1. An Overview of Goethean Materie
  2. Geist and Materie: Defining a Conceptual Pair
  3. The Theory of Goethean Materie: Nature and Development
  4. Geological Materie: On Stones and Plants
  5. Shaping Matter: Materie, Force, Tendency
  6. Conclusion: One and Two
  7. Notes
  8. Works Cited and Further Reading

An Overview of Goethean Materie

Matter, and the interactions between and within matter, play a central role in Goethe’s worldview, which is shaped by notions of holism and interconnectivity. For Goethe, however, Materie is a far cry from the inert, dead masses that the English term “matter” suggests to a lay reader. Rather, it is something imbued with “Geist” (spirit, mind): vibrant, ever-changing, and fundamental to all life on earth. As evidence of its importance for Goethe’s thinking, the word appears no fewer than four hundred times across his written output,1 to say nothing of the related terms of “materiell” (material) and “immateriell” (immaterial). Although the term is sometimes used synonymously with “subject-matter,”2 it takes on a very different meaning in the context of Goethe’s philosophical and natural scientific, especially geological, writings—one that Goethe himself claims is revealed to us by the mountains: “Wir sagen also: es gibt ein allgemeines Gesetz, nach welchem alle materielle Massen sich gestalten, und dieses Gesetz offenbaren uns die Gebirge, und wer es kennt, dem sind sie offenbar.” (WA 2.10: 76; In other words: there is a general law according to which all material masses take shape, and this law is revealed to us by the mountains, and if you are familiar with it, the mountains are laid bare to you.). Mountains are huge, looming masses, and, according to Goethe, home to the mystery of matter itself.

In exploring the “allgemeines Gesetz” (general law) offered by the mountains, this entry traces Goethe’s complex and polyvalent understanding of matter, the philosophers who inspired his thinking, and those he would go on to inspire, whether directly or indirectly, all of whom regard matter as a vibrant, vital, vivid entity. Based on his extensive engagement with previous thinkers on the subject, as well as on the interplay between Goethean Materie and other related concepts from his natural philosophy, it is clear that matter for Goethe really did matter. In this respect, his natural philosophy shares much in common with modern-day thinkers, especially in the field of ecocriticism, whose critical engagement with the concept of matter stems from contemporary concerns surrounding the fraught relationship between humans and the environment in the “Anthropocene,” a term coined by the Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen in the early 2000s to refer to the current geological era in which humans have emerged as the dominant force over the climate and environment.3 These approaches focus not just on humans’ activities per se but also on the material environment, in the broadest sense, within which they act. Subsequently, they have been leveraged by researchers in the humanities, including the field of Goethe studies, with some scholars claiming the primacy of materiality in Goethe’s works, and others calling for an approach that also takes non-material properties into account.4

Geist and Materie: Defining a Conceptual Pair

In the history of Western philosophy, the terms Materie (matter) and Geist (spirit), or alternatively Materie (matter) and Form (form), form an inextricable conceptual pair. The following analysis will briefly survey the connections between Materie and its various conceptual pairs in the history of philosophy in order to situate Goethe’s idiosyncratic understanding of matter within the broader philosophical landscape.

1. Geist and Materie: The Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch, which draws substantially on Goethe for its detailed explorations of usage, contains entries for both of these terms. In the case of Materie, the Grimms offer four definitions: 1) “stoff, woraus irgend etwas verfertigt wird” (matter out of which something is produced); 2) “auch der stoff für ein kunstwerk” (“also the matter for a work of art); 3) “in der philosophischen sprache, das stoffliche und insofern ursächliche irgend eines naturkörpers” (in philosophy, the material and, to this extent, original ‘something’ within a natural body); 4) “endlich auch eine dem körper innewohnende und seine art bedingende flüssigkeit oder feuchtigkeit” (finally, also a liquid or dampness within a body and impacting its nature).5 While all these definitions accord neatly with one another, the third definition—“das stoffliche und insofern ursächliche irgend eines naturkörpers” (the material and, to this extent, original something within a natural body)—is the most relevant for understanding Goethe’s concept of matter, both because of its explicit relation to a “natural body” and to the latter’s relative indeterminacy (“irgend eines”), which makes matter appear just as mysterious and full of secrets as it does in Goethe’s depictions of the natural world.

The entry on “Geist,” conversely, takes up a rather larger portion of the Deutsches Wörterbuch. The Grimms offer no fewer than thirty separate definitions of this term, each of which contains many more sub-definitions and examples. These definitions range from the general and self-evident to the highly specific, but of particular relevance is definition number 20: “was aber der geist selber ist, scheint an seinen gegensätzen am sichersten erkennbar, also geist und körper, geist und materie, geist und natur u. ä.” (what the spirit itself is seems most clearly visible through its opposites, so spirit and body, spirit and matter, spirit and nature, and so on).6 Here Materie figures explicitly as the opposite of Geist—not to mention of Natur, as well—which underlines the inherent connection between these concepts. This connection is rendered even more pronounced by the lack of any definition provided for Geist in this section, other than the statement that those who seek to understand this term can gain the most clarity by viewing it in conjunction with its counterpart.

