Anschauung, Anschauen (Intuition)

Iris Hennigfeld

Since Plato’s metaphor of the light of knowledge used in the “Allegory of the Cave” from his dialogue Politeia, the concepts of Anschauen or Anschauung (intuition) and their corresponding lexical field, including the terms light, sun, and eye, represent key notions and much-debated issues in philosophical thinking. In his literary, scientific, and philosophical writings, Goethe does not articulate a systematic and explicit theory of these concepts; on the contrary, most of his remarks on the topic of “intuition” are aphoristic or tacitly integrated into his poetic and scientific works. One of his main contributions to the philosophical debates surrounding Anschauen and Anschauung is that he developed and integrated into his works different modes of a specifically creative and productive—as opposed to a merely receptive and sensory—form of Anschauen. This productive form of Anschauen, for which he also uses the terms “Phantasie” (phantasy), “Einbildungskraft” (imagination), “exakte sinnliche Phantasie” (exact sensory phantasy or imagination) or “anschauende Urteilskraft” (intuitive power of judgment) in various contexts, can serve as both a creative faculty in his poetry and a precise scientific or philosophical instrument of cognition. Within the context of the philosophical tradition, and apart from the heritage of Plato and Platonism, Goethe’s notion of Anschauen can be understood, on the one hand, in the context of classical German philosophy and its debates on “anschauender Verstand” (intuitive understanding) and “intellektuelle” or “intellektuale Anschauung” (intellectual intuition). On the other hand, it is also phenomenologically grounded and anticipates the main insights of Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) and the phenomenological movement in the 20th century, one of the most important of which is the so-called phenomenological Wesensschau (eidetic intuition).

  1. Introduction
  2. Goethe’s Notion of Anschauung in the Context of Platonism, Spinozism, and Phenomenology
  3. The Primacy of Anschauen and Anschauung and the Eyes of the Mind
  4. Anschauen and Denken: Goethe’s Notion of Anschauendes Denken
  5. The Method of Making Visible the Invisible in and through Anschauen
  6. Anschauung as Mediator between Experience and Idea
  7. Exact Sensory Imagination as a Productive Form of Anschauen
  8. Goethe’s Method of Anschauende Urteilskraft: Intuiting Nature as a Whole
  9. The Urphänomen at the Limit of Intuition
  10. Notes
  11. Related Entries in the GLPC
  12. Works Cited and Further Reading


Goethe’s notion of Anschauen plays a dominant role in his poetic, aesthetic, and scientific writings. The Goethe-Wörterbuch, for example, lists about 770 entries in total.1 Additionally, there are also implicit occurrences of this notion without any explicit usage of the term. Implicit usage is indicated by such terms as Betrachten (contemplating), Sehen (seeing), Anblicken (viewing, looking at), Staunen or Erstaunen (being astonished), to name just a few. In his morphological studies and in his research on optics and color theory, Goethe employs Anschauung and Anschauen as operative and methodological key concepts.2 Goethe’s use of the terms Anschauung and Anschauen bears various connotations from which three basic meanings can be mapped out. From a philosophical point of view, the lexeme can stand for: (1) a subjective faculty of intuition (Vermögen der Anschauung or Anschauungsvermögen); (2) a specific act of consciousness (both Anschauung and Anschauen); (3) the “content” of the act of Anschauung or Anschauen; the so-called object of intuition (angeschauter Gegenstand) or Anschauung. Unless specifically noted in the following entry, the term Anschauung implies all three meanings.

Regarding the experience of a subject or observer, there is a wide range of different modes, levels, and faculties of Anschauung, from sensual to intellectual. Regarding the lexical and semantic field, a variety of correlative terms are identifiable in Goethe’s writings: from sehen (seeing), wahrnehmen (perceiving), beobachten (observing), betrachten (beholding) or beschauen (contemplating) to more complex faculties and correlative concepts such as Einbildungskraft (power of imagination), “exakte sinnliche Phantasie” (exact sensorial fantasy), or “anschauende Urteilskraft” (intuitive power of judgment). The intuited objects or Anschauungen are constituted in different acts of Anschauen (intuiting), which also involve the acts of imagining and remembering, insofar as something is intuited in these acts.

Due to the importance of Anschauung, Goethe pays close attention to the acts of Wahrnehmen (perceiving), Beobachten (observing), and Beschreiben (describing) of the phenomenal world as critical first steps in his natural science before conceptualizing what he has seen. For Goethe, sensory perception and observation can be understood as basic and primordial modes of the faculty of Anschauen. Goethe’s poem Vermächtnis (1829) reads as follows:

Den Sinnen hast du dann zu trauen;
Kein Falsches lassen sie dich schauen,
Wenn dein Verstand dich wach erhält.
Mit frischem Blick bemerke freudig,
Und wandle sicher wie geschmeidig
Durch Auen reich begabter Welt. (MA 18.1:36.19–24)
Then shall you trust your senses;
Nothing wrong they let you see,
When your mind keeps you alert.
With lively vision contemplate in joy,
Roaming with confidence and grace
Through pastures of a richly gifted world.

Therefore, he proposes­—with an allusion to Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781/87; Critique of Pure Reason)—a “Kritik der Sinne” (MA 17:805; critique of the senses). Such a “critique” (from Greek krinein; “to separate,” “to decide”) can precisely differentiate between, on the one hand, the “pure” senses and what their kind of sensory Anschauen can accomplish, and on the other, the conceptual or ideal element of Anschauen and cognition.

In a geological text entitled “Über den Granit” (1780; On Granite), Goethe suggests a variety of necessary activities in order to gain full intuition into a phenomenon: “betrachten,” “entdecken,” “untersuchen,” “erkundigen,” “sehen,” “sorgfältig durchzugehen,” “anzusehen,” “umzutun,” “bemerken,” “notieren,” “acht zu haben,” “merken,” “deutlich aus einander zu setzen,” “beobachten” (MA 2.2:483–84; to observe, to discover, to examine, to inquire, to see, to go through carefully, to look at, to look around, to notice, to note, to be attentive, to remember, to set clearly apart, to observe). These different modes of the act of Anschauen can correspond to a wide range of correlating objects that have been intuited.

In a letter to Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), after reading Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling’s (1775–1854) Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (1797; Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature), Goethe speaks of the “viele Stufen des Anschauens” (MA 8.1:489; many stages of intuition), which range from the naïve situational Anschauen related to the natural world or lifeworld to a form of Anschauen striven for by natural science that is not related to a particular subject. He adds, with reference to Schelling and to the transcendental idealists (and not without a sense of irony), that it should be made clear by philosophers “was man für die höchste [Stufe des Anschauens] hält” (MA 8.1:489; which level is to be held as the highest [level of intuition]).3 Goethe’s trust both in sensual and mental or spiritual Anschauung, in the intuitive appearance of the phenomena, and his striving to trace back all experience to the first and basic intuitive elements, especially in his research into nature, have both a methodological and epistemological function. In “Geschichte meines botanischen Studiums” (1817; History of my botanical studies), Goethe discusses the evidence for an “unmittelbare[s] Anschauen” (MA 12:23; immediate intuition) of plants in their relationship with their surrounding environment. His rejection of naïve assumptions about things, as well as any presuppositions, hypotheses, and scientific theories which are not based on immediate and originary intuition, leads him to the insight that the observer is guided by the negative principle to “suche nur nichts hinter den Phänomenen” (search for nothing beyond or behind the phenomena), which necessitates them to turn towards phenomena in such a manner that “sie selbst sind die Lehre” (MA 17:824; they themselves are the theory).4 In the process of his research, Goethe develops and elaborates his method of Anschauen in such a way that the “theory” does not transcend the phenomenological sphere but can, rather, be intuited within a certain nexus of phenomena. The task of the scientist, therefore, is to establish this order in a series of experiments. It is not because Goethe is attached to the sensual, nor because he is hostile towards any theory that he can proclaim that the “Bläue des Himmels offenbart uns das Grundgesetz der Chromatik” (MA 17:82; blue of the sky reveals to us the basic law of chromatics); rather, it is only because he assumes that mental or intellectual capacities can be increased.

