Welt (World)

Goethe uses the word Welt (world) repeatedly in his writings, especially in his poetry, both singularly and in compounds, to establish a rich constellation of nature, divinity, and subjectivity, managed discursively at the intersection of economics, science, and literature. The most widely discussed example is Weltliteratur (world literature), but his understanding of Welt is equally evident in such compounds as Weltgeschichte (world history), Weltseele (world soul), Weltgeist (world spirit), Weltensumpf (world morass), Weltregiment (world regime), Weltwirrwesen (tumultuous world essence), Weltenschöpfer (world creator), Weltbürger (world citizen), Weltfrömmigkeit (world piety), and many more. I will focus in this lexicon entry on Goethe’s cosmological and phenomenological understandings of Welt, with the aim of showing how he enables the latter by his treatment of the former. Welt is such a widespread concept that it is not possible to do justice to all aspects of its use. As a result, the main textual references used in this entry are Faust, the Wilhelm Meister novels, and the poem “Auf dem See” (1775/89; On the Lake).

  1. Introduction
  2. Welt as a Boundary Concept in Modernity
  3. Cosmological Welt
  4. Phenomenological Welt
  5. Welt: A Political Concept
  6. Concluding Remark
  7. Notes
  8. Works Cited and Further Reading


When Goethe approaches the question of Welt,1 it is always in connection with questions of human self-development and self-representation. This makes the concept well-disposed to compounds such as Weltbürgertum (world citizenship), Weltliteratur (world literature), or Weltfrömmigkeit (world piety). The dialectical character of Goethe’s Welt-neologisms underscores the dialectical quality of Welt as a concept. Weltfrömmigkeit is a practice thinkable in terms of Welt- only because it is not Hausfrömmigkeit. However, we cannot understand what is meant by Hausfrömmigkeit without thinking about Weltfrömmigkeit (WA 1.24:378). In his Welt- compounds, Goethe typically thinks of Welt together with other concepts that situate thought within a larger social, political, and discursive context. Goethe uses Welt-compounds to reposition human action dialectically by asking scientific and literary discourse to assert their control over natural processes that appeared to be coming ever more under the sway of economics. The struggle to wrest natural processes from the language of economics and instrumentality, and so restore them to the sphere of scientific and literary language, intensified as Goethe grew older.2 This is the innovation Adorno noted when he spoke of Goethe’s “restitutives Wesen” (restitutive nature), which sought to recapture the pure word that had been defiled by commerce—not by insisting on its purity, but by returning it to the sphere of the poetic.3

One way Goethe did this was to retain the mystical or allegorical quality of description he had inherited from the Western European tradition, infusing all of nature—including human nature—with a Spinozist divinity or Leibnizian force. In this understanding, Welt becomes meaningful as the theater of God’s identity with nature, a theme to which Goethe held true throughout his life. But Goethe is not interested in looking past nature to glimpse divinity. He is interested in the relationship between the two concepts as they appear in representations of the world—not only in writing about the world, but in the world of appearances, i.e., in natural phenomena themselves.

The idea that the essence of nature is best unlocked in acts of representation defines Welt in another way. This unlocking rests on a certain understanding of human activity as world-seeking (receiving nature’s representations in sensory stimulus) and world-forming (giving nature form in scientific and aesthetic representation). To view human activity in this manner grants it a universal quality, which Goethe develops in opposition to the kind of narrowmindedness he associates with personal interest, egotism, and excessive preoccupation with one’s own subjectivity. He finds this at times in the sciences,4 at times in the arts,5 and at times in political economy.6 Against this way of being unlimited in a limited world, he offers the idea of various practices associated with Welt. Weltbürgertum (world citizenship) is a case in point, as is Weltliteratur. Here, in response to his Kant studies of the 1790s, as well as his dialogues with Schiller and pursuit of Urphänomene (archetypes, primal phenomena), a shared way of being in the world requires a collective consciousness of shared representations, or at least agreement on what amounts to shared representations. In this connection, we can also see him addressing a problem that Herder had already openly debated with Kant, namely, the latter’s reliance on universally shared representations, or what Robert Hanna has called “representational transcendentalism”: the idea that “all representational contents, and thereby the contents of cognitions, are strictly determined in their underlying structure by certain universal [. . .] a priori human mental capacities [. . .] that make experience itself possible.”7 Herder complicated this idea by linking a priori mental capacities to sensibility, and conceptualization to language.8 Goethe followed Herder in this, resulting in a troubled relationship to shared representations. This is evident, for example, in his lasting struggle with the opposition between symbol and allegory, but it is also addressed indirectly in his Welt- concepts, most notably those of Weltliteratur and Weltbürgertum.

Welt as a Boundary Concept in Modernity

Welt is a boundary concept in modernity. It serves to distinguish the sphere of action in which the human being is central from the order of creation in which humans are but a single element, verging on insignificance.  In the entry on Welt in Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslatables, Pascal David observes that this term allows a distinction between “the cosmological concept of the world, of which I am but a tiny part,” and the “phenomenological conception—that within which the human being deploys his being, according to a triple determination: cosmological, anthropological and ontological.”9 This is a concise description of the ground Goethe covers in his poetic and scientific works. Modernity’s struggle with the network of relationships humanity has established is encompassed in the question “what is (the) world?” In the wake of modernity’s economic and political changes, which Goethe witnessed in their infancy, it matters whether we answer this question along cosmological lines—pointing to the order of the cosmos in which humans play but a minor role—or whether we focus on the immediate significance of human action. Goethe may once have stated (in 1777) that heaven and the world are nothing beyond what we take them to be: “Was ist der Himmel, was ist die Welt / Als das, wofür eben einer sie hält?” (WA 1.4:164); but everything he writes points to a more problematic understanding of how the cosmological world relates to the phenomenological one.

