CHAPTER VII – ‘Always Stand by Form’

PART II: Goetheanism – Whence and Whither?

CHAPTER VII – ‘Always Stand by Form’

Immediacy of approach to certain essentials of nature as a result of their religious or artistic experience of the sense-world, is the characteristic of two more representatives of British cultural life. They are Luke Howard (1772-1864) and John Ruskin (1819-1900), both true readers in the book of nature. Like those discussed in the previous chapter they can be of especial help to us in our attempt to establish an up-to-date method of apprehending nature’s phenomena through reading them.

At the same time we shall find ourselves led into another sphere of Goethe’s scientific work. For we cannot properly discuss Howard without recognizing the importance of his findings for Goethe’s meteorological studies or without referring to the personal connexion between the two men arising out of their common interest and similar approach to nature. We shall thus come as a matter of course to speak of Goethe’s thoughts about meteorology, and this again will give opportunity to introduce a leading concept of Goethean science in addition to those brought forward already.

Of Ruskin only so much will appear in the present chapter as is necessary to show him as an exemplary reader in the book of nature. He will then be a more or less permanent companion in our investigations.

The following words of Ruskin from The Queen of the Air reveal him at once as a true reader in the book of nature:

‘Over the entire surface of the earth and its waters, as influenced by the power of the air under solar light, there is developed a series of changing forms, in clouds, plants and animals, all of which have reference in their action, or nature, to the human intelligence that perceives them.’ (II, 89.)

Here Ruskin in an entirely Goethean way points to form in nature as the element in her that speaks to human intelligence – meaning by form, as other utterances of his show, all those qualities through which the natural object under observation reveals itself to our senses as a whole.

By virtue of his pictorial-dynamic way of regarding nature, Ruskin was quite clear that the scientists’ one-sided seeking after external forces and the mathematically calculable interplay between them can never lead to a comprehension of life in nature. For in such a search man loses sight of the real signature of life: form as a dynamic element. Accordingly, in his Ethics of the Dust, Ruskin does not answer the question: ‘What is Life?’ with a scientific explanation, but with the laconic injunction: ‘Always stand by Form against Force.’ This he later enlarges pictorially in the words: ‘Discern the moulding hand of the potter commanding the clay from the merely beating foot as it turns the wheel.’ (Lect. X.)

In thus opposing form and force to each other, Ruskin is actually referring to two kinds of forces. There exist those forces which resemble the potter’s foot in producing mere numerically regulated movements (so that this part of the potter’s activity can be replaced by a power-machine), and others, which like the potter’s hand, strive for a certain end and so in the process create definite forms. Ruskin goes a step further still in The Queen of the Air, where he speaks of selective order as a mark of the spirit:

‘It does not merely crystallize indefinite masses, but it gives to limited portions of matter the power of gathering, selectively, other elements proper to them, and binding these elements into their own peculiar and adopted form. …

‘For the mere force of junction is not spirit, but the power that catches out of chaos, charcoal, water, lime and what not, and fastens them into given form, is properly called “spirit”; and we shall not diminish, but strengthen our cognition of this creative energy by recognizing its presence in lower states of matter than our own.’ (II, 59.)1

When Ruskin wrote this passage, he could count on a certain measure of agreement from his contemporaries that the essence of man himself is spirit, though certainly without any very exact notion being implied. This persuaded him to fight on behalf of the spirit, lest its activity on the lower levels of nature should not be duly acknowledged. To-day, when the purely physical conception of nature has laid hold of the entire man, Ruskin might have given his thought the following turn: ‘… and we shall certainly attain to no real insight into this creative force (of the spirit) at the level of man, unless we win the capacity to recognize its activity in lower states of matter.’

What Ruskin is really pointing towards is the very thing for which Goethe formed the concept ‘type’. And just as Ruskin, like Goethe, recognized the signature of the spirit in the material processes which work towards a goal, so he counted as another such signature what Goethe called Steigerung, though certainly without forming such a universally valid idea of it:

‘The Spirit in the plant – that is to say, its power of gathering dead matter out of the wreck round it, and shaping it into its own chosen shape – is of course strongest in the moment of flowering, for it then not only gathers, but forms, with the greatest energy.’ It is characteristic of Ruskin’s conception of the relationship between man’s mind and nature that he added: ‘And where this life is in it at full power, its form becomes invested with aspects that are chiefly delightful to our own senses.’ (II, 60.)

