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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's scientific writings have been rightly described by several scholars as an early precursor of later phenomenological thought. A main factor in such interpretations is Goethe's insistence that we examine natural phenomena as experienced through the perspective of embodied spectators, and not from the distance of a detached, purportedly neutral gaze. At the center of these studies is his monumental book on color. Over a century later, the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty explores color from a related point of view in numerous texts where he develops his own ideas concerning embodied perception and painting in particular. Uncannily close in many ways, Goethe's and Merleau-Ponty's respective understandings of color reciprocally illuminate one another. This article explores their adjacent theories of vision by focusing on an overlooked link between the two thinker's projects: their mutual interests in atmospheric color. Whereas Goethe finds evidence for his color theory in looking up at the colors of the sky and contemplating the medial character of our surrounding atmosphere, Merleau-Ponty, this article argues, extends and radicalizes Goethe's philosophy of vision by explicitly conceptualizing a notion of visuality itself as an atmospheric, colored medium.


phenomenology, vision, color, Goethe, Merleau-Ponty

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Morphology and Phenomenology

Goethe's Theory of Colors (Zur Farbenlehre, 1810) marks a high point in his scientific writings, a wide-ranging set of investigations into the fields of botany, osteology, mineralogy, geology, and meteorology.1 Over the course of several decades, Goethe outlines and develops what he considers a missing line of inquiry that promises to disclose greater insight into the dynamic essence of organic nature: morphology—the study of the way natural phenomena change both formally and structurally over time. When one collects and categorizes natural objects into a static taxonomy, one necessarily mortifies what is in fact living, in motion, fluid. Such a categorizing scientific impulse—which seeks to attain knowledge from a distant position of mastery—necessarily precludes as much knowledge as it conversely affords. As a corrective to this dilemma, Goethe advances a sharper attunement to the hidden forms and structures that bridge and connect the different stages of an organism's development.

A programmatic example of Goethe's morphological method is his first major scientific study, the "Metamorphosis of Plants" (1790). In a vivid series of short descriptive passages, he meticulously traces the different stages of plant evolution from germling to full blossom. The text showcases what he describes in "Observation on Morphology in General" (1795) as a key feature of his scientific approach, "to portray rather than explain" (Scientific Studies, 57).2 With minimal interpolating commentary and maximum attention to the formal, visible manifestations of plant development, Goethe attempts to forge a middle way between description and theory, perception and thinking. As Karl J. Fink observes in his reading of this text, the serial, graphic character of the plant study intimates a visual dimension that, one may argue, informs the whole of his scientific works: the text "present[s] the reader with a series of written pictures that illustrate the phases of plant life from dormant seeds to ripening fruit. This series displays plant life as if in the continuity of a motion picture" (27). Like a film or serialized photo essay, Goethe's plant study offers a literary depiction of a gaze in action, of perception that follows and flows along with the object of study in the course of its formative unfolding. In a related text from the same period, "The Experiment as Mediator between Object and Subject" (1793), Goethe stresses that serialization, the aggregation of multiple impressions or multiple variations of the same experiment, is crucial if the scientist is to discover the underlying laws governing the different stages of an object's organic development. Goethe describes this pattern of development as the virtual Urphänomen that we may indirectly glance in the fissures and junctures that bridge the successive moments of change.3

Equally as important as such a synoptic overview is the need for the subjective spectator to remain aware of the interrelation and interdependency of [End Page 299] his gaze with the object perceived—in short to keep in mind that perception is always the perception of something. Goethe captures this guiding principle in the following aphorism, "the manifestation of a phenomenon is not detached from the observer—it is caught up and entangled in his individuality" (307). Staunchly opposed to positivistic abstraction and what Walter Heitler describes as the "mechanization" of nature (the reduction of natural phenomena to mathematical formulas and measurements), Goethe advocates a more "delicate" mode of observation (64). In what has become a well-known catchphrase for his overall philosophy for how we should try to approach natural phenomena, he writes of the possibility of a "delicate empiricism (zarte Empirie) which makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory" (307). For Goethe, the greatest insight occurs when the observer does not try to look past or through things in order to see what lies behind or beneath them, but rather attempts to approach seeing itself as a form of embodied thinking. Perception and theory, sensation and thought must be merged in view of the direct experience with the object at hand.

Goethe's appeal to a more direct mode of relation rooted in sensuous embodied perception as well as his views regarding the interdependency of subject and object (that consciousness is always consciousness of something, to paraphrase Franz Brentano's concept of intentionality) has led several commentators to describe his scientific writings as pseudo-phenomenological. Edmund Husserl's famous call, approximately a century later, to turn "back to the things themselves" (zurück zu den Sachen selbst) finds an early precursor in Goethe's reflections on nature and scientific observation (10).4 For many critics, the heart of Goethe's quasi-phenomenology lies in the sense alluded to above: vision, more specifically an understanding of embodied optical perception that he develops over the course of several years. The scholar David Seamon describes Goethe's brand of phenomenology as an "effort to understand a thing's meaning through prolonged empathetic looking and seeing grounded in direct experience" (2). In a similar vein, Clark Muenzer suggests that Goethe's understanding of nature and the entangled place of the perceiving subject within his surroundings calls on us to take stock of the dynamic middle space that the viewing subject occupies in his relation to the world via sense perception: "Goethe typically envisioned nature as a universal landscape, or topography, where endless processes of composition and decomposition transpire under countless conditions to constitute the sensate world as a vast region of liminality" (221). Frederick Amrine, meanwhile, continues this line of thought in a slightly different direction by situating Goethe as the "ultimate ancestor" of a host of twentieth-century phenomenologically inflected investigations of ecology—a group of figures that includes, among others, Merleau-Ponty (46). Although Amrine's focus centers on the interrelation of [End Page 300] Goethe's and Merleau-Ponty's ecological writings, the uncanny proximity of their respective understandings of vision presents another source of mutual illumination. In the following, I extend this line of inquiry into Goethe's philosophy of vision as a precursor of later phenomenological thought (particularly that of Merleau-Ponty) by examining two intertwined areas where Goethe articulates his understanding of ocular perception: his writings on color, and his meteorological studies. Read together, these two areas of Goethe's thought intimate a notion of visual perception as a dynamic, material in-between space in which subjects, objects, and colors mingle and interpenetrate with one another in a difficult to theorize atmospheric medium.

