The Wisdom Of Goethe


The Wisdom Of Goethe

In putting this site  together, we have been constantly aware that its content and subject matter will seem highly implausible to many – perhaps even to most – of our readers.  Some might even think it adds up to little more than self-indulgence, kitted out to look more ‘respectable’ with a hotchpotch of philosophical and psychological ideas.

Well, in one sense that’s completely understandable, but our excuse for our meanderings is that our discussion tackles something so  familiar to everybody, that it seems not to need much special attention.  We want to discuss  the experience of  listening and it turns out to be more complicated than we  originally  imagined.

Readers are asked to note here that we are not talking about the mechanics of hearing or about physical acoustics, but rather about how people set about listening – their differing listening styles if you like – and also about what they may or may not hear, as a consequence. While people do seem to differ enormously in how they listen, very few of us are taught or even encouraged, to listen particularly attentively – unless perhaps we are musicians.

Curiously, however, one of the important things to notice when talking generally about musical experiences is just how often the language used is couched in purely visual terms. We discuss this more thoroughly in the section called ‘Hearing And Listening.’

When we began thinking about this problem, initially we found very little literature that was directly helpful,  and so we were forced to review the subject in a more unusual way. This took us back to the development of scientific enquiry in general, and to the work of the great German philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in particular. Bearing in mind the widespread use of visual metaphors when talking about listening, his  ‘Theory of Colour‘ turned out to be surprisingly relevant.

The notes concerning the physicist Henri Bortoft’s book about Goethe’s science, The Wholeness of Nature, state that Goethe’s scientific work ‘represents a style of learning and understanding which is largely ignored today.’

According to Bortoft, modern science tends to break objects down in a purely analytical way; by contrast, Goethe was interested in the ‘whole’ of a phenomenon, and in particular about the relationship between the object of the enquiry and the observer. Bortoft examines the phenomenological and cultural roots of Goethe’s approach to science and argues that Goethe’s insights, far from belonging to the past, represent the foundation for a future science respectful of nature.”

This sounded much more in keeping with a discussion about dowsing than anything else we could turn to and, in essence, this is the general approach that we have tried to follow. To illustrate Goethe’s methods, we might usefully turn briefly to his experiments into the perception of colour.

While the British genius, Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1747), had shown that colours arose when white light was split by a prism into the seven-hued rainbow spectrum with which we are all familiar, Goethe took his investigation in a completely different direction. He was particularly interested in his viewers’ visual experiences, and asked his subjects to record what they saw when they kept their eyes open in a totally dark place for a while. After that, they were asked to look at a white, brightly-lit surface, before turning to view objects that were only moderately lit. Goethe’s reasoning for carrying out these ‘tests’ was to establish just what the subjects saw – without them adding externally imposed explanations.

David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc in their book  Goethe’s Way of Science (1998), report that from the experiments just described, Goethe concluded that the eye is ‘in the utmost relaxation and susceptibility’ in the first instance – and feels a ‘sense of privation, as it strives to perceive outwardly into the darkness’.  In the second case, the opposite effects occur, since ‘the eye is in an overstrained state, and scarcely susceptible at all. It is dazzled and, for a time, cannot see the moderately lighted objects.’  Goethe concluded from these experiments that ‘darkness in the world instantaneously produces in the eye an inclination towards light’ and that ‘light produces an inclination to darkness’.

Goethe also argued that the reciprocity between darkness and light, points to what he called the ‘ur-phenomenon’ (the essential process or pattern) of colour. For him, colour became the resolution of a tension between darkness and light, so that darkness-weakened-by-light led to the darker colours of blue, indigo and violet, while light-dimmed-by-darkness creates the lighter colours of yellow, orange and red. Goethe eventually came to believe that colours are completely new formations created by the interplay of darkness and light rather than simply entities arising from light (via a prism, for example) as proposed by Newton.

However, this is not to argue whether Newton’s idea is more or less accurate than Goethe’s (and Goethe’s book The Theory Of Colour contains more experiments and exercises for further exploration of the subject), but to make the point that different ways of examining problems can produce radically different ways of understanding them. Recognising this may actually enhance both points of view, if neither is automatically rejected as being wholly false.

Goethe would, presumably, not have said that Newton had been incorrect: only that forming some idea of how an individual experiences colour is probably at least as important as explaining the nature of light physically.

Overall then, when we come back to the concept of ‘dowsing for sound’ (where we only have access to seriously subjective accounts of how it might or might not work) we have deliberately chosen to use theoretical ideas that seem directly relevant to us and make sense within our particular context.  All of them are likely to be written off by orthodox scientists however, at least for the time being.

We are, in fact, most interested in ideas that help us understand the processes under discussion, rather than simply becoming able to explain them – as so much of modern science seems to do.  ‘Explaining’ something often seems to suggest wrapping it up neatly so that it can ‘tidied up’ or even ‘explained away’, never to be questioned again.

But if dowsing teaches us anything, it is that very few aspects of the world of human experience are so orderly – and if readers complain that our ideas are incomplete, or are inconsistent with each other, then maybe that is just how things are for the time being.  We don’t mind this at all, because from our standpoint, external – and even critical – comment is the best hope that anyone can have for developing understanding further.


Click For ‘Hearing and Listening’

Nigel Twinn and Bill Kenny  2015

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