Goethe’s Notion of Anschauung in the Context of Platonism, Spinozism, and Phenomenology

As Werner Beierwaltes has argued, the primacy of Anschauung in Goethe’s textual corpus can be understood in the light of Platonism and the Neoplatonic tradition.5 In philosophical traditions and discourses, especially in Platonism and Neoplatonism via Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,”6 the notion of Anschauung is closely connected to the eye, the light, and the sun, which together refer to the philosophical metaphor of the light of knowledge and truth. In the introduction to Zur Farbenlehre (1810; Theory of Colours), his main work on natural science, Goethe refers explicitly to an “old mystic,” commonly identified with the (Neo-)Platonist Plotinus, to emphasize a threefold homogeneity: 1. of the light of cognition and the divine light, 2. of thinking (Denken) or contemplating (Schauen, Betrachten) and Being (Sein), and 3. of the organ of perception and the perceived object or being (Seiendes). Thus, for Goethe, the inner and outer world meet in the eye. He writes: “[U]nd so bildet sich das Auge am Lichte fürs Licht, damit das innere Licht dem äußeren entgegentrete” (MA 10:20; The eye creates itself by the light, for the light, so that the inner light may come forth to meet the outer light). Goethe then continues with some poetic verses in a Neoplatonic spirit:

Wär’ nicht das Auge sonnenhaft,
Wie könnten wir das Licht erblicken?
Lebt’ nicht in uns des Gottes eigne Kraft,
Wie könnt’ uns Göttliches entzücken?
(MA 10:20)
Were the eye not sunlike,
How could we gaze upon the light?
If God’s own power was not within us,
How could the divine delight us?

More importantly, the notion of Anschauung in Goethe’s thinking can be traced back to Baruch de Spinoza’s (1632–77) “third kind of knowledge,”7 or a scientia intuitiva, which Spinoza presents in Part Two of his work Ethics: Demonstrated in Geometric Order (1677).8 Goethe himself, in various contexts, refers explicitly to this “third kind of knowledge” proposed by the Dutch philosopher, of whom he professed to be the “entschiedensten Verehrer” (MA 16:668; most dedicated admirer).9 Spinoza names three different kinds of knowledge: 1. opinion or imagination (opinio, imaginatio); 2. rational knowledge (ratio); and 3. intuitive knowledge (scientia intuitiva). The latter, for him, represents the highest form of knowledge.10 According to Spinoza, immediate, intuitive, non-discursive understanding is able to grasp the essence or nature of God and the world.11 Regarding questions related to the so-called metaphysical realm, Goethe follows Spinoza’s deus sive natura and holds onto the organ of vision. For him, a divine order is not to be found in a transcendent realm and ‘beyond’ or ‘behind’ the plethora of appearances, but immanently within the world, i.e., within nature. Goethe’s epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther) is a prominent example of his Spinozist concept of nature. Werther, the main character of the novel, experiences nature as the “Gegenwart des Allmächtigen” (MA 2.2:352; presence of the Almighty). In contemplation of nature, a longing for the divine is awakened and, conversely, this yearning leads Werther time and again to the contemplation of nature. He tells the recipient of his letters, how, when remembering his childhood, he observed the flowing water and lost himself in the “Anschauen einer unsichtbaren Ferne” (MA 2.2:415; contemplation of an invisible yonder). Like Werther, moreover, Goethe himself strives to recognize how divine lawfulness and connection reveal themselves in the manifold formations and transformations of individual things. The primary means for this are exact observations and intuitions, followed by conceptualization. In May, 1786 Goethe writes to Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819): “Wenn du sagst man könne an Gott nur glauben [. . .] so sage ich dir, ich halte viel aufs schauen” (When you say man can only believe in God, I say to you that I hold much with seeing); then he explicitly refers to Spinoza’s scientia intuitiva, when he intends “mein ganzes Leben der Betrachtung der Dinge zu widmen die ich reichen und in deren essentia formali ich mir eine adäquate Idee zu bilden hoffen kann” (to dedicate my whole life to the contemplation of things and of what I can reach and in whose formal essences I hope to form an adequate idea).12

Goethe’s notion of Anschauen as a faculty of cognition and Anschauung as its correlative object can also be contextualized in relation both to Kant’s concept of an intuitive understanding (anschauender Verstand), as developed in the First Critique,13 though rejected by Kant for human beings; as well as to the notion of intellectual intuition (intellektuelle Anschauung) as it was developed in post-Kantian German Idealism.14 Goethe neither conceives of nature as a product of self-intuition, nor does he take a transcendental approach according to which the real of nature is derived from the ideal. On the contrary, intuiting the idea in nature first requires observations and experiments. Still, he shares with the post-Kantian Idealists, despite their crucial methodological and epistemological differences, the conviction that the human mind can gain a non-sensory form of Anschauung in and through which the ideal in nature is intellectually experienced.

Finally, with his notion of an intellectual (not only sensual) form of Anschauen or Anschauung, Goethe can also be viewed as a forerunner of the phenomenological movement in the 20th and 21st centuries that was founded by the German-Austrian philosopher and mathematician Edmund Husserl.15 Goethe’s scientific and poetic writings illustrate that his method of encountering the world, his way of perceiving, experiencing and reflecting are grounded in and guided by what the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl called the “Prinzip aller Prinzipien” (principle of all principles) of all cognition, i.e., “originär gebende Anschauung” (pure and original intuition).16 With his method of Anschauen, comparing (Vergleichen) and idealizing (Idealisieren, Herausschauen der Idee) in the field of morphology, Goethe anticipated Husserl’s key insights into a non-sensual intuition called “kategoriale Anschauung” (categorial intuition) and, later, “Wesensanschauung” or “Wesensschau” (eidetic intuition).17

The Primacy of Anschauen and Anschauung and the Eyes of the Mind

Goethe’s approach to the world is characterized by a predominance of the visual sense and the faculty of seeing (sehen) and looking (schauen) above all other senses: “Das Auge war vor allen anderen das Organ, womit ich die Welt faßte” (MA 16:246; The eye was the most important organ with which I grasped the world), he writes in the sixth book of his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811–33; Poetry and Truth). Goethe’s primacy of visual cognition, i.e., of Anschauen, can be understood in its privative meaning, namely as abstaining and refraining from any metaphysical, nominalistic, and abstract speculation. To adhere to Anschauung involves the strict exclusion or suspension of all claims or assertions that cannot be fulfilled in an act of Anschauen and its specific kind of evidence. For Goethe, everything that could become the Gegenstand (object) of both natural research and poetry was inextricably connected to the faculties of Wahrnehmen (perceiving), Sehen (seeing), Schauen (looking), and Anschauen (intuiting)—the latter understood in the broadest sense, encompassing both the sensory and spiritual eye. He could present his discovery of the intermaxillary bone in man with such conviction and against academic orthodoxy because in “natürlichen Dingen” (natural things) he fully trusted in the “Augenschein” (MA 2.2:530; visual appearance).18 Goethe’s journey to Italy (1786–88) and his Anschauungen of manifold phenomena of nature and the arts can be regarded as important examples of his personal “revolution” of seeing and his aspiration to see all things with his own eyes. In a letter to Karl Ludvig von Knebel (1744–1834) Goethe writes from Italy: “Manches was ich bey uns nur vermuthete und mit dem Mikroscop suchte, seh ich hier mit blosen Augen als eine zweifellose Gewißheit” (Some of the things that I only assumed and searched for with the microscope, I see here with my naked eye as an undoubted certainty).19 Seeing and looking in the broadest sense, which encompasses both sensory (physical) and spiritual (intellectual) perception, leads Goethe to a certain kind of clarity, or in philosophical terms, “evidence,”20 in the realm of organic nature. The insight that “[m]an muß nur sehen, wenn man Augen hat und alles entwickelt sich” (MA 3.1:114; [y]ou only need to see when you have eyes, and everything develops) can be read as an anticipation of his later methodological and epistemological claim that all true knowledge must be founded in Anschauungen. In the field of natural science, Anschauungen escape the danger of both empirical inductionism and philosophical deductionism. Regarding the latter, Goethe declares in a letter to Friedich Schiller: “Ich wenigstens finde mein Heil nur in der Anschauung, die in der Mitte steht” (MA 8.1:588–89; I at least find my salvation only in intuition which stands in the middle), i.e., in the middle between deductivism of a philosophy of nature (leading “from above”) and inductivism of a science of nature (leading “up from below”).21 Goethe’s own experience of intuiting things was supposed to be the touchstone for what he already knew of or what he had read about the things in question. Thus, Goethe reported to Knebel that he undertook the journey to Italy “nicht um etwas Neues zu entdecken, sondern um das Entdeckte nach meiner Art anzusehen” (not to discover something new, but to look at what I had discovered in my own way).22 In his natural scientific studies, he claims that it is primarily the “Gesichtssinne” (sense of sight) which has the final word, and which is the ultimate standard, because it is “gerade derjenige Sinn [. . .] durch welchen ich die Außenwelt am vorzüglichsten ergreife.” (MA 12:347; the sense of sight [is] precisely that sense [. . .] through which I grasp the external world most excellently).

