1. Introduction
  2. The Urphänomen in Goethe’s early scientific writings: Beiträge zur Optik (1791/92)
  3. The Urphänomen in Goethe’s epistemology: Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt (1792)
  4. The Urphänomen between physiological and chemical color: Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre (1810)
  5. The Urphänomen in late Goethe
  6. The Urphänomen after Goethe
  7. Notes
  8. Works Cited and Further Reading
ideal, als das letzte Erkennbare
real als erkannt
symbolisch, weil es alle Fälle begreift:
identisch mit allen Fällen. (MA 17:946)1
Original phenomenon // ideal as the last thing recognizable, / real as recognized, / symbolical because it understands all cases, / identical with all cases. (Stopp, Maxims and Reflections, no. 1369)


The Urphänomen, mediating experience and idea, is as central to Goethe’s thought as it is problematic.2 It is central, because Goethe invented the term, as the Deutsches Wörterbuch notes, but above all, because the concept can be traced from Goethe’s early scientific writings all the way to his late work, uniting a number of other terms, from Urgestein (primordial mineral) to Urpflanze (primordial plant) to Urtier (primordial animal).3 The concept remains problematic, however, insofar as it emphasizes different aspects in each of its various contexts. The term ultimately depends on an intricate paradoxical structure in order to take on meaning, especially in its critical reception. The well-known aphorism in Maximen und Reflexionen (Maxims and Reflections, no. 1369) reflects this paradox, pointing to the limits of recognition in the epistemological relation between theoretical idea and empirical knowledge. The Urphänomen can only be derived from isolated natural phenomena—where, however, it already has a regulative function. The concept can thus be structurally linked to Goethe’s concept of symbol.4

As one of Goethe’s most famous neologisms, the Urphänomen follows a thoroughly Goethean tendency of derivation;5 in this case, the “phenomenon” is specified through the prefix ur-. This prefix is unique because ambiguous, as noted in the Deutsches Wörterbuch:6 it refers on the one hand to earliness, as ur- relates to a beginning, an initial or primary phenomenon. On the other hand, it also indicates an intensification which is not exhausted in a temporal—or even causal—interpretation. In this sense, the Urphänomen is a particularly phenomenal phenomenon.

The systematic starting point of this article will be Goethe’s most prominent definition of the Urphänomen in paragraph 175 of the Farbenlehre (Doctrine of Color), where the term is situated at the limits of human cognition (Erkennen) and perception. The Urphänomen mediates between the regulative principles of an idea and experience, which is always linked to perception. Here it becomes clear that the Urphänomen is dependent on representation: it cannot be reduced to a single theoretical term, remaining instead connected to sensuous experience in every attempt at definition.7 The Urphänomen is thus a fundamentally aesthetic phenomenon and cannot be separated from its own mediation. It cannot be summarized as a singular, comprehensible concept8 and is also not self-evident, as it cannot be thought without a mediating form of representation. Various attempts at definitions suggest, in addition to the focus on representation, that this also involves a series of presentations into which several individual phenomena must be brought together in order to render the Urphänomen recognizable. Apart from the paragraphs in the Farbenlehre, research on the Urphänomen has tended towards the synthesis of a single concept running through all of Goethe’s works, especially Maximen und Reflexionen and the conversations with Eckermann, while often overlooking the early scientific writings prefiguring the concept. This article will thus first look at Goethe’s early scientific writings, particularly Beiträge zur Optik (Contributions to Optics), in order to examine the relationship between experiment and representation in Goethe’s epistemology, as exemplified in his essay Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt (The Experiment as Mediator between Object and Subject). Then I will turn to the Farbenlehre, where Goethe uses markedly different representational procedures to conceptualize the Urphänomen. I will then focus on the Urphänomen’s role in Goethe’s late work, as can be seen in various letters, Maximen und Reflexionen, and the conversations with Eckermann. Finally, I will provide a cursory overview of the reception and adoption of the term after Goethe.

The Urphänomen in Goethe’s early scientific writings: Beiträge zur Optik (1791/92)

The terminological history of the Urphänomen leads us back to Goethe’s early scientific writings of the 1780s, as Goethe studies geognosy, the formation of the earth, and discovers an Urozean (primordial ocean) alongside granite as the Urgestein.9 But above all, it leads us to the Urpflanze as Goethe describes it in his Italienische Reise (Italian Journey) in the entry on April 17, 1787 (MA 15:327).10 In this context of Goethe’s beginning scientific studies, Herder played a decisive role, as letters from Italy attest.11 In the equally famous text Glückliches Ereignis (Fortunate Event), which Goethe originally intended to include in the Tag- und Jahres-Hefte (Daily and Yearly Notebookss) for the year 1794 but then published in the Morphologische Hefte (Morphological Notebooks), Schiller’s reaction to a drawing of Goethe’s “symbolische Pflanze” (MA 12:88; symbolic plant) became legendary: This plant is actually—according to Schiller— “keine Erfahrung, das ist eine Idee” (MA 12:88–89; not an experience, but an idea). Goethe’s reaction to this, that he probably “Ideen habe ohne es zu wissen, und sie sogar mit Augen sehe” (MA 12:89; has ideas without knowing it and even sees them with his own eyes), shows the primordial plant’s intermediate position between idea and experience, which is also characteristic for the Urphänomen.

