Goethe's World View
Part I.1: Goethe and Schiller
Goethe tells of a conversation that once unfolded between Schiller and himself after both had attended a meeting of the society of natural research in Jena. Schiller showed himself little satisfied with what had been presented in the meeting. A fragmented way of looking at nature had met him there. And he remarked that such a way could not appeal at all to laymen. Goethe replied that it would perhaps remain strange even to the initiated themselves and that there could be still another way of presenting nature, not as something separated and isolated but rather as working and alive, as striving from the whole into the parts. And now Goethe developed the great ideas which had arisen in him about the nature of the plants. He sketched “with many a characteristic pen-stroke, a symbolic plant” before Schiller's eyes. This symbolic plant was meant to express the being that lives in every individual plant no matter what particular forms the plant might assume. It was meant to show the successive becoming of the individual plant parts, their emerging from each other, and their relatedness to each other. About this symbolic plant shape Goethe, on April 17, 1787 in Palermo, wrote down the words, “There must after all be such a one! How would I otherwise know that this or that formation is a plant, if they were not all formed according to the same model.” Goethe had developed within him the mental picture of a malleable-ideal form which reveals itself to the spirit when it looks out over the manifoldness of plant shapes and is attentive to what they have in common. Schiller contemplated this formation, which supposedly lived not in one single plant but rather in all plants, and said, shaking his head, “That is not an experience, that is an idea.” These words appeared to Goethe as though coming from a foreign world. He was conscious of the fact that he had arrived at his symbolic shape through the same kind of naive perception as the mental picture of a thing which one can see with one's eyes and grasp with one's hands. Like the individual plant, the symbolic or archetypal plant was for him an objective being. He believed he had not arbitrary speculation but rather unbiased observation to thank for the archetypal plant. He could not respond with anything other than, “I can be very glad, then, when I have ideas without knowing it, and in fact even see them with my eyes.” And he was extremely unhappy as Schiller rejoined with the words, “How can an experience ever be given that could be considered to correspond to an idea. For the characteristic nature of the idea consists in the fact that no experience could ever coincide with it.”
Two opposing world views confront each other in this conversation. Goethe sees in the idea of a thing an element that is immediately present within the thing, working and creating in it. In his view an individual thing takes on particular forms because the idea must, in a given case, live itself out in a specific way. It makes no sense to Goethe to say that a thing does not correspond to the idea. For the thing cannot be anything else than that into which the idea has made it. Schiller thinks otherwise. For him the world of ideas and the world of experience are two separate realms. To experience belong the manifold things and events which fill space and time. Confronting it there stands the realm of ideas as a differently constituted reality of which reason takes possession. Because man's knowledge flows to him from two sides, from without through observation and from within through thinking, Schiller distinguishes two sources of knowledge. For Goethe there is only one source of knowledge, the world of experience, in which the world of ideas is included. For him it is impossible to say, “experience and idea,” because to him the idea lies, through spiritual experience, before the spiritual eye in the same way that the sense world lies before the physical eye.
Schiller's view came from the philosophy of his time. One must seek in Greek antiquity for the underlying mental pictures which have given this philosophy its stamp, and which have become driving forces of our entire Western spiritual development. One can gain a picture of the particular nature of the Goethean world view if one tries in a certain way, with ideas which one borrows solely from it, to characterize this world view entirely out of it itself. This is to be striven for in the later parts of this book. Such a characterization can be aided, however, by taking a preliminary look at the fact that Goethe expressed himself about certain things in this or that way because he felt himself to be in agreement with, or in opposition to, what others thought about some region of natural or spiritual life. Many a statement of Goethe's becomes comprehensible only when one looks at the ways of picturing things which he found confronting him and with which he came to terms in order to gain his own point of view. How he thought and felt about this or that gives insight at the same time into the nature of his own world view. If one wants to speak about this region of Goethe's being, one must bring to expression much that for him remained only unconscious feeling. In the conversation with Schiller described here, there stood before Goethe's spiritual eye a world view antithetical to his own. And this antithesis shows how he felt about that way of picturing things which, originating from one aspect of Hellenism, sees an abyss between sense experience and spiritual experience, and how he, without any such abyss, saw the experience of the senses and the experience of the spirit unite in a world picture which communicated reality to him. If one wants to bring to life consciously within oneself as thought what Goethe carried within him more or less unconsciously as his view about the form of Western world views, then these thoughts would be the following ones. In a fateful moment, a mistrust of the human sense organs took possession of a Greek thinker. He began to believe that these organs do not transmit the truth but rather that they deceive him. He lost his trust in what naive, unbiased observation offers. He found that thinking makes different statements about the true being of things than experience does. It would be difficult to say in whose head this mistrust first established itself. One encounters it in the eleatic school of philosophers whose first representative was Xenophanes, born about 570 B.C. in Kolophon. Parmenides appears as the most important personality of this school, for he has maintained, with a keenness like none before him, that there are two sources of human knowledge. He declared that our sense impressions are delusion and error, and that man can attain knowledge of what is true only through pure thinking which takes no account of experience. Through the way this conception of thinking and, of sense experience arose with Parmenides, there was instilled into many following philosophies a developmental illness from which scientific endeavors still suffer today. To discuss the origin in Oriental views of this way of picturing things is out of place within the framework of the Goethean world view.