The Experiment as Mediator between Subject and Object

By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


As soon as a human being becomes aware of the objects which surround him does he start looking at them in relation to himself. After all, his own well-being depends on whether he finds them attractive or repulsive, and on whether they are useful or noxious. This natural way to look at things is as easy as it is necessary, yet it is also fraught with the numberless perils of self-deception.

Those who take on the hard work of inquiry, observing natural objects for the sake of coming to know them in and for themselves, lose the 'natural' way which has served them to see everything from a self-centered perspective. And this is just the point: the true investigator must renounce the measure that relies on pleasure and displeasure, on attraction and repulsion, utility and harm. The scholarly inquirer must be indifferent and detached, somewhat reminiscent of a divine being, to find out what IS in truth, and not what pleases and feels comfortable. A botanist should not be moved by the beauties, nor the medicinal properties, of a plant. He must study the specimen's attributes and its affinities, i.e. family resemblances, with other plants. His attention should be as steady and detached as the sun's rays, when he surveys the objects of his scrutiny, and it is from the things themselves that his investigation's measure must derive.

The difficulties of this renunciation and self-objectification scientific inquiry and scholarship demand can be found in the accounts of the history of science. How, in the attempt to overcome obstacles, man invents hypotheses, theories, systems and other products of the imagination, I will show in this essay's second part. The first part deals with man's attempt to simply come to know and comprehend the forces of nature. The history of physics, I'm currently reading, gives me an opportunity to reflect on this. Hence the writing of this essay flows from an endeavor to bring before my mind the general features of how distinguished men have done service as well as disservice to the scientific study of nature.

As soon as we observe objectively, i.e. free of desire and repulsion, an object isolated from its context, as well as embedded in it, we arrive by calm attention at the faculty to mentally depict and grasp the object's definition, idea or concept. The more assiduously we persist, the sharper become our powers of observation. If we know to utilize this faculty of observation to our own advantage, people call us smart.(*1) To be shrewd, or smart in this basic sense, is not particularly difficult for a human being who is well organized and of moderate habits, due to his nature or the defining circumstances of his life, since it is life itself that is our teacher, correcting every step we take. But when the scientific observer attempts to utilize this very power of shrewd judgment to penetrate nature's secrets, seemingly insuperable difficulties begin to loom. All by himself he enters a world where he must guard each step, beware of haste, stay tethered to his purpose, while also heeding the leading and misleading pointers on the way. More or less solitary, neither helped nor hindered by external controls, the scholar-scientist must watch sternly over his own behavior amidst his energetic efforts. One can see that these are stern and strict demands, and one must hope against the odds to fulfil them. No obstacle must impede the attempts to proceed methodically with the inquiry as far as is humanly possible.

Now, we may grasp this process better by bringing before our minds some of the ways and means by which first-rate scientists enhanced, strayed from, and rejoined their discipline.

Experience,(*2) no doubt, holds sway in just about everything, including the study

of the natural sciences. Yet this fact must not diminish our appreciation for the independent and creative powers of the soul. It is the soul, or mind, who apprehends, discovers, shapes and elaborates these experiences in the form of well-designed experiments, based on keen observations. Still, how these experiences we generate as experimenters come to be construed and comprehended, utilized and related to one another, not to mention how our intellective powers must in turn be nurtured and refined to function at their best, that is rarely asked. Not enough is known, so far, about these inter-active processes and the invitation to study them, though not widely received, is timely.- As soon as smart people, and there are many more of them than one may be at first inclined to think, are asked to look attentively at objects, one realizes much talent and skill in observation. I was able to notice this frequently in conversations with non-experts, ever since I started my research into light and colors (Licht und Farbenlehre) as part of my work on optics. When challenged to attention by questions in my work, people perceived phenomena I had failed to notice. Thus, non-experts corrected time and again an idea I had

rashly formulated and lifted my inquiry above its narrow personal confines.

