Thursday, April 19, 2007
When Goethe writes that his Theory of Colors aims to show “the circumstances under which [colors] simply appear and are, and beyond which no further explanation of them is possible” (Theory of Colors , trans. Charles Lock Eastlake  [MIT P, 1970], lviii), it sounds as though he aspires to produce a critique of colors. Goethe’s text is filled with the critical jargon of “exhibit[ion] . . . in an unbroken series,” “demands [for] completeness” (lvi, §60) , and the like; yet its relation to Kant is characterized by contradiction. Trying to be both critical and empirical, Goethe discovers fundamental conditions that are themselves perceptual objects, and calls these “primordial phenomena, because nothing appreciable by the senses lies beyond them” (72). In reception, Goethe’s strategy was sometimes accounted a retrograde refusal to work with principles that cannot be experienced directly, and hence a misunderstanding of Kant as well as of Newton. The reception of Goethe’s text is one of the crucial instances in which dilettantism is opposed pejoratively to rationalism. Goethe’s dilettantism (he himself used the word) is thought to be located mainly not in his amateurism—in his not having the time or skill to learn optics—but in his nonnegotiable attachment to sensuous experience, which drives him to configure color theory around experience of color rather than the laws of optics. Nonetheless, Goethe’s contradictions are Kantian too in a way.
Goethe himself thinks he would like to distance his observations from contingent subjective illusions. The first part of the Farbenlehre distinguishes three concepts of color in ascending order of objectivity: “physiological” colors for which the eye is responsible; “physical” colors that are produced by “material mediums” outside the eye, which are objective yet qualified by transience (56); and “chemical” colors that are “produce[d]” and “more or less fix[ed] in certain bodies” (201). Within the categories, there are hierarchical subcategories: within the subjective colors, there are colors that “belong to the eye in the healthy state” and are considered “necessary conditions of vision” (2). These healthy physiological colors are correlatives of the faculties of the human apparatus that generate appearance as we know it. For Goethe, the circumstance that a color is subjective in origin is not yet a reason to discount it. Goethe writes of the healthy physiological colors, “they have been hitherto looked upon as extrinsic and casual, as illusion and infirmity: their appearances have been known from ancient date; but, as they were too evanescent to be arrested, they were banished into the region of phantoms” (1). If Goethe does a better job than his predecessors of observing these evanescent phenomena, it is because he believes that irregularity is superficial and with patience can be found in conformity with another regularity. (This trait endeared him to Mitchell Feigenbaum, the Los Alamos fractals and chaos theorist.) The treatise is structured by the rhythm of gathering in supposedly marginal phenomena. Goethe begins by rehabilitating physiological colors; but just as immediately, his dependence on necessity to validate subjective perception requires him to create a new category of “pathological colors” that lack this necessity, even as they too “indicate in like matter the existence of organic and physical laws” (45). Goethe identifies pathologies of color that are effects of literal illnesses (for example, typhoid patients “see the boundaries of objects colored where light and dark meet” ). More metaphorically, he finds pathology in something like melancholic memory—an after-image that lingers on the retina “in morbid affections of the eye for fourteen, seventeen minutes, or even longer . . . . indicates extreme weakness of the organ, its inability to recover itself” (10, 51)—and in its temporal obverse, a susceptibility to color characteristic of “savage nations, uneducated people, and children” (55). In this conception of color as an excitement that the human system is concerned to control, involuntary vulnerabilities of excessive appetite and lasting influence are potentially morbid.
Goethe’s attitude toward the pathological colors diminishes the distance between the normal and the pathological by hoping for an objectivity in subjectivity, a deeper regularity in irregularity that “with some method we may . . . approach” (47). The event of refraction [brechung] becomes one of the emblems of this hope, since in it “a derangement or displacement of the object seen, or to be seen, takes place” (78) and yet is recovered by calculation. The reflection involved in the recovery even reveals more than if the displacement had never occurred. In the same way “a distant object appears to us smaller; and precisely by this means we are aware of distance”; or “we produced colored appearances on colorless objects, through colorless mediums, and at the same moment our attention was called to the degree of opacity in the medium” (72-73). For Goethe, the wavelike rhythm of a method in pursuit of a mutable object depends on whether “the relations are truly seen” (75) by an observer who lets the phenomena wash over him until “mutability, inasmuch as it exhibits itself as a constant quality, again becomes a criterion of a mutable vitality” (292).
