Goethean Science (8 & 9): A Traverse of the Kantian Labyrinth

Having striven to depict Goethe’s intuitive approach to knowledge in the last chapter, we will now attempt to establish to counterpole to this thesis. To accomplish this, we mean to enter the speculative labyrinth of Kantian philosophy. This is something Goethe was never inclined to do. Despite having developed a moderate familiarity with Kant’s work, Goethe himself acknowledged that he preferred to survey the system from its perimeter, while “into the labyrinth itself, however, I could not venture to go; I was kept from it now by my poetic imagination, now by my common sense, and nowhere did I feel myself furthered.” [1] Nevertheless, our mandate is to understand Goethe’s way of science, and our methodology demands that we undertake this venture. Whether this be a case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread will be decided by whether, following the next chapters, the colours of Goethean science stand forth in sharper relief. One does not exactly mean to compare Goethe with an angel, though it must be said that Goethe’s genius guided him with exemplary sureness. [2] For Kant, this fact disqualifies Goethe’s way from the status of science. The former outlines the reasons for this in his third great critique, The Critique of Judgement (Der Kritik der Urteilskraft). Whether Kant’s position is justified will be a critical question which we may forthwith begin to answer. First, however, we intend to lay the proper groundwork upon which such a question may be posed. This will require a survey of Kant’s theory of knowledge, which he most thoroughly articulated in his first critique, The Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft). We will let his beginning be ours as well. Let us, therefore, offer ourselves into the belly of the whale and hope to emerge after three sections.

I. The First Critique

The fundamental question that Kant set out to answer in The Critique of Pure Reason was “how are synthetic a priori judgements possible?” Kant’s jargon (which has however become the lingua franca amongst many schools of philosophy since his time) will demand some explication before the significance of the question can reveal itself. Suffice it to say that it is a leading question, and also a loaded one. Indeed, Kant’s 1781 publication of Der Kritik der reinen Vernunft has been compared to “the shot heard round the world.” [3] Kant himself thought of The Critique of Pure Reason as an inversion of the conventional hierarchy of science akin to that which Copernicus had accomplished astronomically some centuries earlier when the latter reversed the traditional relation of the Earth and the Sun. Indeed, in the preface of the work, which we may also refer to its esoteric title as “De revolutionibus orbium scientarum,” Kant drew and explicit parallel between his First Critique and the Copernican revolution. This is a very pregnant comparison, as we will discover when we compare the apparently contrasting appellations of “transcendental idealism” and “empirical realism” that Kant variously ascribed to his philosophy.

First, however, we must attempt to understand the meaning of the question “how are synthetic a priori judgements possible?” Let us first consider the meaning of a synthetic judgement. This we can accomplish by providing a conceptual and an ostensive definition, and by comparing it to its opposite. Conceptually, a synthetic judgement is a proposition unites two terms that are not already joined purely in virtue of their meanings. Put another way, a proposition is synthetic judgement if the concept of its predicate is not already implicit in the concept of its subject. For example, Newton’s Laws of Motion are synthetic a priori judgements because it is not, for instance, implicit in the meaning of “an object” that it “will maintain a constant velocity…unless acted upon by a net unbalanced force.” Instead the concept of an object must be joined with to concepts of “inertial reference frame,” “net unbalanced force,” and “constant motion” in order to synthesise the proposition that is known as Newton’s First Law of Motion. The quintessential example of a synthetic a priori judgement is that “all events have a cause” because this is something we discover by experience. “All effects have a cause” is an analytic a priori judgement because it is implicit in the meaning of “effect” that it has a cause. The most illustrative examples of analytic a priori judgments can be found in Euclidean geometry. That all points on the circumference of a circle are equal from its radius is an analytic a priori judgement because that is what circle means. Thus the subject is derivable purely through a conceptual analysis of the predicate.

Next we must distinguish between a priori and a posteriori judgements. Straightforwardly, the latter depend on experience through the senses and are therefore logically contingent. The former do not depend on verification through the senses and are therefore logically necessary. “If there is a tree in the yard, then it was once a sapling” is an example of the latter. Whether or not there is a tree in the yard in question depends on verification through experience and therefore an eventual affirmative or negative proposition would be an a posteriori one. Have laid out these logical categories, it will be evident that analytic and a priori are natural parents of a judgment, as are synthetic and a posteriori. [4] Kant noticed, however, that not all of our judgments are the issue of such natural pairings. Specifically, Kant noted the propositions of natural science as apparent exceptions, since they appeared to join two concepts in synthesis but they also seemed to be logically necessary and therefore apparently a priori. The operation of Newton’s laws, for instance, did not appear to depend on a posteriori verification to be known (i.e. ergo they must be a priori), for instance, and yet they appear to offer knowledge beyond what is accessible to mere rational analysis (i.e. ergo they provide for synthetic judgements). Kant’s question of “how are synthetic a priori judgements possible?” can now be approached with some notion of what is at stake. How is it that the world operates according to laws, and that scientists can discover those laws, and yet those laws are neither self-evident nor accessible to sensory experience? As to whether this is a proper characterisation of knowledge, and as to whether Kant’s careful distinctions are also real ones, we will suspend judgement until the next chapter. Suffice it at this point to have established to impetus for Kant’s Copernican Revolution.

