“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Introduction to German Idealism

My lecture in two parts introducing German Idealism (focusing on Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Goethe, Hegel)


2 responses to “Introduction to German Idealism”

  1. Milliern Avatar

    Hi, Matt. What essay did you give the class to read? Which class did Sean have you come in for?

    Great lecture. Speaking of asymmetries in Nature, I got this nice, related quote from Pasteur out of Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary”: “Life as manifested to us is a function of asymmetry of the universe… I can even imagine that all living species are primordially, in their structure, in their external forms, functions of cosmic asymmetry.”

    I have a few thoughts after viewing. Regarding claims of truth in medieval and early Renaissance universities, the posts in the universities had a direct bearing on whether frameworks were mere models or assertions about how reality is. In biographies by real historians, this is understood widely, so be careful to be suspicious when getting your history from scientists; they tend to be really bad at it. I think Heilbron talks about the meaning of chairs in disciplines within medieval universities, as in his biography of Galileo. This is actually also why the Church, risk free, encouraged Copernicus to write his “Revolutionibus.” Galileo made claims about actual reality prior to his receiving the chair, which I think was a move from mathematics to natural philosophy (but I could be wrong), but those claims were offhandedly reprimanded, without much attention or force. Duhem also talks about why it was that this distinction of the disciplines/chairs regarded theories with varying relations to ontology. He talks about this in his works regarding “saving phenomena.” That models were not in accord with sensible observation was really no big deal at all.

    Goethe’s “all is leaf” is an expression of his view of the dynamic connection of being through temporality. The closest Goethe comes to depicting this visually in “The Metamorphosis of Plants” is in his depiction of the transformation of the petal into stamen. However, I’ve seen better depictions, and I think one place of this dynamic temporal unity sort of depiction was in “The Strategy of Life: Teleological Mechanics in Nineteenth Century German Biology” by Tim Lenoir, but I don’t remember where he got this imagine drawn by Goethe. (As a side note, if you do more than look at the pictures in this book by Lenoir, you should know we did an in-depth study at IU, reading the original sources in parallel, and Lenoir’s narrative suspect to the point of misrepresentation of the original thinkers; but you can judge for yourself, though we were excited about the possibilities of the thesis.)

  2. Jeffrey Martin Avatar

    Thank you for your excellent video lectures on German Idealism. Just one suggestion: To help with an understanding of Goethe’s insight into the nature of the archetypal plant as ‘leaf’, I think the key is not to lose sight, during the self observation of one’s rigorous thinking, between the inner ‘vision’ of momentarily static mental representations and one’s ‘experience’ of the dynamic, archetypal and lawful ‘unfolding’ of thought in the act of producing a series of these representations.

    You demonstrated the dynamic of the subject/object shift many times over with precise clarity in your depictions of Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel’s thinking, but with Goethe’s plant-as-leaf conception a confusion set in. I would like to suggest that this confusion arose because, although it is relatively easy for a serious thinker to experience the dynamic shift of inversion required to grasp the polarities operative in the philosophies of these other thinkers (except, as you pointed out, in the case of Shelling, who was on the path to Goethe’s insights), it takes some more meditative effort to grasp Goethe’s displays of imaginative intuition. In my view, this is because with these other philosopher’s ‘shifts of inversion’ (Umstülpungen), one moves so rapidly and semi-unconsciously across the thought inversion threshold from the one pole to the other (even though Hegel demonstrates this movement down to the nth degree!) that the actual ‘living’ metamorphosis from the one to the other pole goes unnoticed. However, due to his capacity for an imaginative thinking trained to the point of an ‘exact sensorial phantasy’ (or ‘anschauende urteilskraft’), Goethe was not only able to consciously follow this metamorphosis mentally but could then discover its unfolding in diverse and evolutionary (from crystal-prism light to plant to animal) acts of creation in nature. In fact one could say that it was his investigations of nature that taught him this imaginative skill through pure perceiving, whereas the others (excepting Schelling) came to their insights via pure thinking.

    Also you seemed to suggest that Goethe was not ‘mathematical’. I would suggest that he was only not abstractly and statically mathematical. His discovery of the archetypal plant in the evolutionary and involutionary metamorphose of the leaf principle demonstrated an ability to ‘perceive’ the multi-dimensional dynamics of pure mathematics active in nature.

    If you meditate on the representation of a cross-section of a set of horn tori (link below) and imagine that the ‘inside’ of the central ‘seed’ circle on the right can evolute progressively (grow) over to the ‘bud’ circle on the left while inverting its forces, and then move back again across the central, other-dimensional straight lined circle (whose centre point is at infinity) to involute progressively back to a seed again, and consciously experience all the leaf-gestures in the inner dynamic of your thinking while doing this – and simultaneously imagine the central line to represent these etheric/physical dimension-inverting forces as expanding towards the sun as they contract towards the centre of the earth – and then go observe at all the plant forms you can find from mushrooms to trees – I am sure you will experience this archetypal, mathematical, metamorphosing sun-earth leaf-gesture for yourself.


    Also try to observe how other archetypal dynamics accompany (and sometimes hide) this pure expanding/contracting leaf-as-sphere-section gesture, bringing about multitudes of variations within and between all plants, and I think you too will appreciate Goethe’s approach to a mathematical understanding of nature’s creating. (R.Steiner suggested in his astronomy lectures to Waldorf science teachers that these variations are due to other multi-dimensional forces emanating from planetary and stellar spheres which can also be represented in the pure mathematical thought forms of projective geometry and complex number matrices (fractals?) by constantly (metamorphically) varying their constants.)

    P.S. – I realise I have ‘snuck in’ another conception in critiquing those indicated in your lectures; that of ‘dimensional-inversion’. This excellent video (link below) helps demonstrate what I am trying to get at with this term by adding ‘inward/outward’ as a fourth dimensional dynamic to the three of front/back, up/down and right/left. Please watch it and then observe the leaf-metamorphic forms as they emerge in organic time out of any plant’s growing-points.

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