2. Form and Materie: The belief that physical objects are an inextricable compound of matter, on the one hand, and a force that brings it into a particular form, on the other, dates to Aristotle. In his Physics, Aristotle explains this theory, known as hylomorphism, as follows:

Thus if, of things by nature, there are causes of principles of which those things are composed primarily and from which they come to be not accidentally, but come to be what each of them is called according to its substance, then everything which is generated is generated from a subject and a form [. . .].7

Here the term “form” refers not only to the shape which the object in question finally takes, but also to its essence, which drives it to take this shape and imbues it with the necessary qualities. The “cause,” which Aristotle later refers to as the “moving cause” or “efficient cause,” is the stimulus behind the transformation of matter from one form to another, before it ultimately reaches its function, or “final cause.” Goethe, like Aristotle, pursues an approach which acknowledges that material artefacts are composed of more than matter alone; that is to say, that the overarching structure of Aristotle’s approach accords to some extent with Goethe’s, particularly in its holistic, balanced nature that privileges neither form nor matter above the other.8

3. Materie, Temporality, Immateriality: Many modern critics likewise use the tight connection between Materie and concepts which imply a sense of the “immaterial,” such as Geist and Form, to understand this term. This is the approach taken by Helmut Koopman in the Goethe-Handbuch, who proffers a definition of Geist which states that it is “das Immaterielle, das der Zeitlichkeit nicht unterworfen ist” (the immaterial that is not subjected to temporality), thereby defining one by reference to the lack of the other.9 Although this definition, like the Grimms’, primarily defines Geist in opposition to materiality, it does, however, add some nuance to this; it is something which is “der Zeitlichkeit nicht unterworfen,” i.e., it exists outside of time. This stands in stark contrast to the understanding of the term proposed by Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker in the material appended to the Hamburger Ausgabe of Goethe’s works, which includes an essay explicitly dealing with the relationship between Materie and Geist. Weizsäcker asks, “Sind Geist und Materie zwei Wirklichkeiten oder eine?” (Are spirit and matter two actualities or one?).10 The precise nature of this “Geist” is not defined, but in the essay preceding this one, this time on “Polarität und Steigerung” (polarity and intensification), Weizsäcker states: “Scheint die Materie im endlosen Wechsel ihrer Atemzüge in sich zu kreisen, so kennt der Geist Streben. Er kennt eigentliche Zeit; er kennt den Unterschied von Zukunft und Vergangenheit” (While matter seems to circle in itself in the endless changing of its breath, spirit is familiar with striving. It knows real time, it knows the difference between the future and the past).11 This version of Geist, which can recognize the difference between the future and the past, is far removed from the atemporal Geist of Koopman’s definition. Koopman and Weizsäcker appear to be at an impasse here, with one explicitly stating that Geist is not subject to temporality and the other clearly stating that it is. In fact, neither is wrong, yet neither is right, either. If Materie and Geist are inextricably linked, it stands to reason that they both concern questions of temporality in the same way. Matter is at once subject to the passage of time while also standing outside of it, and Geist functions the same way. It is, as Koopman alleges, “der Zeitlichkeit nicht unterworfen” (not subjected to temporality), in that both matter and spirit have existed since the dawn of time and will continue to exist in perpetuity. However, they do, as von Weizsäcker states, “kenn[en] eigentliche Zeit” (know real time), existing within the broader framework of time itself. Matter, and everything associated with it, is time-bound yet eternal, and our human interactions with Materie during the Anthropocene offer an opportunity to engage with an entity that at once connects us to the present and enables us to tap into the distant, primeval past.

The Theory of Goethean Materie: Nature and Development

The traditional pairing of Materie and Geist is most fully expressed in one of Goethe’s most resonant statements on Materie, located within his “Erläuterung zu dem aphoristischen Aufsatz ‘Die Natur’” (1828; Explanation on the Aphoristic Essay “Nature”):

Die Erfüllung aber, die ihm [by which he means the essay “Die Natur”] fehlt, ist die Anschauung der zwei großen Triebräder aller Natur: der Begriff von Polarität und von Steigerung, jene der Materie, insofern wir sie materiell, diese ihr dagegen, insofern wir sie geistig denken, angehörig; jene ist in immerwährendem Anziehen und Abstoßen, diese in immerstrebendem Aufsteigen. Weil aber die Materie nie ohne Geist, der Geist nie ohne Materie existirt und wirksam sein kann, so vermag auch die Materie sich zu steigern, so wie sich’s der Geist nicht nehmen läßt, anzuziehen und abzustoßen; wie derjenige nur allein zu denken vermag, der genugsam getrennt hat um zu verbinden, genugsam verbunden hat um wieder trennen zu mögen. (WA 2.11: 11)
The fulfillment, however, that is lacking from it is the consideration of the two major drive wheels of nature in its entirety: the terms of polarity and heightening, the first belonging to the material, to the extent that we think of it as material, and the other, conversely, to the extent that we think of it as spiritual; this one is continually engaged in attraction and repulsion, the other in ceaseless ascent. However, because matter can never exist and have an impact without spirit, nor spirit without matter, matter can also be heightened, just as the spirit can also engage in attraction and repulsion; as this can only be thought of alone if it has separated sufficiently to be connected, and has been sufficiently connected that it can once again separate.

