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Goethean Science: IX: Goethes Epistemology

On-line since: 16th February, 2002

Goethe's Epistemology

We have already indicated in the previous chapter that Goethe's scientific world view does not exist for us as a complete whole, developed out of one principle. We have to do only with individual manifestations from which we see how one thought or another looks in the light of his way of thinking. This is the case with his scientific works, with the brief indications he gives about one concept or another in his Aphorisms in Prose, and with his letters to his friends. And the artistic development of his world view, finally, which does also offer us the most manifold clues to his basic ideas, is there for us in his literary works. By unreservedly acknowledging that Goethe never expressed his basic principles as a coherent whole, however, we are by no means accepting at the same time the validity of any assertion to the effect that Goethe's world view does not spring from an ideal center that can be brought into a strictly scientific formulation.

We must above all be clear about what the real question here is. What it was in Goethe's spirit that worked as the inner driving principle in all his creations, that imbued and enlivened them, could not come to the fore as such, in its own particular nature. Just because it imbues everything about Goethe, it could not at the same time appear before his consciousness as something separate. If the latter had been the case, then it would have had to appear before his spirit as something complete and at rest instead of being, as was actually the case, continuously active and at work. The interpreter of Goethe is obliged to follow the manifold activities and manifestations of this principle, to follow its constant flow, in order then to sketch it in its ideal outlines, and as a complete whole. If we are successful in expressing, clearly and definitely, the scientific content of this principle and in developing it on all sides with scientific consistency, only then will Goethe's exoteric expositions appear in their true light, because we will see them in their evolution, from a common center.

In this chapter we will concern ourselves with Goethe's epistemology. With respect to the task of this science, a certain confusion has unfortunately arisen since Kant that we must briefly touch upon before proceeding to Goethe's relationship to this science.

Kant believed that philosophy before him had taken wrong paths because it strove for knowledge of the being of things without first asking itself how such a knowledge might be possible. He saw what was fundamentally wrong with all philosophizing before him to lie in the fact that one reflected upon the nature of the object to be known before one had examined the activity of knowing itself, with regard to what it could do. He therefore took this latter examination as his basic philosophical problem and inaugurated thereby a new direction in thought. Since then the philosophy that has based itself on Kant has expended untold scientific force in answering this question; and today more than ever, one is seeking in philosophical circles to come closer to accomplishing this task. But epistemology, which at the present time has become nothing less than the question of the day, is supposedly nothing other than the detailed answer to the question: How is knowledge possible? Applied to Goethe the question would read: How did Goethe conceive of the possibility of knowledge?

Upon closer examination, however, the fact emerges that the answering of this question may absolutely not be placed at the forefront of epistemology. If I ask about the possibility of a thing, then I must first have examined this thing beforehand. But what if the concept of knowledge that Kant and his followers have, and about which they ask if it is possible or not, proved to be totally untenable; what if this con cognitive process were something entirely different from that defined by Kant? Then all that work would have been for nothing. Kant accepted the customary concept of what knowing is and asked if it were possible. According to this concept, knowing is supposed to consist in making a copy of the real conditions that stand outside our consciousness and exist in-themselves. But one will be able to make nothing out of the possibility of knowledge until one has answered the question as to the what of knowing itself. The question: What is knowing? thereby becomes the primary one for epistemology. With respect to Goethe, therefore, it will be our task to show what Goethe pictured knowing to be.

