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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

19. Human Spiritual Activity (Freiheit)

On-line since: 20th March, 2002

19. Human Spiritual Activity (Freiheit)

Our view about the sources of our knowing activity cannot help but affect the way we view our practical conduct. The human being does indeed act in accordance with thought determinants that lie within him. What he does is guided by the intentions and goals he sets himself. But it is entirely obvious that these goals, intentions, ideals, etc., will bear the same character as the rest of man's thought-world. Dogmatic science will therefore offer a truth for human conduct of an essentially different character than that resulting from our epistemology. If the truths the human being attains in science are determined by a factual necessity having its seat outside thinking, then the ideals upon which he bases his actions will also be determined in the same way. The human being then acts in accordance with laws he cannot verify objectively: he imagines some norm that is prescribed for his actions from outside. But this is the nature of any commandment that the human being has to observe. Dogma, as principle of conduct, is moral commandment.

With our epistemology as a foundation, the matter is quite different. Our epistemology recognizes no other foundation for truths than the thought content lying within them. When a moral ideal comes about, therefore, it is the inner power lying within the content of this ideal that guides our actions. It is not because an ideal is given us as law that we act in accordance with it, but rather because the ideal, by virtue of it s content, is active in us, leads us. The stimulus to action does not lie outside of us; it lies within us. In the case of a commandment of duty we would feel ourselves subject to it; we would have to act in a particular way because it ordered us to do so. There, “should” comes first and then “want to,” which must submit itself to the “should.” According to our view, this is not the case. Man's willing is sovereign. It carries out only what lies as thought-content within the human personality. The human being does not let himself be given laws by any outer power; he is his own lawgiver.

And, according to our world view, who, in fact, should give them to him? The ground of the world has poured itself completely out into the world; it has not withdrawn from the world in order to guide it from outside; it drives the world from inside; it has not withheld itself from the world. The highest form in which it arises within the reality of ordinary life is thinking and, along with thinking, the human personality. If, therefore, the world ground has goals, they are identical with the goals that the human being sets himself in living and in what he does. It is not by searching out this or that commandment of the guiding power of the world that he acts in accordance with its intentions but rather through acting in accordance with his own insights. For within these insights there lives that guiding power of the world. It does not live as will somewhere outside the human being; it has given up all will of its own in order to make everything dependent upon man's will. In order for the human being to be able to be his own lawgiver, he must give up all thoughts of such things as extra-human determining powers of the world, etc.

Let us take this opportunity to call attention to the excellent article by Kreyenbuehl in Philosophische Monatshefte, vol. 18, no. 3, 1882.* This explains correctly how the maxims for our actions result altogether from the direct determinations of our individuality; how everything that is ethically great is not imposed by the power of moral law but rather is carried out under the direct impulse of an individual idea.

* Ethical-Spiritual Activity in Kant, Mercury Press, 1986. –Ed.

Only with this view is true spiritual activity possible for the human being. If man does not bear within himself the grounds for his actions, but rather must conduct himself according to commandments, then he acts under compulsion, he stands under necessity, almost like a mere nature being.

Our philosophy is therefore pre-eminently a philosophy of spiritual activity. (9) First it allows theoretically how all forces, etc., that supposedly direct the world from outside must fall away; it then makes the human being into his own master in the very best sense of the word. When a person acts morally, this is not for us the fulfillment of duty but rather the manifestation of his completely free nature. The human being does not act because he ought, but rather be cause he wants to. Goethe had this view in mind when he said: “Lessing, who resentfully felt many a limitation, has one of his characters say, `No one has to have to.' A witty, jovial man said, `Whoever wants to, has to.' A third, admittedly a cultivated person, added, `Whoever has insight, also wants to.'” Thus there is no impetus for our actions other than our insight. Without any kind of compulsion entering in, the free human being acts in accordance with his insight, in accordance with commandments that he gives himself.

The well-known Kant-Schiller controversy revolved around these truths. Kant stood upon the standpoint of duty's commandments. He believed it a degradation of moral law to make it dependent upon human subjectivity.

In his view man acts morally only when he renounces all subjective impulses in his actions and bends his neck solely to the majesty of duty. Schiller regarded this view as a degradation of human nature. Is human nature really so evil that it must completely push aside its own impulses in this way when it wants to be moral? The world view of Schiller and Goethe can only be in accord with the view we have put forward. The origin of man's actions is to be sought within himself.

Therefore in history, whose subject, after all, is man, one should not speak about outer influences upon his actions, about ideas that live in a certain time, etc., and least of all about a plan underlying history. History is nothing but the evolution of human actions, views, etc. “In all ages it is only individuals who have worked for science, not the age itself. It was the age that executed Socrates by poison; the age that burned Him; ages have always remained the same,” says Goethe. All a priori constructing of plans that supposedly underlie history is in conflict with the historical method as it results from the nature of history. The goal of this method is to become aware of what human beings have contributed to the progress of their race, to experience the goals a certain personality has set himself, the direction he has given to his age. History is to be based entirely upon man's nature. Its willing, its tendencies are to be understood. Our science of knowledge totally excludes the possibility of inserting into history a purpose such as, for example, that human beings are drawn up from a lower to a higher level of perfection, and so on. In the same way, to our view it seems erroneous to present historical events as a succession of causes and effects like facts of nature the way Herder does in his Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Mankind. The laws of history are in fact of a much higher nature. A fact of physics is determined by another fact in such a way that the law stands over the phenomena. A historical fact, as something ideal, is determined by something ideal. There cause and effect, after all, can be spoken of only if one clings entirely to externals. Who could think that he is giving an accurate picture by calling Luther the cause of the Reformation? History is essentially a science of ideals. Its reality is, after all, ideas. Therefore devotion to the object is the only correct method. Any going beyond the object is unhistorical.

Psychology, ethnology, and history (10) are the major forms of the humanities. Their methods, as we have seen, are based upon the direct apprehension of ideal reality. The object of their study is the idea, the spiritual, just as the law of nature was the object of inorganic science, and the typus of organic science.

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