Goethe Color Wheel

Goethe Color Wheel

A case for sharing your wildest theories

Most likely, when you hear the name Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, you’ll think of the literary heavyweight; perhaps you’ll think of one of his epic novels such as Faust or The Sorrows of Young Werther. However, it’s less commonly known that the same man was also a keen scientist; and not only that, but he came close to changing the entire landscape of natural sciences (or at least he thought he did!).

By the time of Goethe’s life, Isaac Newton’s theory of colour as a spectrum had largely been established as one of the pillars of modern science. However, Goethe strongly disagreed with Newton’s analytic theory of colour, instead believing that characterised colour arises from the interplay between light and dark, and also depending on the subjective view of the colours themselves. It was from this that Goethe created his colour wheel which was the first systematic study of the physiological effects of colour.

And while Goethe’s colour theory didn’t manage to trump Newton’s in terms of empirical value, his creative, subjective, and personal approach to the scientific method inspired a host of artists, philosophers, and psychologists including Turner, Wittgenstein, and Hering, who believed that Goethe’s research highlighted the true beauty and nature of colour, as well as explaining our individual response to it.

Goethe’s method shows us that even the most established ideas can be looked at and re-approached in a different way, and yield different results. His work may not have changed the history of natural science, but it became a cultural landmark and a reminder of the importance of creative and radical thinking.

S+ suggested reading: Theory of Colours by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

W.K. 2015

Published: April 16th, 2015