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A Theory of Knowledge
GA 2

X. The Inner Nature of Thought

Let us draw one step nearer to thought. Hitherto we have been considering the place of thought in relation to the rest of the world of experience. We have reached the conclusion that it holds a unique position in that world, that it plays a central role. We shall for the present turn our attention elsewhere. We shall here restrict ourselves to a consideration of the inner nature of thinking. We shall investigate the very character of the thought-world itself, in order to perceive how one thought depends upon another; how thoughts are related to one another. From this inquiry we shall derive the means requisite for reaching a conclusion as to the question: “What is cognition in general?” Or, in other words, what is the meaning of forming thoughts about reality? What is the meaning of wishing to interpret the world by means of thinking?

Here we must keep our minds free from any preconceived opinion. We should be holding such a preconception if we should assume that a concept (thought) is an image within our consciousness by means of which we reach a solution concerning an object existing outside of consciousness. Here we are not concerned with this and similar preconceptions. We take thoughts just as we find them. The question as to whether they sustain a relationship to anything else whatever and, if so, what sort of relationship is just what we shall investigate. Therefore, we must not posit such a relationship here as our point of departure. This very opinion concerning the relationship between concept and object is very widespread. Indeed, the concept is often defined as the mental counterpart of an object existing outside the mind. The concept is supposed to reproduce the object, mediating to us a true photograph of it. Very often, when thinking is the subject of discussion, what people have in mind is only this preconceived relationship. Practically never does any one consider the idea of traversing the realm of thoughts, within their own sphere, in order to discover what is to be found there.

We will here investigate this realm just as if nothing whatever existed outside its boundaries, as if thought were the whole of reality. For a certain time we shall turn our attention away from all the rest of the world.

The fact that this sort of research has been neglected in those investigations concerning the theory of knowledge which are based upon Kant has been ruinous to this science. This omission has given an impulse to this science in a direction which is the very opposite of our own. This scientific trend can never, by reason of its whole character, comprehend Goethe. It is, in the truest sense of the word, un-Goethean to take as point of departure an assumption which is not found through observation, but actually injected into the thing observed. But this is what actually occurs when one sets at the very culmination of scientific knowledge the preconception that the relation mentioned above does exist between thinking and reality, between the idea and the world. The only way to treat this matter after the manner of Goethe is to enter deeply into the nature of thinking itself and then observe what relation comes about when thinking, thus known according to its own nature, is brought into relationship with experience.

Goethe always takes the path of experience in the strictest sense. He first takes the objects as they are, and, while banishing entirely every subjective opinion, seeks to penetrate into their nature; he then creates the conditions under which the objects can appear in reciprocal action and watches to see the results. He seeks to give Nature the opportunity to bring her laws into operation under especially characteristic circumstances, which he brings about — an opportunity, as it were, to express her own laws.

How does our thinking appear to us when observed in itself? It is a multiplicity of thoughts which are woven and bound organically together in the most complicated fashion. But, when we have once penetrated this multiplicity from all directions, it becomes again a unity, a harmony. All the elements are related one to another; they exist for one another; one modifies another, restricts it, etc. The moment our mind conceives two corresponding thoughts, it observes at once that these really flow together to form a unit. It finds everywhere in its whole realm the interrelated; this concept unites with that, a third illuminates or supports a fourth, and so on. If, for example, we find in our consciousness the concept “organism,” and we then scan our conceptual world, we meet with another concept, “systematic evolution, growth.” It becomes clear that these two concepts belong together; that they represent merely two aspects of one and the same thing. But this is true of our entire thought-system. All individual thoughts are parts of a great whole which we call our conceptual world.

When any single thought emerges in consciousness, I cannot rest until this is brought into harmony with the rest of my thinking. Such an isolated concept, apart from the rest of my mental world, is entirely unendurable. I am simply conscious of the fact that there exists an inwardly sustained harmony among all thoughts; that the thought-world is of the nature of a unit. Therefore, every such isolation is an abnormality, an untruth.

When we have arrived at that state of mind in which our whole thought-world bears the character of a complete inner harmony, we gain thereby the satisfaction for which our mind is striving. We feel that we are in possession of truth.

Since we perceive truth in the thorough-going agreement of all concepts in our possession, the question at once forces itself upon us: “Has thought, apart from all perceptible reality of the phenomenal world of the senses, a content of its own? When we have removed all sense-content, is not the remainder an utter emptiness, a mere phantasm?”

