1. Reciprocality as Constitutive Idea
  2. The Reciprocal Play (Wechselspiel) of Cognitive Forces
  3. The Reciprocal Action (Wechselwirking) of Theory and Practice
  4. The Work of Reciprocality (Wechselseitigkeit) and its Outcomes in Nature and Science
  5. Reciprocality as a Precondition of Sociability
  6. Reciprocal Illumination and Literary/Aesthetic Commerce
  7. Conclusion: A Theory of Interaction
  8. Notes
  9. Works Cited and Further Reading

Reciprocality as Constitutive Idea

Wechselseitgkeit (mutuality, reciprocality) marks Goethe’s interest in alterity as a shared engagement between opposing force-fields where a dynamics of attraction and exchange is in play. Emerging from experiments in the natural sciences, this concept operates across all fields of human endeavour yielding (1) new objects of understanding like the Urphänomen (primordial phenomenon), (2) societal well-being, and (3) aesthetic innovation. In its adverbial and adjectival inflections, which frequently occur in Goethe’s later writings, the lexeme describes the interplay of opposites in mutually enhancing relations between discrete entities, be they animate or inanimate. The German word links Wechsel (change, exchange) and Seite (side, site) to produce couplings between subject and object, persons, or things in the natural world that are the purview of physics, geology, and chemistry. By structuring the responses of two opposing sides to each other as reciprocal, it grammatically functions as a predicate. Within sociological and anthropological contexts, the concept establishes patterns of behavior based on the mutual interest of agents in reciprocal exchange. And by modifying both heterological and heterotopical relationships (as in Foucault1), it embraces philosophy, science, social interaction, literature, and aesthetics. As Goethe suggests in Geschichte der Farbenlehre (1810; History of the Doctrine of Color),2 the breadth of wechselseitig allows us to see individual life processes unfold in continuous rhythms of systolic and diastolic exchange (Wechsel) “aus der sich alle Erscheinungen entwickeln” (WA 2.3:217; from which all phenomena develop).3

The adjective wechselseitig (mutual, reciprocal) has the semantic reach of the noun Wechsel, which comprises both ontologies of time (change, alteration, variation, shift) and economic exchange. Goethe’s neologism Weltliteratur (world literature), which signals increased literary exchange across national and linguistic borders during a period of expanding global trade, speaks to this conceptual innovation, as do translations and the commerce of aesthetic and cultural ideas across heterotopical spaces.4 Thanks to the semantic polyvalence of Wechsel (change, exchange) in Die Wahlverwandschaften (1809; Elective Affinities), Sittlichkeit (ethical life) and Kantian ethics become entangled in the economics of exchange as it pertains to intellectual commerce.

Although it was gradually replaced by gegenseitig (mutual, reciprocal) in the 19th century, wechselseitig was used extensively by Goethe’s friends Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), and Karl Philipp Moritz (1756–1793) to denote intersubjective interaction.5 Only with Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), however, and subsequently as reconfigured by Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 –1814), Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) did the term gain philosophical currency. The reconstruction of the lexeme as a philosophical concept attained a culminating moment in the Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807; Phenomenology of Mind), where Hegel subsumes reciprocal interactivity under the term Wechselwirkung (reciprocal effect) as the engine driving the progressive movement of mind (Geist). Similarly, when Goethe advances an analogous structure to conceptual status in his innovative account of intuition and cognition, he elaborates non-Cartesian, reciprocal processes of interaction across a variety of disciplinary practices. Rather than treat discrete fields of inquiry in the natural, social, and artistic worlds as cut off from each other, he considers intersections between disciplines. By stressing the importance of inter- and transdisciplinary investigation, Goethe never loses sight of the need to join action and reflection.

The Reciprocal Play (Wechselspiel) of Cognitive Forces

“Die Lust zum Wissen” (WA 2.1:xxix; the desire to know), a phrase with which Goethe introduces his Doctrine of Colors, also figures centrally in Faust, where it drives the latter’s interest in the “Wechselleben der Welt” (WA 2.3:269; the changing life of the world). In addition, it would galvanize an unwavering commitment to science (Wissenschaft), where the mutual play of four interrelated faculties—sensuality, reason, understanding, and imagination—would produce Goethe’s Kant-inspired “Abenteuer der Vernunft” (WA 2.11: 55; adventure in thought). After certain “bedeutende Phänomene” (WA 2.1:xxix; meaningful; phenomena) draw the attention of the mind, Goethe muses, studies like his own on color production can awaken the conviction “daß ein Werdendes, Wachsendes, ein Bewegliches, der Umwendung Fähiges nicht betrüglich sei, vielmehr geschickt, die zartesten Wirkungen der Natur zu offenbaren” (WA 2.1:xxxviii; that a becoming, a growing, something in motion and capable of transformation is not deceptive, but rather skilfully reveals the most subtle natural effects).

Such ‘revelations’ of the workings of nature occured to Goethe, who was a ‘visual thinker,’ upon his return from Italy, when he renewed his optical studies and undertook the experimental exploration of color that complemented his famous observations about the Urpflanze (primordial plant) in the botanical garden in Palermo. The three-part Farbenlehre (1810; Doctrine of Colors) is not only his most rigorous and extensive scientific study; it also represents his most philosophically consequential work as a scientist, especially with regard to its treatment of Wechselseitigkeit. The first ‘didactic’ part of the treatise ranges across “physiological” (WA 2.1:1-135), “physical” (WA 2.1:136-485), and “chemical” colors (WA 2.1:486-686) to provide an ontological exploration of color perception (WA 2.1:688-715) with theoretical implications for other disciplines (WA 2.1:716-756). Most importantly for today’s reception of the work, these include the psycho-aesthetic “sensual-moral effect of colors” (WA 2.1:758-915). Goethe’s cross-disciplinary examination, remarkable in its breadth, is followed by a second “polemical” and a third “historical” part, which together aggregate his exceptionally modern, genealogically informed, and critical (in the Kantian sense) approach to complex natural phenomena.

