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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Goethean Science
GA 1

18. Goethe's World View in his Aphorisms in Prose

The human being is not content with what nature willingly offers to his observing spirit. He feels that nature, in order to bring forth the manifoldness of its creations, needs driving forces that it at first conceals from the observer. Nature does not itself utter its final word. Our experience shows us what nature can create, but does not tell us how this creating occurs. Within the human spirit itself there lies the means for bringing the driving forces of nature to light. Up out of the human spirit the ideas arise that bring clarification as to how nature brings about its creations. What the phenomena of the outer world conceal becomes revealed within the inner being of man. What the human spirit thinks up in the way of natural laws is not invented and added to nature; it is nature's own essential being, and the human spirit is only the stage upon which nature allows the secrets of its workings to become visible. What we observe about the things is only one part of the things. What wells up within our spirit when it confronts the things is the other part. It is the same things that speak to us from outside and that speak within us. Only when we hold the language of the outer world together with that of our inner being, do we have full reality. What have the true philosophers in every age wanted to do? Nothing other than to make known the essential being of things that the things themselves express when the human spirit offers itself to them as their organ of speech.

When man allows his inner being to speak about nature, he recognizes that nature falls short of what, by virtue of its driving forces, it could accomplish. The human spirit sees what experience contains, in its more perfect form. It finds that nature with its creations does not achieve its aims. The human spirit feels itself called upon to present these aims in their perfected form. It creates shapes in which it shows: This is what nature wanted to do but could only accomplish to a certain degree. These shapes are the works of art. In them, the human being creates in a perfected way what nature manifests in an imperfect form.

The philosopher and the artist have the same goal. They seek to give shape to the perfected element that their spirit beholds when it allows nature to work upon it. But they have different media at their command for achieving this goal. For the philosopher, a thought, an idea, lights up within him when he confronts a process in nature. This he expresses. For the artist, a picture of this process arises within him that manifests this process more perfectly than can be observed in the outer world. The philosopher and the artist develop the observation further in different ways. The artist does not need to know the driving forces of nature in the form in which they reveal themselves to the philosopher. When the artist perceives a thing or an occurrence, there arises directly in his spirit a picture in which the laws of nature are expressed in a more perfect form than in the corresponding thing or occurrence in the outer world. These laws do not need to enter his spirit in the form of thoughts. Knowledge and art, however, are inwardly related. They show the potentialities of nature that do not come to full development in merely outer nature.

When now within the spirit of a genuine artist, not only the perfected pictures of things express themselves, but also the driving forces of nature in the form of thoughts, then the common source of philosophy and art appears with particular clarity before our eyes. Goethe is such an artist. He reveals the same secrets to us in the form of his works of art and in the form of thoughts. What he gave shape to in his poetic works, this he expresses in his essays on natural science and art and in his Aphorisms in Prose83Sprüche in Prosa in the form of thoughts. The deep satisfaction that emanates from these essays and aphorisms stems from the fact that one sees the harmony of art and knowledge realized in one personality. There is something elevating in the feeling, which arises with every Goethean thought, that here someone is speaking who at the same time can behold in a picture the perfected element that he expresses in ideas. The power of such a thought is strengthened by this feeling. That which stems from the highest needs of one personality must inwardly belong together. Goethe's teachings of wisdom answers the question: What kind of philosophy is in accordance with genuine art? I will try to sketch in context this philosophy that is born out of the spirit of a genuine artist.

The content of thought that springs from the human spirit when it confronts the outer world is truth. The human being cannot demand any other kind of knowledge than one he brings forth himself. Whoever seeks something in addition behind the things that is supposed to signify their actual being has not brought to consciousness the fact that all questions about the essential being of things spring only from a human need: the need, namely, also to penetrate with thought what one perceives. The things speak to us, and our inner being speaks when we observe the things. These two languages stem from the same primal being, and man is called upon to effect their reciprocal understanding. It is in this that what one calls knowledge consists. And it is this and nothing else that a person seeks who understands the needs of human nature. For someone who has not arrived at this understanding, the things of the outer world remain foreign. He does not hear the essential being of things speaking within his inner life. Therefore he supposes that this essential being is hidden behind the things. He believes in yet another outer world in addition, behind the perceptual world. But things are outer things only so long as one merely observes them. When one thinks about them, they cease to be outside of us. One fuses with their inner being. For man, opposition between objective outer perception and subjective inner thought-world exists only as long as he does not recognize that these worlds belong together. Man's inner world is the inner being of nature.

These thoughts are not refuted by the fact that different people make different mental pictures of things for themselves. Nor by the fact that people's organizations are different so that one does not know whether one and the same colour is seen by different people in exactly the same way. For, the point is not whether people form exactly the same judgment about one and the same thing, but whether the language that the inner being of a person speaks is in fact the language that expresses the essential being of things. Individual judgments differ according to the organization of the person and according to the standpoint from which one observes things; but all judgments spring from the same element and lead into the essential being of things. This can come to expression in different nuances of thought; but it is, nevertheless, still the essential being of things.

The human being is the organ by which nature reveals its secrets. Within the subjective personality the deepest content of the world appears. “When the healthy nature of man works as a whole, when he feels himself in the world as though in a great, beautiful, worthy, and precious whole, when his harmonious sense of well-being imparts to him a pure, free delight, then the universe, if it could experience itself, would, as having achieved its goal, exult with joy and marvel at the pinnacle of its own becoming and being.” (Goethe, Winckelmann) The goal of the universe and of the essential being of existence does not lie in what the outer world provides, but rather in what lives within the human spirit and goes forth from it. Goethe therefore considers it to be a mistake for the natural scientist to want to penetrate into the inner being of nature through instruments and objective experiments, for “man in himself, insofar as he uses his healthy senses, is the greatest and most accurate physical apparatus that there can be, and that is precisely what is of the greatest harm to modern physics, that one has, as it were, separated experiments from man; one wants to know nature merely through what manmade instruments show, yes, wants to limit and prove thereby what nature can do.” “But man stands at such a high level precisely through the fact that what otherwise could not manifest itself does manifest itself in him. For what is a string and all its mechanical divisions compared to the ear of the musician? Yes, one can say, what are the elemental phenomena of nature themselves compared to man who must first tame and modify them all in order to be able to assimilate them to some extent?”

Man must allow the things to speak out of his spirit if he wants to know their essential being. Everything he has to say about this essential being is derived from the spiritual experiences of his inner life. The human being can judge the world only from out of himself. He must think anthropomorphically. One brings anthropomorphism into the simplest phenomenon, into the impact of two bodies, for example, when one says something about it. The judgment that “one body strikes another” is already anthropomorphic. For if one wants to go beyond the mere observation of the process, one must bring to it the experience our own body has when it sets a body in the outer world into motion. All physical explanations are hidden anthropomorphisms. One humanizes nature when one explains it; one puts into it the inner experiences of the human being. But these subjective experiences are the inner being of things. And one cannot therefore say that, because man can make only subjective mental pictures for himself about nature, he does not know the objective truth, the “in-itself” of things.84Goethe's views stand in the sharpest possible opposition to Kantian philosophy. The latter takes it start from the belief that the world of mental pictures is governed by the laws of the human spirit and that therefore everything brought from outside to meet this world can be present in this world only as a subjective reflection. Man does not perceive the “in-itself” of things, but rather the phenomenon that arises through the fact that the things affect him and that he connects these effects according to the laws of his intellect and reason. Kant and the Kantians have no inkling of the fact that the essential being of the things speaks through this reason. Therefore the Kantian philosophy could never hold any significance for Goethe. When he acquired for himself some of Kant's principles, he gave them a completely different meaning than they have in the teachings of their originator. It is clear, from a note that only became known after the opening of the Goethe archives in Weimar, that Goethe was very well aware of the antithesis between his world view and the Kantian one. For him, Kant's basic error lies in the fact that he “regards the subjective ability to know as an object itself and, sharply indeed but not entirely correctly, he distinguishes the point where subjective and objective meet.” Subjective and objective meet when man joins together into the unified being of things what the outer world expresses and what can be heard by his inner being. Then, however, the antithesis between subjective and objective entirely ceases to exist; it disappears in this unified reality. I have already indicated this on page 167 ff. of this book. Now K. Vorländer, in the first number of “Kant Studies,” directs a polemic against what I wrote there. He finds that my view about the antithesis between the Goethean and the Kantian world conception is “strongly one-sided at best and stands in contradiction to Goethe's own statements,” and is due to a “complete misunderstanding on my part of Kant's transcendental methods.” Vorländer has no inkling of the world view in which Goethe lived. It would be utterly pointless for me to enter into polemics with him, because we speak a different language. The fact that he never knows what my statements mean shows how clear his thinking is. For example, I make a comment on the following statement of Goethe: “As soon as the human being becomes aware of the objects around him, he regards them with respect to himself, and justifiably so. For, his whole destiny depends upon whether he likes or dislikes them, whether they attract or repel him, whether they help or harm him. This entirely natural way of looking at things and of judging them seems to be as easy as it is necessary ... Those people take on a far more difficult task whose active drive for knowledge strives to observe the objects of nature in themselves and in their relationships to each other; they seek out and investigate what is and not what pleases.” My comment on this is as follows: “This shows how Goethe's world view is the exact polar opposite of the Kantian one. For Kant, there is absolutely no view of things as they are in themselves, but only of how they appear with respect to us. Goethe considers this view to be a quite inferior way of entering into a relationship with things.” Vorländer's response to this is: “These words of Goethe are not intended to express anything more than, in an introductory way, the trivial difference between what is pleasant and what is true. The researcher should seek out ‘what is and not what pleases.’ It is advisable for someone like Steiner—who dares to say that this latter, in fact very inferior, way of entering into a relationship with things is Kant's way—to first make clear to himself the basic concepts of Kant's teachings: the difference between a subjective and an objective sensation, for example, which is described in such passages as section three of the Critique of the Power of Judgment.” Now, as is clear from my statements, I did not at all say that that way of entering into a relationship with things is Kant's way, but rather that Goethe does not find Kant's understanding of the relationship between subject and object to correspond to the relationship in which man stands toward things when he wants to know how they are in themselves. Goethe is of the view that the Kantian definition does not correspond to human knowing, but only to the relationship into which man enters with things when he regards them with respect to his pleasure or displeasure. Someone who can misunderstand a statement the way Vorländer does would do better to spare himself the trouble of giving advice to other people about their philosophical education, and first acquire for himself the ability to learn to read a sentence correctly. Anyone can look for Goethe quotes and bring them together historically; but Vorländer, in any case, cannot interpret them in the spirit of the Goethean world view. There can absolutely be no question of anything other than a subjective human truth. For, truth consists in putting our subjective experiences into the objective interrelationships of phenomena. These subjective experiences can even assume a completely individual character. They are, nevertheless, the expression of the inner being of things. One can put into the things only what one has experienced within oneself. Thus, each person, in accordance with his individual experiences, will also put something different, in a certain sense, into things. The way I interpret certain processes of nature for myself is not entirely comprehensible for someone else who has not inwardly experienced the same thing. It is not at all a matter, however, of all men having the same thoughts about things, but rather only of their living within the element of truth when they think about things. One cannot therefore observe the thoughts of another person as such and accept or reject them, but rather one should regard them as the proclaimers of his individuality. “Those who contradict and dispute should reflect now and then that not every language is comprehensible to everyone.” A philosophy can never provide a universally valid truth, but rather describes the inner experiences of the philosopher by which he interprets the outer phenomena.

