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Goethe's World View
GA 6

Part III: The Phenomena of the World of Colors

The feeling that “men's great works of art are brought forth according to true and natural laws” continuously moved Goethe to seek out these true and natural laws of artistic creation. He is convinced that the effect of a work of art must depend upon the fact that a natural lawfulness shines forth from it. He wants to know this lawfulness. He wants to know for what reason the highest works of art are at the same time the highest works of nature. It becomes clear to him that the Greeks proceeded by exactly the same laws by which nature proceeds as they “developed out of the human shape the sphere of divine formation” (Italian Journey, January 28, 1787). He wants to see how nature brings about this formation so that he can understand it in works of art. Goethe describes how in Italy he gradually succeeded in coming to an insight into the natural lawfulness of artistic creation (see Confession of the Author). “Fortunately I could hold on to a few maxims brought over from poetry and proven to me by inner feeling and long use, so that it was indeed difficult but not impossible for me, through uninterrupted looking at nature and art, through lively effective conversation with more or less insightful experts, and through continuously living with more or less practical or thinking artists, gradually to separate an in general into its parts, without fragmenting it, and to become aware of its different actively interpenetrating elements.” Only one element does not want to reveal to him the natural laws by which it works in the work of art: color. Several canvases are “created and composed in his presence and carefully and thoroughly studied as to components, arrangement, and form.” The artists can give him an account of how they proceed with the composition. But as soon as the topic turns to the use of color everything seems arbitrary. No one knows what relationship holds good between color and chiaroscuro and between the individual colors. Goethe cannot ascertain the basis for the fact that yellow makes a warm and comfortable impression, blue evokes a feeling of cold, that yellow and reddish-blue beside each other produce a harmonious effect. He recognizes that he must first acquaint himself with the lawfulness of the world of color in nature, in order from there to penetrate into the mysteries of the use of colors.

Neither the concepts about the physical nature of color phenomena which Goethe still had in his memory from student days nor the scientific compendia which he consulted for advice proved fruitful for his purpose. “Along with the rest of the world I was convinced that all the colors are contained in the light; no one had ever told me anything different, and I had never found the least cause to doubt it, because I had no further interest in this subject” (Confession of the Author). But as he began to be interested, he found that he could develop nothing for his purpose out of this view. The originator of this view, which Goethe found to dominate natural scientists and which still occupies the same position today, is Newton. This view asserts that white light, as it goes forth from the sun, is composed of colored lights. The colors arise through the fact that the individual component parts are separated out of white light. If one lets sunlight into a dark room through a small round opening and catches it upon a white screen set up at right angles to the direction of the in-streaming light, one obtains a white image of the sun. If one places a glass prism between the opening and the screen so that the light shines through it, the white, round sun image transforms itself. It appears shifted, drawn out lengthwise, and colored. This image is called the sun spectrum. If one holds the prism in such a way that the upper portions of the light have to take a shorter route within the volume of the glass than the lower portions do, then the colored image is shifted downward. The upper edge of the image is red, the lower edge is violet; the red goes downward into yellow, the violet upward into blue; the middle portion of the image is generally white. Only when the screen is a certain distance from the prism does the white in the middle disappear completely; the entire image appears colored, in the sequence from above downward of red, orange, yellow, green, light blue, indigo, and violet. From this experiment Newton and his followers deduced that the colors are originally contained in the white light but mixed with one another. They are separated from each other by the prism. They have the characteristic that in passing through a transparent body they are diverted from their direction to different degrees, which means they are refracted. The red light is least, the violet is most refracted. They appear in the spectrum in the sequence of their refractibility. If one looks through the prism at a narrow strip of paper on a black background, it also appears diverted. It is both broader and colored at the edges. The upper edge appears violet, the lower red; here also the violet goes over into blue, the red into yellow; the middle is generally white. The strip of paper appears totally colored only when the prism is at a certain distance from it. Again green appears in the middle. Here also the white of the paper is supposedly divided into its colored component parts. The Newtonians have a simple explanation for the fact that all the colors appear only when the prism is at a certain distance from the screen or paper strip, whereas the middle otherwise is white. They say that the more strongly diverted lights from the upper pan of the image and the more weakly diverted ones from the lower pan fall together in the middle and mix into white. The colors appear only at the edges because there none of the more strongly diverted parts of the light from above can fall into the most weakly diverted parts of the light, and none of the more weakly diverted ones from below can fall into the most strongly diverted ones.

