I have recently studied, as part of my MA in Social Sculpture, a couple of articles on the use of Goethe’s Scientific method in observing both objects (Talking with History: Using Goethe’s Scientific Approach with Human Artefacts by Jim Davis) and landscape (Goethean Science as a Way to Read Landscape by Iris Brook). Both these articles, whilst using different methodologies, share the same aim; to show how Goethe’s approach to phenomena, can lead to an understanding of the subject (in these instances, an object and the landscape) which runs much deeper than a more ‘traditional’ objective view.
For his approach, Jim Davis uses “a series of questions that Floris Lowndes (2000) uses for organising one of Rudolf Steiner’s meditation exercises.” The questions in his methodology are (preceded by a defining keyword):
a) physical: What is it made of? What are its properties?
b) historical: How is it made? How is it used?
c) emotional: Why this design? What are my feelings about it?
d) creative: Who created it? Invented it?
e) desire/need: What need or desire led to its invention?
f) origins, background: What preceded it? What was its context?
g) archetype: What is the concept of the thing? Other forms?
These questions are, he explains, “are a set of ‘canned riddles’ that formalize and direct the conversation which leads from the physical objects to a form that can only be grasped imaginatively or intuitively. By working through the questions from a) to g), the process follows Goethe’s ‘genetic method’ of proceeding from empirical observation to archetype.”
I have written in detail about my application of this methodology in a ‘conversation’ I had with a Lira da Braccio in The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but what I was particularly interested in, was how this method allowed me, through my imagination, to visit the past of this musical instrument more directly than I would have managed before.
The second article by Iris Brook, describes her use of “Goethean observation as a means of surveying and appraising landscape…”. She describes her methodology as follows:
a) Exact sense perception: “…the observer attempt[s] to approach the object from a clearer, more objective standpoint.. This stage was called by Goethe, exact sense perception and is characterised by a detailed observation of all the ‘bare facts’ of the phenomenon that are available to our ordinary senses. It is an attempt to see what is present with as little personal judgement and evaluation as possible.”
b) Exact sensorial fantasy: “The second stage of looking at the phenomenon is what Goethe called ‘exact sensorial fantasy’ (Exact sinnliche Phantasie). An aspect of this activity is to perceive the time-life of the phenomenon, that is to see the phenomenon in time. This means no longer seeing the thing in an objective frozen present as prompted by the first stage, but as a thing with history. That history can be drawn from the phenomenon with the use of an imaginative faculty that cultivates temporal and physical relationships…”
c) Seeing in beholding: “In the third stage one attempts to still active perception to allow the thing to express itself through the observer. We attempt to step outside of what has gone before and make space for the thing to articulate in its own way.”
d) Being one with the subject: “Being one with the object in this fourth stage allows the human ability to conceptualise to serve the thing: we lend it this human capacity. When the phenomenon being explored does not have the ability to think, it is the most participatory part of Goethean observation.”
What interested me about Iris Brook’s approach was how it allowed the landscape she was studying to reveal itself (its gesture), while Brook herself, through her ‘perception, imagination, inspiration and intuition’, becomes “one with nature”, understanding the landscape’s position within the wider landscape not only in a physical sense but also in a temporal one.
The phrase “one with nature” comes not from any book on Goethe (although there might be just such a phrase in one of the many available) but a book by Lucien Stryk on the Haiku of Massuo Kinsaku (1644-94) who later became known as Basho; it’s in his collection of travel sketches, The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, that he writes:
“… All who achieve greatness in art… possess one thing in common: they are one with nature.”
This phrase shares much with Goethe’s approach, in that following the methodology as described by Brook, one does indeed become “one with the subject” which in her case was a “60-acre parcel of land that lies at the foot of the north-facing slopes of the Lammermuir Hills, 20 miles east of Edinburgh.”
Stryk states: “Basho’s discussion of poetry was always tinged by Zen thought, and what in his maturity he advocated above all was the realization on muga [no-self, selflessness, non-ego or ecstasy] so close an identification with the things one writes of that self is forgotten. As Zen’s Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (637-712), put it, one should not look at, but as, the object.”
The forgetting of self and becoming the object, are absolutely the same as what Brook describes in the fourth stage of the methodology
One of Basho’s disciples, Doho, writes of a conversation he had with the poet: “The master said, ‘Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo stalk from a bamboo stalk.’
What he meant was that the poet should detach his mind from self… and enter into the object, sharing its delicate life and feelings whereupon a poem forms itself. Description of the object is not enough: unless a poem contains feelings which have come from the object, the object and the poet’s self will be separate things.”
The similarities between this advice and that offered by Goethe is striking. Regarding the advice recalled by Doho, Stryk writes: “To give an indication of the influence of such comments on subsequent practice of the art, a contemporary haiku school, Tenro, possesses a creed, Shasei (on-the-spot composition, with the subject ‘traced to its origin’), virtually based on the theoretical statements and practice of Basho. Tenro has some two thousand members all over Japan, and it is customary for groups to meet at a designated spot, perhaps a Zen temple in a place famous for its pines or bamboo, and there write as many as one hundred haiku in a day, attempting to enter the object,’ share its delicate life and feelings.'”