Goethe contra Newton on Colours, Light, and the Philosophy of Science

  • Olaf L. MüllerEmail author
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 388)


Goethe carried out an enormous number of experiments before criticizing Newton’s theory of light and colours in the Farbenlehre (1810). He managed to show that Newton’s reasoning is based on a rather narrow choice of experiments, in which parameters such as the distance between the prism and the screen are fixed arbitrarily: Newton’s famous spectrum (with its green centre) occurs only at a specific distance. Once you reduce the distance, the green centre disappears, and you see the two border spectra instead. Newton can of course explain these border spectra; but things can be explained just as well the other way around: Then you start with a theory based on the two border spectra in order to derive the Newtonian spectrum. Both accounts fit many data (available in Newton and Goethe’s days) equally well. Thus by insisting that the step to theory is not forced upon us by “reason and experiments” alone (as Newton would have it), Goethe revealed our own free, creative contribution to theory construction. And surprisingly, his theory of the prismatic colours seems no worse off than Newton’s, even taking into account additional criteria of theory choice, such as simplicity or elegance.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Philosophy, Humboldt UniversityBerlinGermany

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