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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012


The Act of Cognition

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 13)

R EALITY HAS divided itself for us into two spheres: the spheres of experience and thought. Experience must be considered from a twofold point of view: — First, in so far as the total reality possesses, apart from our thinking, a form of manifestation which must emerge in the form of experience. Secondly, in so far as it is inherent in the character of our mind (whose essential nature consists in contemplation: that is, in an outwardly directed activity) that the objects to be observed must enter its field of vision: that is, again, must be given to it in the form of experience. It may be that this form of the given does not contain within itself the essential nature of the thing; in which case the thing itself requires that it shall first appear in perception (in experience) only later to reveal its essential nature to an activity of our mind which reaches beyond experience. Another possibility is that the essential nature may be present in the immediately given and that our not becoming forthwith conscious of that essential nature is due to the second circumstance: the requirement of our mind that everything must appear before it as experience. The second possibility is true of thought, the former of all other reality. In the case of thought, it is only necessary to overcome our subjective preconceptions in order to grasp this in its innermost essence. That which, in the case of all other reality, rests upon the actual situation in objective perception — that is, that the immediate form of appearance must be surmounted in order to interpret it — rests in the case of thought only upon a characteristic of our minds. In the former case, it is the thing itself which gives to itself the experiential form; in the latter, it is the organization of our mind. In the one case, we do not possess the whole thing when we lay hold of experience; in the other case, we do possess the whole thing.

Upon this rests the dualism which must be surmounted by knowledge, which is cognition by means of thinking. Man finds himself confronted by two worlds whose interconnection he must bring about. One is experience, of which he knows that it contains only one half of reality; the other is thought, complete in itself, into which that external experiential reality must flow if there is to result a satisfying world-view. If the world were populated by mere sentient creatures, its essential nature (its ideal content) would remain forever hidden; laws would, of course, control the world processes, but these laws would never become manifest. If this is to occur, there must intervene between the law and the form of manifestation a being to whom is given both the organs requisite to perceive that sensible form of reality dependent upon the laws and also the capacity to perceive the conformity to law itself. From one side the sense-world must come to meet this being and from another side the ideal nature of this world, and he must unite these two factors of reality by means of his own activity.

Here it is perfectly clear that our mind is not to be conceived as a receptacle for the ideal world, containing the thoughts within itself, but as an organ which perceives the thoughts.

It is an organ of apprehension just as are the eye and the ear. Thought is related to our minds just as light is related to the eye, tone to the ear. It does not occur to any one to think of color as something which stamps itself on the eye, remaining there as if it adhered to the eye. But in regard to the mind this is the prevailing conception. It is supposed that a thought of each thing forms itself in the consciousness and there remains, to be drawn forth at need. A peculiar theory has been based upon this view as if those thoughts of which we are at any moment unconscious were really preserved in our minds, but were lying below the threshold of consciousness.

These strange opinions dissolve into nothing the moment we reflect that the ideal world is self-determinative. What has this self-determinative content to do with the multiplicity of consciousnesses? It will not be supposed that this content so determines itself in indeterminate multiplicity that one fractional content is always independent of another! The thing is perfectly clear. Thought-content is of such a nature that it simply requires a mental organ for its manifestation, but that the number of beings possessed of such an organ is a matter of indifference. Therefore, an indefinite number of beings endowed with minds may be confronted by the one thought-content. That is, thinking as an organ of apprehension, perceives the thought-content of the world. There is only one single thought-content of the world. Our consciousness is not the capacity to produce thoughts and store them up, as is so generally supposed, but the capacity to perceive thoughts (ideas). Goethe expressed this strikingly in the following words: “The Idea is eternal and single; the fact that we use the plural is unfortunate. All things of which we become aware and of which we can speak are only manifestations of the Idea; we utter concepts, and to that extent the Idea itself is a concept.”

