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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

5. An Indication as to the Content of Experience

On-line since: 20th March, 2002

5. An Indication as to the Content of Experience

Let us now take a look at pure experience. What does it contain, as it sweeps across our consciousness, without our working upon it in thinking? It is mere juxtaposition in space and succession in time; an aggregate of utterly disconnected particulars. None of the objects that come and go there has anything to do with any other. At this stage, the facts that we perceive, that we experience inwardly, are of no consequence to each other. This world is a manifoldness of things of equal value. No thing or event can claim to play a greater role in the functioning of the world than any other part of the world of experience. If it is to become clear to us that this or that fact has greater significance than another one, we must then not merely observe the things, but must already bring them into thought-relationships. The rudimentary organ of an animal, which perhaps does not have the least importance for its organic functioning, is for experience of exactly the same value as the most essential organ of the animal's body. This greater or lesser importance will in fact become clear to us only when we begin to reflect upon the relationships of the individual parts of observation, that is, when we work upon experience.

For experience, the snail, which stands at a low level of organization, is the equal of the most highly developed animal. The difference in the perfection of organization appears to us only when we grasp the given manifoldness conceptually and work it through. The culture of the Eskimo, in this respect, is also equal to that of the educated European; Caesar's significance for the historical development of humanity appears to mere experience as being no greater than that of one of his soldiers. In the history of literature, Goethe does not stand out above Gottsched, if it is a matter of merely experienceable factuality.

At this level of contemplation, the world is a completely smooth surface for us with respect to thought. No part of this surface rises above another; none manifests any kind of conceptual difference from another. It is only when the spark of thought strikes into this surface that heights and depths appear, that one thing appears to stand out more or less than another, that everything takes form in a definite way, that threads weave from one configuration to another, that everything becomes a harmony complete within itself.

We believe that these examples suffice to show what we mean by the greater or lesser significance of the objects of perception (here considered to be synonymous with the things of experience), and what we mean by that knowing activity which first arises when we contemplate these objects in their interconnection. At the same time, we believe that in this we are safe from the objection that our world of experience in fact shows endless differences in its objects even before thinking approaches it. After all, a red surface differs from a green one even if we do not exercise any thinking. This is correct. If someone wanted to refute us by this, however, he would have misunderstood our argument totally. This is precisely our argument, that an endless number of particulars is what experience offers us. These particulars must of course differ from one another; otherwise they would not in fact confront us as an endless, disconnected manifoldness. It is not at all a question of perceived things being undifferentiated, but rather of their complete unrelatedness, and of the absolute insignificance of the individual sense-perceptible facts for the totality of our picture of reality. It is precisely because we recognize this endless qualitative differentiation that we are driven to our conclusions.

If we were confronted by a self-contained, harmoniously organized unity, we could not then say, in fact, that the individual parts of this unity are of no significance to one another.

If, for this reason, someone does not find the comparison we used above to be apt, he has not grasped it at the actual point of comparison. It would be incorrect, of course, for us to want to compare the world of perception, in all its in finitely diverse configuration, to the uniform regularity of a plane. But our plane is definitely not meant to represent the diverse world of phenomena, but rather the homogeneous total picture we have of this world as long as thinking has not approached it. After the activation of our thinking, each particular of this total picture no longer appears in the way our senses alone communicate it, but al ready with the significance it has for the whole of reality. It appears then with characteristics totally lacking to it in the form of experience.

In our estimation, Johannes Volkelt has succeeded admirably in sketching the clear outlines of what we are justified in calling pure experience. He already gave a fine characterization of it five years ago in his book on Kant's Epistemology, and has then carried the subject further in his most recent work, Experience and Thinking. Now he did this, to be sure, in support of a view that is utterly different from our own, and for an essentially different purpose than ours is at the moment. But this need not prevent us from introducing here his excellent characterization of pure experience. He presents us, simply, with the pictures which, in a limited period of time, pass before our consciousness in a completely unconnected way. Volkelt says: “Now, for example, my consciousness has as its content the mental picture of having worked hard today; immediately joining itself to this is the content of a mental picture of being able, with good conscience, to take a walk; but suddenly there appears the perceptual picture of the door opening and of the mailman entering; the mailman appears, now sticking out his hand, now opening his mouth, now doing the reverse; at the same time, there join in with this content of perception of the mouth opening, all kinds of auditory impressions, among which comes the impression that it is starting to rain outside. The mailman disappears from my consciousness, and the mental pictures that now arise have as their content the sequence: picking up scissors, opening the letter, criticism of illegible writing, visible images of the most diverse written figures, diverse imaginings and thoughts connected with them; scarcely is this sequence at an end than again there appears the mental picture of having worked hard and the perception, accompanied by ill humor, of the rain continuing; but both disappear from my consciousness, and there arises a mental picture with the content that a difficulty believed to have been resolved in the course of today's work was not resolved; entering at the same time are the mental pictures: freedom of will, empirical necessity, responsibility, value of virtue, absolute chance, incomprehensibility, etc.; these all join together with each other in the most varied and complicated way; and so it continues.”

Here we have depicted, within a certain limited period of time, what we really experience, the form of reality in which thinking plays no part at all.

Now one definitely should not believe that one would have arrived at a different result if, instead of this everyday experience, one had depicted, say, the experience we have of a scientific experiment or of a particular phenomenon of nature. Here, as there, it is individual unconnected pictures that pass before our consciousness. Thinking first establishes the connections.

We must also recognize the service rendered by Dr. Richard Wahle's little book, Brain and Consciousness (Vienna, 1884), in showing us in clear contours what is actually given by experience divested of everything of a thought-nature, with only one reservation: that what Wahle presents as the characteristics applying absolutely to the phenomena of the outer and inner world actually applies only to the first stage of the world contemplation we have characterized. According to Wahle we know only a juxtaposition in space and a succession in time. For him there can be absolutely no question of a relationship between the things that exist in this juxtaposition and succession. For example, there may after all be an inner connection somewhere between the warm rays of the sun and the warming up of a stone; but we know nothing of any causal connection; all that becomes clear to us is that a second fact follows upon the first. There may also be somewhere, in a world unaccessible to us, an inner connection between our brain mechanism and our spiritual activity; we only know that both are events running their courses parallel to each other; we are absolutely not justified, for example, in assuming a causal connection between these two phenomena.

Of course, when Wahle also presents this assertion as an ultimate truth of science, we must dispute this broader application; his assertion is completely valid, however, with respect to the first form in which we become aware of reality.

It is not only the things of the outer world and the processes of the inner world that stand there, at this stage of our knowing, without interconnection; our own personality is also an isolated entity with respect to the rest of the world. We find ourselves as one of innumerable perceptions without connection to the objects that surround us.

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