Wilhelm Troll and German Idealistic Morphology.

Wilhelm Troll ( 1897 München – 1978 Mainz), German morphologist who acquired international recognition (1). Since 1932 professor of botany at University Halle, 1946-1966 at Mainz. Author of many publications and textbooks. (2). ‘He provided the first general view on the diversity of plant form, and influenced German morphology for decades. At least 16 of his disciples have held a professorship in Germany and have passed on his typological concept’.(3)

Wilhelm Troll continued in morphological tradition established by Goethe. According to Troll the understanding of living phenomena as individuals is possible only through intuitive research combined with the platonic concept of “understanding as recollection”. His profound faith in God determined his empirical studies and in his old days some of his opinions become even mystical.(1)

We can read (my translation) -

Natural events are nowhere, and especially not in organic areas, the bare chances of blind necessity, but appearances of the world reason.(1)

God expresses himself in facts of nature and world that represent images of his entirely different being. (1)

The core of Wilhelm Troll’s plant morphology is “the archetypal plant” (die Urpflanze) variation of which all plants are. The picture of this Urpflanze can be found in his textbook “Praktische Einfuhrung in die Pflanzenmorphologie”  (1954)  (4) as well as here (3):

Die Urpflanze

Co – cotyledon; Gk – terminal bud; Hy – hypocotyl; Pw – primary root; Ra – radicle; w – stem-borne root.

Because CLABEN-BOCKHOFF (2001) have summarized Troll’s opinions in the paper that is available on-line (3) there is no need to repeat Troll’s views in details. But some of conclusions (3) might be perhaps of interest here:


“Troll called the outer appearance ‘Gestalt’, which is here translated as ‘Form’ (the capital letter indicating its specific meaning). In fact, Form is not merely the outer appearance; it is a philosophical concept.”


“According to Troll (1928), many examples of analogous similarity e.g. flowers and inflorescences, and marsupials and mammals, clearly illustrate that Form is independent of the underlying organization type. Troll (1928 pp. 89-93) supposed that an immanent ‘urge to Form’ (‘Gestaltungstrieb’) existed in nature, which found its expression in realising only a limited number of given Forms.”


Acording the author Troll dismissed the idea that systematic categories are the result of “common descent”:

“Referring to the morphological systems of his time which group organisms according to their similarity in organization, Troll (1951 p. 387) equated ‘natural relationship’ (naturliche Verwandtschaft) with ‘identity in type’ (Ubereinstimmung im Typus). This conclusion followed naturally from his idealistic point of view, for Troll not only took the types to be strictly separated units, he also found them arranged in an hierarchical system. Leaflets are part of the lamina, leaves are part of the seed plant, and flowers are parts of an inflorescence. He, thus, generalized that the entire living world was manifested in a ‘gradation of types’ reflecting the natural order (Troll, 1951 p. 385). The corresponding hierarchy of systematic categories supported his view: differences in systematic categories correspond to differences in underlying types. Troll rejected the idea that systematic categories are the result of common descent, because his types are invariable constants. To him, only the unity in types could only be interpreted as the fundamental order in nature.”


“In contrast to his contemporaries, Troll did not accept form-continua contradicting his type concept. Instead he argued that distinct changes must have happened in the course of evolution to produce discrete and discontinuous types (Nickel, 1996 p. 57).”


“Troll demanded that each natural classification should be based on types, not on single and arbitrary characters. He thus took typology to be the predominant and fundamental procedure of systematics (Troll, 1937 p. 48). It is clear that Troll’s idealistic view, and particularly his view of individual forms having derived from given types instead of common ancestors, provoked heated disputes (see below).”(3)



“Wilhelm TROLL zählt zu den herausragendsten Morphologen innerhalb der botanischen Disziplinen im Deutschland des 20. Jahrhunderts.”76

“TROLLS Hauptwerk, die Vergleichende Morphologie der höheren Pflanzen, welche in mehreren Bänden75 erschien und die Entwicklung der deutschsprachigen Botanik erheblich prägte, sowie unzählige Arbeiten, die sich mit Detailproblematiken pflanzlicher Morphologie beschäftigten,76 genossen große internationale Anerkennung.”77

»Das Naturgeschehen ist nirgends, und schon gar nicht in seinen organischen Bereichen, des bloßen Zufalls blinde Nötigung, sondern Erscheinungsfülle der Weltvernunft.«78

»Gott äussert sich gleichsam in die natürlich welthaften Gegebenheiten hinein, die so zu einem geschöpflichen Abbild seiner ganz andersartigen Wesenheit werden.«79

Goethes langer Atem: »Methodologische Ideologien« in der Deutschen Morphologie des 20. Jahrhunderts* Georgy S. LEVIT und Kay MEISTER (Jena)



“We are in agreement with Troll (1964), who defines inflorescence as “the shoot system which serves for the formation of flowers and which is modified accordingly”.”

“The basis for such a procedure is therefore the recognition of general regularities of structure which dominate the diversity of Angiosperm inflorescences. This has become possible for the first time during recent decades by means of the fundamental principles laid down by Wilhelm Troll and his school.”

Focko Weberling: Morphology of flowers and inflorescences (1989)
translated by R.J. Pankhurst.

Plant Morphology: The Historic Concepts of Wilhelm Troll, Walter Zimmermann and Agnes Arber REGINE CLABEN-BOCKHOFF (2001)


Wilhelm Troll: Praktische Einfuhrung in die Pflanzenmorphologie. Ein
Hilfsbuch fur den botanischen Unterricht und fur das Selbststudium.
I. Teil: Der vegetative Aufbau. 1954, G. Fischer (Jena)

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6 responses to “Wilhelm Troll and German Idealistic Morphology.

  1. Your information on Wilhelm Troll has been priceless.

    Thank you Martin.

  2. Can you get any works on Wilhelm Troll in english? I would love to see some of his work. Some of his ideas sound similar to Richard Owen and Goethe.

  3. Thanks for your reply,

    You might want to look up the idealistic morphology of Edgar Dacque, Ernst Fuhrmann, I consider some of there work as similar to Steiner. See here for a post about the work of Fuhrmann:


    A real shame I can not get his book in English :(

    Im guessing you can read many different languages, so this will not be a problem for you. There may be a German edition on amazon for the work of Fuhrmann. I wish somebody would translate these works into English!

  4. Thank you. Dacque is someone I would like to know more about. Try also Agnes Arber, it is in English.

  5. I have not yet read the book by Agnes Arber, it has been on my reading list for a long time. I had to study flower morphology last year at college. I am very interested in evolution of form and morphology. You have probably read it as Sheldrake is more mainstream than Arber ever was, but Sheldrake develops an alternative theory of morphogenesis in his book A New Science of Life.

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