As an analogy to the physiological eye and to sensual intuition, Goethe also introduced the term “Augen des Geistes” (MA 12:140; mind’s eyes or eyes of the spirit), which represents a key concept in his epistemology and ontology. In one of his morphological essays he writes, “Wir lernen mit Augen des Geistes sehen, ohne die wir wie überall, so besonders auch in der Naturforschung, blind umher tasten” (MA 12:140; We learn to see with the eyes of the mind, without which we stumble around blindly, especially when researching into nature). Elsewhere, he claims that the “Augen des Leibes” (physical eyes) and the “Geistes-Augen” (MA 12:85; spiritual eyes) must continuously work together.23 The phrase “Augen des Geistes” is a metaphorical expression for an intuitive organ of cognition, which can be understood as the specific capability for an intellectual—as opposed to sensory—form of intuition, and which is analogous to Friedrich Schelling’s and Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s ideas of intellectual intuition.24 Goethe’s notion of the “Augen des Geistes” as an intellectual form of Anschauung stands in sharp contrast to any kind of ontological or epistemological dualism between nature or matter and spirit, between the senses and the mind as it is represented by the tradition of rationalism (René Descartes, 1596–1650; Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 1646–1716), or empiricism (John Locke, 1632–1704; David Hume, 1711–76). Goethe also differs from Kant’s epistemological dualism and apriorism in that, for Kant, Anschauen is strictly conceived as sensual, not intellectual. Unlike Goethe, Kant states that “Anschauung [kann] niemals anders als sinnlich sein” (intuition can never be other than sensual), whereas reason (Verstand) is “das Vermögen, den Gegenstand sinnlicher Anschauung zu denken” (a faculty of thinking the object of sensuous intuition).25

Instead of fearing “lebendiges Anschauen” (living seeing), Goethe instead lays claim to “aufzuschließen” (open up) “einen höhern” (a higher) sense as well as a “gemeinen Sinn” (MA 17:925; common sense). The terms “höher[er]” and “gemeine[r] Sinn” do not point to a specific single sense, but to the quality of these senses. In this case, a “higher” sense would comprise several “higher” and “common” senses such as physiological and spiritual Sehen or Schauen, or physiological and spiritual hearing (Hören). A “higher sense” may also be interpreted, in philosophical terms, as a specific sense for self-perception or self-awareness, accompanying external perception. The latter is indicated by Goethe’s reference to an “inneren Sinn” (MA 4.2:188; inner sense).

Anschauen and Denken: Goethe’s Notion of Anschauendes Denken

For Goethe, the faculty of Anschauen is not restricted to perceiving sensory objects, i.e., phaenomena. A widened notion of Anschauen can, according to Goethe, also refer to ideal objects, i.e., noumena. By means of a certain productive—as opposed to receptive—mode of Anschauen, the invisible, “tiefer liegenden einfachern Kräfte[n] der Natur” (MA 4.2:332; the deeper, underlying, basic forces of nature) can be made visible. Goethe’s saying that “alles Faktische schon Theorie ist” (MA17:824; all facts are theory) suggests that there is a certain (Neoplatonic) identification between Betrachten (contemplating), Anschauen, and Schaffen (creating or producing) in nature, according to which each real being in the sensuous world (“alles Faktische”) is the result of an active, productive form of Anschauen or contemplation. For this productive form of Anschauen, Goethe uses the term “Theorie” (theory)—not in the modern sense, but in the ancient Greek sense of “theoria” or “theorein”: the act of observing or examining, contemplating the truth. For these productive faculties of Anschauen, Goethe also coined the terms “exakte sinnliche Phantasie” (MA 12:356; exact sensorial fantasy) and “anschauende Urteilskraft” (MA 12:98–99; intuitive power of judgment).

One of Goethe’s most important contributions to the debates of his time was his overcoming of the dualism between Objekt (object) and Subjekt (subject), as established mainly by René Descartes and its distinction between (objective) res extensa and (subjective) res cogitans. To this end, Goethe is said to have uttered in a conversation, “Wo Objekt und Subjekt sich berühren, da ist Leben” (Where object and subject touch, there is life; emphasis mine).26 He provides a detailed epistemological and scientific foundation for this view in his essay “Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt” (1793; The experiment as mediator between subject and object; MA 4.2:321–32; also MA 12:684–93). In the experiment, the observer’s faculty of Anschauen is active (Goethe employs the terms “betrachten” [to contemplate], “Betrachtungen” [contemplations], “Beobachtungen” [observations], and “beobachten” [to observe]; MA 4.2:322, 324): it focuses on both external “Erfahrung” (experience) and internal “Seelenkräften” (MA 4.2:323; powers of the soul), and thereby links them in the observer’s mind. In this respect he fundamentally differs not only from Descartes and the Cartesian tradition, but also from Kant. One of Goethe’s key philosophical discoveries was his overcoming of the epistemological dualism between Anschauung, on the one hand, and Begriff (concept), on the other hand, as postulated by Kant. According to Kant, “unabhängig von der Sinnlichkeit” (independent of sensibility) we become “keiner Anschauung teilhaftig” (unable to partake of any intuition).27 Consequently, the understanding for Kant is not a faculty of intuition but of cognition.28

For Goethe, by contrast, Anschauen and Denken or Begreifen are not juxtaposed in a dualistic manner. Rather, he conceives of Anschauen in such a way that it is also a Denken, and of Denken, that it is a form of Anschauen. He suggests bridging the abyss between Anschauen and Denken or Anschauung and Begriff with his notions of a “höchsten anschauenden Begriff” (MA 15:427; highest intuitive concept), of “lebendige Begriffe” (MA 15:454; living forms or living concepts)29 or the idea of anschauendes Denken (intuiting thinking), as it is presented in his essay “Bedeutende Fördernis durch ein einzelnes geistreiches Wort” (1823; Significant help given by a single ingenious word; MA 12:306–9). In this context, Goethe confirms the commentary of the physician and psychiatrist Johann Christian August Heinroth (1773–1843) on his “gegenständliches Denken” (objective thinking), “daß mein Anschauen selbst ein Denken, mein Denken ein Anschauen sei” (that my way of seeing is itself a process of thinking, my thinking a way of seeing), and that “die Elemente der Gegenstände, die Anschauungen in dasselbe eingehen” (MA 17:306; the elements of the objects, the intuitions enter into that thinking). Therefore, Goethe’s scientific and philosophical concepts are not formed and defined per genus proximum et differentiam specificam, but in and through Anschauen. Goethe’s thinking or understanding is hence “objective” (gegenständlich) because it does not abstract from the intuition of the phenomena only then in a second mental act to apply a priori concepts or categories (as functions of pure reason) to the sensory appearances of the object. Rather, Anschauungen guide thinking in such a way that concepts and theories are formed by the intuitive mind of the observer, who becomes aware of a certain order or lawfulness within the visual nexus or a series of the phenomena visible to the mind’s eye. A conceptualization which is not metaphysical nor speculative but strictly oriented toward the Anschauungen of the phenomena emerges, as Goethe suggests in the introduction to Zur Farbenlehre, from an “Ordnung” (MA 10:19; order)30 of the phenomena themselves, so that these concepts, as Goethe writes, carry “ihr Anschauen jederzeit mit sich” (MA 10:228; their Anschauen with them always). According to Goethe’s philosophical and scientific conceptualization, it is necessary that “man die Sprache, wodurch man die Einzelheiten eines gewissen Kreises bezeichnen will, aus dem Kreise selbst nähme” (MA 10:228; one takes the language by which one wants to designate the details of a certain circle from the circle itself). By so doing, the concepts themselves can remain anschauend (intuitive).

Put simply, in any form of Platonism—as well as in Kant’s philosophy—judgment and cognition are based on an epistemological and ontological dichotomy consisting of discursive thinking, on the one hand, and sensual perception of the object on the other hand. According to this dualism, the notion of intuitive thinking (anschauendes Denken) would be contradictory and paradoxical, since thinking, according to a dualistic epistemology, is based on concepts and categories, not on Anschauung. In opposition to this, Goethe’s anschauendes Denken can be understood as a formative and generating principle within thinking itself which particularly constitutes objects of non-sensory intuition.

Goethe’s notion of anschauendes Denken must be distinguished from exemplifying thinking (veranschaulichendes Denken), which operates with images and illustrates a concept by means of a representation (bildliche Vorstellung). In contrast, anschauendes Denken can be understood as a way of thinking which is itself an Anschauen. The faculty of Anschauung, as Goethe understands it, adds (phenomenologically speaking) something new to both the intending act and the intended object. The “Fülle”31 (fullness, abundance) of the experience in which the object of Anschauung is given is new. This stage is, according to Goethe, “derjenige Punkt, wo der menschliche Geist [. . .] sich mit ihnen [den Gegenständen] [. . .] auf eine rationelle Weise gleichsam amalgamieren kann” (MA 6.2:821; the point where the human mind [. . .] in rational terms, as it were, can amalgamate with its objects).

