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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012


Reference to the Experience of the
Individual Reader

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 7)

W E WOULD avoid the fallacy of attributing a characteristic a priori to the immediately given, to the first form in which the outer and the inner world appear to us, and then establishing the validity of our reasoning on the basis of this presupposition. Indeed, by our very definition, experience is that in which thinking has no share. There cannot be any charge, therefore, of an error in thinking at the outset of our discussion.

It is just here that the fundamental fallacy arises in many scientific endeavors, especially at the present time. Such scientists imagine that they are reproducing pure experience, whereas they are really reading again concepts which they themselves have interjected into the content of experience. It may be charged that we also have assigned a number of attributes to pure experience. We described it as endless multiplicity, as an aggregate of unrelated units, etc. Are not these also characterizations made by thought? Certainly not in the sense in which we have used them. We have made use of these concepts only to fix the reader's attention upon reality free from thought. We do not desire to attribute these concepts to experience; we employ them only to direct attention to that form of reality which is void of any concept whatever.

All scientific inquiries must naturally be conducted by means of language, and language can express nothing except concepts. But there is an essential difference between employing certain words for the purpose of directly attributing this or that characteristic to a thing, on the one hand, and, on the other, employing these words merely to direct the reader's or the hearer's attention to an object. If we may resort to an analogy, we might say: These are two different things, when A says on the one hand to B: “Observe that man in his family circle, and you will form an essentially different opinion of him from that which you form of him in his official behavior;” and, on the other hand, when he says: “That man is an excellent father to his family.” In the first instance the attention of B is attracted in a certain manner; he is advised to form a judgment of a certain person under certain circumstances. In the second instance a certain characteristic is attributed to this person, and therefore an assertion is made. As the first case here compares with the second, so does our initial step in the discussion compare with similar phenomena in literature. Since the exigencies of style or the difficulty of expressing our thought may at times give to the matter a different appearance, we wish to declare expressly at this point that our discussion is to be taken only in the sense here explained and is far removed from any pretension of having advanced any assertion whatever which holds good of things in themselves.

If, now, we are to have a name for the first form in which we observe reality, we are convinced that the name most adequately applicable is to be found in the expression “appearance to the senses.” We here understand by the termsense not only the external senses, mediators of the external world, but all bodily and mental organs whatsoever which have to do with our becoming aware of the immediate facts. Indeed, the terminner sense is quite ordinarily used in psychology for the perceptive capacity as to inner experience.

By the termappearance, however, we would designate merely a thing perceptible to us or a perceptible occurrence in so far as this appears in space or time.

Here we must raise still another question, which will bring us to the second factor that we must observe in relation to the science of cognition — that is, thinking.

Must we regard the form in which experience has hitherto been recognized by us as something rooted in the nature of things? Is it a characteristic of reality?

(See Notes to the New Edition, 1924, page 29)

Much depends upon the answer to this question. That is, if this form is an essential characteristic of the things of experience, something which belongs to them by their nature in the truest sense of the word, then it is impossible to see how this stage of knowledge can ever be surmounted. We should simply have to apply ourselves to the task of making unrelated notes of all that we experience, and such an assemblage of notes would constitute our science. For what could all research into the interrelationships of things accomplish if the complete isolated-ness characterizing them in the form of experience represented their real nature?

The state of the case will be entirely different if in this form of reality we have to do, not with its essential nature, but only with its quite unessential external aspect; if we have before us only a shell of the true nature of the world which conceals that nature from us and requires us to search further for it. In that case, we should have to strive to break through this shell. We should have to proceed from this first form of the world in order to master its true characteristics (those essential to its being). We should have to surmount the “appearance for the senses” in order to unfold out of this a higher form of appearance.

The answer to this question is given in the following inquiries.

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