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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

13. The Activity of Knowing

On-line since: 20th March, 2002

13. The Activity of Knowing

Reality has separated itself for us into two realms: into experience and thinking. Experience comes into consideration in a twofold way. Firstly, insofar as all reality except thinking has a form of manifestation that must appear in the form of experience; and secondly, insofar as it lies in the nature of our spirit — whose being after all consists in contemplation, i.e., in an activity directed outward — that the objects to be observed must enter its field of vision, which is to say that they be given to it as experience. Now it could be the case that this form of the “given” does not contain the essential being (Wesen) of the thing, in which case the thing itself demands that it first manifest to perception (experience) in order later to reveal its essential being to an activity of our spirit that goes beyond perception. Another possibility is that the essential being is already present within the directly “given,” and that it is only due to the second fact—that for our spirit everything must come before its gaze as experience—that we do not immediately become aware of this essential being. The latter is the case with thinking; the former is the case with the rest of reality. With thinking it is only necessary for us to overcome our own subjective limitations in order to grasp its core. What, with the rest of reality, is factually based in the objective perception — namely, that its immediate form of appearance must be overcome in order to explain it —this, with thinking, lies only in a peculiarity of our spirit. With the rest of reality, it is the thing itself that gives itself the form of experience; with thinking, it is the organization of our spirit. With the rest of reality, we do not have the whole thing when we grasp experience; with thinking we do.

Therein lies the basis of the dualism that science — the thinking activity of knowing — has to overcome. The human being finds himself confronted by two worlds whose connection he must establish. One of them is experience, about which he knows that it contains only half of reality; the other is thinking, which is complete in itself, and into which that outer perceptual reality must flow if a satisfying world view is to result. If the world were inhabited merely by sense beings, its essential being (its ideal content) would remain forever hidden; laws would indeed govern the processes of the world, but these laws would not come to manifestation. For these laws to come to manifestation, a being would have to insert itself between the phenomenal form and the law, a being to whom is given — in addition to the organs through which it perceives the sense-perceptible form of reality that is dependent upon the laws — also the ability to perceive the lawfulness itself. The sense world must approach such a being from one side, and the ideal essential being of the sense world from the other, and such a being must, in its own activity, unite these two factors of reality.

Here one sees perfectly well and clearly that our spirit is not to be regarded as a receptacle for the world of ideas, containing the thoughts within itself, but rather as an organ that perceives these thoughts.

It is an organ of apprehension in exactly the same way as eyes and ears are. A thought relates itself to our spirit in no other way than light does to the eye and sound to the ear. It certainly would not occur to anyone to regard color as something that imprints itself in a lasting way upon the eye, and, as it were, remains sticking to the eye. But with respect to the spirit this view is in fact the predominant one. A thought about each thing supposedly takes shape in consciousness, and this thought then remains in one's consciousness, in order to be taken out again when needed. One has based a whole theory on this, claiming that thoughts of which we are not for the moment conscious are in fact stored up within our spirit, but lying below the threshold of consciousness.

These fantastic views dissolve at once into nothing when one reflects that the world of ideas is after all determined out of itself. What does this self-determined content have to do with the multiplicity of consciousnesses? One will surely not assume that this content determines itself in indeterminate multiplicity in such a way that each partial content is always independent of the other! The matter is indeed utterly clear. The thought-content is such that absolutely all that is needed for it to manifest is a spiritual organ, but the number of beings endowed with this organ is of no significance. Any number of spirit-endowed individuals can therefore confront the one content of thoughts. The human spirit, therefore, perceives the thought-content of the world as an organ of apprehension. There is only one thought-content of the world. Our consciousness is not the ability to produce and store up thoughts, as so many people believe, but rather the ability to perceive thoughts (ideas). Goethe expressed this aptly with the words: “The idea is eternal and single; that we also use the plural is not appropriate. All things of which we become aware and about which we are able to speak are only manifestations of the idea; concepts are what we express, and to this extent the idea itself is a concept.”

