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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

16. Organic Nature

On-line since: 20th March, 2002

16. Organic Nature

For a long time science stopped short of entering the organic realm. It considered its methods to be insufficient for understanding life and its manifestations. It believed altogether, in fact, that all lawfulness such as that at work in inorganic nature ceased here. What was acknowledged to be the case in the inorganic world—that a phenomenon becomes comprehensible to us when we know its natural preconditions—was simply denied here. One thought of the organism as having been purposefully constructed according to a particular design of the creator. Every organ's use was supposedly predetermined; all questioning here could relate only to what the purpose of this or that organ might be, to why this or that is present. Whereas in the inorganic world one turned to the prerequisites of a thing, one considered these to be of no consequence at all for facts about life, and set the primary value on the purpose of a thing. With respect to the processes accompanying life one also did not ask, as in the case of physical phenomena, about the natural causes, but rather believed one had to ascribe these processes to a particular life force. One thought that what takes form there in the organism was the product of this force that simply disregards the other natural laws. Right up to the beginning of the nineteenth century science did not know how to deal with organisms. It was limited solely to the domain of the inorganic world.

Insofar as one sought the lawfulness of the organic, not in the nature of the objects but rather in the thought the creator follows in forming them, one also cut off any possibility of an explanation. How is that thought to become known to me? I am, after all, limited to what I have before me. If this itself does not reveal its laws to me within my thinking, then my scientific activity in fact comes to an end. There can be no question, in a scientific sense, of guessing the plans of a being standing outside.

At the end of the eighteenth century the universally prevailing view was that there was no science to explain living phenomena in the sense in which physics, for example, is a science that explains things. Kant, in fact, tried to establish a philosophical basis for this view. He considered our intellect to be such that it could go only from the particular to the general. The particular, the individual, things are given to him, and from them he abstracts his general laws. Kant calls this kind of thinking “discursive,” and considers it to be the only kind granted to the human being. Thus, in his view there is a science only for the kinds of things where the particular, taken in and for itself, is entirely without concept and is only summed up under an abstract concept. In the case of organisms Kant did not find this condition fulfilled. Here the single phenomenon betrays a purposeful, i.e., a conceptual arrangement. The particular bears traces of the concept. But, according to the Konigsberg philosopher, we lack any ability to understand such beings. Understanding is possible for us only in the case where concept and individual thing are separated, where the concept represents something general, and the individual thing represents something particular. Thus there is nothing left us but to base our observations about organisms upon the idea of purposefulness: to treat living beings as though a system of intentions underlay their manifestation. Thus Kant has here established non-science scientifically, as it were.

Now Goethe protested vigorously against such unscientific conduct. He could never see why our thinking should not also be adequate to ask where an organ of a living being originates instead of what purpose it serves. Something in his nature always moved him to see every being in its inner completeness. It seemed to him an unscientific way of looking at things to bother only about the outer purposefulness of an organ, i.e., about its use for something other than it self What should that have to do with the inner being of a thing? The point for him is never what purpose something serves but always how it develops. He does not want to consider an object as a thing complete in itself but rather in its becoming, so that he might know its origins. He was particularly drawn to Spinoza through the fact that Spinoza did not credit organs and organisms with outer purposefullness. For the activity of knowing the organic world, Goethe demanded a method that was scientific in exactly the same sense as the method we apply to the inorganic world. Although not with as much genius as in Goethe, yet no less urgently, the need for such a method has arisen again and again in natural science. Today only a very small fraction of scientists doubt any longer the possibility of this method. Whether the attempts made here and there to introduce such a method have succeeded is, to be sure, another question.

Above all, one has committed a serious error in this. One believed that the method of inorganic science should simply be taken over into the realm of organisms. One considered the method employed here to be altogether the only scientific one, and thought that for “organics” to be scientifically possible, it would have to be so in exactly the same sense in which physics is, for example. The possibility was forgotten, however, that perhaps the concept of what is scientific is much broader than “the explanation of the world according to the laws of the physical world.” Even today one has not yet penetrated through to this knowledge. Instead of investigating what it is that makes the approach of the inorganic sciences scientific, and of then seeing a method that can be applied to the world of living things while adhering to the requirements that result from this investigation, one simply declared that the laws gained upon this lower stage of existence are universal.