Obviously, a mind capable of looking at nature in this way could not accept such a picture of evolution as was put forward by Ruskin’s contemporary, Darwin. So we find Ruskin, in The Queen of the Air, opposing the Darwinistic conception of the preservation of the species as the driving factor in the life of nature:

‘With respect to plants as animals, we are wrong in speaking as if the object of life were only the bequeathing of itself. The flower is the end and proper object of the seeds, not the seed of the flower. The reason for the seed is that flowers may be, not the reason of flowers that seeds may be. The flower itself is the creature which the spirit makes; only, in connection with its perfectedness, is placed the giving birth to its successor.’ (II, 60.)

For Ruskin the true meaning of life in all its stages lay not in the maintenance of physical continuity from generation to generation, but in the ever-renewed, ever more enhanced revelation of the spirit.

He was never for a moment in doubt regarding the inevitable effect of such an evolutionary theory as Darwin’s on the general social attitude of humanity. Men would be led, he realized, to see themselves as the accidental products of an animal nature based on the struggle for existence and the preservation of the species. Enough has been said to stamp Ruskin as a reader in the book of nature, capable of deciphering the signature of the spirit in the phenomena of the sense-world.

Outwardly different from Ruskin’s and yet spiritually comparable, is the contribution made by his older contemporary, Luke Howard, to the foundation of a science of nature based on intuition. Whereas Ruskin throws out a multitude of aphoristic utterances about many different aspects of nature, which will provide us with further starting-points for our own observation and thought, Howard is concerned with a single sphere of phenomena, that of cloud formation. On the other hand, his contribution consists of a definite discovery which he himself methodically and consciously achieved, and it is the content of this discovery, together with the method of research leading to it, which will supply us ever and again with a model for our own procedure. At the same time, as we have indicated, he will help us to become familiar with another side of Goethe, and to widen our knowledge of the basic scientific concepts formed by him.

Anyone interested to-day in weather phenomena is acquainted with the terms used in cloud classification – Cirrus, Cumulus, Stratus, and Nimbus. These have come so far into general use that it is not easy to realize that, until Howard’s paper, On the Modification of Clouds, appeared in 1803, no names for classifying clouds were available. Superficially, it may seem that Howard had done nothing more than science has so often done in grouping and classifying and naming the contents of nature. In fact, however, he did something essentially different.

In the introduction to his essay, Howard describes the motives which led him to devote himself to a study of meteorological phenomena:

‘It is the frequent observation of the countenance of the sky, and of its connexion with the present and ensuing phenomena, that constitutes the ancient and popular meteorology. The want of this branch of knowledge renders the prediction of the philosopher (who in attending his instruments may be said to examine the pulse of the atmosphere), less generally successful than those of the weather-wise mariners and husbandmen.’

When he thus speaks of studying ‘the countenance of the sky’, Howard is not using a mere form of speech; he is exactly describing his own procedure, as he shows when he proceeds to justify it as a means to scientific knowledge. The clouds with their ever-moving, ever-changing forms are not, he says, to be regarded as the mere ‘sport of the winds’, nor is their existence ‘the mere result of the condensation of vapour in the masses of the atmosphere which they occupy’. What comes to view in them is identical, in its own realm, with what the changing expression of the human face reveals of ‘a person’s state of mind or body’. It would hardly be possible to represent oneself more clearly as a genuine reader in the book of nature than by such words. What is it but Ruskin’s ‘Stand by Form against Force’ that Howard is here saying in his own way?



Before entering into a further description of Howard’s system, we must make clear why we disregard the fact that modern meteorology has developed the scale of cloud-formation far beyond Howard, and why we shall keep to his own fourfold scale.

It is characteristic of Goethe that, on becoming acquainted with Howard’s work, he at once gave a warning against subdividing his scale without limit. Goethe foresaw that the attempt to insert too many transitory forms between Howard’s chief types would result only in obscuring that view of the essentials which Howard’s original classification had opened up. Obviously, for a science based on mere onlooking there is no objection to breaking up an established system into ever more subdivisions in order to keep it in line with an increasingly detailed outer observation. This, indeed, modern meteorology has done with Howard’s system, with the result that, to-day, the total scale is made up of ten different stages of cloud-formation.