When he famously rejected Newton’s refrangibility of colors in the Opticks (1704), Goethe was also challenging his mathematization of nature (WA 2.2:26). According to his own anti-Cartesian epistemological framework, Goethe actually saw in Newton’s ill-considered proof nothing more than a “hypothetisches Aperçu” (WA 2.3:26); hypothetical aperçu) based on a flawed experiment. Goethe’s concept of nature was of course not mechanistic: he did not view natural phenomena as isolated objects that a disinterested subject observes and then cognitively determines in theoretical reflection.6 As a comment in the historical part of the Doctrine of Colors argues, because an experiment (Versuch) is already a mediation (Vermittlung) and, therefore, requires reflection, the scientist should not rely on deductive logic, which would eliminate any role for the observing subject:

Die Versuche sind Vermittler zwischen Natur und Begriff, zwischen Natur und Idee, zwischen Begriff und Idee. Die zerstreute Erfahrung zieht uns allzusehr nieder und ist sogar hinderlich, auch nur zum Begriff zu gelangen. Jeder Versuch aber ist schon theoretisierend; er entspringt aus einem Begriff oder stellt ihn sogleich auf. Viele einzelne Fälle werden unter ein einzig Phänomen subsumiert; die Erfahrung kommt ins Enge, man ist im Stande weiter vorwärts zu gehen. (WA 2.3:118-19; emphasis added)
Experiments are mediators between nature and concept, between nature and idea, between concept and idea. Scattered experience pulls us down too much and actually hinders conceptualization. But every experiment is also already theorizing; it [the experiment] arises from a concept, or it immediately sets one up. Numerous single cases are subsumed under a single phenomenon; experience is narrowed down, we are [now] able to move ahead.

As further elaborated in the didactic part of the Doctrine of Colors, sequential revision by trial and error through a series of experiments with light and color can reconstitute the subject-object dyad as mediated modes of existence rather than self-contained abstractions that are isolated in space and time. The subject-object relation should be staged as a process that constitutes an aggregated, organized force-field—as Goethe’s experiments with multiple prisms demonstrates. Hence his rejection of Newton’s “mechanistically abstract” modes of thought, which neither as deductive logic nor inductive reasoning can grasp the dynamic interplay of light and darkness with its ascending mediation of color as an irreducible entity. And while Goethe famously erred in his dismissal of Newton’s claim that white contains all of the colors in the spectrum, his experimental demonstration of Wechselwirkung by way of the progressive and reciprocal interaction of color effects (Wirkungen) resulted in the concept of a chromatic Urphänomen (primordial phenomenon; WA 2.1: 65-68) as discussed in paragraphs 174-177 of the didactic part of the Farbenlehre.

The Reciprocal Action (Wechselwirking) of Theory and Practice

In light of Goethe’s unique blend of scientific inquiry, sensory perception, and mental reflection, the methodological implications of his epistemological assumptions and their relation to reciprocality (Wechselswirkung) deserve further attention. In the essay written in 1792 titled “Der Versuch als Vermittler von Object und Subject” (WA 2.11:21-37; The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject), Goethe underscores the importance of enhancing experimental observations with incremental insights by staging and restaging discrete experiments, which “paradoxically” (WA 2.11:28) involve separate inductive and deductive processes.7 Goethe censures any approach that under Kant’s influence would fail to recognize an “unendlich Lebendiges” (WA 2.2:10; something infinitely alive) in the phenomenal world and its “tausend Erscheinungen” (Ibid.; thousand appearances). According to his way of thinking, by contrast, noema and phenomena should not be completely divorced from each other. By viewing them as the two sides of a single nature, the scientist can facilitate their communication by reflecting on a world that exists independently of the human will but is still be affected it. As Schelling also assumed,8 we cannot incessantly explore the subtle transitions between mind and world without at some point understanding that the perceiving mind and living world are one. That is to say, more is conceptually required of thought than Kant’s “Abenteuer der Vernunft” (WA 2.11:54-5; adventure of reason),9 a view that Goethe would also explore in poems like “Die Natur” (WA 2.11:5-9; Nature) and “Eins und alles” (WA 2.11:265-66 and 350; One and All), both of which resonate with Schelling’s Spinoza- and Fichte-inspired holism.

For Goethe, then, the study of light (optics) did not begin with a theory in need of a proof (Newton). Neither could the Kantian revolution, which features reciprocal (wechselseitiges) play between the cognitive faculties of sense perception (Sinnlichkeit) and the understanding (Verstand), adequately account for how things are given to Goethean perception with its more dynamic construction of intuitions (Anschauungen) and concepts (Begriffe) and their representational outputs. In other words, Kant’s “reflektierende Urteilskraft” (reflective power of judgment) fell short for Goethe in comparison with his own “anschauende Urteilskraft” (WA 2.11:58, 283; intuitive power of judgment) and “gegenständliches Denken” (object-thinking; WA 2.11: 60), which produce intuitions (Anschauungen) freed from (Kantian) concepts. By grounding cognition in the reconstruction of the things that engage both empirical observation and aesthetic experience, moreover, the Goethean mode of thought could pursue “higher-order experiences” (Erfahrungen höherer Art) than Kant’s strict limits on cognitive reliability permit in order to reveal the conditions under which the endlessly rich phenomena of life emerge in their dynamic totality (WA 2.1:307-310 and 2.11:39 ff.).

