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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

17. Introduction: Spirit and Nature

On-line since: 20th March, 2002


17. Introduction: Spirit and Nature

We have now dealt fully with the realm of knowledge of nature. Organic science is the highest form of natural science. It is the humanities that go beyond it. These demand an essentially different approach of the human spirit to its object of study than the natural sciences. In the latter the human spirit had to play a universal role. The task fell to the human spirit to bring the world process itself to a conclusion, so to speak. What existed there without the human spirit was only half of reality, was unfinished, was everywhere patchwork. The task of the human spirit there is to call into manifest existence the innermost mainsprings of reality, which, to be sure, would be operative even without its subjective intervention. If man were a mere sense being, without spiritual comprehension, inorganic nature would certainly be no less dependent upon natural laws, but these, as such, would never come into existence. Beings would indeed then exist that perceived what is brought about (the sense world) but not what is bringing about (the inner lawfulness). It is really the genuine and indeed the truest form of nature that comes to manifestation within the human spirit, whereas for a mere sense being only nature's outer side is present. Science has a role of universal significance here. It is the conclusion of the work of creation. It is nature's coming to terms with itself that plays itself out in man's consciousness. Thinking is the final part in the sequence of processes that compose nature.

* Geisteswissenschaften, “spiritual sciences,” i.e., sciences dealing with the human spirit. –Ed.

It is not like this with the humanities. Here our consciousness has to do with spiritual content itself: with the individual human spirit, with creations of culture, of literature, with successive scientific convictions, with creations of art. The spiritual is grasped by the spirit. Here, reality already has within itself the ideal element, the lawfulness, that otherwise emerges only in spiritual apprehension. That which in the natural sciences is only the product of reflection about the objects is here innate in them. Science plays a different role here. The essential being would already be in the object even without the work of science. It is human deeds, creations, ideas with which we have to do here. It is man's coming to terms with himself and with his race. Science has a different mission to fulfill here than it does with respect to nature. Again this mission arises first of all as a human need. Just as the necessity of finding the idea of nature corresponding to the reality of nature arises first of all as a need of our spirit, so the task of the humanities is there first of all as a human impulse. Again it is only an objective fact manifesting as a subjective need.

Man should not, like a being of inorganic nature, work upon another being in accordance with outer norms, in accordance with a lawfulness governing him; he should also not be merely the individual form of a general typus; rather he himself should set himself the purpose, the goal of his existence, of his activity. If his actions are the results of laws, then these laws must he such that he gives them to himself. What he is in himself, what he is among his own kind, within the state and in history, this he should not be through external determining factors. He must be this through himself. How he fits himself into the structure of the world depends upon him. He must find the point where he can participate in the workings of the world. Here the humanities receive their task. The human being must know the spiritual world in order to determine his part in it according to this knowledge. The mission that psychology, ethnology, and history have to fulfill springs from this.

It is in inherent in the being of nature for law and activity to separate from each other, for the latter to manifest as governed by the former; on the other hand, it is inherent in the being of our spiritual activity (Freiheit) * for law and activity to coincide, for what is acting to present itself directly in what is enacted, and for what is enacted to govern itself.

* Rudolf Steiner suggested “spiritual activity” as a translation of the German word Freiheit (literally, “freehood”). For him, Freiheit meant “action, thinking, and feeling from out of the spiritual individuality of man.” –Ed.

The humanities are therefore pre-eminently sciences of our spiritual activity (Freiheitswissenschaften). The idea of spiritual activity must be their centerpoint, the idea that governs them. This is why Schiller's Aesthetic Letters have such stature, because they want to find the essential being of beauty in the idea of spiritual activity, because spiritual activity is the principle that imbues them.

The human spirit is able to assume only that place in the generality of the world, in the cosmic whole, that it gives itself as an individual spirit. Whereas in organic science the general, the idea of the typus, must always be kept in view, in the humanities the idea of the personality must be maintained. What matters here is not the idea as it presents itself in a general form (typus) but rather the idea as it arises in the single being (individual). Of course the important thing is not the chance, single personality, not this or that personality, but rather personality as such; not personality as it develops out of itself into particular forms and then first comes in this way into sense-perceptible existence, but rather personality sufficient within itself, complete in itself, finding within itself its own determinative elements.

It is determinative for the typus that it can only first realise itself in the individual being. It is determinative for a person that he attain an existence which, already ideal, is really self-sustaining. It is completely different to speak of a general humanity than of a general lawfulness of nature.

With the latter the particular is determined by the general; with the idea of humanity the generality is determined by the particular. If we succeed in discerning general laws in history, these are laws only insofar as historic personalities placed them before themselves as goals, as ideals. This is the inner antithesis of nature and the human spirit. Nature demands a science that ascends from the directly given, as the caused, to what the human spirit can grasp, as that which causes; the human spirit demands a science that progresses from the given, as that which causes, to the caused. What characterizes the humanities is that the particular is what gives the laws; what characterizes the natural sciences is that this role falls to the general.

What is of value to us in natural science only as a transitional point —the particular — is alone of interest to us in the humanities. What we seek in natural science — the general — comes into consideration here only insofar as it elucidates the particular for us.

It would be contrary to the spirit of science if, with respect to nature, one stopped short at the direct experience of the particular. But it would also mean positive death to the spirit if one wanted to encompass Greek history, for example, in a general conceptual schema. In the first case our attention, clinging to the phenomena, would not achieve science; in the second case our spirit, proceeding in accordance with a general stereotype, would lose all sense of what is individual.

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