Cosmological Welt

An initial survey of Goethe’s works gives the impression that he is much more interested in the phenomenology of Welt than in cosmological questions. However, this should not distract from the fact that, for Goethe, the sphere of action is often measured with awareness of the cosmological. Indeed, the sphere of action in the phenomenological world is brought into being by imagining and representing the cosmological world in an act that mirrors divine creation. Encounters with the minuteness and insignificance of human life mark turning points in many of Goethe’s works, where they appear as encounters with the sublime or with fate. We see this, for example, in Book 1, Chapter 10 of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821/29; Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years), where the theme of the inner world (“in seiner Natur [in his nature]”) and the outer world (“der sichtlichen Welt [the visible world]”) is preceded by Wilhelm’s encounter with the sublime. An astronomer shows him the wonders of the night sky, whereupon we read:

Ergriffen und erstaunt hielt er sich beide Augen zu. Das Ungeheure hört auf, erhaben zu sein, es überreicht unsre Fassungskraft, es droht, uns zu vernichten. “Was bin ich denn gegen das All?” sprach er zu seinem Geiste; “wie kann ich ihm gegenüber, wie kann ich in seiner Mitte stehen?” (WA 1.24:119)
Overwhelmed and amazed, he covered both eyes. The colossal ceases to be sublime; it exceeds our power to understand, it threatens to annihilate us. “What am I in the face of the universe?” he asked his spirit. “How can I stand before it, stand in its very midst?” (CW 10:177)

Wilhelm is facing what Kant calls the mathematical sublime in §25 of Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790; Critique of Judgement), a subjective response to something that is “nicht allein groß, sondern schlechthin-, absolut-, in aller Absicht- (über alle Vergleichung) groß, d.i. erhaben” (not only large, but absolutely [. . .], in every respect (beyond all comparison), i.e., sublime).10 These are phenomena of such magnitude that “wir für dasselbe keinen ihm angemessenen Maßstab außer ihm, sondern bloß in ihm zu suchen verstatten. Es ist eine Größe, die bloß sich selber gleich ist” (KAA 5:250; we do not permit a standard adequate for it to be sought outside it, but only within it. It is a magnitude that is equal only to itself.).11 An example of this is given by the fact that, even where we try to measure the world on a human scale, we soon encounter phenomena of an infinitely large scale.

This is Goethe’s modus operandi in his fiction. He lets his readers and audience witness the smallness of his protagonists; he lets them feel their nothingness in the cosmos. Then, he follows them as they produce and reproduce themselves as beings in this world, while at the same time producing a world for themselves in which action is possible. This is the process of Bildung, and in this process the being they become inflects their self-formation and the formation of the world. Goethe is taking a stance on Kant’s famous statement in the Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788; Critique of Practical Reason):

Zwei Dinge erfüllen das Gemüth mit immer neuer und zunehmender Bewunderung und Ehrfurcht, je öfter und anhaltender sich das Nachdenken damit beschäftigt: der bestirnte Himmel über mir und das moralische Gesetz in mir. Beide darf ich nicht als in Dunkelheiten verhüllt, oder im Überschwenglichen, außer meinem Gesichtskreise suchen und blos vermuthen; ich sehe sie vor mir und verknüpfe sie unmittelbar mit dem Bewußtsein meiner Existenz. (KAA 5:161–62)
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not need to search for them and merely conjecture them as though they were veiled in obscurity or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.12

Given the nothingness of human existence in the face of the external sublime, the subject is left with the unmistakeable urge to respond to an inner imperative. Wilhelm Meister and Faust both formulate this urge, the former using the well-known words:

Daß ich Dir’s mit einem Worte sage: mich selbst, ganz wie ich da bin, auszubilden, das war dunkel von Jugend auf mein Wunsch und meine Absicht. Noch hege ich eben diese Gesinnungen, nur daß mir die Mittel, die mir es möglich machen werden, etwas deutlicher sind. Ich habe mehr Welt gesehen, als Du glaubst, und sie besser benutzt, als Du denkst. (WA 1.22:149)
Let me put it quite succinctly: even as a youth I had the vague desire and intention to develop myself fully, myself as I am. I still have the same intention, but the means to fulfil it are now somewhat clearer. I have seen more of the world than you think, and made better use of it than you can imagine. (CW 9:174)

Similarly, Faust, having experienced his insignificance in the face of the Erdgeist, having almost taken his life, is called back to life by the Easter bells, at which point he speaks the following words:

Ein unbegreiflich holdes Sehnen
Trieb mich, durch Wald und Wiesen hinzugehn,
Und unter tausend heißen Tränen
Fühlt’ ich mir eine Welt entstehn. (FA 1.7:464.775–78)
An incomprehensible, sweet longing
would drive me out into woods and meadows,
and with a thousand burning tears
I’d feel a world arise within me. (trans. JKN)

In both cases, the connection between the moral imperative and the personal relationship to the world is clearly stated. The moral imperative establishes a phenomenological relationship to Welt that is not available in the face of the sublime. Faust is so very wrong when he tells the Erdgeist:

Der du die weite Welt umschweifst,
Geschäftiger Geist, wie nah fühl’ ich mich dir! (FA 1.7:38.510–11)
How close I feel to you, industrious spirit,
whose strands encompass all the world! (CW 2:16)

But if the alternative is the scholar’s alienation—as Wagner says, “Ach! wenn man so in sein Museum gebannt ist, Und sieht die Welt kaum einen Feiertag, Kaum durch ein Fernglas, nur von weiten [. . .]” (FA 1.7:38.530–34; Alas, confined like this in our museum, hardly seeing the world, only on holidays, barely through a spyglass, only from afar)—then a third way must be found. This third way is given by representation.

