Living nature - perception and science
Empathy and imitation as scientific methodology
for recognizing living nature
First published in German in Tattva Viveka, Magazin
for science, philosophy and spiritual culture, November 2015
Print version (PDF) of this article
(In this text "the living" means the realm of vital
and vitally forming forces)
Understanding the living itself
Buried by so much intellectual activity, it is difficult for us
to understand the living, although it actually is constantly present.
It is even more difficult to vividly formulate something understandable
about the living, whereas the word dies away in the pen, as Goethe
Of course, we live! Of course, we perceive that we are living.
Of course it is clear to me that my hand does not move from its
substance and writes this text. It also seems natural to me that
the small wound at my right middle finger, unlike the scratches
on my car, will close by some self-healing power. Yesterday our
cat scratched me there. This happened very quickly and it’s over
now. However, in my memory it is vividly present and I can also
still recognize the result at my finger. So of course my past is
still present in me. It is no longer physically present, it was
physically present yesterday, but still it reaches in my presence,
it has not dissolved into nothing. Of course I can sit here at my
desk right now, just because my parents once lived, and my grandparents
and their forefathers. They all have died long ago, but yet they
are part of my presence, just like my descendants are part of my
presence. This text that I am writing here may also be of importance
for someone later on. So my presence has to do with the future.
Past, present, future, they form a whole, a continuous flow of change.
That's life, in the great flow and also in the normal everyday life.
The own participation in this unique variable life, in this flow
of life, can be experienced. The French philosopher Henri Bergson
calls this the intuitive experience of duration. This is different
from looking at a photo being taken on a holiday trip a decade ago
constituting: "Oh yes, I have become older since then."
That would be a more mechanical thinking from one to another static
point. It would not be experiencing duration or a kind of flow.
When you are in the flow you are empty of static, mechanical thoughts.
You find yourself in the whole of a situation, of a setting or a
social context. You experience a continuous flow, a development
of the situation in interdependence with your surroundings. A little
bit of this flow can intuitively become conscious: guessing, feeling,
perhaps like tasting, very real. Later, if necessary, the mind can
turn once again to the memory of the situation, analyse the gained
experience, discover habits, and perhaps even find general rules.
– So, quite roughly said, also the attitude towards recognizing
the living may be described.
The living is not only omnipresent in us, we can also experience
it constantly in the outer world, may be in one's living counterpart
or in social and ecological cooperation. However, just experiencing
is not sufficient for our mind. He wants clear concepts, unique
knowledge of causal relationships or best of all logical proofs.
As far as logical proofs in empirical science are possible at all,
they can also be given for the living.
Evidence of the living
Aristotle has already stated quite clearly that something created
always logically presupposes a creator and that of course, this
vivid creator cannot be the pure matter itself. Kant remarked: "There
is no animated matter, but probably a living body". It is not
the matter that is alive!
The fact that the creative power in an organism cannot come from
the matter became later particularly clear by the researches on
embryology. Here it turned out that cells can develop, according
to the needs of the whole organism, depending on the location and
surroundings. The development is not necessarily determined by the
cells themselves. In the regeneration of a divided hydra, where
each part builds a complete hydra again, the organizing power of
a whole entity also becomes quite clear.
Genetics have made great progress in recent decades. The base sequence
of the DNA was recognized as a code for protein synthesis and the
human genome is considered to be decoded. Besides, during the last
years, it was found out in the field of epigenetics that the biography
of a living being is reflected in the DNA. The former idea of a
rigid DNA changed into the idea of a flexible molecule, which follows
the habits of a living being. Now it is known, that not only the
genes form a living being, but also habits and environmental factors
influence the genes. Philosophically you could say that the spirit
influences the structure of matter. This really should cause a revolution
Despite of all this knowledge, it still remains a mystery how the
shape of an individual organ or the whole shape of an organism are
genetically determined. Especially for the many stages of embryonic
development, which is actually an on-going process, a genetic code
cannot be found. The purely material realities certainly reflect
a lot and deliver valuable information, but, nevertheless, something
else is missing.
A living being can creatively respond to different environmental
conditions. Everybody can experience this in his everyday life.
Even in traffic you cannot drive straight down towards your goal,
but creatively, within certain rules, you have to handle the traffic
situation and the given disturbances and disabilities on your way.
It’s the same with plants and animals which creatively pursue their
own developing way. This was for example investigated by biologists
in the embryonic development of the hydra polyp, which despite of
artificial disturbances and disabilities always proceeded towards
the formation of an entirety. The biologist and philosopher Hans
Driesch gave the example of a dog that achieved a desired goal,
despite various disabilities. Such a creative handling of the given
circumstances is not fixed in the genes and can impossibly be founded
in the matter itself. It requires a certain amount of freedom which
can be experienced particularly in our human free will. - All of
these phenomena allow no other conclusion than that a living creature,
besides matter, needs something else vitalizing and creatively forming.