Here, as in other human endeavors, it is evident that the active attention of many, when concentrated on one point, produces excellence. Hence it is plain that the envy for sole honors, by which some scientists seek to bar others from taking part in discovery, is an obstacle to science. I find collaboration indeed useful, even enjoyable, and will publish the names of all who lend their help. Since people and their observations are already an asset to science, how much greater will be the profit accruing from the collaboration of the educated! Scientific inquiry is in and of itself of such cumulative powers that it carries humans onward, whereas no single human being can carry Science. The accumulated knowledge, somewhat comparable to an enclosed, yet living part of the ocean, rises to a certain level. Thus the most marvelous discoveries are not only due to individual human efforts, but also to the times. This is why breakthrough discoveries are often made in more than one place simultaneously, by the most gifted and practiced contemporaneous minds. Whether science owes its discoveries to society, including lay contributions, or to the Zeitgeist at large in the world, either way, we better recognize how much scientific advance relies on information exchange, public disclosure, collaboration between laity and experts, cultural memory, and critical public debate.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge requires an approach directly opposite to the creative arts. An artist better finish a work without letting the public in on the process, since no advice, or helping hand, is likely to do any good. But once the work is finished and exhibited, the artist must take criticism, good and bad, to heart, learn from it and use it in preparation for his next project. In scientific endeavors, by contrast, it is advantageous to communicate at every step of the experiment, even preparatory ones, with the public. No scientific theory, or system, is tenable unless all its particulars are scrutinized in public discussion.- Having said that much about conditions for scientific inquiry in general, I

now turn to the point that deserves fullest attention, namely the scientific method by which to work for the attainment of near-certain knowledge.- When we repeat the tests made by us and others in the field under conditions of tight control, we call this the experimental method. An experiment's value consists in its repeatability whenever circumstances, equipment, ingenuity and trained skill permit. We have every right to admire the intellective faculties that unceasingly invent new experiments in the search for scientific knowledge. Let us remember no matter how valuable any single experiment may be, its true significance is derived from combinations with and connections to other experiments. But to focus on two fairly similar experiments in combination takes such a steady gaze that even the most disciplined scientists may, intermittently, waver and fall short. Two phenomena may seem to simply follow one another, whereas many intermediate links are still waiting to be discovered and observed so that their natural sequence can be tentatively traced and step-by-step established.

One cannot be sufficiently careful to prevent a quick jump from empirical experiment(s) to theoretic conclusion and must decline temptations to hastily 'prove' a theory . At the very points of transition from experience to deliberate theory, and, later, from theory to application, lie in wait all the foes of the human soul. Here the scientist's imagination soars like an eagle, while he still believes to have his feet on the ground. Impatience, haste, self-satisfaction and complacency, rigidity, preconceptions, prejudices, indolence, frivolousness, fickleness and many other members of the fiendish gang, all are here amassed and lie in ambush ready for attack to score a triumph over the passionately engaged, as well as the cooly detached, scientist.- A paradox I wish to offer may help me in warning the kind reader against this everpresent threat and spur his curiosity. To wit: No experiment, not singly, nor in combination, ever provides sufficient grounds for proof. No preconception, i.e., prejudice combined with wishful thinking, is more dangerous to science then the belief that a theory can be proven directly, that is without mediation, empirically by experiment(s). The biggest mistakes stem from the fact that this direct method's dangers and grave inadequacies so often go unrecognized. I do not mean to spread scepticism and to encourage doubt! But I do insist on patience with uncertainty and on developing a method that relies on mediation for the sake of arriving at a well-grounded theoretic judgment, a verdict worthy of its name. It befits us to remember that each experiment we make and repeat is but an isolated part of our knowledge, a fragment, or splinter, whose certainty status is but derived from and secured by repetition. We may learn of two experiments in the same discipline and easily fall into the wrong belief that they are closely related. This is in keeping with our 'natural' epistemological predisposition, amply on display in science's history where this mistake is recorded time and again. Almost needless to say, I'm also used to observing myself making mistakes of this kind day after day.

This error points to a closely related one that is quite probably antecedent. Many people take their greatest pleasure in things of the imagination and privilege the imaginary realm over and above the things that constitute objective reality. To say the same in a different way: humans naturally find pleasure with something to the extent that it is posited by and in the imagination. This imagined and thus only virtual entity must fit people's particular mentality. And, never mind how far somebody may lift his imagination over and above that which is common, or how intensely he purifies the imagined things, the progeny of the imagination (*3) remains just that: phantasy's unruly offspring. From this imaginary realm derive the attempts to devise relationships among objects that, strictly speaking, do not exist. What issues from these spinnings and weavings of the imagination are theories, terminologies, and entire systematic structures we have to somehow accept, or at least come to terms with, since they originate from and are produced by the workings of our own innermost nature.

If one is mindful on the one hand, that every experiment has to be understood as a discrete unit, while, on the other, the human mind is propelled, nay, compelled, by its own monstrous force to connect whatever is external to it as soon as it enters its field of awareness, one comes to keenly appreciate the risks provoked by our willful desire to subsume the results of each experiment under a preconceived notion. The danger of creating a chimaera intensifies when single experiments and their connections, no matter how well imagined they may be, are marshalled as proofs for theoretical statements, i.e. pseudo-veridical pronouncements, issued solely on the wild, still untamed strength of innate mental prowess.

