Newton’s science, and its inherent paradigm, did not just offer a world that appeared to Newton’s successors as highly mechanical; it assumed a world that was “objective” – that contained certain unequivocal givens that existed regardless of the observer or the observer’s point of view. These givens were lying in wait for discovery by the scientist who would then reveal their shining reality to the cheering world.
Remnants of this attitude of objective reality remain in evidence today, but what I wish to consider, as my title suggests, is the broader issue of the lie of objectivity. In particular, I wish to discuss the contributions to the dismantling of this lie made by William Blake and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at the close of the 1700s and Friedrich Nietzsche in the century that followed, and I wish to draw new connections between these three, all of whom understood that a science or a moral code that demands that we regard the world as a given reality is a lie. In all three cases, their fight against the lie is eloquent and passionate. In the case of the first two, they often called that lie ‘Newton.’ Newton was for them synecdochic for a mechanistic, deterministic, absolutist and reductionist system that it was their life’s crusade to lyse.
Nietzsche openly fêted Goethe. Goethe was, for him, affirmation, totality, life and energy. Indeed, in Götzen-Dämmerung, Nietzsche enthuses that Goethe ‘is not separated from the life…; he disciplines himself to the whole, he created himself’ (…löste sich nicht vom Leben ab …; er diszipliniert sich zur Ganzheit, er schuf sich) (1888b: 1024); ‘he said yes to everything’ [er sagte Ja zu allem] (1888b: 1025). In his poem ‘An Goethe’ in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, he refers to Goethe as ‘a rolling world-wheel’ (Welt-Rad, das rollende). My alignment of these two should thus hold no surprises. And I am not quite the first to note the consanguinity between Blake and Goethe, although the single study of their affinity, Martin Bidney’s Blake and Goethe , concentrates on a more psychological aspect of an ontological alignment. I will engage with their mutual resistance to absolutism and implicit endorsement of a relativistic understanding of reality. My placing Blake and Nietzsche side by side may shock many, and there are many issues where they could be regarded as antithetical. However, in their responses to the lie of objective reality, I see them as being unrecognised allies. As Blake’s work remained in obscurity until the mid-1900s, it is highly unlikely that Nietzsche knew of his existence. Blake’s complete poetry, however, is festooned with cross-references to the same idea voiced differently in Nietzsche. I will discuss this congeneracy as I consider their joint resistance to the ‘thing mentality’ or Dingschema that assumes a world of given objects – what Niels Andersen dubs an ‘ontological’ world view (2003: xi). It is one that German philosopher, Niklas Luhmann, argues began to wane at the conclusion of the 1700s with the end of feudalism as political absolutism (1984: 427-428).
As Luhmann points out, this assumption of a given reality is inappropriate (1992: 131) – and yet it is significant that, as the twentieth century closes, he still has to debate the issue rather than merely mention it as axiomatic. The problem with which Blake, Goethe and Nietzsche wrestled remains with us. When we consider the date of Luhmann’s postulated change from absolute to what he labels ‘functional’ thinking (which for clarity I will more often call ‘relative’), one could point to Kant and his emphasis in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft of 1781 upon the individual’s contribution to the perception of reality and knowledge. Sebastian Gardner (1999), for example, takes this tack, pointing out that pre-Copernican systems (that is, systems of understanding reality before Kant) assume that objects have a being and constitution of their own. Such systems ponder ‘real things’ or ‘givens’ and how we might gain knowledge of them (Gardner, 1999: 38). Luhmann proffers a different angle that would see Kant’s Kritik as a symptom rather than instigator of this change: he examines the role of developing ‘functional’ systems at the close of the eighteenth century as feudalism ablated.
