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Goethe on the need for cooperation and criticism in science (1832)

August 11, 2021


The extracts below are from Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).

Goethe is most well known by his literary works Faust and the Sorrows of Young Werther. However, to physicists he is well known for his interesting book Theory of Colors (Zur Farbenlehre, 1810), which had an eccentric view of light and colors, and contained a wrong attack on Isaac Newton’s theory of white light and colors. Yet, Goethe’s work does have some interesting and creative aspects of redeeming quality [1].

Goethe was much more than an author of a few literary books and a dabbler in science. He was a dominant intellectual in Germany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He published widely on many topics, and thought deeply and philosophically. In the extracts below Goethe speaks on his view of the role of collaboration and cooperation to advance science.


Extract 1: “Here we find what is true of so many human undertakings, namely, that it is only the interest of several people focused upon one subject that enables us to produce outstanding results. Thus it is apparent that the greatest obstacle to the scientists may be the envy prompting him to exclude others from the honor of a discovery, or an immoderate desire to treat and work out a discovery exclusively in his own way.” [2;p.221]

Extract 2: “Now if lay individuals of native alertness can be of such great help to us, how much more extensive must be the benefit when experts work hand in hand! For one thing, each science in itself is such a massive thing that it will occupy many indivuals, and cannot be mastered by one individual alone. We may point out that knowledge is like flowing water confined by a dam and gradually lifted to a higher level, for the most magnificent discoveries are made not so much by individuals as by an age. Evidence of this are the many important discoveries made simultaneously by two or even more trained thinkers.” [2;p.221]

Extract 3: “On the one hand we are in great debt to society and friends; on the other hand we owe an even greater debt to the world and the century. In either case it is impossible to exaggerate the necessity for sharing of ideas, for co-operation, criticism, and opposition, if we wish to keep to the right path and forge ahead.” [2;p.221]


I have maintained for quite some time that “fads” in science can be good. When you have 100 physicists totally focused on a narrow subject one makes quick work of all the key concepts and results that can be squeezed out of it, and then you move on. If you have 100 physicists doing 100 different things it’s like road repairs in dysfunctional States — cones set up on 100 different stretches of road, with small crews leaning over their shovels wondering what to do next and accomplishing little from morning till night. Extract 1 seems to share this sentiment — get a lot of people focused on something and you make progress fast. What stalls it is when someone creates barriers to others participating in order to position himself to get all credit.

In Extract 2 Goethe emphasizes his point in Extract 1, but goes one step further. He’s pulling an Obama “you didn’t build that!”[3]. What you accomplish is part of an environment much bigger and much more important than one individual. You play a role, and it is important, but don’t think you did it alone, and don’t even think it wouldn’t have happened without you!

In Extract 3 Goethe emphasizes again the need for sharing and coperation. But he also throws out the need for “criticism and opposition”. If scientists create an environment of pure nicety and agreement then we wouldn’t “keep to the right path and forge ahead.” Any scientific environment where criticism and opposition is deeply frowned upon is an environment of stagnation. The great scientists cooperate, share, criticize, and oppose.

Thus, progressive scientific environments are ones that foster these traits: they have policies and structures that encourage cooperation, sharing, criticism and opposition. A necessary but insufficient condition for fostering is not punishing. At a minimum, do not set up an environment that punishes cooperation, sharing, criticism and opposition. Some scientists today seem to think that criticism and opposition are entirely in opposition of cooperation, and since cooperation has highest value, criticism and opposition must be eliminated through punishment (directly or indirectly). And that’s exactly how you make science progress stop right in its tracks. Goethe understood that, and that’s why he had to throw in his endorsement of “criticism and opposition” to make sure we did not misunderstand his message.


[1] D.L. Sepper. “Goethe Against Newton: Towards Saving the Phenomena”, in Goethe and the Sciences: A reappraisal (eds. F.Amrine, F.J. Zucker, H. Wheeler). Boston: D. Reidel, 1987.

[2] Extracts contained in article written in 1792-1793, and originally published in Natural Science in General; Morphology in Particular, vol II, No. 1 (1832). As quoted in Goethe’s Botanical Writings. Woodbridge, Connecticut: Ox Bow Press, 1952.

[3] Barack Obama, “You didn’t build that”, July 13, 2012.

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