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The Elements as an Archetype of Transformation:
An Exploration of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire

| Table of Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Appendix A | Appendix B | Appendix C | References | Bibliography

Appendix C: On Goethean Phenomenology

In scientific research, a hypothesis is a very narrow statement which constitutes the potential extension, application, or test of a larger theory in which the hypothesis is embedded.  For example, the Standard Model of particle physics (a scientific alchemy) is a robust theory that describes matter on the smallest scales, yet the theory does not include an explanation of why specific particles have definite masses.  A hypothesis exists that masses are determined by interaction with an as-yet-undiscovered particle called the Higgs boson.  Assuming the particle exists, the Standard Model limits the possible values for its mass to a narrow range – this is the hypothesis, and is determined conceptually.  If the hypothesis is correct, tests will show the Higgs particle experimentally within the limited boundaries; if the hypothesis is incorrect, it will either be discovered at an unexpected value or not at all, and a modification of the theory would be in order.

Such research is appropriate for some situations, in which a well-established theory needs additional refinement to account for a specific phenomenon.  On the other hand, such an approach is less useful when no single well-formed theory singularly dominates a particular domain, or when the limits of the domain are not yet mapped out.  The present research finds itself in the second category.  As of yet there is no singular, coherently developed theory of the four elements as an archetype of transformation which can be applied or tested in a straightforward manner.  The development of the theory, however, cannot just be entirely theoretical, in the sense of its development through conceptual linking, comparison, and analysis of ideas on purely conceptual grounds.  Due to the nature of the particular topic, it is unreasonable to think that the theory can be developed separately in this way on its own.  Rather, the development of the theory is accompanied by its continual and repeated application to specific situations.  The central phenomenon under investigation then becomes the continually changing field arising out of the co-evolution of the concept of the four elements and their perceptual manifestation in specific circumstances.  This procedure resembles an outward moving spiral, which adds layer upon layer as the theory and its application grow together out of the fruits of the other.  The most amenable methodology that allows for this type of development is Goethean phenomenology.  However, as I shall endeavor to make clear, in order to be successful, a modification of the most common way of practicing Goethean phenomenology seems to be required due to the unusual nature of the topic under consideration.  Therefore, it will be useful to gain a picture of the Goethean phenomenological method, in order to understand just what modifications are needed to be appropriate to this study.

Goethean Phenomenology, a Brief Introduction:

Goethe’s scientific and artistic interests led him to develop a unique method of approaching phenomena in the late 18th century, which he fruitfully applied to areas as diverse as optics, geology, meteorology, osteology, botany, and embryology.  At this time, the scientific method championed in the works of Newton was reaching the pinnacle of its development, and had permeated the culture of Europe as the primary method by which knowledge could be gained.  Goethe, recognizing the importance of the rigorous methodology of empirical science embodied so strongly in Newton’s works, at the same time saw how such a method imposed a false dichotomy between the subject and object, between the experiencer and the experienced.

Out of his particular sensibilities, Goethe was able to develop a new method of inquiry that wove together the specificity and rigor of science with the alchemical understanding that subject and object evolve together through mutual interaction (Bortoft, 1996).  The method allowed Goethe to move beyond and through the continually narrowing strictures of a growing scientism into a participatory view of the universe that kept specificity and exactness.

At this point, a brief characterization of this method will be useful, by way of listing comparisons with the theoretical approach of Newton, which has developed into the modern scientific method noted above.  Although coming primarily out of Goethe’s and Newton’s respective work in the realm of optics, the general principles of each approach can apply to any realm of experience, both inner and outer.  The list is only a characterization and has been created to reflect a contemporary inheritance of approaches which can be seen archetypally in the experiments of Goethe and Newton, and as such is not meant to be an accurate historical outline of these individual’s views. Ultimately, what is important is the recognition that these two approaches are mutually complementary, and that using both modalities to approach a given phenomenon will yield a fuller, more comprehensive understanding than either approach taken in isolation (an insight actually gained from within the Goethean approach).  At the same time, for the purposes of this study, the Goethean approach will be taken as a foundation, with the noted modifications discussed later.

