Goethe's "Delicate Empiricism": Assessing Its Value for Australian Ecologists

Article excerpt


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), although known primarily as a German poet and playwright, was also a natural scientist. His areas of scientific endeavour were considerable, encompassing colour, anatomy, geology, meteorology and botany (Magnus, 1949; Seamon, 2005). However, it is not Goethe's discoveries, but rather, his unique investigative method termed "delicate empiricism" (Bywater, 2005; Robbins, 2005), that is relevant to Australian ecologists.

Goethe recognised the importance and power of the rational, analytical, quantifying, "conventional scientific" approach (as used by his contemporaries, e.g. Newton), yet he questioned whether it was the only way to develop meaningful knowledge about nature. Hoffmann (1994a) writes that Goethe often perceived "conventional science" to overlook, obscure or even destroy what was most precious about a living entity. According to Robbins (2005), Goethe saw scientists acting as detached controllers, manipulators and predictors of nature, who discovered knowledge of the world through quantitative analysis of phenomena under experimental conditions, where the world of human experience is reduced in meaning to simple cause and effect relations.

Robbins (2005) explains that in contrast to "conventional" scientists, Goethe did not work on the basis of there being a dichotomy between himself and the outer world. Seamon (2005) and Wahl (2005) highlight that Goethe sought to understand his surrounds in intimate, dynamic, living terms; in order to achieve a participatory engagement with nature (Seamon, 2005; Wahl, 2005). More specifically, Goethe's approach is said to have involved paying focused and sustained attention to subjects (as opposed to objects), and using empathy, intuition and imagination as the basis for realising insights (Schilling, 2007; Wahl, 2005). Goethe reportedly avoided the use of preconceived categorisation and classification schemes, preferring an uninfluenced viewpoint (Hoffmann, 1994a; Schilling, 2007); and placed emphasis on secondary qualities, (i.e. raw qualities registered by our senses of sight, touch, taste and smell), rather than primary qualities, (i.e. measurable qualities that can be transformed into mathematical models) (Bortoft, 1996; Seamon, 2005). According to Robbins (2005) and Seamon (2005), by giving primacy to perception uninfluenced by scientific categorisation and focusing on secondary qualities, Goethe found subjects to become intelligible within themselves, without the use of external explanatory agencies such as mathematical abstractions.

A number of interpretations of "delicate empiricism" exist, and the method has been applied to a range of subjects including European landscapes, Australian native plants, granite outcroppings, animals and even social development processes (Brook 1998; Cameron, 2005; Colquhoun, 1997; Hoffmann, 1994a; Kaplan, 2005; Seamon, 2005; Vereijken, van Gelder, & Baars 1997). In the European landscape studies of Brook (1998), Colquhoun (1997) and Vereijken, van Gelder, & Baars (1997), "delicate empiricism" has been used to analyse and appreciate landscape appearance, form, function, context and metamorphosis through time. These studies have essentially sought to understand the "character" of their respective landscapes; and have used this understanding to inform land-use design.

The work of Brook (1998), Colquhoun (1997) and Vereijken, van Gelder, & Baars (1997) provided a foundation for the first likely application of Goethe's approach in an Australian landscape ecology study, in the Brigalow Belt, Queensland. This application took place as part of the author's PhD research, which also involved studying the Brigalow Belt landscape using "conventional", reductionist scientific methods (Bradley, 2006). The purpose of this paper is to describe the application and outcomes of "delicate empiricism" and to assess its value for Australian ecologists. …