Goethe’s Colors

| May 15, 2012

Goethe’s interdisciplinary method(s) and a chromatic theory of discipline

For me, one of the most interesting things about Goethe is that he was one of the last of what I’d like to call here the ‘Rennaissance men’; thinkers (certainly not only men, to be sure), who, throughout Europe’s so-called Enlightenment era, approached science from what we might call an ‘integral’ perspective. This has been a big lacuna in official views of history, and particularly scientific history. Historians of science have had a tendency to seek in the development of science those threads of continuity to which they could attribute causal power. One of these threads was the notion that science dispelled mythic and superstitious beliefs. Until really the middle of the 20th C., most histories of science were of this type (sometimes called ‘whig’ history), and attributed causal power to a kind of scientific progress toward rationality, clarity, and truth. This view of the past has a strong hold, because most of us still tend to think of present-day science as a method for producing truths, or at least for guarding against the proliferation of untruths. As indeed, it may be seen. Recent work in the philosophy of science (although not really coming out of disciplinary philosophy, interestingly), such as that by the Europeans Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, and the Americans Donna Haraway and Karen Barad, offers significant contributions to our understanding of science as a sociocultural phenomenon, a natural phenomenon, but I won’t go into that all here.

Suffice it to say that in the early days of science, the early scientists (think of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Liebniz, etc., or tons of others) didn’t necessarily think of themselves as ‘scientists’ per se. They did usually seem to think of themselves as discoverers of truth, but on inspection, their truths tend to look a lot different than ours do today. Even their scientific truths often differed sharply, not just in quantity, but in quality from what is today seen as accepted scientific knowledge. This has been shown in recent work on the history of chemistry (look up some of the work of Lawrence M. Principe, for a good example [1]), and some troubling issues have been raised quite effectively in this context regarding the objectivist assumptions inherent to much academic historiography. To sum the problem up in a sentence, decisions about how and on what to specialize in historical research have a persistent way of relying on contemporary assumptions, categories, beliefs, opinions, and ‘facts’, even in the absence of any explicit so-called ‘agenda’ on the part of the researcher (a generous condition). Which actually throws a lot of historiography into question; where contemporary researcher have approached previously well-studied areas, oftentimes vastly divergent results have been obtained. To give just one example, biographers of Isaac Newton have tended to underemphasize, if not ignore outright, the importance of his alchemical and philological scholarship (which is voluminous and weird [2]), in favor, of course, of the canonical view of Newton as a the greatest scientific rationalist of all time (until Einstein). A quick look at the work of Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs [3] is enough to dispel the mirage… Teeter Dobbs’ work “argued passionately and authoritatively for the role of ancient wisdom in the formation of western scientific culture”. A project that is very much still contested by the powers that be, which is to say the authority-figures who preside over the great disciplinary apparatus of the contemporary academy, and who resist (interdisciplinary) attempts from ‘outside’ to remodel or reform its structure as one would resist the attempts of an outsider to renovate one’s home. Of course, if the renovation really was a matter of necessity, one imagines that a compromise could be reached…

John Maynard Keynes, who recovered most of Newton’s ‘occult’ papers from the cupboards of his descendents, famously called him out as “the last of the magicians”, and it was probably meant as an epithet; the ensuing scandal likely, after all, raised the value of Keynes’ portfolio. In any case, the very distinction -magician or scientist- is a quintessentially modern one. Newton fit it no more than did his contemporaries Hooke and Boyle, or Leibniz (read his Theodicy), or any of the other great thinkers of this time. The subsequent splitting up of integral (but vague) vectors of inquiry into today’s highly distinct colored rays of the various disciplines parallels Newton’s inquiry into the nature of light. Since we can separate the integral into these colors, just as we can separate nature into these disciplines, we might conclude that Nature, like Light, is of a corpuscular nature. Information is made of bits, and the bits will be both finite and definite; we have only to find them! Newton’s Opticks for many years, long past his death, much more widely read than his now more famous work on gravity, the Principia Philosophiae Naturalis, was taken as a paradigmatic (in the precise Kuhnian sense) early model of the scientific method.

The rudimentary pseudo-Newtonian philosophy of nature that I’ve caricatured here provides the implicit scaled model to which the organizational plans of our educational instutions are still being drawn. If the relevance of collective intellectual inquiry for our troubled cultures and society are to be salvaged, I’ll argue that this is the central problem that we need to address. How can we do interdisciplinary, and integrative scholarly work in a context that is inherently inimical to it? (If you have an answer, you might want to submit it here: [4]. For me, Goethe’s influence in this regard is not only unparalleled, but highly relevant. Whereas Newton’s contributions to Biblical philology and alchemy quickly became an embarrassment to be suppressed and ignored, Goethe’s works on plant morphology and color (he disagreed with Newton’s corpuscular theory!), were arguably as influential for the scientists of his day as his philosophical, poetic, and dramatic writings have been for artists and philosophers subsequently [5]. The paradoxical and opaque situations encountered by the student vis a vis his or her education, as Goethe described them regarding young Wilhelm Meister, ‘ring true’ as descriptions of personal experience. The problem of specialization, or ‘choosing one’s path’, which, for the youth, amounts to choosing one’s identity, should, I’d suggest, be precisely the kind of problem with which interdisciplinary modes of thought should concern themselves. Perhaps disciplines, like colors in Goethe’s theory [6], emerge at the boundaries of knowledge and ignorance, like light and darkness. The turbid media of complex systems create combinations and compilations of many such boundaries, producing a vast variety of colors, just as the complexities of contemporary socioeconomic ‘globalization’ today produce a proliferation of cultures, traditions, histories, and realities.

Talk:A-HH4199 8W – Studyplace.