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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Goethean Science
GA 1

6. Goethe's Way of Knowledge

In June 1794, Johann Gottlieb Fichte sent the first sections of his Theory of Science45Wissenschaftslehre to Goethe. The latter wrote back to the philosopher on June 24: “As far as I am concerned, I will owe you the greatest thanks if you finally reconcile me with the philosophers, with whom I can never do without and with whom I have never been able to unite myself.” What the poet is here seeking from Fichte is what he sought earlier from Spinoza and later from Schelling and Hegel: a philosophical world view that would be in accordance with his way of thinking. None of the philosophical directions with which he became acquainted, however, brought the poet complete satisfaction.

This fact makes our task considerably more difficult. We want to draw nearer to Goethe from the philosophical side. If he himself had designated one standpoint of knowledge as his own, then we could refer to it. But this is not the case. And so the task devolves on us to recognize the philosophical core of all we have from the poet and to sketch a picture of it. We consider the right way to accomplish this task to be a direction in thinking that is gained upon the foundations of German idealistic philosophy. This philosophy sought, in fact, in its own way to satisfy the same highest human needs to which Goethe and Schiller devoted their lives. It came forth from the same contemporary stream. It therefore also stands much nearer to Goethe than do those views that to a large degree govern the sciences today. What Goethe expressed in poetic form and what he presented scientifically can be regarded as the consequence of a view that can be formed out of that philosophy. They could definitely never be the consequence of such scientific directions as our present-day ones. We are very far removed today from that way of thinking which lay in Goethe's nature.

It is indeed true that we must acknowledge progress in all areas of culture. But that this progress is one into the depths of things can hardly be asserted. For the content of an epoch, however, only progress into the depths of things is decisive, after all. But our epoch might best be characterized by the statement: It rejects, as unattainable for man, any progress at all into the depths of things. We have become faint-hearted in all areas, especially in that of thinking and willing. With respect to thinking: one observes endlessly, stores up the observations, and lacks the courage to develop them into a scientific, whole view of reality. One accuses German idealistic philosophy of being unscientific, however, because it did have this courage. Today one wants only to look with one's senses, not think. One has lost all trust in thinking. One does not consider it able to penetrate into the mysteries of the world and of life; one altogether renounces any solution to the great riddle questions of existence. The only thing one considers possible is: to bring what experience tells us, into a system. But in doing so one forgets that with this view one is approaching a standpoint considered to have been overcome long ago. The rejection of all thinking and the insistence upon sense experience is, grasped more deeply, nothing more, after all, than the blind faith in revelation of the religions. The latter rests, after all, only upon the fact that the church provides finished truths that one has to believe. Thinking may struggle to penetrate into the deeper meaning of these truths; but thinking is deprived of the ability to test the truth itself, to penetrate by its own power into the depths of the world. And the science of experience, what does it ask of thinking? That it listen to what the facts say, and interpret, order, etc., what is heard. It also denies to thinking the ability to penetrate independently into the core of the world.

On the one hand, theology demands the blind subjection of thinking to the statements of the church; on the other, science demands blind subjection to the statements of sense observation. Here as there, independent thinking that penetrates into the depths counts as nothing. The science of experience forgets only one thing. Thousands and thousands of people have looked at a sense-perceptible fact and passed it by without noting anything striking about it. Then someone came along who looked at it and became aware of an important law about it. How? This can only stem from the fact that the discoverer knew how to look differently than his predecessors. He saw the fact with different eyes than his fellow men. In looking, he had a definite thought as to how one must bring the fact into relationship with other facts, what is significant for it and what is not. And so, thinking, he set the matter in order and saw more than the others. He saw with the eyes of the spirit. All scientific discoveries rest on the fact that the observer knows how to observe in a way governed by the right thought. Thinking must naturally guide observation. It cannot do so if the researcher has lost his belief in thinking, if he does not know what to make of thinking's significance. The science of experience wanders helplessly about in the world of phenomena; the sense world becomes a confusing manifoldness for it, because it does not have enough energy in thinking to penetrate into the center.

One speaks today of limits to knowledge because one does not know where the goal of thinking lies. One has no clear view of what one wants to attain and doubts that one will attain it. If someone came today and pointed out clearly to us the solution to the riddle of the world, we would gain nothing from it, because we would not know what to make of this solution.

And it is exactly the same with willing and acting. One cannot set oneself any definite task in life of which one would be capable. One dreams oneself into indefinite unclear ideals and then complains about the fact that one does not achieve something of which one hardly has a dim, let alone a clear, picture. Just ask one of the pessimists of our day what he actually wants and what it is he despairs of attaining. He does not know. Problematical natures are they all, incapable of meeting any situation and yet satisfied with none. Do not misunderstand me. I do not wish to extol that superficial optimism which, satisfied with the trivial enjoyments of life, demands nothing higher and therefore never suffers want. I do not wish to condemn individuals who painfully feel the deep tragedy that lies in the fact that we are dependent on conditions that have a laming effect on everything we do and that we strive in vain to change. But we should not forget that pain is the woof and happiness the warp. Think of the mother, how her joy in the well-being of her children is increased if it has been achieved by earlier cares, suffering, and effort. Every right-minded person would in fact have to refuse a happiness that some external power might offer him, because he cannot after all experience something as happiness that is just handed him as an unearned gift. If some creator or other had undertaken the creation of man with the thought in mind of bestowing happiness upon his likeness at the same time, as an inheritance, then he would have done better to leave him uncreated. The fact that what man creates is always ruthlessly destroyed again raises his stature; for he must always build and create anew; and it is in activity that our happiness lies; it lies in what we ourselves accomplish. It is the same with bestowed happiness as with revealed truth. Only this is worthy of man: that he seek truth himself, that neither experience nor revelation lead him. When that has been thoroughly recognized once and for all, then the religions based on revelation will be finished. The human being will then no longer want God to reveal Himself or bestow blessings upon him. He will want to know through his own thinking and to establish his happiness through his own strength. Whether some higher power or other guides our fate to the good or to the bad, this does not concern us at all; we ourselves must determine the path we have to travel. The loftiest idea of God is still the one which assumes that God, after His creation of the human being, withdrew completely from the world and gave man completely over to himself.

