I left off in my last post speaking about intuitive understanding in Kant. In short, Kant says that it’s possible to think of a being that can survey the whole and its parts (or in the context of nature: the purpose and the mechanism) without having to resort to discursive thinking. I’ll leave this post short, it’s a complex subject, and I’d really have to deep-dive into Kant’s arguments, Spinoza’s relation to Goethe, the question of how the infinite, holometric relations, natura naturans etc. are to be understood. Since this blog is a hobby of mine, mostly written for myself, I’ll cut this post a bit short.
Kant thinks our understanding of nature is discursive, which means that we create abstract concepts which match a lot of phenomena we see in the world, but at the end of the day can’t really account for their variability and difference. Suppose for instance, that I make a general statement about ducks: «all ducks are animals», this must by necessity hold of ducks, but think about the statement «all ducks have two webbed feet». It is a rather typical trademark of ducks to have two webbed feet, but aren’t there examples of ducks born with one foot? Or ducks born without webbed feet?
So clearly, these general statements to some extent fail to account for this variability. Another way of putting it is that we can only to a certain extent predict something of ducks we have never seen, it is impossible for a duck to exist that is not an animal, but clearly, it’s possible to find ducks that have less or more than two feet.
Here, one might argue that a duck that lacks webbed feet would be less adapted to its environment, it wouldn’t function that well. This ties in well with Kant’s teleological arguments. But is it intrinsic to the nature of a duck to function? Does that mean that being a duck is a set of characteristics and capacities that make it capable of functioning within its environment? If so, are we saying that that is the purpose of the duck, or simply that it is the case? We can’t argue the latter because there are ducks that are less adapted to their environment, which means that either it is not the case that ducks have these characteristics that make them function within their environment, or – those “dysfunctional” ducks, simply aren’t really ducks, making “dysfunctional duck” a misnomer.
As I already mentioned in the previous post, Kant sees this type of classification as a regulatory principle, it’s a sort of general conceptual scheme we impose on the objects in order to make sense of them, and so it isn’t necessarily a feature of the objects upon which we impose this scheme. What this means is that we can’t help ourselves but try to make sense of organisms by way of this scheme, but on the other hand it leads to an approach that is mired in conjecture and complications, as we have seen.
The other approach Kant mentions, the intuitive understanding is something he reserves as an example of what we could imagine an understanding to look like, that can see the whole and the parts intuitively. Kant calls this an intuitive as opposed to a discursive understanding. A discursive understanding looks at a multitude of phenomena and subsumes them under categories they have in common (like breastfeeding in mammals), excluding their dissimilarities (egg-laying in platypi). Such an understanding amounts to a conceptual grasp of what the single objects have in common.
An intuitive understanding (Intuition) is immediately given and isn’t conceptual, but intuitive (anschauuend). What this means is that the whole (which the general concept represents in discursive understanding) is not seen as separated from the parts which are viewed.
Kant says that such a form of understanding is possible, that is, we’re capable of thinking of such a power although we don’t possess it, and this is where Goethe gets in. Goethe argues that when we look at nature as a producer of life we shouldn’t hold back against this kind of understanding if we can raise ourselves to a point where we can produce the forms of nature out of ourselves.
A plant is a whole, and its leaves, roots, buds, pistil etc. are parts of that plant. If we now look at a part, we are seeing a part of a whole, but, since this part cannot exist alone, the part itself necessarily raises the question of its relation to the whole of the plant. But on an even larger scale, any individual plant is also a part of that whole we call plants. What is common to the parts of the single plant is the whole of the plant, and what is common to plants is the fact that they are all plants. Unlike Plato, Goethe does not think that individual plants are imperfect expressions of a perfect divine form. Goethe thinks that we see the whole in every individual plant. This means that what a single plant is, tells us how the type expresses itself under certain conditions.
I wanted to make a lot of posts about what Steiner has to say about all of this, but instead, I decided to just summarize how Steiner expounds on the foundation of Goethe’s insights. Fundamentally Steiner sees the sun as a driving factor in life-processes. In plants, this is of course very intuitive since their life-processes are dependent on light in order to synthesize sugars and other substances. At one point in his lectures, Steiner says that the life of an organism is a superphysical cause causing a physical effect. Obviously, Steiner also believes light is something intrinsically superphysical, and hence, that a plant is essentially the expression of sunlight under specific earthly conditions.