Original Research

'Man muss die Dinge sich vor Augen halten ...': Goethe’s and Adorno’s aesthetic programmes as a critique of Modernity

S. Mühr
Literator | Vol 32, No 3 | a210 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v32i3.210 | © 2011 S. Mühr | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 30 July 2011 | Published: 30 July 2011

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S. Mühr, Department of Modern European Languages, University of Pretoria, South Africa

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Early on in his acquaintance with Goethe, Schiller criticised Goethe‟s „philosophy‟ as too subjective: „It takes too much from the world of [the] senses, whereas I take from the soul.‟ Today, subjectivity is the opposite to the „objective‟ world experienced via the senses – a view that can be traced back to the early Scotist thinking on subjective versus objective truth.

In the first part of this article, close textual analysis of Goethe‟s Farbenlehre („On the theory of colour‟) and Wahlverwandtschaften („Elective affinities‟), demonstrates how Goethe aligns the cognition of truth with a subjective function of participatory observation; which he sees as truly empirical. These texts from very different genres execute the same aesthetic programme, in which the narrator withdraws to invite the reader to see for him-/ herself. In the second part, Goethe‟s concept of participatory truth-finding is compared to Adorno‟s aesthetic theory – Adorno claims that only the non-identical appears momentarily in artwork. The comparison between Goethe‟s „Aperçu‟ and Adorno‟ s „Apparition‟, Goethe‟s „zarte Empirie‟ and Adorno‟s incommensurable insight of art, supports the argument that Adorno‟s dilemma in grappling with the absolute can be overcome by using Goethe‟s relativising stance. This approach interprets knowledge as a set of cultural-historical concepts, emphasising the pivotal position and relevance of literary studies.


Actuality; Adorno; Elective Affinities; Farbenlehre; Goethe; On The Theory Of Colour; Subjectivity; Objectivity; Wahlverwandtschaften


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