Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Nature Institute

“Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the 'natural object' produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? I hardly know what I am asking for. I hear rumours that Goethe's approach to nature deserves fuller consideration—that even Dr Steiner may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed. The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. ”
—C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

In June I took a week-long course at The Nature Institute near the town of Harlemville in New York state and I thought I would give you a report (albeit greatly belated). My overall experience was very positive.

Encountering Goethean Science

The Nature Institute engages in science after the manner of Goethe. In a nutshell, one could describe Goethe's approach as Platonic without mathematical speculation, or one could describe it as phenomenological or qualitative. An article from their newsletter lists some synonyms of Goethean science:

  • Holistic science
  • Goethean science
  • Phenomena-centered science
  • Qualitative science
  • Participative science
  • Contextual science

The course was taught by Institute President Craig Holdrege and his wife Henrike. (The other principal of the Institute, Steve Talbott, was away for most of the time I was there.) We spent part of each day learning from Henrike about the "elements" of earth, water, air. In practice, these are equivalent to the three states of matter, but concretized in the conditions of the world, e.g., most liquid in the world is water and not quicksilver or ammonia. The other part of the day we spent with Craig "in the field" observing nature firsthand. Our usual venue was the wetland entrusted to the Institute's stewardship only a short walk away. But we also retreated to the Institute to pool our observations, to discuss, and to analyze.

What most impressed me was Craig Holdrege’s aversion to mystical explanatory invocations and his commitment to objective observation and explanation. Having now seen (and participated in) a solid example of the practice of Goethean science, I understand that it really is possible to do rigorous qualitative science, albeit very difficult because qualities are so much harder to pin down that quantities. Another article from their newsletter describes the challenge well:

A new kind of objectivity. Every scientist must learn to be rigorous and objective in his or her judgments. But this is not so easy once we have rediscovered our ties of kinship with, and responsibility for, nature. It is always tempting to yield to mere sentiment or wishful thinking, and to mistake one's own soul for the soul of nature. So the demands for clear judgment and knowledge of self are much greater for the holistic than for the conventional researcher. As Owen Barfield1 once remarked, "Any reasonably honest fool can be objective about objects." But it's a different matter when, having experienced ourselves in the world and the world in ourselves, we must nevertheless distinguish our purely individual, subjective tendencies from the surrounding life of the world.

The last day Senior Researcher Steve Talbott returned to the area and stopped by the Institute. I got to talk to him for more than half an hour. You may have read some of Steve's articles in The New Atlantis; he also edits NetFuture, a periodical that explores the subtle ways our technology molds us. Steve comes from Oregon and attended Wheaton College. He was (and is still) a neighbor of Craig’s. From their conversations, Craig had him edit a manuscript. When Craig decided to start the Institute, he asked Steve on board.

Craig taught at the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf school for many years before starting the Institute. He lived in Germany a while and studied at the Goetheneum, the center of Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophical Movement. While in Germany he met and married Henrike. Henrike’s specialty is projective geometry.

The others attending the course were, as one might expect, “crunchy,” that is, interested in getting back to nature (I must admit strong sympathy, given the crass commercialization of culture and the industrialization of agriculture these days). As far as I could tell without forcing political conversations, they for the most part seemed to share the generally liberal opinions most people hold in the Northeast these days, but I was impressed by their outgoing, generous demeanors and their desire to engage the truth of the world. I picked up on no overt ideological agendas, such as feminism or communism. Almost everyone there came through some association with some work of Rudold Steiner, the great expositor of Goethean science. Steiner was the originator of the Waldorf School movement and many participants worked at Waldorf schools.

Impressions and Anaylsis

Goethe speaks of finding archetypes. Certainly he was of a Platonic mindset, which bodes well, but the great value of his science lies in its phenomenology. The human intellect has a unfortunate tendency to become satisfied with established notions and to contract within itself. Goethe’s phenomenology is a model for engaging the world and makes a superb complement to the Aristotelian philosophy of nature.