Valuable as this tenfold scale may be for certain practical purposes, it must be ignored by one who realizes that through Howard’s fourfold scale nature herself speaks to man’s intuitive judgment. Let us, therefore, turn to Howard’s discovery, undisturbed by the extension to which modern meteorology has subjected it.

Luke Howard, a chemist by profession, knew well how to value the results of scientific knowledge above traditional folk-knowledge. He saw the superiority of scientifically acquired knowledge in the fact that it was universally communicable, whereas folk-wisdom is bound up with the personality of its bearer, his individual observations and his memory of them. Nevertheless, the increasing mathematizing of science, including his own branch of it, gave him great concern, for he could not regard it as helpful in the true progress of man’s understanding of nature. Accordingly, he sought for a method of observation in which the practice of ‘the weatherwise mariner and husbandman’ could be raised to the level of scientific procedure. To this end he studied the changing phenomena of the sky for many years, until he was able so to read its play of features that it disclosed to him the archetypal forms of cloud-formation underlying all change. To these he gave the now well-known names (in Latin, so that they might be internationally comprehensible):

Cirrus: Parallel, flexuous or divergent fibres extensible in any and all directions.

Cumulus: Convex or conical heaps, increasing upwards from a horizontal base.

Stratus: A widely extended, continuous, horizontal sheet, increasing from below.

Nimbus: The rain cloud.


Goethe's sketch of the basic cloud forms

Let us, on the background of Howard’s brief definitions, try to form a more exact picture of the atmospheric dynamics at work in each of the stages he describes.2

Among the three formations of cirrus, cumulus and stratus, the cumulus has a special place as representing in the most actual sense what is meant by the term ‘cloud’. The reason is that both cirrus and stratus have characteristics which in one or the other direction tend away from the pure realm of atmospheric cloud-formation. In the stratus, the atmospheric vapour is gathered into a horizontal, relatively arched layer around the earth, and so anticipates the actual water covering below which extends spherically around the earth’s centre. Thus the stratus arranges itself in a direction which is already conditioned by the earth’s field of gravity. In the language of physics, the stratus forms an equipotential surface in the gravitational field permeating the earth’s atmosphere.

As the exact opposite of this we have the cirrus. If in the stratus the form ceases to consist of distinct particulars, because the entire cloud-mass runs together into a single layer, in the cirrus the form begins to vanish before our eyes, because it dissolves into the surrounding atmospheric space. In the cirrus there is present a tendency to expand; in the stratus to contract.

Between the two, the cumulus, even viewed simply as a form-type, represents an exact mean. In how densely mounded a shape does the majestically towering cumulus appear before us, and yet how buoyantly it hovers aloft in the heights! If one ever comes into the midst of a cumulus cloud in the mountains, one sees how its myriads of single particles are in ceaseless movement. And yet the whole remains stationary, on windless days preserving its form unchanged for hours. More recent meteorological research has established that in many cumulus forms the entire mass is in constant rotation, although seen from outside, it appears as a stable, unvarying shape. Nowhere in nature may the supremacy of form over matter be so vividly observed as in the cumulus cloud. And the forms of the cumuli themselves tell us in manifold metamorphoses of a state of equilibrium between expansive and contractive tendencies within the atmosphere.

Our description of the three cloud-types of cirrus, cumulus and stratus, makes it clear that we have to do with a self-contained symmetrical system of forms, within which the two outer, dynamically regarded, represent the extreme tendencies of expansion and contraction, whilst in the middle forms these are held more or less in balance. By adding Howard’s nimbus formation to this system, we destroy its symmetry. Actually, in the nimbus we have cloud in such a condition that it ceases to be an atmospheric phenomenon in any real sense of the word; for it now breaks up into single drops of water, each of which, under the pull of gravity, makes its own independent way to the earth. (The symmetry is restored as soon as we realize that the nimbus, as a frontier stage below the stratus, has a counterpart in a corresponding frontier stage above the cirrus. To provide insight into this upper frontier stage, of which neither Howard nor Goethe was at that time in a position to develop a clear enough conception to deal with it scientifically, is one of the aims of this book.)

