The German Enlightenment: A Serendipitous Ending to a Course

This coming week will be the last of the spring semester and Monday will be my last lecture in what has been, for me, a wonderful exploration of German thought in the 18th Century. We have just read Goethe’s Faust and although I studied it in graduate school and have taught it to various of students in both German and English, this reading was surprisingly new for me, largely, I think, because of our focus throughout on the concept of knowledge.

Early this morning, in search of more space on my bookshelves, I moved some books and stumbled on a book I had forgotten I had and which I had never read:


It’s a short book, just under 100 pages. In the preface, written at Columbia University, Cassirer thanks Princeton University Press for deciding “to publish this English edition under the present difficult circumstances.”

18th-century ideas still important in the heat of WWII, even if they are German!

I read the book this afternoon and a summary tomorrow will be the perfect conclusion for the class.

A couple of the somewhat surprising affinities Cassierer finds between the two men (surprising because of Kant’s insistence that “any theory of nature will contain only so much of real science as it permits the application of mathematics” and Goethe’s belief that explorations of nature “must be divorced from mathematics, . . . must be completely independent, and try to penetrate with all its loving, reverent, pious force into nature and its holy life, quite regardless of what mathematics accomplishes and does”) are the following:

Goethe coined the word “morphology,” Cassierer writes, interested in the “formation and transformation of organic natures,” and with this created a “new ideal of knowledge.” A twentieth-century botanist, Adolf Hansen, wrote that the period of botany beginning with Goethe is related to the preceding one as chemistry to alchemy.” “To put it briefly and clearly,” Cassierer says, “Goethe completed the transition from the previous generic view to the modern genetic view of organic nature.” Rather than the rigid prevailing view that “nothing can come to be except what already is,” Goethe sought to “reveal the eternal in the transitory.”

Kant too wanted to explain the genesis of matter and was, according to Cassierer, “one of the first to offer a theory of the evolution of the material world from the original nebulae to its present form.” Kant also “envisioned the task and the goal of a general theory of evolution”: “Here the archaeologist of nature is at liberty to go back to the traces that remain of nature’s earliest revolutions, and, appealing to all he knows of or can conjecture about its mechanism, to trace the genesis of that great family of living things (for it must be pictured as a family if there is to be any foundation for the consistently coherent affinity mentioned.”

Cassierer points out that Goethe “had no desire to lay bare the secret of life; he rejoiced in life’s infinitely rich surface. It was enough for him to describe life in symbols. The original plant became one more such symbol for him. ‘The True, which is one with the Divine,’ writes Goethe in his Versuch einer Witterungslehre, ‘never permits itself to be known directly; we look upon it only in reflection, in example, symbol, in particular and related appearances; we become aware of it as incomprehensible life and still cannot renounce the desire to comprehend it.’ Here is a point on which there was no conflict between the views of Goethe and Kant.”

Further: “This is Goethe’s sense of humility and limitation. But it never led him to become a pessimist. For the insight into the finitude of human existence is not identical with the idea of the nothingness of that existence. Similarly Kant, the critic of pure reason, never became a sceptic. ‘The first step in matters of pure reason,’ says Kant, ‘which marks its childhood, is dogmatic. The . . . second step is sceptical and gives evidence of the caution of a judgment grown  shrewd through experience. But a third step is still necessary, which belongs only to the matured and manly judgment founded on firm maxims whose universality is assured. . . . Through it . . . the very limits of reason . . . [are] not only assumed but proved from first principles.'”

The little book is powerful in its clarity.

addendum: from Goethe’s introduction to his new journal Propyläen, a disavowal of mystical truth:

“The youth, when drawn by nature and art, feels capable of entering soon, with a lively effort, into the inner sanctum; the man notices, after long travels, that he still finds himself in the outer courtyards. Such an observation gave rise to our title. Stair, gate, entrance, vestibule, the space between the inner and outer, between the sacred and profane — only this can be the place where we and our friends will dwell.”

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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7 Responses to The German Enlightenment: A Serendipitous Ending to a Course

  1. flowerville says:

    this is really good to see. i like cassirer a great deal and this is a book i don’t know yet but it’s late cassirer and other late cassirer is great too (essay on man)… i’ve always liked about blumenberg that he combined gehlen’s (the negative) ‘mensch als maengelwesen’ with cassirer’s ability to see the similarities, the positive, the ability to construct symbolic meaning….

