Aug 282015


Today is the birthday (1749) of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer, scientist, and statesman. His body of work includes epic and lyric poetry; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; treatises on botany, anatomy, and color; and four novels. In addition, numerous literary and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and nearly 3,000 drawings by him are extant. A literary celebrity by the age of 25, Goethe was ennobled by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Karl August, in 1782 after first taking up residence there in November 1775 following the success of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. He was an early participant in the Sturm und Drang literary movement. During his first ten years in Weimar, Goethe served as a member of the Duke’s privy council, sat on the war and highway commissions, oversaw the reopening of silver mines in nearby Ilmenau, and implemented a series of administrative reforms at the University of Jena. He also contributed to the planning of Weimar’s botanical park and the rebuilding of its Ducal Palace, which in 1998 were together designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After returning from a tour of Italy in 1788, his first major scientific work, the Metamorphosis of Plants, was published. In 1791 he was made managing director of the theatre at Weimar, and in 1794 he began a friendship with the dramatist, historian, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, whose plays he premiered until Schiller’s death in 1805. During this period Goethe published his second novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the verse epic Hermann and Dorothea, and, in 1808, the first part of his most celebrated drama, Faust. His conversations and various common undertakings throughout the 1790s with Schiller, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Johann Gottfried Herder, Alexander von Humboldt, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and August and Friedrich Schlegel have, in later years, been collectively termed Weimar Classicism.

I’m going to work on my usual principle of assuming you either know Goethe or you don’t, so dribbling on about his writings is going to bore you or annoy you (possibly both). Instead I will do two things. First, I present a few of potentially thousands of poignant quotes. Second, I give you a brief outline of his theory of color which has had a major impact on philosophers, psychologists, and artists even though it radically conflicts with Newton and physical science.


   One must be something in order to do something.

I have found a paper of mine among some others in which I call architecture ‘petrified music.’ Really there is something in this; the tone of mind produced by architecture approaches the effect of music.

The artist may be well advised to keep his work to himself till it is completed, because no one can readily help him or advise him with it…but the scientist is wiser not to withhold a single finding or a single conjecture from publicity.

Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, And in their pleasure takes joy, even as though it were his own.

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit — this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.

 A true German can’t stand the French,
Yet gladly he drinks their wines.

In The Theory of Colors (original German title Zur Farbenlehre) Goethe lays out his views on the nature of colors and how they are perceived by humans. Published in 1810, it contains detailed descriptions of phenomena such as colored shadows, refraction, and chromatic aberration. The work originated in Goethe’s occupation with painting and had a major influence on painters (e.g. Philipp Otto Runge, J. M. W. Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, Wassily Kandinsky). Although rejected by mainstream physics it influenced philosophers and certain physicists including Thomas Johann Seebeck, Arthur Schopenhauer (On Vision and Colors), Hermann von Helmholtz, Rudolf Steiner, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Werner Heisenberg, Kurt Gödel, and Mitchell Feigenbaum.


Goethe’s book provides a catalogue of how color is perceived in a wide variety of circumstances, and considers Isaac Newton’s observations to be special cases. Unlike Newton, Goethe’s concern was not so much with the analytic treatment of color, as with the qualities of how phenomena are perceived. Philosophers have come to understand the distinction between the optical spectrum, as observed by Newton, and the phenomenon of human color perception as presented by Goethe—a subject analyzed at length by Wittgenstein in his exegesis of Goethe in Remarks on Colour.