The Erdgeist’s cosmological dimension, when mediated by representations of Christ (in the Easter choruses), presents Faust with the possibility of action by reducing the cosmological to the phenomenological, where the citizens can say “Hier bin ich Mensch, hier darf ichs sein!” (FA 1.7:52.940; Here I am human. Here I’m allowed to be human.). A similar mediation is offered in epistemological terms in Faust’s famous recognition in the opening scene of Faust II, where Faust declares that he cannot look into the sun, but that life’s phenomena become intelligible in their “farbiger Abglanz” (FA 1.7:206.4727; CW 2:123; many-hued reflection).

Much can be learned about how Goethe places the individual in the world by considering the scant references to the external sublime, together with the constant negotiation of the internal moral law. As the subject begins to map a pathway into and through the world, the external sublime takes shape as a frame for action, while the internal sublime becomes part of the action itself. This applies with striking consistency throughout his works.

The cosmological dimension in Goethe also extends to the idea of community, giving rise to what might be called the world-sublime: an aesthetic project of imagining a community of humanity in an unstable world of unreliable individuals. The work of imagination relies on what Eckart Förster calls “anschauliches Denken” (observing, contemplative thought), leading to “einer Erfahrung höherer Art [. . .], nämlich dessen, was Goethe alternativ den Typus, den Begriff oder die Idee nennt, die im Organismus objektiv realisiert wird” (an experience of a higher kind, namely of that which Goethe alternatively calls the typus, the concept, or the idea, objectively realized in the organism).13 The appropriate expressions of this contemplative thought are language, art and music, and scientific experimentation. Where Welt assumes the status of the sublime, thought is called upon to give it form, imperfect and incomplete though this may be.

Finally, there is another sense in which Welt is given a cosmological dimension in Goethe’s prose, and this concerns the role of the narrator. The ironic tone assumed by Goethe’s narrator, particularly in the Wilhelm Meister novels and Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities), relativizes the knowledge available to the individual characters, and particularly to the protagonists, by creating a well-defined and limited sphere of action and knowledge. This limiting narratological gesture at the same time makes knowledge and action possible. In this way, the ironic tone points to a superior knowledge of Welt as a stage of action, and the narrative voice becomes a kind of symbol of infinite mind. Consider the narrator of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship). Time and again, at crucial moments in the narrative, the narrator speaks to the reader in terms that place both outside the narrative itself. The actions and thoughts of the characters are thereby encompassed within a higher knowledge that the narrator holds of the world. There is a world in which Wilhelm, consumed with woe and sorrow, reads Norberg’s letter to Marianne, and yet there is another world in which the narrator has knowledge of the immediate consequences, but is not prepared to share this knowledge:

Deswegen sollen unsre Leser nicht umständlich mit dem Jammer und der Not unsers verunglückten Freundes, in die er geriet, als er seine Hoffnungen und Wünsche auf eine so unerwartete Weise zerstört sah, unterhalten werden. Wir überspringen vielmehr einige Jahre und suchen ihn erst da wieder auf, wo wir ihn in einer Art von Tätigkeit und Genuß zu finden hoffen, wenn wir vorher nur kürzlich so viel, als zum Zusammenhang der Geschichte nötig ist, vorgetragen haben. (WA 1.21:117)
So we will not treat our readers to a detailed account of the woes and sorrows of our unfortunate friend when he saw his hopes and desires so unexpectedly shattered, but rather jump over a few years and join him again where we shall hope to find him more pleasurably occupied. But before that we must fill in with what is necessary for our story to make sense. (CW 9:41)

In allowing his narrators to address the reader in a register of higher knowledge than that available to his characters, Goethe is asking us to think of them as symbolizing what Spinoza calls infinite intelligence, infinite understanding, or infinite thought. The narrative symbolization of the infinite mind as a frame for individual consciousness is reminiscent of Leibniz’s philosophy, where consciousness only has access to a limited scope of cognition of “the immense variety of things in nature and the division of bodies to infinity.”14 Only an infinite intelligence (i.e., Spinoza’s God), or ultimate reason (i.e., Leibniz’s God) can survey the infinite variations in the world, and by necessity “ultimate reason lies outside the succession or series of this detail of contingencies, however infinite it may be.”15 Goethe’s irony points to a mind or a reason outside the sequence of plot and character, and is probably best described using Friedrich Schlegel’s (Leibnizian) language of endless potentiation. Schlegel writes: “Gott ist jedes schlechthin Ursprüngliche und Höchste, also das Individuum selbst in der höchsten Potenz. Aber sind nicht auch die Natur und die Welt Individuen?” (KFSA 1.2:261; God is everything that is purely originary and highest, that is the individual in its highest potentiation. But are nature and the world not also individuals?).

Goethe is adept in not allowing his readers very much more access to the infinite mind of his narrators than he allows his characters. This restricted access to a symbolized infinite is intended to preserve the infinite in the kind of relationship to the contingent that Schlegel hints at in his essay on Goethe’s Meister:

Die Art der Darstellung ist es, wodurch auch das Beschränkteste zugleich ein ganz eignes selbständiges Wesen für sich, und dennoch nur eine andre Seite, eine neue Veränderung der allgemeinen und unter allen Verwandlungen einigen menschlichen Natur, ein kleiner Teil der unendlichen Welt zu sein scheint.” (KFSA 1.2:127)
It is the mode of representation that makes even the most limited appear at the same time as completely self-contained, independent beings, while they nevertheless appear as just another aspect, a new modification of the general, and, with all the metamorphoses of their unique human nature, just a small part of the endless world.

Adorno grounds this sustained “Verhältnis zu diesem [Endlichen, Begrenzten]” (relationship to the finite) in the need to guard affect “vorm Zerfliessen in leeren kosmischen Enthusiasmus” (from evaporating into empty cosmic enthusiasm).16 In pursuing this aesthetic program, Goethe is outlining Welt as a showplace for human action, while at the same time defining the task of art.