The soul as the formative entity
Now, if something creative and vitalizing must necessarily be demanded,
the question arises of what kind this formative something could
be and how one might call it: formative drive, entelechy, field?
- The biologist and Nobel Prize winner Hans Spemann was finally
convinced that this formative something has to be seen in analogy
to our psyche. From our psyche or our soul we have the most intimate
knowledge. The soul is an experience to us and only in a very diffuse
way a term. After most intense very exact materialistic research
on embryology Spemann came at the end of his life to the deep and
experientially saturated belief that every living organism must
be animated by a soul. This may be clear to us anyway. However,
for a well-respected scientist and Nobel Prize Laureate such a break
with purely materialist conceptions is a courageous commitment.
Since Spemann awarded a soul not only to sentient beings, but to
all beings including plants, it is clear, that he saw, like Aristotle,
in the living itself a certain psychic quality.
Aristotle found it absolutely necessary for a natural scientist
to have knowledge about the soul. For him the nature of a being
and the soul were the same and if a natural philosopher wanted to
explore how a living being expresses itself in the physical world,
he necessarily had to be familiar with the soul. Aristotle therefore
examined the soul very intensively and differentiated the soul into
three parts, or rather three organs, namely in the rational, the
sensitive and vegetative soul. This corresponds to our own experience:
Beside the perception of our body, we also experience our incorporeal,
mental or spiritual side. We experience that we get ideas and that
we can develop thoughts, that emotions arise in us and we feel happy,
sad or angry, that ingested food is transformed in us and wounds
can heal. So the differentiation of the soul made by Aristotle is
absolutely familiar to our experience.
In this psychologically differentiated manner we can also participate
in the outside world: Besides the intellectual recognition and naming
of objects we can also feel their qualities with our sensitive soul.
For example, according to the design, the colour, the material,
the processing etc., we can perceive a garment like a jacket, as
sportive and casual, as light and playful or as simple and decent.
Such an aesthetic perception is not possible without a sensitive
soul. The individual soul feels the qualities of the outside world
according to its own abilities in a more or less differentiated
way, for example, depending on the aesthetic fashion consciousness
and unites in this way with it.
The vegetative soul, which according to Aristotle represents the
organ of the soul, which brings the physical processes in movement,
also combines our soul with the outside world. This usually is less
conscious to us. However, you can experience at a football match,
by whom you are deeply moved, how for example you inwardly go along
with the striker, who is just scoring the winning goal, and how
your own foot joins the kicking movement or at least twitches violently.
Mostly such a witnessing does not go till the physical movement.
Nevertheless, at the level of nerves the Italian neurologist Giacomo
Rizzolatti found out in 1992 with macaque monkeys, that seen movements
always cause the same activity pattern in the brain in certain nerve
cells as the own appropriate movement. He called this nerve cells
mirror neurons. Unlike an optical mirror this mirror is, however,
associated with one’s own activity, one’s own reproducing or imitating.
Vivid mirroring is imitating. However, this imitation is not only
limited to the mirror neurons, but also related to the whole body,
which can be observed particularly with young children. You may
observe a small boy, who enthusiastically speaks about an enormously
fat man he has just seen. He makes himself thick, bulges his arms
outward, blows out his cheeks and involuntarily mimics the fat man.
We adults are usually more reserved with our gestures, but if we
observe ourselves exactly, we can still notice, how we inwardly,
beside movements, also rudimentarily imitate perceived forms in
their formative forces. According to Aristotle, an imitation would
be in particular an activity of the moving vegetative soul. So we
also combine ourselves with the outer world by the vegetative soul.
The forming forces of the vegetative soul and the sensible qualities
of the sensitive soul can also be used to get scientifically closer
to the living nature. Of course, the rational soul is always involved
too. However, it has to, at least initially, withhold terms and
Too easily the rational mind remains in firm terms and mechanistic
conceptions, which he is used to from the physical world. This is
what particularly Bergson always warned about. He worked out very
clearly, that the need for something which forms living beings originates
from our familiar mechanistic thinking. It is the result of our
deep habit to think of a whole as build up from parts. Bergson remarks,
that our rational understanding is not able to imagine the formation
of an organism in another way than as a production, for example,
like that of a house or a car. Therefore, we would look out for
a skilled foreman, for a principle of life, which carries out the
formation of an organism according to its own plan, which seems
tremendously complicated to us.
Actually in living nature there is no intelligent foreman or plan
as we know it from the outside world and there are also no complex
and complicated activities which control or self-regulate each other.
