There could be at least two reasons for considering Goethe's science of nature important today (1). In the first place, present-day scientists might make explicit reference to Goethe's own science. Secondly, they could themselves apply the methods on which Goethe's science was based. The work of the Swiss biologist and anthropologist Adolf Portmann (1897-1982) both directly refers to Goethe's research and uses the same methods. Thus Portmann brings Goethe's science of nature into a modern context.
Goethe's science is essentially qualitative and teleological in the Aristotelian sense in which processes are understood as a manifestation of "form," which is not to be explained only in causal terms. By emphasizing organic qualities as irreducible to mechanistic and molecular ("reductive") explanation, and by using a teleology of the type employed in explaining the ontogenesis of the human being, Portmann's biology and anthropology are based on the very principles and methods of Goethe's science.
From the viewpoint of the philosophy of science, attention should be drawn to two fundamental aspects of the approaches of Portmann and Goethe as compared with the predominant neo-Darwinian view of the organic sciences. First, there is the relation between phenomena on the macro- and microlevels, a relation that pertains to the status of organic qualities. Secondly, there is the problem of a causal vs. teleological explanation of organic processes of development.
Here both aspects will be discussed as they can be understood in terms of Portmann's morphological research and his investigations into the ontogenesis of mammals and humans. Along the way, however, certain parallels to Goethe's science will be drawn, and explicit remarks by Goethe concerning scientific principles and methods will be included to show the kinship between these two natural scientists. In this connection Portmann's explicit statements about Goethe's science will also be emphasized.
With this as background, it is finally pointed out that the methodological views of Portmann and Goethe involve a fundamental shift in perspective with regard to the phylogenesis of human beings and animals (the theory of evolution), one that radically transcends Darwinism.
In his essay "Goethes Naturforschung" ["Goethe's Investigationsof Nature"] (1953), Adolf Portmann points out that contemporary concern about Goethe's scientific research "stands in remarkable contrast" to our regard for the science of earlier centuries. This earlier science "usually sinks into the anonymity that characterises our knowledge as to its origin... but things are quite otherwise where Goethe's scientific research is concerned. In our search for knowledge we are repeatedly redirected to it afresh from the most varied quarters." There is consequently every reason to put "the question as to what is so characteristic about this research that... again and again presses us to reconsider and rediscuss it" (2).
What characterizes Goethe's science, according to Portmann? To illustrate this he uses an analogy between a theatrical production and natural phenomena, or "life phenomena." A staged play can be regarded in two essentially different ways. "My desire to know can take me behind the scenes and allow me to make many interesting observations there. I discover how sound and light effects are produced..." and so forth. On the other hand, we know that "what happens behind the scenes.. .requires a quite different angle of view" to become intelligible, namely that "of the spectator before the scene," which we also regard as the "most essential." Only from this viewpoint is "the play's real meaning" revealed (3).
These dissimilar ways of regarding the play illustrate for Portmann the difference between the attitude of the traditional scientist towards objects as observer "behind the scenes" and that of Goethe as observer "before the scene." This is a very pertinent image, upon which Portmann seeks to cast light through a phenomenon "which captured Goethe's attention in particular. It refers to the relation of leaf to flower in higher plants." As an example, Portmann takes Goethe's observation concerning the malformation that occurs when a tulip's petals turn green.
In the modern laboratory this is of course analysed as "a physiological process"--which is to say that one observes what occurs behind the scenes. One demonstrates, for example, that the malformation in question is connected with the lack of a chemical. "But there is another way" to explain the malformation, "by comparative observation" of the formation of flowers in plants--that is, by an approach only from before the scene, in that one studies the interconnections played out before one's eyes. Such a comparison of "forms following one another [Bilderfolge]...reveals a hidden regularity in the transformations, a meaning [Sinn], a 'piece' that is played out through this transformation and which is known as 'the metamorphosis of the leaf'" (4).
As Portmann points out, it is clear that this comparison with a theatrical production is meaningful only if "a 'piece' is in reality played out in nature--that is--if the observable phenomena are integrated into a greater whole in a meaningful way." Stated directly, this is to say that the phenomena given immediately to our senses (forms, colors, and so forth) presentthemselves with a regularity that we can discover only if we concern ourselves with these phenomena as such. In other words, a regularity appears that we cannot trace by shifting to a quite different observational plane--for example, the microscopic or submicroscopic--any more than we have insight into the play's coherence by making observations behind the scenes, however accurate they may be.
Goethe practiced this attitude and method in scientific research consciously and systematically, and also characterised it explicitly when he proclaimed in his Sprüche in Prosa [Prose Aphorisms]: "There is a gentle empirism [zarte Empirie--not conventional "empiricism"] which in the innermost manner identifies itself with the object and thereby becomes the actual theory." Or, as he said in the same connection: "My attention has always been directed exclusively towards objects that surrounded me in the earthly [irdisch] realm and which could be directly perceived through the senses." The way Goethe's attitude and method are illumined through Portmann's analogy of the theatrical production is perhaps most distinctly expressed in the sentence "Seek nothing behind the phenomena, they themselves are the theory" (5).
Here, however, we are also confronted with the first aspect of the philosophy of science mentioned at the start of this essay. It demands our attention, especially when Goethe's (and also Portmann's) scientific method is compared with the view dominant within the organic sciences today. As we suggested, it is a matter of what status to grant to directly observable organic properties or qualities at the macrolevel. As we are aware, the universally predominant tendency has been to "explain" these properties or phenomena precisely by looking "behind" them, above all at the molecular microlevel.
Prior to further presentation of Portmann's and Goethe's views on organic phenomena, we shall therefore attempt to justify them by discussing the relation between research at the macro- and microlevels from the standpoint of the philosophy of science. The relation between the phenomena at these different levels must first be clarified.
In the contemporary debate in the philosophy of science, this has been named the "problem of reductionism"--the classical philosophical problem as to whether phenomena at a higher level of organization can be "reduced," in some sense of the word, or "related back to," those at a lower level. In the summary critique in principle of the reductionistic construction that follows, we rely upon discussions of the theory of science by Carl G. Hempel, (6) David Hull (7) and others.