This co-relationship between a symbolized, cosmological world and a bounded world of Anschauung and action is not confined to Goethe’s novels. We also find it, for example, in the formal organization of Faust. While the protagonist plays out his life phenomenologically between the “kleine” and the “große Welt” (the small and the great world), the play’s imaginary audience is given a privileged perspective that situates Faust’s world anthropologically and ontologically in the world of human history and geography, cosmologically in the drama of scientific speculation and in Christian and Greek mythology, and artistically in the space of the theater. Even if the viewer (or reader) might forget that this privileged perspective is enabled by the political institution of the theater (as Aurelie explains in Book 4 of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre), the play ends by forcing the question of how the anthropological, ontological, and cosmological worlds are embedded in the representational world. It does this by returning the viewer’s spatial location to the open-ended discourses in the tripartite introductory framing: (1) to the world of the theater; (2) to the cosmological world; and (3) to the historically and geographically determined world of author’s own voice. This return is indeterminate, so when the chorus mysticus speaks the closing words, the viewer must decide whether the space of iteration is the stage itself or one of the framing spaces marked by the Zueignung, the Vorspiel, or the Prolog. This means that the viewer is asked to perform a conjuring act that gives rise to an indeterminate world—indeterminate in the sense that it is uncertain which discourse is operative in the understanding of Welt at any one moment. This conjuring of a multi-discursive Welt in the viewer’s imagination is similar to the conjuring acts that are witnessed in the course of the play itself.

Phenomenological Welt

Having secured the concept of Welt as a cosmological frame for human life, Goethe uses this frame to enable a phenomenology of Welt. Goethe has repeatedly been described as a phenomenologist, and his affinity to the phenomenology of Husserl has been noted.17 As Eva-Maria Simms puts it:

Wie Husserl war auch Goethe auf der Suche nach einer qualitativen Wissenschaft, die allerdings eine andere Grundlage als Maß und Zahl haben müsste. Beide versuchten, einen Freiraum zu schaffen, in dem der menschliche Geist eine Vielzahl von Phänomenen erfassen kann, ohne sie in mathematische Beschreibungen zu überführen. Für Goethe bedeutete das, bei seinen Experimenten mit Naturphänomenen über den logischen Verstand hinaus einen bildhaften, intuitiven Verstand auszubilden.18
Like Husserl, Goethe also sought a qualititative science that would have a foundation other than measurement and numbers . Both attempted to create a free space in which the human mind could comprehend a multitude of phenomena without rendering them in mathematical description. For Goethe, this means using his experiments in natural science to develop an eidetic, intuitive understanding over and above logical understanding.

The loss of subjectivity in the mathematical sublime is not to be remedied by a mathematical stocktaking of nature, but through the apprehension of nature’s phenomena. As Karl Löwith observes, “wenn Goethe von der Natur spricht—im Vertrauen, daß sie auch durch ihn spricht—, so bedeutet sie ihm zugleich die Vernunft alles Lebendigen, so wie die Urphänomene schon selber eine Vernunft sind, welche alle Geschöpfe mehr oder minder durchdringt” (when Goethe speaks of nature, trusting that it also speaks through him, he means the reason behind everything that lives, just as the primary phenomena are themselves a kind of reason, more or less permeating all created things).19 Goethe uses the concept of Welt to establish a dialectical relationship between natural processes: subjective and objective processes, unifying and diversifying processes, systolic and diastolic processes, internal and external processes, mental and sensory processes, and many others. Central to this dialectic is the work Goethe asks of representation in negotiating conceptual opposites, and he understands scientific and literary representation as both partaking in this negotiation. By resisting the growing tendency to separate scientific and literary representation, and by undertaking his scientific investigations alongside and complementary to his literary ones, Goethe is heralding a central problem for representation in modernity.

For Goethe, art and science share a concern with the formal qualities of the world, with questions of morphology and formal development. Art is a realization of the potential in human nature, as Herder stated in 1795 when he asserted that “die Natur des Menschen ist Kunst. Alles, wozu eine Anlage in seinem Dasein ist, kann und muss mit der Zeit Kunst werden” (The nature of humans is art. In time, everything that exists as predispositions within their physical being can and must become art).20 But it is also a world-generating activity that removes the human being from the duality of a self standing apart from nature. Humanity is resituated within nature in the artistic impulse. The process by which this takes place is enacted in Goethe’s poem “Auf dem See” (On the Lake), written during and after an excursion on Lake Zurich in 1775 and offering insight into his phenomenology of Welt. In the opening lines of the poem, Welt is experienced as a source of nourishment:

Und frische Nahrung, neues Blut
Saug ich aus freier Welt (WA 1.1:78)
And sustenance fresh, and blood that’s new / I suck from the world around.

The dominant affect at the beginning of the poem is what Adorno calls the “Gefühle des Aufatmens im Freien” (the feeling of breathing freely in fresh air).21 Here the poet is within Nature, “as in the womb, he is on her breast, he is outside her but attached, he is surrounded by her but at a distance.”22 Welt is imagined as the set of relationships whereby the poet’s relationship to Nature is sensory—“aesthetic” in Baumgarten’s meaning. But it is more than that. The stark physicality of this is probably the most striking aspect of the poem. Goethe uses the poetically unusual verb saugen to describe the way in which the self draws nourishment from Nature’s breast. In the initial version of the poem, the pure physicality of the self’s bond with the world is even stronger:

Ich saug’ an meiner Nabelschnur
Nun Nahrung aus der Welt (WA 1.1:387)
I suck through my umbilical cord / nourishment from the world.