Naturally, Kant’s philosophy would not have been called a revolution if his answer to this question did not imply a radical restructuring of our world conception. Indeed, Kant’s solution to the riddle of synthetic a priori judgements amounted to an inversion of the traditional conception of knowledge, which is to say, the understanding of the relation between mind and world. Kant proposed that synthetic a priori judgements are possible because they are not judgements about the world at all, but rather only judgments about the organisation of the human mind. “Thus far it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to objects,” Kant writes in the preface to The Critique of Pure Reason, [5] but argues that the only way to explain the possibility of synthetic a priori judgements is to assume instead that “objects conform to our cognition.” Kant recognised that philosophers thitherto had largely concerned themselves only with the objects of knowledge and not with the conditions for, and possibility of that knowledge in the first place. Kant credited Hume with “awakening [Kant] from his dogmatic slumber.” [6] Hume had pointed out that neither causality nor moral, aesthetic, or intellectual value are possible objects of sensory perception. Because, as an adherent of the empiricist school, Hume affirmed the senses as the only dependable sources of knowledge, [7] he concluded that one must remain agnostic as to the reality of such notions as the above. In this manner, Hume intensified the general shift from ontological to epistemological questions, which Descartes had largely initiated.

Despite what could appear as an an absurdly sceptical stance on the part of Hume to reject the notion of causality, Kant asserted that latter did not go far enough. Indeed, it was Kant’s identification of surreptitious presuppositions in the thought of philosophers such as Hume that incited him to formulate a new critical philosophy to supplant the former, which he took to be naïve or dogmatic. Descartes, for instance, had axiomatically affirmed causality despite his pretence of global scepticism, or dubitum. Similarly, Hume had uncritically assumed the dependability of the senses despite questioning the notion of causality. The Scotsman [8] had furthermore adopted as a foregone assumption the absolute realism of space and time independent of human ideation. In the same manner that one might undertake studies into colour theory without heed to the manifold and ever-changing relations of light and shadow, or botanical studies without recognition of the living Earth that is the original condition for the eventual objects of such study, so philosophers had debated important questions without considering the fundamental context of their inquiries—namely that they transpired entirely within the human mind itself. Just as one must needs remove (at least conceptually) oneself in space to retrospect on the Earth if one is to understand one’s original conditions, so with the transcendental method, Kant strove to evaluate human cognition itself by reflexively examining his own ideation. In this manner, Kant had shifted philosophy’s center of gravity from the Earth to the Sun, from the object to the subject, from questions of knowledge to questions of the conditions for knowledge.

Transcendental idealism is, therefore, Kant’s solution to the question of “how are synthetic a priori judgements possible?” This is to say that from a transcendental perspective—a perspective which reflects on the conditions for knowledge as such—the world of space and time is of the nature of an idea. In Kant’s words:

…everything intuited in space or in time, hence all objects of an experience possible for us, are nothing but appearances, i.e., mere representations, which, as they are represented, as extended beings or series of alterations, have outside our thoughts no existence grounded in itself. This doctrine I call transcendental idealism. [9]

In other words, space and time are the necessary conditions of experience without themselves originating in that experience. Instead, they are intuited inwardly with the same firmness as a sensation outwardly. Just as a person cannot see a blue flower as anything other than blue, (ceteris paribus) so objects of experience including an eventual blue flower cannot but appear extended in space and with duration in time. Given the radical shift that resituating space and time into the mental organisation of the subject entails, one may be tempted to see Kant’s transcendental revolutions as a capitulation to pure subjectivity. As Bishop Berkeley famously declared “esse est percepi,” “to be is to be perceived.” Kant, however, was careful to distinguish his view from that of Berkeley. Thus we may add to the Berkelian maxim the Kantian corollary: “…de visum transcendentibus.” For Kant, only for the objects of intuition is their being inherent in the perception of them. But because the only possible objects of intuition are space and time together with sensations, and because the former are ideal in their very being while the latter, by their nature, can deliver only appearances, the Kantian corollary serves to starkly differentiate transcendental idealism from the “empirical idealism” of Berkeley. Indeed, Kant called his transcendental philosophy “empirical realism” just on those occasions when he wished to sharpen this distinction. Where the former assumed the reality of space and time as an empirical context, but ascribed a mind-dependence to everything within that context, in empirical realism Kant argued for almost the reverse. Transcendental idealism denies space and time as realities independent of human ideation, while simultaneous affirming the reality of the objects of empirical observation, at least in some manner (i.e. they are real as phenomena). Kant also wished to differentiate his view from “transcendental realism,” which according to “the Sage of Königsberg,” issued an unwarranted hypostasis of ideations into mind-independent realities. Kant certainly would have faulted the entire realist traditions extending back to Plato and Aristotle with this error, and most of his contemporaries as well, except Berkeley, whom he would have faulted with the first.