    “Beauty cannot be defined by its mere percipi, as “being perceived”; it must be defined in terms of an activity of the mind, of the function of perceiving and by a characteristic direction of this function. It does not consist of passive percepts; it is a mode, a process of perceptualization. But this process is not merely subjective in character; on the contrary, it is one of the conditions of our intutition of an objective world. The artistic eye is not a passive eye that receives and registers the impression of things. It is a constructive eye, and it is only by constructive acts that we can discover the beauty of natural things. The sense of beauty is the susceptibility to the dynamic life of forms, and this life cannot be apprehended except by a corresponding dynamic process in ourselves.” (essay on man)

    “Das Wahre, mit dem Göttlichen identisch, läßt sich niemals von uns direkt erkennen, wir schauen es nur im Abglanz, im Beispiel, Symbol, in einzelnen und verwandten Erscheinungen; wir werden es gewahr als unbegreifliches Leben und können dem Wunsch nicht entsagen, es dennoch zu begreifen.” this has always been and always will be a prime fascination for me.
    Witterungslehre is a gorgeous name in itself.


    • Scott Abbott says:

      the book has two essays, the first about Rousseau and Kant, another unlikely pair that Cassierer found similar in interesting ways.
      and yes, Witterunglehre is a beautiful word and the idea of truth as what drives our searching even as we know we won’t ever find it has been a powerful one for me.
      you also remind me of the introduction to the Propyläen, which I’m going to attach to the post.


    • Scott Abbott says:

      and i miss the chance to leave comments on your posts. most recently, reading that you listen to podcasts, i would have pointed you to what i find a remarkable new set of podcasts by my friend Scott Carrier. He posts them at “Home of the Brave.” See a link below my link to flowerville.


  2. alex caldiero says:

    Dear Scott, just brief response to you blog post.

    Goethe coined the word “morphology,” Cassierer writes, interested in the “formation and transformation of organic natures,” and with this created a “new ideal of knowledge.” A twentieth-century botanist, Adolf Hansen, wrote that the period of botany beginning with Goethe is related to the preceding one as chemistry to alchemy.”

    Firstly…the very concept of “morphology,” that is, the” formation and transformation of organic natures” IS a central concept in Alchemy…further…Alchemy was ever at odds with any system that believed that “nothing can come to be except what already is.” Hence, another central alchemic concept of the transmutation of metals….that something (“gold”) can come forth as a new creation. Goethe INDEED sought to “reveal the eternal in the transitory.” The alchemic elements (fire, air, water, earth) that underlie and are the eternal ground for all the changes of variations of matter….

    To position chemistry and alchemy as opposed to each other is really an oversimplification and a pre-judice (a pre-judgement) of the modern temperament…that is, the one that believes that what is newest if ever an improvement of its predecessors…The other side of the same coin is the what is traditional and old is better than what comes later…Both are lop-sided views….Chemistry and alchemy, no matter how much they are both fruits, they are very different: apples and oranges…Which is better? If you gotta choose, then, it’s a matter of taste…but knowledge is another “matter” and both offer their unique insights….Goethe benefited from both of these traditions…at every stage of his development,… and was ever the wiser for it, and enlightened.


    • Scott Abbott says:

      thanks, my friend, for this thoughtful critique. little did that botanist know as he separated alchemy and chemistry so difinitively! Cassierer’s example was not alchemy but Linnaeus and his fixed system of thought.


  3. alex caldiero says:

    Linnaeus. That makes sense. Am gonna haveta read this one by Cassirer….a sweetheart.


  4. flowerville says:

    thanks i’ve enjoyed listening to those, a lot. 3 i listened to, the two about that afghan guy and then about the cover up thing. i loved the comparison of that wall image to the spiral jetty and the remarks on beauty. it made me remember why i liked teaching.

    cassirer tho, and dichotomy between chemistry and alchemy and systems of fixed thought, linneaus. – not to forget his wonderful substanzbegriff und funktionsbegriff, change from thinking in substances to a relational thinking…. important theoretical shift…

    [comments are gone bc not much to say at the moment anyway. when/if i get myself sorted out a bit more and go back to regular blogging i maybe open them again]


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