Goethe's World View
If one wants to understand Goethe's world view, one cannot content oneself with listening to what he himself says about it in individual statements. To express the core of his being in crystal-clear, sharply stamped sentences did not lie in his nature. Such sentences seemed to him rather to distort reality than to portray it rightly. He had a certain aversion to holding fast, in a transparent thought, what is alive, reality. His inner life, his relationship to the outer world, his observations about things and events were too rich, too filled with delicate components, with intimate elements, to be brought by him himself into simple formulas. He expresses himself when this or that experience moves him to do so. But he always says too much or too little. His lively involvement with everything that comes his way causes him often to use sharper expressions than his total nature demands. It misleads him just as often into expressing himself indistinctly where his nature could force him into a definite opinion. He is always uneasy when it is a matter of deciding between two views. He does not want to rob himself of an open mind by giving his thoughts an incisive direction. He reassures himself with the thought that “the human being is not born to solve the problems of the world but is, indeed, born to seek where the problem begins, and then to keep himself within the limits of what is comprehensible” A problem which the person believes he has solved takes away from him the possibility of seeing clearly a thousand things that fall into the domain of this problem. He is no longer attentive to them, because he believes himself to be enlightened about the region into which they fall. Goethe would rather have two opposing opinions about an issue than one definite one. For each thing seems to him to comprise an infinitude, which one must approach from different sides in order to perceive something of its entire fullness. “It is said that the truth lies midway between two opposing opinions. Not at all! It is the problem that lies between, the unseeable, the eternally active life, thought of as at rest.” Goethe wants to keep his thoughts alive so that he could transform them at any moment, if reality should induce him to do so. He does not want to be right; he wants always “to be going after what is right.” At two different points in time he expresses himself differently about the same thing. A rigid theory, which wants once and for all to bring to expression the lawfulness of a series of phenomena, is suspect to him, because such a theory takes away from our power of knowledge its unbiased relationship to a mobile reality.
If in spite of this one wants to have an overview of the unity of his perceptions, then one must listen less to his words and look more to the way he leads his life. One must be attentive to his relationship to things when he investigates their nature and in doing so add what he himself does not say. One must enter into the most inward part of his personality, which for the most part conceals itself behind what he expresses. What he says may often contradict itself; what he lives belongs always to one self-sustaining whole. He has also not sketched his world view in a unified system; he has lived his world view in a unified personality. When we look at his life, then all the contradictions in what he says resolve themselves. They are present in his thinking about the world only in the same sense as in the world itself. He has said this and that about nature. He has never set down his view of nature in a solidly built thought-structure. But when we look over his individual thoughts in this area they of themselves join together into a whole. One can make a mental picture for oneself of what thought-structure would have arisen if he had presented his views completely and in relationship to each other. I have set myself the task of portraying in this book how Goethe's personality must have been constituted in its inner-most being in order for him to be able to express thoughts about the phenomena of nature like the ones he set down in his natural scientific works. I know that, with respect to much of what I will say, Goethean statements can be brought which contradict it. My concern in this book, however, is not to give a history of the evolution of his sayings but rather to present the foundations of his personality which led him to his deep insights into the creating and working of nature. It is not from the numerous statements in which he leans upon other ways of thinking in order to make himself understood, nor in which he makes use of formulations which one or another philosopher had used that these foundations can be known. From what he said to Eckermann one could construct a Goethe for oneself who could never have written The Metamorphosis of the Plants. Goethe has addressed many a word to Zelter that could mislead someone to infer a scientific attitude which contradicts his great thoughts about how the animals are formed. I admit that in Goethe's personality forces were at work that I have not considered. But these forces recede before the actually determining ones which give his world view its stamp. To characterize these determining forces as sharply as I possibly can is the task I have set myself. In reading this book one must therefore heed the fact that I nowhere had any intention of allowing parts of any world view of my own to glimmer through my presentation of the Goethean way of picturing things. I believe that in a book of this kind one has no right to put forward one's own world view in terms of content, but rather that one has the duty to use what one's own world view gives one for understanding what is portrayed. I wanted, for example, to portray Goethe's relationship to the development of Western thought in the way that this relationship presents itself from the point of view of the Goethean world view. For the consideration of the world views of individual personalities, this way seems to me to be the only one which guarantees historical objectivity. Another way has to be entered upon only when such a world view is considered in relationship to other ones.