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Goethe Against Newton: Towards Saving the Phenomenon

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Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS,volume 97)


In all the scientific work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe nothing is more notorious than his polemic against Isaac Newton’s theory of white light and colors. This “great error” has been a constant source of embarrassment to reverers of Goethe that seemingly can be explained only by analyzing his psyche or his poetic metaphysics. Not a few, including Hermann von Helmholtz, thought that precisely Goethe’s poetic talent prevented him from understanding modern natural science. His advocacy of direct and immediate experience, it is said, made possible his contributions to descriptive sciences like plant and animal morphology but also kept him from real insight into the abstract techniques and power of mathematico-physical science (1971, pp. 21–44). His polemics against Newton are taken to be the clearest testimony of Goethe’s one-sidedness; the most one can say in his defense, it seems, is that in the struggle to assert the rights of the world of appearances he sinned against a truth that can only be uncovered by methods that go behind and beyond the phenomena. Of course in the twentieth century there has been a partial rehabilitation of the Farbenlehre, especially in its treatment of physiological and psychological aspects of color, and a greater readiness to acknowledge its virtues (e.g. concreteness) vis-à-vis modern theoretical physics. Yet we still tend by and large to construe Goethe’s undertaking as directed against modern physics, not least because of the polemic against Newton.


  • Modern Physic
  • Glass Prism
  • Crucial Experiment
  • Modern Theoretical Physic
  • Partial Rehabilitation

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Wer ein Phänomen vor Augen hat, denkt schon oft drüber hinaus; wer nur davon erzählen hört, denkt gar nicht.

(Goethe, Maximen, No. 1227)

Earlier versions of portions of this essay appeared in papers delivered at the 1982 meeting of the Claremont Institute in Denver and the 1983 History of Science Society meeting in Norwalk, Connecticut. I wish to express special thanks to Drs. John Cornell and Neil Ribe, who have been unstinting in their conversations, comments, and encouragement, and to F. J. Zucker for his critique of the penultimate version of this essay.

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© 1987 D. Reidel Publishing Company

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Sepper, D.L. (1987). Goethe Against Newton: Towards Saving the Phenomenon. In: Amrine, F., Zucker, F.J., Wheeler, H. (eds) Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol 97. Springer, Dordrecht.

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