Goethe shared with Schelling an understanding that Kant’s dichotomies need to be superseded if nature is to be grasped as a living whole, which helps explain the bond they forged in the late 1790s.10 Goethe was drawn to Schelling’s Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (1797; Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature) with its exceptional symbolic content. Significantly, for the young philosopher’s older companion in thought, Naturphilosophie included the human subject within nature as part of an interrelated whole that is structured in an ascending series of Potenzierungen (potentiations). And these potentiations in turn contain polar opposites, as Goethe’s investigations of magnetism had already revealed. As any attentive observer will notice, a magnet’s opposing poles are inseparable. This commonplace encouraged Goethe to propose in his Doctrine of Colors that the “Formel der Polarität [. . .] auch bei den übrigen Farben-Phänomenen duchgeführt werden könne” (WA 2.4:303; 307; the formula of polarity could also be applied to all remaining chromatic phenomena). Crucially, the “formula” that Goethe highlights is tethered to reciprocal (wechselseitige) mediation, thus making reciprocality (Wechselseitigkeit) a pivotal concept not only for the entire spectrum of polar opposites in nature, but also for the full range of such oppositions in the human world. And Goethe, in fact, never tired of proclaiming the “wunderbare Complication der menschlichen Natur, in welcher sich die stärksten Gegensätze vereinigen, Materielles und Geistiges, Gewöhnliches und Unmögliches, Widerwärtiges und Entzückendes, Beschränktes und Gränzenloses (WA 1.32:201; wonderous complication of human nature, in which the starkest opposites unite, the material and spiritual, the ordinary and impossible, the repulsive and delightful, the limited and limitless, emphasis added).

For Goethe and Schelling alike, then, nature, which both thinkers understood as absolute productivity, operates under the universal law of reciprocal opposites. Unlike Schelling’s abstract polar logic, however, which overcomes Kantian dualism in the “indifference” of the “Absolute,” Goethe’s Doctrine of Colors tells a story of Wechselseitigkeit (reciprocality) by staging a series of exploratory experiments as the condition for resolving opposites and producing new phenomena of increasing intensity by reciprocal interaction. In short, Goethe disagrees with Schelling’s speculative idea that embeds the question of light within a philosophy of nature. Thus, when Goethe gently scolds Schelling in a letter in 1801 for paying insufficient attention to intuitive experience and empirical investigations, he implicitly underscores his own systematic presentation of the nature of perception as an alternative to his young associate’s philosophical speculation.11

The Work of Reciprocality (Wechselseitigkeit) and its Outcomes in Nature and Science

Motivated by philosophical resonances in Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, encouraged by Schiller, and informed by his experiments with chromatic relationships that revealed the kind of reciprocal (wechselseitige) attraction and repulsion (WA 2.1: 305) at work in magnetic fields, Goethe publicly announced the aim of his Doctrine of Colors,

die chromatischen Erscheinungen in Verbindung mit allen übrigen physischen Phänomenen zu betrachten, sie besonders mit dem was uns der Magnet, der Turmalin gelehrt, was Elektricität, Galvanismus, chemischer Prozess uns offenbart, in eine Reihe zu stellen, und so durch Terminologie und Methode eine vollkommenere Einheit des physischen Wissens vorzubereiten. (WA 2.4:387-88).
to consider chromatic events in connection with all other physical phenomena, especially to aggregate them in a series according to what the magnet [and] tourmaline teach us, [or what] electricity, galvanism, chemical processes disclose to us, and thereby, through concepts and method, prepare the way for a more complete unity of our knowledge of the physical world.

In the “Historical Part” of his treatise, Goethe notes that the ancients had failed to recognize polarity:

Sie kannten den Magnet, das Elektron, bloß als Anziehen; Polarität war ihnen noch nicht deutlich geworden. Und hat man bis auf die neusten Zeiten nicht auch nur immer der Anziehung die Aufmerksamkeit geschenkt, und das zugleich geforderte Anstoßen nur als eine Nachwirkung der ersten schaffenden Kraft betrachtet? (WA 2.3:115)
They understood the magnet, the electron merely in terms of the force of attraction; they were not yet clear about polarity. And have we not to the present day also only paid attention to attraction, while seeing the concurrent opposing force of repulsion just as a effect of the initial creative force?

With this observation we find the ‘physicist’ Goethe returning to a line of thought articulated in earlier essays from the Morphological Notebooks (1807), where he had introduced the term “wechselseitigen Einfluß” (WA 2.6:5; reciprocal influence) to conceptualize processes of botanical propagation and growth. Only now does Goethe apply the same principle to the physical world of light and its chromatic effects, where all manifestations of polarity and intensification (Polarität und Steigerung) — “Nature’s two great driving forces” (Triebräder) — are grounded in the dynamics of Wechselseitigkeit, or the reciprocal and transformative interaction of diverse physiological and physical systems (WA 2.1:201-213, 274, and 281).

By constructing the scientific experiment (Versuch) as an instrument of mediation, Goethe conceptually clarified how exactly reciprocal interaction mediates between dichotomies. As fastidiously described in paragraph 745 of the didactic part of the Farbenlehre, which makes copious use of the lexeme wechselseitig in its narrative reconstruction of nature’s workings as series of color trials, Goethe illustrates how the engagement of opposites (e.g., dark and light) produces qualitatively intensified chromatic effects in a continuous process of emergence that works analogously to the magnet’s “plus and minus poles” (WA 2.1:299). Already in paragraph 695 (WA 2. 1:276), in fact, he had grasped the nature of color as an interactive process that conceptualizes the fundamental reciprocity (i.e., interdependence) of life’s pervasive dichotomies. In addition to dark and light, these reciprocally engaged oppositions include the “zwei Körperhälften/ Rechts und Links/ Atemholen/ Physische Erfahrung: Magnet” (WA 2.11:165 and 210; two halves of the body, right and left, breathing, physical experience: magnet). And as Goethe suggests in the table for paragraph 696, such polarities may be further designated by the signs + and –, which can work across a wide range of situations: “Plus – Minus. Gelb – Blau. Wirkung – Beraubung. Licht – Schatten. Hell – Dunkel. Kraft – Schwäche. Wärme – Kälte. Nähe – Ferne. Abstoßen – Anziehen. Verwandtschaft mit Säuren – Verwandtschaft mit Alkalien” (WA 2.1:277; plus – minus. yellow – blue. action – deprivation. light – shadow. light – dark. force – weakness. warmth – cold. proximity – distance. repulsion – attraction. affinity with acids – affinity with alkalis). Contrary to Kant (and more in line with Hegel), Goethe understands duality as a “reciprocally effective opposition” (WA 2.5:120; wechselwirkende[r] Gegensatz) in which each of the opposing poles has “specific properties” that are cancelled and then aufgehoben (elevated and preserved) in the synthetic combination of a third (WA 2.1:xxxv – xxxvi).12 And mutually interactive opposites, Goethe asserts, produce the color-wheel “vor unseren Augen” (WA 2.1:281; before our eyes):

Zwei reine ursprüngliche Gegensätze (Gelb u. Blau) sind das Fundament des Ganzen. Es zeigt sich dann eine Steigerung, wodurch sich beide einem dritten nähern [. . .] zwei Vereinigungen [. . .] einmal der einfachen anfänglichen, und sodann der gesteigerten Gegensätze. (Ibid.)
Two pure, original opposites (yellow and blue) are the foundation of the whole. Then an intensification appears through which both approach a third [. . .] two unions [. . .] once of the simple initial and then of the heightened opposites.