In Goethe’s time, it was generally acknowledged that, as Isaac Newton had shown in his Opticks in 1704, colorless (white) light is split up into its component colors when directed through a prism. As Goethe notes Louis Bertrand Castel had already published a criticism of Newton’s spectral description of prismatic color in 1740 in which he observed that the sequence of colors split by a prism depended on the distance from the prism — and that Newton was looking at a special case.


in Between Light and Eye Alex Kentsis says:

Whereas Newton observed the colour spectrum cast on a wall at a fixed distance away from the prism, Goethe observed the cast spectrum on a white card which was progressively moved away from the prism… As the card was moved away, the projected image elongated, gradually assuming an elliptical shape, and the coloured images became larger, finally merging at the centre to produce green. Moving the card farther led to the increase in the size of the image, until finally the spectrum described by Newton in the Opticks was produced… The image cast by the refracted beam was not fixed, but rather developed with increasing distance from the prism. Consequently, Goethe saw the particular distance chosen by Newton to prove the second proposition of the Opticks as capriciously imposed.


Unlike his contemporaries, Goethe didn’t see darkness as an absence of light, but rather as polar to and interacting with light; color resulted from this interaction of light and shadow. For Goethe, light is “the simplest most undivided most homogenous being that we know. Confronting it is the darkness” Based on his experiments with turbid media, Goethe characterized color as arising from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light. Rudolf Steiner, the science editor for the Kurschner edition of Goethe’s works, gave the following analogy:

Modern natural science sees darkness as a complete nothingness. According to this view, the light which streams into a dark space has no resistance from the darkness to overcome. Goethe pictures to himself that light and darkness relate to each other like the north and south pole of a magnet. The darkness can weaken the light in its working power. Conversely, the light can limit the energy of the darkness. In both cases color arises.

Goethe says,

Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness; Blue is a darkness weakened by light.

Goethe’s studies of color began with experiments which examined the effects of turbid media, such as air, dust, and moisture on the perception of light and dark. The poet observed that light seen through a turbid medium appears yellow, and darkness seen through an illuminated medium appears blue.

The highest degree of light, such as that of the sun… is for the most part colourless. This light, however, seen through a medium but very slightly thickened, appears to us yellow. If the density of such a medium be increased, or if its volume become greater, we shall see the light gradually assume a yellow-red hue, which at last deepens to a ruby colour. If on the other hand darkness is seen through a semi-transparent medium, which is itself illumined by a light striking on it, a blue colour appears: this becomes lighter and paler as the density of the medium is increased, but on the contrary appears darker and deeper the more transparent the medium becomes: in the least degree of dimness short of absolute transparence, always supposing a perfectly colourless medium, this deep blue approaches the most beautiful violet.

He then proceeds with numerous experiments, systematically observing the effects of rarefied media such as dust, air, and moisture on the perception of color.


When viewed through a prism, the orientation of a light–dark boundary with respect to the prism’s axis is significant. With white above a dark boundary, we observe the light extending a blue-violet edge into the dark area; whereas dark above a light boundary results in a red-yellow edge extending into the light area. Goethe was intrigued by this difference. He felt that this arising of color at light–dark boundaries was fundamental to the creation of the spectrum (which he considered to be a compound phenomenon). Since the color phenomenon relies on the adjacency of light and dark, there are two ways to produce a spectrum: with a light beam in a dark room, and with a dark beam (i.e., a shadow) in a light room.

Goethe recorded the sequence of colors projected at various distances from a prism for both cases. In both cases, he found that the yellow and blue edges remain closest to the side which is light, and red and violet edges remain closest to the side which is dark. At a certain distance, these edges overlap—and we obtain Newton’s spectrum. When these edges overlap in a light spectrum, green results; when they overlap in a dark spectrum, magenta results.

With a light spectrum (i.e. a shaft of light in a surrounding darkness), we find yellow-red colours along the top edge, and blue-violet colours along the bottom edge. The spectrum with green in the middle arises only where the blue-violet edges overlap the yellow-red edges.

With a dark spectrum (i.e., a shadow surrounded by light), we find violet-blue along the top edge, and red-yellow along the bottom edge — and where these edges overlap, we find (extraspectral) magenta.

When the eye sees a colour it is immediately excited and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original colour, comprehends the whole chromatic scale.


Goethe proposed a symmetric color wheel. He writes,

The chromatic circle… [is] arranged in a general way according to the natural order… for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange [demands] blue; purple [demands] green; and vice versa: thus… all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler colour demanding the compound, and vice versa.

