Ecological Selfhood and Goethe’s Third Way between Erfahrung and Idee

Lukas Bauer


This article examines Goethe’s response, primarily in his work in plant morphology and chromatics, to the competing demands on modern science that emanated from the mechanical philosophy of the Enlightenment and Kant’s transcendentalism. These philosophies differed fundamentally in their understanding of the relationship between subject and object, foregrounding questions about the respective roles of “idea” and “experience” in scientific inquiry. Goethe’s complex mediation of these opposing worldviews seeks a resolution to the dualism between mind and world, which I argue has significant implications for environmental ethics today. I examine Goethe’s anticipation, in his resistance to the division between culture and nature, of key tenets of environmental philosophy, as he searched instead for continuity between the human and non-human world. Goethe’s refusal to distinguish humans from the rest of nature, emphasizing rather their interdependence, points towards the concepts of ontological egalitarianism and ecological self-realization that are fundamental to the deep ecology movement. This places Goethe at the forefront of a genealogy of thinkers who have examined the cultural underpinnings of the environmental crisis and suggests that the “ecological self” had already found a model in Goethe’s thought. (LB)

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