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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

15. Inorganic Nature

On-line since: 20th March, 2002


15. Inorganic Nature

Nature's simplest way of working seems to us to be that in which a process results entirely from factors that confront each other externally. Here, an event or relationship between two objects is not determined by an entity expressing itself in outer forms of manifestation, by an individuality that makes its inner abilities and character known by working outward. The event or relationship is called forth solely by the fact that one thing, in its workings, exercises a certain influence upon another, transferring its own conditions onto others. The conditions of the one thing then manifest as the consequence of those of the other. The system of processes occurring in this way —where one fact is always the result of other ones like it — is called inorganic nature.

Here, the course of a process, or that which is characteristic of a relationship, depends upon outer determinants; the facts bear attributes resulting from those determinants. If the way these outer factors interact changes, then of course the result of their interaction also changes; the phenomenon brought about in this way thus changes.

Now what is this interaction like in the case of inorganic nature as it directly enters our field of observation? It altogether bears the character we described above as that of immediate experience. Here we simply have to do with a particular case of that “experience in general.” It is a matter here of connecting sense-perceptible facts. These connections, however, are precisely what manifest themselves to us so unclearly, so untransparently, in experience. One fact a confronts us, but at the same time numerous other ones do also. As we let our gaze sweep over the manifoldness presented here, we are totally in the dark as to which of the other facts have a closer relationship to this fact a and which have a more remote relationship. Some facts may be present without which the event cannot occur at all, and others are present that only modify it; without these the event could indeed occur, but would then, under different circumstances, assume a different form.

This also indicates the path that the activity of knowing has to take in this field. If the combination of facts in immediate experience does not suffice for us, then we must move on to a different combination that will satisfy our need for explanation. We have to create conditions such that a process will appear to us with transparent clarity as the necessary result of these conditions.

Let us recall why it is in fact that thinking, to direct experience, already contains its essential being. This is because we stand inside, not outside, the process that creates thought-connections between the individual thought-elements. Through this we are given not only the completed process, what has been effected, but also what is at work. And this is the point: in any occurrence of the outer world that confronts us, to see first of all the driving forces that bring this occurrence from the center of the world-all out into the periphery. The opaqueness and unclarity of a phenomenon or relationship in the sense world can be overcome only if we see, with total exactness, that it is the result of a definite constellation of facts. We must know that the process we see now arises through the working together of this and that element of the sense world.- Then the way these elements interact must be completely penetrable by our intellect. The relationship into which the facts are brought must be an ideal one, one in accordance with our spirit. Naturally, within the relationships into which they are brought by the intellect, the things will behave in accordance with their nature.

We see at once what is gained by this. If I look at random into the sense world, I see processes brought about by the interaction of so many factors that it is impossible for me to see directly what actually stands as the effecting element behind these effects. I see a process and at the same time the facts a, b, c, and d. How am I to know immediately which of these facts participate more in this process and which less? The matter becomes transparent if I first investigate which of the four facts are absolutely necessary for the process to occur at all. I find, for example that a and c

are absolutely necessary. I subsequently find that without d the process does indeed still occur, but significantly changed, whereas I see that b is of no essential significance and could be replaced by something else. In the above diagram, I is meant to represent symbolically the grouping of the elements for mere sense perception and II represents this grouping for the spirit. Our spirit, therefore, groups the facts of the inorganic world in such a way that it sees an event or a connection as the consequence of the facts' interrelationships. Thus our spirit brings necessity into what is of a chance nature. Let us make this clear through several examples. If I have a triangle a b c before me, I definitely do not see at first glance that the sum of the three angles is always equal to a straight angle. This becomes clear immediately when I group the facts in the following way. From the two figures below it follows that angle a' equals angle a; angle b' equals angle b. (AB is parallel to CD; A'B' is parallel to C'D'). If I now have a triangle before me

and draw a straight line parallel to AB through point C, I find, by using the above two figures, that angle a' equals angle a; angle b' equals angle b. Since c is equal to itself, the sum of the three angles of the triangle must equal a

straight angle. Here I have explained a complicated combination of facts by leading it back to simple facts through which, from the relationship given to the human spirit, the corresponding connection follows necessarily from the nature of the given things.

Here is another example. I throw a stone in a horizontal direction. It follows a path we have represented by the line ll'. When I consider the driving forces that come into consideration here, I find: 1) the propelling force that I exert; 2) the force with which the earth draws the stone; 3) the force of air resistance.

Upon further reflection I find that the first two forces are the essential ones, which determine the particular nature of the path, whereas the third force is secondary. If only the first two were at work, the stone would follow the path LL'. I find that path when I totally disregard the third force and bring only the first two into connection with each other. Actually performing this is neither possible nor necessary. I cannot eliminate all resistance. But I need only grasp in thought the nature of the first two forces, and then bring them into the necessary connection likewise only in thought, and the path LL' then results as the one that would necessarily have to result if only the two forces were working together.

In this way man's spirit reduces all the phenomena of in organic nature into the kind of phenomena in which the effect appears to his spirit to emerge necessarily out of what is bringing about the effect.

If, after determining the stone's law of motion resulting from the first two forces one then brings in the third force also, the path ll' then results. Other determinants could complicate the matter still further. Every composite process of the sense world manifests as a web of such elementary facts interpenetrated by man's spirit and can be reduced to these.