The Theory of Colors

Goethe's expansive Theory of Colors is divided into three distinct volumes—the didactic section, where he expounds his own views on color; the polemical part, a pointed refutation of Newton's theory of color as derived from light (which, in Goethe's view, fails to take full account of the conditions and circumstances of embodied seeing); and the historical section, an impressively broad examination of canonical texts on color from antiquity to Goethe's present day. The didactic section, my main focus here, is further divided into three subsections that correspond to what Goethe considers the three main types of color: physiological, physical, and chemical. The key factor which informs each subdivision is the question of color's place in the relation between subject and object, viewer and viewed.

On the one side of the subject-object spectrum Goethe situates the chemical colors. According to him, these colors are the most objective insofar as they are tied to material phenomena that can generally be considered as separate, distinct from the viewing subject (although, it should be noted, the chemical colors are not absolutely detached from the subject who sees them, for as discussed above, Goethe considers seer and seen as always necessarily interlinked). On the far end from the chemical colors lie the physiological colors. These colors "belong […] to the subject—to the eye itself," and for this reason, Goethe stresses, they have "hitherto [been] looked upon as extrinsic and casual, as illusion and infirmity" (1).5 The prime examples he offers of subjective, physiological colors are retinal after-images (color that remains in the eye after an external stimulus is no longer present), and halos, the "nimbus" or misty light that the retina occasionally adds to the outlines of "luminous object[s]" (41). Goethe's detailed examination of the eye's ability to itself produce colors under specific conditions marks a major break from preexisting color theory. As he writes at the beginning of the didactic section, the physiological colors have been long neglected and derided as fantastic and [End Page 301] imaginary due not only to the fact that they arise in the subject's eye (and thus tend to resist objective, external measurement), but also because, in a related manner, they are "too evanescent to be arrested" (1). By giving the fugitive, ostensibly imaginary, physiological colors such weight at the outset of his treatise, Goethe boldly announces our need to revise the way colors are conceived. Colors do not exist or emerge solely outside of or separate from the viewing subject, but rather in relation to the seer, and in extreme cases—physiological colors—from within the seer himself.6

In his seminal study of nineteenth-century visual culture, Techniques of the Observer, Johnathan Crary argues that Goethe played a decisive role in shifting the discourse of visuality away from an objective basis and toward the subject's mode of experience. Pointing to the role of the physiological colors, Crary suggestively contends that, for Goethe, "color, as the primary object of vision [becomes] atopic, cut off from any spatial referent" (71). Importantly, the detachment of color from external referents that Crary identifies in Goethe's writing goes beyond simply counterposing color that emerges without (objective, chemical) with color that emerges from within (subjective, physiological). Although the physiological colors certainly mark the most striking example of the paradigmatic shift from a one-sided approach that understands color solely as the property of external, objective phenomena, Goethe's rethinking of color along radically medial lines, I argue, becomes even more evident in the third category of color: the physical colors. Indeed, more so than the chemical and physiological colors, which largely align with the extremes of a subject-object dichotomy, the physical colors illuminate the middle space, the scene in which visual perception occurs as a dynamic exchange between seer and seen.

According to Goethe, the essence of the physical colors resides in reflective and refractive "material mediums" (56). He describes these mediums (e.g., glass, the atmosphere, fog, smoke, water) in which the physical colors manifest themselves as in-between spaces where the subjective and objective colors overlap and interpenetrate. The material mediums make it "possible to place an objective phenomenon beside a subjective one" (57). Although the mediums in which such colors appear are themselves "colorless," their materiality suggests that they are not simply to be thought of as empty space (60). In describing the range of material mediums, which extend from more apparently material "semi-transparent" or "turbid" (Trübe) mediums to the invisible, "transparent" mediums, Goethe emphasizes that despite the fact that some show themselves more clearly to the eye in their materiality, all belong to a same general category (60).7 It is simply a question of thickness or density whether one perceives the space of mediation, of visibility as such: "if […] space is filled so that the eye cannot perceive that it is so," there nonetheless often "exists a more or less material transparent medium," usually in the form [End Page 302] of "air and gas" (60). The "more or less" of materiality with which Goethe qualifies the existence of "transparent medium[s]" indicates that the difference between transparency and translucency (the semi-transparent, turbid mediums) is not a difference of opposition, but rather of degrees. The "semi-transparent medium (Trübe) is only an accumulated form of the transparent medium (Durchsichtigen)," that is to say transparency that has congealed, thickened "at whatever point short of opacity (Undurchsichtigkeit)" (60–61). The physical colors emerge within such material mediums through the actions of reflection and refraction—they are neither tied directly to the subject nor the object, but rather are located in a difficult to fix in-between space.

Goethe's discussion of the physical colors that emerge in the liminal space of material mediums sheds more light on what Crary describes as the "atopic" character of color in Goethe's theory. Unlike the ephemeral physiological colors that arise primarily from the eye, or the chemical colors which are fixed to and emanate from external objects, the physical colors hover between seeing subject and viewed object. On the one hand, the physical colors, much like the subjective, physiological ones, are "produced in the eye" and have the "distinctive quality" of "being transient" (56). On the other hand, similar to the chemical colors, the physical colors are tied to "material mediums" and thus have a "certain objective character" (56).

The in-between character of the physical colors, their manifestation within "material mediums" is of great theoretical importance for Goethe's general theory of color, for it vividly renders a structure of visual mediality at the heart not only of physical colors, but of his understanding of color at large. In a passage on the physical colors that is indicative of the medial tension from which all colors emerge (physiological, physical, and chemical), he argues that, contrary to Newton's view, colors do not arise out of light, but rather from the exchange, at the intersection of light and its opposite, darkness:

We see on the one side light, brightness; on the other darkness, obscurity: we bring the semi-transparent medium (die Trübe) between the two, and from these contrasts and this medium the colors develop themselves (entwickeln sich), contrasted, in like manner, but soon, through a reciprocal relation (Wechselbezug), directly tending again to a point of union.