When a thing expresses its essential being through the organ of the human spirit, then full reality comes about only through the flowing together of the outer objective and the inner subjective. It is neither through one-sided observation nor through one-sided thinking that the human being knows reality. Reality is not present in the objective world as something finished, but rather is only first brought forth by the human spirit in connection with the things. The objective things are only a part of reality. To someone who extols sense experience exclusively, one must reply like Goethe “that experience is only half of experience.” “Everything factual is already theory”; that means, an ideal element reveals itself in the human spirit when he observes something factual. This way of apprehending the world, which knows the essential being of things in ideas and which apprehends knowledge to be a living into the essential being of things, is not mysticism. But it does have in common with mysticism the characteristic that it does not regard objective truth as something that is present in the outer world, but rather as something that can really be grasped within the inner being of man. The opposite world view transfers the ground of things to behind the phenomena, into a region lying beyond human experience. This view can then either give itself over to a blind faith in this ground that receives its content from a positive religion of revelation, or it can set up intellectual hypotheses and theories as to how this realm of reality in the beyond is constituted. The mystic, as well as the adherent of the Goethean world view, rejects both this faith in some “beyond” and all hypotheses about any such region, and holds fast to the really spiritual element that expresses itself within man himself. Goethe writes to Jacobi: “God has punished you with metaphysics and set a thorn in your flesh, but has blessed me, on the other hand, with physics. ... I hold more and more firmly to the reverence for God of the atheist (Spinoza) ... and leave to you everything you call, and would have to call, religion ... When you say that one can only believe in God ... then I say to you that I set a lot of store in seeing.” What Goethe wants to see is the essential being of things that expresses itself within his world of ideas. The mystic also wants to know the essential being of things by immersing himself in his own inner being; but he rejects precisely that innately clear and transparent world of ideas as unsuitable for attaining higher knowledge. He believes he must develop, not his capacity for ideas, but rather other powers of his inner being, in order to see the primal ground of things. Usually it is unclear feelings and emotions in which the mystic wants to grasp the essential being of things. But feelings and emotions belong only to the subjective being of man. In them nothing is expressed about the things. Only in ideas do the things themselves speak. Mysticism is a superficial world view, in spite of the fact that the mystics are very proud of their “profundity” compared to men of reason. The mystics know nothing about the nature of feelings, otherwise they would not consider them to be expressions of the essential being of the world; and they know nothing about the nature of ideas, otherwise they would not consider them shallow and rationalistic. They have no inkling of what people who really have ideas experience in them. But for many people, ideas are in fact mere words. They cannot acquire for themselves the unending fullness of their content. No wonder they feel their own word husks, which are devoid of ideas, to be empty.

