Guest Blog: Roland Playle – What is a ‘Goethean inquiry’?

MSc group

I last caught up with Roland when a group of us Schumacher College MSc alumni got together last year for the happy occasion of a wedding of our friends Ben and Zemfira (see my short blog about this Dialogue on Goethe). Not only was the wedding fantastic, but it was an opportunity for us to meet physically and discuss Goethe, since we were all spread across the globe. In this article Roland explains what is meant by a Goethian enquiry, and its implications for scientific research.

This coming March Roland will be facilitating a one week course Holistic Science Now – a Schumacher College Inquiry at Schumacher College with many of the world’s leading thinkers and practitioners of Goethian and Holistic Science in order to explore how Holistic Science can be used to address the social, ecological and economic challenges of today.

What is a ‘Goethean inquiry’?

Roland Playle

Goethean Science is a way of conducting scientific research developed by the German poet and scientist Johann von Goethe. Goethe’s method has been employed and adapted to study a variety of different subjects ranging from biological form, geology, ecology and social processes. Goethean principles fuse ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ perceptions, finding a way to move beyond objectified analyses of phenomena. The method is one that values qualities as much a quantities in the process of knowledge production and meaning-making. Being based in an objective scientific method, the process of inquiry carries a rigour and sophistication that allows consensus to emerge around the qualities inherent in phenomena. The mode of inquiry is participatory and experiential in that it engages the multiple facets of human thought, feeling, intuition and sense-perception.

Goethean Science has been applied to the study of social processes in a number of ways. In 2009 for example, a group of bankers and artists from London gathered to inquire into the financial crisis. This unlikely gathering was organised for bankers to reflect on their actions and positions regarding the crisis, while the artists sought to gain a deeper knowledge of the times they were living in. The inquiry enabled the bankers to gain deeper insights into their own positions regarding the broader economic climate. Many of them noticed how their resistance to change in continuing their unsustainable banking practices, lay very much at the core of their involvement in events leading to the crisis itself. This recognition allowed a number of the bankers to change their working practices and address the culture of their working environment in new ways.

The process of Goethean Science sheds light on the relations that exist between specific and individual instances or perspectives, and encourages a ‘joined-up’ way of seeing. Working in a group in this way, facilitates a broadened perspective that allows inquirers to gain a reflexive perspective on their own way of seeing and relating to things. This process is often the catalyst or trigger that brings genuine and novel personal transformation.

In another example of a social Goethean process, a group of Maori community health workers engaged in an inquiry to better understand how they could bring about health interventions in their community. By entering into the connections that existed between the many problems they saw in their township, such as the failing septic systems, waste dumping and issues around land accessibility, they came to an unexpected finding. The participants were struck to notice that the river running through their township had increasingly become neglected by the community over a number of decades. The river which had in the past, served as the heart and source of wealth for the community, was now slowly becoming a less important part of people’s lives and had become increasingly polluted as a result of the neglect. The health workers felt that the lack of a sense of belonging to the river and their township lay at the heart of the issue of a healthy community and were inspired to set up a number of community projects that focussed on the river. (See The case of the Talking River in Holistic Science Journal Vol. 2,1)

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