Part 1 A brief history of forms


Let us start with a few historical pointers. Although Aristotle and many other philosophers before him had tackled both natural and built forms from a philosophical angle, Goethe still remains a key philosopher of form. In particular, he dealt with this question in his key work, Metamorphosis of Plants in 1790. Goethean morphology relates to the way in which a plant is what it appears to be. This theory links the concept of phenomenal form (Gestalt) with formation (Bildung), formative force (Bildende kraft), drive (Trieb) and structures in the sense of relations between the whole and the parts (Petitot, 2004). The crux of Goethean morphology is that of an internal principle and dynamic linking the whole and the parts in accordance with an unknown purpose. The problem is that the idea of connection between the whole and the parts still has to be shown and Goethe attempted to highlight internal principles that guide how plants form. The idea of the spatio-temporal deployment of a basis of construction that obeyed both external and internal forces gradually took hold thanks to his work. Goethean metamorphosis therefore combined the regular and the singular, the generic and the specific, the collective and the individual, unity and diversity. In particular, metamorphosis helped explain the laws of variation between forms based on context.

The emergence of an analysis of forms also accompanies the thought of the autonomy of art and matters of the senses more generally. This conquest played on an aesthetic philosophy that had been partially thematised by Kant (Critique of Judgment, 1790). Traditional metaphysics considers that the sensitive is subordinated to the order of the intelligible. Works of art depict intelligible significations that give them all of their meaning. In contrast to this tradition, in his critical work Laokoon, oder über die Grenzen der Malerie und Poesie, [3] Gothold Ephraim Lessing highlighted the autonomy of the graphic arts and asserted that they themselves were "arts of sensitive, spatially extended forms and qualities". The sensitive beauty of a work of art is in itself a metaphysical value just like good or evil.


1.1 Form and meaning

The argument goes as follows: all art, regardless of its underlying characteristics, harks back to a demonstrative form of the object concerned. The natural characteristics of the different arts, i.e., their perceptible and sensitive rather than their conceptual and intelligible qualities, cannot express general ideas as they have their own qualities - spatially extended in the case of the graphic arts and temporally constituted in the narrative and musical arts. This theory of the immanence of art, whereby art is endowed with meaning based on constraints imposed by transcendental aesthetics, results in a question that stands this approach on its head. How can we get from empirical (and perceived) forms to aesthetic forms rather than vice versa?

Aside from the emotion and pleasure experienced from a work or situation, Goethe indicates that aesthetic feeling arises from the functional correlations that operate between the whole and the parts. Nature and aesthetics come together in a completed form to combine the rule and absolute freedom. Like Kant's third Critique, Critique of Judgment, Goethe establishes a deep-rooted identity between the living being and work of nature, and the work of art – product of human nature and therefore of nature itself. Moreover, he made form and its internal dynamics a force for organisation and an "intuitive concept" (whereas in physics for example, the concept is abstracted from the sensitive world). Form became nature's main subjective and objective principle of organisation, obliging us to describe what appears. Forms, their structures and the meaning attributed are intermediaries between something bio-physico-chemical and the subject they express. For Goethe, beauty was even a manifestation of secret laws of nature, however, such beauty needs subjects that are willing to host it.

We should remember that, for the first time in the history of aesthetic thought, an immanent and systematic analysis of the functional relations of the whole and the parts forged the link with artistic and natural forms. This analysis was based on the relationships identified by Goethe: differences, oppositions, contrasts, symmetries and gradations... a schema was needed [4]. This intelligence inherent in the work was the key, or rather the meaning. This aesthetic theory went against the opposition to a nature that was objectified and nature as perceived by the human being-subject. Goethe enlarged the notion of nature to the point of introducing the world of organization and forms that culminate in the sphere of the senses via processes of semiotization [5]. This representation of the interiority of nature eventually culminates in the depoliticizing of all things social as power should be wielded by those likely to be able to decipher natural forms, i.e., scholars.



1. 2 Critique of Judgment

Kant's Critique of Judgement, which was also published in 1790, made forms its guiding principle. Because the forms of nature are produced by causes that cannot be reduced to either a pure mechanism or a teleology of nature, we have to be able to see in forms, a discrete and non-generic means of appearance, a principle of understanding whereby the spirit manages to subsume the individual within the general. We therefore need to be able to think about the contingency of these forms. The key challenge consists of defining the possible conditions for phenomenality depicted in physical objects of natural mechanics.

