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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012


Organic Nature

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 16)

F OR A long time science came to a standstill in the presence of the organic. Its methods were not considered adequate to grasp life and its manifestations. Indeed, it was believed that every conformity to law such as is effective in inorganic Nature here ceases to exist. What was admitted with reference to the inorganic world — that a phenomenon is intelligible to us when we know its natural prerequisite conditions — was here simply denied. The organism was supposed to have been designed purposefully by the Creator according to a determinate plan. Each organ was supposed to have its predestined function; all questions here could be directed only to the discovery of what the purpose of this or that organ is; for what end this or that is present. Whereas, in the inorganic world, one gave attention to the prerequisite conditions of a thing, this was considered quite futile for the facts of life, and primary importance was attached to the purpose of a thing. Likewise in regard to the processes which accompany life, the question asked was not so much concerning the natural causes, as in the case of the physical phenomena, but these processes were supposed to be attributable to a special vital force. What was formed in the organism was supposed to be a product of this force, which simply took a position above other natural laws. In short, up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, science did not know how to deal with organisms. It was restricted to the sphere of the inorganic.

In thus seeking the laws governing the organism, not in the nature of the objects, but in the thought which the Creator followed in forming them, men were cut off from any possibility of an explanation. How is that thought to be made known to me P I am limited to what I have before me. If this thing itself does not lay bare its laws within my thoughts, then my knowledge ceases. We cannot discuss in a scientific sense the divination of a plan held by a Being outside the thing itself.

At the close of the eighteenth century, the point of view which almost universally prevailed was that there is no science which interprets the phenomena of life in the sense in which, for example, physics is an interpretive science. Indeed, Kant sought to give a philosophic basis for this opinion. He considered our intellect to be of such a nature that it can proceed only from the particular to the general. The particulars, the single things, are given to the intellect, he thought, and from these it abstracts its general laws. This form of thinking Kant called discursive, and he considered it the sole form belonging to man. Therefore, according to his opinion, there could not be any science except as regards those things in which the particular, of and for itself, is quite void of a concept, and is only subsumed under an abstract concept. In the case of organisms, Kant did not find this condition fulfilled. Here the single organism betrays a purposive — that is, a conceptual — arrangement. The particular bears traces of the concept in itself. But, according to the Königsberg philosopher, we are wholly lacking in capacity to grasp such an entity. We can understand only that in which concept and single thing are separated, where one represents the general, the other the particular. Nothing then remains for us but to make of the idea of purpose the basis for our observations of organisms: to deal with the creature as if a system of purposes lay at the basis of its phenomena. Thus Kant here established the unscientific scientifically, so to speak.

Against such unscientific procedure Goethe protested vigorously. He could never see why our thoughts are not also qualified to ask in regard to the organ of a creature: “Whence comes it?” instead of, “What purpose does it serve?” This was in keeping with his nature, which always impelled him to look into every entity in its inner completeness. It seemed to him an unscientific form of observation to concern oneself only with the external purpose of an organ — that is, its usefulness to something else. What could this have to do with the inner essential nature of a thing? Therefore, it never concerns him to know for what purpose a thing serves, but always rather to know how it evolves. He wished to observe an object, not as a completed thing, but in its becoming, in order that he might know its primal origin. He was especially attracted to Spinoza because the latter did not give prominence to the external purpose of organs and organisms. Goethe demanded for the knowledge of the organic world a method which is thoroughly scientific in the sense in which that method is scientific which we apply to the inorganic world.

Not with so much genius as in Goethe, yet none the less insistently, appeared the craving over and over again for such a method in natural science. Nowadays only a very small section of the scientists doubts its possibility. But whether the attempts which are being made here and there to introduce such a method have been successful or not, — this is naturally another question.

First of all, a great error has been committed in this matter. It has been supposed that the methods of inorganic science should simply be transferred to the organic. The methods applied in the former field have simply been considered as the only scientific methods possible, and it has been thought that, if a science of “organics” is possible, it must be so in the same sense as physics. But the possibility has been ignored that the concept of the nature of science might be far broader than the definition “interpretation of the universe according to the laws of the physical world.” Even today men have not come to recognize this truth. Instead of seeking to learn what constitutes the scientific character of the inorganic sciences, and then seeking for a method which might be applied to the living world without sacrificing the requirements resulting from this inquiry, the laws discovered at those lower stages of existence are simply postulated as universal.

