On August 18, 1787, Goethe wrote to Knebel from Italy: “To judge by the plants and fish I have seen in Naples and Sicily, I would, if I were ten years younger, be very tempted to make a trip to India, not in order to discover something new, but in order to contemplate in my own way what has already been discovered.” In these words is to be found the point of view from which we have to look at Goethe's scientific works. With him it is never a matter of discovering new facts, but rather of opening up a new point of view, of looking at nature in a particular way. It is true that Goethe made a number of great single discoveries, such as the intermaxillary bone, the vertebral theory of the skull in osteology, the common identity of all plant organs with the leaf in botany, etc. But we have to regard as the life and soul of all these individual cases the magnificent view of nature by which they are carried; in the study of organisms we have to fix our attention above all on a magnificent discovery that overshadows everything else: that of the being or nature of the organism itself. Goethe has set forth the principle by which an organism is what it presents itself to be; he sets forth the causes whose results appear to us in the manifestations of life; he sets forth, in fact, everything we can ask about the manifestations of life from a point of view concerned with principles. 1Whoever declares from the very beginning that such a goal is unattainable will never arrive at an understanding of the Goethean views of nature; on the other hand, whoever undertakes to study them without preconceptions, and leaves this question open, will certainly answer it affirmatively at the end. Doubts could very well arise for many a person through several remarks Goethe himself made, such as the following one, for example: “... without presuming to want to discover the primal mainsprings of nature's workings, we would have directed our attention to the manifestation of the forces by which the plant gradually transforms one and the same organ” But with Goethe such statements never direct themselves against the possibility, in principle, of knowing the being of things; he is only cautious enough about the physical-mechanical conditions underlying the organism not to draw any conclusions too quickly, since he knew very well that such questions can only be resolved in the course of time.
From the beginning, this is the goal of all his striving with respect to the organic natural sciences; in his pursuit of this goal, those particular discoveries arose for him as though of themselves. He had to find them if he did not want to be hindered in his further striving. Natural science before him — which, did not know the essential being of life phenomena, and which simply investigated organisms as compositions of parts, according to outer characteristics, just as one does with inorganic things — often had, along its way, to give these particulars an incorrect interpretation, to present them in a false light. One cannot of course see any such error in the particulars themselves. But we will recognize this only after we have first understood the organism, since the particulars in themselves, considered separately, do not bear within themselves the principle that explains them. They can be explained only by the nature of the whole, because it is the whole that gives them being and significance. Only after Goethe had discovered precisely this nature of the whole did these erroneous interpretations become evident to him; they could not be reconciled with his theory of living beings; they contradicted it. If he wanted to go further on his way, he would have to clear away such preconceptions. This was the case with the intermaxillary bone. Certain facts that are of value and interest only if one possesses just such a theory as that of the vertebral nature of the skull bone were unknown to that older natural science. All these hindrances had to be cleared away by means of individual discoveries. These, therefore, never appear in Goethe's case as ends in themselves; they must always be made in order to confirm a great thought, to confirm that central discovery. The fact cannot be denied that Goethe's contemporaries came to the same observations sooner or later, and that all of them would perhaps be known today even without Goethe's efforts; but even less can the fact be denied that no one until now has expressed his great discovery, encompassing all organic nature, independently of him in such an exemplary way 2We do not mean in any way to say that Goethe has never been understood at all in this regard. On the contrary, we repeatedly take occasion in this very edition to point to a number of men who seem to us to carry on and elaborate Goethean ideas. Belonging among them are such names as: Voigt, Nees von Esenbeck, d'Alton (senior and junior), Schelver, C.G. Carus, and Martius, among others. But these men in fact built up their systems upon the foundation of the views laid down in the writings of Goethe, and, precisely about them, one cannot say that they would have arrived at their concepts even without Goethe, whereas to be sure, contemporaries of Goethe — Josephi in Göttingen, for example — did come independently upon the intermaxillary bone, and Oken upon the vertebral theory. — in fact, we still lack an even partially satisfactory appreciation of his discovery. Basically it does not matter whether Goethe was the first to discover a certain fact or only rediscovered it; the fact first gains its true significance through the way he fits it into his view of nature. This is what has been overlooked until now. The particular facts have been overly emphasized and this has led to polemics. One has indeed often pointed to Goethe's conviction about the consistency of nature, but one did not recognize that the main thing, in organic science for example, is to show what the nature is of that which maintains this consistency. If one calls it the typus, then one must say in what the being of the typus consists in Goethe's sense of the word.
The significance of Goethe's view about plant metamorphosis does not lie, for example, in the discovery of the individual fact that leaf, calyx, corolla, etc., are identical organs, but rather in the magnificent building up in thought of a living whole of mutually interacting formative laws; this building up proceeds from his view of plant metamorphosis, and determines out of itself the individual details and the individual stages of plant development. The greatness of this idea, which Goethe then sought to extend to the animal world also, dawns upon one only when one tries to make it alive in one's spirit, when one undertakes to rethink it. One then becomes aware that this thought is the very nature of the plant itself translated into the idea and living in our spirit just as it lives in the object; one observes also that one makes an organism alive for oneself right into its smallest parts, that one pictures it not as a dead, finished object, but rather as something evolving, becoming, as something never at rest within itself.
As we now attempt, in what follows, to present more thoroughly everything we have indicated here, there will become clear to us at the same time the true relationship of the Goethean view of nature to that of our own age, and especially to the theory of evolution in its modern form.