Read The Metamorphosis of Plants Online
Authors: J. W. v. Goethe
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The English translation of
Die Metamorphose der Pflanze
has been taken form the British “Journal of Botany” (1863).
Revised by Anne E.
Marshall and Heinz Grotzke.
On August 18, 1787, Goethe wrote from Italy to Knebel: “After what I have seen of plants and fishes in the region of Naples, in Sicily, I should be sorely tempted, if I were ten years younger, to make a journey to India—not for the purpose of discovering something new, but in order to view in my way what has been discovered.”
In these words is to be found the point of view from which we have to consider Goethe's scientific work.
What he was concerned with was never the discovery of new facts, but the laying open of a new point of view, a particular way of looking upon nature.
It is true that Goethe made a number of great individual discoveries, such as that of the intermaxillary bone and the vertebral theory of the skull in osteology, the identification of plant organs with the leaf in botany, and the like.
But we have to view as the animating soul of all these particularities a lofty view of nature upon which they rested; in the history of organisms, we have to fix our attention primarily upon a notable discovery which reduces everything else to insignificance: that of the nature of the organism itself.
The principle by reason of which an organism is that which it represents itself to be, the causes which result in the phenomena of life appearing before us—indeed, everything that we have to inquire about in this regard from the point of view of principles—have been laid bare by him.
From the very beginning, this was the objective of his whole endeavor in the organic sciences; while he was pursuing this objective, these particularities crowded upon him as if of themselves.
He had to discover them if he wished not to be hindered in the further prosecution of his efforts.
The natural science which preceded him—which did not recognize the essential nature of life phenomena, and which investigated organisms simply with regard to the manner in which they were composed of parts, their external characteristics—often inevitably gave a false interpretation of details which it came upon on this path, often set these facts in a false light.
Naturally, it is impossible to discover such an error in connection with the details.
We recognize this only when we understand the organism, since the details, considered separately in themselves, do not bear within them their own interpretive principle.
They are to
be interpreted only through the nature of the whole, since it is the whole which gives them real being and significance.
Only after Goethe had discovered, indeed, this nature of the totality did those erroneous explanations become clear to him; they could not be reconciled with his theory of the living entity, but contradicted this.
If he wished to proceed further on his course, he had to get rid of such preconceptions.
This was the case with the intermaxillary bone.
Facts which have value and interest only when one possesses those theories, such as the vertebral character of the skull bones, were unknown to that older natural science.
All these hindrances had to be removed through single discoveries.
These, therefore, never appear in the case of Goethe as goals in themselves; they always have to be made in order to confirm a great idea, that
It cannot be denied that Goethe's contemporaries came, sooner or later, to the same observations, and that all would be known today, perhaps, apart from the endeavors of Goethe.
But it is still less to be denied that his great discovery, embracing the whole of nature, has never been affirmed until the present time by any second person in equally admirable manner independently of Goethe—indeed, even a reasonably satisfactory evaluation of this discovery is still lacking.
Fundamentally considered, it is clearly a matter of indifference whether Goethe was the first to discover a fact, or only rediscovered it.
The fact gained true significance only through the way in which he fits it into his view of nature.
It is this that has hitherto been overlooked.
The separate facts have been too much emphasized, and this has given rise to polemics.
It is true that Goethe's settled belief in the consistency of nature has often been referred to; only, the fact has been overlooked that this provides us with only an entirely subordinate characteristic of Goethe's views, not of great significance, and that the matter of primary importance in connection with organic science, for example, is to show what is the character of that which maintains this consistency.
If one calls this the
, it is necessary to say wherein the nature of the Type consists according to Goethe's conception.
What is significant in the theory of the metamorphosis of plants, for example, does not lie in the discovery of the single fact that leaf, calyx, corona, etc., are identical organs, but in the magnificent thought-structure of a totality of mutually interpenetrating formative forces which proceeds from this discovery and determines out of itself the details, the single stages in the evolution.
The loftiness of this idea, which Goethe then sought to extend to the animal kingdom, becomes clear only when one seeks to bring it to life in one's own mind, when one undertakes to rethink it.
We then become aware that this thought is the very nature of
the plant itself, translated into the idea and living in our own mind just as it lives in the object.
One observes also that an organism thus comes to life within one, even down to its most minute parts: that one conceives it, not as a lifeless, self-enclosed object, but as something evolving, becoming, as the continuously unresting within itself.
As we endeavor in what follows to set forth in detail all that has been hinted at, the relationship will become clear between Goethe's view of nature and that of our own age—especially the theory of evolution in its modern form.
In tracing historically the origin of Goethe's thought regarding the morphology of organisms, one may all too easily fall into doubt as to the part that is to be ascribed to the period of the poet's youth—that is, the time before he went to Weimar.
