Goethe's Conception of the World
Goethe and Hegel
Goethe's study of the world covers a certain range only. He observes the phenomena of light and colour and penetrates to the basic phenomenon; he tries to find his bearings amid the multiplicity of plant life and arrives at his sensible-supersensible archetypal plant. He does not rise from the basic phenomena or the archetypal plant to higher explanatory principles. This he leaves to the philosophers. He is content when “he finds himself on an empirical height whence he can make a backward survey of all the stages of experience and look forward into the region of theory, even if he cannot enter it.” In his perception of the real, Goethe advances to the point where the ideas confront him. The way in which the ideas are mutually connected, how the one thing proceeds from another in the spheres of ideas — these are tasks which first begin on the empirical height where Goethe stopped. His view is that “the idea is eternal and unique.” “The fact that we also use the plural is unfortunate. All things of which we become aware and of which we can speak, are only manifestations of the idea.” But since the idea makes its appearance in the phenomenon as a multiplicity of single ideas, for instance, the idea of the plant, the idea of the animal, it must be possible to trace them back to one fundamental form, just as it is possible to trace the plant back to the leaf. The single ideas differ in their manifestation only; in their true being they are identical. It is therefore just as much in accordance with the Goethean world-conception to speak of a metamorphosis of ideas as of a metamorphosis of plants. Hegel is the philosopher who has tried to portray this metamorphosis of ideas. He is therefore the philosopher of the Goethean world-conception. He takes as his starting-point the simplest of all ideas, that of pure “Being.” In this “Being” the true form of world-phenomena conceals itself completely and its rich content becomes a bloodless abstraction. Hegel has been accused of deriving the entire rich world of idea from pure “Being.” But pure Being contains “as idea” the whole world of ideas just as the leaf contains the whole plant as idea. Hegel follows up the metamorphosis of the idea from pure abstract Being to the stage where the idea becomes direct, actual appearance. He considers this highest stage to be the phenomenon of philosophy itself. For in philosophy the ideas operative in the world are perceived in their essential form. Speaking in the Goethean sense, we could say: Philosophy is the idea in its greatest extension; pure Being is the idea in its utmost contraction. The fact that Hegel sees in philosophy the most perfect metamorphosis of the idea, proves that true self-perception is as alien to him as it is to Goethe. An object has reached its highest metamorphosis when it brings to expression in perception, in immediate life, its full content. Philosophy, however, does not contain the ideal content of the world in the form of life but in the form of thoughts. The living idea, the idea as perception, is given to human self-perception alone. Hegel's philosophy is not a world-conception of Freedom because it does not seek the world-content in its highest form on the basis of the human personality. On this basis all content becomes entirely individual. Hegel does not search for this individual element but for the general, the species. Hence he does not relegate the origin of the Moral to the sphere of human individuality, but to the World Order lying outside of man which is supposed to contain the moral ideas. Man does not himself set his own moral goal but he has to become a member of the moral World Order. Hegel looks upon the particular, the individual, as something bad when it persists in its individuality. It has its value only within the whole. Stirner considers this to be the mental attitude of the bourgeoisie, “and their poet Goethe, like their philosopher Hegel, have known how to extol the dependence of the subject on the object, obedience to the objective world and so on.” We have here yet another biased mode of conception. In Hegel, as well as in Goethe, the perception of freedom is lacking because the perception of the innermost essence of the world of thought eludes both of them. Hegel feels himself to be the philosopher of the Goethean world-conception. On February 20th, 1821, he writes to Goethe as follows: “The simple and abstract, which you very strikingly call the basic phenomenon, you place at the summit; then you show the concrete phenomena as arising out of the addition of further modes of influence and circumstances, and regulate the whole process in such a way that the order proceeds from the simple to the more complex conditions; and, thus ordered, the complex now appears in all its clearness as a result of this analysis. To discover the basic phenomenon, to free it from the surroundings accidental to it, to conceive it abstractly as we say — this I consider to be a matter pertaining to the great, spiritual perception of Nature, besides being the path in general towards the truly scientific side of knowledge in this field. ... May I, however, also say to you that the special interest which a basic phenomenon brought to life in such a way has for us philosophers, is that we are able to turn it to the use of philosophy. We have, of course, in the first place our oyster-like, grey, or quite black Absolute, nevertheless we have directed it towards the air and the light, so that it has become covetous of these, but we need window-spaces in order finally to bring it out to the full light of day; our schemes would disappear in smoke if we were to transplant them into the motley, intricate society of the perverse world. At this point, your basic phenomena serve us excellently; in this twilight, spiritual and intelligible by virtue of its simplicity, visible and tangible by virtue of its sensibility, the two worlds, our abstruse one and phenomenal existence, greet each other.”
Even if there is a perfect correspondence between Goethe's world-conception and Hegel's philosophy, it would be a great mistake to place the same value upon Goethe's achievements in thought as upon those of Hegel. Their mode of conception is the same; both of them want to avoid self-perception. Goethe, however, put his reflections into operation in regions where the lack of perception does not have a harmful effect. Even if he has never seen the world of ideas as perception, he has lived in the world of ideas and has allowed his observations to be permeated thereby. The world of ideas was apprehended by Hegel as perception, as individual spiritual Being, just as little as by Goethe. What he did, however, was to reflect about the world of ideas, and as a result his thoughts in many directions are distorted and untrue. If Hegel had made observations about Nature they would have probably become just as valuable as those of Goethe; if Goethe had desired to build up a philosophical thought-structure, the sure perception of true reality that guided him in his observations of Nature would have forsaken him.