--| Goethe on Newton's Theory of Colours |-----

Newton surmised that when we see a colour spectrum emerge from a prism,
it is due to 'the splitting of light into its component colours'. 

If this were the case, then in the photograph below, there should be 
a spectrum with GREEN in the middle. Yet, since the aperature through which
the light is shining is large, we get no such spectrum, we only get colour 
at the edges. In an attempt to isolate the phenomena, Newton decided to 
narrow the aperature which results in the spectrum we are now familiar with,
and which he used as a basis for his Optiks. 

What Newton failed to do, was to take a look through the prism. 
If you actually do this, the white areas do not split into a rainbow of
colour as might be expected -- you only see colour at the edges of objects. 

(Photograph: March 2000, St. Catharines, JRP)

When light shines through a prism, we are simply projecting a picture 
whose aperature has edges -- there is darkness outside this circular patch, 
and relatively light within it. We notice that it is at the edges between 
the light and dark areas where Colours first make their appearance. 

When the aperature is sufficiently small so that the edges meet in 
the middle to form the green -- only then can you see a continous spectrum. 
A wider aperature brings us to the primal phenomenon -- a reddish/yellow 
on some edges, and a bluish/cyan on the others. 

The continuous spectrum with green in the middle arises only where 
the (blue-cyan and yellow-red) edges come close enough to overlap. 

We no longer see the original phenomenon when we make so small a circle 
that the colours extend inward from the edges to overlap in the middle 
to form what is called a 'continuous spectrum', while with the larger 
circle, the colours formed at the edges stay as they are. 

Thus, this is the primal phenomenon -- that Colours arise at the borders 
where Light and Dark work together, and the Spectrum is a secondary, 
compound phenomenon. 

--| Light as Polar to Darkness |--- 

For Goethe, light is 'the simplest most undivided most homogenous being
that we know. Confronting it is the darkness.' (Letter to Jacobi) 

Natural science sees darkness as a complete nothingness. 
According to this view, the light which streams into a dark space
has no resistance from the darkness to overcome. 

Goethe pictures to himself that light and darkness relate to each other 
like the north and south poles of a magnet. The darkness can weaken 
the light in its working power. Conversely, the light can limit 
the energy of the darkness. In both cases colour arises. 

Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness; 
Blue is a darkness weakened by the light. 

(RS-Goethe's World View) 

--| The Arising of Colour |--- 

  Friends, avoid the darkened chamber, where one pinches off the light, 
  which must bow in lamentation while distortions mock our sight. 
  Over-credulous believers through the years there've been enough; 
  In the noggins of your teachers reign illusions, specter-stuff. 

In the 1780's a number of statements as to the way colours arise came to
Goethe's notice. Of the prismatic phenomena, it was commonly held by
physicists that when you let colourless light go through a prism the
colourless light is split up. For in some such way the phenomena were

If we let a cylinder of colourless light impinge on the screen, it shows a
colourless picture. Putting a prism in the way of the cylinder of light,
we get the sequence of colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue - light
blue and dark blue, - violet.

The physicists explain it thus - the colourless light already contains the
seven colours within itself - and when we make the light go through the
prism, the prism really does no more than to fan out and separate what is
already there in the light, - the seven colours, into which it is thus

A look through the prism shows that we do not see the light in seven
colours. The only place you can see any colour is at some edge or

If we let light pass through the space of the room, we get a white circle
on a screen. Put a prism in the way, and the cylinder of light is
diverted, (Figure IIc), but what appears is not the series of seven
colours at all, only a reddish colour at the lower edge, passing over into
yellow, and at the upper edge a blue passing over into greenish shades. In
the middle it stays white.

Goethe now said to himself: It is not that the light is split up or that
anything is separated out of the light as such. In point of fact, I am
projecting a picture, - simply an image of this circular aperture. The
aperture has edges, and where the colours occur the reason is not that
they are drawn out of the light, as though the light had been split up
into them. It is because this picture which I am projecting - the picture
as such - has edges. Here too the fact is that where light adjoins dark,
colours appear at the edges. It is none other than that. For there is
darkness outside this circular patch of light, while it is relatively
light within it.

The colours therefore, to begin with, make their appearance purely and
simply as phenomena at the border between light and dark. This is the
original, the primary phenomenon. We are no longer seeing the original
phenomenon when by reducing the circle in size we get a continuous
sequence of colours. The latter phenomenon only arises when we take so
small a circle that the colours extend inward from the edges to the
middle. They then overlap in the middle and form what we call a continuous
spectrum, while with the larger circle the colours formed at the edges
stay as they are. This is the primal phenomenon. Colours arise at the
borders, where light and dark flow together.

Subsequent to this, Goethe's went on to make more exact observations
which further call this 'splitting up of the light' by a prism into question:

- Begin with a circular slit from which Light shines through a PRISM.
- Light is deflected upwards.
- The projection is not an exact circle, but rather elongated.
- The upper portion is edged with Blue.
- The lower portion is edged with Red.

- Taking into account the observation that Light passing through
  any medium is dimmed. In this case, there is a dimming of light
  within the prism.

- Therefore, we have to do not only with the cone of light that is here
  bent and deflected, but also with this new factor - the dimming
  of the light brought about by matter.

- Into the space beyond the prism not only the light is shining,
  but there shines in, there rays into the light the quality of dimness
  that is in the prism.

- This dimming is deflected upward in the same direction as the light.

- Here then we are dealing with the interaction of two things:
  i) the brightly shining light, itself deflected,
  ii) then the sending into it of the darkening effect that is poured
      into this shining light. Only the dimming and darkening effect is
      here deflected in the same direction as the light.

- The Outcome is that in the upward region the bright light is infused
  and irradiated with dimness, and by this means the dark or bluish colours
  are produced.

- Downwards, the light outdoes and overwhelms the darkness and there arise
  the yellow shades of colour.

- Simply through the fact that the prism on the one hand deflects the full
  bright cone of light and on the other hand also deflects the dimming of it,
  we have the two kinds of entry of the dimming or darkening into the light.
  We have an interplay of dark and light, not getting mixed to give a grey but
  remaining mutually independent in their activity.

- The material prism plays an essential part in the arising of the
  colours. For it is through the prism that it happens, namely that on the
  one hand the dimming is deflected in the same direction as the cone of
  light, while on the other hand, because the prism lets its darkness ray
  there too, this that rays on and the light that is deflected cut across
  each other. For that is how the deflection works down here. Downward, the
  darkness and the light are interacting in a different way than upward.
  Colours therefore arise where dark and light work together.

--| Skyward |--- 

  Should your glance on mornings lovely
  Lift to drink the heaven's blue
  Or when sun, vieled by sirocco,
  Royal red sinks out of view -
  Give to Nature praise and honour.
  Blithe of heart and sound of eye,
  Knowing for the world of colour
  Where its broad foundations lie.

--| References |--- 

* Rudolf Steiner Ph.D, Scientific Lecture Course on Light, GA 299.
  2nd Lecture - Stuttgart, 24th December 1919.

Newton and Goethe on Colour
Goethe's Colour Triangle
Borderlands Archives
Kyoto Colour

Submit an Article 
Posted: March 27, 2001
Updated: December 19, 2011