Although his theory offers many insights, I will adopt a different perspective and examine the individual contribution of my three named protagonists. Their thoughts can indeed be regarded as outcomes of developing systems – as examples of ‘functional’ rather than ontological thinking, that is, ‘ontological’ in the sense of Andersen (2003) where it denotes thinking in terms of things and absolutes. Kant’s theory would in that sense also be regarded as a response to developing systems, giving voice to the growing awareness that reality is not absolute. One could say that Kant took us to this point without recognising its consequences, in that he foreclosed the existence of theDing-an-sich without himself abandoning it. However, the reaction of an individual to a stimulus depends, as Kant tells us, not only on the stimulus, but also on the imagination of that individual and what that individual brings to the complex to be perceived and this is the aspect I wish to foreground. As a result, I will concentrate on the individual imaginative response of each of my writers to that socially developing maelstrom rather than merely regard their work through the lens of social change.
The fight against the lie of objectivity can itself be seen from many possible angles. I will concentrate on some aspects that strike me as salient, beginning with morality. Precisely because an absolutist worldview encountered in science is the same worldview that informs us that absolute good and bad exist, it is a ‘scientising’ of morality; it is the sort of thing Nietzsche, in Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, complained also went on with regard to history. It has, au fond, the premise of absolute values. Blake, Goethe and Nietzsche all understood that resistance to absolutes in science had its counterpart in the domain of morals. They each sought to demonstrate that morals have been constructed and are not absolute; that what is held as being absolutely good could just as easily be considered bad. Thus Nietzsche poses the question in Zur Genealogie der Moral: what if ‘good’ represented ‘a retrogression’ (ein Rückgangssymptom) and was also a danger? (1886/1887: 768) It is in this context that we must consider Blake’s reversal of the roles of Jesus and Satan in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and his rewriting the stories of creation and the fall in his prophecies. The fact that one can build ‘a Heaven in Hell’s despair’ or build ‘a Hell in Heaven’s despite’ (1794: 19) similarly suggests possible reversals. This very act impeaches the absolute authority of church and bible, as well as posing the question: what, then, is ‘good’? Is it the thing with the name ‘good’ or something else? As Blake expresses it, ‘From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy’ (1790: 34). That passivity is exactly what Nietzsche fought when he called morals life denying (1886/1887: 767 & 900). In fact, the whole of Genealogie is Nietzsche’s own mythopoeic representation of the genesis of western morals, in which he destabilises any absolute understanding of ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ His gravamen there is the lie of objectivity as it pertains to morals. He protests against the acceptance of values as given, as unquestionable facts: ‘One took the value of these as given, as actual, as beyond all questioning’ (1886/1887: 768). Nietzsche believes his corpus as a whole involves a ‘reversal of all values’ (1888/1889: 1235; 1888: 1152). Goethe also demonstrates the constructed nature of ideals when he reverses values in his poemPariah (1821: 361-367), and overturns the conventional categories of Mediator and Magdalen. The mutability of truth and falsehood is also reflected in Goethe’s comment to Hegel that one can reverse true and false (18th October 1827: 670). For these poets, nothing belongs ipso facto to a pre-assigned, absolute category.
An assumption of absolute good and absolute authority underpinned the church’s decrees and regulations, sexual and otherwise. The three writers understood that these rules were based on a constructed reality that was not necessarily the best one, yet it was one that claimed to be absolutely true. They saw the regulations as confining legitimate and beneficial freedom. Thus Nietzsche railed: what we understand by the term ‘morals’ is a concealment of an ‘impoverished’ life behind the ‘most holy names’ and ‘formulae’ – in fact, a ‘will for the end,’ for death (1882: 903). Morals, he repines, ‘deny life’ (1882: 903).
Life, as they saw it, was energy-laden and not to be diminished by pusillanimous laws controlling its complex dynamism. Thus Blake’s Jesus ‘was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules’ (1790: 43). He expresses similar sentiments in his adage, “
He has observ’d the Golden Rule
Til he’s become the Golden Fool (1861: 508).
Goethe agrees: ‘say what one wants, all rules destroy’ (1774: 15).