These lines were written by Goethe in Weimar on May 24, 1828, four years before his death. They see him reflect on the essay “Die Natur” (Nature), which he dates to the 1780s.12 As Goethe makes clear in this extract, reflecting on Materie and Geist also requires a reflection on another conceptual pair: Steigerung (heightening, intensification) and Polarität (polarity). Indeed, none of these terms exist in isolation: while Materie is easily glossed in English as “matter,” this alone does not truly get to the heart of what this means to Goethe.

Indeed, critics have often considered Goethe’s concept of “Materie” in connection with this conceptual pair. Rudolf Steiner’s Goethes Weltanschauung (1921; Goethe’s Worldview), for instance, examines various aspects of Goethe’s thought, including the link between “Materie,” “Steigerung,” and “Polarität.” In his summary of Goethe’s work on this subject, Steiner writes that “[i]n der Herausarbeitung des Geistigen aus dem Materiellen durch die schaffende Natur besteht das, was Goethe Steigerung nennt” (what Goethe calls “heightening” is to be found in the elaboration of the spiritual from the material through nature’s creativity).13 This summary emphasizes the interaction between Materie and Steigerung and foregrounds in particular the process-driven nature of these concepts: “Steigerung” is a potentially endless process of “Herausarbeitung” (elaboration), which establishes a relationship of interpenetration between material and spiritual realms. Indeed, as Steiner makes explicit, “[e]ine tote geistlose Materie kennt Goethe nicht” (Goethe did not believe in the existence of a dead material without spirit).14 However, while Steiner believes that Steigerung is focused on extracting “geistige” (spiritual) characteristics from “Materie,” I contend that it is necessary to shift the perspective with which this is viewed. Rather than a means of facilitating the creation of “das Geistige” from “Materie,” Steigerung can also be seen as emblematic of a non-hierarchical connection between these two poles. By extension, Steigerung and Polarität can shed light on the concept of Materie itself, being part of the same nexus of interconnected concepts.

Like the well-known Goethean concept of Steigerung, one can also discuss Goethe’s dynamic concept of matter more generally as housing a kind of force, will, or drive which impels the development of natural objects, whether organic or inorganic. This has been discussed at length by scholars like Astrida Tantillo, whose monograph The Will to Create explores various tenets of Goethe’s philosophy of the natural world and explains how it reveals the existence of “nature’s will to create, evolve, struggle, transform and metamorphose,”15 which she describes elsewhere as an “inner drive.”16 Tantillo views nature’s “will” or “drive” as having a specific direction, in particular from a generic state to a specialized one, i.e., from imperfection to perfection. She aligns this with Goethe’s belief in the innate sense of Steigerung with nature’s “drives” being the vehicle that encourages matter to progress along this pathway. In the geological space, this process often represents the transition from stone to gemstone, or, indeed, from the general to the specific, just like the “will” that Tantillo identifies.

Geological Materie: On Stones and Plants

Of course, not every Goethe critic agrees with Steiner’s assessment of the inextricable network forged by Steigerung, Polarität, Materie, and Geist. One such critic is Margrit Wyder, who believes that Goethe thought geological masses were unable to undergo Steigerung, hence his issues (in her eyes) with aligning his work on geology with his work on morphology: “Es fehlte die in den organischen Reichen zentrale Steigerung, denn der Granit als ältestes Gestein war nach Goethes Überzeugung zugleich das vollkommenste” (This lacked the heightening so central to the organic realms because granite, as the oldest stone, was, in Goethe’s view, also the most complete).17 For her, the simple fact that granite is so ancient means that it is incapable of exerting the newness and excitement entailed by Steigerung. This means that it is impossible for granite to align with Goethe’s morphological system, in which Steigerung plays such a central role. However, I contend that quite the opposite is true; not only is granite capable in Goethe’s view of undergoing Steigerung, but it is also subject to this immaterial force so strongly that it can radiate it outward to impact people and other living entities in its vicinity. An examination of Goethe’s “Granit II,” also known as “Über den Granit” (1784; On Granite), reveals that the connections between these concepts and geological masses are, counter to Wyder’s assertion, tightly forged.

This essay, possibly the best known of all Goethe’s geological works, was likely drafted in January 1784, when he was deeply engaged in his work in the Thuringian town of Ilmenau and a mere month before the mine there was officially opened. During this period, Goethe also undertook his third journey through the Harz mountains and was likely influenced by his experience of the mountain environment on this trip. The essay starts with a brief overview of the history of granite and an attempt to explain the attraction to it that so many travelers, researchers, and hikers have felt. Commencing with an impersonal, detached narrative, this opening section gradually becomes more subjective in nature, discussing the understanding of this stone in the present day. The remainder of the essay sees this anonymous protagonist undergo a process of reflection triggered by the thought of ascending the granite mountain, covering topics from the mountain’s creation through to its surroundings, as well as its positioning within the natural environment more broadly. The title of the essay itself is somewhat misleading: unlike many of Goethe’s other works on geology, the essay focuses less on the granite rock itself (and its properties) and more on the speaker’s lived (or imagined) experience of the mountain environment.