The Method of Making Visible the Invisible in and through Anschauen

Goethe developed the faculties of Anschauung and Anschauen in such a way that they could function as a specific method for mentally visualizing something invisible to the senses. With a cognitive organ called the “eye of the mind,” the invisible (invisible for the physiological senses and for sensory perception) could in some ways be made “visible,” and something absent and without any sensual appearance can be “seen” or intuited. As an analogy to the physiological senses, which are directed to the individual visible phenomenon, there is, according to Goethe, an invisible or unknown quality of lawfulness (Gesetzlichkeit) of nature. In philosophical terms, this lawfulness manifested in natural phenomena can be identified with their idea, their eidos (in Platonic terminology) or essence (Wesen). This non-sensory dimension in nature, as Goethe tells us in the preface to his Farbenlehre, can be made visible “zu andern Sinnen, zu bekannten, verkannten, unbekannten Sinnen” (MA 10:9; to other senses—to known, misunderstood, and unknown senses).  These “other senses” are not directed at individual sensory objects (einzelne sinnliche Gegenstände) but to general, ideal objectivities (allgemeine, ideale Gegenständlichkeiten) of Anschauung, as represented by concepts or ideas. They are partly unknown because they need to be trained and developed: “Diese Steigerung des geistigen Vermögens aber gehört einer hochgebildeten Zeit an” (MA17:823; but this enhancement of mental faculties, however, belongs to a highly educated time).

In Goethe’s morphological research into comparative anatomy (vergleichende Anatomie), the essential methodological features are “Anschauen” (seeing or intuiting) and “Vergleichen” (MA 2.2:541; comparing), both of which allowed him to discover something as seemingly invisible as the intermaxillary bone in humans. In his essay “Dem Menschen wie den Tieren ist ein Zwischenknochen der obern Kinnlade zuzuschreiben” (1784; An intermaxillary bone of the upper jaw is ascribed to man as well as to animals; MA 2.2:530–45),32 his main methodological principle is evident in the way that each step of research, from sensory intuition to an intellectual insight into the lawfulness of nature, has to be guided by intuition (anschauungsgeleitet). Taking a detailed approach, he compares the intermaxillary bone of different animal species and humans with each other and first describes their differences. This step corresponds to the act of comparing (Vergleichen) within a discursive process of conceptualization: “Er [der Zwischenkieferknochen] ist bei verschiedenen Tieren von sehr verschiedener Gestalt und verändert [. . .] sehr merklich seine Bildung” (MA 2.2:531; MA 2.2;546; It [the intermaxillary bone] is of very different shape in different animals and very noticeably changes its formation). The goal here is to distinguish identical elements from those which appear different. The connecting element can be identified with a certain lawfulness within the appearances or with their inherent idea, which is, as Goethe writes in his osteological notes from 1795, “nicht leicht zu erkennen” (MA 12:139; not easy to recognize). This method of Herausschauen—of perceiving the invisible within the visible—requires precise and attentive perception. Skull bones that appear separate can thereby be recognized as originally and essentially belonging together; conversely, bones that appear unified can be recognized as originally separate. Regarding this method, Goethe writes: “Wir erhalten dadurch den großen Vorteil daß wir die Teile auch alsdann noch erkennen, wenn sie uns selbst keine sichtbaren Zeichen ihrer Absonderungen mehr geben” (MA 12:139–40; We thus obtain the great advantage of being able to recognize the parts, even when they themselves no longer give us visible signs of their differentiations).

Goethe’s morphological method of “Anschauen” and “Vergleichen” aims at intuiting and recognizing something identical within a variety of phenomena which are different in their outer sensual appearance. In the field of anatomy, the final goal of “Anschauen” and “Vergleichen” is to grasp what all animals have in common, the general and the whole, which gives meaning to each part of an organism and unifies its parts. That which is common to all animals, the general and whole, from which all parts of the organism become comprehensible and receive their meaning, their significance, is invisible to the physical eye. Goethe understands this generalization not as an abstract concept, but as an Anschauung or mental image for which he also uses the term “Typus” (MA 12:130–31; type). The “Ausarbeitung jenes Typus” (MA 12:139; elaboration of that type) leads us to recognize, as we read in the introduction to “Vergleichende Anatomie” (1795; Comparative Anatomy), “daß uns das ganze Tierreich unter einem einzigen großen Bilde erscheint” (MA 12:139; that the entire animal kingdom appears to us under one grand image). Goethe differentiates his method of originary Anschauen from the process of Veranschaulichung (representation, visualization) in discursive thinking. For Goethe, the final goal of research is not an abstract concept, but a general, non-sensory Anschauung. In the context of anatomy, he calls this general Anschauung (Anschauung eines Allgemeinen) or Anschauung of a species a “grand image” of the animal kingdom, in contrast to a mental representation (Vorstellung) of an individual animal. On the other hand, comparing, reflecting, and abstracting are constitutive moments in discursive thinking. The third step of any judgment consists of generating a concept which abstracts from the individual concept. This abstract concept can subsequently be exemplified (veranschaulicht) by a mental representation.

This method of making visible the invisible idea in and through different acts of Anschauen led Goethe not only to the discovery of the Typus (type) in comparative anatomy, but also to the discovery of the Urpflanze (primal plant), to the doctrine of metamorphosis (Metamorphose) in the field of botany, and to the notion of the reines Phänomen (pure phenomenon) and Urphänomen (primordial phenomenon) in his works on optics. In the field of botany, Goethe called the “grand image” that hints at or symbolizes the whole the Urpflanze, and in the field of optics, the Urphänomen. Although Goethe’s methodological approach in plant morphology and anatomy, on the one hand, and in the field of optics, on the other hand, is characterized by certain differences, there is a common goal: to intuit the essential and unifying idea of the respective phenomena that arise, i.e., to intuit what makes a plant a plant, an animal an animal, or what brings forth the appearance of manifold chromatic phenomena. According to Goethe, the “Urpflanze” is a kind of “Modell” (model) or “Schlüssel” (MA 15:394; key) with which all kinds of actual and potential individual plants could be mentally developed. Thus, once the things have been grasped in their essence or idea, every Anschauung of the individual can be transformed into an intuition of the essence or idea and, vice versa, from the intuited idea, the manifold phenomena which are unified by this idea can be developed.

Goethe unfolds and deepens his method of a non-sensory Anschauung in and through his studies on plant metamorphosis. Parallel to his anatomical and botanical studies, he searched for the “Grundgesetze der Bildung” (basic laws of formation).33 While observing and experiencing an object, the mind must not only focus on what is separate, but also first recognize the relation between the whole and its parts, and then develop the parts from the whole. This intellectual procedure is the precondition for grasping nature as “wirkend und lebendig” (MA 12:88; creating and living), the phenomenon of nature (the object) as a whole and in its essence (Wesen): “Wenn wir einen Gegenstand in allen seinen Teilen übersehen, recht fassen und ihn im Geiste wieder hervorbringen können; so dürfen wir sagen, daß wir ihn im eigentlichen und im höheren Sinne anschauen” (MA 6.2:834; Whenever we gain insight into an object in all of its parts, grasp it well and are able to reproduce it in our mind: then we may say that we intuit it in the actual and in the higher sense). Thus, if the scientist is able to “reproduce” the object in the “mind,” he or she may have an Anschauung of its essence. At this point, the ordinary experience of sensory perception comes to an end and the “Anschauen eines Werdenden” (MA 4.2:191; intuition of something coming into being) begins. This kind of Anschauen, Goethe explains, then transforms into an “Idee,” which “zuletzt ausgeprochen werden muss” (MA 4.2:191; idea [. . .] which finally must be expressed). Since this idea corresponds to the highest form of Anschauen in the field of natural research it cannot further be reduced to other causes or principles. Thus, it is sufficient, even required, merely to ‘express’ it to avoid its abstraction or reduction.

Anschauung as Mediator between Experience and Idea

Goethe’s concept of Anschauung includes both Empirie (the empirical) and Idee (the ideal). In parallel, the act of Anschauen is both empirical and eidetic, i.e., ideal. Guided from the very beginning by the (still unarticulated) idea that there is a unity or non-sensory connection between all appearances, he starts with sensory Anschauen of different phenomena within one ontological region. However, the observer or researcher is not bound to past real and sensory perceptions and sensory Anschauungen, but instead—once he or she gains an intuition of the idea—can also mentally create or, in Goethe’s terms, “erfinden” (invent) different possible variations of a plant “ins Unendliche” (MA 15:394; into the infinite) in a future which can possibly become real. During this process, which leads Goethe to the idea of an “Urpflanze,” the genesis and “Folge” (MA 12:267; sequence) of variations must be visualized and beheld as a whole. If, after some practice, this procedure is successful, a mental image or eidetic form of Anschauung can appear which surpasses and transforms the single mental representation (Vorstellung) of each variation into an intuition of the essence which connects all individual representations.