If good and bad are constructed rather than absolute, how does this construction take place? Why and how do these values become thought of as God-given rather than humanly invented? Both Blake and Nietzsche address this issue specifically. Both agree that we forget the origins of our ideas once they have been in the community for a while. As Blake expresses it:
The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive. …Thus men forget that All deities reside in the human breast (1790: 38).
Nietzsche’s whole task in Genealogie is to make his history of provenance plausible so people can re-construct the past, to suggest what might have taken place to yield our current situation. Both Nietzsche and Blake delight in mythopoeic reconstructions of possible pasts. For neither is history a collection of immutable ‘facts.’ In one of Blake’s tellings of Genesis, Urizen (a figure of reason, as his onomatopoeic name implies) took ‘the laws of prudence, and call’d them / The eternal laws of God’ (1794a: 83). In Nietzsche’s telling, the priests perform a similar task. Nietzsche’s correspondence to the prudence of Blake is manifested by a series of epithets which make amusing translations into English. He talks of their ‘on-the-door-standing,’ their ‘inevitable waiting-compulsion’ that is called ‘patience’, a virtue; inability to act is called willing inaction so incapacity becomes another virtue (1886/1887: 791).
Blake expands the theme of constructed good and evil further in Jerusalem, describing both the very process of reifying the abstract and then giving that reification holy powers of negation:
They take Two Contraries which are called Qualities, with which
Every substance is clothed; they name them Good and Evil
From them they make an Abstract, which is a Negation
Not only of the Substance from which it is derived
A murderer of its own Body: but also a murderer
Of every Divine Member: it is the Reasoning Power
An Abstract objecting power, that Negatives everything (1804: 152-153).
This is the kind of process that Nietzsche describes in Genealogie. The qualities of the ruling class and powerful first became known as good, but the priests then reversed that notion. Either way, there is a reification of and making absolute values that is inappropriate. As Blake says, they forget the human origins of these holy things. It is essentially the destructive negation involved in this kind of morality that grieves Nietzsche. He regards it as a denial of the basis of evolutionary process and progress, and thus of the laws underpinning life. It is ‘a will to nothing, an aversion to life, a revolt against the conditions of life’ (1886/1887: 430).
Goethe does not theorise at quite the same philosophical level as Blake and Nietzsche do; his attack is more specific in its focus. Its import, however, is similar. For example, he campaigns against the negation of prudish sexual morals in Die Braut von Korinth, where the girl dies of grief in the convent to which she has been sent and then appears to her lover as a vampire. The convent was for her a death sentence. Here, anti-sexual negation is a form of human sacrifice:
Opfer fallen hier,
Weder Lamm noch Stier,
Aber Menschenopfer unerhört
[Victims fall here,
Neither lamb nor bull,
But people victimised outrageously] (1797: 268).
The sacrifice of the lamb in religion has become the sacrifice and death of the daughter. This is a stultifying, murdering religion. Nietzsche affirms this view of morals when he refers to morality ‘as vampirism’ (1888: 1158). Blake similarly employs the trope of a vampire in his untitled poem which begins, ‘I saw a chapel all of gold, / Which none did dare to enter in…’ (1861: 467) – none, that is, except a snake, which ultimately desecrates the holy bread and wine. I read this phallic snake, the only one who does dare force its way in, as a priest – a priest who destroys what should be holy so that the people are deprived. It is a vampire priest that slimes what is preciously Christian and, in a final gesture of putrefaction, vomits on the white altar. In this image of the priest, then, he anticipates what Nietzsche will say more outspokenly later, both in Genealogieand in Der Antichrist, where he says the priest is recognised as ‘the most dangerous type of parasite,’ ‘life’s actual venomous spider’ (1888/1889: 208).
The relativity of moral values, the reversibility of the ciphers ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ points to the issue of the arbitrary nature of words and all three poets recognise that words or names have no absolute reference or significance. As Goethe’s Mephistopheles argues, it doesn’t matter what name you give something, say, happiness, heart, God. Such things are interchangeable. Feeling is what is important (thus introducing the concept of self-reference – reference to inner state rather than outer absolute). Names are as solid as smoke; they are an outer, removable attachment:
Nenn’s Glück! Herz! Gott!