Exploratory experimentation Theory-based
Process Facts
Qualitative Quantitative
Experiments and concepts evolve together Experiments designed to test previously formulated theories
Many slightly different experiments are performed with the idea of bringing to light connections between all the different manifestations of a phenomenon “Experimentum Crucis” – a single, definitive experiment “worth 1000 others” that clearly supports one theory over another
Experiments can only be understood in the context of all the others Isolated experiments make sense
Look at relations “Prove” a single fact
Make sense of the whole (holism) Make sense of individual pieces (reductionism)
Look for primary, “Ur-phenomenon” (the archetype) and associated necessary conditions Everything rests upon a single, often minutely structured phenomenon taken out of the larger context
All other phenomena follow from the primary phenomenon, through a process of complexification and the addition of new conditions (facts ‘fall out’ of the context) Experiments are used to “plug holes” in existing theory, not to explain related phenomena (the context is created from the facts as necessary)
Good for situations with little previous conceptual framework (metaphor: site-assessment) Good for situations where there is a lot of prior theory that is already accepted (metaphor: brick-laying)
Includes the observer as a necessarily important part of the whole phenomenon (the subject is included) Abstracts the observer from the phenomenon in order to isolate as many variables as possible (the object is primary)
Insights reflect inner activity Insights reflect outer activity
Answers generate questions Questions generate answers
Synthetic Analytic


The Beginning of Objects:

Goethean phenomenology developed explicitly in the context of, and with contrast to, the prevailing empiricism of the Enlightenment.  Goethe himself called it a “delicate empiricism” (Holdrege, 2005, p. 29) which is not content to rest in theories, but continually returns to the phenomenon.  In this respect Goethean phenomenology is quite cognizant of an interesting polarity available to reflective human experience: that between the perceptual and conceptual.  The rise of the scientific method itself ushered in and championed a division between what it called ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’, which seemed necessary in order to establish a firm basis for exploring the world in its purely physical manifestation.  Yet in terms of human consciousness, this had the effect of actually tearing specific parts of the human experience of the world away from others, so that they could be thrown out of oneself – objectified.  This throwing out of specific parts of qualitative experience served as the actual creation – for human consciousness – of the newly developed concept of the deanimated “external, objective world”.  The qualities most amenable to this treatment, which most easily found their homes in the new world of objects had the quality of being easily quantified: weight, shape, size, motion, position, duration, etc. 

Figure 1 – Primary and Secondary Qualities

Primary and Secondary Qualities

This was expressed quite clearly in various forms by Galileo, Descartes, and later John Locke, and became an integral part of the scientific method, in which knowledge rested on the ability of the human consciousness to attend only to the primary qualities of an experience.  The philosophical assumption, stated most succinctly by Locke, took the position that this selective attention was justified because only the primary qualities resembled the “actual” properties of the “object”.  In other words, primary qualities are those qualitative properties of the object that cause sensation in human consciousness in such a way that a change in the property of the object necessitates a corresponding and commensurate change in the consciousness of the observing human.  Secondary properties were thought to be unable to claim such a relation.  In other words, they could be more or less subjective experiences with no necessary correspondence to some actual property of the object itself.

Deeper into Goethean Phenomenology:

This was the prevailing milieu in which Goethe found himself.  On the one hand, he had the deeply sensitive soul of an artist.  Yet he also had the mind of a scientist, and it was perhaps only out of his particular combination of sensibilities and experiences (cf. his trip to Italy) that his unique methodology could have been developed.

From the perspective of Goethean phenomenology, a criticism exists towards the standard empiricism, which, due to its reliance upon the primary qualities of experience is seen to miss a good portion, if not the bulk of the potential richness of any given phenomenon.  On the one hand, sticking with only the primary qualities proved very effective, particularly for complex model building and technological application.  Yet the models and technologies, being built upon and operating through the division of inner and outer, themselves had the effect of furthering the division between subjective and objective in human consciousness, even among non-scientists.  Such a process seems to have usefully contributed to the development of human consciousness – and the proliferation of technologies - and a case can be made that the subject/object, inner/outer split is now an almost fundamental, even assumed, part of consciousness for most humans.

