Goethe and Newton on the nature of light and color
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 science.

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 be done:

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 area. 

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.

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Copyright 2004: Robert Mays and Sune Nordwall