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Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

II. The Desire for Knowledge

Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust,
Die eine will sich von der andern trennen;
Die eine hält, in derber Liebeslust,
Sich an die Welt mit klammerden Organen;
Die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dust
Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen.

Faust, I, 1112–1117.

Two souls, alas! reside within my breast,
And each withdraws from, and repels, its brother.
One with tenacious organs holds in love
And clinging lust the world in its embraces;
The other strongly sweeps, this dust above,
Into the high ancestral spaces.

Faust, I, Scene 2.

(Bayard Taylor's translation)

In these words Goethe expresses a trait which is deeply ingrained in human nature. Man is not a self-contained unity. He demands ever more than the world, of itself, offers him. Nature has endowed us with needs: among them are some the satisfaction of which she leaves to our own activity. However abundant the gifts which we have received, still more abundant are our desires. We seem born to be dissatisfied. And our desire for knowledge is but a special instance of this dissatisfaction. Suppose we look twice at a tree. The first time we see its branches at rest, the second time in motion. We are not satisfied with this observation. Why, we ask, does the tree appear to us now at rest, then in motion? Every glance at nature evokes in us a multitude of questions.

Every phenomenon we meet presents a new problem to be solved. Every experience is to us a riddle. We observe that from the egg there emerges a creature like the mother animal, and we ask for the reason of the likeness. We observe a living being grow and develop to a determinate degree of perfection, and we seek the conditions of this experience. Nowhere are we satisfied with what nature spreads out before our senses. Everywhere we seek what we call the explanation of the facts.

The something more which we seek in things, over and above what is immediately given to us in them, splits our whole being into two parts. We become conscious of our opposition to the world. We oppose ourselves to the world as independent beings. The universe has for us two opposite poles: I and World.

We erect this barrier between ourselves and the world as soon as consciousness is first kindled in us. But we never cease to feel that, in spite of all, we belong to the world, that there is a connecting link between it and us, and that we are beings within, and not without, the universe.

This feeling makes us strive to bridge over this opposition, and ultimately the whole spiritual striving of mankind is nothing but the bridging of this opposition. The history of our spiritual life is a continuous seeking after the unity between ourselves and the world. Religion, Art, and Science follow, one and all, this goal. The religious believer seeks in the revelation which God grants him, the solution of the world problem, which his I, dissatisfied with the world of mere phenomena, sets him as a task. The artist seeks to embody in his material the Ideas which are in his I, that he may thus reconcile that which lives within him and the outer world. He, too, feels dissatisfied with the world of mere appearances, and seeks to mould into it that something more which his I contains and which transcends appearances. The thinker searches for the laws of phenomena. He strives to master by thinking what he experiences by observing. Only when we have made the world-content into our thought-content do we again find the unity from which we had separated ourselves. We shall see later that this goal can be reached only if the problem of scientific research is comprehended much more deeply than is often done. The whole situation, as I have here stated it, meets us, on the stage of history, in the conflict between the one-world theory, or Monism, and the two-world theory, or Dualism. Dualism pays attention only to the separation between the I and the World, which the consciousness of man has brought about. All its efforts consist in a vain struggle to reconcile these opposites, which it calls now Spirit and Matter, now Subject and Object, now Thinking and Appearance. The Dualist feels that there must be a bridge between the two worlds, but is not able to find it. In so far as man is aware of himself as “I,” he cannot but put down this “I” in thinking on the side of Spirit; and in opposing to this “I” the world, he is bound to reckon on the world's side the realm of percepts given to the senses, i.e., the Material World. In doing so, man assigns a position to himself within this very antithesis of Spirit and Matter. He is the more compelled to do so because his own body belongs to the Material World. Thus the “I,” or Ego, belongs as a part to the realm of Spirit; the material objects and processes which are perceived by the senses belong to the “World.” All the riddles which belong to Spirit and Matter, man must inevitably rediscover in the fundamental riddle of his own nature. Monism pays attention only to the unity and tries either to deny or to slur over the opposites, present though they are. Neither of these two points of view can satisfy us, for they do not do justice to the facts. The Dualist sees in Spirit (I) and Matter (World) two essentially different entities, and cannot, therefore, understand how they can interact with one another. How should Spirit be aware of what goes on in Matter, seeing that the essential nature of Matter is quite alien to Spirit? Or how in these circumstances should Spirit act upon Matter, so as to translate its intentions into actions? The most acute and the most absurd hypotheses have been propounded to answer these questions. However, up to the present the Monists are not in a much better position. They have tried three different ways of meeting the difficulty. Either they deny Spirit and become Materialists; or they deny Matter in order to seek their salvation in Spiritualism; [Editor's footnote: The author refers to philosophical “Spiritualism,” as opposed to philosophical “Materialism.” Cf. p. 15, last lines.] or they assert that, even in the simplest entities in the world, Spirit and Matter are indissolubly bound together, so that there is no need to marvel at the appearance in man of these two modes of existence, seeing that they are never found apart.