But the inquiry should be, first of all, as to the basis upon which scientific thinking rests. In our treatment we have followed this principle. In the preceding chapter we have also learned that the conformity to law which characterizes the inorganic is not something isolated, but a special instance of all possible conformities to law. The method of physics is merely a special instance of a general scientific method of research in which consideration is given to the nature of the object under examination and to the field served by this science. If this method is extended to the organic, then the specific character of the latter is effaced. Instead of investigating the organic according to its nature, we force upon it a law alien to it. But so long as we negate the organic we shall never come to know it. Such scientific behavior merely repeats upon a higher plane that which it has gained on a lower plane; and, while it expects to bring the higher form of existence under these ready-made laws applicable elsewhere, this higher form eludes the investigator's efforts, since he does not know how to lay hold upon it and handle it according to its own characteristics.

All this comes from the fallacious opinion that the method of a science is something external to the objects of that science, prescribed not by their nature but by ours. It is supposed that we must think about the objects in a certain manner, and indeed about all — the whole universe — in the same manner. Investigations are undertaken which are intended to show that, by reason of the nature of our minds, we can think only inductively, only deductively, etc.

But in all this the fact is overlooked that the objects may perhaps refuse to yield to the methods of observation which we would vindicate upon them.

That the charge which we make against the organic natural science of our time is fully justified — that is, that it carries over to organic Nature, not the scientific principle in general, but that of inorganic Nature — is evident if we glance at the opinions of the most distinguished of contemporary scientific theorists — Haeckel.

When he requires of all scientific endeavor that “the causal interconnection of all the phenomena shall be made evident” — when he says: “If the psychic mechanics were not so infinitely complicated, if we were in position to survey fully the historic evolution of the psychic functions also, we should be able to reduce them all to a mathematical soul-formula” — it is clear what he wishes to do: to deal with the entire world according to the stereotyped pattern of the physical sciences.


But this requirement is fundamental also in Darwinism, not in its original form, but in its contemporary interpretation. We have seen that the explanation of an occurrence in inorganic Nature means to show its derivation according to law from other sensible realities, to deduce it from other objects which belong like it to the sense world. But how does the contemporary science of “organics” apply the principles of adaptation and the survival of the fittest? — neither of which will be challenged by us as an expression of a complex of facts. It is supposed that the character of a certain species can be deduced from the external conditions under which it has existed, just as we can derive the heating of a body from the sunbeam falling on it. It is entirely overlooked that this character, according to its contentual characterizations, can never be derived as a result of these conditions. The conditions may have a definite influence, but they are not a creative cause. We are entirely safe in asserting that a species must so evolve under the influence of this or that set of facts as to develop this or that organ in a special way; but the essential (inhaltliche), the specific-organic, is not to be deduced from external conditions. Suppose that an organic entity had the essential characteristicsabc and then evolved under definite influences so that its characteristics have assumed the particular forma'b'c'. When we take this influence into account, we shall understand thata has evolved into the forma'; b into b'; c intoc. But the specific nature ofabc can never be derived from external influences.

Before everything else, we must direct our thought to this question: Whence do we derive the content of the general class of which we consider the single organic entity a particular instance? We know perfectly well that the specialization is due to the external influences, but the specialized form itself we must derive from an inner principle. The fact that this specialized form itself has evolved we can explain when we study the environment of the entity. Yet this special form is, none the less, something in and of itself; we find it possessed of certain characteristics. We see what is the essential matter. There comes into relation with the external phenomenal world a certain self-formed content which provides us with what we need in order to deduce these characteristics. In inorganic Nature we become aware of a certain fact and we seek a second fact and a third in order to explain this; and the result of the inquiry is that the first seems to us the inevitable consequence of the second. In the organic world this is not the case. Here we need still another factor besides the facts. We must conceive at a deeper level than the influences of external conditions something which does not passively allow itself to be determined by these conditions but actively determines itself under their influence.

But what is this fundamental element? It cannot be anything else than that which appears in the particular in the form of the general. But what always appears in the particular is a definite organism. That basic element is, therefore, an organism in the form of the general: a general form of the organism which includes within itself all particular forms.

This general organism we shall call, after the precedent of Goethe, the type. Whatever may be the meaning of the word typeaccording to its etymology, we use it in this sense intended by Goethe and mean by it nothing more than what is expressed. This type is not elaborated in all its entirety in any single organism. Only our rationalizing thought is capable of grasping this by abstracting it as a general image out of the phenomenal. The type is thus the Idea of the organism; the animality in the animal, the general plant in the specific plants.