While Kant may appear to contradict himself by calling his philosophy “transcendental idealism” and “empirical realism,” a charitable reading of Kant will conclude that their apparent antithesis is an accident of their polemical context. Therefore, just as a Jersey cow may auburn at sunset and grey at midnight, so Kant’s philosophy will appear as transcendental idealism from the vantage of transcendental realism, for instance, and as empirical realism from the vantage of subjective or empirical idealism. To reconcile these two perspectives is largely to penetrate to the kernel of Kant’s philosophy. One might attempt to accomplish this by saying that objects really exist, but only in relation to a subject. This is no different than such designations as “top” and “bottom,” which imply one another. In other words, objects are real as phenomena or appearances (Erscheinungen) situated in space and time, which is to say, in the empirical sense. From the transcendental perspective, however, objects are phenomenal because their nature as appearance to a subject is recognised. Objects are always phenomenal and therefore contingent on a subject to perceive them. These phenomenal objects, however, stand in contrast to noumena (Dinge an sich selbst), which is to say, “things-in-themselves” outside of any relation to a subject. Phenomenon, for Kant, means “what shows itself through the senses,” while noumenon means “what is of the nature of thought.” The latter Kant regards as, in principle, thinkable but not knowable. This is less unreasonable than its sounds, since a subject is the patient of knowledge [10] and therefore all knowledge must be subjective, “For knowledge is regulated according as the thing known is in the knower.” [11] Otherwise, what would we mean by knowledge?

Obviously, knowledge entails a subject whom it can be knowledge for. Less obvious however, are Kant’s other criteria for knowledge. Kant conceives of two capacities of the mind that provide for knowledge: the poetic or self-initiating functions of “spontaneity” (Spontaneität) and functions of direct beholding or intuition (Anschauung). According to Kant, the organisation of human beings dictates that thinking is a spontaneous faculty while sensation is an intuitive one. In fact, sensations are the only intuitions that are provided to the human being, with the exception of space and time, and mathematical operations. The reality of intuition is concomitant with its very appearance. This is not the case for a spontaneous activity, since it is perfectly able to construe something that is unreal. Thinking can go astray while sensations, together with space and time, appear as fact. Since space and time are the conditions for outer experience but are not themselves objects of that experience, sensation plays a crucial role in mediating between the mind and the world. From the other side, thinking can spontaneously conceive of innumerable possibilities, but only those which conform to the intuitions of the senses and fit within the ideal framework of space and time are real ones. Still, sensations do not contain their own understanding. The understanding of sensations depends on thinking. Thus thinking provides understanding while sensations provides objectivity; each must supply what the other lacks, and neither can itself compensate its own deficiency:

How each the whole its substance gives

Each in the other works and lives [12]

The consequence of this arrangement is that only phenomena are objectively knowable because they receive their verification through sensory intuition. Noumena, by contrast, can be thought but cannot be objectively known because they cannot receive intuitive verification through the senses, for thinking is a spontaneous faculty, not an intuitive one. Thus, the human being can know how things appear but not what they are.

