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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Goethean Science
GA 1

17. Goethe Against Atomism


There is much talk nowadays about the fruitful development of natural science in the nineteenth century. I believe that one can rightfully speak of significant natural-scientific experiences that one has had, and of a transformation of our practical life by these experiences. But with respect to the basic mental pictures by which the modern view of nature seeks to understand the world of experience, these I consider to be unhealthy and, to an energetic thinking, inadequate. I have already expressed myself on this subject on page 201 ff. of this book. Quite recently a well-known scientist of the present day, the chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, has expressed the same view. 77The Overcoming of Scientific Materialism” (“Die Überwindung des Wissenschaftlichen Materialismus”); a lecture held in the third general session of the meeting of the Society of German Scientists and Physicians in Lübeck on September 20, 1895. (Leipzig 1895) He says: “When asked how he thinks the world to be ‘inwardly’ constituted, every scientifically-thinking person, from the mathematician to the practical physician, will summarize his view in the direction that the things are composed of moving ‘atoms,’ and that these atoms, and the forces working between them, are the ultimate realities of which the individual phenomena consist. In hundreds of repetitions one can hear and read this statement, to the effect that no other understanding of the physical world can be found except by tracing it back to a ‘mechanics of atoms;’ matter and motion seem to be the ultimate concepts to which the manifoldness of the natural phenomena must be related. One can call this view scientific materialism.” On page 201 ff. of this book I have said that the basic views of modern physics are untenable. Ostwald (on page six of his lecture) says the same thing in the following words: “that this mechanistic world view does not fulfill the purpose for which it was developed; that it comes into contradiction with undoubted and universally known and recognized truths.” The agreement between Ostwald's expositions and my own goes still further. I say on page 214 of this book: “The sense-perceptible world picture is the sum total of metamorphosing perceptual contents without an underlying matter.” Ostwald says (p. 12 ff.): “But when we reflect upon the fact that everything we know about a particular substance is a knowledge of its characteristics, we then see that it is not very far from pure nonsense to assert that a particular substance is indeed present but no longer has any of its characteristics. In fact, this purely formal assumption serves only to unite the general facts of chemical processes, especially the stoichiometric laws of mass, with the arbitrary concept of a matter that in itself is unchanged.” And on page 199 of this book appears the statement: “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.” I find the same thing expressed in Ostwald's lecture on page 25 and 22: “What do we experience then of the physical world? Obviously only that which our sense instruments allow to come to us from it.” “The task of science is to bring realities, demonstrable and measurable magnitudes, into a definite relationship to each other, in such a way that when certain realities are given the others can be deduced; and this task cannot be accomplished by basing things on some hypothetical picture or other, but only by demonstrating the reciprocal relationships of dependency between measurable magnitudes.” If one disregards the fact that Ostwald is speaking in the sense of a natural scientist of the present day and therefore sees in the sense world nothing other than demonstrable and measurable magnitudes, then his view corresponds entirely with mine, in the way I have expressed it, for example, in the statement p. 234): “Thinking consideration must encompass what is perceptible ... and must seek the interrelationships within this area.”

In my discussion of Goethe's colour theory, I have carried on the same battle against the basic mental pictures of present-day natural science as Professor Ostwald does in his lecture “The Overcoming of Scientific Materialism.” What I have put in the place of these basic mental pictures does not, to be sure, agree with what Ostwald has set up. For, as I will show later on, he takes his start from the same superficial presuppositions as do his opponents, the adherents of scientific materialism. I have also shown that the basic mental pictures of the modern view of nature are the cause of the unhealthy judgments that were, and continue to be, passed on Goethe's colour theory.

I would now like to deal somewhat more exactly with the modern view of nature. I will seek to know, from the goal that this modern view of nature sets itself, whether this view is a healthy one or not.

