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Goethean Science

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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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Goethean Science

On-line since: 16th February, 2002


  1. Whoever declares from the very beginning that such a goal is unattainable will never arrive at an understanding of the Goethean views of nature; on the other hand, whoever undertakes to study them without preconceptions, and leaves this question open, will certainly answer it affirmatively at the end. Doubts could very well arise for many a person through several remarks Goethe himself made, such as the following one, for example: “... without presuming to want to discover the primal mainsprings of nature's workings, we would have directed our attention to the manifestation of the forces by which the plant gradually transforms one and the same organ” But with Goethe such statements never direct themselves against the possibility, in principle, of knowing the being of things; he is only cautious enough about the physical-mechanical conditions underlying the organism not to draw any conclusions too quickly, since he knew very well that such questions can only be resolved in the course of time.

  2. We do not mean in any way to say that Goethe has never been understood at all in this regard. On the contrary, we repeatedly take occasion in this very edition to point to a number of men who seem to us to carry on and elaborate Goethean ideas. Belonging among them are such names as: Voigt, Nees von Esenbeck, d'Alton (senior and junior), Schelver, C.G. Carus, and Martius, among others. But these men in fact built up their systems upon the foundation of the views laid down in the writings of Goethe, and, precisely about them, one cannot say that they would have arrived at their concepts even without Goethe, whereas to be sure, contemporaries of Goethe — Josephi in Göttingen, for example — did come independently upon the intermaxillary bone, and Oken upon the vertebral theory.

  3. See Poetry and Truth, part 2, book 6

  4. All quotations from Faust are from George Madison Priest's translation.

  5. Poetry and Truth, Part 2, Book 8.

  6. Poetry and Truth, Part 3, book 11

  7. Das Neueste aus dem Reiche der Pflanzen, (Nürnberg 1764)

  8. Auserlesene mikroskopische Entdeckungen bei Pflanzen, Blumen und Blüten, Insekten und anderen Merkwürdigkeiten, (Nürnberg 1777-81)

  9. Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte

  10. “I would gladly send you a little botanical essay, if only it were already written.” (Letter to Knebel, April 2, 1785)

  11. Geschichte meines botanischen Studiums

  12. Italian Journey, October 8, 1786

  13. Italian Journey, September 8, 1786

  14. It is certainly unnecessary to state that the modern theory of evolution should not at all be placed in doubt by this, or that its assertions should be curtailed by it; on the contrary, only it provides a secure foundation for them.

  15. What we have here is not so much the theory of evolution of those natural scientists who base themselves on sense-perceptible empiricism, but far more the theoretical foundations, the principles, that are laid into the foundations of Darwinism; especially by the Jena school, of course, with Haeckel in the vanguard; in this first-class mind, Darwin's teachings, in all their one-sidedness, have certainly found their consequential development.

  16. We will have occasion at various places to demonstrate in what sense these individual parts relate to the whole. If we wanted to borrow a concept of modern science for such working together of living partial entities into one whole, we might take for example that of a “stock” in zoology. This is a kind of statehood of living entities, an individual that itself further consists of independent individuals, an individual of a higher sort.

  17. Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe

  18. “A troublesome service of love that I have undertaken is bringing me closer to my passion. Loder is explaining all the bones and muscles to me, and I will grasp a great deal within a few days.”

  19. “He (Loder) has demonstrated osteology and myology for me during these eight days, which we have used almost entirely for this purpose; as much, in fact, as my attentiveness could stand.”

  20. Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie

  21. In: Natural Scientific Discussions on the Orangutan (“Natuurkundige verhandelingen over den orang outang”)

  22. An animal, see page 38 — Ed.

  23. “An exquisite pleasure has been granted me; I have made an anatomical discovery that is important and beautiful.”

  24. “I have found — not silver or gold, but something that gives me inexpressible joy — the os intermaxillare in man!”

  25. Morphologische Hefte

  26. Until now, one has assumed that Camper received the treatise anonymously. It came to him in a roundabout way: Goethe sent it first to Sömmerring, who sent it to Merck, who was supposed to get it to Camper. But among the letters of Merck to Camper (which are not yet published, and whose originals are to be found in the Library of the Netherlands Society for the Progress of Medicine in Amsterdam), there is one letter of January 17, 1785 containing the following passage (I quote it verbatim): “Mr. Goethe, celebrated poet, intimate counselor of the Duke of Weimar, has just sent me an osteological specimen that is supposed to be sent to you after Mr. Sömmerring has seen it ... It is a small treatise on the intermaxillary bone that teaches, us among other things, the truth that the manatee has four incisors and that the camel has two of them.” A letter of March 10, 1785, in which the name Goethe is again expressly present, states that Merck will shortly send the treatise on to Camper: “I will have the honor of sending you the osteological specimen of Mr. von Goethe, my friend ...” On April 28, 1785, Merck expressed the hope that Camper received the thing and again the name “Goethe” is present. Thus there is no doubt that Camper knew who the author was.