It might seem rather extreme for Kant to circumscribe the possibility for objective knowledge via intuition to sensation and the ideas of space and time. Nevertheless, such a delimitation is not without reason. Kant attempts to support his decision by imagining a being whose organisation provided for intuition of concepts and ideas. In other words, thinking, for this being, would be an intuitive faculty and not only a spontaneous one. Everything that such a being conceived would at the same time be real. Such a notion strikes Kant as absurdly inadmissible. Kant sums up his position in a famous statement from the First Critique: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” (“Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer, Anschauungen ohne Begriffe sind blind.”) Kant has a very annoying habit of changing his terminology from one sentence to the next, and in this case, from one clause to the next. This stylistic trait likely accounts for Goethe’s aversion to entering “the labyrinth.” Nevertheless, we can attempt to understand what he means based on what we have this far established. To say that thought should be empty implies that they are not, by themselves, able to fill themselves with content. We know that thinking operates in the mode of spontaneity and not intuition. We know also that the only sources of intuition are the senses with the exception of the inner intuitions of space and time. Since we can not intuit concepts, then the only content available for thoughts is that which arrives through the senses. Thus we could understand the first part of Kant’s statement to mean that thought depends on sensation for content. The second part becomes clear if we reflect on the relation of concepts and thought. Kant is adamant that the intuition of concepts is not granted to human cognition. Concepts, therefore, must be arrived at by the faculty of spontaneity, which unlike intuition, does not guarantee their reality. Nevertheless, intuitions by themselves do not offer sufficient conditions for understanding, since, again, they can only provide sensory percepts and not the concepts to understand the former withal. Therefore, intuitions by themselves are blind because sensory percepts do not provide their own intelligibility. We could therefore, rephrase Kant’s maxim in a chiastic form to reveal the true pith of what he is saying: “concepts without percepts are empty, percepts without concepts are blind.” Kant continues in the same paragraph from which the quote above is taken:

It is, therefore, just as necessary to make the mind’s concepts sensible—that is, to add an object to them in intuition—as to make our intuited percepts understandable—that is, to bring them under concepts. These two powers, or capacities, cannot exchange their functions. The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing. Only from their unification can cognition arise. [13]

Concepts depend on precepts for content and reality, which percepts depend on concepts if they are to be understood. Yet the understanding arrived at in this manner is always somewhat arbitrary because of the spontaneous nature of thinking, which is charged with providing concepts for understanding. Only of what we ourselves initiate and carry out in full awareness can we be completely certain, and yet this very fact of our own agency sunders the activity from objective reality. We know what we do, but we cannot do what is necessary to know beyond sensory appearance. Put another way, we can only know how things appear to our sense, but not what those things are.

In this manner, Kant appeared to have sundered reality from its knowability. Our self-initiating understanding can only set to work on the stuff of intuition, and the latter is limited to what the senses can provide. For this reason, our knowledge pertains to phenomena, which is to say, “things as they appear to us,” and never to noumena, which is to say, “things in themselves” (“Dinge an sich selbst”). If intellectual intuition is not granted the human being, then neither is knowledge beyond semblance.

II. The Second Critique

Kant carried the momentum form his meteoric First Critique to a second, The Critique of Practical Reason (Kritik der praktischen Vernunft) published in 1788, in which he outlines a moral philosophy, arguing that the morality of a given deed is measured by the goodness of the will that was its motive. While the lack of intellectual intuition forever divorces us from intimate knowledge of Nature, the conditions are otherwise in respect to our own actions, because we are doing them. From Kant’s standpoint, limits to knowledge are of no concern in respect to morality. The single thing of which one can be certain is the motive of his own deed precisely because he was the one who initiated it. A further exploration of Kant’s moral philosophy will be reserved for a later occasion. To follow the thread of the present inquiry, however, demands to continue on to Kant’s final Critique, bearing in mind the polarity between the first two scenarios, and the latent possibility of its intensification.


III. The Third Critique

In a manner, the First Critique and the Second Critique form a pair of opposites: the first taking thought as its concern and the second taking the will. Kant synthesised these two works in a third, called the Critique of Judgement (Kritik der Urteilskraft), published in 1790, the same year as Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants. In a manner, Kant’s Third Critique could be called the Critique of Feeling, following the Critiques of Thinking and of Willing, respectively. Of the three Critiques, this is the most pertinent to our subject of Goethean science. Nevertheless, the content of the First and Second Critiques provide the ground from which our understanding of the Third may eventually flourish.

In the Critique of Judgement—specifically in the second part—Kant sets out to address the question of limits of human knowledge in relation to living things. Given the precepts that he established on the First Critique, we know that sensation is the sole source of intuitive knowledge, with space and time serving as cognitive scaffolding. By “judgement,” Kant refers to the faculty of the mind to form propositions by linking a subject and a predicate. Recall the discussion of the various forms of judgment which we undertook in Chapter 8 at the very portal of entry into the Kantian labyrinth, as well as the riddle of the First Critique, “how are synthetic a priori judgments possible?” We know now that they are possible because they are not exactly synthetic in the sense of jointing two entirely independent concepts, but rather that they are forced to follow the contours of our own cognitive architecture and therefore are judgements about how the world must appear to us if we are to experience it. Judgments operate within this ideal framework. They are a function of thinking and therefore associated with the “spontaneous,” “subjective,” or “self-initiating” aspect of the mind and not the “intuitive,” “objective,” or “receptive” one. This is mostly recapitulation from the first part of the present exploration.

