CHAPTER XV – Seeing as ‘Deed’ – I

PART II: Goetheanism – Whence and Whither?

CHAPTER XV     Seeing as ‘Deed’ – I

Having made ourselves so far acquainted with the fundamentals of Goethe’s approach to the outer phenomena of colour involved in the spectrum, we will leave this for a while to follow Goethe along another no less essential line of inquiry. It leads us to the study of our own process of sight, by means of which we grow aware of the optical facts in outer space.


The importance which Goethe himself saw in this aspect of the optical problem is shown by the place he gave it in the didactic part of his Farbenlehre. The first three chapters, after the Introduction, are called ‘Physiological Colours’, ‘Physical Colours’, and ‘Chemical Colours’. In the first chapter, Goethe summarizes a group of phenomena which science calls ‘subjective’ colours, since their origin is traced to events within the organ of sight. The next chapter deals with an actual physics of colour – that is, with the appearance of colours in external space as a result of the refraction, diffraction and polarization of light. The third chapter treats of material colours in relation to chemical and other influences. After two chapters which need not concern us here comes the sixth and last chapter, entitled ‘Physical-Moral Effect of Colour’ (‘Sinnlich-sittliche Wirkung der Farben’), which crowns the whole. There, for the first time in the history of modern science, a bridge is built between Physics, Aesthetics and Ethics. We remember it was with this aim in view that Goethe had embarked upon his search for the solution of the problem of colour.

In this chapter the experiencing of the various colours and their interplay through the human soul is treated in many aspects, and Goethe is able to show that what arises in man’s consciousness as qualitative colour-experience is nothing but a direct ‘becoming-inward’ of what is manifested to the ‘reader’s’ eye and mind as the objective nature of colours. So, in one realm of the sense-world, Goethe succeeded in closing the abyss which divides existence and consciousness, so long as the latter is restricted to a mere onlooker-relationship towards the sense-world.

If we ask what induced Goethe to treat the physiological colours before the physical colours, thus deviating so radically from the order customary in science, we shall find the answer in a passage from the Introduction to his Entwurf. Goethe, in giving his views on the connexion between light and the eye, says: ‘The eye owes its existence to light. Out of indifferent auxiliary animal organs the light calls forth an organ for itself, similar to its own nature; thus the eye is formed by the light, for the light, so that the inner light can meet the outer.’ In a verse, which reproduces in poetic form a thought originally expressed by Plotinus, Goethe sums up his idea of the creative connexion between eye and light as follows:

Unless our eyes had something of the sun, How could we ever look upon the light? Unless there lived within us God’s own might, How could the Godlike give us ecstasy?1

(Trans. Stawell-Dickinson)

By expressing himself in this way in the Introduction to his Farbenlehre, Goethe makes it clear from the outset that when he speaks of ‘light’ as the source of colour-phenomena, he has in mind an idea of light very different from that held by modern physics. For in dealing with optics, physical science turns at once to phenomena of light found outside man – in fact to phenomena in that physical realm from which, as the lowest of the kingdoms of nature, the observations of natural science are bound to start. Along this path one is driven, as we have seen, to conceive of light as a mere ‘disturbance’ in the universe, a kind of irregular chaos.

In contrast to this, Goethe sees that to gain an explanation of natural physical phenomena which will be in accord with nature, we must approach them on the path by which nature brings them into being. In the field of light this path is one which leads from light as creative agent to light as mere phenomenon. The highest form of manifestation of creative light most directly resembling its Idea is within man. It is there that light creates for itself the organ through which, as manifest light, it eventually enters into human consciousness. To Goethe it was therefore clear that a theory of light, which is to proceed in accord with nature, should begin with a study of the eye: its properties, its ways of acting when it brings us information of its deeds and sufferings in external nature.

The eye with its affinity to light comes into being in the apparently dark space of the mother’s womb. This points to the possession by the human organism of an ‘inner’ light which first forms the eye from within, in order that it may afterwards meet the light outside. It is this inner light that Goethe makes the starting-point of his investigations, and it is for this reason that he treats physiological colours before physical colours.


