scope of the ordinary person.”36 During the years from 1790 to 1810 he made numberless experiments to explain color; the Goethe Museum at Weimar still preserves the instruments he used. The result appeared in 1810 in two large volumes of text, and one of plates, entitled Zur Farbenlehre (On the Theory of Color); this was his major work as a scientist.
He studied colors as due not only to the chemical composition of objects but to the structure and operation of the eye. He analyzed the adaptation of the retina to darkness and light, the physiology of color blindness, the phenomena of color shadows and afterimages, the effects of color contrasts and combinations in sensation and in art. He mistakenly thought of green as a blend of yellow and blue. (They do blend so on the artist’s palette, but when the blue and yellow of the color spectrum combine they yield gray and white.) He repeated many of the experiments described in Newton’s Opticks (1704), found in several cases results different from those there reported, and ended by accusing Newton of incompetence and occasional deceit.37 He opposed Newton’s view that white is a composition of colors, and held that their combination regularly produced not white but gray.—Neither his contemporaries nor his successors in the field of optics accepted his conclusions. They praised his experiments and discarded many of his theories. In 1815 Arthur Schopenhauer, who admired Goethe as a poet and as a philosopher, sent him an essay ably defending Newton’s conception of white as a composition of colors; the old man never forgave him. The general rejection of the Farbenlehreadded to the gloom of his final years.
A man so sensitive to color as Goethe was could not but be fascinated by the world of plants. At Padua in 1786 he was thrilled by the botanical gardens; here was a richer and more varied collection than he had ever seen. He saw how different the plants of the south were from those of the north, and he resolved to study the influence of environment upon the form and growth of plants. Nor had he ever felt so deeply the mysterious and overwhelming capacity of nature to develop each form, with its unique pattern of structure, texture, color, and line, out of apparently simple and similar seeds. What fertility, and what originality! But were there some common elements in all the diversity of individuals, and in all the evolution of organs and parts? The idea came to him that these genera, species, and varieties were variations of a basic archetype; that all these plants, for example, were formed on some fundamental and original—even if imaginary—model, an Urpflanze, or First Plant, the mother of them all. “The same law” or theory, he wrote to Herder, “will be applicable to all that lives”—i.e., to animals as well as plants; they too are variations on one structural theme.38 And as the individual organism, with all its uniqueness, is an imitation of a primal archetype, so the parts of an organism may be variations of one fundamental form. Goethe noticed in Padua a palmetto whose leaves were in diverse stages of development; he studied the visible transitions from the simplest leaf to the complete, majestic fan; and he conceived the idea that all the structures of a plant—except the axis, or stem—were variations and stages of the leaf.*
After his return to Weimar Goethe published his theory in an eighty-six-page book entitled An Attempt by J. W. von Goethe, Privy Councilor of the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, to Explain the Metamorphosis of Plants (1790). Botanists laughed at it as the dreams of a poet, and advised the poet to stick to his trade.39 He took them at their word, and rephrased his views in a poem, “The Metamorphosis of Plants.” Gradually the theory accumulated evidence and supporters. In 1830 Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire presented Goethe’s essay to the French Academy of Sciences as a work of careful research and creative imagination confirmed by the progress of botany.40
Applying his theory to anatomy, Goethe suggested (1790) that the skull is a variation and continuation of the vertebrae, enclosing the brain as the spine encloses the spinal cord. There is no agreement today on this conception. One definite and brilliant achievement is credited to Goethe in anatomy—the demonstration of an intermaxillary bone in man. (This is the bone, between the maxillae, or jaw bones, that carries the upper incisor teeth.) The anatomists had recognized such a bone in animals, but had questioned its existence in man; Goethe’s discovery narrowed the structural difference between man and the ape. Hear the poet proclaim his success in a letter from Jena to Charlotte von Stein, March 27, 1784—the lover and the scientist all compact: “A few lines to my Lotte by way of saying good morning. … I have been granted a delightful satisfaction. I have made an anatomical discovery that is at once beautiful and important. You shall have your share in it, but do not say a word about it.”41 He announced his finding in a manuscript monograph sent to divers scientists in 1784 and entitled “Versuch, aus der vergleichenden Knochenlehre, dass der Zwischenknochen der oberen Kinnlade dem Menschen mit den übrigen Thieren gemein sei” (An Attempt, Based on Comparative Osteology, to Show That the Intermaxillary Bone in the Upper Jaw is Common to Man and the Higher Animals). This was “the first treatise ever written that can be properly described as lying in the field of comparative anatomy, and thus it is a milestone in the history of this science.”42 (The French anatomist Félix Vicq d’Azyr published the same discovery in the same year 1784.)
In his essay Goethe wrote: “Man is very closely akin to the brute creation. … Every creature is only a tone, a modification, in a mighty harmony.”43 Like many scientists and philosophers before him, he thought of man as part of the animal kingdom, and wrote a poem, “The Metamorphosis of Animals.” But he was not an evolutionist in the Darwinian sense. Following Linnaeus, he assumed the fixity of species; so his Urpflanze was not an actual primitive plant from which all plants had evolved, but only a general type of which all plants were modifications. Goethe did not, like his contemporaries Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin, think of species evolving from other species by the environmental selection of favorable variations.
Was Goethe a real scientist? Not in the professional sense; he was a zealous and enlightened amateur, a scientist between poems, novels, amours, artistic experiments, and administrative chores. He used extensive equipment, collected a large library of science, made useful observations and careful experiments; Helmholtz testified to the factual accuracy of the objective processes and experiments that Goethe described.44 He avoided teleological explanations. But he was not accepted as a scientist by professionals, for these looked upon him as a dilettante who depended too trustfully upon intuition and hypothesis. He passed too quickly from one subject or investigation to another, touching each at some special point, and achieving nowhere, except in optics and the theory of color, a survey of the field. But there was something ideal and heroic in his divergent and polymorphous persistence. Said Eckermann in 1825: “Goethe will be eighty years old in a few years, but he is not tired of inquiries and experiments. He is always on the track of some great synthesis.”45 And perhaps the poet was right in thinking that the chief aim of science should not be to equip old desires with new tools, but to enlarge wisdom with knowledge for the enlightenment of desire.