In fact, the very concept underlying the essay, the idea of walking up and down a mountain, is inherently imbued with movements both skyward and earthward. The notion of a mountainous summit is connected more to overtones of height than of depth, and so the concept of it incorporating both ascent and descent may initially seem surprising. However, even brief consideration of the topography of a mountain peak reveals otherwise: any sketch of the inverted V-shape of a mountain requires both an upward and a downward line for the peak itself to be formed, and any physical ascent of a peak must necessarily be followed by a descent, just like the movements of Steigerung and Polarität, here triggered by the materiality of the mountain environment. Indeed, once the protagonist in “Granit II” has made his way to the top of the mountain, he experiences a moment of mental clarity, which is described in very similar terms:

In diesem Augenblicke, da die innern anziehenden und bewegenden Kräfte der Erde gleichsam unmittelbar auf mich wirken, da die Einflüsse des Himmels mich näher umschweben, werde ich zu höheren Betrachtungen der Natur hinauf gestimmt, und wie der Menschengeist alles belebt, so wird auch ein Gleichniß in mir rege, dessen Erhabenheit ich nicht widerstehen kann. So einsam sage ich zu mir selber, indem ich diesen ganz nackten Gipfel hinab sehe, und kaum in der Ferne am Fuße ein geringwachsendes Moos erblicke, so einsam sage ich, wird es dem Menschen zu Muthe, der nur den ältsten, ersten, tiefsten Gefühlen der Wahrheit seine Seele eröffnen will. (WA 2.9: 174)
In this moment where the internally attractive, moving forces of the earth impact on me directly, where the influence of the heavens floats closer to me, I am elevated to loftier considerations of nature, and just as the human spirit breathes life into everything, so too is an analogous spirit active within me; I cannot resist its sublime nature. So alone, I say to myself, I look down from this naked peek and can scarcely see the low moss in the the distance, at its foot, so alone, I say, a person gains the courage that they only wish to open their soul to the oldest, most original, deepest feelings of truth.

This utterance offers a snapshot of the protagonist’s experience of Steigerung and Polarität in the material geological space with regard to the dynamic movements associated with each of these terms. Steigerung is indicated by the phrase “zu höheren Betrachtungen der Natur hinauf gestimmt” (elevated to loftier considerations of nature), which sees the protagonist’s thoughts become ever loftier (“höher”), with no sense of stopping, mirroring the “immerstrebendes Aufsteigen” (ceaseless ascent) in Goethe’s definition of Steigerung in his commentary on the essay “Die Natur.” The passage also refers to the oppositional movement of Polarität, too. This is most evident in the statement: “da die innern anziehenden und bewegenden Kräfte der Erde gleichsam unmittelbar auf mich wirken, da die Einflüsse des Himmels mich näher umschweben” (WA 2.9: 174; where the internally attractive, moving forces of the earth impact on me directly, where the influence of the heavens floats closer to me). The mysterious “Kräfte der Erde” (forces of the earth) pull the protagonist downwards towards the center of the earth, just as the “Einflüsse des Himmels” (influences of the heavens) get ever closer to his reach, stretching upwards towards the heavens, with the protagonist suspended between the pull of these two forces.

Goethe was not the only geologist to assert that geological matter was an active entity home to development and progression. This concept of the Earth as a living, changing organism took on different guises over time, from Copernicus’ heliocentrism, which required that Earth be physically in a state of motion,18 to Charles Buffon’s eighteenth-century theory of the cooling of the Earth,19 which posited that the changes in its material state were caused as it progressively lost the heat with which it was formed. One prominent geological theory in this domain is the sixteenth-century concept of “lapidifying juice” (the translation of the Latin phrase succus lapidificus), which circulated around the Earth’s crust and was able to turn materials of various kinds into stone.20 The theory of “lapidifying juice” had long been refuted by the time Goethe was writing, but the fundamental concept of the physical activity, if not the agency, of rocks remained and was drawn on by other contemporary authors. One such author is Novalis, whose fragmentary novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802) includes an unnamed older man who talks about rock formation at length. The old man is concerned that the natural world is in a period of stasis, with no new stones, gems, or metals currently being produced. He states, “mag es sein, dass die Natur nicht mehr so fruchtbar ist, dass heutzutage keine Metalle und Edelsteine, keine Felsen und Berge mehr entstehn, [. . .]: je mehr sich ihre erzeugende Kraft erschöpft hat” (it might be the case that nature is no longer so fruitful, that today no more metals or gemstones, no more cliffs and mountains are being created [. . .] the more [nature] has exhausted its generative power).21 Nature is not home to a mechanical, constant force; instead, in this animistic reading, it waxes and wanes like the living entities of which it is composed. In turn, this fluid, ever-changing “erzeugende Kraft” (generative power) facilitates the creation of metals and gemstones, generating geological matter in a manner more akin to the growth of a plant or tree. This similarity has been highlighted by Wolf von Engelhardt, who has forged a bridge between previously separate research on Goethe’s studies in the fields of geology and botany. Rather than seeing morphology as solely applicable to organic entities, Engelhardt argues that Goethe believed that stones were also subject to morphological processes.22

