Nature and Philosophy

Anthroposophical Quarterly 16.1 (Spring 1971), 11-12

For those who can read the signs of the times recent trends in the development of natural science, and more particularly in the philosophy of science, point to the approach of an interesting event. It looks as if there will have to be a re-examination of all that Naturphilosophie which found so many distinguished exponents at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century; or rather an examination, since it has up to now been virtually ignored.

A re-appraisal of the work of such nature-philosophers as Hegel, Schelling, G.H. Schubert and our own Coleridge must accompany, I think, the progressive abandonment by scientific theory and methodology of those cast-iron presuppositions that resulted from Descartes’ antiseptic amputation of matter (the observed) from mind (the observer); and these are already being challenged here and there in the field of physical research. However far ahead it may lie, when the time for re-appraisal does arrive, it may well be Hegel who will attract the most attention. For it will quickly be realised that the extreme and often bewildering subtlety of his thought was accompanied by a rigorous empiricism in the recognition of actually observed phenomena. He was probably the freest from that danger of lapsing into fanciful flights of picturesque but unsupported analogy, which he himself had stigmatised as ‘charlatanism’ in some of the followers of Fichte and Schelling. English readers who may wish to verify this for themselves have recently been given the opportunity of doing so by the appearance only last year of the first English translation of Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature (constituting Part II of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences). The herculean task of translation has been ably performed by A. V. Miller, a lifelong student of Hegel, in a volume (Clarendon Press, 1970) containing a Foreword by the well-known Hegel scholar, Professor J. N. Findlay.

But was not Goethe, it will be asked by many readers of this journal, far and away the greatest of the Naturphilosophen? Any difference of opinion over the answer to that question would soon resolve itself into a sterile argument as to what exactly is meant by the term ‘philosophy’. There is however another way of approaching it, and a far more fruitful one than the attempt to answer it with an absolute yes or no. It is to read the correspondence that took place between Goethe and Hegel themselves. The twenty-two letters of which it consists have for the first time been assembled and edited in one small volume by Hermann Bauer,1 to whom the public owes a real debt of gratitude. In them, with the help of an admirably lucid and well-balanced Afterword by the Editor, we may follow, with the same sort of pleasure as if it were a contrived work of art, an almost organic process of approach, union and subsequent disengagement between the twin poles of nature and spirit. Here, in the primal unity by which nature herself and the knowledge of nature are begotten, Goethe represents the phenomenal/empirical pole and Hegel the counter pole of pure spirit. For Hegel’s impulse was to value the phenomenon mainly as a means to direct knowledge of the spirit shining through it; Goethe’s to value the spirit mainly for its function of shining through the phenomenon. Mainly … in both minds the leading impulse was predominant, not exclusive; and indeed it was this very fact that, in both instances, guaranteed the depth of the impulse. For the same reason a fuller realisation of its own depth was the fruit for both minds of the contact between them. ‘Both’, as Bauer acutely observes, ‘not only knew what they owed to one another, but also recognised – a mark of true greatness – their own one-sidedness.’

In the Hebrew account of creation the rainbow appeared in order to symbolise an accord or covenant between God and man; and it is still in the experience of colour that the physically based and purely spiritual components of normal human consciousness are most inextricably one. Close students of Goethe’s optics will find, I should say, much of detail to interest them in Hegel’s longer letters on the subject. I must content myself with noticing that it was just in these exchanges on the Farbenlehre that the union of the two minds was, so to say, consummated. The moment arrives when Goethe sends to Hegel an elegant wineglass, specially ground, and lined with blue and yellow silk in such a way as to exemplify the origin of redness in light shining through darkness and of blueness in light seen shining on darkness. He inscribes the gift: ‘The Protophenomenon begs to wait upon the Absolute, soliciting the favour of a kind reception.’

Dem Absoluten
empfiehlt sich
zu freundlicher Aufnahme
das Urphänomen.
Weimar Sommers-Anfang

And Hegel, in his delighted and very complicated reply, after touching briefly on (among other things) Dionysus, the Zodiac, Ormuzd, Ahriman and Ulysses drinking goats’ blood in the Elysian Fields, describes himself as drinking his Excellency’s health in every experiment he tries with the glass and imbibing a fresh assurance each time of his own faith in ‘the transubstantiation of the Inner and the Outer, of the Thought into the Phenomenon and of the Phenomenon into the Thought.’

Later on, as Bauer relates towards the close of his Afterword, with appropriate quotations from the Conversations with Eckermann, Goethe’s old distrust of philosophy was to reassert itself; but his personal attachment to Hegel remained; and there is no suggestion that he ever forgot the strong sense of support which the latter’s warm acquiescence had brought him in standing up to the contemptuous reception of his publications by a monolithically Newtonian scientific establishment. The Letters place it clearly on record how, beyond that, he had been given by Hegel what tradition says was the last thing Goethe asked for before he died: ‘more light’.

Owen Barfield

1 Goethe-Hegel, Briefwechsel Nachwort von Hermann Bauer. ‘Denken-Schauen-Sinnen’, Band 42, 60 Seiten, Pappband DM 4.80. Stuttgart: Verlag freies Geistesleben, 1970. Return.