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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012


Intellect and Reason

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 12)

T HINKING has a twofold function to discharge: first, to form concepts with sharply outlined contours; secondly, to unite the single concepts thus formed into a unified whole. In the first instance, we have to do with the activity of differentiation; in the second with that of combination. These two mental tendencies do not by any means enjoy equal favor in the sciences. The number of persons possessing the acumen which differentiates even down to the minutest trifles is noticeably greater than that of persons possessing the combining power of thought which penetrates to the depths of things.

For a long time the function of science has been supposed to consist in an adequate differentiation among things. We need only recall the state of natural history in Goethe's day. Through the influence of Linnaeus, it had become the ideal of this science to investigate the differences among individual plants sufficiently to succeed in setting apart new classes and sub-classes on the basis of the most insignificant characteristics. Two species of animals or plants differing only in the most unessential details were forthwith assigned to different classes. If some creature hitherto assigned to a certain class was discovered to show an unexpected divergence from the arbitrarily determined class-character, the result was, not an effort to discover how this divergence might be explained on the basis of that very class-character, but on the contrary a new class was at once set up.

This differentiation is the work of the intellect. It has only to divide and to retain the concepts in this process of division. It is a necessary stage preliminary to all higher forms of scientific knowledge. First of all, must we have definitely fixed, sharply outlined concepts before we can seek for a harmony among these. But we must not stop at the stage of division. To the intellect, things are divided which a fundamental human need requires us to see united. To the intellect, cause and effect are divided; mechanism and organism; freedom and necessity; idea and reality; spirit and Nature; etc., etc. All these differentiations are established by the intellect. They must be established, because otherwise the world would appear to us as a blurred, obscure chaos which would form for us no unity except in the sense that it would be utterly indeterminate.

Intellect itself is not capable of passing beyond this process of division. It holds fast to the divided members.

The task of passing beyond this belongs to reason. It must cause the concepts formed by the intellect to pass over into one another. It has to show that what the intellect keeps in strict separation is in reality an inner unity. The division is something artificially introduced, a necessary intervening stage for our knowledge, but not its conclusion. Whoever apprehends reality only intellectually alienates himself therefrom. In place of reality, which is in truth a unity, he sets up an artificial multiplicity, a manifoldness, which has no relation to the essential nature of reality.

This is the source of the discord which arises between intellectually pursued knowledge and the human heart. Many persons whose thinking has not so developed as to enable them to reach thereby a unified world-view which they can grasp with complete conceptual clarity are, nevertheless, capable of penetrating through their feeling to the inner harmony of the world as a whole. To these is given by the heart that which the scientifically trained receive from the reason.

When such persons meet the intellectual view of the world, they reject with scorn the endless multiplicity and cling to that unity which they do not know, indeed, but which they sense more or less vividly. They see very well that the intellect is alienated from Nature, that it loses sight of that spiritual bond which units the parts of reality.

Reason leads back to reality. The unity of all being, which had before been felt or only vaguely sensed, is completely fathomed by reason. The intellectual view must be deepened by the view of reason. If the former is looked upon, not merely as an inevitable transitional point, but as an end in itself, it does not yield reality but only a caricature.

Difficulties at times arise in combining the thoughts formed by the intellect. The history of science affords numerous evidences of this fact. We often see the human mind struggling to reunite the differences created by the intellect.

In the reasoned view of the world, man finally arrives at undivided unity.

Kant called attention to the difference between intellect and reason. Reason he defined as the capacity to perceive ideas; whereas intellect is restricted to seeing the world in its dividedness, in the isolated-ness of single parts.

It is true that reason is the capacity to perceive ideas. Here we must define the difference between concept and idea, to which we have hitherto paid no attention. For our purpose up to this point it was necessary only to discover those qualities of thought which are present in both concept and idea. The concept is a single thought as grasped by the intellect. If I bring a number of such single thoughts into a living flux so that they pass over into one another, become united, thought-structures thus arise which exist for the reason alone, which cannot be attained by the intellect. The creations of the intellect surrender their isolated existence to the reason, and thenceforth they live only as parts of a totality. These structures formed by the reason we shall call ideas.

That the idea reduces to unity a multiplicity of intellectual concepts was stated also by Kant. But he defined those structures which come to manifestation through the reason as mere phantasms, as illusions, eternally reflected before the human mind because man is forever striving to attain a unity of experience which is never given to him. The unities which are formed in ideas do not rest, according to Kant, upon objective relationships; they do not flow from the thing itself, but are mere subjective norms according to which we bring order into our knowledge. Kant, therefore, designated ideas, not as constitutive principles which must be determinative for things, but as regulative principles which have meaning and significance only for the systematics of our knowledge.

