THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
IMPLICIT IN GOETHE'S
[Rudolf Steiner edited Goethe's
“Works in Natural Science:”
— Volume I, published in 1884,”
Volume II, in 1888; Volume III, in
1891; Volume IV (Part I), in
1895; Volume IV (Part II), in 1897.
From 1891 to 1897 he lived and
worked in Weimar, making contributions to the Natural
Science volumes of the “Weimar
Edition,” then being officially prepared,
of Goethe's entire writings.
In 1886 he published on his own account a book
called (in the present English version)
“The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in
Goethe's World-Conception” ...
“How does man stand within the phenomena of
nature? How does he grasp outer existence in his
consciousness? What is the explanation of his
thinking?” ... To questions
such as these Dr. Steiner felt that Modern Science was giving
no satisfactory answers. He averred that by observation of
Goethe's method of handling scientific problems the proper
solutions could be discovered. What follows is an attempt to
give an outline of this work of Dr. Steiner's. It is offered as
a brief but valid account of human cognition.]
spheres of experience stand over against one another:
The Appearance of Things to
our Senses: — The green of the grass; the
barking of a dog; etc.
Our Thinking: —
What we make of these sense-perceptible phenomena when we
work upon them with our minds.
are enquiring into the relationship between these two spheres.
We are asking: — “What significance has the
reflection in our consciousness of the external
Following the rule that every good scientific investigator or
thinker makes his own, we shall look for an answer exclusively
us first get clear about the way in which things appear to our
Senses. We can then go on to elucidate the precise function of
Thinking in the knowledge-process.
us suppose that there sits, watching a game of cricket, some
lover of the game and on his knee, also watching, a tiny child.
The grown-up sees every occurrence against a vast invisible,
complicated mental background of all that he knows about the
game. If we try to “un-think” or
“de-think” all that the grown person knows of the
game, we shall get to something like the sort of picture of it
which is in the consciousness of the tiny child: — mere
movements of white on a green background; mere
sense-perceptions. At this level of cognition, we are like a
cow looking at the Mona Lisa or like a person who has never
learned to read looking at a page of Shakespeare.
Such virginal sense-experience is sheer multiplicity: — a
medley of impressions; mere juxtaposition in space; mere
succession in time; single items of experience; blobs of smell
and colour and noise; each item standing in entire isolation;
These sense-particulars make no disclosure of their nature.
Taken in this way, they present themselves as entirely
enigmatical, entirely unintelligible entities. So long as we
depend passively upon what our senses bring to us, we are in
darkness. Things seem as if they were shot at us from a gun out
of the unknown. We are in a world without values and without
meanings; in a world of appearance and illusion.
as human beings we were limited all our lives to cognition by
our senses alone, the world would be for ever completely
unintelligible. Thinking — to the first meaningless
appearance of things for the sense-organs — brings:
— INTELLIGIBILITY. (Thought, we say,
Things, as mediated to us by our senses, tell us nothing about
themselves. They are enigmatic, obscure, unyielding, lifeless.
Things, as mediated to our thinking, are infinitely alive; they
are always in metamorphosis; they spontaneously declare their
While we are standing amid sense-percepts, we know as little
about the world as an animal does. We feel as if we were
surrounded by the impenetrable outsides of objects. Standing in
our thoughts, we feel as if we are on the inside of the world.
Secrets are being told to us; we are behind the scenes.
the appearance it had for the senses, reality seemed to consist
of single, isolated objects — each self-contained —
each keeping exclusively to itself. But as it appears to
Thinking, reality seems to consist of objects that smile upon
each other; that stretch out helping hands to each other; each
communicating gladly with all the rest. Every thought helpfully
relates itself to others. We cannot conceive of gold without
conceiving also of buttercups and wedding-rings and hair and
goodness. We are travelling about the universe upon a
magic-carpet at lightning-speed. Here we find ourselves in a
world of associativeness and affinity. Things automatically
group themselves. Towards the concept “organism”
rush other such concepts as “growth” and
“evolution.” Whereas, so to speak, a percept likes
to be alone, a concept refuses to be alone. We find it
intolerable to have in our minds a concept not brought into
relationship with those already there.
have emerged out of a nightmare multiplicity of single
particulars into a world where, of their own accord, things are
grouping themselves. We stand now in generalisations; amid the
laws of nature; amid wholes; in that ordered body of knowledge
Chapter IX of this work, Dr. Steiner puts the matter thus:
— “... What comes first into our mind is in actual
“In the achievement of reality through cognition, the
process is as follows: — We meet with a concrete percept.