Suppose then that one beholds the blue flower. We know that inasmuch as it is a flower and not a replica or a specimen, that it is a living thing. This is to say that a formative force of growth is immanent to it. [14] It expresses this immanent power by changing its phenomenal appearance in an apparently purposeful manner. One says “apparently purposeful” because, as Kant never tires of reminding his readers, the human mental organisation proscribes knowledge of what is not sensible. Kant, therefore, describes life as apparently purposeful, or “purposive.” Despite that everyone (whose perceptual faculties have not atrophied under the ideology proffered by the mainstream Neo-Darwinist abiology that attempts to conceive of organisms as materialised algorithms coded by no one to the non-purposeful end of propagating genetic material) can feel that organisms live and act in a goal-driven manner, Kant denies that we can know this.

Let us call this inner purposefulness which, according to Kant, we can feel but not know, “entelechy,” after Aristotle’s coinage, ἐντελέχεια. It is worth understanding the soul of this word to measure it against Kant’s conception. Joe Sachs provides an extraordinary summary:

Aristotle invents the word by combining entelēs (ἐντελής, “complete, full-grown”) with echein (derived from hexis, to be a certain way by the continuing effort of holding on in that condition, or “habit”), while at the same time punning on endelecheia (ἐνδελέχεια, “persistence”) by inserting telos (τέλος, “completion”). This is a three-ring circus of a word, at the heart of everything in Aristotle’s thinking… [15]

Thus when we perceive a living thing as living, we are recognising that its form, growth, and behaviour are not arbitrary, but rather strive towards some end, and that this striving is not imposed from an external agent. Such would be the case if an architect were to fashion a model of that being. Life, however, means precisely that this formal and efficient causality [16] has become immanent to that being, and works self-reflexively. Modern mainstream biology refers to a simplistic notion of entelechy when it invokes the term “teleology.” The former must reject any notion of teleology in the natural world, however. The reason for this rejection is that post-Darwinian biology is beholden to uphold the axiomatic precept that Nature is entirely explicable by random and accidental processes without any appeal to intelligence or purpose. One is tempted to compare this situation with that of the school of Behaviourist psychology in the tradition of Fechner, Lange, and Mach, which rallies around the ideal of studying “psychology without a soul.” [17] This is an apt comparison because the denial that life is purposeful beyond mere propagation of genetic material is a “biology without bios,” an abiology. The geneticist J. B. S. Haldane captured this difficulty in a very funny manner when he said, “Teleology is like a mistress to the biologist; he dare not be seen with her in public but cannot live without her.” “He cannot live without her” because teleological is what life is. Similarly, Kant’s criteria for knowledge were that it fall within the purview of the senses and of mathematics. [18] Thus, the prevalent attitude in contemporary biology is largely an inheritance from Kant, as will become readily apparent as we continue to survey Kant’s standpoint. The latter, however, had a nuanced argument for the exclusion of teleology from science, while the former tends to adopt it as a foregone conclusion on the ideological basis of explaining the world without appeal to meaning or value. Because Kant’s position is far more interesting than that of modern mainstream biology and because it happens to be the object of our present study, it is Kant’s position that we will continue to consider.

Kant summed up his conception of scientific knowledge when he wrote “In every department of physical science there is only so much science, properly so-called, as there is mathematics.” [19] Kant is upholding the ideal of precision and calculability in the scientific regard of Nature that originated as recently as the sixteenth century with Galileo, continued with Newton, came to full flower during the Enlightenment, and which continues to this day. Wagner expresses this sentiment as he exhorts his scientific method to Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust:

That which was praised as mystery in Nature,

We make to experiment conform,

That which she wrought in living forces,

We crystallise in frozen form.

Life, according to Kant, consists in “an internal principle of action,” and is characterised as “that in which every part is at once means and end.” [20] This principle, or entelechy, does not lend itself to quantification, and thus it does not meet Kant’s criterion for science. Neither does it lend itself to intuition (Anschauung) via sensation, and therefore it fails to meet the criterion for cognition altogether. Cognition, for Kant, represents the principle species of which judgement (Urteilskraft) is the genus. Thus The Critique of Judgement is largely concerned with the boundaries of human cognition. And Kant intends to establish a boundary when he asserts that, despite being able to feel that life is teleological, we cannot know this. In other words, the entelechy cannot be an object of cognition.