The term Nabelschnur is not found anywhere else in Goethe’s poetry, and only a couple of times in his morphological works. Here it introduces an almost irreconcilable tension between the passive receiving and active obtaining of nourishment. This tension will be resolved in the course of the poem by removing the active/passive, nature/self dualism. Nature begins to turn active in the second half of the first verse, but still in relation to the self. And the activity associated with the self is soon submerged, or rather, it would be more accurate to say that its quality changes.

Then, something striking happens. “Aug’, mein Aug’, was sinkst du nieder? / Goldne Träume, kommt ihr wieder?” (WA 1.1:78; Why gaze now downward, eye, my eye? / You golden dreams come once more by?). The self becomes a radical interiority, withdrawing from the phenomenal world and giving itself over to the internal world of dream. The eye is cast downward, and golden dreams predominate. Then, in a powerful assertive gesture, the dreams are banished, but with them the presence of self is also gone. “Weg, du Traum! so Gold du bist; / Hier auch Lieb’ und Leben ist” (WA 1.1:78; You may be golden, dreams, but flee! / Love and life are here with me). Its last flicker is one of love and life. The poetic voice has banished not only the introspective gaze, the dreams, but also the grammatical presence of the dreamer. It is almost as if we are witnessing an epiphany that is vaguely related to Goethe’s well-known comments in Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811–33; Poetry and Truth) on his reading of Spinoza, where he states that what he read from or into the Ethics was “eine Beruhigung meiner Leidenschaften, es schien sich mir eine große und freie Aussicht über die sinnliche und sittliche Welt aufzutun” (WA 1.28:288; a calming of my passions. A grand and free perspective on the sensory and ethical world appeared to open up before me).

This leaves the final verse to describe a nature from which the self has been removed, but in which the self persists as the poetic voice. What was a phenomenology of Welt, an exposition of sensory perception received or demanded by an active subject from the world all around, becomes an image of nature mirroring itself in the lake. This is precisely what has happened. The sucking action of the poet has drawn in nourishment that reveals itself as being radically non-nature, the interiority of the dream. But with the exhalation of the final verse—an exhalation whose wings beat all around the bay—subjectivity is retained as the poetic voice, mediating subject and object.

There are two things that need to be said about Welt in the opening lines. First, Welt occupies the position I have been describing: the sensually accessible face of nature which is also a deeply ethical face, as in the passage from Dichtung und Wahrheit cited above. Second, it is not free in the sense that it is unencumbered or even open to volition: it is free in the sense that it forms the immediate environment for the lyrical self, again, like the use of the word to describe the perspective on the world offered in Spinoza’s Ethics. In the first version, Welt is not qualified, but in the second one it is described as frei. The principal meaning Goethe is attaching to frei is what Grimms Wörterbuch lists as open, exposed, accessible (apertus, patens).23 This is what Welt has to offer phenomenologically: it is Nature’s opening and accessibility. Interestingly, when Goethe sent Herder a copy of the poem in 1784 or 1785, he wrote “eurer Welt” (WA 1.1:387; your world). In moving from Welt as unqualified, and hence more abstract, to Welt situated in the domain of an unspecified other to an open and accessible Welt, he is establishing a setting in which Nature, too, is open and accessible for the nourishment of the self.

What, then, is to be done within this open setting when it comes to establishing a relationship with nature? The poem begins by framing its answer in terms of what could be called—following Herder’s understanding of Leibniz—nature’s force. Nature’s force is what provides nourishment for self-realization, and, as such, it must be thought of as hold und gut, gracious and good. Its grace and goodness free the world for action, as illustrated in the motion of waves and the appearance of mountains. And as the poem enacts, the force of nature at work in the human sensibility and intellect is the force of Bildung, of form-giving, that will in the end produce this poem and allow the self to merge with nature in the poetic voice.

In the final verse, the world opens itself to aesthetic experience in a complex gesture that would seemingly eliminate the subject from the world: stars blink, soft mists drink the distance, the breezes touch the bay, and the ripening fruit reflects itself. This world, sufficient unto itself, apparently holding no trace of the subjective eye or intellect, is nonetheless presented in the aesthetic act. This, then, is the place of the eye and the intellect in the world. The eye draws in (sucks up) Nature’s force, resisting the gesture that would turn inward and refuse the sensual physicality of the world. And when it looks back onto Nature, it finds a world in which it may appear to have no place, but whose place is given by the formative act, the aesthetic act.

If we understand the phenomenological method in “Auf dem See” as experimental, as a mediation between object and subject (to use the title of Goethe’s 1793 essay),24 we can see that the representational framing of truth claims plays a central role in his literary and scientific work. During the 1790s, this alignment of science and art becomes increasingly important to Goethe. In 1798, he read Schelling’s Von der Weltseele (1798; On the World Soul), which had just appeared; although it is not certain when he composed the poem of the same name, it can be read as a direct response to Schelling’s book. Robert Richards claims that Goethe’s poem “signals a transformation in his attitude about the relationship between art and science.”25 Under the influence of Schelling’s System des transzendentalen Idealismus (1800; System of Transcendental Idealism), in which artistic production is understood as mirroring the genetic capacity of nature, Goethe increasingly saw the necessity of merging the two. In Schelling’s estimation, the artist’s judgement can lead to deeper insight into nature, hereby becoming a kind of hyper-science. In this way, Schelling offered Goethe a further possibility of incorporating his own understanding of Spinoza into his scientific and artistic endeavours.

