Research: Goethean Observations

There are many different interpretations of the Geothean (a method of observing as described by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832)) method, but the one I prefer to use is that described by Iris Brook in her paper, "Goethean Science as a Way to Read Landscape," which is, basically, as follows:

  1. exact sense perception [bare facts: perception]
  2. exact sensorial fantasy [time-life of object: imagination]
  3. seeing in beholding [heartfelt getting to know - inspiration]
  4. being one with the object [intuition]

1. Exact Sense Perception [Perception]

Now the observer attempt to approach the object from a clearer, more objective standpoint.. This stage was called by Goethe, exact sense perception and is characterised by a detailed observation of all the 'bare facts' of the phenomenon that are available to our ordinary senses. It is an attempt to see what is present with as little personal judgement and evaluation as possible.

An example of trying to let the facts speak for themselves from Goethe's own work is his extraordinarily detailed observations of colour phenomena. Rather than draw hypotheses or work from a theory his investigations involve colour as experienced by himself, as used by artists, as created by dyers, as used symbolically, as seen in animals and plants and so on.

For the student attempting to carry out this stage with their own phenomenon, drawing can be a useful tool, because in drawing our attention is brought to previously unnoticed detail or patterns.

Another tool used is to ignore some knowledge, for example the names of things... Attempting to find another word to describe the part you are indicating to someone else often leads to a looking again."

2. Exact Sensorial Fantasy [imagination]

"The second stage of looking at the phenomenon is what Goethe called 'exact sensorial fantasy' (Exact sinnliche Phantasie). An aspect of this activity is to perceive the time-life of the phenomenon, that is to see the phenomenon in time. This means no longer seeing the thing in an objective frozen present as prompted by the first stage, but as a thing with history. That history can be drawn from the phenomenon with the use of an imaginative faculty that cultivates temporal and physical relationships...

The shift between the two modes of seeing is a small one, but the world does look very different when seen in a state of flux.

In this phase the imagination can be used as a tool to vary what is seen and attempt to imagine it otherwise. The obvious link to the phenomenology here is with the use of free imaginative variation. First suggested by Husserl, this is a means of deriving the essence of a phenomenon by pushing the eidos of the thing beyond what can be imagined. The second stage could be seen as a training of the imaginative faculty in two directions: firstly to free up the imagination and then to constrain it within the realms of what is possible for the phenomenon being studied."

3. Seeing in Beholding [Inspiration]

The first two stages of Goethean method could be characterised as an engagement with the phenomena, first by seeing its outer static appearance objectively and then by experiencing something of its inner processes. In the third stage one attempts to still active perception to allow the thing to express itself through the observer. We attempt to step outside of what has gone before and make space for the thing to articulate in its own way.

The detailed information is somehow transcended, but just as exact sensorial fantasy requires exact sense perception to anchor its dream-like activity, seeing in beholding needs the content and the preparation of the other two stages if the researcher is to articulate the thing. Goethe terms the changes necessary to our everyday consciousness as the development of 'new organs of perception'.

To experience the being of a phenomenon requires a human gesture of 'self-disspation'. This effort is a holding back of our own activity - a form of receptive attentiveness that offers the phenomenon a chance to express its own gesture."

4. Being One with the Object [Intuition]

"The first three stages of the Goethean method involve different activities and ways of thinking and these could be characterised as first using perception to see the form, second using imagination to perceive its mutability, and, third, inviting inspiration to reveal the gesture. The fourth stage uses intuition both to combine and go beyond the previous stages.

Being one with the object in this fourth stage allows the human ability to conceptualise to serve the thing: we lend it this human capacity. When the phenomenon being explored does not have the ability to think, it is the most participatory part of Goethean observation.

Our ability to think creatively and to initiate future action is the faculty being used here and thus the dangers of abstract creation not tied to the phenomenon are great.

Being one with the object allows an appreciation of the content or meaning of the form as well as the form itself... At this stage of the process of Goethean observation it is acknowledged that the phenomenon is at its least independent of human reason."