It is not meaningful to "reduce" organic phenomena at the macrolevel (e.g., the forms, colors, behavior of organisms) tomicrophenomena such as genes or their combinations. The latter do not "explain" the former. A description of the properties of phenomena at the macrolevel and a presentation of their coherence (regularities) are not interchangeable with those that apply to phenomena at the microlevel. Organic (biological) properties and their coherence that are specific to the macrolevel are in no respect of secondary status and are thus equally real as those at the microlevel. Thus, of genetic and mutational research in biology we must say, as did the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, referring to mechanics in his time, that it "apprehends neither the basis for nor a part of reality, but only an aspect of it" (8).
In discussing the problem of reductionism, Hempel (among others) points out that "the logical situation is the same" as, for example, in the kinetic theory of gases in physics, where it is meaningless to speak of observational phenomena at the macrolevel such as pressure, volume, and temperature as having a secondary status in relation to molecular movements in a gas (9). Indeed, as Hempel asserts: "On the contrary, the theory takes for granted that there are those macroscopic events and uniformities ...." (10).
Faced with this, one has admittedly fallen back upon another though far less pretentious sort of reductionism. One seeks to relate phenomena at different levels through their mere coincidence in time and space (common space/time co-ordinates), based on so-called "extensional definitions" that totally exclude the qualitative content of the phenomena one wishes to reduce. It would lead us astray to go further into this here, and it is also of lesser interest because this form of reduction can no more apply to the levels we are discussing than the one mentioned above (11).
Such reductionism is not even valid between phenomena within the micro-perspective, as, for example, when Hull proves this reductionism inapplicable to the relation between classical Mendelian genetics and molecular genetics (12). Michael Polanyi even shows that neither is there any structural likeness between the so-called chemical genes of molecular genetics and purely chemical processes. The point for him is that the "highly improbable arrangement of particles" in genetic structures represents a form "not shaped by the forces of physics and chemistry. The pattern of information storage can no more be derived from the laws of physics and chemistry when engraved in an RNA molecule than it can be when inscribed on a tape...." (13).
We may summarize this in an analogy: the relation between music and the grooves in a record. Any attempt to derive musical tones and their intervals directly from the grooves would be absurd, as would any attempt to derive organic forms at the macrolevel from genes and their combinations. The latter are far from being the "primary" phenomena--quite the contrary. Just as musical tonesare what create groove configuration, genetic structures at the microlevel must be regarded as determined by organic forms at the macrolevel. "Morphology is the framework," insists Polanyi (14).
This returns us to Goethe's and Portmann's view of organic phenomena, which is fundamentally morphological.
Here it is obviously not a question of neglecting the actual and significant insights that have been reached in recent decades through research at the micro- and submicroscopic levels. Rather, the question is how the insights thus attained are to be interpreted relative to organic phenomena at the macrolevel, or on the "decimeter-scale," as Portmann calls it. Doubtless it is as he maintains: "that the advances on this [micro- and submicroscopic] research front have led to a forgetful negligence of organic form, that the unconditionally richest area of living phenomena today is banished from the observational field and sensory forms are reduced to sheer 'systematic identificables,'" mere "species terms for the various kinds of plasm" (15).
A pressing need today is therefore to bring organic phenomena on the "decimeter-scale" into the center of research interest, by recognizing that "these higher forms of life set their special research tasks," which, we note, "are complementary to those of plasm research," and do not stand in opposition to them. This is, again, exactly where Portmann is supported by the preceding views in the philosophy of science--that these phenomena (organic forms, colors, shapes, behavior, and so forth) are not to be regarded as reducible but are the fundamental organic phenomena. "With their specific qualities [as] objects of research" (i.e., their phenomenal qualities are "not only a measure of plasmic processes"), they "are themselves the final and decisive element on quite another level of possible manifestation of phenomena [Seinsmòglichkeiten]" (16).
The view that directly observable properties or qualities are a basic area of scientific knowledge also permeates Goethe's attitude towards method. It is the mark of his studies in the organic sciences, as noted in the introduction, and forms the fundament of his theory of color [Farbenlehre], which is the second major area of his scientific research (17). In addition, he has explicitly characterized his attitude and method in a series of essays and in various comments in his Sprüche in Prosa [Prose Aphorisms]. On the one hand, it is expressed in his rejection of the modern scientific tendency to ignore immediate sensory objects in the world; on the other, in his declared faith in our human senses as organs of apprehension.
Goethe maintains: "The human being is sufficiently equipped to fulfill all true needs on earth so long as the senses are trusted and developed in such a way as to be worthy of this trust." Indeed, this made him very cautious about the use of "artificialinstruments" because their one-sided application undermines trust in the senses. It is like someone who habitually directs all attention "behind the scenes" (Portmann's image again) and eventually loses all sense of what is being played onstage. Goethe therefore also claims that "the greatest misfortune of physics is precisely that the experiment has been separated from the person, so to speak, and nature is apprehended only through what is shown by artificial instruments, yes--and one would limit and prove in this manner what nature produces" (18).
Admittedly, he was then speaking of physics, but his viewpoint obviously applies in principle just as much to the organic sciences, where artificial instruments came into use only after his time. This view is consequently in full agreement with that of Portmann quoted above.
Accordingly, it is fully in Goethe's spirit when Portmann sets forth directly observable phenomena on the "decimeter-scale" as the "objects of research," in fact as the "final and decisive element" on a level utterly different from that of microphenomena.
To place Portmann's and Goethe's view of science in a philosophical perspective, it is important to discuss its epistemology more closely. On the basis of our description of their scientific attitude and method, let us consider Portmann's emphasis on immediately "sensory forms" as the objects of research and Goethe's maxim that the researcher must "trust the senses." In both cases, there is an indisputable emphasis on the empirical character of scientific knowledge, in the strictest sense of the word. This is further stressed in Goethe's assertion that the "highest thing would be to grasp that everything factual is already theory" (19).
This is, nevertheless, only one side of the matter. Though Goethe--followed by Portmann--fundamentally asserts the empirical, there is no question of any "empiricism." On the contrary, the true essence of natural phenomena is not given in immediate sensory observation; it appears only after painstaking research within the observables as a "higher nature within nature" (Goethe) (20). This higher nature (the choice of the term is deliberate) is what appears through human thought in relating to sensory experience. It is the "ideal in the real...the idea in the phenomenon," which, according to Goethe, it is the researcher's task "to seek out" (21).