Such feasts of the imagination issue in theories and systems that, on occasion quite deservedly, start an author's reputation. But fame tends to engender a pious, i.e., uncritical acceptance of the work by the larger public and thus, ironically, delays the human mind's advance which is the system builders's professed goal. - By the way, it should be noticed how a well turned head comes up with artful tricks in inverse proportion to the information base at his disposal: the less data, the more elaborately decked out the artifice! Such a bold intellect will, as if to show that he is the master, call on a few favorite notions who flatter his amour-propre, arranging others so as to avoid opposition, and getting rid of all opposition by intrigue or force. Thus the finished piece of work bears no likeness whatsoever to a free republic where truth can be openly pursued, but rather resembles the deceitful court of an oriental tyrant.

An author of a system, once he succeeds in persuading others that his work is indeed significant, will be lacking neither in admirers nor disciples, who will study his teachings in the light of history and appropriate their master's manners with words and ideas as much as possible. Thus a doctrine comes to be perpetuated and popularized by the educated classes. It may even rise to such exalted heights of prominence that anybody audacious enough to voice reservations, or doubts, is charged with insolence. Only after much time has passed will such a holy of holies be called into question, common sense vindicated, and the fog of illusory , and often noxious ideology, scattered.

Yet it is not enough to point out dangers and issue warnings. One has to find and give examples. In the first part of this essay, I criticized attempts to prove the veracity of a theory by simply relying on the unmediated results of empirical experiments. This criticism carried the implication that mediation may be indispensable in the advancement of science. Since this essay's goal is simply to state the case on behalf of mediation, I will enlarge on this point: Whatever happens in and by nature is inter-connected. Though experiments furnish facts about phenomena isolated from their matrix, they do not thereby prove that the matrix does not exist, or can be simply disregarded. We saw already that theories drawn directly from empirical data derived from various experiments are often mistaken, while research that stays with one object as the subject of experimentation, exploring with thoroughness all possible modifications, achieves solid results. A separate study is called for on how far reason's role and rule extend in experimental investigation. Here a brief sketch will have to suffice. Since all things in nature partake in her dynamic power, one can observe throughout the rhythms, as well as spasms, of countervailing forces. It follows that each phenomenon is connected to numberless others, reminiscent of a star seen as a point of light, dispersing single rays in all directions. Scientific investigations occur within spaces of contending forces, and adequate research has to allow for patterns where analysis and synthesis are working in a mutually challenging complementary partnership.

As soon as we perform an experiment, record the procedure and note the results we should look for the potential consequences the experiment itself may entail. Our attention must hold steady on what follows from the experiment as such, rather than cast about and ricochet on the surface of things, capriciously chasing often purely imaginary connections. It is the scientists who stay with the questions that follow from a successful experiment, exploring every new possibility and multiplying tests concentrating on established findings, who set the standards for scientific inquiry.

A writer whose profession it is to entertain must prevent boredom and leave a lot unsaid to make room for the reader's thoughts and imagination. However, the scientist must labor, without respite, as if he were determined to put successors out of work, while still recalling, in timely fashion, the huge gap separating human reason from the full knowledge of the nature of things. No single man, or generation, has the capability to reach a lastingly true conclusion since, after all, the growth of knowledge depends on cooperative endeavors sustained over time.- I may have been able to furnish a small sampling of the experimental method in the first two instalments of my Optics. There I describe an uninterrupted chain of inter-linked tests, a sequence which also can be looked at as a whole unit whose various tests are but aspects of the same experiment, seen from a variety of perspectives. Such composite experiments yield a more general, more abstract, or higher, formula under which particular editions of such tests can be subsumed and expressed. This is especially the case in mathematics. To pursue such general formulations as elements in theory-building of the adequate kind, is the scientist's aim with science's luminaries as ready examples. Step by exacting step, they draw their accurate inferences toward ascending generalities, akin in their thoughtfulness and exactitude to the working method of mathematicians.

Mathematics exposes immediately any rash movement of thought, and dismisses as false the assertions, deductions, inferences and conclusions that have not been obtained by its step-by-step method of flawless connections. Mathematical proofs exhibit how each step in the solution of a problem is capable of being formulated in sequence. Hence mathematical demonstrations resemble logical expositions and recapitulations rather than the presentations of arguments. This points up the big difference between scientific reasoning in the mathematical mode and the proofs, offered by speakers and writers, by dint of rhetorical argument. An argument is often based on an isolated occurrence, brought into more or less fanciful relationships. Yet a good speaker can create and persuasively project an imaginary point of convergence that clinches his argument where the weaker cause is made to look the stronger, or the converse. The same can be said when it comes to oratorical skill to render deception as truth, and, more rarely, although just as perplexingly, of truth as deception. In my view, a skilled speaker may easily arrange the results of single, barely connected experiments in such a way that they appear to furnish proof for this or that hypothesis, or even theory, and take his audience along to embrace a dazzling, albeit merely fictitious, conclusion.