This is the view from which Goethe can develop nothing for his purposes. He therefore wants to observe the phenomena themselves. He turns to Privy Councillor Buettner in Jena who lends him the equipment with which to perform the necessary experiments. He is busy at first with other work and wants, when pressed by Buettner, to return the equipment. But before doing so he takes up a prism, in order to look through it at a completely white wall. He expects it to appear colored to different degrees. But the wall remains white. Only at those places where the white meets dark do colors arise. The window sashes appeared in the liveliest colors. From these observations Goethe. believes that he can know that the Newtonian view is incorrect and that the colors are not contained in white light. The boundary, the darkness, must have something to do with the arising of colors. He continues his experiments. He looks at white surfaces upon black, and at black surfaces on a white background. He gradually forms his own view. A white disk, viewed through a prism, appears shifted. The upper portions of the disk, in Goethe's opinion, shift themselves up over the black border of the background, whereas this black background extends itself up over the lower portions of the disk. If one now looks through the prism, one sees the black background through the upper portion of the disk as though through a white veil. If one looks at the lower pan of the disk, it appears through the darkness lifted up over it. Above, something light has been brought over something dark; below, something dark over something light. The upper edge appears blue, the lower one yellow. The blue goes over toward the black into violet; the yellow goes over downward into red. If the prism is moved away from the observed disk, the colored edges become broader; the blue downward, the yellow upward. When the prism is moved sufficiently far away, the yellow from below extends over the blue from above; through this overlapping green arises in the middle. To confirm this view, Goethe looks through the prism at a black disk upon a white background. Now up above something dark is brought over something light, below something light over something dark. Yellow appears above, blue below. When the edges are broadened by moving the prism away from the disk, the blue below, which goes over toward the middle into violet, is brought over the yellow above, which in broadening gradually takes on a red tone. A peach blossom color arises in the middle. Goethe said to himself that what is correct for the white disk must also hold good for the black one. “If there the light splits up into so many colors ... then here also the darkness would have to be regarded as split up into colors” (Confession of the Author). Goethe now relates to a physicist he knows his observations and the skepticism toward the Newtonian view which has arisen in him from them. The latter declares his skepticism to be unfounded. He explains the colored edges and the white in the middle, as well as their transition into green when the prism is moved the right distance away from the observed object, in accordance with the Newtonian view. Other natural scientists to whom Goethe brings the subject respond in the same way. He carries on by himself the observations in which he would gladly have had the help of people experienced in the field. He has a large prism made out of plate-glass and fills it with pure water. Because he notices that glass prisms, whose cross-section is an equilateral triangle, often hinder the observer by greatly broadening the colors that appear, he has his large prism made with the cross-section of an isosceles triangle whose smallest angle is only fifteen to twenty degrees. Goethe calls those experiments subjective which are set up in such a way that the eye looks at an object through the prism. These experiments present themselves to the eye but are not fixed in the outer world. He wants to add objective experiments to these as well. He uses a water prism for this. The light shines through a prism and the colors are caught on a screen behind the prism. Goethe now lets sunlight go through openings cut into cardboard. He obtains thereby an illuminated space bounded on all sides by darkness. This bounded light mass goes through the prism and is deflected in its direction by it. If one holds up a screen to this light mass issuing from the prism, there arises on it an image which generally is colored on its upper and lower edges. If the prism is placed in such a way that its cross section tapers downward, then the upper edge of the image is colored blue and the lower one yellow. The blue goes over toward the dark space into violet, and toward the lighted middle into light blue; the yellow toward the darkness into red. Also in this phenomenon Goethe traces the color phenomena to the border. Above, the bright light mass streams into the dark space; it lightens something dark, which thereby appears blue. Below the dark space streams into the light mass; it darkens something light and makes it appear yellow. When the screen is moved away from the prism the colored edges become broader; the yellow approaches the blue. With the streaming of the blue into the yellow, when the screen has been moved a suitable distance from the prism, green appears in the middle of the image. Goethe makes visible to himself the streaming of the light into the dark and of the dark into the light, by shaking into the line which the light mass takes through the dark space a fine white cloud of dust which he produces with fine dry hair powder. “The more or less colored phenomenon is now caught by the white atoms and presented to the eye in its entire breadth and length” (Color Theory, didactic part). Goethe finds that the view which he arrived at through subjective phenomena is confirmed by objective phenomena. The colors are brought forth by the working together of light and dark. The prism serves only to shift light and dark over each other.


