Is There a Flower Riot in my Brain? Agnes Arber and Goethean Science
In her introduction to her fantastic but sadly neglected 1946 translation of Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants, Agnes Arber suggests that rather than seeing these botanical adventures as an aside or an artifact of Goethe’s speculative fancies, they are evidence of him being “a great biologist who overstepped the bounds of science.” Arber who was herself a botanist, historian of botany, and philosopher of biology saw in Goethe an intellectual track parallel to her own: a pursuit of the life sciences in which the many forms of living things reside within the one and that the perception of this many-in-one could only be seen with the mind’s eye.
Arber’s botanical work is still cited in her own field and has even received more attention lately due to a brighter light being cast on morphogenesis’ history in the life sciences. Her philosophical and historical work is less attended to and seen as a pursuit entertained after stepping away from the lab bench and out of the field.
But even Arber’s early work is suffused with Goethe’s general insights (which Arber admits could have emphasized plurality more than unity) and even her first books exhibit a philosophical outlook in which the limits of discursive or written description of plant morphology is apparent. As Donna Haraway highlighted in her Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields, this fed naturally into Arber’s linking of an aesthetic intuition and that of pure morphology. She frequently cites the work of Wilhelm Troll who also attempted to resurrect Goethe’s morphology in the 20th century.
This pure morphology is likely a nod to E.S. Russell one of the great organicists of early 20th century England and is warranted given Arber’s connections to both D’Arcy Thompson and Joseph Needham (and her knowledge of J.H. Woodger, sometimes treated as the first philosopher of biology). While some texts provide Arber’s biography and then position her as a kind of ‘quaint’ anti-Darwinian, it is far more useful to see her as connected (at least conceptually if not pragmatically) to the push for a third way under the name of organicism in the deadlock of neo-Darwinian mechanism and anti-Darwinian vitalism. This third way has deep roots going at least as far back as the literary and scientific naturalism of figures such as G.H. Lewes, George Elliott, and Spencer and the organicist waves that followed.*
Andrea Michael Hahn outlines how in her letters with Thompson Arber became increasingly suspicious of classifying plant-forms in terms of their descent (in terms of evolutionary cladistics rather than homology). Ebach et al see Arber as a defender of a gestalten morphology—a morphology that sees deep homologies between species without treating each plant form as ‘merely’ an expression of an underlying oneness. The key to understanding Arber is to understand how she (like Goethe) interweaves empirical seeing and structural seeing which proceeds something like Goethean Anschauung in describing the passage between the poles:
“It cannot be too much emphasized that, whenever the mind uncurtains something lying behind relative truth, it is not by means of any magical sleight of hand; it is, on the contrary, the end result of the severest wrestling of rational thought, stimulated yet controlled by disciplined emotion. We see this clearly in Plotinus and Spinoza whose illumination was associated with intellectual effort so intense and so vitally irradiated by feeling that in its incandescence it afforded them a distant glimpse of truth as absolute.”*
Yet too often this seeing of seeing is treated as either subjective idealism or naive Platonism. Even in a contemporary text which appears sympathetic to Goethe’s moves in serial homology, the authors argue that Goethe seemed blind to development, that he was too formalist. Yet this overlooks the nuanced relation between sensation and abstraction. To conceive of the most general forms of plant life is not to abstract from nothing but from the deluge of empirical engagements with botanical life.
Too often an empirically attenuated idealism (which we could also call a Platonic realism) such as Goethe’s or Arber’s becomes equated with subjectivism—as if the forms of the plant in the existing examples confer immediate and complete knowledge to the observer. But this would be to assert that the mind disciplines the eye thereby eliminating any dialectical response or how the eye disciplines the mind. This discipline is evident in Arber’s laying out of the steps of methodological approach in biology.
Maura C. Flannery has perhaps done the most to rehabilitate Arber and connect her work to the aesthetics of botany. In her “Goethe and the Molecular Aesthetic”, Flannery argues that the invocation of intuition, of allowing time and making explicit the processing of data in the mind, is something lacking in current descriptions of scientific observation. The mind’s eye is conditioned by the eye in that the richness of empirical experience is richer is what lies beneath it is richer still and in turn grounds the very capacities of the mind to think at all.
Arber’s idealism is only subjective or naive if one does not see that the form of things cuts both ways. In Goethe’s approach (via Arber) an increasingly diverse multitude will give one an increasingly complex and odd-looking form of plant, but if the form is always feeding on the empirical then this cannot be naively Platonic perfect plant that one that ‘applies’ to all leafy visions. Every plant has empirically taken root in our head—our heads are just as susceptible to Platonic realism as the plant is to our eyes. Every encountered form deforms our mental form of even the most general.
Perhaps even stranger is that Goethe insists that there is an inner temporality to the formation of each and every production of nature and that part of his empiricism is to take time with things, to watch their development. Again, nodding to Maury, we are perhaps more accustomed to finding organisms (or natural forms) which bear the marks of a condensed temporality. We can see successive mutations in fruit flies because their lifespans are so short. But this seems the opposite of Goethe’s point, the question of trying to piece together, through successive images, the lived time of another species.
Rather than spreading the possible capacities of thought to plants, it is perhaps more carefully constructive to talk about how the deployment of forms in plant life is the botanical equivalent of the behavior of an animal—the movement of an animal through space is in the plant not only its movements but its spatial plasticity (blooming, twisting, climbing).* Thus the ‘pure’ morphology of Arber via Goethe is thoroughly impure—natural philosophy rests between metaphysics and experimental science and the task of botany (and biology) is to weave the empirical and the formal into the continuous matter of the living world.*