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Goethe's Conception of the World

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



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Goethe's Conception of the World

Goethe's Conception: Afterword to the New Edition

Afterword to the New Edition

(1918)

It was said by critics of this book immediately after its publication that it does not give a picture of Goethe's “world-conception” but only of his “conception of Nature.” I do not think that this judgment has proceeded from a justifiable point of view, although, externally considered, the book is almost exclusively concerned with Goethe's ideas of Nature. In the course of what has been said, I think I have shown that these ideas of Nature are based upon a specific mode of observation of world phenomena. I think I have indicated in the book itself that the adoption of a point of view such as Goethe possessed in regard to natural phenomena can lead to definite views on psychological, historical and still wider phenomena. That which is expressed in Goethe's conception of Nature in a particular sphere, is indeed a world-conception and not a mere conception of Nature such as might well be possessed by a personality whose thoughts had no significance for a wider world-picture. On the other hand, moreover, I thought that in this book I ought only to present what may be said in immediate connection with the region that Goethe himself developed from out of the whole compass of his world-conception. To draw a picture of the world revealed in Goethe's poems, in his ideas on the history of Art, and so on, would of course be quite possible, and indubitably of the greatest interest. But those who take the character of the book into consideration will not look for such a world-picture therein. They will realise that I have set myself the task of sketching that portion of Goethe's world-picture for which the data exist in his own writings, the one proceeding consecutively from the others. I have indicated in many places the points at which Goethe came to a standstill in this consecutive development of the world-picture which he was able to present in regard to certain realms of Nature. Goethe's views of the world and of life reveal themselves in a very wide compass. The emergence of these views from out of his own original world-conception is not, however, so evident from his works in the sphere of natural phenomena as it is here. In other spheres, all that Goethe's soul had to reveal to the world becomes clear; in the domain of his ideas of Nature it becomes evident how the fundamental trend of his spirit won for itself, step by step, a view of the world up to a certain boundary. Precisely by going no further in the portrayal of Goethe's thought-activity than the elaboration of a self-contained fragment of world-conception, one will gain enlightenment as to the special colouring of what is revealed in the rest of his life's work. Therefore it was not my aim to portray the world-picture that emerges from Goethe's life-work as a whole, but rather that part of it which in his case comes to light in the form in which one brings a world-conception to expression in thought. It does not necessarily follow that views originating from a personality, however great, are parts of a world-view complete in itself and connected directly with the personality. Goethe's ideas of Nature are, however, such a self-contained fragment of a world-picture. And as an elucidation of natural phenomena they do not represent merely a view of Nature; they are an integral part of a world-conception.

* * * * *

It does not surprise me that I should have been accused of a change of views since the publication of this book, for I am not unfamiliar with the presuppositions which lead one to such a judgment. I have spoken about this endeavour to find contradictions in my writings in the Preface to the first volume of my Riddles of Philosophy and in an essay in the journal Das Reich, Vol. II. (Spiritual Science as Anthroposophy and the contemporary Theory of Knowledge). Such an endeavour is only possible among critics who wholly fail to understand the course which my world-conception is bound to take when it wishes to consider different regions of life. I do not propose to enter into this question here again but to confine myself to certain brief remarks in reference to this book on Goethe. In the Anthroposophical Spiritual Science that I have presented in my writings for the past sixteen years, I myself see that mode of cognition for the spiritual world-content accessible to man, to which one must come who has brought to life within his soul Goethe's ideas of Nature as something with which he is in accord, and with this as his starting-point, strives to experience in cognition the spiritual region of the world. I am of opinion that this Spiritual Science presupposes a Natural Science corresponding to that of Goethe. I do not only mean that the Spiritual Science which I have presented does not contradict this Natural Science. For I know that the mere fact of there being no logical contradiction between two different statements means very little. They may none the less be wholly irreconcilable in reality. But I believe that Goethe's ideas in reference to the realm of Nature, when they are actually experienced, must necessarily lead to the Anthroposophical truths that I have set forth when man leads over his experiences in the realm of Nature to experiences in the realm of spirit. Goethe has not done this. The mode and nature of these latter experiences are described in my spiritual-scientific works. For this reason, the essential content of this book, which was published for the first time in 1897, has been reprinted again to-day, as my exposition of the Goethean world-conception, after the publication of my writings on Spiritual Science. All the thoughts presented here hold good for me to-day in unchanged form. In isolated places only have I introduced slight alterations and they have nothing to do with the form of the thoughts but merely with the wording of certain passages. And it is perhaps understandable that after twenty years one would like here and there to make certain changes in the style of a book. The new edition differs from the first only in certain extensions that have been made, not in alterations of content. I believe that a man who is looking for a scientific basis for Spiritual Science can discover it through Goethe's world-conception. Therefore it seems to me that a work on Goethe's world-conception may also be of service to those who wish to concern themselves with Anthroposophical Spiritual Science. My book, however, is written as a study of Goethe's world-conception per se, without reference to Spiritual Science proper. In my book Goethe's Standard of the Soul: as illustrated in Faust and in the Fairy Story of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily [Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 46 Gloucester Place, London, W.1. Price 2/6.] will be found something of what may be said about Goethe from the specially spiritual-scientific point of view.

* * * * *

Supplementary Note. A critic of this book (Kantstudium III, 1898), thought he was making a special discovery with regard to my “contradictions” by comparing what I say about Platonism (in the first edition, 1897) with what I said practically at the same time in my Introduction to Vol. IV of Goethe's Natural Scientific Works (Kürschner): “Plato's philosophy is one of the most sublime thought-edifices that have ever emanated from the mind of man. It is one of the saddest signs of our age that the Platonic mode of perception is regarded in philosophy as the opposite of sound reason.” Certain minds will find it difficult to understand that when looked at from different angles, every single thing reveals itself differently. The fact that my different utterances about Platonism do not represent real contradictions will be evident to those who do not stop at the mere sound of the words, but who penetrate into the different connections in which Platonism in its essential nature impelled me to bring it at one time or another. It is on the one hand a sad sign when Platonism is held to be contradictory to healthy reason, because it is thought that to remain stationary at pure sense-perception as the only reality alone conforms to this healthy reason. And it is also contradictory to a healthy perception of idea and sense-world when Platonism is applied in such a way that it brings about an unsound separation of idea and sense-perception. Those who cannot bring themselves to penetrate the phenomena of life with thought in this sense will always remain, together with what they apprehend, outside of reality. Those who — speaking in the Goethean sense — set up a concept in order to circumscribe a rich life-content do not understand that life unfolds in relationships that operate differently in different directions. It is naturally more convenient to substitute a schematic concept for a view of life in its entirety; with such concepts one can easily judge schematically. Through such a procedure, however, one lives in lifeless abstractions. Human concepts become abstractions for the very reason that man imagines he can manipulate these concepts in his intellect in the same way as objects manipulate each other. These concepts are, however, more comparable to pictures that man receives from different sides of the same object. The object is one, the pictures many. What leads to a real perception of the object is not concentration upon a single picture but the bringing together of many. Unfortunately I have had to recognise how great the tendency is among many critics to construe “contradictions” from what is really observation of a phenomenon from different points of view — a mode of observation that strives to be permeated with reality. For this reason I felt obliged by a slight alteration of style in this new edition first to make still clearer in my remarks concerning Platonism what I thought was clear enough twenty years ago in the first edition; secondly, to show by direct quotation from my other work in juxtaposition to what is said in this book, the complete harmony that exists between the two utterances. However, if there is anyone who still thinks he can discover contradictions in these matters I have thereby spared him the trouble of having to collect them from two books.

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