CHAPTER XVI – Seeing as ‘Deed’ – II

PART II: Goetheanism – Whence and Whither?

CHAPTER XVI       Seeing as ‘Deed’ – II

The observation of our own visual process, which we began in the last chapter, will serve now to free us from a series of illusory concepts which have been connected by the onlooker-consciousness with the phenomena brought about by light.

There is first the general assumption that light as such is visible. In order to realize that light is itself an invisible agent, we need only consider a few self-evident facts – for instance, that for visibility to arise light must always encounter some material resistance in space. This is, in fact, an encounter between light, typifying levity, and the density of the material world, typifying gravity. Accordingly, wherever visible colours appear we have always to do with light meeting its opposite.

Optics, therefore, as a science of the physically perceptible is never concerned with light alone, but always with light and its opposite together. This is actually referred to in Ruskin’s statement, quoted in the last chapter, where he speaks of the need of the ‘force’ and of the intercepting bodily organ before a science of optics can come into existence. Ruskin’s ‘light’, however, is what we have learnt with Goethe to call ‘colour’, whereas that for which we reserve the term ‘light’ is called by him simply ‘force’.

All this shows how illusory it is to speak of ‘white’ light as synonymous with simple light, in distinction to ‘coloured’ light. And yet this has been customary with scientists from the time of Newton until today, not excluding Newton’s critic, Eddington. In fact, white exists visibly for the eye as part of the manifested world, and is therefore properly characterized as a colour. This is, therefore, how Goethe spoke of it. We shall see presently the special position of white (and likewise of black), as a colour among colours. What matters first of all is to realize that white must be strictly differentiated from light as such, for the function of light is to make visible the material world without itself being visible.

To say that light is invisible, however, does not mean that it is wholly imperceptible. It is difficult to bring the perception of light into consciousness, for naturally our attention, when we look out into light-filled space, is claimed by the objects of the illuminated world, in all their manifold colours and forms. Nevertheless the effect of pure light on our consciousness can be observed during a railway journey, for instance, when we leave a tunnel that has been long enough to bring about a complete adaptation of the eyes to the prevailing darkness. Then, in the first moments of the lightening of the field of vision, and before any separate objects catch the attention, we can notice how the light itself exercises a distinctly expanding influence on our consciousness. We feel how the light calls on the consciousness to participate, as it were, in the world outside the body.

It is possible also to perceive directly the opposite of light. This is easier than the direct perception of light, for in the dark one is not distracted by the sight of surrounding objects. One need only pay attention to the fact that, after a complete adapting of the eyes to the dark, one still retains a distinct experience of the extension of the field of vision of both eyes. We find here, just as in the case of light, that our will is engaged within the eye in a definite way; a systolic effect proceeds from dark, a diastolic effect from light. We have a distinct perception of both, but not of anything ‘visible’ in the ordinary sense.

With regard to our visual experience of white and black, it is quite different. We are concerned here with definite conditions of corporeal surfaces, just as with other colours, although the conditions conveying the impressions of white or black are of a special character. A closer inspection of these conditions reveals a property of our act of seeing which has completely escaped scientific observation, but which is of fundamental importance for the understanding of optical phenomena dynamically.

It is well known that a corporeal surface, which we experience as white, has the characteristic of throwing back almost all the light that strikes it, whereas light is more or less completely absorbed by a surface which we experience as black. Such extreme forms of interplay between light and a corporeal surface, however, do not only occur when the light has no particular colour, but also when a coloured surface is struck by light of the same or opposite colour. In the first instance complete reflexion takes place; in the second, complete absorption. And both these effects are registered by the eye in precisely the same manner as those mentioned before. For example, a red surface in red light looks simply white; a green surface in red light looks black.

The usual interpretation of this phenomenon, namely, that it consists in a subjective ‘contrast’ impression of the eye – a red surface in red light looking brighter, a green surface darker, than its surroundings, and thereby causing the illusion of white or black – is a typical onlooker-interpretation against which there stands the evidence of unprejudiced observation. The reality of the ‘white’ and the ‘black’ seen in such cases is so striking that a person who has not seen the colours of the objects in ordinary light can hardly be persuaded to believe that they are not ‘really’ white or black. The fact is that the white and the black that are seen under these conditions are just as real as ‘ordinary’ white and black. When in either instance the eye registers ‘white’ it registers exactly the same event, namely, the total reflexion of the light by the surface struck by it. Again, when the eye registers ‘black’ in both cases it registers an identical process, namely, total absorption of the light.1