Of fundamental significance as regards method is the way in which Goethe goes on from the passage quoted above to speak of the activity of the inner light: ‘This immediate affinity between light and the eye will be denied by none; to consider them identical in substance is less easy to comprehend. It will be more intelligible to assert that a dormant light resides in the eye, and that this light can be excited by the slightest cause from within or from without. In darkness we can, by an effort of imagination, call up the brightest images; in dreams, objects appear to us as in broad daylight; if we are awake, the slightest external action of light is perceptible, and if the organ suffers a mechanical impact light and colours spring forth.’

What Goethe does here is nothing less than to follow the development of sight to where it has its true origin. Let us remember that a general source of illusion in the modern scientific picture of the world lies in the fact that the onlooker-consciousness accepts itself as a self-contained ready-made entity, instead of tracing itself genetically to the states of consciousness from which it has developed in the course of evolution. In reality, the consciousness kindled by outer sense-perception was preceded by a dreaming consciousness, and this by a sleeping consciousness, both for the individual and for humanity as a whole. So, too, outer vision by means of the physical apparatus of the eye was preceded by an inner vision. In dreams we still experience this inner vision; we use it in the activity of our picture-forming imagination; and it plays continuously upon the process of external sight. Why we fail to notice this when using our eye in the ordinary way, is because of that dazzling process mentioned earlier in this book. Goethe’s constant endeavour was not to become the victim of this blindness – that is, not to be led by day-time experience to forget the night-side of human life. The passage quoted from the Introduction to his Farbenlehre shows how, in all that he strove for, he kept this goal in view.

How inevitably a way of thinking that seeks an intuitive understanding of nature is led to views like those of Goethe is shown by the following quotations from Reid and Ruskin, expressing their view of the relationship between the eye, or the act of seeing, and external optical phenomena. In his Inquiry, at the beginning of his review of visual perceptions, Reid says:

‘The structure of the eye, and of all its appurtenances, the admirable contrivances of nature for performing all its various external and internal motions and the variety in the eyes of different animals, suited to their several natures and ways of life, clearly demonstrate this organ to be a masterpiece of nature’s work. And he must be very ignorant of what hath been discovered about it, or have a very strange cast of understanding, who can seriously doubt, whether or not the rays of light and the eye were made for one another with consummate wisdom, and perfect skill in optics.”3

The following passage from Ruskin’s Ethics of the Dust (Lecture X) brings out his criticism of the scientific way of treating of optical phenomena:

‘With regard to the most interesting of all their [the philosophers’] modes of force-light; they never consider how far the existence of it depends on the putting of certain vitreous and nervous substances into the formal arrangement which we call an eye. The German philosophers began the attack, long ago, on the other side, by telling us there was no such thing as light at all, unless we choose to see it.2 Now, German and English, both, have reversed their engines, and insist that light would be exactly the same light that it is, though nobody could ever see it. The fact being that the force must be there, and the eye there, and ‘light’ means the effect of the one on the other – and perhaps, also – (Plato saw farther into that mystery than anyone has since, that I know of) – on something a little way within the eyes.’

Remarks like these, and the further quotation given below, make it seem particularly tragic that Ruskin apparently had no knowledge of Goethe’s Farbenlehre. This is the more remarkable in view of the significance which Turner, with whom Ruskin stood in such close connexion, ascribed to it from the standpoint of the artist. For the way in which Ruskin in his Modern Painters speaks of the effect of the modern scientific concept of colours upon the ethical-religious feeling of man, shows that he deplores the lack of just what Goethe had long since achieved in his Farbenlehre where, starting with purely physical observations, he had been able to develop from them a ‘physical-moral’ theory of colour.

