Perceptual Power of Thinking. Goethe’s scientific method as a way of understanding nature – Part 3

Goethe uses concepts and ideas as a medium, as an organ to perceive the world. In this understanding, an idea is a kind of light that illuminates the content of perception. The experience reveals its inner quality.

Perceptual Power of Thinking. Goethe’s scientific method as a way of understanding nature – Part 3

(Return to part 2)


Using concepts and ideas to direct the attention

We can use concepts and ideas not only in order to form a judgement, but also to direct one’s view to a certain experience. The first form gives us an evaluation of the experience, and the second form gives us the experience itself. We would not be able to have experiences without this opportunity of using ideas, because we are only having those experiences to which we directed our attention before. So there are two different ways of judging. On the one hand, a given fact is judged and, on the other hand, this given fact is actually put into our field of vision for the very first time so that we become aware of the experience itself. Herbert Witzenmann explains this difference by referring to the terms of a judging use of concepts and a attention-directing use of concepts (urteilender und blicklenkender Begriffsgebrauch).

Concepts and ideas are not supposed to be used as pure judgements, for by doing so we only perceive the content of the concepts themselves and not the real content of the perceptions. Goethe, instead, uses these concepts as a medium, as an organ to perceive the world.

To have concepts about things we perceive means to have an organ that I employ in order to grasp these things, in order to make them a part of myself.


In this understanding, the idea is a kind of light that illuminates the content of the perception. The attention-directing use of concepts enables us to experience the richness and quality of the world. In order to achieve this, we have, to avoid  using concepts as judgements on one hand and, on the other hand, in order to use ideas in attention-directing way, we need to increase the formation of concepts. So, we should refrain from forming judgements as far as possible. And at the same time we should create concepts which direct our attention towards the perceptions. These created concepts do not have a falsifying effect on the perception but, to the contrary, they help us to disclose or release the inner quality of the perceptions. We only perceive such things that we have concepts for, but this does not mean that we perceive our concepts. We do not place judgements upon our experiences when we direct our attention to the perceptions. The subject only abstains from forming a judgement. But what becomes visible are the qualities of the world of experiences, which means that the object judges itself.

One can call this an experiment. We do not form judgements but we do offer concepts to the perceptions. And we observe whether the experiences release their own content, which means that the perceptions form a judgement about themselves.


So Goethe’s cognition method contains the following:

1.     a reduction of judgements,
2.     a development of concepts (ideas),
3.     an attention-directing use of these concepts (ideas),
4.     a judgmental experiment.


Within this procedure the experience reveals its inner quality. This is a first step in Goethe’s cognition process. But until now there are still singularities, there has not been found a connection between the experiences. In order to reach this level of cognition, Goethe takes a further step.


Accompanying the movement in Nature

Here, he talks about a repetition of experiences. The objects should be perceived with their characteristics and in their varieties of appearance. Thus, experiences shall be put beside other experiences and be compared. Within this process the power of cognition unifies entirely with the typified varieties of experiences. Especially for the cognition of organic objects, it is necessary to focus on the transforming and altering  processes of the living. Goethe says:

 Things are being formed and reformed, there is a continuous movement within Nature all the time. And in order to be able to follow this movement we must stay as flexible and in motion as living nature itself.


In this way, Goethe’s thinking was trying to accompany the appearances of Nature.


Participating in the process of Nature in a spiritual manner

He rehearsed Nature within his thinking. And by doing this he became more and more familiar with the spiritual content of the world. He watched plants again and again, not in order to interpret them, but in order to accompany them. It is similar to practicing piano. First you only have single notes, and you rehearse again and again. You imitate the music, first very slowly. Then you become more and more able to understand the music and to move your fingers in the right way, that is, in the way of the music itself. After a while, the individual notes and chords begin to relate to each other in harmony. In the same way, the Goethean thinking tries to become more and more able to move in the right way within the experiences. The same way as the melody of a piece of music is not created by the musician, but by the interrelation of the notes, so the interrelation or harmony of experiences can only be created by a continuous cognition effort that follows the developing and moving Nature. Goethe says that by doing this we become worthy to participate in the process of Nature in a spiritual manner. Ronald Brady describes this process as follows:


“His attempt to achieve a ‘spiritual participation’ in the operation of plant metamorphosis led him to exercises of imagination … by which he attempted to follow the movement between forms. The goal of these investigations was to observe the manner in which the law -’the eternal’- entered into the ‘transitory’, something which he expected to trace through his own intentional activity (which activity constituted his ‘participation’ in the activity of Nature.)”


This is a new level of cognition. The thinking of the cognizing person corresponds with the formation processes in Nature. Cognition forms the same movement in a spiritual way which Nature forms in reality. By reaching this stage of participating in the process of Nature, we discover that the process of Nature is the same as our thinking, for it is the movement of our thinking that reveals the spiritual or conceptual quality of the appearances. This is what the post-Kantian philosophy – especially Schelling and Fichte – has sought: an intellectual perception (“intellektuelle Anschauung”). But their way is a kind of introspection. The Goethean way leads to an intellectual perception which happens within the experiences. We see our own intellectual activity to be in correspondence with the inner being of Nature.


Goethe’s scientific method, which he himself calls perceptual power of thinking (anschauende Urteilskraft), can be summarized as follows:

1) Perceptual power of thinking means transforming judgements into organs of perception – attention-directed concepts.
2) Perceptual power of thinking means to observe how perceptions release their own contents – experiment.
3) Perceptual power of thinking means to perceive one’s own thinking which is identical with the process of Nature – intellectual perception.



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: November 15, 2022
Author: Prof. Dr. Jost Schieren (Germany)
Photo: Free Photos auf Pixabay CCO

Featured image: