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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012



Inorganic Nature

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 15)

T HE SIMPLEST form of action in Nature seems to us to be that in which an occurrence results wholly from factors external to one another. Here is an occurrence, or a relationship between two objects, not necessitated by an entity which manifests itself in the external forms of appearance — an individuality which exhibits its capacities and character in an effect produced outwardly. The occurrence or relationship has been called forth merely by the fact that one thing which has occurred has, in its occurrence, produced a certain effect upon another thing, has transferred its own state to some other thing. The states of one thing appear as results of those of another. The system of actions which happen in this fashion, so that one fact is always the result of others of similar sort, is called inorganic Nature.

Here the course of an occurrence or the characteristic of a relationship depends upon external determinants; the facts bear marks in themselves which are the results of these determinants. If the form is altered in which these external factors meet, the result of their combined existence is also naturally altered; the phenomenon thus brought about is altered.

What is, now, the manner of this combined existence in the case of inorganic Nature as it enters directly into our field of observation? It bears altogether the character which we designated above as that of immediate experience. We have here merely a special case of that experience in general. We have to deal here with connections between facts of the senses. But it is just these connections which seem to us in the experience not to be clear or transparent. The fact a confronts us, but at the same moment also numerous others. When we cast our glance over the multiplicity here presented to us, we are in complete uncertainty as to which of these other facts stand in closer and which in more remote relationships to the fact a, now under discussion. There may be some present of such sort that the event could not occur without them, and others which merely modify it but without which it could nevertheless occur, except that it would have, under the different circumstances, another form.

In this way we see at once the path which cognition must take in this field. If the combination of facts in immediate experience does not suffice us, then we must go forward to another combination satisfying to our need for explanation. We have to create such conditions that an occurrence will appear to us in transparent clarity as the inevitable result of these conditions.

We recall why it is that thought contains its own essential nature in immediate experience. It is because we stand within and not without that process which creates thought combinations out of the single thought elements. Here, therefore, we are given, not only the finished process, the product, but that which produces. And the important point is that, when we confront any occurrence in the external world, we shall above all perceive the impelling forces which bring this forth from the center of the world-totality to its periphery. The opacity or obscurity of any phenomenon or relationship in the sense-world can be overcome only when we perceive adequately that it is the result of a certain association of facts. We must know that the occurrence we now see arises through the interaction of this and that element of the sense-world. Then the manner of this interaction must be completely penetrable by our intellect. The relation into which the facts are brought must be an ideal relation, one suited to our minds. Of course, in the relationships into which things are brought by our intellect, they comport themselves according to their own natures.

We see at once what is hereby gained. If I look haphazard into the sense-world, I see occurrences brought about by the interaction of so many factors that it is impossible for me to see directly what really stands behind this effect as the causative element. I observe an occurrence and at the same time the facts a, b, c, d. How shall I know at once which of these facts participate to greater and which to lesser extent in the occurrence? The thing becomes transparent when I first inquire which of the four facts is absolutely necessary if the process is to occur at all. I find for example that a and c are absolutely necessary. Then I find that without d the process occurs, indeed, but with important modification; and, on the contrary, that b has no essential

Diagram 1

significance but could be replaced by some other factor. In the above diagram let I represent symbolically the grouping of the elements for mere sense-perception; II, that for the mind. Thus the mind so groups the facts of the inorganic world that it perceives in an occurrence or a condition the result of the relationship of the facts. Thus the mind introduces necessity into the midst of chance.

We will make this clear by an example. When I have before me a triangle ABC, I do not see at first glance that the sum of the three angles is always equal to two right angles. This becomes clear when I group the facts in the following manner.

Diagram 2

From the figures by the side of the triangle it becomes clear at once that the angle a' equals the angle a; the angle b' equals the angle b. (AB and CD are parallel to A'B' and C'D' respectively.) If, now, I draw through the apex C of a triangle a line parallel to the base AB,I find, when I apply the above example, that the angle a' equals the angle a; b' equals b. Since, now, c equals itself, then of necessity the three angles of the triangle equal together two right angles. Here I have explained a complicated combination of facts by reducing it to such simple facts that, by reason of the condition presented to the mind, the corresponding relationship is necessarily inferred from the nature of the things given.

Another example is the following. I throw a stone in a

Diagram 3

horizontal direction. It describes a path which we have represented in the line ll'. When I consider the impelling forces which are here to be taken into account, I find: 1. the propelling force which I exerted; 2. the force with which the earth attracts the stone; 3. the force of the atmospheric resistance.

Upon closer examination, I find that the first two forces are essential and determine the character of the path, while the third is subsidiary. If only the first two were present, the stone would describe the path LL'. This latter I find when I ignore the third force and bring into combination only the former two. To carry this out in actual fact is neither possible nor necessary. I cannot eliminate all resistance. But for my purpose I need only apprehend in thought the nature of the first two forces, and then bring them into the necessary relationship likewise in thought, and I deduce the path LL' as that which must necessarily result when only these two forces interact.

In this way the mind resolves all phenomena of the inorganic world into those in which the effect seems to the mind to come directly and of necessity from the causative factor.

If, then, after arriving at the law of the motion of the stone under the influence of the two forces, one introduces the third force, the result is path ll'. Additional conditions might complicate the matter still further. Every composite occurrence in the sense-world appears as a web of such simple facts, which can be penetrated by the mind; and it is reducible to these.