After making these experiments Goethe cannot accept the Newtonian view as his own. For him it is the same as with Haller's doctrine of incapsulation. Just as Haller thinks the fully developed organism to be already contained in the germ with all its parts, so the Newtonians believe that the colors, which under certain conditions appear with the light, are already enclosed within it. Against this belief he could use the same words which he brought against the doctrine of incapsulation, that it “rests upon a mere extra-sensory fancy, upon an assumption which one believes one thinks but which can never be demonstrated in the sense world.” For him the colors are new formations which are developed in connection with the light, not beings which are merely unfolded out of the light. Because of his “way of thinking in accordance with the idea” he must reject the Newtonian view. This view does not know the nature of the ideal. It acknowledges only what is factually present, what is present in the same way as the sense-perceptible. And wherever it cannot demonstrate factuality through the senses, it assumes it hypothetically. Because the colors develop in connection with the light, and must therefore already be contained in it as idea, this view believes that they are also factually, materially contained in the light and are only brought out by the prism and the dark border. Goethe knows that the idea is at work in the sense world; therefore he does not transfer something which is present as idea into the realm of the factual. The ideal works in inorganic nature just as in organic nature, only not as sensible-supersensible form. Its outer manifestation is completely material, merely sense-perceptible. It does not penetrate into the sense-perceptible; it does not permeate it with spirit. The processes of inorganic nature run their course in a lawful way, and this lawfulness presents itself to the observer as idea. If a person perceives white light in one place in space and colors in another place which arise in connection with the light, then a lawful relationship exists between both perceptions which can be pictured as idea. But if someone gives this idea a body and sets it out into space as something factual which passes over from the object of the one perception into that of the other perception, then that comes from his crudely physical way of picturing things. It is this crudely physical aspect about the Newtonian view which repelled Goethe. It is the idea that leads one inorganic process over into the other, not something factual which travels from one to the other.

The Goethean world view can acknowledge only two sources for all knowledge of the inorganic nature processes: that which is sense-perceptible about these processes, and the ideal interconnections of the sense-perceptible which reveal themselves to thinking. The ideal interconnections within the sense world are not of the same kind. There are some which are directly obvious when sense perceptions appear beside each other or after each other, and others which one can see only when one traces them back to some of the first kind. In the manifestation which offers itself to the eye when it looks at something dark through something light and perceives blue, Goethe believes he recognizes an interconnection of the first kind between light, darkness, and color. It is the same thing when something light looked at through something dark gives yellow. The spectrum which appears at the borders allows us to recognize an interconnection which becomes clear to immediate observation. The spectrum which manifests in a sequence of seven colors from red to violet can only be understood when one sees how other determining factors are added to those through which the border phenomena arise. The simple border phenomena have joined in the spectrum into a complicated phenomenon which can be understood only when one traces it back to the basic phenomena. That which stands before the observer in its purity in the basic phenomenon appears impure, modified in that which is complicated by the additional determining factors. The simple facts are no longer directly recognizable. Goethe therefore seeks everywhere to trace complicated phenomena back to simple pure ones. He sees the explanation of inorganic nature to consist of this leading back. He goes no further than the pure phenomenon. In it an ideal interconnection of sense perceptions reveals itself which explains itself through itself. Goethe calls the pure phenomenon ”archetypal phenomenon” (Urphaenomen). He regards it as idle speculation to reflect further upon the archetypal phenomenon. “The magnet is an archetypal phenomenon which one only has to state in order to have explained it” (Aphorisms in Prose). A composite, phenomenon is explained when one shows how it is built up out of archetypal phenomena.

Modern science proceeds differently from Goethe. It wants to trace the processes in the sense world back to the movements of the smallest particles of the body and, to explain these movements, uses the same laws by which it comprehends the movements which occur visibly in space. To explain these visible movements is the task of mechanics. If the movement of a body is observed then mechanics asks by which force it was set in motion; what distance it travels in a particular time; what form the line has in which it moves; etc. It seeks to represent mathematically the interrelationships of force, of the distance traveled, of the form of the path. Now the scientist states that the red light can be traced back to the oscillating movement of the body's smallest panicles which spreads itself out in space. This movement is comprehended by applying to it the laws won through mechanics. The science of inorganic nature considers its goal to be gradually to go over entirely into applied mechanics.

Modern physics asks about the number of vibrations in a time unit which correspond to a particular color quality. From the number of vibrations which correspond to red, and from those which correspond to violet, it seeks to determine the physical relationship of both colors. The qualitative disappears from its view; it looks at the spatial and temporal aspects of the processes. Goethe asks what relationship exists between red and violet when one disregards the spatial and temporal and looks merely at the qualitative aspect of the colors. A postulate of the Goethean way of looking at things is that the qualitative is also really present in the outer world and forms one inseparable whole with the temporal and spatial. Modern physics on the other hand must start with the basic view that only the quantitative, only lightless and colorless processes of movement are present in the outer world, and that everything qualitative arises only as the effect of the quantitative upon the sense- and spirit-endowed organism. If this assumption were correct, then the lawful interrelationships of the qualitative could also not be sought in the outer world but would have to be traced back to the nature of the sense organs, of the nervous system, and of the organ of mental picturing. The qualitative elements of processes would then not be for physics to investigate but rather for physiology and psychology. Modern science does proceed in accordance with this presupposition. In its view the organism, in a way appropriate to the constitution of its eyes, optic nerve, and brain, translates one process of movement into the sensation red and another into the sensation violet. Therefore all the outer aspects of the color world are explained when one has seen the interconnection of the processes of movement by which this world is determined.