As Goethe elsewhere explains (sounding much like Fichte speaking to the ‘mutual determination’ of individual propositions in the Wissenschaftslehre), “auch die Farben [fordern] sich ihrem Gegensatze nach unmittelbar, so daß, nämlich im Satz und Gegensatz, alle immer zugleich enthalten sind (WA 2.4:339; even colors immediately demand their opposite[s], in order that everything in a proposition and counterproposition is present at the same time).

Figure 1
Fig. 1. Goethe’s Color-Wheel Symbolizing the Spiritual and Mental Lives of Human Beings (1809). This schematic rendering illustrates the section in Goethe’s Theory of Colors entitled “Allegorischer, Symbolischer, Mystischer Gebrauch der Farbe” (WA 2.1: 357; Allegorical, Symbolic, and Mystical Uses of Color). The interior inscription in Goethe’s hand reads “beautiful [red]; noble [orange]; good [yellow]; useful [green]; common [blue]; unnecessary [violet].” The exterior inscription reads “reason [red-orange]; understanding [yellow-green]; sensuousness [green-blue]; phantasy [violet-red].”

Reciprocality as a Precondition of Sociability

Despite the simplicity of the opposing colors in Goethe’s color-wheel, according to §813 in the didactic part of the Farbelehre, we cannot deny, “daß uns die Natur durch Totalität zur Freiheit heraufzuheben angelegt ist [. . .]” (WA 2.1:324; that nature, through totality, is disposed to elevate us to freedom). As, however, Goethe’s novel of manners, Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities), demonstrates, human activity and interaction can also synthesize complex reciprocal (wechselseitige) encounters between opposing principles: nature and reason, for example, or passion and duty. Accordingly, and in line with an observation that Goethe would articulate in a comment to Eckermann in 1827, this narrative fiction stages an audacious attempt (Versuch) to transfigure the chemical formula de attractionibus electivis13 into a social experiment (WA 1.20:19 and 26): “Wir haben alle etwas von elektrischen und magnetischen Kräften in uns und üben wie der Magnet selber eine anziehende und abstoßende Gewalt aus, je nachdem wir mit etwas Gleichem oder Ungleichem in Berührung kommen” (WA Gespräche 6.233; we all have in ourselves something like electrical and magnetic forces that exert a power of attraction or repulsion, depending on whether we are touched by sameness or difference). Whereas Kant’s system of ethics had subordinated “the law of equality of effect and counter-effect [conceptualized as] the reciprocal attraction and repulsion of bodies” to “a system he called the state,” however, Goethe’s chemical and social experimentation are entangled with ethical concerns.14 In fact, his novel seems rather to subscribe to Schiller’s critique of Kant’s “strenge und grelle Entgegensetzung” (SW 20:284; strict and glaring opposition) as laid out in “Über Anmut und Würde” (1793; On Grace and Dignity).

Goethe, however, complicates the relationship between these concepts, which according to Schiller, bridge the divide between reason and nature as well as duty and inclination. While Wechselseitigkeit as reciprocal exchange can provide a foundation for positive social intercourse, the novel seems to suggest that kindred spirits like Charlotte and the Captain — who upon meeting “einander schnell ergreifen und wechselseitig bestimmen” (WA 1.20:5; quickly seize and reciprocally determine each other) — must still contend with the discordant Kantian dualities of reason/nature and duty/inclination (Pflicht/Neigung). Because nothing like Kant’s all powerful reason controls the outcome of events in Goethe’s narrative, moreover, its social experiment is doomed to fail and, with it, all prospects of happiness for either Charlotte and the Captain or Ottilie and Eduard, whose equation of hope and fear incapacitate him: “Es giebt Lagen, in denen Furcht und Hoffnung Eins werden, sich einander wechselseitig aufheben und in eine dunkle Fühllosigkeit verlieren” (WA 1.20:226; there are conditions in which hope and fear merge, reciprocally cancel each other and are lost in a dark numbness). As Goethe solemnly acknowledged in the public announcement of his project, its application of a natural phenomenon to human nature is justified since

überall nur eine Natur ist und auch durch das Reich der heitern Vernunftfreiheit die Spuren trüber, leidenschaftlicher Notwendigkeit sich unaufhaltsam hindurchziehen, die nur durch eine höhere Hand und vielleicht auch nicht in diesem Leben völlig auszulöschen sind. (WA 1.41:34)
everywhere there is just one nature, and besides, the traces of an obscure, passionate necessity inexorably pass through the realm of serene rational freedom and can only be extinguished by the hand of a higher being and then perhaps, not in this life at all.

By asserting the indivisibility of nature, of course, the novelist implicitly takes exception to Kant’s a priori legislation of freedom. For if — as Kant maintains in his third critique —freedom and nature follow their own basic laws, all ‘reciprocal’ influence across their isolated realms is impossible:

Das Gebiet des Naturbegriffs unter der einen, das des Freiheitsbegriffs, unter der anderen Gesetzgebung, sind gegen allen wechselseitigen Einfluß, den sie für sich (ein jedes nach seinen Grundgesetzen) aufeinander haben könnten, durch die große Kluft, welche das Übersinnliche von den Erscheinungen trennt, gänzlich abgesondert. (Kant, Werke, 10:106)
The realm of nature as conceptualized according to one legislative principle and that of freedom as conceptualized according to another are without reciprocal influence and entirely separated from each other by the great chasm that separates the supersensible from the phenomenal world.

