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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012

C. THOUGHT


VIII

Thinking as a Higher Experience within Experience

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 8)

A MID THE unrelated chaos of experience — and, indeed, at first as a fact of experience — we find an element that leads us out beyond this unrelated-ness. This element is thought. Thought, as one of the facts of experience, assumes an exceptional position within experience.

As regards the rest of experience, so long as I limit myself to that which is immediately present to my senses, I do not advance beyond the separate units. Assume that I have before me a liquid which I bring to a boil. At first it is still; then I observe bubbles rising; the liquid becomes agitated; then all passes over into the form of steam.

These are the percepts which follow one another. No matter how I may twist and turn the thing, if I am limited to that which the senses afford me, I discover no interrelationship among these facts. As regards thinking, such is not the case. If, for example, I grasp the thought of cause, this by its own content leads me to the thought of effect. I need only hold fast to the thoughts in that form in which they enter into immediate experience, and they appear as characterizations according to law.

That which, as regards the rest of experience, must be brought from elsewhere, if, indeed, it is applicable at all — interrelationship according to law — is present as regards thought in its very first appearance. With respect to the rest of experience, that which enters as an appearance before my consciousness does not at once manifest the whole of reality; but, with respect to thought, the whole thing passes over without residue into what is given to me. In the first case, I must penetrate the shell in order to reach the kernel; in the second, shell and kernel are an indivisible unity. It is only a universally human preconception if thought at first appears to us to be entirely analogous with the rest of experience. In the case of thought, we need only overcome this preconception within ourselves. In the case of the rest of experience, we need to resolve a difficulty inherent in the fact itself.

That for which we seek, in the case of the rest of experience, has itself in the case of thinking become immediate experience.

A difficulty is thereby resolved which could scarcely be resolved in any other way. It is a justifiable demand of science that we should limit ourselves to experience. But it is a no less justifiable demand that we should seek for the inner law of experience. Therefore this “inner” must itself appear at some place in experience. Experience is thus deepened by the help of experience itself. Our theory of knowledge makes the demand for experience in the very highest form; it repels every attempt to introduce something into experience from without. This theory finds even thought-characterizations within experience. The form in which thought enters into manifestation is the same as that of the rest of the world of experience.

The principle of experience is generally misunderstood both in its scope and in its true significance. In its baldest form, it is the demand that the objects of reality should be left in the form of their first appearance and only thus treated as objects of knowledge. This is purely a principle of methodology. It says nothing regarding the content of what is experienced. If it should be asserted that only sense-percepts can become the objects of knowledge, as is done by materialism, then it would not be possible to rest upon this principle. Whether the content be sensible or ideal is not decided by this principle. But if, in a certain case, it should be applied in the crassest form, to which we are referring, it certainly makes a presupposition. That is, it demands that objects, as these are experienced, shall already possess a form sufficing the strivings of knowledge. As regards the experience of the external senses, as we have seen, this is not the case. It occurs only in the case of thought.

Only in the case of thought can the principle of experience be applied in the most extreme sense.

This does not exclude the principle from being extended also to the rest of the world. It possesses other forms besides the most extreme. If, for the purpose of scientific explanation, we cannot leave an object just as it is immediately experienced, yet this explanation can take place in such a way that the means which we employ for this purpose are taken from other spheres of experience. We have then not gone beyond the bounds of “experience in general.”

A science of knowledge based upon Goethe's world-conception lays its chief emphasis upon the principle of remaining always true to experience. No one has recognized so fully as Goethe the exclusive applicability of this principle. Indeed, he represented that principle just as rigidly as we have demanded above. All higher points of view concerning Nature he would not look upon as anything except experience. They were considered as “higher Nature within Nature.” [Cf. Goethe: Dichtung und Wahrheit. XXII. 24 f.]

In the essayNature he says that we are incapable of getting outside Nature. If, then, we desire to interpret Nature to ourselves in this sense, which was his, we must find the means within Nature herself.

But how would it be possible to base a science of knowledge upon the principle of experience if we did not find anywhere in experience the basic element in all that is scientific — that is, ideal conformity to law? We need merely take hold of this element, as we have seen; we need merely submerge ourselves in it. For it exists in experience.

Now, does thought really meet us, and become known to our individuality, in such a way that we can with justice claim for it the characteristics emphasized above? Any one who fixes his attention upon this point will discover that an essential difference exists between the form in which an external phenomenon of sense-reality becomes known to us — or, indeed, even some other process of our mental life — and that in which we become aware of our own thought. In the former case we are definitely aware that we are in the presence of an already existent thing: existent, that is, in so far as it has become a phenomenon without our having exerted any determinative influence in its becoming. This is not true of thought. Only for the first moment does thought seem similar to the rest of experience. When we lay hold upon any thought, we know, in spite of the utter immediacy with which it enters our consciousness, that we are inwardly bound up with its manner of coming into existence. When any sudden idea occurs to me, entering my mind quite abruptly, so that its appearance is, therefore, from a certain point of view very much like that of an external event which must first be mediated to me by eye or ear, yet I always know that the field upon which this thought comes to manifestation is my own consciousness; I know that my own activity must first be called upon before the sudden idea can be made to come into existence. In the case of every external object, I am aware that at first it reveals only its outside to my senses; as regards a thought, I know quite certainly that what it exposes to me is its all; that it enters my consciousness as a totality complete in itself. The external stimuli that we must always presuppose in the case of an external object are not present in the case of thought. It is to these stimuli that we must ascribe the fact that sensible phenomena appear to us as something already existent; it is to them that we must ascribe the genesis of these phenomena. As regards a thought, I have the assurance that this genesis is not possible apart from my own activity. I must work through the thought, must re-create its content, must live through it even in its least details, if it is to have any significance for me whatever.

Thus far we have arrived at the following truths. At the first stage of world-contemplation, the whole of reality meets us as an unrelated aggregate; thought is included within this chaos. If we move through this multiplicity, we find in it one constituent which possesses, even in this first form of its appearance, that character which the rest of the multiplicity must afterwards gain. This constituent is thought. That which must be surmounted in the case of the rest of experience — that is, the form of its immediate appearance — is to be retained in the case of thought. This factor of reality which is to be allowed to remain in its original state we find in our consciousness, and we are united with it in such fashion that the activity of our own mind is at the same time the manifestation of this factor. These are one and the same fact seen from two sides. This fact is the thought-content of the world. In the one instance, it appears as an activity of our consciousness; in the other, as the immediate manifestation of a conformity to law, complete within itself, a self-determined ideal content. We shall quickly see which side possesses the greater weight.

Since, now, we stand inside the thought-content and permeate this in all its ingredients, we are in position really to know its very nature. The manner in which it meets us is a guarantee of the fact that the characteristics which we have attributed to it really belong to it. It can, therefore, certainly serve as the point of departure for every further form of world-contemplation. The essential character of thought can be derived from thought itself; if we would arrive at the essential character of the rest of things, our point of departure in this inquiry must be thinking. Let us at once express the matter more clearly. Since we experience in thinking alone a real conformity to law, an ideal determinateness, therefore the conformity to law of the rest of the world, which we do not experience in this itself, must also lie included within thought. In other words, thought and the appearance for the senses are face to face in experience. The latter, however, gives us no disclosure of its own nature; the former gives us this both as to itself and as to the nature of this appearance for the senses.




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