When Goethe elsewhere strongly advocates sense experience to an extent that could almost be interpreted as "empiricism," he has good reason, namely the wish to distance himself from the sort of theory-construction that has characterized so much modern science. It is precisely because such theoretical constructionhas ignored essential areas of sense experience as the object of scientific research by searching one-sidedly behind the scenes. This has come to expression philosophically chiefly in the theory of so-called primary and secondary sense qualities introduced by Galileo and Descartes, which has strongly characterized scientific thinking up until our time. According to this theory, many sensory properties (e.g., color and sound) simply do not belong to nature, and they are therefore ignored as objects of direct scientific research.
Neither Portmann nor Goethe has explicitly called this theory to account (they were not philosophers), even though their actual research represents a fundamental break with it. Others have done so, however, a main criticism being that the "metaphysical barbarism" upon which this theory rests (to characterize it with the philosopher and historian of science E. A. Burtt) confuses the methodological and the ontological (22). That so-called primary sense characteristics (i.e., mechanical characteristics such as movement and collision) can be described by mathematical methods (i.e., are subject to quantification, measurement) cannot justify their elevation nor be used to deny the real, objective existence in nature of other characteristics (nonquantifiables such as qualities of sound and color) (23).
The basis for regarding quantifiable movements and the like--for example at the molecular level--as "lying behind" and as more fundamental than colors and sounds and other directly observable phenomena is thereby removed. The latter are not considered causally derivable from the former--in fact, there are no "primary" or "secondary" properties/qualities, only phenomena of equal status in respect to both ontology and scientific investigation. Epistemologically, the relation cannot be regarded otherwise because, as objects of observation, there is no difference in real status between movement, extension, or the like, and such properties as color and sound. In going beyond these sensory properties as purely observable objects, one does not, therefore, get at any real underlying causal process but merely at concepts that we form or assume in thinking about phenomena (24).
On this evidence, one must accept immediately sensible colors, forms, and so on as objects of research that are as fundamental as molecular movements are at the microlevel. This is exactly the case in Goethe's theory of color and morphology, as well as in Portmann's work in the organic sciences. Yet investigation of immediately sensible phenomena also demands development of an adequate method, which must be essentially qualitative rather than mainly quantitative. This raises the issue of scientific attitudes, indeed that of ethics.
The method involved here demands more of the researcher as an investigating subject than the more abstract method of theory construction. Goethe points this out in a most apposite way: "Theory is usually the product of the impatient intellect, of thedesire to get rid of the phenomena" (which occurs just when one seeks something "behind them"). On the other hand, a "gentle empirism" [zarte Empirie] directed towards the immediately observable and qualitative aspects of phenomena presumes a "refinement of spiritual capacity." It thus favors persistence in observation and reservation in the construction of quick theories, within a context of "respect for Creation," which Portmann characterizes as Goethe's basic attitude, and one which we have every reason to rediscover today--"to be devout" [Frommsein], as Goethe puts it (25).
The preceding presentation of Goethe's and Portmann's views and our arguments on behalf of them from the standpoint of the philosophy of science and epistemology provide a basis for distinguishing their view of nature and method from the Darwinian one.
As shown, Portmann and Goethe emphasize immediately observable organic properties on the "decimeter-scale" as a "final and decisive" object of scientific research. Darwinism does not, of course, ignore this aspect of living phenomena; indeed, its historical basis lay precisely in the perception of organic forms, in paleontology. It is nevertheless fundamentally different from Goethe's and Portmann's views.
While Portmann and Goethe start from various qualitative properties and forms as fundamental expressions of an organism or species, Darwinism attends to one aspect of these properties only: their use or function in the "struggle for existence." Darwinism thus excludes from the picture it draws of the organic world the entire manifold of qualities and properties not having such functions, preferring to call them "selectively neutral." In short, they become accidental and without meaning. For Portmann and obviously for Goethe, however, these properties have intrinsic value as the specific forms of expression of an organism or species. "In my view," emphasizes Portmann, "the purely formal structures play a very specific role in the life of animals--they serve the self-representation of the species and must be counted among the highest characteristics of life" (26).
There are thus not one but two categories of organic properties for Portmann: those that serve an organism's "self-preservation" or "self-maintenance" [Selbsterhaltung], which alone are recognized by Darwinism, and those further properties that exhibit an organism's specific type, which is to say its "self-representation" or "self-expression" [Selbstdarstellung]. Typical of the latter are the colors and patterns of organisms that are not perceived in or affected by their natural surroundings or do not otherwise have a "direct life-preserving task, no 'functional role' in the usual sense" (27). Portmann asserts: "In fact we are surrounded by unaddressed phenomena, directed neither at the eye of a sexual partner nor that of anenemy; phenomena whose sole purpose it is to express the phenomenal essence of an animal or plant." Among other examples, "leaves are a case in point," in that "much in the shape and outline of a leaf is not adaptation to the environment but pure self-representation!" (28).
This view accords fully with that of Goethe in The Metamorphosis of Plants, yet with the important difference that Goethe had no Darwinian theory of natural selection with which to contend.
Now, neither does neo-Darwinism explain all organic properties by "natural selection." Genetic changes are also involved, mutations being regarded as the basis of the process of natural selection. However, as indicated earlier, no explanation of forms can arise by reference to the molecular level, any more than musical tones and intervals can be explained with reference to the grooves of a record.
Having shown the problems of explaining organic forms in terms of the principle of natural selection, we shall examine Portmann's teleological explanation of organic processes--the second aspect of his research that is of interest in comparison with Goethe's science and methods. Note that this teleology is not simply a preliminary way of understanding of the sort that has a place in Darwinism. We shall see that, for Portmann, the teleological principle is just as fundamental to understanding organic life and development as is the traditional causal explanation, which it supplements in a decisive fashion.
The teleological method as it is used by Portmann does not arise from reflections on the philosophy of science but rather from his empirical research as a zoologist and anthropologist--indeed, it forces itself upon him through the biological facts. Nor is Portmann a philosopher, and it is characteristic that he does not use the philosophical term teleology, which has been debased by its association with goal-orientation to meaning mere "use" or "function." In Goethe's spirit, Portmann is thus critical of a purely "functional" explanation of organisms, calling his own position in certain contexts "critical finalism" [kritischer Finalismus]--which is critical teleology (29).
