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Goethe's World View

Goethean World View: Part I.5: Personality and World View

Goethe's Place in the Development of Western Thought

Personality and World View

Goethe and Schiller
The Platonic World View
The Consequences of the Platonic World View
Goethe and the Platonic World View
Personality and World View
The Metamorphosis of World Phenomena

Man learns to know the outer side of nature through perception; its deeper-lying driving powers reveal themselves within his own inner life as subjective experiences. In philosophical contemplation of the world and in artistic feeling and creating, his subjective experiences permeate his objective perceptions. What had to split itself into two parts in order to penetrate into the human spirit becomes again one whole. The human being satisfies his highest spiritual needs when he incorporates into the objectively perceived world what the world manifests to him within his inner life as its deeper mysteries. Knowledge and artistic creations are nothing other than perceptions filled with man's inner experiences. In the simplest judgment about a thing or event of the outer world, there can be found a human soul experience and an outer perception in inner association with one another. When I say that one body strikes another, I have already brought an inner experience into the outer world. I see a body in motion; it hits another one; this one also comes into motion as a consequence. The content of the perception cannot tell me more than this. I am not satisfied by this, however. For I feel that still more is present in the whole phenomenon than what mere perception gives me. I reach for an inner experience that will enlighten me about the perception. I know that I myself can set a body into motion by applying force, by striking it. I carry this experience over into the phenomenon and say that the one body strikes the other. “The human being never realizes just how anthropomorphic he is” (Goethe, Aphorisms in Prose, Kuerschner edition, Vol. 36, 2, p. 353). There are people who, from the presence of this subjective component in every judgment about the outer world, draw the conclusion that reality's objective core of being is inaccessible to man. They believe that man falsifies the immediate and objective factual state of reality when he lays his subjective experiences into reality. They say that because man can picture the world to himself only through the lens of his subjective life, all his knowledge is only a subjective, limitedly human one. Someone, however, who comes to consciousness about what manifests itself within the inner life of man will want to have nothing to do with such unfruitful assertions. He knows that truth comes about precisely through the fact that perception and idea permeate each other in the human process of knowledge. It is clear to him that in the subjective there lives what is most archetypically and most profoundly objective. “When the healthy nature of man works as a whole, when he feels himself in the world as though in a great, beautiful, worthy, and precious whole, when his harmonious sense of well-being imparts to him a pure free delight, then the universe, if it could experience itself, would; as having achieved its goal, exult with joy and marvel at the pinnacle of its own becoming and being.” The reality accessible to mere perception is only one half of complete reality; the content of the human spirit is the other half. If no human being ever confronted the world, then this second half would never come to living manifestation, to full existence. It would work, it is true, as a hidden world of forces; but the possibility would be taken from it of revealing itself in its own form. One would like to say that, without man, the world would reveal an untrue countenance. The world would be as it is, through its deeper forces, but these deeper forces would themselves remain cloaked by what they bring about. Within man's spirit they are delivered from their enchantment. Man is not there in order merely to make a picture for himself of a completed world; no, he himself works along with the coming into being of this world.