In order to understand what prompted Goethe to accept, as he did, Howard’s classification and terminology at first glance, and what persuaded him to make himself its eloquent herald, we must note from what point Goethe’s labours for a natural understanding of nature had originated.

In his History of my Botanical Studies Goethe mentions, besides Shakespeare and Spinoza, Linnaeus as one who had most influenced his own development. Concerning Linnaeus, however, this is to be understood in a negative sense. For when Goethe, himself searching for a way of bringing the confusing multiplicity of plant phenomena into a comprehensive system, met with the Linnaean system, he was, despite his admiration for the thoroughness and ingenuity of Linnaeus’s work, repelled by his method. Thus by way of reaction, his thought was brought into its own creative movement: ‘As I sought to take in his acute, ingenious analysis, his apt, appropriate, though often arbitrary laws, a cleft was set up in my inner nature: what he sought to hold forcibly apart could not but strive for union according to the inmost need of my own being.’

Linnaeus’s system agonized Goethe because it demanded from him ‘to memorize a ready-made terminology, to hold in readiness a certain number of nouns and adjectives, so as to be able, whenever any form was in question, to employ them in apt and skilful selection, and so to give it its characteristic designation and appropriate position.’ Such a procedure appeared to Goethe as a kind of mosaic, in which one ready-made piece is set next to another in order to produce out of a thousand details the semblance of a picture; and this was ‘in a certain way repugnant’ to him. What Goethe awoke to when he met Linnaeus’s attempt at systematizing the plant kingdom was the old problem of whether the study of nature should proceed from the parts to the whole or from the whole to the parts.

Seeing, therefore, how it became a question for Goethe, at the very beginning of his scientific studies, whether a natural classification of nature’s phenomena could be achieved, we can understand why he was so overjoyed when, towards the end of his life, in a field of observation which had meanwhile caught much of his interest, he met with a classification which showed, down to the single names employed, that it had been read off from reality.

The following is a comprehensive description of Goethe’s meteorological views, which he gave a few years before his death in one of his conversations with his secretary, Eckermann:

‘I compare the earth and her hygrosphere3 to a great living being perpetually inhaling and exhaling. If she inhales, she draws the hygrosphere to her, so that, coming near her surface, it is condensed to clouds and rain. This state I call water-affirmative (WasserBejahung). Should it continue for an indefinite period, the earth would be drowned. This the earth does not allow, but exhales again, and sends the watery vapours upwards, when they are dissipated through the whole space of the higher atmosphere. These become so rarefied that not only does the sun penetrate them with its brilliancy, but the eternal darkness of infinite space is seen through them as a fresh blue. This state of the atmosphere I call water-negative (WasserVerneinung). For just as, under the contrary influence, not only does water come profusely from above, but also the moisture of the earth cannot be dried and dissipated – so, on the contrary, in this state not only does no moisture come from above, but the damp of the earth itself flies upwards; so that, if this should continue for an indefinite period, the earth, even if the sun did not shine, would be in danger of drying up.’ (llth April 1827.)

Goethe’s notes of the results of his meteorological observations show how in them, too, he followed his principle of keeping strictly to the phenomenon. His first concern is to bring the recorded measurements of weather phenomena into their proper order of significance. To this end he compares measurements of atmospheric temperature and local density with barometric measurements. He finds that the first two, being of a more local and accidental nature, have the value of ‘derived’ phenomena, whereas the variations in the atmosphere revealed by the barometer are the same over wide areas and therefore point to fundamental changes in the general conditions of the earth. Measurements made regularly over long periods of time finally lead him to recognize in the barometric variations of atmospheric pressure the basic meteorological phenomenon.

In all this we find Goethe carefully guarding himself against ‘explaining’ these atmospheric changes by assuming some kind of purely mechanical cause, such as the accumulation of air-masses over a certain area or the like. Just as little would he permit himself lightly to assume influences of an extra-terrestrial nature, such as those of the moon. Not that he would have had anything against such things, if they had rested on genuine observation. But his own observations, as far as he was able to carry them, told him simply that the atmosphere presses with greater or lesser intensity on the earth in more or less regular rhythms. He was not abandoning the phenomenal sphere, however, when he said that these changes are results of the activity of earthly gravity, or when he concluded from this that barometric variations were caused by variations in the intensity of the field of terrestrial gravity, whereby the earth sometimes drew the atmosphere to it with a stronger, and sometimes with a weaker, pull.