Unlike Schiller, whose aesthetic essays feature grace and dignity,15 or the “reciprocal play” of the material and formal drives,16 as mechanisms through which to overcome Kant’s dualisms (including the legislative imperative of his enthronement of reason), Die Wahlverwandtschaften implicitly critiques both Kantian ethics and Schiller’s correction of Kant through the disruptive words of the eponymous character Mittler. By preaching the reciprocal advantages of matrimonial union in front of the chaste and saintly Ottilie, in fact, this fumbling marriage broker ironically undercuts Kant’s argument that the ‘lower’ drive of life and the species-defining ‘higher’ will to knowledge and freedom (i.e, personal autonomy) can only be bridged by reason and the law of marriage, which Kant defines in §24 of the Metaphysik der Sitten (1797; Metaphysics of Morals) as “die Verbindung zweyer Personen verschiedenen Geschlechts zum lebenswierigen wechselseitigen Besitz ihrer Geschlechtseigenschaften” (Kant, Metaphysik der Sitten:107; the tying together of two persons of different gender for the lifelong and reciprocal possession of their sexual traits).17 And when Mittler urges, “Sollte sich irgend in ihrem Verhältnis etwas trüben” (WA 1.20:404; were something in their relationship [between a husband and his wife] to darken),

so sollst Du suchen, es aufzuklären; du sollst suchen sie zu begütigen, sie zu besänftigen, ihnen ihre wechselseitigen Vorteile deutlich zu machen, und mit schöner Uneigennützigkeit das Wohl der anderen fördern, indem du ihnen fühlbar machst, was für ein Glück aus jeder Pflicht und besonders aus dieser entspringt, welche Mann und Weib unaufhörlich verbindet. (Ibid., emphasis added)
then you should try to clear things up; you should try to placate them, to soothe them, to make their mutual advantages distinct, and to promote the welfare of others with beautiful unselfishness by making them feel the happiness that arises from every duty and especially from the one that inextricably unites a man and a woman.

Goethe’s narrator never ascribes the descriptor wechselseitig to Ottilie and Eduard’s interactions. He does, however, use the lexeme to describe social behavior in the novel as either transactional or apperceptive, particularly for the interactions among Charlotte, Eduard, and the Captain. When, near the beginning of the novel, for example, Eduard rehearses his reasons for inviting his old friend to his estate, he invokes wechselseitig as a transactional modality that resembles Mittler’s subsequent disquisition on the reciprocal advantages of the matrimonial act: “[W]ir sind unsre Lebzeit über einander wechselseitig so viel schuldig geworden, daß wir nicht berechnen können, wie unser Credit und Debet sich gegeneinander verhalte (WA 1.20:6; we have become during our lifetime mutually so indebted that we cannot account for our respective credit and debit). As Nietzsche would later point out in his Genealogy of Morals (1887), the German word Schuld is both a moral and economic concept. Similarly, when the narrator notes a “mutual goodwill” (wechselseitiges Wohlwollen) between Charlotte and the Captain that, as with both business and dance, features “Personen die gleichen Schritt halten, müssen sich unentbehrlich werden” (WA 1.20: 76-77; persons who are in step and must become indispensable to each other), he suggests that commercial and ethical transactions work analogously with respect to their capacity for producing reciprocal effects.

A more frequent use of the lexeme in the novel highlights its apperceptive capacity to promote self-reflection:

Bey unsern Freunden waren die entstehenden wechselseitigen Neigungen von der angenehmsten Wirkung [. . .]. Ein solcher Zustand erhebt den Geist, indem er das Herz erweitert, und alles was man tut und vornimmt hat eine Richtung gegen das Unermeßliche. (WA 1.20:80)
With our friends the reciprocal inclinations that were arising had the most pleasing effect [. . .]. This kind of condition opens the mind by expanding the heart, and everything that one does and undertakes is aimed toward the infinite.

Affectively charged relations that are wechselseitig thus increase the partners’ emotional capability, which in turn enhances communal action. Accordingly, as supposedly responsible actors who would like to think of themselves as ethical, Charlotte and the Captain remain fully in command of their emotions and so enjoy mutual (wechselseitige) support when discussing Eduard’s unforgiving passion (WA 1.20:372). Or, likewise, when the Captain and Eduard engage in “wechselseitigen Rath” (WA 1.20:372; mutual consultation), they build the kind of confidence between individuals that is the precondition for “wechselseitige Anerkennung” (WA 20:203; reciprocal recognition) within social life and its attendant respect for a person’s “innere[n] Werth” (WA 20:203; interior worth). All such expressions of ‘reciprocality’ (Wechselseitigkeit) epitomize Goethe’s understanding – beyond the Wahlverwandtschaften – of new patterns of social interaction between persons who have the capacity to move, in line with Kant’s Enlightenment principles, from modes of heterotonomy to autonomy. Significantly, the egalitarian recognition that others enjoy equal standing during moments of shared humanity lays the groundwork for a new intersubjective ethics that values individuals not in their unconscious expression of social roles, but rather in the mutual awareness of their own and another person’s humanity.18

Reciprocal Illumination and Literary/Aesthetic Commerce

As Goethe first outlined in the Einleitung in die Propyläen (WA 1.47:5-32, here 16) and later established with the innovative neologism Weltliteratur,19 Wechselseitigkeit has epistemological value for intercultural exchange. This compound noun, which situates the world and national literatures in a reciprocal relationship, continues to inform contemporary discussions about literary relations and cultural exchange as invoked by the term “global literature.” But already with Goethe, Weltliteratur defined a space for the commerce of ideas where cultural differences can be negotiated in reciprocal exchange rather than mired in combative nationalism. If, as Goethe suggests, Thomas Carlyle “das Leben von Schiller geschrieben und ihn überall so beurteilt, wie ihn nicht leicht ein Deutscher beurteilen wird” then we should able to adjudicate Shakespeare and Byron and know “deren Verdienste vielleicht besser zu schätzen als die Engländer selber” (WA 1. 49.1:307; wrote the Life of Schiller and judged him in a manner no German would have done lightly. [. . .] We should able to adjudicate Shakespeare and Byron and perhaps value their merits better than the English themselves.) And to promote Weltliteratur one step further by considering the reciprocal recognition of a foreign literary work and its author across linguistic frontiers, Goethe contributed the introduction to the German translation of Carlyle’s Leben Schillers (1830), which on the title-page and frontispiece of the first edition featured engravings of Carlyle’s home in the Scottish Highlands and Schiller’s house in Weimar, thereby joining the separate cultural fields of the two writers in a new union of transnational commerce.