Scholarly research has demonstrated essential parallels between Goethe’s thought and phenomenological philosophy as developed by Edmund Husserl.34 Specifically, Goethe’s method of intuiting the idea or lawfulness of a living organism, the process of idealization, has much in common with Husserl’s phenomenological method of Wesensschau (eidetic reduction). In this method, the researcher proceeds from Anschauung to Anschauung; therefore, the result, the insight into the essence or idea, is not mediated by an abstract theory, but by a full and fulfilled intuition which, according to Goethe, “zur eigentlichen Theorie wird” (MA 17:823; becomes the actual theory). Elsewhere, Goethe also calls this immediate insight into the internal and essential connection within a certain region of phenomena an aperçu (see MA 12:267).

For a mind trained in Kant’s criticism, the Anschauung of a general object or of an idea would be both a logical and ontological contradiction. In his retrospective narrative “Glückliches Ereignis” (1817; Fortunate Occurrence; MA 12.86–90) about his encounter with Friedrich Schiller in 1794, Goethe was convinced that he “sehe” (could see) the Urpflanze or “symbolische Pflanze” (symbolic plant)—its idea—“mit Augen” (MA 12:88; with his eyes). For Schiller, by contrast, the symbolic plant was “keine Erfahrung” (not an experience), but “eine Idee” (MA 12:88f; an idea). Since for Goethe the idea is not merely subjective, but an objective principle “within,” rather than “beyond,” the things themselves, he was at that time convinced that he was able to “see” this idea. To see ideas and to have an Anschauung of them must provoke every form of epistemological dualism (between sensory Anschauen and intellectual Begreifen or conceptualization). In contrast, from a phenomenological standpoint, the “Wesensschauung” or “Wesensanschauung” (eidetic intuition)35 and the “Ideenanschauung” (Anschauung of ideas)36 are regarded as specific modes of consciousness and faculties of reason.

The continuity of form in all transformations appears only to the spiritual, and not to the sensory, eye. To the latter, the transformation appears as discontinuous. Only in the Anschauung of the essence, and not in an abstract concept, can such discontinuity transform into a continuity and appear as such.37 Regarding the plant, the leaf (Blatt) represents a kind of substrate which is itself undergoing change and becoming internally differentiated. At the same time, in every particular plant, in every single leaf, the eye sees the Urpflanze, its idea, as the basic law of metamorphosis. Goethe calls the underlying essence or lawfulness a “leaf.” Manifold transformations in the form of leaf formations or plant species are possible and real, appearing as a physical unity in such a way that an organic law manifests itself in and through the leaf.

Exact Sensory Imagination as a Productive Form of Anschauen

Goethe understands Anschauen or Anschauung not as a receptive, but as a productive act of consciousness directed at something which is “immer in Bewegung” (MA 3.2:307; always in motion). Likewise, the corresponding content of a productive form of Anschauung is not a static image or fixed representation (Vorstellung), but a genetic concept or “Begriff vom Hervorbringen” (MA 3.2:303; concept of production). In an act of “exakte sinnliche Phantasie” (MA 12:356; exact sensorial fantasy), the mind produces an imaginative Anschauung which is not arbitrary, but which fully complies instead with the constitutional lawfulness of nature. This kind of “exact sensorial phantasy” or “imagination” belongs to what Goethe calls “geläuterte Vorstellungsarten” (MA 12:121; purified types of cognition). A product of this exact mode of fantasy transforms into a new kind of perception. The scientist, the philosopher and the poet who use this productive form of Anschauen as a tool for knowledge create an Anschauung of the tree or the flower with their inner eye or the eye of their mind, while participating in the same origin, in the same creative and dynamic forces in which the flower or any other kind of object is grounded—which is, in Spinoza’s words, natura naturans, and not that of a static fixed product, natura naturata. The scientist mentally produces a sequence of variations that must be visualized and viewed as a whole. Goethe assumes that it is possible to fathom the movement between individual stages and links between separate parts. He speaks of  “zarten Übergänge, wie Gestalt in Gestalt sich wandelt” (MA 12:110, FA 1.24:461; delicate transitions how Gestalt [shape, form] transforms into Gestalt). In the Goethean notion of science, the observer of nature, the scientist, is predisposed to internally reproducing the coming-into-being of the plant, imaginatively participating in its generativity, rather than visualizing a static mental equivalent. For a perception of this unity, not discursive reason, but rather a productive form of Anschauen and creative imagination are essential and necessary for any knowledge of nature.38

In his essay Sehen in subjektiver Hinsicht (1790; Seeing in subjective terms; MA 12:353–54), Goethe describes his experience of producing the Anschauung of a living and versatile imaginary flower instead of its static mental representation. Goethe’s method of “exact sensorial fantasy” can be further developed into a theory of knowledge which then becomes philosophically and scientifically relevant. Consciousness trained in “exact sensorial fantasy” can become an instrument of research. In short, a new kind of Anschauen arises here through the flexibility of thinking, which goes beyond discrete mental representations (Vorstellungen). A participative, creative Anschauung as a tool of knowledge must play an important role for adequate recognition of all organic phenomena in nature especially, and, above all, the human being, because these phenomena are, in contrast to static and fixed phenomena, dynamic and creative themselves. This is also one reason why organic phenomena cannot adequately be grasped by the standards of so-called scientific “objectivity,” which instead aims to eliminate the creative and participatory activity on the part of the subject.39

Goethe differentiates four ways in which the observer can approach natural phenomena: “Nutzende. Wissende. Anschauende und Umfassende” (MA 4.2:190; those who utilize, those who recognize, those who intuit, and those who encompass). For him, the very nature of the discursive intellect means that it can only provide fragmentary knowledge. This must be surpassed by an act of “Anschauen” (MA 4.2:190; intuition) to obtain a full and universal insight into nature and the essential structures of phenomena. Therefore, Goethe demands a connection between “Wissen” (knowledge), “Anschauen,” and “Imagination” (imagination) or “produktive Einbildungskraft” (MA 4.2:190; productive imagination) in natural scientific inquiry. They form a sequence of stages. Goethe understands this productive form of Anschauen as an increased, elevated, and intensified form of knowledge. He writes:

Die Anschauenden verhalten sich schon produktiv und das Wissen indem es sich selbst steigert fordert ohne es zu bemerken das Anschauen und geht dahin über, und so sehr sich auch die Wissenden vor der Imagination kreuzigen und segnen so müssen sie doch ehe sie sichs versehen die produktive Einbildungskraft zu Hülfe rufen. (MA 4.2:190)
Those who intuit already behave productively, and knowledge, in the process of enhancing itself, promotes intuition and modulates into it, and however much those who know draw the sign of the cross and bless when confronted with imagination, nonetheless they must take recourse to the productive power of fantasy before they realize it.

Goethe’s Method of Anschauende Urteilskraft: Intuiting Nature as a Whole

Particularly in the Cartesian philosophical tradition, the sphere of evidence and the field of what can be taken as philosophically relevant experience have often been limited to the kind of evidence that is either yielded by sensory and empirical objects, on the one hand, or by intellectual objects, on the other. As a result, the standards and concepts of possible cognition and understanding have also been confined to these objects and their specific kind of evidence. Similar to this limitation, rational, discursive and representational thinking, as opposed to intuitive (i.e., non-discursive) cognition and the imagination, have been the standards for philosophy and science.40 And yet, both our normal day-to-day experience as well as philosophical and scientific research show that there are phenomena, as well as layers within phenomena, which by their very nature resist any attempt to reduce them to the kind of evidence which either sensory-empirical or rational-intellectual objects hold. This is true of phenomena of both living nature (organisms) and works of art. Intuitive thinking (anschauendes Denken) has its own kind of evidence which correlates to these phenomena.

In the philosophical tradition, discursive thinking, which proceeds from the parts to a whole, is opposed to intuitive understanding, which is founded on originary intuition and proceeds, conversely, from the whole to its parts. When Goethe (with Spinoza) refers decisively to a scientia intuitiva or “anschauendes Denken,” he pleads for a non-discursive, which is to say, intuitive mode of thinking. Discursive thinking can be understood as successive, conceptual thinking which proceeds in a logical manner from one mental representation (Vorstellung) to the next and builds out of this series its whole, i.e., its general and abstract concepts.41 Discursive thinking starts from sensory experience, then compares different objects of sensory experience by reflecting on those features that one object has in common with other objects as well as on those that distinguish one object from another. The next step is to abstract from these individual differences. The result of this act of comparison and reflection is transformed into an abstract concept. In sum, discursive thinking consists of three steps: comparison, reflection, and abstraction. For Kant, the human mind can only proceed discursively; it can only pass over from the parts, the features, to the whole: “Alle unsere Begriffe sind demnach Merkmale und alles Denken ist nichts anderes als ein Vorstellen durch Merkmale” (All our concepts are therefore features, and all thinking is no other than imagining by means of features).42 Kant then introduces the possibility of an intuitive intellect and intuitive understanding in the Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790; Critique of the Power of Judgment) using the example of the organism, partly as a counter-concept to objects of discursive understanding. Intuitive understanding, by contrast, would have to be able to pass from an “Anschauung eines Ganzen, als eines solchen” (intuition of a whole as such),43 to the particular, i.e., to the parts which it can only know from the whole.44  For Kant, according to the dualism of the two branches of cognition in Critique of Pure Reason, human understanding can only proceed discursively, not intuitively; hence, it requires images (Vorstellungen). By limiting human reason to a discursive form of cognition, Kant posited that reason could not penetrate the “Innere der Natur” (interior of nature) and thus a science of the organic world would not be possible. The possibility of a science of the organic world depends on whether it can be shown that the human mind has an inherent capacity to have an intuition of the purposive whole (zweckmäßigen Ganzen) of an organism.

