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Goethean Science

Goethean Science: VIII: From Art to Science

On-line since: 16th February, 2002

From Art to Science

Someone who sets himself the task of presenting the spiritual development of a thinker has to explain that thinker's particular direction in a psychological way from the facts given in his biography. But in presenting Goethe the thinker the task does not end there. What is asked for here is not only a justification and explanation of his specific scientific direction, but rather, and primarily how this genius came at all to be active in the scientific realm. Goethe had to suffer much through the incorrect views of his contemporaries who could not believe it possible that poetic creativity and scientific study could be united in one soul. The important point here is above all to answer the question What are the motives that drive the great poet to science? Did the transition from art to science lie purely in his subjective inclinations, in personal arbitrariness? Or was Goethe's artistic direction of such a kind that it had to drive him necessarily to science?

If the first were the case, then his simultaneous devotion to art and science would merely signify a chance personal enthusiasm for both these directions of human striving; we would have to do with a poet who also happened to be a thinker, and it might very well have been the case that, if his course in life had been somewhat different, he would have taken the same path in his poetry, without concerning himself with science at all. Both sides of this man would then have interested us separately, each in its own right; each on its own would perhaps have helped the progress of mankind a good deal. All this would still be the case if the two directions in spirit had also been divided between two personalities. Goethe the poet would then have had nothing to do with Goethe the thinker.

If the second were the case, then Goethe's artistic direction was of such a kind that, from within outward, it necessarily felt the urge to be supplemented by scientific thinking. Then it is utterly inconceivable that the two directions could have been divided between two personalities. Then each of the two directions interests us not only for its own sake but also because of its relationship to the other. Then there is an objective transition from art to science; there is a point at which the two meet in such a way that perfection in the one realm demands perfection in the other. Then Goethe was not following a personal inclination, but rather the direction in art to which he devoted himself awakened needs in him that could be satisfied only by scientific activity.

Our age believes itself correct in keeping art and science as far apart as possible. They are supposed to be two completely opposing poles in the cultural evolution of mankind. Science, one thinks, is supposed to sketch for us the most objective picture of the world possible; it is supposed to show us reality in a mirror; or, in other words, it is supposed to hold fast purely to the given, renouncing all subjective arbitrariness. The objective world determines the laws of science; science must subject itself to this world. Science should take the yardstick for what is true and false entirely from the objects of experience.

The situation is supposedly quite different in the case of artistic creations. Their law is given them by the self-creative power of the human spirit. For science, any interference of human subjectivity would be a falsifying of reality, a going beyond experience; art, on the other hand, grows upon the field of the subjectivity of a genius. Its creations are the productions of human imagination, not mirror images of the outer world. Outside of us, in objective existence, lies the source of scientific laws; within us, in our individuality, lies the source of aesthetic laws. The latter, therefore, have not the slightest value for knowledge; they create illusions without the slightest element of reality.

Whoever grasps the matter in this way will never become clear about the relationship of Goethean poetry to Goethean science. He will only misunderstand both. Goethe's world historic significance lies, indeed, precisely in the fact that his art flows directly from the primal source of all existence, that there is nothing illusory or subjective about it, that, on the contrary, his art appears as the herald of that lawfulness that the poet has grasped by listening to the world spirit within the depths of nature's working. At this level, art becomes the interpreter of the mysteries of the world just as science is also, in a different sense.

And Goethe always conceived of art in this way. It was for him one of the revelations of the primal law of the world; science was for him the other one. For him art and science sprang from one source. Whereas the researcher delves down into the depths of reality in order then to express their driving powers in the form of thoughts, the artist seeks to imbue his medium with these same driving powers. “I think that one could call science the knowledge of the general, abstracted knowing; art, on the other hand, would be science turned into action; science would be reason, and art its mechanism; therefore one could also call art practical science. And finally then science could be called the theorem and art the problem.” What science states as idea (theorem) is what art has to imprint into matter, becomes art's problem. “In the works of man, as in those of nature, it is the intentions that are primarily worthy of note,” says Goethe. He everywhere seeks not only what is given to the senses in the outer world, but also the tendency through which it has come into being. To grasp this scientifically and to give it artistic form is his mission. In its own formations, nature gets itself, “in its specific forms, into a cul-de-sac”; one must go back to what ought to have come about if the tendency could have unfolded unhindered, just as the mathematician always keeps his eye, not upon this or that particular triangle, but always upon that lawfulness which underlies every possible triangle. The point is not what nature has created but rather the principle by which nature has created it. Then this principle is to be developed in the way that accords with its own nature, and not in the way this has occurred in each particular entity of nature in accordance with thousands of chance factors. The artist has “to evolve the noble out of the common and the beautiful out of the unformed.”

