Apr 10, 2017

Goethe: Empirical Observation and Science (1798)


 Phenomena, which others of us may call facts, are certain and definite by nature, but often uncertain and fluctuating in appearance. The scientific researcher strives to grasp and keep the definite aspect of what he beholds; in each individual case he is careful to note not only how the phenomena appear, but also how they should appear. There are many empirical fractions which must be discarded if we are to arrive at a pure, constant phenomenon—as I can frequently note, especially in my present field of study. 2 However, the instant I allow myself this, I already establish a type of ideal.

But there is a great difference between someone like the theorist who turns whole numbers into fractions for the sake of a theory, and someone who sacrifices an empirical fraction for the idea of the pure phenomenon.

For the observer never sees the pure phenomenon with his own eyes; rather, much depends on his mood, the state of his senses, the light, air, weather, the physical object, how it is handled, and a thousand other circumstances. Hence it is like trying to drink the sea dry if we try to stay with the individual aspect of the phenomenon, observe it, measure it, weigh it, and describe it.

In my observation of nature and reflection on it I have attempted to remain true to the following method as much as possible, especially in my recent work.

After observing a certain degree of constancy and consistency in phenomena, I.derive an empirical law from my observation and expect to find it in later phenomena. If the law and the phenomena are in complete agreement, I have succeeded; if they are not in complete agreement, my attention is drawn to the circumstances surrounding each case, and I am forced to find new conditions for conducting the contradictory experiments in a purer way. But if a case which contradicts my law arises often and under similar circumstance, I realize that I must go further in my research and seek out a higher standpoint.

In my experience, this is the very point where the human mind can come closest to things in their general state, draw them near, and, so to speak, form an amalgam3 with them just as it usually does in common empiricism, but now in a rational way.

Thus the results of our work are:

1. The empirical phenomenon,
which everyone finds in nature, and which is then raised through experiments to the level of

2. the scientific phenomenon
by producing it under circumstance and conditions different from those in which it was first observed, and in a sequence which is more or less successful.

3. The pure phenomenon
now stands before us as the result of all our observations and experiments. It can never be isolated, but it appears in a continuous sequence of events. To depict it, the human mind gives definition to the empirically variable, excludes the accidental, sets aside the impure, untangles the complicated, and even discovers the unknown.

This is perhaps the ultimate goal of our efforts,, at least if we have the right sense of our own limits. For here it is not a question of causes, but of conditions under which the phenomena appear;.their consistent sequence, their eternal return under thousands of circumstances, their uniformity and mutability are perceived and predicted; their defined quality is recognized'and again defined by the human mind.

In reality this work could not be called speculative, for it seems to me that in the end these are just the practical and self-distilling processes of common human understanding as it ventures to apply itself to a higher sphere.

January 15, 1798

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