Now, a phenomenon in which the character of the occurrence can be seen in transparently clear fashion to result directly from the nature of the factors under consideration is called a primal phenomenon, or fundamental fact.

This primal phenomenon is identical with objective natural law. For in it there is expressed the fact, not only that an occurrence happened under certain definite conditions, but that it had to happen. It has been seen clearly that the occurrence had to happen because of the very nature of the thing under consideration. The reason why empiricism is to-day so generally demanded is that it is supposed that any assumption which goes beyond what is empirically given leaves us groping in the uncertain. We see that we may remain wholly within the phenomena and yet meet with the inevitable. The inductive method, to-day so much espoused, can never do this. In reality it proceeds in the following manner. It observes a phenomenon which comes about in a definite manner under given conditions. Again it sees the same phenomenon occur under similar conditions. From this it concludes that there exists a general law according to which this occurrence must take place, and postulates this law as such. Such a method remains entirely external to the phenomena. It does not penetrate into the depths. Its laws are generalizations from individual facts. It must always await the establishment of the rule by the individual facts. Our method knows that its laws are simply facts which are torn out of the confusion of chance and made into matters of necessity. We know that, when the factors a and b are present, a definite effect must appear. We do not go beyond the world of phenomena. The content of knowledge, as we view it, is nothing more than objective occurrence. The only change is in the form of the combination of facts. But this change advances one step deeper into objectivity than experience enables one to penetrate. We so combine the facts that they act according to their own natures and only thus, and that this effect cannot be modified by this or that circumstance.

We attach the greatest importance to the fact that these discussions can be confirmed wherever one may look into the real functioning of science. They are contradicted only by the fallacious opinions that are held in regard to the scope and nature of scientific principles. While many of our contemporaries contradict their own theories when they enter the field of practical research, the harmony between our explanation and all true research can easily be shown in every single instance.

Our theory demands for every natural law a definite form. It presupposes a combination of facts and maintains that, when this appears anywhere in reality, a definite occurrence must take place.

Every natural law, therefore, has this form: When this fact interacts with that, this phenomenon arises. It would be easy to show that all natural laws really have this form: When two bodies of unequal temperature are in contact, heat passes from the warmer to the less warm until the temperature of the two is the same. If a fluid is contained in two vessels which are connected, the level becomes identical in the two vessels. If a body stands between a source of light and another body, it casts a shadow upon the latter. In mathematics, physics, and mechanics, anything which is not mere description must be a primal phenomenon.

All advance in knowledge rests upon the perception of primal phenomena. When we are able to remove an occurrence from its connection with other occurrences and explain it as the effect of definite elements of experience, then we have penetrated a step deeper into the fabric of the world.

We have seen that the primal phenomenon yields itself wholly to thinking when the factors concerned are brought together in thought according to their nature. But one can also create artificially the necessary conditions. This happens in scientific research. There we have in our own control the occurrence of definite factors. Naturally we cannot ignore all related circumstances. Yet there is a way by which we may surmount the latter. We may produce a phenomenon under various modifications. We allow first one and then another contributing circumstance to be active. We then find that one constant persists through all these modifications. We must retain the essential thing in all the combinations. We find that in all these individual experiences a factual component of these is constant. This is higher experience within experience. It is the fundamental fact, or primal phenomenon.

The experiment is intended to convince us that nothing else influences a definite occurrence except what we take into account. We bring together certain conditions whose nature is known to us and observe what follows from these. Here we have an objective phenomenon on the basis of subjective creation. We have something objective which is at the same time thoroughly subjective. The experiment is, therefore, the true mediator between subject and object in inorganic science.

The germ of the view we have here developed is to be found in the correspondence between Goethe and Schiller. Goethe's letters 410 and 413 and Schiller's 412 and 414 are concerned with this. They designate this method as rational empiricism, because it takes as content for knowledge nothing except objective occurrences, but these objective occurrences are held together by a web of concepts (laws) which our minds discover in them. Sensible occurrences in an interconnection which only thought can grasp — this is rational empiricism. If these letters are compared with Goethe's essay Der Versuch als Vermittler von Subjekt and Object, [The Experiment as Mediator between Subject and Object.] the theory given above will be found to be the logical conclusion to be drawn from them.

Thus the general relation we have defined between experience and knowledge is valid everywhere in inorganic Nature. Ordinary experience is only one half of reality. To the senses this half alone exists. The other half is present only to the conceptual capacities of our minds. The mind raises experience from an “appearance for the senses” to something belonging to itself. We have shown how it is possible in this realm to raise oneself from the product to the producing. It is the mind that finds this latter when it confronts the former.

Scientific satisfaction will come to us from a point of view only when it leads us into a totality complete in itself. But the sense-world as inorganic does not appear at any point as brought to a conclusion; nowhere does an individual whole appear. Every occurrence points to another upon which it depends; this to a third; etc. Where is there any conclusion in this? The sense-world as inorganic does not arrive at individuality. Only in its totality is it complete in itself. We must strive, therefore, if we would have a whole, to conceive the assemblage of the inorganic as a system. Such a system is the cosmos.

A thorough understanding of the cosmos is the goal and ideal of inorganic natural science. Every scientific endeavor which does not attain to this is merely preparatory: a member of the whole, but not the whole itself.

Last Modified: 16-Aug-2017
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