The subjective experiences of different people take different forms. For those who do not believe in the objective nature of the inner world, that is one more reason to deny man the ability to penetrate into the being of things. For how can something be the being of things which appears to one person one way and to another person another way. For the person who recognizes the true nature of the inner world, there follows from the differences of inner experiences only that nature can express its rich content in different ways. The truth appears to each individual person in an individual garb. It adapts itself to the particularities of his personality. This is especially the case with the highest truths that are most important to man. In order to attain them, man carries over into the perceptible world his most intimate spiritual experiences, and along with them what is most individual in his personality. There are also generally accepted truths that every human being takes up without giving them an individual coloring. These are, however, the most superficial and trivial ones. They correspond to the general characteristics of man as a species which are the same for everyone. Certain qualities that are the same in all human beings also produce the same judgments about things. The way people regard things according to measurement and number is the same for everyone. Therefore everyone finds the same mathematical truths. But within the particular qualities by which the individual personality lifts himself from the general characteristics of his species, there also lies the basis for the individual forms which he gives to truth. The point is not whether the truth appears differently in one person than in another but rather whether all the individual forms coming into view belong to one single whole, to the one unified ideal world. The truth speaks different languages and dialects within the inner life of individual people; in every great human being it speaks an individual language which belongs only to this one personality. But it is always one truth which speaks there. If I know my relationship to myself and to the outer world, then I call it truth. And in this way each person can have his own truth, and it is after all always the same one.” This is Goethe's view. The truth is not some petrified, dead system of concepts, capable of assuming only one form; it is a living sea, within which the spirit of man lives, and which can show on its surface waves of the most varied form. “Theory, in and for itself, is of no use, but only inasmuch as it makes us believe in the connections of phenomena,” says Goethe. He values no theory that claims completeness once and for all and is supposed to represent in this form an eternal truth. He wants living concepts by which the spirit of the individual person, according to his individual nature, draws his perceptions together. To know the truth means for him to live in the truth. And to live in the truth is nothing other than, when looking at each individual thing, to watch what inner experience occurs when one stands in front of this thing. Such a view of human knowledge cannot speak of limits of knowing, nor of a restriction of knowing imposed by man's nature. For the questions which knowledge, according to this view, poses itself do not spring from the things; they ale also not imposed upon man by any other power lying outside of his personality. They spring from the nature of his personality itself. When man directs his gaze upon a thing, there then arises in him the urge to see more than what approaches him in his perception. And as far as this urge reaches, so far does his need for knowledge also reach. Where does this urge originate? Actually only from the fact that an inner experience feels itself stimulated within the soul to enter into a connection with the perception. As soon as the connection is accomplished, the need for knowledge is also satisfied. Wanting to know is a demand of human nature and not of the things. These can tell man no more about their being than he demands from them. Someone who speaks of a limitation of knowledge's capabilities does not know where the need for knowledge originates. He believes that the content of truth lies stored up somewhere, and that in man there lives only the indistinct wish to find access to the place where it is stored. But it is the very being of the things that works itself out of the inner life. of man and strives to where it belongs: to the perception. It is not after something hidden that man strives in the knowledge process but rather after the balancing out of two forces which work upon him from two sides. One can well say that without man there would be no knowledge of the inner life of things, for without him there would be nothing there through which this inner life could express itself. But one cannot say that there is something in the inner life of things which is inaccessible to man. The fact that still something else is present in things than what perception gives him, this man knows only because this something else lives within his own inner life. To speak of a further unknown something in things means to make up words about something which is not present.


Those who are not able to recognize that it is the language of the things which is spoken in the inner life of man are of the view that all truth must penetrate into man from outside. Such persons hold fast either to mere perception and believe they can know the truth only through seeing, hearing, touching, through gathering together historical events, and through comparing, counting, calculating, weighing what is taken up out of the world of facts; or they are of the view that the truth can come to man only when it is revealed to him in a way set apart from knowledge; or, finally, they want through forces of a particular kind, through ecstasy or mystical vision, to come into possession of the highest insights which, in their view, the world of ideas accessible to thinking cannot offer them. In addition, metaphysicians of a particular sort connect themselves to those who think in the Kantian sense and to the one-sided mystics. To be sure, these seek through thinking to form concepts of the truth for themselves. But they seek the content for these concepts not in the human world of ideas but rather in a second reality lying behind the things. They believe themselves able, through pure concepts, either to determine something certain about a content of this kind or, at least, through hypotheses, to be able to form mental pictures of it. I am speaking here, to begin with, about the kind of people mentioned first, the fact fanatics. Every now and then they become conscious of the fact that, in counting and calculating, there already takes place with the help of thinking a working through of the content of perception. Then, however, they say that this thought work is merely the means by which man struggles to know the relationship of the facts. What flows from thinking in the act of working upon the outer world represents to them something merely subjective; they consider to be the objective content of truth, the valid content of knowledge, only what approaches them from outside with the help of thinking. They catch the facts, to be sure, in the net of their thoughts but allow objective validity only to what is caught. They overlook the fact that what is thus caught by thinking undergoes an exposition, an ordering, an interpretation, which it does not have in mere perception. Mathematics is a result of pure thought processes; its content is a spiritual, subjective one. And the mechanic, who pictures the processes of nature in mathematical relationships, can do this only under the presupposition that these relationships are founded in the nature of these processes. But this means nothing other than that within perception a mathematical order is hidden which only that person sees who has developed the mathematical laws within his spirit. Between the mathematical and mechanical perceptions and the most intimate spiritual experiences, however, there is no difference in kind but only in degree. And man can carry other inner experiences, other areas of his world of ideas over into his perceptions with the same justification as he does the results of mathematical research. The fact fanatic only seems to ascertain purely outer processes. He usually does not reflect upon' his world of ideas and its character as subjective experience. His inner experiences are also bloodless abstractions, poor in content, which are obscured by the powerful content of facts. The illusion to which he surrenders himself can last only as long as he remains at the lowest level of interpreting nature, as long as he merely counts, weighs, and calculates. At the higher levels the true nature of knowledge is soon borne in upon him. But one can observe about the fact fanatics that they stick primarily to the lower levels. They are therefore like an aesthetician who wants to judge a piece of music only by what can be calculated and counted in it. They want to separate the phenomena of nature from man. Nothing subjective must flow into observation. Goethe condemns this approach with the words, “Man in himself, insofar as he uses his healthy senses, is the greatest and most accurate physical apparatus that there can be, and that is precisely what is of the greatest harm to modern physics, that one has, as it were, separated experiments from man and wants to know nature merely through what manmade instruments show, yes wants to limit and prove thereby what nature can do.” It is fear of the subjective which leads to such a way of doing things and which comes from a misapprehension of the true nature of the subjective. “But man stands so high precisely through the fact that what otherwise could not manifest itself does manifest itself in him. For what is a string and all its mechanical divisions compared to the ear of the musician? Yes, one can say, what are the elemental phenomena of nature themselves compared to man who must first tame and modify them all in order to be able to assimilate them to some extent?” In Goethe's view the natural scientist should be attentive not only to how things appear but rather to how they would appear if everything that works in them as ideal driving forces were also actually to come to outer manifestation. Only when the bodily and spiritual organism of man places itself before the phenomena do they then reveal their inner being.