Whoever acknowledges to thinking its ability to perceive beyond the grasp of the senses must necessarily acknowledge that it also has objects that lie beyond merely sense-perceptible reality. The objects of thinking, however, are ideas. Inasmuch as thinking takes possession of the idea, thinking fuses with the primal ground of world existence; what is at work outside enters into the spirit of man: he becomes one with objective reality in its highest potency. Becoming aware of the idea within reality is the true communion of man.

Thinking has the same significance with respect to ideas as the eye has with respect to light, the ear to tone. It is an organ of apprehension.

This view is in a position to unite two things that are regarded today as completely incompatible: the empirical method, and idealism as a scientific world view. It is believed that to accept the former means necessarily to reject the latter. This is absolutely not true. To be sure, if one considers the senses to be the only organs of apprehension for objective reality, then one must arrive at the above view. For, the senses offer us only such relationships of things as can be traced back to mechanical laws. And the mechanistic world view would thus be given as the only true form of any such world view. In this, one is making the mistake of simply overlooking the other component parts of reality which are just as objective but which cannot be traced back to mechanical laws. What is objectively given by no means coincides with what is sense-perceptibly given, as the mechanistic world conception believes. What is sense-perceptibly given is only half of the given. The other half of the given is ideas, which are also objects of experience—of a higher experience, to be sure, whose organ is thinking. Ideas are also accessible to the inductive method.

Today's science of sense experience follows the altogether correct method of holding fast to the given; but it adds the inadmissible assertion that this method can provide only facts of a sense-perceptible nature. Instead of limiting itself to the question of how we arrive at our views, this science determines from the start what we can see. The only satisfactory way to grasp reality is the empirical method with idealistic results. That is idealism, but not of the kind that pursues some nebulous, dreamed-up unity of things, but rather of a kind that seeks the concrete ideal content of reality in a way that is just as much in accordance with experience as is the search of modern hyper-exact science for the factual content.

By approaching Goethe with these views, we believe we are entering into his essential nature. We hold fast to idealism and develop it, not on the basis of Hegel's dialectic method, but rather upon a clarified higher empiricism.

This kind of empiricism also underlies the philosophy of Eduard v. Hartmann. Eduard v. Hartmann seeks the ideal unity in nature, as this does positively yield itself to a thinking that has real content. He rejects the merely mechanistic view of nature and the hyper-Darwinism that is stuck on externals. In science, he is the founder of a concrete monism. In history and aesthetics, he seeks concrete ideas, and does all this according to empirical inductive methods.

Hartmann's philosophy differs from mine only on the question of pessimism and through the metaphysical orientation of his system toward the “unconscious.” We will consider the latter point further on in the book. But with respect to pessimism, let the following be said: What Hartmann cites as grounds for pessimism—i.e., for the view that nothing in the world can fully satisfy us, that pain always outweighs pleasure—that is precisely what I would designate as the good fortune of mankind. What he brings forward is for me only proof that it is futile to strive for happiness. We must, in fact, entirely give up any such striving and seek our destiny purely in selflessly fulfilling those ideal tasks that our reason prescribes for us. What else does this mean than that we should seek our happiness only in doing, in unflagging activity?

Only the active person, indeed only the selflessly active person who seeks no recompense for his activity, fulfills his destiny. It is foolish to want to be recompensed for one's activity; there is no true recompense. Here Hartmann ought to build further. He ought to show what, with such presuppositions, can be the only mainspring of all our actions. This can, when the prospect of a goal one is striving for falls away, only be the selfless devotion to the object to which one is dedicating one's activity; this can only be love. Only an action out of love can be a moral one. In science, the idea, and in our action, love, must be our guiding star. And this brings us back to Goethe. “The main thing for the active person is that he do what is right; he should not worry about whether the right occurs.” “Our whole feat consists in giving up our existence in order to exist” (Aphorisms in Prose).

I have not arrived at my world view only through the study of Goethe or even of Hegelianism, for example. I took my start from the mechanistic-naturalistic conception of the world, but recognized that, with intensive thinking, one cannot remain there. Proceeding strictly according to natural-scientific methods, I found in objective idealism the only satisfying world view. My epistemology46The Science of Knowing: Outline of an Epistemology Implicit in the Goethean World View (Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung), also translated as A Theory of Knowledge shows the way by which a kind of thinking that understands itself and is not self-contradictory arrives at this world view. I then found that this objective idealism, in its basic features, permeates the Goethean world view. Thus the elaborating of my views does, to be sure, for years now run parallel with my study of Goethe; and I have never found any conflict in principle between my basic views and the Goethean scientific activity. I consider my task fulfilled if I have been at least partially successful in, firstly, developing my standpoint in such a way that it can also become alive in other people, and secondly, bringing about the conviction that this standpoint really is the Goethean one.