He was again not departing from the realm of the phenomenal when he looked round for other indications in nature of such an alternation of drawing in and letting forth of air, and found them in the respiratory processes of animated beings. (To regard the earth as a merely physical structure was impossible for Goethe, for he could have done this only by leaving out of account the life visibly bound up with it.) Accordingly, barometric measurements became for him the sign of a breathing process carried out by the earth.

Alongside the alternating phases of contraction and expansion within the atmosphere, Goethe placed the fact that atmospheric density decreases with height. Observation of differences in cloud formation at different levels, of the boundary of snow formation, etc., led him to speak of different ‘atmospheres’, or of atmospheric circles or spheres, which when undisturbed are arranged concentrically round the earth. Here also he saw, in space, phases of contraction alternating with phases of expansion.



At this point in our discussion it is necessary to introduce another leading concept of Goethean nature-observation, which was for him – as it will be for us – of particular significance for carrying over the Goethean method of research from the organic into the inorganic realm of nature. This is the concept of the ur-phenomenon (Urphänomen). In this latter realm, nature no longer brings forth related phenomena in the ordering proper to them; hence we are obliged to acquire the capacity of penetrating to this ordering by means of our own realistically trained observation and thought.

From among the various utterances of Goethe regarding his general conception of the ur-phenomenon, we here select a passage from that part of the historical section of his Theory of Colour where he discusses the method of investigation introduced into science by Bacon. He says:

‘In the range of phenomena all had equal value in Bacon’s eyes. For although he himself always points out that one should collect the particulars only to select from them and to arrange them, in order finally to attain to Universals, yet too much privilege is granted to the single facts; and before it becomes possible to attain to simplification and conclusion by means of induction (the very way he recommends), life vanishes and forces get exhausted. He who cannot realize that one instance is often worth a thousand, bearing all within itself; he who proves unable to comprehend and esteem what we called ur-phenomena, will never be in a position to advance anything, either to his own or to others’ joy and profit.’

What Goethe says here calls for the following comparison. We can say that nature seen through Bacon’s eyes appears as if painted on a two-dimensional surface, so that all its facts are seen alongside each other at exactly the same distance from the observer. Goethe, on the other hand, ascribed to the human spirit the power of seeing the phenomenal world in all its three-dimensional multiplicity; that is, of seeing it in perspective and distinguishing between foreground and background.4 Things in the foreground he called ur-phenomena. Here the idea creatively determining the relevant field of facts comes to its purest expression. The sole task of the investigator of nature, he considered, was to seek for the ur-phenomena and to bring all other phenomena into relation with them; and in the fulfilment of this task he saw the means of fully satisfying the human mind’s need to theorize. He expressed this in the words, ‘Every fact is itself already theory’. In Goethe’s meteorological studies we have a lucid example of how he sought and found the relevant ur-phenomenon. It is the breathing-process of the earth as shown by the variations of barometric pressure.



Once again we find Thomas Reid, along his line of intuitively guided observation, coming quite close to Goethe where he deals with the question of the apprehension of natural law by the human mind. He, too, was an opponent of the method of ‘explaining’ phenomena by means of abstract theories spun out of sheer thinking, and more than once in his writings he inveighs against it in his downright, humorous way.5

His conviction that human thinking ought to remain within the realm of directly experienced observation is shown in the following words: ‘In the solution of natural phenomena, all the length that the human faculties can carry us is only this, that from particular phenomena, we may, by induction, trace out general phenomena, of which all the particular ones are necessary consequences.’6 As an example of this he takes gravity, leading the reader from one phenomenon to the next without ever abandoning them, and concluding the journey by saying: ‘The most general phenomena we can reach are what we call laws of nature. So that the laws of nature are nothing else but the most general facts relating to the operations of nature, which include a great many particular facts under them.’



