Irrlichtelieren (Will-o’-the-wisping-around)

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Jane K. Brown


The lexeme Irrlichtelieren (will-o’-the-wisping-around, i.e. thinking outside the box) is Goethe’s neologism for a heterodox line of thought that displaces traditional methods of philosophy and science. Although the term occurs only once, in the student scene of Faust, Part One (FA 1.7:83.1917), the shifting value of will-o’-the-wisps in Faust and other works corresponds to the theories of scientific method Goethe advanced in essays of the 1790s and especially to the methodology of his Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Color) of 1810. While in Goethe’s letters and in the devil’s language in Faust, will-o’-the-wisps betoken illusion, they develop in the course of Faust into symbols of the ineffable truth that Kantian metaphysics had effectively substituted for God. The ironic dialectic of the will-o’-the-wisps shapes Goethe’s views of pedagogy and scientific epistemology and his positions on the idealist subject/object dichotomy, on the relationships of nature and truth, on representation and knowledge, and on knowledge and community.

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Brown, J. “Irrlichtelieren (Will-o’-the-Wisping-Around)”. Goethe-Lexicon of Philosophical Concepts, Vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2021, doi:10.5195/glpc.2021.15.


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