The Ontological Reversal: A Figure of Thought of Importance for Science Education, Bo Dahlin


Department of Educational Sciences, Karlstad University, S-651 88 Karlstad, Sweden


ABSTRACT The German philosopher Edmund Husserl criticised natural science for contributing to an ”ontological reversal”, meaning that abstract mathematical models of phenomena are taken as more real than phenomena themselves, as they appear in our everyday experience. Nowadays many scientists have abandoned the correspondence theory of truth concerning their theoretical models, but the effects of the ”ontological reversal” may still linger among lay people. The primary purpose of this paper is to investigate whether this ”reversal” is present in the thinking and reasoning of pre-service science teachers. In the project upon which the paper is based, twenty-three student teachers were introduced to Goethe’s theory of colour. They were then placed in small groups and given the task to discuss whether Goethe’s theory is scientific or not. The group discussions were recorded and analysed in terms of thematic contents. The ontological reversal seemed to be present as an implicit ”figure of thought” in some of the statements made in the discussions. The educational consequences of this kind of thinking for science teaching are discussed.


Key words: science education, phenomenology, ontology, lifeworld


But how could we possibly explain anything? We operate only with things that do not exist: lines, planes, bodies, atoms, divisible time spans, divisible spaces. How should explanations be at all possible when we first turn everything into an image, our image!

Friedrich Nietzcshe




One of the pre-socratic philosophers, Democritos, is reported as saying:


According to common speech, there are colours, sweets, bitters; in reality however only atoms and emptiness. – The senses speak to the understanding: ”Poor understanding, from us you took the pieces of evidence and with them you want to throw us down? This down throwing will be your fall.” (Fragment #125; quoted from Diels, 1992, p. 168; my translation)


The first sentence of this quote is often used in textbooks of physics and chemistry to illustrate the atomic concept of natural science: what really and truly exists in the world are atoms and emptiness. This view is then attributed to Democritos (Wagenschein & Buck, 1984).

From an educational point of view, this situation deserves some comments. First of all, Democritos is gravely misrepresented. From the whole quote given above it can be gathered that he is dealing with a much more complex question than what exists ”in reality”. The view that everything is composed of atoms and emptiness is considered as a possibility – and a dubious one as well.

Secondly, Democritos’ problem has to do with the relation between the senses and the understanding; it is epistemological as well as ontological. The quote above can be taken as an illustration of how the understanding deceives itself by taking ”evidence” from sense-experience and then using this to deny the reality of that very experience. It is almost as if Democritos was anticipating one of the fundamental difficulties involved in teaching natural science to children and young people today. This difficulty has to do with the ”idealising” tendency of modern science, i.e. its reduction of our experience of the world to abstract representations and mathematical formulas in which the concreteness and contingencies of everyday life are annihilated, as it were – or at least set aside as belonging to the ”not real”. This has lately come to be regarded as a major stumbling block for students’ learning in science (Matthews, 1994).

The quote from Democritos indicates that this problem has been considered from a philosophical point of view ever since antiquity. Since philosophy in its true sense, as Dewey remarked, is also educational, science educators may perhaps learn something from philosophy concerning this problem. In this paper I will first present a part of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological critique of natural science, which has been labelled ”the ontological reversal” (Harvey, 1989). Secondly, I will illustrate how this tendency to reverse the ontological priorities is present in the reasoning of science teacher students today. Finally, I will discuss some educational implications of this situation.





In his phenomenology, Husserl wanted to build a general philosophical basis for all sciences, including natural science. However, phenomenology has been taken up primarily in the human and social sciences. Within these disciplines, phenomenology has been applied both as a theory of science and as an empirical method of research. This is probably because there has been a greater need in the human and social sciences to explicate the philosophical principles upon which they build. The success of natural science research led to a situation where natural science in a way legitimates itself. One does not feel the need to justify one’s research on a philosophical basis. Neither does one feel a need to develop other, alternative ways of research.