Dwelling in two worlds, the world of the senses and the world of thoughts — the one pressing in from below and the other shining down from above — man makes himself master of knowledge, whereby he unites the two into an undivided unity. From one side, external form beckons to us; from the other side, inner being; we must unite the two into one. Here our theory of knowledge has lifted itself above those points of view generally adopted by similar inquiries, which never get beyond mere formulae. From those points of view it is said that knowledge is the elaboration of experience, without specifying what is elaborated into experience; the matter is defined by saying that in cognition perception flows over into thinking, or else thinking, by virtue of a certain inner compulsion, presses forward from experience to the real entity which is behind experience. But these are the merest formulae. A science of knowledge that seeks to grasp cognition in its world-important role must, first of all, postulate the ideal goal of cognition. This goal is to give a solution to inconclusive experience by revealing its central core. Such a theory must, in the second place, determine what this central core is, considered as to its content. It is thought, Idea. Third, and lastly, it must show how this uncovering of the core is achieved. Our chapter onThinking and Perception explains this. Our theory of knowledge leads to the positive conclusion that thought is the essential nature of the world, and the individual human thinking is the only phenomenal form of this essential nature. A merely formal theory of knowledge cannot do this, but remains forever barren. It possesses no opinion as to the relationship between that which knowledge attains and the nature and fabric of the world. And yet it is precisely in the theory of knowledge that this relationship must be found. This science must show us where we arrive by way of cognition; to what point every other form of knowledge leads us.

Not otherwise than by way of a theory of knowledge does one attain to the view that thought is the central core of the world. For this science shows us the connection between thought and the rest of reality. But through what other means shall we learn in reference to thought what its relation to experience is unless it be through that science which takes as the very object of its inquiry just this relationship? Furthermore, how should we ever know in regard to a certain spiritual or sensible entity that it is the very primal force of the world if we do not investigate its relationship to reality? If, therefore, we have to do in any manner whatever with an inquiry as to the essential nature of a thing, this discovery will always consist in a return to the ideal content of the world. The sphere of this content must not be transgressed if we mean to remain within clear characterizations and do not wish to grope around in the indeterminate. Thought is a totality within itself, sufficient unto itself, which cannot pass beyond itself without entering a void. In other words, it must not, in an endeavor to explain anything whatever, have recourse to things which are not to be found within itself. A thing which could not be comprised within thought would be a no-thing. All finally resolves itself into thought; all at last finds its place within thought.

Expressed in reference to our individual consciousness, this means that, in order to establish anything scientifically, we must limit ourselves rigidly to what is given to us in consciousness; beyond this we cannot go. When any one perceives clearly that we cannot leap over our own consciousness without finding ourselves in the unreal, but does not at the same time perceive that the essential nature of things is to be met within our consciousness in the act of perceiving Ideas, he then falls into the fallacy of talking about limitations of human knowledge. If we cannot get beyond our consciousness, and if the essential nature of reality is not within consciousness, then we can never force our way through to that reality in its true nature.

Our thought is bound to the hither side and knows nothing of a yonder side.

But, according to our point of view, this opinion is nothing more than a thinking which misunderstands itself. A limitation of knowledge would be possible only if external experience in itself forced upon us the inquiry into its own nature, only if it determined the question which must be posed in its presence. But such is not the case. In thought itself arises the need to match with experience, as it perceives this, the essential nature of what is experienced. Thinking can have only the most definite tendency to see in the rest of the world its own conformity to law, but never anything of which it has not the least information.

Another fallacy must also be corrected at this point. It is that which considers thought not sufficient in itself to constitute the world; as if something else (force, will, etc.) must supervene in order to render the world possible.

As soon, however, as we reflect sufficiently, we see that all such factors really amount to nothing more than abstractions drawn from the perceptual world, and must themselves await interpretation by thought. Every component of the World-Being other than thought would require a form of apprehension, of cognition, other than that through thought. These other components we should have to reach otherwise than by means of thought. For thinking yields only thoughts. But, as soon as we endeavor to explain the part played in the fabric of the world by these other components, and resort to concepts for this explanation, we fall into self-contradiction. Moreover, there is no third part given to us in addition to sense-perception and thought. And we cannot consider any part of the former as the core of the world, since a closer inspection of all its constituents shows that, as such, they do not contain its own essential nature. This can be found nowhere save in thought.

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