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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012



Thought and Perception

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 11)

K NOWLEDGE permeates perceived reality with the concepts apprehended and worked through by our thinking. It supplements and deepens that which is passively received by means of what our mind through its own activity has lifted out of the darkness of the merely potential into the light of reality. This presupposes that perception needs to be supplemented by the mind; that perception is not in itself something definitive, final, conclusive.

The fundamental fallacy of modern science consists in the fact that it looks upon sense-perception as something conclusive, complete. For this reason it sets itself the task simply to photograph this existence, complete in itself. The only view which is logical in this respect is positivism, which simply rejects every advance beyond perception. Yet one observes nowadays in almost all branches of science an endeavor to look upon this point of view as being correct. In the true sense of the word, such a demand would be adequate only for such a science as merely enumerates and describes things as they exist beside one another in space, and occurrences as they follow one another in time. Natural history of the older type comes closest to meeting this requirement. The newer type makes the same demand, to be sure, and sets forth a complete theory of experience — only, however, to transgress this at once the moment it undertakes the first step into real knowledge.

If we should wish to lay hold upon pure experience, we should have to empty ourselves completely of our thinking. To deny to thinking the capacity for perceiving in itself entities which are inaccessible to the senses is a degradation of thought. Apart from the factor of sensible qualities, there must be within reality a factor which is apprehended by thought. Thinking is an organ of man ordained to observe something higher than is afforded by the senses. To thinking is accessible that side of reality of which a mere sense-being could never become aware. What thought exists for is not merely to repeat the sensible, but to penetrate into what is concealed from the senses. The sense-percept gives us only one side of reality. The other side is the apprehending of the world through thinking. At first appearance, thought seems to us something quite alien to perception; for perception enters into us from without, while thinking works from within outward. The content of thought appears to us as an inwardly complete organism; all is in the closest interrelationship. The individual members of the thought system mutually determine one another; each single concept has its ultimate roots in the totality of our thought structure.

At first glance, it seems as if the inner freedom from contradiction which characterizes thought, its self-sufficiency, rendered any transition to the percept an impossibility. Were the thought-characterizations such that they could be satisfied in one way alone, thinking would really be confined within itself; we could not emerge from within it. But this is not the case. These characterizations are such that they may be satisfied in a variety of different ways; only the element which produces this multifarious-ness must not be sought within thinking itself. Let us take the thought-characterization: “The earth attracts every other body.” We shall observe at once that the thought admits of the possibility of being fulfilled in the most diverse ways. But these are variations which can no longer be reached by thinking. There is room for another element. This element is the sense-percept. This percept affords such a form of specialization of thought-characterizations, which is left open by thought itself.

It is in this specialization that the world meets us when we make use of mere experience. Psychologically, that comes first which in point of fact is the derivative.

In all working over 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 that real nature of the percept for which we have been seeking.

What has here come about is a judgment. It is different from that form of judgment which unites two concepts without reference to percepts. When I say: “Freedom is the determination of a being from within itself,” I have here also formed a judgment. The constituents of this judgment are concepts not given to me in perception. Upon such judgments rests that inner unity of our thought which we discussed in the preceding chapter.

The judgment which we now consider has for its subject a percept and for predicate a concept. “This animal before me is a dog.” In such a judgment, a percept is injected into my thought system at a determinate place. Let us call such a judgment a perceptual judgment.

By means of the perceptual judgment we cognize that a determinate sensible object corresponds by nature with a determinate concept.

If, then, we are to comprehend what we perceive, the percept must have been formed within us beforehand as a determinate concept. Any object of which this were not true we should pass by without its being intelligible to us.

That such is the case is best shown by the fact that persons who have lived a rich mental life also penetrate far deeper into the world of experience than do others of whom this is not true. Much that passes over others without leaving a trace makes a deep impression upon these persons. (‘If the eye were not sun-like, it could never see the sun.') But, if may be asked, do we not meet in our lives innumerable things of which we have not previously had the slightest conception? — and do we not on the spot form concepts of these? Undoubtedly. But is the sum of all potential concepts identical with the sum of those which I have already formed in the previous part of my life? Is not my conceptual system capable of evolving? In the presence of a reality which is unintelligible to me, can I not set my thinking in action in order that it may evolve on the spot the concept with which I must match the object? I need only possess the capacity of drawing a determinate concept out of the store of the thought-world. It is not that a determinate concept was already consciously known to me in the previous part of my life but that this concept can be drawn forth from the world of thoughts accessible to me. Where and when I grasp the concept is not essential to its content. Indeed, I bring forth thought-characterizations out of the thought-world. Nothing whatever flows from the sensible object into this content. I simply recognize in the sensible object the thought which I draw forth from within myself. This object induces me, to be sure, to call forth at a certain moment from the unity of all potential thoughts just this one thought-content, but it does not by any means furnish me the material for constructing the thought. This I must draw from within myself.

When we cause our thinking to become active, only then does reality attain to true characterizations. Previously mute, it now speaks a clear language.

Our thinking is the interpreter that explains the dumb show of experience.

Men are so accustomed to look upon the world of concepts as void of content, and to contrast with this world the percept as being filled with content and thoroughly determinate, that it will be difficult for the true facts of the case to win the place belonging to them. The truth is entirely overlooked that mere beholding is the emptiest thing imaginable and that it receives content only from thinking. The sole truth in regard to the object is that it holds the constant flux of thought in a determinate form without our having to cooperate actively in thus holding it. When one who has a rich mental life sees a thousand things which are nothing to the mentally poor, this shows as clearly as sunlight that the content of reality is only the reflection of the content of our minds and that we receive from without merely the empty form. Of course, we must possess the inner power to recognize ourselves as the creator of this content; otherwise we shall forever see only the reflection and never our own mind which is reflected. Indeed, one who perceives himself in an actual mirror must know himself as a personality in order to recognize himself in the reflected image.

All sense-perception finally resolves itself, as to its essential nature, into ideal content. Only then does it appear to us transparent and clear. The sciences are to a large extent wholly unaffected by the consciousness of this truth. Thought-characterizations are considered the attributes of objects, like colors, odors, etc. Thus it is supposed that all bodies are characterized by the definition that they remain in the state wherein they are — of rest or motion — until an influence from without alters their state. It is in this form that the law of inertia plays its role in natural science. But the actual fact is something quite different. In my conceptual system the conceptbody exists in many modifications. One of these is the concept of a thing which can of itself set itself in motion or come to rest; another is the concept of a body which alters its state only under an external influence. These latter bodies we designate as inorganic. If, then, I meet a certain body which reflects in the percept the above conceptual definition, I designate it as inorganic and unite with it all characterizations which follow from the concept of an inorganic body.

All sciences should be permeated by the conviction that their content is solely a thought-content and that they sustain no other relationship to perception than that they see in the perceptual object a specialized form of the concept.

Last Modified: 16-Aug-2017
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