A proof for this view is sought in the following observation. The optic nerve senses every outer impression as a light sensation. Not only light but also a bump or pressure on the eye, a tug on the retina when the eye is moved quickly, an electric current conducted through the head: all these also cause a sensation of light. A different sense experiences the same things in a different way. Bumps, pressure, tugs, electrical current, when they stimulate the skin, cause sensations of touch. Electricity stimulates in the ear a sound sensation, in the tongue a taste sensation. One deduces from this that the content of sensation, which arises in the organism through an outer effect, is different from the outer process by which it is caused. The red color is not experienced by the organism because the color is connected with a corresponding process of movement outside in space but rather because the eye, optic nerve, and brain of the organism are constituted in such a way that they translate a colorless process of movement into a color. The law expressed in this way was called the law of specific sense energies by the physiologist Johannes Mueller who first established it.

This observation proves only that the sense- and spirit-endowed organism can translate impressions of the most diverse kinds into the language of the senses upon which they act, but not that the content of every sense impression is also present only inside the organism. When the optic nerve is tugged there arises an indefinite, completely general stimulation which contains nothing that would cause one to place its content out in space. A sensation which arises through a real light impression is inseparably connected in its content with the spatial-temporal that corresponds to it. The movement of a body and its color are content of perception in exactly the same way. If one pictures the movement in and for itself, one is abstracting from what is otherwise perceived about the body. All the other mechanical and mathematical mental pictures are taken from the world of perception in the same way as movement. Mathematics and mechanics arise through the fact that one pan is separated out from the content of the world of perception and considered in and for itself. Within reality there are no objects or processes whose content is exhausted when one has grasped about them what can be expressed through mathematics and mechanics. Everything mathematical and mechanical is connected to color, warmth, and other qualities. If it is necessary for physics to assume that for the perception of a color there are corresponding vibrations in space, of which a very small expansion and a very great velocity are characteristic, then these movements can only be thought of as analogous to the movements which occur visibly in space. That means, if the world of objects is thought of as in movement, right into its smallest elements, then it must also be pictured as being endowed, right into its smallest elements, with color, warmth, and other characteristics. Whoever takes colors, warmth, sounds, etc. to be qualities which exist as effects of outer processes through the mentally picturing organism and which exist only inside this organism, must also transfer into it everything mathematical and mechanical which is connected with these qualities. Then, however, nothing more is left him for his outer world. The red that I see and the light vibrations which the physicist demonstrates as corresponding to this red are in reality a unity which only the abstracting intellect can separate from one another. I would see the vibrations in space, which correspond to the quality “red,” as movement, if my eye were organized to do so. But I would have connected with the movement, the impression of the red color.

Modern natural science transfers out into space an unreal abstraction, a vibrating substratum stripped of all qualities of sensation, and is astonished then that one cannot understand what can cause the mentally picturing organism, endowed with nerve apparatus and brain, to translate these indifferent processes of motion into the colorful sense world filled with warmth differentiations and sounds. Du Bois-Reymond therefore assumes that man, because of an insurmountable limit to his knowing, will never understand how the fact that “I taste sweetness, smell the fragrance of roses, hear organ tones, see red” is connected with certain movements of the smallest bodily particles in the brain, whose movements are in turn caused by the vibrations of the tasteless, odorless, soundless, and colorless elements of the outer world of objects. “It is indeed thoroughly and forever incomprehensible that it should not be a matter of indifference to a number of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc. how they lie and move, how they lay and moved, how they will lie and move” (Limits to Knowing Nature, Leipzig, 1882). But there are absolutely no limits to knowledge here. Wherever in space there are a number of atoms in a definite movement, there is necessarily a definite quality (red, for example) also present. And conversely, where red appears movement must be present. Only a thinking which abstracts can separate the one from the other. Whoever thinks of the movement as separated within reality from the other content of the process to which the movement belongs cannot find the transition again from the one to the other.

