Down to the Mothers

Down to the Mothers

Follow it down, ‘twil lead you to the Mothers. -Mephistopheles, from Goethe’s Faust, Part II

In Goethe’s mysterious tale of Faust, there is a very interesting scene which relates to the discussion of Husserlian phenomenology. Faust, Part II, Act I,  takes place in a dark gallery. Faust and Mephistopheles converse in private concerning Faust’s promise to the emperor to bring forth Paris and Helen in apparitional form:

Faust. The Emperor orders— straightway must it be—

Both Helena and Paris will he see,

Of man and woman in their true ideal

Demands to see the forms distinct and real.

To work! I gave my word— I must not break it.

Mephistopheles. A foolish promise— fool you were to make it.

Faust. Whither your powers lead us, friend,

You have not well reflected;

We first have made him rich— no end!

Now to amuse him we’re expected.

Mephistopheles. You fancy these things easy to arrange.

Here where we stand, the steps are steeper.

You grapple with a realm most strange,

And wantonly will plunge in debt still deeper.

You think that Helena is summoned here

As quickly as the paper spectres were.

With witches’ witchery and ghostly ghost,

With changeling dwarfs I’m ready at my post;

But devils’ darlings, though one may not flout them,

As heroines no one goes mad about them.

Faust. There you go harping on the same old chord!

Into uncertainty you always lead us,

Sire of all hindrances that can impede us;

For each new help you want a new reward.

Mutter a little and the deed is done;

She will be here ere I can turn me.

Mephistopheles. The heathen-folk do not concern me.

They occupy a hell that’s all their own.

But help there is.

Faust. Quick! Tell its history!

Mephistopheles. Not glad do I reveal a loftier mystery—

Enthroned sublime in solitude are goddesses;

Around them is no place, a time still less;

To speak of them embarrasses.

They are the Mothers!

Faust [terrified]. Mothers!

Mephistopheles. Do you fear?

Faust. The Mothers! Mothers! Strange the word I hear.

Mephistopheles. Strange is it. Goddesses, to men unknown,

Whom we are loath to name or own.

Deep must you dig to reach their dwelling ever;

You are to blame that now we need their favour.

Faust. Whither the way?

Mephistopheles. No way! To the Unexplorable,

Never to be explored; to the Unimplorable,

Never to be implored. Are in the mood?

There arc no locks, no bars are to be riven;

Through solitudes you will be whirled and driven.

Can you imagine wastes and solitude?1

What is this shadowy realm of “The Mothers?” It sounds a lot like Henry Corbin’s mundus imaginalis, or Jung’s archetypes of the collective unconscious. It also sounds very much like Giordano Bruno’s mater materia, the creative matrix from which all things are formed. Husserl was very fond of this metaphor. He used it to try and describe the world one enters when utilizing his transcendental reduction. When a person becomes acclimated to viewing the world phenomenologically, Husserl says, one can then

. . . find the way to the Mothers of knowledge, to discover their realm of pure consciousness, in which all being originates constitutively and out of which all knowledge as knowledge of what is must draw its ultimate intelligible explanation. Then one makes the initially astonishing discovery that here one is not dealing with incidental instances of incidental forms of consciousness. Rather with such words as “perception,” “memory,” expectation,” etc., one is dealing with nothing other than the science of the formations of the essence of consciousness as such, as the science of the Motherly origins (Hua XII, 233).2

The “realm of pure consciousness” is a place of emptiness, nothingness, and devoid of time, for Mephisto says, “Around them is no place, a time still less.” But yet in this realm are the essential structures of all existence. Professor James G. Hart writes:

We see that for Goethe, as well as for Husserl, the realm of “the Mothers” is not only the realm of the exemplars, forms and essences but also the roots or well-springs of life. It is what “holds the world together in the innermost way.” As such it is the source of the “finished” well-defined world and the meaning-dimensions which render this world intelligible.3

Mephisto tells Faust he will need a “little key” to access the world of the Mothers:

Mephistopheles. I praise you, truly, ere you part from me,

Since that you understand the Devil I can see.

Here, take this key.

Faust. That tiny, little thing!

Mephistopheles. Seize and esteem it, see what it may bring!