Above all, however, one should investigate what the basis is for any scientific thinking. We have done this in our study. In the preceding chapter we have also recognized that inorganic lawfulness is not the only one in existence but is only a special case of all possible lawfulness in general. The method of physics is simply one particular case of a general scientific way of investigation in which the nature of the pertinent objects and the region this science serves are taken into consideration. If this method is extended into the organic, one obliterates the specific nature of the organic. Instead of investigating the organic in accordance with its nature, one forces upon it a lawfulness alien to it. In this way, however, by denying the organic, one will never come to know it. Such scientific conduct simply repeats, upon a higher level, what it has gained upon a lower one; and although it believes that it is bringing the higher form of existence under laws established elsewhere, this form slips away from it in its efforts, -because such scientific conduct does not know how to grasp and deal with this form in its particular nature.

All this comes from the erroneous view that the method of a science is extraneous to its objects of study, that it is not determined by these objects but rather by our own nature. It is believed that one must think in a particular way about objects, that one must indeed think about all objects — throughout the entire universe — in the same way. Investigations are undertaken that are supposed to show that, due to the nature of our spirit, we can think only inductively or deductively, etc.

In doing so, however, one overlooks the fact that the objects perhaps will not tolerate the way of looking at them that we want to apply to them.

A look at the views of Haeckel, who is certainly the most significant of the natural-scientific theoreticians of the present day, shows us that the objection we are making to the organic natural science of our day is entirely justified: namely, that it does not carry over into organic nature the principle of scientific contemplation in the absolute sense, but only the principle of inorganic nature.

When he demands of all scientific striving that “the causal interconnections of phenomena become recognized everywhere,” when he says that “if psychic mechanics were not so infinitely complex, if we were also able to have a complete overview of the historical development of psychic functions, we would then be able to bring them all into a mathematical soul formula,” then one can see clearly from this what he wants: to treat the whole world according to the stereotype of the method of the physical sciences.

This demand, however, does not underlie Darwinism in its original form but only in its present-day interpretation. We have seen that to explain a process in inorganic nature means to show its lawful emergence out of other sense-perceptible realities, to trace it back to objects that, like itself, belong to the sense world. But how does modern organic science employ the principles of adaptation and the struggle for existence (both of which we certainly do not doubt are the expression of facts)? It is believed that one can trace the character of a particular species directly back to the outer conditions in which it lived, in somewhat the same way as the heating of an object is traced back to the rays of the sun falling upon it. One forgets completely that one can never show a species' character, with all its qualities that are full of content, to be the result of these conditions. The conditions may have a determining influence, but they are not a creating cause. We can definitely say that under the influence of certain circumstances a species had to evolve in such a way that one or another organ became particularly developed; what is there as content, however, the specifically organic, cannot be derived from outer conditions. Let us say that an organic entity has the essential characteristics a b c; then, under the influence of certain outer conditions, it has evolved. Through this, its characteristics have taken on the particular form a'b'c'. When we take these influences into account we will then understand that a has evolved into the form of a', b into b', c into c'. But the specific nature of a, b, and c can never arise as the outcome of external conditions.

One must, above all, focus one's thinking on the question: From what do we then derive the content of that general “something” of which we consider the individual organic entity to be a specialized case? We know very well that the specialization comes from external influences. But we must trace the specialized shape itself back to an inner principle. We gain enlightenment as to why just this particular form has evolved when we study a being's environment. But this particular form is, after all, something in and of itself; we see that it possesses certain characteristics. We see what is essential. A content, configurated in itself, confronts the outer phenomenal world, and this content provides us with what we need in tracing those characteristics back to their source. In inorganic nature we perceive a fact and see, in order to explain it, a second, a third fact and so on; and the result is that the first fact appears to us to be the necessary consequence of the other ones. In the organic world this is not so. There, in addition to the facts, we need yet another factor. We must see what works in from outer circumstances as confronted by something that does not passively allow itself to be determined by them but rather determines itself, actively, out of itself, under the influence of the outer circumstances.

But what is that basic factor? It can, after all, be nothing other than what manifests in the particular in the form of the general. In the particular, however, a definite organism always manifests. That basic factor is therefore an organism in the form of the general: a general image of the organism, which comprises within itself all the particular forms of organisms.

Following Goethe's example, let us call this general organism typus. Whatever the word typus might mean etymologically, we are using it in this Goethean sense and never mean anything else by it than what we have indicated. This typus is not developed in all its completeness in any single organism. Only our thinking, in accordance with reason, is able to take possession of it, by drawing it forth, as a general image, from phenomena. The typus is therewith the idea of the organism: the animalness in the animal, the general plant in the specific one.

