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Goethe's scientific language in prose and poetry

Peter David Luborsky, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The dissertation undertakes a loosely chronological examination of Goethe's chief prose and poetic works in four areas of scientific inquiry: geology, botany, anatomy, and meteorology. Through a comparison of the prose essays and thematically related poems, it portrays the evolving relationship between prose and poetry in his scientific writings, explores the nature and scope of his programmatic reflections in regard to scientific language, and discloses underlying motivations which he veiled in his scientific prose. It is found that the union of science and poetry "auf hoherer Stelle" which Goethe envisioned applies not only to his explicitly didactic poetry, but has a germinal presence in the form of a poetic subtext within the related prose treatises. More broadly, the unified statement made by his prose and poetic science lifts it into the context of his entire literary production--a point underscored by his setting of scientific studies in their autobiographical context. This in turn is found to participate in a larger program of raising personal experience to archetypal status and viewing the particular as symbolic of the general. Goethe's demand that the language used to describe each domain be derived from that domain, is found to have implications beyond the striving to create appropriate terminology. The same impulse is reflected in scientific writings which create a formal mimesis of the natural phenomenon under study, or which more broadly reflect, by their tone and imagery, the character he experienced in that realm of nature. Finally, Goethe's freedom in dealing with scientific terminology is found to represent a form of linguistic irony, reflecting his perception that all language is "eigentlich bildlich" and cannot refer directly to reality. His recourse to poetry within science thus represents an epistemological statement.

Subject Area

Germanic literature|Language|Science history

Recommended Citation

Luborsky, Peter David, "Goethe's scientific language in prose and poetry" (1993). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9316689.