Goethean Science (10): The Yonder Side of the Kantian Threshold

Kant is, in many ways, the Guardian of the Threshold before modern philosophy, and he confronts us both on our entry into the labyrinth of his thought, and also on our eventual escape to the other side of it. In this antepenultimate chapter, we will attempt this passage according to the principles of Goethean science. Our “adventure of reason,” however, is under an auspicious sign, for it will be undertaken with the inestimable Rudolf Steiner as our guide. In the present one, our goal will be to exit the gate of Kantian idealism by the portal of intellectual intuition. In the next one, we will investigate, with the help of a friend, the nature of this faculty of intellectual intuition, which Kant denied, but which Goethe practiced, and described as “anchauende Urteilskraft,” or “judgement-in-beholding.” The final chapter will explore how Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy is the fruition of Goethean science.

Goethe himself was hardly interested in philosophical speculations. As a result, Goethe contented himself only to skirt the perimeter of the Kantian edifice, “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] Goethe was too busy cultivating the capacity for “intellectual intuition” or

“judgement-in-beholding” to also clearly recognise what he was doing and much less to defend it against attacks from academicians and critical philosophers. This had the unfortunate consequence of leading it to appear substantiated to many intellectuals of his day, and even in our own, in spite of the fact the Steiner and several other important thinkers have provided lucid exegeses and defenses of Goethe’s method. [2] We observed, indeed, in Goethe’s own day, how Schiller initially recoiled at the notion that Goethe could “see ideas with my very eyes,” but then corroborated Goethe’s abilities on further examination. Still many thinkers of their day as well as our own remain distinctively hostile to the notions of Goethean science, whether for lack of consideration or for ideological disputes. The famous physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond, for instance, did not hesitate to anathemise Goethe’s work as “the stillborn fiddling of an autodidactic dilettante” merely “because it departed from the concept of mechanical causality,” It is the present writer’s hope, however, that we have dispelled such accusations in earlier chapters of this exploration. [3] Nevertheless, we can also take du Bois-Reymond’s censure as an invitation to use him as a representative of the prevalent manner of thinking amongst scientist even today.

Du Bois-Reymond, like Helmholtz and Newton, supposed that the reality of things is to be found by anatomising them to discover what they are made of. Helmholtz described this approach when he contrasted Goethe’s wish for “contemplation of the idea” to the bona fide scientist’s endeavour to penetrate to “the cords and pulleys behind the scenes” and not allow himself to be distracted by “the beautiful show.” Goethe, of course, has a different opinion of the relation of these terms, which Faust expresses:

Ye instruments, forsooth, ye mock at me,—

With wheel, and cog, and ring, and cylinder;

To Nature’s portals ye should be the key;

Cunning your wards, and yet the bolts ye fail to stir.

Inscrutable in broadest light,

To be unveil’d by force she doth refuse,

What she reveals not to thy mental sight,

Thou wilt not wrest from her with levers and with screws.

We explored the peculiar resonance of Helmholtz’s theatre-metaphor in a prior chapter with special reference to Newton. Specifically, just as the former wished to penetrate behind the scenes of the drama, so Newton’s inspiration to take up a study on colour was to be rid of it. In Helmholtz’s metaphor, one may also discover a resonance with Kant as well as with Newton. Specifically, both Helmholtz and Kant assume reality to be what is behind phenomena. For Kant, this is the noumenon, or “der Ding an sich selbst,” while for Helmholtz and others it is matter. In the last chapter, we discovered the epistemological impasse into which the Kantian precepts ineluctably led. It is significant to note that the materialistic premises of Helmholtz and du Bois-Reymond, together with the majority of scientists over the last four centuries, lead to a perfectly analogous stalemate. One reason for this is that a scientific method whose only tool is analysis will never arrive at understanding. The latter is always an act of synthesis or comprehension, which is to say, “grasping together.” Disprehension is not a sensible means of understanding something. German distinguishes between these two functions of the intellect with the terms Vernunft and Verstand, respectively. The latter is often translated as “understanding” or “intellect” and the former as “reason.” While “understanding” is indeed a cognate of Verstand, these remain a regrettable choice by translators because it obfuscates the meanings of these words by departing from our ordinary sense of them. Nevertheless, there remains indeed a marked distinction comprehensive and analytical thinking. The latter is behind what ordinarily passes as science. Nevertheless, following this basic though questionable axiom