That being said, I’m not sure what to make of Rudolf Steiner or anthroposophy (his "spiritual science"). Steiner, as you may know, was the driving force behind Goethean studies, and his influence extends to the present. The Institute lies in the Hawthorne Valley, which is a hotbed of Steiner activity, and is adjacent to a biodynamic farm (an example of another movement Steiner started) and down the road from a Waldorf school. My reservations stem from Steiner's one-time association with Madam Blavatsky (anthroposophy retains many of the same esoteric ideas of her theosophy) and his rejection of many essential elements of creedal Christianity, such as the Virgin Birth and Jesus’ bodily Resurrection, not to mention his embrace of karma and reincarnation.

Still, a friend I made at the course tells me that Steiner didn't insist on people accepting his ideas in toto, and was in fact opposed to blind invocations of his doctrines (he was consistently eclectic, so to speak). Some of Steiner’s terminology sounds mystical, but may be very reasonable, e.g., his “ethereal body” seems similar to Aristotle’s “vegetative soul.” In general I suspect there are many parallels and resonances between Steiner and Aristotle-Aquinas. My friend sent me copies of a couple of Steiner's talks. One was an excellent review of how modern thought went wrong (nothing original, but excellently written) in which he spoke favorably of St. Thomas. The other was rather mystical and invoked notions like a "Luciferian principle" opposed to a "Christ principle" that combine to constitute the human heart. Ugh.

Another reason for caution is the ambiguity of language. Among the many treasures, I've found terminological imprecision to be an occasional problem in some writings from the Nature Institute (will post more on this later). As far as Steiner is concerned, my suspicion is that he is wont to play a little loose with words, as we see in his redefining "Christianity" to make himself the model Christian. Unfortunately I haven't read enough of his writings to say anything definite.

Having read and reflected on some back issues of the Institute's newsletter, In Context, it strikes me that one big difference between the Nature Institute's Goethean approach, and the Thomistic approach with which I am more familiar is the relationship of knowledge to the senses and to reason. Goetheans dwell on sense information in all its ambiguity; they have an aversion to systematizing and reason in the modern rationalist sense, and perhaps a shyness to reason in the classical-medieval sense, which prevent them from rising much above the senses (both blessing and curse).2 On the other hand, the perennial philosophic approach, while starting in the senses, emphasizes reason and "invisible" principles and uses them to critique the senses. The Goethean center of gravity is the visible, and Thomistic center of gravity is the "invisible."3

There are dangers in both approaches. A truth of faith—our fallen human nature—(but one we can also know without special revelation4) tells us our perceptions are never fully trustworthy because the way we interpret them depends on our natural inclinations, which are not what they should be. There is more to the world than what's visible, and we too easily imagine ourselves and our senses sufficient to everything. The danger of a more dogmatic approach is the mantra of our modern elites and needs hardly be reiterated here: an insensitivity to particulars, and a slothful tendency to rely on vacuous generalities.

To perceive truth most effectively, there must be a creative tension between the senses and reason. Thus there is a necessity for both approaches to the world, and especially to the natural world: the visible and the "invisible" complement each other.

In sum, I learned a lot during my time at The Nature Institute and it gave me much to think about. Like any organization, it has its imperfections, but it has a unique and valuable contribution to make to the study of the natural world: a contribution the like of which we can use much more of these days.


1. Owen Barfield was one of the Inklings (along with Lewis and Tolkien) and studied (in what sense I do not know) anthroposophy; his book Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry was recommended several times during the course.

2. Nevertheless, it seems Goetheans do allow sense impressions to critique "each other"—though to be precise this involves a form of reasoning, even if not abstract.

3. Here I'm concentrating wholly on Goethean science and ignoring the "spiritual" or esoteric side of Steiner. It must be admitted that Thomists do sometimes excessively dwell on the invisible, e.g., allowing an emphasis on primary matter to obscure the importance of secondary matter to Aristotle's thought.

4. Of course we also know our inclinations are not what they should be by the fact that human nature doesn't "work" as it should: witness the necessity to a healthy society of well-formed children, which require the parents' marital fidelity versus natural man's inability to fulfill this obligation.

Steve Talbott, "Goethean Science?", In Context 1 (Spring, 1999), 4.

Steve Talbott, "A Way of Knowing as a Way of Healing," In Context 1 (Spring 1999), 3-5.


Caryl said...


Hi lawrence - you might enjoy my review of "Saving the Appearances."

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In your opinion, discovery of a planet is more exciting. Or, as I've presented in the attached article,
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