Whoever seeks the essential content of the objective world within his own inner being can also regard the essential being of the moral world order as lying only within human nature itself. Whoever believes in the existence of a reality in the beyond, behind human reality, must also seek the source of morality there. For, what is moral in a higher sense can come only from the essential being of things. The believer in the beyond therefore assumes moral commandments to which man must submit himself. These commandments reach him either via revelation, or they enter as such into his consciousness, as is the case with Kant's categorical imperative. As to how this imperative comes into our consciousness from out of the “in-itselfness” of things in the beyond, about this nothing is said. It is simply there, and one must submit oneself to it. The philosopher of experience, who looks for his salvation in pure sense observation, sees in what is moral, only the working of human drives and instincts. Out of the study of these, norms are supposed to result that are decisive for moral action.

Goethe sees what is moral as arising out of man's world of ideas. It is not objective norms and also not the mere world of drives that directs moral action, but rather it is ideas, clear within themselves, by which man gives himself his own direction. He does not follow them out of duty as he would have to follow objective moral norms. And also not out of compulsion, as one follows one's drives and instincts. But rather he serves them out of love. He loves them the way one loves a child. He wants to realize them, and steps in on their behalf, because they are a part of his own essential being. The idea is the guideline and love is the driving power in Goethean ethics. For him duty is “where one loves what one commands oneself to do.”

Action, in the sense of Goethean ethics, is a free action. For, the human being is dependent upon nothing other than his own ideas. And he is responsible to no one other than himself. In my Philosophy of Spiritual Activity I have already refuted the feeble objection that a moral world order in which each person obeys only himself would have to lead to a general disorder and disharmony in human action. Whoever makes this objection overlooks the fact that human beings are essentially alike in nature and that they will therefore never produce moral ideas which, through their essential differentness would cause discord.85The following story shows how little understanding is present in professional philosophers today both for ethical views and for an ethic of inner freedom and of individualism in general. In 1892, in an essay for “Zukunft” (No. 5), I spoke out for a strictly individualistic view of ethics. Ferdinand Tönnies in Kiel responded to this essay in a brochure: “‘Ethical Culture’ and its Retinue. Nietzsche Fools in the ‘Future’ and in the ‘Present’“ (Berlin 1893). He presented nothing except the main principles of philistine morality in the form of philosophical formulas. Of me, however, he says that I could have found “no worse Hermes on the path to Hades than Friedrich Nietzsche.” It struck me as truly humorous that Tönnies, in order to condemn me, presents several of Goethe's Aphorisms in Prose. He has no inkling of the fact that if I did have a Hermes, it was not Nietzsche, but rather Goethe. I have already shown on page 149 ff. of this book the connections between the ethics of inner freedom and Goethe's ethics. I would not have mentioned this worthless brochure if it were not symptomatic of the misunderstanding of Goethe's world view that holds sway in professional philosophical circles.

If the human being did not have the ability to bring forth creations that are fashioned in exactly the same sense as the works of nature and only bring this sense to view in a more perfect way than nature can, there would be no art in Goethe's sense. What the artist creates are nature objects on a higher level of perfection. Art is the extension of nature, “for inasmuch as man is placed at the pinnacle of nature, he then regards himself again as an entire nature, which yet again has to bring forth within itself a pinnacle. To this end he enhances himself, by imbuing himself with every perfection and virtue, summons choice, order, harmony, and meaning, and finally lifts himself to the production of works of art.” After seeing Greek works of art in Italy, Goethe writes: “These great works of art have at the same time been brought forth by human beings according to true and natural laws, as the greatest works of nature” (Italian Journey, September 6, 1787). For the merely sense-perceptible reality of experience, works of art are a beautiful semblance; for someone who is able to see more deeply, they are “a manifestation of hidden laws of nature which without them would never be revealed.”

It is not the substance the artist takes from nature that constitutes the work of art; but only what the artist puts into the work of art from out of his inner being. The highest work of art is one that makes you forget that a natural substance underlies it, and that awakens our interest solely through what the artist has made out of this substance. The artist forms things naturally; but he does not form things the way nature itself does. These statements to me express the main thoughts that Goethe set down in his aphorisms on art.