On Truth (2): Steiner & Barfield

The following is a draft-excerpt from a dissertation that the editor of Theoria-press is presently engaged in writing for a doctoral degree in Philosophy, Cosmology, & Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Comments welcome. The former earned his M.A. in the same program in May of 2017, of which the culminating project was this presentation. 

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We ended Part III with a vision the systole and diastole of knowledge. We noted that contemporary humanity has diversified its science and philosophy into innumerable ramifications, but that the same diversification of knowledge has appeared to have been won at the expense of truth. Indeed, in the present age, this ramification is increasingly appearing as fracture and fragmentation rather than diversification. The post-truth Zeitgeist suggests a severance from the heart from when all of these capillaries of knowledge proceed, or that “the centre cannot hold,” to quote W. B. Yeats’ prophetic vision. We indicated that the present dissertation is intended to contribute towards ligature and religion to this heart of wisdom, without which humanity must forever feel estranged and without which the world will never be relieved of its externality. Indeed, these are two poles of the same phenomenon, which in turn is the direct result of the contemporary condition in the evolution of consciousness. Thus, when St. Paul writes that “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now,” (Romans 8:22), he does not mean to exclude humanity from this condition, but does indeed mean to admonish his audience that its own way of thinking is the proximate cause of the same condition, and thus to enjoin them to a metanoia, or a “turning about of the mind” to rectify this anguish. Put another way, and as we have indicated earlier in this dissertation, the problem of truth and knowledge is not a problem of the world without the mind, but rather of the mind’s relation to the world of which it is and of which it takes part, and without which participation, would not exist. In other words, when we say “the world,” we do not refer to something that exists outside of our knowledge, experience, and participation of it. This was the conclusion of our prior study: that the λóγος is become Man—that each of us participates the creative principle of the universe. Still, such an experience is far from characteristic of the postmodern spirit. Rudolf Steiner captures the condition of contemporary humanity and also voices the aspiration that we share in this study:

The realms of life are many. For each one, special sciences develop. But life itself is a unity, and the more deeply the sciences try to penetrate into their separate realms, the more they withdraw themselves from the vision of the world as a living whole. There must be a knowledge which seeks in the separate sciences the elements for leading man back once more to the fullness of life. (Preface 1894)

Steiner’s characterisation captures the meaning of philosophy as a subject, a discipline, and a way of life in the present writer’s estimation, as well as the spirit in which this work was conceived and composed. In the final part of this dissertation, we intend to maintain a continuity with the thread of our study hitherto while also attempting to draw it to a close. This will consist, foremost, relating the end to the beginning by addressing such themes as (i) the riddle of self-knowledge, (ii) the method of world-knowledge, (iii) the nature of Truth—or lack thereof—which were set forth in the Introduction and in prior chapters, thereby to establish a coherence of the entire exploration. In correspondence to the above, these themes were also expressed under the rubric of (i) subject, (ii) object, and (iii) correlation. This dissertation shares its ultimate aim and concern with the discipline of Philosophy itself, which the great Saxon theologian and mystic Hugh of St. Victor described as “a thorough investigation into the nature of all things, both human and divine.”
(Philosophia est disciplina omnium rerum humanarum atque divinarum rationes plene investigans. 1096-1141) In the twentieth century, the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev also characterised the subject in consonance with the present work when he wrote that “Philosophy… is the creative perception by the spirit of the meaning of human existence.” As we noted in the Introduction, none of the thinkers to whom we just appealed, nor any who were appealed to earlier in our studies, were cited for the fact that they said what they said. Rather, they were cited in the spirit of the discipline and subject at hand. “Philosophy,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “does not consist in asking what men have said, but in asking after the truth of the things.” (In I lib. de Coelo, lect. xxii; II Sent., D. xiv, a. 2, ad 1um)

Precisely the words of the Angelic Doctor will sound the keynote for the final part of this dissertation, in which we attempt to join the Alpha and the Omega. This could also be conceptualised as the correlation of subject and object—of the Sun and the Moon—in such a manner that what before appeared as a disjunction is revealed as a polarity. The latter implies an intrinsic unity while the former does not. In fact, as we attempted to demonstrate in Part II, the very deed of distinction establishes a concomitant relation by means of the Vorstellungsart of which both entities are articulations. Still, from the phenomenological standpoint, the disclosure or discovery of an hitherto unperceived relation is the same as the novel perception of a conjunction itself. Thus, we may also see Philosophy as the being who presides, as priestess, over the Alchemical Wedding of these apparent contrarieties. In essence, we have intended to demonstrate and intend to conclude, that just such a communion of opposites is a precondition of perception itself. Like perceives like, “as a man is, so he sees,” (William Blake, letter to Trussler)