Materialism can never offer a satisfactory explanation of the world. For every attempt at an explanation must begin with the formation of thoughts about the phenomena of the world. Materialism, thus, begins with the thought of Matter or material processes. But, in doing so, it is ipso facto confronted by two different sets of facts, viz., the material world and the thoughts about it. The Materialist seeks to make these latter intelligible by regarding them as purely material processes. He believes that thinking takes place in the brain, much in the same way as digestion takes place in the animal organs. Just as he ascribes mechanical and organic processes to Matter, so he credits it with the capacity to think in certain circumstances. He overlooks that, in doing so, he is merely shifting the problem from one place to another. Instead of to himself he ascribes the power of thinking to Matter. And thus he is back again at his starting-point. How does Matter come to think about its own nature? Why is it not simply satisfied with itself and content to accept its own existence? The Materialist has turned his attention away from the definite subject, his own I, and occupies himself with an indefinite shadowy something. And here the old problem meets him again. The materialistic conception cannot solve the problem: it can only shift it to another place.

What of the Spiritualistic theory? The Spiritualist denies to Matter all independent existence and regards it merely as a product of Spirit. But when he tries to apply this theory to the solution of the riddle of his own human nature, he finds himself in an awkward position. Over against the “I,” or Ego, which can be ranged on the side of Spirit, there stands directly the world of the senses. No spiritual approach to it seems open. It has to be perceived and experienced by the “I” with the help of material processes. Such material processes the “I” does not discover in itself, so long as it regards its own nature as exclusively spiritual. Within all that it achieves by its own spiritual effort, the sensible world is never to be found. It seems as if the “I” had to concede that the world would be a closed book to it, unless it could establish a non-spiritual relation to the world. Similarly, when it comes to acting, we have to translate our purposes into realities with the help of material things and forces. We are, therefore, dependent on the outer world. The most extreme Spiritualist, or, if you prefer it, Idealist, is Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He attempts to deduce the whole edifice of the world from the “I.” What he has actually accomplished is a magnificent thought-picture of the world, without any empirical content. As little as it is possible for the Materialist to argue the Spirit away, just as little is it possible for the Idealist to argue away the outer world of Matter.

When man directs his consideration upon the “I,” he perceives, in the first instance, the work of this “I” in the conceptual elaboration of the world of Ideas. Hence a philosophy the direction of which is spiritualistic may feel tempted, in view of man's own essential nature, to acknowledge nothing of spirit except this world of Ideas. In this way Spiritualism becomes one-sided Idealism. Instead of going on to penetrate through the world of Ideas to the spiritual world, Idealism identifies the spiritual world with the world of Ideas itself. As a result, it is compelled to remain fixed with its world-view in the circle of the activity of the Ego, as if it were bewitched.

A curious variant of Idealism is to be found in the theory which F. A. Lange has put forward in his widely read History of Materialism. He holds that the Materialists are quite right in declaring all phenomena, including our thoughts, to be the product of purely material processes, but, in turn, Matter and its processes are for him themselves the product of our thinking. “The senses give us only the effects of things, not true copies, much less the things themselves. But among these mere effects we must include the senses themselves together with the brain and the molecular vibrations which we assume to go on there.” That is, our thinking is produced by the material processes, and these by the thinking of our I. Lange's philosophy is thus nothing more than the philosophical analogon of the story of honest Baron Münchhausen, who holds himself up in the air by his own pigtail.

The third form of Monism is that which finds even in the simplest being (the atom) the union of both Matter and Spirit. But nothing is gained by this either, except that the question, the origin of which is really in our consciousness, is shifted to another place. How comes it that the simple being manifests itself in a two-fold manner, if it is an indivisible unity?

Against all these theories we must urge the fact that we meet with the basic and primary opposition first in our own consciousness. It is we, ourselves, who break away from the bosom of Nature and contrast ourselves as “I” with the “World.” Goethe has given classic expression to this in his essay Nature although his manner may at first sight be considered quite unscientific: “Living in the midst of her (Nature) we are strangers to her. Ceaselessly she speaks to us, yet betrays none of her secrets.” But Goethe knows the reverse side too: “Mankind is all in her, and she in all mankind.”

However true it may be that we have estranged ourselves from Nature, it is none the less true that we feel we are in her and belong to her. It can be only her own working which pulsates also in us.

We must find the way back to her again. A simple reflection may point this way out to us. We have, it is true, torn ourselves away from Nature, but we must none the less have taken with us something of her in our own nature. This quality of Nature in us we must seek out, and then we shall restore our connection with her. Dualism neglects to do this. It considers the human interior as a spiritual entity utterly alien to Nature and attempts somehow to hitch it on to Nature. No wonder that it cannot find the coupling link. We can find Nature outside of us only if we have first learnt to know her within us. What is allied to her within us must be our guide to her. This marks out our path of inquiry. We shall attempt no speculations concerning the interaction of Nature and Spirit. We shall rather probe into the depths of our own being, to find there those elements which we saved in our flight from Nature.

The examination of our own being must bring the solution of the problem. We must reach a point where we can say, “Here we are no longer merely ‘I,’ here is something which is more than ‘I.’“

I am well aware that many who have read thus far will not consider my discussion in keeping with “the present position of science.” To such criticism I can reply only that I have so far not been concerned with any scientific results, but simply with the description of what every one of us experiences in his own consciousness. That a few phrases have been added about attempts to reconcile man's consciousness and the World serves solely to elucidate the actual facts. I have, therefore, made no attempt to give to the expressions “I,” “Spirit,” “World,” “Nature,” the precise meaning which they usually bear in Psychology and Philosophy. The ordinary consciousness ignores the sharp distinctions of the sciences, and so far my purpose has been solely to record the facts of everyday experience. I am concerned, not with the way in which science, so far, has interpreted consciousness, but with the way in which we experience it in every moment of our lives.