Birds, mammals, and the early ontogenesis of the human comprise Portmann's central field of research in this connection. He starts by considering the various species' degree of independence at birth: whether they are "nest-dwelling" or "nest-fleeing." The degree of independence of parental care and of further development in protective surroundings varies with remarkable regularity according to the species and their stage of development and, where mammals are concerned, their independence or "nest-fleeing" increases with the degree of development. But what of the human? From the traditional Darwinian evolutionaryview of the human as a well-developed anthropoid, one would expect it to be a very typical "nest-fleeing" species, but this is not so. The human at birth is "helpless" in important respects, typically "nest-dwelling."
Not only that, but in other respects, such as the development of the sense organs, the human is born just as evidently and distinctly "nest-fleeing." The human possesses a special status compared to all other species, in that it is at once both "nest-dwelling" and "nest-fleeing." Its ontogenesis diverges from that of the other species; as Portmann says, "This fact breaks the rule that applies to mammals" (30).
The question then is: how can one explain this peculiar development, since it clearly cannot be taken as an extension of primate development?
This is where Portmann's anthropological research comes into its own and his teleological perspective gradually emerges. Since human ontogenesis--beginning with the condition at birth--does not seem understandable "from below" (by drawing conclusions from lower stages of development), it becomes doubtful whether it can be understood with regard to previous stages of development at all, even within the sphere of human ontogenesis. This is, however, tantamount to questioning causal explanation as such, since, of course, causality proceeds from an antecedent cause to a consequent effect. Perhaps later stages--or even the form of existence as a whole--must be included to explain development? If so, this would amount to the Aristotelian kind of teleology characterized in our introduction as an understanding of processes as a manifestation of "form." As mentioned there, a teleological explanation of this sort is also found in Goethe, as will be discussed further on.
Starting from the human's quite special condition at birth, Portmann further indicates that, according to the rules of anthropoid development, the human should be born about one year later than is actually the case. Only then does the human reach the developmental stage of "nest-fleeing" in the bodily proportions and motive ability that characterize anthropoids at birth. According to the aforementioned rules for anthropoids, the human exhibits "premature birth" or, as Portmann puts it, "physiological abortion." In other words, the human develops in a postnatal environment during the first year of life, which--had he been a well-developed ape--should have been spent in the womb. Such considerations direct our attention to what occurs in the human's first year of life, or "the extra-uterine first year," as Portmann calls it. This must evidently provide the key to understanding the human's unique birth condition and time, and moreover illuminate all earlier stages, including prenatal, embryonic development. "Early development is also 'human ontogenesis' and not some sort of primate development followingclassificatory schemes for animal stages" (31).
So what, in particular, characterizes the first year of human life? By common agreement, it is the development of erect posture, the basis of language, and action from insight. These abilities are called forth by an extremely intimate social contact with the surrounding environment, which amounts to a social conditioning; these faculties remain incomprehensible when viewed as the mere development of something already present at birth. We know too that these abilities can be called forth in this way only, and not during fetal development. We must look to the special time of birth and unique condition of human infancy as the simultaneous existence of "nest-dwelling" and "nest-fleeing," and seek here also if we wish to understand all states of development as such. All these relationships are necessary to human beings if they are to develop the very abilities that make them human. Development depends, for example, on the human's quite recently and highly evolved sense organs (the "nest-fleeing" aspect). At the same time, the human is not "fully developed" in other respects, but is openly receptive to multifarious influences from the social environment (the "nest-dwelling" aspect). Here Portmann places particular emphasis upon the unique development of the human brain, with its significant size yet "immaturity" at birth, which forms the basis of the human's "openness towards the world" [Weltoffenheit] and distinguishes the human from all other species. "In general, biological work in recent decades has shown most emphatically how large a part of our total course of development is from the first moment directed to the final goal: a creature whose way of life is 'open to the world'" (32).
In Portmann's research into early human ontogenesis as described, a teleological perspective is evident: the explanation of the different developmental stages is to be found in something that appears clearly only later in development. To understand his perspective, however, we must view it within the context of the philosophy of science.
Note carefully that this teleology is not some sort of inverse causal principle whereby "causes" are sought in the future rather than in the past, as certain scientific theorists have misunderstood the concept. Instead of such an absurd "effect from the future," Portmann's research praxis involves apprehending clearly in the later stages of development a whole that also determines that development at each and every stage. Thus an understanding of the earlier stages of development is provided by the later ones, but not by "causing" them. "It [is] a matter of course in morphological research that...interpretation of developmental conditions presumes a thorough acquaintance with the fully-developed Gestalt: from this acquaintance one understands the stages in development" (33).
Thus, viewed ontologically, what actually determines the process of development--its "cause"--is not the finished Gestalt but the underlying holistic structure manifested to a particular degree in the Gestalt. This datum is clearly expressed by Portmann: "The effective factors in the development of the fetus as well as those which direct the mature organism's functions are links--and only links--in a structure [Gefüge]" (34).
In human ontogenesis, this holistic structure is "the human form of existence altogether"; in fact, "ontogenesis is an ordered actualization of the whole form of existence [Daseinsform]" (35). In this lies the fundamental difference from--and transcendence of--the traditional causal view; a transcendence that we have characterized as "teleology," and one that the phenomena themselves demand of the understanding. As Portmann puts it: "Even in the most strictly limiting causal view of development one cannot be blind to the fact that the sequence of causes and effects is directed towards and ordered for a goal that we know," and which thus determines the sequence (36).
It seems clear that the developmental explanation confronting us here is teleology in the sense just defined: an Aristotelian understanding of process as a manifestation of the "form" or "essence" of development. What Portmann characterizes as "structure" or "the whole form of existence" in the case of human ontogenesis is indisputably to be taken in the same sense as "form" or "essence." Just as the latter, as "the essence of what will come about in the process," "commands the process," (37) so does the former determine the "sequence" in a developmental process.
