We find, within the unconnected chaos of experience, and indeed at first also as a fact of experience, an element that leads us out of unconnectedness. It is thinking. Even as a fact of experience within experience, thinking occupies an exceptional position.
With the rest of the world of experience, if I stay with what lies immediately before my senses, I cannot get beyond the particulars. Assume that I have a liquid which I bring to a boil. At first it is still; then I see bubbles rise; the liquid comes into movement and finally passes over into vapor form. Those are the successive individual perceptions. I can twist and turn the matter however I want: if I remain with what the senses provide, I find no connection between the facts. With thinking this is not the case. If, for example, I grasp the thought “cause,” this leads me by its own content to that of “effect.” I need only hold onto the thoughts in the form in which they appear in direct experience and they manifest already as lawful characterizations.
What, for the rest of experience, must first be brought from somewhere else — if it is applicable to experience at all — namely, lawful interconnection, is already present in thinking in its very first appearance. With the rest of experience the whole thing does not already express itself in what appears as manifestation to my consciousness; with thinking, the whole thing arises without reservation in what is given me. With the rest of experience I must penetrate the shell in order to arrive at the kernel; with thinking, shell and kernel are one undivided unity. It is only due to a general human limitation that thinking appears to us at first as entirely analogous to the rest of experience. With thinking we merely have to overcome our own limitation. With the rest of experience we must solve a difficulty lying in the thing itself.
In thinking, what we must seek for with the rest of experience has itself become direct experience.
With this the solution is given to a difficulty that will hardly be solved in any other way. That we stick to experience is a justified demand of science. But no less so is the demand that we seek out the inner lawfulness of experience. This inner being itself must therefore appear at some place in experience as experience. In this way experience is deepened with the help of experience itself. Our epistemology imposes the demand for experience in its highest form; it rejects any attempt to bring something into experience from outside it. Our epistemology finds, within experience, even the characterizations that thinking makes. The way in which thinking enters into manifestation is the same as with the rest of the world of experience.
The principle of experience, in its implications and actual significance, is usually misunderstood. In its most basic form it is the demand that we leave the objects of reality in the first form in which they appear and only in this way make them objects of science. This is a purely methodological principle. It expresses absolutely nothing about the content of what is experienced. If someone wanted to assert, as materialism does, that only the perceptions of the senses can be the object of science, then he could not base himself on this principle. This principle does not pass any judgment as to whether the content is sense-perceptible or ideal. But if, in a particular case, this principle is to be applicable in the most basic form just mentioned, then, to be sure, it makes a presupposition. For, it demands that the objects, as they are experienced, already have a form that suffices for scientific endeavor. With respect to the experience of the outer senses, as we have seen, this is not the case. This occurs only with respect to thinking.
Only with respect to thinking can the principle of experience be applied in its most extreme sense.
This does not preclude our extending the principle of experience also over the rest of the world. It has in fact other forms besides its most extreme one. If, for the purpose of scientific explanation, we cannot leave an object in the form in which it is directly perceived, this explanation can nevertheless still occur in such a way that the means it requires are brought in from other regions of the world of experience. In doing so we still have not stepped outside the region of “experience in general.”
A science of knowledge established in the sense of the Goethean world view lays its chief emphasis on the fact that it remains absolutely true to the principle of experience. No one recognized better than Goethe the total validity of this principle. He adhered to the principle altogether as strictly as we demanded earlier. All higher views on nature had to appear to him in no form other than as experience. They had to be “higher nature within nature.”
In his essay “Nature,” Goethe says that we are incapable of getting outside nature. If we therefore wish to explain nature to ourselves in his sense, we must find the means of doing so within nature.
But how could one found a science of knowing upon the principle of experience if in experience itself we did not find at any point the basic element of what is scientific: ideal [ i.e., “in the form of ideas.” –Ed. ] lawfulness? We need only take up this element, as we have seen; we need only delve into this element. For, it is to be found within experience.
Now, does thinking really approach us in such a way, does our individuality become conscious of it in such a way, that we are fully justified in claiming for it the characteristics stressed above? Anyone who directs his attention to this point will find that there is an essential difference between the way an outer manifestation of sense-perceptible reality becomes conscious — yes, even the way any other process of our spiritual life becomes conscious — and the way we become aware of our own thinking. In the first case we are definitely conscious of confronting a finished thing; finished, namely, insofar as it has come into manifestation without our having exercised upon this becoming any determining influence. It is different with respect to thinking. It is only at first glance that thinking seems to be like the rest of experience. When we grasp any thought, we know, by the total immediacy with which it enters our consciousness, that we are most inwardly connected with the way it arises. Even when a thought occurs to me quite suddenly, whose appearance therefore seems in a certain sense entirely like that of an outer event which my eyes and ears must first mediate for me, I nevertheless know that the field upon which this thought comes to manifestation is my consciousness; I know that my activity must first be called upon in order for the sudden thought to come about. With every outer object, I am sure that the object at first turns only its outer aspect toward my senses; with a thought, I clearly know that what the thought turns toward me is at the same time its all, that it enters my consciousness as a totality complete in itself. The outer driving forces that we must always presuppose with sense-perceptible objects are not present with a thought. Indeed it is to those outer forces that we must ascribe the fact that sense phenomena confront us as something finished; we must credit these outer forces with the becoming of phenomena. With a thought, it is clear to me that its becoming is not possible without my activity. I must work the thought through, must recreate its content, must experience it inwardly right into its smallest parts if it is to have any significance for me at all.
Thus far we have arrived at the following truths. At the first stage of our contemplation of the world, the whole of reality confronts us as an unconnected aggregate; thinking is included within this chaos. If we move about within this manifoldness, we find one part in it which, already in the form of its first appearance, has the character the other parts have yet to acquire. This part is thinking. What is to be overcome in the rest of experience, namely the form of its immediate appearance, is precisely what we must hold onto with thinking. Within our consciousness we find this factor of reality, our thinking, that is to be left in its original form, and we are bound up with it to such an extent that the activity of our spirit is at the same time the manifesting of this factor. It is one and the same thing, looked at from two sides. This thing is the thought-content of the world. On the one hand it manifests as an activity of our consciousness, on the other as a direct manifestation of a lawfulness complete in itself as a self-determined ideal content. We will see right away which aspect has the greater importance.
Now, because we stand inside this thought-content, be cause we permeate it in all its component parts, we are capable of really knowing its most essential nature. The way it approaches us is a guarantee of the fact that the characteristics we earlier ascribed to it really are its due. There fore it can definitely serve as a starting point for every further kind of contemplation of the world. From this thought-content itself we can conclude what its essential character is; but if we wish to determine the essential character of anything else, we must begin our investigations with this thought-content. Let us articulate this still more clearly. Since we experience a real lawfulness, an ideal definement, only in thinking, the lawfulness of the rest of the world, which we do not experience from this world itself must also lie already contained in thinking. In other words: manifestation to the senses and thinking stand over against each other in experience. The first, however, gives us no enlightenment about its own essential being; the latter gives us enlightenment both about itself and about the essential being of the manifestation to the senses.