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.

Skills of Perception

I’ve been suggesting that the basic constituents of experience are neither ideas nor representations but activities of thought capable of generating ideas and representations. On this view, it follows that perception is grounded in the actions of the person; it is a skill of combining the manifold of sensibility into the semantically hued diorama of meaningful experience that all people experience as they navigate the world. As a skill of perception, experience can be said to consist in various levels of detail and nuance; it is shot through with skillful means at the ground level, means trainable and plastic in nature. Indeed, if one takes the position that philosophy is an activity that intervenes upon the initial order of skilled perception, then it becomes clear that philosophy is a means for acting upon action. Philosophical practice on this view is itself something like a somatic or practical activity, one that makes contemplation—in the sense of marking out a space for observation—its own kind of skilled action, executed in an environment.  Continue reading