As a citizen of two worlds — of the sense world and of the thought-world, the one pressing toward him from below, the other one shining from above — the human being takes possession of science, by which he joins the two into an undivided unity. From one side the outer form beckons to us, from the other side the inner essential being; we must unite the two. With this, our epistemology has lifted itself above the standpoint that similar investigations usually take and that does not get beyond formalism. One says that “the activity of knowing is to work upon experience,” without specifying what it is that is worked into experience; the definition is set up that “in the activity of knowing, the perception flows into thinking, or that thinking, by virtue of an inner compulsion from experience, penetrates to the essential being behind experience.” But this is mere formalism. A science of knowledge that wishes to grasp the activity of knowing in its universally significant role must first of all indicate its ideal purpose. This purpose consists of bringing incomplete experience to completion by revealing its core. Second, it must determine what this core is, with respect to content. This core is thought, idea. Third and last, it must show how this revealing takes place. Our chapter on “Thinking and Perception” demonstrates this. Our epistemology leads to the positive conclusion that thinking is the essential being of the world and that individual (individuelle) human thinking is the individual (einzelne) form of manifestation of this essential being. A merely formalistic science of knowledge cannot do this; it remains forever unfruitful. It has no view about the nature of the relationship existing between what science gains and the essential being and processes of the world. And yet it is precisely within epistemology that this relationship must be found. This science must show us, after all, where we arrive through our knowing activity and where every other science leads us.

By no other path than epistemology does one come to the view that thinking is the core of the world. For, it shows us thinking's connection with the rest of reality. But out of what should we become aware of thinking's relationship to experience if not out of the science whose immediate aim is to investigate this relationship? And furthermore, how would we know that any spiritual or sense-perceptible being is the primal force of the world if we have not investigated its relationship to reality? If, therefore, we are ever concerned with discovering the essential being of something, this discovering always consists of going back to the ideal content of the world. One may not step outside the realm of this content if one wishes to remain within clear determinants and not grope about indeterminately. Thinking is a totality in itself, sufficient unto itself, that cannot overstep itself without entering a void. In other words, in order to explain something, thinking may not take refuge in things it does not find within itself. A thing not encompassed by thinking would be a non-thing. Everything ultimately merges with thinking; everything finds its place within thinking.

Expressed in terms of our individual consciousness, this means that, for the purpose of establishing anything scientifically, we must remain strictly within what is given us in consciousness; we cannot step outside of this. Now, if one recognizes fully that we cannot skip over our consciousness without landing in non-being, but does not recognize at the same time that the essential being of things is to be encountered in our consciousness in the perception of ideas, erroneous views then arise that speak of a limit to our knowledge. But if we cannot get outside our consciousness, and if the essential being of reality is not within it, then we cannot press forward to essential being at all.

Our thinking is bound to what is here and knows nothing of any beyond.

In our view, the opinion that there is a limit to knowledge is nothing but a thinking that misunderstands itself. A limit to knowledge would be possible only if outer experience in itself forced us to investigate its essential being, if it determined the questions that are to be raised in its presence. But this is not the case. For thinking the need arises to hold out, toward the experience of which it becomes aware, the essential being of this experience. After all, thinking can have only the quite definite tendency to see its own inherent lawfulness in the rest of the world, but not something or other about which it itself has not the least information.

Another error must still be rectified here. It is to the effect that thinking is not adequate to constitute the world, that some other factor (force, will, etc.) must still join with this thought-content in order to make the world possible.

Upon closer examination, however, one sees at once that all such factors turn out to be nothing more than abstractions from the perceptual world that are themselves awaiting explanation by thinking. Every other component part of the being of the world except thinking would also require at once a kind of apprehension, a way of being known, different from that of thinking. We would have to reach that other component part in another way than through thinking. For, thinking yields only thoughts after all. But one is already contradicting oneself in wanting to explain the part played by that second component in world processes, and by making use of concepts in order to do so. Furthermore, however, there is no third element given us in addition to sense perception and thinking. And we cannot accept any part of sense perception as the core of the world, because, to closer scrutiny, all its components show that as such they do not contain their essential being. The essential being can therefore be sought simply and solely in thinking.

Last Modified: 03-Jul-2017
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