Goethe’s phenomenological Welt relies on the senses, particularly vision, to position subjectivity in the world, and it relies on artistic form to establish a relationship that transcends the duality of subject and object. In this respect, as Rolf Tiedemann argues, Goethe joins Spinoza in seeking to overcome Descartes’s dualism and that of the nominalists who followed him.26 But Goethe’s quest moves in the opposite direction to Spinoza’s. The misconceptions Horst Lange identifies in Goethe’s scientific Spinozism have to do with the place of form in Goethe’s scientific method. Spinoza’s scientia intuitiva begins with the formal (mathematical) properties of divinity’s or nature’s essence, and moves from there to a knowledge of things.27

The concept of Welt allows Goethe to think about how the specificity of individual experience and individual development is implicated in transcendental processes, linking this concept to the idea of Bildung, with its long philosophical lineage from Aristotle to Leibniz and its scientific iteration in Goethe’s day in the works of Blumenbach, Haller and others. Welt also has a practical dimension in such everyday experiences as the informal dissemination of information, navigating the built world, assimilating global news, tending libraries, cultivating friendships, and so on. Part of the richness of Welt as a concept emerges from Goethe’s interest in how representation creates and preserves the transcendental dimension of everyday experience. Welt offers a common ground for experience. This is why, when discussing Welt, it matters whether we speak in the singular or the plural, whether we use the definite or indefinite article or simply omit it. Leibniz was explicit on this point when he stated that he intends the meaning of monde (world, Welt) to be “the whole succession and the whole agglomeration of all existent things, lest it be said that several worlds could have existed in different times and different places. For they must needs be reckoned all together as one world or, if you will, one Universe.”28

Goethe could not be satisfied with purchasing the unity of the cosmos at the price of human nature, and the phenomenology of Welt promised him a way of investigating both. Inevitably, perhaps, at a time when conceptualizations of the cosmos and the phenomenal world were under the sway of the church and the state, as Kant stated in the preface to the first edition of Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason), Welt also began to lean in the direction of the political.

Welt: A Political Concept

The politics of Welt align with the phenomenology of Welt where Schein (semblance, illusion, pretence) is at issue. When Faust asks Mephistopheles: “Wohin soll es nun gehn?” Mephistopheles answers: “Wohin es dir gefällt. / Wir sehn die kleine, dann die große Welt.” (FA 1.7:87.2051–52; CW 2.52; Faust: And now, where are we going? Mephistopheles: Where you please. / Let’s first see ordinary life, the grand monde later). The subsequent unfolding of events makes it clear that the kleine Welt, the world of ordinary life (as Stuart Atkins translates it), is the narrow world of bourgeois sensibilities, aspirations and morality, and, once Faust has done such gross damage to this world at the end of the first part of the tragedy, he moves into the grand monde, the world of high society. We know from the second part of Werther and Book 5 of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (as well as from numerous bürgerliche Trauerspiele, bourgeois tragedies, of the day) how the bourgeois individual looked upon the nobility with envy, resentment, and desire. The world of the nobility is one in which the politics of representation align themselves with the essence of human nature, or at least this is what Wilhelm Meister thinks, and what Faust seeks to exploit. Wilhelm confidently states that the nobleman “darf und soll scheinen; [der Bürger] soll nur sein, und was er scheinen will, ist lächerlich oder abgeschmackt.” (WA 1.22:151; CW 9:175; A nobleman can and must be someone who represents by his appearance, whereas the burgher simply is, and when he tries to put on an appearance, the effect is ludicrous or in bad taste.). In Faust II, the progress from the kleine Welt to the grosse Welt is determined by Faust’s relationship to Schein. Schein paves the path from the political impotence of the bourgeoisie to the feudal power of the emperor, then the independent commercial power of the colonizer. Aesthetically, this is prepared by Faust’s commitment to appearances in his opening monologue of Faust II. Epistemologically, it is prepared by Faust’s lasting (and increasingly hopeless) quest to reach beyond appearances and grasp essence. And politically, it is his increasing understanding that appearances are illusions with real political effect (as played out in Act 1). In each of these instances, appearance, Schein, defines the boundaries of his world. In a similar manner, the politics of Schein in Faust dramatize the spectator’s ability to bring worlds into effect and to understand them as illusory spaces within which action is possible. This gesture retains the political aspect of art, even while apparently displacing the political onto the aesthetic. After all, as Tiedmann points out, this displacement onto the artistic allowed art to assume the role of a liberating force for the emerging bourgeois consciousness.29

In the Wilhelm Meister novels, the concept of Welt becomes political in a similar manner. As Bakhtin observed, the human being as portrayed in Wilhelm Meister is not his “own private affair. He emerges along with the world and he reflects the historical emergence of the world itself.”30 In Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Goethe unfolds this process topologically by having Wilhelm move through a series of concentric circles, each of which delineates the context in which the previous, smaller circle produces illusion. The smallest of these is the childhood magic of the theater. The next is the relationship with Marianne. Then the engagement in Melina’s troupe. And so on. And at each stage, Goethe’s narrator drops subtle hints that the illusion to which Wilhelm previously succumbed, and which he has just overcome, is being perpetuated in a wider circle. This is the topology of Welt in Goethe’s novel. Part of Wilhelm’s learning process (and what will set him apart from Werther), is his gradual realization that Welt is like theater. Jarno tells him as much in Book 7, Chapter 3 of the Lehrjahre. After Wilhelm has lamented the immaturity of theater life (“Wie völlig diese Menschen mit sich selbst unbekannt sind, wie sie ihr Geschäft ohne Nachdenken treiben [. . .]” [WA I 23, 24; CW 9.265; How ignorant actors are of themselves, how utterly thoughtless they are in the conduct of their work]), Jarno observes that he has described “nicht das Theater, sondern die Welt” (WA 1.23:25; CW 9:266; the whole world, not just the theater.). The world may be like the theater, but it is also different. Action in both spheres involves similar levels of immaturity, of blindness to illusion, but in the realm of action, the consequences are different. And as soon as we realize that the Turmgesellschaft (Tower Society) is like a secret audience that has been watching Wilhelm’s performances, we begin to understand that part of maturity is deciding what sphere of meaning to choose as a context for action.

