Long reads


Goethe trusted his senses in his theory of colours

Goethe teaches the contemporary reader that in addition to measuring, nature study relies on the human senses, explains Pirkko Holmberg, a translator and scholar. Holmberg and Pajari Räsänen are currently translating Goethe’s Theory of Colours into the Finnish.

A classic of world literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was also an avid naturalist. One of his most important contributions to nature study was his three-part study on chromatics, Theory of Colours (Zur Farbenlehre), published in 1808-1810.

Translator and researcher Pirkko Holmberg, together with Pajari Räsänen, has translated the first, didactic part of the study, which includes Goethe’s actual theory of colours and the experiments carried out by him. The Finnish translation follows the structure of the English and Swedish translations.

“Instead of a measurable physical phenomenon, Goethe sees colour primarily as a detectable fact. In this, his philosophy of nature represents a fascinating transitional period preceding later developments leading to mathematical positivism. Goethe’s polemic disinclination toward Newton resulted in naturalists accusing him of being unscientific. However, the premises from which Goethe and Newton approached colours were completely different,” says Pirkko Holmberg.

According to Holmberg, the book has been of great importance, especially to artists.

Theory of Colours has had an impact on many artists, such as Philipp Otto Runge, William Turner and Wassily Kandinsky, to name a few. It has also played a major role in influencing Finnish art via the way art is taught.”

To Holmberg, the biggest challenge posed by the translation task, but also its greatest fascination, was the unfamiliarity of the subject matter. Experts of Goethe’s nature studies, or of the natural sciences of his era, are so few and far between that Holmberg had to try to become one herself.

“In some cases, it is impossible to find answers. There simply are no Finnish equivalents for the names of some old-world chemical substances or tools. Every now and again, the translators to other languages have resorted to educated guesses. Throughout the translation, I have also had to try to strike the right balance between a critical and favourable attitude. The original is far from perfect, it’s true, but treating it simply as a curiosity does not do it justice nor help to understand it.”

Goethe is sometimes characterised as a radical empiricist because he based his nature studies on the senses, that is, what he could see with his bare eye – and only on that. He neglected many factors the understanding of which requires theoretical suppositions pertaining to invisible forces or bodies.

If you ask Pirkko Holmberg, Goethe’s approach encourages the scientifically-minded contemporary reader to look at nature study more holistically than simply from the point of view of measurability.

“Explaining nature purely on the basis of information that can be calculated or uncovered through the use of powerful measuring tools is comparable to trying to exhaustively analyse a piece of art simply on the basis of its mass and material composition. They alone do not suffice; what is also needed is an approach linked to the human experience,” she concludes.

Heljä Franssila

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Theory of Colours. Translated into the Finnish by Pirkko Holmberg and Pajari Räsänen. Teos will publish the book with an ISBN number 978-951-851-671.