|J. W. Goethe developed a theory of color based
on experiments with prisms and the observation of color in nature, in particular
the colors of sun light in the atmosphere. His approach was completely
phenomenological. In fact, he is considered the father of phenomenological
When Goethe first began his studies of light, he
exclaimed that Newton was completely wrong, that is, the view that colors
arise from the decomposition of light into corpuscles with different qualities
(i.e. emerging from a prism at different angles). Goethe observed that
colors arise from the interaction of dark and light.
In fact, aspects of both Newtonian and Goethean
theories are correct and both approaches and experiments can be taught
as part of the Waldorf curriculum. If this is done with a mind to comparing
the two theories, it can be quite instructive to the student (such a comparison
would not be done until the high school optics block). Here's how it might
The primary Newtonian experiment is the pin hole
and prism, where the colors are spread out on a surface a small distance
away. The primary Goethean experiment is the prism viewing a light and
dark boundary, showing in one orientation the "warm" colors (red, orange,
yellow) spreading out over the light area and in the other orientation,
the "cool" colors (violet, blue, light blue) spreading out over the dark
The two experiments can be unified by viewing a
white line on a black background through the prism. By holding the prism
a certain distance from the line, you can make the yellow of the warm spectrum
overlap and mix with the light blue of the cool spectrum and form green.
The teacher can now work to develop concepts from
both theories. For Goethean theory, this would be that the warm colors
arise from the gradual darkening of the light (first yellow, then orange,
then red) and the cool colors arise from the gradual lightening of the
dark (first violet, then dark blue, then light blue). And so on.
The Newtonian theory takes the angle at which a
particular color emerges as a primary property. The temperature at the different angles of refraction can be taken. And so
on. Some questions that would arise: Is the incident light composed of
the different colors which are then separated out? Does the Newtonian arrangement
involve the interaction of light and dark? Is the green of the Newtonian
spectrum a component of the incident light?
One of the principles of Waldorf education is the
emphasis on the development of student capacities rather than curriculum
content. Thus, from the perspective of Waldorf education, teaching of either
or both color theories is correct because both develop the capacities for
observation and critical thinking, and an appreciation of the phenomena
of light and color.
In either case, these experiments form only a small
part of both the middle school and high school physics curriculum.
For more see:
Copyright 2004: Robert Mays and Sune Nordwall