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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

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

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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012


PAGE 2: The mood underlying this opinion, in regard to the character of philosophical writing and the interest which this evokes, is derived from the temper of mind characterizing scientific endeavors about the middle of the 'eighties of the last century. Since that time phenomena have arisen in the presence of which this opinion seems no longer justified. One need think only of the dazzling illumination which broad expanses of life have received from Nietzsche's thought and feeling. And in the struggle which has been in process and still continues between the materialistically-minded monists and the exponents of a spiritual world-conception there is vitally manifest both the aspiration of philosophic thought to a life-filled content and also the widespread general interest in the enigmas of existence. Ways of thought derived from a physical world-conception, such as those of Einstein, have become the topic of almost universal conversations and literary publications.

And yet the motives from which that opinion then arose still possess validity. If the opinion were being recorded today, it would need to be differently formulated. Now that it is again given as an almost ancient point of view, it may be more appropriate to say to what extent it is still valid.

Goethe's world-conception, whose theory of knowledge it has been the purpose of the present composition to point out, issues from the inner experience of the whole human being. In comparison with this inner experience, the examination of the world through thought is only one aspect. Out of the fullness of man's existence, thought forms rise, as it were, to the surface of the soul's life. A part of these thought-images comprise an answer to the question: What is human cognition? And this answer is of such a character as to indicate that man's existence attains that for which it is endowed only when it is engaged in the activity of cognition. A soul-life apart from cognition would be like a human organism without a head: that is, it simply would not be at all. Within the inner life of the soul a content arises which craves external perception as the hungering organism craves food; and in the external world there is a perceptual content which does not bear its essential being in itself but manifests this only when it is united with the soul content through the process of cognition. Thus the process becomes a link in the formation of universal reality. In the act of cognizing, man participates in the creation of this universal reality. If a plant-root is unthinkable apart from the fulfillment of its potentialities in the fruit, so likewise neither man nor even the world attains to a culmination apart from cognition. In the act of cognition, man does not create something only for himself, but he works creatively together with the world at the revelation of real Being. What is in man is the phenomenal as Idea; what is in the perceptual world is the phenomenal as the sensible; only the conjunction of the two in cognition is reality.

Viewed thus, a theory of knowledge becomes a part of life. And it must be viewed thus, if it is to be united with the expanses of life in Goethe's soul-experience. But even Nietzsche's thinking and feeling do not unite themselves with such breadths of life. Still less is this true of such conceptions of the world and of life as have appeared since the composition of what has been designated as the “Point of Departure” in the present production. All these presuppose that reality exists somewhere outside of cognition, and that a human representation reproducing this reality comes about in cognition — or cannot come about. That this reality cannot be found by means of cognition because it is first created as reality in cognition — this is almost nowhere realized. Those who think philosophically seek for life and existence outside of knowledge; Goethe stands within creative life and Being while he engages in the activity of cognition. For this reason the more recent attempts at world-conceptions take their stand outside of Goethe's idea-creating. It is the purpose of this theory of knowledge to stand within that, because in this way philosophy gains life-content and that interest which is its vital need.

PAGE 3: “The task of science is not that of propounding questions. ...” Questions regarding knowledge arise in the viewing of the external world by the human soul-organization. In the impulse of the mind to question lies the power so to deal with the perception that this, in combination with the activity of the mind, brings to manifestation the reality of what is beheld.

PAGE 14: “This first activity of ours ... pure experience.” It is evident from the whole bearing of this theory of knowledge that the important matter in its explanations is to gain an answer to the question: What is knowledge? In order to reach this goal, the world of sense-perception on the one hand and that of penetration through thought on the other are first clearly realized; and it is pointed out that the true reality of sense-existence manifests itself through the penetration of both. In this way the question, “What is cognition?” is in principle answered. This answer is not at all altered if the question is extended to the perception of the spiritual. Therefore, what is said in this writing about the essential nature of knowledge holds good also for the knowledge of the spiritual worlds, with which my later writings are concerned. The sense-world in its manifestation to human perception is not reality. It possesses its reality in connection with that which reveals itself in man in the form of thought concerning this sense-world. Thoughts belong to the reality of the sensibly perceived; only, that which is present in the sense-existence as thought manifests itself, not externally in this existence, but inwardly in man. But thought and sense-perception are a single essence. While man enters the world in sense-perception, he separates thought from reality; but the thought merely manifests itself in another place within the mind. The separation between percept and thought possesses no significance for the objective world; it occurs only because man takes up a position in the midst of existence. It is to him that this appearance thus occurs, as if thought and percept were twofold. Nor is it otherwise in the case of spiritual perception. When this occurs by reason of processes in the soul which I have described in my more recent book Knowledge of the Higher World and Its Attainment, this then forms likewise one aspect of (spiritual) existence; and the corresponding thoughts of the spiritual form the other aspect. A difference occurs only to this extent, that sense-perception reaches its consummation through thought in reality, as it were, in an upper direction at the beginning of the spiritual; whereas spiritual perception is experienced in its true being from this beginning downward. The fact that the experience of sense-perception occurs through the senses formed by Nature, and that of the perception of the spiritual through spiritual organs of perception, first formed in a psychic manner, does not constitute a distinction in principle.