In the wake of his morphological work, Goethe dealt intensively with Kant’s first and third Critiques in the early 1790s.45 In particular, the third Critique had a great effect on him: both his essays “Einwirkung der neueren Philosophie” (1817; The influence of recent philosophy) and “Anschauende Urteilskraft” (1817/20; Intuitive power of judgment) are the result of his reading of Kant. In “Anschauende Urteilskraft,” Goethe’s stance regarding the possibility of intuitive cognition is opposed to Kant’s position.46 In this essay, Goethe provides the theoretical and philosophical (as well as epistemological) foundation for a scientific understanding of the organic world. He refers in detail to §§ 76 and 77 of the Kritik der Urteilskraft, which deals with the notion of teleological judgment and quotes the relevant section (from §77) in full in his essay. If the human mind, according to Kant, can approach a divine mind in the sphere of morality, Goethe is convinced that this should also be possible in the sphere of cognition or “im Intellektuellen” (MA12:98; in the intellectual). He concludes that we can make ourselves “durch das Anschauen einer immer schaffenden Natur, zur geistigen Teilnahme an ihren Produktionen würdig” (MA12:99; by looking at an ever-creating nature, we make ourselves worthy of spiritual participation in its productions).47 Through his “naturgemäße Methode” (MA 12:99; method according to nature) Goethe believed that he was able “mutig zu bestehen” (MA 12:99; to pass courageously) through the “Abenteuer der Vernunft” (MA 12:99; adventure of reason), as Kant himself termed it in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft.48 Goethe coined the term Anschauende Urteilskraft (MA 12:98; intuitive power of judgment) for the faculty which specifically enables a cognition of the organic world. For Goethe, the Anschauung of the whole of an organism was not only possible but a factual experience: he also had practiced it in his morphological research on the metamorphosis of plants or bone structures in vertebrates. Conversely, for Kant, the faculty of intuitive understanding was only hypothetical.  In Goethe’s thinking, the unity perceived and intuited solely with the “Auge des Geistes” (eye of the mind or spirit) is not a conceptual unity, which a rational and synthesizing act of consciousness bestows upon the objects, but is, in fact, the original unity that is inherent and grounded in the object.49

An idea which contains and comprises all possible particularities, in this case the diversity of all plants (Urpflanze) or animals (Typus), cannot be given in ordinary sensual intuition, which is directed to the individual because of the peculiarity of the physiological eyes. For this reason, Goethe asserts: “Das Einzelne kann kein Muster vom Ganzen sein, und so dürfen wir das Muster für alle nicht im Einzelnen suchen” (MA 12:202; The individual cannot be a pattern of the whole, and so we must not look for the pattern for all in the individual). Rather, the “Geistes-Augen” (mind’s eyes) are needed to see a comprehensive whole. What Goethe experiences when he speaks of the Urpflanze corresponds to a general Anschauung which is in itself multiform and contains the manifold plant forms. This kind of objective Anschauung involves a basic appearance which, in the field of botany, becomes visible as and comes into existence as the leaf (Blatt). In a note dated May 17, 1787, Goethe reports from Italy: “Vorwärts und rückwärts ist die Pflanze immer nur Blatt, mit dem künftigen Keime so unzertrennlich vereint, daß man eins ohne das andere nicht denken darf” (MA 15:456; Forwards and backwards, the plant is always naught but leaf, unified with the future germ so inseparably that the one cannot be conceived without the other). The “leaf” can thus be understood as a name for the essential flexible structure and dynamic lawfulness of the plant.

The Urphänomen at the Limit of Intuition

The highest level of Anschauung and the final stage of Goethe’s method of anschauendes Denken are reached with the experience of primordial phenomena. These include the “Urpflanze” (primal plant), the “Typus” (type), the “reines Phänomen” (pure phenomenon),50 and the “Urphänomen” (archetypal phenomenon). In §177 of Zur Farbenlehre, he characterizes the Urphänomen as a limit-phenomenon grounded in itself (MA 10:74–75). Moreover, it does not represent merely a personal limit, but rather the ultimate “Grenze des Schauens” (MA 10:75; limit of intuition). Thus, the Urphänomen can be understood as an example of a science of nature that explores the limits of Anschauung. In §§ 174–77 of Zur Farbenlehre, he describes how the scientist first observes the manifold and individual phenomena and then proceeds gradually, continually guided by originary Anschauungen, until he or she reaches the ultimate and basic Anschauung of the Urphänomen, which symbolizes the unity of manifold correlating (scientific as well as prescientific) experiences. The Urphänomen shapes the absolute limit of Anschauen, which essentially and necessarily belongs to this region of phenomena. Because the Urphänomen is the result of a concurrence between the “Augen des Leibes” (eyes of the body) and “Geistes-Augen” (MA 12:85), it is not an abstract idea; rather, it corresponds to a sensory appearance of a supersensory idea.51

In his lecture Das Ende der Philosophie und die Aufgabe des Denkens (1964; The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking), Martin Heidegger explicitly adopts Goethe’s idea of the Urphänomen.52 Heidegger links Goethe’s Urphänomen to the “Lichtung” (clearing)  that enables all things to appear and makes them visible to us as phenomena.53 Heidegger recognizes, in an analogy to Goethe’s Urphänomen, the limiting character of this special phenomenon, which is located at the limit of intuition. This limit is, at the same time, a “clearing” for a new kind of Anschauen. He concludes that, at this primordial threshold, we might encounter a radical new beginning for the task of a new kind of non-discursive and non-metaphysical thinking.

For Goethe, the Urphänomen represents the threshold between natural philosophy (or science) and philosophical cognition. At the same time, it represents the point of transition between these two spheres. Goethe writes in §177 of Zur Farbenlehre: “Der Naturforscher lasse die Urphänomene in ihrer ewigen Ruhe und Herrlichkeit dastehen, der Philosoph nehme sie in seine Region auf” (MA 10:75; The natural scientist should let the primordial phenomena stand there in their eternal peace and glory, the philosopher should take them up into his region), since with the “Grund- und Urphänomen” he receives a “würdige[n] Stoff zu weiterer Behandlung und Bearbeitung” (MA 10:75; in the basic and primordial phenomena a worthy material is handed down to him for further treatment and consideration).

The author would like to thank the participants of the workshop of the Goethe-Lexicon of Philosophical Concepts in July 2020 for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this article. I also wish to thank the anonymous reviewers for their feedback and Bryan Klausmeyer, whose thoughtful suggestions helped me to improve the text.