One should not picture this typus as anything rigid. It has nothing at all to do with what Agassiz, Darwin's most significant opponent, called “an incarnate creative thought of God's.” The typus is something altogether fluid, from which all the particular species and genera, which one can regard as subtypes or specialized types, can be derived. The typus does not preclude the theory of evolution. It does not contradict the fact that organic forms evolve out of one another. It is only reason's protest against the view that organic development consists purely in sequential, factual (sense-perceptible) forms. It is what underlies this whole development. It is what establishes the interconnection in all this endless manifoldness. It is the inner aspect of what we experience as the outer forms of living things. The Darwinian theory presupposes the typus.

The typus is the true archetypal organism; according to how it specializes ideally, it is either archetypal plant or archetypal animal. It cannot be any one, sense-perceptibly real living being. What Haeckel or other naturalists regard as the archetypal form is already a particular shape; it is, in fact, the simplest shape of the typus. The fact that in time the typus arises in its simplest form first does not require the forms arising later to be the result of those preceding them in time. AR forms result as a consequence of the typus; the first as well as the last are manifestations of it. We must take it as the basis of a true organic science and not simply undertake to derive the individual animal and plant species out of one another. The typus runs like a red thread through all the developmental stages of the organic world. We must hold onto it and then with it travel through this great realm of many forms. Then this realm will become understandable to us. Otherwise it falls apart for us, just as the rest of the world of experience does, into an unconnected mass of particulars. In fact, even when we believe that we are leading what is later, more complicated, more compound, back to a previous simpler form and that in the latter we have something original, even then we are deceiving ourselves, for we have only derived a specific form from a specific form.

Friedrich Theodor Vischer once said of the Darwinian theory that it necessitates a revision of our concept of time. We have now arrived at a point that makes evident to us in what sense such a revision would have to occur. It would have to show that deriving something later out of something earlier is no explanation, that what is first in time is not first in principle. All deriving has to do with principles, and at best it could be shown which factors were at work such that one species of beings evolved before another one in time.

The typus plays the same role in the organic world as natural law does in the inorganic. Just as natural law provides us with the possibility of recognizing each individual occurrence as a part of one great whole, so the typus puts us in a position to regard the individual organism as a particular form of the archetypal form.

We have already indicated that the typus is not a completed frozen conceptual form, but that it is fluid, that it can assume the most manifold configurations. The number of these configurations is infinite, because that through which the archetypal form is a single particular form has no significance for the archetypal form itself It is exactly the same as the way one law of nature governs infinitely many individual phenomena, because the specific conditions that arise in an individual case have nothing to do with the law.

Nevertheless, we have to do here with something essentially different than in inorganic nature. There it was a matter of showing that a particular sense-perceptible fact can occur in this and in no other way, because this or that natural law exists. The fact and the law confront each other as two separate factors, and absolutely no further spiritual work is necessary except, when we become aware of a fact, to remember the law that applies. This is different in the case of a living being and its manifestations. Here it is a matter of developing, out of the typus that we must have grasped, the individual form arising in our experience. We must carry out a spiritual process of an essentially different kind. We may not simply set the typus, as something finished in the way the natural law is, over against the individual phenomenon.

The fact that every object, if it is not prevented by incidental circumstances, falls to the earth in such a way that the distances covered in successive intervals of time are in the ratio 1:3:5:7, etc., is a definite law that is fixed once and for all. It is an archetypal phenomenon that occurs when two masses (the earth and an object upon it) enter into interrelationship. If now a specific case enters the field of our observation to which this law is applicable, we then need only look at the facts observable to our senses in the connection with which the law provides us, and we will find this law to be confirmed. We lead the individual case back to the law. The natural law expresses the connection of the facts that are separated in the sense world; but it continues to exist as such over against the individual phenomenon.

With the typus we must develop the particular case confronting us out of the archetypal form. We may not place the typus over against the individual form in order to see how it governs the latter; we must allow the individual form to go forth out of the typus. A law governs the phenomenon as something standing over it; the typus flows into the individual living being; it identifies itself with it.

If an organic science wants to be a science in the sense that mechanics or physics is, it must therefore know the typus to be the most general form and must then show it also in diverse, ideal, separate shapes. Mechanics is indeed also a compilation of diverse natural laws where the real determinants are altogether hypothetically assumed. It must be no different in organic science. Here also one would have to assume hypothetically determined forms in which the typus develops itself if one wanted to have a rational science. One would then have to show how these hypothetical configurations can always be brought to a definite form that exists for our observation.

