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Goethe's Conception of the World

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Goethe's Conception of the World

Goethe's Conception: Chapter V: Personality and View of the World

Personality and View of the World

Man learns to know the external side of Nature through perception; her more deeply lying forces are revealed in his own inner being as subjective experiences. In philosophical observation of the world, and in artistic feeling and production, the subjective experiences permeate the objective perceptions. What had to divide into two in order to penetrate into the human spirit becomes again one Whole. Man satisfies his highest spiritual needs when he incorporates into the objectively perceived world what that world reveals to him in his inner being as its deeper Mysteries. Knowledge and the productions of Art are nothing else than perceptions filled with man's inner experiences. An inner union of a human soul-experience and an external perception can be discovered in the simplest judgment of an object or an event of the external world. When I say, ‘one body strikes the other,’ I have already carried over an inner experience to the external world. I see a body in motion; it comes into contact with another body, and as a result this second body is also set in motion. With these words the content of the perception is exhausted. This, however, does not satisfy me, for I feel that in the whole phenomenon there is more than what is yielded by mere perception. I seek for an inner experience that will explain the perception. I know that I myself can set a body in movement by the application of force, by pushing it. I carry this experience over into the phenomenon and say: the one body pushes the other. “Man never realises how anthropomorphic he is” (Goethes Sprüche in Prosa. Bd. 36, 2. S. 353. National-Literatur: Goethes Werke.). There are men who conclude from the presence of this subjective element in every judgment of the external world that the objective essence of reality is inaccessible to man. They believe that man falsifies the immediate, objective facts of reality when he introduces his subjective experiences into it. They say: because man is only able to form a conception of the world through the spectacles of his subjective life, therefore all his knowledge is only a subjective, limited human knowledge. Those, however, who become conscious of what reveals itself in the inner being of man will not want to have anything to do with such unfruitful statements. They know that Truth results from the interpenetration of perception and idea in the cognitional process. They realise that in the subjective there lives the truest and deepest objective. “When the healthy nature of man works as one Whole, when he feels himself to exist in the world as in a great and beautiful Whole, when the harmonious sense of well-being imparts to him a pure, free delight, the Universe — if it could be conscious of itself — having attained its goal, would shout for joy and admire the summit of its own becoming and being” (National-Literatur. 27 Bd. S. 42.). The reality accessible to mere perception is only the one half of the whole reality; the content of the human spirit is the other half. If a man had never confronted the world, this second half would never come to living manifestation, to full existence. It would work, of course, as a hidden world of forces, but it would be deprived of the possibility of manifesting itself in its essential form. It may be said that without man the world would display a false countenance. It would exist as it does, by virtue of its deeper forces, but these deeper forces would remain veiled by what they themselves are bringing about. In the spirit of man they are released from their enchantment. Man is not only there in order to form for himself a picture of the finished world; nay, he himself co-operates in bringing the world into existence.