The forming of a particular judgment, the establishing of a fact or a series of facts — which according to Kant one could already call knowledge — is not yet by any means knowing in Goethe's sense. Otherwise he would not have said about style that it rests upon the deepest foundations of knowledge and through this fact stands in contrast to simple imitation of nature in which the artist turns to the objects of nature, imitates its forms and colours faithfully, diligently, and most exactly, and is conscientious about never distancing himself from nature. This distancing of oneself from the sense world in all its directness is indicative of Goethe's view of real knowing. The directly given is experience. In our knowing, however, we create a picture of the directly given that contains considerably more than what the senses — which are after all the mediators of all experience — can provide. In order to know nature in the Goethean sense, we must not hold onto it in its factuality; rather, nature, in the process of our knowing, must reveal itself as something essentially higher than what it appears to be when it first confronts us. The school of Mill assumes that all we can do with experience is merely bring particular things together into groups that we then hold fast as abstract concepts. This is no true knowing. For, those abstract concepts of Mill have no other task than that of bringing together what is presented to the senses with all the qualities of direct experience. A true knowing must acknowledge that the direct form of the world given to sense perception is not yet its essential one, but rather that this essential form first reveals itself to us in the process of knowing. Knowing must provide us with that which sense experience withholds from us, but which is still real. Mill's knowing is therefore no true knowing, because it is only an elaborated sense experience. He leaves the things in the form our eyes and ears convey them. It is not that we should leave the realm of the experiencable and lose ourselves in a construct of fantasy, as the metaphysicians of earlier and more recent times loved to do, but rather, we should advance from the form of the experiencable as it presents itself to us in what is given to the senses, to a form of it that satisfies our reason.

The question now confronts us: How does what is directly experienced relate to the picture of experience that arises in the process of knowing? We want first to answer this question quite independently and then show that the answer we give follows from the Goethean world view.

At first, the world presents itself to us as a manifoldness in space and time. We perceive particulars separated in space and time: this colour here, that shape there; this tone now, that sound then, etc. Let us first take an example from the inorganic world and separate quite exactly what we perceive with the senses from what the cognitive process provides. We see a stone flying toward a windowpane, breaking through it, and falling to the ground after a certain time. We ask what is given here in direct experience. A series of sequential visual perceptions, originating from the places successively occupied by the stone, a series of sound perceptions as the glass shatters, the pieces of glass flying, etc. Unless someone wishes to deceive himself he must say: Nothing more is given to direct experience than this unrelated aggregate of acts of perception.

One also finds the same strict delimitation of what is directly perceived (sense experience) in Volkelt's excellent book Kant's Epistemology Analysed for its Basic Principles, 49 ] which belongs to the best that modern philosophy has produced. But it is absolutely impossible to see why Volkelt regards the unrelated pictures of perception as mental pictures and thereby at the very start blocks the path to any possible objective knowledge. To regard direct experience from the very start as a complex of mental pictures is, after all, a definite preconception. When I have some object or other before me, I see, with respect to it, form and colour; I perceive a certain degree of hardness, etc. Whether this aggregate of pictures given to my senses is something lying outside myself, or whether it is a mere complex of mental pictures: this I cannot know from the very start. Just as little as I know from the very start — without thinking reflection — that the warmth of a stone is a result of the enwarming rays of the sun, so just as little do I know in what relationship the world given to me stands with respect to my ability to make mental pictures. Volkelt places at the forefront of epistemology the proposition “that we have a manifoldness of mental pictures of such and such kinds.” That we are given a manifoldness is correct; but how do we know that this manifoldness consists of mental pictures? Volkelt, in fact, does something quite inadmissible when first he asserts that we must hold fast to what is given us in direct experience, and then makes the presupposition, which cannot be given to direct experience, that the world of experience is a world of mental pictures. When we make a presupposition like that of Volkelt, then we are forced at once into stating our epistemological question wrongly as described above. If our perceptions are mental pictures, then our whole science is a science of mental pictures and the question arises: How is it possible for our mental picture to coincide with the object of which we make a mental picture?

But where does any real science ever have anything to do with this question? Look at mathematics! It has a figure before it arising from the intersection of three straight lines: a triangle. The three angles a, b, c remain in a fixed relationship; their sum is one straight angle or two right angles (180°). That is a mathematical judgment. The angles a, b, and c are perceived. The cognitive judgment occurs on the basis of

 Goethean Science Diagram 2
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thinking reflection. It establishes a relationship between three perceptual pictures. There is no question here of any reflecting upon some object or other standing behind the picture of the triangle. And all the sciences do it this way. They spin threads from picture to picture, create order in what, for direct perception, is a chaos; nowhere, however, does anything else come into consideration besides the given. Truth is not the coinciding of a mental picture with its object, but rather the expression of a relationship between two perceived facts.

