Goethe in Academe

Weimar, Privy Councillor J. W. von Goethe to Herrn Professor J. W. Worthy

Most praisworthy Herr Professor,

       On the subject of classics in literature, the ostensible theme of your correspondence, permit me to offer one more definition:

                               The classic remains constant, world and time circle round it.  

Among many possible examples of the universal circling, permit me to cite the world view of physics.  As you know, I myself explain the history of this science according to principles which your Thomas Kuhn then borrowed from me (sine obligo).  At the one apsis of swirling opinion may be found the extreme analytical world view, Newtonianism or, perhaps more correctly,  Baconianism.  At the other, lie the doctrines of chaos and fractals.

       My work with color perception operates from an epicenter consonant with the principles of Einstein and Schrödinger, accepting color phenomena as subjective states.  My Color Theory assumes that vision is an entirely subjective interpretation of optical-mechanical stimuli.  So you see how closely my chief scientific pursuit relates to your present concern with consciousness, apropos the problem which you raise in your letter to Katherine Anne?

       Wherever Newtonianism prevailed, studies of subjectivity were strictly proscribed.  It is true that in your century certain academic programs aspired to bring respectability to the field.  But harking back to Lord Bacon's admonition that science must focus on phenomena which can be "put to the test of experience," even these pioneers in the investigation of consciousness stuck to the physiology of the brain and its psychometrically determinable functions.  I suppose Newtonianism can never be banished from the schoolrooms, where a curious confusion prevails.  We may understand  "science" as an attempt to deal with the unknown, yet its fundamentally skeptical attitude could never long survive chalkdust, much less the stifling institutionalized organization of a university. Here "science" became universally understood as authoritative explanation of the hitherto unknown.  But science was ever able to show nature's conformity to established, scientific laws.  Scientists honestly felt that nature should docilely submit to physical description and explication.  Phenomena which could not be thus manhandled they relegated to the realm of the supernatural, by which was meant "unscientific," or bogus.

       Consciousness studies therefore faced an alternative.  On the one hand, the "scientist" might treat consciousness as a universal quality of nature, arguing for example that the unevenness in the microstructure of matter, as revealed through quantum mechanics, must lead to ubiquitous, interstitial awareness. Alternatively, one could seek to show that the conscious world conforms not to physics but to its own natural laws (which had yet to be winkled out).  Some even asked the question, what is consciousness for?  Physiological research into the quantum-mechanical basis for consciousness revealed that primitive life forms achieve threshold body mass during the Cambrian epoch.  From the vast proliferation of life forms during that geological period, researchers inferred that a newly developed organ, consciousness, must bestow significant survival value.  Their thinking was proceeding along lines of Darwinian competitiveness, which may seem less satisfactory when applied, as here, to the totality of the biomass.

       Consciousness is more than just awareness of self, for it carries with it the presumption that the conscious self will continue, and will find sustenance in its surroundings.  This dubious presumption no more serves the individual creature than does the inexorable death of an individual.  Like death, consciousness enhances the opportunism and adaptiveness of the entire population.  Life acquires an organ which extends the agony of individuals by the thousands, in order to achieve the survival of one--who will spawn thousands more with this new proclivity for self-deception.  Granted that this organ produces organelles, like calculation and self-interest, which do benefit the individual, even to the detriment of the community.  Still, consciousness remains deluded thrall to an omniverous, ever ruminant monster, Nature.

        Ah, I commit the indiscretion of quoting my own novel--odd that I hadn't noticed how you and its hero have the same name.  Werther will elect suicide in Part II, but in Part I, bemused by the myriad tiny creatures of springtime, and relating their fragile lives to the lives of his fellow men, Werther observes

how sweetly the well-to-do lovingly deck out their little gardens to be a paradise here on earth, and yet how even a poor wretch willingingly gasps onward under his heavy burden, both of them equally interested in seeing the sun shine down on their world for just one minute more.
wie artig jeder Bürger, dem es wohl ist, sein Gärtchen zum Paradiese zuzustutzen weiß, und wie unverdrossen dann doch auch der Unglückliche unter der Bürde seinen Weg fortkeucht, und alle gleich interessirt sind, das Licht dieser Sonne noch eine Minute länger zu sehn.

I believe Werther here hits upon the essence of that subjective experience we call consciousness, the sure sense that our individual existence must go on.  Anyone who has watched even a tiny insect struggle to live, or who has joined in the fervor of a religious hymn, knows that this certainty, be it illusory, characterizes all consciousness.

                                   With good wishes from your undying friend and patron,

                                                                                                                    Goethe.

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or see the correspondence with Goethe,                             but in any case please do send your comments.