• Awakening Soul

Res Ipsa Loquitur: Kant vs. Goethe (and the World)

“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.” - Goethe

Immanuel Kant, for my money, ranks in the top five of most daring and influential philosophers of the last five hundred years. Perhaps at #1, which is not a claim I make lightly. The world is a big place and five hundred years is a lot of time. There was no shortage of brilliant thinkers who appeared on the scene and left their unique impressions on all subsequent thought during that period. Existing fields of inquiry spurned more fresh thinkers than ever before and entirely new fields of inquiry were created, including all of modern science. Regardless, my money is still on Kant. I am going to disqualify the scientists right off the bat for one simple reason - transformations in philosophical outlooks have always preceded corresponding transformations in science and technology throughout the history of both. Although the lag time between those transformations has been decreasing over the last 150 years, the relationship has still held so far. As we will discuss below, many of the most influential scientists were also influenced by Kant's philosophy, either explicitly or implicitly. I am also going to disqualify the inventors of technology for the same reason.

So that only leaves the novelists (who, unfortunately, have never been too influential across disciplines), philosophers, and theologians. The latter have steadily declined in their influence during that era which culminated in the "death of God" towards the end of the 19th century. Of the philosophers, one name really stands out from the rest - Rene Descartes. Although many people still don't realize it, Descartes' philosophy has influenced the collective thinking activity of the Western world at the deepest level. In Descartes' philosophy, we find a clear division of the world into 'spirit (mind)' and 'matter'. The former became the 'private' realm of inner experience and the latter became the 'public' realm of knowledge. As a result, it was assumed for centuries that we can systematically study the realm of matter and share the results with others, but we cannot do the same for the realm of mind. It is no overstatement to say that Descartes' mind-matter divide helped make all of modern science possible. It provided a framework in which individuals could distance their subjectivity from the world of outer 'things', stripping the latter of all meaningful qualities, which then allows a more quantitatively precise 'measurement' and comparison between them.

Even in Descartes' rationalist and dualist framework, though, we can still imagine a thread which connects the two realms; a reality in which the private overlaps with the public; the 'inner' with the 'outer'. We can still imagine that what we experience as meaning within is authentically connected with what we perceive from without. It would take the brilliance of a mind like Kant's to make our imaginations an exercise in futility. Kant's most well-known and influential insight now rests at the base of that branch of philosophy we call "epistemology". Rather than asking about the true essence of the world we live in, as was common for all Western metaphysics since Plato, Kant desired to shift the discussion towards the question of how the world can even appear to us in a way that makes it an object of our knowledge. He asked, "what can we actually know about the Reality underlying the world of appearances we perceive through our Reason?". Kant answered his own question as follows - "nothing". This conclusion was stated in his Critique of Pure Reason and we need to carefully follow his logic to see where it is flawed.

First, Kant directly addressed an artifact of Cartesian dualism which we will call the "3rd-person spectator perspective". Since I agree with his conclusion here, I will not rehash all the details. Suffice to say, Kant carefully reasoned his way to the conclusion that such a 3rd-person spectator perspective does not exist anywhere in the Cosmos. It does not exist and cannot possibly exist. Therefore, it has no relevance for any of our own knowing inquiries. We see this non-existent 3rd-person perspective manifest whenever someone speculates about how the world would have looked "prior to any conscious observer who perceives it" or how the "laws of nature" functioned prior to any such observers. It is clear that this flawed reasoning undergirds a great deal of modern scientific conclusions. It also undergirds much of modern Christian theology, and it is important to remember this fact if we want to see what really motivated Kant's endeavor, but we will return to that later. The quote below is a key point Kant makes in reaching this solid conclusion.

