Learning to See Life: Developing the Goethean Approach to Science

I have often thought that if a teacher wanted to have one succinct motto to hang above his or her bed, she’d have a hard time finding a better one than: ‘characterize, don’t define.’ Characterization is based on careful observation. Through our own observations and those of others we can form within ourselves and in collaboration with our students a vibrant picture, say, of an animal—its shape, how it moves, the sounds it makes, its habitat and the ways it relates to its environment. We bring alive through our imagination and speech something of the animal’s nature. We learn, for example, how a sloth spends its life hanging in and slowly moving through the boughs of rain forest trees. It recedes into its environment to the degree that it lets algae grow in its fur, which soaks up rain like a sponge, and the resulting greenish tinge makes the sloth nearly invisible in the tree crowns. It is so adapted to hanging that it is virtually helpless on the ground. Everything about the sloth is slow—it moves slowly, it digests slowly (only climbing down to the ground once a week to, as the students would say, pee and poop), it grows slowly, reacts slowly and seems largely impervious to pain (Holdrege, 2009). When we paint a picture of the animal in this way—a process in which the students are involved—the animal in its unique way of being can begin to live in the human soul.

Characterization imbues a subject with life. To define may make something clear, but it is the kind of clarity that is all too often void of life. When Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, urged teachers to characterize and not define, he did so because he knew that through characterization we form living ideas that can grow and transform with the growing and transforming human being (Steiner, 1996). A definition, by contrast, is fixed. Unfortunately, it is often within biology classes, with all the rote learning and memorization of definitions for multiple choice exams, where traditional outcome-based education reaches its unhappy epitome. And biology is supposed to be the science of life. Charles Dickens gives a lovely caricature of this way of teaching in his novel Hard Times:

“In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!”…

“Bitzer,” said Thomas Gradgrind, “your definition of a horse.”

“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twentyfour grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind, “you know what a horse is.”

Of course we all need to learn facts, but isolated facts are soon forgotten and are like stones instead of nourishment for the human soul. What we need is to see how the facts relate to each other, how the parts of an organism interact in service to the life of the whole creature. You could say that all real knowing is ecological knowing—knowing how something is part of a larger, dynamic context. If we can bring students into this way of knowing, we are preparing them for a life in a world that will not offer them pat solutions, but demand from them the ability to grow and form new ideas in relation to new and unforeseen demands.

The problem is that modern habits of thought and academic training, which encourage analysis and abstract theorizing above all, do not give teachers the tools they need to facilitate this kind of understanding. In fact, they tend to deaden both the propensity toward quiet and open-ended observation and the concrete, imaginative capacities we need most in order to build up exact, yet living pictures of the world.

The poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) spent his long life developing and pursuing a living science of the natural world. He spoke of ‘delicate empiricism’ (1995, p. 307), a felicitous expression that captures two fundamental features of scientific study: We orient our attention closely to the phenomena we are studying, entering into them in a careful way. But we also learn to become more aware of the interaction with the phenomena themselves. We don’t want to forcefully impose concepts, models, or theories on nature but enter into a dialogue out of which—gently—understanding can arise (Holdrege, 2005).

What better way is there, for example, to learn a living approach to nature than learning from the master of life on earth, namely, the plant world? We can carefully observe how a specific plant develops—unfolds, transforms and ages. We sketch the plant and recreate precisely in our imagination its development. In this way, we take the plant as a living process into our own minds and mold our thoughts around it. When we observe other plants and make comparisons, we begin to see the specific style of growth and form in a given species. We then go further and relate the plant to its habitat—under what kinds of conditions does it thrive? How does it vary under different conditions? This kind of immersion schools our observation (we become awake to the world around us) and because the plant lives through change and variation, our thinking becomes more mobile and flexible. You could say we’re beginning to think in the way a plant grows (Holdrege, 2013). And since we have taken something of the richness of the plant world into us, we can build up an understanding that is rooted in reality and out of this, living characterizations can flow.

In our work at The Nature Institute (, we are committed to developing a living science that can help people gain a new relation to nature and to the process of knowing. One of the challenges of this task is that learning an approach that aims to reveal life in nature entails both ridding ourselves of ingrained habits of thought and mobilizing new forces within ourselves.

Traditional training in science often puts roadblocks in the way. Anyone studying biology today learns that the question to ask in reference to any phenomenon is: what is the underlying mechanism? This way of asking becomes habitual and in essence the only kind of question one is allowed to ask (as a scientist). This puts a straightjacket on scientific inquiry, and inasmuch as the focus is on mechanisms, it is already a foregone conclusion that life is nothing other than a mechanism. However, the moment you begin—in a more open-ended way—attending to the fuller phenomenal reality, say, of a developing spring wildflower, you soon realize how inadequate mechanistic explanations are. They pale in the face of the plant itself.

When we really take hold of the Goethean approach, through immersion in the phenomena themselves and self-aware thinking, it teaches us to be more critical than we are when we teach theoryor model-driven science. This is important to note, since there is the misconception that the Goethean approach is somehow in opposition to traditional science. It is not. Rather, it is concerned with evolving the discipline of science further so that we can begin to understand life in a way that is modeled after life. For this to occur, we have to work to transform ourselves as human beings and begin forming, as Goethe put it, new organs of perception for the dynamic and living qualities of the world. This is no simple pathway, but an inspiring one, since it shows a way to re-integrate human knowing and doing into the wisdom of the world.

Note. This article is a metamorphosis of an article that was published in Renewal: A Journal for Waldorf Education, Fall 2005.

Sources and further reading

Bortoft, Henri (1996). The Wholeness of Nature. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press

Bywater, Bill, & Holdrege, Craig (Eds.) (2005). “Goethe’s delicate empiricism” [Special issue]. Janus Head, 8(1). Available online

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1995). Goethe: Scientific Studies. Edited by D. Miller. Princeton: Princeton U. Press

Holdrege, Craig (2005). “Doing Goethean Science.” Janus Head, 8(1). Available online:

Holdrege, Craig (2009). “What Does It Mean to Be a Sloth?” Available online:

Holdrege, Craig (2013; in press). Thinking Like a Plant: A Living Science for Life. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press

Seamon, David, & Zajonc, Arthur. (1998). Goethe’s Way of Science. Albany, NY: State University Press of New York Press
Steiner, Rudolf (1996). “Foundations of Human Experience,” lecture 9 (August 30, 1919). Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press.