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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012


This study of the theory of knowledge implicit in Goethe's world-conception was written in the middle of the decade 1880-'90. My mind was then vitally engaged in two activities of thought. One was directed toward the creative work of Goethe, and strove to formulate the view of life and of the world which revealed itself as the impelling force in this creative work. The completely and purely human seemed to me to be dominant in everything that Goethe gave to the world in creative work, in reflection, and in his life. Nowhere in the modern age did that inner assurance, harmonious completeness, and sense of reality in relation to the world seem to me to be as fully represented as in Goethe. From this thought there necessarily arose the recognition of the fact that the manner, likewise, in which Goethe comported himself in the act of cognition is that which issues out of the very nature of man and of the world.

In another direction my thought was vitally absorbed in the philosophical conceptions prevalent at that time regarding the essential nature of knowledge. In these conceptions, knowledge threatened to become sealed up within the being of man himself. The brilliant philosopher Otto Liebmann had asserted that human consciousness cannot pass beyond itself; that it must remain within itself. Whatever exists, as the true reality, beyond that world which consciousness forms within itself — of this it can know nothing. In brilliant writings Otto Liebmann elaborated this thought with respect to the most varied aspects of the realm of human experience. Johannes Volkelt had written his thoughtful books dealing with Kant's theory of knowledge and with Experience and Thought. He saw in the world as given to man only a combination of representations [Vorstellungen, single concepts corresponding to single percepts.] based upon the relationship of man to a world in itself unknown. He admitted, to be sure, that an inevitability manifests itself in our inner experience of thinking when this lays hold in the realm of representations. When engaged in the activity of thinking, we have the sense, in a manner, of forcing our way through the world of representations into the world of reality. But what is gained thereby? We might for this reason feel justified, during the process of thinking, in forming judgments concerning the world of reality; but in such judgments we remain wholly within man himself; nothing of the nature of the world penetrates therein.

Eduard von Hartmann, whose philosophy had been of great service to me, in spite of the fact that I could not admit its fundamental presuppositions or conclusions, occupied exactly the same point of view in regard to the theory of knowledge set forth exhaustively by Volkelt.

There was everywhere manifest the confession that human knowledge arrives at certain barriers beyond which it cannot pass into the realm of genuine reality.

In opposition to all this stood in my case the fact, inwardly experienced and known in experience, that human thinking, when it reaches a sufficient depth, lives within the reality of the world as a spiritual reality. I believed that I possessed this knowledge in a form which can exist in consciousness with the same clarity that characterizes mathematical knowledge.

In the presence of this knowledge, it is impossible to sustain the opinion that there are such boundaries of cognition as were supposed to be established by the course of reasoning to which I have referred.

In reference to all this, I was somewhat inclined toward the theory of evolution then in its flower. In Haeckel this theory had assumed forms in which no consideration whatever could be given to the self-existent being and action of the spiritual. The later and more perfect was supposed to arise in the course of time out of the earlier, the undeveloped. This was evident to me as regards the external reality of the senses, but I was too well aware of the self-existent spiritual, resting upon its own foundation, independent of the sensible, to yield the argument to the external world of the senses. But the problem was how to lay a bridge from this world to the world of the spirit.

In the time sequence, as thought out on the basis of the senses, the spiritual in man appears to have evolved out of the antecedent non-spiritual. But the sensible, when rightly conceived, manifests itself everywhere as a revelation of the spiritual. In the light of this true knowledge of the sensible, I saw clearly that “boundaries of knowledge,” as then defined, could be admitted only by one who, when brought into contact with this sensible, deals with it like a man who should look at a printed page and, fixing his attention upon the forms of the letters alone without any idea of reading, should declare that it is impossible to know what lies behind these forms.

Thus my look was guided along the path from sense-observation to the spiritual, which was firmly established in my inner experiential knowledge. Behind the sensible phenomena, I sought, not for a non-spiritual world of atoms, but for the spiritual, which appears to reveal itself within man himself, but which in reality inheres in the objects and processes of the sense-world itself. Because of man's attitude in the act of knowing, it appears as if the thoughts of things were within man, whereas in reality they hold sway within the things themselves. It is necessary for man, in experiencing the apparent, [in einem Schein-Erleben] to separate thoughts from things; but, in a true experience of knowledge, he restores them again to things.

The evolution of the world is thus to be understood in such fashion that the antecedent non-spiritual, out of which the succeeding spirituality of man unfolds, possesses also a spiritual beside itself and outside itself. The later spirit-permeated sensible, amid which man appears, comes to pass by reason of the fact that the spiritual progenitor of man unites with imperfect, non-spiritual forms, and, having transformed these, then appears in sensible forms.

This course of thought led me beyond the contemporary theorists of knowledge, even though I fully recognized their acumen and their sense of scientific responsibility. It led me to Goethe.

I am impelled to look back from the present to my inner struggle at that time. It was no easy matter for me to advance beyond the course of reasoning characterizing contemporary philosophies. But my guiding star was always the self-substantiating recognition of the fact that it is possible for man to behold himself inwardly as spirit, independent of the body and dwelling in a world of spirit.

Prior to my work dealing with Goethe's scientific writings and before the preparation of this theory of knowledge, I had written a brief paper on atomism, which was never printed. This was conceived in the direction here indicated. I cannot but recall what pleasure I experienced when Friedrich Theodor Vischer, to whom I sent that paper, wrote me some words of approval.

But in my Goethe studies it became clear to me that my way of thinking led to a perception of the character of the knowledge which is manifest everywhere in Goethe's creative work and in his attitude toward the world. I perceived that my point of view afforded me a theory of knowledge which was that belonging to Goethe's world-conception.

During the 'eighties of the last century I was invited through the influence of Karl Julius Schröer, my teacher and fatherly friend, to whom I am deeply indebted, to prepare the introductions to Goethe's scientific writings for the Kürschner National-Literatur, and to edit these writings. During the progress of this work, I traced the course of Goethe's intellectual life in all the fields with which he was occupied. It became constantly clearer to me in detail that my own perception placed me within that theory of knowledge belonging to Goethe's world-conception. Thus it was that I wrote this theory of knowledge in the course of the work I have mentioned.

Now that I again turn my attention to it, it seems to me to be also the foundation and justification, as a theory of knowledge, for all that I have since asserted orally or in print. It speaks of an essential nature of knowledge which opens the way from the sense world to a world of spirit.

It may seem strange that this youthful production, written nearly forty years ago, should now be published again, unaltered and expanded only by means of notes. In the manner of its presentation, it bears the marks of a kind of thinking which had entered vitally into the philosophy of that time, forty years ago. Were I writing the book now, I should express many things differently. But the essential nature of knowledge I could not set forth in any different light. Moreover, what I might write now could not convey so truly within itself the germ of the spiritual world-conception for which I stand. In such germinal fashion one can write only at the beginning of one's intellectual life. For this reason, it may be well that this youthful production should again appear in unaltered form. The theories of knowledge existing at the time of its composition have found their sequel in later theories of knowledge. What I have to say in regard to these I have said in my book Die Rätsel der Philosophie. [The Riddles of Philosophy — not yet translated into English] This also will be issued in a new edition at the same time by the same publishers. That which I outlined many years ago as the theory of knowledge implicit in Goethe's world-conception seems to me just as necessary to be said now as it was forty years ago.

Rudolf Steiner

The Goetheanum, Dornach bei Basel,
Switzerland, November 1923

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