THAT all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt. For how is it possible that the faculty of cognition should be awakened into exercise otherwise than by means of objects which affect our senses, and partly of themselves produce representations, partly rouse our powers of understanding into activity, to compare, to connect, or to separate these, and so to convert the raw material of four sensuous impressions into a knowledge of objects, which is called experience? In respect of time, therefore, no knowledge of ours is antecedent to experience, but begins with it. - Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781)

Kant goes on to caveat that the fact all knowledge begins with experience does not necessarily entail that all knowledge arises out of experience. It is quite possible that sense-experience stimulates our cognition, but our cognition also supplies content out of itself (a priori "intuitions") in addition to that content which is supplied from the sensible objects. At first, we cannot tell the difference between the two, so we assume all content comes from sense-perception, but this assumption is without any logical warrant. Again, I have no disagreements here - so far, so good. Kant then writes about these two main faculties of knowing - (1) receiving sense-impressions and (2) cognizing those sense-impressions: "Neither of these faculties has a preference over the other. Without the sensuous faculty no object would be given to us, and without the understanding no object would be thought. Thoughts without content are void; intuitions without conceptions, blind." We are still on very firm ground here - Kant has reasoned his way to undeniable conclusions regarding our perception and cognition of the world content which manifests in our experience.

The way in which Kant then leaps from this firm ground right into epistemic quicksand is a rather spectacular display. Keep in mind, nothing written below is about the "personal failings" of Kant. Instead, it is a critique of the underlying ideas expressed through his personality and through those who continue holding to them today, despite having every opportunity to perceive their flaws just as clearly as we will perceive them below. No doubt a personality such as Kant had his own motivation for making the leap we are about to discuss, but in my opinion this motivation was mostly subconscious and not at all intentional. As Nietzsche observed, "... every great philosophy up till now has consisted of... the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography." With that said, let's consider just how far humanity has fallen ever since Kant's simple yet treacherous leap.

Of far more importance than all that has been above said, is the consideration that certain of our cognitions rise completely above the sphere of all possible experience, and by means of conceptions, to which there exists in the whole extent of experience no corresponding object, seem to extend the range of our judgments beyond its bounds. And just in this transcendental or supersensible sphere, where experience affords us neither instruction nor guidance, lie the investigations Reason, which, on account of their importance, we consider far preferable to, and as having a far more elevated aim than, all that the understanding can achieve within the sphere of sensuous phenomena. So high a value do we set upon these investigations, that even at the risk of error, we persist in following them out, and permit neither doubt nor disregard nor indifference to restrain us from the pursuit. These unavoidable problems of mere pure reason are God, Freedom (of will) and Immortality. The science which, with all its preliminaries, has for its especial object the solution of these problems is named metaphysics—a science which is at the very outset dogmatical, that is, it confidently takes upon itself the execution of this task without any previous investigation of the ability or inability of reason for such an understanding. - Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781)

Kant thereby violates the very first principle he laid out not more than a few pages after laying it out - the principle that we cannot derive knowledge from beyond potential 1st-person experience, either in the form of sense-impressions or cognitive 'intuitions'. The assertion that "certain of our cognitions rise above the sphere of all possible experience... to which there exists in the whole extent of experience no corresponding object", is a baseless speculation from the 3rd-person spectator perspective. No individual can determine, from potential 1st-person experience, the true extent of "all possible experience" which can provide "corresponding objects" for certain cognitions. In making this assertion, Kant has raised himself up into the non-existent 3rd-person spectator perspective on the Universe. He feels that the space of all possible experience is laid bare before him, including the experience of every other perspective apart from his own. To picture in our minds what one must think of each individual's conscious experience under duress of this unwarranted assumption, something akin to water bubbles (individual's cognitive perspective) floating in oil (space of "things-in-themselves") would be appropriate.

