Why Goethe matters: The case for ‘a new schooling of attention’

Unthinkable: Germany’s giant of literature had a view of science that still appeals to many

Germany’s Joyce: The Goethe monument in Frankfurt. Photograph: AP Photo/Heribert Proepper

Germany’s Joyce: The Goethe monument in Frankfurt. Photograph: AP Photo/Heribert Proepper


Goethe is to Germany what Shakespeare is to England or James Joyce to Ireland, a towering literary figure and the author of scores of poems, plays and novels. But Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) did not limit his interests to literature. He was deeply involved in the scientific debates of his day and even advanced his own theory of colours, opposing no less a figure than Isaac Newton.

At the heart of his objection was a dislike of theories which reduced phenomena to something purely mathematical or mechanical. He believed knowledge was bound up with subjective experience, thus pre-empting phenomenological thinkers such as Husserl and Heidegger in the 20th century.

Goethe’s thinking continues to influence today across a number of fields: in the arts via Germany’s state-funded cultural institute, which is named after him; and in education via the more than 1,000 Steiner/Waldorf schools across the globe, which have been inspired by Goethe’s theory of knowledge.

Five of those schools are in Ireland, three of them under the patronage of Lifeways Ireland, whose chairman Pearse O’Shiel believes Goethe has something to teach the Irish education system as a whole.

Named after the philosopher and educationalist Rudolf Steiner, the schools emphasise a delayed approach to formal instruction and instead prioritise hands-on, outdoor and arts-based learning.

Underpinning that is the notion that human insight is gained through a kind of humble, interactive engagement with nature.

Goethe can be understood as a kind of proto-phenomenologist

To Steiner, Goethe is the role model here as he “always takes the path of experience in the strictest sense. He first takes objects as they are, and, while banishing entirely every subjective opinion, seeks to penetrate into their nature; he then creates the conditions under which objects can appear in reciprocal action and watches to see the results. He seeks to give Nature the opportunity to bring her laws into operation under especially characteristic circumstances, which he brings about – an opportunity, as it were, to express her own laws.”

This week’s Unthinkable guest, O’Shiel explains how Goethe’s understanding of knowledge was interpreted by Steiner in an educational setting, and how together they have the capacity to make us think afresh about how best to learn.

Can you explain Goethe’s theory of knowledge?

“It was towards the end of the 19th century that Rudolf Steiner, largely as a result of his editing an edition of Goethe’s scientific works, produced an interpretation of Goethe’s science from which he derived a radical theory of knowledge.

“In championing the primacy of human experience, in which the direct encounter with the phenomenon is the source of insight into the nature of the phenomenon, Goethe can be understood as a kind of proto-phenomenologist. He saw the emerging mathematical model of science as the unnecessary imposition of a new form of metaphysics that comes between the scientific observer and the direct experience of ‘nature’.

“For Goethe the model of reality that emerges from mathematical metaphysics must itself, of its nature, take a limited mathematical form and this did not match his own direct experience. The reality he encountered from the giving of close attention to natural phenomena emerged from the phenomena themselves. He referred to this as a ‘delicate empiricism’.”

In practice, how might one carry out this type of schooling?

“The proliferation of technical devices and the increased exposure of children to screens would indicate a growing relevance for this phenomenological approach within education. We are, after all, born into the world and it is in giving our attention to the world that we can hope to derive some sense of meaning in our lives. There is some irony attached to the fact that, just at a time when we need to be rethinking our relationship with our planet, we and particularly our children are increasingly diverted into the counterfeit reality that technology presents.

“In my experience, few students at third level can tell an ash tree from a beech or a fieldfare from a song thrush and fewer can grasp the significance of that fact.

“We give our attention to what we love. That is how we come to know it. We need a new epistemology of love, a new kind of knowing and a new schooling of attention.

“For schools this approach would require us to spend more time out in nature learning to observe acutely and to be creative in how this experience is recorded and built upon.

“The phenomenological approach would not theorise and interpose concepts between the child (here I speak of primary school) and the phenomenon.

“Here, the arts come into their own as modes of expression through language less bound up with concepts than speech is. The language of colour, of form, of movement, of tone, etc. are all available as paths to autonomy. At its heart, such an approach has a concern for human freedom.”

This would seem to run counter to the current emphasis on technology in the classroom.

“Knowledge goes deeper than information, and all the data in the world, however smart it is supposed to make us, is no guarantee of anything we could consider useful as knowledge. Useful knowledge, in our present predicament, would arise from a more attentive orientation towards our experience in and of the phenomena of nature. What, after all, is smarter than an ash tree. It has a lot to teach us if we care to pay attention.”

Is this kind of approach really compatible with the Irish education system?

“I am optimistic that the process the NCCA [National Council for Curriculum and Assessment] has initiated around curriculum structure and time at primary level will result in a re-focusing of attention from curriculum towards the question of child development.

“The process appears to accept . . . that children develop in stages or phases and that a renewed focus on different understandings of the phases of child development will finally give us diversity in educational rather than denominational terms. A phenomenological approach would see the teacher as continually in the process of learning ‘What is the child?’”

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