Indeed, plants have been referred to as “the weakest link in the metaphysical chain,”23 as the entity that troubles the dualistic division of matter and spirit. This is also reflected in Goethe’s work on plants, which offers further insight into his understanding of the interplay of matter and Steigerung. In his essay Metamorphose der Pflanzen (1790; Metamorphosis of Plants), the question of development is at the forefront of his enquiry. These forces take various forms, but the “regelmäßige Metamorphose” (WA 2.6:26; regular metamorphosis), which Goethe glosses as the productive (“fortschreitende”) version of metamorphosis is described as the version which “durch Umwandlung einer Gestalt in die andere, gleichsam auf einer geistigen Leiter, zu jenem Gipfel der Natur, der Fortpflanzung durch zwei Geschlechter hinaufsteigt.” (WA 2.6:26–27; through the conversion of one figure into the other, accedes to the peak of nature, the continuation by two genders, on a spiritual ladder). Here the “Umwandlung einer Gestalt in die andere” (conversion of one figure into the other) refers to the changing of cotyledons, or seed leaves, into fruit, reaching the figurative “Gipfel der Natur” (peak of nature) of sexual reproduction, rather than to the material “peak” found in “Granit II.” The process by which one botanical form metamorphoses into another is described as being a “geistige Leiter” (spiritual ladder). Just like the metaphorical, immaterial “Gipfel,” this “Leiter” has here been stripped of its materiality. The use of the term “geistig” in this context is particularly resonant. As discussed previously, Goethe established “Geist” as the opposite to “Materie” in his “Erläuterung zu dem aphoristischen Aufsatz ‘Die Natur’” (WA 2.11:10-12). As such, a reference to “Geist,” as in this extract from the Metamorphose der Pflanzen, is implicitly also a reference to matter, too. It is no coincidence that the physical direction of plant growth upward aligns with the metaphorical movement of Steigerung seen in “Granit II”:24 for Goethe, plant matter is fundamentally structured in the same way as geological matter—and, indeed, all other kinds of matter—in its pairing of Materie and Geist.

Shaping Matter: Materie, Force, Tendency

From the mysterious “Kräfte der Erde” in Goethe’s “Granit II” to the “erzeugende Kraft” in Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the geological space is described as a home to all kinds of forces. These concepts are not merely implicitly present in “Granit II”: Goethe also uses the same verb (“anziehen,” to attract) and noun (“Kraft,” force) to describe the forces exerted by the Earth’s matter in this passage, from his late autobiographical text Campagne in Frankreich (1820–22; Campaign in France), as he does elsewhere to describe matter:

Ich hatte mir aus Kants Naturwissenschaft nicht entgehen lassen, daß Anziehungs- und Zurückstoßungskraft zum Wesen der Materie gehören und keine von der andern im Begriff der Materie getrennt werden könne; daraus ging mir die Urpolarität aller Wesen hervor, welche die unendliche Mannichfaltigkeit der Erscheinungen durchdringt und belebt. (WA 1.33:196)
From Kant’s study of natural science I noted that attraction and repulsion are part of matter’s nature and that neither can be separated from the other in the term of matter; from this, I derived the original polarity of all beings, which penetrates the inevitable manifoldness of appearances and brings them to life.

This “Anziehungs- und Zurückstoßungskraft” (force or power of attraction and repulsion) is a clear gloss of Polarität at a late stage of Goethe’s thinking on the concept. The same “Kräfte” are found within the “Materie” of the mountain in “Über den Granit” and are even described in the very same terms. This implies that “Über den Granit” offers a very early prototype of the conceptual framework that would later form a linchpin of Goethe’s worldview, which was shaped by a holistic network of materiality, immateriality, Steigerung and Polarität. The term Anziehungskraft (power of attraction) has even been used by critics to describe the impact that the mountain environment had on Goethe to explain why he was so fascinated by the subject of geology for so long. Thus, Sigrid Damm and Hamster Damm, in their book “Geheimnißvoll Offenbar”: Goethe im Berg, ask “Ist es das Mythische der Tiefen, das eine unwiderstehliche Anziehungskraft ausübt?” (Is it the mythical power of the depths that exudes an irresistible force of attraction?).25 It is not merely the protagonist in “Granit II” who feels “die innern anziehenden und bewegenden Kräfte der Erde” (the internally attractive, moving forces of the earth); so too, arguably, did Goethe himself experience these immaterial forces rooted in the material geological environment.

In the extract from Campagne in Frankreich cited above, Goethe refers to his engagement with Kantian theories of matter, specifically Kant’s notion that matter is imbued with forces providing attraction and repulsion. Kant discusses these theories in his Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels (1755; Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens), which states that “die Anziehung ist eben diese allgemeine Beziehung, welche die Theile der Natur in einem Raume vereinigt” (attraction is this general relationship that brings together the parts of nature in one space).26 For Kant, matter only exists because of the force of attraction (“Anziehung”) which holds together its individual components. Found in “[dem] Innerste[n] der Materie” (the most innermost parts of matter), this force resides within matter and enables it to come into being: without it, matter could not exist, and conversely, without matter, attraction would have nothing upon which to act. However, Kant was not the only thinker who inspired Goethe’s thinking on Materie, particularly in terms of the pairing between solid matter and its innate forces, with this theory dating back to Aristotle’s belief in the juxtaposition of matter and form, as discussed briefly above.

