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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012


Human Freedom

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 19)

O UR VIEW as to the sources of our knowledge cannot be with out influence upon our view in regard to practical conduct. Man behaves according to thought characterizations which lie within him. What he performs is directed according to purposes, goals, which he sets up for himself. But it is obvious that these goals, purposes, ideals, etc., will bear the same character as the rest of man's thought world. Thus a dogmatic science must result in a practical truth essentially unlike that which follows from our theory of knowledge. If the truths to which a person attains in knowledge are determined by objective necessity residing outside of thought, such also will be the ideals which he sets up as the bases of his conduct. In that case a person behaves according to laws in whose establishment he has no part in any real sense: he thinks a norm for himself which is fore-ordained for his behavior from without. But this is the character of a commandment which man has to obey. Dogma as a practical truth is moral commandment.

The case is entirely different when the theory of knowledge here presented is made basic. This recognizes no other basis for truths than the thought content residing within these. When, therefore, a moral ideal comes into existence, it is the inner power lying in its content which governs our conduct. It is not because an ideal is given to us as a law that we conduct ourselves according to it, but because the ideal, by virtue of its content, is active within us, directs us. The impulse toward conduct lies, not without us, but within us. If we felt ourselves subjected to the commandment of duty, we should be compelled to behave in a definite manner, because it was so ordered. Hereshall comes first and afterwardswill, which must unite itself to the former. This is not true according to our point of view. The will is sovereign. It performs only what lies as thought-content in the human personality. Man does not receive laws from an external Power; he is his own lawgiver.

Who, indeed, according to our world view, should give these to him? The World-Fundament has poured itself out completely into the world; it has not drawn back from the world in order to control it from without, but impels it from within; it has not withheld itself from the world. The highest form in which it emerges within the reality of ordinary life is that of thought and, with this, human personality. If, then, the World-Fundament has goals, these are identical with the goals which man sets up for himself as he manifests his own being. Man is not behaving in accordance with the purposes of the Guiding Power of the world when he investigates one or another of His commandments, but when he behaves in accordance with his own insight. For in him the Guiding Power of the world manifests Himself. He does not live as Will somewhere outside of man; He has renounced his own will in order that all might depend upon the will of man. If man is to be enabled to become his own lawgiver, all thought about world-determinations outside of man must be abandoned.

We take this opportunity to call attention to the very excellent treatment of the subject by Kreyenbühl inPhilosophische Monatsheften(Vol. 18, No. 3). This paper correctly explains how the maxims of our conduct result directly from the determination of our individuality; how everything which is ethically great is not given through the power of the moral law but is performed on the basis of the direct impulse of an individual idea.

(See Notes to the New Edition, 1924, page 111)

Only from such a point of view is a true human freedom possible. If man does not bear within himself the reason for his conduct, but must guide himself in accordance with commandments, he then acts under a compulsion; he stands under a necessity almost like a mere entity of Nature.

Our philosophy is, therefore, in the highest sense a philosophy of freedom. It shows first theoretically how every force which controls the world from without must fall away in order to make man his own master, in the best of all senses of that word. When man acts morally, this is not, from our point of view, the fulfillment of duty, but the expression of his wholly free nature. Man acts, not because he ought, but because he wills. This point of view Goethe also had in mind when he said: “Lessing, who was reluctantly conscious of many sorts of limitations, causes one of his characters to say, ‘No one must, must.' A brilliant and happy man said: ‘He who wills must.' A third — to be sure, an educated person — added, ‘He who has insight also wills.'” There is no impulse, therefore, for our conduct save our own insight. The free man acts according to his insight, without the intrusion of any sort of compulsion, according to commands which he gives to himself.

It is about these truths that the well known Kant-Schiller controversy revolves. Kant took the standpoint of the commandment of duty. He thought it degrading to the moral law to make it dependent upon human subjectivity. According to his view, man acts morally only when he banishes all subjective motives in his conduct and simply bows to the majesty of duty. Schiller saw in this point of view a degradation of human nature. Must this be so evil that its own impulses must be thus completely set aside if it is to be moral! Schiller and Goethe's world-conception can recognize only the point of view we have set forth. The point of departure for human action is to be sought in man himself.

For this reason, in history also, the subject of which is man, we must not speak of influences upon man's conduct from without, of ideas which reside in the age, etc. Least of all must we speak of a plan constituting the basis of history. History is nothing but the evolution of human action, points of view, etc. Goethe said: “In all ages it is only the individuals that have been effectual for science, not the age. It was the age that put Socrates to death with poison; the age that burned Huss; the ages have always remained alike.” Alla priori constructions of plans which are supposed to form the basis of history are contrary to the historical method as this issues from the nature of history. The goal of history is to learn what men contribute for the advancement of their race; to learn what goal this or that personality has set for himself, what direction he has given to his age. History is to be based entirely on human nature. The will, the tendencies of human nature, are to be grasped. Our science of knowledge excludes all possibility that a purpose should be ascribed to history, as if men were educated from a lower stage of perfection to a higher, etc. In the same way it seems fallacious from our point of view when the effort is made (as Herder does inIdeas for a Philosophy of History of Humanity) to set historical events in due order like facts of Nature, according to the succession of cause and effect. The laws of history are of a far higher sort. One fact in physics is so determined by another that the law stands above the phenomenon. A historical fact, as something ideal, is determined by the ideal. Here one can speak of cause and effect only when one depends wholly upon the external. Who could believe that he is in keeping with the facts when he calls Luther the cause of the Reformation? History is a science of ideas. Its reality consists of ideas. Therefore devotion to the object is the sole correct method. Every step beyond that is unhistorical.

(See Notes to the New Edition, 1924, page 113)

Psychology, the science of peoples, and history are the leading forms of spiritual, or cultural, science. Their methods, as we have seen, are based upon the direct grasp of the ideal reality. Their subject is the Idea, the spiritual, as that of inorganic science is the natural law and that of organics is the type.

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