These ideas only arise from our everyday experiences in the physical
world. In living nature everything happens rather by a holistic
undivided flux. This also became clear to the already mentioned
embryologist Hans Spemann, when he recognized the dynamics of embryonic
development as a holistic flow of cells, in which the movement does
not go out from one point or is jammed somewhere. Everything just
simply happens, strictly speaking even free of inertia. Bergson
supposed that for a developing organism it probably would be just
as easy to form an eye as it would be for him to move his hand.
He claimed to see the living less with the eye of the intelligence,
which can only seize the readymade and sees everything from outside,
but with the eyesight, which is immanent to the ability of acting.
This eyesight is comparable rather with our vague consciousness
of will and movement.
Gestures and qualities
Actually life itself is never something finished. It is not only
always in change and movement, it is the change and the movement
itself. The nature of the living can therefore only be perceived
by empathizing with the quality of its dynamics and imitating it.
This inner imitating of the shape of a process can vaguely become
conscious. Bergson speaks of a vague cloud of feelings, through
which the living can be guessed intuitively. This is completely
different from the though lifeless, but crystal clear knowledge,
which can result from logical analysis in the area of the material.
Movement, change and life cannot be seized by quantitative values.
Rather, you can assign them something like a gesture or a quality.
Here you are not in the area of the quantitative, where you can
measure with a technical apparatus. Gestures or qualities affect
the emotional level and therefore can only be experienced by sentient
Gestures and qualities have to do with an aesthetic perception
of the world. Just as you can internally witness the curving and
forming forces of a sculpture like gestures and the colours of a
painting like qualities, while looking and empathizing with a piece
of art, you can also do this with a living being, yes, in certain
manner with all perceivable things. Therefor you have to place yourself
by an effort of imagination and empathy in what is perceived. Qualities
are thereby internally recreated as a kind of aesthetic feeling.
According to Aristotle, this would be an activity of the own sensitive
soul. Movements and shaping forces are imitated as gestures by our
own inner formative forces. This is, as already described, according
to Aristotle, an activity of our own vegetative soul, which touches
the sensitive soul in a certain manner. Just as with an abstract
sculpture, where swelling, bulging, contracting, condensing, flowing,
dissolving forces can be felt, also the formative forces of a living
being such as clenching, expanding, dissolving, airing, withdrawing
forces can be perceived. These, however, have to be felt not only
concerning the current form of the organism, but also with the help
of memory, in regard to the figure which is changing in time. After
extensive research, the overall gesture of a sculpture or an organically
created being, which penetrates every detail, can be guessed intuitively.
So the perception of vivid characteristics and vivid forms, which
correspond to the nature of a living being and its whole life expression,
are comparable to the perception of aesthetic qualities and artistic
This was particularly clear to Goethe. Goethe described how his
artistic work and his way of looking at art helped him to perceive
and understand plants, animals and people. For him this was the
only way to bring together their nature and their appearance. He
highly appreciated Immanuel Kant, because Kant had searched for
a connection between art and natural sciences. Goethe transferred
Kants aesthetic judgment to his way of scientific research and called
this "observational judgment”. This was his secret key to understand
the living. Goethe’s contemporary Heinroth, who had a deep understanding
of Goethe, pointed out, that such a way of scientific research could
only be achieved by artistic practice, intensive training and habituation.
Bergson as well believed that art gives us the possibility to
come to an expansion of perception and to an unbroken connection
of the outer world with ourselves. He saw the reason for the fact
that ordinary people like us hardly use this means in comparison
to true artists on the one hand in the dominance of the practical
intelligence of our mind and on the other in the appropriation by
our practical everyday life. Our mind is always focused on fixed
terms, usefulness and effective action. An artistic view is regarded
rather as ineffective and unnecessary. Our intellectual mind alone,
however, cannot understand the expressiveness of art as little as
the expressive power of the living. This has to do with the fact
that the mind always searches for the universal behind the concrete,
for example for terms. Terms do not arise from the concretely perceived
individual case, but are always formed by abstraction from a huge
number of perceptions. In contrast, art always goes, just like the
living, to the individual, as Bergson says. Every artistic creation
is an individual creation and every artistic view is an individual
view. General terms only counteract an artistic creating or an artistic
viewing. Naming the perception with terms ends an artistic process.
The nature of art does not work with terms. Every living being is
also an individual being, a subject. Again, the individual cannot
be grasped by concepts and terms, but only by an artistic view.
Only in this way you can get closer to the individual being in its
individual environment. By turning to their individual being objects
of observation become subjects with individual characteristics.
In a way, they become peculiar beings. Such a subjectification of
the world leads thus to an inspiring of the world. Everything around
us gets inspired and everything in us gets revived, as Bergson says.
Subjective universal validity
Now, if the living as well as a work of art cannot be seized by
terms, how can scientific knowledge of the living nature then be
formulated and communicated? Driesch and Bergson clearly recognized
this problem. Driesch solved it for himself by inventing many new,
little clear-cut terms to describe the living. Bergson thought it
to be possible to approach the living by a pictorial language with
metaphors and comparisons. The knowledge of the living would be
given immediately by intuition. Through images it could be suggested.