The poles of light and darkness between which Goethe situates the "semi-transparent" or turbid medium (Trübe) expresses his fundamental concept of polarity. In short, he argues that colors always arise, self-reflexively "develop themselves" from the interplay, the tension, and difference between the opposed forces of light and darkness. Individual shades or hues do not stand alone, but rather always appear in juxtaposition to one another. As [End Page 303] Muenzer puts it in reference to Goethe's color wheel (which depicts a gradual transition from the light colors of yellow, orange, and red to the dark colors of purple, blue and green), for Goethe colors always "stand in reciprocal relationship to each other on a symbolic wheel" (224). Colors are the manifestation of different degrees of tension between the light and dark sides of the color spectrum—orange, for example, manifests a mixing of the forces of yellow and red, the pull of these two other colors, one lighter (yellow) and one darker (red), all located on the lighter side of the color spectrum. From this perspective, colors should never be thought of as isolated, but rather always as the manifestation of a certain complementarity or contrast. For this reason, they must also be thought of as unfixed and dynamic—any single color or hue also implies and makes visible an underlying tension, namely the oppositional pull between the poles of light and darkness. Goethe writes in this context that "the appearance [of color] is not to be considered as a complete or final state, but always as a progressive" phenomenon (90). In other words, color is in constant flux. It is malleable and shifting, the ephemeral appearance of the differential force between two poles, two ends of a medial, dynamic spectrum.8

For Goethe, the "point of union" gestured toward by the "reciprocal relation" of colors in tension with one another (polarity) indicates the existence of an underlying law of color, in his terminology an Ur-phenomenon. This formal law never manifests itself directly, only showing itself spectrally in the gaps and fissures that dictate color's combinatory drift—the rules that determine how color changes as either light or darkness prevails upon the appearance of any individual color. As in the "Metamorphosis of Plants," a major goal of Goethe's in the color studies is to discover the underlying structure or pattern that informs the formative development, the morphology of a graded sequence. In the case of the color spectrum, Goethe believes to have accomplished this goal with the concept of differential polarity. Amrine has described Goethe's method of discerning the law of polarity as a mode of "synchronic seeing" attuned to the "generative, plastic, multidimensional" character of colors in tension with one another (39). Importantly, just as light as the condition of possibility for seeing does not show itself directly, we only gain insight into the formal generative law of polarity indirectly, namely by carefully observing the ways in which colors complement or contrast with one another.

Of the various areas where Goethe himself observes the spectrum of color in action, specifically the modifications of color between the poles of light and dark, perhaps the most striking are the colors of the sky—a topic he returns to several times both in the Theory of Colors and in his later meteorological writings. Indeed, the sky and with it the atmosphere are already gestured toward in the word Trübe, which he consistently mobilizes to describe the [End Page 304] "semi-transparent" medium in which the physical colors may appear. Implicitly drawing on this link, Crary reads Goethe's conception of the Trübe as crucial for the paradigm shift in thinking about vision for which he largely holds Goethe responsible:

If discourse on visuality in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries repressed and concealed whatever threatened the transparence of an optical system, Goethe signals a reversal, and instead poses the opacity of the observer as a necessary condition for the appearance of phenomena. Perception occurs within the realm of what Goethe called das Trübe [sic]—the turbid, cloudy, or gloomy. Pure light and pure transparence are now beyond the limits of human visibility.


Trübe can be translated not only as "turbid, cloudy, or gloomy," but also as bleak, dim, or murky. It is a term often used to describe light and color, as well as the state of the weather, for example on an overcast day. This is only one of the many threads that connect Goethe's reflections on color and studies of meteorology, the last major area of focus of his scientific writings.

Atmospheric Color and Meteorology

"The highest is to understand that all fact is really theory. The blue of the sky reveals to us the basic law of color. Search nothing beyond the phenomena, they themselves are the theory" (Scientific Writings, 307, translation modified). The entanglement of color and meteorology captured in this aphorism exposes an important point of contact between Goethe's writings on visual perception and his late work on meteorology (chiefly 1817–25).9 We see this link already in the 1810 Theory of Colors, when he points to the "atmospheric colors" that appear in the sky as a "leading phenomenon" of the physical colors and how they appear in a "semi-transparent medium," in this case the atmosphere (62–63).10 The colors of the sky afford us with a prime example of polarity—the tension between light and dark that underpins all manifestations of color. In the case of the sky, we find these poles mirrored in the brightness of the sun and the blackness of space. For Goethe, the appearance of the sun proves that colorless light, when "seen through a medium but very slightly thickened, appears to us yellow" (61). The same bright light source seen through a slightly thicker atmosphere assumes "a yellow-red hue," and it turns a deep "ruby-color" when the atmosphere is at its densest (61). In contrast, when one gazes at the blackness of space "through a semi-transparent medium, which is itself illumined by a light striking on it, a blue color appears," a blue sky that likewise lightens or darkens into the different shades of the dark side of the color spectrum, depending on the density of the atmosphere (62).11 [End Page 305]

Goethe cites these passages from the Theory of Colors several times in his meteorological writings, suggesting an interpretation of the latter that also places his understanding of medial perception and visuality at the fore. The two most explicit examples of the link between these projects are his short text "Colors of the Sky" (Farben des Himmels, 1817–20)—essentially a recapitulation of the section on "atmospheric colors" outlined above—and his most extensive meteorological study, the essay "Toward a Theory of Weather" (Witterungslehre, 1825).12 In a section from this essay entitled "Analogy," he compares the structure of the atmosphere with the notion of mediality that he articulates in the Theory of Colors. He begins the comparison by rehearsing the key elements of his conception of the physical colors:

In chromatics I oppose light and darkness to one another; these would never have any connection if matter did not intervene. Whether matter is opaque, transparent, or even alive, the quality of light and dark will manifest in it, and color in all its nuances will be created [entstehen] forthwith.


In an analogous manner, meteorology also concerns an intermediate space, namely the atmosphere, which he suggests we should think of as a material sphere of interaction between two opposed poles. In the case of the atmosphere, these diametrically opposed ends are "the force of attraction and its effect, gravity, on the one side, and on the other "the force of warmth and its effect, expansion, on the other" (148). The analogy continues, "between the two we put the atmosphere, space empty of any so-called corporality, and we see that what we call 'weather' arises in accordance with the effects of these two forces on the rarefied matter of the air (feine Luft-Materialität)" (148, translation modified).