Let us return to our example of the thrown stone. We connect the sight perceptions that originate from the individual locations in which the stone finds itself. This connection gives us a curved line (the trajectory), and we obtain the laws of trajectory; when furthermore we take into account the material composition of the glass, and then understand the flying stone as cause, the shattering of the glass as effect, and so on, we then have permeated the given with concepts in such a way that it becomes comprehensible to us. This entire operation, which draws together the manifoldness of perception into a conceptual unity, occurs within our consciousness. The ideal interrelationship of the perceptual pictures is not given by the senses, but rather is grasped absolutely on its own by our spirit. For a being endowed only with the ability to perceive with the senses, this whole operation would simply not be there. For such a being the outer world would simply remain that disconnected chaos of perceptions we characterized as what first (directly) confronts us.

So the place, therefore, where the perceptual pictures appear in their ideal relationship, where this relationship is held out to the perceptual pictures as their conceptual counter-image, this place is human consciousness. Now even though this conceptual (lawful) relationship, in its substantial makeup, is produced within human consciousness, it by no means follows from this that it is also only subjective in its significance. It springs, rather, in its content just as much from the objective world as, in its conceptual form, it springs from human consciousness. It is the necessary objective complement to the perceptual picture. Precisely because the perceptual picture is something incomplete, something unfinished in itself, we are compelled to add to this picture, in its manifestation as sense experience, its necessary complement. If the directly given itself were far enough along that at every point of it a problem did not arise for us, then we would never have to go beyond it. But the perceptual pictures absolutely do not follow each other and from each other in such a way that we can regard them, themselves, as reciprocally resulting from each other; they result, rather, from something else that is closed to apprehension by the senses. Conceptual apprehension approaches them and grasps also that part of reality that remains closed to the senses. Knowing would be an absolutely useless process if something complete were conveyed to us in sense experience. All drawing together, ordering, and grouping of sense-perceptible facts would have no objective value. Knowing has meaning only if we do not regard the configuration given to the senses as a finished one, if this configuration is for us a half of something that bears within itself something still higher that, however, is no longer sense-perceptible. There the human spirit steps in. It perceives that higher element. Therefore thinking must also not be regarded as bringing something to the content of reality. It is no more and no less an organ of perception than the eye or ear. Just as the eye perceives colours and the ear sounds, so thinking perceives ideas. Idealism is therefore quite compatible with the principle of empirical research. The idea is not the content of subjective thinking, but rather the result of research. Reality, insofar as we meet it with open senses, confronts us. It confronts us in a form that we cannot regard as its true one; we first attain its true form when we bring our thinking into flux. Knowing means: to add the perception of thinking to the half reality of sense experience so that this picture of half reality becomes complete.

Everything depends on what one conceives the relationship between idea and sense-perceptible reality to be. By sense-perceptible reality I mean here the totality of perceptions communicated to the human being by the senses. Now the most widely held view is that the concept is a means, belonging solely to human consciousness, by which consciousness takes possession for itself of the data of reality. The essential being of reality, according to this view, lies in the “in-itselfness” of the things themselves, so that, if we were really able to arrive at the primal ground of things, we would still be able to take possession only of our conceptual copy of this primal ground and by no means of the primal ground itself. This view, therefore, assumes the existence of two completely separate worlds. The objective outer world, which bears its essential being, the ground of its existence, within itself, and the subjective-ideal inner world, which is supposedly a conceptual copy of the outer world. The inner world is a matter of no concern to the objective world, is not required by it; the inner world is present only for the knowing human being. To bring about a congruence of these two worlds would be the epistemological ideal of this basic view. I consider the adherents of this view to be not only the natural-scientific direction of our time, but also the philosophy of Kant, Schopenhauer, and the Neo-Kantians, and no less so the last phase of Schelling's philosophy. AII these directions of thought are in agreement about seeking the essence of the world in something transsubjective, and about having to admit, from their standpoint, that the subjective ideal world — which is therefore for them also merely a world of mental pictures — has no significance for reality itself, but purely and simply for human consciousness alone.