The correspondence between Goethe and his admirer and translator, which finds the older writer conversing in German and Carlyle in English, sheds light on how Goethe conceptualized the reciprocality of intercourse between minds.20 In addition to reciprocal (gegenseitige) translations, which “die Verhältnisse von Nation zu Nation am allerdeutlichsten aussprechen” (Norton, 37-38; most clearly indicates the relations of nation to nation), Goethe recommends “eine solche wechselseitige Behandlung” (Norton 39; such a reciprocal procedure) to his “ausländischen und inländischen Freunden” (Norton 39; friends, abroad and at home), including those of dissimilar persuasion in aesthetics and creative writing. Carlyle agrees, later expressing the “desire to read Werner’s Mineralogical Doctrines [in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre] in the original [. . .], where truly I found a mine” (Norton, 157). Carlyle here uses wordplay to suggest that his exercise in reading across linguistic and generic borders could unearth hidden cultural riches. Such enhancement of intercultural relations, according to Goethe, had become possible with the rapid circulation of books and periodicals (Norten 50), which united “Nationen gleichsam auf der Eilpost” (Norton 50; nations by the mail-post). Goethe subsequently pledges himself to “wechselseitigen Austausch” (Norten 112; mutual exchange) in the service of knowledge about what he earlier had termed “Weltliteratur” (Norten 38; world-literature).

For Goethe, every translator could become a “Vermittler dieses allgemein geistigen Handels” (Norton 18; a middle-man in this universal spiritual commerce), whereby the foreign and the indigenous, the known and the unknown are exchanged “im geistigen Handel und Wandel als wahres Äquivalent” (WA 1.7:115; in intellectual trade and transformation as truly equitable). With their mutual efficacy across widely separated sites, moreover, literary manifestations of intertextuality beyond the classical worlds of Greece and Rome increasingly came for Goethe to exemplify the power of Wechselseitigkeit in foreign-language texts and their translations.

The modus operandi of translating consists in bringing distinct Seiten (sides) of some content into reciprocal communication with each other. Goethe was himself an effective translator, and while in his letter to Carlyle on July 20, 1827, he recognizes that any single translation might be insufficient, he also contends, “so ist und bleibt es [das Übersetzen] doch eins der wichtigsten und würdigsten Geschäffte in dem allgemeinen Weltwesen” (Norton 18; the work [of translation] is and will always be one of the weightiest and worthiest affairs in the general concerns of the world).21 By underscoring the importance of the translator’s role as “Vermittler” (Norton 18; mediator, middle-man), moreover, the same letter suggests an analogy between Goethe’s translations and scientific experiments, thereby linking Die Wahlverwandtschaften to the West-östlicher Divan (1819; West-Eastern Divan), his innovative poetic constellation that puts Western and non-Western epistemologies in reciprocal play with each other.

Goethe’s lyrical cycle is comprised of 12 books (Nameh) of poems and a critical prose exploration of near eastern history, culture, and belief systems entitled Noten und Abhandlungen zu besserem Verständniß des West-östlichen Divans (WA 1.7; Notes and Essays Toward a Better Understanding of the West-Eastern Divan). This magnus opus does not actually configure the Orient and its people as the ‘other’ in the way that postcolonial critique intimates in the wake of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978).22 Instead, Goethe’s vision of the transcultural commerce of ideas extends poetic, philosophical, and religious ‘capital’ (Bourdieu) at a time when German cultural consumers increasingly found themselves in the grip of a nationalist imaginary. Although the lively transmission of foreign, Persian, and Arab culture was ongoing, Goethe—who acknowledges the work of von Diez (WA 1.7: 222-230) and von Hammer (Ibid., 231-234)—created a uniquely revolutionary book with the strange-sounding Persian title Divan, which means “collection.” 23

The first edition of the Divan (1819) is a handsome volume with a frontispiece and title-page that display two contrasting sites in juxtaposition. On the left-hand side the reader will find an Arabic calligraphy that reads: “der östliche Divan vom westlichen Verfasser” (the Eastern Divan put together by a Western author),24 while on the right-hand side, a kind of Sütterlin-script displays, in an analogous spirit, the book’s title and the author’s name written with ornamental letters. The implication is that Goethe’s collection of poems is an ‘Eastern’ Divan put together by a Western author.

Figure 2
Fig. 2.

With the Arabic inscription on the left, Goethe attributes to himself, the author, a reconceptualization of poetic form and content in sharp contrast to his earlier immersion in the “Falten der Antike” (WA 1.2:121; the folds of antiquity) from which he molded the German rhythms of his occidental, or ‘classically’ inspired prosody, as for example in the Römische Elegien (1795; Roman Elegies) and Venezianische Epigramme (1796; Venetian Epigrams) or the verse epics Der Reineke Fuchs (1794; Reynard the Fox) and Hermann und Dorothea (1797). By joining oriental voices and thereby mediating the mediators in Istanbul, Berlin, Vienna, and London, on the one hand, and identifying with iconic Persian poets like Hafiz (WA 1. 7:62-65; 69) or Rumi (WA 1.7:58-60), on the other, Goethe also mediates himself as a classical ‘Persian.’ Like a traveler on a journey in two distinct lands, he enters the “west-easterly” imaginary of his own “Dichter’s Lande” (WA 1.7: 211; poet’s habitat). And whereas one route through this poetic landscape takes the “Reisende[n]” (WA 1.41.1:86; the traveller) on an historically structured geographical tour of “wechselseitigen Verhältnissen” (reciprocal relations) that is comprised of a “mixture” of various Eastern cultures (WA 1.7:31), the other unleashes the poetic imagination (Einbildungskraft) in a sequential alternation of voices that merges two distinct language and verse traditions in a new prosodic “web,” the ghazel (WA 1.6:40). During the latter part of this journey, the Divan-poet (Goethe-Hatem) creatively bridges the Kantian dualisms of nature and reason, or inclination and duty, that are also at work in Die Wahlverwandtschaften. And he accomplishes this by converting anomic passions, or drives, into an aesthetic order of communicative reciprocity (i.e., poetry) that is ethical and, as Goethe says in Geheimnisse (WA 1.41.1:101; Secrets), can be shared on the social plane when readers “give reciprocally (wechselseitig) of their opinion” (Ibid.)

The Buch Suleika (WA 1.6:159; Book Suleika) provides a serenely illuminating example of Wechselseitigkeit in the form of reciprocal exchange that is fashioned as a “game of catch” between the lovers Hatem and Suleika. The poem moves from the mediative exchange of juxtaposed pronouns in the nominative (for Suleika) and accusative case (for the poet Hatem-Goethe). It then shifts perspective in the game’s give and take to the ecstatic celebration of the poet’s mirrored self (now in the nominative case) that has been given to the beloved (now in the dative case). As a result of these grammatical exchanges, they can fully live their amorous union in a privileged moment of pure reciprocity:

Freude des Daseins ist groß,
Größer die Freud’ am Dasein.
Wenn Du Suleika
Mich überschwenglich beglückst,
Deine Leidenschaft mir zuwirfst
Als wär’s ein Ball,
Daß ich ihn fange,
Dir zurückwerfe
Mein gewidmetes Ich;
Das ist ein Augenblick! (WA 6:159)
Joy of being is great,
Greater still is joy in being.
When you Suleika
Give me immeasurable happiness.
Throw me your passion
As if it were a ball,
That I may catch it
throw back to you
My dedicated self;
That is the moment!

These lines read like a cumulative description of the reciprocality (Wechselseitigkeit) of the Divan as a whole. While the “poetic pearls” (dichterische Perlen) that “your passion threw at me” (WA 1.6:160) transmogrify the anecdotal relationship between Goethe and Marianne von Willemer, they also connect the once separated sites (i.e., the Orient and Occident) by occasionally merging antiquity’s “Helios” (WA 1. 6:184) with “Kunde” (WA 1.6:182; tidings) from the East. This poetic process, moreover, recalls the joining of opposites that Goethe described in the Farbenlehre as “ein Hüben und Drüben, ein Oben und Unten, ein Zuvor und Hernach, wodurch alle die Erscheinungen bedingt werden, die uns im Raum und in der Zeit entgegentreten”(WA 2.1:x; an over here and over there, an above and below, a before and after, through which all the appearances confronting us in space and time are determined). That is to say, the discursive capacity of Wechselwirkung is made concrete in the metaphorical to-and-fro of the poet’s ball. Its reciprocal toss mediates heterogenous elements, juxtaposed and set off against one another in the Divan through a process of reciprocal effects between the Weimar landscape and foreign terrain, deserts and gardens, the Hebrew god and Allah, etc. And all of these oppositions are configured across time and space as mutually interconnected sides of what Foucault would call a heterotopia.25 As Goethe had already shown in the Divan, such a site, according to Foucault, is “a sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live” that like a mirror “counteracts the position I occupy” and from which I can “come back toward myself and begin again.”26

Conclusion: A Theory of Interaction

Wechselseitig as an activity of reciprocal involvement takes account of “Anziehungskraft” (the force of attraction) between contrasting phenomena in the natural and social worlds. And while Goethe found this structure abstractly echoed in Kant (WA 4. 24:227), by drawing attention to contrasting but mutually implicated phenomena, his version of the concept suggests ways of overcoming such Kantian binaries as the transcendental distinction between subject and object, as well as nature and the social and the indigenous and foreign. In its scientific aspect, moreover, reciprocality illuminates ongoing processes across a variety of phenomena that develop interdependently. Thus, while its economic aspect highlights acts of exchange on a communicative and cultural plane, its ethical aspect underscores the mediating qualities of symmetry, parity, and equivalence in all social interactions. With this relational and ethical concept that has both theoretical and practical implications, then, Goethe introduced a lexeme into the philosophical vocabulary that facilitates thinking through the axiological nature of interactions across heterological appearances and heterotopical sites.