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Subjective experiences assume different forms in different men. For those who do not believe in the objective nature of the inner world this is another reason for denying that man has the capacity to penetrate to the true essence of things. For how can that be the essence of things which appears in one way to one man and in another way to another man? For those who penetrate to the true nature of the inner world the only consequence of the diversity of inner experiences is that Nature is able to express her abundant content in different ways. Truth appears to the individual man in an individual garb. It adapts itself to the particular nature of his personality. More especially is this the case with the highest truths, truths that are of the greatest significance for man. In order to acquire these truths man carries over his most intimate spiritual experiences and with them at the same time the particular nature of his personality, to the world he has perceived. There are also truths of general validity which every man accepts without imparting to them any individual colouring. But these are the most superficial, the most trivial. They correspond to the common generic character of men, which is the same in them all. Certain attributes which are similar in all men give rise to similar judgments about objects. The way in which men view phenomena according to measure and number is the same in everyone — therefore all find the same mathematical truths. In the attributes, however, which distinguish the single personality from the common generic character, there also lies the foundation for the individual formulation of truth. The essential point is not that the truth appears in one man in a different form than in another, but that all the individual forms that make their appearance belong to one single Whole, the uniform ideal world. In the inner being of individual men truth speaks in different tongues and dialects; in every great man it speaks a particular language communicated to this one personality alone. But it is always the one truth that is speaking. “If I know my relationship to myself and to the external world, I call it truth. And so each one can have his own truth, and it is nevertheless always the same.” — This is Goethe's view. Truth is not a rigid, dead system of concepts that is only capable of assuming one single form; truth is a living ocean in which the spirit of man dwells, and it is able to display on its surface waves of the most diverse form. “Theory per se is useless except in so far as it makes us believe in the connection of phenomena,” says Goethe. A theory that is supposed to be conclusive once and for all and purports in this form to represent an eternal truth, has no value for Goethe. He wants living concepts by means of which the spirit of the single man can connect the perceptions together in accordance with his individual nature. To know the truth, means, to Goethe, to live in the truth. And to live in the truth means nothing else than that in the consideration of each single object man perceives what particular inner experience comes into play when he confronts this object. Such a view of human cognition cannot speak of boundaries to knowledge, nor of a limitation to knowledge consequential upon the nature of man. For the questions which, according to this view, man raises in knowledge, are not derived from the objects; neither are they imposed upon man by some other power outside his personality. They are derived from the nature of the personality itself. When man directs his gaze to an object there arises within him the urge to see more than confronts him in the perception. And so far as this urge extends, so far does he feel the need for knowledge. Whence does this urge originate? It can indeed only originate from the fact that an inner experience feels itself impelled within the soul to enter into union with the perception. As soon as the union is accomplished the need for knowledge is also satisfied. The will-to-know is a demand of human nature and not of the objects. They can impart to man no more of their being than he demands from them. Those who speak of a limitation of the faculty of cognition do not know whence the need for knowledge is derived. They believe that the content of truth is lying preserved somewhere or other and that there lives in man nothing but the vague wish to discover the way to the place where it is preserved. But it is the being of the things itself that works itself out in the inner being of man and passes on to where it belongs: to the perception. Man does not strive in the cognitive process for some hidden element but for the equilibration of two forces that work upon him from two sides. One may well say that without man there would be no knowledge of the inner being of things, for without man there would exist nothing through which this inner being could express itself. But it cannot be said that there is something in the inner being of things that is inaccessible to man. Man only knows that there exists something more in the things than perception gives, because this other element lives in his own inner being. To speak of a further unknown element in objects is to spin words about something that does not exist.