Although Kant is deeply involved in an objectifying reading of nature, he turns it into a real manifest, a sensitive spatiality. For Baumgarten also, author of the founding text of Aesthetica [6], (1988) beauty is a perfection of autonomous sensible knowledge relative to conceptual knowledge. This manifest reality, spatially extended, is formed and leads to feelings of pleasure or pain. The aesthetic nature of the object is the relation to the subject. In other words, the aesthetic nature of the object allows the subject to become acquainted with it. Beauty is the meaning or the signifying value that lends experience to the object. The perceived finality of the artistic or natural object, by its structure or its organization, promotes a meaningful relationship to the affecting feeling. This structure and organization which appears as morphology in the absence of any possible conceptual knowledge, is converted into aesthetic knowledge. A feeling of pleasure is an expression of the pertinence of the form with regard to the subject. This is reflective judgment. In fact, the form of the object is experienced twice: in its immediate perception as well as in the appropriateness experienced in terms of its vision. Beauty from a Kantian perspective is indeed bound up with the perceived purpose of forms of the object. Aesthetic judgement relates not to sociology but is freely exercised by the senses and bound up with subjective purposes.

To take things further, we need to stress the fact that form constitutes a threshold between the objective and the subjective, between the order of cause and purpose, between theory and practice. Kant treats this key question as part of a theory of different cognitive faculties and different types of judgement. In art, it is human genius, considered in terms of human nature that is depicted. In natural beauty, it is self-determined nature transcending its own mechanisms. This phenomenality of form is crucial for solidarity between a biological organisation and semiotic structure. As such, forms create their own space and temporality, i.e., the time needed to become aware – via other non-visual senses as well (vision lies at the heart of Kant's aesthetic judgement; it is unlikely that the question of beauty for blind people occurred to him). Basically, we could say that from the 18th century on, aesthetics became an autonomous realm of knowledge, a scientific field of exploration of forms of the environment that developed independently of the history of art. Jacques Rancière highlights this change of regime: "By borrowing the name aesthetics from Baumgarten to talk about the theory of forms of sensitivity, Kant essentially rejects what gave meaning to his whole theory, i.e., the idea of the sensitive as confusing intelligibility. And Critique of Judgment does not accept "aesthetics" as a theory. It only accepts "aesthetic" as an adjective that designates a type of judgement and not a realm of objects. It is only in the Post-Kantian context of romanticism and idealism, through the writings of Schelling, Schlegel or Hegel, that aesthetics have come to discuss ideas about art... [...] it raises “confused knowledge” up from a lesser knowledge to thought that is not thought about... In other words, aesthetics is not a new domain for designating the realm of art  [...] it marks a transformation in the order of thinking about art and this new order is the arena in which a specific idea of thought is forged..." (Rancière, 2000, p. 13) [7].

How does this morphological theory inherited from natural history and aesthetic philosophy enable us to conceive of a theory of environmental forms? We wish to advance three main arguments.

First, "by countering a reductionist approach, morphological theories tackle forms at the organisational level at which they appear (Boutot, 1993) [8]." Adopting a morphological approach amounts to embracing a qualitative theory that opposes techno-scientific approaches more focused on problem solving than on understanding phenomena.

Second, the morphological approach combines social and natural dynamics that are far removed from nature-culture distinctions. Geographical, discipline-based approaches are notably defined by "naturalness" / spatiality interactions that may be broken down into different processes and in line with processes of humanisation. In terms of spatialities, the Anthropocene forces us to consider both horizontals – according to geographers (Pinchemel, 1988) – and verticals, i.e. the bio-geophysical dimensions. We will analyse this post-humanisation process (i.e., non-anthropocentric) via the environmental forms created.

Third, the morphological approach highlight the idea of structuring arising from art as well as from the invention of the everyday [9]; "formativity" or "operative power" may be defined as follows: "Human activities may only be carried out by taking concrete form in operations, i.e., in movements intended to culminate in works; however, it is only by assuming form that the work becomes a work per se in its individual and unique reality, detached from its author with a life of its own – contained in endoconsistency – open to recognition of its value and capable of both demanding and obtaining this [10] "Forming means doing but in a way that involves inventing a way of doing. This formula does not just concern aesthetic activity, but also various different domains of human and non-human  activity. In art, this "formativity" is an end in itself [11]. This theory of "formativity" explains why it is not so much a matter of copying form but revealing the operational effectiveness of the rule, coupled with the dynamic production of the work. The true invention is underpinned by new rules and their possible reproduction. The rules for creating forms must also include an ethical as well as an aesthetic relationship as these are inseparable (Blanc, 2013 ; Guattari, 1995).

