chapter  1
17 Pages

Goethe and Werner: from morphology to orthogenetic principle


Heinz Werner (1890-1964) has been considered a key figure in developmental psychology. His theory is summarized, along with those of Freud, Piaget, and Vygotsky, in a widely read textbook, Theories of Development (Crain, 2011), a review of his theory was included in the third edition of Carmichael’s Manual of Child Psychology (Langer, 1970), and an article was devoted to the description of his theory in the special series on historical figures that was published in Developmental Psychology (Glick, 1992). Werner’s empirical work focused on symbol formation (Werner & Kaplan, 1963) and perceptual development (Wapner & Werner, 1957; Werner & Wapner, 1952), with the former work still influential in contemporary research (e.g., Callaghan & Corbit, 2015; MacWhinney, 2015). From a theoretical perspective, Werner advanced the idea that the concept of development provides a useful approach for investigating phenomena in all life sciences, including biology, anthropology, psychopathology, comparative psychology, and child psychology (Werner, 1926/1948, 1957). In this vein, Werner proposed the orthogenetic principle as the key theoretical principle that unifies the study of development across different disciplines: “[T]he development of biological forms is expressed in an increasing differentiation of parts and an increasing subordination, or hierarchization” (Werner, 1926/1948, p. 41, emphases in original). However, Werner credits the eminent German poet, politician, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) as the source of the orthogenetic principle: “For him, the very essence of the development of biological forms is symbolized by the differentiation of the organic parts and their subordination to the whole of the organism” (Werner, 1926/1948, p. 41). Werner then references one of Goethe’s writings on morphology to further expound on the orthogenetic principle:

The less perfect the creation, the more its parts are alike or similar and the more they resemble the whole. The more perfect the creation the less similar its parts become. In the first instance the whole is like its parts to a degree, in the second instance the whole is unlike its parts. The more similar its parts, the less they will be subordinated to one another. Subordination of parts indicates a more perfect solution.