Ruskin’s alertness to the effect on ethical life of a scientific world-picture empty of all qualitative values led him to write:

‘It is in raising us from the first state of inactive reverie to the second of useful thought, that scientific pursuits are to be chiefly praised. But in restraining us at this second stage, and checking the impulses towards higher contemplation, they are to be feared or blamed. They may in certain minds be consistent with such contemplation, but only by an effort; in their nature they are always adverse to it, having a tendency to chill and subdue the feelings, and to resolve all things into atoms and numbers. For most men, an ignorant enjoyment is better than an informed one, it is better to conceive the sky as a blue dome than a dark cavity, and the cloud as a golden throne than a sleety mist. I much question whether anyone who knows optics, however religious he may be, can feel in equal degree the pleasure and reverence an unlettered peasant may feel at the sight of a rainbow.’

What Ruskin did not guess was that the rudiments of the ‘moral theory of light’ for which he craved, as this passage indicates, had been established by Goethe long before.


In the section of his Farbenlehre dealing with ‘physiological colours’, Goethe devotes by far the most space to the so-called ‘afterimages’ which appear in the eye as the result of stimulation by external light, and persist for some little time. To create such an afterimage in a simple way, one need only gaze at a brightly lit window and then at a faintly lit wall of the room. The picture of the window appears there, but with the light-values reversed: the dark cross-bar appears as light, and the bright panes as dark.

In describing this phenomenon Goethe first gives the usual explanation, that the part of the retina which was exposed to the light from the window-panes gets tired, and is therefore blunted for further impressions, whereas the part on which the image of the dark frame fell is rested, and so is more sensitive to the uniform impression of the wall. Goethe, however, at once adds that although this explanation may seem adequate for this special instance, there are other phenomena which can be accounted for only if they are held to derive from a ‘higher source’. Goethe means experiences with coloured after-images. This will be confirmed by our own discussion of the subject.

What we first need, however, is a closer insight into the physiological process in the eye which causes the after-images as such. Wherever Goethe speaks of a simple activity of the retina, we are in fact concerned with a co-operation of the retina with other parts of our organ of sight. In order to make this clear, let us consider how the eye adapts itself to varying conditions of light and darkness.

It is well known that if the eye has become adjusted to darkness it is dazzled if suddenly exposed to light, even though the light be of no more than quite ordinary brightness. Here we enter a border region where the seeing process begins to pass over into a pathological condition.4 A ‘secret’ of the effect of light on the eye is here revealed which remains hidden in ordinary vision, for normally the different forces working together in the eye hold each other in balance, so that none is able to manifest separately. This equilibrium is disturbed, however, when we suddenly expose the eye to light while it is adapted to darkness. The light then acts on the eye in its usual way, but without the immediate counter-action which normally restores the balance. Under these conditions we notice that the sudden dazzling has a painful influence on the eye – that is, an influence in some way destructive. This will not seem surprising if we remember that when light strikes on the background of the eye, consciousness is quickened, and this, as we know, presupposes a breaking down of substance in some part of the nervous system. Such a process does in fact occur in the retina, the nerve-part of the eye, when external light falls upon it. If the eye were solely a structure of nerves, it would be so far destroyed by the impact of light that it could not be restored even by sleep, as are the more inward parts of the nervous system. But the eye receives also a flow of blood, and we know that throughout the threefold human organism the blood supplies the nervous system with building-up forces, polarically opposite to the destructive ones. In sleep, as we have already seen, the interruption of consciousness allows the blood to inundate the nervous system, as it were, with its healing, building-up activity. It is not necessary, however, for the whole of the body to pass into a condition of sleep before this activity can occur. It functions to some extent also in the waking state, especially in those parts of the organism which, like the eye, serve in the highest degree the unfolding of consciousness.

Having established this, we have a basis for an understanding of the complete process of vision. We see that it is by no means solely the nerve part of the eye which is responsible for vision, as the spectator-physiology was bound to imagine. The very fact that the place where the optic nerve enters the eye is blind indicates that the function of mediating sight cannot be ascribed to the nerve alone. What we call ‘seeing’ is far more the result of an interplay between the retina carrying the nerves, and the choroid carrying the blood-vessels. In this interplay the nerves are the passive, receptive organ for the inworking of external light, while the blood-activity comes to meet the nerve-process with a precisely correlated action. In this action we find what Goethe called the ‘inner light’.