It is not without justification that one has seen in the following words of Descartes the basic formula by which the modern view of nature judges the world of perceptions: “When I examine corporeal things more closely, I find that very little is contained in them that I can understand clearly and definitely, except: magnitude, or extension in length, depth, and breadth; shape, that results from the limits of this extension; location, that the variously shaped bodies have relative to each other; and motion, or change in this location; to which one may add substance, duration, and number. As for other things — such as light, colors, sounds, odors, sensations of taste, warmth, cold and the other qualities that the sense of touch experiences (smoothness, roughness) — they arise within my spirit in such an obscure and confused way that I do not know whether they are true or false, i.e., whether the ideas that I grasp of these objects are in fact the ideas of some real things or other, or whether they represent only chimerical entities that cannot exist.” The adherents of the modern view of nature have become so habituated to thinking along the lines of this statement of Descartes that they find every other way of thinking to be scarcely worthy of their attention. They say: What is perceived as light is caused by a process of motion that can be expressed in a mathematical formula. When a colour arises in the phenomenal world, they trace it back to an oscillating motion and calculate the number of oscillations in a specified time. They believe that the entire sense world will be explained when they have succeeded in tracing all perceptions back to relationships that can be expressed in such mathematical formulas. A mind that could give such an explanation would, according to the view of these natural scientists, have attained the utmost that is possible for man with respect to knowledge of natural phenomena. Du Bois-Reymond, a representative of these learned men, says of such a mind: for it, “the hairs of our heads would be numbered, and not a sparrow would fall to earth without its knowledge.” (Limits to Knowing Nature) 78Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens, p. 13. To make the world into a mathematical problem is the ideal of the modern view of nature.

Since, without the presence of forces, the parts of their assumed matter would never come into motion, modern scholars of nature also include force among the elements by which they explain the world; and Du Bois-Reymond says: “Knowing nature is a tracing back of changes within the corporeal world to the motion of atoms that is caused by the atoms central forces that are independent of time; or, in other words, knowing nature is a breaking down of nature processes into the mechanics of atoms.” Through the introduction of the concept of force, mathematics passes over into mechanics.

Today's philosophers stand so much under the influence of nature scholars that they have lost all courage to think for themselves. They accept without reservation what nature scholars set up. One of the most respected German philosophers, W. Wundt, says in his Logic: “With reference to ... and in the employment of the basic proposition — that because of the qualitative changelessness of matter, all natural processes are, in the last analysis, motion — one regards the goal of physics to be its complete transference into ... applied mechanics.”

Du Bois-Reymond finds that: “It is a psychological fact of experience that, where such a breaking down (of natural processes into a mechanics of the atoms) succeeds, our need for causality feels itself satisfied for the time being.” That may be a fact of experience for Du Bois-Reymond. But it must be stated that there are other human beings as well who absolutely do not feel themselves satisfied by a banal explanation of the corporeal world such as Du Bois-Reymond has in mind.

Goethe belongs to these other human beings. Someone whose need for causality is satisfied when he has succeeded in tracing the processes of nature back to the mechanics of atoms lacks the organ by which to understand Goethe.