Such a phenomenon, now, in which the character of the process follows directly and in a transparently clear way out of the nature of the pertinent factors, is called an archetypal phenomenon (Urphänomen) or a basic fact (Grundtatsache).

This archetypal phenomenon is identical with objective natural law. For in it is expressed not only that a process has occurred under certain conditions but also that it had to occur. Given the nature of what was under consideration there, one realises that the process had to occur. One demands outer empiricism so generally today because one believes that, with every assumption going beyond the empirically given, one is groping about in uncertainty. We see that we can remain completely within the phenomena and still arrive at what is necessary. The inductive method adhered to so much today can never do this. Basically, it proceeds in the following way. It sees a phenomenon that occurs in a particular way under the given conditions. A second time it sees the same phenomenon come about under similar conditions. From this it infers that a general law exists according to which this event must come about, and it expresses this law as such. Such a method remains totally outside the phenomena. It does not penetrate into the depths. Its laws are the generalizations of individual facts. It must always wait for confirmation of the rule by the individual facts. Our method knows that its laws are simply facts that have been wrested from the confusion of chance happening and made into necessary facts. We know that if the factors a and b are there, a particular effect must necessarily take place. We do not go outside the phenomenal world. The content of science, as we think of it, is nothing more than objective happening. Only the form according to which the facts are placed together is changed.

But through this one has actually penetrated a step deeper into objectivity than experience makes possible. We place facts together in such a way that they work in accordance with their own nature, and only in accordance with it, and this working is not modified by one circumstance or another.

We attach the greatest importance to the fact that these statements can be verified no matter where one looks in the real conduct of science. They are contradicted only by erroneous views held about the scope and nature of scientific principles. Whereas many of our contemporaries contradict their own theories when they enter the field of practical investigation, the harmony of all true investigation with our considerations could easily be shown in each individual case.

Our theory demands a definite form for every law of nature. It presupposes a complex of facts and determines that when this complex occurs anywhere in reality, a definite process must take place.

Every law of nature therefore has the form: When this fact interacts with that one, then this phenomenon arises. It would be easy to show that all laws of nature really have this form. When two bodies of differing temperature are touching each other, then warmth flows from the warmer one into the colder one until the temperature is the same in both. When there is a fluid in two containers connected to each other, the water level will be the same in both. When one object is standing between a source of light and another object, it will cast a shadow upon this other object. Whatever is not mere description in mathematics, physics, and mechanics must be archetypal phenomenon.

All progress in science depends upon becoming aware of archetypal phenomena. When one succeeds in lifting a process out of its connections with other ones and explaining it purely as the result of definite elements of experience, then one has penetrated a step deeper into the working of the world.

We have seen that the archetypal phenomenon presents itself purely in thoughts, when in thinking one relates the pertinent factors in accordance with their essential being. But one can also set up the necessary conditions artificially. This happens in scientific experiments. Here we have the occurrence of certain facts under our control. Of course we cannot disregard all circumstantial elements. But there is a means of getting around them. One produces a phenomenon with different modifications. One allows first these and then those circumstantial elements to work. A constant is then found to run through all these modifications. One must in fact retain what is essential in all the different combinations. One finds that in all these individual experiences one component part remains the same. This part is higher experience within experience. It is a basic fact or archetypal phenomenon.

Experimentation is meant to assure us that nothing influences a particular process except what we have taken into account. We bring together certain determining factors whose nature we know and wait to see what results.

We have here an objective phenomenon on the basis of a subjective creation. We have something objective which at the same time is subjective through and through. The experiment is therefore the true mediator between subject and object in inorganic science.

The germ of the view we have developed here is to be found in Goethe's correspondence with Schiller. The letters between Goethe and Schiller from the beginning of 1798 concern themselves with this. They call this method rational empiricism, because it takes nothing other than objective processes as content for science; these objective processes, however, are held together by a web of concepts (laws) that our spirit discovers in them. Sense-perceptible processes in a connection with each other that can be grasped only by thinking — this is rational empiricism. If one compares those letters to Goethe's essay, “The Experiment as Mediator Between Subject and Object,” (7) one will see that the above theory follows consistently from them.

The general relationship we have established between experience and science therefore applies altogether to inorganic nature. Ordinary experience is only half of reality. For the senses, only this half is there. The other half is present only for our spiritual powers of apprehension. Our spirit lifts experience from being a “manifestation for the senses” to being a manifestation for the spirit itself. We have shown how it is possible in this field to lift oneself from what is caused to what is causing. Man's spirit finds the latter when his spirit approaches the former.

Scientific satisfaction from a view comes to us only when this view leads us into a totality complete in itself. Now the sense world in its inorganic aspect, however, does not show itself at any one point to be complete in itself; nowhere does there appear an individual wholeness. One process always directs us to another, upon which it depends; this one directs us to a third, and so on. Where is there any completion? In its inorganic aspect the sense world does not attain individuality. Only in its totality is it complete in itself. In order to have a wholeness, therefore, we must strive to grasp the entirety of the inorganic as one system. The cosmos is just such a system.

A penetrating understanding of the cosmos is the goal and ideal of inorganic science. Any scientific striving that does not push this far is mere preparation; it is a part of the whole, not the whole itself.

Last Modified: 03-Jul-2017
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