Goethe himself, in his brief note “Bildungstrieb” (1818; Formative Drive), used the terms “Stoff” (matter) and “Form” (form) as opposing points on a schema he sketched out to elucidate the nature of organic material, which suggests that he was influenced to some extent by this Aristotelean approach (WA 2.7:71). However, “Stoff” and “Form” were merely the endpoints in Goethe’s schema: between the two, Goethe included “Vermögen” (faculty), “Kraft” (power), “Gewalt” (force), “Streben” (striving), and “Trieb” (drive). This list of forces that facilitate a movement between “Stoff” and “Form” highlights the inherently active, energetic nature of this balance for Goethe, a balance which can only be struck with the help of these forces that ensure matter can proceed to its essence, and one in which an entity’s “form” can be negotiated and re-negotiated anew as a result. This highlights a striking difference between Goethe’s and Aristotle’s approaches in this respect: despite both displaying a commitment to the mutual existence of matter and forces within this matter, they emphasize different aspects of this duality. For Aristotle, the focus lies on the ultimate attainment of the final form, whereas for Goethe the emphasis is placed on the fact that this is achieved by a gradual, yet continuous process of transformation,27 not dissimilar to the Leibnizian lex continui.28

The most detailed exposition of how the interplay between such forces and matter functions in Goethe’s eyes is to be found in his grouping of notes entitled “Entstehung unorganischer Formen” (Emergence of Inorganic Forms). In it Goethe explains:

Alles Materielle kommt uns formlos vor, wenn wir unaufmerksam sind. Aber es hat eine unwiderstehliche Neigung, sich zu gestalten. Das Materielle, Körperliche läßt sich vor der Gestaltung in einem dreifachen Zustand denken. In einem freien, gedrängten, gehäuften. [. . .] Aus diesen drei Zuständen strebt das Materielle zur Form. (WA 2.10:75)
Everything material appears to us without form if we are inattentive. However, it has an irresistible tendency to take form. Material, physical entities can be considered to be in a tripartite state prior to taking form. In a free, crowded, piled-up state. [. . .] From these three states the material strives to take form.

Here Goethe explains that matter appears to be without form if it is viewed by an inattentive observer. However, a greater level of observational awareness would enable its “Neigung” (tendency) and, by extension, the form towards which it was striving to be sensed. This concept of matter having a “Neigung” also appears in Goethe’s other writings, such as in his essay “Über Bildung von Edelsteinen” (On the Formation of Precious Stones), where Goethe states “Alle Gebirgsmassen trennen und bilden sich kosmisch, innerhalb der Masse aber erzeugt sich eine Neigung, sich eigenst gestaltet darzustellen”(WA 2.10:85; All mountain masses separate and form themselves cosmically, within the mass itself, however, comes forth a tendency to depict oneself in a unique way). As this extract highlights, the “Neigung” generated within the mass of the mountain in the “Über Bildung von Edelsteinen” essay is not unique to mountains: rather, it is an integral component of matter itself. That said, geological entities are rather special in this regard, offering a way for us, as observers, to gain insight into the manner in which this desire towards “Gestaltung” (formation) exerts itself. This is made explicit a little later in “Entstehung unorganischer Formen,” when Goethe goes on to explain the significance of the mountain environment, in the quotation mentioned earlier in this entry:

Wir sagen also: es gibt ein allgemeines Gesetz, nach welchem alle materielle Massen sich gestalten, und dieses Gesetz offenbaren uns die Gebirge, und wer es kennt, dem sind sie offenbar. (WA 2.10:76)
In other words: there is a general law according to which all material masses take shape, and this law is revealed to us by the mountains, and if you are familiar with it, the mountains are laid bare to you.

Goethe believes that the mountains hold the answer to understanding the “allgemeines Gesetz” (general law) by which matter takes form. The “Materielle” is clearly material in nature, but the same cannot be said of the “Neigung” that at once resides within it and shapes its development. Rather, this “Neigung” lies squarely within the realm of the immaterial, a guiding force with which the matter is imbued, without it being part of the matter itself.

Jason Groves has explored the term “Neigung” in Goethe’s writing with specific reference to geology and identified no fewer than four separate readings of it. Groves lists that this “Neigung” can refer to a “magnetic ‘attraction’ of stone” that rocks exude towards humans, the “erotic ‘affection’ for a mineral other” experienced by some humans, an 18th-century belief in the “‘tendency’ of the planet’s climate towards a crystalline state of absolute zero” and even the “‘draw’ of minerals in an emerging capitalist system based on resource extraction.”29 Groves’ survey of the resonances of the term “Neigung” during the Goethezeit offers an insight into the sheer breadth of meanings that this term carried; yet Goethe’s specific use of the word to refer to vivid, generative forces within rocks does not align with any of the four overarching definitions Groves suggests. Instead, I contend that “Neigung” has a much broader meaning here, as opposed to Groves’ highly specific, nuanced definitions, and instead is best understood as an instance of the directional force inherent within natural matter identified by Tantillo which, in Goethe’s eyes, encourages matter’s transformation and sublimation.

