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“Binary Synthesis”: Goethe's Aesthetic Intuition in Literature and Science

  • Roger H. Stephenson (a1)

Abstract

Argument

This essay seeks to identify the cultural significance of Goethe's scientific writings. He reformulates, in the light of his own concrete experience, “crucial turning-points” (Hauptmomente) in the history of science – key ideas, the historical understanding of which is vital to present understanding – thus situating his own scientific work at the bi-polar center of the Western scientific tradition, conceived as the dramatic interplay over centuries of two opposing modes of thought. For in his experimentation he recaptures the glimpse of living form gained in aesthetic perception (Anschauung), from which such inherited theoretical positions are ultimately derived. At each stage of this process, imagination, in its aesthetic modality, is essential, for it alone reveals the world as it truly is. The literary quality of his writings on nature, as on culture, reveals Goethe's stylistic achievement in devising a medium in which the insights gained in contemplation may be so transmitted as to make a similar, imaginative, appeal to his reader – re-enacting the abstract-concrete equilibrium characterizing all aesthetic experience. Matching his style to the subtle, delicate, connectedness of Nature, Goethe recreates the delights of participating in natural creativity. His Janus-faced, scientific-literary, style illustrates “binary synthesis,” the principle that unites Goethe's science with his art.

Beauty is the normal state.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life)

There can be no such thing as an eclectic philosophy, but there can be eclectic philosophers. But an eclectic is anyone who, from whatever exists and is happening round about, appropriates the things he or she finds congenial to her or his nature; and this context validly includes all that can be called culture and progress in a theoretical and practical sense. It follows that two eclectic philosophers could turn into the greatest opponents if they are antagonistic to one another, each picking out whatever suits him or her in every traditional system of philosophy.

(Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years)

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“Binary Synthesis”: Goethe's Aesthetic Intuition in Literature and Science

  • Roger H. Stephenson (a1)

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