Perceptual Power of Thinking. Goethe’s scientific method as a way of understanding nature – Part 1

In the normal way of perceiving the world, we relate the objects of the world to ourselves and to our feelings. We do not rejoice in the existence of the object itself but we rejoice more or less in ourselves.

Perceptual Power of Thinking. Goethe’s scientific method as a way of understanding nature – Part 1

This text is an edited transcript of a lecture given on Sept. 28, 2019 at a symposium of the Rosenkreuz Foundation in Bad Münder (Germany).

We may have a feeling of great gratitude towards Nature when we look at the manifold beings and phenomena of the world that surround us. It is this feeling of almost religious gratitude that characterizes Goethe. To explain this I want to refer to an event in Goethe’s childhood, which is described in his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit.

When Goethe was a seven-year-old boy he lived in the gable room of his parents’ house in Frankfurt. Looking through the window to the East, he could overlook the roofs of the city. In the morning he often got up very early, shortly before sunrise. He had put a pyramid-shaped music-stand right in front of the window, on which he had arranged his collection of  natural items -various findings: cones, seeds, minerals, bones, and so on, which represent the several kingdoms of Nature. During sunrise he captured the light of the sun with a pocket-lens and lit a fumigating candle that stood on the top of the music-stand with it. To him, this was a religious deed, a divine service.

Already, as a child, he had the conviction that all beings of the world and all natural phenomena derive from a divine and spiritual source. The light of the sun that helps Goethe to light the candle reveals to him this spiritual source.

Goethe, at 80 years of age, describes a similar experience  in his poem Vermächtnis, which was written in February 1829:


No creature can come to nothingness!
The Eternal continues to be in all beings,
Being keep you joyful.
Being is eternal; for laws
hold the living treasures,
Which adorn the universe.


A whole human life time lies between these two experiences of the seven-year-old boy and the 80-year-old poet who expresses the idea that existence shall keep you full of joy.. During his life Goethe continuously tried to understand the inner being of the world, either by means of  art or by means of science.

Criticism on Realization

However, such a view of the world cannot be taken for granted. Rather, just the opposite is true. Our common consciousness perceives things only within its limit of space and time at first. Then, these things are associated with terms or conceptions which do not touch Eternity. These terms or conceptions only help us to get and maintain orientation throughout our lives. In Goethe’s essay Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt (The Experiment as A Mediator Between Object and Subject) it is said:

As soon as we perceive the objects around us, we view them in relation to ourselves. [1]


This, according to Goethe, is the natural way of perceiving the world. We relate the objects of the world to ourselves and to our feelings. We do not rejoice in the existence of the objects themselves but we rejoice more or less in ourselves. The human consciousness creates images with a continuous self-regard. It is entangled in itself and cannot reach the world.

This tragedy is the main motive of Goethe’s Faust. The tragic protagonist of the drama, Faust, formulates his concern about realizing and understanding the world as follows:

That I the force may recognize
That binds creation’s inmost energies;
Her vital powers, her embryo seeds survey,
And fling the trade in empty words away.”


But then he reaches the conclusion:

And learn,
That we in truth can nothing know!
That in my heart like fire does burn.

No dog in such fashion would longer live.”


Kant: Laws and appearances exist only in relation to man

This is the cognition problem that Faust has to struggle with. He does not manage to find the origin and foundation of the world. Even when he tries to recognize the “inmost energies” he is not able to do so, to reach reality.

In Goethe’s era, this problem or criticism of the human cognition has been outlined by Immanuel Kant:

For laws do not exist within appearances as such, but only in relation to the subject that envisages them, with respect to reason. Correspondingly, appearances do not exist as such, but only in relation to the same creature with respect to senses. [2]


Later Kant continues:

But appearances are just imaginations of things which remain unknown as to their objective content. These imaginations, however, are not bound to any laws of association other than the law that is imposed upon them by the associative power of the understanding subject. [3]


Here, Kant argues that all human realizations are conditioned by the subject. All natural phenomena, all laws that we believe we understand turn out to be relative. They only exist according to our subjective condition. In this context, Kant talks about a Copernican conversion. Actually, a better name for it would be a reversed Copernican conversion: While Copernicus converted the geocentric theory of the universe into a heliocentric one, Kant did it just the other way around. He converted the object-oriented human cognition into a subject-oriented one. Commonly, we presume that cognition follows the content of the objects. Kant, instead, shows that the objects adjust to the condition of the subject.

Therefore, cognition is not able to reach the inner being of the objects or the object itself  as Kant calls it. Kant formulates these thoughts with an expression of modesty. Goethe, instead, sees here the tragedy of the human realization process. While Kant can live quite well with this understanding, Goethe lets his Faust speak:

No dog in such fashion would longer live.

Goethe develops this thought again in a more dramatic way in the scene of Faust’s encounter with the spirit of earth. When Faust expresses his confidence that he can understand the inner being of the world, saying “Restless spirit, how I feel near to you!”, the spirit answers:


You are like the spirit, you do comprehend, Not me!


This is the core of Kant’s realization criticism: In every object human cognition only reflects cognition itself and not the objects.

(to be continued in parts 2 and 3)

Prof. Dr. Jost Schieren studied philosophy, German language and literature and art history and has been Professor of School Education with a focus on Waldorf Education and Head of the Department of Educational Science at the Alanus University in Alfter near Bonn (Germany) since 2008.


[1] Goethe, The Attempt as Mediator between Object and Subject. In: Goethes Werke. Hamburger Ausgabe, Beck-Verlag, ed. Erich Trunz. Vol. 13, p.10
[2] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason. In: Werkausgabe. 12 vols. Ed. Wilhelm Weischedel. Vol. 3, p. 156
[3] Ibid

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Share this article

Don't Miss Out

Would you like to receive updates on our latest articles, sent no more than once a month? Sign up for our newsletter!

Our latest articles

Article info

Date: October 30, 2022
Author: Jost Schieren (Germany)
Photo: Couleur auf Pixabay CCO

Featured image: