Goethe’s experience was that feeling, when cultivated, can become transformed into organs of highly differentiated perception. Just as the rudimentary organ of light sensation that we find in the lower animals has developed into the highly evolved optical instrument of the human eye, so the sensitivity of the human soul is capable of evolving from a primitive sense of our own pleasure and pain into an organ that is responsive to the whole spectrum of qualities displayed by the manifold beings in the world around us. Thus the elemental power of our passions – desire, fear, sympathy and revulsion – can gradually be transformed into compassion: into the selfless capacity to feel-with, to experience and perceive the inner nature of the other. This transformation of our feelings into transparent organs of perception takes place as we are able to permeate them with ever greater powers of consciousness. Our feelings then no longer rule over us as half-conscious moods. They become balanced organs of active perception.


By participating in the specific quality of a colour, a sound, a plant or animal, we bring it to life within ourselves. This vivid inner experience is then not subjective: for through it we come to perceive the essential nature of the object in question. Goethe wrote: “Every new object, well observed, opens up a new organ of perception within us”.* Only through what reverberates and comes to life within us can we perceive the inner, essential nature of the object. The object presents itself to our senses as a riddle: it gives us all the clues. However, we can only find the solution within ourselves. The solution is nothing other than the essential being of which the clues are the manifestations. This essential nature of the object becomes inwardly tangible in the form of a feeling that is so permeated with consciousness, so clear and distinct, that it becomes a cognitive feeling. At this stage our feelings become knowledge or insight; our insight is permeated with feeling. We now have the deeply satisfying experience of seeing the object, in all its outer manifestations, as the revelation of its living inner lawfulness. It is as though we were beholding the object for the first time. Now, at last, we are able to see it in its full, dynamic reality. Just staring at the colour yellow, for example, will reveal nothing of its character. Only through our inner participation in its quality will we come to experience its essential aesthetic-moral nature. Thus we are only able to perceive the essential character of an object when it awakens as an inner experience within us.


With his study of colour Goethe laid down the foundations of a qualitative science. Analytical, quantitative science deals with the purely physical, spatial aspect of the world. The science of metamorphosis explores the formative principles of the organic world that live in the dimension of time. Goethe’s science of colour is research into yet deeper dimensions of reality that manifest as specific qualities.


Engaging in science on this level is equivalent to learning nature’s language. We are already conversant with the “body language” of the human being: with the physiognomic language of a smile or a scowl, of a gesture or a particular posture. We understand it so readily because we ourselves are constantly using it, consciously or not, to express our own inner state of being. In order to experience the language of nature, however, we must develop the capacity to live into its qualities as intimately and strongly as we are able to live into the physiognomy or gesture of another human being. As a poet, Goethe possessed the perceptive feeling capacity to experience this language and to bring it to expression in his writing. However, he also felt the need to order his experience, and to grasp its inner lawfulness with his thinking. Goethe was therefore predisposed to develop a qualitative, or physiognomic science.


Through his studies, Goethe achieved an understanding of colour as the deeds and sufferings – the vibrant language – of light. He planned to undertake a similar study of tone. Eventually this scientific approach will advance towards an experiential understanding of all things as the physiognomic expression of their essential inner being, whether they be minerals, trees, animals, people, landscapes or planets. Then our present alienation from nature will be overcome, and we will be able to see through the appearances into the heart of things.

                                      from John Barnes, Goethe and the Power of Rhythm, Adonis Press, 1999.  


* Goethe, "Significant Help Given by an Ingenious Turn of Phrase", in Suhrkamp Edition in 12 volumes, New York, 1988.                                   

Goethe, Plant study (watercolour)

Goethe, drawings of modular units in insects

A documentary on Goethe's science of colours, produced for the  Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the Danish Ministry of Culture

"This is the colour nearest to light . . . In its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character".

Goethe, from his Theory of Colours