Goethe and the Philosophical Life of Plants
Plants come in an amazing variety of shapes, colours, and forms. There seems to be hardly any limit to nature’s ingenuity when it comes to their generation. Yet we recognize them all as plants and distinguish them from non-plants like, for example, butterflies or crystals. What is it that all plants have in common, such that they form one of nature’s kingdoms? What makes a plant a plant?
This was Goethe’s question. The biological systems of his time – of which Linnaeus’ was the most important – did not satisfy him. Linnaeus had striven to bring order into the boundless diversity of natural things by examining them according to degrees of kinship and grouping them accordingly. He had classified his objects by external marks, by their properties: plants, for example, were classified by the number and disposition of the pistils and carpels, i.e., their sexual organs. Organic beings were thus classified in principle no differently than inorganic bodies. Although Goethe felt admiration for Linnaeus’ work, he was convinced that a different approach was required:
How could I hope to achieve a correct determination when even within Linneaus’ own lifetime a number of genera had been divided up anew and even whole classes declared invalid. The obvious conclusion seemed to be that even this man of utmost genius and acumen could subdue and master nature only in rough outline.
If there is indeed something all plants have in common – something necessary to them, without which they cannot be; their essence, as it were – this something would have to regulate the empirical phenomena from within. Moreover, as inwardly organizing the life of the plant, it would have to be at work simultaneously in all the successive stages of the plant’s life cycle.
But how could one possibly know whether there is such a thing? Empirical observations of successive phenomena, it seems, at best establish regularities, but no necessities. And these empirical regularities always remain fallible, as Linnaeus observed first hand. How does one determine if there is something (a ‘One in the Many’) that ceaselessly organizes the life of plants inwardly?
As Goethe realized, to explore whether something simultaneous is at work in what in experience always appears successive, we must examine not the separate elements themselves but their connections, the transitions between those phenomena that together form the empirical plant.
These transitions are of course not visible to the observer as such. Nevertheless, they have occurred and can thus be re-created in thought. Consequently, it is particularly important to Goethe that “my thinking not separate itself from the object; the elements of the objects, the intuitions, must enter into my thinking and be intimately informed by it, so that my intuiting itself becomes a thinking and my thinking an intuiting”.
To this end, in a first step all the different scattered phenomena that belong together must be collected and arranged in such a way that they can form the whole of which they are parts, constituting but one single experience. Thereafter, in a second step, the transitions between the parts must be re-created in thought in order to tell how the parts themselves are related to one another. The important point for Goethe is that the diligent and meticulous observation of these steps can lead to the sudden realization that the series of the observed phenomena is organized inwardly, not just connected externally. This sudden change in the apprehension of their connection – from outer to inner, from discursive to intuitive apprehension – is what Goethe ultimately looks for in his study of plants: “An experience of this kind, consisting as it does in a series of experiences, is manifestly of a higher kind. It represents the formula in which countless individual problems of arithmetic are expressed.”
What does this mean? In arithmetic, in order to find out whether a series of numbers is generated randomly (externally) or whether its succession is governed by a formula (inwardly), I must examine the transitions between the numbers in order to see how one arises from the other and whether the intervals between them show any regularity. Take, for example, the series 64, 100, 144, 196, 256. The intervals between the numbers are not constant; they are +36, +44, +52, +60. However, looking at this series of intervals, I realize that it always increases by 8. In other words, the series is not generated randomly but governed by a formula; I am dealing with a (quadratic) function which I can now proceed to determine in the usual manner: f(x) = 4(x + 3)2 It also allows me to say what the next number after 256 would have to be.
Similarly, in order to determine whether the life cycle of, say, an annual flowering plant is governed by an underlying ‘formula’ or archetype, I must examine the transitions betweenits stages. However, since in this case we are dealing with a natural series and not an arithmetic one, the series of living phenomena must be complete – from seed to seed, from birth to death – so that any subsequent phenomena can only be repetitions of what has already occurred. Then, and only then, is it possible to determine whether something governs the series inwardly, similar to how a ‘formula’ may govern a series of numbers inwardly. This is how Goethe described the transitions between the plant’s stages in his Metamorphosis of Plants:
From the seed to the highest development of the stem leaf we first observed an expansion, then we saw the calyx emerge by way of a contraction, the leaves by way of expansion, the reproductive parts once again by way of contraction; and we will soon witness the greatest expansion in the fruit and the greatest contraction in the seed. In these six steps, nature ceaselessly performs the external labor of reproducing the vegetable kingdom through six sexes.
But what exactly is it that is doing the expanding and contracting in these six stages? Clearly, it is not any of the visible parts of the plant. It must be something that can only be apprehended in thought: “In the progressive modification of the parts of the plant, one single force is at work which can only improperly be called expansion and contraction.” A better way of putting it is to say that it is the ideal organ, the active archetype or primordial form from which all the physical forms of the plant can be developed by way of transformation. Precisely for this reason, Goethe also calls this ideal form “leaf”. For not only the petals, stamen and pistils may be considered as metamorphosed leaves, but all parts of the plant: “A leaf that only absorbs moisture under the earth is what we call a root; a leaf that is expanded by moisture is called a bulb. A leaf that expands uniformly is a stem, a stalk.”
The plant’s visible parts are thus merely particular articulations of an underlying invisible form (‘formula’) which presents itself anew at every nodal point, repeating its work. Or, in Goethe’s words: “Forwards and backwards the plant is always only a leaf, so inseparably united with the future germ that one cannot think of one without the other.”