  1. See the entries “anschauen” and “Anschauung” in the Goethe-Wörterbuch, ed. Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, and Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1978), 1: columns 656–63, columns 661–63.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, works by Goethe are cited by section, volume, and page numbers according to the Münchner Ausgabe, abbreviated MA: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens, eds. Karl Richter, Herbert G. Göpfert, Norbert Miller, et. al., 33 vols. (München: Carl Hanser, 1987–2013). Regarding Goethe’s morphological writings see especially vols. 3.1.525–91, 3.2:303–72, 4.2:131–259, and 12. Regarding his works on optics see especially vols. 4.2:260–441, and 10. Further references will be cited in the text as MA with volume and page numbers. All translations are the author’s own.
  3. Goethe writes to Schiller on January 6, 1798: “Von dem Appetit eines Kindes zum Apfel am Baum bis zum Falle desselben, der in Newton die Idee zu seiner Theorie erweckt haben soll, mag es freilich sehr viele Stufen des Anschauens geben und es wäre wohl zu wünschen daß man uns diese einmal recht deutlich vorlegte und zugleich begreiflich machte, was man für die höchste hält” (MA 8.1:489; From the appetite of a child to the apple on the tree until its fall that is said to have awakened Newton to his theory, there may indeed be a great number of levels of intuition, and it would be desirable someday to have them very clearly/neatly spread out before us and elucidated which level is to be held for the highest one).
  4. The complete aphorism reads: “Das Höchste wäre: zu begreifen, daß alles Faktische schon Theorie ist. Die Bläue des Himmels offenbart uns das Grundgesetz der Chromatik. Man suche nur nichts hinter den Phänomenen; sie selbst sind die Lehre.” (MA 17:824; The highest goal would be: to understand that everything in the realm of fact is already theory. The blue of the sky reveals to us the basic law of chromatics. Let us not seek for something behind or beyond the phenomena—they themselves are the theory).
  5. Werner Beierwaltes, Platonismus und Idealismus, 2nd rev. ed. (Frankfurt a. M.: Klostermann, 2004), 93–100.
  6. Plato, The Republic, trans. R. E. Allen (New Haven, London: Yale UP, 2006), book VII, 514a–521d.
  7. Spinoza, Ethics, 41.
  8. See Ethics, vol II, prop. 40, in A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994), 41. Further references cited as Ethics followed by page number.
  9. Regarding Goethe’s specific kind of “Spinozism” cf. Fredrick Amrine, “Goethean Intuitions,” Goethe Yearbook 18 (2011): 35–50; Eckart Förster: “Goethe’s Spinozism,” in Spinoza and German Idealism, eds. Eckart Förster, and Yitzhak Y. Melamed (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012), 85–99.
  10. In his Ethics, vol. V, prop. 25 Spinoza underpins his notion that intuitive understanding is the highest form of understanding. He writes: “The mind’s greatest effort and its greatest virtue is understanding things by the third kind of knowledge.” A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994), 131.
  11. Spinoza, Ethics, 131.
  12. Goethe in a letter to Heinrich Jacobi on May 5, 1786. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Briefe, Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe, eds. Georg Kurscheidt, Norbert Oellers, and Elke Richter, 38 vols (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2012), 6:193. Further references are cited as Briefe followed by volume and page number.
  13. Immanuel Kant, Werkausgabe, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel, 20 vols. (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1974), 3:136–40. Further references are cited as Werke followed by volume and page number.
  14. Cf. Xavier Tilliette, Untersuchungen über die intellektuelle Anschauung von Kant bis Hegel, ed. Lisa Egloff, and Katia Hay (Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 2015); Eckart Förster, Die 25 Jahre der Philosophie: eine systematische Rekonstruktion (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2011).
  15. Cf. Iris Hennigfeld, “Goethe’s Phenomenological Way of Thinking and the Urphänomen,” Goethe Yearbook 22 (2015): 143–67.
  16. Edmund Husserl, Gesammelte Werke (Husserliana), ed. Husserl-Archiv Leuven (Den Haag / Dordrecht / Boston / Lancaster: Nijhoff, 1950ff., now Berlin: Springer, 2008), 3.1:51. Further references cited as Werke by volume and page number.
  17. See Husserl, Werke, 19.1, 19.2, and 3.1.
  18. Goethe is convinced, “[W]enn in natürlichen Dingen nicht der Augenschein überwiese, so würde ich schüchtern sein aufzutreten und zu sagen, daß sich diese Knochenabteilung [das os intermaxillare] gleichfalls bei dem Menschen finde“ (MA 2.2:530; if in matters of nature external appearances would not predominate, I would shy away from coming in and saying that I find these bone structures in human beings as well).
  19. Goethe in a letter to Knebel on August 18, 1787 in Briefe 7:172.
  20. René Descartes developed a specific method in which the notion of evidence or evident knowledge plays a crucial role (A Discourse on the Method, trans. Ian McLean, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008 [1637]). In A Discourse on the Method, he writes in Part II: “The first was never to accept anything as true if I didn’t have evident knowledge of its truth” (17). In Part V, he makes clear that the first principle of any true knowledge is “never to let ourselves be convinced except for the evidence of our reason” (34). With regard to the notion of evidence, Husserl follows the French philosopher and characterizes the experience of evidence as follows: “[J]ede Evidenz ist Selbsterfassung eines Seienden oder Soseienden in dem Modus ‘es selbst’ in völliger Gewissheit dieses Seins, die also jeden Zweifel ausschließt“ (Husserl, Werke, 1:56); [E]very evidence is self-conception of a being or the howness of this being in the mode of ‘itself’ in complete certainty of this being, which therefore excludes every doubt”).
  21. Goethe writes to Friedrich Schiller on June 30, 1798: “Ich stehe gegenwärtig in eben dem Fall mit den Naturphilosophen, die von oben herunter, und mit den Naturforschern, die von unten hinauf leiten wollen. Ich wenigstens finde mein Heil nur in der Anschauung, die in der Mitte steht” (MA 8.1:588; I am currently in the same situation as the philosophers of nature who want to deduce everything from the top down, and with the researchers who wish to do the same from the bottom upwards. I at least find my haven solely in intuition, which stands in the middle).
  22. Goethe to Knebel on August 18, 1787. Goethe, Briefe 7:172.
  23. See also Eckart Förster, “Goethe and the ‘Auge des Geistes’”, Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 75, no. 1 (2001): 87–101.
  24. Regarding Goethe’s specific adaptation of the philosophical metaphor “Auge des Geistes,” especially in the context of German Idealism, see Eckart Förster, “Goethe and the ‘Auge des Geistes,’” Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 75, no. 1 (2001): 87–101, here 88.
  25. Kant, Werke, 3:97f.
  26. Goethe, Goethes Gespräche, ed. F. von Biedermann, 5 vols. (Leipzig, 1909–11), 3:428. Further references cited as Gespräche.
  27. Kant, Werke, 3:98.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Journey to Italy, July 31, 1787. In April, 1785 Goethe writes in a letter to Merck: “Einem Gelehrten von Profession traue ich zu, daß er seine fünf Sinne ableugnet. Es ist ihnen selten um den lebendigen Begriff der Sache zu thun, sondern nur um das, was man gesagt hat” (Goethe, Briefe, 6:40; I can well imagine a professional scholar's denying the perceptions of his five senses. They are rarely concerned with the living concept of the matter at hand, but only what has already been said).
  30. Cf. Holger Helbig, Naturgemäße Ordnung: Darstellung und Methode in Goethes Lehre von den Farben (Köln / Weimar / Wien: Böhlau, 2004).
  31. Husserl uses the terms “sinnliche[n] Fülle” (Husserl, Werke, 6:27; sensory fullness), or “Füllen der Gestalten” (Husserl, Werke, 6:28; fullness of shapes).
  32. See Goethe’s essays Versuch aus der vergleichenden Knochenlehre daß der Zwischenknochen der obern Kinnlade dem Menschen mit den übrigen Tieren gemein sei (MA 2.2:530–45) and Beschreibung des Zwischenknochens mehrerer Tiere bezüglich auf die beliebte Einteilung und Terminologie (1784; MA 2.2:545–62), later published (with minor changes) in Hefte zur Morphologie (1820; The Morphological Notebooks).
  33. Goethe to Charlotte von Stein on June 17, 1784, in Goethes Werke, ed. im Auftrage der Großherzogin Sophie von Sachsen, 4 Abteilungen, 133 vols. in 143 parts (Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1887-1919), 6:303.
  34. David Seamon, “Goethe’s Way of Science as a Phenomenology of Nature,” Janus Head 8, no. 1 (2005): 86–101; Eva-Maria Simms, “Goethe, Husserl, and the crisis of the European sciences,” Janus Head 8, no. 1 (2005): 160–72; cf. also 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, Klassik und Moderne (Berlin [u.a.]: De Gruyter, 2014), 177–94, here 186.
  35. Husserl, Werke, 3.1:14.
  36. Husserl, Werke, 41:89.
  37. Cf. Thomas Pfau, “‘All Is Leaf’: Difference, Metamorphosis, and Goethe’s Phenomenology of Knowledge,” Studies in Romanticism 49, no. 1 (2010): 3–41, here 21.
  38. Dalia Nassar: “’Idealism is nothing but genuine empiricism’: Novalis, Goethe, and the Ideal of Romantic Science,” Goethe Yearbook 23 (2011): 67–95, here 75.
  39. Cf. Jane Walling: “The Imagination of Plants: Botany in Rousseau and Goethe,” Comparative Critical Studies 2 (2005): 211–25, here 222.
  40. Anthony J. Steinbock’s phenomenological research made the groundbreaking attempt to examine so-called limit phenomena. See, for example, Anthony J. Steinbock, Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2007); here, especially the introduction.
  41. Kant writes: “Um aus Vorstellungen Begriffe zu machen, muß man also komparieren, reflektiren und abstrahieren können” (Kant, Werke, 6:525; To make concepts out of representations, one must be able to compare, reflect, and abstract).
  42. Kant, Werke, 6:485.
  43. Kant, Werke, 10:361.
  44. For the subsequent paragraph cf. Eckart Förster, Die 25 Jahre der Philosophie: Eine systematische Rekonstruktion, 2nd ed. (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2012), 253–276. Förster argues that regarding the possibility of any understanding of living nature, Goethe combines Spinoza’s scientia intuitiva with a Kantian epistemology of an organism. He writes: “Methodologisch verbindet Goethe von nun an die Forderung Spinozas, für jedes Einzelding, das wir erkennen wollen, diejenige ‘Idee‘ aufzusuchen, welche die bewirkende Ursache zum Ausdruck bringt und aus der sich alle Eigenschaften des Gegenstandes herleiten lassen, mit der Kantischen Forderung, dass zur Erkenntnis von lebendigen Dingen gezeigt werden können muss, wie Ganzes und Teile eines Organismus sich wechselseitig bedingen und hervorbringen” (257). He continues: “[E]rst müssen (diskursiv) alle zu einem Phänomenbereich gehörenden Eigenschaften aufgesucht und zusammengefasst werden, um daran anschließend (intuitiv) das Ganze als Ganzes in den Blick zu bekommen, aus dem dann die Idee gewonnen werden könnte” (258).
  45. Géza von Molnár, Goethes Kantstudien: Eine Zusammenstellung nach Eintragungen in seinen Handexemplaren der “Kritik der reinen Vernunft” und der “Kritik der Urteilskraft” (Weimar: Böhlau, 1994), 108.
  46. Gunnar Hindrichs: “Goethe’s Notion of an Intuitive Power of Judgment,” Goethe Yearbook 18 (2011): 21–65.
  47. “Zwar scheint der Verfasser hier auf einen göttlichen Verstand zu deuten, allein wenn wir ja im Sittlichen, durch Glauben an Gott, Tugend und Unsterblichkeit uns in eine obere Region erheben und an das erste Wesen annähern sollen; so dürft’ es wohl im Intellektuellen derselbe Fall sein, daß wir uns, durch das Anschauen einer immer schaffenden Natur, zur geistigen Teilnahme an ihren Produktionen würdig machten” (MA 12:98–99; Here the author appears to be pointing to divine reason, but if we are to rise into a higher region and approach the primal being in the realm of morality, through faith in God, virtue and immortality, it should probably be the case in the intellectual realm as well that we should make ourselves worthy, by means of observing the constant transformations of nature, of spiritual participation in its productions).
  48. MA 12:98–99.
  49. See Förster, “Goethe and the ‘Auge des Geistes,’” 90; Henri Bortoft describes the unity in Goethe’s thinking as follows: “But the unity which Goethe perceived in the color phenomena is not a unity that is imposed by the mind. What Goethe saw was not an intellectual unification but the wholeness of the phenomenon itself.” Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1996), 59.
  50. See Goethe’s essay Das reine Phänomen. The pure phenomenon can be understood as a precursor of the Urphänomen as it is developed in the Theory of Colours.
  51. As a parallel to this, Goethe sought the Urpflanze, as he confesses, as a prototype in Gestalt of a “sinnlichen Form einer übersinnlichen Pflanze” (MA 18.2:453; sensual form of a supernatural plant).
  52. See Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe, ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, 102 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2007), 14:67–90.
  53. Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe, 14:81.

