Goethe and Kant

Here’s another short take in my sequence on German idealist philosophers (see Kant and Fichte here and Fichte and Schelling here). This time I examine briefly the role of the idea in Kant’s and Goethe’s understanding of nature. I also note Schelling’s influence on Goethe’s later philosophy, closing with a few comments on how the contemporary scientific image complicates Schelling’s response to Kant’s transcendental idealism.Goethe’s account of nature differs from Kant’s precisely over the ontological status of the archetype (the idea) in the world. Kant’s critical philosophy had argued against positions such as Goethe’s early view that the human possessed some faculty for peering directly in nature’s process as it is. Goethe in this sense was more the Platonist: For the order of nature to be comprehensible, Goethe held, some real transcendental structure must be available to the human mind. However, Goethe’s own view, as Robert J. Richards shows, would itself undergo significant transformation. This transformation will take Goethe from rationalistic realism (or what Frederick Beiser has been calling transcendental realism) to critical idealism and then to an ideal–realism, modified after Goethe’s encounters with Kant, Fichte, and especially Schelling.

In his search for the “living whole” that could connect the disconnected empirical particulars of an organism (Richards 424), Goethe was tasked with describing those archetypal ideas, or ideal structures, that lay behind and unified the phenomena of this world. Richards writes, “Such ideal structures, as Goethe would come to explicitly maintain, could not be represented by particular, empirical objects; they could not be seen with the physical eye but only with the inward eye” (424). At issue here is the status of this “inward eye” and its ability to lay claims on the ideal structures of nature’s own becoming. In the Kantian view, which Goethe would come to understand well enough, this inward eye did not gain purchase on some underlying and organizing power (or set of powers) operative in nature; rather, the inward eye sees not the organization of nature itself but the organization of reason’s own understanding as it attempts to regulate and systematize the order of its own experience. Archetypal ideas for Kant are self-referential; they tell us only about the transcendental ordering of our own experience.

Thus for Kant, what Goethe called the Urbuild (fundamental image), the Urtypus (archetype), or the allgemeiner Typus (common type) could only be a regulative ideal upon which are forced the empirical details of our common experiences. In regards to the human interpretation of organisms in particular, Kant held that this kind of thinking was an artifact of our own consciousness, rather than evidence of the organism’s own organization around some metaphysical telos, anchored by a transcendental idea active in nature. Contra this view, as Richards explains, for Goethe, “The archetype would furnish a model by which to understand the structural and developmental features of all animals. But the archetype, as he gradually came to conceive it, would be more than a simple pattern used for comparative zoology [i.e., the archetype as Kantian regulative ideal]: It would be a dynamic force actually resident in nature, under whose power creatures would come to exist and develop [i.e., the archetype as transcendental force of nature]” (440). This account of the role of the idea in nature, then, would form the crux of the dispute between Goethe’s realism and Kant’s regulative idealism. Here Richards phrases the key question clearly, “Since Goethe accepted the basic Kantian epistemology, how could he assume that a researcher might have in consciousness the same archetypal ideas used by nature in her [sic] constructions?” (457).

While Goethe would accept the Kantian challenge to separate his own ideas from those of nature, he would reject Fichte’s “idealistic unreality” (462), which jettisoned the idea of a Ding ain sich altogether, and instead follow the path laid down by Schelling. “The ideas that constituted nature’s creations,” writes Richards, “were not captives of individual minds, but stood beyond self and nature, though were realized in both” (471). On this line of argument, Goethe would agree with Schelling and affirm that the synthetic and constructed nature of experience was indeed an accurate depiction of our condition, as Kant had held, but the ongoing advance of developmental biology, morphology, and the proto-evolutionary sciences had also begun to point to a deeper continuity between the transcendental subject’s organizing capacity, in which cognition is mediated by ideas, and those ideas participant in the metaphysical structure of reality itself. As part of nature’s own becoming, Goethe and Schelling held, it is only logical to argue that the human subject could be but one more manifestation of—and thus has a certain sympathy with—nature’s own organizing powers. Thus would the ideal–real distinction find a new grounding in the primordial powers of nature whilst still honoring the synthetic character of experience so carefully revealed in the critical philosophy.

The added difficulty we have today—and which makes Schelling’s naturalistic solution to Kant’s critical philosophy all the more wanting—is that evolution, as we currently understand it, may position us humans as one species continuous with a larger natural process, but it doesn’t necessarily align our perceptual, affective, or intellectual faculties with some common underlying truth or order of reality. Rather, what we detect in nature, on this view, are not ideal structures that we share in some metaphysical sense, but rather those elements of the environment that must be a concern for us as a particular type of organism. This is what James and the pragmatists get right: Our epistemological condition is all the more deeply situated and self-referential than even Kant had thought (and hence we have the Great March of Situated Historical Contexts that 20th century philosophers will obsess over).

On the far end of this line of thinking are people who draw a sharp line between veridical perception and cognition, on the one hand, and the selective pressures that promote perceptions and cognitions tuned to utility and need, rather than some underlying cosmic truth that unites the human subject’s cognitive structure with the real’s own architecture. (See for example the this story in the Atlantic, which is based on, among other sources, this paper.) It’s quite a Kantian view, in some respects. Contrast this stance with the resurgence of a certain kind of Platonism, a kind of neo-Goethienism, and we can see that we haven’t traveled that far from our 18th and 19th century predecessors. In other words, it’s clear that we still need to think with both Kant and Schelling, with the natural and the transcendental in mind.


  1. But see the penetrating critique of Kant that Charles Sanders Peirce generated in the process of developing his architectonic philosophical system and his evolutionary metaphysics, and objective idealism characterized by the recognition of ‘semiosis’ as a ubiquitous process. As the late John Deely made it quite clear (for example, in his book ‘The Four Ages of Understanding’ :

    https://books.google.com/books/about/Four_Ages_of_Understanding.html?id=zAYh3Aeem5YC )

    Kant was really stuck in the dualistic realism-idealism ‘binary’ that plagues modernism (along with multiple other binary oppositions that become what one might think of as the unmediated ‘binaries of suffering’–the unresolvable ‘clash’ of modernism–the general idea that there is nothing but ‘zero-sum’ games to be considered–the sad and unhappy consequence of a modernism that is nominalistic, dualistic, materialistic, individualistic and alienating). There is an urgent need to get beyond all of this! Modernism has led us, as a species, down a Cartesian rabbit-hole that an anti-nominalistic, nondualistic, communitarian Peircean ‘Grand Vision’ (as Deely called it) can potentially lead us as a species out of–and provide a new way of seeing the position of our species, the only ‘semiotic animal’ on the planet (i.e. the organism that not only utilizes semiosis but has a semiotic means–ie. language–to reflect on this fact, recognize and formulate it, and communicate about such reflection with others of the species), in the general context of the natural world and the universe that contains it.


    • I’m right there with you. Pansemiotics (or biosemiotics, at the least) provides an important alternative to the dualisms of modern philosophy. I tend in this regard to follow Whitehead and Jakob von Uexküll more so than Deely or Peirce, but the “Grand Vision,” as you say, is similar.


      • I think it can all be integrated without much difficulty into a process-relational worldview that centers on semiosis as a means of knowing and of extracting interpreted meaning from experience. The issue is that we are in the throes of a transition between two very different worldviews, one that sees material and brute force as primordial with mind emerging from matter as an epiphenomenon produced by material-based mechanism, and the other that sees relation and process as primordial with matter developing as a consolidation of mind through the ‘law of mind’, the tendency to generalize and consolidate, to ‘form habits’–what physicist Lee Smolin has called, in the context of quantum mechanics, the ‘Principle of Precedence’ which basically says that once some event occurs its likelihood of recurring increases.

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      • I’m always puzzled by these claims of overcoming, what is it that we can now do that we couldn’t before?


      • I’d say it’s a making explicit of something that’s always been the case more so than an overcoming that yields some kind of new situation. (That said, sometimes making something explicit does provide new resources for action.)


      • it’s just all too easy to piece together anything on the page/screen but as we make our ways thru (and of ) the world I find that much of this doesn’t make differences that make a difference, and ya know for pragmatists this is where it’s at.
        as W.James put it:
        e wonderful things … but so original, and your categories are so unusual to
        other minds, that, although I recognize the region of thought and the profundity and reality of the level on which you move, I do not yet assimilate the various theses in the sense of being able to make a use of them for my own
        purposes. I may get to it later; but at present even first-, second-, and
        third-ness are outside of my own sphere of practically applying things, and I am not sure even whether I apprehend them as you mean them to be apprehended.
        I get, throughout your whole business, only the sense of something
        dazzling and imminent in the way of truth.


      • What kind of differences would you like to see this line of thought make? Or any other, for matter?


      • I’d like to be able to experience something in a new way or assemble some project in a new way, not sure say how Peirce allows anyone to overcome the difficulties of Kant/nominalism in terms of human relations or science or anything not merely academic? As for folks like Smolin how do we test his hypotheses, or just put them to work?
        Or with thinking plants or spider-webs as extended minds what does adding ‘intelligence/mind’ add to the accounts of the related behaviors?
        Part of what I’ve assumed the attraction of say mindfulness or psychedelics is that they offer some things that one might do in the world other than speculate, no?


      • It’s an interesting binary you’ve set up between doing something in the world, like mindfulness, and the not-doing of philosophy and speculation. But I see what you’re saying.

        It’s a timely question you’re asking, too, because I just submitted a proposal for the upcoming Media Ecology Association’s conference where I’m going to argue that philosophizing should be read in much the same way that the spider thinks with its web (i.e., we should “think” about philosophizing as an extended thinking with our media ecologies). Speculating is a doing, no?