Under this termtype we must not imagine anything fixed. It has absolutely nothing to do with what Agassiz, the most notable adversary of Darwin, called “an incarnate creative idea of God.” The type is something entirely “fluidic” out of which may be derived all separate species and families, which we may consider sub-types, specialized types. The type does not exclude the theory of descent. It does not contradict the fact that organic forms evolve one from another. It is only the rational protest against the idea that organic evolution proceeds merely in the successively appearing objective (sense-perceptible) forms. It is that which is basic in this entire evolution. It is the type that establishes the interconnection amid all the infinite multiplicity. It is the inner aspect of that which we experience as the outer forms of living creatures. The Darwinian theory presupposes the type.

(See Notes to the New Edition, 1924, page 94)

The type is the true primal organism; either primal plant or primal animal according as it specializes ideally. It cannot be any single sensibly-real living entity. What Haeckel or other naturalists look upon as the primal form is a form already specialized: the simplest form of the type. The fact that it first appears in the time sequence in the simplest form does not render it necessary that the forms appearing later in time are the results of the chronologically preceding forms. All forms are the results of the type; the first and equally the last are manifestations of the type. It is this type which we must take as the basis for a true organics, not undertaking simply to deduce the single species of animals and plants one from another. Like a red line does the type manifestitself through all the evolutionary stages of the organic world. We must firmly grasp it and then follow it in its course through all this great multiform kingdom. Then does this become intelligible. Otherwise, like all the rest of the world of experience, it disintegrates into a mass of unrelated units. Indeed, even when we believe we have reduced the later, more complex, compounded forms to the earlier simpler form, and that in the latter we have an original, we merely deceive ourselves; for we have simply derived one specialized form from another.

Friedrich Theodor Vischer once expressed the opinion in regard to the Darwinian theory that it would render necessary a revision of our concept of time. Here we have arrived at a point which makes manifest to us in what sense such a revision would have to occur. It would have to show that the deducing of a later from an earlier is no explanation; that the first in time is not the first in principle. Every derivation must be out of what constitutes the principle, and at most it would be necessary to show what factors were effective in bringing it about that one sort of entity evolved in time before another.

The type plays in the organic world the same role as that of the natural law in the inorganic. As the latter gives us the possibility of recognizing each single occurrence as a member of a greater whole, so the type puts us in position to look upon the single organism as a particular shaping of the primal form.

We have already pointed out that the type is no circumscribed crystallized conceptual form, but is fluid: that it can assume the most manifold formations. The number of these formations is unlimited, because that by reason of which the primal form becomes a single specialized form has for the primal form no significance. The case is just like that of a natural law which controls innumerable single manifestations, because the special determinants which appear in the single instances have nothing to do with the natural law.

But we are here dealing with something essentially unlike inorganic Nature. There our task is to show that a certain sensible fact can appear so and not otherwise because of the existence of this or that natural law. That fact and that law face one another as two separate factors, and no other mental work is required than that, when we behold a fact, we shall recall the law which is determinative. In the case of a living entity and its manifestations, the case is different. There our task must be to evolve the single form which meets us in direct experience from the type — which we must have apprehended. We must perform a mental process of an entirely different sort. We must not simply set the type as something finished, like a natural law, over against the single manifestation.

That every body, unless prevented by some accompanying circumstance, falls to the earth in such a way that the distances covered in successive intervals of time are in the ratio 1:3:5:7 etc., is a definite law once for all fixed. This is a primal phenomenon which appears whenever two masses (the earth and bodies thereon) come into reciprocal relationship. If, now, a more special instance enters the field of our observation in which this law is applicable, we need only bring the sensibly observable facts into that relationship which gives us the law, and we shall find it confirmed. We trace the single case back to the law. The natural law expresses the interrelationship of the separate facts of the sense-world; but it continues to exist and confront the single facts. In the case of the type we must evolve out of the primal form each specialized instance that meets us. We must not confront the single forms with the type in order to see how the latter governs the former; we must cause the former to issue from the latter. Natural law governs a manifestation as something standing above this; the type flows into the single living entity, identifies itself with this.

Therefore, a science of organics that sets out to be scientific in the sense in which physics or mechanics is scientific must show the type as the most universal form and then in various ideal separate forms. Mechanics also is such a grouping together of various natural laws in which the requirements of reality are presupposed theoretically throughout. The same must be true in organics. Here also, if we are to have a rational science, we must presuppose hypothetically determined forms in which the type takes shape. One must then show how these hypothetical forms can always be reduced to a definite form lying before our eyes.