I have already indicated that this view leads to the assumption of a perfect congruency between concept (idea) and perception. What is present in the latter would also have to be contained in its conceptual counterpart, only in an ideal form. With respect to content, both worlds would have to match each other completely. The conditions of spatial-temporal reality would have to repeat themselves exactly in the idea; only, instead of perceived extension shape colour, etc., the corresponding mental pictures would have to be present. If I were looking at a triangle, for example, I would have to follow in thought its outline, size, directions of its sides, etc., and then produce a conceptual photograph of it for myself. In the case of a second triangle, I would have to do exactly the same thing, and so on with every object of the external and internal sense world. Thus every single thing is to be found again exactly, with respect to its location and characteristics, within my ideal world picture.

We must now ask ourselves: Does the above assumption correspond to the facts? Not in the least. My concept of the triangle is a single one, comprising every single perceived triangle; and no matter how often I picture it, this concept always remains the same. My various pictures of the triangle are all identical to one another. I have absolutely only one concept of the triangle.

Within reality, every single thing presents itself as a particular, quite definite “this,” surrounded by equally definite, actual, and reality-imbued “those.” The concept, as a strict unity, confronts this manifoldness. In the concept there is no separation, no parts; it does not multiply itself; it is, no matter how often it is pictured, always the same.

The question now arises: What is then actually the bearer of this identity that the concept has? Its form of manifestation as a picture cannot in fact be this bearer, for Berkeley was completely right in maintaining that my present picture of a tree has absolutely nothing to do with my picture of the same tree a minute later, if I closed my eyes in between; and the various pictures that several people have of one object have just as little to do with each other. The identity can therefore lie only within the content of the picture, within its what. The significance, the content, must insure the identity for me.

But since this is so, that view collapses that denies to the concept or idea any independent content. This view believes, namely, that the conceptual unity as such is altogether without any content; that this unity arises solely through the fact that certain characteristics of the objects of experience are left aside and that what they have in common, on the other hand, is lifted out and incorporated into our intellect so that we may comfortably bring together the manifoldness of objective reality according to the principle of grasping all of experience with the mind in the fewest possible general unities — i.e., according to the principle of the smallest measure of force (Kraftmasses). Along with modern natural philosophy Schopenhauer takes this standpoint. But this standpoint is presented with the harshest, and therefore most one-sided consistency in the little book of Richard Avenarius, Philosophy as Thinking about the World According to the Principle of the Smallest Measure of Force. Prolegomena of a Critique of Pure Experience. 50 ]

But this view rests solely upon a total misconstruing not only of the content of the concept but also of the perception.

In order to gain some clarity here, one must go back to the reason for contrasting the perception, as something particular, with the concept, as something general.

One must ask oneself the question: Wherein do the characteristic features of the particular actually lie? Can these be determined conceptually? Can we say: This conceptual unity must break up into this or that particular, visible manifoldness? “No,” is the very definite answer. The concept itself does not know particularity at all. The latter must therefore lie in elements that are altogether inaccessible to the concept as such. But since we do not know any in-between entity between the perception and the concept — unless one wishes to introduce something like Kant's fantastic-mystical schemata, which today, however, cannot be taken seriously after all — these elements must belong to the perception itself. The basis for particularization cannot be derived from the concept, but rather must be sought within the perception itself. What constitutes the particularity of an object cannot be grasped conceptually, but only perceived. Therein lies the reason why every philosophy must founder that wants to derive (deduce) from the concept itself the entire visible reality in all its particularization. Therein lies also the classic error of Fichte, who wanted to derive the whole world from consciousness.

But someone who wants to reproach and dismiss idealistic philosophy because he sees this impossibility of deriving the world from the concept as a defect in it — such a person is acting no more intelligently than the philosopher Krug, a follower of Kant, who demanded of the philosophy of identity that it deduce for him a pen with which to write.

What really distinguishes the perception essentially from the idea is, in fact, just this element that cannot be brought into the concept and that must, in fact, be experienced. Through this, concept and perception confront each other, to be sure, as kindred yet different sides of the world. And since the perception requires the concept, as we have shown, the perception proves that it does not have its essence in its particularity but rather in its conceptual generality. But this generality, in its manifestation, can first be found only within the subject; for, this generality can indeed be gained in connection with the object, but not out of the object.

The concept cannot derive its content from experience, for it does not take up into itself precisely that which is characteristic of experience: its particularity. Everything that constitutes this particularity is foreign to the concept. The concept must therefore give itself its own content.

It is usually said that an object of experience is individual, is a lively perception, and that the concept, on the other hand, is abstract, is poor, sorry, and empty when compared to the perception with its rich content. But wherein is the wealth of differentiations sought? In their number, which because of the infinitude of space can be infinitely great. For all this, however, the concept is no less richly defined. The number there is replaced by qualities here. But just as in the concept the numbers are not to be found, so in the perception the dynamic-qualitative character is lacking. The concept is just as individual, just as rich in content, as the perception. The difference is only that for grasping the content of perception nothing is necessary except open senses and a purely passive attitude toward the outer world, whereas the ideal core of the world must arise in man's spirit through his own spontaneous activity, if this core is to come into view at all. It is an entirely inconsequential and useless kind of talk to say that the concept is the enemy of living perception. The concept is the essential being of the perception, the actual driving and active principle in it; the concept adds its content to that of the perception, without eliminating the latter — for, the content of perception as such does not concern the concept at all — and the concept is supposed to be the enemy of perception! It is an enemy of perception only when a philosophy that does not understand itself wants to spin the whole rich content of the sense world out of the idea. For then philosophy conveys a system of empty phrases instead of living nature.

Only in the way we have indicated can a person arrive at a satisfactory explanation of what knowledge of experience actually is. The necessity of advancing to conceptual knowledge would be totally incomprehensible if the concept brought nothing new to sense perception. A knowledge purely of experience must not take one step beyond the millions of particulars that lie before us as perceptions. The science of pure experience, in order to be consistent, must negate its own content. For why create once more in concept form what is already there without it as perception? A consistent positivism, in the light of these reflections, would simply have to cease all scientific work and rely merely upon whatever happens to occur. If it does not do this, then it carries out in practice what it rejects in theory. It is altogether the case that materialism, as well as realism, implicitly admits what we are maintaining. The way they proceed is only justified from our standpoint and is in the most glaring contradiction to their own basic theoretical views.

From our standpoint, the necessity for scientific knowledge and the transcending of sense experience can be explained without any contradictions. The sense world confronts us as that which is first and directly given; it faces us like an immense riddle, because we can never find in the sense world itself what is driving and working in it. Reason enters then and, with the ideal world that it presents, holds out to the sense world the principle being that constitutes the solution to the riddle. These principles are just as objective as the sense world is. The fact that they do not come into appearance to the senses but only to reason does not affect their content. If there were no thinking beings, these principles would, indeed, never come into appearance; but they would not therefore be any less the essence of the phenomenal world.

With this we have set up a truly immanent world view in contrast to the transcendental one of Locke, Kant, the later Schelling, Schopenhauer, Volkelt, the Neo-Kantians, and modern natural scientists.

They seek the ground of the world in something foreign to consciousness, in the beyond; immanent philosophy seeks it in what comes into appearance for reason. The transcendental world view regards conceptual knowledge as a picture of the world; the immanent world view regards it as the world's highest form of manifestation. The first view can therefore provide only a formal epistemology that bases itself upon the question: What is the relationship between thinking and real being? The second view places at the forefront of its epistemology the question: What is knowing? The first takes its start from the preconception that there is an essential difference between thinking and real being; the second begins, without preconceptions, with what alone is certain — thinking — and knows that, other than thinking, it can find no real being.