The analogy Goethe draws between the "rarefied matter of the air" and color fails for him in one key respect. Whereas he consistently maintains that polarity, the tension between light and dark, is the main formative structure or Urform that determines the appearance of individual colors, he seems to quickly abandon the parallel hypothesis regarding the forces of expansion and attraction as the two poles that govern the appearance of phenomena in the atmospheric medium. In fact, only a few years later, he repeatedly questions our ability to discern any underlying pattern or clearly definable forces at work in the manifestation of meteorological phenomena.13 In the essay "Analysis and Synthesis" (1829), he goes so far as to suggest that meteorology may be one of the few fields in which a hidden, "underlying synthesis" might not even exist (49–50). That same year he clarifies and expands on this idea in a conversation with his friend Johann Peter Eckermann. Meteorological phenomena, he tells him, do in fact bespeak the existence of a greater [End Page 306] synthesis between individual objects, but our ability to ascertain what this might be remains highly dubious (Sämtliche Werke 2/39:309).14 Because meteorological phenomena are so manifold (mannigfaltig) and complex, humans are likely incapable of discerning their deepest underlying causes. We can project hypotheses and try to imagine the greater force at work within them, but the true source from which they emanate is likely to remain "undiscovered" (309).

We also find a similar sentiment regarding the potential unknowability of the formative forces that underlie meteorological appearances already several years earlier in the historical section of the Theory of Colors. There Goethe brings together meteorology and color in his discussion of Athanasius Kirchner's work Ars Magna Lucis et umbrae (1646). He praises the German polymath's clarity of explication, his view (in many ways anticipating Goethe's own) that color emerges from the interplay of light and shadow, as well as the connection Kirchner makes between the "chromatism of the air" and the turbid atmosphere (Sämtliche Werke 1/23.1:713). But he criticizes Kirchner's claim that nature purposely renders infinite, borderless "aerial space" (Luftraum) finite through the blue of the sky, so that the "gaze may find a limit and does not peter out into darkness and nothingness" (714). For Goethe, Kirchner performs precisely what he wants to combat in the Theory of Colors. By attributing metaphysical, divine meaning directly to the blue of the sky, a middle or mediating color (Mittelfarbe), Kirchner in fact looks beyond the sky in what Goethe considers a naïve projection of "ultimate causes" (Endursachen) and purposiveness (zweckmäßig) to nature (715).15

Returning to the aphorism above, we might ask what it means that "the blue of the sky reveals to us the basic law of color," but not necessarily any basic truths about the sky or the atmosphere, that is to say of the very "semi-transparent medium" (Trübe) in which the physical colors appear (307). What are we to make of Goethe's claim to have discovered the formative law that dictates the various manifestations of color (polarity), and on the other hand his immense hesitation concerning our ability to accomplish the same feat with meteorological phenomena?16 Although the convergence, the analogy between weather and color clearly reaches a limit in Goethe's thought insofar as the atmosphere, the medial space in which colors appear remains fundamentally, essentially unknowable, by framing the atmosphere as a medial space of tension Goethe opens the way for us to reconsider the relation between color and the atmosphere more broadly. Instead of attempting such a re-reading back through the prism of Goethe's own work (certainly a fruitful task in its own right), I now turn to a different thinker who explicitly combines and develops these themes in his own philosophy of vision and perception: Merleau-Ponty. [End Page 307]

Merleau-Ponty and Atmospheric Painting

Goethe's reflections on color and meteorology, I argue, find an unexpected afterlife in Merleau-Ponty's writings on vision and embodied perception. As Frederick Amrine has shown, Merleau-Ponty engages indirectly with Goethe's work in his late thought on ecology.17 Although, to my knowledge, he only once briefly invokes Goethe's color theory, his thought dovetails with Goethe's philosophy of seeing in several remarkable ways.18 Perhaps most striking among the resonances are their respective conceptions of color as a differential medium. Merleau-Ponty outlines his views on color in several texts, among them writings on painting and in particular Paul Cézanne. In the course of articulating his understanding of color, he repeatedly employs meteorological rhetoric in what I suggest may be read as an indirect continuation of Goethe's attempt to theorize the relation between color and the atmosphere, both understood as diffuse, dynamic mediums. Instead of looking up at the colors of the sky, Merleau-Ponty expressly contemplates what it would mean to reconceptualize all of vision, all of seeing as taking place within the atmospheric medium of color itself.

Similar to Goethe, Merleau-Ponty's explorations of vision set out from the premise that the direct bodily experience of being-in-the-world radically precedes the separation of thought and sensation. In the preface to his ground-breaking Phenomenology of Perception (1945), he recapitulates the idea that the "world is there prior to every analysis that I could give of it" (xxiii). Scientific analysis, for instance, obfuscates a more primordial form of existence by substituting symbolic concepts for lived sensations:

Everything that I know about the world, even through science, I know from a perspective that is my own or from an experience of the world without which scientific symbols would be meaningless. The entire universe of science is constructed upon the lived world, and if we wish to think science rigorously [. . .] we must first awaken that experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression.


A prototypical example for Merleau-Ponty of a mode of perception that remains attuned to the primary state of experience he wishes to reawaken can be found in the art of painting. The painter's eye is never passive, for even when he paints from observations of nature, of what is seen, the bodily act of tactilely translating said images back into the world through paint illuminates a creative, formative element that is in fact always at work in the act of seeing. In "Eye and Mind" (1964), he elaborates on how we are to understand the active character of seeing as epitomized by the painter: "the eye is an instrument that moves itself, a means which invents its own ends; it is that which has [End Page 308] been moved by some impact of the world, which it then restores to the visible through the offices of an agile hand" (165). The painter's ability to "invent" the visible that he simultaneously "restores" indicates an active reciprocity of the gaze.