Only that about a process which is movement can be traced back again to movement; that which belongs to the qualitative element of the world of colors and light can also be traced back only to a similar qualitative element within the same realm. Mechanics traces complex movements back to simple ones which are immediately comprehensible. Color theory must trace complicated color phenomena back to simple ones which can be recognized in the same way. A simple process of movement is an archetypal phenomenon just like the emergence of yellow out of the interworking of light and dark. Goethe knows what the mechanical archetypal phenomena can accomplish for the explanation of inorganic nature. Whatever is not mechanical within the world of objects he leads back to archetypal phenomena which are not of a mechanical kind. Goethe has been reproached for having thrown out the mechanical way of looking at nature and for limiting himself only to the observation and stringing together of the sense-perceptible (see Harnack, for example, in his book, Goethe in the Period of his Completeness). Du Bois-Reymond finds (Goethe and More Goethe, Leipzig, 1883) that “Goethe's theorizing limits itself to allowing other phenomena to emerge from an archetypal phenomenon, as he calls it, in somewhat the way fog assumes successive shapes without any intelligible causal connection. It was the concept of mechanical causality which was totally lacking in Goethe.” But what else does mechanics do than let complex processes go forth out of simple archetypal phenomena? Goethe did exactly the same thing in the sphere of the color world that the physicist accomplishes in the sphere of processes of motion. Because Goethe is not of the view that all processes in inorganic nature are purely mechanical, it has therefore been denied that he has any concept of mechanical causality. Whoever does this only shows that he is himself in error as to what mechanical causality signifies within the world of objects. Goethe remains in what is qualitative about the world of light and colors; he leaves it up to others to express the quantitative, mechanical, mathematical. He “sought to keep his theory of color absolutely at a distance from mathematics, although right away certain points manifest clearly enough where the help of the art of measurement would be desirable ... But this lack may even be of benefit, inasmuch as it can now become the business of the ingenious mathematician himself to seek out where color theory needs his help, and how he can make his contribution to the perfecting of this pan of natural philosophy” (Paragraph 727 of the didactic pan of the Color Theory). The qualitative elements of the sense of sight, light, darkness, colors, must first be understood out of their own interconnections, be traced back to archetypal phenomena; then there can be investigated on a higher level of thinking what the relationship is between these interconnections and the quantitative, the mechanical-mathematical elements in the world of light and colors.

Goethe wants to trace the connections within the qualitative realm of the color world back to the simplest elements in just as strict a sense as the mathematician or the mechanic does in his sphere. “We must learn from the mathematicians to take care to place next to each other only the elements which are closest to each other, or rather to deduce from each other the elements which are closest to them, and even where we use no calculations, we must always proceed as though we were obliged to render account to the strictest geometrician. — For actually it is the mathematical method which, because of its carefulness and purity, reveals right away any jump in its assertions, and its proofs are actually only detailed expositions showing that what is presented in combination was already there in its simple components and in its whole sequence, was viewed in its full scope and was correctly and irrefutably devised under all conditions” (The Experiment as Mediator between Subject and Object)


Goethe draws the principles of explanation for phenomena directly from the realm of observation. He shows how the phenomena are interconnected within the experienceable world. For grasping nature he rejects mental pictures which point outside the region of observation. Any kind of explanation that oversteps the field of experience by bringing in factors to explain nature which by their very nature are not observable contradicts the Goethean world view. Just such an explanation is the one which seeks the nature of light in a light substance that as such is not perceived itself but that can only be observed as light in its way of working. Among this kind of explanation is the one which reigns in modern natural science, according to which the processes of movement of the world of light are carried out, not by the perceptible qualities which are given to the sense of sight, but rather by the smallest particles of imperceptible matter. It is not contrary to the Goethean world view to picture to oneself that a particular color is connected to a particular process of movement in space. But it is altogether contrary to it to maintain that this process of movement belongs to some realm of reality located outside of experience, belongs to the world of matter which can, indeed, be observed in its effects, but not in its own being. For one who adheres to the Goethean world view the vibrations of light in space are processes which should not be accorded a kind of reality different from the rest of the content of perception. They elude direct observation not because they lie beyond the realm of experience but rather because human sense organs are not so finely organized that they directly perceive movements of such minuteness. If an eye were organized in such a way that it could observe in every detail the vibration of a thing which repeats itself four hundred billion times in one second, then such a process would present itself in exactly the same way as a process in the crudely perceptible world. That means, the vibrating thing would manifest the same characteristics as other things of perception.