Whoever approaches the phenomena in a spirit of observing them freely and openly, and with a developed inner life in which the ideas of things manifest themselves, to him the phenomena, it is Goethe's view, reveal everything about themselves. There stands in opposition to Goethe's world view, therefore, the one which does not seek the being of things within experienceable reality but rather within a second reality lying behind this one. In Fr. H. Jacobi Goethe encountered an adherent of such a world view. Goethe gives vent to his displeasure in a remark in the Tag- und Jahresheft (1811): “Jacobi's Of Divine Things made me unhappy; how could the book of such a beloved friend be welcome to me when I had to see developed in it the thesis that nature conceals God. With my pure, deep, inborn, and trained way of looking at things, which had taught me absolutely to see God in nature, nature in God, such that the way of picturing things constituted the foundation of my whole existence, would not such a peculiar, one-sidedly limited statement estrange me forever in spirit from this most noble man whose heart I revered and loved?” Goethe's way of looking at things gives him the certainty that he experiences an eternal lawfulness in his permeation of nature with ideas, and this eternal lawfulness is for him identical with the divine. If the divine did conceal itself behind the things of nature and yet constituted the creative element in them, it could not then be seen; man would have to believe in it. In a letter to Jacobi, Goethe defends his seeing in contrast to faith: “God has punished you with metaphysics and set a thorn in your flesh but has blessed me with physics. I will stick to the reverence for God of the atheist (Spinoza) and leave to you everything you call, and would like to call, religion. You are for faith in God; I am for seeing.” Where this seeing ends, the human spirit then has nothing to seek. We read in his Aphorisms in Prose: “Man is really set into the midst of a real world and endowed with such organs that he can know and bring forth what is real and what is possible along with it. All healthy people are convinced of their existence and of something existing around them. For all that, there is a hollow spot in the brain, which means a place where no object is mirrored, just as in the eye itself there is a little spot that does not see. If a person becomes particularly attentive to this place, becomes absorbed with it, he then succumbs to an illness of the spirit, has inklings here of things of another world, which, however, are actually non-things and have neither shape nor limitations but rather, as empty night-spaces, cause fear and pursue in a more than ghost-like way the person who does not tear himself free,” Out of this same mood there is the aphorism, “The highest would be to grasp that everything factual is already theory, The blue of the heavens reveals to us the basic law of the science of colors. Only do not seek anything behind the phenomena; they are themselves the teaching.”

Kant denies to man the ability to penetrate into the region of nature in which its creative forces become directly visible. In his opinion concepts are abstract units into which the human intellect draws together the manifold particulars of nature but which have nothing to do with the living unity, with the creative wholeness of nature from which these particulars really proceed. The human being experiences in this drawing together only a subjective operation. He can relate his general concepts to his empirical perception; but these concepts in themselves are no alive, productive, in such a way that man could see what is individual proceed out of them. For Kant concepts are dead units present only in man. “Our intellect is a capacity for concepts, i.e., it is a discursive intellect, for which, to be sure, it must be a matter of chance what and how different the particular thing might be which is given to it in nature and what can be brought under its concepts.” This is how Kant characterizes the intellect (¶ 77 of Critique of Judgment). The following necessarily results from this: “It is a matter of infinite concern to our reason not to let go of the mechanism of nature in its creations and not to pass it by in explaining them, because without this mechanism no insight into the nature of things can be attained. If one right away concedes to us that a supreme architect has directly created the forms of nature just as they have been from the very beginning, or has predetermined them in such a way that they, in nature's course, continually shape themselves upon the very same model, then even so our knowledge of nature has not thereby been furthered in the least; because we do not at all know that architect's way of doing things, nor his ideas which supposedly contain the principles of the possibilities of the beings of nature, and we are not able by him to explain nature from above downward, as it were (a priori)” (¶ 78 of the Critique of Judgment). Goethe is convinced that man, in his world of ideas, experiences directly how the creative being of nature does things. “When we, in fact, lift ourselves in the moral sphere into a higher region through belief in God, virtue, and immortality and mean to draw near to the primal being, so likewise, in the intellectual realm, it could very well be the case that we would make ourselves worthy, through beholding an ever-creating nature, of participating spiritually in its productions.” Man's knowledge is for Goethe a real living into nature's creating and working. It is given to his knowledge' 'to investigate, to experience how nature lives in creating.”

It conflicts with the spirit of the Goethean world view to speak of beings that lie outside the world of experience and ideas accessible to the human spirit and that nevertheless are supposed to contain the foundations of this world. All metaphysics are rejected by this world view. There are no questions of knowledge which, rightly posed, cannot also be answered. If science at any given time can make nothing of a certain area of phenomena, then the reason for this does not lie with the nature of the human spirit but rather with the incidental fact that experience of this region is not yet complete at this time. Hypotheses cannot be set up about things which lie outside the region of possible experience but rather only about1 things which can sometime enter this region. A hypothesis can always state only that it is likely that within a given region of phenomena one will have this or that experience. In this way of thinking one cannot speak at all about things and processes which do not lie within man's sensible or spiritual view. The, assumption of a “thing-in-itself,” which causes perceptions in' man but which itself can never be perceived, is an inadmissible hypothesis. “Hypotheses are scaffolding which one erects before the building and which one removes when the building is finished; they are indispensable to the workman; only he must, not consider the scaffolding to be the building.” When confronted by a region of phenomena, for which all perceptions are; present and which has been permeated with ideas, the human spirit declares itself satisfied. It feels that within the spirit a living harmony of idea and perception is playing itself out.

The satisfying basic mood which Goethe's world view has for] him is similar to that which one can observe with the mystics. Mysticism sets out to find, within the human soul, the primal ground of things, the divinity. The mystic, just like Goethe, is convinced that the being of the world becomes manifest to him in inner experiences. Only many a mystic does not regard immersion in the world of ideas to be the inner experience which matters the most to him. Many a one-sided mystic has approximately the same view as Kant about the clear ideas of reason. For him they stand outside the creative wholeness of nature and belong only to the human intellect. A mystic of this son seeks, therefore, by developing unusual states, for example, through ecstasy, to attain the highest knowledge, a vision of a; higher kind. He deadens in himself sense observation and the thinking based on reason and seeks to intensify his life of feeling. Then he believes he has a direct feeling of spirituality working in him, as divinity, in fact. He believes that in the moments when he succeeds in this God is living in him. The Goethean world view also arouses a similar feeling in the person who adheres to it. But the Goethean world view does not draw its knowledge from experiences that occur after observation and thinking have been deadened but rather draws them precisely from these two activities. It does not flee to abnormal states of human spiritual life but rather is of the view that the spirit's usual, naive ways of going about things are capable of such perfecting, that man can experience within himself nature's creating. “There are, after all, in the long run, I think, only the practical and self-rectifying operations of man's ordinary intellect that dares to exercise itself in a higher sphere.” Many a mystic immerses himself in a world of unclear sensations and feelings; Goethe immerses himself in the clear world of ideas. The one-sided mystics disdain the clarity of ideas. They regard this clarity as superficial. They have no inkling of what those persons sense who have the gift of immersing themselves in the living world of ideas, Such a mystic is chilled when he surrenders himself to the world of ideas. He seeks a world content that radiates warmth. But the content which he finds does not explain the world, It consists only of subjective excitements, in confused mental pictures, Whoever speaks of the coldness of the world of ideas can only think ideas, not experience them. Whoever lives the true life in the world of ideas, feels in himself the being of the world working in a warmth that cannot be compared to anything else. He feels the fire of the world mystery flame up in him. This is how Goethe felt as there opened up for him in Italy the view of nature at work, Then he knew how that longing is to be stilled which in Frankfurt he has his Faust express with the words:

Where shall I, endless nature, seize on thee?
Thy breasts are — where? Ye, of all life the spring,
To whom both Earth and Heaven cling,
Toward which the withering breast doth strain —

(Priest's translation)

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