        Anyway, the fact that there might be a way to put into words a general description (its own kind of skilled doing, IMO) that makes some sense of the commonality between my thinking when I’m doing philosophy and a spider’s thinking when spinning a web doesn’t have any affect on you? It doesn’t change the way you experience things?

        Maybe I can take this a different direction and ask how you’d go about advising someone—say, a young person—about how to achieve some of things you’re after. The contrast might give us something to work with.


      • when M-Ponty describes how we come to stand in relation to a painting that allows me a new insight into such happenings/doings, when Heidegger shows how we tend to ignore tools that work and only notice them when they break I have a new appreciation and a new relation not just to existing tools but also to design (like with Gibson/affordances), with von Uexküll I get something likewise in relation to critters, same with Nietzsche on values/valuing, but with Peirce, Whitehead and the like I get nada beyond the words on the page, no way to ‘cash’ out the reading, so becomes more like reading scifi or the like, so when you write about affordances/skills/habits and extended-minding I think you need some concrete examples of what is affforded/enabled and how.
        One could take the Stanley Fish approach to merely academic work and celebrate it as good work (engaging, etc) if you can get it but my sense is that you want to produce work that somehow gears into other aspects of life beyond the making of texts (talks, etc) about texts, yes?
        these folks are circling these issues:


      • I understand your preference for the direct, the practical, the immediate, the empirical, the doing, and so on. It’s such a strong (and predictable) preference for certain personalities. My question, though, is why after all the years are the Whiteheads and Peirces of the world still a concern for you?


      • mostly cuz folks like you who are doing interesting work keep raising them, not opposed to any thinker/text in principle just more interested in what they allow us to do, what we can make of them, too much of Occam’s razor? also when we say things like someone’s work allows us to overcome say our experiences of being distinct from objects (even in some senses from our bodies) I have to wonder what that really means, is it just in theory and if so than it’s not the strong case that many make it out to be, use matters to meaning as I understand it.


    • Not sure of the point of the question. Process as ‘becoming’ is ubiquitous wherever any particular variable or feature is undergoing temporal change. So, erosion is process, evolution is process, development is process, etc. It is a temporal unfolding that occurs over a temporal continuum.
      I think the point may relate to the debate over nominalism? Whether potentiality is real or only actualities make that cut–the nominalist stance. Peirce was a vehement anti-nominalist which was one of main complaints against ‘Cartesianism’ although you could argue that Ockham was the main promoter of the nominalist view. For a great read on this issue I would highly recommend Paul Forster’s book titled “Peirce and the Threat of Nominalism”. I think it is a deeply fascinating and important issue that also relates back to this question of the relationship of mind to matter.


  2. ” Process as ‘becoming’ ”

    Why call it becoming? Changing seems to be a better word. When you call any process becoming then how do you know that what it is becoming. Every thing is changing, it is simple and clear.


    • Interesting, especially this bit about complementary cognitive artifacts. Does he in the last hour have anything to say about his colleague from the Sante Fe Institute’s work I link to in my post?


      • yeah some interesting possibilities there, what struck me (thinking recently with Kaufman about the manifest vs scientific image and that recent brains series on plants) is his warnings about confusing math with metaphors, I don’t remember them getting around to your source/topic my sense was that the conversation degenerates some as they get (ironically) into confusing social “codes” like laws with software and the like, that crowd is generally a bit over impressed by the powers of mathematical models which devoid of the sorts of actual engineering he highlights in relation to sense-machines are just that, social “engineering” still isn’t such a mode/way.


      • What do you make of this fellow that Kaufman mentions who learned how to use an abacus and then at some point was able to compute in his in mind using a “virtual” (i.e., imagined) simulation of the abacus in his own head? I see a link here between the practical value of speculative/abstract exercises and these kinds of learned abilities.


      • sure there is a kind of make-believe/virtuality even when using the actual abacus and we certainly use artefacts of thinking/imagining/re-membering as we use tools/hammers/etc (think of Dennett’s intuition pumps or Wittgenstein’s perspicuous re-presentations), so many classically intellectual acts can be wired/geared into the outside, this is the gist right? of extended-minding which I would agree has relations to umwelten but for me isn’t a Pan relation of semiosis because for me the details of matter/physiology make for differences that make a difference and to stray too far from such ties often seems to lead folks into con-fusing metaphors for actualities, might be good for poetry, films or say the plastic arts but not for much else that I can see. Part of what I like about Andy Pickering’s Mangle is that it reminds us that we are manipulating (dis-figuring if you will) and it reminds us that the materials resist (tho not Withdraw nor have minds of their own), as any good woodworker or stone carver can tell you.


      • Yeah, Peirce and Whitehead aside, we’re pretty close here, as usual.


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