Magnitude, shape, location, motion, force, etc., are perceptions in exactly the same sense as light, colors, sounds, odors, sensations of taste, warmth, cold, etc. Someone who isolates the magnitude of a thing from its other characteristics and looks at it by itself no longer has to do with a real thing, but only with an abstraction of the intellect. It is the most nonsensical thing imaginable to ascribe a different degree of reality to an abstraction drawn from sense perception than to a thing of sense perception itself. Spatial and temporal relationships have no advantage over other sense perceptions save their greater simplicity and surveyability. It is upon this simplicity and surveyability that the certainty of the mathematical sciences rests. When the modern view of nature traces all the processes of the corporeal world back to something that can be expressed mathematically and mechanically, it does so because the mathematical and the mechanical are easy and comfortable for our thinking to deal with. And human thinking does have an inclination toward being comfortable. One can see that precisely in the above-mentioned lecture of Ostwald. This nature scholar wants to set energy in the place of matter and force. Note what he says: “What is the determining factor needed for one of our (sense) instruments to become active? No matter how we look at this, we find no common element except that the sense instruments react to differences in energy between themselves and their environment. In a world whose temperature were everywhere the same as our body's, we would in no way be able to experience any warmth, just as we have no sensation at all of the constant atmospheric pressure under which we live; only when we establish spaces with different pressures, do we arrive at any knowledge of this pressure.” (p. 25f. of his lecture) And furthermore (p. 29): “Imagine that you were struck by a stick! What would you feel then, the stick or its energy? There can be only one answer: its energy. For a stick is the most harmless thing in the world as long as it is not swung. But we can also hit against a motionless stick! Quite right; but as we have already emphasized, what we feel are differences in states of energy against our sense apparatus, and it therefore makes no difference whether the stick strikes us or we hit against the stick. But if we both have the same velocity and are moving in the same direction, then the stick no longer exists for our sensation, because it cannot come into contact with us and effect an exchange of energy.” These statements prove that Ostwald isolates energy from the realm of the world of perceptions, i.e., abstracts it from everything that is not energy. He traces everything perceptible back to one single characteristic of the perceptible, to the manifestation of energy — to an abstract concept, therefore. Ostwald's entanglement in the natural-scientific habits of the present day is clearly recognizable. If asked, he could also not offer anything more in justification of his procedure than that it is a psychological fact of experience, that his need for causality is satisfied when he has broken down the processes of nature into manifestations of energy. Essentially it makes no difference whether Du Bois Reymond breaks down the processes of nature into a mechanics of atoms or Ostwald breaks them down into manifestations of energy. Both spring from human thinking's inclination toward being comfortable.

Ostwald says at the end of his lecture (p. 34): “Is energy, as necessary and useful as it might be for understanding nature, also sufficient for this purpose (of explaining the corporeal world, namely)? Or are there phenomena which cannot be completely described by the laws of energy we know so far? ... I believe that I cannot meet the responsibility I have assumed toward you today through my presentation, better than by emphasizing that the answer to this question is no. As immense as the advantages are that the energistic world view has over the mechanistic or materialistic one, still several points can already be indicated today, it seems to me, that are not covered by the known main principles of energistics and that therefore point to the existence of principles that transcend them. Energistics will continue side by side with these new principles. But in the future it will not, as we must still regard it today, be the most comprehensive principle for mastering natural phenomena, but presumably will appear as a particular case of still more general conditions, of whose form, to be sure, we hardly have an inkling today.”


If our nature scholars also read the books of people outside of their guild, Professor Ostwald would not have been able to make a statement like this. For in 1891, in the previously mentioned introduction to the Goethean colour theory, I have already expressed how we in fact do have an inkling and more than an inkling of such “forms,” and that the task of natural science in the future lies in the developing of Goethe's basic natural-scientific conceptions.

Just as little as the processes of the corporeal world can be “broken down” into a mechanics of atoms, so just as little into states of energy. Nothing further is achieved by this approach than that attention is diverted from the content of the real sense world and directed toward an unreal abstraction, whose meager fund of characteristics, after all, is also only drawn from the same sense world. One cannot explain one group of characteristics of the sense world — light, colors, sounds, odors, tastes, warmth conditions, etc. — by “breaking them down” into another group of characteristics of the same sense world: magnitude, shape, location, number, energy, etc. The task of natural science cannot be to “break down” one kind of characteristics into another kind, but rather to seek out the relationships and connections between the perceptible characteristics of the sense world. We then discover certain determining factors according to which one sense perception necessarily follows from the other. We find that a more intimate relationship exists between certain phenomena than between others. We then no longer connect phenomena in the way they present themselves to chance observation. For we recognize that certain relationships of phenomena are necessary ones. Other relationships, in contrast to them, are coincidental. Goethe calls the necessary relationships between phenomena “archetypal phenomena.”

The expression of an archetypal phenomenon consists in the statement about a particular sense perception that it necessarily calls forth another one. This expression is what one calls a law of nature. When one says, “through heating, a body is expanded,” one has given expression to a necessary relationship between phenomena of the sense world (warmth, expansion). One has recognized an archetypal phenomenon and expressed it in the form of a natural law. Archetypal phenomena are the forms Ostwald sought for the most general relationships of inorganic nature.