Yet how does this compare with Goethe's understanding and explanation of organic development? Does the kinship between his and Portmann's views and methods, as demonstrated above concerning directly observable phenomena as objects of research, also hold good in this case? The basis of comparison must be Goethe's zoological research, especially his research on vertebrate anatomy. Without a doubt there are similarities.
Thus, when Goethe speaks of the "type" [der Typus] as a key to understanding the development of forms, he clearly means something related to "form" in the above sense, in that it serves to explain the sequence of developmental stages. Such a "type must be set up so as to advance comparative anatomy," holds Goethe. This "type" shares with Portmann's "structure" or "form of existence" a particular physical shape. In Goethe's comparison of the forms of various species, the "type" is the human shape, which is in fact the most recent development of bodily form. To quote Goethe: "In order to further the refinement of a concept of organic essence we must direct our gaze at the human body" (38). With this "type" as his point of departure, Goethe made his famous discovery of the intermaxillary bone in the human jaw.
Both Goethe's "type" and Portmann's "structure" determine the sequence of cause and effect. "The chronological succession of the states of existence of a living entity....does not come to manifestation...through the mechanical-causal determination of the later by the earlier," as was pointed out by Rudolf Steiner in a commentary on Goethe's theory of metamorphosis--but [the chronological succession] is controlled by a higher Principle, belonging above...the states of existence"--which is precisely "the type." "It is inherent in the nature of the whole that a definite state is fixed as the first and another as the last; and the succession of the intervening states is also determined within the idea of the whole" (39).
Thus Goethe's "type" is as little a sensory material quantity as is Portmann's "structure" or the aforementioned Aristotelian "form," even though it expresses itself physically. This is just what Goethe understands by "the ideal in the real....the idea in the phenomenon." The pressing question now is how to mount an epistemological argument for the concepts of "type," "structure," "form," and a teleological explanation of development.
Various sorts of conditions apply when a developmental process occurs in nature. First, there is that which triggers the process, usually known as the "cause." Second, there exist the inherent properties of the object of the process, its "nature," "essence," or Aristotelian "form." Third and last, we can see the regularity in the actualization of the inherent properties as directed towards a goal (i.e., it is "teleological," from the Greek telos, meaning goal). With regard to this latter developmental condition, teleology is here spoken of as a manifestation of "form." Characteristically, modern science attends to the first condition only, Aristotle's "efficient cause." This one-side view has also promoted manipulative intervention in natural processes, since it lends itself particularly well to the description of mechanical (technical) relations. Yet the causal explanation is already insufficient in important areas of physics, as Goethe demonstrated in his theory of color. Most remarkable of all is its inadequacy as a means of understanding organic developmental processes, as we have tried to show above with reference to Portmann's discovery that early mammalian and human ontogenesis must be explained in terms of "form" and "goal."
Our present difficulty in transcending the traditional causal viewpoint hinges partly upon a misunderstanding of the concept "teleology," and partly upon philosophical prejudice, as we shall further elucidate.
Laboring under the widespread misconception of Aristotle's philosophy, modern science tends to view teleology in nature as analogous to goal-orientation in human action, where the goal pertains to a conscious intention in a subject and is thereforeseparate from the action itself. Yet this is not so with natural processes, where the goal is not explained in terms of the subject but rather identified with the "form" or "essence." "The essence and the goal are the same," Aristotle asserted, or "that sort of condition or reason that is the goal is actually present: at work in nature's productions and shapes"--i.e., "the shape is the goal-reason" (40). Aristotle here gives a striking image of Portmann's "structure" or "form of existence" and how it functions--also of important aspects of Goethe's type as Herman Siebeck describes it in his book Goethe als Denker: "The idea of a formative and final all-determining type...is already contained in Aristotle's principle of form as ruling matter" (41).
Such a teleology cannot be explained away, as modern analytic philosophy attempts to do, by interpreting it (along with causality) exclusively as a relation concerning "sufficient" and "necessary" conditions. Such formal logical analysis would eliminate teleology as a reality in natural processes and reduce it to causality in relation to the effect (42). First of all, this overlooks "form" (the inherent properties of the developing object) as a condition equally important as what is called "the cause." Second, formal logical analysis abstracts from the real-time sequence of the process, without which there would indeed be no process at all.
A second mode of understanding the concept of teleology is the Kantian. Contrary to the approach just mentioned, Kant assumed teleology to be a reality and even an "inner principle" in nature. Yet he denied the use of such a principle to human understanding [Verstand] in explaining nature. This is because it requires an idea that "moves from the whole to the parts," something that would require an intuitive capacity functioning "quite independently of sense"--a faculty we do not possess. For Kant, our knowledge of nature was thus limited to mechanical causality (43).
Goethe takes issue with just this point in his evaluation of Kant's "critique of the teleological judgement," asserting that he himself has "unceasingly pressed forward to this experience of the archetypal [Urbildliche, Typische]," i.e., precisely the "whole" that Kant denies to human understanding (44). Goethe's morphology and Portmann's research represent, as practical endeavors, an argument against Kant's limitation of the understanding.
Goethe's "type" and Portmann's "structure" or "form of existence"--like Aristotelian "form"--obviously represent an "ideal" entity (an idea or a concept). Why not? The philosophical prejudice that is anchored in nominalism and materialism blocks an understanding of teleology in that it does not recognize ideas or concepts as objectively real. This prejudice also comes out in according the whole a sort of reality in organic processes while putting it beyond human understanding, as Kant certainly does. The idea involved in Goethe's andPortmann's research is not grasped "quite independently of the senses" and thus is not comprehensible only to an "intuitive" faculty of cognition, to use Kant's term. On the contrary, this idea follows upon empirical research, as shown in Portmann. It applies no less to Goethe, in that the idea or "the content of the Type-concept...is arrived at in connection with...the sense world," although it "cannot originate in the sense world as such" (45).
Philosophically speaking, Goethe's and Portmann's position involves a form of idealism, yet one that must be regarded epistemologically as realism. It is not speculative, as was the idealism of Goethe's contemporaries Schelling and Hegel, but rather extremely empirical--Goethe's "gentle empirism" [zarte Empirie]. Nor should it be confused with twentieth-century "vitalism" in the philosophy of nature, which Portmann explicitly rejects. "We cannot get hold of an unknown 'factor' determining the goal but we must recognize the goal-orientation of the developmental process as a fact of maximum importance in living beings" (46)--i.e., it is entirely a matter of an empirically ascertained and nonspeculative relation.
