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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012



The Point of Departure

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 1)

W HEN WE trace any one of the intellectual currents of the present time back to its source, we invariably arrive at one of the great spirits of our “classical age.” Goethe or Schiller, Herder or Lessing gave an impulse; and from this impulse has issued this or that intellectual movement which continues even to-day. Our whole German culture is based so squarely upon the great writers of that epoch that many who consider themselves entirely original achieve nothing more than the expression of what was long ago intimated by Goethe or Schiller. We have entered into such a living union with the world created by them that any one who would turn aside from the track already pointed out by them can scarcely count upon being understood by us. Our way of looking upon life and the world is determined by them to such an extent that no one can arouse our sympathetic interest who does not seek for points of contact with our world as thus determined.

Only as regards one branch of our intellectual life must we admit that it has not yet found such a point of contact. It is that branch of knowledge which proceeds beyond the mere assemblage of observed data, beyond the cognizance of single experiences, and seeks to provide a satisfying total view of the world and of life. It is that which is generally called philosophy. For this, our classical period actually seems to be non-existent. It seeks its salvation in an artificial seclusion and aristocratic isolation from all the rest of our intellectual life. This statement cannot be disproved by reference to the fact that a number of older and younger philosophers and scientists have undertaken to interpret Goethe and Schiller. For these have not attained to their scientific standpoints by developing the germs existing in the scientific works of these heroes of the mind. They have arrived at their scientific standpoints apart from the world-conception represented by Goethe and Schiller, and have afterwards compared them with this. And this they have done, not for the purpose of gaining from the scientific opinions of the great thinkers something to serve as a means of guidance for themselves, but rather to test these opinions and see whether they could be maintained in the face of their own course of reasoning. This point we shall later treat more thoroughly. First, however, we should like to point out the effects which this attitude toward the highest stage of evolution in contemporary culture produces in that field of knowledge with which we are concerned.

(See Notes to the New Edition, 1924, page 2)

A large part of the educated reading public of the present time will at once lay aside unread any literary-scientific work which lays claim to being philosophical. Seldom, if ever, has philosophy enjoyed so little favor as at present. Except for the writings of Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, who have dealt with problems of life and the world of the most widespread interest and have, therefore, gained a wide circulation, it is not too much to say that philosophical works are at present read only by professional philosophers. Nobody except these persons concerns himself with such writings. The educated man who is not a specialist has the vague feeling: “These writings contain nothing suited to a person of my intellectual needs. What is there discussed does not concern me; it is in no way related to what I require for my mental satisfaction.” This lack of interest in philosophy cannot be due to anything other than the circumstance to which I have referred; for there exists, face to face with this indifference, an ever increasing need for a satisfying conception of the world and of life. The dogmas of religion, which were for a long time an adequate substitute, are more and more losing their convincing power. The need is steadily growing to attain through thought to that which man once owed to faith in revelation — the satisfaction of his spirit. The interest of cultured persons could not, therefore, be lacking if this particular branch of knowledge marched in step with the whole evolution of culture, if its representatives would take up a position with reference to the great questions that move humanity.

(See Notes to the New Edition, 1924, page 3)

In this matter we must always keep before our minds the truth that the proper procedure is never that of creating a spiritual need artificially, but quite the contrary: that of discovering the need which exists and satisfying this need. The task of science is not that of propounding questions but that of giving careful attention to these when they are put forth by human nature and by the contemporary stage of evolution, and of answering them. Our modern philosophers set tasks for themselves that are not at all the outflow of that stage of culture whereon we now stand — questions for which no one is seeking answers. Those questions which must be propounded by our culture, because of the position to which our great thinkers have elevated it, are passed over by science. Thus we possess a philosophical knowledge which no one is seeking and suffer from a philosophical need which no one satisfies.

Our central branch of knowledge, that which ought to solve for us the real world-riddle, must not be an exception in comparison with all other branches of the intellectual life. It must seek for its sources where these have been found by the others. It must not only take cognizance of the great classic thinkers, but also seek in them the germs for its own evolution. The same wind must blow through this as through the rest of our culture. This is a necessity inhering in the very nature of things. To this necessity must we ascribe the fact that modern researchers have undertaken to interpret our classic writers as we have explained above. These interpretations reveal nothing more than a vague feeling that it will not suffice simply to pass over the convictions of those thinkers and proceed with the order of the day. But they prove only that no one has arrived at the point of a further developing of their opinions. This is evidenced by the manner in which the approach is made to Lessing, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller. In spite of all the excellence of many productions of this class, it must be said of almost everything that has been written in regard to the scientific works of Schiller and Goethe that it is not developed organically from Schiller's or Goethe's own views but takes a retrospective relationship to them. Nothing can more strongly substantiate this than the fact that representatives of the most diverse tendencies in science have seen in Goethe the genius who experienced beforehand premonitions of their points of view. Representatives of world-conceptions which possess absolutely nothing in common refer with seemingly equal justification to Goethe, when they feel the need to see their respective points of view recognized at a high point in human history. One can scarcely imagine a sharper contrast than that between the teachings of Hegel and Schopenhauer. The latter calls Hegel a charlatan and his philosophy a meaningless rubbish of words, mere nonsense, barbaric word-combinations. The two men actually have nothing whatever in common except their unlimited admiration for Goethe, and their belief that he acknowledged himself as adhering to their respective views of the world.