Thus environmental forms open up possibilities for rehabilitating a qualitative and aesthetic understanding of environmental problems.

[3] Lessing, Gothold Ephraim, (1990) [1766-1768], Laocoon or The respective limits of poetry and painting, French translation by De Courtin, preface by Hubert Damisch, Paris, Hermann.

[4] Thanks to Andrej Radman who most interestingly reviewed this paper we can add two references.  See Kwinter, Sanford, (1998) ‘The Genealogy of Models: The Hammer and the Song’: “Goethe, it may be argued, was the first to have rejected the( apodictic) Kantian-Newtonian model in favour of the modern genetic interpretation of form. With respect to the form problem, in other words, Goethe placed his wager on the side of development, lodging the explanatory device in the space of abstract interactions taking place over time, so that form was always moving and represented only a visible, frozen section through a more fundamental organizing logic that itself could be intuited, analytically de scribed, but never actually held in the hands. Goethe is the father of the modern concept of diagram insofar as he insisted on formation as the locus of explanation, not simple appearance. This ecological approach can be found in all of Goethe's work on Natural Philosophy and on intuition, but it is most explicitly elaborated in his scientific writings, especially those on botanical subjects. (…) Goethe is also rightly credited with having invented the term morphology.” See also: Who’s Afraid of Formalism? Sanford Kwinter from Phylogenesis: FOA's Ark, ed. Michael Kubo and Albert Ferré with FOA (Barcelona: Actar, 2003), pp. 96-99.“Ernst Cassirer once said of Goethe that his work completed the transition from the generic view to the genetic view of organic nature. He was referring to the break from the tabular space of the genera of the Linnaean classifications with their emphasis on what is constant and fixed to a generative space where the processes of coming-to-be are given shape. Goethe's formalism, like all rigorous and interesting ones, actually marks a turning away from the simple structure of end-products and toward the active, ever-changing processes that bring them into being. With any luck, twenty years from now, one will be able to make the same claim for certain architects that Cassirer made for Goethe's science. And should this in fact not come to be, it will be far more the fault of the one dimensional semioticians and ideologists who propagate the cliché of the “social construction of meaning" than of second-rate poor formalists who merely trivialize a powerful method and inadvertently lend credence to the airless arguments of the former group."

[5] See Serpil Oppermann, « Sites of Narrativity: Storied Matter and Narrative Agencies », présentation donnée à la 7ème conférence annuelle sur les nouveaux matérialismes, « Performing Situated Knowledges: Space, Time, Vulnerability », Varsovie, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, organisée du 21 au 23 septembre 2016 par Networking European Scholarship on ‘How Matter Comes to Matter’, European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST), Action IS 1307,  p. 6 :  « If ‘all things have the capacity of speech’, as David Abram claims, then there must be a creative materiality around us with an incipient tendency to be a narrative agency dense with stories. Narrative agency is a nonlinguistic performance inherent in every material formation from bodies to their atoms making them telling or storied».

[6] "Baumgarten, 1988, §533, cited in Jimenez, Marc, (2004), What is Aesthetics?, Paris, Gallimard). The 18th century also witnessed the first key contributions to an aesthetic of nature. In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764) and Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant developed a subjective approach to aesthetic satisfaction as a free exercise of learning faculties and possibilities and developed a new perspective on nature.

[7] "This system of sensitive proof that simultaneously depicts the existence of something in common and the boundaries that circumscribe the respective places and parts," Rancière, Jacques, (2000), Sharing sensitive experience. Aesthetics and politics, Paris, La Fabrique, p.12.

[8] Boutot, Alain, (1993), L’invention des formes, Paris, Odile Jacob, p. 69.

[9] de Certeau, Michel, (1990), The Practice of Everyday Life (L’invention du quotidien). Arts de faire, t. i [1980], Paris Gallimard; de Certeau, Michel, Giard, Luce et Mayol, Pierre, (1994), L’invention du quotidien. Habiter et cuisiner, t. ii [1990], Paris, Gallimard.


[10] Pareyson, Luigi, (2007), Esthétique. Théorie de la formativité, trad. de Rita di Lorenzo, éd. de Gilles A. Tiberghien, Paris, Éditions rue d’Ulm-Presses de l’École normale supérieure, p. 32.

[11] This theory of "formativity" goes back to Goethe and Schelling, but also to Paul Valéry to whom Luigi Pareyson would devote two articles on the virtue of rules.