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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012



Introduction: Spirit and Nature

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 17)

W E HAVE exhausted the realm of the knowledge of Nature. Organics is the highest form of natural science. What lies still higher is the spiritual, or cultural, sciences. These re-* quire an essentially different attitude of the human mind toward objects from that characterizing the natural sciences. In the latter the mind has a universal role to play. Its task is, so to speak, to bring the world process itself to a conclusion. What existed without the mind was only one half of reality; it was incomplete, at every point only a fragment. There the mind has to call forth into phenomenal existence the innermost impelling forces of reality — even though these would have possessed validity without its subjective intervention. If man were a mere sense-being without mental conception, inorganic Nature would be, none the less, dependent upon natural laws; but these would never come as such into manifest existence. Beings would certainly exist who would perceive the product (the sense-world) but they would never perceive the producing (the inner conformity to law). It is really the genuine, and indeed the truest, form of Nature which comes to manifestation in the human mind, whereas for a mere sense-being only Nature's external aspect would exist. Knowledge plays here a role of world significance. It is the conclusion of the work of creation. What takes place in human consciousness is the interpretation of Nature to itself. Thought is the last member in the series of processes whereby Nature is formed.

Not so is it in the case of cultural science. Here our consciousness has to do with spiritual content itself; with the individual human spirit, with the creations of culture, of literature, with the successive scientific convictions, with the creations of art. The spiritual is grasped by the spirit. Reality possesses here in itself the ideal, conformity to law, which elsewhere appears first in mental conception. What appears in the natural sciences only as a product of reflection about the object is here born in the object. Knowledge plays a different role; essential being would be present in the objects here without the work of knowledge. It is human actions, creations, ideas with which we have to do. It is an interpretation of the human being to himself and to his race. Knowledge has here a different mission to discharge from that in connection with Nature.

Here again this mission first becomes manifest as a human need. Just as the necessity of finding, in connection with the reality of Nature, the Idea of Nature appears at first as a need of our minds, so here also the function of cultural science exists first as a human impulse. Again it is only an objective fact announcing itself as a subjective need.

The human being should not, like a being of inorganic Nature, act upon another being according to external norms, according to law which dominates him; nor should he be the single form of a general type; but he should himself fix the purpose, the goal, of his existence, of his activity. If his actions are the results of laws, these laws must be such as he gives to himself. What he is in himself, what he is among his own kind, in state and in history, — this he must not be by reason of external determinations. He must be this of himself. How he fits himself into the texture of the world depends upon himself. He must find the point at which to participate in the mechanism of the world. It is here that the cultural sciences receive their function. Man must know the spiritual world in order to take his share in that world according to this knowledge. Here originates the mission which psychology, the science of peoples, [Volkskunde] and the science of history have to achieve.

This is the essence of Nature: that law and activity fall apart from each other, and activity seems to be controlled by law; but this, on the contrary, is the essence of freedom: that the two coincide, that the producing shall exist immediately in the product and that the product shall be master of itself.

Therefore, the cultural sciences are in the highest degree sciences of freedom. The idea of freedom must be their central point, their dominant idea. It is for this reason that Schiller's letters on aesthetics take such high rank, because they undertake to find the nature of beauty in the idea of freedom, because freedom is the principle which permeates them.

The spirit takes only that place in the universal, in the totality of the world, which it gives to itself as an individual. While the universal, the type Idea, must be kept constantly in mind in organics, the idea of personality is to be held fast in the spiritual sciences. Not the Idea as it lives in the general (the type) but as it appears in the single being (the individual), is here the matter in question. Naturally, it is not the casual personality, not this or that personality, which is determinative, but personality as such; not, however, as this evolves from itself outward into specialized forms and so comes first to sensible existence, but sufficient in itself, within itself circumscribed, finding in itself its destiny.

The destiny of the type is to find itself realized in the individual. The destiny of the person is to achieve, even as an ideal entity, actual self-sustaining existence. When we speak of humanity in general and when we speak of a general natural law, these are two quite different things. In the latter case the particular is determined by the general; in the idea of humanity, the general is determined by the particular. If we are able to discern general laws of history, these are such only in so far as they were set up by historical personalities as goals, or ideals. This is the inner contrast between Nature and spirit. The former requires a knowledge which ascends from the immediately given, as the conditioned, to that which can be grasped by the mind, to the conditioning; the latter requires such a knowledge as proceeds from the given as the conditioning to the conditioned. That the particular establishes the law is characteristic of the spiritual sciences; that this role belongs to the general characterizes the natural sciences.

That which is valuable to us in the natural sciences only as a transitional point — the particular — is our sole interest in the spiritual sciences. That which we seek in the former case, the general, is in the latter considered only to the extent that it interprets to us the particular.

It would be contrary to the spirit of science if in the presence of Nature we should limit ourselves to the particular. But it would be utterly fatal to the spirit if we should comprehend Greek history, for example, in a general scheme of concepts. In the former case, the senses, cleaving to the phenomenal, would achieve no science; in the latter the mind, proceeding according to a general pattern, would lose all sense for the individual.

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