The laws of mathematics and mechanics are also only expressions of archetypal phenomena like the laws that bring other sense-perceptible relationships into a formula. When G. Kirchhoff says that the task of mechanics is “to describe, completely and in the most simple way, the motions occurring in nature,” he is mistaken. Mechanics does not describe the motions occurring in nature merely in the simplest way and completely, but rather seeks certain necessary processes of motion that it lifts out of the sum total of the motions occurring in nature, and sets forth these necessary processes of motion as fundamental laws of mechanics. It must be regarded as the height of thoughtlessness that this statement of Kirchhoff is brought forward again and again as something quite significant, without any feeling for the fact that the statement of the simplest basic law of mechanics refutes it.

The archetypal phenomenon represents a necessary relationship between the elements of the perceptual world. One could hardly say something wider of the mark than what H. Helmholtz presented in his address to the Weimar Goethe Conference on June 11, 1892: “It is a pity that Goethe, at that time, did not know the undulation theory of light that Huyghens had already presented; this would have provided him with a far more correct and surveyable ‘archetypal phenomenon’ than the scarcely adequate and very complicated process that he finally chose to this end in the colors of turbid mediums.” 79H.L.F. v. Helmholtz, Goethe's Pre-inklings of Future Scientific Ideas (Goethes Vorahnungen kommender wissenschaftlicher Ideen usw.), p. 34. (Berlin 1892)

So, the unperceivable undulating motions that the adherents of the modern view of nature have thought up and added to the phenomena of light would supposedly have provided Goethe with a far more correct and surveyable “archetypal phenomenon” than the process — that is not at all complicated, but rather plays itself out before our very eyes — which consists in the fact that light, seen through a turbid medium, appears yellow and darkness, seen through an illuminated medium, appears blue. The “breaking down” of sense-perceptible processes into unperceivable mechanical motion has become so habitual to modern physicists that they seem to have no inkling at all of the fact that they are setting an abstraction in the place of reality. Statements like that of Helmholtz can be made only when all of Goethe's statements like the following have first been eliminated from the world: “The highest would be to grasp that everything factual is already theory. The blue of the heavens reveals to us the basic law of the science of colors. Only do not seek anything behind the phenomena; they are themselves the teaching.” Goethe remains within the phenomenal world; modern physicists gather up a few scraps from the phenomenal world and transfer them behind the phenomena, in order then to derive the phenomena of really perceptible experience from these hypothetical realities.


Individual younger physicists maintain that they do not attach to the concept of moving matter any significance transcending experience. One of these, Anton Lampa, Nights of the Seeker 80Nächte des Suchenden (Braunschweig 1893) who accomplishes the remarkable feat of being an adherent of mechanistic natural science and of Indian mysticism at the same time, states, in opposition to Ostwald's expositions, that the latter is “waging a battle with wind mills like the brave Don Quixote of yore. Where then is the giant of scientific (Ostwald means natural-scientific) materialism? There is no such thing. There was at one time a so-called natural-scientific materialism of Messieurs Büchner, Vogt, and Moleschott — in fact there still is — but this does not exist in natural science itself, and has also never been at home in natural science. Ostwald overlooked this fact, otherwise he would have taken the field merely against the mechanistic view, which because of this misunderstanding, he only does incidentally, but which, without this misunderstanding, he would probably not have done at all. Can one believe then that an investigation in nature following the paths opened by Kirchhoff can grasp the concept of matter in the sense that materialism has done so? That is impossible; that is a contradiction lying clearly open to view. The concept of matter, just like that of force, can only have a meaning precisely determined by the demand for a simplest possible description, i.e., expressed in the Kantian way; it can only have a merely empirical meaning. And if any natural scientist attaches to the word “matter” a meaning that goes beyond this, then he does so, not as a natural scientist, but rather as a materialistic philosopher.” (Die Zeit, Vienna, Nr. 61, Nov. 30, 1895).

According to these words, Lampa must be characterized as typical of the normal natural scientist of the present day. He applies the mechanistic explanation of nature because it is comfortable to deal with. But he avoids thinking about the true character of this explanation of nature, because he fears getting tangled up in contradictions before which his thinking feels inadequate.

How can someone who loves clear thinking attach any meaning to the concept of matter without going beyond the world of experience? Within the world of experience there are objects of certain magnitude and location; there are motion and forces; furthermore there are the phenomena of light, colour, warmth, electricity, life, etc. As to whether magnitude, warmth, colour, etc., are attached to some matter, experience says nothing. Matter is nowhere to be found within the world of experience. Whoever wants to think matter must think it up and add it to experience.

This kind of a thinking up of matter and adding it to the phenomena of the world of experience is apparent in the physical and physiological reflections that have found a home in modern natural science under the influence of Kant and Johannes Müller. These reflections have led to the belief that the outer processes that allow sound to arise in the ear, light in the eye, warmth in the sense for warmth, etc., have nothing in common with the sensations of sound, of light, of warmth, etc. Rather, these outer processes, supposedly, are certain motions of matter. The researcher of nature then investigates what sort of outer processes of motion allow sound, light, colour, etc., to arise in the human soul. He comes to the conclusion that, outside of the human organism, red, yellow, or blue are nowhere to be found in all of world space, but rather that there is only a wave-like motion of a fine elastic matter, the ether, which, when it is sensed by the eye presents itself as red, yellow, or blue. The modern teacher about nature believes that if no sensitive eye were present, then there would also be no colour present, but rather only moving ether. The ether is supposedly what is objective, and the colour is merely something subjective, something created within the human body. The Leipzig professor Wundt, whom one sometimes hears acclaimed as one of the greatest philosophers of the present day, says therefore about matter that it is a substratum “which never becomes visible to us itself; but always only in its effects.” And he finds that “an explanation of phenomena that is free of contradictions will be achieved only” when one assumes such a substratum (Logic, Vol. 2, p. 445). The Cartesian delusion about definite and confused mental pictures has become physics' fundamental way of picturing things.


Someone whose ability to picture things has not been thoroughly ruined by Descartes, Locke, Kant, and modern physiology will never understand how one can regard light, colour, sound, warmth, etc., to be merely subjective states of the human organism and yet still assert that there is an objective world of processes outside of this organism. Someone who makes the human organism into the creator of the happenings of sound, warmth, colour, etc., must also make it the producer of extension, magnitude, location, motion, forces, etc. For, these mathematical and mechanistic qualities are, in reality, inseparably united with the rest of the content of the world of experience. The separating out of conditions of space, number, and motion, as well as manifestations of force, from the qualities of warmth, sound, colour, and the other sense qualities, is only a function of our abstractive thinking. The laws of mathematics and mechanics relate to abstract objects and processes that are drawn from the world of experience and that therefore can find an application only within the world of experience. But if the mathematical and mechanistic forms and relationships are also explained as merely subjective states, then nothing remains that could serve as content for the concept of objective things and events. And no phenomena can be derived from an empty concept.

As long as modern scholars of nature and their train bearers, the modern philosophers, hold fast to the view that sense perceptions are only subjective states that are called forth by objective processes, a healthy thinking will always point out to them in reply that they are either playing with empty concepts, or are ascribing to what is objective a content that they are borrowing from that world of experience which they have declared to be subjective. In a number of books, I have demonstrated the absurdity of the assertion that our sense impressions are subjective. 81The Science of Knowing: Outline of an Epistemology Implicit in the Goethean World View with Particular Reference to Schiller (1886) (Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung mit besonderer Rücksicht auf Schiller); Truth and Science, Prelude to a Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (1892) (Wahrheit und Wissenschaft, Vorspiel einer ‘Philosophie der Freiheit’); Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, Basic Features of a Modern World View (1894) (Philosophie der Freiheit, Grundzüge einer modernen Weltanschauung).