In fact, Goethe’s geological “Neigung” bears striking similarities to the work of modern-day New Materialist thinkers, who emphasize the vibrancy and aliveness of matter. One such thinker, Jane Bennett, coins the term “thing-power,” which refers to the notion of things being able “to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness.”30 Bennett’s discussions of “thing-power” focus primarily on the forces embedded within man-made objects. However, aligning Bennett’s work with Goethe’s geological writings shines a light on his belief in a similar kind of force, albeit one to be found within naturally occurring geological entities. The “forces and flows” within matter are key to her argument, with these flows bringing matter to life and bridging the erroneous divide that she believes has been drawn between humans and the broader environment:

In lieu of an environment that surrounds human culture, or even a cosmos that cleaves into three ecologies, picture an ontological field without any unequivocal demarcations between human, animal, vegetable, vitality and self-interest or mineral. All forces and flows (materialities) are or can become lively, affective, and signaling. And so an affective, speaking human body is not radically different from the affective, signaling nonhumans with which it coexists, hosts, enjoys, serves, consumes, produces, and competes.31

In an anthropomorphic move not dissimilar to Goethe’s use of the term “Neigung,” Bennett asserts that any material object is “affective,” or, in other words, can experience moods, feelings, or attitudes. They are also “signaling,” or able to express these emotions, in a manner not unlike Goethe’s belief that parts of rocks are guided by their “Neigung” to turn into gemstones. Reading Goethe’s “Über Bildung von Edelsteinen” and other work on geological formation alongside Bennett’s theories of vibrant matter brings to the fore moments of material vibrancy in Goethe’s texts. In turn, Bennett’s notion of vibrant matter serves to highlight and expand on Goethe’s understanding of the interconnected nature of materiality and immateriality, both within the geological realm specifically and the natural world more broadly.

The philosopher Howard Caygill has also discussed in detail the interplay between energy flows and life and the crossovers between the concepts of energy, forces, and power. As part of this discussion, Caygill asks the following question: “Is the choice simply between subordinating the vital to the physical, or the physical to the vital, or are there other possible options?”32 Goethe’s approach to Materie offers, I contend, one answer to Caygill’s question, suggesting that the “vital” (which, in my reading, comes under the broader heading of the “immaterial”) and the “physical” (which, in my reading, is subsumed under the “material”) need not be viewed as competing with each other or positioned within a hierarchy: rather, they mutually co-exist on an even plane.

Conclusion: One and Two

In the above I have argued that comprehending the meaning of the words Materie and Geist in isolation is not an adequate foundation upon which to build an understanding of Goethe’s approach to these concepts. This is because, for Goethe, each is contingent upon the existence of the other. Specifically, he states that “die Materie nie ohne Geist, der Geist nie ohne Materie existirt und wirksam sein kann” (Matter cannot exist or take effect without spirit, nor spirit without matter). Even though they are separate concepts, Materie and Geist are also inherently and inextricably connected; hence, attempting to understand the terms by defining them as isolated notions does not do justice to Goethe’s presentation of these concepts. Rather, the interactions between Materie and Geist must be considered in structural terms, that is to say, within the broader framework of Goethe’s philosophy of the natural world.

The pairing between Materie and Geist can be viewed as a monist duality, with its two distinct components nevertheless forming a single unit. The complex, somewhat paradoxical arrangement of this type of structure is explored in Goethe’s poem “Gingo Biloba” from 1815, which explores this structural framework with reference to botany. Goethe sent this short three-verse poem to Marianne von Willemer along with a ginkgo leaf as a present. Intrigued by the structure of the plant, the poet-protagonist asks “Ist es Ein lebendig Wesen, / Das sich in sich selbst getrennt?”, and then wonders “Sind es zwei, die sich erlesen, / Daß man sie als Eines kennt?” (WA 2.6:152; Is it a living being / That has divided itself? / Is it two that have chosen each other / So people see them as one? ). Here the poet-protagonist asks whether the plant is one living being that splits into two, or whether it is two that merge into one. The answer, offered in the final line of the poem, is both—and neither. The recipient need only look at the poetic works of the poem’s pragonist, who replies thusly: “Fühlst du nicht an meinen Liedern, / Daß ich eins und doppelt bin?” (WA 2.6:152; Can you not tell from my verses / That I exist as both one and two?). Just as the poet-protagonist (and the plant, too) is “eins und doppelt” (both one and two), so too is the relationship between Materie and Geist one where the two are at once “eins und doppelt,” existing both independently and together, reflecting a world, as Jane Bennett puts it, “without any unequivocal demarcations between human, animal, vegetable, vitality and self-interest or mineral.”33