"Form" and "teleology" must therefore be understood from the foregoing epistemological perspective when applied to Portmann and Goethe.
Above, we have argued epistemologically for Goethe's and Portmann's teleological explanation of organic developmental processes as found in their researches. Since in other respects we have opposed their research to that of the Darwinian approach in organic science, the objection might be made that Darwinism also leaves room for teleological explanation. Such a view is espoused by the researcher Theodosius Dobzhansky, who maintains that "causal explanations do not make it unnecessary to provide teleological explanations where appropriate. Both teleological and causal explanations are called for in such cases" (47).
As indicated earlier, however, this type of teleology does not fundamentally explain organic phenomena, for in the last analysis they are understood only causally in terms of the mechanisms of "natural selection." It is otherwise with Portmann and Goethe, for whom teleological explanation is not only equal to causal explanation but primary, or rather, superior, as a principle of explanation applicable to living organisms and their development. This conclusion clearly follows from Portmann's research on human ontogenesis.
Yet another basic difference pertains. Portmann's and Goethe's teleology applies to all the properties of an organism, not only the "purposive" ones that are "useful in the struggle for existence." We may recall our comments on Portmann's distinction between what he terms "self-preservation" (or "self-maintenance")and "self-representation," which makes it clear that properties such as form and behavior are no less explicable teleologically than those that serve only the "preservation of life." As we have seen, they are indeed more authentic expressions of an organism's "form of existence" as a whole, i.e., its "structure," than are the other properties. But this also means that self-representing forms express the "plan" realized in "development." Consequently, if we want to understand Portmann's and Goethe's teleology, we must free ourselves of the narrow utilitarian view and the one-sided functional model that pervade traditional, Darwinian research.
In the foregoing, we attempted to demonstrate two essential points concerning the difference in method in the organic sciences between the traditional, Darwinian approach and that of Portmann and Goethe. First, we demonstrated the irreducibility of directly observable organic properties and qualities as research objects. Second, we showed that organic and developmental processes are explained by a teleological principle that is neither a functional nor a preliminary explanation but is to be understood rather as a "manifestation of form."
These steps beyond Darwinism involve rejection of its two basic methodological presuppositions: (i) the Neo-Darwinian reduction of organic phenomena to genes and their mutations and (ii) the general Darwinian assumption that organic development is fundamentally intelligible as an inorganic causal relation (the mechanisms of natural selection). In this way, the method of Portmann and Goethe represents no less than a revolution in the organic sciences--a new research paradigm, to use a notion central to the contemporary debate in the philosophy of science (48).
This methodological paradigm, of course, involves a radically new view of the historical development of organic life, of evolution. Rejecting the reductionist theory of mutation, and restricting the significance of the principle of selection and the causal explanation of organic processes means calling into question the dominant neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, for these are precisely the tenets upon which it rests. Though we have concentrated on Portmann's work on ontogenesis, it is clear that in rejecting any explanation of development "from below" and asserting that "the idea of deriving higher from lower leads astray" his view has consequences for phylogenetic development, for evolution (49).
Portmann is extremely critical of peremptory opinions set forth in traditional evolutionary theory, and repeatedly warns that "care and reservation" are necessary in this "uncertain" area. For him, the "magic word 'mutation' deludes us into believing that we know about processes of which no one can have certain knowledge" because "each attempt to attribute to the seedgerm...the capacity to create new types far exceeds the limits of a scientific proposition and is exclusively motivated by the times' unsatisfied need for beliefs. It must be recognized that one of the most active impulses in all biologically oriented thought today has an uncertain basis; the biologically based theory of evolution must be deprived of its rank as a matter-of-course, accepted truth" (50).
Admittedly, Portmann provides no complete alternative theory of phylogenetic development of his own for the same reason that he is critical of the ruling neo-Darwinian theory: we find ourselves on empirically "uncertain" ground. His basic view and method in the organic sciences leaves, however, little doubt that his theory would differ radically from the Darwinian, and would be one whose character is certainly indicated by his views and method as outlined above. To elucidate this relation, we may again look to Goethe, whose views and method are so akin to Portmann's. The kinship between Portmann's "structure" and Goethe's "type" as an ideal "form" realizing itself in the process of development is qualified only in that the former refers to ontogenesis, the latter to phylogenesis--to the natural history of species--and therefore does more to illuminate evolutionary theory.
Goethe's basic view that all species have common origins agrees with Darwinism thus far. But, for Goethe, this origin cannot be one special organic form (e.g., no particular animal form among vertebrates) because "no single one can give the pattern of the whole." The single variants of form can then only be understood "from the general idea of type," which is just such a unitary whole, not at all a material quantity, but an idea (51).
For Goethe, this "type" or ideal "primal organism" is, in Darwinian terms, the "form of common descent" of organic development. "The form of common descent or whatever one calls it is for him [Goethe] always the type itself, as [a sensory-spiritual] idea and it already pertains prior to any definite family of species, which it conditions," asserts Herman Siebeck. The "type" is "a purely apperceptive, typical form manifesting itself in sensory space in a graded sequence...of qualitatively different species" until it reaches its most complete manifestation--in Goethe's words its "highest form of organization"--in the human organism. "The type comes forth more clearly at the higher than the lower level" (52).
Thus we see a striking resemblance between Goethe's concept of "type" as employed in his natural historical studies and Portmann's views on human and mammalian ontogenesis as determined by a "structure," or "form of existence." We should be justified in asserting that Portmann's research into ontogenesis positively prepares the ground for a theory of phylogenesis that transcends Darwinism in Goethe's spirit (53).
1. Parts of this essay were presented earlier as a lecture in a seminar at the University of Oslo in March 1982 under the title "Beyond Darwinism. The Biological Method of Adolf Portmann from a Viewpoint of the Theory of Science." The present paper has been translated from the Norwegian by Robert Priddy.
2. Adolf Portmann, "Goethes Naturforschung," Neue Schweizer Rundschau, NS 20, No.7 (1953), 406-422. The essay was originally a lecture manuscript read during the Goethe Jubilee in 1949, and was later printed in a collection of Portmann's lectures, Biologie und Geist (Zürich: Rhein-Verlag, 1956).