It was while on his way with the Grand Duke of Weimar to visit a newly erected meteorological observatory that Goethe, in the course of informing his companion of his own meteorological ideas, first heard of Howard’s writings about the formation of clouds. The Duke had read a report of them in a German scientific periodical, and it seemed to him that Howard’s cloud system corresponded with what he now heard of Goethe’s thoughts about the force relationships working in the different atmospheric levels. He had made no mistake. Goethe, who immediately obtained Howard’s essay, recognized at first glance in Howard’s cloud scale the law of atmospheric changes which he himself had discovered. He found here, what he had always missed in the customary practice of merely tabulating the results of scientific measurements. And so he took hold of the Howard system with delight, for it ‘provided him with a thread which had hitherto been lacking’.

Moreover, in the names which Howard had chosen for designating the basic cloud forms, Goethe saw the dynamic element in each of them coming to immediate expression in human speech.7 He therefore always spoke of Howard’s system as a ‘welcome terminology’.

All this inspired Goethe to celebrate Howard’s personality and his work in a number of verses in which he gave a description of these dynamic elements and a paraphrase of the names, moulding them together into an artistic unity. In a few accompanying verses he honoured Howard as the first to ‘distinguish and suitably name’ the clouds.8

The reason why Goethe laid so much stress on Howard’s terminology was because he was very much aware of the power of names to help or hinder men in their quest for knowledge. He himself usually waited a long time before deciding on a name for a natural phenomenon or a connexion between phenomena which he had discovered. The Idea which his spiritual eye had observed had first to appear so clearly before him that he could clothe it in a thought-form proper to it. Seeing in the act of name – giving an essential function of man (we are reminded of what in this respect the biblical story of creation says of Adam),9 Goethe called man ‘the first conversation which Nature conducts with God’.

It is characteristic of Goethe that he did not content himself with knowing the truth which someone had brought forward in a field of knowledge in which he himself was interested, but that he felt his acquaintance with this truth to be complete only when he also knew something about the personality of the man himself. So he introduces his account of his endeavours to know more about Howard, the man, with the following words: ‘Increasingly convinced that everything occurring through man should be regarded in an ethical sense, and that moral value is to be estimated only from a man’s way of life, I asked a friend in London to find out if possible something about Howard’s life, if only the simplest facts.’ Goethe was uncertain whether the Englishman was still alive, so his delight and surprise were considerable when from Howard himself he received an answer in the form of a short autobiographical sketch, which fully confirmed his expectations regarding Howard’s ethical personality.

Howard’s account of himself is known to us, as Goethe included a translation of it in the collection of his own meteorological studies. Howard in a modest yet dignified way describes his Christian faith, his guide through all his relationships, whether to other men or to nature.10 A man comes before us who, untroubled by the prevailing philosophy of his day, was able to advance to the knowledge of an objective truth in nature, because he had the ability to carry religious experience even into his observation of the sense-world.

In view of all this, it is perhaps not too much to say that in the meeting between Howard and Goethe by way of the spiritual bridge of the clouds, something happened that was more than a mere event in the personal history of these two men.

1 These words should be weighed with the fact in mind that they were written at the time when Crookes was intent on finding the unknown land of the spirit by means of just such ‘a mere force of junction’.

2 See also Goethe’s sketch of the basic cloud forms on Plate IV.

3 Goethe’s Dunstkreis – meaning the humidity contained in the air and, as such, spherically surrounding the earth. I had to make up the word ‘hygrosphere’ (after hygrometer, etc.) to keep clear the distinction from both atmosphere and hydrosphere. Except for this term in the first two sentences, the above follows Oxenford’s translation (who, following the dictionaries, has rendered Goethe’s term inadequately by ‘atmosphere’).

4 We may here recall Eddington’s statement concerning the restriction of scientific observation to ‘non-stereoscopic vision’.

5 An example of this is Reid’s commentary on existing theories about sight as a mere activity of the optic nerve. (Inq., VI, 19.)

6 See Inq., VI, 13. This is precisely what Kant had declared to be outside human possibility.

7 Stratus means layer, cumulus – heap, cirrus – curl.

8 There exists no adequate translation of these verses.

9 Genesis ii, 19, 20.

10 A fact which Howard did not mention, and which presumably remained unknown to Goethe, was the work he had done as chairman of a relief committee for the parts of Germany devastated by the Napoleonic wars. For this work Howard received a series of public honours.