Seen thus, the phenomenon informs us of the significant fact that our eye is not at all concerned with the colour of the light that enters its own cavity, but rather with what happens between the light and the surface on which the light falls. In other words, the phenomenon shows that our process of seeing is not confined to the bodily organ of the eye, but extends into outer space to the point where we experience the visible object to be.2

This picture of the visual process, to which we have been led here by simple optical observation, was reached by Thomas Reid through his own experience of how, in the act of perceiving the world, man is linked intuitively with it. We remember that he intended in his philosophy to carry ad absurdum the hypothesis that ‘the images of the external objects are conveyed by the organs of sense to the brain and are there perceived by the mind’. Common Sense makes Reid speak as follows: ‘If any man will shew how the mind may perceive images of the brain, I will undertake to shew how it may perceive the most distant objects; for if we give eyes to the mind, to perceive what is transacted at home in its dark chamber, why may we not make the eyes a little longer-sighted? And then we shall have no occasion for that unphilosophical fiction of images in the brain.’ (Inq., VI, 12.) Reid proceeds to show this by pointing out, first, that we must only use the idea of ‘image’ for truly visual perceptions; secondly, that the sole place of this image is the background of the eye, and not any part of the nervous system lying beyond; thirdly, that even this retina-image, as such, does not come to our consciousness, but serves only to direct the consciousness to the cause of the image, namely, the external object itself. In what follows we shall deal with an observation which will show how right Reid was in this respect.

Those familiar with this observation (well known indeed to those living in the hilly and mountainous districts both here and on the Continent) know that when distant features of the landscape, in an otherwise clear and sunlit atmosphere, suddenly seem almost near enough to touch, rainy weather is approaching. Likewise a conspicuous increase in distance, while the sky is still overcast, foreshadows fine weather.

This effect (the customary ‘explanation’ of which is, as usual, of no avail to us and so need not concern us here) ranks with phenomena described in optics under the name of ‘apparent optical depth’, a subject we shall discuss more fully in the next chapter. It suffices here to state that it is the higher degree of humidity which, by lending the atmosphere greater optical density (without changing its clarity), makes distant objects seem to be closer to the eye, and vice versa. (If we could substitute for the air a much lighter gas – say, hydrogen – then the things we see through it would look farther off than they ever do in our atmosphere.)

Observations such as these show us that (a) when external light strikes the retina of our eye, our inner light is stimulated to move out of the eye towards it; (b) in pressing outward, this inner light meets with a certain resistance, and the extent of this determines at what distance from the eye our visual ray comes to rest as the result of a kind of exhaustion. Just as the outer light reaches an inner boundary at our retina, so does the inner light meet with an outer boundary, set by the optical density of the medium spread out before the eye, Outer and inner light interpenetrate each other along the whole tract between these two boundaries, but normally we are not conscious of this process. We first become conscious of it where our active gaze – that is, the inner light sent forth through the eye – reaches the limit of its activity. At that point we become aware of the object of our gaze. So here we find confirmed a fact noted earlier, that consciousness – at least at its present state of evolution – arises where for some reason or other our volition conies to rest.


The foregoing observations have served to awaken us in a preliminary way to the fact that an essential part of our act of seeing takes place outside our bodily organ of vision and that our visual experience is determined by what happens out there between our gaze and the medium it has to penetrate. Our next task will be to find out how this part of our visual activity is affected by the properties of the different colours. We shall thereby gain a further insight into the nature of the polarity underlying all colour-phenomena, and this again will enable us to move a step further towards becoming conscious of what happens in our act of seeing.

We shall start by observing what happens to the two sides of the colour-scale when the optical medium assumes various degrees of density.

For the sky to appear blue by day a certain purity of the atmosphere is needed. The more veiled the atmosphere becomes the more the blue of the sky turns towards white; the purer and rarer the atmosphere, the deeper the blue, gradually approaching to black. To mountain climbers and those who fly at great heights it is a familiar experience to see the sky assume a deep indigo hue. There can be no doubt that at still higher altitudes the colour of the sky passes over into violet and ultimately into pure black. Thus in the case of blue the field of vision owes its darkening to a decrease in the resistance by which our visual ray is met in the optical medium. It is precisely the opposite with yellow. For here, as the density of the medium increases, the colour-effect grows darker by yellow darkening first to orange and then to red, until finally it passes over into complete darkness.

This shows that our visual ray is subject to entirely different dynamic effects at the two poles of the colour-scale. At the blue pole, the lightness-effect springs from the resistant medium through which we gaze, a medium under the influence of gravity, while the darkness is provided by the anti-gravity quality of cosmic space, which as a ‘negative’ resistance exercises a suction on the eye’s inner light. At the yellow pole it is just the reverse. Here, the resistant medium brings about a darkening of our field of vision, while the lightness-effect springs from a direct meeting of the eye with light, and so with the suctional effect of negative density.