In truth, the idea of cognition I developed in this writing is not abandoned in my more recent publications, but is only applied to the spiritual experience.

PAGE 15: In reference to the essay: Nature: In my writings in connection with the Goethe Society [in Germany], I sought to show that the origin of this essay was to be explained on the assumption that Tobler, who at the time when this occurred had been in intercourse with Goethe at Weimar, wrote down after conversations ideas which were in Goethe's mind and approved by Goethe. This record then appeared in the Tiefurter Journal, which was at that time circulated only in manuscript form. In Goethe's writings there is an essay written by him much later in regard to the earlier publication. Goethe there expressly states that he did not remember whether the essay was by him, but that it contained ideas which at the time of its appearance were his own. In my discussion in the writings of the Goethe Society, I endeavored to show that these ideas in their further evolution have flowed into Goethe's whole conception of Nature. Discussions have since been published claiming for Tobler the entire rights of authorship of the essay Nature. I do not wish to enter the controversy over this question. Even if complete originality is maintained for Tobler, the fact remains that these ideas were present in Goethe's mind at the beginning of the 1780's; and, indeed, in such a manner — even by his own admission — that they proved to be the beginning of his whole conception of Nature. Personally I have no reason to abandon my opinion regarding this matter: that the ideas originated with Goethe. But, if this is not the case, they existed in his mind in a manner that has become immeasurably fruitful. To one who is considering Goethe's world-conception, they are significant, not in themselves, but in relationship to what has grown out of them.

PAGE 24: “Appearance for the senses ...” In this discussion there is already an allusion to the perception of the spiritual, which is treated in my more recent writings in the sense indicated above in the note on page 14.

PAGE 29: “The relationship is quite different ...” In this discussion the perception of the spiritual is not contradicted, but what is pointed out is that as regards sense-perception it is not possible to attain to the real being manifest in sense-perception by forcing a way, so to speak, through the sense-perceptible and pressing forward to the real being behind this sense-perception, but by turning back to that which reveals itself in man in the element of thought.

PAGE 94: “This distinction is not made so basic in any other manner of research ... as in Goethe's.” It will be found that I have expressed myself in various ways in my writings regarding mysticism and the mystical. That there is no contradiction in these various ways of speaking — as some persons have tried fantastically to show — may be seen in each instance from the context. One may form a general conception of the mystical. According to this it embraces what may be learned of the world through the soul's inner experience. This concept is not, for the time being, to be opposed. For there is such an experience. And it reveals something, not only about the inner being of man, but also about the world. It is necessary to have eyes wherein processes occur in order to experience the realm of colors. But one thereby learns something, not only about the eye, but also about the world. One must possess an inner soul-organ in order to experience certain things of the world.

But one must carry full clarity of concepts into one's experience through the mystical organ if knowledge is to come about. There are persons, however, who wish to take refuge in the “inward” for the purpose of escaping from clarity of concepts. These apply the term “mystical” to that which would lead knowledge away from the light of ideas into the darkness of the world of feeling — the world of feeling, not illuminated by ideas. Against this mysticism I have expressed myself throughout my writings. On behalf of that mysticism which holds fast to the clarity of ideas, and makes of the mystic sense a perceptual organ of the soul which functions in the same region of the human being where otherwise obscure feeling is dominant, every page of my books has been written. With respect to the spiritual this sense is to be compared precisely with the eye or the ear in relation to the physical.

PAGE 111: “Philosophy of freedom.” The ideas of this philosophy were later further developed in my Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. [German title: Die Philosophie der Freiheit.]

PAGE 113: “Psychology, the science of peoples, and history are the principal forms of spiritual science.” After having elaborated the various aspects of what I call “Anthroposophy,” I should have had to add Anthroposophy to this list — if I were composing this pamphlet today. Forty years ago, while I was writing this, I visualized psychology — though not in the usual sense of the term — as something which included the perception of the entire world of spirit (pneumatology). But it must not be inferred from this that I then intended to exclude this world of spirit from human knowledge.

PAGE 119: Footnote 11 should now be supplemented by the statement that the essay which I here hypothetically assumed was later actually found in the Goethe and Schiller Museum and included in the Weimar edition of Goethe.

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