The process involved in adaptation now becomes comprehensible. The cause of the dazzling effect of light of normal intensity on an eye adapted to the dark, is that in such an eye the blood is in a state of rest, and this prevents it from exercising quickly enough the necessary counter-action to the influence of the light. A corresponding effect occurs when one suddenly exposes to darkness the eye adapted to light. One can easily observe what goes on then, if, after looking for a time at an undifferentiated light surface such as the evenly luminous sky, one covers the opened eyes with the hollowed hands. It will then be found that the space before the eyes is filled by a sort of white light, and by paying close attention one recognizes that it streams from the eyes out into the hollowed space. It may even be several minutes before the field of vision really appears black, that is, before the activity of the inner light in the choroid has so far died away that equilibrium prevails between the non-stimulated nerves and the non-stimulated blood.

With this insight into the twofold nature of the process of vision we are now able to describe more fully the negative after-image. Although in this case, as Goethe himself remarked, the ordinary explanation seems to suffice, yet in view of our later studies it may be well to bring forward here this wider conception.

On the basis of our present findings it is no longer enough to trace the appearing of the after-image solely to a differential fatigue in the retina. The fact is that as long as the eye is turned to the bright window-pane a more intensive blood-activity occurs in the portions of the eye’s background met by the light than in those where the dark window-bar throws its shadow on the retina. If the eye so influenced is then directed to the faintly illumined wall of the room, the difference in the activity of the blood persists for some time. Hence in the parts of the eye adapted to darkness we experience the faint brightness as strongly luminous, even dazzling, whereas in the parts more adapted to light we feel the same degree of brightness to be dark. That the action of the inner light is responsible for the differences becomes clear if, while the negative after-image is still visible, we darken the eye with the hollowed hands. Then at once in the dark field of vision the positive facsimile of the window appears, woven by the activity of the blood which reproduces the outer reality.

Having traced the colourless after-image to ‘higher sources’ – that is, to the action of the blood – let us now examine coloured afterimages. We need first to become conscious of the colour-creating light-activity which resides in the blood. For this purpose we expose the eyes for a moment to an intense light, and then darken them for a sufficient time. Nothing in external nature resembles in beauty and radiance the play of colour which then arises, unless it be the colour phenomenon of the rainbow under exceptionally favourable circumstances.

The physiological process which comes to consciousness in this way as an experience of vision is exactly the same as the process which gives us experiences of vision in dreams. There is indeed evidence that when one awakens in a brightly lit room out of vivid dreaming, one feels less dazzled than on waking from dreamless sleep. This indicates that in dream vision the blood in the eye is active, just as it is in waking vision. The only difference is that in waking consciousness the stimulus reaches the blood from outside, through the eye, whereas in dreams it comes from causes within the organism. The nature of these causes does not concern us here; it will be dealt with later. For the moment it suffices to establish the fact that our organism is supplied with a definite activity of forces which we experience as the appearance of certain images of vision, no matter from which side the stimulus comes. All vision, physiologically considered, is of the nature of dream vision; that is to say, we owe our day-waking sight to the fact that we are able to encounter the pictures of the outer world, brought to us by the light, with a dreaming of the corresponding after-images.

Just as the simple light-dark after-image shows a reversal of light-values in relation to the external picture, so in the coloured afterimages there is a quite definite and opposite relationship of their colours to those of the original picture. Thus, if the eyes are exposed for some time to an impression of the colour red, and then directed to a neutral surface, not too brightly illuminated, one sees it covered with a glimmering green. In this way there is a reciprocal correspondence between the colour-pairs Red-Green, Yellow-Violet, Blue-Orange. To whichever of these six colours one exposes the eye, an after-image always appears of its contrast colour, forming with it a pair of opposites.

We must here briefly recall how this phenomenon is generally explained on Newtonian lines. The starting-point is the assumption that the eye becomes fatigued by gazing at the colour and gradually becomes insensitive to it. According to Newton’s theory, if an eye thus affected looks at a white surface, the sum of all the colours comes from there to meet it, while the eye has a reduced sensitivity to the particular colour it has been gazing at. And so among the totality of colours constituting the ‘white’ light, this one is more or less non-existent for the eye. The remaining colours are then believed to cause the contrasting colour-impression.