Ich habe keinen Namen
Dafür! Gefühl ist alles;
Name ist Schall und Rauch
Nenn’s luck! Heart! God!
I have no name
For it! Feeling is all;
Name is sound and smoke (1808: 407).
Goethe expresses similar ideas in a letter to Lavater in 1781, where he opines that concepts such as God and Satan, heaven and earth do not refer to absolutes or things; they are merely humanly-given names, welling from their own inner nature (1781: 353). They are but constructions or inventions from within – projections of our feelings – which returns us to the similar statement made by Blake quoted in the section above (1790: 38). The fact that he reverses Jesus and Satan, heaven and hell indicates his understanding that words are not absolutes, but rather symbols that indicate relationships.
Nietzsche expands this same realisation in several places. He states it very succinctly inDie Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen, where he argues that words are ‘only symbols for the relation of things to one another and to us’; nowhere do they touch us as ‘the absolute truth’ (1876: 390). In Über Wahrheit und Lüge im auβermoralischen Sinn, he debunks the equating of words with truth. Words, he maintains, are an arbitrary, metaphorical choice we make, and truth statements are nothing but an expression of human relationships to things. A word is nothing more than the ‘depiction of a nerve stimulation in sound’ (Die Abbildung eines Nervenreizes in Lauten) (1873: 312); it is arbitrarily chosen. Words merely indicate relationships of things to people, and are a bold use of metaphors. He restates his case as he refers to the double metaphor that occurs in the use of words. First, the nerve stimulation is made into an image, and second, the image is transferred into a sound (1873: 312). He concludes from this that what is claimed as absolute truth is just ‘an army of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms’ denoting ‘human relationships’ (1873: 314). In other words, ‘truth is invented’ (1873: 311).
If one has recognised that truths are expressions of relationships and not absolute givens, then the lie of absolute objectivity perpetrated in the Newtonian paradigm becomes particularly rankling. Thus Nietzsche fulminates against the ‘tyranny of truth and science’ (1882: 51). He scorns those who quell their passions and fantasies; they call themselves realists and mean that the world as they see it is the only true created world (1882: 77). Again, there is a covering up: the dignified epithet ‘Realist’ is employed, but what that ironic cipher hides is a lie, a view of the world that acknowledges only one of many possible perspectives, that of the speaker, and denies all others.
This valorisation of an ontological paradigm with its putative things and facts necessarily occludes the world of imagination and passions, a world that Blake, Goethe and Nietzsche all prize. They want to alert people to other truths than sensory ones. There is urgency and frustration in their message, as the world seems dull of hearing and totally spellbound by materiality. Real vision, Blake informs them, is not physical sensation, a reduced reality, but prophecy: ‘One Power alone makes a Poet. — Imagination The Divine Vision’ (1815: 665).
Blake was not an empirical poet like Pope before him, presenting empirical truths in beautiful language. He emphasises, on the contrary, that he is a visionary; that he sees things the eyes do not see. He asserts that spiritual truths and imagination are more important that empiricism. (When he wants to build Jerusalem in England, in the poemMilton, the Jerusalem he is building is a place where people understand the importance of imagination.) He sees himself as inspired, rather than as recording any kind of empirical reality, and thus claims that Europe was dictated by a fairy. Africa, he says, is a song of Los the eternal prophet. It is with this in mind that Donald Ault, in Visionary Physics writes:
When Blake referred to himself as a ‘visionary’ he was consciously flying in the face of a whole network of traditions [which …] he called ‘Single vision and Newton’s sleep’. As a visionary, Blake was siding with a point of view commonly associated in the eighteenth century with madness, eccentricity and impracticality (1974: xi).
He adds: ‘In this stance he opposed Newton’s system of the world, even though Newton, too, was charged with having concocted a visionary model of the world’ (1974: xi).
