Goethe versus Kant

Walter Kaufmann is an excellent teacher. In Goethe, Kant, and Hegel: Discovering the Mind, vol 1 he lays out clearly the way in which Goethe advanced our understanding of the mind and how Kant, despite his “making a clean sweep of so many fruitless speculations” (p. 5), impeded it, and how many who came after attempted to reconcile the two, to the confusion of their own systems of thought; Hegel being the chief example in this, the first of three volumes in the series.

The beauty of the book is in the way it connects the life of Goethe to his thought, illustrating his dictum that,

Im Anfang war die Tat.

Goethe‘s life was one of constant action and development. Kant‘s, on the other hand was one in which routine and avoidance of change was cultivated. Goethe produced something completely new every time he published one of his major works whereas Kant‘s publications remained pretty much in the same vein. Goethe was a master of style, Kant a master of obfuscation.

According to Kaufmann, Goethe “made at least four contributions to the discovery of the mind”:

Firstly, he provided a model of autonomy that kept his contemporaries from taking seriously Kant’s conception of autonomy. Goethe’s model may well have been as influential as any since Socrates’ and it had a decisive impact not only on generations of writers and artists but also, for example, on Nietsche, Freud, and existentialism…

Secondly, Goethe opposed the essentialism of those who considered themind or soul a ghost in the machine or a spirit that resides behind or above the phenomenal self. Many learned from him that man is his deeds, that mind is what it does, and that the way to discover the mind is not through concept-mongering but through experience…

Thirdly, he saw that the best, if not the only, way to understand the mind and everything spiritual is through its development. He was not a structuralist but an evolutionist.

Fourthly, he suggested the possibility of a non-mathematical, non-Newtonian science. Whatever one may think of that, the greatest advances in the discovery of the mind were made by men who accepted this idea.

p. 54