A vivid image could give us a direct vision and build a connection
between thing and idea. From various aspects images to a perceptual
object could be gathered which reach a certain liveliness and could
stimulate an interlocutor to an own intuition.
Even Kant regarded an intuitive looking as necessary for a research
of living nature. However, he awarded to this way of researching
only a reflective and not a decisive character. For scientific research,
he considered it unsuitable, because in his opinion it would throw
the doors wide open for arbitrariness. In fact, he recognized in
this arbitrariness the most serious problem of an intuitive cognition.
The ability of an aesthetic or intuitive judgment will certainly
depend on the differentiation of the mental empathy of a researcher.
A skilled, practicing artist will normally be able to perceive a
work of art more differentiated than an untrained layman. A scientific
observational judgment, which turns towards the living, must be
trained and practiced as well as an artistic judgment. Goethe practiced
it by artistic working and viewing. An artist thus would have the
best skills for a vivid scientific researcher's activity.
Furthermore, there is a great danger that the scientist researching
in this way does not look at his research objects as research subjects
but projects his own feelings and ideas into them. To study living
beings you first have to become emotionally tranquil. Then you can
unintentionally turn to the research object in an empathic way.
Intuitive insights cannot be forced.
The question arises, whether in regard to these possibilities
of error a certainty of cognition is ever possible? Probably not
in the sense as it is known of the crystal-clear mathematical laws
of mechanistic science, but rather in the sense of an experienced
long practicing doctor. The certainty of cognition can be improved
by exchanging one’s owns guessing perceptions with other researchers.
The fact that subjectively perceived qualities or aesthetic feelings
can be experienced in a quite similar way by different people and
can be communicated, was found out in 1920 by the founder of the
Gestalt Psychology Wolfgang Köhler. He presented the following two
figures to a greater number of participants:
The participants should describe their feelings towards these figures
and associate the fantasy names Maluma and Takete with the two objects.
Almost all participants named the figure on the left side Maluma
and that on the right side Takete. The own feelings towards the
figure on the left coincided with the feeling of the soft, rounded
sound of the word Maluma and towards that on the right with the
feeling of the hard, angular sound of the word Takete. Such aesthetic
qualities were called “Anmutungsqualitäten” (affective qualities,
apparent qualities, impressions of quality) by the German Gestalt
psychologists. Affective qualities show a subjective universal validity,
as Kant expressed it.
If you draw or model the qualities Maluma and Takete in quite
your own manner you will be able to recognize, how your own inner
formative forces combine with these qualities and thereby a corresponding
shape is formed.
Of course Maluma and Takete are two very archetypal qualities,
what facilitates an aesthetic judgment. Nevertheless this attempt
of Köhler showed that Descartes' statement that only the measurable,
countable, ponderable can scientifically be researched and communicated
is a false scientific limitation. Also qualities show an extensive
general validity. In the same way intuitions, images and vague inklings
to the living can be exchanged and communicated. So a scientific
approach to the nature and the qualities of living beings is absolutely
Spirit and Matter
When science is expanded in this way, spirit and matter can approach
again. Bergson points out that gestures or qualities perceived in
the outer world are not only subjectively generated inside of us,
as the constructivists believe, but really represent a property
of the external world. They belong to the spiritual being of the
outer world. Now external world and internal feeling can approach
by a double process: The own individual memory images are brought
to the internally perceived imitating or empathizing of the external
processes. These images manifest themselves as Bergson says from
our own spirituality in the physical brain; they become, so to speak,
material. The own spirituality thus moves towards a materialization.
On the other hand the externally perceived physical world reveals
a spiritual aspect of itself in its gesture or in its quality. So
the external physical world moves towards spirituality while the
inner spiritual world moves towards materialization. In this way
matter, perception and spirit form a solidary whole, as Bergson
calls it. The separation of spirit and matter introduced by Plato
into philosophy and by Descartes into science can therefore be overcome.
Such kind of emotional perception can lead to recognition of the
living. This can be deepened by practice and can be extended to
a scientific methodology. In all areas that have to do with the
living, such as biology, medicine pharmacy, agriculture, and also
in social, educational and therapeutic areas a necessary complement
and enlargement of materialist research would be possible in this
Our acting in everyday life could also be changed. Goethe has already
pointed out that the way of thinking and looking at the world affects
ourselves and influences our acting in the world. Certainly an artistic
worldview which links us to the perceived qualities leads to a different
attitude towards life and a different acting in the world than a
causally determined analytical worldview. These two ways of looking
at the world are complementary. Only together they lead in science
as well as in everyday life to a deeper understanding of the world.
1 Source: Köhler, Wolfgang: Psychological problems, Berlin 1933,