Let us take another step toward thinking. Until this point we have merely looked at the position thinking takes toward the rest of the world of experience. We have arrived at the view that it holds a very privileged position within this world, that it plays a central role. Let us disregard that now. Let us limit ourselves here to the inner nature of thinking. Let us investigate the thought-world's very own character, in order to experience how one thought depends upon the other and how the thoughts relate to each other. Only by this means will we first be able to gain enlightenment about the question: What is knowing activity? Or, in other words: What does it mean to make thoughts for oneself about reality; what does it mean to want to come to terms with the world through thinking?
We must keep ourselves free of any preconceived notions. It would be just such a preconception, however, if we were to presuppose that the concept (thought) is a picture, within our consciousness, by which we gain enlightenment about an object lying outside our consciousness. We are not concerned here with this and similar presuppositions. We take thoughts as we find them. Whether they have a relationship to something else or other, and what this relationship might be, is precisely what we want to investigate. We should not therefore place these questions here as a starting point. Precisely the view indicated, about the relationship of concept and object, is a very common one. One often defines the concept, in fact, as the spiritual image of things, providing us with a faithful photograph of them. When one speaks of thinking, one often thinks only of this presupposed relationship. One scarcely ever seeks to travel through the realm of thoughts, for once, within its own region, in order to see what one might find there.
Let us investigate this realm as though there were nothing else at all outside its boundaries, as though thinking were all of reality. For a time we will disregard all the rest of the world.
The fact that one has failed to do this in the epistemological studies basing themselves on Kant has been disastrous for science. This failure has given a thrust to this science in a direction utterly antithetical to our own. By its whole nature, this trend in science can never understand Goethe. It is in the truest sense of the word un-Goethean for a person to take his start from a doctrine that he does not find in observation but that he himself inserts into what is observed. This occurs, however, if one places at the forefront of science the view that between thinking and reality, between idea and world, there exists the relationship just indicated. One acts as Goethe would only if one enters deeply into thinking's own nature itself and then observes the relationship that results when this thinking, known in its own being, is then brought into connection with experience.
Goethe everywhere takes the route of experience in the strictest sense. He first of all takes the objects as they are and seeks, while keeping all subjective opinions completely at a distance, to penetrate their nature; he then sets up the conditions under which the objects can enter into mutual interaction and waits to see what will result. Goethe seeks to give nature the opportunity, in particularly characteristic situations that he establishes, to bring its lawfulness into play, to express its laws itself, as it were.
How does our thinking manifest to us when looked at for itself? It is a multiplicity of thoughts woven together and organically connected in the most manifold ways. But when we have sufficiently penetrated this multiplicity from all directions, it simply constitutes a unity again, a harmony. All its parts relate to each other, are there for each other; one part modifies the other, restricts it, and so on. As soon as our spirit pictures two corresponding thoughts to itself, it notices at once that they actually flow together into one. Everywhere in our spirit's thought-realm it finds elements that belong together; this concept joins itself to that one, a third one elucidates or supports a fourth, and so on. Thus, for example, we find in our consciousness the thought-content “organism”; when we scan our world of mental pictures, we hit upon a second thought-content: “lawful development, growth.” It becomes clear to us at once that both these thought-contents belong together, that they merely represent two sides of one and the same thing. But this is how it is with our whole system of thoughts. All individual thoughts are parts of a great whole that we call our world of concepts.
If any single thought appears in my consciousness, I am not satisfied until it has been brought into harmony with the rest of my thinking. A separate concept like this, set off from the rest of my spiritual world, is altogether unbearable to me. I am indeed conscious of the fact that there exists an inwardly established harmony between all thoughts, that the world of thoughts is a unified one. Therefore every such isolation is unnatural, untrue.
If we have struggled through to where our whole thought-world bears a character of complete inner harmony, then through it the contentment our spirit demands becomes ours. Then we feel ourselves to be in possession of the truth.
As a result of our seeing truth to be the thorough-going harmony of all the concepts we have at our command, the question forces itself upon us: Yes, but does thinking even have any content if you disregard all visible reality, if you disregard the sense-perceptible world of phenomena? Does there not remain a total void, a pure phantasm, if we think away all sense-perceptible content?