Several factors contribute to the painter's capacity to render more readily visible the formative qualities of visual perception. Chief among these is a more acute sense of one's surrounding visual field, the "means" by which the visible presents itself before the eyes: "light, lighting, shadows, reflections, color" are the "objects of his quest," spectral objects, "like ghosts," which "only have a visual existence" (166). The painter is better attuned to those aspects of visuality that normally go unseen, that are typically looked through by the transitive gaze that is only oriented toward objects within the optical world. The painter inhabits the visual world differently, more intensely, and often has the sensation that what he sees "emanate[s] from the things themselves," leading to a reversal of "the roles between him and the visible" (167). A series of transmutations follow: viewer and viewed, subject and object, creation and reception, are all reconfigured by the painter's gaze as interrelated and complementing positions within the field of seeing. Merleau-Ponty portrays the painter who relates to his visual sensations in this way as open to the ebb and flow, the "inspiration and expiration of Being" (167). The painter or perceiver breathes in what he sees only to release the same image (in however altered form) back into the shared world that both subject and object, seer and seen co-inhabit. In what we may see as an expansion of Goethe's theory of color and sense perception, Merleau-Ponty argues that it is "impossible to distinguish between what sees and what is seen, what paints and what is painted" (167). Rather than presenting subject and object as the interrelated ends of the visual spectrum, and color as an occurrence between these ends or between the poles of black and white, Merleau-Ponty seems to suggest that both seer and seen themselves inhabit a colored spectrum or medium.

In his last, unfinished work, The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty extends this line of inquiry into the interpenetration of seer and seen in a chapter fittingly titled "The Intertwining—The Chiasm." Like Goethe, who suggests in the Theory of Colors that subject and object reciprocally determine one another and also that colors likewise mutually self-generate one another, the late Merleau-Ponty theorizes vision in terms of a structure of chiasmatic corelation.19 The viewer especially recognizes the "reversibility of the seeing and the visible" in moments when one is forced to assume a reflective third-person perspective, and see oneself as not simply a seeing subject, but also potentially as an object for others to see (147). Although it is impossible to occupy both positions at once, the imminent possibility of assuming an opposite [End Page 309] perspective unsettles and unfixes the gaze, revealing if only indirectly the very medium of visibility that subtends the subject-object dichotomy.

Remarkably, in exploring this drift between seeing-subject and seen-object in the context of color, Merleau-Ponty summons atmospheric rhetoric very similar to that of Goethe. A key instance occurs in his discussion of the color red when ascribed to a specific object. He begins by emphasizing that a specific instance of the color red "is not, as is always said, a quale, a pellicle of being without thickness," that is to say, a secondary, immaterial property that merely describes the mode of being of an underlying primary substance (131). Rather redness, or any color, has a thickness, a density to it. Every single hue of red emerges "from a less precise, more general redness, in which my gaze was caught, into which it sank, before […] fixing it" (131). Color, Merleau-Ponty contends, is not simply a quality of the things we see. Color is rather the medium in which we see. One learns to see past color, to think that one is looking directly, transparently at objects that only happen to be one color or another (color "without thickness" "fix[ed]" to specific objects). What such a viewer overlooks, is that in gazing at things one is in fact looking at color, for color first renders things visible. Simply put, without color there would be nothing to see. Thus color may be thought of as the condition of possibility of seeing itself.

The painter especially is aware of color's essential, primary role in allowing us to first see and differentiate the visible world. In painting, objects are represented in space by contrasts of light and dark and the use of color complements. Merleau-Ponty argues that we can recall such a painterly appreciation for a specific color's place within the broader color spectrum, its "participations" with its surroundings if we allow our "eyes [to] penetrate into [a color], into its fixed structure," or also if we let them "wander round about [the color] again" (131–32). By intensely gazing at a color or taking stock of its place within its surroundings, color once again "resumes its atmospheric existence," its original place in connection and differentiation to all the other colors:

The color is yet a variant in another dimension of variation, that of its relations with the surroundings: this red is what it is only by connecting up from its place with other reds about it, with which it forms a constellation, or with other colors it dominates or that dominate it, that it attracts or that attract it, that it repels or repel it.


The interrelation of colors, the atmospheric drift between one color and another that Merleau-Ponty calls attention to in this passage, reveals a primordial mode of seeing in color as a dynamic, self-differential medium that we often overlook. Like Goethe, Merleau-Ponty stresses that colors always exist in fluid interaction with each another. He writes, "[I]f we took all these participations into account, we would recognize that a naked color […] is not a chunk [End Page 310] of absolutely hard, indivisible being," but rather "a certain differentiation, an ephemeral modulation of this world—less a color or a thing, therefore, than difference between things and colors" (132). Individual colors are ephemeral manifestations of a differential field, they are fluid and unfixed densities, and as such they approach Goethe's conception of physical colors and the turbid atmosphere in which they appear.

Merleau-Ponty develops this conception of atmospheric color over the course of several years and writings, including in another text published the same year as the Phenomenology of Perception, "Cézanne's Doubt" (1945). For Merleau-Ponty, Cézanne's painterly use of color inspired by the Impressionist movement indicates an artistic attempt to recapture the sort of embodied seeing described above. He argues that Cézanne learned from Impressionism to treat painting as the "exact study of appearances," a mode of "working from nature" (71). He interprets what has long been hailed as the distinctive feature of Impressionism—its careful depiction of diffuse light and color over clearly demarcated lines and contours of form—as an attempt to not only approximate embodied, subjective vision, but also simultaneously to situate the viewer back within the broader atmosphere in which one sees:

Impressionism was trying to capture, in the painting, the very way in which objects strike our eyes and attack our senses. Impressionism represented them in the atmosphere through which instantaneous perception gives them to us, without absolute contours, bound together by light and air. To capture this envelope of light, one had to exclude siennas, ochres, and black and use only the seven colors of the spectrum. In order to represent the color of objects, it was not enough to put their local tone on the canvas, that is, the color they take on isolated from their surroundings; one also had to pay attention to the phenomena of contrast which modify local colors in nature. Furthermore, by a sort of reversal, every color we see in nature elicits the vision of its complement; and these complementaries heighten one another.


To highlight and illuminate the fluidity of the sphere of visuality, the Impressionists render color itself cloudy, atmospheric. Impressionism gives color depth and materiality. Echoing Goethe, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes that such a shift foregrounds the thickness of the color spectrum, which must be reimagined as a sort of material medium in which individual manifestations of color do not stand "isolated from their surroundings," but rather always in contrast and relation to other "complement" colors that reciprocally "modify" one another.