From the Kantian 3rd-person epistemic perspective, the a priori intuitions of human cognition, including the very dimensions of space-time, and the 'things-in-themselves' which stand behind all perceptions simply cannot be mixed. And that is how modern idealism began transforming into the spitting image of those philosophies it first purported to challenge - rationalism, dualism, and crass materialism. Modern idealism first developed as a response to the increasingly mechanistic reductionism of humanity and Nature, which was coming to view the world as a landscape of atomized beings and 'things'. It sought to recapture the fluid ideational dynamics of the Spirit which coursed through the arteries and veins of an essentially unified Nature. The preservation of eternal Soul and Spirit was made explicit in the writings of many idealist philosophers. Henry More, a "Cambridge Platonist", wrote, "objects plainly exposed to the sight are not discovered till the soul takes notice of them." The English Romantic poet-philosopher, William Blake, observed how, "if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite". Friedrich Schelling, the German idealist, remarked, "Nature shall be the visible Spirit, and Spirit, invisible Nature". The Anglo-Irish idealist philosopher George Berkeley, who wrote, "Such I take this important one to be... that all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, that their being is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some Eternal Spirit." It is bold assertions such as these that really emphasized the role of idealist philosophy as a preserver of the withering Spirit against the increasingly decadent forces of materialism. All that was "merely subjective" about the world was considered of everlasting importance from Berkeley's perspective. Kant's transcendental idealism once again reasserted the "merely" nature of "subjective" perceiving and thinking. He then felt that he had won an important victory for the Spirit and for faith by insulating both from "pure reason". In reality, however, Kant had dealt a devastating blow to the Spirit, because it is not other than living Reason.

We find that equivalence of Spirit and Reason running through the stream of Western idealism from its inception in the pre-Socratics, Socrates, and Plato all the way to SaInt Thomas Aquinas. Kant and subsequent idealist philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer were absolutely correct in this regard - mere intellect is in no position to constellate holistic unities of genuine knowledge from the phenomenal fragments it created in the first place. All of the idealist philosophers and theologians of the world combined could not 'protect' the Spirit-Soul from dissolution by way of their clever abstractions. What they both missed, however, is that our Reason is precisely that spiritual capacity which allows us to transcend the fragmentation of mere intellect and reunite what was originally torn asunder without losing the resolution gained by intellect. We will discover the truth of this conclusion by turning to the German contemporary of Kant who directed his brilliance in the complete opposite direction of Kant's epistemic dualism - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - via another idealist champion of the Spirit, Rudolf Steiner. The most important step in Goethe's success where Kant failed was to avoid assuming a dualism from the outset.

One sees at once that [Kant's philosophy] is the polar opposite of the Goethean philosophy. Given reality is determined, according to Kant, by us ourselves; it is as it is because we picture it that way. Kant skips over the real epistemological question... Kant accepted the customary concept of what knowing is and asked if it were possible. According to this concept, knowing is supposed to consist in making a copy of the real conditions that stand outside our consciousness and exist in-themselves. But one will be able to make nothing out of the possibility of knowledge until one has answered the question as to the what of knowing itself. The question: What is knowing? thereby becomes the primary one for epistemology. With respect to Goethe, therefore, it will be our task to show what Goethe pictured knowing to be. - Rudolf Steiner, Goethean Science (1883-97)

Kant imported into his epistemology the Cartesian dualism between subject and object and never once reflected on this move or its lack of any justification. Goethe refrained from this assumption and simply confronted the phenomenon as they appeared in his experience without adding any assumptions about their underlying "essence" or their relation to his own cognitive activity. He was the first thinker to systematically employ the philosophical approach now known as "phenomenology", although he is seldom given credit for doing so. Goethe took the standards of knowing from what the phenomena themselves disclosed to him through his deep contemplation. If Kant's maxim was that it is impossible to directly experience and know a thing-in-itself, Goethe's maxim was Res Ipsa Loquitur - "the thing-speaks-for-itself". In this phenomenological approach, he found no reason to arbitrarily exclude what his contemplation disclosed from the totality of phenomenal content. Goethe perceived that the conceptual element which is stimulated by perception belongs to the phenomena just as much as any other property it discloses.

In our knowing, however, we create a picture of the directly given that contains considerably more than what the senses — which are after all the mediators of all experience — can provide. In order to know nature in the Goethean sense, we must not hold onto it in its factuality; rather, nature, in the process of our knowing, must reveal itself as something essentially higher than what it appears to be when it first confronts us. ... At first, the world presents itself to us as a manifoldness in space and time. We perceive particulars separated in space and time: this colour here, that shape there; this tone now, that sound then, etc... Precisely because the perceptual picture is something incomplete, something unfinished in itself, we are compelled to add to this picture, in its manifestation as sense experience, its necessary complement. ... Knowing would be an absolutely useless process if something complete were conveyed to us in sense experience. All drawing together, ordering, and grouping of sense-perceptible facts would have no objective value. Knowing has meaning only if we do not regard the configuration given to the senses as a finished one, if this configuration is for us a half of something that bears within itself something still higher that, however, is no longer sense-perceptible.There the human spirit steps in. It perceives that higher element. Therefore thinking must also not be regarded as bringing something to the content of reality. It is no more and no less an organ of perception than the eye or ear. Just as the eye perceives colours and the ear sounds, so thinking perceives ideas. - Rudolf Steiner, Goethean Science (1883-97)