  27. Anatomie der Säugetiere

  28. Vom Baue des menschlichen Körpers

  29. Handbuch der vergleichenden Anatomie

  30. Versuch, die Metamorphose der Pflanze zu erklären

  31. A few philosophers maintain that we can indeed trace the phenomena of the sense world back to their original elements (forces), but that we can explain these just as little as we can explain the nature of life. On the other hand, one can say that those elements are simple, i.e., cannot themselves be composed of still simpler elements. But to trace them, in all their simplicity, further back, to explain them, is an impossibility, not because our capacity for knowledge is limited, but rather because these elements rest upon themselves; they are present for us in all their immediacy; they are self-contained, cannot be traced hack to anything else.

  32. This is precisely the contrast between an organism and a machine. In a machine, everything is the interaction of its parts. Nothing real exists in the machine itself other than this interaction. The unifying principle, which governs the working together of the parts, is lacking in the object itself, and lies outside of it in the head of its builder as a plan. Only the most extreme short-sightedness can deny that the difference between an organism and a mechanism lies precisely in the fact that the principle causing the interrelationship of the parts is, with respect to a mechanism, present only externally (abstractly), whereas with respect to an organism, this principle gains real existence within the thing itself. Thus the sense-perceptible components of an organism also do not then appear out of one another as a mere sequence, but rather as though governed by that inner principle, as though resulting from such a principle that is no longer sense-perceptible. In this respect it is no more sense-perceptible than the plan in the builder's head that is also there only for the mind; this principle is, in fact, essentially that plan, only that plan has now drawn into the inner being of the entity and no longer carries out its activities through the mediation of a third party — the builder — but rather does this directly itself

  33. Readers familiar with German philosophy in English will remember that the conventional translation of Verstand is “understanding.” — Ed.

  34. Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft)

  35. Certain attributes of God within the things.

  36. Von den göttlichen Dingen and ihrer Offenbarung ( 1811 )

  37. The fruit arises through the growth of the lower part of the pistil, the ovary (1); it represents a later stage of the pistil and can therefore only be sketched separately. With the fruiting, the last expansion occurs. The life of the plant differentiates itself into an organ — the actual fruit — that is closing itself off, and into the seeds; in the fruit, all the factors of the phenomenon are united, as it were; it is mere phenomenon, it estranges itself from life, becomes a dead product. In the seed are concentrated all the inner essential factors of the plant's life. From it a new plant arises. It has become almost entirely ideal; the phenomenon is reduced to a minimum in it.

  38. Italian Journey, December 1,1786.

  39. In modern natural science one usually means by “archetypal organism” (Urorganismus) an archetypal cell (archetypal cytode), i.e., a simple entity standing at the lowest level of organic development. One has in mind here a quite specific, actual, sense-perceptibly real entity. When one speaks in the Goethean sense about the archetypal organism, then one does not have this in mind but rather that essence (being), that formative entelechical principle which brings it about that this archetypal cell is an organism. This principle comes to manifestation in the simplest organism just as in the most perfect one, only differently developed. It is the animalness in the animal; it is that through which an entity is an organism. Darwin presupposes it from the beginning; it is there, is introduced, and then he says of it that it reacts in one way or another to the influences of the outer world. For him, it is an indefinite X; Goethe seeks to explain this indefinite X.

  40. Goethe often experienced this unconscious behavior of his as dullness.

  41. Von der Weltseele

  42. Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie

  43. Grundzüge der philosophischen Naturwissenschaft

  44. Über die Spiraltendenz der Vegetation

  45. Wissenschaftslehre

  46. The Science of Knowing: Outline of an Epistemology Implicit in the Goethean World View (Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung), also translated as Theory of Knowledge .

  47. Kritik der Urteilskraft

  48. Bedeutende Fördentis durch ein einziges geistreiches Wort

  49. Kants Erkenntnistheorie nach ihren Grundprinzipien analysiert

  50. Die Philosophie als Denken der Welt gemäss dem Prinzip des kleinsten Kraftmasses. Prolegomena zu einer Kritik der reinen Erfahrung.