Goethe recognized the usefulness of the empirical program, but also felt that it strayed too far from the phenomenon itself.  Science, from this perspective, has the tendency to spend too much time in a purely conceptual mode, with only an occasional dip back into the realm of the actual phenomena itself.  This primarily occurs when the conceptualization develops until it reaches a point of relative stagnation, in which the only remedy is to once and for all check the objectivity of the conceptualization in an experiment.  In order to be successful, the experiment must be capable of showing evidence against the conceptual formulation, and usually relies on a highly structured and controlled environment in order to isolate a single aspect of the phenomenon that will link the concept to the phenomenon with a minimum of uncontrolled ‘noise’.  The process is empirical in the sense that it relies upon and is ultimately founded in the phenomenon itself – but often only minimally.  Figure 2 below illustrates one possible way of picturing this method.

Figure 2 – Empirical Theory Building

Empirical Theory Building

At point A, the researcher encounters the phenomenon for the first time.  This is a perceptual experience, but generally leads immediately to a question about the phenomenon, which leads to B, where conceptual theory building begins.  At this stage, a tension starts to arise between the phenomenon and the fledgling theory, between the original percept and the subsequent concepts the researcher has with respect to the phenomenon.  Soon, it becomes increasingly difficult for the theory to develop beyond a certain point with any clarity, due to a lack of phenomenal evidence.  At this point (C), something changes – a critical point has been reached, and the researcher is then drawn back to the phenomenon itself (D), where an experiment is carried out (E).  New perceptual data is gathered, and immediately theory building resumes, incorporating this new data (F).  At this point the modified theory leaves its brief contact with the actual phenomenon and tension starts to build up again between the modified theory and the perceptual data, repeating the cycle at a more complex or developed level.  Eventually, after many such cycles, a full-fledged theory takes shape that accounts for all of the relevant (i.e. suitably restricted) perceptual data, which in most cases consists more or less exclusively of its primary qualities.

The empirical methodology is robust in that when it is able to restrict itself to aspects of the world which are amenable to quantitative analysis, it can produce repeatable results.  The underlying assumption is that anyone who wishes to verify a given theory can do so, if they perform experiments that are equally amenable to quantitative analysis.  In other words, certain aspects of the phenomenon are minimized or entirely bypassed in favor of its primary qualities, or the secondary qualities are “explained away” through an abstract and often unquestioned reduction to the primary qualities.

Internally, this methodology is weak in that when, in one of its toe-tip dips into the phenomenon, it discovers a perceptual fact that simply cannot be accounted for by the theory.  Such contradictory facts – the ones that cannot be subsumed into the main theory through modification – can challenge the prevailing theory to the point of breaking entirely.  Thomas Kuhn identified these events as the precipitators of paradigm shifts, where the old view is thrown out and a new one is ushered in to fill its place (Kuhn, 1970).  Generally, however, what is ‘overthrown’ in this manner is only the specific content of a theory, and not its underlying methodology.  In other words, a new theory derived through the empirical method is usually the best candidate for replacement, and it is less common for theories developed through alternative methods to gain precedence.

Of course such a picture is too simple to account for the depth of the empirical methodology, particularly as it is used by practicing scientists.  In the messy ‘real’ world, science is practiced by actual humans, who do not strictly follow the abstract procedures noted above.  Nevertheless, the figure represents a relatively common conceptual picture that can characterize the main aspects of the empirical approach.

The phenomenology developed by Goethe took as its starting point the idea that the empirical methodology strayed too far from the actual phenomenon, and as a result often ended up creating castles in the clouds – tightly bound, well fortified conceptual structures with only a scant foundation in the boundless wealth of the phenomenon itself.  The only enemies identifiable by these conceptual fortresses are other abstract theories, while the mundane ideas of those living far away on the ground in the phenomena are simply to be ignored until they can take it upon themselves to climb up into the clouds and see it from a higher vantage point (i.e. without being distracted by the secondary qualities).

