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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

4. Determining the Concept of Experience

On-line since: 20th March, 2002

B. EXPERIENCE

4. Determining the Concept of Experience

Two regions confront each other therefore: our thinking, and the objects with which thinking concerns itself. To the extent that these objects are accessible to our observation, one calls them the content of experience (Erfahrung). For the moment let us leave aside entirely the question as to whether, outside our field of observation, there are yet other objects of thinking and what their nature might be.

Our immediate task will be to define sharply the boundaries of the two regions indicated: experience and thinking. We must first have experience in its particular delineation before us and then investigate the nature of thinking. Let us proceed with the first task.

What is experience? Everyone is conscious of the fact that his thinking is kindled in conflict with reality. The objects in space and in time approach us; we perceive a highly diversified outer world of manifold parts, and we experience a more or less richly developed inner world. The first form in which all this confronts us stands finished before us. We play no part in its coming about. Reality at first presents itself to our sensible and spiritual grasp as though springing from some beyond unknown to us. To begin with we can only let our gaze sweep across the manifoldness confronting us.

This first activity of ours is grasping reality with our senses. We must hold onto what it thus presents us. For only this can be called pure experience. (3)

We feel the need right away to penetrate with organizing intellect the endless manifoldness of shapes, forces, colors, sounds, etc., that arises before us. We try to become clear about the mutual interdependencies of all the single entities confronting us. If we encounter an animal in a certain region, we ask about the influence of this region upon the life of the animal; if we see a stone begin to roll, we seek the other events with which this is connected. But what results from such asking and seeking is no longer pure experience. It already has a twofold origin: experience and thinking.

Pure experience is the form of reality in which reality appears to us when we confront it to the complete exclusion of what we ourselves bring to it.

The words Goethe used in his essay Nature (4) are applicable to this form of reality: “We are surrounded and embraced by her. She takes us up, unasked and unwarned, into the orbit of her dance.”

With objects of the external sense world, this leaps so obviously to the eye that scarcely anyone would deny it. A body confronts us at first as a multiplicity of forms, colours, warmth and light impressions, which are suddenly before us as though sprung from some primal source unknown to us.

The conviction in psychology that the sense world, as it lies before us, is nothing in itself but is only a product of the interworking of an unknown molecular outer world with our organism does not contradict our statement. Even if it were really true that color, warmth, etc., were nothing more than the way our organism is affected by the outer world, still the process that transforms the happening of the outer world into color, warmth, etc., lies entirely outside consciousness. No matter what role our organism may play in this, it is not molecular processes that lie before our thinking as the finished form in which reality presses in upon us (experience); rather it is those colors, sounds, etc.

The matter is not so clear with respect to our inner life. But closer consideration will banish all doubt here about the fact that our inner states also appear on the horizon of our consciousness in the same form as the things and facts of the outer world. A feeling presses in upon me in the same way that an impression of light does. The fact that I bring it into closer connection with my own personality is of no consequence in this regard. We must go still further. Even thinking itself appears to us at first as an object of experience. Already in approaching our thinking investigatively, we set it before us; we picture its first form to ourselves as coming from something unknown to us.

This cannot be otherwise. Our thinking, especially if one looks at the form it takes as individual activity within our consciousness, is contemplation; i.e., it directs its gaze outward upon something that is before it. In this it remains at first mere activity. It would gaze into emptiness, into nothingness, if something did not confront it.

Everything that is to become the object of our knowing must accommodate itself to this form of confrontation. We are incapable of lifting ourselves above this form. If, in thinking, we are to gain a means of penetrating more deeply into the world, then thinking itself must first become experience. We must seek thinking among the facts of experience as just such a fact itself.

Only in this way will our world view have inner unity. It would lack this unity at once if we wanted to introduce a foreign element into it. We confront experience pure and simple and seek within it the element that sheds light upon itself and upon the rest of reality.




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