In Wilhelm Meister, the political enters the concept of Welt via the politics of representation in a very similar manner as in Faust. Welt becomes political where choice and will are directed toward interpretation as enabling action. All the most overtly political moments in Goethe’s writings are political in this sense. They demonstrate that truth cannot be spoken of in one discourse alone, nor can it be framed without political qualification, since political positions that rely on truth claims are unsettled by the representational medium of the claims.

Once we understand this politics of representation in Goethe, action itself becomes political and politics becomes existential. This can be seen in the way in which Goethe makes the world the scene of Faust to address the discrepancies between ownership of the world (in the widest sense) and subordination to the “verfluchte Hier” (FA 1.7:434.11233; CW 2:283; the accursed here). Faust’s utterance can be read as the titular character’s attempt to explore alternative ways of being in the world that would allow him to escape this binary of world ownership versus personal stagnation in space and time. Goethe does this in his increasing expansion of the historical and geographical frame of reference in the development of Faust II, but perhaps even more effectively, if more subtly, in framing the entire play within the Vorspiel auf dem Theater (Prelude on the Stage). The Vorspiel is structured on the theatrum mundi principle, which Goethe had taken from Shakespeare, and this is the level at which Goethe asks us to think about the play once it has ended.  In the structure of Faust, anything that can be shown to be true or claimed as truth about the world is already contextualized within another discourse that dramatizes the act of showing and claiming. This is Goethe’s understanding of world theater, where the act of living is shown as a constant negotiation with the representation of phenomena.31 Central to this negotiation is the development of discourses capable of distinguishing between the “farbiger Abglanz” (FA 1.7:206.4727; CW 2:123; many-hued reflection) that opens phenomena to human understanding, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the politics of deception that rely on manipulated appearances, which go under the heading of Schein. While Act I is probably the most explicit example, all of Faust II is devoted to the politics of Schein as it impacts human life in the world.

Concluding Remark

In today’s iteration, Goethe’s concept of Welt points to diverse phenomena within a unified world and addresses the question of how the global announces itself in local phenomena. Many passages in his fiction works point to his interest in this question. In addition, Goethe was interested in a problem that has re-emerged with force in recent decades: the reconciliation of scientific and poetic representation in the name of a more holistic understanding of nature, the human, and non-human life. Surely, in the Anthropocene, in the age of human-induced climate change, it is vitally important to hold onto Goethe’s vision of a non-instrumental association of science and literature, where scientific method and artistic production both draw on a phenomenology of Welt; where the poetic voice can still draw nourishment from freier Welt, and where experimentation allows a relationship with nature that mediates the subject and the object in ways that exceed utilitarianism, commerce and profit.

  1. The Goethe-Wörterbuch has not yet reached “W,” but it has identified almost 400 noun, adjective and adverb compounds with “Welt-.” Cf. Goethe-Wörterbuch, digital version in the Wörterbuchnetz of the Trier Center for Digital Humanities, Version 01/21 <https://www.woerterbuchnetz.de/GWB>, cited 28 April 2021.
  2. Michael Jaeger charts this process in Fausts Kolonie. Goethes kritische Phänomenologie der Moderne (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2004).
  3. Theodor W. Adorno, “Zur Schlußszene des Faust,” in Noten zur Literatur (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974), 130; “On the Final Scene of Faust,” in Notes to Literature, translated by Sherry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia UP, 2019), 124.
  4. See Goethe’s conversation with Friedrich Soret, December 30, 1823, WA (Anhang), 4:334–38.
  5. For Goethe’s critique of Romanticism’s unbounded subjectivism, see for example his conversation with Riemer, August 28, 1808, WA (Anhang), 2:216–18.
  6. For example, Saint-Simonism’s “unvermitteltes Streben ins Unbedingte in dieser bedingten Welt” (WA 42.2:235; unmediated striving for the limitless in this limited world).
  7. Robert Hanna, “Kant’s Theory of Judgment,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta.
  8. See, for example, Johann Gottfried Herder, Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache, in Werke, vol. 1, edited by Ulrich Gaier (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1985), 707. Herder would later formulate a pointed critique of Kant’s transcendental aesthetics in Eine Metakritik der Kritik der reinen Vernunft, in Werke, vol. 8, edited by Hans-Dietrich Irmscher (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1998).
  9. Pascal David, “Welt,” in Dictionary of Untranslatables. A Philosophical Lexicon, ed. Barbara Cassin, trans. Steven Rendell et. al. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014), 1217.
  10. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, translated by Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 105.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, translated by Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015), 129.
  13. Eckart Förster, “Die Bedeutung von §§76, 77 der Kritik der Urteilskraft für die Entwicklung der nachkantischen Philosophie,” Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 56.2 (2002), 186.
  14. Leibniz, Monadology, §36, translated by Lloyd Strickland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014), 31.
  15. Leibniz, Monadology, §37.
  16. Adorno, “Zur Schlußszene von Faust,” 133; “On the Final Scene of Faust,” 127.
  17. The affinity to Husserl was described by Fritz Heinemann, “Goethe’s Phenomenological Method,” Philosophy 9.33 (1934): 67–81. See also Gerhard Böhme, Goethes Faust als philosophischer Text (Zug: Die graue Edition, 2005), especially chapter 4. Michael Jaeger speaks of Goethe’s “Krisenphänomenologie,” Fausts Kolonie, 21.
  18. Eva-Maria Simms, “Goethe und die Phänomenologie. Weltanschauung, Methode und Naturphilosophie,” in Morphologie und Moderne. Goethes ‘anschauliches Denken’ in den Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften seit 1800, edited by Jonas Maatsch (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014), 181.
  19. Karl Löwith, Von Hegel zu Nietzsche. Der revolutionäre Bruch im Denken des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1969), 23; From Hegel to Nietzsche. The Revolution in 19th Century Thought, translated by David E. Green (New York: Columbia UP, 1964), 9.
  20. Johann Gottfried Herder, Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität, in Werke, vol. 7, edited by Hans-Dietrich Irmscher (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag 1991), 126.
  21. Adorno, “Zur Schlußszene von Faust,” 133; “On the Final Scene of Faust,” 127.
  22. Nicholas Boyle, Goethe. The Poet and the Age, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992), 205.
  23. See the entry “frei” in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, digital version in the Wörterbuchnetz of the Trier Center for Digital Humanities, Version 01/21, <https://www.woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB?lemid=F08309>, cited 27 September 2021.
  24. Cf. Goethe, “Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt,” WA 2.11:21–37.
  25. Robert J. Richards, “Nature is the Poetry of the Mind, or How Schelling Solved Goethe’s Kantian Problems,” in The Kantian Legacy in Nineteenth-Century Science, edited by Michael Friedman and Alfred Nordmann (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 39.
  26. Rolf Tiedemann, Abenteuer anschauender Verunft. Essay über die Philosophie Goethes (Munich: text + kritik, 2014), 37–39.
  27. Horst Lange, “Goethe and Spinoza: A Reconsideration,” Goethe Yearbook 18 (2011), 21–22.
  28. Leibniz, “Essays on the Justice of God and the Freedom of Man in the Origin of Evil,” in Theodicy. Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil, translated by E. M. Huggard (London: Routledge and Paul, 1951), 128.
  29. Tiedemann, Abenteuer anschauender Verunft, 32.
  30. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism (Toward a Historical Typology of the Novel),” in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, translated by Vern W. McGee and edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1986), 23.
  31. Jane K. Brown, Goethe’s Faust: The German Tragedy (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986), 18.