  1. Unless otherwise noted, works by Goethe are cited according to the Weimar edition (WA Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Werke, Tagebücher und Briefe, hg. im Auftrag der Großherzogin Sophie von Sachsen (Weimarer Ausgabe), ed. by Paul Raabe (Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1887–1919, 1990 reprint). Hereafter cited as WA in the body of the text. All translations are by the author.
  2. This is illustrated, for instance, by the phrase “Ich habe selten bei einer Lectüre, bei irgend einer Darstellung einer interessanten Materie, die Geist und Herz beleben sollten, einen Cirkel so aufmerksam und die Seelenkräfte so thätig gesehen, als wenn irgend etwas Neues vorgetragen wurde”; WA 1.18: 201, “When reading, during a presentation of interesting material intended to arouse heart and spirit, I have rarely seen a circle so attentive and the forces of the soul so active than when something new was presented”.
  3. Paul J. Crutzen, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” in Earth System Science in the Anthropocene, ed. Eckart Ehlers and Thomas Krafft (Berlin: Springer, 2006), 13–18.
  4. Heather Sullivan’s work, for instance, strongly foregrounds the material elements in Goethe’s work, whereas David John’s writing, for example, calls for a balanced reading that acknowledges both “Materie” and “Geist”.
  5. Jakob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, “Materie,” in Deutsches Wörterbuch, hrsg. von der Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin < http://www.woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB?lemma=materie> [accessed 1 October 2020] Suggsted reformatting: Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Materie’ in Deutsches Wörterbuch, ed. Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 33 vols. (Leipzig and Munich: S. Hirzel and Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1854–1972), 12: column 1751. http://www.woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB?lemma=materie>, accessed 1 October 2020.
  6. Jakob Grimm and Wilheln Grimm, “Geist” include complete citation information for source and link
  7. Aristotle, Physics, trans. by H. G. Apostle (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1969), 190b18–190b22.
  8. See Claus Günzler, “Die Bedeutung des aristotelischen Hylemorphismus für die Naturbetrachtung Goethes,” Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 21, no. 2 (1967), 212.
  9. Helmut Koopmann, “Geist,” in Goethe Handbuch, ed. Bernard Witte et. al, vol. 4.1, Personen Sachen Begriffe, ed. Hans-Dietrich Dahnke and Regine Otto (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 1998), 347.
  10. Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, “Einige Begriffe aus Goethes Naturwissenschaft,” in Goethes Werke: Hamburger Ausgabe in 14 Bänden, ed. by Erich Trunz (Munich: CH Beck, 2005), vol. 13, 549.
  11. Carl von Weizsäcker, “Einige Begriffe aus Goethes Naturwissenschaft,” 549.
  12. Goethe suggests that the essay “Die Natur” was written in the very same handwriting “deren [er sich] in den achtziger Jahren in [s]einen Geschäften zu bedienen pflegte” (WA 2.11:10, “that [he himself] used his is correspondence in the eighties”). In fact, “Die Natur” was not written by Goethe and merely fell into his possession after he received a collection of letters upon the death of Duchess Anna Amalia.
  13. Rudolf Steiner, Goethes Weltanschauung (Berlin: Philosophisch-Anthroposophischer Verlag, 1921), 62.
  14. Rudolf Steiner, Goethe’s Weltanschauung, 63.
  15. Astrida Tantillo, The Will to Create (Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh P, 2002), 6.
  16. Astrida Tantillo, The Will to Create, 109.
  17. Margrit Wyder, “Von der Stufenleiter der Wesen zur Metamorphosenlehre Goethes Morphologie und ihre Gesetze,” in Von der Pansophie zur Weltweisheit, ed. Hans-Jürgen Schrader and Katharine Weder (Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2004), 50.
  18. See David Wootton, The Invention of Science (London: Penguin, 2015), 158.
  19. See Martin Rudwick, Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters (Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 2014), 62.
  20. Frank Dawson Adams, The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences (London: Bailliere, Tindall and Cox, 1938), 90.
  21. Novalis and Gerhard Schulz, Novalis Werke, ed. Gerhard Schulz (Munich: Beck, 1981), 98.
  22. See Wolf von Engelhardt, “Morphologie im Reich der Steine?,” in In der Mitte zwischen Natur und Subjekt, ed. Gunter Mann, Dieter Mollenhauer et al. (Frankfurt am Main: Waldemar Kramer, 1992), 33–51.
  23. Michael Marder, “Vegetal Anti-metaphysics: Learning from Plants,” Continental Philosophy Review 44, no. 4 (2011): 469–89, here 470.
  24. Michael Marder, ‘Vegetal Anti-Metaphysics,” 473.
  25. Sigrid Damm and Hamster Damm, “Geheimnissvoll Offenbar”: Goethe im Berg (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 2009), 15.
  26. Immanuel Kant, Allgemeine Naturgeshichte und Theorie des Himmels Teil II (1755), https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/kant/naturg/chap04.html, accessed on July 1, 2022.
  27. For a more in-depth comparison of Aristotle and Goethe on this point, see Tantillo, The Will to Create, 79.
  28. See Hugh Barr Nisbet, Goethe and the Scientific Tradition (London: Institute of Germanic Studies, 1972), 8.
  29. Jason Groves, “Goethe’s Petrofiction: Reading the Wanderjahre in the Anthropocene,” Goethe Yearbook 22 (2015): 95.
  30. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, North Carolina: Duke UP, 2010), xvi.
  31. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 117.
  32. Howard Caygill, “Life and Energy,” Theory, Culture & Society, 24, no. 6 (2007): 24.
  33. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 117.

Works Cited and Further Reading