By contrast, somebody who prefers honest dealings with himself and with others will critically and patiently examine each experiment to find the more abstract formula. Each finding can be put in brief, plain sentences which, by and by, come to form a flawless sequence: each single sentence, i.e. each link in the sequential chain, has been shown to be accurate, so each part and the entire sequence stand firm and cannot be overturned. Each link can be tested and re-verified. In this case it is easy to judge whether the salient findings from the combined experiments can be validly expressed by generalization, since this procedure accords with the scientific search for truth, free from the capricious tyranny

of the misapplied imagination with rhetoric as abettor. Beware! The rhetorical method does not aim to prove anything about relations that obtain in reality! Its arguments cunningly connive to assert claims about a reality that is mere fabrication where points are won in shadow contests. Its pronouncements are shaky at best and the verdicts it seeks to impose are gotten by theft and stealth. By comparison, the products of the scientific method stand firm. Wit, reason, even the imagination may dispute them and the claims they entail. Criticism will not upset but help strengthen their validity as components in the large enterprise of attaining scientific knowledge.

Following the working method of true scientists, I hope to find the right approach to realize my research contribution to optics. Gathering previously established data and re-verifiying results of key experiments will help me to enlarge the subject matter and to discover new connections of wider interest to the public. In collaboration, I will set forth, within the limits of my abilities, the generalizations the inquiry's results permit to be drawn. The capstone of the inquiry will be the question whether the already established findings lend themselves to be cautiously placed under the umbrella of a general theory. Should fancy, wit, or the itchings of the intellect prompt me to impatience and rash thought, my adherence to the scientific method will temper this intemperance and make them submit to the measure of patient and attentive labors.

April 28, 1792




*1) The German adjective klug is used here by Goethe in various subtle, as well as common meanings: shrewd, savvy, smart, prudent, capable of deliberate judgment based on lessons of experience. Most of all klug entails foresight drawn from observations on the workings of human nature. In classical Greek, Gnome is the equivalent of klug, or rather of the noun Klugheit. It is an attribute of the human mind, one of its endowments, virtues, or excellences. Gnome forms part of Aristotles notion of practical wisdom, or prudence (Phronesis) in the same way that Klugheit partakes of Kant's moral faculty of practical reason, or praktische Vernunft. Thucydides holds that the historian's task is one of moral and intellectual education. The record of events he composes is intended to serve and stengthen the capacity of citizens to use their prudential faculties deliberately, not emotionally, to shape the politics of their state. This stress on Gnome is maintained throughout his work where the events of the Peloponnesian war provide one of the grimmest exposures of human failure to heed the counsels of prudence. The tragedy following in the wake of this failure makes the case for posterity to strengthen political prudence by responsible education and uphold the power of rationality during crises. Goethe's use of "klug" fuses the modern with classical meanings and points up how scientific endeavors strengthen democratic tendencies by connecting, in new ways, the private and public spheres.

*2) Experience is the english term for Erfahrung as well as Erlebnis. To experience something, in the sense of Erfahrung means to learn, actively, or passively; to experience in the sense of Erlebnis puts the stress on the inner life. Goethe sums up in this short paragraph here the way he sees the active and passive principle, as well as the objective and subjective dimensions of reality combining in these two distinct types of experience.

The third sentence promotes concerted investigations into the mind's, i.e. soul's capabilities, especially how these powers achieve their own potential by engaging creatively with objective reality. Much of this reminds of the psychology of the great American thinker William James who may have been familiar with Goethe's writings.

*3) Progeny of the imagination is a phrase used here to translate Goethe's generous umbrella term "Vorstellungsarten". The "Arten der Vorstellung" include the products of both faculties: of Vorstellung, as well as of Einbildung. Both terms translate into English as imagination. Goethe knew the imagination's, or phantasy's propensities in all their variety. Wary of the temptings of the imagination's unbridled caprice, he looked for ways to make her obedient to the ongoing work of the Muses. In short, although a poet, he privileged the 'real' and its copies in our world of appearance over the rhetorical contrivances of the merely 'virtual'. - As an aside: Goethe transcends the fight between the poets and the philosophers, since he recognizes the platonic transcendent/transcendental ground of both language practices.