Every kind of explanation which traces the things and processes of experience back to other ones not located within the field of experience can attain content-filled mental pictures about this region of reality lying beyond observation only by borrowing certain characteristics from the world of experience and carrying them over onto the unexperienceable. In this way the physicist carries over hardness, impenetrability, onto the smallest elements of bodies, to which he still further ascribes the ability to attract and repel their own kind; on the other hand he does not attribute color, warmth, and other characteristics to these elements. He believes he explains an experienceable process of nature by leading it back to one that is not experienceable. According to Du Bois-Reymond's view, to know nature is to lead the processes in the world of objects back to the movements of atoms which are caused by their attracting and repelling forces (Limits to Knowing Nature, Leipzig, 1882). Matter, the substance filling space, is considered to be what is moving in all this. This substance is supposed to have been there from all eternity and will be there for all eternity. But matter is not supposed to belong to the sphere of observation but rather to be present beyond it. Du Bois-Reymond therefore assumes that man is incapable of knowing the real nature of matter itself, that he therefore leads the processes of the world of objects back to something whose nature will remain forever unknown to him. “We will never know better than we know today what haunts the space here where matter is” (Limits to Knowing Nature). When considered more exactly this concept of matter dissolves into nothing. The real content which one gives to this concept is borrowed from the world of experience. One perceives movements within the world of experience. One feels a pull when one holds a weight in one's hand, and a pressure when one lays a weight upon the palm of one's hand held out horizontally. In order to explain this perception one forms the concept of force. One pictures to oneself that the earth draws the weight to itself. The force itself cannot be perceived. It is ideal. But it belongs nevertheless to the sphere of observation. The mind observes it, because the mind sees the ideal relationships of the perceptions to one another. One is led to the concept of a force of repulsion when squeezing a piece of rubber and then letting it go. It restores itself to its previous shape and size. One pictures to oneself that the compressed parts of the rubber repel each other and again occupy their previous space. The way of thinking now under consideration carries such mental pictures, derived from observation, into an unexperienceable sphere of reality. It therefore in reality does nothing more than to trace something experienceable back to another experienceable something. Only, it arbitrarily shifts the latter into the sphere of the unexperienceable. It can be shown, of any way of picturing things which speaks of something unexperienceable within its view of nature, that it takes up a few scraps from the sphere of experience and relegates them to a sphere of reality located beyond observation. If one takes the scraps of experience out of the mental picture of the unexperienceable, there then remains a concept without content, a non-concept. The explanation of something experienceable can only consist of one's leading it back to something else which is experienceable. One finally arrives at elements within experience which can no longer be traced back to other ones. These are not further explainable, because they need no explanation. They contain their explanation in themselves. Their immediate being consists of what they present to observation. For Goethe, light is such an element. According to his view, a person has come to know the light who without preconception perceives light in its manifestation. The colors arise in connection with light and their arising is understood when one shows how they arise in connection with light. Light itself is given in direct perception. One knows what is ideally inherent in it when one observes what connection there is between it and the colors. From the standpoint of the Goethean world view it is impossible to ask about the real nature of light, about something unexperienceable which corresponds to the phenomenon “light.” “For actually it is a vain undertaking to express the real nature of a thing. We become aware of workings, and a complete history of these workings would very well comprise, if need be, the real nature of that thing.” This means that a complete presentation of the workings of something experienceable comprises all the manifestations which are inherent in it as idea. “We struggle to no avail to portray the character of a person; but put together his actions, his deeds, and a picture of his character will come to meet us. — The colors are deeds of the light, deeds and sufferings (Leiden). [Translator's note: Leiden, like “to suffer,” connotes a positive “allowing,” as well as its more familiar meaning.] In this sense we can expect from them disclosures about the light” (didactic pan of the Color Theory, Preface).

Light presents itself to observation as “the simplest, most undivided, most homogeneous being that we know” (Correspondence with Jacobi). Confronting it is the darkness. For Goethe darkness is not the completely powerless absence of light. It is something active. It confronts the light and enters with it into a mutual interaction. Modern natural science sees darkness as a complete nothingness. According to this view, the light which streams into a dark space has no resistance from the darkness to overcome. Goethe pictures to himself that light and darkness relate to each other like the north and south pole of a magnet. The darkness can weaken the light in its working power. Conversely, the light can limit the energy of the darkness. In both cases color arises. A view in physics that thinks of darkness as that which is completely inactive cannot speak of any such interaction. It must therefore trace the colors back to light alone. Darkness arises for observation as a phenomenon just as much as light does. What is dark is content of perception in the same sense as what is light. The one is only the opposite of the other. The eye that looks out into the night mediates the real perception of darkness. Were the darkness an absolute nothingness, then no perception at all would arise when the human being looks out into the dark.

Yellow is a light which has been dampened by the darkness; blue is a darkness which has been weakened by the light.


The eye is organized to mediate to the mentally picturing organism the phenomena of the world of light and color and the interconnections of these phenomena. In this it does not conduct itself in a merely receptive way but rather enters into a lively interaction with the phenomena. Goethe's striving is to know the nature of this interaction. He regards the eye as something altogether living and wants to gain insight into what its life manifests. How does the eye relate itself to the individual phenomenon? How does it relate itself to the interconnections of the phenomena? Those are questions which he poses himself. Light and darkness, yellow and blue are opposites. How does the eye experience these opposites? It must lie in the nature of the eye that it also experiences the interrelationships that exist between the individual perceptions. For, “the eye has the light to thank for its existence. Out of indifferent animal auxiliary organs, the light calls forth an organ for itself of its own kind; and thus the eye forms itself in connection with the light for the light, so that the inner light can come to meet the outer light” (didactic pan of the Color Theory, Introduction).