that understanding is to be sought through an assay into the material constituents of entities, the very results of this analysis will in turn demand a new analysis, ad infinitum. The truth of the matter will always lie on the yonder side of another analysis. By the twentieth century, the approach appeared to lead researchers into a blind alley, as their particles had been analysed to such infinitesimal dimensions that any measurement of them invariably altered their status and one ended up measuring one’s own measurement. This is known as “the observer effect,” and we will return to it in the next section to explore what light a Goethean approach can shed on the question.

We mentioned the notion of illimitable analysis as one problem with the intentionality of materialistic science. Another related defect is that such an intentionality will invariably postulate as unintelligible the same particles that it takes to constitute the foundation of reality. One suspends this verdict of futility by picturing these particles, inaccessible to direct perception, as though they were endowed with the same properties as common objects of ordinary experience, like “spin,” “dimension,” and “momentum.” One furthermore conceives these particles as though they were analogous to familiar objects. Thus according to the doctrines of quantum mechanics, light is possessed of a dual nature of “wave” and “particle.” When pressed, any quantum mechanic would likely concede that both of these terms are metaphors, since neither electromagnetic waves nor elementary particles have any empirical verifiability except as useful models to explain phenomena that do. Again one discovers the eagerness of researchers to enlist hypotheses, or metaphors in this case, as evidence to ground other hypotheses. [4]

This is a questionable approach to science, to say the least, since an hypothesis is not a replacement for evidence. The reader may be reminded of Kant’s insistence on this point from the last chapter. Thinking is a spontaneous faculty, by which he meant that the fact that an hypothesis is thinkable does not make it true. The truth of an hypothesis is contingent upon the its verification by the senses, which are intuitive. Acknowledging the repercussions of exposing a naked emperor, one wonders what physicists would be left to talk about without recourse to such metaphors. After all, it is “the poet” who “would talk [the mechanics] out of existence” and the scientist who discovers Nature’s true “cords and pulleys.” [5] Surely, without the metaphors, the quantum mechanic is left with its mathematical formalisms, like the elegant wave-equations of Schrödinger, and the almost-as-elegant matrix mechanics of Jordan, Bohr, and Heisenberg. But maths are not things but symbols of quantitative relations amongst things. Thus, equations depend on things which the former can quantitatively relate. But in the case of quantum mechanics, the things are not known but only hypothesised, or calculated as probabilities. Doubtless this fact is behind Richard Feynman’s pithy summary of the field of contemporary particle physics: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

In 1880, du Bois-Reymond made a strikingly similar statement in respect to the fundamental nature of matter and energy—the nature of the very thing that scientific materialism takes to be the basis of the entire universe. Du Bois-Reymond concluded his inquiry into the nature of matter and energy with the declaration: “ignoramus et ignorabimus: we do not know, and we will never know.” He explains:

It is altogether incomprehensible that it should not be a matter of perfect indifference to a number of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc., what their position is and how they move, how this has been and how it will be.

Du Bois-Reymond recognised that the ability to calculate, which has admittedly developed since his day (though in 1877, Boltzmann had already suggested that energy levels in a physical system might not be continuous, but quantised) the position of these atoms is not the same as knowing what they are, which is to say, what is in the said position.

The reader will recall from last chapter that “ignoramus et ignorabimus” was also the inevitable conclusion at which Kant arrived through his transcendental method. “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith,” the latter famously asserted.107 Whereas contemporary physicists hold mathematical formalisms and various equations to be the basis of their knowledge, Kant was undertaking a different though analogous project and therefore took sensory intuition to be the pillar of certainty for cognition. Nevertheless, mathematics and sensation share the fact that they both lack ontic import. Put another way, both mathematics and sensations depend on actual things that they are about. This is the proper application for Kant’s notion of “regulative principles.” For science and for Kantianism, therefore, reality will always be on the yonder side of what is knowable. Science predicts how things behave, Kantianism can tell us how things must appear. Neither can tell us what those things are.

Let us recall that over three critiques, Kant delineated the scope of human knowledge in very specific way. In the Critique of Pure Reason, he established a boundary of knowledge on the hither side of appearances: phenomena were knowable. To the yonder side of this boundary, however, human cognition could not ascend because “things in themselves” could be thought but could not be known. The nature of the senses is to disclose how things seem, while that of thinking to determine what those things are. But the nature of the human mental organisation determines that the concepts of thinking have no content of their own: “concepts without percepts are empty.” They are not blind because the concepts of thinking are transparent to the mind, and yet they are without ground. Beyond this threshold of phenomenality, the concepts that thinking elaborates relinquish the roots that cleave them to reality, and lose themselves therefore in nebulous spontaneity.

While thinking forfeits its certainty directly it attempts to cognise objects beyond their sensory appearance, thinking can also work immanently as motive. The subject of Kant’s Second Critique is practical reason, which is to say, morality. Kant obviates the notions of future utilitarian ethicists like Bentham and Mill by proscribing the bounds of knowledge in the manner of the First Critique. Kant points out that, in respect to moral action, the single thing over which we have certainty is our own will, which is to say, the motive by which we perform a given action. Utilitarians ignore this uncertainty and from an asylum ignorantiae simply assume that reason is adequate to calculate the consequences of a given action beyond the vaguest conjecture. This is a questionable basis for ethics, to say the least, since it establishes an unknown future scenario as the present moral standard of one’s deeds. This is not altogether unlike the situation we observed above in the context of physics, in which an hypothesis is enlisted as evidence and thus demanded to perform a dual and self-contradictory function. We could call it “the Münchhausen maneuver” after the baron who lifted himself out of a quagmire by his own suspenders. Kant is a very meticulous thinker in many respects, and therefore does not succumb in this manner of sophistry. Instead, he grounds moral action in motive, and the motive is certain insofar as the agent himself determined it. Kant’s notion of “autonomy” is, in part, meant to capture this condition of “setting one’s own laws,” as it were (auto– “self” + nomoi “laws”).

In the Third Critique, Kant enters the middle ground between theory and practice, or thinking and willing. He takes up the question of judgement, first with respect to art and then with respect to living things. In the first case, Kant recognises that the fact the a person can judge a work of art as beautiful proves that the artist managed to operate according to an objective idea or principle of Nature, despite that the former was conscious of this idea only as a feeling or a presentiment, and not with scientific certainty. Kant and his contemporaries had not yet been infected by the dogma of evolutionary biology which insists that everything noble and good must be explained away according to the hypothetical survival utility that it conveyed upon our forebears. For this reason, the beauty of a work of art was a question that the former could approach with philosophical seriousness. Turning to the question of teleology in respect to living things, Kant establishes a parallel with aesthetic appreciation. We are able to recognise living things because we apply the regulative principle of teleology to them. As in the case of the work of art, we must assume that a constitutive principle of teleology is actually at work in them, and yet this can never be an object of scientific knowledge because such principles are not accessible to sensory intuition, which is the only kind we have. We can, of course, speculate about such principles and Kant describes this as an “adventure of reason.” But we can have no certainly that these speculations have any connection to reality. Such an adventure is precisely what Goethe undertook and claimed to have successfully negotiated. From this synthetic consideration of the three critiques, we ought to take our departure point for such an undertaking. This will be our task in the chapter to follow. Before we embark, however, it is meet to motivate our adventure by airing certain grievances with the Kantian paradigm.