Just as we trace a phenomenon in the inorganic to a law, so here we evolve a specific form from the primal form. Organic science does not come about through the external comparison of special and general, but through the evolution of the former out of the latter.

As mechanics is a system of natural laws, so organics must be a succession of forms evolved from the type; only that in the former case we bring together the single laws and arrange them into a whole, whereas here we must cause the single forms to proceed in living stream one from another.

Here an objection may be raised. If the typical form is something altogether fluid, how then is it at all possible to set up a chain of special types in a series as the content of an organics? It may well be imagined that, in each special instance observed, a particular form of the type is to be recognized, and yet we cannot merely assemble such actually observed instances in the name of science.

But we can do something else. We can allow the type to follow its course through the series of possibilities and then fix (hypothetically) in each case this or that form. In this way we arrive at a series of forms deduced by thought from the type, as the content of a rational organics.

An organics is possible which will be scientific in the strictest sense just as mechanics is scientific. Only the method is different. The method of mechanics is that of proof. Each proof rests upon a certain rule. There always exists a definite presupposition (that is, prerequisites accessible to experience are given) and we then determine what occurs when these presuppositions are realized. We then comprehend a single phenomenon under the basic law. We think thus: — Under these conditions, the phenomenon occurs; the conditions are present and, therefore, the phenomenon must occur. This is the thought process we employ to explain an occurrence of the inorganic world when we meet it. This is the method of proof. It is scientific because it completely permeates an occurrence with the concept; because it brings about a coincidence of experience and thought.

Through this method of proof, however, we can make no headway in the science of the organic. The type does not require that, under certain conditions, a definite phenomenon occur; it does not fix anything in regard to a relationship of elements mutually alien which confront one another. It determines only the conformity to law of its own parts. It does not point beyond itself like a natural law. The particular organic forms can be evolved only from the universal type-form, and every organic entity which appears in experience must coincide with some one of these derivative forms of the type. Here the evolutionary method must replace the method of proof. Here it is not to be established that the external conditions act upon one another in this way and for that reason bring about a definite result, but that a special form has been developed under definite external conditions out of the type. This is the radical difference between inorganic and organic science. This distinction is not made basic in any other method of research so consistently as in Goethe's. No one else recognized as Goethe did that an organics must be possible apart from all vague mysticism, without teleology, without the assumption of special creative thoughts. But neither has any one else more definitely rejected the demand to apply to this field the methods of inorganic science.

The type, as we have seen, is a more complete scientific form than the primal phenomenon. Moreover, it presupposes a more intensive activity of our minds than that required by the other. In reflecting about the things of inorganic nature, our sense-perception provides us with the content. Here it is our sense-organization which yields to us what, in the case of the organic, we lay hold of only by means of our minds. In order to become aware of sweetness, sourness, warmth, light, color, etc., one needs only healthy senses. There we have to discover by means of thought only the form of the substance. But, in the type, content and form are intimately united one with the other. Therefore, the type does not determine the content in a merely formal way as does the law, but permeates it vitally from within outward as its very own. The task which is required of our mind is to participate productively in creating the contentual element while dealing with the formal.

A mode of thinking in which the formal and the contentual appear in direct connection has always been called intuitive.

Intuition appears repeatedly as a scientific principle. The English philosopher Reidt classifies as an intuition the act of creating a conviction of the real being of external phenomena directly from our perception of the phenomena (sense-impressions). Jacobi thought that in our feeling of God we are given, not merely this feeling, but the guarantee that God is. This judgment also is called intuitive. The characteristic of intuition, as we see, is that more must be given in the content than this itself; that one knows of a thought-characterization, without proof, merely through direct conviction. It is not considered necessary to prove such thought-characterizations as that of existence, etc. of the material of perception, but we are believed to possess these in inseparable unity with the content.

But, in the case of the type, this is really true. Therefore it cannot furnish any means of proof but merely suggests the possibility of evolving each special form out of the type. For this reason, the mind must work with far greater intensity in apprehending the type than in grasping the natural law. It must create the content with the form. It must take upon itself an activity which is the function of the senses in inorganic science and which we call perception (Anschauung). The mind itself, therefore, must be perceptive on this higher plane. Our power of judgment must perceive in thinking and think in perceiving. Here we have to do with a perceptive power of thought, as was first explained by Goethe. [See footnote, p. 119.] Goethe thereby pointed out as a necessary form of apprehension in the human mind that which Kant wished to prove to be quite unattainable by man because of the nature of his whole endowment.