The phenomenological theory of knowledge is however relevant to all disciplines. Harvey (1989) makes a thorough explication of Husserl’s philosophy in relation to the foundations of natural science.[1] The problem that Democritos points to in the quote above can be seen as a prefiguration of what Husserl about two thousand years later says about the development of the epistemological and ontological grounds of modern science (Husserl, 1970). This development within the European/Western cultural hemisphere has led to what he calls the ”mathematisation of nature”. Galileo was among the first to propagate the view that the true language of nature is mathematics. After that, the view that a scientific understanding of nature must be founded on mathematics was gradually accepted by almost all researchers in natural science (as well as by the philosophers reflecting upon this research, notably Hume and Kant).

Among other things, Husserl re-actualised the 17th-century discussion about the primary and secondary properties of things. According to Galileo, Descartes and other leading figures within the so called scientific revolution, properties like colour, smell and taste were ”secondary” in the sense that they only existed in the consciousness of the human being, not in things themselves. They were subjective phenomena, conditioned by the mind and the brain. In contrast, primary properties belonged to things in an objective sense. Such properties were measurable; for instance size, mass, durability and energy.

In phenomenology however one starts only from what is ”positively given” in experience. In immediate experience colours and smells are as ”given” as for instance size or mass (perhaps even more so). Therefore, there is no experiential ground for the distinction between primary and secondary properties.[2] However, the distinction has played an important role in the development of natural science, and probably also for the popular understanding of the nature of science. According to Husserl’s (1970) analysis, Galilean science’s mathematisation of nature started with a ”geometrisation”, upon which followed an ”algebraisation” (cf. Harvey, 1989, pp. 58-59). Thereby we have moved two steps away from that foundation of meaning (Sinnesfundament), which is given to us in immediate sense-experience. Such mathematical transformations proved however (as we know) to be very successful. As a consequence, researchers became more and more interested in and occupied with them. Husserl calls this the ”technisation” (Technisierung) of science. The progressive technisation involves in its turn a gradual ”sedimentation of meaning”: the grounds of the original transformations in concrete, lived experience are forgotten and there arises more and more sediments of ”self-evidences”:


…this problem of forgetfulness is exacerbated by the fact that with each new generation’s inheritance of the new techniques – an inheritance that presupposes the process of transformation without explicitly recognizing them – another increment in the Selbstverständlichkeit of natural scientific achievement occurs as well. (Husserl, 1970, p. 59)


The sedimentation of meaning makes the ”higher objects” of science, such as mathematical formulas, take on a life of their own.[3] They become cut off from the fluctuating experiences of everyday life and start to float above it. At the same time they are supposed to explain these experiences. By being taken as explanations they are also ascribed an ontological status of truth and objectivity. Husserl meant that the consequence was


…[a] surreptitious substitution of the mathematically substructed world of idealities for the only real world, the one that is actually given through perception, that is ever experienced and experienceable – our everyday lifeworld. (Husserl, 1970, pp. 48-49)


The abstract mathematical models become more real than the concrete, lived experience in which they have their ultimate ground, and from which they have been abstracted. Harvey (1989) calls this ”the ontological reversal”. Since scientific theories and models are often incorporated or re-assimilated into the ordinary lifeworld, this ”reversal” becomes more and more a part of the ”natural attitude”, i.e. of peoples’ general everyday view of life.

Husserl had no principal objections against the geometrisation and algebraisation of nature, as such. His critique was concerned with their unreflected consequences in terms of the ontological reversal, i.e. that mathematical formulas and models are supposed to describe a more true and objective reality than that which is available to us in our immediate experience. Thereby science divests itself of the possibility of verifying its theories. All verification must take place in the world of the senses, but it is precisely this world that has been denied as an illusion. As Democritos said: ”Poor understanding! From the senses you got your evidence and now you use that evidence to deny those very senses.”

Of course, not all scientific concepts or models have this abstract, mathematical character. The concept of gravitational force, for instance, is immediately perceptible in the experience of our bodies. But many of the central concepts of science are not perceptible in this way. The theory of light as electromagnetic waves of different frequencies is one example. These concepts or models refer to a world “behind” perceived phenomena, i.e. a world that is “invisible” both to our eyes and to our other senses.

The ontological reversal may be summed up in the following logical argument: Scientific theories and models refer to an invisible world that lies ”behind” phenomena. Scientific theories and models build upon systematic tests and experiments. They are therefore more true or trustworthy than conceptions based upon everyday experience. Hence, the world ”behind” phenomena, as described by science, is more true and real than the phenomena themselves, which we experience in our everyday life.

