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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012

VI

Correction of an Erroneous Conception of Experience As a Totality

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 6)

T HIS IS the proper point at which to refer to a preconception, persisting since the time of Kant, which has been so absorbed into the very life of certain circles as to pass for an axiom. Whoever should presume to question it would be considered a dilettante, a person not yet advanced beyond the most rudimentary concepts of modern philosophy. I refer to the opinion, held as if it were establisheda priori, that the whole perceptual world, this endless multiplicity of colors and forms, of tones and degrees of heat, were nothing more than our subjective world of representations, [Vorstellungswelt] possessing existence only so long as we keep our senses receptive to the influences from a world quite unknown to us. The whole phenomenal world is interpreted on the basis of this opinion, as a representation (Vorstellung) inside our individual consciousness; and, on the basis of this hypothesis, are constructed further assertions regarding the nature of cognition. Volkelt also has adopted this opinion and bases upon it his theory of knowledge, a masterly production in its scientific process of development. Yet this is no basic truth, and least of all is it appropriate to form the very culmination of the science of knowledge.

We would not be misunderstood. We have no desire to utter a protest — which would certainly be futile — against the contemporary achievements in physiology. But what is wholly justified as physiology is by no means for that reason appropriate to be set up before the very gateway leading to a theory of knowledge. It may pass as an unassailable physiological truth that the complex of sensations and percepts which we call experience first comes into existence through the cooperation of our organism. Yet it remains quite certain that such an item of knowledge as this can result only from much reflection and research. This characterization — that our phenomenal world is, in a physiological sense, of a subjective character — is itself a characterization of that world reached by thinking, and has, therefore, nothing whatever to do with its first manifestation. It presupposes the application of thinking to experience. It must, therefore, be preceded by an inquiry as to the interrelationship between the two factors in the act of cognition.

(See Notes to the New Edition, 1924, page 24)

It is supposed that this opinion raises one above the pre-Kantian naïveté, which considered the things in space and in time as constituting reality, as is still done by the “naïve” person who has no scientific training.

Volkelt makes the assertion: “All acts that call themselves objective cognitions are inseparably bound up with the individual cognizing consciousness; they take their course at first and immediately nowhere else than in the consciousness of the individual; and they are utterly incapable of reaching beyond the sphere of the individual and laying hold of the sphere of the real lying outside, or of entering it.” [Cf. Volkelt: Erfahrung und Denken, p. 4.]

But it is quite impossible for unprejudiced thought to discover what that form of reality which touches us directly (experience) bears within itself that could in any way justify us in designating it as mere representation.

Even the simple reflection that the “naïve” person observes in things nothing which could lead him to this opinion teaches us that no compelling reason for this assumption exists in things themselves. What does a tree, a table, bear within itself that could lead me to look upon it as a mere mental image? This should not, then, be asserted — least of all as a self-evident truth.

Just because Volkelt does this, he entangles himself in a contradiction of his fundamental principles. According to our conviction, he could maintain the subjective nature of experience only by being disloyal to the truth recognized by him, that experience consists of nothing but an unrelated chaos of images without any thinkable definition. Otherwise he would have been forced to see that the cognizing subject, the observer, is just as unrelated within the world of experience as is any other object belonging to it. But, if one predicates subjectivity of the world of experience, this is at once a thought-characterization, just as if one looks upon a falling stone as the cause of an impression made in the ground. Yet Volkelt himself will not admit any sort of interrelationships among the things of experience. Here lies the inconsistency in his conception; here he becomes disloyal to the principle he has expressed regarding pure experience. Through this he shuts himself up within his individuality, and is no longer capable of emerging. Indeed, he admits this without reservation. Everything that lies beyond the disconnected images of perception remains for him in uncertainty. Our thinking, to be sure, endeavors according to his view to reach out from this world of mental images and infer an objective reality, but our going out beyond this world cannot lead to really known truths. All knowledge that we win by means of thinking is, according to Volkelt, not protected against doubt. It does not by any means attain to a certitude like that of immediate experience. This alone affords an indubitable knowledge. We have seen how defective is this knowledge.

But all this grows out of the fact that Volkelt attributes to sense-reality (experience) a characteristic which can by no means pertain thereto, and on this presupposition bases his further assumptions.

It has been necessary to give special attention to this writing of Volkelt's because it is the most important contemporary work in this field, and also for the reason that it may serve as a typical specimen of all endeavors after a theory of knowledge which are in basic opposition to the direction of thinking that we represent, founded upon Goethe's world-conception.





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