Goethe, through his naturphilosophie, strove to bring together two different ways of knowing – empirical observation and spiritual intuition. According to Goethe, the scientist could not access the deeper truths of nature through detachment, abstractions, or ‘stepping outside’ the world. Such a way of working would preclude seeing the depths of nature and present an illusory reality because of the unconscious filter through which the world is viewed. It was only be bringing imaginative intuition and observation into interaction – allowing different ways of knowing to interact intimately with each other that the essence of a thing could be discovered. Through this approach the universal could be seen in the particular and reunited with it.
For Goethe, nature permeates everything, including mind and imagination. Hence nature’s truth does not exist objectively ‘out there’, but is created or unveiled in the act of cognition. The human mind does not simply impose its order on nature, but rather nature’s spirit brings forth its own order through human cognition – cognition is nature’s self-revelation. In this way Goethe united the knowing of the poet with the knowing of the scientist in a holistic vision of the world.
Goethe’s philosophy highlights the fallibility and limitations of human knowledge. One way of knowing is inherently limited; when we look through one lens, we will see one way and so get a partial picture. But if become more multiperspectival, with the capacity to see through different frames we can gain a more accurate picture of the world.
This lesson is particularly instructive in our modern world where alternative ways of seeing and thinking are so often jettisoned, dismissed, ridiculed or denied. We need to develop the capacity in learners to be less certain; to be open to alternative ways of looking at problems; to tolerate ambiguity; and to embrace multiple perspectives. We need to move from the either/or logic to ‘this and that’. We must seek to widen, not narrow; to include, to wonder, to embrace the richness of different points of view. We must embrace ‘unknowing’ and learn to find value in views different from our own, to see truth as multiple not singular.