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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012


By the Translator

(Date of publication of book: 1886)


  1. The Point of Departure. Philosophy alone, the central and unifying branch of knowledge, is uninfluenced by the great “classic age” of German thought — especially by Goethe. Hence, it fails to provide the inner certitude at present so deeply needed. Goethe possessed a profound philosophical sense. Completely centered and many-sided, he employed the appropriate form of cognition for each object of research.

  2. Goethe's Science Considered According to the Method of Schiller. The present inquiry will interpret and justify Goethe's mode of cognition as applied to the living world. It will follow Schiller's method in doing this. It will not deal with mere formulae. — The return to Kant will not benefit philosophy, but the understanding of Goethe will.

  3. The Function of This Branch of Science. Each of the sciences seeks to discover the relationships among objects in its special field — these being wholly unrelated in the form of pure experience. But there must be one branch of knowledge which seeks to determine the relationship between experience as a whole and the totality of thoughts, between human thoughts and the objects of reality.


  1. Definition of the Concept of Experience. Without our participation, except in passive sense-receptivity, the world appears as if from an unknown source. This, in its first form of appearance, we term experience. It includes our feelings, our impulses of will. It includes also our thoughts. This becomes clear upon adequate observation of our thinking. For thinking is contemplation, an activity directed outward, and it would be directed into a void if an inner object of contemplation did not meet it. This object is a thought.

  2. Examination of the Content of Experience. Experience is merely a juxtaposition in space and succession in time of single things, wholly unrelated — different in their impressions on the senses but undifferentiated in significance. Our own personality is, at this stage, one item of experience, also unrelated. Thinking alone establishes relationships and significance.

  3. Correction of an Erroneous Conception of Experience As a Totality. The opinion that the world of experience is wholly within us, mere subjective “representations” (Vorstellungswelt) generated through our senses by an unknown source, is very widespread. This opinion certainly does not come from experience itself, for the untutored person never holds it. It could result only from much reflection. Therefore, it is utterly illogical to postulate such a characterization of the nature of experience, and then proceed from this point to inquire into the nature of human knowledge.

  4. Reference to the Experience of the Individual Reader. The characterization of experience in 5, above, is not intended dogmatically. It is only a definition of the use of the term, merely directing attention to the nature of the first appearance of reality in consciousness before any concept arises. The best name for this is “appearance for the senses” — meaning both inner and outer senses. If this is the real nature of things, no knowledge whatever is possible beyond the registering of single unrelated sense impressions. But, if it is only the outer shell of reality, and is capable of being penetrated, knowledge is possible.


  1. Thinking As a Higher Experience within Experience. Thought — one item of experience — is the key to all others. It differs from all others in that it appears at once in its completeness and its relationships. (For example, the thought of cause brings with it the thought of effect.) The demand of science that we must limit ourselves to experience, but must discover the inner laws within experience, becomes possible only through this one item. The requirement is fulfilled immediately in the case of this item itself, and is fulfilled in all other cases through the application of this item. Goethe practiced this principle to the full. He declared that it is impossible to get outside of Nature; that all higher views of Nature give also only Nature. — We must bear in mind two aspects of the thought world: — 1. the content of ideas, law-conforming, complete in itself; 2. my inner activity, prerequisite to their appearance in consciousness. Since we ourselves permeate thought completely, we can rightly use this one item of experience to interpret all experience.

  2. Thought and Consciousness. But thought is not subjective. Evidence is this. — 1. We combine thoughts wholly according to their content; not at all according to our subjective nature. 2. We do not create the content subjectively; for, if we did, how could anything else than ourselves determine the combinations. What is essential is not the subjective activity prerequisite to the appearance of thoughts, but their objective content. Each personality, working with the one thought content of the world, brings to manifestation in his own consciousness thoughts which are objectively real. As a mechanic brings natural forces into interaction and produces mechanical effects, so a thinker brings thoughts into connection and creates thought combinations — ideas and whole systems. — Thoughts do not merely reflect their essential nature in their manifestations in consciousness while the essential nature is not actually present. Observation of our thinking will show that the real content is present in the manifestation.

  3. The Inner Nature of Thought. Our thought realm consists of a multitude of single thoughts all interrelated. A new thought is disturbing until it is interrelated. The fixing of a harmonious relation among all thoughts creates the assurance of truth. — Thoughts are not mere photographs of experience, for the following reasons: — 1. If thoughts completely copy the sense world, this world gives us all we need, and thought is superfluous. We have shown that this is not the case. 2. Thoughts do not copy essential characteristics from the sense world; for experience, as we have seen, gives no clue to what qualities are essential. 3. Nor do thoughts select even identical characteristics — without regard to what is essential — since identical characteristics practically never appear in experience.