As the type in organic nature replaces natural law (the primal phenomenon) in the inorganic, so intuition (perceptive power of thought) replaces the power of judgment through proof (reflective judgment). As it has been supposed that the same laws may be applied to organic nature which are determinative at a lower stage of knowledge, so it has been supposed that the same methods hold good here as there. Both suppositions are fallacious.

Intuition has often been treated with scant respect in science. It has been considered a defect in Goethe's mind that he expected to reach scientific truths by means of intuition. What is attained by way of intuition is considered by many persons as very important, to be sure, when this has to do with a scientific discovery. There, it is said, a chance idea often carries one farther than trained, methodical thought. For it is generally said to be an intuition when one has hit by chance upon something which is true but whose truth is discovered by investigators only in a roundabout way. It is always denied, however, that intuition itself can be a principle of science. Whatever intuition chances upon must afterward be proved — so it is thought — if it is to have scientific value.

So Goethe's scientific achievements have also been looked upon as brilliant chance ideas which only later have attained to confirmation by the rigid methods of science.

For organic science, however, intuition is the right method. It becomes quite clear, we believe, from our exposition that Goethe's mind, just because it was fundamentally intuitive, found the right way in organics. The method proper to organics harmonized with the constitution of his mind. For this reason it became all the clearer to him how far organics differs from inorganic science. The one became clear to him in connection with the other. For this reason he sketched with sharp lines the essential nature also of the inorganic.

The slight value attached to intuition is due in no small measure to the fact that its achievements are not supposed to be deserving of that degree of confidence which is reposed in the achievement of knowledge through proof. Often only that which has been proved is called knowledge; all else is called belief.

It must be borne in mind that intuition possesses a significance for the scientific attitude represented by the present writer (based upon the conviction that in thought we grasp in its very essence the central core of the world) altogether different from the significance it possesses according to the point of view which places this core of the world in a Beyond not accessible to our research. Whoever sees in this world lying before us, so far as we either experience it or penetrate it through thought, nothing more than a reflection, a copy of a Beyond, an unknown, an activating, which remains hidden behind this shell, not only at first glance but also in spite of all scientific research, — such a person can see only in the method of proof a substitute for our lack of insight into the real nature of things. Since he does not penetrate to the opinion that a thought-combination comes about through the essential content given in the thoughts themselves, and therefore through the thing itself, he necessarily thinks that he can support such combinations only on the ground that they harmonize with certain basic convictions (axioms) which are so simple as to be neither susceptible of proof nor in need thereof. If, then, a scientific postulate is offered him without proof — even one which in its whole nature excludes the method of proof — this seems to him to have been thrust upon him from without; a truth appears before him without his recognizing what are the grounds of its validity. He does not think he has an item of knowledge, an insight into the thing, but thinks he can only yield himself to a belief that some sort of reasons for this validity exists beyond the reach of his thought.

Our view of the world is not exposed to the danger that it must look upon the limits of the method of proof as coinciding with the limits of scientific certitude. It has led us to the point of view that the central essence of the world flows into our thinking; that we do not merely think concerning the nature of the world but that thinking is an entrance into connection with the nature of reality. Intuition does not thrust a truth upon us from without, for from one point of view there is no such thing as an outer and an inner in the manner in which these are presupposed by the scientific attitude we have described, which is the opposite of our own. For us, intuition is the actual being-within, an entrance into the truth which gives to us all that comes in any way under consideration in regarding truth. It merges completely with what is given to us in our intuitive judgment. The characteristic which is significant in belief — that only existent truth is given us and not the reasons therefore, and that we lack a penetrating insight into the thing concerned — is here wholly wanting. Insight gained by way of intuition is just as scientific as that won by proof.

Every single organism is the molding of the type in a special form. It is an individuality which governs and determines itself from a center outward. It is a totality complete in itself — which in inorganic Nature is true of the cosmos alone.

The ideal of inorganic science is to grasp the totality of all phenomena as a unitary system, in order that we may approach each phenomenon with the consciousness that we recognize it as a member of the cosmos. In organic science, on the contrary, the ideal must be to have in the utmost entirety possible in the type and its phenomenal forms that which we see evolving in the series of single beings. Tracing the type back through all phenomena is here that which matters. In inorganic science the system exists; in organic the comparison (of each single form with the type).

Spectral analysis and the perfecting of astronomy extend to the universe the truths attained on the limited sphere of the earth. Hereby these sciences approach the first ideal. The second will be fulfilled when the comparative method applied by Goethe is recognized in its full scope.

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