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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012


When Professor Kürschner did me the honor of intrusting to me the task of editing the scientific writings of Goethe for the Deutsche National-Literatur, I was fully aware of the difficulties confronting me in such an undertaking. It would be necessary for me to oppose a point of view which had become almost universally established.

While the conviction is everywhere gaining ground that Goethe's poetical writings are the basis of our whole culture, even those who go farthest in recognition of his scientific writings see in these nothing more than premonitions of truths which have been fully confirmed in the later progress of science. Because of his genius — so it is held — it was possible for him at a glance to attain to premonitions of natural laws that were later discovered again by strictly scientific methods quite independently of him. What is admitted in the highest degree as regards the other activities of Goethe — that every well informed person must reach a judgment with regard to these — is not admitted as regards his scientific point of view. It is by no means acknowledged that, by familiarizing ourselves with the scientific works of the poet, something may be gained which science does not also afford us apart from him.

When I was introduced by my beloved teacher, Karl Julius Schröer, to the world-conception of Goethe, my thinking had already taken a direction which made it possible for me to direct my attention, beyond the single discoveries of the poet, to the fundamentals: to the manner in which Goethe blended such a single discovery with the totality of his conception of Nature; the manner in which he made use of this discovery in order to arrive at an insight into the interrelationships of the entities of Nature, or — to use the striking expression he himself employed in the paperAnschauende Urteilskraft[perceptive power of thought.Cf. Goethes naturwissenschaftliche Schriften, inKürschners Deutsche National-Literatur,Vol. I, p. 115.] — in order to participate mentally in the productions of Nature. I soon recognized that those achievements which contemporary science attributes to Goethe were not the essential thing, while the really significant matter was overlooked. Those single discoveries would really have been made without Goethe's researches; but his lofty conception of Nature will be absent from science so long as this conception is not derived from Goethe himself. It was thus that the direction to be taken by my introductions for the edition was determined. These must show that each single detailed opinion expressed by Goethe is to be derived from the totality of his genius. [The manner in which my opinions blend with the totality of Goethe's world-conception is discussed by Schröer in his foreword toKürschners Deutsche National-Literatur,Vol. I, pp. I-XIV. Cf. also his edition ofFaust, Vol. II, 2nd edition, p. VII.]

The principles according to which this must be carried out constitute the subject matter of the present brief treatise. It undertakes to show that what we set forth as Goethe's scientific views is capable of being established upon its own self-sufficing foundation.

With this, I have said all that seemed to me necessary as a preface to the following discussion, except that I must discharge a pleasing duty — the expression of my most heartfelt thanks to Professor Kürschner, who has lent me his assistance in this composition with the same extraordinary friendliness that he has always shown toward my scientific undertakings.

Rudolf Steiner

The end of April, 1886

Last Modified: 16-Aug-2017
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