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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

1. The Point of Departure

On-line since: 20th March, 2002


1. The Point of Departure

When we trace any one of the major streams of present-day spiritual life back to its sources, we always encounter one of the spirits of our classical period. Goethe or Schiller, Herder or Lessing has given an impulse, and from it one or another spiritual movement has taken its start and still continues on today. Our whole German cultural life is so fully based on our classical writers that many a person who thinks himself completely original actually manages nothing more than to express what Goethe or Schiller indicated long ago. We have lived so fully into the world they created that hardly anyone who leaves the path they indicated could expect our understanding. Our way of looking at the world and at life is so influenced by them that no one can rouse our interest who does not seek points of reference with this world.

There is only one branch of our spiritual-cultural life that, we must admit, has not yet found any such point of reference. It is that branch of science which goes beyond merely collecting observations, beyond information about individual phenomena, in order to provide a satisfying overview of the world and of life. It is what one usually calls philosophy. For philosophy, our classical period does not seem to exist at all. It seeks its salvation in an artificial seclusion and noble isolation from the rest of spiritual life. This statement is not refuted by the fact that a considerable number of older and more recent philosophers and natural scientists have occupied themselves with Goethe and Schiller. For they have not arrived at their scientific standpoint by bringing to fruition the seeds contained in the scientific achievements of those heroes of the spirit. They arrived at their scientific standpoint outside of the world view put forward by Schiller and Goethe and then afterwards compared the two. They did not make this comparison for the purpose of gaining something for their own cause from the scientific views of the classical thinkers, but rather in order to test these thinkers to see how they stood up in the light of their own cause. We will come back to this in more detail. But first we would like just to indicate the consequences for this realm of science that arise out of the stance it takes toward the highest level of cultural development in modern times.

A great number of educated readers today will immediately reject unread any literary or scientific book that appears with a claim to being philosophical. There has hardly ever been a time when philosophy has enjoyed less favor than now. Leaving aside the writings of Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, which take up questions concerning life and the world, questions of the most general interest, and which therefore have been widely read, one does not go too far in saying that philosophical works are read today only by people in the profession. Nobody bothers except them. An educated person not in the profession has the vague feeling: This literature* (1) contains nothing that meets my spiritual needs; the things dealt with there do not concern me; they are not connected in any way with what is necessary for the satisfaction of my spirit. Only the fact we have indicated can bear the guilt for this lack of interest in all philosophy, for, in contrast to this lack of interest, there stands an ever-growing need for a satisfying view of the world and of life. What for a long time was a substitute for so many people, i.e., religious dogma, is losing more and more of its power to convince. The urge is increasing all the time to achieve by the work of thinking what was once owed to faith in revelation: satisfaction of spirit. The involvement of educated people could therefore not fail to exist if the sphere of science about which we are speaking really went hand in hand with the whole development of culture, if its representatives took a stand on the big questions that move humanity.

* See Notes to the New Edition, p. 121 –Ed.

One must always keep one's eye on the fact that it can never be a question of first creating artificially a spiritual need, but only of seeking out the need that exists and satisfying it. The task of science* is not to pose questions, (2) but rather to consider questions carefully when they are raised by human nature and by the particular level of culture, and then to answer them. Our modern philosophers set themselves tasks that are in no way a natural outgrowth of the level of culture at which we stand; therefore no one is asking for their findings. But this science passes over the questions that our culture must pose by virtue of the vantage point to which our classical writers have raised it. We therefore have a science [present-day philosophy] that no one is seeing, and a scientific need that is not being satisfied by anyone.

* Wissenschaft: “science” in the broader sense, from scire, to know. Researchers should also look up for themselves that another root word is skei-, to cut. This might evoke a quite different meaning of the word “science.” –Ed.

Our central science—the science that should solve the actual riddles of the world for us cannot be an exception among all the other branches of spiritual life. It must seek its sources where they have found theirs. It must not just come to terms with our classical thinkers; it must also seek in them the seeds for its own development; the same impulse must sweep through it as through the rest of our culture. This necessity resides in the very nature of the matter. It is also due to this necessity that modern researchers have occupied themselves with the classical writers in the way already described above. But this shows nothing more than that one had a vague feeling of the impermissibility of passing over the convictions of these thinkers and simply proceeding with the order of the day. But this also shows that one did not really manage to develop their views any further. The way one approached Lessing, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller shows this. Despite all the excellence of many of the books about these thinkers, one must still say, regarding almost everything written about Goethe's and Schiller's scientific* works, that it did not develop organically out of their views but was rather brought afterwards into relationship to them. Nothing demonstrates this better than the fact that the most contrary scientific theories have regarded Goethe as the thinker who had earlier “inklings” of their views. World views having absolutely nothing in common with each other point to Goethe with seemingly equal justification when they feel the need to see their standpoints recognized as being at the height of human development. One cannot imagine a sharper antithesis than between the teachings of Hegel and Schopenhauer. The latter calls Hegel a charlatan and his philosophy vapid word-rubbish, pure nonsense, barbaric word-combinations. These two men actually have absolutely nothing in common with each other except an unlimited reverence for Goethe and the belief that he adhered to their world view.