For Cézanne, in Merleau-Ponty's reading, such a turn away from a transitive, transparent gaze has many advantages. Central among these is the attention Impressionist works draw to the sphere of vision itself and the viewer's [End Page 311] place within it. But placing all of the focus on color's medial, atmospheric character also brings its own set of challenges. Cézanne's main issue with the impressionist method is that by "depicting the atmosphere and breaking up the tones," one "submerges the object and cause[s] it to lose its proper weight" (71–72). In other words, the objects in space become obfuscated, secondary. By making subjective vision and the medium of visibility itself visible, the gaze no longer reaches the objects toward which it aims. Instead, the gaze remains adrift in a spectrum of colorful light no longer locally attached to discrete phenomena. Thus Merleau-Ponty interprets Cézanne's attempt to forge a new style beyond Impressionism as the expression of a "wish[] to return to the object without abandoning the impressionist aesthetic which takes nature as its model" (72). In search of a solution for this conundrum, Cézanne includes more colors to his palette. Especially the addition of "warm colors and black shows that Cézanne wants to represent the object, to find it again behind the atmosphere" (72). Thinking along with Goethe, one might interpret this as an attempt to create an impression of solidity by moving the emphasis away from the diffuse, atmospheric medium of the color spectrum to the ends of said medium, the poles of light and dark. Of course, as parts of the same differential spectrum, such extreme colors nonetheless do not move the gaze entirely outside of the color medium, they can only gesture toward it. For this reason, Cézanne's painting expresses a difficult "paradox" for Merleau-Ponty, namely the seemingly futile attempt to represent both the medium in which one sees and the objects of the gaze simultaneously (72). He tries to depict the transitive, object-oriented gaze and the subjective, medial sphere of perception simultaneously, suggesting something like the interpenetration of the subjective and objective spheres that Goethe gestures toward in his discussion of the physical colors and the turbid, liminal medium in which they appear. Although Merleau-Ponty ultimately questions the success of Cézanne's painterly experiment, Cézanne's quest to depict both the medium of the gaze and an underlying object at the same time sheds light on a central point of Merleau-Ponty's and Goethe's theories of color. In contemplating the manifestation of color within an atmospheric medium, both authors challenge a prevailing way of thinking about vision that privileges form over color.

The Color of Form

The theme of form reemerges throughout Goethe's and Merleau-Ponty's writings on color. In order to better grasp the stakes of their respective interventions into a long tradition of reflection on the relation between color and form, let us briefly examine two interlinked ways that artists and philosophers have [End Page 312] tended to conceptualize this relation both in the realm of painting and visual perception at large.

In his aesthetic treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), Wassily Kandinsky presents us with his version of an established view regarding the "essential connection between color and form" in the art of painting (28). By form, Kandinsky understands the "purely abstract limit to a space or a surface," a "geometrical" border or shape that "can stand alone," independently from color (28). In other words, form marks the outline of discrete objects, demarcating where one thing ends and another begins. In direct contrast to form, whose geometric mode of representation does not require color, Kandinsky argues that color "can never stand alone; it cannot dispense with boundaries of some kind" (28). Color in a painting depends on form as the "separating line between surfaces of color" (29). By differentiating between one color and another, form creates order, giving the colors the necessary structure from which a viewer can discern individual figures, objects, and shapes, allowing for an image to emerge. Thus despite the "essential connection" between these two interrelated categories, the fundamental necessity of form for the composition of a painting suggests its indispensability, its priority over color.

The implicit prioritization of form over color in Kandinsky's views on painting parallels a manner of viewing color in the philosophical tradition aligned with thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, and Kant, to name only three examples. Especially indicative here of the general precedence of form over color is Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities. In short, the primary qualities of an object name for him those attributes that are essential to a thing, to its "body" (169). These include features such as size, solidity, and shape (form). Color, meanwhile, belongs to the secondary category of qualities, for color is not intrinsic to "the objects themselves" (170). The way that one viewer and another perceives a specific color (the "idea" it gives to us, in Locke's terms) can vary because color is not an inherent part of the thing perceived (173). Rather, color is contingent or supplementary—it is a secondary feature of the object, whose primary substance lies in its shape and objective extension in space.

The privilege that both Kandinsky and Locke afford form over color reflects the conventional view that in seeing things color is merely a characteristic, a predicative feature of preexisting underlying phenomena with a definitive shape. Things in a painting or nature may be this or that color, but when we look at a thing we often believe that we are seeing the object itself, its color only being a secondary dimension. Goethe and Merleau-Ponty directly challenge this assumption. Specifically, they contemplate the possibility that form in seeing does not precede color but rather only originates negatively in the [End Page 313] difference between colors themselves. Color shapes form, or perhaps better put, color colors form.

Goethe explicitly indicates this inverted relation of form and color in the introduction to the Theory of Colors, where he presents the following "extraordinary" claim: "the eye sees no form, inasmuch as light, darkness, and color [Hell, Dunkel und Farbe] together constitute that which to our vision distinguishes object from object, and the parts of an object from each other. From these three, light, shade, and color, we construct the visible world […]" (lii). Visual form develops as a byproduct of polarity, the tension of colors between light and darkness. He continues by comparing the way form arises in ordinary perception to painting, an art whose "power of producing" form similarly derives from the medium of color itself (liii). Despite this suggestive analogy, Goethe does not remark further on this association.

Painting, however, reemerges in Merleau-Ponty's extended exploration of color's generative relation to form in his reading of Cézanne. As mentioned earlier, Merleau-Ponty locates Cézanne's painting at a crossroads between subject and object insofar as it illustrates a tension between the medium of seeing and the thing seen. On the hand, Cézanne retains an impressionist emphasis on the medium of light and color, which includes a rejection of "exact contours," giving "color priority over the outline" (72). But this leads the object to become "lost in its relationship to the air and other objects" (72). In order to recover the object obfuscated by this atmosphere, Cézanne introduces starker colors into his palette and plays with different techniques in an attempt to present objects as though "subtly illuminated from within," thus creating a sense of objective solidity on the airy canvas (72). According to Merleau-Ponty, these seemingly conflicting tendencies in Cézanne's painting derive from the following desire: "he did not want to separate the stable things which appear before our gaze and their fleeting way of appearing. He wanted to paint matter as it takes on form, the birth of order through spontaneous organization" (72–73). Such "spontaneous organization" is meant to mirror the way objects take form in "natural vision," that is to say, for embodied spectators and their active way of perceiving the world (in other words, including all of the complex physical and mental processes that occur in the event of seeing). Thus, for Merleau-Ponty Cézanne's work marks an attempt to recapture the dynamic process of seeing between viewer and viewed within the static art of painting. He mobilizes atmospheric colors to create the "impression of an emerging order, an object in the act of appearing, organizing itself before our eyes" (74).