In the same way that light and dark spectra yielded green from the mixture of blue and yellow — Goethe completed his color wheel by recognizing the importance of magenta. For Newton, only spectral colors could count as fundamental. By contrast, Goethe’s more empirical approach led him to recognize the essential role of magenta in a complete color circle, a role that it still has in all modern color systems.


Goethe also included aesthetic qualities in his color wheel, under the title of “allegorical, symbolic, mystic use of colour” (Allegorischer, symbolischer, mystischer Gebrauch der Farbe), establishing a kind of color psychology. He associated red with the “beautiful”, orange with the “noble”, yellow to the “good”, green to the “useful”, blue to the “common”, and violet to the “unnecessary”. These six qualities were assigned to four categories of human cognition, the rational (Vernunft) to the beautiful and the noble (red and orange), the intellectual (Verstand) to the good and the useful (yellow and green), the sensual (Sinnlichkeit) to the useful and the common (green and blue) and, closing the circle, imagination (Phantasie) to both the unnecessary and the beautiful (purple and red).

In simple terms, Newton’s understanding of color was devoid of interest in color as it is perceived by humans whereas Goethe’s studies embraced it. This intrigues me because I have often written on what Max Weber calls the “disenchantment of the world” induced by Enlightenment scientific thinking whereby humans and human perception are subtracted from the process. Physical science is essentially inhuman.

Goethe was initially induced to occupy himself with the study of color by the questions of hue in painting. “During his first journey to Italy (1786-88), he noticed that artists were able to enunciate rules for virtually all the elements of painting and drawing except color and coloring. In the years 1786—88, Goethe began investigating whether one could ascertain rules to govern the artistic use of color.”


After being translated into English by Charles Eastlake in 1840, Goethe’s theory became widely adopted by the art world – especially among the Pre-Raphaelites. J. M. W. Turner studied it comprehensively and referenced it in the titles of several paintings. Wassily Kandinsky considered it “one of the most important works.”


Goethe spent much of his professional life in Weimar but his home town was Frankfurt which has many culinary specialties. Obviously this includes the Frankfurt sausage, forebear of the hot dog. But I will pass over them because I have covered hot dogs quite enough, and, in any case, hot dogs bear only a superficial resemblance to the original. Rather, I will talk about Grüne Soße or Grüne Sosse (Green Sauce) which reputedly was created in Frankfurt, and, according to his mother, was Goethe’s favorite. The Frankfurt-style ( where it is sometimes called “Grie Soß” or “Grie Soss”) is made from hard-boiled eggs, oil, vinegar, salt, sour cream, and generous amounts of seven fresh herbs, namely borage, sorrel, garden cress, chervil, chives, parsley, and salad burnet. Variants, often due to seasonal availability, include dill, shallots, lovage, lemon balm, and even spinach. In more frugal times, daisy leaves, broad plantain leaves, and dandelion leaves were also used.. In Grüne Soße, the eggs are hard-boiled, then sieved or pureed before being mixed with sour cream to form the creamy base of the sauce. The fresh chopped herbs are then added. Some variations use buttermilk, quark, or yogurt instead of sour cream.

The sauce is served cold with peeled boiled potatoes as an accompaniment to either hard-boiled eggs or roast beef brisket. It may also be served with cooked fish or roast beef, or as a side dish to barbecue. A local schnitzel specialty, called Frankfurter Schnitzel, is always served with green sauce, along with apple cider (Apfelwein) as a traditional accompanying drink.

The following is merely one of many variations. Use the traditional seven herbs or vary to suit yourself.


Grüne Soße


2 cups packed parsley
1 ½ cups packed watercress
1 cup finely chopped chives
1 cup packed sorrel
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup plain Greek yogurt
½ cup sour cream
1 ½ tsp. walnut oil
1 hard-boiled egg
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Place all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until it is smooth.

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