If we now summarize the results we have achieved from these epistemological reflections, we arrive at the following: We have to take our start from the completely indeterminate direct form of reality, from what is given to the senses before we bring our thinking into movement, from what is only seen, only heard, etc. The point is that we be aware what the senses convey to us and what thinking conveys. The senses do not tell us that things stand in any particular relationship to each other, such as for example that this is the cause and that is the effect. For the senses, all things are equally essential for the structure of the world. Unthinking observation does not know that a seed stands at a higher level of development than a grain of sand on the road. For the senses they are both of equal significance if they look the same outwardly. At this level of observation, Napoleon is no more important in world history than Jones or Smith in some remote mountain village. This is as far as present-day epistemology has advanced. That it has by no means thought these truths through exhaustively, however, is shown by the fact that almost all epistemologists make the mistake — with respect to this for the moment undefined and indeterminate configuration that we confront in the first stage of our perception — of immediately designating it as “mental picture.” 51 ] This means, in fact, a violating, in the crudest way, of its own insight which it had just achieved. If we remain at the stage of direct sense perception, we know just as little that a falling stone is a mental picture as we know that it is the cause of the depression in the ground where it hit. Just as we can arrive at the concept “cause” only by manifold reflection, so also we could arrive at the knowledge that the world given us is merely mental picture — even if this were correct — only by thinking about it. My senses reveal nothing to me as to whether what they are communicating to me is real being or whether it is merely mental picture. The sense world confronts us as though fired from a pistol. If we want to have it in its purity, we must refrain from attaching any predicate to it that would characterize it. We can say only one thing: It confronts us; it is given us. With this, however, absolutely nothing at all is determined about it itself. Only when we proceed in this way do we not block the way for ourselves to an unbiased judgment about this given. If from the very start we attach a particular characterization to the given, then this freedom from bias ceases. If we say, for example, that the given is mental picture, then the whole investigation which follows can only be conducted under this presupposition. We would not be able in this way to provide an epistemology free of presuppositions, but rather would be answering the question “What is knowing?” under the presupposition that what is given to the senses is mental picture. That is the basic mistake in Volkelt's epistemology. At the beginning of it, he sets up the very strict requirement that epistemology must be free of any presuppositions. But he then places in the forefront the statement that what we have is a manifoldness of mental pictures. Thus his epistemology consists only in answering the question: How is knowing possible, under the presupposition that the given is a manifoldness of mental pictures? For us the matter appears quite different. We take the given as it is: as a manifoldness of — something or other that will reveal itself to us if we allow ourselves to be taken along by it. Thus we have the prospect of arriving at an objective knowledge, because we are allowing the object itself to speak. We can hope that this configuration we confront will reveal everything to us we need, if we do not make it impossible, through some hindering preconception, for it freely to approach our power of judgment with its communications. For even if reality should forever remain a riddle to us, a truth like this would be of value only if it had been attained in connection with the things of the world. It would be totally meaningless, however, to assert that our consciousness is constituted in such and such a way and that therefore we cannot gain any clarity about the things of this world. Whether our spiritual powers are adequate for grasping the essential being of things must be tested by us in connection with these things themselves. I might have the most highly developed spiritual powers; but if things reveal nothing about themselves, my gifts are of no avail. And conversely: I might know that my powers are slight; whether, in spite of this, they still might not suffice for me to know the things, this I still do not know.

What we have recognized in addition is that the directly given, in the first form of it which we have described, leaves us unsatisfied. It confronts us like a challenge, like a riddle to be solved. It says to us: I am there; but in the form in which I confront you there, I am not in my true form. As we hear this voice from outside, as we become aware that we are confronting a half of something, are confronting an entity that conceals its better side from us, then there announces itself within us the activity of that organ through which we can gain enlightenment about that other side of reality, and through which we are able to supplement that half of something and render it whole. We become aware that we must make up through thinking for what we do not see, hear, etc. Thinking is called upon to solve the riddle with which perception presents us.

