Botany in Goethe’s Work
Goethe is known as a multifaceted philosopher, passionate about the natural sciences: physics, chemistry and the life sciences. In addition to his considerable philosophical and literary work, he left us a famous botanical treatise: The Metamorphosis of Plants, published in 1790. Why is this little book, apparently very far from traditional philosophical considerations, instructive for understanding the work of Goethe in relation to his time? Conversely, why does the nature of plants prove conducive to grasping certain aspects of Goethe’s philosophy?
To question the place of botany in Goethe’s work implies biographical elements, but also epistemological elements of the relationship between philosophy, art and sciences, central to Goethean thought.*
Between the ages of 16 and 26, Goethe read the naturalist writings of Albrecth von Haller (1708-1777) and the botanical treatises of Linné (1707-1778). Goethe lived in the city and therefore in this period his knowledge of botany was theoretical. At that time, Goethe placed Linné’s importance for science on the same level as Spinoza’s for philosophy and Shakespeare’s for art. This clearly indicates that in Goethe’s mind botany is not a minor science, but rather a model for other sciences. During his stay in Weimar (1775-1786), Goethe, who now lived in the country, showed a more practical interest in botany. In contact with foresters and herbalists, he began to collect plants himself and noticed the limitations of Linné’s artificial system of classification. He then turned to the intuitions of Rousseau and the natural method of the Jussieus, taking these to be less rigid.
In addition to the practical insufficiency and artificiality of the Linnaean sexual system of classification, Goethe also criticized the father of binomial nomenclature for breaking down the unity of the organism into different characteristics. The Jussieus’ method, on the other hand, placed all the features in the context of the whole and organized the plants according to their ascending progress and their gradual development by taking into account all their characteristics, which they weighted, and not only one trait considered to be determining. Finally, Goethe deemed Linnaean botany to be too descriptive, whereas he also wanted to explain it through a synthetic approach of which he had the first intuitions during his trip to Italy (between 1786 and 1788).
This leads him to propose “physiological” theses in his theory of The Metamorphosis of Plants. The quotation marks are necessary here, because these theses belong to a science that is more ideal than experimental, as it is often the case with Goethe. For example, § 27 and 28 of The Metamorphosis of Plants argue that flowering and the perfection of plant organs depend on the purification of the sap (as the nourishing fluid) through a filtration process linked to upward growth. Hence, Goethe states in § 29 and 30 that too much nourishment delays or prevents the flowering of plants because it fails to purify the sap. Many of his arguments are then based on this idea:
We have seen that the calyx is produced by refined juices created gradually in the plant itself. Now it is destined to serve as the organ of a further refinement. Even a simple mechanical explanation of its effect will convince us of this. For how delicate and suited for the finest filtration must be those tightly contracted and crowded vessels we have seen!” (§39).
Only a view of the mind (a theoretical explanation), not an experiment, supports Goethe’s “physiological” claim. More critically, experimentation disproves his thesis, since one observes the flowering of a plant after the removal of its calyx. Such idealistic assertions led Goethe to incur the wrath of renowned botanists at the origin of experimental botany, notably Julius von Sachs (1832-1897).* Although well founded, his criticism is nevertheless anachronistic with respect to the methods of botany in the early 19th century. Some of Goethe’s insights and holistic vision were also recognized by other botanists, such as Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle (1778-1841) who independently of Goethe proposed the idea of plant organogenesis based on leaf structure. The botanist Willhelm Troll (1897-1978) later defended a morphological conception of botany based on the Goethean philosophy of nature. The botanist Agnes Arber (1879-1960) showed in a contrasting way what Goethe’s legacy to botany was until the first half of the 20th century.*
Beyond these biographical and contextual aspects, botany should not appear peripheral in Goethe. In what follows, I idenitfy in a non-systematic and non-exhaustive way some avenues to better understand these links with the rest of his work.
Universal Knowledge and Holistic Epistemology
Goethe is one of the last great universal minds before the institutional and disciplinary specialization that began in the 19th century. For a scientist with holistic ambitions like Goethe, botany, like geology or optics, is a facet of knowledge that his philosophy must account for. Like Hegel, Goethe conceives botany as one of the privileged accesses to the study of nature. Plants are therefore an element of the puzzle and a key to understanding his philosophy of Nature. The Metamorphosis of Plants illustrates and reflects through his theses more general principles of the organization of Goethean knowledge. For example, the dialectical concepts of systole and diastole that runs through Goethe’s philosophy is manifested by the couple contraction and expansion, notably mobilized to account for the movement of sap, growth and reproduction of plants. In this sense, the theses of Goethean botany often appear as profoundly idealistic because they respond above all to more general and aprioristic schemes of thought. Although rational in their elaboration, many of these theses prove to be false from the empirical scientific point of view. Goethe was indeed not an experimenter, and the fortune of some of his botanical ideas is mainly due to the value of his observations and intuitions.