More and more it is apparent that the tension is not between knowledge and ignorance, but rather between various types of knowledge.  Knowledge gained through the empirical methodology is extremely useful in its own realm, in which primary qualities are held in higher esteem than the merely ‘subjective’ secondary qualities.  But outside of this narrow realm, other approaches are possible.  The Goethean phenomenological methodology is one such approach, which has much of value to offer in balancing the empirical stance.

The unique feature of the Goethean approach has to do with its epistemological basis, clearly explicated by Rudolf Steiner (1978, 1981, 1988).  Whereas the empirical approach is formulated around the continuing separation between the subject and object, the Goethean approach relies on precisely the opposite: a conscious bridging between subject and object through the free action of knowledge, where a percept and concept meet coherently through the expanded consciousness of the observer who continually stays focused on the actual phenomenon itself instead of being taken away from the phenomenon by continual abstraction.  Figure 3 is one way to represent this process.

Figure 3 – Goethean Phenomenology


Goethean phenomenology asks that the consciousness of the observer places itself continually “in orbit” around, along, and through a particular phenomenon (center).  Rather than being abstractly separated from its context for better analysis, the phenomenon in question is seen as inherently and inextricably embedded in qualitatively significant surroundings (the “field” of interpenetrating levels of various phenomena).  The consciousness of the observer is, through its contact with the phenomenon, slowly forced out of its preconceived (conscious and unconscious) conceptual notions and interpretations and into resonant movement with the actual phenomenon itself.  The enthusiastic attention of the observer – we could say: the love of the observer – provides the underlying force through which the consciousness of the observer is shifted towards the phenomenon in a concrete and direct way, without the overbearing intrusion of abstract theories which potentially darken some of the more subtle aspects of the phenomenon to the observing consciousness.  Ultimately, the experience is that of thinking “with” rather than “about”.  The specific techniques that can be taken by someone wishing to begin Goethean-style phenomenological research will not be explicated here – the reader is referred to Steiner (1964, 1978, 1981, 1988), Bortoft (1996), Holdrege (2005), and others 41.

What is striking about the Goethean methodology is that great care is taken to sensitize oneself not just to a single, pin-point aspect of a phenomenon, but rather to the widest possible range of related experiences with the phenomenon.  In other words, a “phenomenon” is actually a whole field of experiences that are constellated in a particular way by the conscious participation of the observer.  Such phenomena are multi-layered, multi-faceted “fields” of possible experience held together by an underlying pattern.  Intersubjectivity, two-way feedback, interpenetration, and mutual ecology are recognized as the underlying basis of experience, out of which can arise the potentials for linearity, isolation, and ‘objectivity’ in a new sense.  The ideal of detachment from the phenomenon held by the empirical view is recognized from the Goethean perspective to be an arbitrary limitation of the potentials of consciousness.  Indeed, it is recognized that the observer/observed distinction is a bit of a willfully naïve construction of consciousness in the first place, and not ontologically necessary in some absolute sense. 

Modern quantum physics has been forced to come up against this problem in the form of what is known as the ‘measurement paradox’, where the quantum wave function can theoretically account for an infinitely parallel set of possible evolutions of a phenomenon, while every time we actually look we only see one of these possibilities realized in the material world available to our senses.  The paradox is that the only absolutely clear place where this ‘collapse’ from infinite to finite can be said to occur is when an observation is made by a conscious agent.  This is because any measuring device placed between an observer and a phenomenon must itself be observed before any knowledge is produced, i.e. the quantum wave function can apply just as much to the system of the measuring device + phenomenon as to the phenomenon itself, and always an observer is required to end the otherwise potentially infinite chain of measuring devices.  This provides some insight into what has been a basic understanding of Goethean phenomenology for well over a century: that the world and consciousness are inextricably bound together in a co-evolutionary process, that subjects and objects are not separable, and that, as Protagoras indicated in the 5th century B.C., “Man is the measure of all things”, which we can reinterpret as “Human consciousness is inseparable from the objects of its contemplation.”