We will first become clear about this relationship when we investigate why we are unsatisfied by perceptible reality, but are satisfied, on the other hand, by a thought-through reality. Perceptible reality confronts us as something finished. It is just there; we have contributed nothing to its being there in the way it is. We feel ourselves confronted, therefore, by a foreign entity that we have not produced, at whose production we were not even, in fact, present. We stand before something that has already come about. But we are able to grasp only something about which we know how it has become what it is, how it has come about; when we know where the strings are that support what appears before us. With our thinking, this is different. A thought-configuration does not come before me unless I myself participate in its coming about; it comes into the field of my perception only through the fact that I myself lift it up out of the dark abyss of imperceptibility. The thought does not arise in me as a finished entity the way a sense perception does, but rather I am conscious of the fact that, when I do hold fast to a concept in its complete form, I myself have brought it into this form. What then lies before me appears to me not as something first, but rather as something last, as the completion of a process that is so integrally merged with me that I have always stood within it. But this is what I must demand of a thing that enters the horizon of my perception, in order to understand it. Nothing may remain obscure to me; nothing may appear closed off; I myself must follow it to that stage at which it has become something finished. This is why the direct form of reality, which we usually call experience, moves us to work it through in knowledge. When we bring our thinking into movement, we then go back to the determining factors of the given that at first remained hidden to us; we work our way up from the product to the production; we arrive at the stage where sense perception becomes transparent to us in the same way the thought is. Our need for knowledge is thus satisfied. We can therefore come to terms with a thing in knowledge only when we have completely (thoroughly) penetrated with thinking what is directly perceived. A process of the world appears completely penetrated by us only when the process is our own activity. A thought appears as the completion of a process within which we stand. Thinking, however, is the only process into which we can completely place ourselves, into which we can merge. Therefore, to our knowing contemplation, the reality we experience must appear to emerge as though out of a thought-process, in the same way as pure thought does. To investigate the essential being of a thing means to begin at the center of the thought-world and to work from there until a thought-configuration appears before our soul that seems to us to be identical to the thing we are experiencing. When we speak of the essential being of a thing or of the world altogether, we cannot therefore mean anything else at all than the grasping of reality as thought, as idea. In the idea we recognize that from which we must derive everything else: the principle of things. What philosophers call the absolute, the eternal being, the ground of the world, what the religions call God, this we call, on the basis of our epistemological studies: the idea. Everything in the world that does not appear directly as idea will still ultimately be recognized as going forth from the idea. What seems, on superficial examination, to have no part at all in the idea is found by a deeper thinking to stem from it. No other form of existence can satisfy us except one stemming from the idea. Nothing may remain away from it; everything must become a part of the great whole that the idea encompasses. The idea, however, requires no going out beyond itself. It is self-sustained being, well founded in itself. This does not lie at all in the fact that we have the idea directly present in our consciousness. This lies in the nature of the idea itself. If the idea did not itself express its own being, then it would in fact also appear to us in the same way the rest of reality does: needing explanation. But this then seems to contradict what we said earlier, that the idea appears in a form satisfying to us because we participate actively in its coming about. But this is not due to the organization of our consciousness. If the idea were not a being founded upon itself, then we could not have any such consciousness at all. If something does not have within itself the center from which it springs, but rather has it outside itself, then, when it confronts me, I cannot declare myself satisfied with it; I must go out beyond it, to that center, in fact. Only when I meet something that does not point out beyond itself, do I then achieve the consciousness: now you are standing within the center; here you can remain. My consciousness that I am standing within a thing is only the result of the objective nature of this thing, which is that it brings its principle along with it. By taking possession of the idea, we arrive at the core of the world. What we grasp there is that from which everything goes forth. We become united with this principle; therefore the idea, which is most objective, appears to us at the same time as most subjective.

Sense-perceptible reality is such a riddle to us precisely because we do not find its center within itself. It ceases to be a riddle to us when we recognize that sense-perceptible reality has the same center as the thought-world that comes to manifestation within us.

This centre can only be a unified one. It must in fact be of such a kind that everything else points to it as that which explains it. If there were several centers to the world — several principles by which the world were to be known — and if one region of reality pointed to this world principle and another one to that world principle, then, as soon as we found ourselves in one region of reality, we would be directed only toward the one center. It would not occur to us at all to ask about still other centers. One region would know nothing about the other. They would simply not be there for each other. It therefore makes no sense at all to speak of more than one world. The idea, therefore, in all the places of the world, in all consciousnesses, is one and the same. The fact that there are different consciousnesses and that each of them presents the idea to itself does not change the situation at all. The ideal content of the world is founded upon itself, is complete within itself. We do not create it, we only seek to grasp it. Thinking does not create it but rather perceives it only. Thinking is not a producer, but rather an organ of apprehension. Just as different eyes see one and the same object, so different consciousnesses think one and the same thought-content. Manifold consciousnesses think one and the same thing; only, they approach this one thing from different sides. It therefore appears to them as modified in manifold ways. This modification is not a differentness of objects, however, but rather an apprehending from different angles of vision. The differences in people's views are just as explainable as the differences that a landscape presents to two observers standing in different places. If one is capable at all of pressing forward to the world of ideas, then one can be certain that one ultimately has a world of ideas that is common to all human beings. Then at most it can still be a question of our grasping this world in a quite one-sided way, of our taking a standpoint from which this world of ideas does not appear to us in the most suitable light, and so on.