Goethe himself attached little value to his scientific knowledge during that period.
He said: “Of what really constitutes external nature I had no conception, and of her so-called three kingdoms not the least knowledge.”
On the basis of this assertion, it is generally thought that the beginning of his scientific reflections occurred after he came to Weimar.
Yet it seems advisable to go further back, if one is not to leave unexplained the whole spirit of his conceptions.
The animating impulse which guided his studies in the direction we shall later explain is apparent even in his earliest youth.
When Goethe entered the University of Leipzig, the spirit still completely dominant there in all scientific endeavors was that which characterized a great part of the eighteenth century, which separated the totality of knowledge into two extremes that no one felt the need to unite.
On one side was the philosophy of Christian Wolf (1679-1754), which moved wholly in an abstract realm; on the other side, the individual branches of the sciences, which were lost in the external describing of endless details, and wholly devoid of any effort to discover a higher principle in the realm to which the objects of their research belonged.
That philosophy could not find its way out of the sphere of general concepts into the realm of immediate reality, of the individual existence.
In it the most self-evident things were treated with utmost detailed thoroughness.
One learned that the
is something which has no contradiction in itself; that there are finite and infinite substances; and so on.
But if one brought these generalities to bear upon things themselves in order to understand their mode of action and their life, one was left quite helpless; it was impossible to apply these concepts to
the world in which we live and which we wish to understand.
The things around us, however, were described in a manner largely void of any principle, purely according to their appearance, their external characteristics.
On the one hand, there was a system of knowledge dealing with principles which lacked a living substance, a loving absorption in the immediate reality; and, on the other, a system of knowledge void of principles, which lacked the substance of ideas.
They confronted each other without any mediation, each fruitless for the other.
Goethe's wholesome nature was repelled in equal manner by each of these one-sidednesses; and, in his opposition to them, there developed in him conceptions which later guided him to that fruitful view of nature in which idea and experience in complete reciprocal interpenetration mutually animate each other and combine to form a whole.
The concept, therefore, which exponents of those extremes could least of all grasp developed for Goethe as the very first:
the concept of life.
When we reflectively observe a living creature in its external manifestation, it exhibits a great number of details which appear as its members or organs.
The description of these members, as to their shapes, relative positions, sizes, etc., might constitute the content of an extensive treatise, to which the second of the two schools of thought we have described devoted itself.
But the mechanical construction of any inorganic body could also be described in the same way.
It was altogether forgotten that, in the case of the organism, one must keep clearly in mind most of all the fact that here the external manifestation is determined by an inner principle; that in every organ the totality is active.
That external phenomenon, the spatial juxtaposition of the members, can be observed also after the destruction of the life; it continues still for a certain time.
But what confronts us in a dead organism is, in reality, no longer an organism.
That principle has disappeared which permeated all the individual parts.
Against that way of observing which destroys life in order to know life, Goethe opposed very early the possibility and the necessity for a higher way of observing.
We see this even in a letter of the Strassburg time, of July 14, 1770, in which he says of a butterfly: “The poor creature trembles in the net, rubs off its most beautiful colors; and, if one catches it intact, yet it sticks there at last stark and lifeless; the corpse is not the whole creature; something else belongs to it—another principal part, and in this instance as in all others a primary principal part: the
The same view gives rise also to the following lines in
Who wishes the living to know and describe
Seeks first the spirit thence to drive;
Then all the parts he has in his hand—
Lacks only, alas!
the spiritual band.
With this denial of a certain view Goethe did not content himself, but—as was to be assumed from his nature—he sought more and more to develop his own view; and we recognize very often in the indications available to us of his thinking from 1769 to 1775 the germinal ideas for his later works.
He was developing the idea of an entity in which every part animates every other, in which one principle permeates all the details.
We read in
How all a single whole doth weave
One in the other works and lives.
And we read in
In Nothingness that Primordial gushed;
Light's mighty voice through the darkness rushed
To every being's depth brought fire
Waking to life the germs of desire;
The elements opened to one another
Hungering each of them for the other
This entity is conceived as being subject to continuous changes in time, but in all the stages of these changes only one being is constantly manifest, asserting itself as that which endures, that which is stable amid change.
We read further in
in regard to this primordial thing (
And up and down did rolling swing
The all and one eternal Thing
Changing ever, the same forever.
One should compare with this what Goethe wrote in 1807 as the introduction to his theory of metamorphosis: “If, however, we observe all forms, especially the organic forms, we find nowhere something continuing, nowhere something at rest, concluded, but, on the contrary, that all is in continuous fluctuating movement.”
With this fluctuating element he contrasts there the Idea—or “something held fast in experience only for the moment”—as that which is constant.
It will be recognized clearly enough from the passage quoted above from
that the foundation for Goethe's morphological ideas had already been laid before he came to Weimar.