  51. Vorstellung is often translated as “representation” in philosophical works. — Ed.

  52. This separation is indicated by the solid lines.

  53. This is represented by the dotted lines.

  54. Meaning: that it exists — Ed.

  55. Der Versuch als Vermittler von Subjekt und Objekt

  56. Later footnote of the author: “In my introduction to the thirty-fourth volume, I said that the essay appears, unfortunately, to have been lost that could serve as the best support to Goethe's views on experience, experiment, and scientific knowledge. It has not been lost, however, and has come to light in the above form in the Goethe archives. It bears the date January 15, 1798, and was sent to Schiller on the seventeenth. It represents a continuation of the essay The Experiment as Mediator between Subject and Object. I took the train of thought of his essay from the correspondence between Goethe and Schiller and presented it in the above-mentioned introduction in exactly the same way in which it is now found to be in the newly discovered essay. With respect to content nothing is added by this essay to what I expressed there; on the other hand, however, the view I had won from Goethe's other work; about his method and way of knowing was confirmed in every respect.

  57. Entwurf einer Farbenlehre

  58. Zur Naturwissenschaft

  59. Die ethische Freiheit bei Kant (Philosophische Monatshefte). Published by Mercury Press as Spiritual Activity in Kant.

  60. Geisteswissenschaften, literally: “spiritual sciences” — Ed.

  61. Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit

  62. All quotations in this paragraph are from Aphorisms in Prose.

  63. Erster Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie

  64. An essay suite worth reading is Dr. Adolf Harpf's Goethe and Schopenhauer (Philosophische Monatshefte, 1885). Harpf, who has also already written an excellent treatise on Goethe's Principle of Knowledge (Goethes Erkenntnisprinzip, Philos. Monatshefte, 1884), shows the agreement between the “immanent dogmatism” of Schopenhauer and the objective knowledge of Goethe. Harpf, who is himself a follower of Schopenhauer, did not discover the principle difference between Goethe and Schopenhauer that we characterized above. Nevertheless, his reflections are quite worthy of attention.

  65. Usually translated as “representations” in English versions of Schopenhauer's work — Ed.

  66. Philosophie des Unbewussten

  67. Philosophische Fragen der Gegenwart (Leipzig, 1885)

  68. This does not mean to say that the concept of love receives no attention in Hartmann's ethics. He dealt with this concept both phenomenologically and metaphysically (see The Moral Consciousness, Das sittliche Bewusstsein). But he does not consider love to be the last word in ethics. Self-sacrificing, loving devotion to the world process does not seem to Hartmann as something ultimate but rather only as a means of deliverance from the unrest of existence and of regaining our lost, blissful peace.

  69. Geologische Probleme und Versuch ihrer Auflösung

  70. See the essay: “Significant Help from One Single Intelligent Word” (“Bedeutende Fördernis durch ein einziges geistreiches Wort”)

  71. Das Unbewusste vom Standpunkte des Darwinismus und der Deszendenztheorie (1872)

  72. Entwurf einer Farbenlehre

  73. Beiträge zur Optik

  74. Elemente der Farbenlehre

  75. Enthüllungen der Theorie Newtons

  76. Geschichte der Farbenlehre

  77. The Overcoming of Scientific Materialism” (“Die Überwindung des Wissenschaftlichen Materialismus”); a lecture held in the third general session of the meeting of the Society of German Scientists and Physicians in Lübeck on September 20, 1895. (Leipzig 1895)

  78. Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens, p. 13.

  79. H.L.F. v. Helmholtz, Goethe's Pre-inklings of Future Scientific Ideas (Goethes Vorahnungen kommender wissenschaftlicher Ideen usw.), p. 34. (Berlin 1892)

  80. Nächte des Suchenden (Braunschweig 1893)

  81. The Science of Knowing: Outline of an Epistemology Implicit in the Goethean World View with Particular Reference to Schiller (1886) (Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung mit besonderer Rücksicht auf Schiller); Truth and Science, Prelude to a Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (1892) (Wahrheit und Wissenschaft, Vorspiel einer ‘Philosophie der Freiheit’); Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, Basic Features of a Modern World View (1894) (Philosophie der Freiheit, Grundzüge einer modernen Weltanschauung).