One objection to Kant’s system was aired by one of his contemporaries just after the publication of his First Critique. In 1787, Friedrich Jacobi wrote of Kant’s doctrine of transcendental idealism that “Without the presupposition [of the “thing in itself,”] I was unable to enter into the system, but with it I was unable to stay within it.” [7] Jacobi is pointing to the hidden assumptions that underlay the Kantian edifice, since if knowledge is truly to be circumscribed by sensory intuition, one has no warrant to affirm the existence of a “thing in itself” because the latter is, in principle, inaccessible to the very intuition upon which certainty is said to depend. Kant, therefore, is also guilty of the Münchhausen maneuver in enlisting a theory as evidence to support the same theory. A second objection comes from a self-contradictory conception of the senses. Schopenhauer, a follower of the Sage of Königsberg, famously summed up the Kantian doctrine when the former wrote in 1818 in The World as Will and Representation that “it then becomes clear and certain that he knows [kennt] no Sun and no Earth, but only an eye that sees a Sun, a hand that feels an Earth.” [108] The trouble with such a conception is that it demands that the eye and the hand be more than mere representations if they are really to do the sensing. And yet this contradicts the entire theory, since one learns about one’s own physical organs in the same manner that one learns of anything else: through sensory intuition and spontaneous thought. Only an eye that was more than a representation could see a Sun.

A third, and to my mind fatal flaw of Kant’s system is the naive nominalism that it adopts in respect to perception. One supposes, together with all of the thinkers of the empiricist school, that objects are merely waiting around to be labeled by our concepts and discursive reason. Nevertheless, it is only by means of such concepts that we are able to recognise such objects in the first place, since senses convey only sensations. We say “a flower is blue” and mean to establish a subject-predicate relation, not an equation. In other words, the flower is blue, but it is other things as well. The senses could at most provide the predicate in this case and not the subject. And it is not even clear that they are sufficient to this task, since a stimulus of the retina might already require to conceptual elaboration to be cognised as blue. “Blue” after all is a concept which unites a very wide range of perceptual stimuli and is not a purely sensory phenomenon. Some degree of conceptual, or non-sensible, activity is the sine qua non for even the most elementary perception. Thus in the very ground of sensory intuition is already contained a conceptual, spiritual (geistig), or noetic element. For this reason, it should strike us as eminently possible that further capacities of non-sensory, intellectual intuition should be possible to develop, and this is precisely what Goethe began and what Steiner brought to a culmination.

Kant’s system of transcendental idealism, albeit impressive, is not an accurate model for knowledge (let it be noted that “knowledge” and “science” are the same word in German, and in Latin as well, since that is what both “Wissenschaft” and “scientia” mean) and experience, and neither is the quasi-Kantianism of contemporary science. For this reason, Goethe’s adventure of reason is both necessary and justified. The possibility that we suggested at the end of the last paragraph Goethe claimed to have developed precisely in respect to plants with his intuitive capacity of “judgement-in-beholding,” or anchauende Urteilskraft. One is tempted to suppose that it is something mystical or an instance of “the stillborn fiddling of an autodidactic dilettante…because it departed from the concept of mechanical causality,” but this is incorrect. In fact, the very notion of “mechanical causality” is itself a concept which must be intuited because of the fact of its general applicability. One could not derive the concept of “mechanical causality” from any instance of it because even to recognise an instance of it in the first place presupposes that very thing which the instance was meant to provide. This is the same principle that we brought up in the previous paragraph in respect to the blue flower. Kant claims that we can only know how the blue flower appears to us as a phenomenon, and not what it is in itself as a noumenon. And yet one must know the latter in order to recognise its instances in the former. “The thing-in-itself” is known together with knowledge its appearance; as a condition for it. Again, this proves the fact of continual intellectual intuition. Goethe’s accomplishment was to achieve intimations of this process and begin to participate actively in it through the faculty of judgement, while Steiner’s was to raise the process of intellectual intuition into full consciousness.

Several natural objections to the possibility of intellectual intuition may immediately strike the reader. For instance, one might wonder the the noumenon is not more obvious. One might conclude that this proves the noumenon to be inaccessible to intellection. This objection, however, rests on the presupposition that one already knows what kind of thing the noumenon is and could therefore recognise its non-existence. Clearly, the very formulation of the objection reveals its inductive disadvantage, since the mere fact that I do not perceive something hardly proves that the same is imperceptibly or does exist, especially when I do not know what I would be looking for anyway. This fact is particularly relevant to Goethe’s notion of the archetypal plant, and suggests that no one should too hastily dismiss it.