Just as in the inorganic we lead a phenomenon back to a law, so here we develop a specific form out of the archetypal form. Organic science does not come about by outwardly juxtaposing the general and the particular, but rather by developing the one form out of the other.

Just as mechanics is a system of natural laws, so organic science is meant to be a series of developmental forms of the typus. It is just that in mechanics we must bring the individual laws together and order them into a whole, whereas here we must allow the individual forms to go forth from one another in a living way.

It is possible to make an objection here. If the typical form is something altogether fluid, how is it at all possible to set up a chain of sequential, particular types as the content of an organic science? One can very well picture to oneself that, in every particular case one observes, one recognizes a specific form of the typus, but one cannot, after all, for the purposes of science merely collect such real observed cases.

One can do something else, however. One can let the typus run through its series of possibilities and then always (hypothetically) hold fast to this or that form. In this way one gains a series of forms, derived in thought from the typus, as the content of a rational organic science.

An organic science is possible which, like mechanics, is science in altogether the strictest sense. It is just that the method is a different one. The method of mechanics is to prove things. Every proof is based upon a certain principle. There always exists a particular presupposition (i.e., potentially experienceable conditions are indicated), and it is then determined what happens when these presuppositions occur. We then understand the individual phenomenon by applying the underlying law. We think about it like this: Under these conditions, a phenomenon occurs; the conditions are there, so the phenomenon must occur. This is our thought process when we approach an event in the inorganic world in order to explain it. This is the method that proves things. It is scientific because it completely permeates a phenomenon with a concept, because, through it, perception and thinking coincide.

But we can do nothing with this proving method in organic science. The typus, in fact, does not bring it about that under certain conditions a particular phenomenon will occur; it determines nothing about a relationship of parts that are alien to each other, that confront each other externally. It determines only the lawfulness of its own parts. It does not point, like a natural law, beyond itself. The particular organic forms can therefore be developed only out of the general typus form, and the organic beings that arise in experience must coincide with one such derivative form of the typus. The developmental method must here take the place of the proving one. One establishes here not that outer conditions affect each other in a certain way and thereby have a definite result, but rather that under definite outer circumstances a particular form has developed out of the typus. This is the far-reaching difference between inorganic and organic science. This difference underlies no investigative approach as consistently as the Goethean one. No one has recognized better than Goethe that an organic science, without any dark mysticism, without teleology, without assuming special creative thoughts, must be possible. But also, no one has more vigorously rejected the unwarranted expectation of being able to accomplish anything here with the methods of inorganic science. (8) The typus, as we have seen, is a fuller scientific form than the archetypal phenomenon. It also presupposes a more a intensive activity of our spirit than the archetypal phenomenon does. As we reflect upon the things of inorganic nature, sense perception supplies us with the content. Our sense organization already supplies us here with that which in the organic realm we receive only through our spirit. In order to perceive sweet, sour, warmth, cold, light, color, etc., one need only have healthy senses. We have only to find, in thinking, the form for the matter. In the typus, however, content and form are closely bound to each other. Therefore the typus does not in fact determine the content purely formally the way a law does but rather permeates the content livingly, from within outward, as its own.

Our spirit is confronted with the task of participating productively in the creation of the content along with the formal element.

The kind of thinking in which the content appears in direct connection with the formal element has always been called “intuitive.” Intuition appears repeatedly as a scientific principle. The English philosopher Reid calls it an intuition if, out of our perception of outer phenomena (sense impressions), we were to acquire at the same time a conviction that they really exist. Jacobi thought that in our feeling of God we are given not only this feeling itself but at the same time the proof that God is. This judgment is also called intuitive. What is characteristic of intuition, as one can see, is always that more is given in the content than this content itself; one knows about a thought-characterization, without proof, merely through direct conviction. One believes it to be unnecessary to prove one's thought-characterizations (“real existence,” etc.) about the material of perception; in fact, one possesses them in unseparated unity with the content.

With the typus this is really the case. Therefore it can offer no means of proof but can merely provide the possibility of developing every particular form out of itself. Our spirit, consequently, must work much more intensively in grasping the typus than in grasping a natural law. It must produce the content along with the form. It must take upon itself an activity that the senses carry out in inorganic science and that we call beholding (Anschauang). At this higher level, the spirit itself must therefore be able to behold. Our power of judgment must be a thinking beholding, and a beholding thinking. We have to do here, as was expounded for the first time by Goethe, with a power to judge in beholding (anschauende Urteilskraft). Goethe thereby revealed as a necessary form of apprehension in the human spirit that which Kant wanted to prove was something the human being, by his whole make-up, is not granted.

