This epistemology of the Goethean world view was written by me in the middle of the 1880's. Two thought-activities were living in my soul at that time. One of these was directed toward Goethe's creative work and was striving to give shape to the view of the world and of life that emerges as the moving power in this creative work. It seemed to me that something fully and purely human held sway in everything that Goethe gave the world as he created, contemplated, and lived. It seemed to me that nowhere in recent times were inner certainty, harmonious completeness, and a sense for reality with respect to the world as fully represented as in Goethe. From this thought arose the recognition that the way Goethe conducted himself in the activity of knowing is also the one that emerges from the essential being of man and of the world.
On the other hand, my thoughts were living within the philosophical views prevalent at that time regarding the essential being of knowledge. In these views the activity of knowing was threatening to encapsulate itself within the being of man himself. Otto Liebmann, the gifted philosopher, had made the statement that human consciousness cannot reach beyond itself. It must remain within itself. Whatever, as true reality, lies beyond the world that consciousness shapes within itself, of this it can know nothing. In brilliant writings Otto Liebmann elaborated this thought in relation to the most varied areas of man's world of experience. Johannes Volkelt had written his thoughtful books Kant's Epistemology and Experience and Thinking. In the world given to man he saw only a complex of mental pictures that arise through man's relationship to a world which in itself is unknown. He did, in fact, concede that within the experience of thinking necessity manifests itself when thinking reaches into the world of mental pictures. In a certain way one feels as if one were bursting through the world of mental pictures into reality when thinking becomes active. But what has been gained by this? One could thereby feel justified in forming judgments in thinking that say something about the real world; but with such judgments one still stands entirely within the inner life of man; nothing of the essential being of the world penetrates into him.
In epistemological questions, Eduard von Hartmann, whose philosophy was of real use to me even though I could not accept its basic premises or conclusions, took exactly the same standpoint that Volkelt then presented in detail.
It was everywhere acknowledged that the human being, in his activity of knowing, strikes up against certain limits through which he cannot penetrate into the realm of true reality.
Confronting all this there stood for me the fact — inwardly experienced, and known in the experiencing — that man with his thinking, if he deepens it sufficiently, does live in the midst of world reality as within a spiritual reality. I believed I possessed this knowledge as one that can stand in human consciousness with the same inner clarity as that which manifests in mathematical knowledge.
In the face of this knowledge the opinion cannot persist that there are limits of knowledge such as those believed to have been established by the trend of thought just described.
Into all this there played the fact that my thoughts were drawn to the theory of evolution, which was then in full bloom. In Haeckel it had assumed a form that did not allow the self-sustained being and working of the spiritual to be taken into account. The later, the more perfect, was supposed to have emerged in the course of time out of the earlier, the less developed. I could see that this was so insofar as outer, sense-perceptible reality was concerned. Nevertheless, I was too familiar with the self-sustaining spirituality that is not dependent upon the sense-perceptible and is established within itself to admit that the outer, sense-perceptible world of phenomena was right in this regard. Rather, it was a matter of building a bridge from this world of the senses to that of the spirit. In the course of time, as thought of in terms of sense perceptions, the human spiritual seems to evolve out of the preceding unspiritual.
Yet the sense-perceptible, rightly known, shows everywhere that it is a manifestation of the spiritual. In the face of this correct knowledge of the sense-perceptible, it was clear to me that “limits of knowledge,” as they were then set, could be acknowledged only by someone who encounters this sense-perceptible realm and then treats it in the way a person would treat a printed page if he simply looked at the forms of the letters, and, knowing nothing about reading, then declared that one cannot know what lies behind these forms.
In this way my attention was drawn to the path from sense observation to the spiritual, which for me was a fact established through inner, knowing experience. I was not seeking unspiritual atomic worlds behind sense-perceptible phenomena; I sought the spiritual, which seemingly manifests within the inner life of the human being but which in actuality belongs to the things and processes of the sense world themselves. Because of the way man carries out his knowing activity, it might seem as though the thoughts of things were within man, whereas in actuality they hold sway within the things. It is necessary for Man, in this experiencing of what seems to be the case, to separate the thoughts of things from the things; in the true experience of knowledge, he gives them back again to the things.
The evolution of the world is then to be understood in such a way that the preceding unspiritual, out of which the spirituality of man later unfolds itself, contains something spiritual above and beyond itself. The later, spiritualized sense-perceptibility in which man appears thus arises through the fact that the spirit ancestor of man unites himself with the imperfect, unspiritual forms, and, transforming these, then appears in sense-perceptible form.
These trains of thought led me beyond the epistemologists of that time, whose acumen and scientific sense of responsibility I fully acknowledged. They led me to Goethe.
I can well recall today my inner struggles back then. I did not make it easy for myself to break away from the philosophical trains of thought prevalent at that time. But my guiding star was always the recognition, brought about entirely through itself, of the fact that the human being can behold himself inwardly as a spirit independent of the body, standing in a purely spiritual world.
Before my works on Goethe's natural-scientific writings and before this epistemology, I wrote a little essay on atomism that has never been published. It took the direction I just indicated. I must recall the happiness it gave me when Friedrich Theodor Vischer, to whom I sent the essay, responded with a few favorable comments.
But now, from my studies of Goethe, it became clear to me how my thoughts led me to behold the essential being of knowledge that emerges everywhere in Goethe's creative activity and in his stance toward the world. I found that my viewpoints provided me with an epistemology that is the epistemology of the Goethean world view.
In the 1880's I was recommended by Karl Julius Schroer, my teacher and fatherly friend to whom I owe a great deal, to write the introductions [These introductions are now published in book form under the title Goethean Science, Mercury Press, 1988. –Ed.] to Goethe's natural-scientific writings for Kürschner's National Literatur and to tend to the publishing of these writings. In the course of this work I pursued Goethe's cognitive life in all the areas in which he was active. It became increasingly clear to me, right down into the details, that my own view brought me into the epistemology implicit in the Goethean world view. And so I wrote this present epistemology during my work on Goethe's natural-scientific writings.
As I look at it again today, it also appears to me to be the epistemological foundation and justification for every thing I said and published later. It speaks of the essential being of knowing activity that opens the way from the sense perceptible world into the spiritual one.
It might seem strange that this work of my youth, almost forty years old now, should appear today unchanged and expanded only by some notes. In its manner of presentation it bears the earmarks of a thinking that lived in the philosophy of forty years ago. If I were writing it today, I would state many things differently. But I would not be able to present anything different as the essential being of knowledge. Yet what I would write today would not be able to bear within itself so faithfully the germ of the world view for which I have stood and which is in accordance with the spirit. One can write in such a germinal way only at the beginning of a life of knowledge. This perhaps justifies a new publication of a youthful work in this unchanged form. The epistemologies that existed at the time of its writing have found their continuation in later ones. I said what I have to say about them in my book Riddles of Philosophy. This book is appearing now in a new edition from the same publisher.
What I sketched years ago in this little book as the epistemology implicit in the Goethean world view seems to me just as necessary to say today as it was forty years ago.
Goetheanum in Dornach