Goethe's essay on experiment

I’ve been thinking about Goethe’s essay about experiment – Der Versuch als Mittler von Objekt und Subjekt – in relation to my recent, dogged circling about Kierkegaard’s ‘experiments’.

Kierkegaard might have read it – it was published in 1790, and then in Goethe’s scientific works – but then again, he might not. Kierkegaard’s mature work is directed against not only Hegel, but also against Goethe – representatives, both, for the system of modernity, with its elimination of the religious ‘stage’, against which Kierkegaard fought.

And yet, Kierkegaard’s very use of the term experiment shows – as he must have known – that he fought from within the net, the vast net of the Great Transformation, the net beneath the Artificial Paradise. Roger Poole quotes a passage in a memoir of Kierkegaard written by his friend, Hans Brochner, who wrote:

“ I once walked through a whole street with him while he explained how one can make psychological studies by so putting oneself en rapport to passer-by[s]. As he explained his theory, he put it into practice with almost everyone we met. There was no one on whom his glance did not make an obvious impression. On the same occasion he surprised me by the easy way he took up a conversation with all sorts of people. In some few talks he picked up an earlier conversation and carried it forward to a point where he could pick it up again as opportunity served.” [167]

Oh, these city walks!

Je vais m'exercer seul à ma fantasque escrime,
Flairant dans tous les coins les hasards de la rime,
Trébuchant sur les mots comme sur les pavés
Heurtant parfois des vers depuis longtemps rêvés.

Further on in his account, Bochner uses the word “experiment” to describe these walks. And here we should recall that the early modern idea of experiment was closely linked to the term, experience. The introduction of observation – of an experience for the sake of experience, like a card game played for the sake of the game – brings us, I think, to the roots of Kierkegaard’s attraction to the word – while at the same time the “experiment” is always ironic, rather than scientific.

In fact, Kierkegaard, in spite of putting Repetition under the sign of the psychological experiment, seems incurious about the category of the scientific.

Goethe, of course, was not. He was, among other things, a scientist, which is why his essay on the experiment is infused with his own experience – and takes up, from the beginning, the deep connection between Versuch (which can also be an Essay) and Erfahrung.

I don’t have time today to do justice to Goethe’s essay. Later.


Anonymous said…
LI, just an aside.

I wonder if the question of "translation" is relevant or involved here, if not inescapable. Let's say, in relation to experience, experiment, science - and shall we say "modernity".

I don't know if SK read Goethe's text and its connection between Versuch and Erfahrung. And I wonder about the translations. Erfahurng in English is often rendered by experience. As is Erleibnis. There is a difference?

And what about "in" Danish? As one knows, SK made a big deal about writing in Danish. He petitioned the authorities to be able to write his dissertation in Danish rather than Latin as was required. And there is the combat with German, his "discovery" of the word for repetition in Danish to rival Hegel's famous claim about the genius of the German language as it had the word aufhebung.

But I'm not being properly historical materialist here, and perhaps inattentive to social relations. Apparently, what comes out of the mouth of the old order is immaterial, or what comes in the ear. Which apparently has nothing to do with social relations and institutions and their limits. A strange tongue in the ear or mouth.

Là pas d'espérance,
Nul orietur.
Science avec patience,
Le supplice est sûr.


roger said…
Damn, I left a long message, didn't copy it, and the comments machine ate it.

I said in it - right on, Amie! And that is the oddity of K.'s using Experimentieren - it isn't Danish. Certainly Versuch is not in the family of "experiment" and "experience" - and its use, by Goethe, is part of the continuing discomfort, I think, with the word and concept, which takes hold in the 17-18th century, but only gradually accrues a tight protocol.

I think G.'s essay is a point at which experiment starts to divide between, on the one hand, the controlled and artificially created experience that is, as it were, always already repeated - and the idea of the experiment as something radically new, breaking with the repetitions - the routines - of the past. There's a tangle here.