    If, for the sake of argument, we should assume that thoughts give only a reflection of real content, while this lies beyond our reach, we should have at least indirect access in this way to real content. As to this detail of the question, we need go no further at this stage.


  1. Thought and Perception. The perceptual aspect of reality, passively received, is permeated by the conceptual aspect, actively apprehended and elaborated. This union constitutes reality. Thinking is the organ for perceiving something above the level of sense-perception. — The self-sufficing harmony of thoughts seems to separate them completely from the world of percepts. But this is not true, since general thought characterizations can be made particular and concrete only by means of percepts. — Experience comes psychologically before thought, but it is really derivative. The process is as follows: — A percept stimulates me to seek for its inner nature. This seeking is really a concept working its way upward from below into consciousness. Then percept and concept unite to form one item in my thought realm. To discover the inner nature of a percept, we must have the corresponding concept already within us, or be able to evolve it from the world of concepts. In the concept we bring to manifestation the content of the empty form of the percept.

  2. Intellect and Reason. Thinking is twofold: — I. It forms clearly differentiated concepts; and, 2. it establishes relationships among these. The former capacity is called the intellect; the latter, the reason. In modern science, the intellect is much more common and more highly valued. Intellectual activity is essential, for the creation of sharply differentiated parts, but only as preliminary to the development by the reason of a harmonious whole. — Kant declared all ideas — combinations of related concepts — to be merely subjective, without content, only regulative norms of our own subjective nature. This is false. Reason does strive for unity, but it can establish this only where unity is inherent in the content of the concepts. Where experience cannot function without the use of certain ideas, Kant admitted the validity of these ideas for merely practical purposes. But Kant's explanation of the creation of such ideas is incorrect; they are intuitive.

  3. The Act of Cognition. All reality is in two realms; experience and thought. Experience may be considered from two points of view: — 1. to what extent it is inherent in the nature of reality that it can manifest itself only as experience; 2. to what extent it is inherent in the nature of our mind, whose form of action is contemplation, that it requires this form of manifestation. From this point of view, we may consider two possibilities: — 1. That the experiential form is only transitional, and is to be overcome in reaching the essential nature of the “appearance for the senses.” 2. That the experiential form is identical with the essential nature of what we experience, but that our minds require an effort in order to discover this fact. The second is true of thought; the first is true of all other items of experience. — The two realms of experience and thought must be united through thought activity. Thinking is an organ of perception. As the eye perceives light and the ear perceives sound, so does thinking perceive concepts, ideas. There is one world of ideas, but many minds. — The external is merely the form; the inner is the real nature.

  4. Cognition and the Ultimate Foundation of Things. Kant achieved an important step in philosophy in pointing out that man must seek the reasons for certitude in his affirmations in his own spiritual faculties, and not in any truth imposed upon him from without. But Kant did not adequately differentiate the two scientific trends thus indicated.

    Two kinds of judgment are formed by: 1. the union of a percept with a concept; and: 2. the union of two concepts. Example of 2: “No effect without a cause.” If the content of the two concepts, as this is given to me, does not include the reason for their being united, then I can never reach that objective reason, and the real meaning of the assertion is in a world inaccessible to me. Such judgments would then be dogmas — dogmas of revelation. Moreover, those who insist that we must limit ourselves to pure experience, would condemn us to remain likewise ignorant of reality. But the author's view has shown that there is no Fundament of Being lying beyond the reach of thought: that this Fundament of Being has poured itself out in thought. According to this view, every judgment is a union of two elements in our thought, which means two elements of reality. It has shown also that thought must give a knowledge of experience, not as product but as productive — in its productive aspect.

    The real being of things exists only in connection with man. Truth is anthropomorphic. Not only is the world known to us as it appears, but it appears — to thinking contemplation — as it is.


  1. Inorganic Nature. The simplest action in Nature occurs when two factors are external to each other. Example: a rolling stone setting another stone in motion. The whole system of such occurrences constitutes inorganic Nature. This appears first as one form of our experience. Cognition arises here only when we discover causes through our thinking. The process is the elimination of one factor after another until it becomes evident that one or more specific factors are prerequisite to the occurrence. Or it may be simplification: reducing a complex problem to a simpler form till it becomes transparent.

    An occurrence which must result inevitably and directly from observed factors is called a primal phenomenon. Identical with a law of Nature. All natural laws may be stated thus: “If this is present, that must occur.” This mode of thinking is superior to induction, which requires the observation of innumerable instances, and can never be absolutely certain. Scientific progress demands the discovery of primal phenomena. A primal phenomenon is higher experience within experience. — An experiment creates the conditions needed for discovering prerequisite factors. It is a mediator between subject and object in inorganic science. — The mind raises objects in Nature from “appearance for the senses” to appearance for the mind itself.