For it is by Earth that Earth we see; by Water, Water,
By Ether, Ether divine; by Fire, destructive Fire;
By Love Love, and Hate by cruel Hate. (Fragment 109)

As Empedocles observed, or in the words of the divine Plotinus:

Never did eye see the sun unless it had first become sunlike, and never can the soul have vision of the First Beauty unless itself be beautiful. (Enneads I)

Thus, we must ourselves become as the world that we wish to behold. Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg) expresses the same principle with such incisiveness and clarity that, should it be possible to truly comprehend his words, in that very instant, this entire dissertation would be rendered superfluous:

I heard a voice say from afar that the incomprehensible is solely the result of incomprehension, which seeks what it has and therefore can never make further discoveries. We do not understand speech, because speech does not understand itself, nor wish to; the true Sanskrit would speak in order to speak, because speech is its delight and essence. A little later, there was one who said; “The holy scripture needs no explanation. He who speaks true, is full of eternal life, his written word seems wondrously akin to the mysteries, for it is a chord taken from the symphony of the universe.

Only the original and essential consanguinity of subject and object provides for the perception of the latter by the former in the first place. Perception as such is a division and reuniting—a systole and diastole—of two aspects that are originally one. Indeed, “subject” and “object” are abstractions that lack concrete denotation until their essential reference to perception is clearly grasped. “Subject” and “object” are foremost epistemological terms: they might as well be called “knower” and “known.” Thus, self-knowledge is to know oneself as a knower, while world-knowledge is to understand the nature of the objective world as the obverse or outcome of this same knowing. “Object” literally means “cast against” or “cast before” (ob-, “against” + iacere, “to cast,” “to throw”) implies an active thinking-knowing, whose deed is the casting of the same and whose suffering is the confrontation with its products. “Object” is explicitly a phenomenal term and therefore it implies the former, and it is explicitly a relative term, and therefore implies a subject as its counterpole. Emerson expressed this correlation of knowing and known with characteristic clarity in Nature when he wrote that “A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.” (“On Language” 1836. p. 44). As we have explored from an unique angle in each of the earlier parts in this dissertation, the contemporary scientific outlook arose precisely in the gradual neglect of this correlativity, which is tantamount to the phenomenal or representational nature of objects.

As we noted in our study of Barfield’s thought in Part III, to ignore this phenomenal or representation nature of objects is to turn them into idols. Heidegger, in his characteristically vatic and categorical style, portrays the situation in the most expressive manner when he observes that “[t]hose who idolise ‘facts’ fail to notice that their idols only shine in a borrowed light.” (Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning) [Beitrage Zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis)], notes of 1936–1938, as translated by Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (1989) The incident source of this “borrowed light” is of course the same which John the Evangelist meant to indicate by “the Light of the world,” “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” The result of this idolatry to which Heidegger and Barfield meant to draw our attention to is that today (as we observed in Part I of this dissertation), the single incontrovertible aspect of our experience—our own consciousness—finds no place in the world conception to which the majority of contemporary people subscribe. We are then left with an inclement world in which is and ought, fact and value, science and ethics, truth and goodness, have been rent asunder.

Given that our method of science or knowledge has engendered such a world, it must follow from this that the very project of knowledge or science itself, far from being value-neutral, is unremittingly and necessarily ethical in its very principle. The prongs of Hume’s fork share a single handle. Morality concerns questions of how to act in the world. Any answer to moral question presupposes a knowledge of what kind of place the world is. Today, science supplies the answer to the second question for the majority of people, and by implication, therefore, also supplies the matter by which we are compelled to answer the first. The illusion that such problems can be approached in isolation has provided the rationalisation for all decisions directly responsible for our greatest contemporary crises. For this reason, we have repeatedly advocated for, and even set forth certain lineaments of, an “instauration” of the operative scientific paradigm. Bacon, in The Great Instauration trenchantly derided his forebears with his typical wit and felicitous turn of phrase:

And as for its utility, I must openly declare that this wisdom, derived mainly from the Greeks, is what might be called the boyhood of science and, as with boys, it is all prattle and no procreation. For productive of controversies, it is barren in works. (140)

Our present study leads us to conclude that the exigencies of our time demand that humanity cross a new threshold of maturity in its approach to science. Bacon may indeed have inaugurated the adolescence of knowledge, but the same becomes retrogressive and puerile directly it ceases to develop. We characterised Bacon’s attitude more extensively in Part I and therefore do not intend to dwell further on it here. Instead we wish to turn our sights towards the manner by which knowledge may continue to evolve. Ours may be the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and time will tell whether it falls on attentive ears. Still, the conscience of the present author does not allow him to remain silent on such a theme.

Having disputed against the idols of the theatre—objective facts irrespective of the knowing subject to which they are correlative—we must also contravene an extremist view of the opposite sort. The perception of the essential relation of subject and object and the responsibility for our own active role in conceptualising the world is not a capitulation to subjectivism or solipsism as Kantian and Cartesian interpretations might suggest. We will briefly explore each in the chapters to follow. Suffice it here to note that solipsism is not the only alternative to the naïve positivism which supposes that facts are self-subsistent. Indeed, only the initial presupposition that the mind is separate from the world could support such a conclusion. Since this is precisely what is at issue, however, it is a petitio principii of the highest order to start with what ought to be one amongst other eventual conclusions. Goethe’s way of knowledge advises us rather to inquire into the nature of things first and to allow our theories to precipitate out of this interaction, in which we ourselves are intricately in solution together with the very world that we seek to comprehend. “General Correlativity Theory,” we might refer to this manner of understanding the nature of reality, and furthermore assert that this principle of metaphysics is epistemologically necessary and prior to the “General Relativity Theory” of physics, since the latter supervenes on the former insofar as it depends on the conditions from knowledge that the former establishes. It is beyond the purview of physics to provide its own metaphysics and it did not begin to do so with Einstein. Moreover, the epistemology of physics is decidedly non-committal in an ontological sense: for physicist, an entity “exists” insofar as it contributes to save the appearances. That the theories of physics are frequently hypostasised as independently-existing objective entities does not lend epistemological justification to such conjectures. It is hoped that by this point in this study, the meaning of such an assertion will strike the reader as perfectly straightforward and it is moreover hoped that this final part may serve to further illuminate it.

In this spirit, we will turn to the theme of the final part of this dissertation, which will be nothing less than Truth itself, and which will be conducted under the auspices of Rudolf Steiner. In the spirit of Goethe, Barfield, and Steiner: it is implicit in our understanding of Truth that it is a living thing, not something propositional or syllogistic. This assertion will be fleshed out in chapters to follow. By now, it will likely be clear that we also do not intend to set forth a typical correspondence theory of truth, nor a coherence one. Kant notoriously and peremptorily refuted both of these as feasible conceptions of truth, and Nietzsche no less-definitively demonstrated the ineluctable abyss into which a way of science and philosophy that is grounded in such attempts must dissolve. On the contrary, we intend to enunciate the spirit of Truth as meaning, of which propositions and syllogisms may constitute the letters. To recall the understanding we gained through our exploration of Goethe’s way of science, the latter stand to the former as facts to theory. In other words, the latter is what the former mean. Steiner articulates this conception in the most expressive manner in the “Preface” to the 1894 edition of his The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity when he declares, “We no longer want merely to believe; we want to know. Belief demands the acceptance of truths which we do not fully comprehend.” The comprehension of Truth is the participation of it and the participation in it, since comprehension does not exist except by our initiative. We might again invoke terminology which we introduced and explicated in the last parts and formulate this notion in the following manner.