If we apply the common sense of the Hans Andersen child to this, we see where it actually leads. For it says no less than this: as long as the eye is in a normal condition, it tells us a lie about the world, for it makes white light seem something that in reality it is not. For the truth to become apparent, the natural function of the eye must be reduced by fatigue. To believe that a body, functioning in this way, is the creation of God, and at the same time to look on this God as a Being of absolute moral perfection, would seem a complete contradiction to the Hans Andersen child. In this contradiction and others of the same kind to which nowadays every child is exposed repeatedly and willy-nilly in school lessons and so on – we must seek the true cause of the moral uncertainty so characteristic of young people today. It was because Ruskin felt this that he called for a ‘moral’ theory of light.

Since Goethe did not judge man from artificially devised experiments, but the latter from man, quite simple reflexions led him to the following view of the presence of the contrasting colour in the coloured after-images. Nature outside man had taught him that life on all levels takes it course in a perpetual interplay of opposites, manifested externally in an interplay of diastole and systole comparable to the process of breathing. He, therefore, traced the interchange of light-values in colourless after-images to a ‘silent resistance which every vital principle is forced to exhibit when some definite condition is presented to it. Thus, inhalation presupposes exhalation; thus every systole, its diastole. When darkness is presented to the eye, the eye demands brightness, and vice versa: it reveals its vital energy, its fitness to grasp the object, precisely by bringing forth out of itself something contrary to the object.’

Consequently he summarizes his reflexions on coloured afterimages and their reversals of colour in these words: ‘The eye demands actual completeness and closes the colour-circle in itself.’ How true this is, the law connecting the corresponding colours shows, as may be seen in the following diagram. Here, red, yellow and blue as three primary colours confront the three remaining colours, green, violet and orange in such a way that each of the latter represents a mixture of the two other primary colours. (Fig. 10.)

Colour and contrast-colour are actually so related that to whatever colour the eye is exposed it produces a counter-colour so as to have the sum-total of all the three primary colours in itself. And so, in consequence of the interplay of outer and inner light in the eye, there is always present in it the totality of all the colours.

It follows that the appearance of the contrast-colour in the field of vision is not, as the Newtonian theory asserts, the result of fatigue, but of an intensified activity of the eye, which continues even after the colour impression which gave rise to it has ceased. What is seen on the neutral surface (it will be shown later why we studiously avoid speaking of ‘white light’) is no outwardly existing colour at all. It is the activity of the eye itself, working in a dreamlike way from its blood-vessel system, and coming to our consciousness by this means.

Here again, just as in the simple opposition of light and dark, the perception of coloured after-images is connected with a breaking-down process in the nerve region of the eye, and a corresponding building-up activity coming from the blood. Only in this case the eye is not affected by simple light, but by light of a definite colouring. The specific destructive process caused by this light is answered with a specific building-up process by the blood. Under certain conditions we can become dreamily aware of this process which normally does not enter our consciousness. In such a case we see the contrasting colour as coloured after-image.

Only by representing the process in this way do we do justice to a fact which completely eludes the onlooker-consciousness – namely, that the eye produces the contrasting colour even while it is still exposed to the influence of the outer colour. Since this is so, all colours appearing to us in ordinary vision are already tinged by the subdued light of the opposite colour, produced by the eye itself. One can easily convince oneself of this through the following experiment. Instead of directing the eye, after it has been exposed to a certain colour, to a neutral surface, as previously, gaze at the appropriate contrasting colour. (The first and second coloured surfaces should be so arranged that the former is considerably smaller than the latter.) Then, in the middle of the second surface (and in a field about the size of the first), its own colour appears, with a strikingly heightened intensity.

Here we find the eye producing, as usual, a contrast-colour from out of itself, as an after-image, even while its gaze is fixed on the same colour in the outer world. The heightened brilliance within the given field is due to the addition of the after-image colour to the external colour.