Plant Plasticity and Form Creation
Plants, unlike most animals, are characterized by a continuous vegetative force. They grow continuously and their form is never fully completed. Moreover, they are capable of vegetative reproduction, i.e. they can reproduce in a non-sexual way thanks to cuttings, suckers, bulbils, etc. In a more general way, each bud can be conceived as the individual unit whose multiplicity constitutes the plant organism. Much more clearly than in animal life, this plant plasticity and the diversity of its modes of reproduction accounts for Goethe’s epistemological conception combining opposing dynamic couples such as unity and multiplicity, synthesis and analysis, etc. Moreover, plant ontology responds to Goethe’s vitalist conception. For the author of The Metamorphosis, life is an internal and creative force of forms which gives to the living its uniqueness, in contrast to matter. Thus, life and art meet in their creative role, which Kant had already theorized by the internal finality in his Critique of Judgment. Whether in art or in science, it is a question of detecting the general idea behind the sensible appearances. Plants fascinate Goethe by the exuberance of their forms and their way of life, they are constantly reinventing themselves through their growth and reproduction, just like his dynamic conception of Nature and art. Botany, however, as a science of general forms and principles, is just like philosophy and aesthetics for nature and art. This creative principle is illustrated by the main idea of plant metamorphosis, namely that all organs of floral morphology can be understood from the transformation of an archetypal leaf (Urblatt) during plant growth.
Thinking the Qualitative and the Continuity of Species
For Goethe, biology, and more particularly botany, is closer to art, because it is par excellence the science of the qualitative (and not that of mathematics). Goethe thus opposes preformationism, as an almost mechanical deployment of a predetermined life, instead advocating an epigenetic conception of the living as a perpetual invention of forms. Not only does he defend this epigenesis of life through the metamorphosis of plant organisms, but he also conceives it at the level of species. Indeed, the natural method of classification like that of Jussieu, by opposing the spirit of too strict a system, allows him to build a more complete and gradual organization of species. Without yet speaking of transformism or evolutionism (i.e. of a real transformation of species in time by an empirical mechanism, either of transmission of acquired characteristics, or of natural selection of the most advantageous random variations) Goethe subscribes to gradualism. That is to say that he conceives a continuity of qualitative variations in the natural species starting from a fixed ideal, an archetype. By opposing creationism and fixism, the natural history of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and more particularly botany, offers a theoretical framework useful to the qualitative, dynamic and moving thought of Goethean forms.
Ideal-Type, Archetype and Canon
The natural sciences of the time derived the different species from variations of ideal forms, archetypes, from the point of view of systematics and can derive the organisms, up to the most monstrous, from an ideal individual form from the point of view of morphology. Goethe adopts these two principles in his botany in the conceptual form of the Urpflanze and the Urblatt. The Urpflanze is the ideal archetypal plant for thinking about the variety of species, which some transformist and evolutionist botanists (Turpin and Schleiden) will later wrongly see as an empirical ancestral plant.* The Urblatt is the model for thinking about the metamorphosis of plants as they grow morphologically (starting from the organ type that is the leaf). This ideal-type of plants joins the classical conception of Goethean aesthetics. That is to say, a composition of variations of forms and proportions from a canon.* Goethe’s botany thus shares its epistemological conception with other fields, like arts.*
Observation and Representation
In the arts, Goethe showed an artistic preference for painting and drawing. Unlike other sciences such as chemistry and physics, drawing had a close and privileged relationship with botany in the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, botanists, like painters, were entirely dependent on their talent for observation and drawing to portray their subject. At the beginning of the 19th century, the practice of portraying trees became widespread among painters, accompanied by a reinforcement of their moral personalization by the Romantics (Thoreau, Michelet, Hugo, etc.).* This new attention explains why the “tree” test became a classic selection test in prestigious competitions: painters of the time trained for about three years to draw perfectly, and without documentation, any species of tree designated by a jury. The goal was therefore not to faithfully reproduce reality, but to show the ideal essence of a species. Thus, in 19th century botanical treatises, illustrations by professional artists reached unmatched accuracy. But they do not seek so much to accurately reflect the reality of a specimen as the typical, even ideal, characteristics of a species. More than a technical constraint linked to the pre-photographic era, this empirical relationship with observation and representation is epistemological. Still in the second half of the 19th century, the famous botanist Julius von Sachs could thus declare about plants that one can only really see what one has drawn oneself, an activity that he therefore considered indispensable to botanical training. Botany thus maintains a privileged relationship to the senses, to the empirical dimension, while maintaining a link to the universal as a science. Goethe certainly found an interest in this approach compared to other sciences that rely on mathematization (physics) or abstract modeling (chemistry).*
These few explanatory elements would need to be developed further. However, plants and their study represent more than a personal and contingent interest in Goethe. The “botany” of The Metamorphosis of Plants is not so much scientific as philosophical in the sense of a natural philosophy that seeks to explain and not merely to describe. The nature of plants and the epistemology of botany are linked in many ways with other important aspects of Goethe’s work. Moreover, even today, plants and their study, although often kept on the fringe, inspire new approaches in philosophy.