Kant attempts to resolve this difficulty be distinguishing between constitutive and regulative principles. This represents, again, another instance of Kant needlessly introducing new terminology for the same ideas that he has already set forth by other names. By a constitutive principle, Kant means a principle (or in the case of living things, a purposefulness) actually operative in Nature. Thus a constitutive principle is a “thing-in-itself.” But the judgment that a constitutive principle is operative in Nature depends on the ability to cognise that principle via intuition. The latter being limited to sensation, this is possibility is denied the human being. The senses perceive objects of sense, not principles. While we cannot, therefore, know what things are, we can know how they appear. Kant calls such principles as we may employ to structure our experience “regulative.” Such principles, however, pertain exclusively to phenomena and thus to how things appear. They are provided by thinking, and thus risk being arbitrary. For this reason, we are qualified to make regulative judgments that living things seem to us to be purposeful, but not that they in fact are. Were it to be possible for a being to apprehend the constitutive entelechy of an organism, such an one would have to be possessed of what Kant calls (again approaching the subject in a different terminological habit) an intellectus archetypus. Such an “archetypal intellect” would be capable of intuiting constitutive ideas themselves, and not merely sensory impressions. Given that the human being is possessed not of an archetypal, but of an “ectypal intellect,” however, such an intuitive apprehension is not possible. This would be akin to a synthetic a priori judgement outside of the a priori mental strictures of space and time. Kant is adamant that this is impossible because all objects of cognition must conform to these strictures as conditions for their perception in the first place. Thus, the only judgments of which the ectypal human intellect is capable are a posteriori ones. [21]

In this manner, Kant establishes basic boundaries to human apprehension. They are more membranes than borders, however, because in the same Critique, Kant devotes an extensive exploration to the notions of beauty and artistic creation. Given the ability of people to successfully apply the regulative principle of beauty to affirmatively judge the aesthetic appeal of a work of art, there must have been a constitutive principle behind the creation of that work. Kant recognised, like Goethe, that that the artist was generally unaware of the very principles by which he or she operated. And yet he or she is evidently making use of them by the eventual fact of a beautiful creation. Kant concludes, therefore, that the artist is able to feelingly express precisely those constitutive principles that are unattainable by thinking cognition. Kant calls the faculty by which an artist is able to unconsciously apprehend these constitutive principles “genius.” [22] In this manner, Kant leaves something of a golden thread which, with proper sensitivity, we may ultimately succeed to extricate ourselves from his magnificent epistemological labyrinth.

Tracing this thread will lead us on an exploration of Goethe’s notion of “anchauende Urteilskraft.” This is often translated into English as “judgment-in-beholding.” In itself, it is a very expressive translation, but it bears the unfortunate consequence of obfuscating Goethe’s immediate connection to Kant. Indeed, their great works on organism were published in the very same year, 1970. For this reason, a more pertinent translation of anschauende Urteilskraft would perhaps be “intuitive judgement,” implying the intuition of those very constitutive principles which Kant quarantined from human perception. Goethe writes that “my perception itself is a thinking, and my thinking a perception.” [23] In a perceiving that is also thinking, the spontaneous and the intuitive are united: thinking freely brings forth its own concepts, but it does so in strict and sensitive accordance with the principles of Nature that it beholds in the manner of “delicate empiricism.” [24] If, as Goethe claims, the faculty of anschauende Urteilskraft is attainable by the human being, then Goethe has indeed delivered us from the Kantian labyrinth, because he has wedded the sources of certainty of Kant’s First and Third Critiques, and realised the possibility of archetypal intellection that was hinted at in the Second. By means of “intuitive judgement,” the human being unites (i) the objects of sensory intuition with concepts were (ii) created by him, but were done so after contemplating (iii) the principles of Nature. In this manner, the conceptual side is both spontaneous (i.e. self-initiated) and intuitive (i.e. receptive).

Goethe inspires us to wonder if the human mind is indeed separate from Nature, as Kant assumed? Such an ostensible separation is hardly self-evident. To claim it were would be to invoke the very faculty of intellectual intuition which Kant denied, since a separation of mind from Nature is certainly not a perceptible object of sense. Goethe did not assume this separation as his starting point, and in fact remarked specifically of Kant that he “considers the subjective faculty of knowledge as an object and discriminates the point where the subjective and the objective meet with great penetration but not quite correctly.” [25] We may wonder, with Goethe whether through the contemplation of an ever-creative Nature, should we not make ourselves worthy to consciously participate in her productions? Goethe believed that his method of “delicate empiricism” (zarte Empirie) together with a faculty of “judgement-in-beholding,” (anchauende Urteilskraft) that he was able to intuit the entelechy of the plant, and therefore that Kant was incorrect to so strictly delimit the bounds of human cognition. “There [is] now nothing to keep me from courageously undertaking the ‘adventure of reason,’ as “der Alte von Königsberg” himself calls it,” he wrote in 1790, demonstrating that he had read the 80th chapter of Kant’s Third Critique. [26] Perhaps such an adventure of reason is just what is needed after this odyssey through the labyrinth of Kantian philosophy.

For more one the relation between Kant and Goethe, together with the other German Idealists, please find these other pieces:




[1] From an essay titled, “Einwirkung der Neueren Philosophie,” or “The Influence of the New Philosophy.”

[2] What the Greeks called “daimon,” the Romans translated as “genius.” Then, desiring not to “put new wine in old wine skins,” as it were, the early Christians rechristened this principle as “angelos” or “angel,” which is the Greek word for “messenger.” All of them refer to the source from whence a soul’s ideas descend.

[3] In allusion, of course, to the murder of Archduke Ferdinand, which inaugurated the First World War.

[4] In fact, all analytic judgements are a priori ones; in other words, the concept of a priori is already implicit in the concept of analytic.

[5] Second edition.

[6] Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783).

[7] It is difficult to restrain oneself from denouncing Hume as the greatest sophist of modern philosophy because the very notion of sensory cognition is a function of the causality whose verifiability Hume intends to reject. If we do not consider the relation between the senses and objective of the world to be a casual, one, then what in the world do we imagine it to be?

[8] Kant’s own family was apparently of Scottish origin so it is like a brotherly rivalry: they are the Remus and Romulus of modern sceptical philosophy.

[9] First edition, 491.

[10] Aquinas’ locus specierum intelligibilium, translating Aristotle’s τόπον εἰδῶν. See earlier note on the subject.

[11] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 12.4.

[12] Goethe’s Faust, “Prologue In Heaven.”

[13] First edition, 50.

[14] The present author has treated this topic elsewhere, see linked page.

[15] Sachs, Joe (1995), Aristotle’s Physics: a Guided Study, Rutgers University Press , p. 245.

[16] The present author has treated Aristotle’s notions of causality more thoroughly elsewhere, see linked page.

[17] Regrettably, the situation has hardly changed, unless one thinks the “brain chemistry” is the same thing as a soul, since anti-depressants seem to be standard approach amongst modern medical professionals to treat afflictions of the psyche.

[18] The reason is that the senses offer intuitions and therefore lend themselves to synthetic a priori judgments. Kant says that mathematics are also synthetic a priori judgments but this is obviously false since mathematics consists in analytic judgements of magnitude or quantity. Because they are analytic judgements, they still fall within the scope of knowledge so the point is somewhat moot.

[19] Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, 1786.

[20] Critique of Judgement, 1790.

[21] In fact, this is something of an a priori analytic judgment itself, since “ectypal” basically means “a posteriori,” both being posterior to sensory experience.

[22] Cf. Goethe’s recognition, introduced in chapter 2, that painters operated according to laws of colour of which they were unaware which sparked his interest in colour theory.

[23] Miller, p. 39.

[24] Cf. Maximen und Reflexionen 509, 1833: “Es gibt eine zarte Empirie, die sich mit dem Gegenstand innigst identisch macht, und dadurch zur eigentlichen Theorie wird. Diese Steigerung des geistigen Vermögens aber gehört einer hochgebildeten Zeit an.”

[25] Weimar Goethe Edition (Weimarische Ausgabe, 2; Abteilung, Band XI, page 377). 101 “…das Abenteuer der Vernunft, wie es der Alte von Königsberg selbst nennt.” Kant’s words are: “Eine Hypothese von solcher Art kann man ein gewagtes Abenteuer der Vernunft nennen.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    I’ve always found Kant somewhat problematic to be honest. I got drilled with Kant as an undergraduate and, well, Protestants at Yale seem to have become enamored with him so I rubbed shoulders with a lot of Kantian Protestants, and studying with Roger Scruton also means More Kant! Now, I wouldn’t say I find Kant to be an enemy like I so clearly do with Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, et al., Mettrie, D’Holbach, etc., but I do think the Kantian compromise – which may have been necessary when Kant took up his monumental response to Hume and co. – is coming to an end.

    And perhaps this is what leaves excitement a possibility now. A exciting possibility to move beyond Kant which many, at least as far as I’m concerned, is what the post-Kantians hoped to achieve. Perhaps it is also not a coincidence that, while they still suffer negativity to outright scorn in the Anglosphere, the post-Kantians have been experiencing a revival even within the UK-US Academy where there is an acceptance of the intellectual prowess of the continental philosophers.

    Though I feel guilty of instrumentalizing Kant as a bridge to Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel! :p


    1. Max Leyf says:

      Kant is the Guardian of the Threshold to modern philosophy because he spells out the problematic situation that is the logical consequence of the scientific way of thinking. So I think it’s irresponsible for both philosophers and scientists not to be thoroughly acquainted with Kantian philosophy and the reasons for the limitations to knowledge that he set up, before they think about going beyond “the Kantian compromise,” as you called it. Otherwise we are just thinking in an asylum ignorantiae. I have been trying to address the possibility to transcend the Kantian threshold without ignoring it for the lifetime of Theoria-press, and the first half of this book is mostly about that:

      And Rudolf Steiner was doing the same long before I started:

      Thanks for the comment.