Still, let us turn from the question as to whether or not a different form of reality is ascribed to the processes of motion and to the forces that bring them forth — from which recent physics derives all the phenomena of nature — than to sense perceptions. Let me now merely ask what the mathematical-mechanistic view of nature can accomplish. Anton Lampa maintains (Nights of the Seeker, p. 92): “Mathematical methods and mathematics are not identical, for the mathematical method is applicable without the use of mathematics. The experimental research on electricity by Faraday, who hardly knew how to square a binomial, offers us a classic proof of this fact in physics. Mathematics, in fact, is nothing more than a means of abbreviating logical operations and therefore of proceeding in very complicated cases where ordinary logical thinking would let us down. But at the same time it accomplishes far more still: through the fact that every formula implicitly expresses its processes of development, it builds a living bridge back to the elementary phenomena that served as the starting point for the investigation. A method, however, that cannot make use of mathematics — which is always the case when the magnitudes that apply in an investigation are not measurable — must therefore, in order to match the mathematical method, not only be strictly logical, but also must be particularly careful in the business of tracing things back to the basic phenomena, since, lacking mathematical supports, it can precisely here make a false step; but if a method does achieve this, it can quite rightly lay claim to the title “mathematical,” insofar as this is meant to express the degree of exactitude.”

I would not concern myself with Anton Lampa at such length if he were not, in one respect, a particularly suitable example of a natural scientist of the present day. He satisfies his philosophical needs by Indian mysticism and therefore does not taint the mechanistic view of nature like others do with all kinds of supplementary philosophical conceptions. The theory of nature that he has in mind is, so to speak, the chemically pure view of nature of the present day. I find that Lampa left one main characteristic of mathematics completely out of consideration. Every mathematical formula does indeed build a “living bridge” back to the elementary phenomena that served as the starting point for the investigations. But those elementary phenomena are of the same kind as the non-elementary ones from which the bridge is built. The mathematician traces the characteristics of complicated numerical and spatial configurations, as well as their reciprocal relationships, back to the characteristics and relationships of the simplest numerical and spatial configurations. The mechanical engineer does the same thing in his field. He traces composite processes of motion and force-effects back to simple, easily distinguishable motions and force-effects. In doing so, he makes use of mathematical laws, to the extent that motion and manifestations of force are expressible through spatial configurations and numbers. In a mathematical formula that brings a mechanical law to expression, the individual parts no longer represent purely mathematical configurations, but rather forces and motion. The relationships in which these parts stand to one another are not determined by a purely mathematical lawfulness, but rather by characteristics of force and motion. As soon as one disregards this particular content of the mechanical formulae, one no longer has to do with a mechanical lawfulness, but solely with a mathematical one. Physics relates to mechanics in the same way that mechanics relates to pure mathematics. The task of the physicist is to trace complicated processes in the realm of colour, sound, and warmth phenomena, of electricity, of magnetism, etc., back to simple happenings within the same sphere. He has, for example, to trace complicated colour occurrences back to the simplest colour occurrences. In doing so, he has to make use of mathematical and mechanical lawfulness, to the extent that the colour processes occur in forms that can be determined spatially and numerically. What corresponds to the mathematical method in the realm of physics is not the tracing back of processes of colour, sound, etc., to phenomena of motion and to relationships of force within a colorless and soundless matter, but rather the seeking out of relationships within the phenomena of colour, sound, etc.

Modern physics skips over the phenomena of sound, colour, etc., as such and considers only unchangeable attracting and repelling forces and motion in space. Under the influence of this way of picturing things, physics today has already become applied mathematics and mechanics, and the other fields of natural science are on the way to becoming the same thing.

It is impossible to build a “living bridge” from the one fact — that a particular process of motion of colorless matter is occurring at this location in space — and the other fact — that the human being sees red at this spot. From motion only other motion can be derived. And from the fact that a motion acts upon a sense organ and through it upon the brain, it follows only — according to the mathematical and mechanical method — that the brain is stimulated by the outer world into certain processes of motion, but not that the brain perceives the concrete phenomena of sounds, colors, warmth, etc. Du Bois-Reymond also recognized this. You can read on page 35f. of his book Limits to Knowing Nature: “What conceivable connection can exist between certain motions of certain atoms in my brain on the one hand, and the immediate, undefinable, and undeniable fact for me, on the other hand, that I feel pain, feel pleasure, taste something sweet, smell the fragrance of a rose, hear organ music, see red ...” And, on page 34: “Motion can only produce motion.” Du Bois-Reymond is therefore of the opinion that one must designate this as a limit to our ability to know nature.