Just as in organic nature the typus takes the place of the natural law (archetypal phenomenon) of inorganic nature, so intuition (the power to judge in beholding) takes the place of the proving (reflecting) power of judgment. Just as one believed that one could apply to organic nature the same laws that pertain to a lower stage of knowledge, so also one supposed that the same methods are valid here as there. Both are errors.

One has often treated intuition in a very belittling way in science. One regarded it as a defect in Goethe's spirit that he wanted to attain scientific truths by intuition. What is attained in an intuitive way is, in fact, considered by many to be quite important when it is a matter of a scientific discovery. There, one says, an inspiration often leads further than a methodically trained thinking. One frequently calls it intuition, in fact, when someone by chance has hit upon something right, whose truth the researcher must first convince himself of by roundabout means. But it is always denied that intuition itself could be a principle of science. What occurs to intuition must afterward first be proved — so it is thought — if it is to have any scientific value.

Thus one also considered Goethe's scientific achievements to be brilliant inspirations that only afterward received credibility through strict science.

But for organic science, intuition is the right method. It follows quite clearly from our considerations, we think, that Goethe's spirit found the right path in the organic realm precisely because it was intuitively predisposed. The method appropriate to the organic realm coincided with the constitution of his spirit. Because of this it only became all the more clear to him the extent to which this method differs from that of inorganic science. The one became clear to him through the other. He therefore could also sketch the nature of the inorganic in clear strokes.

The belittling way in which intuition is treated is due in no small measure to the fact that one believes the same degree of credibility cannot be attributed to its achievements as to those of the proving sciences. One often calls “knowing” only that which has been proved, and everything else “faith.”

One must bear in mind that intuition means something completely different within our scientific direction — which is convinced that in thinking we grasp the core of the world in its essential being — than in that direction which shifts this core into a beyond we cannot investigate. A person who sees in the world lying before us — insofar as we either experience it or penetrate it with our thinking — nothing more than a reflection (an image of some other-worldly, unknown, active principle that remains hidden behind this shell not only to one's first glance but also to all scientific investigation) such a person can certainly regard the proving method as nothing but a substitute for the insight we lack into the essential being of things. Since he does not press through to the view that a thought-connection comes about directly through the essential content given in thought, i.e., through the thing itself, he believes himself able to support this thought-connection only through the fact that it is in harmony with several basic convictions (axioms) so simple that they are neither susceptible to proof nor in need thereof. If such a person is then presented with a scientific statement without proof, a statement, indeed, that by its very nature excludes the proving method, then it seems to him to be imposed from outside. A truth approaches him without his knowing what the basis of its validity is. He believes he has no knowledge, no insight into the matter; he believes he can only give himself over to the faith that, outside his powers of thought, some basis or other for its validity exists.

Our world view is in no danger of having to regard the limits of the proving method as at the same time the limits of scientific conviction. It has led us to the view that the core of the world flows into our thinking, that we do not think about the essential being of the world, but rather that thinking is a merging with the essential being of reality. With intuition a truth is not imposed upon us from outside, because, from our standpoint, there is no inner and outer in the sense assumed by the scientific direction just characterized and that is in opposition to our own. For us, intuition is a direct being-within, a penetrating into the truth that gives us everything that pertains to it at all. It merges completely with what is given to us in our intuitive judgment. The essential characteristic of faith is totally absent here, which is that only the finished truth is given us and not its basis and that penetrating insight into the matter under consideration is denied us. The insight gained on the path of intuition is just as scientific as the proven insight.

Every single organism is the development of the typus into a particular form. Every organism is an individuality that governs and determines itself from a center. It is a selfenclosed whole, which in inorganic nature is only the case with the cosmos.

The ideal of inorganic science is to grasp the totality of all phenomena as a unified system, so that we approach every phenomenon with the consciousness of recognizing it as a part of the cosmos. In organic science, on the other hand, the ideal must be, in the typus and in its forms of manifestation, to have with the greatest possible perfection what we see develop in the sequence of single beings. Leading the typus through all the phenomena is what matters here. In inorganic science it is the system; in organic science it is comparison (of each individual form with the typus).

Spectral analysis and the perfecting of astronomy are extending out to the universe the truths gained in the limited region of the earth. They are thereby approaching the first ideal. The second ideal will be fulfilled when the comparing method employed by Goethe is recognized in all its implications.




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