3. Portmann, "Goethes Naturforschung," p. 408.
4. Portmann, "Goethes Naturforschung," pp. 409-10 (italics mine).
5. The first two quotes from Goethe are cited by Portmann, "Goethes Naturforschung," p. 411. The last is taken from Goethe, Sprüche in Prosa, No. 165, in Goethes naturwissenschaftliche Schriften, ed. Rudolf Steiner (Stuttgart/Berlin/Leipzig: Union Deutsche Verlaggesellschaft, 1894-1897), IV, Pt. 2, 376 (italics mine).
6. Cf. Carl G. Hempel, Philosophy of Natural Science (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966), particularly chapter 8, "Theoretical Reduction."
7. Cf. David Hull, Philosophy of Biological Science (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974), particularly "Introduction" and chapter l, "The Reduction of Mendelian to Molecular Genetics."
8. Ernst Mach, Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwicklung (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1908), p. 554 (italics mine).
9. Hempel, p. 104. The point here is that the theoretical combination of the two different levels depends in both cases upon so-called "bridge principles" which say nothing as to whether the observable phenomena at the macrolevel have a secondary or derived status.
10. Hempel, p. 78. The quote refers to a criticism by Hempel of the physicist A. S. Eddington where precisely the kinetic theory of gases serves as an illustrative example. That "the theory takes for granted that there are those macroscopic events and uniformities" (Hempel)--and that these therefore have a primary status both ontologically and methodologically--applies just as much to genetics as to molecular physics. Just as the kinetic theory of gases takes volume, and so forth "for granted," so do the theories in genetics presume the macrophenomena, e.g.. the immediately observable property "brown fur" in an animal organism.
11. For a critique in principle of the latter form ofreductionism, see e.g. Eric P. Polten, Critique of the Psycho-Physical Identity Theory (The Hague: Mouton, 1973), which discusses in particular a concept central to our discussion, namely that of "extensional definition" (chapters 1-2).
12. Hull, pp. 39ff., where it is proven that "the relation between Mendelian and molecular predicate terms express many, many prohibitively complex relations [i.e., it cannot be defined "extensionally"] and that "reduction is [hence] impossible."
13. Michael Polanyi, "Life transcending Physics and Chemistry," Chemical and Engineering News, 45, No. 35 (1967), p. 64.
14. Polanyi. See note 13.
15. Adolf Portmann, Zoologie und das neue Bild vom Menschen: Biologische Fragmente zu einer Lehre vom Menschen, 2nd rev. ed. (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1956), p. 7.
16. Portmann, Zoologie, p. 8 (italics mine). The research of which Portmann speaks "leaps ahead in differing directions" now, partly as "behavioral research [Verhaltensforschung]," partly as "form reseerch [Gestaltforschung]," having as its "goal to learn the connection between the various phenomena that are sensory givens," and where "one [can] today glimpse the contours of a new morphology" (Portmann, Zoologie, p. 8)--italics mine here).
17. On the theory of color, see, e.g., my essay "Theory of Science in the Light of Goethe's Science of Nature," in F. Amrine et al., eds., Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1987).
18. Goethe, Sprüche, Nos. 3 and 13, pp. 349 and 351.
19. Goethe, Sprüche, No. 165, p. 376.
20. Goethe, Dichtung und Wahrheit, ed. T. Friedrich (Leipzig, 1882), II, 24-25.
21. Goethe, Sprüche, No. 418, pp. 425-26. For a more detailed discussion of Goethe's epistemological views, see above all Rudolf Steiner, Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung mit besonderer Rücksicht auf Schiller: zugleich eine Zugabe zu Goethes Naturwissenschaftlichen Schriften in Kürschners Deutscher National-Literatur, 6th ed. (1886; rpt. Dornach/Schweiz: Rudolf Steiner-Nachlassverwaltung, 1960). (In English as A Theory of Knowledge Based on Goethe's World Conception, trans. Olin D. Wannamaker, 2nd ed. (New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1968). See also the same author's more historically oriented presentation in Goethes Weltanschauung (1897; rpt. Dornach/Schweiz: Rudolf Steiner-Nachlassverwaltung, 1963). (In English as Goethe's Conception of the World (London: Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 1928).
22. Edwin A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, 2nd rev. ed. (London: Routledge, 1949), p. 303.
23. Hegge, "Theory of Science," pp. 367ff. For a broader critical discussion of the theory of "primary and secondary sense qualities" see also Hegge, Erkjennelse og Virkelighet (Oslo: Universitetsforlag, 1957) [Cognition and Reality, with a German summary].
24. That it is meaningless to assume a real process, i.e., something materially existent "behind" the observed phenomena (as does the theory of primary and secondary sense qualities) was anticipated by the philosopher Berkeley, as Karl Popper among other points out in "A Note on Berkeley as Precursor of Mach and Einstein," in Conjectures and Refutation: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, l965), pp. 166-74. (Cf. also my book George Berkeley. Tre dialoger om ånd og materie (Oslo: Oslo University Press, 1974), pp. 147ff.) For a discussion more in accordance with Goethe's view on "the ideal in the reaI" than Popper's nominalistic view, see Rudolf Steiner, Die Philosophie der Freiheit (1894; rpt. Dornach/Schweiz: Rudolf Steiner-Nachlassverwaltung, 1973), chapters III-V. (In English as The Philosophy of Freedom, trans. M. Wilson [London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1964]).
25. Goethe, Sprüche, Nos. 170 and 167, p. 376; Portmann, "Goethes Naturforschung," p. 413. The deep kinship between Portmann and Goethe in their views of nature and method, which should be evident from our discussion, is also characterized in the following unreserved way by Joachim Illies in his comprehensive biography of Portmann: "Portmann has rediscovered Goethe as a natural scientist and made him relevant to our time both with regard to the breadth of his endeavors and the certainty of his observations." (Das Geheimnis des Lebendigen: Leben und Werk des Biologen Adolf Portmann (München: Kindler, 1976), p. 234.
26. Portmann, Neue Wege der Biologie (München, R. Piper, 1960), quoted here from the (somewhat abbreviated) American translation New Paths in Biology, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 99 (italics mine).
