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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: Introduction


If we want to understand Goethe's world-conception we must not rest content with simply listening to what he himself says about it in isolated phrases. It was not in his nature to express the core of his being in crystalline, sharply-cut aphorisms, which seemed to him to distort rather than present a true picture of reality. He had a certain fear of arresting the living, the reality, in a transparent thought. His inner life, his relationship to the outer world and his observations of things and events were too rich, too full of subtle, intimate elements for him to reduce them to simple formulae. He expresses himself when some experience or other impels him, but he always says either too much or too little. His living participation in everything that approaches him often forces him to use sharper expressions than his nature as a whole demands. This led him just as often to express himself indefinitely where his being felt the need of a definite opinion. He is always uneasy when it comes to the point of making a decision between two views. He does not like to depart from impartiality by giving a clearly defined direction to his thoughts. He contents himself with this thought: “Man is not born to solve the problems of the universe, but to try to discover where the problems begin, and then to remain within the boundary of the comprehensible.” A problem that a man thinks he has solved deprives him of the possibility of clear vision of a thousand phenomena that fall within the domain of this problem. He pays no more heed to them because he thinks that he understands the sphere where they occur. Goethe would rather have two contrary opinions about a thing than one definite opinion. Every single phenomenon seems to him to include an infinity which man must approach from different angles if he is to perceive something of its full content. “It is said that the truth lies midway between two contrary opinions. By no means! The problem invisible, the eternal active life conceived of in repose lies between them.” Goethe's aim is to preserve a living quality in his thoughts, so that when compelled by reality he can at any moment transform them. He does not want to “be right;” he wants always to “set about” the right and nothing more. At two different times he expresses himself differently about the same thing. He is suspicious of a rigid theory that defines, once and for all, the law underlying a series of phenomena, because such a theory deprives the cognitive faculty of an unbiased relationship to mobile reality.

When, however, it is a question of perceiving the unity running through his conceptions, we must pay less attention to his words than to his conduct of life. We must consider the relationship existing between him and the objects while he is investigating their nature and being, and then we must add what he himself does not say. We must penetrate to the innermost being of his personality — which is, for the most part, hidden behind his utterances. What he says may often be contradictory; his life, however, is always in conformity with a self-contained whole. He may not have set down his world-conception in a definite system but he has expressed it in a personality complete in itself. When we study his life all contradictions in his words are resolved. They are only present in his thoughts about the world in the same sense in which they are present in the world itself. He has said many things about Nature but he has never laid down his conception of Nature in a permanent thought-structure. Nevertheless, when we survey his individual thoughts in this region, they coalesce of themselves into one whole. We can form a conception of the thought-structure that would have arisen if he had presented his ideas in absolute coherence. In this book I have set myself the task of describing how the innermost being of Goethe's personality must have been constituted in order to be able to express such thoughts about natural phenomena as are found in his scientific works. I know that it is possible to quote sentences of Goethe that contradict many things that I have to say. In this book, however, the salient point, so far as I am concerned, is not to give any history of the development of his utterances but to depict the basic elements in his personality which led to his deep insight into the creative activity and the work of Nature. These basic elements cannot be understood from the numerous passages in which he takes other modes of thought to his aid in order to make himself intelligible, or in which he uses the formula; of this or that philosopher. Out of what he said to Eckermann one would be able to portray a Goethe who could never have written the Metamorphosis of the Plants. To Zelter he said many things that might lead us erroneously to assume the existence of a scientific conviction at variance with his great thoughts in reference to animal life. I admit the existence of forces in Goethe's personality of which I have not taken account, but these recede into the background of those that are really determinative and give his world-conception its special stamp. I have set myself the task of describing these determinative forces as vividly as lies in my power. Therefore in reading this book it must be remembered that it has never been my intention to allow any element of my own view of the world to colour the presentation of the Goethean mode of conception. I think that in a book of this kind one has no right to present the content of one's personal world-conception, but that one's duty is to apply what has been gained from this to the understanding of the particular world-conception under consideration. For example, it has been my aim to describe Goethe's relationship to the Western evolution of thought as this relationship appears from the point of view of his own world-conception. This is the only method which seems to me to guarantee historic objectivity to one's own view of the world-conception of a particular personality. A different method must be employed only when such a world-conception is considered in connection with others.

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