Knowing, for Goethe, was adding the half-complete content of cognition to the half-complete content of perception and thereby rendering a complete whole of intelligible experience. When seen this way, it becomes clear that the mysteries of the Cosmos can truly be penetrated by our deeply knowing inquiries into the phenomenal world. In fact, it becomes clear that this deeply knowing inquiry is the only way to redeem the phenomenal appearances from the endless abstraction of the modern age which eventually untethers them from all concrete experience and allows them to float off into the void. As Steiner keenly observed, "If [Kant's] view of the main epistemological question had not been all askew, he would have seen that the holding apart of subject and object is only a transitional point in our knowing, that a deeper unity, which reason can grasp, underlies them both." Goethe was the first example of a thinker who, through much patience, discipline, and imagination, managed to perceive and make explicit the connection between Spirit and Reason which so many others missed.

"Were not our eyes profoundly of the sun How could they behold the light? Were not our strength from God's own being won. How could we feel so in Things divine delight." -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Something Like the Sun

God died in the modern era, as Nietzsche proclaimed, and we were the ones who killed Him through our rationalism, dualism, materialism, reductionism, and "critical idealism". Now man wanders about his spiritual wilderness shrouded in darkness, searching for his misplaced soul. Through epistemic worldviews such as that expressed in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, we have blocked ourselves from the one path which leads out from this seemingly endless maze - our living Reason. As Nietzsche also prophesied, the only possible consequence of such a heinous crime is a species perpetually on the shores of nihilism as the waves grow larger and crash further inwards. Occasionally, our souls become especially alienated and we decide to test the waters. Other times, we ignore the waves and hope they will recede on their own. "I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith", proclaimed Kant. Perhaps no words have shaped the course of Western culture more since Christ walked the Earth. To further emphasize the point, we will briefly explore some admittedly crude examples which, nevertheless, indicate the deep influence of Kant's nihilist epistemology:

  • Charles Darwin - On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and Darwin's evolutionary theory was a revolutionary development in our understanding of human history. Yet what stands out the most in Darwin's theory of evolution, unlike Hegel's before him, was its exclusive focus on only the outer forms of life. Here we see at work the implicit assumption that nothing can be objectively known about the inner soul life of living beings or their cognitive activity in relation to the outer forms of Nature. What undeniably appears to distinguish humans from non-humans in the realm of Nature - our self-reflective cognition - is completely ignored. If not for the Kantian epistemic influence, then Darwin's theory may, in the manner of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, may have also addressed the evolution of cognitive activity itself.

  • Karl Marx - The force of outer form obsession is strong in Marx. When the realm of the noumenon, i.e. the inner realm of human experience, is assumed to remain forever beyond our systematic reach, philosophy itself becomes a rather useless enterprise. What is left remaining to occupy the intellectual machinations of humanity beyond applied science? Crass materialism dressed up in economic and political theory; a one or, at best, two-dimensional concern for outer relationships of resources and power. Human existence is reduced to a class struggle dialectic which is projected eternally backwards through human history and forwards into human destiny. Spirituality, i.e. the search for higher realms of knowledge, is viewed as nothing more than an "opiate for the masses". Marx famously remarked that he "turned Hegel on his head", and I would only add that he used Kant to do it.

  • Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung - The connection here is a bit more tricky, especially for Jung. But it is hard to deny that the psychoanalytic term "unconscious" implies a realm of experience extremely distant from our everyday conscious experience. It connotes a realm engulfed in pure darkness like a black hole from which no light can escape. To be fair, the psychotherapeutic aim was to make increasingly more of the unconscious realm conscious, but the implication was also that there would always be a remainder of pure darkness; an event horizon past which all reasoned knowledge is effectively annihilated. Both of these seminal psychiatrists of the 20th century admit to being heavily influenced by Kant's philosophy, however unsurprising that may be. To be fair, though, Jung still managed to factor the Soul and Spirit into his psychology which was centered about the 'collective unconscious'. Jung perceived clearly how all that we deny in Nature from the light of Reason will be projected out as increasingly devastating monsters of our own making.