Figuration consists in a preconscious activity of perception, representation, and conceptualisation according to the relevant Vorstellungsart that is tacitly operative in the given context. Figuration is the vestige of Original Participation in the consciousness structure of today. Because it is preconscious, however, it is, as a rule, unconscious. Indeed, in its present condition, consciousness first arises precisely in the counterposition of these products of figuration against a preconscious intuition of the spiritual activity that issued them. In Steiner’s philosophy, we discover the contemporary form of Aristotle’s agent intellect (nous poieitikos or intellectus agens), metamorphosed according to the proper season in the evolution of consciousness, and yet initially veiled by the products of its own activity. The products of figuration are facts, perceptions, and propositions. Put another way, they are objects of thought. In this manner, a correspondence theory of truth would define the latter as a reflection of these objects of knowledge in the mind of the knower. As we indicated in the last paragraph and more thoroughly articulated in the eighth chapter of our exploration of Goethe’s way of knowledge, and which we will further explicate below, Kant irrevocably effected the schism between truth and its knowability which Descartes began. Briefly, Kant noted that the organisation of the human mind and senses dictates that we can only know how objects appear to us, but what those objects “in-themselves” are, we cannot know. In other words, the mind of man is imprisoned in the labyrinth of his brain and nervous system, which it can in no manner transcend. As a result, a correspondence theory of truth leaves the human spirit forever quarantined from that very truth. In our investigations of Parts I & II of this dissertation, we hinted at the limitations of this position. In our exploration of Goethe’s way of knowledge, we discovered a silver thread that, if followed, may deliver us from it. We intend again to take up this same thread in this final part. This will consist in taking hold of this same figuration and, in the crucible of our understanding, attempting to transmute it into “a wakefulness that is the birthright of us all, though few put it to use.” (Plotinus, Enneads I, 6) First, however, we will reiterate the remaining mode of cognition that Barfield in its two species.

Alpha-thinking functions as chemism amongst these atomic objects of figuration that we indicated above. Alpha-thinking establishes judgments, second-order-propositions, and syllogisms. The hallmark and genesis of alpha-thinking is what Barfield terms “Onlooker Consciousness.” Whereas figuration lives in Original Participation, alpha-thinking is born out of a consciousness structure that awakens only in the juxtaposition of subject and object, present and past, or knower and known. What Kuhn in 1962 famously referred to as “normal” in contradistinction to “revolutionary” science, operates exclusively within the purview of alpha-thinking. (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions p. 35–42) As Kuhn describes it, the operation of “normal science” proceeds when a community of thinkers is able to take its “paradigm [or Vorstellungsart] for granted.” In such conditions, it is no longer necessary for the scientist “to build his field anew, starting from first principles and justifying the use of each concept introduced.” (Kuhn, p. 20) Kuhn himself only lent a very cogent and articulate formulation to the provisional utility, but ultimate insufficiency, of any such paradigm of normal science, or chemism of alpha-thinking. Kurt Gödels’ “Incompleteness Theorems” of the 1930s similarly revealed the limitations and ultimate deficiency of any coherence notion of truth, since any coherent system will be incomplete in that it will be transcendentally beholden to initial axioms which that system itself cannot prove. We certainly do not intend Godel’s theorem as evidence for our thesis, since its own foundation ultimately suffers from the very inadequacy that it serves to bring to light. Instead we only cite it as an instance of the insuperable ramparts that any rationalistic approach to truth is met withal. Nietzsche set forth the most scathing and original criticisms of such approaches. “Shall we really allow our existence to be degraded to a slavish exercise in arithmetic, and a parlour game for mathematicians?” he asks. His notion of the death of God, which we will presently explore, is the ultimate rejection of both the correspondence and the coherence notions of truth. First, again, however, we will return to Barfield’s schema of cognition and briefly explain a second species of thinking that he delineates.

Whereas alpha-thinking elaborates relations amongst the objects of figuration, beta-thinking, reflects upon the very elaboration of these relations. If we conceive of the former as a chemism of the objects of figuration, then beta-thinking is akin to a chemistry of the same. As we explored in the last part, beta-thinking can deduce the fact of our own unconscious participation in the objects of our figuration. It can also bring the processes and procedures of our alpha-thinking into consciousness. It does not manage, however, to transcend the condition of Onlooker Consciousness that is the defining characteristic of our present spiritual state. Put another way, the most that beta-thinking can accomplish is to infer that the apparent subject-object disjunction is in fact a polarity and that the former is therefore is a specious separation of what is in fact an intrinsic unity. Beta-thinking, cannot, however, indwell and enact this unity because its method of inquiry relies on the very disjunction which it might seek to overcome. Perception itself, for Onlooker Consciousness, implies the disjunction of knower and known. Steiner recognised the same impotence of the conventional approaches that philosophers took towards overcoming this cleft, and attempted to set forth an alternative in 1894 in The Philosophy of Freedom:

