From Hegel to Goethe
24 February 1821 (Excerpt)

Source: Hegel: The Letters, Clark Butler and Christine Seiler ed., Purdue Research Foundation, 1984.

This spiritual breath – it is of this that I really wished to speak and that alone is worth speaking of – is what has necessarily given me such great delight in Your Excellency’s exposition of the phenomena surrounding entopic colours. What is simple and abstract, what your strikingly call the Urphänomen, you place at the very beginning. You then show how intervention of further spheres of influence and circumstances generates the concrete phenomena, and you regulate the whole progression so that the succession proceeds from simple conditions to the more composite, and so that the complex now appears in full clarity through this decomposition. To ferret our the Urphänomen, to free it from those further environs which are accidental to it, to apprehend as we say abstractly – this I take to be a matter of spiritual intelligence for nature, just as I take that course generally to be the truly scientific knowledge in this field. Newton and the entire community of physicists following him, on the other hand, lay hold of no matter what composite phenomenon, rush to fix themselves in it, and end up putting the cart before the horse, as the saying goes. It has happened in this connection that they have made out circumstances immaterial to the natural state [Urstand] of the matter to be its conditions, even when such circumstances were merely the result of the mishap of putting the cart before the horse. And then they force, botch, and falsify everything before and after wily-nilly into the mould. Yet they are not lacking for something Ur here. They bring on a metaphysical abstract entity. As created spirits they place an inner worthy of themselves into the phenomena – a content they have created for them. Ensconced in this centre, they are delighted by the wisdom and splendour – and are just as serious workmen – as the Freemasons in Solomon’s Temple.

Regarding the Urphänomen, the story occurs to me which Your Excellency adjoins to the Theory of Colours – the story of how you looked with Büttner’s downward refracting prisms at the wall and still saw nothing but a white wall. This story greatly facilitated my access to the theory of colours. And whenever I now have to deal with this general subject, I see the Urphänomen before me: I see Your Excellency with Büttner’s prisms, observing the white wall and seeing nothing but white. But may I now still speak to you of the special interest that an Urphänomen, thus cast in relief, has for us philosophers, namely that we can put such a preparation – with Your Excellency’s permission – directly to philosophical use. But if we have at last worked our initially oyster-like Absolute – whether it be grey or entirely black, suit yourself – through towards air and light to the point that the Absolute has itself come to desire this air and light, we now need window placements so as to lead the Absolute fully out into the light of day. Our schemata would dissipate into vapour if we tried to transfer them directly into the colourful yet confused society of this recalcitrant world. Here is where Your Excellency’s Urphänomen appear so admirably suited to our purpose. In this twilight – spiritual and comprehensible by virtue of its simplicity, visible and apprehensible by virtue of its sensuousness – the two worlds greet each other: our abstruse world and the world of phenomenal being [Dasein]. Thus out of rocks and even something metallic Your Excellency prepares for us granite, which we can easily get a handle on because of its Trinitarian nature and which we can assimilate – no doubt more easily than your many somewhat degenerate children may allow themselves to be returned to your lap. For a long time we have gratefully had to acknowledge that you have vindicated the plant world in its simplicity – and ours.

In response, Goethe wrote to Hegel on April 13: “Seeing that you conduct yourself so amicably with the Urphänomen, and that you even recognize in me an affiliation with these demonic essences, I first take the liberty of depositing a pair of such phenomena before the philosopher’s door, persuaded that he will treat them as well as he has treated their brothers.” The two gifts were an opaque stained glass wine glass which Goethe had described in the Theory of Colours and a prism of the sort used in optics. the wine glass was dedicated: “The Urphänomen very humbly begs the Absolute to give it a cordial welcome.”


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