Apart from botanic Urpflanze, Goethe’s osteological studies also speak of an Urstier (primordial bull) and a more general Urtier (primordial animal). The Urstier leads to Goethe’s discussion of fossilized ox skeletons in the essays Fossiler Stier (Fossil Bull, 1822) and Zweiter Urstier (Second Primordial Bull, 1824), but the discussion of ox bones goes back to the Physiognomische Fragmente (Physiognomic Fragments, 1776) and the establishment of the osteological type (1795). This type is more abstract compared to the Urpflanze and the Urtier insofar as it reduces the temporal dimension of the prefix. Furthermore, within the concept of the type, the idea functions as the organizing principle of experience, which always receives an only partial view in the individual phenomena; the idea “muß über dem Ganzen walten und auf eine genetische Weise das allgemeine Bild abziehen” (MA 12:122; must rule over the whole and in a genetic way deduce the general picture). It is no coincidence that Goethe develops the Urphänomen as a kind of meta-concept in the context of colors, as the color phenomena with which Goethe is concerned are more abstract than the other Urphänomene. This is because the physical colors, as Goethe later calls them, cannot be objectified, being instead simultaneously subjective and objective.12

The first text that prefigures the Urphänomen of color is Beiträge zur Optik, published in two parts in 1791/92.13 Over the course of 122 paragraphs, the Beiträge make clear that the Urphänomen is dependent on a complexly structured, multimedial apparatus, which does not reduce colors to concepts but instead enables them to be experienced. The colors, as “reine, ursprüngliche Farben” (MA 4.2:262; pure, original colors), are prototypical for the Urphänomen because they can be discovered in “völlig ungefärbten Körpern” (MA 4.2:262; completely uncolored bodies) and thus provide a glimpse into the laws governing the emergence of colors. But this experience is of course problematic, as it concerns subjective colors that only emerge in the eye of the beholder: they cannot be objectified but rather only experienced in a guided way. The Beiträge accordingly consist of guided color experiments.14 The modes of representation adequate to this form of guidance are highly elaborate, as the representation of the Urphänomen is intended to provide evidence for Goethe’s theory of the emergence of colors. This theory is, through various allusions, positioned against Newton, although its tone is much less polemical than Zur Farbenlehre will ultimately be (Helbig, Naturgemäße Ordnung, 120–24). The focus is instead on persuading acceptance of Goethe’s theory by way of perception.

For this purpose, the Beiträge use narrative techniques that present a doubled perspective. First, the text introduces an instructor who guides the experiments and provides an overview but who does not perceive any colors. Then the text introduces the figure of an observer who follows the directions and is thus able to see colors where otherwise only black-and-white contrasts would be visible. This narrative technique is supported by an optical card game that Goethe attaches to the Beiträge. The card game consists of 27 cards, primarily in black-and-white, through which—along with several colored ‘solution cards’—the colors may be grasped in prismatic experiments. The individual experiments are arranged in “einer gewissen Ordnung [. . .], so daß eine durch die andere gewissermaßen erklärt werde” (MA 4.2:263; a certain order [. . .], so that one is explained by the other, so to speak). The order of the cards and the associated experiments largely supersede argumentation; Goethe extracts his theoretical conclusions in such a way that they seem to be a result of the series of experiments, although they are entirely designed to convince us of Goethe’s theory of the emergence of colors. We see this especially in the appropriation of the darkroom experiment, where Newton’s preconditions are systematically ignored (cf. §§68–70) but where his theoretical conclusions are nevertheless rejected. The Urphänomen of color, Goethe concludes—even before his apparent refutation of Newton (cf. §59)—emerges not from the refraction of light but from the interplay of light and darkness, which the cards represent through white and black surfaces and forms. The sequence of experiments used for this, which is decidedly not a “theoretische Erklärungsart” (MA 4.2:312; theoretical explanation), is fundamentally interminable, in line with Goethe’s notion of “Vermannigfaltigung” (manifolding, diversification). The experimental sequence’s continuation in the Farbenlehre, however, uses a significantly different procedure. In the Beiträge, the Urphänomen of color is—in the carefully arranged sequence of experiments—simultaneously idea and experience; the ur-phenomenon depends on its modes of representation to present its theoretically guided experiences, which through serialization grant insight into a regulative principle. Goethe formulates the concept’s epistemological requirements in a text that, pars pro toto, can be applied to his epistemology: Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt.

