• Michael Martin

Goethe and the Possibility of a Catholic Science


Andre Masson, 'Goethe and the Metamorphosis of Plants,' 1940, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

We live in times charged by the political. This is true in the arts and sciences no less than economics and the sphere of rights. It is also a quality that permeates religion. This may be due to what seems to be a deeply held human need to form allegiances, to belong, to find protection from a hostile environment. As Wilhelm Reich observed, the inhabitants of that most hostile of environments, the desert, “armor” themselves (or are armored by evolutionary processes) and their forms—as in lizards and cacti, for example—are characterized by sharp spines, hardened skin surfaces and cortices, and a general inhospitality to touch. Human beings raised in hostile psychological environments, thought Reich, likewise armor themselves.[1] The propensity to turn to the political, then, may indeed be a psychological reflex; that is, a pathology. The political (or, more properly, ideology), becomes in this way the persona, the mask through which one faces the world and behind which one hides from the world. Any identity can become a persona; that of the scientist is no exception.


The German poet, philosopher, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), anticipating Husserl’s phenomenological revolution by the better part of a century, provides us with a welcome method for subverting this human, all too human, tendency. He starts with a simple question:

When contemplating nature, whether in great things or small, I have constantly asked myself the question: is it the object which is here declaring itself, or is it you yourself? And this is also my stance to predecessors and fellow workers.[2]

Much later, philosopher Jean-Luc Marion would call the tendency to find oneself and aspirations in phenomena by another name: idolatry.[3]


To avoid this methodological, political, and, ultimately, spiritual trap, Goethe advocates what he calls “a delicate form of empiricism,” a method of inquiry “which enters into the closest union with its object and is therefore transformed into an actual theory,” although he cautions us that “this heightening of spiritual capacity belongs to a highly civilized epoch.”[4] As David Seamon has observed, “Goethe’s way of science was highly unusual because it moved away from a quantitative, analytic approach to the natural world and emphasized, instead, an intimate firsthand encounter between the student and the thing studied.”[5] The reciprocity of such a method suggests the reality of what Alfred North Whitehead called “mutual immanence.”[6] Goethe’s hoped-for epoch has, almost two-hundred years later, failed to arrive, and his method is antithetical, heretical even, to what he disparaged as the “gloomy empirical-mechanical-dogmatic torture chamber” employed by the descendants of Francis Bacon, and of Isaac Newton in particular: a method which has persisted into our own epoch.[7] Indeed, our epoch has proved the apotheosis of the torture chamber.


A hodgepodge of Catholic popular historians of science are fond of pointing to the ways in which Catholic scientists—such as Gregor Mendel or Georges Lemaitre, for example—have contributed to the success of the hard sciences’ Enlightenment paradigm, as if their contributions constitute some kind of cultural legitimacy. Let me say this clearly: such apologetic moves are the machinations of the desperate. Indeed, these unconvincing apologetic gestures more accurately point to a species of cultural schizophrenia as they reify the secular/religious binary. Some of these same Catholic scholars in their desperate zeal for legitimacy even point to René Descartes and Marin Mersenne as exemplary Catholic scientists. Pourquois? Because this or that scientist was a practicing Catholic—usually simultaneously conforming to the norms of his discipline on the one hand and the dogmas of his Church on the other—says nothing about a Catholic science. Nothing.


My claim is that Goethe’s method is much closer to the notion of a Catholic science than any other method of scientific inquiry presently available. Goethe’s delicate empiricism, first of all, is characterized by Ehrfurcht, reverence: reverence, above all, for the phenomenon before one, be it a flower, an owl, a geode, the rising sun, or a piece of writing. That is to say, reverence for creation. This is not to suggest that contemporary scientists (or even Goethe’s contemporaries) do not at some point come to reverence for their subject. I am sure it is quite common. But how different would science be—and our experience of the sciences—if reverence were the foundation for its method? It is not just something for children.


Goethe’s method allows the phenomenon to be present to the observer—but also allows the observer to be present to the phenomenon. For Goethe, the so-called “scientific method,” with its reliance on experiment and the use of apparatus, rather than allowing phenomena to be present, actually works as a kind of filter or screen between phenomenon and observer—to the point where the phenomenon is in danger of not really being seen or experienced. The reason for this apprehension is that Goethe sees apparatus as only focused on a part of the phenomenon at the expense of the whole:

Nothing happens in living nature that does not bear some relation to the whole. The empirical evidence may seem quite isolated, we may view our experiments as mere isolated facts, but this is not to say that they are, in fact, isolated.[8]

Living is the key term here: through reverence, the life of the phenomenon becomes apparent to the observer. This leads to an observation of Goethe’s still applicable to the academy: “In general the sciences put some distance between themselves and life, and make their way back to it only by a roundabout path.”[9] Goethe’s statement applies just as much to the humanities and social sciences as it does to mathematics and the hard sciences. Attention to life and to the splendor that sometimes shines through phenomena is good Catholic science.


Oddly it would seem, science—as well as philosophy—does not quite seem to know what life is, or at least it seems to be limited in its understanding of what it terms “life.” Evolutionary biologists, for instance, often point to Haeckel’s concept of an Urschleim[10] (often translated as “primordial soup,” but more accurately “primordial slime”) as the source of all life on earth and suggest that the experiments undertaken by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey in the early 1950s, in which they bombarded ammonia and methane with energy in order to generate life, indicate some proof of the notion. Some days after their bombardment (note the metaphor), some amino acids and nucleotides appeared in their alembic, though not exactly “living” cells. Nevertheless, evolutionary textbooks often add an impressive coda to their exegesis on the primordial soup: “Thus life began.”[11] There is a better name for theories like this: creation myth.[12]


Coming to terms with what is denoted by the word “life” offers an important epistemological and ontological field of activity in which science, philosophy, theology, and the arts can equally participate. That is to say that a multivalent, holographic investigation into the notion of “life” can prove to be the starting point of a truly Catholic science, a truly Catholic philosophy and theology, a true Catholic art.



[1] See Myron Sharaf, Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich (New York: St. Martin’s Press/Marek, 1983), 311–14 and 443.


[2] Maxim 593, from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, trans. Elizabeth Stopp, ed. Peter Hutchinson (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 79.


[3] Particularly in The Idol and Distance: Five Studies, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001) and God without Being: Hors Texte, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).


[4] Maxim 565. Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, 75.


[5] David Seamon, “Goethe’s Way of Science as a Phenomenology of Nature,” Janus Head 8, no. 1 (2005): 86 – 101, at 86–87.


[6] Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures in Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 168–70.


[7] Maxim 430. Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, 55.


[8] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Experiment as Mediator between Object and Subject (1792)” in Scientific Studies, ed. and trans. Douglas Miller, Goethe’s Collected Works, vol. 12. (New York: Suhrkamp Publishers, 1988), 15.


[9] Goethe, Scientific Studies, 306.


[10] See the discussion on Haeckel’s proposal in Mario A. Di Gregorio, From Here to Eternity: Ernst Haeckel and Scientific Faith (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005), 434 – 35.


[11] Mary Maxwell, Human Evolution: A Philosophical Anthropology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 18.


[12] Stuart A. Kauffman argues that scientists will be able “to create life anew sometime in the next hundred years,” but this is rather the eschatological equivalent of the primordial soup creation myth. See his Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 46.


This is an excerpt from Michael Martin's forthcoming book, Transfiguration: Notes toward the Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything, set to appear this Fall from Angelico Press.

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