From the very beginning of the scientific tradition in the sixteenth century, not everyone agreed with the notion that the secrets of nature had to be pried loose from a reluctant source. A notable example is the German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe, the author of Faust and many other diverse works, was a major force; his work influenced philosophers such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Cassirer, Jung and Wittgenstein. He was opposed to the scientific method of the day, which emphasized objectivity, neutrality and remoteness. He believed the understanding of nature came through participation. To understand a plant, e.g., one must enter into the life of the plant. He called his scientific approach “a delicate empiricism which in a most inward way makes itself identical with the object and thereby becomes the actual theory.”
It’s easy to disregard Goethe as a crank who couldn’t get with the scientific program, but he is not so easily dismissed. Echoes of Goethe’s approach keep cropping up. An example is Nobel geneticist Barbara McClintock, who worked with genes and corn plants. She once said that her success was due to the fact that she had “a feeling for the organism.” That’s putting it mildly. McClintock would psychologically enter into a problem so deeply that she became the problem. She would cease to exist as a person; on emerging from contemplating the issue, she literally could not remember her name. Goethe would have understood.
As Jeremy Rifkin shows, Goethe’s theme of participatory science was taken up 130 years later by Heinz Kohut (1913-1981), the eminent Austrian-born American psychoanalyst. Kohut believed that conventional scientific methodology was “experience-distant,” removed from actual observation. He proposed an “experience-near” approach as an alternative, in which data could be acquired directly from empathy and introspection. Empathy was crucial, he maintained, to prevent scientific pursuits from “becoming increasingly isolated from human life.” Eliminating empathy from science had resulted in a cold, disinterested and rational approach that fostered the aims of brutal totalitarian regimes and had led to “some of the most inhuman goals the world has ever known.” Summing up, Kohut said that the new ideal in science “can be condensed into a single evocative phrase: we must strive not only for scientific empathy but also for an empathic science.”
American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) agreed with Kohut. He was scornful of the idea of a neutral observer who is uninvolved and removed from her object of study. He specified that that the goal of an empathic approach was not to destroy conventional science, but to enlarge it.
Henry David Thoreau, an American original who loved knowledge, knew as much. “If you would learn the secrets of nature,” he insisted, “you must practice more humanity than others.”
I recall a moment of colossal confusion as a university student that might have been tempered had I known about Kohut’s views. I had fallen in love with science in high school but had not yet decided on a specific career choice. One evening I attended a campus lecture by a visiting scientist eminent in his field. Someone in the audience asked whether scientists were justified in researching lethal microbes and chemical nerve agents whose sole purpose was to kill human beings. Without a nanosecond’s pause he responded enthusiastically, “Of course they should be free to research these things. You cannot rein in the human mind. It should be free to explore anything. Scientists have no responsibility for how these things are used. Politicians do that.” His imperious attitude implied that only an imbecile would ask such a question in the first place. I was gobsmacked. At the time I thought this was the most selfish, arrogant and utterly stupid comment I had ever heard. I wasn’t alone. The entire audience was hushed in disbelief. I went away bewildered and perplexed. This was science? Now I know why Goethe, Kohut and Maslow are important cairns along the path of science. They are correctives to the notion that science should ideally be done by brains on sticks — humans who honor only the intellect and are devoid of empathy, who divorce themselves totally from ethical and moral issues.
Rifkin believes that Kohut’s “experience-near” approach and Maslow’s notion of “caring subjectivity” in science have been influential in the more than half century since they were proposed. He observes, “A new generation of researchers, like Jane Goodall in primatology, have used the ‘experience-near,’ empathic approach to scientific investigation, to elicit new discoveries and insights about the nature of nature that would have been impossible to imagine using the traditional disinterested, value-neutral, scientific method.”
Jane Goodall is a telling example. When her mentor, anthropologist Louis Leakey, sent her in 1960 to study chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania, she had no training as a scientist. Goodall explains, “He wanted someone whose mind was uncluttered by scientific theory because back then ethology was trying to make itself into a hard science and was very reductionistic — very reductionistic.” Her project became one of the longest continuous field studies of any animal. She produced startling discoveries of chimpanzee behavior, such as meat-eating and the fashioning and use of tools. Like McClintock, Goodall intuitively understood the wisdom of an empathic approach to field research. She gave names to her subjects and became emotionally engaged with them, which horrified more than a few ethologists and evoked stern criticism. Goodall remains unapologetic. In a recent interview she stated, “There is absolutely no problem in having empathy and being objective. Empathy helps us gain an understanding at a different level that you can then test in a rigorous scientific way.”
- Rifkin J. The Empathic Civilization. New York, NY: Tarcher/Penguin; 2009: 307-309.
- Goethe JWV. Maximen und Reflexionen. Köln, Germany: Anaconda Verlag GmbH; 2008: 435.
- Keller EF. A Feeling for the Organism. New York, NY: Times Books; 1984:101.
Kohut H. The psychoanalyst in the community of scholars. In: Ornstein PH (ed.). The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978. Vol. 1. New York, NY: International Universities Press; 1978: 82.
- Kohut H. The psychoanalyst in the community of scholars. In: Ornstein PH (ed.). The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978. Vol. 2. New York, NY: International Universities Press; 1978: 174.
- Kohut H. The psychoanalyst in the community of scholars. In: Ornstein PH (ed.). The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978. Vol. 1. New York, NY: International Universities Press; 1978: 707.
- Rifkin J. The Empathic Civilization. New York, NY: Tarcher/Penguin; 2009: 609.
- Maslow AH. The Psychology of Science: A Renaissance. South Bend, IN: Gateway Editions, Ltd. 1966: 50.
- Thoreau HD. Quoted in: Eiseley L. The Man Who Saw Through Time. New York, NY: Scribner’s; 1961: 113.
- Rifkin J. The Empathic Civilization. New York, NY: Tarcher/Penguin; 2009: 611.
- Goodall J. Leakey’s angel, 50 years on. Interview of Jane Goodall by Charlotte Uhlenbroek. New Scientist. February 20, 2010; 205 (2748): 28-29.