The Urphänomen in Goethe’s epistemology: Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt (1792)

Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt (The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject) is considered one of the most important texts in the discussion of Goethe’s epistemology.15 After writing it in 1792, he sent it to Schiller six years later in 1798, still without a title, although he referred to the essay as “Kautelen des Beobachters” (precautionary measures for the observer). Finally, Goethe published an edited version in 1823 in the first book of the second volume of Zur Naturwissenschaft überhaupt (On Natural Science in General). Goethe then worked on the text for over thirty years; it gives us insight not only into his understanding of experimental science but also, above all, into the relationship between knowing and representing. This can be seen in the ambiguity of the term Versuch itself, which means both experiment and essay.16 Representation, as Eva Geulen notes,17 must always be considered in experiments: narrative form and experimental knowledge are dependent on one another. The argument here is that the Versuch not only concerns the mediation between object and subject; the experiment also, in its representational status with reference to the Urphänomen, consists in a reflective act.

The Urphänomen in Beiträge zur Optik is neither an objective nor a subjective phenomenon, emerging instead in the interplay between instruction, observer, and object in the eye of the respective observer. It can be understood intersubjectively and is rule-based in this way, but it is not objectifiable in the sense that it can be summarized in a single, comprehensible concept. The goal of the essay is to evaluate the function of the experiment for producing knowledge. The experiment in this sense is neither objective (because it does not begin with the experience of an object of knowledge) nor subjective (because it does not solely depend on the assumptions of the perceiving subject). Ideally, the experiment mediates between these two dimensions of the epistemological process. An isolated experiment—like Newton’s experimentum crucis in the darkroom—is unable to provide this mediation; it can only be achieved by a series of incrementally related experiments. Goethe pleads for a “Vermannigfaltigung eines jeden einzelnen Versuches” (MA 4.2:329; diversifying multiplication of each individual experiment), referring explicitly to Beiträge zur Optik. Consequently, the presentation of the individual experiments in an overarching series plays a major role in the representation of the cognitive process, because with the presentation in a series, previously hidden connections between the sequenced elements become visible and vivid. At the end of this series stands experience—always potential and provisional— “von einer höhern Art” (MA 4.2:330; of a higher kind).18 But Goethe’s production of knowledge does not end there: it repeatedly demands connection to a “Reihe Erfahrungen der höhern Art” (MA 4.2:331; series of experiences of a higher kind). Only by means of this second series can theoretical conclusions be made, combining the deployment of Verstand, Witz, and Einbildungskraft (reason, wit, and imagination), the use of which was previously forbidden, as they endanger the objective side of the experiment when used immediately. Discovering the Urphänomen thus consists in the formation of series that then lead from experience to idea without losing a certain grounding in empirical perception.

The Urphänomen is a central concept for the problem of mediation as narratively developed here, since it stands between idea and experience. Goethe explains this in the text Das reine Phänomen (The pure phenomenon)—also known as Erfahrung und Wissenschaft (Experience and Science)—in the context of his correspondence with Schiller (MA 6.2:820–21). There, the close connection with the Versuch becomes apparent. For Schiller reacts to the Versuch by calling Goethe’s method “rationale Empirie” (letter of January 12, 1798, MA 8.1:492; rational empiricism), which in turn prompts Goethe to send Schiller Das reine Phänomen on January 17. The text is significant for Goethe’s concept of the Urphänomen, because it concedes that a completely coherent explanation cannot be achieved by means of a serialization that points to the non-discursive dimension of Goethe’s epistemology. It differentiates between the empirical phenomenon, the scientific phenomenon, and the eponymous pure phenomenon, the latter being the “Resultat aller Erfahrungen und Versuche” (MA 6.2:821; result of all experiences and experiments) and having great overlap with the Urphänomen.19 Goethe’s threefold distinction clarifies the role of the human intellect, which Goethe proceeds to further specify in a series of activities: in order to represent the pure phenomenon “bestimmt der menschliche Geist das empirisch wankende, schließt das zufällige aus, sondert das unreine entwickelt das verworrene, ja entdeckt das unbekannte” (MA 6.2:821; the human intellect determines the empirically wavering, excludes the accidental, separates the impure, develops the confused, even discovers the unknown). In contrast to the original conception of the Urpflanze,20 the pure phenomenon is thus not recognizable with the eyes, but as the result of a continual correlation of theory and phenomena. This is another reason why Das reine Phänomen is often read as a continuing development of the Urphänomen, with Schiller’s letter of January 19 in particular bearing witness both to the further evolution of Goethe’s epistemology vis-à-vis Kantian concepts as well as to Schiller’s difficulty in grasping the duality of the Urphänomen.