Just as light and darkness act in opposition to each other in outer nature, so are the two states, into which the eye is brought by the two phenomena, opposite to each other. When one keeps one's eye open in a dark space, a certain lack makes itself felt. If on the other hand the eye is turned toward a brightly illuminated white surface, it becomes unable for a time to distinguish moderately illuminated objects. Seeing into the dark increases receptivity; seeing into brightness weakens it.

Every impression upon the eye remains for a time within it. Whoever looks at the black cross-pieces between window panes against a bright background will, when he closes his eyes, still have the phenomenon before him for a while. If, while the impression still lasts, one looks at a light gray surface, the cross appears bright, the panes, on the other hand, dark. A reversal of the phenomenon occurs. It follows from this that the eye is predisposed through the one impression to create out of itself the opposite one. Just as in the outer world light and darkness stand in a relationship with each other, so also do the corresponding states in the eye. Goethe pictures to himself that the place in the eye upon which the dark cross fell is rested and receptive to a new impression. Therefore the gray surface works upon it in a livelier way than upon the other places in the eye which previously have received the stronger light from the window panes. The bright produces in the eye an inclination to the dark, the dark an inclination to the bright. If one holds a dark image in front of a light gray surface and, when the image is taken away, looks fixedly upon the same spot, the space which the dark image occupied appears much lighter than the rest of the surface. A gray image against a dark background appears brighter than the same image does against a light background. The eye is predisposed by the dark background to see the image as brighter, but the light background as darker. Through these phenomena there is indicated to Goethe the great activity of the eye “;and the quiet opposition which every living thing is driven to show when any particular state is presented it. Thus, breathing in already presupposes breathing out, and vice versa ... It is the eternal formula of life which manifests itself here also. When the eye is offered the dark, it then demands the bright; it demands dark when one confronts it with bright and precisely through this shows its liveliness, its right to grasp the object by bringing forth from itself something which opposes the object” (Para. 38 of the didactic pan of the Color Theory).

In the same way as light and darkness, color perceptions also call forth a counter activity in the eye. Hold a small piece of yellow paper in front of a moderately illuminated white screen and look fixedly at the small yellow surface. After a while take the paper away. At the place which the paper filled, one will see violet. The eye is predisposed by the impression of the yellow to produce the violet out of itself. In the same way blue will bring forth orange, and red green as a counter activity. Every color sensation therefore has a living connection in the eye with another. The states into which the eye is brought by perceptions stand in a relationship similar to that of the contents of these perceptions in the outer world.


When light and darkness, bright and dark, work upon the eye, then this living organ comes to meet them with its demands; when they work upon things outside in space, then the things enter into interaction with them. Empty space has the characteristic of transparency. It does not at all affect light and darkness. These shine through it in their own lively nature. The case is different when space is filled with things. This filling of space can be such that the eye does not become aware of it because light and darkness in their original form shine right through it. Then one speaks of transparent things. If light and darkness do not shine unweakened through a thing, then it is called turbid. A turbid filling of space offers the possibility of observing light and darkness, bright and dark in their mutual relationship. Something bright, seen through something turbid, appears yellow; something dark, seen through something turbid, appears blue. What is turbid is something material which has been brightened by light. Against a brighter livelier light located behind it, what is turbid is dark; against a darkness that shines through it, it acts like something bright. Therefore, when something turbid confronts the light or darkness, there really work into one another an existing brightness and an existing dark.

If the turbidity, through which the light is shining, gradually increases, then the yellow passes over into yellowish red and then into ruby red. If the turbidity, through which the dark is penetrating, lessens, then the blue goes over into indigo and finally into violet. Yellow and blue are basic colors. They arise through the working together of brightness or dark with turbidity. Both can take on a reddish tone, the former through an increasing of the turbidity, the latter by a lessening of it. Red, accordingly, is not a basic color. It appears as a color tone connected to yellow or blue. Yellow, with its reddish nuances which intensify as far as pure red, is close to the light; blue, with its shades, is related to the darkness. When blue and yellow mix, green arises; if blue which has been intensified to violet mixes with yellow which has been darkened into red, then the purple color arises.

