Robert Richards
University of Chicago
In 1853, two decades after Goethe’s death, Hermann von Helmholtz, who had just become professor of anatomy at Königsberg, delivered an evaluation of the poet=s contributions to science.1 The young Helmholtz lamented Goethe=s stubborn rejection of Newton =s prism experiments. Goethe=s theory of light and color simply broke on the rocks of his poetic genius. The tragedy, though, was not repeated in biological science. In Helmholtz=s estimation, Goethe had advanced in this area two singular and “uncommonly fruitful” ideas.2 The poet recognized, first, that the anatomical structures of various kinds of animals revealed a unity type underlying the superficial differences arising from variability of food, habit, and locality. His second lasting achievement was the related theory of the metamorphosis of organisms: the thesis that the various articulations within an organism developed out of a more basic kind of structure—that, for instance, the different parts of plants were metamorphosed leaves or that the various bones of the animal skull were but transformed vertebrae. These two general morphological conceptions, according to Helmholtz, grounded the biology flourishing at 1 mid-century. Goethe came to these ideas, Helmholtz shrewdly maintained, as the result of a poetically intuitive conception.3 He described, for instance, Goethe=s immediate recognition, while playfully tossing around a sheep=s skull on the Lido in Venice, that the fused bones of the battered cranium consisted of transmuted vertebrae. This experience resulted in the poet=s vertebral theory of the skull, which became a standard conception in later morphology.4 Poetic intuition thus liberated an idea initially embedded in matter and made it available to the analytic understanding of the scientist. Forty years later, in 1892, at the meeting of the Goethe Society in Weimar, Helmholtz returned to reexamine the poet=s scientific accomplishments, and, it would seem, implicitly his own; for by the end of his career, Helmholtz himself had achieved a position in German culture only a few steps below that of Goethe.5 His evaluation of Goethe=s achievements in physical science was now more complex than his earlier assessment had been.
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