Goethe narrates a conversation that once ensued between Schiller and himself after they had both attended a meeting of the Society for Nature Research in Jena. Schiller was dissatisfied with the results of the meeting. He had found there a most disintegrating method for the study of Nature and he remarked that such a method could never appeal to a layman. Goethe replied that “possibly this method was cumbersome for the initiated also and that there might well exist yet another way of portraying Nature active and living, struggling from the whole into the parts, and not severed and isolated.” And then Goethe evolved the great ideas which had arisen within him concerning the nature of plants. He drew “with many characteristic strokes, a symbolic plant” before Schiller's eyes. This symbolic plant was intended to give expression to the essential being lying in every single plant, whatever particular form it assumes. It was intended to demonstrate the successive development of the single portions of the plant, their emergence from each other and their mutual relationship. In Palermo, 17th April, 1787, Goethe wrote these words in reference to this symbolic plant form: “There must be such a thing; if not, how could I recognise this or that structure to be a plant if all were not moulded after one pattern?” Goethe had evolved in himself the conception of a plastic, ideal form that was revealed to his spirit when he surveyed the diversity of the plant forms and observed the element common to them all. Schiller contemplated this form that was said to live, not in the single plant but in all plants, and said, dubiously: “That is not an experience, that is an idea.” To Goethe these words seemed to proceed from an alien world. He was conscious of the fact that he had arrived at his symbolic form by the same mode of naive perception by which he arrived at the conception of anything visible to the eye and tangible to the hand. To him the symbolic or archetypal plant was an objective being just as the single plant. He believed that this archetypal plant was the result, not of arbitrary speculation, but of unbiased observation. He could only rejoin: “It may be very pleasing to me if without knowing it, I have ideas and can actually perceive them with my eyes.” And he was very unhappy when Schiller added: “How can there ever be an experience that is commensurate with an idea? For the inherent characteristic of the latter is that an experience can never be equivalent to it.”
Two opposing world-conceptions were confronting each other in this conversation. Goethe sees in the idea of an object an element that is immediately present, working and creating within it. In his view, any given object assumes definite forms for the reason that the idea has to express itself within this object in a particular way. For Goethe it has no meaning to say that an object is not in conformity with the idea, for the object can only exist as the idea has made it. Schiller thinks otherwise. To him the world of ideas and the world of experience are two separate regions. To experience belong the diverse objects and occurrences filling Space and Time. The realm of ideas stands over against this as a different kind of reality that is laid hold of by the reason. Schiller distinguishes two sources of knowledge, because man's knowledge flows to him from two directions — from without through observation, and from within through thought. For Goethe there is one source of knowledge only, the world of experience, and this includes the world of ideas. Goethe finds it impossible to speak of experience and idea, because for him the idea is there before the eye of the spirit as the result of spiritual experience, in the same way as the sense-world lies before the physical eyes.
Schiller's conception has grown out of the philosophy of his time. We must go back to Greek Antiquity to discover the basic conceptions which are the hall-mark of this philosophy and which have become the motive forces of the whole of Western spiritual culture. We can form a picture of the particular nature of the Goethean world-conception if we endeavour to build up this picture entirely from elements inherent in the world-conception itself, with the help of ideas gleaned from it. Such an attempt will be made in the later chapters of this book. A delineation of this kind can, however, be assisted by a preliminary consideration of the fact that Goethe expressed himself in this or that way about certain matters because he agreed or disagreed, as the case might be, with what others thought about some particular region of natural and spiritual life. Many an utterance of Goethe becomes intelligible only when we study the modes of conception which confronted him and which he analysed in order to arrive at his own personal point of view. How he thought and felt about one thing or another throws light on the nature of his own world-conception. When it is a question of considering this sphere of Goethe's being a great deal of what with him remained unconscious feeling only must be given expression. In the conversation with Schiller referred to above there stood before Goethe's spiritual eye a world-conception contrary to his own. And this element of opposition shows how he felt in regard to the mode of conception proceeding from one aspect of Greek culture, which perceives a gulf between material and spiritual experience; it shows how, to him, sense experience and spiritual experience were united without any such gulf, in a world-picture communicated to him by reality. If we want to experience in conscious living thoughts what was in Goethe a more or less unconscious perception of the constitution of Western world-conceptions we must consider the following. At a certain crucial moment a mistrust in man's organs of sense took possession of a Greek thinker. He began to think that these organs of sense do not impart the Truth to man but that they deceive him. He lost faith in the results of naive, direct observation. He discovered that thought about the true being of phenomena has not the same thing to say as experience. It is difficult to indicate the particular mind where this mistrust first gained a hold. We meet with it in the Eleatic School of philosophy, of which Xenophanes, born at Kolophon, 570 B.C., is the first representative. The personality of greatest significance in this School appears in Parmenides. Parmenides has asserted more emphatically than any of his predecessors that there are two sources of human knowledge. He has declared that sense impressions are illusory and deceptive and that man can only attain to knowledge of the True through pure thinking that takes no account of experience. As a result of this conception of thought and sense experience that arose with Parmenides many later philosophies came to be inoculated with an evolutionary disease, from which scientific culture still suffers to-day. To discuss what origin this mode of conception has in oriental thought does not fall within the scope of the Goethean world-conception.