Our pursuit of the dynamic causes underlying our apperception of the two poles of the colour-scale has led us to a point where it becomes necessary to introduce certain new terms to enable us to go beyond Goethe’s general distinction between Finsternis (darkness) and Licht (light). Following Goethe, we have so far used these two terms for what appears both in blue and yellow as the respective light and dark ingredients. This distinction cannot satisfy us any more. For through our last observations it has become clear that the Finsternis in blue and the Licht in yellow are opposites only in appearance, because they are both caused by Levity, and similarly that the lightening effect in blue and the darkening effect in yellow are both effected by Gravity. Therefore, to distinguish between what appertains to the primary polarity, Levity-Gravity, on the one hand, and their visible effects in the secondary polarity of the colours, on the other, we shall henceforth reserve the term darkness and, with it, lightness for instances where the perceptible components of the respective colours are concerned, while speaking of Dark and Light where reference is made to the generating primary polarity.


If we are justified in thus tracing the colour-polarity to a polarically ordered interplay between levity and gravity, we may then pursue the following line of thought. We know from earlier considerations that wherever such an interplay between the poles of the primary polarity takes place, we have to do, in geometric terms, with the polarity of sphere and radius. We may therefore conclude that the same characteristics will apply to the way in which the blue of the sky and the yellow of the sunlight are encountered spatially. Now we need only observe how the blue heavens arch over us spherically, on the one hand, and how the yellow brightness of the sun penetrates the air ray-wise, on the other, in order to realize that this really is so.

Having thus established the connexion of the two poles of the colour-scale with the spherical and radial structure of space, we are now able to express the Goethean ur-phenomenon in a more dynamic way as follows: On the one hand, we see the blue of the heavens emerging when levity is drawn down by gravity from its primal invisibility into visible, spherical manifestation. In the yellow of the sunlight, on the other hand, we see gravity, under the influence of the sun’s levity, gleaming up radially into visibility. The aspect of the two colour-poles which thus arises before us prompts us to replace Goethe’s ‘lightened Dark’ by Earthward-dawning-Levity, and his ‘darkened Light’ by Heavenward-raying-Gravity.

We have now to show that this picture of the dynamic relationship which underlies the appearance of the colour-polarity in the sky is valid also for other cases which are instances of the ur-phenomenon of the generation of colour in Goethe’s sense, but seem not to lend themselves to the same cosmic interpretation. Such a case is the appearance of yellow and blue when we look through a clouded transparent medium towards a source of light or to a black background. There is no special difficulty here in bringing the appearance of yellow into line with its macrotelluric counterpart, but the appearance of blue requires some consideration.

We have seen that a corporeal surface appears as black if light striking it is totally absorbed by it. Thus, wherever our eye is met by the colour black, our visual ray is engaged in a process whereby light disappears from physical space. Now we need only bring this process into consciousness – as we have tried to do before in similar instances – to realize that what happens here to the visual ray is something similar to what it undergoes when it is directed from the earth into cosmic space.

Note, in this respect, the principle of the mirror as another instance of the fact that the interplay between light and an illumined surface can have on the visual ray an effect similar to that of external space. For the optical processes which occur on the surface of a mirror are such that, whilst taking place on a two-dimensional plane, they evoke in our consciousness pictures of exactly the same nature as if we were looking through the mirror into the space behind it.


The value of our picture of the colour-polarity is shown further if we observe how natural phenomena based on the same kind of polarity in other realms of nature fit in with it. We remember that one of Goethe’s starting-points in his investigation of the riddle of colour was the observation that of the totality of colours one part is experienced as ‘warm’ and the other as ‘cold’. Now we can go further and say that the colours of the spherical pole are experienced as cold, those of the radial pole as warm. This corresponds precisely to the polarity of snow-formation and volcanic activity. The former, being the spherically directed process, requires physically low temperatures; the latter, being the radially directed process, requires high temperatures. Here, once more, we see with what objectivity the human senses register the facts of the outer world.

Another realm of phenomena based on a similar polar order is that of electricity. When we studied the negative and positive poles of the vacuum tube, with regard to the polar distribution of radius and sphere, our attention was drawn to the colours appearing on the two electrodes – red at the (positive) anode, blue at the (negative) cathode. Again we find a coincidence with the natural order of the colours.