    2. Max Leyf says:

      Why do you think the work of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel did not render Kant obsolete, since they were largely attempting to “correct” Kant’s errors? This is an interesting question.


  2. Hesiod says:

    The chap doing his thesis on Steiner is on our side; though I don’t Steiner is the end point (personally). He’s going through Kant, Hegel, Steiner, etc. (and I’ve become an unofficial aid) to try to resolve the same tensions. Good for him I say, and tell him, we’re really tight buds because of mutual loves and being kindred spirits on the necessity of Spirit in the world and our lives today.

    Scruton says, rightly, as do you, that you have to know Kant. You can’t not know Kant and be a legitimate intellectual, public or academic, without a firm grasp on the man. Some, however, seem to thoroughly invested in Kant as the absolute truth; that, I find problematic because I think he was more or less a stop gap (necessary) to buttress against the rise of hollow materialism and utilitarianism. He has a multitude of good things about him but, alas, is but a transitory guide like Virgil.

    As to why I don’t think the post-Kantians rendered Kant obsolete may have been reading too much into my comment. Though I think that can be answered by the ignorance and hatred that Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel have received in the Anglosphere and how bastardized they are in their inheritance. Apart from the likes of Charles Taylor and Roger Scruton, few English-speaking philosophers seem to have a positive (and accurate) portrait of the post-Kantians (especially Hegel). Most have the Popper view. And “Fichte is a Nazi” silliness argument. Then you factor in how popular Hegel today is through that sloth of man Slavoj Zizek.

    Now, I do think the post-Kantians are superior, which is why I also started my talk (published in five parts on my site) with Kant. We need him as that foundation. But no one reads Fichte and Schelling. Those who “read” Hegel get Hegel mediated to them through the dialectical materialists and so miss out on the obvious, and more central, spiritual dimension of Hegel. Those that do recognize this in Hegel (a la Stephen Hicks) really trash on Hegel as being an incomprehensible hermetic theologian defending the irrational instead of the empty rainbow science that Analytic philosophers have prostituted themselves to being the handmaidens of. So I’d say they haven’t rendered Kant “obsolete” because no one understands the post-Kantians justly. And those who try – as I have, and obviously yourself (and others) – are not taken seriously or have limited clout. Or, in my case, I tend to write on classics and literature where I have writing contracts. Lol.


    1. Max Leyf says:

      It’s easy to misconstrue anyone, especially Hegel and Fichte, and decry them as incomprehensible. But it’s questionable logic, to say the least, to claim someone is incomprehensible merely in virtue of the fact that I don’t understand him. So someone who says this risks revealing his double folly. That being said, it’s hardly better than people who pretend to understand something they do not just to play it safe. Also, understanding comes in degrees so obviously it’s not so clear as this. Still, I do think there is a threshold of comprehension that can be noticed and ought to be respected.

      Have you read Steiner’s book on the European Mystics? I can’t recommend it highly enough, and the introduction can stand by itself.

      Does you pr friend have a website or publications?

      Best regards,


      1. Hesiod says:

        I have not read Steiner’s book on the mystics. Though my fellow traveler tells me I should since he’s using it for his study so it’s on my ever growing to do list. He does not have a website or any publications. He’s actually a fair bit older than the lot of us; he did his time traveling and in business and wants to make a real contribution to the world now! xD

        As far as I’m concerned, he’s chosen wisely. We were the pair, if I mentioned in an earlier post on Goethean science, challenged Raymond Tallis (if you’ve ever run across him) about the prospects of Baconian and Darwinian materialism running its course and Goethe having a revival. Needless to say, he balked though a number of things he said in his seminar to us clearly indicated the likelihood of such a revival. When it will happen, still unknown. Soon? Toward the end of my lifetime? After my life? Hard to say, but I’m fairly confident it will happen.



      2. Max Leyf says:

        This is the Aquinas quote I was looking for in respect to whether a philosopher is incomprehensible or merely uncomprehended:

        “For knowledge is regulated according as the thing known is in the knower. But the thing known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower. Hence the knowledge of every knower is ruled according to its own nature. If therefore the mode of anything’s being exceeds the mode of the knower, it must result that the knowledge of the object is above the nature of the knower.” (Summa, q. 12, article 4)


  3. Hesiod says:

    I *have* should be include in that last sentence. Missed a word…


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