  1. Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach. (New York: Routledge, 1997), 330-36.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, Goethe’s works are cited according to the Weimar edition by section, volume, and page number. Goethe Werke, ed. im Auftrage der Großherzogin Sophie von Sachsen, 4 Abteilungen, 133 vols. in 143 parts (Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1887 – 1919).
  3. See also the reciprocal polarity of “Einatmen und Ausatmen” (WA 2.1:15; inhalation and exhalation), which establishes “die ewige Formel des Lebens” (Ibid.; the eternal formula of life) in Farbenlehre and occurs in multiple other iterations across Goethe’s oeuvre.
  4. See West-östlicher Divan (1819; West-Easterly Divan).
  5. The Digitale Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache offers a wealth of relevant information, including examples from Goethe’s friends, always in connection with sociability and intimate fraternal relationships. https://www.dwds.de/wb/wechselseitig.
  6. For a discussion of the institutional debates around the reception of Goethean science, especially Hegel’s defense, see Jutta Müller-Tamm, “Farbe bekennen. Goethes Farbenlehre und die Berliner Wissenschaftspolitik um 1820,” in Wechselwirkungen. Kunst und Wissenschaft in Berlin und Weimar im Zeichen Goethes, edited by Ernst Osterkamp (Bern: Peter Land, 2022), 193-209.
  7. For an insightful reading of the Kantian traces in Goethe’s essay, see Wolf von Engelhardt, “Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt: Goethes Aufsatz im Licht von Kants Vernuftkritik,” Athenäum 10 (2000): 9-28.
  8. Friedrich W. J. Schelling. Sämtliche Werke, ed. by Carl Friedrich August Schelling, 14 vols. (Stuttgart and Augsburg: Cotta, 1856-1861), 1.2:53.
  9. For Goethe’s protracted engagement with Kant in the context of his scientific work see Abenteuer der Vernunft. Goethe und die Naturwissenschaften um 1800.
  10. “Die Natur soll der sichtbare Geist, der Geist die unsichtbare Natur seyn.” (Sämtliche Werke, 2:56; Nature should be the visible spirit/mind, the spirit/mind [should be] invisible Nature).
  11. For other interesting exchanges between Goethe and Schelling see Thomas Kisser, “Schelling und Goethe. Naturkonzeption zwischen Philosophie und Naturwissenschaft um 1800,” Akademie Aktuell 1 (2007): 25-26.
  12. In the entry “Begriff,” Clark Muenzer considers how Goethe’s and Hegel’s understandings of opposition as a mechanism of progressive development (Bildung) differ: “Of course, Hegel’s idealist construction of processes of formation, which is based on logical contradiction, differs from Goethe’s morphological construction, which establishes the basic polarity (Polarität) in the material world and the world of ideas as the transcendental ground of all Bildung (processes of formation).” https://goethe-lexicon.pitt.edu/GL/article/view/34.
  13. The year after Goethe used the formula in his novel as a framing device, he reintroduced it in paragraph 696 of the Doctrine of Colors as “Verwandtschaft mit Säuren – Verwandtschaft mit Alkalien” (WA 2.1:277; affinity with acids – affinity with alkalis).
  14. “So kann ich mir, nach der Analogie mit dem Gesetze der Gleichheit der Wirkung
    und Gegenwirkung, in der wechselseitigen Anziehung und Abstoßung der Körper unter einander, auch die Gemeinschaft der Glieder eines gemeinen Wesens nach Regeln des Rechts denken aber jene specifische Bestimmungen (die materielle Anziehung oder Abstoßung) nicht auf diese übertragen und sie den Bürgern beylegen, um ein System welches Staat heißt auszumachen.” In Immanuel Kant, Werke in zwölf Bänden, ed. Wilhelm Weichedel, 12 vols. (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1977): 429.
  15. See Ueber Anmuth und Würde,” in Neue Thalia 3 (1793): 115-230.
  16. See “Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen,” Letters 10-20, Die Horen 1 and 2 (1795): 51-94 and 45-66. Schiller claims to have produced the beautiful (das Schöne) “[a]us der Wechselwirkung zwey entgegengesetzter Triebe, und auf der Verbindung zwey entgegengesetzter Principien, dessen höchstes Ideal also in dem möglichstvollkommensten Bunde und Gleichgewicht der Realität und der Form wird zu suchen seyn” (Letter 16:90; out of the reciprocal effect of two opposing drives in conjunction with opposing principles whose highest ideal is to be sought in the most perfect union and balance possible of reality and form).
  17. Kant, Werke in zwölf Bänden, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1977), 8:388. See in this connection Walter Benjamin, “Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften” in Gesammelte Schriften, eds. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, 16 vols. (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1990), 1: 123, 201. Benjamin famously orchestrated his reading of Die Wahlverwandschaften around Kant’s legalistic definition of marriage, but only to indicate that the truth of the novel does not so much concern any injury to bourgeois morality as the mythical underpinnings of all life.
  18. For additional examples of Goethe’s use of the lexeme wechselseitig to configure a new ethical order see his modern epic poem Hermann und Dorothea (1797; WA 1.40: 233-337, here 236), which stages the reciprocal recognition of its two protagonists as the condition of their acceptance into the community. See also his last novel, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821/1829) (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years), which offers multiple examples of reciprocal interaction that confirm the urge to mediate in contractual personal relations. Not coincidently, Friedrich Schleiermacher’s observation in his 1796 essay on sociability explores the concept in the same year that Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (Conversations with German Refugees) appeared. See on this connection, Conrad Wiedemann, “Ideale Geselligkeit und ideale Akademie. Schleiermachers Geselligkeits-Utopie 1799 und heute,” in Ideale Akademie. Vergangene Zukunft oder konkrete Utopie? ed. Wilhelm Vosskamp, (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2002), 61-80.
  19. See Reingard Nethersole, “The Beginnings of the Concept (Goethe, Marx, Said – Readings from a Postcolonial Perspective,” in Handbook of Anglophone World Literatures, eds. Stefan Helgesson, Birgit Neumann, and Gabriele Rippl. (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2020), 15-30.
  20. Norton, Charles Eliot, ed. Correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle. London and New York: Macmillan and Co., 1887, cited as “Norton” with page numbers. This edition features both Goethe’s German letters to Carlyle and English translations of them. The correspondence began in 1824, when Carlyle sent him his translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. It ended with a note to Eckermann shortly after Goethe’s death in 1832.
  21. Goethe translated Rameau’s Nephew and gained acceptance for Diderot’s work even before it became even available in the original. See James Schmidt, “The Fool’s Truth: Diderot, Goethe, and Hegel,” Journal of the History of Ideas 57 (1996): 625-44.
  22. Said only briefly refers to Goethe in Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, which argues that “German writers oscillated between identifying their country with the rest of Europe against the Orient and allying themselves with selected parts of the East against the West” (11). Said’s work stirred new interest in Goethe’s Divan, including Katharina Mommsen’s extensive engagement and, among others, an Indian assessment by Anil Bhatti.
  23. Eric Ormsby. “Introduction,” in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, West-Eastern Divan: Complete, Annotated New Translation, including Goethe's ‘Notes and Essays’ & the Unpublished Poems (London: Gingko: 2019.)
  24. See Hamid Tafazoli and Richard T. Gray (Eds.). Außenraum – Mitraum –Innenraum. Heterotopien in Kultur und Gesellschaft. External Space – Co-Space –Internal Space. Heterotopias in Culture and Society Bielefeld: Aisthesis 2012. 8.
  25. See Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces,” in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach (New York: Routledge, 1997), 330-36.
  26. Ibid., 23.

Works Cited and Further Reading