It confronts us as a riddle. Within us, the impulse manifests
itself to investigate its ‘What?’ — its real nature
— which the percept itself does not express. This impulse
is nothing but the upward working of a concept out of the
darkness of our consciousness. We then hold this concept firmly
while the sense-percept moves on a parallel line with this
thought-process. The mute percept suddenly speaks a language
intelligible to us; we know that the concept which we have
taken hold of is the real nature of the percept for which we
have been seeking.”
Sense-perceptions are mediated to us by our eyes and ears and
hands. Then, “in our heads,” takes place an
activity which we ourselves originate or mediate ... What is
the super-personal background of these happenings? That I may
perceive and think as I do — in what relation must I be
standing to things all about me? What is the world-context of
my perceiving and thinking?
Outwardly, reality exposes itself as mere building materials.
If we make use exclusively of sense-perception — so long
as we are like an animal or a tiny child — we can take in
only this lower, outer, provisional aspect of reality. But
immediately we think, reality begins to reveal to us its other
inner higher aspect — its complete being.
Nature specializes. She offers me a shower of rain; a rising
tide; this steadfast table on which I am writing. Thus she
presents her mere outer particulars, her isolated
exemplifications ... But she is capable also of a far higher
activity. She can generalise. All these single occurrences are
mere instances of the Law of Gravitation ... She offers to my
eye and ear her single unrelated particulars; to my mind, She
reveals her generalising.
ourselves continuously manufacture that dead outer garment we
call our skin. In some like manner, nature seems to clothe
herself in common-place matter. Within She is all stir and
magic and creation; when She externalises herself, She becomes
mere stuff. Use your sense-organs and you see, in her
shop-window, only Nature's isolated products. But you can also
use your mentality and go into the workshop where She is
the considerations here brought forward are justified, we see
that it is no longer legitimate for us to speak of Thinking as
“merely subjective.” Nor to regard it as consisting
just of “personal opinions.” Admittedly, it appears
in the heads of single persons. Admittedly, we can think more
or less effectively; more or less correctly; etc. But the thing
itself — Thinking as such — transcends every
subjective and personal limitation. What Thinking does in and
of itself (e.g. our sense of cause and effect; e.g. the
unfailing associativeness of our concepts) is none of our
doing. I am only the stage onto which Thinking enters; upon
which Thinking performs. It is not I that think but the World
that thinks in me. When “I” think, things are in my
mind declaring their true being.
are in search of a Theory of Knowledge. We desire to understand
what this Thinking of ours signifies.
accordance with the spirit and practice of present-day Science,
we are making our appeal exclusively to Experience.
Coming of its own accord out of the unknown periphery of
things, there looms up upon us through our sense-organs a
nightmare world of mere multiplicity: — a chaos of
isolated blobs of sensation. This “Appearance for the
Senses” is devoid of “values;” it is
meaningless; it is unintelligible. It is by itself altogether
barren and unprofitable.
Refusing to be befooled by this nightmare, we think.
Immediately, things begin to take on intelligibility. These
dormant percepts of ours, like the personages in the fairy
story, wake up and speak. The Other Half of Reality (hitherto
concealed) is now made known to us. We have broken through the
outer shell of nature into Her Real Being. We delightedly find
ourselves in a world of relationships and groupings; in a world
of law and harmony and unity.
the humdrum sense-organs, the world displays only its external
covering. To that unique sovereign organ called “The Mind
of Man,” it speaks as its very self... Certainly I must
say: — “It is I myself that think.” But far
more deeply, far more powerfully, should I affirm: —
“When I think, it is the World Itself that thinks in
Among the data of Experience, we have found an item that
enables us confidently to solve the world-mystery.