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Joshua Korenblat

Published On


Page Range

pp. 173-216

Print Length

43 pages

8. Inspiration from Goethe’s Tender Empiricism

How to be the Person Collecting, Analyzing and Visualizing Data

  • Joshua Korenblat (author)
Science, humanities and design might seem like unrelated fields. Yet, information designers, who unpack complex data involving real-world issues, can benefit from the ability to synthesize these seemingly disparate practices. To learn more integrated, humanistic approaches to data visualization, we might look to a time when science and the arts were less divided. The following chapter focuses on poet-scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Romantic-era polymath. Goethe called his scientific method ‘tender empiricism’, a complementary practice to analytical empiricism. Goethe believed in portraying the same phenomena under subtle, changing conditions. While observing, collecting and visualizing, he also searched for what might be missing. A plant, for example, is not a collection of parts; it also portrays the process of growth even in static form. For Goethe, observational discoveries can change the inquiring mind. In contrast to data visualization practice today, which often focuses on summaries and abstract charts, Goethe believed that authentic, insightful truth dwells in real-world details. The second half of the chapter illustrates how Goethe’s ‘tender empiricism’ can be applied to design pedagogy. These case studies show how a Goethean ecological approach can be used to model a more ethical way of working with data.


Joshua Korenblat