Journal for General Philosophy of Science

, Volume 49, Issue 4, pp 581–598 | Cite as

Goethe’s Polarity of Light and Darkness

  • Olaf L. MüllerEmail author


Rarely does research in the history and philosophy of science lead to new empirical results, but that is exactly what has happened in one of the essays of this special issue: Rang and Grebe-Ellis have developed new experimental techniques to perform measurements Goethe proposed 217 years ago. These measurements fit neatly with Goethe’s idea of polarity—his complementary spectrum is not only an optical, but also a thermodynamical counterpart of Newton’s spectrum. I use the new measurements, firstly, to argue against the asymmetries between light and darkness posited by Lyre and Schreiber; and, secondly, to explicate the alternative theory (the heterogeneity of darkness) that Goethe had introduced to urge scientific pluralism. In my replies to exegetical criticism by Böhler, Hampe and Zemplén, I show that the main goal of Goethe’s Farbenlehre was indeed to expose symmetries between light and darkness. Furthermore, I argue that it is worthwhile to focus on the experiments, arguments and hypotheses of the Farbenlehre, and not merely on rhetorical, narrative or stylistical aspects, as Böhler and Hampe would have it. Goethe’s criticism of Newton is often dismissed, but it is in fact surprisingly relevant today.


Darkness Goethe HPS Light Newton Optics 



I would like to thank the editors for their patience, the contributors for far more critical and stimulating points than I could address here, the members of my HPS-colloquium for comments on an earlier and much too long version of my response, Matthias Rang and Johannes Grebe-Ellis for countless insights from physics—and Emanuel Viebahn for the English translation.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for PhilosophyHumboldt University BerlinBerlinGermany

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