    A scientific insight gives satisfaction only when it leads to a self-sufficing totality. In inorganic Nature, only the cosmos is such a totality; therefore, the cosmos must be the ultimate goal in this part of science.

  2. Organic Nature. Until the nineteenth century, the determinative forces in living entities were supposed to be in the mind of the Creator. Human minds were considered incapable of understanding living things. This was Kant's view. It was opposed by Goethe, who sought to discover the evolution of organs and organisms. Later came a gradual change of view but the fundamental error occurred of applying the methods of the physical sciences to living things. Scientific methods as a whole were falsely identified with methods in one branch of science.

    Environment does not create living entities. The inner forces create; environment can only modify the result of the action of the inner forces. — The essence present in each specialized form is the general which is manifest in the special. This general thus manifest is the type: the primal organism, either plant or animal. It evolves into all the specialized forms. The type corresponds in the living world to the natural law in the inorganic world.

    The activity of thought in this realm must be entirely different. In the inorganic realm, natural law determines the single phenomenon. In the organic realm, the type actually manifests itself in the single entity. Here we must first apprehend the type; then apprehend all potential modifications of the type; and finally trace the actual living form back to one of the potential modifications of the type. This demands intuitive thinking. The mind must acquire the power of perception in the supersensible realm: it must be able to perceive in thinking and think in perceiving. Goethe called this capacity the “perceptive power of thought.”

    Intuition is generally distrusted, but it is the sole mode of cognition applicable to the living world. According to the author's theory of knowledge — which he considers to be the theory implicit in Goethe's mode of scientific work — it is entirely logical to seek to develop this form of knowledge. For, according to this theory of knowledge, all thinking is a direct apprehension of reality. Limits of proof — required in the inorganic realm — do not constitute limits of knowledge. — Intuition means being within truth.


  1. Introduction: Spirit and Nature.Above the level of “organics” are the cultural, or spiritual, sciences. Here, again, the mind must alter its form of activity. In the natural sciences, the human mind completes the world process by bringing to manifestation (in human consciousness) the reality within phenomena, which otherwise would never reach manifestation. The mind interprets Nature to herself. Human knowledge is the conclusion of the work of creation, the final link in the process which constitutes Nature. In the spiritual sciences, the mind deals with spiritual realities already in manifestation, — human actions, thoughts, creations. Here, the human spirit comes to an understanding of itself.

    These sciences, likewise, arise out of a sense of inner need. Their function is to know the spiritual world in order that the human spirit may freely choose and play its own role. Here the idea of freedom is central. In place of the determining law (in inorganic Nature) and the evolving type (in organic Nature), we have the single personality, who determines instead of being determined.

  2. Psychological Cognition. The method in psychological cognition is immersion of the mind in the contemplation of its own activity — that is, self-apprehension; but apprehension of the essential self, not of its casual manifestations. We must seek the fundamental human being in each personality. The individual here is not a specialized form of the general, but is the general. In thought applied to objects observed in external reality, man discovers the highest form of content. In contemplating himself, he finds that he is this highest content.

    Modern psychology fails because it applies in its own field the methods of inorganic science, seeking through observed phenomena to infer the activating being within. This central being is given to us in direct experience just as truly as are the phenomenal manifestations.

    But the single personality acts also partly out of the forces of his people. Hence we must add to psychology the science of folk-psychology, the psychology of a whole people. — The scientific study of any people must be based upon the inner nature of this people — the folk-personality.

  3. Human Freedom. Human action is determined by human thinking. Hence a personality will act freely or under compulsion according as he knows the reality in his own intuitions or accepts dogmas dictated from without. The World Fundament has poured itself out into the world. Its highest form is manifested in human thought. Thus the Guiding Power of the world lives in human thoughts. Hence man is in harmony with this Guiding Power when he acts according to his own true intuitions. History also is determined by the thoughts of individuals.

  4. Optimism and Pessimism. Since man is the central point of the world process, and his thought its highest manifestation, he is self-sufficing. Only he can determine his own happiness or unhappiness. Happiness or unhappiness bestowed upon him from without would negate his nature.


  1. Scientific Knowledge and Artistic Creation. The Idea is the content of knowledge. It is the product of the activity of the mind. In cognition, man arises from the phenomenal, the product, to the Idea, the creative reality. He strips all unessentials from the manifested form, and apprehends the essential in the Idea. In art, the human spirit imprints the same eternal Idea upon an object of Nature. In doing this, it is necessary to subdue to the eternal Idea all that is casual and unessential in the object used to receive this imprint. Art is a product of the eternal laws of Nature, as Goethe discovered in contemplating the great masterpieces in Italy. In both science and art, the human spirit masters the sensible characteristics and brings to manifestation the innermost reality.

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