Works Cited and Further Reading

  • Adorno, Theodor W. “Zur Schlußszene von Faust.” In Noten zur Literatur, 129–38. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974 [1959].
  • ———. “On the Final Scene of Faust.” In Notes to Literature. Translated by Sherry Weber Nicholsen and edited by Rolf Tiedemann, 123–31. New York: Columbia UP, 2019.
  • Bakhtin, Mikhail M. “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism (Toward a Historical Typology of the Novel).” In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Translated by Vern W. McGee and edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, 10–59. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.
  • Böhme, Gerhard. Goethes Faust als philosophischer Text. Zug: Die graue Edition, 2005.
  • Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe. The Poet and the Age. Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.
  • Brown, Jane K. Goethe’s Faust: The German Tragedy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.
  • David, Pascal. “Welt.” In Dictionary of Untranslatables. A Philosophical Lexicon. Edited by Barbara Cassin. Translated by Steven Rendell et. al. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014.
  • Förster, Eckart.“Die Bedeutung von §§ 76, 77 der Kritik der Urteilskraft für die Entwicklung der nachkantischen Philosophie.” Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 56. 2 (2002): 169–90.
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Goethes Werke (cited as WA). 143 vols. Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1887–1919.
  • ———. Collected Works (cited as CW). Edited by Victor Lange et. al. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983–95.
  • ———. mtliche Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche, eds. Hendrik Birus, Dieter Borchmeyer, Karl Eibl, et. al., 40 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1987–2013).
  • Goethe-Wörterbuch. Edited by Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, and Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1978–2020.
  • Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Deutsches Wörterbuch. Edited by the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften and the Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, 33 vols. Leipzig and Munich: S. Hirzel and Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1854-1972.
  • Hanna, Robert. “Kant’s Theory of Judgment.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta.
  • Heinemann, Fritz. “Goethe’s Phenomenological Method.” Philosophy 9.33 (1934): 67–81.
  • Herder, Johann Gottfried. Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache. In Werke. Vol. 1. Edited by Ulrich Gaier. Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1985 [1771].
  • ———. Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität. In Werke. Vol. 7. Edited by Hans-Dietrich Irmscher. Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1991 [1795].
  • ———. Eine Metakritik der Kritik der reinen Vernunft. In Werke. Vol. 8. Edited by Hans-Dietrich Irmscher. Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1998 [1800].
  • Jaeger, Michael. Fausts Kolonie. Goethes kritische Phänomenologie der Moderne. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2004.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Gesammelte Schriften (cited as KAA). Berlin: Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1902–.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Translated by Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015 [1788].
  • ———. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987 [1790].
  • Lange, Horst. “Goethe and Spinoza: A Reconsideration.” Goethe Yearbook 18 (2011): 11–34.
  • Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. Monadology. Translated by Lloyd Strickland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014 [1714].
  • Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. Theodicy. Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil. Translated by E. M. Huggard. London: Routledge and Paul, 1951 [1710].
  • Löwith, Karl. Von Hegel zu Nietzsche. Der revolutionäre Bruch im Denken des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1969
  • ———. From Hegel to Nietzsche. The Revolution in 19th Century Thought. Translated by David E. Green. New York: Columbia UP, 1964.
  • Richards, Robert J. “Nature is the Poetry of the Mind, or How Schelling Solved Goethe’s Kantian Problems.” In The Kantian Legacy in Nineteenth-Century Science. Edited by Michael Friedman and Alfred Nordmann, 27–50. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.
  • Schlegel, Friedrich. Kritische Friedrich Schlegel Ausgabe (cited as KFSA). Edited by Ernst Behler et. al. Paderborn: Schöningh, 1958–.
  • Simms, Eva-Maria. “Goethe und die Phänomenologie. Weltanschauung, Methode und Naturphilosophie.” In Morphologie und Moderne. Goethes ‘anschauliches Denken’ in den Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften seit 1800. Edited by Jonas Maatsch, 177–94. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014.
  • Tautz, Birgit. Translating the World. Toward a New History of German Literature Around 1800. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 2018.
  • Tiedemann, Rolf. Abenteuer anschauender Verunft. Essay über die Philosophie Goethes. Munich: text + kritik, 2014.