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.”