The Urphänomen between physiological and chemical color: Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre (1810)

In Zur Farbenlehre, Goethe changes both the focus of his inquiry as well as its mode of representation, a change already discernable in his structuring of the text into three parts: didactic, polemic, and historical.21 In the first part, the color phenomena of the Beiträge zur Optik are presented as physical colors situated between physiological and chemical colors. Goethe begins with the ‘physiological’ or subjective colors we see in afterimages, for example, which he describes for the first time after the Beiträge in the text Blendendes Bild (1794; Dazzling Image). There, he works in sequence from physical colors to objectifiable, chemical colors.22 Physical colors are thus a mediating phenomenon in the typology of objects considered in the Farbenlehre. The explicitly didactic access is opposed to the “Anleitung der Natur” (MA 10:65; instruction of nature) and thus corresponds to Goethe’s method of representation, which analyzes the colors as incrementally as possible so that “zuletzt [. . .] eine große Einheit das Besondere verschlinge” (MA 10, 66; in the end [. . .], a large unity engulfs the particular).

For Goethe, the Urphänomen qua color phenomenon is systematically located in the mediation of subjective and objective phenomena and can be observed in the fundamental colors of the earth’s atmosphere. The blue of the sky and the yellow of the sun emerge through the cloudy medium of the heavens, colors which, depending on atmospheric changes, can vary between the reds of dawn and dusk. The famous 175th paragraph of the Farbenlehre accordingly addresses the category of mediating physical colors:

Das was wir in der Erfahrung gewahr werden, sind meistens nur Fälle, welche sich mit einiger Aufmerksamkeit unter allgemeine empirische Rubriken bringen lassen. Diese subordinieren sich abermals unter wissenschaftliche Rubriken, welche weiter hinaufdeuten, wobei uns gewisse unerläßliche Bedingungen des Erscheinenden näher bekannt werden. Von nun an fügt sich alles nach und nach unter höhere Regeln und Gesetze, die sich aber nicht durch Worte und Hypothesen dem Verstande, sondern gleichfalls durch Phänomene dem Anschauen offenbaren. Wir nennen sie Urphänomene, weil nichts in der Erscheinung über ihnen liegt, sie aber dagegen völlig geeignet sind, daß man stufenweise, wie wir vorhin hinaufgestiegen, von ihnen herab bis zu dem gemeinsten Falle der täglichen Erfahrung niedersteigen kann. Ein solches Urphänomen ist dasjenige, das wir bisher dargestellt haben. Wir sehen auf der einen Seite das Licht, das Helle, auf der andern die Finsternis, das Dunkle, wir bringen die Trübe zwischen beide, und aus diesen Gegensätzen, mit Hülfe gedachter Vermittlung, entwickeln sich, gleichfalls in einem Gegensatz, die Farben, deuten aber alsbald, durch einen Wechselbezug, unmittelbar auf ein Gemeinsames wieder zurück. (MA 10:74)
In general, events we become aware of through experience are simply those we can categorize empirically after some observation. These empirical categories may be further subsumed under scientific categories leading to even higher levels. In the process we become familiar with certain requisite conditions for what is manifesting itself. From this point everything gradually falls into place under higher principles and laws revealed not to our reason through words and hypotheses, but to our intuitive perception through phenomena. We call these phenomena archetypal phenomena because nothing higher manifests itself in the world; such phenomena, on the other hand, make it possible for us to descend, just as we ascended, by going step by step from the archetypal phenomena to the most mundane occurrence in our daily experience. What we have been describing is an archetypal phenomenon of this kind. On the one hand we see light or a bright object, on the other, darkness or a dark object. Between them we place turbidity and through this mediation colors arise from the opposites; these colors, too, are opposites, although in their reciprocal relationship they lead directly back to a common unity. (Miller, Scientific Studies)

