Perceptual Power of Thinking. Goethe’s scientific method as a way of understanding nature – Part 2

Human cognition is capable of development. It can reach the inner being of the world and does not need to be trapped within subjective bounds. We can use concepts and ideas not only in order to form a judgment, but also to direct our view to a certain experience.

Perceptual Power of Thinking. Goethe’s scientific method as a way of understanding nature – Part 2

(Return to part 1)

Tags: thinking, cognition, perceiving, senses, experience, concepts, Goethe

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

Kant’s view means that you never get to the object

Goethe has identified this problem of the human cognition. He states:


“I am thankful to the critical philosophy for making me call attention to myself, this is a tremendous benefit …”


He does highly value Kant’s achievements to have overcome naïve realism. But then he objects:


it never reaches the object …


Goethe has searched for a way that leads away from this restriction of cognition. He has conversed about this problem particularly with Schiller. At the beginning of their friendship that lasted ten years, Schiller was deeply impressed by Kant’s philosophy. Concerning this matter, Goethe writes retrospectively:

“With delight, Schiller took up Kant’s philosophy, which so much elevates the subject so that it seems to be narrowing it. It developed the extra-ordinary gift that Nature had put into his character, and he, filled with a strong sense of freedom and self-determination, was unthankful toward Great Mother Nature, who surely hadn’t treated him badly.”

According to Goethe’s assessment, the subject is so much elevated in Kant’s philosophy because it is the subject that sets the only benchmark for the realization of the world. This leads to a feeling of freedom and self-determination. At the same time, this also means a restriction because the subject cannot reach beyond its conditions. It keeps its focus on itself. Goethe calls such an attitude towards realization being unthankful to Great Mother Nature, meaning the Creation.


 Searching for a new way of perceiving

Goethe was convinced that the human consciousness doesn’t only picture the objects of the world in a naïve and realistic way. Goethe agrees with Kant that the cognition only gives an image of the world that depends on the conditions of the subject. But, he believed that human cognition is capable of development, that it can reach the inner being of the world and that it does not need to be trapped within the subjective bounds.


Goethe is confident…


that by regarding an ever-creative Nature, we become worthy to participate in the process of Nature in a spiritual manner.


Here, the question arises regarding how it is possible to develop cognition to the point that it is capable of reaching the objects themselves. Goethe believed in achieving this by cultivating his perception in a special way. The following anecdote is to emphasize how intensively Goethe perceived his surroundings: When Goethe was a minister in Weimar he was the state supervisor for mining in Ilmenau. This duty often led him to the Thuringian Forest. While carrying out  his duties, which always also had the goal of geological investigation, he was accompanied by a miner. One day they arrived at a large looming rock face, which made various layers of rock visible, among them a layer of granite. Goethe felt the urge to climb the rock face. The miner recounts the event:


If you want to stand here please,` Goethe said to me, ´I could get a hold of that root that sprouts out of the rock. So I would be able to get on your shoulders and I could at least touch the identified rock with my hands.` This way it was done and we had the rare pleasure to see and even touch with our hands the peculiar segment of primitive rock, red granite, and the black and blue clay stone above.


This report shows how radically Goethe had turned towards perception of Nature and away from only forming concepts. Analogically, he says:


Beyond Nature reason can only find emptiness.


This attitude forms a crucial opposition to Kantian philosophy. Goethe’s opinion evoked the criticism of his contemporaries, among them Schiller, who writes in a letter before they came to know each other more closely:

“Goethe’s mind has influenced anyone who belongs to his circle. He and his sect can be characterized by a proud philosophical contempt for all speculations … and by a resignation limiting the human to his five senses, or in short, by a childlike simple-mindedness concerning reason. There they rather look for herbs or go in for mineralogy than to get involved with empty theories.”

And in another letter:


I do not like his philosophy in every respect, for it draws too much from the world of the senses, where I draw it from my soul. Generally, to me his imagination is too much focused on the senses. He must touch everything.


There is no completeness in experiences

For the speculative thinker Schiller, Goethe is far too much oriented toward the senses. This criticism on a realization process, which comes about by using the senses exclusively, is undoubtedly justified from Schiller’s perspective. Even Goethe himself knew about the one-sidedness of and limits to a pure empiricism. He talks about the Hydra of Empiricism. Experiences occur one by one and without connection to each other. Once you think you have understood the individual experiences, new experiences arise, which do not fit into the framework you have just developed. You cannot grasp the law and the idea of the objects only by having experiences. This is also the reason why Kant says that everything that is idea and imagination has nothing to do with the characteristics of the world of senses but only with the human understanding itself. Goethe also talks about the despair about completeness. You can never be sure if you have taken account of all experiences within a field of research. A researcher who wants everything to be set in the right position will end in tears with every single experience because of his longing for coherence. Idea and experience appear to be an incompatible pair for the human consciousness. Goethe says:


“Here, we now encounter the problem that there is a certain gap between idea and experience. This does not always come clearly to our mind and it takes all our power to grapple with overcoming this gap.”


Goethe’s method of Cognition

The question now is how the mediation process between idea and experience can be set off. How does human cognition have to develop in order to find an ideal coherence within the experiences? This is the central concern of Goethe’s method of research, which shall be explained in the following.


On the 24th of December 1828, Goethe put down a couple of seemingly trivial notes in his diary, which described the following observation:


I took a walk in the park this evening. A falling leaf sometimes resembles a bird.


Why was it important for Goethe to take a note of this observation? It helps to picture the situation. It is winter, it is Christmas eve. In the dusk, Goethe is walking through the park. Mist is rising above the river Ilm. Everything is quiet. Suddenly, something rustles. Goethe perceives a movement. He startles. Is it a bird? Oh, no! It is just a leaf that has fallen down to the ground. By saying that, we have judged upon the matter, we have satisfied our need for understanding. For Goethe, this is not enough. Through this experience he realizes that reality is not static but flexible.


A new way of using concepts

The common consciousness has fixed concepts, which are only valid until they are replaced by another one. These concepts or judgements are sufficient to guide our intentional behavior. But still, these concepts are not aware of their own origin. Our consciousness is built upon these judgements and it does not include the process of their development. But it is this very process that Goethe is interested in, that Goethe wants to draw our attention to. How do we relate terms and concepts (leaf, bird) to our perceptions? Generally, we name our perceptions with certain terms: This is red, this is beautiful. This is a tree and so on. We use concepts (red, beautiful, tree) in order to qualify the perceptions. Concepts are used in order to form a judgement. But at the same time, the specificity of the perceptions is often lost: this special red, this special tree. The concept does not connect with the quality of the objects we see, or hear, or taste. In order to achieve this, we need to develop a different attitude towards concepts rather than just the sheer use of them as judgements. Concerning this different attitude, Rudolf Steiner gives an example in his book A Theory of Knowledge Based on Goethe’s World Conception:


These are two different things, when, on the one hand, person A says to person B: ‘Observe this man when he is within his family circle and you will form an essentially different opinion of him from the one you form of him in his official behaviour;’ and, on the other hand, when he says: ‘This man is an excellent father to his family.


If I’m going to form a judgement : “The sea is blue”, or if I’m going to say: “Look how the colors of the sea are changing”, these are two different things. Rudolf Steiner says:

There is an essential difference between employing certain words for the purpose of directly attributing this or that characteristic to a thing, on the one hand, and, on the other, employing these words merely to direct the reader’s or the hearer’s attention to an object.

(to be continued in part 3)

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Date: November 7, 2022
Author: Prof. Dr. Jost Schieren (Germany)
Photo: Kai Pilger auf Pixabay CCO

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