* Again: “scientific” in the broader sense –Ed.

And it is no different with more recent scientific theories. Haeckel, who has elaborated Darwinism brilliantly and with iron consistency, and whom we must regard as by far the most significant follower of the English scientist, sees his own view prefigured in the Goethean one. Another natural scientist of the present day, C.F.W. Jessen, writes of Darwin's theory: “The stir caused among many specialists and laymen by this theory — which had often been set forth earlier and just as often refuted by thorough research, but which is now propped up by many seeming supports — shows, unfortunately, how little people know and understand the results of natural-scientific research.” The same researcher says of Goethe that he “rose to comprehensive investigations into inorganic as well as organic nature” by finding, “through intelligent, deeply penetrating contemplation of nature, the basic law of all plant formation.” Each of these researchers can bring, in utterly overwhelming numbers, proofs of the agreement of his scientific theory with the “intelligent observations of Goethe.” It would put the unity of Goethe's thought in a very dubious light if both of these standpoints could justifiably cite it as their authority. The reason for this phenomenon, however, lies precisely in the fact that not one of these views, after all, has really grown out of the Goethean world view, but rather each has its roots outside it. The reason lies in the fact that one seeks an outer agreement of one's view with details torn out of the wholeness of Goethe's thinking, which thereby lose their meaning; one does not want to attribute to this wholeness itself the inner worthiness to found a scientific direction. Goethe's views were never the starting point of scientific investigations but always only an object of comparison. Those who concerned themselves with him were rarely students, devoting themselves to his ideas without preconceptions, but rather critics, sitting in judgment over him.

One says, in fact, that Goethe had far too little scientific sense; the worse a philosopher, the better a poet he was. Therefore it would be impossible to base a scientific standpoint on him. This is a total misconception about Goethe's nature. To be sure, Goethe was no philosopher in the usual sense of the word; but it should not be forgotten that the wonderful harmony of his personality led Schiller to say: “The poet is the only true human being.” What Schiller understood here by “true human being” was Goethe. There was not lacking in his personality any element that belongs to the highest expression of the universally human. But all these elements united in him into a totality that works as such. This is how it comes about that a deep philosophical sense underlies his views about nature, even though this philosophical sense does not come to consciousness in him in the form of definite scientific principles. Anyone who enters more deeply into that totality will be able, if he also brings along a philosophical disposition, to separate out that philosophical sense and to present it as Goethean science. But he must take his start from Goethe and not approach him with an already fixed view. Goethe's spiritual powers always work in a way that accords with the strictest philosophy, even though he did not leave behind any systematic presentation of them.

Goethe's world view* is the most many-sided imaginable. It issues from a center resting within the unified nature of the poet, and it always turns outward the side corresponding to the nature of the object being considered. The unity of the spiritual forces being exercised lies in Goethe's nature; the way these forces are exercised at any given moment is determined by the object under consideration. Goethe takes his way of looking at things from the outer world and does not force any particular way upon it. These days, however, the thinking of many people is active in only one particular way; it is useful for only one category of objects; it is not, like that of Goethe, unified but rather uniform. Let us express this even more precisely: There are people whose intellect is especially able to think purely mechanical interdependencies and effects; they picture the whole universe as a mechanism. Other people have an urge to perceive everywhere the mysterious mystical element in the outer world; they become adherents of mysticism. All error arises when a way of thinking like this which is valid for one category of objects is declared to be universal. In this way the conflict between the many world views is explained. If such a one-sided conception approaches the Goethean one, which is not limited —because it does not in any way take its way of looking at things from the spirit of the beholder but rather from the nature of what is beheld — then it is comprehensible that the one-sided conception fastens onto those elements of thought in the Goethean conception that are in accord with itself. Goethe's world view encompasses many directions of thought in the sense just indicated and cannot, in fact, ever be imbued with any single, one-sided conception.

* See also Rudolf Steiner's Goethe's World View, Mercury Press, 1985. –Ed.

The philosophical sense that is an essential element in the organism of Goethe's genius has significance also for his literary works. Even though it was far from Goethe's way to present in a conceptually clear form what this sense communicated to him, as Schiller could, it was nevertheless still a factor contributing to his artistic work, as it was with Schiller. The literary productions of Goethe and Schiller are unthinkable without the world view that stands in the background. With Schiller this is expressed more in the basic principles he actually formulated, with Goethe more in the way he looked at things. Yet the fact that the greatest poets of our nation, at the height of their creative work, could not do without that philosophical element proves more than anything else that this element is a necessary part of the history of humanity's development. Precisely this dependence on Goethe and Schiller will make it possible to wrest our central science [philosophy] out of its academic isolation and to incorporate it into the rest of cultural development. The scientific convictions of our classical writers are connected by a thousand threads to their other strivings and are of a sort demanded by the cultural epoch that created them.

Last Modified: 03-Jul-2017
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