This paragraph introduces the Urphänomen theoretically in the context of a specific epistemology, one that follows a progressive series of concepts (cf. Helbig, Naturgemäße Ordnung, 232–36, 479–82). This progressive series leads from individual cases of experience through empirical and scientific rubrics to conditions, rules, and laws. Experiences thus follow a continual subsumption of data, without losing sight of the concrete case of perception. Consequently, the Urphänomen is characterized by an epistemological continuum from particular experience to general law. The primordial phenomenon of color is not only on the borderline between light and darkness: it further unites inductive and deductive methods. The representation of this connection takes place via a narrative movement from the lower to the higher, a movement which is, however, not as continuous as the paragraph purports, since it bridges an epistemological gap. This gap is located between scientific rubrics and the conditions to which these rubrics are subject, pointing to the paradox already developed in the beginning based on the Maximen und Reflexionen. Here, the paragraph changes its otherwise continually subsuming direction by using the verb “hinaufdeuten” (leading to higher levels). “Hinauf” implies both the position of the speaking subject and a direction: from here below to there above. The relativizing connector “wobei” (whereby) makes explicit that the narrative change of direction is not itself the epistemological ladder, instead emphasizing its preconditions—the deduction of the conditions of the phenomenon from the rubrics.23 The Urphänomen thus forms the “Grenze des Schauens” (MA 10:75; limit of seeing), insofar as it stands for itself as a phenomenon at the limit of what can still be experienced and at the same time points to the laws of its emergence. As yellow and blue appear in the prismatic experiments, they refer to the colors of the sky, but also to the laws of color, e.g. to the fundamental law of polarity in the color spectrum. At the same time, the Urphänomen is not restricted to colors: it is applied to other phenomena, e.g. magnetism, under the title “Nachbarliche Verhältnisse” (MA 10:222–23; neighborly conditions).24 Goethe is thus always in need of narrative techniques to illustrate the Urphänomen. These narrative techniques are not exhausted in spatial metaphors; they are used as invective against Newton in the polemic section and for the representation of epistemic advances in the historic section. They reach their high point in the narrative procedures of the “Konfession des Verfassers” (MA 10:902; confession of the author), where Goethe recounts his own, personal story of the emergence of colors—which he presents as a decisive story of success.

The Urphänomen in late Goethe

The central role of the Urphänomen in the Farbenlehre continues in later texts, where there is a tendency towards abstraction and thus toward the subjective side of the epistemology summarized in Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt (MA 12:1147). After the Farbenlehre, the Urphänomen appears as a concept primarily in Maximen und Reflexionen and the conversations with Eckermann, but reference to it can also be found in various letters and scientific remarks, especially concerning magnetism, meteorology, and the history of science.25 The Urphänomen in late Goethe is a frequent focus of the lexical treatment of his work, which often neglects the early and middle-period writings.26 The concept undergoes a shift, at least a light one, in Goethe’s late work, as can be seen in the Maximen und Reflexionen, which is famously not a text of Goethe’s but rather a posthumous collection, with Max Hecker’s selection being the most frequently referenced (MA 17:1236). The Urphänomen receives a normative accent in these aphorisms (using this term in a broad sense27), where it refers to a limit of knowledge that human perception not only runs up against but also cannot surpass.

The term appears in four places in the Maximen und Reflexionen. Dated by Hecker to 1822, aphorism 412 positions “Kuppler-Verstand” (matchmaker mind) against the “sinnlichen Menschen” (sensuous humans). While the latter “retten sich in’s Erstaunen” (rescue themselves in astonishment), the understanding reconciles “das Edelste mit dem Gemeinsten” (MA 17:792; the noblest with the most common). Aphorism 433 refers repeatedly to the limits of knowledge and the “Art von Angst” (MA 17:798; kind of anxiety) that accompanies the knowledge of these limits. Entry 434 postulates the magnet as an Urphänomen that becomes the “Symbol für alles Übrige, wofür wir keine Worte noch Namen zu suchen brauchen” (ibid.; symbol for all the rest, for which we do not need to look for words nor names), pointing to Goethe’s concept of polarity. The limit of knowledge also plays a major role in aphorism 577, which leads from Angst to “Resignation,” but which is also at the same time related to the “Grenzen der Menschheit” (limits of humanity) and the limits of human knowledge and placed in opposition to the “bornierten Individuum[ ]” (MA 17:825; narrow-minded individual). The already-cited entry 1369, dated by Hecker to 1825, ascribes various qualities to the Urphänomen in an asyndetic, elliptical series, qualities that position the Urphänomen between idea and experience. To do this, Goethe takes two steps: first, he describes, across four lines, the “Urphänomene” in plural, which can be endlessly reproduced empirically and then lead to a “Verzweiflung an Vollständigkeit” (MA 17:946; despair for completeness). The second step begins with this despair, which, over the course of five lines, now defines the Urphänomen in the singular, at the limit of the knowable and known, symbolically and individually. Despair thus follows immediately upon consolation, as the Urphänomen mediates both the propagation of the empirical and, although it is not explicitly stated here, theoretical fallibility. The accent clearly lies in this context on the mediation between idea and experience, as specified in the early work. The Urphänomen thus no longer functions narratively in Maximen und Reflexionen, which is not surprising considering the sententious nature of the genre. The examples are also less clear than in the early work, as they are for the most part no longer concerned with concrete objects. Instead, they emphasize the ambivalence of the Urphänomen in connection with a normative dimension. This ambivalence can be seen in the conversation with Eckermann, dated to February 18, 1829, where the Urphänomen is simultaneously the goal and end of knowledge (cf. MA 19:288–89), after Goethe has already expanded the Urphänomen to encompass moral life in the entry on February 13, 1829 (cf. MA 19:286).