The reason why the fact that I see red cannot be derived from a particular process of motion is, in my view, easy to indicate. The quality “red” and a particular process of motion are in reality an inseparable unity. The separation of the two occurrences can only be a conceptual one, carried out within the intellect. The process of motion that corresponds to the “red” has no reality in itself; it is an abstraction. To want to derive the fact that I see red from a process of motion, is just as absurd as deriving the real characteristics of rock salt, in its crystallized cube form, from the mathematical cube. It is not because a limit of knowledge hinders us, that we cannot derive any other sense qualities from motion, but rather because the demand that we do so makes no sense.


The endeavor to skip over colors, sounds, warmth phenomena, etc., as such, and to consider only the mechanical processes corresponding to them can spring only from the belief that a higher degree of comprehensibility is attributable to the simple laws of mathematics and mechanics than to the characteristics and reciprocal relationships of the rest of the configurations of the perceptual world. But this is absolutely not the case. The simplest characteristics and relationships of spatial and numerical configurations are stated to be immediately comprehensible because they can be easily and completely surveyed. All mathematical and mechanical understanding is a tracing back to simple factual situations that are obvious the moment one becomes aware of them. The principle that two magnitudes which are equal to a third must also be equal to each other, is known the moment one becomes aware of the factual situation that this principle expresses. In the same sense, the simple occurrences of the world of sound and colour and of the other sense perceptions are known the moment one looks upon them.

Only because modern physicists are led astray by the preconception that a simple mathematical or mechanical fact is more comprehensible than an elementary occurrence of a sound or colour phenomenon as such, do they eliminate what is specifically sound or colour from the phenomena, and consider only the processes of motion that correspond to the sense perceptions. And since they cannot conceive of motion without something that moves, they take matter, that has been stripped of all sense-perceptible characteristics, to be the bearer of these movements. Whoever is not caught up in this preconception of the physicists must see that the processes of motion are states that are bound up with the sense-perceptible qualities. The content of the wave-like movements that correspond to the occurrence of sound are the qualities of sound themselves. The same holds true for all the other sense qualities. We know the content of the oscillating movements of the phenomenal world through immediate awareness of this content and not by thinking up some abstract matter and adding it to the phenomena.


I know that I am expressing something with these views that sounds completely impossible to physicists' ears of the present day. But I cannot take the standpoint of Wundt, who in his Logic (Vol. 2, Part 1) presents the thought-habits of modern natural scientists as binding logical norms. The thoughtlessness of which he is guilty there becomes particularly clear in the passage where he is discussing Ostwald's attempt to replace moving matter with energy in oscillating movement. Wundt presents the following: “From the existence of phenomena of interference there arises the necessity of presupposing some sort of oscillating movement. But since a movement is unthinkable without a substratum that moves, the unavoidable demand is therefore also made that one trace light phenomena back to a mechanical process. Ostwald, to be sure, has tried to get around this latter assumption by not tracing ‘radiant energy’ back to the vibrations of a material medium, but rather by defining it as energy existing in a state of oscillating movement. But precisely this double concept, which is composed of an observable component and of a purely conceptual one, seems to me to be striking proof that the concept of energy itself demands a division that leads back to elements of observation. A real movement can be defined only as the changing in location of a real substratum given in space. This real substratum can reveal itself to us merely through the force-effects that go forth from it, or through functions of force whose bearer we consider this substratum to be. But the demand that such merely conceptually established functions of force themselves move, seems to me something that cannot be fulfilled without thinking up some sort of substratum and adding it.”