Note how the qualitative dynamic method employed here brings into direct view the relationship between light and electricity, while it precludes the mistake of tracing light processes to those of electricity, as modern science does. Nor are electric processes ‘explained’ from this point of view merely as variations of light processes. Rather is the relation between light and electricity seen to be based on the fact that all polarities arising perceptibly in nature are creations of the same primeval polarity, that of Levity and Gravity. The interplay of Levity and Gravity can take on many different forms which are distinguished essentially by differences in cosmic age. Thus the colour-polarity in its primal form, made manifest by the heavens, differs as much from the corresponding polarity shown by the vacuum tube, as does the lightning in the heights from the electric spark.


With the aid of what we have learnt here concerning outer light-processes we shall turn once more to the activity of our own inner light.

We may expect by now that our eye is fitted with two modes of seeing activity, polar to each other, and that the way in which they come into operation depends on whether the interplay of positive and negative density outside the eye leads to the appearance of the blue-violet or of the yellow-red side of the colour-scale. Such a polarity in the activity of the eye can indeed be established. Along with it goes a significant functional difference between the two eyes (not unlike that shown of the two hands).

To observe this we need simply to compare the two eyes of a person in a photograph by covering alternately the right and the left half of the face. Nearly always it will be found that the right eye looks out clearly into the world with an active expression, and the left eye with a much gentler one, almost held back. Artists are well aware of this asymmetry, as of others in the human countenance, and are careful to depict it. An outstanding example is Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, where in the eyes and whole countenance both of Mother and Child this asymmetry can be studied in a specially impressive way.

Inner observation leads to a corresponding experience. A convenient method is to exercise the two eyes in complete darkness, in the following way. One eye is made to look actively into the space in front of it, as if it would pierce the darkness with its visual ray, while the activity of the other eye is held back, so that its gaze rests only superficially, as it were, on the darkness in front of it. Experience shows that most people find it natural to give the active note to the right eye, and the passive note to the left.

Once one has grown conscious of this natural difference between the two eyes, it is quite easily detected while one is looking normally into the light-filled environment. We thereby realize that for the two eyes to act differently in this way is the usual thing.

As an instance where this fact is well observed and effectively made use of, that of shooting may be mentioned here, especially shooting at flying game. Those who train in this sport learn to make a completely different use of the two eyes in sighting the target. The naturally more active eye – only once in about fifty cases is it the left – is called by them the ‘master-eye’. Whilst the less actively gazing eye is usually employed for surveying the field as a whole into which the target is expected to enter, the master-eye is used for making active contact with the target itself (‘throwing’ oneself on the target ‘through’ the eye).

One further observation may be added. If one looks with rested eyes and in very faint daylight (perhaps in the early morning on awakening) at a white surface, while opening and closing the eyes alternately, then the white surface looks faintly reddish to the ‘master-eye’, and faintly bluish to the other.


Following the lines of our treatment of after-images in the last chapter, we will next inquire into the anatomical and physiological basis of the two opposite sight-activities. In the previous instance we found this in the polarity of nerve and blood. This time we must look for it in a certain twofold structure of the eye itself. We shall best perceive this by watching the ‘becoming’ of the eye, thus again following a method first shown by Goethe.

Fig. 11 shows the human eye in different stages of its embryonic formation. The eye is clearly seen to consist of two parts essentially different in origin. Growing out from the interior of the embryonic organism is a structure that is gradually pushed in, and in its further development becomes the entire posterior part of the eye, destined to carry its life-imbued functions. A second independent part grows towards this from outside; this is at first a mere thickening of the embryonic skin formation, but later it loosens itself and presses forward into the interior of the cup-shaped structure. It is gradually enclosed by this, and evolves finally into that part of the finished eye which embodies the optical apparatus functioning according to purely physical laws.



This series of forms shows that in the embryonic formation of the eye we are confronted with two processes, one of spherical, and the other of radial orientation. Consequently the two parts of the eye are differentiated in such a way that the posterior part, which has grown forth radially from the embryonic organism, as the life-filled element represents the sulphur-pole of the total eye, while the anterior part, with its much more crystalline nature, having grown spherically towards the organism, represents the eye’s salt-pole.

Closer inspection into the connexion of the two visual activities of the eye with its basic corporeal parts reveals that here, at the outermost boundary of the human organism, we encounter once more that peculiar reversal of functions which we have already several times met in various realms of nature. For the anterior part of the eye – its salt-pole – which has come into being through a spherically directed formative process, seems to be the one through which we exercise the perceptive activity streaming out radially from the eye, whilst the posterior part – the eye’s sulphur-pole – which has come into being through radially directed formative action, serves that form of seeing which is more receptive and is carried out in a plane-wise manner.