Another objection to the capacity of intellectual intuition might be the risk it runs of devolving into subjective arbitrariness. This was Kant’s worry when he limited intuition to the senses and described the thinking faculty as “spontaneous.” Yet this objection rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of objectivity. A naïve position would assume, like Kant, that the senses are objective, or dependable, and thinking is subjective, or arbitrary. Yet such a position really stands the situation on its head. It is really inconceivable, for instance, to imagine a method to verify that the purely physical and physiological function and dimensions of their sense-organs are the same between two people, or even between two moments for the same person. Just consider, for instance, that the eyes do not see three dimensionally, nor do they even see the objects which could inhabit those three dimensions. Instead, the dimensions are intuited by cognition. Kant hinted at this when he asserted the necessary a priori intuition of space and time, but he evidently did not fully bear out the implications of his proposition, as we have suggested and will continue to do. The eyes alone also do not see change, as Plato pointed out already in ancient Athens, since seeing change would depend on the perception of relation in order to distinguish a relatively stable object or medium that could undergo said change from the change itself because change is always a relation. If everything changed in the same way, this would be indiscernible if not identical to no change whatsoever; if everything changed in different ways, this would also be indiscernible since no standard of relation could be established as a backdrop against which to measure the said change. Thus change is a relation of similarity and difference as a function of duration. All of these principles must be apprehended conceptually or not at all. Because sensory intuition conveys the most utterly subjective form of knowledge, if it can be called knowledge at all, one is forced to acknowledge thinking, or conceptualisation, and not sensory intuition, as that aspect of perception which confers objectivity to it. Kant’s worry of thinking’s spontaneity, though eminently understandable, is in the final measure ill-met because thinking also provides the only deliverance from the very subjective arbitrariness that he seeks to avoid.

Because the eyes by themselves see only colour and they do not see relations, or objects (which are also relations) it is clear that sensory intuition alone is not a sufficient condition for perception. Evidently, perception is also a function of conception or, as Goethe expressed more or less the same principle, “everything factual is already theory.” The same principle of thought-in-perception, which is already the nascent form of judgement-in-beholding, is indeed operative in all the way from the most elementary perceptions to very rich ones, such as Goethe’s archetypal plant. Any successful perception represents the synthesis of a factual and a theoretical aspect.

The nature of intellectual intuition, judgement-in-beholding, or anchauende Urteilskraft will be our subject in the next section.

nature blossom plant meadow flower bloom green macro botany blue close flora wild flower wildflower pointed flower forget me not idyll myosotis boraginaceae macro photography ornamental plant flowering plant caucasus forget me not brunnera vergissmeinnicht borage family brunnera macrophylla brunnera raublattgew chs annual plant land plant

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

[2] Cf. also Bortoft.

[3] Cf. Chapter 3.

[4] Cf. Chapter 4.

[5] Cf. Chapter 3.

[6] Preface to second edition of the First Critique.

[7] 1787. David Hume über den Glauben, oder Idealismus und Realismus. Ein Gespräch, Breslau: Gottlieb Löwe. 1983 facsimile reproduction that includes the Vorrede of 1815, New York and London: Garland.

[8] Chapter 2.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    Very pleasant reading. I quite your like your analogy of Kant as a threshold guardian. How can anyone be seriously engaged in the philosophic enterprise of modernity (the last 200 years) without a good understanding of Kant? It would be like someone claiming being an expert in classical philosophy but having never read Plato! Though reading your recent posts on Kant keep reminding me I don’t think there’s been a year in my since 2011 since I haven’t read something of his.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hesiod says:

    There’s a funny irony too that, if things go well, I’ll be teaching Kant to in the autumn. I’ll plug you for the students if they ask for help! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Congrats on the teaching! Make sure you tell the students that the villagers used to set their pocket-watches by the time that “der Alte von Koenigsberg” took his afternoon walks. I do think Kant is a seminal figure in Modern philosophy, unlike Hume who is a sophist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hesiod says:

        That’s my favorite story! And then he didn’t come out one day and the city lost its mind.

        I think almost the entire Brit empiricist tradition was sophistry repackaged. With few exceptions.


      2. Max Leyf says:

        There’s something funny about the fact that it was Kant, of all people, since he is the same one who is most credited with undermining the foundation of absolute time by positing it as an a priori stricture of human cognition. Can you help me see what is funny about this connection?


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