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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

12. Intellect and Reason

On-line since: 20th March, 2002

12. Intellect and Reason

Our thinking has a twofold task: firstly, to create concepts with sharply delineated contours; secondly, to bring together the individual concepts thus created into a unified whole. In the first case we are dealing with the activity that makes distinctions; in the second, with the activity that joins. These two spiritual tendencies by no means enjoy the same cultivation in the sciences. The keen intellect that enters into the smallest details in making its distinctions is given to a significantly larger number of people than the uniting power of thinking that penetrates into the depths of beings.

For a long time one saw the only task of science to be the making of exact distinctions between things. We need only recall the state of affairs in which Goethe found natural history. Through Linnaeus it had become the ideal to seek the exact differences between individual plants in order in this way to be able to use the most insignificant characteristics to set up new species and subspecies. Two kinds of animals or plants that differed in only the most inessential things were assigned right away to different species. If an unexpected deviation from the arbitrarily established character of the species was found in one or another creature that until then had been assigned to one or another species, one did not then reflect how such a deviation could be explained from this character itself; one simply set up a new species.

Making distinctions like this is the task of the intellect (Verstandes). It has only to separate concepts and maintain them in this separation. This is a necessary preliminary stage of any higher scientific work. Above all, in fact, we need firmly established, clearly delineated concepts before we can seek their harmony. But we must not remain in this separation. For the intellect, things are separated that humanity has an essential need to see in a harmonious unity. Remaining separate for the intellect are: cause and effect, mechanism and organism, freedom and necessity, idea and reality, spirit and nature, and so on. All these distinctions are introduced by the intellect. They must be introduced, because otherwise the world would appear to us as a blurred, obscure chaos that would form a unity only because it would be totally undefined for us.

The intellect itself is in no position to go beyond this separation. It holds firmly to the separated parts. To go beyond this is the task of reason (Vernunft). It has to allow the concepts created by the intellect to pass over into one another. It has to show that what the intellect keeps strictly separated is actually an inner unity. The separation is something brought about artificially, a necessary intermediary stage for our activity of knowing, not its conclusion. A person who grasps reality in a merely intellectual way distances himself from it. He sets in reality's place — since it is in truth a unity — an artificial multiplicity, a manifoldness that has nothing to do with the essential being of reality.

The conflict that has arisen between an intellectually motivated science and the human heart stems from this. Many people whose thinking is not yet developed enough for them to arrive at a unified world view grasped in full conceptual clarity are, nevertheless, very well able to penetrate into the inner harmony of the universe with their feeling. Their hearts give them what reason offers the scientifically developed person.

When such people meet the intellectual view of the world, they reject with scorn the infinite multiplicity and cling to the unity that they do not know, indeed, but that they feel more or less intensely. They see very well that the intellect withdraws from nature, that it loses sight of the spiritual bond joining the parts of reality.

Reason leads back to reality again. The unity of all existence, which before was felt or of which one even had only dim inklings, is clearly penetrated and seen by reason. The intellectual view must be deepened by the view of reason.

If the former is regarded as an end in itself instead of as a necessary intermediary stage, then it does not yield reality but rather a distorted image of it.

There are sometimes difficulties in connecting the thoughts that the intellect has created. The history of science provides us with many proofs of this. We often see the human spirit struggle to bridge the differences created by the intellect.

In reason's view of the world the human being merges with the world in undivided unity.

Kant pointed already to the difference between intellect and reason. He designated reason as the ability to perceive ideas; the intellect, on the other hand, is limited merely to beholding the world in its dividedness, in its separateness.

Now reason is, in fact, the ability to perceive ideas. Here we must determine the difference between concept and idea, to which we have hitherto paid no attention. For our purposes until now it has only been a matter of finding those qualities of the element of thought that present themselves in concept and idea. The concept is the single thought as it is grasped and held by the intellect. If I bring a number of such single thoughts into living flux in such a way that they pass over into one another, connect with one another, then thought-configurations arise that are present only for reason, that the intellect cannot attain. For reason, the creations of the intellect give up their separate existences and live on only as part of a totality. These configurations that reason has created shall be called ideas.

The fact that the idea leads a multiplicity of the concepts created by the intellect back to a unity was also expressed by Kant. But he presented the configurations that come to manifestation through reason as mere deceptive images, as illusions that the human spirit eternally conjures up because it is eternally striving to find some unity to experience that is never to be found. According to Kant, the unities created in ideas do not rest upon objective circumstances; they do not flow from the things themselves; rather they are merely subjective norms by which we bring order into our knowing. Kant therefore does not characterize ideas as constitutive principles, which would have to be essential to the things, but rather as regulative principles, which have meaning and significance only for the systematics of our knowing.