Goethe pursues these basic phenomena within nature. The bright disk of the sun, seen through a haze of turbid vapors, appears yellow. Dark cosmic space, viewed through the vapors of the atmosphere which are illumined by the light of day, presents itself as the blue of the heavens. “In the same way the mountains also appear blue to us: for, through our viewing them at such a distance that we no longer see their local colors, and that light from their surfaces no longer works upon our eye, they act as a pure dark object which now appears blue through the vapors between them and us” (Para. 156 of the didactic part of the Color Theory).

Out of his absorption in the works of painters the need grew in Goethe to penetrate into the laws to which the phenomena of the sense of sight are subject. Every painting presented him with riddles. How does chiaroscuro relate to the colors? In what relationships do the individual colors stand to one another? Why does yellow give a happy mood, blue a serious one? Out of the Newtonian theory of color there was no way of gaining a viewpoint from which these mysteries could be revealed. This view traces all colors back to light, arranges them sequentially side by side, and says nothing about their relationships to the dark, and also nothing about their living connections to each other. From insights gained along his own path, Goethe was able to solve the riddles which art had posed him. Yellow must possess a happy, cheerful, mildly stimulating character, for it is the color closest to light. It arises through the slightest toning down of the light. Blue points to the dark which works in it. Therefore it gives a feeling of cold just as “it also reminds one of shadows.” Reddish yellow arises through the intensification of yellow toward the dark pole. Through this intensification its energy grows. The happy, cheerful feeling passes over into the blissful. As soon as the intensification goes still further, from reddish yellow into yellowish red, the happy, blissful feeling transforms itself into the impression of something forceful. Violet is blue which is striving toward the bright. Through this the restfulness and cold of blue become restlessness. In bluish red this restlessness experiences a further increase. Pure red stands in the middle between yellowish red and bluish red. The storminess of the yellow appears lessened, the languid restfulness of the blue enlivens itself. The red gives the impression of ideal contentment, of the equalizing of opposites. A feeling of contentment also arises through green, which is a mixture of yellow and blue. But because here the cheerfulness of the yellow is not intensified, and the restfulness of the blue is not disturbed by a reddish tone, the contentment will be a purer one than that which red brings forth.


When a color is brought to it, the eye right away asks for another one. When it looks at yellow, there arises in it the longing for violet; when it perceives blue, it then demands orange; when it sees red, it then desires green. It is comprehensible that the feeling of contentment arises when, beside a color which is presented to the eye, another one is placed for which, in accordance with its nature, it is striving. The law of color harmony results from the nature of the eye. Colors which the eye asks for side by side have a harmonious effect. If two colors appear side by side which do not ask for each other, then the eye is stimulated to react. The juxtaposition of yellow and purple has something one-sided, but happy and magnificent. The eye wants violet next to yellow in order to be able to live in accordance with its nature. If purple takes the place of violet then the object asserts its claims over against those of the eye. It does not accomodate itself to the demands of this organ. Juxtapositions of this kind serve to indicate what is significant about the things. They do not want unconditionally to satisfy but rather to characterize. Those colors lend themselves to such characteristic connections which do not stand in complete opposition to each other but which also do not go directly over into each other. Juxtapositions of this latter kind give something characterless to the things on which they occur.

The becoming and being of the phenomena of light and colors revealed itself to Goethe in nature. He also recognized it again in the creations of the painters in which it is raised to a higher level, is translated into the spiritual. Through his observations of the perceptions of sight Goethe gained a deep insight into the relationship of nature and an. He must have been thinking of this when, after the completion of the Color Theory, he wrote to Frau von Stein about these observations: “I do not regret having sacrificed so much time to them. Through them I have attained a culture which would have been difficult for me to acquire from any other side.”

The Goethean color theory differs from that of Newton and of those physicists who construct their views upon Newton's mental pictures, because Goethe takes his start from a world view different from that of these physicists. Someone who does not really see the connection described here between Goethe's general picture of nature and his theory of color cannot do anything other than believe that Goethe came to his views on color because he lacked a sense for the physicist's genuine methods of observation. Someone with insight into this connection will also see that within the Goethean world view no other theory of color is possible than his. He would not have been able to think differently about the nature of color phenomena than he did, even if all the discoveries made since his time had been spread out before him, and if he himself could have employed with exactness the modern experimental methods which have become so refined. Even if, after becoming aware of the discovery of the Frauenhofer lines, he cannot fully incorporate them into his view of nature, neither they nor any other discovery in the realm of optics contradict his conception. The point in all this is only to build up this Goethean conception in such a way that these phenomena fit themselves into this conception. Admittedly, someone who stands on the point of view of the Newtonian conception would not be able to picture to himself anything of Goethe's views on colors. But this does not stem from the fact that such a physicist knows of phenomena which contradict the Goethean conception but rather from the fact that he has accustomed himself to a view of nature which hinders him from knowing what the Goethean view of nature actually wants.