But, if we observe the manner in which ideas come into existence, this point of view is shown at once to be fallacious. It is true, of course, that the subjective reason has a craving for unity. But this craving is void of content, a mere empty striving toward unity. If reason is confronted by something absolutely lacking such unity of nature, reason cannot produce the unity out of itself. But, if reason is confronted by a multiplicity which admits of being reduced to an inner harmony, then reason brings this to pass. Such a multiplicity is the world of intellectually formed concepts.

Reason does not presuppose a determinate unity, but the empty form of unification; it is the capacity to bring harmony to light when harmony exists in the object itself. Concepts themselves unite in the reason to form ideas. Reason brings the higher unity of the intellectual concepts into evidence, the unity which the intellect possesses, indeed, in its images but lacks the capacity to perceive. The fact that this truth is overlooked is the cause of much misunderstanding as to the application of reason in the branches of scientific knowledge.

To a slight extent every science in its very rudiments, and even ordinary thinking, has need of reason. When, in the proposition: “Every body possesses weight,” we unite the subject-concept with the predicate-concept, we have already a union of two concepts and, therefore, the simplest activity of the reason.

The unity which reason takes as its object is existent prior to all thinking, prior to all use of the reason; only, it is concealed; it exists merely as a potentiality, not as an actual phenomenon. Then the human mind introduces division in order that we may have a complete view into reality through the reason's unification of the separated members.

Whoever does not presuppose this must either look upon all thought-combinations as the arbitrary work of the subjective mind, or else assume that the unity exists behind the world we experience, and that it forces us, in a manner unknown to us, to reduce the multiplicity again to unity. In that case, we unite thoughts without any insight into the true reasons of the interrelation which we bring about; in that case, truth is not cognized by us but forced upon us from without. All knowledge which proceeds from this presupposition we may call a dogmatic knowledge. To this we shall later return.

Every such scientific point of view will meet with difficulties when called upon to explain why we bring about one or another combination of thoughts. That is, this point of view requires that we seek for subjective reasons for combining objects whose interconnection on objective grounds is concealed from us. Why do I form a judgment when the thing which requires the interconnection of subject-concept and predicate-concept has nothing to do with the forming of this judgment?

Kant took this question as the point of departure for his critical work. At the beginning of hisCritique of Pure Reason we find the question, How are synthetic judgmentsa priori possible? — that is, How is it possible that I unite two concepts (subject and predicate) if the content of the one is not already contained in the other, and if the judgment is not a mere experiential judgment, the fixing of a single fact? Kant considers that such judgments are possible only when experience cannot exist except on the presupposition of their validity. The possibility of experience is, therefore, determinative if such a judgment is to be formed. If I can say to myself that experience is possible only in case this or that synthetic judgment isa priori true, then the judgment possesses validity. But this principle cannot be applied to ideas themselves. According to Kant these never possess that degree of objectivity.

Kant decides that the propositions of mathematics and pure natural science area priori such valid propositions. He takes, for example, the proposition 7 + 5 = 12. In 7 and 5 the sum 12 is, he concludes, by no means contained. I must go beyond 7 and 5 and call upon my sense of sight, whereupon I find the concept 12. My vision makes it necessary that the proposition 7 + 5 = 12 shall be assumed. But the objects of experience must approach me through the medium of my sense of sight, thus blending themselves with its principles. If experience is to be possible at all, such propositions must be true.

Before an objective examination, this whole artificial thought-structure of Kant fails to maintain itself. It is impossible that I have no clue in the subject-concept which directs me to the predicate-concept. For both concepts are attained by my intellect, and that in reference to a thing which in itself constitutes a unit. Let no one be deceived at this point. The mathematical unit which lies at the basis of number is not primary. The primary thing is the magnitude, which is a certain number of repetitions of the unit. I must assume a magnitude when I speak of a unit. The unit is an image created by our intellect which separates it from a totality just as it separates effect from cause, substances from their attributes. When I think 7 + 5, I really hold 12 mathematical units in mind, only not all at once but separated into two parts. If I think the group of mathematical units all at once, this is absolutely the same thing. This identity I express in the proposition 7 + 5 = 12. The same is true of the geometrical examples cited by Kant. A limited straight line with the termini A and B is an indivisible unit. My intellect can form two concepts of this. At one time it may consider the straight line as a direction and at another as the distance between the two points A and B. From this fact comes the judgment: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

All judgments, in so far as the members which enter into the judgment are concepts, are nothing more than the reunifying of that which the intellect has divided. The interconnection comes to light as soon as one enters into the content of the intellectual concepts.

Last Modified: 16-Aug-2017
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