  • Albert Einstein - Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts that nothing in the Universe can travel faster than the speed of light. Following from that, his equations also predict the existence of black holes from which no light or information can escape. There is a physical "event horizon" past which we can know nothing, like the psychic event horizon of the unconscious. The main difference between Einstein's theory and those of Freud/Jung is that the former's equations predicted black holes despite his own reluctance to accept those predictions. It would therefore be unfair to say Einstein was theorizing under duress of the Kantian epistemic divide. He is simply included because many physicists today still believe that black holes are an absolute limit to knowledge of the Cosmos, despite accumulating scientific evidence to the contrary.

There are of course many more influential thinkers who we could add to the list, but my aim is only to establish a general pattern of influence. The intellectual giants discussed above are not to blame. They were instruments of much deeper forces in my view; necessary forces in the course of the development and maturation of humanity. Goethe was the first thinker to overcome the Kantian influence, practically at the same time it was gaining power, but he was not the last. Schopenhauer began to bridge the Kantian divide with his assertion that the essence of Reality is the volitional Will shared by all creatures. Since the noumenon is Will, we can experience it by introspective practice or through immersion in music. The problem with Schopenhauer's thought was, ironically, that all ideas about the Will must also be disclaimed as illusory and epistemically unhelpful. A conceit such as that one restores the ontic-epistemic divide for all intents and purposes. That is why Steiner was correct to point out, "the individual entity, the individual phenomenon, cannot be of interest to Schopenhauer, for he knows only one essential thing to say about it: that it is a manifestation of the will." Friedrich Nietzsche further specified Schopenhauer's Will to be a "will-to-power"- a Will in service of at least one tangible aim. For Nietzsche, who was reacting to the increasingly abstract and detached philosophy of his era, all important metaphysical concepts must be found within the sphere of daily experience rather than 'out there' in abstract intellectual space or within the still depths of ascetic practice. "Power", in that sense, is a radical interest in one's own individual ambitions and creations within life. It can either be willed consciously from within, which leads to healthy states of being, or it can operate unconsciously under the guise of "obedience", "duty", "virtue", "selflessness", etc., which then yields to pathologies of every sort. If we are able to harness our own will-to-power - to attain true freedom - then we must necessarily come to know the noumenon in that process. Yet Nietzsche's world-conception remained frustratingly incomplete before he himself suffered from a pathological state of being and died.

Other Germans thinkers who directly challenged Kant's metaphysics were the phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and the aforementioned Rudolf Steiner. Henri Bergson contributed a great deal in his philosophy of Intuition. In England, we find thinkers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Owen Barfield who deeply engaged the epistemic nihilism and sought to restore the living Reason of Goethe. Across the Atlantic, there were idealist thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce. All of these people, in their own unique ways, have bequeathed to us an uplifting inheritance that we can claim at any moment we so choose. Even Kant was correct to say, “We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without.” The others have shown us that the Kantian divide is nothing more than a mental habit we have grown accustomed to, and therefore it is something we can entirely do without and become richer in meaning by doing so. Barfield was spot on when he asked, "If people say the world we perceive is a 'construct' of our brains, they are saying in effect, that it results from an inveterate habit of thought. Why does it never occur to them that a habit is something you can overcome, if you set about it with enough energy?".

We only need to re-member, deep within our own Being, that the thing-speaks-for-itself and it is our responsibility, and ours alone, to heed its words. "When the healthy nature of man works as a whole, when he feels himself in the world as though in a great, beautiful, worthy, and precious whole, when his harmonious sense of well-being imparts to him a pure, free delight, then the universe, if it could experience itself, would, as having achieved its goal, exult with joy and marvel at the pinnacle of its own becoming and being." -Goethe, Aphorisms in Prose