Related Entries in the GLPC

  • AmalgamierenAmalgamating
  • Anschauende UrteilskraftIntuitive Power of Judgment
  • Anschauendes DenkenIntuiting Thinking
  • AugeEye
  • Auge des GeistesEye of the Mind
  • BeobachtenObserving
  • BetrachtenContemplating, Observing
  • BegriffConcept
  • BlattLeaf
  • DenkenThinking
  • EinbildungskraftImagination, Fantasy
  • EmpirieEmpiricism
  • Erscheinung, ErscheinenManifestation
  • ErstaunenAstonishing
  • Exakte sinnliche PhantasieExact Sensorial Fantasy
  • FolgeSequence
  • Gegenständliches DenkenThinking in Objects
  • IdeeIdea
  • LichtLight
  • PhänomenPhenomenon
  • PhantasieFantasy
  • Produktive EinbildungskraftProductive Imagination
  • Reines PhänomenPure Phenomenon
  • Subjekt und ObjektSubject and Object
  • TheorieTheory
  • TypusType
  • UrpflanzePrimordial Plant
  • UrphänomenPrimordial Phenomenon
  • VergleichenComparing
  • WesenEssence

Works Cited and Further Reading

  • Adelung, Johann Christoph. Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart: mit beständiger Vergleichung der übrigen Mundarten, besonders aber der Oberdeutschen, 2nd rev. ed. Edited by Franz Xaver Schönberger. 4 vols. Vienna: B. Ph. Bauer, 1811.
  • Amrine, Fredrick. “Goethean Intuitions.” Goethe Yearbook 18 (2011): 35–50.
  • Beierwaltes, Werner. Platonismus und Idealismus. 2nd rev. ed. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2004.
  • Bortoft, Henri. The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1996.
  • Bortoft, Henri. Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought. Edinburgh: Floris, 2012.
  • Descartes, René. A Discourse on the Method. Translated by Ian McLean. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 [1637].
  • Förster, Eckart. Die 25 Jahre der Philosophie: eine systematische Rekonstruktion. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2011.
  • ———. “Goethe and the ‘Auge des Geistes’”, Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 75, no. 1 (2001): 87–101.
  • ———. “Goethe’s Spinozism.” In Spinoza and German Idealism. Edited by Eckart Förster and Yitzhak Y. Melamed, 85–99. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Briefe, Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe. Edited by Georg Kurscheidt, Norbert Oellers, and Elke Richter. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 2008–21.
  • ———. Goethes Werke. Im Auftrag der Großherzogin Sophie von Sachsen. 143 vols. Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1887–1919.
  • ———. Goethes Gespräche. Edited by F. von Biedermann. 5 vols. Leipzig, 1909–11.
  • ———.  Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens. Edited by Karl Richter, Herbert G. Göpfert, Norbert Miller, et. al. 33 vols. München: Carl Hanser, 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.
  • Goethe’s Way of Science. Edited by David Seamon and Arthur Zanjonc. Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.
  • Hata, Kazunari. Phantasie als Methode der poietischen Wissenschaft Goethes: Naturwissenschaft und Philosophie im Spiegel seiner Zeit. Wiesbaden: Springer-Verlag, 2016.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Gesamtausgabe. Edited by Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann. 102 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2007.
  • Helbig, Holger. Naturgemäße Ordnung: Darstellung und Methode in Goethes Lehre von den Farben. Köln/Weimar/Wien: Böhlau, 2004.
  • Hennigfeld, Iris. “Goethe’s Phenomenological Way of Thinking and the Urphänomen.” Goethe Yearbook 22 (2015): 143–67.
  • Hindrichs, Gunnar. “Goethe’s Notion of an Intuitive Power of Judgment.” Goethe Yearbook 18 (2011): 21–65.
  • Husserl, Edmund, Gesammelte Werke (Husserliana). Edited by Husserl-Archiv Leuven. Den Haag / Dordrecht / Boston / Lancaster: Nijhoff, 1950ff., now Berlin: Springer, 2008.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Werkausgabe. Edited by Wilhelm Weischedel. 20 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974.
  • Möckel, Christoph. “Die Forderung nach lebhafter Anschaulichkeit im wissenschaftlichen Erkennen. (Goethe, Chamberlain, Husserl und Cassirer).” Recherches Husserliennes 18 (2002): 32–57.
  • Molnár, Géza von. Goethes Kantstudien: Eine Zusammenstellung nach Eintragungen in seinen Handexemplaren der “Kritik der reinen Vernunft” und der “Kritik der Urteilskraft.” Weimar: Böhlau, 1994.
  • Nassar, Dalia. “‘Idealism is nothing but genuine empiricism’: Novalis, Goethe, and the Ideal of Romantic Science.” Goethe Yearbook 23 (2011): 67–95.
  • Pfau, Thomas. “‘All Is Leaf’: Difference, Metamorphosis, and Goethe’s Phenomenology of Knowledge.” Studies in Romanticism 49, no. 1 (2010): 3–41.
  • Plato. The Republic. Translated and with an introduction by R. E. Allen. New Haven, London: Yale UP, 2006.
  • Rehbock, Theda. Goethe und die „Rettung der Phänomene": Philosophische Kritik des naturwissenschaftlichen Weltbilds am Beispiel der Farbenlehre. Konstanz: Verlag am Hockgraben, 1995.
  • Schieren, Jost. Anschauende Urteilskraft. Methodische und Philosophische Grundlagen von Goethes naturwissenschaftlichem Erkennen. Bonn: Parerga, 1998.
  • Seamon, David. “Goethe’s Way of Science as a Phenomenology of Nature.” Janus Head 8, no. 1 (2005): 86–101
  • 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, Klassik und Moderne. Edited by Jonas Maatsch, 177–94. Berlin (u.a.): De Gruyter, 2014.
  • Spinoza, Benedict de. A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works. Edited and translated by Edwin Curley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994.
  • Anthony J. Steinbock. Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2007.
  • Tilliette, Xavier. Untersuchungen über die intellektuelle Anschauung von Kant bis Hegel. Edited by Lisa Egloff, and Katia Hay. Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 2015.
  • Walling, Jane. “The Imagination of Plants: Botany in Rousseau and Goethe.” Comparative Critical Studies 2 (2005): 211–25.