If one looks at the way in which ideas come about, however, this view immediately proves erroneous. It is indeed correct that subjective reason has the need for unity. But this need is without any content; it is an empty striving for unity. If something confronts it that is absolutely lacking in any unified nature, it cannot itself produce this unity out of itself. If, on the other hand, a multiplicity confronts it that allows itself to be led back into an inner harmony, it then brings about this harmony. The world of concepts created by the intellect is just such a multiplicity.

Reason does not presuppose any particular unity but rather the empty form of unification; reason is the ability to bring harmony to light when harmony lies within the object itself. Within reason, the concepts themselves combine into ideas. Reason brings into view the higher unity of the intellect's concepts, a unity that the intellect certainly has in its configurations but is unable to see. The fact that this is overlooked is the basis of many misunderstandings about the application of reason in the sciences.

To a small degree every science, even at its starting point — yes, even our everyday thinking — needs reason. If, in the judgment that every body has weight, we join the subject-concept with the predicate-concept, there already lies in this a uniting of two concepts and therefore the simplest activity of reason.

The unity that reason takes as its object is certain before all thinking, before any use of reason; but it is hidden, is present only as potential, does not manifest as a fact in its own right. Then the human spirit brings about separation, in order, by uniting the separate parts through reason, to see fully into reality.

Whoever does not presuppose this must either regard all connecting of thoughts as an arbitrary activity of the subjective spirit, or he must assume that the unity stands behind the world experienced by us and compels us in some way unknown to us to lead the manifoldness back to a unity. In that case we join thoughts without insight into the true basis of the connection that we bring about; then the truth is not known by us, but rather is forced upon us from outside. Let us call all science taking its start from this presupposition dogmatic. We will still have to come back to this.

Every scientific view of this kind will run into difficulty when it has to give reasons for why we make one or another connection between thoughts. It has to look around for a subjective basis for drawing objects together whose objective connection remains hidden to us. Why do I make a judgment, if the thing which demands that subject-concept and predicate-concept belong together has nothing to do with the making of this judgment?

Kant made this question the starting point of his critical work. At the beginning of his Critique of Pure Reason we find the question: How are synthetical judgments possible a priori? — this means, how is it possible for me to join two concepts (subject, predicate), if the content of the one is not already contained in the other, and if the judgment is not merely a perception judgment, i.e., the establishing of an individual fact? Kant believes that such judgments are possible only if experience can exist only under the presumption of their validity. The possibility of experience is therefore the determining factor for us if we are to make a judgment of this kind. If I can say to myself that experience is possible only if one or another synthetical judgment is true a priori, only then is the judgment valid. But this does not apply to ideas themselves. For Kant these do not have even this degree of objectivity.

Kant finds that the principles of mathematics and of pure natural science are such valid synthetical principles a priori. He takes, for example, the principle that 7 + 5 = 12. In 7 and 5 the sum 12 is in no way contained, concludes Kant. I must go beyond 7 and 5 and call upon my intuition; * then I find the concept 12. My intuition makes it necessary for me to picture that 7 + 5 = 12. But the objects of my experience must approach me through the medium of my intuition, must submit to the laws of my intuition. If experience is to be possible, such principles must be correct.

* Anschauung — “Intuition” is the conventional translation of Kant's Anschauang. —Ed.

This entire artificial thought-edifice of Kant does not stand up to objective examination. It is impossible that I have absolutely no point of reference in the subject-concept which leads me to the predicate-concept. For, both concepts were won by my intellect, and won from something that in itself is unified. Let us not deceive ourselves here. The mathematical unit that underlies the number is not primary. What is primary is the magnitude, which is so and so many repetitions of the unit. I must presuppose a magnitude when I speak of a unit. The unit is an entity of our intellect separated by the intellect out of a totality, in the same way that it distinguishes effect from cause, substance from its attributes, etc. Now, when I think 7 + 5, I am in fact grasping 12 mathematical units in thought, only not all at once, but rather in two parts. If I think the total of these mathematical units at one time, then that is exactly the same thing. And I express this identity in the judgment 7 + 5 = 12. It is exactly the same with the geometrical example Kant presents. A limited straight line with end points A and B is an indivisible unit. My intellect can form two concepts of it. On the one hand it can regard the straight line as direction, on the other as the distance between two points A and B. From this results the judgment that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.

All judging, insofar as the parts entering into the judgment are concepts, is nothing more than a reuniting of what the intellect has separated. The connection reveals itself at once when one goes into the content of the concepts provided by the intellect.

Last Modified: 03-Jul-2017
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