The Urphänomen after Goethe

The Urphänomen is a key term associated with Goethe, and the continuing history of this term branches out in various directions. This reception history is characterized by a tendency to generalize the concept, such that the Urphänomen is not restricted to epistemological concerns.28 The term has been transferred to various other subjects and is often referred back to Goethe’s literary texts.

Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the first to take up this term and further develop Goethe’s color theory, both with and against him, in his text Ueber das Sehn und die Farben (1816). Schopenhauer later refers to compassion as an ethical Urphänomen,29 while Friedrich Nietzsche sees the Urphänomen of drama in the effect of the tragic choir. Wilhelm Scherer sees the aesthetic as the Urphänomen of literary history,30 while Wilhelm Dilthey, in recourse to Goethe, places imagination as the Urphänomen of all poetic production.31 Georg Simmel first defines Goethe himself as the Urphänomen of genius32 and then conceptualizes the Urphänomen in a more abstract sense in his model of understanding, focusing on its temporality as a timeless law in a temporal form of perception.33 Walter Benjamin refers back to Simmel and conceives of the Urphänomen in terms of intention, in the sense of an idea of nature.34 Ludwig Wittgenstein emphasizes the epistemological dimension of the term when he defines the Urphänomen as something for which there is no further explanation.35 Referencing Goethe, Ernst Cassirer develops the Urphänomen into his “Basisphänomene”36 while Edmund Husserl uses the term for his phenomenological concept of temporality.37 Building on Husserl, the Urphänomen plays a significant role in Gerda Walther’s Zur Ontologie der sozialen Germeinschaften.38 Hans-Georg Gadamer discovers a hermeneutic Urphänomen in the structure of statements as answers to a question.39 The brief and incomplete history of this term’s reception sketched here is thus as broad as it is productive. Of Urphänomene in plural, Goethe’s dictum, from the “Schlussbetrachtung über Sprache und Terminologie” (Final reflection on language and terminology) in the Farbenlehre, holds true: “Sie lassen sich nicht festhalten, und doch soll man von ihnen reden” (MA 10:226; they cannot be fixed, and yet they are to be spoken of).

