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Goethe and Wittgenstein

  • M. W. Rowe

The influence of Goethe on Wittgenstein is just beginning to be appreciated. Hacker and Baker, Westphal, Monk, and Haller have all drawn attention to significant affinities between the two men's work, and the number of explicit citations of Goethe in Wittgenstein's texts supports the idea that we are not dealing simply with a matter of deeplying similarities of aim and method, but of direct and major influence. These scholarly developments are encouraging because they help to place Wittgenstein's work within an important tradition of German letters which goes far beyond his contemporaries and immediate forebears in Vienna; and they show that Wittgenstein's profound interest in literature and music is ceasing to be merely a matter of biographical anecdote, and is being used to illuminate some of the most central areas of his work.

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1 Baker, G. P. and Hacker, P. M. S., Meaning and Understanding (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), 301304.

2 Westphal, J., Colour: Some Philosophical Problems From Wittgenstein (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 8.

3 Monk, R., Ludwig Wittgenstein; The Duty of Genius (London: Cape, 1990), 303304, 509512, 561563.

4 Haller, R., ‘Was Wittgenstein a Neo-Kantian?’, p. 53, and ‘The Common Behaviour of Mankind’, p. 119, both in Questions on Wittgenstein (London: Routledge, 1988). In the first paper Haller attacks the once popular alignment of Wittgenstein and Kant.

5 Cavell, S., ‘The Availability of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy’, in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1976), 70. The final section of Cavell's essay is excellent on the matter of Wittgenstein's literary style, as is Bambrough, R., ‘How to Read Wittgenstein’ in Vesey, G. (ed.), Understanding Wittgenstein (London, 1974), 117132.

6 His attitude towards Fichte and Newton is nicely summarized by two verses in the Walpurgis Night dream sequence from Faust, part one, (trans. Luke, D., O.U.P., 1987):


The power of my Fantasy

Today seems much augmented.

I must say, if all this is me,

I'm temporarily demented.


Is substance now no longer sound,

Is something wrong with Matter?

I once stood four-square on the ground:

Today I'm all a-totter.

(Lines, , 4, 347–4, 354)

7 Letter to Schiller, 6.1.1798, Quoted in Wilkinson, E. M., ‘The Poet as Thinker’ in Goethe: Poet and Thinker (London: Edward Arnold, 1962), 138. In my exposition I have relied heavily on pp. 133–140 of this excellent essay.

8 Quoted in Hacker, and Baker, , op. cit. 7

9 Trevelyan, H., ‘Goethe as Thinker’ in Essays on Goethe, Rose, W., (ed.) (London: Cassell, 1949), 122.

10 The following works give a useful account of Goethe's scientific thought. Wells, G. A., Goethe and the Development of Science 1750–1900, (Alpen aan den Rijn: Sijthoff and Noordhoff, 1978); Nisbet, H. B., Goethe and the Scientific Tradition (London: Institute of Germanic Studies, 1972); Bortoft, H., Goethe's Scientific Consciousness (Tunbridge Wells: Institute for Cultural Research, 1986); Amrine, F., Zucker, F. J., Wheeler, H., (eds) Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 97 (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1987). The best short introduction remains, Heller, E., ‘Goethe and the Idea of Scientific Truth’ in his The Disinherited Mind (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1975), 334.

11 Goethe, , Theory of Colours, (Zur Farbenlehre), trans. Eastlake, C. L. (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1970). Hereafter ‘F’. Arabic numerals denote section numbers; Roman numerals denote pages of the introduction and prefaces.

12 I use the following abbreviations for Wittgenstein's works: ‘LC’, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), Barrett, C.: (ed.). ‘PI’, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1976), (ed.) Anscombe, G. E. M.; ‘Z’, Zettel (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967), Anscombe, G. E. M. and von Wright, G. H. (eds); ‘RC’, Remarks on Colour (Blackwell, Oxford, 1977) Anscombe, G. E. M. (ed.); ‘RFM’, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978) Anscombe, G. E. M., Rhees, R., and von Wright, G. H. (eds); ‘BB’, Blue Book (Oxford: Blackwell, 1964); ‘CV’, Culture and Value (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980) von Wright, G. H. (ed.); ‘T’, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973); ‘RPP’, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol. I, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980) Anscombe, G. E. M. and von Wright, G. H. (eds); ‘OC’, On Certainty, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969) Anscombe, G. E. M. and von Wright, G. H., (eds). Page numbers are used only in the absence of section numbers.