During the development of natural science since the 17th century, the first premise of this reasoning seems to gradually have become a self-evident, non-questionable basic assumption. As such, it was particularly well expressed by the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz in the 19th-century. Helmholtz was arguing against the scientific claims of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Farbenlehre. Towards the end of the 18th-century, Goethe had started to investigate the phenomena of colours and gradually formulated a theory of colours that contradicted that of Newton’s (Goethe, 1971; see also Sepper, 1988). Even though he appreciated Goethe’s efforts, Helmholtz was concerned to prove that the Farbenlehre was not a scientific theory:


For the investigation of physical phenomena he [Goethe] demands such an arrangement of observed facts, that the one always explains the other, so that one comes to an insight about the overall connections without leaving the realm of sense-experience. This demand may appear insidious but it is basically false. Because a phenomenon of nature is physically explained only when it has been brought back upon those forces of nature that constitute its ultimate basis. Since we can never observe these forces in themselves we must, at every explanation of natural phenomena, leave the realm of the senses and proceed to those non-sensuous things that are determined only by concepts. (quoted in Sällström, 1979, p. 480; my translation and italics)


Helmholtz gives no reason for why a scientific explanation always must build upon natural forces beyond the realm of the senses. He merely says that it is so. It seems to have become a ”sediment of self-evidence” for him. However, there can hardly be any unprejudiced arguments proving that science must be that which Helmholtz claims – unprejudiced in the sense of starting from no a priori assumptions. Perhaps the science curriculum at higher grades could include reflections upon the consequences that this presupposition has had, first for Western society and culture, second for the rest of the world (cf. Abram, 1997)?

The ontological reversal is connected to the reductionist tendency of natural science. The ”macroproperties” of phenomena – those properties that are observable by our unaided senses – are reduced to phenomena at the microlevel: molecules, elementary particles, and genes. It is worthwhile noting that even a hard-nosed positivist like Hempel argued against this kind of ontological reduction (Hempel, 1966, chpt 8). According to Hempel, phenomena at the macrolevel are as real as those on the microlevel; one cannot ontologically reduce the one to the other.









The reference to Hempel above shows that, as far as modern philosophers of science go, many do not consider the abstract models of science as more real than the phenomena of everyday experience. A pragmatic, not to say instrumentalist, view of the nature of scientific theories is rather common today. One example is the so called Copenhagen school in quantum mechanics, according to which mathematical formulas are regarded as mere instruments for prediction, not as reflecting or representing any essential reality. However, one wonders how much of this view is present among people in general, and among science teachers and students in particular? One would suspect that the ”thingifying tendency” of present science teaching and learning (Désautels & Larochelle, 1998) – i.e. the tendency to look upon abstract models as representing objectively real things – actually contributes towards an ”ontological reversal” in the understanding of the nature of scientific models among its teachers and students.

The present section presents some partial results from an empirical study, which purported to investigate conceptions of the nature of science among science teacher students.[4] The participants were 23 students, fifteen of which were female, training to become science teachers for the Lower Secondary level. They were first introduced to Goethe’s theory of colours, mentioned above. This included a lecture on the difference between Goethe’s theory and that of Newton, as well as some of the observational experiments with prisms that Goethe conducted and which constituted the basis of his theory (see below). After this introduction the participants were divided into small groups, with 3-6 persons in each. The groups were given the task of discussing whether Goethe’s theory was a science or not. It was expected that the participants when dealing with this problem would express their understandings of the nature of science. They were also expected to touch upon the problem of the ontological reversal, because of the view that Goethe has of the role of theory in science, which was also treated in the introductory lesson (cf. the quote of Helmholtz above). The groups’ discussions were audio- and video recorded, then analysed for thematic contents.