For Goethe’s readers, including at moments Goethe himself, the science of error toward which he gropes becomes an erroneous science because he refuses to see the value in explaining experience with something other than it. The second volume of Goethe’s treatise has been read as discrediting the first by devolving into an ad hominem attack on Newton; what justifies the attack for Goethe and makes it the counterpart of the first volume’s collected observations of color is what he believes to be the incoherence of Newton’s recourse to an idea of color beyond experience (in different structures of light that refract color variably, as Newton proposes). Goethe instead restricts himself to “rules and laws, which, however, are not to be made intelligible by words and hypotheses to the understanding merely, but at the same time, by real phenomena to the senses” (72). Given this restriction, he can declare definitionally that we have “much reason . . . in actual observation to guard against the assumption of parallel rays, bundles and fasces of rays, and the like hypothetical notions” (107). We could point out that it is circular to state that “in actual observation” we may not be served by constructs that were never claimed to be observable, and that Newton is not trying to substitute an abstract structure of color for the experience of it, any more than he would substitute the experience of it for an explanation of it. Goethe’s assertion that “we should take care not to suffer such a postulate to be equivalent to a fact” (129) seems to assume that constructs that can never be observed should never have the value, for us, of those that can.
In her discussion of the Farbenlehre’s dynamics of narrative and form Claudia Brodsky cites a contemporary condemnation of Goethe’s text as “the stillborn playing of an autodidactic dilettante” [“totgeborene Speilerei eines autodidaktischen Dilettanten”] (Brodsky, The Imposition of Form: Studies in Narrative Representation and Knowledge [Princeton UP, 1987], 95n). Thomas Young’s 1814 review called Goethe’s text a “striking example of the perversion of the human faculties” (“Zur Farbenlehre. On the Doctrine of Colours. By Goethe,” Quarterly Review, X (Jan. 1814), 427-44). Frederick Burwick explains Young’s ire by the fact that “as he saw it, Goethe had allowed his dilettante pursuit to grow into a ‘malady’” (Burwick, The Damnation of Newton: Goethe’s Color Theory and Romantic Perception. Quellen und Forschungen zur Sprach- und Kultur-geschichte der germanischen Völker, n.s. 86 [De Gruyter, 1986], 41-42). Goethe’s critics locate his dilettantism in his willful persistences and resistances: in the impression that he cannot or will not subordinate his sensory attachments. As Dennis Sepper points out, in Helmholtz’s 1853 lecture on Goethe’s scientific work “the poet-artist,” rather like the child and the savage,
thinks that ideas must be immediate rather than abstract, and just as a work of art must not be subjected to any rending analysis that destroys it, neither should nature be rent by torturing experiment and abstraction….Goethe, the poet par excellence, was unable to grasp precisely that abstract concepts are necessary to all real science. Direct, sensuous observation cannot substitute for well-defined concepts worked out by the intellect. . . . The duty of the scientist, on the other hand, is to discover the mechanisms of matter behind appearances. (Quoted in Sepper, Goethe Contra Newton: Polemics and the Project for a New Science of Color [Cambridge UP, 1988]).
Helmholtz points out that Goethe’s assumption that our experience must be compelling to us just because it is our experience cannot carry over to what we value as either method or knowledge. But, again, what it means to overvalue appearance is made a respectable question by Kant’s analysis of transcendental illusion—including those “questions,” as Kant puts it, which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is not able to answer.” To understand why Goethe was able to misread the First Critique is to understand how the human sciences were opened up and unsettled by thinking about the phenomenology of appearances after the First Critique’s normalization of transcendental illusion. As soon as illusory appearances and patterns of thought turn out to have their own stability and necessity, sciences of error become possible, and the new notion of real appearance brings with it the notion of normal pathology.