Preface to the New Edition of 1924
This epistemology of the Goethean world view was written by me in the
middle of the 1880's. Two thought-activities were living in my soul at
that time. One of these was directed toward Goethe's creative work and
was striving to give shape to the view of the world and of life that
emerges as the moving power in this creative work. It seemed to me
that something fully and purely human held sway in everything that
Goethe gave the world as he created, contemplated, and lived. It
seemed to me that nowhere in recent times were inner certainty,
harmonious completeness, and a sense for reality with respect to the
world as fully represented as in Goethe. From this thought arose the
recognition that the way Goethe conducted himself in the activity of
knowing is also the one that emerges from the essential being of man
and of the world.
On the other hand, my thoughts were living within the philosophical
views prevalent at that time regarding the essential being of
knowledge. In these views the activity of knowing was threatening to
encapsulate itself within the being of man himself. Otto Liebmann, the
gifted philosopher, had made the statement that human consciousness
cannot reach beyond itself. It must remain within itself. Whatever, as
true reality, lies beyond the world that consciousness shapes within
itself, of this it can know nothing. In brilliant writings Otto
Liebmann elaborated this thought in relation to the most varied areas
of man's world of experience. Johannes Volkelt had written his
Kant's Epistemology and Experience and Thinking.
In the world given to man he saw only a complex of mental pictures that
arise through man's relationship to a world which in itself is
unknown. He did, in fact, concede that within the experience of
thinking necessity manifests itself when thinking reaches into the
world of mental pictures. In a certain way one feels as if one were
bursting through the world of mental pictures into reality when
thinking becomes active. But what has been gained by this? One could
thereby feel justified in forming judgments in thinking that say
something about the real world; but with such judgments one still
stands entirely within the inner life of man; nothing of the essential
being of the world penetrates into him.
In epistemological questions, Eduard von Hartmann, whose philosophy
was of real use to me even though I could not accept its basic
premises or conclusions, took exactly the same standpoint that Volkelt
then presented in detail.
It was everywhere acknowledged that the human being, in his activity
of knowing, strikes up against certain limits through which he cannot
penetrate into the realm of true reality.
Confronting all this there stood for me the fact — inwardly
experienced, and known in the experiencing — that man with his
thinking, if he deepens it sufficiently, does live in the midst of
world reality as within a spiritual reality. I believed I possessed
this knowledge as one that can stand in human consciousness with the
same inner clarity as that which manifests in mathematical knowledge.
In the face of this knowledge the opinion cannot persist that there
are limits of knowledge such as those believed to have been
established by the trend of thought just described.
Into all this there played the fact that my thoughts were drawn to the
theory of evolution, which was then in full bloom. In Haeckel it had
assumed a form that did not allow the self-sustained being and working
of the spiritual to be taken into account. The later, the more
perfect, was supposed to have emerged in the course of time out of the
earlier, the less developed. I could see that this was so insofar as
outer, sense-perceptible reality was concerned. Nevertheless, I was
too familiar with the self-sustaining spirituality that is not
dependent upon the sense-perceptible and is established within itself
to admit that the outer, sense-perceptible world of phenomena was
right in this regard. Rather, it was a matter of building a bridge
from this world of the senses to that of the spirit. In the course of
time, as thought of in terms of sense perceptions, the human spiritual
seems to evolve out of the preceding unspiritual.
Yet the sense-perceptible, rightly known, shows everywhere that it is
a manifestation of the spiritual. In the face of this correct
knowledge of the sense-perceptible, it was clear to me that
“limits of knowledge,” as they were then set, could be
acknowledged only by someone who encounters this sense-perceptible
realm and then treats it in the way a person would treat a printed
page if he simply looked at the forms of the letters, and, knowing
nothing about reading, then declared that one cannot know what lies
behind these forms.
In this way my attention was drawn to the path from sense observation
to the spiritual, which for me was a fact established through inner,
knowing experience. I was not seeking unspiritual atomic worlds behind
sense-perceptible phenomena; I sought the spiritual, which seemingly
manifests within the inner life of the human being but which in
actuality belongs to the things and processes of the sense world
themselves. Because of the way man carries out his knowing activity,
it might seem as though the thoughts of things were within man,
whereas in actuality they hold sway within the things. It is necessary
for Man, in this experiencing of what seems to be the case, to
separate the thoughts of things from the things; in the true
experience of knowledge, he gives them back again to the things.
The evolution of the world is then to be understood in such a way that
the preceding unspiritual, out of which the spirituality of man later
unfolds itself, contains something spiritual above and beyond itself.
The later, spiritualized sense-perceptibility in which man appears
thus arises through the fact that the spirit ancestor of man unites
himself with the imperfect, unspiritual forms, and, transforming
these, then appears in sense-perceptible form.
These trains of thought led me beyond the epistemologists of that
time, whose acumen and scientific sense of responsibility I fully
acknowledged. They led me to Goethe.
I can well recall today my inner struggles back then. I did not make
it easy for myself to break away from the philosophical trains of
thought prevalent at that time. But my guiding star was always the
recognition, brought about entirely through itself, of the fact that
the human being can behold himself inwardly as a spirit independent of
the body, standing in a purely spiritual world.
Before my works on Goethe's natural-scientific writings and before
this epistemology, I wrote a little essay on atomism that has never
been published. It took the direction I just indicated. I must recall
the happiness it gave me when Friedrich Theodor Vischer, to whom I
sent the essay, responded with a few favorable comments.
But now, from my studies of Goethe, it became clear to me how my
thoughts led me to behold the essential being of knowledge that
emerges everywhere in Goethe's creative activity and in his stance
toward the world. I found that my viewpoints provided me with an
epistemology that is the epistemology of the Goethean world view.
In the 1880's I was recommended by Karl Julius Schroer, my teacher and
fatherly friend to whom I owe a great deal, to write the
[These introductions are now published in book form under the title Goethean Science, Mercury Press, 1988. –Ed.]
to Goethe's natural-scientific writings for
Kürschner's National Literatur and to tend to the publishing of
these writings. In the course of this work I pursued Goethe's
cognitive life in all the areas in which he was active. It became
increasingly clear to me, right down into the details, that my own
view brought me into the epistemology implicit in the Goethean world
view. And so I wrote this present epistemology during my work on
Goethe's natural-scientific writings.
As I look at it again today, it also appears to me to be the
epistemological foundation and justification for every thing I said
and published later. It speaks of the essential being of knowing
activity that opens the way from the sense perceptible world into the
It might seem strange that this work of my youth, almost forty years
old now, should appear today unchanged and expanded only by some
notes. In its manner of presentation it bears the earmarks of a
thinking that lived in the philosophy of forty years ago. If I were
writing it today, I would state many things differently. But I would
not be able to present anything different as the essential being of
knowledge. Yet what I would write today would not be able to bear
within itself so faithfully the germ of the world view for which I
have stood and which is in accordance with the spirit. One can write
in such a germinal way only at the beginning of a life of knowledge.
This perhaps justifies a new publication of a youthful work in this
unchanged form. The epistemologies that existed at the time of its
writing have found their continuation in later ones. I said what I
have to say about them in my book
Riddles of Philosophy.
This book is appearing now in a new edition from the same publisher.
What I sketched years ago in this little book as the epistemology
implicit in the Goethean world view seems to me just as necessary to
say today as it was forty years ago.
Goetheanum in Dornach