13 See Wilkinson, E. M., ‘Goethe's Conception of Form’ in Willoughby, and Wilkinson, , op. cit., 168184.

14 See Hartner, W., ‘Goethe and the Natural Sciences’ in Goethe: A Collection of Critical Essays (N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 153; Hacker, and Baker, op. cit., 301304; Wilkinson, , ‘Goethe's Conception of Form’, 184; Heller, , op. cit., 914.

15 See Hartner, op. cit., 153, and Wilkinson, , op. cit., 184.

16 Quoted in Heller, ibid., 7.

17 Heller, ibid., 7–8.

18 Heller, ibid., 6.

19 See Baker, and Hacker, , op. cit., 302.

20 The relationships between Goethe's concept of a Gestalt, the importance of this meeting with Schiller, and how these relate to Wittgenstein's discussion of ‘seeing-as’ are well brought out in Monk, , op. cit., 509512.

21 Goethe, , Die Schriften Zur Naturwissenschaft, herausgegeben im Auftrage der Deutschen Akademie der Narurforscher (Leopoldina) Weimar, 1947ff. I, 3 p. 308. Quoted in Nisbet, , op. cit., 51.

22 Goethe, , op. cit., I, 10, p. 393. Quoted in Nisbet, op. cit., 54.

23 The second passage is [RPP:I:950], quoted on p. 295.

24 Waismann, F., The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy, Harré, R., (ed.) (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965), 8081. The passage is quoted in Monk, , op. cit., 303304.

25 I adapt this expression from Isenberg, A., ‘Critical Communication’ in his Aesthetics and the Theory of Criticism, Callaghan, W. etc., (eds) (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1988), 167.

26 Haller, , op. cit., 118120.

27 I owe this point and the revised translation to Ray Monk.

28 This passage was brought to my attention by reading Haller, op. cit., 120.

29 Remark to Eckermann, , 02 18, 1829. Quoted in Amrine, etc. op cit., p. viii. See also, Bortoft, op. cit., 15.

30 Goethe, , Maximen and Reflexionen, no. 575, Hacker, Max (ed.), (Weimar, 1907). Quoted in Baker, and Hacker, op. cit., 285n. Wittgenstein quotes this remark again in [RPP: I:889] and I use the translation found there.

31 See, Westphal, , op. cit., 8.

32 Simon Glendinning drew my attention to this passage.

33 See Baker, and Hacker, op. cit., 301304.

34 Quoted in Monk, , op. cit., 561.

35 Bambrough, op. cit.

36 The expression is Michael Tanner's. See his introduction to Nietzsche, F., Daybreak (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1982), p. viii.

37 von Wright, G. H., Wittgenstein (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982), 34.

38 Marie McGinn has emphasized to me that Goethe and Wittgenstein hold fundamentally different ideas about the place of language in their investigations. Both believe that language can be seriously misleading, but whereas Wittgenstein thinks that the phenomena of the world become surveyable to us when we have obtained an overview of our language, Goethe thinks that we can only gain an overview of the phenomena by getting beyond language altogether.

39 See Baker, and Hacker, op. cit., 24.

40 Heidegger, M., On Being and Time (New York, 1972). Quoted in ‘Heidegger, and Rorty, on “The End of Philosophy”, Metaphilosophy, vol. 21, no. 3, 07 1990, 223. For Goethe's relation to Heidegger see Bortoft, , op. cit., 3839; for Heidegger's relation to Wittgenstein see Mulhall, S., On Being in the World: Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Seeing Aspects, (London: Routledge, 1990), 106122.

41 Quoted in Monk, , op. cit., 516.

42 Arnold, Matthew, ‘Heinrich Heine’ in Essays in Criticism, First Series, Super, R. H., (ed.) (Michigan: Univ. Michigan Press, 1962), 110.

43 I would like to thank Simon Glendinning, Marie McGinn and Ray Monk, for very useful criticisms of an earlier draft of this paper.

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