CHAPTER V – The Adventure of Reason

PART II: Goetheanism – Whence and Whither?

CHAPTER V – The Adventure of Reason

In 1790, a year before Galvani’s monograph, Concerning the Forces of Electricity, appeared, Goethe published his Metamorphosis of Plants, which represents the first step towards the practical overcoming of the limitations of the onlooker-consciousness in science. Goethe’s paper was not destined to raise such a storm as soon followed Galvani’s publication. And yet the fruit of Goethe’s endeavours is not less significant than Galvani’s discovery, for the progress of mankind. For in Goethe’s achievement lay the seed of that form of knowing which man requires, if in the age of the electrification of civilization he is to remain master of his existence.


Among the essays in which Goethe in later years gave out some of the results of his scientific observation in axiomatic form, is one called ‘Intuitive Judgment’ (‘Anschauende Urteilskraft’), in which he maintains that he has achieved in practice what Kant had declared to be for ever beyond the scope of the human mind. Goethe refers to a passage in the Critique of Judgment, where Kant defines the limits of human cognitional powers as he had observed them in his study of the peculiar nature of the human reason. We must first go briefly into Kant’s own exposition of the matter.1

Kant distinguishes between two possible forms of reason, the intellectus archetypus and the intellectus ectypus. By the first he means a reason ‘which being, not like ours, discursive, but intuitive, proceeds from the synthetic universal (the intuition of the whole as such) to the particular, that is, from the whole to the parts’. According to Kant, such a reason lies outside human possibilities. In contrast to it, the intellectus ectypus peculiar to man is restricted to taking in through the senses the single details of the world as such; with these it can certainly construct pictures of their totalities, but these pictures never have more than a hypothetical character and can claim no reality for themselves. Above all, it is not given to such a thinking to think ‘wholes’ in such a way that through an act of thought alone the single items contained in them can be conceived as parts springing from them by necessity. (To illustrate this, we may say that, according to Kant, we can certainly comprehend the parts of an organism, say of a plant, and out of its components make a picture of the plant as a whole; but we are not in a position to think that ‘whole’ of the plant which conditions the existence of its organism and brings forth its parts by necessity.) Kant expresses this in the following way:

‘For external objects as phenomena an adequate ground related to purposes cannot be met with; this, although it lies in nature, must be sought only in the supersensible substrata of nature, from all possible insight into which we are cut off. Our understanding has then this peculiarity as concerns the judgment, that in cognitive understanding the particular is not determined by the universal and cannot therefore be derived from it.’

The attempt to prove whether or not another form of reason than this (the intellectus archetypus) is possible – even though declared to be beyond man – Kant regarded as superfluous, because the fact was enough for him ‘that we are led to the Idea of it – which contains no contradiction – in contrast to our discursive understanding, which has need of images (intellectus ectypus), and to the contingency of its constitution’.

Kant here brings forward two reasons why it is permissible to conceive of the existence of an extra-human, archetypal reason. On the one hand he admits that the existence of our own reason in its present condition is of a contingent order, and thus does not exclude the possible existence of a reason differently constituted. On the other hand, he allows that we can think of a form of reason which in every respect is the opposite of our own, without meeting any logical inconsistency.

From these definitions emerges a conception of the properties of man’s cognitional powers which agrees exactly with those on which, as we have seen, Hume built up his whole philosophy. Both allow to the reason a knowledge-material consisting only of pictures – that is, of pictures evoked in consciousness through sense-perception, and received by it from the outer world in the form of disconnected units, whilst denying it all powers, as Hume expressed it, ever ‘to perceive any real connections between distinct existences’.

This agreement between Kant and Hume must at first sight surprise us, when we recall that, as already mentioned, Kant worked out his philosophy precisely to protect the cognizing being of man from the consequences of Hume’s thought. For, as he himself said, it was his becoming acquainted with Hume’s Treatise that ‘roused him out of his dogmatic slumber’ and obliged him to reflect on the foundations of human knowing. We shall understand this apparent paradox, however, if we take it as a symptom of humanity’s close imprisonment in recent centuries within the limits of its onlooker-consciousness.

In his struggle against Hume, Kant was not concerned to challenge his opponent’s definition of man’s reasoning power. His sole object was to show that, if one accepted this definition, one must not go as far as Hume in the application of this power. All that Kant could aspire to do was to protect the ethical from attack by the intellectual part of man, and to do this by proving that the former belongs to a world into which the latter has no access. For with his will man belongs to a world of purposeful doing, whereas the reason, as our quotations have shown, is incapable even in observing external nature, of comprehending the wholes within nature which determine natural ends. Still less can it do this in regard to man, a being who in his actions is integrated into higher purposes.