Translation: Brian Alkire

  1. All Goethe citations are from the Münchner Ausgabe, abbreviated in the following as MA: Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens, eds. Karl Richter, Herbert G. Göpfert, Norbert Miller and Gerhard Sauder , 21. vols (Munich: Hanser, 1985–98). All translations of the primary texts are mine unless otherwise indicated.
  2. The term is thus included in most Goethe handbooks and reference books. See e.g.: Manfred Wenzel and Claudia Schweizer, “Urphänomen,” in Goethe-Handbuch. Supplemente 2: Naturwissenschaften, ed. Manfred Wenzel (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 2012), 680–82; John Erpenbeck, “Urphänomen,” in Goethe-Handbuch 4/2: Personen, Sachen, Begriffe (L–Z), eds. Hans-Dietrich Dahnke and Regine Otto (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 1998), 1080–82; Gero von Wilpert, “Urphänomen,” in Goethe Lexikon, ed. Gero von Wilpert (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner, 1998), 1101; Gabriele Malsch, “Urphänomen,” in Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Bd. II, eds. Joachim Ritter, Karlfried Gründer and Gottfried Gabriel (Basel: Schwabe, 2002), 375–77; Daniel Steuer, “In defence of experience: Goethe’s natural investigations and scientific culture,” in The Cambridge Companion to Goethe, ed. Lesley Sharpe (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 160–78, here 166.
  3. Fritz Breithaupt, Jenseits der Bilder. Goethes Politik der Wahrnehmung (Freiburg: Rombach, 2000), 69–71.
  4. Holger Helbig, Naturgemäße Ordnung. Darstellung und Methode in Goethes Lehre von den Farben (Köln: Böhlau, 2004), here 481–82. Hereafter cited as (Helbig, Naturgemäße Ordnung).
  5. http://www.woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB?lemma=urphaenomen, accessed 1 June 2021. See also Wilhelm Kühlewein, Präfixstudien zu Goethe (Strassburg: Karl J. Trübner, 1903).
  6. http://www.woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB?lemma=ur, accessed 1 June 2021.
  7. In this mediating role, the primordial phenomenon is more often referred to in the interpretation of Goethe’s literary texts. See exemplarily Daniel Carranza, “The (Dis)Consolations of Form. On the Temporality of Rhyme in Goethe’s Im ernsten Beinhaus war’s,” in Goethes Spätwerk / On late Goethe, eds. Kai Sina and David Wellbery (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2020), 99–139, here 134.
  8. Georg Picht, Kunst und Mythos (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1996), 162.
  9. We find similar composites above all in the geological writings, where granite is described as the Urgestein. See esp. both Granit I (1784) and Granit II (1785).
  10. Ina Goy, “‘All is leaf:’ Goethe’s plant philosophy and poetry,” in Philosophy of Biology Before Biology, eds. Cécilia Bognon-Küss and Charles T. Wolfe (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 146–69, esp. 147–50.
  11. In the famous letter of June 8, 1787, published in Dichtung und Wahrheit under the fictitious date May 17, 1787 with minor changes, Goethe instructed Charlotte von Stein to report to Herder that he had found the “Geheimnis der Pflanzenzeugung” (FA II.3:305; secret of plant generation) and the Urpflanze as “Modell und Schlüßel” (ibid.; model and key). On Herder’s importance for Goethe’s scientific writings in general, see Nisbet, who also notes, however, that Goethe “owes little or nothing to Herder” (103–104) regarding the Urpflanze as a vegetative type. Hugh Barr Nisbet, “Herder, Goethe, and the Natural ‘Type’,” Publications of the English Goethe Society 37, no. 1 (1967): 83–119, here 103–104.
  12. Clark S. Muenzer, “Fugitive Images and Visual Memory in Goethe’s Discourse on Color,” in The Enlightened Eye, ed. Evelyn K. Moore and Patricia Ann Simpson (Rodopi: Amsterdam/ New York, 2007), 219–37.
  13. Dieter Borchmeyer, “Goethe und die moderne Naturwissenschaft. Einführung,” Jahrbuch der Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Künste 25 (2011): 63–73, here 65–66; Sabine Schimma, Blickbildungen. Ästhetik und Experiment in Goethes Farbstudien (Köln: Böhlau, 2014).
  14. The materiality of Goethe’s optics in the Farbenlehre, as presented by Heather I. Sullivan, can be traced back to the experiments of the Beiträge zur Optik. See Heather I. Sullivan, “The Ecology of Color. Goethe’s Materialist Optics and Ecological Posthumanism,” in Material Ecocriticism, eds. Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2014), 80–94, esp. 84–87.
  15. For more on Goethe’s epistemology in general, see David E. Wellbery, “Form und Idee: Skizze eines Begriffsfeldes um 1800,” in Morphologie und Moderne. Goethes ‘anschauliches Denken’ in den Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften seit 1800, ed. Jonas Maatsch (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), 17–42; Eckart Förster, “Goethe und die Idee einer Naturphilosophie,” in Morphologie und Moderne, ed. Jonas Maatsch (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), 43–56, esp. 51–54; for more on Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt specifically, see Manfred Wenzel, “Schriften zur Allgemeinen Naturlehre,” in Goethe-Handbuch. Supplemente 2: Naturwissenschaften, ed. Manfred Wenzel (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 2012), 225–50, here 228–30.
  16. James van der Laan, “Über Goethe, Essays und Experimente,” in Literarische Experimentalkulturen. Poetologien des Experiments im 19. Jahrhundert, eds. Marcus Krause and Nicolas Pethes (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2005), 243–50.