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Those natures who are not able to recognise that it is the speech of things that is uttered in the inner being of man, hold the view that all truth must penetrate into man from without. Such natures either adhere to mere perception and believe that only through sight, hearing and touch, through the gleaning of historical events and through comparing, reckoning, calculating and weighing what is received from the realm of facts, is truth able to be cognised; or else they hold the view that truth can only come to man when it is revealed to him through means lying beyond the scope of his cognitional activity; or, finally, they endeavour through forces of a special character, through ecstasy or mystical vision, to attain to the highest insight — insight which, in their view, cannot be afforded them by the world of ideas accessible to thought. A special class of metaphysicians also range themselves on the side of the Kantian School and of one-sided mystics. They, indeed, endeavour to form concepts of truth by means of thought, but they do not seek the content of these concepts in man's world of ideas; they seek it in a second reality lying behind the objects. They hold that by means of pure concepts they can either make out something definite about this content, or at least form conceptions of it through hypotheses. I am speaking here chiefly of the first mentioned category of men, the “fact-fanatics.” We sometimes find it entering into their consciousness that in reckoning and calculation there already exists, with the help of thought, an elaboration of the content of perception. But then, so they say, thought-activity is only the means whereby man endeavours to cognise the connection between the facts. What flows out of thought as it elaborates the external world is held by these men to be merely subjective; only what approaches them from outside with the help of thinking do they regard as the objective content of truth, the valuable content of knowledge. They imprison the facts within their web of thoughts, but only what is so imprisoned do they admit to be objective. They overlook the fact that what thought imprisons in this way undergoes an exegesis, an adjustment, and an interpretation that is not there in mere perception. Mathematics is a product of pure thought-processes; its content is mental, subjective. And the mechanician who conceives of natural processes in terms of mathematical relations can only do this on the assumption that the relations have their foundation in the essential nature of these processes. This, however, means nothing else than that a mathematical order lies hidden within the perception and is only seen by one who elaborates the mathematical laws within his mind. There is, however, no difference of kind but only of degree between the mathematical and mechanical perceptions and the most intimate spiritual experiences. Man can carry over other inner experiences, other regions of his world of ideas into his perceptions with the same right as the results of mathematical research. The “fact-fanatic” only apparently establishes purely external processes. He does not as a rule reflect upon the world of ideas and its character as subjective experience. And his inner experiences are poor in content, bloodless abstractions that are obscured by the powerful content of fact. The delusion to which he gives himself up can exist only so long as he remains stationary at the lowest stage of the interpretation of Nature, so long as he only counts, weights, calculates. At the higher stages the true character of knowledge soon makes itself apparent. It can, however, be observed in “fact-fanatics” that they prefer to remain at the lower stages. Because of this they are like an aesthete who wishes to judge a piece of music merely in accordance with what can be counted and calculated in it. They want to separate the phenomena of Nature off from man. No subjective element ought to flow into observation. Goethe condemns this mode of procedure in the words: “Man in himself, in so far as he uses his healthy senses, is the most powerful and exact physical apparatus there can be. The greatest mischief of modern physics is that the experiments have, as it were, been separated off from the human being. Man wishes to cognise Nature only by what artificial instruments show, and would thereby limit and prove what she can accomplish.” It is fear of the subjective — fear emanating from a false idea of the true nature of the subjective — that leads to this mode of procedure. “But in this connection man stands so high that what otherwise defies portrayal is portrayed in him. What is a string and all mechanical subdivisions of it compared with the ear of the musician? Yes, indeed, what are the elemental phenomena of Nature herself in comparison with man, who must first master and modify them in order in some degree to assimilate them” (Goethes Werke. Nat. Lit., Bd. 32, 2. S.351.). In Goethe's view the investigator of Nature should not only pay attention to the immediate appearance of objects, but what appearance they would have if all the ideal, moving forces active within them were also to come to actual, external manifestation. The phenomena do not disclose their inner being and constitution until the bodily and spiritual organism of man is there to confront them. Goethe's view is that the phenomena reveal themselves fully to a man who approaches them with a free, unbiased spirit of observation and with a developed inner life in which the ideas of things manifest themselves. Hence a world-conception in opposition to that of Goethe is one that does not seek for the true being of things within the reality given by experience but within a second kind of reality lying behind this. In Fr. H. Jacobi, Goethe encountered an adherent of such a world-conception. Goethe gives vent to his indignation in a remark in the Tag-und Jahresheft (1811): “Jacobi displeases me on the subject of divine things; how could I welcome the book of so cordially loved a friend in which I was to find this thesis worked out: Nature conceals God! — My pure, profound, inherent and practised mode of conception has taught me to see God within Nature and Nature within God, inviolably; it has constituted the basis of my whole existence; how then could I fail to be forever spiritually estranged from a man of such excellence, whose heart I used to love and honour, when he makes such a strange — and to my mind — such an extraordinary, one-sided statement.” Goethe's mode of conception affords him the certainty that he experiences Eternal Law in the penetration of Nature with ideas, and Eternal Law is to him identical with the Divine. If the Divine concealed itself behind the phenomena of Nature, although it is at the same time the creative element within them, it could not be perceived; man would have to believe in it. “God has afflicted you with the curse of Metaphysics and has put a thorn in your flesh. He has blessed me with Physics. I adhere to the Atheist's (Spinoza) worship of the Godhead and relinquish to you all that you call — or would like to call — religion. You adhere to belief in God, I to vision.” Where this vision ceases there is nothing for the human spirit to seek. In the Prose Aphorisms we read: “Man is in truth placed in the centre of a real world and endowed with organs enabling him to know and to bring forth the actual as well as the possible. All healthy men have the conviction of their own existence and of a state of existence around them. There is, however, a hollow spot in the brain, that is to say, a place where no object is reflected, just as in the eye itself there is a minute spot which does not see. If a man pays special attention to this hollow place, if he sinks into it, he falls victim to a mental disease, and begins to divine things of another world, chimeras, without form or limit, but which as empty nocturnal spaces alarm and follow the man who does not tear himself free from them, like spectres.” From the same sentiment comes the utterance: “The highest would be to realise that all ‘matters of fact’ are really theory. The blue of the heavens reveals to us the fundamental law of chromatics. Let man seek nothing behind the phenomena, for they themselves are the doctrine.”

Kant denies that man has the capacity to penetrate that region of Nature wherein her creative forces become directly perceptible. In his view concepts are abstract units into which human understanding groups the manifold particulars of Nature, but which have nothing to do with the Living Unity, with the creating Whole of Nature out of which these perceptions actually proceed. In this grouping-together man experiences a subjective operation only. He can relate his general concepts to empirical perceptions, but these concepts are not in themselves living, productive, in such a way that it would ever be possible for man to perceive the emergence of the individual, the particular from them. A concept is to Kant a dead unit existing only in man. “Our understanding is a faculty of Concepts, i.e., a discursive understanding for which it obviously must be contingent of what kind and how very different the particular may be that can be given to it in Nature and brought under its concepts” (Para. 77. Kant's Critique of Judgment.). This is Kant's characterisation of the Understanding. The following is the necessary consequence: “It is infinitely important for Reason not to let slip the mechanism of Nature in its products and in their explanation not to pass it by, because without it no insight into the nature of things can be attained. Suppose it be admitted that a supreme Architect immediately created the forms of Nature as they have been from the beginning, or that he predetermined those which in the course of Nature continually form themselves in the same model — our knowledge of Nature is not thus in the least furthered, because we cannot know the mode of action of that Being and the Ideas which are to contain the principles of the possibility of natural beings, and we cannot by them explain Nature as from above downwards.” (Para. 78. Critique of Understanding.). Goethe is convinced that in his world of ideas man has direct experience of the mode of action of the creative being of Nature. “When in the sphere of the moral, through belief in God, Virtue and Immortality, we do indeed raise ourselves into a higher sphere where it is granted to us to approach the primordial Essence, so may it well be in the sphere of the Intellectual, that through the perception of an ever-creating Nature we make ourselves worthy for a spiritual participation in her productions.” Man's knowledge is, for Goethe, an actual “living into” the creative activity and sovereignty of Nature. Knowledge is able “to investigate, to experience how Nature lives in creative activity.”

