Goethe as a Pathway to Meaning and Connection – A Dissertation by Richard Widows

Richard Widows

Richard Widows

As I am sure some of you will know, in our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, we delve into Goethe’s way of seeing through his work on colour, his work with plants, and from the phenomenological and hermeneutical approach of Henri Bortoft.

Maria and I did so to emphasise the dynamic way of seeing, and exploring both the dynamic conception of wholeness and the importance of understanding appearance of phenomena in economics and business. As we tell people, Holonomics is about putting the wholeness back into economics, not just analytically, but through a sensory-intuitive reconnection with the livingness of life.

I am therefore extremely pleased to be able publish this second dissertation by Holistic Science student Richard Widows who examines Goethe’s way of science as a pathway to meaning and connection.

Goethe as a Pathway to Connection and Meaning

Goethe as a Pathway to Meaning and Connection

In this excellent dissertation, Richard explores Goethe through his work on plants. As Richard explains, Goethe’s way of science can not be easily understood simply by studying:

In Goethe’s approach to science, we have a thoroughly developed and delicate empiricism, designed specifically to overcome the barriers that Goethe perceived as preventing our deeper connection to the natural world. But one of the greatest barriers to Goethe’s approach is that it cannot be easily explained, it can only, genuinely, be experienced.

And so it is that this dissertation represents an exploration into the world of Goethe and his science, from a personal perspective, reflecting on the question – is Goethe a pathway to connection and meaning in the world?

Richard also explains what he means by “connection and meaning” in relation to science, economics and ecology:

At a time when I believe our disconnection from the natural world around us represents possibly the single biggest threat to our survival as a human species, does Goethe’s specific philosophy and approach to science offer a pathway towards reestablishing that lost connection?

From my own perspective, the rewards of a profound study of Goethe’s science, and continual practice, is the way in which Goethe leads us towards the experiencing of intuitive insights. This notion of intuition is central to Richard’s exploration:

What Goethe is referring to here is the previously mentioned concept of intuitive knowledge or knowledge in beholding. Goethe believed that man, via the strict adherence to his thoroughly developed scientific method, could align himself with the phenomenon of study, thereby allowing it to communicate with him via insight and intuition. This central thesis will form the basis of my exploration of Goethe’s delicate empiricism.

The difficulty though is that Goethe in his lifetime did not lay out explicitly any exact process for future Goethean scientists to follow. Richard discovered this during his year at Schumacher College, and so in this dissertation Richard makes the effort to describe the process, dividing it up into three concrete steps, and then two further stages which are more about creative insight that actual doing.

Goethian Science teaching building

Maria at Pishwanton

In coming to his own realisation of the meaning of Goethe’s way of science, Richard was taught first by Craig Holdrege, and then by Margaret Colquhoun who like Maria and I, he visited at her Goethen science centre Pishwanton in Scotland (see my article: A Sense of Place: Pishwanton for more photos).

The essence of Richard’s dissertation is an unfolding of his understanding of Goethe’s process of knowing a phenomena. Different people have explored this process in different ways, and the value in this dissertation is in the clarity of Richard’s description of how he understands them:

Step 1: Preparation, Meeting the Phenomenon, and First Impression

Step 2: Exact Sensorial Perception

Step 3: Exact Sensorial Imagination

Stage 4: Seeing in Beholding

Stage 5: Being One with the Object

I would not want to give one stage more prominence than another, but for me Richard manages to capture the objective of this method in terms of the scientist coming to know the livingness in nature. It is this livingness that is missed in more traditional scientific approaches to the study of nature, and is where we can find our re-connection to nature:

Goethe, in his writings on morphology said – “If we wish to arrive at some living perception of nature we ourselves must remain as quick and flexible as nature and follow the example she gives” (Goethe, in Miller, 1998, pg.64). Essentially, what I feel Goethe is saying here is that we cannot hope to perceive the constantly evolving world of living nature simply by gathering up information relating to a specific and static point in time, as we achieved in step 2, and as is the practice in science more broadly. If we are to achieve a living perception of nature we must learn to think in a way that reflects the living world.

Studying the dynamic growth of the tree with Margaret Colquhoun at Schumacher College. Photo: Simon Robinson

Studying the dynamic growth of the tree with Margaret Colquhoun at Schumacher College. Photo: Simon Robinson

I have repeated myself many times in telling people that the masters degree in Holistic Science at Schumacher College is a learning journey, one that at times can be emotional, frustrating and challenging. I feel that Richard is to be commended in articulating this aspect explicitly in his study. As you read the dissertation, Richard talks more about both his battles and discoveries and insights that this Goethean approach to science rewards the enquirer with. It is however, as Richard notes, a spiralling journey to ever more depths of understanding:

Simultaneously the most wonderful and challenging aspect of Goethe’s epistemology is that every time I have felt that I have begun to understand a concept, I have, in actuality, only dropped down to a deeper level of understanding, at which point I have found myself similarly perplexed once again. This richness, so unique to Goethe, makes him both difficult and extraordinarily compelling at the same time.

I really enjoyed reading Richard’s dissertation, and am grateful for him to allow me to share it with you. It connects well with Louise’s dissertation which I published last week, concluding with some observations about the role of myth in holistic science, an aspect which itself is the basis of Louise’s own journey (see What if Human Beings Could Experience Life and Death Simultaneously? A Dissertation by Louise Pardoe).

Richard ends his dissertation with a new beginning, and I wish him well on his next steps in his career and life, enriched with a hugely transformative year at Schumacher College.


To find out more about Holistic Science at Schumacher College please see: www.schumachercollege.org.uk/courses/msc-holistic-science

Related Articles

What if Human Beings Could Experience Life and Death Simultaneously? A Dissertation by Louise Pardoe

A Sense of Place: Pishwanton

Book review: Thinking Like a Plant: A Living Science for Life by Craig Holdrege

2 responses to “Goethe as a Pathway to Meaning and Connection – A Dissertation by Richard Widows

  1. Yes, thank you both for sharing this! Richard describes to a tee the process of becoming with Goethean science, I honestly do not think there is an end; I am completely at home when immersed in this. I wish I could clone Schumacher and place it here close to me. -)

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