Goethe, like Blake, values not the empirical acumen lauded by the new science, but his powers of imagination, his Einbildungskraft (1774: 8). His alter-ego character, Werther, uses this imagination to create and sustain his own private world: ‘I return to me and find a world’ (1774: 13). Glowingly, he refers to ‘the warm heavenly phantasy’ (1774: 9) and, like Blake, feels the presence of a world beyond the material. Just as Blake was aware of a poetic force within, Werther, too, feels inner forces that produce his creativity, powers that he cannot, in fact, share with the common people to whom he speaks as they would fail to understand.
Similarly, Nietzsche’s character, Zarathustra, sees himself as a prophet, a visionary. His imagery and vocabulary can often be traced back to the words of Jesus (for example, 1883/1885: 385, 391, 392, 393). There are statements such as ‘Who has ears which hear’ (1883/1885: 408) or ‘Verily, I say unto you’ (1883/1885: 422) which directly mimic Jesus’ words. These, and allusions to the Mount of Olives (1883/1885: 422), are all reminders of Zarathustra’s prophetic status. And who is this prophet? He describes himself as a seer, a creator and the bridge to the future (1883/1885: 393). All three of these mythopoeic worlds challenge the hegemonic empiricist and mechanistic system of the day, directly confronting the lie of objectivity.
The lie of objectivity recognises a single immutable truth. Observer position or input to the acquisition of knowledge is of no consequence. This is another aspect of the lie that none of these poets could abide. Reflecting Kant’s philosophy, but with no record of his actually having read it, Blake wrote in a letter to Trusler on 23rd August 1799: ‘As a man is So he Sees’ (1799: 702.). We do not see an absolute that is there; we see what our individual constitution leads us to see. Similarly, in his annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses, he writes: ‘Every Eye Sees differently As the Eye – Such the Object’ (1798: 645). These statements acknowledge the importance of observer, of perspective; they deny any idea of a singular truth for all occasions. His regarding the Bible as poetry rather than given truth is another aspect of this worldview: ‘The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art’ (1826/1827: 274); ‘The Whole Bible is fill’d with Imaginations & Visions from End to End’ (1820: 664).
The very young Goethe already resisted absolutes and references to them (rather than to the self). He expressed such notions as early as 1773 in a humorous snippet entitledKatechisation. This satirical etching adopts the format of a traditional church catechism recital, with the authority figure (here, Lehrer) questioning the inductee on matters of doctrine. Prescribed, learned responses are expected. In Goethe’s rendition, however, the child fails to proffer traditional church-dictated rejoinders, responding instead with totally mundane, natural explanations (Think child – from where did your gifts come? They don’t come from yourself. Everything I have is from Papa. And where did he get them? From Granddad. And where did he get them? – all the time trying to force the child to say they were a gift from God, but the child merely concludes that granddad took them) (1773: 216-217).
Nietzsche is particularly outspoken on the topic of mutable truths. There is no such thing as an absolute truth as far as he is concerned. He juggles truth and lie, claiming to be the one who has discovered the truth of ‘the lie as lie’ (1888: 1152). His ‘genius’ is in his ’nostrils,’ that is, not in rationality or vision (1888: 1152). He argues in Der Wille zur Macht that what we accept as truth is what suits us, rather than what is (and what suits is power) (1926b: 44-45), concluding, ‘therefore, there is no truth’ (1926b: 45). As a consequence, there is no absolute, observer independent truth. Furthermore, it is an ‘idle hypothesis’ to imagine that things possess a constitution in themselves, quite ‘apart from interpretation and subjectivity’ (1926b: 58-59).