Unfortunately, the frames of this paper do not permit a thorough presentation of Goethe’s Farbenlehre, nor his general views on the nature of science.[5] One reason for this is, as Goethe himself pointed out, that one has to do it in order to really understand it (something which Husserl also said about his phenomenology). That is, one has to perform at least the basic experiments, looking through a prism at fields of black and white in various shapes and combinations. Nevertheless, for what it is worth, here is a summary of Goethe’s theory, translated from his own words in German:


In order for colour to arise light and darkness, brightness and shade, or if one wants to use a general formula, light and not-light is needed. In closeness to light a colour arises for us, which we call yellow, another close to darkness which we label blue. When we mix both of these in their pure state, so that they completely balance each other, it brings forth a third one, which we call green. Both of the two first colours can however also by themselves bring forth a new appearance, in that they thicken [verdichten] or darken themselves. They then obtain a reddish appearance, which can heighten itself to such a high degree that one hardly can perceive the original yellow or blue in them any more. […] Should we formulate another general quality, so are all colours to be regarded as half-lights, as half-shadows, which is why, when they are all mixed together, they mutually neutralise each other’s qualities and produce a shadowy greyness. (Goethe, 1971 [1810], p. 75; my translation from German)


Table I below is an attempt to sum up the main differences between Goethe’s and Newton’s theory of colours and their ways of studying nature in general (this table was presented to the participants and elaborated upon):



Newton Goethe
1. White light “consists of” of all colours in the spectrum. 1. White light is simple in nature and dos not consist of any colours at all.
2. Spectral colours arise because light is refracted by for instance a prism. 2. Spectral colours arise in the interaction between light and darkness.
3. Theory is an abstract representation of what lies “behind” phenomena. 3. There is nothing “behind” phenomena. Facts become their own theory, when arranged in an enlightening structure.
4. The researcher’s consciousness is a passive onlooker of observed phenomena. 4. The researcher’s consciousness is an active participator in phenomena.



TABLE I. Four essential differences between Newton and Goethe.


The “received idea” that we have from Newton is that white light “consists of” the seven colours of the rainbow. However, for Goethe, white light is simple and homogenous. Colours arise when light interacts with darkness. According to Goethe, Newton failed to attend to the fact that the darkness, which surrounded him and the beam of light during his experiment with the prisms, was an essential factor in the observations he made. Furthermore, as can be seen in point 3 of the table, Goethe’s view is particularly relevant for the problem of the ontological reversal. For Goethe, theory does not represent anything invisible beyond phenomena as they appear to us, but is a particular structuration of a number of exact and detailed observations (of necessity left out in this account). Therefore, the problem of reversing the ontological priorities in favour of that which is neither seen nor experienced never arises. Finally, Goethe considered the consciousness of the researcher as an active, constituting factor in all observations, whereas for Newton the role of consciousness was more that of a passive onlooker, neutrally registering objective facts.

In the group discussions, many and diverse themes about the nature of science came up. What is reported here is only a small part of the content of these talks, viz. that part which illustrates the presence of the ontological reversal as a figure of thought, more or less implicit in what is said or reasoned out in common. Naturally, the participants did not express this conception explicitly, in a pure and distinct logical form. Furthermore, some reservations and caveats must be considered. The most important of these was the rather common view that not even well established scientific theories are true in any absolute sense. At the same time, however, the participants often looked upon science as a systematic investigation of things, in which ”proofs” and ”counter proofs” are used in order to verify theories. There was also a strong tendency to emphasise the causal explanatory character of science. One common reason why Goethe’s Farbenlehre was not seen as a science was precisely that it does not go ”behind” phenomena in its explanation of them. Such reasoning creates preconditions for the logical argument presented in the previous section as the essence of the ontological reversal: abstract causal models give a more valid picture of the world than concrete experience.

The following extract from one of the group discussions illustrates how one of the students (S1), in spite of her sympathetic attitude to Goethe’s theory, still longs for a ”proved explanation”:


S1: But in some way this [Goethe’s theory] doesn’t give the explanation of why it is like this, or…this…he asserts then that white light is not a mixture of a lot of other colours but it is white only…but…well, perhaps one misses like some explanation of why. Apart from that I think this has been a very…good way of explaining…it was much easier for me to accept than Newton’s, but…at the same time then, well, proof! [Agreeing laughter from other participants] That is perhaps what one sees as the difference between scientific and…in some way it ought to be theoretically provable…

S9: Hm.

S1: …also, not only that ”this is the way it is”…

S [female]: Yes.

[Silence 3 sec] (Group 2) (Words in italics were emphasised by the speakers.)