The view to which we here refer is one which, once gained, is capable of becoming part and parcel of the very life of the soul itself. The answer given…will not be of the purely theoretical sort which, once mastered, may be carried about as a conviction preserved by memory. Such an answer would, for the whole manner of thinking on which this book is based, be no real answer at all. (1918 Edition)

The difficulty, again, is that the structure of contemporary consciousness functions by propagating the very disjunction that we are trying to overcome. Still, the recognition that such a reconciliation of this apparent dualism is possible is already a step towards accomplishing the same. Steiner characterises the situation and hints at the manner by which it may be overcome in the most incisive manner when he observes that it is “only with the help of thinking am I able to determine myself as subject and contrast myself with objects.” (Chapter 4, “The World as Percept”) Thus, the subject itself is only a conceptual reflection wrought by the activity of thinking, which is simultaneously knowing. This might also be called the true I, or the “agent intellect,” or “nous poeitikos,” but for the purposes of our present inquiry we will call it “thinking-knowing.” Later, we will refer to it as “Lógos,” and use the Greek spelling, λóγος. The reason for such a decision is to confound the natural proclivity to allow the feeling of familiarity to substitute for understanding. We wish to approach the spiritual kernel of our being and the being of the world with unprejudiced eyes.

With the insight above, Steiner lights the way towards an intensification of this very thinking; a qualitative raising of it to an higher power so that it might transcend mere reflectivity. Put another way, ordinarily it is only the products of this thinking-knowing, which we call “objects,” or a conceptualisation of this thinking-knowing, which we call a “subject,” or “me,” that are experienced. But this thinking-knowing could itself become an experience. This would consist in a transcendence of Onlooker Consciousness and a concomitant overcoming of alpha and beta-thinking. As we explored in the last part, Onlooker Consciousness metamorphoses into Final Participation when its inherent duality is overcome. We will call the Steigerung (Cf. Our exploration in Part II. Steigerung is Goethe’s term for qualitative “enhancement” or “intensification.”) of thinking beyond its alpha and beta species by the name “Omega Thinking.” With particular relevance to the theme of this dissertation, Steiner indicates the resolution of our contemporary estrangement from Truth that Omega Thinking promises:

…[T]hinking must never be regarded as a merely subjective activity. Thinking lies beyond subject and object. It produces these two concepts just as it produces all others. When, therefore, I, as thinking subject, refer a concept to an object, we must not regard this reference as something purely subjective. It is not the subject that makes the reference, but thinking. The subject does not think because it is a subject; rather it appears to itself as subject because it can think. The activity exercised by man as a thinking being is thus not merely subjective. Rather is it something neither subjective nor objective, that transcends both these concepts. I ought never to say that my individual subject thinks, but much more that my individual subject lives by the grace of thinking. Thinking is thus an element which leads me out beyond myself and connects me with the objects. But at the same time it separates me from them, inasmuch as it sets me, as subject, over against them.

Evidently, thinking-knowing is that “by which all things were made,” and without which “nothing that was made was made.” (John 1:3) In the end of our study of Barfield’s thought, we introduced and attempted to support his view that the nature and meaning of the world is unintelligible without a comprehension of Christ. We might have written Χριστός as an invitation to approach the concept with fresh eyes, since few notions are so laden with prejudice as those which the Bible conveys. Just such a fresh approach is what we will attempt to do in respect to the Λóγος (Lógos) in the chapters to follow in this final part of the dissertation, whose subject is Truth. As the John Gospel enunciates, Χριστός is the λόγος which became man, and thus they are the same thing, which is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Thus, we can expect a path that is sublime and that is not without trials. After Barfield, the present writer considers Steiner his foremost teacher in spiritual and philosophical questions. Precisely for this reason, the chapters to follow will not consist in an exegesis of Steiner’s work. Steiner himself wrote in the “Preface” to the first edition of The Philosophy of Freedom in 1894 of his work that “It is not meant to give ‘the only possible’ path to the truth, but is meant to describe the path taken by one for whom truth is the main concern.” Because we share his concern our path will be similar, but because we are not he, it will be different. Steiner will be our guide but we must tread the viam veritatis ourselves. Thus, in the spirit of Aquinas and of Steiner, we intend to set out after “the truth of things.”

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