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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012



Scientific Knowledge and Artistic Creation

(See Exposition on Brief, Chapter 21)

O UR THEORY of knowledge has rid cognition of the merely passive character often associated with it, and has conceived it as an activity of the human spirit. It is generally supposed that the content of knowledge is received from without; indeed, it is supposed that we preserve the objectivity of knowledge in proportion as we refrain from adding anything of our own to the material taken hold of. Our discussion has shown that the true content of knowledge is never the material of which we become aware but the Idea conceived in the mind, which leads us more deeply into the fabric of the world than does any analysis and observation of the external world as mere experience. The Idea is the content of knowledge. In contrast with the percept passively received, knowledge is thus the product of the activity of the human mind.

We have hereby brought into close proximity cognition and artistic creation, which is also a product of the activity of man. But we have at the same time introduced the necessity of clarifying the mutual relationship of the two.

The activity of cognition, as well as that of art, requires that man elevate himself from reality as product to reality as the producing; that he ascend from the created to creation; from chance to necessity. While the outer reality always shows us only a product of creative Nature, we elevate ourselves in the spirit to the unity of Nature, which now appears to us as that which creates. Every object of reality represents to us one of the innumerable possibilities lying hidden in the creative bosom of Nature. Our mind rises to the vision of that fountain-head in which all these potentialities are contained. Science and art are only the objects upon which man stamps what this vision offers to him. In science this occurs only in the form of the Idea: that is, in the directly mental, or spiritual, medium. In art it occurs in objects sensibly or mentally perceptible. In science, Nature, as “that which includes every single,” appears purely as Idea; in art, an object of the external world appears as a representative of the all-inclusive. The infinite, which science seeks in the finite and endeavors to represent in Idea, is stamped by art upon a material taken from the world of existence. What appears in science as the Idea is in art the image. The same infinite is the object both of science and of art, except that its appearance here is different from its appearance there. The manner of representation is different. Goethe criticized the practice of speaking of the idea of the beautiful as if the beautiful were anything else than the sensible reflection of the Idea.

Here one sees how the true artist must create out of the fountain-head of all existence; how he stamps upon his works the inevitable which, in science, we seek in the form of Ideas in Nature and in the mind. Science discovers in Nature her conformity to law; art does no less, except that it imprints this upon crude matter. An artistic product is no less a part of Nature than is a natural product, except that natural law has been poured into the former as it manifests itself to the human mind. The great works of art that Goethe saw in Italy appeared to him as direct expressions of the inevitable perceived by man in Nature. To Goethe, therefore, art also is a manifestation of secret laws of Nature.

In a work of art everything depends upon the degree to which an artist has implanted the Idea in matter. Not what he handles, but how he handles it, is the important point. If in science the substance externally perceived has to be completely submerged so that only its essential nature — the Idea — remains, in artistic production this substance must remain except that its peculiarities, its non-essentials, must be completely subdued by the artistic treatment. The object must be lifted completely above the sphere of the accidental and transferred into that of the inevitable. In artistic beauty nothing must be left upon which the artist has not impressed his own spirit. Thewhat must be surmounted by the how.

The surmounting of the sensible by the spirit is the goal of art and of science. The latter surmounts the sensible through resolving it wholly into spirit; the former through implanting the spirit in it. Science sees the Idea through the sensible; art sees the Idea in the sensible. A sentence of Goethe's which expresses these truths in a comprehensive way may serve to bring our reflections to a close: “I think science might be called the knowledge of the general, abstract knowledge; art, on the other hand, would be science applied in an action; science would be reason and art its mechanism, so that it might also be called practical science. Finally, therefore, science would be the theorem and art the problem.”

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