Cézanne's strategy of removing the "outline [that] enclose[s] the color" signals for Merleau-Ponty a rejection of an abstract, formal gaze, for "the contours of objects, conceived as a line encircling objects, belongs not to the visible world, but to geometry" (72; 74). When one "outline(s) just one contour," a [End Page 314] single fixed line, one "sacrifices depth" and the "lived perspective, that of our perception" in place of an impoverished, "geometric" mode of seeing (73–74). Instead, Cézanne paints in a manner that "follow(s) the swelling of the object in a colored modulation" in an attempt to approximate natural perception (74). He achieves this through techniques such as "outlin[ing] several contours in blue lines. Referred from one to the other, the gaze captures a contour that emerges from among them all, just as it does in perception" (74). A drift between multiple colored contours replaces a sole, static, purportedly colorless line. Merleau-Ponty concludes these remarks by arguing that the form which emerges in Cézanne's paintings—which one might conceive of as the graphic lines of a drawing or the geometric structure virtually underlying the colors of a painting—arises from color, and not vice versa:

The drawing must therefore result from the colors, if one wants the world to be rendered in its thickness. For the world is a mass without gaps, an organism of colors across which the receding perspective, the contours, the angles, and the curves are set up as lines of force; the spatial frame is constituted by vibrating.


Colors swell and vibrate against one another to create the impression of a solid underlying framework. Thus Cézanne's painting illustrates that form emerges from within the thick, atmospheric drift of colors, their interrelation and self-modulation, the differential force between one color and another. I suggest that Merleau-Ponty's notion of form as an after-or inter-effect of color gives us a productive perspective from which to revisit Goethe's own deeper interest in the concept of form.

Beyond the limited way that I have been discussing form so far—in terms of its relation to color in visual perception and painting—the concept of form also plays a central role in Goethe's morphological writings in a much broader context: namely regarding the question of the Urform or Urphenomenon that gives the law or pattern for all of the disparate manifestations of a class of phenomena. Polarity, for instance, marks for Goethe such an archetypal form insofar as he believes that it gives us the rule or structure that all individual manifestations of color follow. As we saw above with the example of his botanical writings, Goethe often stresses the need to collect a variety of examples in order to discern the Urform, for it never shows itself directly, but rather only through the affinities that present themselves to the perceptive observer when comparing a representative sampling of individual phenomena.

The relation between phenomena and form in this larger sense continues to attract much attention in the vast field of Goethe scholarship, partially due to the scattered character of his reflections on the topic, partially because he returns to this key idea in a variety of contexts, and also partially [End Page 315] in consideration of his significant influence within the broader history of theorizing the relation between form and matter.20 In a recent essay, David Wellbery juxtaposes Goethe's notion of form from the hitherto prevailing "eidetic concept" thereof, an understanding that touches on the static, geometric idea of form in painting (19).21 In this eidetic concept, form marks an "outline that guarantees an object's identity." This formal outline, however, ultimately extends beyond painting or any visible phenomena insofar as it is conceived of as invariable, immaterial, and connected to a "timeless essence," as in Plato's famous theory of forms (19). For Goethe, on the other hand, form and matter, stasis and change are not opposed, but rather these binaries are reconceived in terms of "interpenetration" (19). Goethean form is "endogenous," it signals a "process of self-development [Sich-Herausbilden] in the interaction of variance and invariance," form and matter (19). In the course of explicating Goethe's understanding of form, Wellbery summons Merleau-Ponty's first book, The Structure of Behavior (1942), as an example of a work whose "interpretation of the concept of form stands stunningly close to Goethe" (20).22 Although he does not elaborate on this link, Goethe's and Merleau-Ponty's shared belief that visual form emerges from within the generative, differential force of colors exemplifies a specific area where their respective understandings of form certainly approach one another.

But can Merleau-Ponty's detailed examination of the way form emerges from within the dynamic atmosphere of color help us resolve the difficulty we encountered earlier regarding Goethe's abandonment late in his life of the possibility of ascertaining a general abiding law or Urform for different types of meteorological phenomena? Again, the issue that heightens this impasse in Goethe's thought is his abiding claim that the colors which appear in the atmosphere do give evidence of an archetypal form: polarity. And yet, the very medium in which said colors appear seems to surpass our abilities to discern any underlying form or structure.

One potential path for re-approaching this dilemma with Merleau-Ponty's views on visual perception in mind can be gleaned from Eva Geulen's recent monograph, From the Life of Form (Aus dem Leben der Form, 2016). Focusing especially on Goethe's late scientific writings, Geulen interprets in Goethe's writings the suggestion of a radically formless state (if we can even call it that) which precedes the distinction of form and the unformed. We gain a glimpse of such a "pre-formed state of aggregation" (vorförmigen Aggregatzustand) in Goethe's interest in the unorganized series or "Reihe," a loose collection of phenomena not yet ordered but also not necessarily disordered, an aggregation that allows us to conceive the possibility of a formlessness that preexists the dichotomy of form and the unformed (understood as two distinct, i.e. formed, legible categories) (66).23 Such a [End Page 316] reading suggests the possibility that the true Urform, insofar as one could speak of it, resides radically before or below "the threshold from which one could differentiate between form and the un-or non-formed" (109). It follows that the Urform never assumes a definite shape, but only shows itself negatively in deferral and self-withdrawal.