Because of their alternative system of values – where vision and imagination, energy and passion are all apotheosised rather than rationality – all three writers are vociferous when it comes resisting the prevailing hagiolatry of reason. They acknowledge no absolute of reason. And all three fail to exclude madness, shunned by the rationality of the time. Thus Blake writes: ‘Cowper [dead in fact] came to me and said. O that I were insane always… Can you not make me truly insane [?]. …[M]ad is a refuge from unbelief – from Bacon, Newton, Locke’ (1817: 663). Madness was one way of retaining sanity and a way of resisting the lie of objectivity. To repeat Ault’s words, as a visionary, ‘Blake was siding with a point of view commonly associated in the eighteenth century with madness, eccentricity and impracticality’ (1974: xi). This returns us to themes of poetry and prophecy, but now in the context of madness. Reason has not discerned the truth; it relates to a different tradition. Madness, related since ancient times to poetry and prophecy, can reveal truth. Plato outlined the relationship of poetry, prophecy and madness in Phaedrus when all three (along with love) were seen as gifts from the gods. Blake’s ‘Poetic Genius’ is a visionary, madness-related source of truth – a furor poeticus– with inner insight that is contrary to Newton’s absolutes (1789: 1). Blake’s abhorrence of an unimaginative, mechanistic and reductionist world of grains of absolute and quantifiable truth is strongly seen in his untitled poem from his Notebook of 1800/1803 which begins, ‘Mock on, Mock on Voltaire, Rousseau.’ Democritus’ theory of atomism, Voltaire’s theories, Newton’s particles of light are all theories sent into the wind. Only faith can overcome such elemental empiricism and the lie of absolutism underpinning it (1800/1803: 477-478).
Goethe, too, resisted the tyranny of reason, recognising, like Blake, that anti-reason, or “madness”, held many benefits. In Werther, there are several occasions in which he reverses rationality and madness. On one such, Werther asks God in a rhetorical question whether he has so constructed humans that they are not happy when they have reason and only become so if they lose it (1774: 90). Besides, as Werther argues in a different section, who is going to determine what madness is? The people of ‘reason’? (1774: 54) The madman does not see himself as mad, and perhaps his life is better than ours. Once more, he is acknowledging a perspectival position, not one of absolutes.
Nietzsche’s acceptance of madness is similarly related to his abjuration of absolutes. His perspectival view meant that, for him, there could be no ‘madness’ as an ontological entity. He also recognised that Wahnsinn, or madness, could be positive rather than negative. He thus ponders whether there could be ‘neuroses of health,’ once more trying to effect a reversal of commonly held values (1872: 13). He posits the notion of madness, not as a curse, but the greatest of gifts (1872: 13). Related to this, he opines at one point that health and illness are not ‘substantially different’ (1926a: 37). His character Zarathustra represents a chaos of the future that seems mad to the herd with its different perspective. Whilst others may label Zarathustra as the repudiation of logic, as ‘mad,’ for Nietzsche he was Superman and offered the world the greatest insights it had seen. From Nietzsche’s perspective, the chaos that Zarathustra represented was the complexity of poetic insight; his perspective was not that of the masses. For Nietzsche, there is no single absolute reality and, therefore, no ontological reality of madness. Nietzsche, Goethe and Blake herald in these attitudes the modern understanding that there is neither madness nor reason – but rather, an observer drawing contingent distinctions.
Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie can be read as a critique of rationalism. Nietzsche traces the overemphasis on ratiocination and conscious knowledge, not to Descartes, as is so often done, but to Socrates. His argument against the limits of conscious reasoning is that it battles the primordial spirit of creativity and the will to life – a will represented by the Dionysian spirit and expressed from the beginning in music. Science – brute knowledge, a deus ex machina – stones that joyous force which itself gives meaning to life. Even hallowed physics, a domain that some like to regard as describing immutable truths, Nietzsche exposes in Jenseits von Gut und Böse as another description of relationships, and not absolute reality. It is ‘only one interpretation of the world.’ one of many possible (1886: 578).
The lie of objective reality is a dangerous one. Untruths are upheld as unquestionable. Life is negated and blunted. Science cannot progress if it believes its statements holy. Human experience is not as rich as it could be if we blindly accept false values. Blake, Goethe and Nietzsche were alive to these problems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and this insight binds them together in their quest to expose the lie.
Translations from German editions of Goethe and Nietzsche have been provided by the editors.
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