Normally, the Goethean method takes as a phenomenon something readily available to the perceptual senses, for example a particular species of plant, a piece of music, or a cloud pattern.  The actual work of doing the phenomenology then involves an artistic movement from the percepts to associated concepts, which then re-enliven and expand the “field” of the percepts even more.  Knowledge arises out of the mutual interplay between the perceptual and the conceptual aspects associated with the phenomenon, and is characterized by their linking within and by human consciousness (Steiner, 1964).  Human consciousness in this way serves as the active agent within and through which, in the speech of alchemy, the Above and Below intermingle.

Goethean phenomenology is therefore a way of creatively producing knowledge through the continual resonance between two aspects of human consciousness: perceptual content and conceptual content.  The perceptual content of consciousness is almost (but not quite) entirely “given” – that is, we do not need to produce it ourselves, but rather it simply ‘shows up’ for us without our having to undertake concerted effort.  If a bell chimes, the perceptual content (the sound of the bell) is available to my consciousness without my having to consciously produce anything – my experience is that a sound entered my consciousness of its own accord. The only requirement is that we have attention available for the particular percept, and in fact we can actively direct our attention with our will, so that some perceptual content is enhanced while others are diminished.

Historically, phenomenology in general has emphasized the primacy of perceptual content over conceptual content, perhaps on the assumption that perceptual content is more closely linked with an assumed ‘outer’ world and therefore potentially more ‘objective’.  Indeed, it is precisely the apparent freedom we enjoy in the conceptual parts of our experience (we can creatively produce any number of thoughts about any given perceptual experience, while the perceptual aspects of our experience are in contrast quite stubborn in their persistence) that lends conceptual experience a ‘subjective’ air.  In fact, definitions of the word “phenomenon” often explicitly state that a phenomenon is something made perceptible by the senses.  Concepts are thus not themselves approached as phenomenon, but are what ‘falls out’ of the perceptual realm somewhat like a precipitation, and the task of the phenomenologist is to remove any pre-existing concepts so that only those concepts most appropriate to the actual datum of the perceptual experience of the given phenomenon arise in the first place.  In this sense, conceptuality is often seen as something to be minimized in order for the phenomenon to better present itself to human awareness, as if concepts intrude upon the purity of perceptual experience, tainting them with an ‘interpretation’.

Yet the reliance upon perceptual content is itself a conceptual bias, perhaps stemming in part out of reaction to the seeming over-reliance upon conceptuality to the point of abstraction, in which the phenomenon becomes almost an excuse for the theory.  It is naturally easy to rely upon the ‘given-ness’ of perceptual content when examining a phenomenon, but we cannot ignore the equally important conceptual counterparts that we bring to its perceptual aspects.  The area of interest is where these meet in a patterned overlap.  So, even though Goethean phenomenology generally starts with perceptual content, it is equally possible to begin the process from the conceptual side of a phenomenon.  The task in this case is equivalent: to illuminate the phenomenon through a continual interweaving of concepts and percepts, i.e. to take advantage of the full range of experiences possible for human consciousness.  This is possible because in the end all “phenomenon” necessarily have both perceptual and conceptual aspects – indeed such a separation into perceptual and conceptual may itself be an artifact of our present mode of consciousness and not ontological in any sense.  We can therefore revisit the meaning of the term ‘phenomenon’ to include what Eugene Gendlin refers to as an implicit intricacy at work in any experience that goes beyond the merely perceptual or the merely conceptual. (Gendlin, 1991)  Knowledge is not solely conceptual, but instead is always situated in and arises out of the interpenetration between the intricately felt perceptual and the conceptual aspects of experience as a whole.  A balanced phenomenology takes this into account.  This is the ‘slight modification’ referred to above: a recognition of both the unity of experience and its equally important polar conceptual and perceptual aspects.

The present study, rather than beginning with a relatively obvious perceptual experience and attempting to restrain the potentially abstract influence of conceptualization as would be the case in a more strict phenomenological model, attempts to work on the basis of the evolving, interpenetrating, and mutually-influencing progression of experience that works between and with both the conceptual and the perceptual on an equal basis.  The reader can judge whether or not any success can be claimed.


41: Back See Janus Head, Summer 2005, issue 8.1, available free at, for a number of articles.

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