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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a towering figure in German literature, was the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faust, Italian Journey, The Theory of Colours (MIT Press edition, 1970), and many other works.

Titles by This Author

The Metamorphosis of Plants, originally published in 1790, was Goethe's first major attempt to describe what he called in a letter to a friend "the truth about the how of the organism." Inspired by the diversity of flora he found on a journey to Italy, Goethe sought a unity of form in diverse structures. He came to see in the leaf the germ of a plant's metamorphosis—"the true Proteus who can hide or reveal himself in all vegetal forms"—from the root and stem leaves to the calyx and corolla, to pistil and stamens.

By the time Goethe's Theory of Colours appeared in 1810, the wavelength theory of light and color had been firmly established. To Goethe, the theory was the result of mistaking an incidental result for an elemental principle. Far from pretending to a knowledge of physics, he insisted that such knowledge was an actual hindrance to understanding. He based his conclusions exclusively upon exhaustive personal observation of the phenomena of color.