The reader may wonder why this phenomenon is not immediately adduced as a decisive proof of the fallacy of the whole Newtonian theory of the relation of ‘white’ light to the various colours. Although it does in fact offer such a proof, we have good reason for not making this use of it here. Throughout this book it is never our intention to enter into a contest of explanations, or to defeat one explanation by another. How little this would help will be obvious if we realize that research was certainly not ignorant of the fact that the opposite colour arises even when the eye is not turned to a white surface. In spite of this, science did not feel its concept of white light as the sum of all the colours to be an error, since it has succeeded in ‘explaining’ this phenomenon too, and fitting it into the prevailing theory. To do so is in thorough accord with spectator-thinking. Our own concern, however, as in all earlier cases, is to replace this thinking with all its ‘proofs’ and ‘explanations’ by learning to read in the phenomena themselves. For no other purpose than this the following facts also are now brought forward.


Besides Rudolf Steiner’s fundamental insight into the spiritual-physical nature of the growing human being, through which he laid the basis of a true art of education, he gave advice on many practical points. For example, he indicated how by the choice of a suitable colour environment one can bring a harmonizing influence to bear on extremes of temperament in little children. To-day it is a matter of practical experience that excitable children are quietened if they are surrounded with red or red-yellow colours, or wear clothes of these colours, whereas inactive, lethargic children are roused to inner movement if they are exposed to the influence of blue or blue-green colours.

This psychological reaction of children to colour is not surprising if one knows the role played by the blood in the process of seeing, and how differently the soul-life of man is connected with the blood-nerve polarity of his organism in childhood and in later life. What we have described as the polar interplay of blood and nerve in the act of sight is not confined to the narrow field of the eye. Just as the nerve processes arising in the retina are continued to the optic centre in the cerebrum, so must we look for the origin of the corresponding blood process not in the choroid itself, but in the lower regions of the organism. Wherever, therefore, the colour red influences the whole nerve system, the blood system as a whole answers with an activity of the metabolism corresponding to the contrasting colour, green. Similarly it reacts as a whole to a blue-violet affecting the nerve system, this time with a production corresponding to yellow-orange.

The reason why in later years we notice this so little lies in a fact we have repeatedly encountered. The consciousness of the grown man to-day, through its one-sided attachment to the death-processes in the nerve region, pays no attention to its connexion with the life-processes centred in the blood system. In this respect the condition of the little child is quite different. Just as the child is more asleep in its nerve system than the grown-up person, it is more awake in its blood system. Hence in all sense-perceptions a child is not so much aware of how the world works on its nerve system as how its blood system responds. And so a child in a red environment feels quietened because it experiences, though dimly, how its whole blood system is stimulated to the green production; bluish colours enliven it because it feels its blood answer with a production of light yellowish tones.

From the latter phenomena we see once more the significance of Goethe’s arrangement of his Farbenlehre. For we are now able to realize that to turn one’s attention to the deeds and sufferings of the inner light means nothing less than to bring to consciousness the processes of vision which in childhood, though in a dreamlike way, determine the soul’s experience of seeing. Through placing his examination of the physiological colours at the beginning of his Farbenlehre, Goethe actually took the path in scientific research to which Thomas Reid pointed in philosophy. By adapting Reid’s words we can say that Goethe, in his Farbenlehre, proclaims as a basic principle of a true Optics: that we must become again as little children if we would reach a philosophy of light and colours.

1Wär’ nicht das Auge sonnenhaft,
Wie könnten wir das Licht erblicken?
Lebt’ nicht in uns des Gottes eigne Kraft,
Wie könnt’ uns Göttliches entzucken!

2 Inquiry, VI, 1. The italics are Reid’s.

3 Presumably Kant and his school. Schopenhauer was definitely of this opinion.

4 As regards the principle underlying the line of consideration followed here, see the remark made in Chapter V in connexion with Goethe’s study of the ‘proliferated rose’ (p. 76f.).

Tagged on: , ,