We never do confront a sense world completely devoid of all thought-content. At most, in early childhood where there is as yet no trace of thinking, do we come close to pure sense perception. In ordinary life we have to do with an experience that is half-permeated by thinking, that already appears more or less lifted out of the darkness of perception into the bright clarity of spiritual comprehension. The sciences work toward the goal of fully overcoming this darkness and of leaving nothing in experience that has not been permeated with thought. Now what task has epistemology fulfilled with respect to the other sciences? It has made clear to us what the purpose and task of any science is. It has shown us what the significance is of the content of the individual sciences. Our epistemology is the science that characterizes all the other sciences. It has made clear to us that what is gained by the individual sciences is the objective ground of world existence. The sciences arrive at a series of concepts; epistemology teaches us about the actual task of these concepts. By arriving at this distinctive conclusion, our epistemology, which is in keeping with the sense of Goethe's way of thinking, diverges from all other epistemologies of the present day. Our epistemology does not merely want to establish a formal connection between thinking and real being; it does not want to solve the epistemological problem in a merely logical way; it wants to arrive at a positive result. It shows what the content of our thinking is; and it finds that this what is at the same time the objective content of the world. Thus epistemology becomes for us the most significant of the sciences for the human being. It gives man clarity about himself; it shows him his place in the world; it is thereby a source of satisfaction for him. It first tells him what he is called to be and to do. The human being feels himself uplifted in his possession of its truths; his scientific investigation gains a new illumination. Now he knows for the first time that he is most directly connected with the core of world existence, that he uncovers this core which remains hidden to all other beings, that in him the world spirit comes to manifestation, that the world spirit dwells within him. He sees himself as the one who completes the world process; he sees that he is called to accomplish what the other powers of the world are not able to do, that he has to set the crown upon creation. If religion teaches that God created man in His own image, then our epistemology teaches us that God has led His creation only to a certain point. There He let the human being arise, and the human being, by knowing himself and looking about him, sets himself the task of working on, of completing what the primal power began. The human being immerses himself ; in the world and recognizes how he can build further on the ground that has been laid; he grasps the indication that the primal spirit has made and carries out this indication. Thus epistemology is the teaching both of the significance and of the vocation (Bestimmung) of man; and it solves this task (of the “vocation of man”) in a far more definite way than Fichte did at the turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth century. One does not by any means achieve, through the thought-configurations of this powerful spirit, the same full satisfaction that must come to us from a genuine epistemology.

We have the task, with regard to every single entity, of working upon it in such a way that it appears as flowing from the idea, that it completely dissolves as a single thing and merges with the idea, into whose element we feel ourselves transferred. Our spirit has the task of developing itself in such a way that it is capable of seeing into all the reality given it, of seeing it in the way it appears as going forth from the idea. We must show ourselves to be continuous workers in the sense that we transform every object of experience so that it appears as part of our ideal world picture. With this we have arrived at where the Goethean way of looking at the world takes its start. We must apply what we have said in such a way that we picture to ourselves that the relationship between idea and reality that we have just presented is what Goethe actually does in his investigations; Goethe grapples with things in just the way we have shown to be the valid one. He himself sees his inner working, in fact, as a living helper in learning (Heuristik), a helper that recognizes an unknown, dimly-sensed rule (the idea) and resolves to find it in the outer world and to introduce it into the outer world (Aphorisms in Prose). When Goethe demands that the human being should instruct his organs (Aphorisms in Prose), that also means only that the human being does not simply give himself over to what his senses convey to him, but rather directs his senses in such a way that they show him things in the right light.

Last Modified: 29-Aug-2017
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