27. Portmann, Neue Wege, p. 149 (italics mine).
28. New Paths in Biology, pp. 100-101. For Selbstdarstellung (here translated "self-representation"), Marjorie Grene uses the expression "display" in an article on Portmann. See "Beyond Darwinism -- Portmann's Thought" in Commentary, 40, No. 5 (1965), 31-38, where the different categories of organic properties Portmann operates with are explained.
29. For a more detailed interpretation of what Portmann means by "critical finalism," see Rolf Kugler, Philosophische Aspekte der Biologie Adolf Portmanns (Zürich: Editio Academica, 1967), p. 20 and sections 20 and 35 among others.
30. Portmann, Biologische Fragmente zu einer Lehre vom Menschen, 3rd exp. ed. (Basel: Schwabe, 1969), p. 57.
31. Portmann, Biologische Fragmente, p. 70.
32. Portmann, "Beyond Darwinism--The Special Position of Man in the Realm of the Living," Commentary, 40, No. 5 (1965), 41. Here Portmann gives a summary of his view on the human's special position in biological development. In this connection the notion of "openness towards the world" is fundamental, because it implies, among other things, that very little of the human being's abilities and behavior is determined by inheritance. For a more thorough presentation in English of Portmann's zoological and anthropological research, described only in its main features here, see Marjorie Grene, Approaches to a Philosophical Biology (New York/London Basic Books, 1968), pp. 3-54.
33. Portmann, Biologische Fragmente, p. 71 (italics mine).
34. Portmann, Biologische Fragment, p. 67 (italics mine).
35. Portmann, Biologische Fragmente, pp. 70-71 (italics mine). Kugler characterizes Portmann's teleology in a striking way in writing "the human form of existence appears [erscheint] as the goal of ontogenesis but without this being its purposive cause [Zweckursache] (Philosophische Aspekte, p. 60).
36. Portmann, Biologische Fragmente. p. 71.
37. Aristotle, Physikvorlesung, trans. Hans Wagner (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1967), p. 485. The quote is from Wagner's commentary on Aristotle's notion of teleology as set forth in his Physica.
38. Goethe, Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften, I, 331 and 337.
39. Rudolf Steiner, Goethes naturwissenschaftliche Schriften (1897; rpt. Dornach/Schweiz: Rudolf Steiner-Nachlassverwaltung, ]973); here quoted from the English translation, Goethe the Scientist, trans. Olin D. Wannamaker (New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1950), p. 21.
40. Aristotle, Physica, II 7, 198a and II 8, l99a (Physikvorlesung, pp. 50 and 53). Aristotle's discussion of the concept of teleology climaxes in these chapters, as Hans Wagner indicates in his thorough commentary (pp. 473-83).
41. Herman Siebeck, Goethe als Denker, 4th ed. (Stuttgart: Frommann, 1922), p. 100. Siebeck argues that Goethe's thought centers upon "the teleology which Lessing and Herder sought to apply to the evolution of humanity, carried over into the view of nature's organic forms" (p. 79).
42. An example of such an analysis of the concept "teleology" isgiven by Ernest Nagel, who concludes that "the difference between a teleological explanation and its equivalent non-teleological formulation is...one of selective attention, rather than of asserted content" (The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation (London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1974), p. 405.
43. Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1975), sections 68 and 77, pp. 494 and 525-26.
44. Goethe, "Anschauende Urteilskraft," Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften, I, 116.
45. Steiner, Goethe the Scientist, p. 80.
46. Portmann, "Unterwegs zu einem neuen Bild vom Organismus" in Die Welt in neuer Sicht, ed. J. Gebser (München: Barth, 1957), I, 29; quoted here from Kugler, Philosophische Aspekte, p. 106. An epistemological discussion such as our own was not attempted by Portmann (nor by Goethe). Portmann expressly "rejects metaphysical interpretation," as Kugler puts it (p. 106). Nonetheless, Portmann and Goethe's view and method can be epistemologically argued as we have done.
47. Theodosius Grigorievich Dobzhansky et al., Evolution (San Francisco: Freeman, 1977), p. 503.
48. The concepts of "paradigm" and "paradigm shift" (as originally introduced by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961]) can in several respects serve to illuminate the situation in modern evolutionary theory. Take, for example, the ever more obvious anomalies in traditional Darwinian theory, i.e., phenomena inexplicable in terms of its own method, such as the "se]ectively neutral" organic properties, as previously shown.
49. Portmann, Biologische Fragmente, p. 14.
50. Portmann, Biologische Fragmente, pp. 12 and 18. Cf. also Neue Wege der Biologie, ch. VIII, "Die Evolution." In Portmann's autobiography An den Grenzen des Wissens: vom Beitrag der Biologie zu einem neuen Weltbild (Düsseldorf: Econ Verlag, 1974), he describes his attitude to the dominant theory of evolution as follows: "During my work in the areas I have chosen for my research I have become very skeptical about the view that Neo-Darwinism has essentially solved the problem of evolution" (p. 40).
51. Goethe, "Entwurf einer Einleitung in der vergleichenden Anatomie," Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften, I, 244.
52. Siebeck, Goethe als Denker, "Verhältnis der Goetheschen Ansicht zur modernen Deszendenzlehre," pp. 96, 92, and 97.
53. In this connection Joachim Illies characterizes Portmann "as one of the first biologists in modern times to do full justice to the Goethean view of nature and who knows and evaluates it in a correct way concerning its importance for the theory of evolution" (p. 89). An attempt to understand evolution from the human form as an "archetypal form" [Urform] in Goethe's spirit is found in Hermann Poppelbaum's work Mensch und Tier: fünf Einblicke in ihren Wesensunterschied (1928; rpt. Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer, 1981. -- In English as Man and Animal: Their Essential Difference, 2nd ed. (London: Anthroposophical Publishing Co., 1960).
Hjalmar Hegge is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo, Norway. He is the author of several important studies on epistemology and the philosopy of science, including a seminal essay on Goethe's scientific method, "Theory of Science in the Light of Goethe's Science of Nature," in F. Amrine, F. J. Zucker, and H. Wheeler, eds., Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal (Dordrecht: C. Reidel; 1987; pp. 195-218).
To Ifgene home page