Ostwald's energy-concept stands much nearer to reality than the supposedly “real” substratum of Wundt. The phenomena of the perceptual world — light, warmth, electricity, magnetism, etc. — can be brought under the general concept of force-output, i.e., of energy. When light, warmth, etc., call forth a change in an object, an energy-output has thereby taken place. When one designates light, warmth, etc., as energy, one has disregarded what is specifically characteristic of the individual sense qualities, and is considering one general characteristic that they share in common.

This characteristic does not, indeed, include everything that is present in the things of reality; but it is a real characteristic of these things. The concept of the characteristics, on the other hand, that physicists and their philosophical defenders suppose their hypothetically assumed matter to have, includes something nonsensical. These characteristics are borrowed from the sense world and yet are supposed to belong to a substratum that does not belong to the sense world.

It is incomprehensible how Wundt can assert that the concept of “radiant energy,” because it contains an observable and a conceptual component, is therefore an impossible one. The philosopher Wundt does not understand, therefore, that every concept that relates to something in sense-perceptible reality, must necessarily contain an observable and a conceptual component. The concept “rock salt cube” has, after all, the observable component of the sense-perceptible rock salt and the other purely conceptual component that solid geometry establishes.


The development of natural science in the last few centuries has led to the destruction of any mental pictures by which this science could be a part of a world conception that satisfies higher human needs. This development has led to the fact that “modern” scientific heads call it absurd for anyone to speak as though concepts and ideas belong just as much to reality as the forces working in space and the matter filling space. Concepts and ideas, to such minds, are a product of the human brain and nothing more. The scholastics still knew how matters stand in this respect. But scholasticism is held in contempt by modern science. It is held in contempt but one does not know scholasticism. One especially does not know what is healthy and what is sick about it. What is healthy about it is a feeling for the fact that concepts and ideas are not only a chimera of the brain that the human mind thinks up in order to understand real things, but rather that they have something to do with the things themselves, more, in fact, than substance and force do. This healthy feeling that the scholastics had is our inheritance from the great world view perspectives of Plato and Aristotle. The sick aspect of scholasticism is the mixing up of this feeling with mental pictures that entered into the medieval development of Christianity. This development finds the source of everything spiritual, including therefore also concepts and ideas, to lie in an unknowable, because otherworldly, God. It needs to believe in something that is not of this world. A healthy human thinking, however, keeps to this world. It does not bother about any other. But at the same time, it spiritualizes this world. It sees in concepts and ideas realities of this world just as much as in the things and events perceptible through the senses. Greek philosophy is an outflow of this healthy thinking. Scholasticism still took up into itself an inkling of this healthy thinking. But it sought to reinterpret this inkling in accordance with the belief in the beyond that is considered Christian. It was not concepts and ideas that were supposed to be the deepest thing that man beholds within the processes of this world, but rather God, the beyond. Whoever has grasped the idea of something is not compelled by anything to seek yet some further “origin” of that something. He has attained that which satisfies the human need for knowledge. But what did the scholastics care about the human need for knowledge? They wanted to rescue what they regarded as the Christian picture of God. They wanted to find the origin of the world in that God in the beyond, although their seeking for the inner life of things provided them only with concepts and ideas.


In the course of centuries, the Christian picture took effect more than the dim feelings inherited from Greek antiquity. One lost the feeling for the reality of concepts and ideas. But one also lost therefore one's belief in the spirit itself. There began the worship of the purely material: the era of Newton began in natural science. Now it was no longer a question of the unity that underlies the manifoldness of the world. Now all unity was denied. Unity was degraded into a “human” mental picture. In nature, one saw only the multiplicity, the manifoldness. The general basic picture was what misled Newton to see in light not a primal unity, but rather something composite. In his Data for the History of Colour Theory, 82Materialien zur Geschichte der Farbenlehre Goethe has presented a part of the development of natural scientific mental pictures. One can see from his presentation that recent natural science has arrived at unhealthy views in colour theory through the general mental picture that it uses in grasping nature. This science has lost its understanding for what light is within the series of nature's qualities. Therefore, it also does not know how, under certain conditions, light appears colored, how colour arises in the realm of light.