Goethe and Schiller take art in all its full profundity. The beautiful is “a manifestation of secret laws of nature, that, except for the phenomenon of the beautiful, would have remained forever hidden to us.” A look into the poet's Italian Journey suffices for us to know that this is not an empty phrase, but rather deep inner conviction. When he says the following, one can see that for him nature and art are of the same origin: “The great works of art have at the same time been brought forth by human beings according to true and natural laws. just as the greatest works of nature are. Everything that is arbitrary, thought-up, falls away; there is necessity, there is God.” Relative to the art of the Greeks, he says in this direction: “I have the impression that they proceeded according to the same laws by which nature itself proceeds and whose tracks I am following.” And about Shakespeare: “Shakespeare allies himself with the world spirit; he penetrates the world like it does; nothing is hidden to either; however, if it is the world spirit's business to preserve mysteries before, and often after, the fact, so the poet is of a mind to give the secret away.”

Here we should also recall the statement about the “joyful epoch in life” that the poet owed to Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgment 47 ] and for which he actually has only the fact to thank that he here “saw creations of art and of nature each treated like the other, and that aesthetic and teleological powers of judgment illuminated each other reciprocally.” “I was happy,” says the poet, “that the art of poetry and comparative natural science are so closely related, through the fact that both of them are subject to the same power of judgment.” In his essay, The Significant Benefit of a Single Intelligent Word 48 ] Goethe juxtaposes, with exactly the same thought in mind, his objective poetizing and his objective thinking.

Thus, to Goethe, art seems to be just as objective as science. Only the form of each is different. Each appears to flow forth from one being, to be the necessary stages of one evolution. Any view was antithetical to him that relegates art or what is beautiful to an isolated position outside of the total picture of human evolution. Thus he says: “In the aesthetic realm, it is not good to speak of the idea of the beautiful; in doing so, one isolates the beautiful. which after all cannot be thought of as separate.” Or: “Style rests upon the deepest foundations of knowledge, upon the being of things, insofar as we are allowed to know this being in visible and tangible forms.” Art rests therefore upon our activity of knowing. The latter has the task of recreating in thought the order according to which the world is put together; art has the task of developing in detail the idea of this order that the world-all has. The artist incorporates into his work everything about the lawfulness of the world that is attainable to him. His work thus appears as a world in miniature. Herein lies the reason why the Goethean direction in art must supplement itself with science. As art, it is already an activity of knowing. Goethe, in fact, wanted neither science nor art: he wanted the idea. And he expresses or represents the idea in the direction from which the idea happens to present itself to him. Goethe sought to ally himself with the world spirit, and to reveal to us how it holds sway; he did this through the medium of art or of science as required. What lay in Goethe was not any one-sided artistic or scientific striving, but rather the indefatigable urge to behold “all working forces and seeds.”

In this, Goethe is still not a philosophical poet, for his literary works do not take any roundabout path through thought in arriving at a sense-perceptible form; rather they stream directly from the source of all becoming, just as his scientific research is not imbued with poetic imagination, but rather rests directly upon his becoming aware of ideas. Without Goethe's being a philosophical poet, his basic direction seems, for the philosophical observer, to be a philosophical one.

With this, the question as to whether Goethe's scientific work has any philosophical value or not takes on an entirely new form. It is a question of inferring, from what we have of Goethe's work, the underlying principles. What must we postulate in order for Goethe's scientific assertions to appear as the results of these postulates? We must express what Goethe left unexpressed, but which alone makes his views comprehensible.

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