Thinking along these lines, we might ask if the relation between the motley colors from which form arises in visual perception does not signal a similar sort of dichotomy between form and the unformed as two distinct, but intimately related parts of the phenomenal, visible world (hence both above the threshold of radical formlessness that Geulen indicates). To suggest, as both Goethe and Merleau-Ponty do, that form develops from color is to transform color into form to a certain degree. If color generates form, then color itself is creative, caught in a self-formative endogenous process. The atmospheric colors give life to form, rendering color and form interpenetrated parts of a larger, dynamic whole—a whole that is perpetually splitting and reforming itself in a seemingly endless array of kaleidoscopic transformations. On the other side of the threshold, meanwhile, we might situate the unknowability of the Urform of meteorological phenomena, including the atmosphere in which the paradigmatic physical colors appear. The ungraspability of the medial atmosphere gestures toward the invisible limits of such a seemingly holistic view of the phenomenal world as hinted at in the interpenetration of color and form. It gives us to think a mode of seeing that acts as the condition of possibility for both the sight of form and color, but which for this reason lies radically beyond or before the confines of these two interrelated categories. How we should conceive of such a mode of seeing is a more difficult question that I will not attempt to answer here. But Goethe suggests where we might begin to look for an answer: at the atmospheric medium in which colors appear, a medium that in its very medial structure—its drift elsewhere—often turns our gaze away from itself. [End Page 317]

Michael Powers
Kalamazoo College
Michael Powers

MICHAEL POWERS is Visiting Assistant Professor of German at Kalamazoo College. His research interests include literary and cultural theory, visual studies, and the intersection of philosophy, politics, and art. He has recently published articles on play theory, photography, and the works of Freud, Jean Paul, and Alfred Stieglitz, and he is currently completing a book on the writings of Walter Benjamin.


1. Two excellent sources that offer an overview of Goethe's scientific studies are the collected volume Goethe's Way of Science (I refer to several contributions from this collection in the following), and Karl J. Fink's monograph Goethe's History of Science.

2. Henceforth, all given page numbers for English translations of Goethe's scientific writings (except for the Theory of Colors) refer to the volume Scientific Studies, unless otherwise noted. All other translations are my own.

4. Iris Hennigfeld provides a useful exploration of Goethe's work within the framework of Husserl's philosophy, and the phenomenological tradition at large, in her essay "Goethe's Phenomenological Way of Thinking."

5. Unless otherwise noted, all references to the Theory of Colors stem from the Eastlake translation.

6. Several readers have likewise emphasized the importance of the physiological colors as a cornerstone of Goethe's rethinking of color. For example, Hensel, who reads Goethe's color studies as a specifically "phenomenological investigation," emphasizes that Goethe challenges the traditional view that colors only arise from and exist in a separate, objective, empirical world (78). Fink makes a similar observation (33), as does Muenzer who likewise places the physiological colors at the center of his reading (see 224–31 in particular).

7. Goethe consistently uses the term die Trübe to denote what has been translated here as the "semi-transparent medium." The word (discussed further below) is a nominalized form of the adjective trüb, meaning gloomy, turbid, murky. Goethe peculiarly uses the feminine die rather than the more standard neutral das for the construction, although he does not explain this choice.

8. For more on this understanding of color as a self-generative, autonomous process, see Muenzer's excellent discussion of what Goethe describes at one point as "chromagenesis" (Chromagenesie), (225–35 in particular).

9. Leland R. Phelps provides an introduction and summary of the meteorological complex of Goethe's scientific writings, see "Goethe's Meteorological Writings."

10. Reenacting several of Goethe's own visual experiments, Johannes Kühl examines some of the key links that Goethe discerns between optical and meteorological phenomena in his monograph, Rainbows, Halos, Dawn and Dusk.

11. He similarly attributes the red hues of the sunrise and the sunset to the distance of the light source and thickness of the atmospheric medium at the horizon.

12. For a useful overview of the term and idea of "atmosphere" and the overlapping scientific and aesthetic meanings of the concept at the turn of the eighteenth century (which also explores Goethe's interest in the concept), see Atanucci, "Atmosphärische Stimmungen."

13. In "Toward a Theory of Weather," he anticipates this reversal in describing weather as "less tangible" insofar as it affords less insight into the structure of nature than other physical phenomena: "We can never directly see what is true, i.e. identical with what is divine; we look at it only in reflection, in example, in the symbol, in individual and related phenomena. We perceive it as a life beyond our grasp, yet we cannot deny our need to grasp it. This applies primarily to phenomena of the tangible world, but here we will speak only of the less tangible principles of weather" (145).

14. Eckermann notes these comments on Feb. 13, 1829.

15. At least in this regard, Goethe appears thoroughly Kantian.

16. This hesitation comes in spite of, or can perhaps be read as a reason for his deep interest in the taxonomical nomenclature Luke Howard devises for the distinct types of cloud formations.

17. One of Merleau-Ponty's main interlocutors in this context is the biologist Jacob von Uexküll, himself greatly influenced by Goethe's scientific writings. According to Amrine, what most interested Merleau-Ponty in Uexküll's work was a "nondualistic epistemology of embedded meaning," an aspect that Uexküll saw "explicitly as a continuation of Goethe's" thought (55). See Amrine, 45–47 in particular.

18. In a short passage from the Phenomenology of Perception, he references the Theory of Colors in discussing the psychological effects of particular colors: "Blue seems to 'yield to our gaze,' says Goethe. Red, to the contrary, 'penetrates the eye,' continues Goethe" (218).

19. Astrida Orle Tantillo suggestively argues that such a structure is already at work in Goethe's Theory of Colors in her insightful essay "The Subjective Eye: Goethe's Farbenlehre and Faust" (see 265, in particular). While I agree with her reading, it can be nonetheless argued that Merleau-Ponty articulates this structure of inversion much more forcefully and clearly, going so far as to build it into the theoretical nucleus of his philosophy of perception.

20. For a useful overview of Goethe's concept of form in relation to other key theories thereof, see Annette Simonis's Gestalttheorie von Goethe bis Benjamin.

21. My translation.

22. Like Amrine, who similarly notes parallels between Merleau-Ponty's and Goethe's projects, Wellbery speculates that the affinity may be explained indirectly, namely by Merleau-Ponty's reception of Kurt Goldstein's The Structure of the Organism (Der Aufbau des Organismus, 1934), which draws heavily on Goethe's scientific writings.

23. My translation.


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Atanucci, Timothy. "Atmosphärische Stimmungen. Landschaft und Meteorologie bei Carus, Goethe und Stifter." Zeitschrift für Germanistik, vol. 24, no. 2, 2014, pp. 282–295.
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———. "Eye and Mind." The Primacy of Perception: And other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics. Edited by James M. Edie, translated by Carleton Dallery. Northwestern UP, 1964, pp. 159–90.
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Wellbery, David E. "Form und Idee: Skizze eines Begriffsfeldes um 1800." Morphologie und Moderne. Goethes 'anschauliches Denken' in den Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften seit 1800. Edited by Jonas Maatsch. De Gruyter, 2014, pp. 17–42.

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