”This is the way it is” was a common way for the participants to perceive what Goethe was conveying in his Farbenlehre, in spite of the fact that Goethe is also explaining things – and the student in the quote admits that – but in another way than Newton. The students seemed to have some difficulties in overcoming their expectations that a scientific theory must be ”theoretically provable” by mathematical calculations dealing with abstract entities ”behind” observed phenomena (such as wavelengths). Thus the first premise in the argument of the ontological reversal seems to be almost self-evident in many students’ understanding of science: science is about a world “behind” the phenomena of sense-experience. When, in addition, scientific explanations are regarded as ”proved”, as in the quote above, the reversal of ontology is almost completed. However, ”proof” turned out to mean different things to different students. Often it was mathematical proof that was intended, but it could also mean simply to be ”convinced” by a chain of arguments.

Perhaps the following quote from a student in Group 3 provides the clearest example of a philosophical annihilation of the sense-world:


S6: If there is nothing behind phenomena then one feels that neither is there anything to investigate… Then one has like no reason to go on… if one isn’t curious, if one merely asserts something and then like does not go further and explain it and asks why. Then his [Goethe’s] theory becomes just a long row of assertions while his… Newton’s goes like deeper in a way. But then there are, they agree also…in much… not much but…

[S12 writes while S6 speaks. S7 nods in agreement with S6. Silence while S12 continues writing.] (Group 3)


In their written answer to the question of whether Goethe’s theory is scientific or not this group said: ”No, we do not think so. If there is nothing ‘behind phenomena’ then there is nothing to investigate”. Thus phenomena in themselves were not seen as objects worthy of investigation. It is as if from the scientific point of view, according to these students, concrete sense-perceptible phenomena do not exist.

The impulse to this group’s answer came originally from another student (S7), which can be seen in the following sequence of utterances:


S7: I think it comes down to point 3 here [in Table I above], ”there is nothing behind phenomena”. Then I don’t think it…is scientific really. I mean I can see one thing and then another thing: ”well that is how it is then”.

S12: Mm.

S6: Mm.

S7: But I mean I haven’t seen…everything

S12: No.

S6: That “facts are their own theory”…but then like…Facts are highly personal then so to say, how I conceive of the world is…

S12: Yes.

S6: …well that becomes my theory then. And you look at the world in another way…

[Agreements from S7 and S12]

S6: So it is…no. – ‘Cause usually one tries to explain the world in a…in an easier way so to say…that one makes it more…concrete.

S12: Mm.

S6: ‘Cause one tries to explain difficult things in an easy way if you say…so that one may understand…but…but if one just holds on to one’s own facts or if you say one’s own conception like then it’s…well, hehe, then it’s not quite obvious.

S12: No

[S7 nods in agreement. Silence 4 sec] (Group 3)


This sequence of statements came almost immediately after S6 had said that she found Goethe’s theory ”logical in a way”. But S7’s opinion makes her adopt another view: facts are something ”highly personal”.[6] When the other two participants agree she goes on with contrasting Goethe’s theory against the ”more concrete” and ”easier” models that physics generally supplies. These statements point towards an essential trait of many scientific explanatory models, viz. that they use concrete sensual pictures for that which at the same time is supposed to lie beyond sense-experience. By borrowing pictures from ordinary sense-experience the models appear deceptively simple and easy to grasp.





There are more or less obvious links between the idealising and reductionist tendencies of natural science, and they both have to do with the relation between conceptual understanding and sense-experience – Democritos’ problem in the introductory quote. The idealised scientific models have reduced most of the secondary ”macrolevel” properties of immediate sense-experience either to insignificance, or to microlevel entities. In doing so, science distances itself from the grounds of our human lifeworld and ”proceeds to those non-sensuous things that are determined only by concepts”, as Helmholtz put it. However, these concepts very often borrow their meaning from sensual pictures and metaphors: particles and waves are primarily sense-based images. When such sense-based concepts are ”thingified” and believed to constitute the ultimate reality beyond our everyday lifeworld, an ontological reversal takes place. As can be seen from above, traits of this kind of thinking are present among science teacher students, although it is difficult to say to what extent.

