German Idealism, From Kant to Hegel, Part 3: Herder and Goethe

Two figures stand in importance to understanding Schelling; Johann von Herder and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Herder is important for having recontextualized and published his philosophy of consciousness through the “Great Chain of Being.” The Great Chain of Being was an ancient Greek to Christian understanding of wholeness in the world. Man, of course, being the most conscious animal, was the closest to God. But everything was intimately tied and connected to each other on this great ladder ascending from earth to heaven (eternal consciousness and bliss).

Some say Herder was a proto-evolutionist, this is demonstrably false. Herder was inheriting a long tradition of Greco-Christian thought in his formulation of the Great Chain of Being leading to man. Man was tied to the rest of the animal kingdom, the vegetative kingdom, and even the material kingdom, because he was lord and steward of all creation. Moreover, man, as a relational animal, means he does not just have relationships with other men, but has relationships with the world which God has placed in him. Man dwells in the land; the kingdom of matter. That kingdom of matter has in it plants and animals; the kingdoms of vegetables and animals. Thus, in the whole picture, man is tied to the animal, vegetative, and material kingdoms which constitute the earth which he also calls home. Truly conscious man, who is connected to the Divine source of emanation, is also he who understands this reality and dwells enthusiastically in this world of relationships which brings about his happiness in life. To shun or break away from these relationships is to end in misery.

More important to Schelling is the famous poet and civil servant Johann von Goethe. Goethe, beyond being a great poet and Weimar servant, was also a scientist. Goethe established proto-morphological science, that is, plant biology, when he was not writing poetry or engaged in his literary endeavors. Goethean science was equally a rejection of the reductive mechanical view of science from Bacon and Newton. According to Goethe, the problem with reductionist science was it lacked totality, lacked wholeness, lacked an understanding of science (and especially biology) as a process of becoming. You could not isolate life to a single moment or reduce life to its stripped and bare bones. To do so is to “miss the bigger picture” so to speak.

To only look at a tree, rather than the forest network the tree is attached, is to fundamentally not understand what one is studying. Dig into a forest root system and you suddenly find it to be one giant living organism—something reductionist science cannot do as it is isolative and reductionist in spirit. Reducing said tree down to its trunk, its roots, and then its seed, is to deny the tree; reducing the seed to a collection of atoms and particles is to equally miss the mark.

For Goethe, Enlightenment reductionism not only misses the mark about science—actually limiting knowledge instead of expanding it—it leads to epistemological impoverishment. This epistemic impoverishment comes from the depersonalizing and reductionist methods of materialist science which cuts off and isolates nature from other nature; for instance, in examining a single tree instead of understanding the tree as part of a larger biosphere. It also impoverishes man in cutting off man from nature and bringing about the mechanical specialization of science where man observes nature in a lab or academy instead of living in nature.

Goethean science, beginning with Goethe’s publication of Metamorphosis of Plants, demonstrates the “unitive” of “holistic” portrait of science. In study plants, Goethe stumbled upon photosynthesis in plant leaves. This was critical for Goethe, for in the union of sun, light, and plant, it is impossible to understand the plant in isolation as the reductive materialist scientists. Without the sun, and without the light of the sun, there is no plant, which is to say there are no leaves to study.

Goethe’s science was one of unitive participation. From seed to roots to sprout, to trunk to tree. But this exists for everything else. The bears and deer in the forest depend on all these plants and animals for their livelihood. To destroy one is to condemn all. All life, according to Goethe, participates in this unitive cycle of growth, decline, death, rebirth. Each has a particular function to play in the web of life and, therefore, Goethe achieves a rehabilitation of the vitalistic account of science overthrown by Bacon and mechanicalist scientists and philosophers and restores a spirit of religious understanding to science in how everything is intimately bound up with each other in an almost loving participation.

From Herder, Schelling inherits the concern for self-consciousness and why man is the culmination of the natural movement to self-consciousness. From Goethe, Schelling inherits the spirit of vitalistic science that had been suppressed by Newtonian science. From both he inherits a spirit of holistic philosophy. Goethe, equally, became an important influence upon the post-Schellingian Idealists, including Hegel and Friedrich Jacobi, so it is important to understand some of Goethe’s thought before proceeding to Schelling and Hegel.


*For a deeper exploration into Goethean science, visit here.

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