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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Goethean Science
GA 1

15. Goethe and Natural-scientific Illusionism

The reason for writing this chapter does not lie in the fact that the Colour Theory, accompanied by an introduction, must also be included in a Goethe edition. It stems from a deep, spiritual need of the editor of this edition. The latter took his start from the study of mathematics and physics and with inner necessity was led, by the many contradictions pervading the system of our modern view of nature, to a critical investigation of the methodological basis of these sciences. His initial studies led him to the principle of strict knowledge through experience; his insight into those contradictions led him to a strict scientific epistemology. He was protected by his positive starting point from any reversion to purely Hegelian conceptual constructs. With the help of his epistemological studies, he finally found the reason for many of the errors of modern natural science to lie in the completely incorrect standing that science had assigned to the simple sense impression. Our science transfers all sense qualities (sound, colour, warmth, etc.) into the subject and is of the opinion that “outside” the subject there is nothing corresponding to these qualities except processes of motion of matter. These processes of motion, which are supposedly all that exists within the “realm of nature,” can of course no longer be perceived. They are inferred on the basis of subjective qualities.

But this inference must appear to consistent thinking as fragmentary. Motion is, to begin with, only a concept that we have borrowed from the sense world; i.e., it confronts us only in things with sense-perceptible qualities. We do not know of any motion other than that connected with sense objects. If one now transfers this attribute onto entities that are not sense-perceptible—such as the elements of discontinuous matter (atoms) are supposed to be—then one must after all be clear about the fact that through this transference, an attribute perceived by the senses is ascribed to a form of existence essentially different from what is conceived of as sense-perceptible. One falls into the same contradiction when one wants to arrive at a real content for the initially completely empty concept of the atom. Sense qualities, in fact, even though ever so sublimated, must be added to this concept. One person ascribes impenetrability, exertion of force, to the atom; another ascribes extension in space, and so on; in short, each one ascribes certain characteristics or other that are borrowed from the sense world. If one does not do this, one remains in a complete void.

That is why the above inference is only fragmentary. One draws a line through the middle of what is sense-perceptible and declares the one part to be objective and the other to be subjective. The only consistent statement would be: If there are atoms, then these are simple parts of matter, with the characteristics of matter, and are not perceptible only because their small size makes them inaccessible to our senses.

But with this there disappears any possibility of seeking anything in the motion of atoms that could be held up as something objective in contrast to the subjective qualities of sound, colour, etc. And the possibility also ceases of seeking anything more, for example, in the connection between motion and the sensation “red” than a connection between two processes that both belong entirely to the sense world.

It was therefore clear to the editor that motion of ether, position of atoms, etc., belong in the same category as the sense impressions themselves. Declaring the latter to be subjective is only the result of unclear reflection. If one declares sense qualities to be subjective, then one must do exactly the same with the motion of ether. It is not for any principle reason that we do not perceive the latter, but only because our sense organs are not organized finely enough. But that is a purely coincidental state of affairs. It could be the case that someday mankind, by increasing refinement of our sense organs, would arrive at the point of also perceiving the motion of ether directly. If then a person of that distant future accepted our subjectivistic theory of sense impressions, then he would have to declare these motions of ether to be just as subjective as we declare colour, sound, etc., to be today.

It is clear that this theory of physics leads to a contradiction that cannot be resolved.

This subjectivistic view has a second support in physiological considerations.

Physiology shows that a sensation appears only as the final result of a mechanical process that first communicates itself, from that part of the corporeal world lying outside the substance of our body, to the periphery of our nervous system, into our sense organs; from here, the process is transmitted to our highest center, in order to be released there for the first time as sensation. The contradictions of this physiological theory are presented in the chapter on “The Archetypal Phenomenon.” One can, after all, label only the brain substance's form of motion as subjective here. No matter how far one might go in investigating the processes within the subject, one must always remain, on this path, within what is mechanical. And one will nowhere discover the sensation in the central organ.

Therefore only philosophical consideration remains as a way of gaining information about the subjectivity and objectivity of sensation. And this provides us with the following.

What can be designated as “subjective” about a perception? Without having an exact analysis of the concept “subjective,” one cannot go forward at all. Subjectivity, of course, cannot be determined by anything other than itself. Everything that cannot be shown to be conditional upon the subject may not be designated as “subjective.” Now we must ask ourselves: What can we designate as the human subject's own? That which it can experience about itself through outer or inner perception. Through outer perception we grasp our bodily constitution; through inner experience, we grasp our own thinking, feeling, and willing. Now what is to be designated as subjective in the first case? The constitution of the whole organism, and therefore also the sense organs and brain, which will probably appear in each human being in somewhat different modifications. But everything that can be indicated here in this way is only a particular formation in the arrangement and function of substances by which a sensation is transmitted. Only the path, therefore, is actually subjective that the sensation has to take before it can become my sensation. Our organization transmits the sensation and these paths of transmission are subjective; the sensation itself, however, is not subjective.

Now there still remains the path of inner experience for us consider. What do I experience within myself when I designate a sensation as my own? I experience that in my thinking I effect a connection to my individuality, that I extend my sphere of knowing out over this sensation; but I am not conscious of creating any content for the sensation. I only register its connection to myself; the quality of the sensation is a fact founded within itself.

No matter where we begin, whether within or without, we do not arrive at a place where we could say that here the subjective character of the sensation is given. The concept “subjective” is not applicable to the content of sensation.

It is these considerations that compelled me to reject as impossible any theory of nature that in a principle way goes beyond the realm of the perceived world, and to seek the sole object of natural science exclusively within the sense world. But then I had to seek, within the mutual interdependencies of the facts of precisely this sense world, that which we designate as the laws of nature.

And in this way, I was forced to that view of the natural-scientific method which underlies the Goethean colour theory. Whoever finds these considerations to be correct will read this colour theory with very different eyes than modern natural scientists can. Such a person will see that what we have here is not Goethe's hypothesis confronting that of Newton, but rather at issue here is the question: Is today's theoretical physics acceptable or not? If not, however, then neither is the light that this physics casts upon colour theory. May the reader experience from the following chapters what our principle foundation is for physics, in order then, from this foundation, to see Goethe's undertakings in the right light.