It might well be a widespread opinion that this is true; hence we must consider this opinion a little more closely. As we have already remarked above, it is very frequently assumed that the whole system of concepts is merely a photograph of the external world. It is firmly maintained that knowledge evolves in the form of thought; but it is demanded of “strictly scientific knowledge” that it shall receive its content from without. According to this view, the world must provide the substance which flows into our concepts; without that, these are mere empty forms void of content. If the external world should vanish, then concepts and ideas would no longer have any meaning, for they exist by reason of that world.

This point of view might be called the negation of the concept; for there it no longer possesses any significance in relation to objectivity. It is something added to the latter. The world would thus exist in all completeness even were there no concepts whatever, for these contribute nothing new to the world. They contain nothing which would not be there without them. They are there only because the cognizing subject wills to use them in order to possess in a form suitable to him what is otherwise already there. They are mere mediators to the subject of a content which is of a non-conceptual character. Such is the point of view under discussion.

If it were well founded, one of the following assumptions would necessarily be true.

That the conceptual world stands in such a relationship to the external world that it merely repeats the whole content of this in another form. (Here the term “external world” means the sense-world). If such were the case, one could not perceive any necessity for lifting oneself at all above the sense-world. In this latter everything relating and pertaining to knowledge would already be given.

That the conceptual world takes as its content merely a part of the “appearance for the senses.” We may imagine the thing somewhat like this. We make a series of observations. We meet in these the most diverse objects. We discover in the process that certain characteristics which we observe in a certain object have already been observed by us. A series of objects pass in survey before our eyes: A, B, C, D, etc. Suppose A had the characteristics p q a r; B shows i m b n; C, k h c g; D, p u a v. Here in the case of D we meet again the characteristics a and p previously observed in connection with A. We designate these characteristics as essential. And, in so far as A and D possess essential characteristics in common, we say they are of the same kind. Thus we unite A and D in that we lay hold of their essential characteristics in our thinking. Here we have a thought which does not entirely coincide with the sense-world and to which the charge of superfluity mentioned above cannot be applied, and yet it is far from bringing anything new to the sense-world. Against this, we may say, first of all, that to determine which characteristics of a thing are essential requires, to begin with, a certain norm which will enable us to distinguish between essential and unessential. This norm cannot exist in the object itself for this includes both the essential and the unessential in inseparable unity. This norm must belong to the very content of our thinking.

But this objection does not wholly refute this point of view. One holding this view might meet the objection thus. He might admit that we have no justification for classifying any characteristic as essential or unessential, but might declare that this need not disturb us; that we simply classify things together when we observe similar characteristics in them without any regard to the essential or unessential nature of these characteristics.

This view, however, requires a presupposition which by no means squares with the facts. So long as we confine ourselves to sense-experience, there is nothing really in common between two things of the same class. An example will make this clear. The simplest is the best because it can best be surveyed.

Let us observe the two triangles above. What is there really in common between them when we confine ourselves to sense-experience? Nothing whatever. That which they possess in common — that is, the principle on which they are formed and which causes them to be classed under the concept triangle — is attained only when we cross over the boundary of the sense-experience. The concept triangle comprises all triangles. We do not attain to it by merely observing all individual triangles. This concept always remains the same, however frequently I may conceive it, whereas it will scarcely ever happen that I shall see two identical triangles. That by reason of which a single triangle is “this” triangle and no other has nothing to do with the concept. A specific triangle is this specific one, not because it corresponds to the concept, but because of elements which lie entirely outside the concept: — the length of its sides, the measurements of its angles, its position, etc. Yet it is quite incorrect to maintain that the content of the concept is borrowed from the external sense-world, since it is evident that its content is not to be found in any sense-phenomenon.

a third view is possible. The concept may be the mediator through which to apprehend certain entities which are not perceptible to the senses but which possess a self-sustaining character. This character would be the non-conceptual content of the conceptual form of our thought. Whoever assumes such entities existing beyond the boundaries of experience, and attributes to us the possibility of a knowledge of these entities, must necessarily see in the concept the interpreter of this cognition.

The inadequacy of this point of view we shall later make especially clear. For the moment we need only remark that, in any case, it does not run counter to the contentual character of the conceptual world. For, if the object about which we think really lay beyond the boundaries of experience and of thinking, thought would all the more have to contain within itself the content upon which it rests. It could still not think about objects of which no trace could be found within the thought-world.

In any case it is clear that thought is no empty vessel, but that in and of itself it is possessed of content and that its content does not square with that of any other form of phenomenon.