Nor is the case different as regards more recent scientific tendencies. Haeckel, who has elaborated Darwinism with the gift of genius and with a logic as inflexible as iron, and whom we must consider by far the most significant follower of the English investigator, sees in Goethe's point of view the anticipation of his own. Another contemporary scientific investigator, A. F. W. Jessen, writes in regard to the theory of Darwin: “The stir which has been created among many specialists in research and many laymen by this theory — often before brought forward and as often disproved by thorough investigation, but now supported by many apparently sound arguments — shows how little, unfortunately, the results of scientific research are known and understood by people.” [Cf. Jessen: Botanik, der Gegenwart und Vorzeit, p. 459.] n regard to Goethe, the same investigator says that he rose “to comprehensive researches in both inanimate and animate Nature,” [Ibid., p. 343.] in that he found through a “thoughtful, deeply penetrating observation of Nature the fundamental law of all plant-formation.” [Ibid., p. 332.] Each of these two investigators is able to cite a wearisome number of illustrations to show the harmony existing between his own scientific tendency and the “thoughtful observations of Goethe.” But, if each of these standpoints could justly refer to Goethe's thought, this must cast a dubious light upon the unity of that thinking. The basis of this phenomenon, however, lies in the very fact that neither of these points of view really grows out of Goethe's world-conception, but each has its roots quite outside that conception. The phenomenon arises from the fact that men seek out external agreement as to details, torn out of the totality of Goethe's thought and thus deprived of their meaning, but are not willing to attribute to this totality the inner fitness to serve as the basis for a scientific trend of thought. Goethe's opinions have never been made points of departure for scientific researches but always only material for instituting comparisons. Those who have busied themselves with these opinions have seldom been students surrendering themselves with unprejudiced minds to his ideas, but usually critics sitting in judgment upon him.

It is even said that Goethe had far too little scientific sense; that he was all the worse philosopher for being so excellent a poet; that for this reason it would be impossible to find in him the basis for a scientific point of view. This is an utter misconception of Goethe's nature. Goethe was, to be sure, no philosopher in the ordinary sense of the term, but it must not be forgotten that the wonderful harmony of his personality led Schiller to declare: “The poet is the only true human being.” What Schiller here intended by the expression “true human being,” — this Goethe was. No element belonging to the very highest form of the universally human was lacking in his personality. But all these elements united in him to form a totality which is, as such, effectual. Thus it comes about that his opinions regarding Nature rest upon a profound philosophical sense even though this philosophical sense does not enter his consciousness in the form of definite scientific statements. Whoever immerses himself in that totality will be able — provided he brings with him philosophic capacities — to release this philosophic sense and set it forth as Goethe's form of knowledge. But he must take his point of departure from Goethe and not approach him with a ready-made opinion. Goethe's intellectual powers are always effective in the manner requisite to the most rigid philosophy, even though he has not left such a philosophy as a complete system.

Goethe's view of the world is the most many-sided imaginable. It proceeds from a central point which rests in the unified nature of the poet, and it always brings to the fore that side which corresponds to the nature of the object. The unity of the activity of intellectual forces lies in the nature of Goethe; the temporary form of that activity is determined by the object concerned. Goethe borrowed his manner of observation from the external world instead of obtruding his own upon the world. Now, the thinking of many men is effectual only in one definite way; it serves only for a certain type of objects; it is not unified, as was Goethe's, but only uniform. Let us endeavor to express this more thoroughly: — There are men whose intellects are especially adapted to think out merely mechanical interdependencies and effects; they conceive the entire universe as a mechanism. Others have the impulse to take into consciousness everywhere the secret mystical element of the external world; they become adherents of mysticism. All sorts of errors arise from the fact that such a way of thinking, entirely appropriate to one type of objects, is declared to be universal. This explains the conflict between various world-conceptions. If a thinker holding such a one-sided conception confronts Goethe's view, which is unlimited — because it always takes its manner of observation, not from the mind of the observer, but from the nature of the thing observed — then it may easily be understood that this one-sided thinker lays hold upon that element in Goethe's thought which harmonizes with his own. Goethe's view of the world includes within itself, in just the sense indicated, many tendencies of thought, whereas it cannot in turn be penetrated by any one-sided conception.

The philosophical sense, which is an essential element in the organism of the genius of Goethe, is also significant from the point of view of his poetry. Though it was alien to Goethe's mind to set forth in clear conceptual form what was mediated to him by this sense, as was done by Schiller, yet the philosophical sense was an active factor in his artistic creative work as in that of Schiller. Goethe's and Schiller's poetic productions are unthinkable apart from their world-conception, which was the background. In this matter we are concerned more with the actually formulated basic principles in Schiller, but in Goethe rather with the manner in which he looked at things. But the fact that the greatest poets of our nation at the climax of their creative work could not do without that philosophical element proves more than all else that this is a necessary constituent in the history of human evolution. Resting upon Goethe and Schiller will enable us to tear our central science away from its academic isolation and incorporate it into the rest of our cultural evolution. The scientific convictions of our great thinkers of the classic age are bound by a thousand ties to their other endeavors; they are such as were demanded by the cultural epoch which created them.

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