That this is indeed the case could very well be a widespread opinion, so we must look at it a little more closely. As we have already noted above, many people think of the entire system of concepts as in fact only a photograph of the outer world. They do indeed hold onto the fact that our knowing develops in the form of thinking, but demand nevertheless that a “strictly objective science” take its content only from outside. According to them the outer world must provide the substance that flows into our concepts. Without the outer world, they maintain, these concepts are only empty schemata without any content. If this outer world fell away, concepts and ideas would no longer have any meaning, for they are there for the sake of the outer world. One could call this view the negation of the concept. For then the concept no longer has any significance at all for the objective world. It is something added onto the latter. The world would stand there in all its completeness even if there were no concepts. For they in fact bring nothing new to the world. They contain nothing that would not be there without them. They are there only because the knowing subject wants to make use of them in order to have, in a form appropriate to this subject, that which is otherwise already there. For this subject, they are only mediators of a content that is of a non-conceptual nature. This is the view presented.
If it were justified, one of the following three presuppositions would have to be correct.
1. The world of concepts stands in a relationship to the outer world such that it only reproduces the entire content of this world in a different form. Here “outer world” means the sense world. If that were the case, one truly could not see why it would be necessary to lift oneself above the sense world at all. The entire whys and wherefores of knowing would after all already be given along with the sense world.
2. The world of concepts takes up, as its content, only a part of “what manifests to the senses.” Picture the matter something like this. We make a series of observations. We meet there with the most varied objects. In doing so we notice that certain characteristics we discover in an object have already been observed by us before. Our eye scans a series of objects A, B, C, D, etc. A has the characteristics p, q, a, r; B: l, m, b, n; C: k, h, c, g; and D: p, u, a, v. In D we again meet the characteristics a and p, which we have already encountered in A. We designate these characteristics as essential. And insofar as A and D have the same essential characteristics, we say that they are of the same kind. Thus we bring A and D together by holding fast to their essential characteristics in thinking. There we have a thinking that does not entirely coincide with the sense world, a thinking that therefore cannot be accused of being superfluous as in the case of the first presupposition above; nevertheless it is still just as far from bringing anything new to the sense world. But one can certainly raise the objection to this that, in order to recognize which characteristics of a thing are essential, there must already be a certain norm making it possible to distinguish the essential from the inessential. This norm cannot lie in the object, for the object in fact contains both what is essential and inessential in undivided unity. Therefore this norm must after all be thinking's very own content.
This objection, however, does not yet entirely overturn this view. One can say, namely, that it is an unjustified assumption to declare that this or that is more essential or less essential for a thing. We are also not concerned about this. It is merely a matter of our encountering certain characteristics that are the same in several things and of our then stating that these things are of the same kind. It is not at all a question of whether these characteristics, which are the same, are also essential. But this view presupposes something that absolutely does not fit the facts. Two things of the same kind really have nothing at all in common if a person remains only with sense experience. An example will make this clear. The simplest example is the best, because it is the most surveyable. Let us look at the following two triangles.
What is really the same about them if we remain with sense experience? Nothing at all. What they have in common — namely, the law by which they are formed and which brings it about that both fall under the concept “triangle” — we can gain only when we go beyond sense experience. The concept “triangle” comprises all triangles. We do not arrive at it merely by looking at all the individual triangles. This concept always remains the same for me no matter how often I might picture it, whereas I will hardly ever view the same “triangle” twice. What makes an individual triangle into “this” particular one and no other has nothing whatsoever to do with the concept. A particular triangle is this particular one not through the fact that it corresponds to that concept but rather because of elements lying entirely outside the concept: the length of its sides, size of its angles, position, etc. But it is after all entirely inadmissible to maintain that the content of the concept “triangle” is drawn from the objective sense world, when one sees that its content is not contained at all in any sense-perceptible phenomenon.
3. Now there is yet a third possibility. The concept could in fact be the mediator for grasping entities that are not sense-perceptible but that still have a self-sustaining character. This latter would then be the non-conceptual content of the conceptual form of our thinking. Anyone who assumes such entities, existing beyond experience, and credits us with the possibility of knowing about them must then also necessarily see the concept as the interpreter of this knowing.
We will demonstrate the inadequacy of this view more specifically later. Here we want only to note that it does not in any case speak against the fact that the world of concepts has content. For, if the objects about which one thinks lie beyond any experience and beyond thinking, then thinking would all the more have to have within itself the content upon which it finds its support. It could not, after all, think about objects for which no trace is to be found within the world of thoughts.
It is in any case clear, therefore, that thinking is not an empty vessel; rather, taken purely for itself, it is full of content; and its content does not coincide with that of any other form of manifestation.