Tracing Goethe’s influence on botany and plant morphology

As a History of Science PhD student in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, Andy Hahn studies how botanists and plant morphologists in the 20th century were influenced by Goethe, a famed German writer and naturalist during the 19th century. Goethe is well known for his rendition of Faust, as well as his novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Although historians and philosophers have studied Goethe extensively, his influence on subsequent generations of botanists and plant morphologists has not been fully explored. Goethe wrote a book called Metamorphosis of Plants, which provided early foundational insight into morphology, the study of plant structure and appearance of plant features such as leaves and petals. For his PhD work, Andy has visited institutional archives in Switzerland, England, and Scotland to study the letters and writings of 20th century botanists and other scientists influenced by Goethe’s science.

Goethe’s science was characterized by taking account appearance and structure of plants as a whole entity, as opposed to focusing only specific parts of the plant, a method employed in the taxonomy of Linnaeus, a prominent 18th century natural historian. As the 19th century progressed, Goethe’s approach towards morphology was well-integrated in botanical science in Germany, France, and England. However, the rise of Darwinism, genetics, and experimental methods in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was accompanied by a decreased role for Goethe’s style of morphology. In the early 20th century, plant morphologist community split into two groups: new morphology based in Darwinian thought, and old morphology based in Goethe’s principles. The influence of Goethe’s writing can be seen among botanists in the 20th century, including Agnes Arber, a plant morphologist who translated Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants into English.

Andy was introduced to Goethe’s scientific work as he continued to follow his interests that arose from his as an undergraduate in philosophy. He appreciated Goethe’s and current Goethean scientists’ approach to plant morphology as a means to understand the natural world. By visualizing a plant through the course of its life, he was able to develop a stronger connection to the natural world, awakening his own senses by meditating on the form of plants. Andy found himself wondering what happened to the ideas of Goethe, and why Goethe’s ideas weren’t recognized more commonly in biological education. He became interested in philosophical questions surrounding why we think the way we do, as well as the accumulation of knowledge; in particular, how we produce scientific knowledge, and how we can be certain about it. During his Masters studies at OSU, Andy first began researching the botanical work of Goethe, and has continued to study the influence of Goethe on 20th century botanists for his PhD work. Following completion of his graduate studies, Andy would like to teach history of science at the university level and pursue science writing.

To hear more from Andy about the influence of Goethe’s science on botany and plant morphologists, tune in to Inspiration Dissemination on Sunday, October 22 at 7pm on 88.7 KBVR Corvallis. Or stream it online here!

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