In the editing of Goethe's natural-scientific writings, for which I was responsible, I was guided by the thought of enlivening the study of the particulars in these writings by presenting the magnificent world of ideas that underlies them. It is my conviction that every single assertion of Goethe's acquires an entirely new sense — its rightful sense, in fact — if one approaches it with a full understanding for his profound and comprehensive world view. There is no denying the fact that many of Goethe's statements on natural-scientific matters seem entirely insignificant when one considers them from the standpoint of modern science, which has progressed so far in the meantime. But this is not a matter for any further consideration at all. The point is what a given statement of Goethe's signifies within his world view. Upon the spiritual heights on which the poet stands, his scientific needs are also more intense. Without scientific needs, however, there is no science. What questions did Goethe address to nature? That is what is important. Whether and how he answered them are matters of only secondary consideration. If today we have more adequate means, a richer experience — well, then we will succeed in finding more comprehensive solutions to the questions he posed. But my expositions are meant to show that we can do no more than just this: to proceed with our greater means upon the paths he marked out for us. What we should learn from him, therefore, above all else, is how one should address questions to nature.
One overlooks the main point if one does not credit Goethe with anything more than having given us many an observation that was rediscovered by later research, and that constitutes today an important part of our world view. The important thing for him was not at all the communicated finding, but rather the way in which he arrived at it. He himself declares appropriately: “With the opinions that one risks, it is like pieces that one pushes forward on the board; they can be taken, but they have initiated a game that will be won.” He arrived at a method thoroughly in accord with nature. He sought, with the help of those means available, to introduce this method into science. It may be the case that the individual results he attained by this have been transformed by the progress of science; hut the scientific process that he introduced is a lasting gain for science.
These points of view could not be without influence upon the arrangement of the materials to be published. One can, with some seeming justification, ask: Why, since I have already departed from the order of the writings that has been usual until now, did I not right away take the route that seems recommended over all the others: to bring the general scientific writings in the first volume, the organic, mineralogical, and meteorological ones in the second volume, and those on physics in the third. The first volume would then contain the general points of view, and the following volumes the particular elaborations of the basic thoughts. As tempting as this might be, it could never have occurred to me to use this arrangement. In doing so, I would not have been able coming back to Goethe's comparison once more — to achieve what I wanted: by the pieces that are risked first, to make the plan of the game recognizable.
Nothing was farther from Goethe's nature than taking one's start in a conscious way from general concepts. He always takes his start from concrete facts, compares and orders them. During this activity, the ideas underlying the facts occur to him. It is a great mistake to assert that, because of that familiar enough remark he made about the idea of Faust, it is not ideas that are the driving principle in Goethe's creative work. In his contemplation of things, after he has stripped away everything incidental, everything unessential, there remains something for him that is idea in his sense. The method Goethe employs remains — even there where he lifts himself to the idea — one that is founded upon pure experience. For, nowhere does he allow a subjective ingredient to slip into his research. He only frees the phenomena from what is incidental in order to penetrate into their deeper foundations. His subject has no other task than that of arranging the object in such a way that it discloses its innermost nature. “The true is Godlike; it does not appear directly; we must divine it from its manifestations.” The point is to bring these manifestations into such a relationship that the “true” appears. The true, the idea, already lies within the fact which we confront in observation; we must only remove the covering that conceals it from us. The true scientific method consists in the removing of this covering. Goethe took this path. And we must follow him upon it if we wish to penetrate completely into his nature. In other words: we must begin with Goethe's studies on organic nature, because he began with them. Here there first revealed itself to him a rich content of ideas that we then find again as components in his general and methodological essays. If we want to understand these last, we must already have filled ourselves with that content. The essays on method are mere networks of thought for someone who is not intent upon following the path Goethe followed. As to the studies on physical phenomena: they first arose for Goethe as a consequence of his view of nature.