It is contrary to the spirit of Goethe's world-conception to speak of Beings existing outside the world of experience and of ideas that is accessible to the human mind, who, nevertheless, are supposed to contain the foundations of this world. Every kind of Metaphysics is rejected by this world-conception. There are no questions of knowledge which, if rightly put, cannot also be answered. If science at any given time can make nothing of a certain region of phenomena, this is not due to the nature of the human spirit, but to the fortuitous circumstances that experience of this region is not yet complete. Hypotheses cannot be advanced in regard to things that lie outside the sphere of possible experience, but only in regard to such things as may at some time enter into this region. An hypothesis can never do more than assert: it is probable that within a region of phenomena this or that experience will be made. Objects and processes that do not he within the range of man's sense-perception or spiritual perception cannot be spoken of by this mode of thinking. The assumption of a “thing-in-itself” that brings about perceptions in man, but that can never itself be perceived, is an inadmissible hypothesis. “Hypotheses are scaffoldings erected around the building and are taken away when the building is completed; they are indispensable to the workman, only he must not take the scaffolding for the building.” In presence of a region of phenomena for which all the perceptions are given and which is permeated with ideas, the spirit of man declares itself satisfied. Man feels that a living harmony of idea and perception resounds within him.

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The satisfying fundamental note which runs for Goethe through his world-conception is similar to that which may be observed in the Mystics. Mysticism aims at finding the primordial principle of things, the Godhead within the human soul. Like Goethe, the Mystic is convinced that the essential being of the world will be made manifest to him in inner experiences. But many Mystics will not admit that penetration into the world of ideas constitutes the inner experience which is to them the essential thing. Many one-sided Mystics have practically the same view as Kant of the clear ideas of Reason. They consider that these clear Ideas of Reason lie outside the sphere of the creative Whole of Nature and that they belong exclusively to the human intellect. Such Mystics endeavour, therefore, to attain to the highest knowledge, to a higher kind of perception, by the development of abnormal conditions of perception, by the development of abnormal conditions, for example, by ecstasy. They deaden sense observation and rational thought within themselves and try to enhance their life of feeling. Then they think they directly feel active spirituality actually as the Godhead within themselves. When they achieve this they believe that God lives within them. The Goethean world-conception, however, does not derive its knowledge from experiences occurring when observation and thought have been deadened, but from these two functions themselves. It does not betake itself to abnormal conditions of man's mental life but is of the view that the normal, naive methods of procedure of the mind are capable of being perfected to such an extent that man may experience within himself the creative activity of Nature. “It seems to me that ultimately it is only a question of the practical, self-rectifying operations of the general human intellect that has the courage to exercise itself in a higher sphere” (2 Abt. Bd. 11. S.41. Weimar Edition of Goethe's Works). Many Mystics plunge into a world of indefinite sensations and feelings; Goethe plunges into the crystal-clear world of ideas. One-sided Mystics disdain clarity of ideas and think it superficial. They have no inkling of what is experienced by men who are endowed with the gift of entering profoundly into the living world of ideas. They are chilled when they give themselves up to the world of ideas. They seek a world-content that radiates warmth. But the world-content which they find does not explain the world. It consists only of subjective stimuli, of confused representations. A man who speaks of the coldness of the world of ideas can only think ideas, he cannot experience them. A man who lives the true life of the world of ideas feels within himself the being of the world working in a warmth that cannot be compared with anything else. He feels the fire of the World Mystery light up within him. This is what Goethe felt when the vision of weaving Nature dawned in him in Italy. He then realised how the yearning that in Frankfort he expressed in the words of Faust, can be appeased:

“Where shall I grasp thee, infinite Nature, where?
Ye breasts, ye fountains of all life whereon
Hang Heaven and Earth, from which the withered heart
For solace yearns. ...”




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