  82. Materialien zur Geschichte der Farbenlehre

  83. Sprüche in Prosa

  84. Goethe's views stand in the sharpest possible opposition to Kantian philosophy. The latter takes it start from the belief that the world of mental pictures is governed by the laws of the human spirit and that therefore everything brought from outside to meet this world can be present in this world only as a subjective reflection. Man does not perceive the “in-itself” of things, but rather the phenomenon that arises through the fact that the things affect him and that he connects these effects according to the laws of his intellect and reason. Kant and the Kantians have no inkling of the fact that the essential being of the things speaks through this reason. Therefore the Kantian philosophy could never hold any significance for Goethe. When he acquired for himself some of Kant's principles, he gave them a completely different meaning than they have in the teachings of their originator. It is clear, from a note that only became known after the opening of the Goethe archives in Weimar, that Goethe was very well aware of the antithesis between his world view and the Kantian one. For him, Kant's basic error lies in the fact that he “regards the subjective ability to know as an object itself and, sharply indeed but not entirely correctly, he distinguishes the point where subjective and objective meet.” Subjective and objective meet when man joins together into the unified being of things what the outer world expresses and what can be heard by his inner being. Then, however, the antithesis between subjective and objective entirely ceases to exist; it disappears in this unified reality. I have already indicated this on page 167 ff. of this book. Now K. Vorländer, in the first number of “Kant Studies,” directs a polemic against what I wrote there. He finds that my view about the antithesis between the Goethean and the Kantian world conception is “strongly one-sided at best and stands in contradiction to Goethe's own statements,” and is due to a “complete misunderstanding on my part of Kant's transcendental methods.” Vorländer has no inkling of the world view in which Goethe lived. It would be utterly pointless for me to enter into polemics with him, because we speak a different language. The fact that he never knows what my statements mean shows how clear his thinking is. For example, I make a comment on the following statement of Goethe: “As soon as the human being becomes aware of the objects around him, he regards them with respect to himself, and justifiably so. For, his whole destiny depends upon whether he likes or dislikes them, whether they attract or repel him, whether they help or harm him. This entirely natural way of looking at things and of judging them seems to be as easy as it is necessary ... Those people take on a far more difficult task whose active drive for knowledge strives to observe the objects of nature in themselves and in their relationships to each other; they seek out and investigate what is and not what pleases.” My comment on this is as follows: “This shows how Goethe's world view is the exact polar opposite of the Kantian one. For Kant, there is absolutely no view of things as they are in themselves, but only of how they appear with respect to us. Goethe considers this view to be a quite inferior way of entering into a relationship with things.” Vorländer's response to this is: “These words of Goethe are not intended to express anything more than, in an introductory way, the trivial difference between what is pleasant and what is true. The researcher should seek out ‘what is and not what pleases.’ It is advisable for someone like Steiner — who dares to say that this latter, in fact very inferior, way of entering into a relationship with things is Kant's way — to first make clear to himself the basic concepts of Kant's teachings: the difference between a subjective and an objective sensation, for example, which is described in such passages as section three of the Critique of the Power of Judgment.” Now, as is clear from my statements, I did not at all say that that way of entering into a relationship with things is Kant's way, but rather that Goethe does not find Kant's understanding of the relationship between subject and object to correspond to the relationship in which man stands toward things when he wants to know how they are in themselves. Goethe is of the view that the Kantian definition does not correspond to human knowing, but only to the relationship into which man enters with things when he regards them with respect to his pleasure or displeasure. Someone who can misunderstand a statement the way Vorländer does would do better to spare himself the trouble of giving advice to other people about their philosophical education, and first acquire for himself the ability to learn to read a sentence correctly. Anyone can look for Goethe quotes and bring them together historically; but Vorländer, in any case, cannot interpret them in the spirit of the Goethean world view.

  85. The following story shows how little understanding is present in professional philosophers today both for ethical views and for an ethic of inner freedom and of individualism in general. In 1892, in an essay for “Zukunft” (No. 5), I spoke out for a strictly individualistic view of ethics. Ferdinand Tönnies in Kiel responded to this essay in a brochure: “‘Ethical Culture’ and its Retinue. Nietzsche Fools in the ‘Future’ and in the ‘Present’“ (Berlin 1893). He presented nothing except the main principles of philistine morality in the form of philosophical formulas. Of me, however, he says that I could have found “no worse Hermes on the path to Hades than Friedrich Nietzsche.” It struck me as truly humorous that Tönnies, in order to condemn me, presents several of Goethe's Aphorisms in Prose. He has no inkling of the fact that if I did have a Hermes, it was not Nietzsche, but rather Goethe. I have already shown on page 149 ff. of this book the connections between the ethics of inner freedom and Goethe's ethics. I would not have mentioned this worthless brochure if it were not symptomatic of the misunderstanding of Goethe's world view that holds sway in professional philosophical circles.