Meaningful Complexity: Goethe’s Concept of Similarity
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Meaningful Complexity:
Goethe’s Concept of Similarity

My following considerations will explore the relationship between complexity and similarity. Both concepts have been highlighted in recent scholarship as pivotal in various respects, and they are crucial to a number of discourses that refer to these notions for different reasons and to different ends. The concepts’ modern careers are closely tied to a shift in epistemological and aesthetic thought, which harks back to the origin of our ideas of scientific progress and a functional differentiation of arts and sciences. This significant transition, which for the most part took place in the eighteenth century, not only engendered new standards of scientific and aesthetic judgment, but also led to unprecedented notions of complexity and similarity.

In order to demonstrate the connectedness of both concepts and to underline their relevance to scientific and aesthetic discourses, I will outline first an adequately complex understanding of complexity. I draw from systems theory, which the above-mentioned, paradigmatic changes made available. In a second step, I will discuss the concept of analogy as a similarity-based reasoning prominent in the eighteenth century as a rhetorical device that allowed epistemology and aesthetics to be linked—as was the case with Alexander Baumgarten’s idea of aesthetic perception as analogous to the operations of reason. At the same time, a critical revision of the concept of analogy prepared the separation of both ideas—as can be seen in Kant’s limitation of analogical reasoning to a regulatory function. Finally, an analysis of Goethe’s use of analogy and related ideas, including “family resemblance” (Familienähnlichkeit), will demonstrate that concepts of similarity and dissimilarity have been utilized to intermittently reduce and increase [End Page 466] complexity, a fact that is equally relevant to Goethe’s scientific work and to his seminal thoughts on the representational mode of the arts.

As we will see, thinking based on similarity cannot be called insufficiently complex (‘undercomplex’). It is not the case, as Tversky and Kahneman allege, for example, that similarity settles for surface resemblances while overlooking deep difference (“Judgment;” Tversky, “Features;” Kahneman, Thinking). Nor can similarity be forced onto some continuum between simplicity and complexity, where complexity designates a desirable good to which simplicity is a vicious ‘other’. Rather, complexity is a given, and our discourses exhibit it to greater or lesser degrees without ever being absolutely simple or complex, because simplicity is not a state, but—at least at times—a term of praise or blame. Thus, I do not present it here as an independent characteristic of a discourse or its object. The concept of similarity, as it seems, allows leaving such misconceptions behind, since it has, throughout the intellectual history of similarity, always been seen as a relational term, even when it was looked at as an inept means of problem-solving. But similarity has hardly ever meant a perfect match of two of more objects (which would be considered ‘identity’), nor has it been the opposite of dissimilarity: “The forms of the words similarity and dissimilarity suggest that one is the negative of the other, which is absurd, since everything is both similar and dissimilar to everything else” (Peirce 567). As we will see, similarity is also both complex and simple at once—simple, in that it focuses on the resemblances between otherwise unrelated objects, ignoring palpable differences for the sake of simplicity, and complex, in that it forges new and potentially far-reaching links between not yet affiliated objects.

Also, as the ‘return’ to analogical thinking in aesthetics and science demonstrates, eighteenth-century epistemology did not turn away from a “system of similarity and resemblance,” as Michel Foucault famously suggested (17–46). It rather updated and adapted such a system by decidedly integrating dissimilarity into it. As a matter of fact, dissimilarity began to be seen as a means to reflect indirectly the world’s complexity through the implicit concession that it cannot be matched by established views. In other words: while new positive terms hadn’t yet been formulated, the language of similarity and dissimilarity acknowledged a relationship beyond what had been hitherto explicable. In Goethe’s epistemological thinking, the implementation of aesthetic terms...