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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012


Examination of the Content of Experience

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 5)

L ET US now fix our attention upon pure experience. In what does this consist when it comes into our consciousness, not elaborated by our thinking? It is merely juxtaposition in space and succession in time; an aggregate of nothing but unrelated single entities. No one of the objects which there come and go has anything to do with any other. At this stage, the facts of which we become aware, and which mingle with our inner life, are absolutely without bearing one upon another.

There the world is a multiplicity of things of uniform importance. No thing, no occurrence, can lay claim to any greater function in the fabric of the world than any other constituent in the realm of experience. If it is to become clear to us that this or that fact possesses greater significance than another, we must not merely observe things but arrange them in thought-relationships. The rudimentary organ of an animal, which may not have the least significance in its organic functioning, possesses just as much value for our experience as the most important organ of the animal's body. That distinction between greater and lesser importance does not become apparent to us till we think back over the relationships of the individual constituents; that is, until we work over our experience.

For our experience the snail, which belongs to a lower stage in organization, is of equal value with the most highly evolved animal. The distinctions between degrees of perfection in organization become evident to us only when we lay hold conceptually upon the multiplicity given to us in experience, and work it through. From this point of view, likewise, the culture of the Eskimo and that of the educated European are of equal value; Caesar's significance in the history of human evolution appears to mere experience no greater than that of one of his soldiers. In the history of literature, Goethe stands no higher than Gottsched so long as we are considering mere experiential actualities.

At this stage of observation, the world appears to our minds as an absolutely flat surface. No part of this surface rises above any other; none reveals to our minds any distinction as compared with others. Only when the spark of thinking strikes this surface do there come to light elevations and depressions; one thing appears more or less lifted above the other, all takes on a certain sort of form, lines run out from one form to another; the whole becomes a self-sufficient harmony.

The illustrations we have chosen seem to us to show with sufficient clearness what we mean in speaking of the greater or lesser significance of the objects of perception (here considered as identical with the things of experience): what we mean by that knowledge which first comes into existence when we observe these objects in their interrelationship. These illustrations, we believe, insure us against the objection that the realm of our experience already reveals endless distinctions among its objects before thinking appears on the field: that a red surface, for instance, is different from a green surface even without any activity of thought. That is true. But any one who would bring this argument to bear against us has entirely misconstrued our assertion. This is just what we maintain: that what is presented to us by experience is an endless mass of single entities. These single entities must naturally be different one from another; otherwise they would not appear to us as an endless unrelated multiplicity. We do not refer to an indistinguishableness among the things perceived, but to the absolute want of meaning in the single facts of the senses for the totality of our image of reality. It is just because we recognize this endless qualitative difference that we are driven to the conclusion indicated.

If we were met by a unity, well defined, composed of harmoniously ordered constituents, we could not speak of the lack of distinction in significance among the constituents in relation to one another.

Whoever for such a reason considers the comparison we have used inapplicable must have failed to take hold of it at the real point of similarity. It would certainly be fallacious if we should compare the perceptual world, with its endlessly varied forms, to the uniform monotony of a surface. But our surface was not intended to resemble the manifold world of phenomena, but the unified total image that we have of this world so long as thinking has not come in contact with it. After the action of thought, each single entity in this total image appears, not as it was mediated by mere experience, but with the significance which it bears in relation to the whole of reality. At the same time, each appears with characteristics which were wholly wanting in its experiential form.

According to our conviction, Johannes Volkelt has been remarkably successful in delineating within clear outlines that which we are justified in designating as pure experience. Five years ago [1881] this was strikingly described in his book on Kants Erkenntnistheorie; [Kant's Theory of Knowledge] [Johannes Volkelt: Immanuel Kants Erkenntnistheorie. Leipzig, 1879.] and in his latest publication, Erfahrung und Denken, [Experience and Thought] [Johannes Volkelt: Erfahrung und Denken. Kritische Grundlegung der Erkenntnistheorie. Hamburg and Leipzig, 1886.] he has pursued the subject still further. He has done this, to be sure, in support of a point of view fundamentally different from ours and a purpose unlike that of the present book. But this need not hinder us from setting down here his remarkable characterization of pure experience. This description simply shows us the images which pass before our consciousness in a brief period in a manner utterly void of interrelationships. Volkelt says [Kants Erkenntnistheorie, p. 168 f.]: “For example, my consciousness now has as its content the impression that I have worked diligently to-day; immediately thereto is linked the impression that I can with a clear conscience take a walk; again there suddenly appears the perceptual image of the door opening and the postman entering; the image of the postman soon appears with out-stretched hand, then with mouth opening, then doing the opposite; at the same time there blend with the perceptual content of the opening mouth all sorts of impressions of hearing — among others, that of rain beginning outside. The image of the postman vanishes from my consciousness and the impressions which now enter have as their content, one by one: grasping the scissors, opening the letters, a critical feeling at illegible writing, visual images of the most varied written symbols, and, united with these, manifold imaginative images and thoughts; scarcely is this series at an end when there reappears the impression of having worked diligently and — accompanied by depression — the consciousness of the continuing rain; then both of these vanish from my consciousness and there emerges an impression whose content is that a difficulty supposed to have been overcome in to-day's work has not been overcome; accompanying this there enter the impressions: freedom of will, empirical necessity, responsibility, the value of virtue, incomprehensibility, etc., and these unite with one another in the most varied and complicated ways — and so it continues.”

Here is described for us, with regard to a certain limited space of time, what we really experience, that form of reality in which thinking has no participation.

It need not be supposed that a different result would have been attained if, instead of this every-day experience, we had described what occurs in a piece of scientific research or in an unusual natural phenomenon. In these cases as in that, what passes before consciousness consists of unrelated images. Thinking for the first time institutes interrelationship.

We must also attribute to the pamphlet of Dr. Richard Wahle, Gehirn und Bewusstsein[Brain and Consciousness.](Vienna 1884), the service of having indicated in clear contours that which is given to us by experience void of any element of thought, only we must make the reservation that what Wahle describes as characteristics pertaining without restriction to the phenomena of the outer and the inner world holds good only for the first stage of our observation of the world, that stage which we have described. According to Wahle, we know only a juxtaposition in space and succession in time. There can be, according to him, no talk of a relationship between the things appearing beside one another or after one another. For example, there may be somewhere and somehow an inner relationship between the warm sunbeam and the warming of the stone, but we know nothing of a causal relationship; to us the only thing that is clear is that the second fact comes after the first. There may likewise be somewhere, in a world inaccessible to us, an inner relationship between our brain-mechanism and our mental activity; but we know only that the two are occurrences running in parallel lines; we are not at all justified, for example, in assuming a causal relationship between the two.

Of course, when Wahle sets forth this assertion as the ultimate truth of science, we must oppose this extension of the assertion; but it is entirely correct as applied to the first form in which we become aware of reality.

Not only are the things of the outer world and the processes of the inner void of interrelationship at this stage of our knowledge, but even our own personality is an isolated unit in comparison with the rest of the world. We perceive ourselves as one of the numberless percepts without relationship to the objects which surround us.

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