  17. Eva Geulen, “Keeping it Simple, Making it Difficult. Morphologische Reihen bei Goethe und anderen,” in Komplexität und Einfachheit. DFG-Symposion 2015, ed. Albrecht Koschorke (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2017), 357–73, here 364–65; Eva Geulen, Aus dem Leben der Form. Goethes Morphologie und die Nager (Berlin: August, 2016), esp. 109–22; Sebastian Meixner, Narratologie und Epistemologie. Studien zu Goethes frühen Erzählungen (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter 2019), 298–307.
  18. This higher type was associated by scholarship with Kant’s intellectual intuition. See exemplarily Eckart Förster, 25 Jahre Philosophie. Eine systematische Rekonstruktion (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2018), esp. 257–64.
  19. For a philosophical inquiry into Aristotle’s theory of knowledge via Schiller’s claim of Goethe being a rational empiricist, see Jakob Ziguras, “‘Arché’ as ‘Urphänomen:’ A Goethean Interpretation of Aristotle’s Theory of Scientific Knowledge,” Epoché 18, no. 1 (2013): 79–105, esp. 89–91.
  20. On the development and rejection of the concept of the Urpflanze, see Eva Geulen, “Urpflanze (und Goethes Hefte zur Morphologie),” in Urworte. Zur Geschichte und Funktion erstbegründender Begriffe, eds. Michael Ott and Tobias Döring (München: Fink, 2012), 155–71.
  21. Klaus Disselbeck, “Goethes Naturverständnis als Grundlage seiner Farbenlehre. Eine erkenntnistheoretische Untersuchung,” Freiburger Universitätsblätter 57 (2018): 99–120; Joel B. Lande, “Acquaintance with color. Prolegomena to a Study of Goethe’s ‘Zur Farbenlehre’,” Goethe Yearbook 23 (2016): 143–69.
  22. On Goethe’s empiricism, esp. as relating to the color theory, see: Joseph Vogl, “Bemerkung über Goethes Empirismus,” in Versuchsanordnungen 1800, eds. Sabine Schimma and Joseph Vogl (Zürich: Diaphanes, 2009), 113–23, esp. 120–23.
  23. On devices in the late work, which deploy the experiment in a significantly different way from the Beiträge zur Optik, see Sabine Schimma, “Die Poesie der Doppelblicke. Goethes entoptische Studien im Gedicht und ihr wissenschaftlicher Hintergrund,” in “Wir sind Experimente: wollen wir es auch sein!” Experiment und Literatur II (1790–1890), ed. Michael Gamper (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010), 77–99.
  24. Andreas B. Kilcher, “Ästhetik des Magnets. Zu einem physikalischen Modell der Kunst in der Frühromantik,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 72 (1998), 463–511, here 481–82.
  25. Because the Goethe-Wörterbuch has only made it as far as “p” as of the twelfth instalment of the sixth volume of 2018, the passages can be found, apart from the already-cited handbooks, in the following collections: Richard Dobel (ed.): Lexikon der Goethe-Zitate (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1999); Benedikt Jeßing, Bernd Lutz and Inge Wild (eds.): Metzler Goethe Lexikon (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 2004).
  26. Gero von Wilpert, “Urphänomen” [note 3].
  27. Jürgen Jacobs, “Maximen und Reflexionen,” in Goethe Handbuch. Bd. 3: Prosaschriften, eds. Bernd Witte, Theo Buck, Hans-Dietrich Dahnke, Regine Otto and Peter Schmidt (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1997), 415–29, here 428.
  28. Ewald A. Boucke, Wort und Bedeutung in Goethes Sprache (Berlin: Felber, 1901), 154.
  29. Dieter Birnbacher, “Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik,” in Schopenhauer-Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung, eds. Daniel Schubbe and Matthias Koßler (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler 22016), 106–19.
  30. Wilhelm Scherer, “Otto Ludwigs Shakespearestudien,” in Vorträge und Aufsätze zur Geschichte des geistigen Lebens in Deutschland und Österreich, ed. Wihelm Scherer (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1874), 389–96, here 395.
  31. Wilhelm Dilthey, Dichterische Einbildungskraft und Wahnsinn. Rede gehalten zur Feier der militär-ärtzlichen Bildungsanstalten am 2. August 1886 (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1886), 26–27; Josef König, Der Begriff der Intuition (Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms, 1981).
  32. Georg Simmel, Goethe (Leipzig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1913), 9.
  33. Georg Simmel, Lebensanschauung. Vier metaphysische Kapitel (München and Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1918), 14; Werner Jung, Georg Simmel zu Einführung (Hamburg: Junius 2016), 100.
  34. John Pizer, “Goethe’s ‘Urphänomen’ and Benjamin’s ‘Ursprung’: A Reconsideration,” Seminar 25/3 (1989): 205–22; Jeanne-Marie Gagnebin, Geschichte und Erzählung bei Walter Benjamin (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2001), 19.
  35. Joachim Schulte, “Goethe und Wittgenstein über Morphologie,” in Morphologie und Moderne. Goethes ‘anschauliches Denken’ in den Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften seit 1800, ed. Jonas Maatsch (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), 141–56, here 155.
  36. Ernst Cassirer, Zur Metaphysik der symbolischen Formen, ed. John Michael Krois (Hamburg: Meiner, 1995), 123–31.
  37. Iris Hennigfeld, “Goethe’s Phenomenological Way of Thinking and the Urphänomen,” Goethe Yearbook 22 (2015): 143–67.
  38. Gerda Walther, Zur Ontologie der sozialen Gemeinschaften. Mit einem Anhang zur Phänomenologie der sozialen Gemeinschaften (Halle: Niemeyer, 1922), esp. 16, 149–50.
  39. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Die Universalität des hermeneutischen Problems,” in Gesammelte Werke. Hermeneutik II: Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1993), 219–31, here 226.

Works Cited and Further Reading