Why cultural studies?

By Valentin Wember, August 2013

Goetheanism in the humanities.

Reaching humanity: Goethe

Goetheanism in German lessons, in history lessons or in art appreciation? What would that look like? Goethe’s scientific approach concerned itself with nature, not with culture. Is there – alongside Goethean science – something akin to a Goethean approach to the humanities, and if yes, what is it? 

Rudolf Steiner appears to have been the first person who not only expressly called for a Goethean approach to cultural studies sharply delineated from Goethean science but also laid out its foundations. He did so as early as 1886 in his work The theory of knowledge implicit in Goethe’s world conception. The account of the 25-year-old Steiner, as brief as it is fundamental, can be found under the heading: “The humanities”. There is says: “Organic science is the highest form of natural science. It is the humanities that go beyond it. The latter demand an essentially different approach of the human spirit to its object of study from the natural sciences.”

Steiner thus clearly understood that the procedure which Goethe used to investigate nature cannot be transferred to the humanities on a one-to-one basis.

The difference would at first appear to be trivial: in the humanities “our consciousness has to do with spiritual content itself: with the individual human spirit, with creations of culture, of literature, with successive scholarly convictions, with creations of art”.

The initially simple difference thus lies in the fact that in the humanities an ideational element is already innate in the object of research itself while it first has to be revealed in the object of nature. But that leads to significant consequences: “Scholarship plays a different role here (with regard to culture, V.W.) than with regard to nature”.

What, then, is the different task and “mission” which scholarship has with regard to culture?

The result of Steiner’s investigations in the Theory of knowledge is: it is a matter of understanding where I myself want to start as a creator of culture. That, however, is considerably different from what we understand as “education” today. According to Steiner, the mission of the humanities lies in the important role they play with regard to the creative element in each person, with regard to discovering our own self. Human beings must “find the point where they can participate in the workings of the world”. And to this end they must “know the cultural world in order to determine their part in it according to such knowledge”.

We can now obtain some idea as to why Steiner attended hundreds of theatre performance, why he read and reviewed thousands of books, why he visited innumerable European museums and attended countless concerts: alongside the aesthetic pleasure, he was concerned to find the point at which he himself, as a creative artist, could start. The exhibitions and television broadcasts on occasion of the 150th anniversary of Stei­ner’s birth showed in an impressive way the intensity and originality with which Steiner was influential in shaping culture.

What, then, does that mean for teaching the humanities?

If we wanted to frame the answer to this question in the form of an inner address to the pupils, we might say: “Dear pupils, we want to understand what Homer and Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, Hosseini and Mouawad have done. We want to know and understand as much as we possibly can so that you can become increasingly aware of what you yourselves want to do and the way in which one or the other of you want to become involved in life.” In two sentences:

We want to learn in order to understand the world of culture.

We want to learn so that you can work on the world.

That means not just understanding what moves me, but understanding what I want to set in motion.

Thus a Goethean approach to the humanities is not primarily so much about any particular method or any technique of interpretation. To begin with it is about the consciousness of the higher goal. This goal is the cultural self-determination of the pupils. It is about the pupils being able to discover their very own mission in life; about them being able to enter into a dialogue with the impulses and motives of other people in history, literature and art, in order thereby to find themselves. Or, in Goethe’s words, in which I have only replaced the word “artist” with “pupil”: “If any speculative endeavour (theoretical reflections on literature, art or history, V.W.) is to be of benefit, it has to address the pupil directly, give vent to his or her natural fire so that it can spread and be active. Because it is about the pupil alone that he or she should feel no bliss in life other than in activity.” Many years ago, I fell into conversation with a pupil late one evening while we were washing up the dishes after a drama rehearsal.

“What do you want to do after school?” “If it works out, I want to study medicine and then join Médecins Sans Frontières.” “And what made you think of that?”

“It might sound funny, but you will understand: I want to become a modern Arthurian knight who  mediates between cultures. My one worry is whether I can really make it happen.”

This pupil must have entered into a real inner dialogue with Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. And what he read, felt and reflected on there allowed him – as Steiner writes in his Theory of knowledge – to find the point where he could participate in the workings of the world, to determined his part in the world in accordance with the knowledge he had acquired.


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