Idealisation in science has proved to be a major stumbling block for many students’ understanding (Matthews, 1994). The difficulty may have to do with precisely the same problem, which Democritos was dealing with in that famous passage, a fragment of which is often quoted in science textbooks to introduce the atomic model. That is, it has to do with the epistemological problem of how our concepts are related to our sense perceptions. If, in teaching science, careful attention is paid to the relation between our sense-experience and abstract, conceptual models, it may help students to overcome the problem of idealisation. How do scientific concepts grow out of the soil of the immediate human lifeworld? This question has to be raised again and again. Ideally, no abstract concepts should be introduced without it also being asked how they are rooted, or not rooted, in immediate sense-experience (cf. Dahlin, 2001).

Today much attention is given to the “discursive” nature of science, science as a kind of ”language game” (Bauersfeld, 1995; Bergqvist & Säljö, 1994). One must learn to ”speak” science, as it were. This seems partly due to the development of a social constructivist understanding of learning (Edwards & Mercer, 1987). Language is certainly an important part of science teaching and learning, but an exclusive attention to ”discourse” may lead to the same neglect of sense-experience as when too much attention is given to concepts and their definitions.

In present day research-based theories of science education there is also an emphasis on connecting teaching to students pre-understanding, spontaneous concepts, or ”alternative frameworks”. This is a good idea, since these pre-reflective understandings of natural phenomena often have their roots in the lifeworld, i.e. in everyday sense-experience. But what if in-service science teachers are not prepared to take these sense-experiences seriously? What if the ontological reversal has so informed their perspective on the knowledge of nature, that the spontaneous sense-experience of children is looked on as insignificant, or brushed aside as not relevant?

As indicated above, Goethe’s research on nature was based on an epistemology, which gave the same weight and importance to extensive and deep sense-experience as to conceptual thinking and analysis. One of his main objections to Newton’s theory of colour was that it was based on a mere fragment of experience, from which too hasty conclusions were drawn in the form of an abstract model. Including Goethe’s simple experiments with a prism and the conclusions he draw from them[7] in the science curriculum could help to achieve important results. Doing the simple prism experiments with children in Lower Secondary (without too much theoretical discussions) could help to develop attention to sense-experience and the importance of exact observation. Returning to these experiments in the Upper Secondary and discussing Goethe’s theory as an alternative to Newton’s could help to develop an understanding of the nature of science, in particular its idealising and reductionist tendencies. It would also point towards the now age old problem of Democritos, thus giving the possibility to represent his thinking more in accordance with what has actually been handed down to us.




[1] See also Brady (1998), who indicates the possibility of a phenomenological reconstruction of the basic assumptions of natural science, especially of Newtonian physics.

[2] The distinction was refuted already in the 18th-century by Berkeley. Modern, non-phenomenological theory of science has also realised that there is no legitimate reason to consider quantifiable properties as ontologically objective, i.e. as existing independently of the human mind (cf. Hegge, 1972). Even quantifications are human ”constructions”. However, the question is how well known this realisation is among people in general and science students at different levels in particular.

[3] An interesting example of how this technisation and sedimentation of meaning distances itself from concrete experience is given by Lehrs (1985, p. 515ff). Lehrs shows how Newton by his algebraic transformations of Kepler’s third law distorts its original significance. Kepler’s third law was a mathematical formulation of the relation between the radius of a planet’s orbit and its time of circulation. For Kepler this formula was an expression of the musical harmony of the solar system (Haase, 1989). Newton started from this formula when he deduced the law of gravity.

[4] The full report of this project is now available in Dahlin (2002), completed after I wrote the first version of this paper.

[5] For a sympathetic presentation of Goethe’s view of science and its relevance for modern philosophy, I would recommend Bortoft (1996).

[6] Like ”proof”, the term ”fact” turned out to have different meanings in different contexts and/or for different students.

[7] For an explanation of the essentials of Goethe’s experiments and theory, see Bortoft (1996, pp. 40ff), or Appendix 1 of Dahlin (2002). See also Rask (1999) for an application of Goethe’s theory on the phenomena of rainbows and colours seen in drops of water – surely something very suitable to study with children. For a broader discussion of the educational issues involved, see Buck & Kranich (1995).





The research behind this paper was sponsored by the former Swedish Council for Research in the Human and Social Sciences. The author also wishes to thank two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments on an earlier version of the paper.





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This article first appeared in the Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research.