Science and the Soul of the World: Participatory Knowing in Goethe and Whitehead

I’m teaching for Schumacher College again, this time online. This course focuses on two towering exemplars of the organic approach to science, the German poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).

The course will run via live video conference on Saturday mornings (PST) for six weeks beginning in late January. Visit the Schumacher College website to register (before Jan 10, 2021). Here’s a short interview I did to introduce the foci of the course:

The course begins in the late eighteenth century by setting out the revolutionary cultural, philosophical, and scientific context within which Goethe developed his participatory understanding of Nature. Goethe is still primarily known as a poet, but students will come to see how the rise of Newton’s clockwork vision of the cosmos and the development of Kant’s nascent theory of living organization led Goethe (with help from the German Idealist Friedrich Schelling) to imagine a more organic and relational way of doing science. The course then turns to explore Goethe’s novel approach to the study of light and colour, geology, plant metamorphosis, and animal morphology.

During the nineteenth century, Goethe’s participatory way of doing natural science was largely forgotten, especially in the English-speaking world. Modern physics and biology followed Descartes and Newton’s lead by becoming increasingly mechanistic, while organic ways of thinking were dismissed as childish pre-modern holdovers. But at the turn of the twentieth century, physics underwent a series of revolutions that upset the mechanistic world-picture. It was the relativistic and quantum paradigm shifts that brought Whitehead out of mathematics and into metaphysics and cosmology. The course examines the reasons for the breakdown of the mechanistic view of Nature and unpacks Whitehead’s organic alternative, placing him alongside Goethe and Schelling as part of a legacy of participatory thinkers.

The course culminates in an exploration of organic science in our own day, looking at the enduring influence of participatory thinking in physics, biology, and spirituality. Students will be invited to reimagine the scientific world view in the context of an ensouled universe.

This course is designed for students of intellectual history who are fascinated by subversive streams of thought that have not yet been given their due. Some background in the history of European philosophy and science will be helpful, but the lecturer will attempt to make the ideas accessible to everyone.

Recommended reading prior to course start date:

1) The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World View By Rudolf Steiner (77 pages, available free online)

2) Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology By Matthew Segall (130 pages, available free online)

Concrescence and the Implicate Order: Whitehead and Bohm in Dialogue

“In our experience there is always the dim background from which we derive and to which we return. We are not enjoying a limited dolls’ house of clear and distinct things, secluded from all ambiguity. In the darkness beyond there ever looms the vague mass which is the universe begetting us.”

Alfred North Whitehead (Science and Philosophy, 1948)

“When we look into the depths of the clear sky, what we actually see is an unspecifiable total ground of movement, from which objects emerge. Particular ideas or thoughts coming to the mind may similarly be perceived as being like particular objects that arise from an unspecifiable ground of deeper movement. What we call ‘mind’ may be this deeper ground of movement, but if we think of the particular thoughts as the basic reality, we miss this.”

David Bohm (from a chapter in Cobb and Griffin’s edited volume Mind in Nature: the Interface of Science and Philosophy, 1977)

“There is very little left on the earth that has not been effected by our thinking.”

Bohm (on a panel with the Dalai Lama and others, 1990)

“A philosophic outlook is the very foundation of thought and of life. The sort of ideas we attend to, and the sort of ideas which we push into the negligible background, govern our hopes, our fears, our control of behavior. As we think, we live. This is why the assemblage of philosophic ideas is more than a specialist study. It moulds our type of civilization.”

Whitehead (Modes of Thought, 1938)

On Tuesday, I’ll be doing another event for friends of the Cobb Institute, this time joined by plasma physicist Tim Eastman. We’ll lead a discussion on the relationship between David Bohm’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s cosmological visions. I’m sharing some notes below.

First, the obvious: there is a deep congruence in their thinking. Both men emphasized the need to out grow the reductive mechanistic account of the universe that was ushered in by the first wave of scientific geniuses in the 17th century. They were among the first to recognize that the early 20th century quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics demanded a new metaphysics. While both made important contributions to the mathematical physics of their day, they also set to work re-imagining the metaphysics of materialism in search of a more coherent explanation of our cosmological situation. The old mechanistic worldview of 17th century science was based on certain key presuppositions that the new quantum and relativistic paradigms showed to be inadequate. Both Bohm and Whitehead agreed on what the faulty presuppositions were: 1) the notion of “Nature at an instant”; 2) the notion of “simple location; and 3) the notion of the “bifurcation of Nature.” 


-Both Bohm and Whitehead want to understand quantum physics as more than just a calculus, but as having profound worldview implications for our civilization. 

-Bohm, like Whitehead, advocates for a shift away from point-instants to moments or events as the primary facts of physical reality. There is no “Nature at an instant.” This implies that space-time measurement is only ever “close enough” and can never be absolutely precise. 

-Bohm, like Whitehead, views each microcosmic moment or event as including the whole cosmos in enfolded or concresced form. There is no “simple location.” 

-Bohm, like Whitehead, rejects the separation of mind and matter. There is a deeper layer of reality, a creative process or holomovement, from which both derive. There is no “bifurcation of Nature.”

-Bohm and Whitehead view novel forms as entering or ingressing into the actual world from an enfolded or unactualized domain of possibilities.

But there are also some important divergences in their respective approaches. 


-Whitehead’s actual occasions feel, relate to, and take up one another directly (horizontal causality), rather than relating only through the mediation of the implicate order. 

-How are we to make sense of the creative advance of emergent evolutionary value and social order in the concrete physical world? Bohm’s understanding of ultimate reality would seem to privilege the implicate eternal whole over the temporal relations of individuals. Whitehead sought to avoid the reduction of individuals into secondary appearances projected out of a unified higher-dimensional order. He wanted to preserve the possibility for creative action influencing an open-ended future. It is not clear that Bohm’s implicate order leaves room for freedom (which is why Einstein preferred his deterministic rendering of quantum theory).