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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

On-line since: 30th November, 2012


When Rudolf Steiner, still a student and tutor in Vienna, published this terse little volume just after his twenty-fifth birthday, he concluded an intellectual struggle in which he had been engaged since childhood. He arrived at a solution of the problem: What is the relation between man's inner and his outer world?

For him the inner world had always been unmistakably a world of reality, not of mere reflections from without and subjective reactions within. His endeavor had been, not to establish the reality of either the inner or the outer world, but — through intense observation of the outer world and intense contemplation of his own mind in its activity — to discover the interrelationship between the mind and the world. Very early — perhaps, by his fifteenth year — he had rejected Kant's theory of the nature of human knowledge, saying to himself: “That may be true for him, but it is not true for me.” When he was later brought into contact with Goethe, first as poet and then as thinker, he discovered that, in the world of living things, Goethe's mode of contemplative, intuitive cognition was identical with his own; and that, through such a direct channel, Goethe had acquired knowledge essential to the innermost nature of plant, animal, and man. Hence, after editing one volume of Goethe's scientific writings, he paused in that task to build an adequate foundation upon which to base Goethe's mode of intuitive thinking and his own interpretation of Goethe.

But he not only solved the central problem with which he had been battling since youth. He also laid foundations deep in the human spirit for all his own creative thinking during the remaining thirty-nine years of his life. The whole wealth of his writings and lectures, dealing with so great a range of themes of deepest human concern, rests solidly upon this foundation. It rests upon this exposition of the reality, the spiritual nature, of human thinking: the truth he had apprehended in inner certitude of experience, and had confirmed under the rigid tests of the intellect, that “becoming aware of the Idea within reality is the true communion of man.” Later writings and lectures which set forth the potential and nascent capacity of the human spirit to rise above the low horizons of our every-day cognitions into a higher and clearer spiritual atmosphere of self-confirming intuitions rests, like everything else he has affirmed, upon the inherent nature of man's cognitive faculties as set forth, explicitly or implicitly, in this first published volume by the still youthful investigator. This compact volume represents a milestone in the history of the human mind, a crucial achievement in the struggle of man to know himself.

In essence, the argument is as follows.

One constituent of direct experience — thought, which appears before our inner activity of contemplation — is unique in manifesting immediately its essential nature and its interrelationships. It thus becomes the only key to disclose the hidden nature of all other experience.

Thought is not subjective in itself, but only as regards the prerequisite activity of our contemplation. This is evidenced by the clearly observable fact that we combine thoughts solely according to their inherent content. Our contemplation, as an organ of perception, only brings to manifestation in consciousness objectively real elements of the one thought content of the world. Through the intellectual cognition of single elements of this reality — concepts — and the rational combination of inherently related elements into harmonious complexes — ideas — we are capable of knowing gradually expanding aspects of the total reality. This knowledge is real, not a mere phantasm of the subjective mind.

But the mode of cognition suited to the inorganic is not suited to the organic. In relation to the inorganic, we possess truth when we grasp the cause of a phenomenon. In relation to the organic, we must apprehend the supersensible type, which manifests itself in the single members of a species of plant or animal. This requires direct, intuitive cognition: the mind must perceive in thinking and think in perceiving. Moreover, when we deal with the human being, we must apprehend the central reality — the ego — manifest as a self-sufficing spiritual being in its uniqueness in each single human personality.

Through this mode of intuitive cognition, we may attain to the knowledge that the universal Creative Spirit is in the single human being; that His highest manifestation is in human thought; that man is in harmony with this Guiding Power of the world when he follows freely, as an individual, the guidance of his own intuitions.

* * * * *

The heartfelt thanks of the translator are due to several competent specialists who have rendered important service in this difficult task: to Miss Ruth Hofrichter, of Vassar College, who painstakingly scrutinized the manuscript in its first form some years ago, in comparison with the German text, and pointed out a number of deficiencies; to Dr. Hermann Poppelbaum and Dr. Egbert Weber for very helpful detailed criticisms and suggestions.

O. D. W.

New York City
July 1940

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