Considerations of this kind, and they alone, enable us also to draw true comparisons between the different sense-organs. Take the organ of hearing. Usually the ear is assumed to fill the same role in the field of hearing as does the eye in the field of seeing. In fact the ear corresponds to only one half of the eye; the other half must be looked for in the larynx. In other words, the two parts of the eye are represented in the realm of hearing by two separate organs, ear and larynx. Speaking from the aspect of metamorphosis, the vital part of our eye may be regarded as our ‘light-ear’; the crystalline part, as our ‘light-larynx’. In order to come consciously to a perception of sight we must ‘listen’ to the ‘deeds and sufferings’ of light, while at the same time we meet them with the help of the ‘speaking’ of our inner light. Something similar holds good for hearing. In fact, observation reveals that we take in no impression of hearing unless we accompany it with an activity of our larynx, even though a silent one. The significance of this fact for the total function of hearing will occupy us more fully later.


Our insight into the polar nature of visual activity will enable us now to link the external interplay of Light and Dark – to which the physical colours owe their existence – to that play of forces which we ourselves set in motion when our eye meets the world of colours in their polar differentiation.

We established earlier that in the cold colours the role of darkness belongs to the pole of levity or negative density, and the role of lightness to the pole of gravity or positive density, whereas in the case of the warm colours the roles are reversed. Let us now unite with this the insight we have meanwhile gained into the two kinds of activity in seeing – the receptive, ‘left-eyed’ and the radiating, ‘right-eyed’ – which mediate to us the experience of the positive or negative density of space spread out before our eyes. Taking together the results of outer and inner observation, we can express the polarity ruling in the realm of colour as follows.

If lightness and darkness as elements of colour, meet us in such a way that lightness, by reason of its positive density, calls forth ‘left-eyed’ activity, and darkness, by reason of its negative density, ‘right-eyed’ activity, then our soul receives the impression of the colour blue and colours related to blue. If lightness and darkness meet us so that we see the former in a ‘right-eyed’, and the latter in a ‘left-eyed’ way, then we experience this as the presence of yellow and the colours related to it.

The reason why we usually fail to observe the different kinds of interplay of the two modes of seeing, when we perceive one or other of the two categories of colour, is because in ordinary sight both eyes exercise each of the two activities without our becoming aware which is the leading one in a particular eye. If, however, one has come to a real experience of the inner polarity of the visual act, one needs only a little practice to realize the distinction. For example, if one looks at the blue sky, notably at noon-time, on the side away from the sun, or at the morning or evening sky, shining yellow and red, one quickly becomes conscious of how our eyes take hold of the particular contribution which Light and Dark make to one or other of the two colour appearances.


In the natural course of our argument we had to keep at first to the appearance of colours as they come freely before us in space. The results we have obtained, however, hold good equally well for the permanent tints of material objects, as the following example will show.

A fact known to science is that red and blue surface colours, when illumined by light of steadily diminishing intensity, are seen to reverse their normal ratio of brightness. This phenomenon can be seen in nature, if, for instance, one observes a bed of blue and red flowers in the fading evening light and compares the impression with that which the same flowers make in bright daylight. If the phenomenon is reproduced artificially, the actual transition from one state to the other can be clearly observed. The easiest way is to place a red and a blue surface side by side under an electric light whose intensity can be gradually lessened by means of a sliding resistance. Here, as much as in the natural phenomenon, our reason finds it difficult to acknowledge that the surface gleaming in a whitish sheen should be the one which ordinarily appears as darkling blue, and that the one disappearing into darkness should be the surface which normally presents itself as radiant red.

This riddle is readily solved if we apply what we have learnt about the particular shares of lightness and darkness in these two colours, and if we link this up with the respective forms of seeing exercised by our two eyes. To the dim light, clearly, our eyes will respond more with the ‘left-eyed’ than with the ‘right-eyed’ form of vision. Now we know that it is ‘left-eyed’ vision which is roused by the lightness-component in blue and the darkness-component in red. It is only to be expected, therefore, that these elements should become conspicuous when in the dim light our seeing is mainly ‘left-eyed’. This solution of the problem makes us realize further, that the laws which Goethe first found for the coming into appearance of colours freely hovering in space are indeed applicable to the fixed material colours as well.

1 It will be well to remember here the discussion of our experience of temperature through the sense of warmth in Chapter VIII (p. 134f.).

2 Along these lines the true solution of the problem of the so-called coloured shadows will be found, Goethe studied this without finding, however, a satisfactory answer.