Faust. It’s growing in my hand! it flashes, glows!

Mephistopheles. Will you see now what blessing it bestows?

The key will scent the right place from all others:

Follow it down, ’twill lead you to the Mothers.4

Husserl seems to believe his method of transcendental reduction is to be interpreted as Mephisto’s key to the Mothers. The journey to this world requires the death of the “natural attitude,” which means one must abandon all presuppositions of the bodily life and the sensible world. Traveling there is fraught with danger. Husserl asks, “Do we not shudder in the presence of these depths?”5 It strikes me that Husserl is somewhat of a mystic, even though I realize he is referring to the pure consciousness of the epoché. It is basically the same route to what Rudolf Steiner calls the spiritual world, although Husserl doesn’t quite it make it there himself. He did, however, point in the right direction. Indeed, Marek Marjorek writes, “What Husserl intended with his idea of transcendental reduction can only be fully realized on the path of ascent into the spiritual world described by Steiner.”6

Husserl had high hopes that his new method would totally transform human attitudes, as well as “. . . radically changing all human existence . . .” 7 I believe Husserl was sincere in his attempt to chart a course to the realm of The Mothers. He seems to have had a spiritual motive, even if he did not plainly present one. Marjorek makes an astute observation concerning this point:

. . . alluding to the famous passage in Goethe’s Faust, he states that the successful accomplishment of transcendental reduction would lead one to “the gates of entrance to the realm, never before entered, of the ‘mothers of  knowledge’” (op. cit., §42, p. 153). The mention of the “mothers” by Husserl  in this context is very revealing, for Rudolf Steiner in his interpretations of  this passage of Goethe’s Faust repeatedly drew attention to the fact that the  “realm of the mothers” is nothing other than the spiritual world itself.8

This is why Colin Wilson holds Husserl in such high regard. Much of his New Existentialism is built on the foundation of Husserl’s transcendental reduction. It also seems that Rudolf Steiner was traveling a similar path. In fact, in the early twentieth century, there were several important thinkers who were discovering important truths simultaneously, much like the physical scientists of the day who were independently arriving at truths leading to important discoveries in physics. Are we currently headed down the road to The Mothers? We may be. Philosophers such as Husserl, Whitehead, and Wilson have constructed a very solid substructure upon which we of this generation have the opportunity to build a new philosophy of human existence.

We are currently just scratching the surface. Consciousness is just beginning to emerge from the chains of scientism and materialism that were forged for us by those who believed rationalism was the road to Utopia. The Mothers may have some surprises for us in the years to come. And, by the way, I’ve finally discovered where my Soul’s Maelstrom leads: down to The Mothers.




Hart, James G. The Person and the Common Life: Studies in a Husserlian Social Ethics.

Hutchins, Robert Maynard, Ed. Great Books of the Western World: Faust. Encyclopedia Britannica: Chicago, 1923.

Marjorek, Marek B. Origins of Consciousness and Conscious (Free) Intention from the Viewpoint of Rudolf Steiner’s Spiritual Science (Anthroposophy) in Relation to Husserl’s Transcendental Reduction. Analecta Husserliana, Vol. XCIV. Ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. SpringerLink (Online service): 2006. Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.

Oliver, Kelly. The Phenomenology of Intersubjectivity. Analecta Husserliana, Vol. LIV, Ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. SpringerLink: 1995.

  1. Great Books, 151-152
  2. qtd. in The Person and the Common Life, 3
  3. The Person and the Common Life, 5
  4. Great Books: Faust, 153
  5. qtd. in The Phenomenology of Intersubjectivity
  6. Origins of Consciousness, 274
  7. ibid.
  8. ibid.

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5 thoughts on “Down to the Mothers

  1. I am currently finishing up my Husserl and Steiner book, tracing the difficulties in spiritualizing logic and going from phenomenological reduction to spiritual intuition. I was really happy to read your post, which indicates that a few people are following through this connection between Steiner, Goethe, Husserl – and the possibility of reaching the mothers of knowledge. Thanks!

  2. Awesome! Good to know there are some still interested!

    I’ve always wondered whether Frank Zappa may have taken the name for his band from this phrase.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!


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