On Rudolf Steiner’s The Philosophy of Freedom, Part I

In 1894, some one hundred years after the publication of Goethe’s On the Metamorphosis of Plants and Kant’s The Critique of Judgement, the 33-year-old Rudolf Steiner published The Philosophy of Freedom. The purpose of the book was to shed light on the fundamental relation of the human being to the world in which he lives. Steiner’s academic career began as the editor of Goethe’s scientific writings, and to this day, Steiner’s exegeses of Goethe’s works on this subject remain some of the most insightful and exciting.[1] Employing a method of proto-phenomenology, Steiner attempts in The Philosophy of Freedom to carry forward a project that he took Goethe to have initiated. To develop and bring to articulation the epistemological approach latent in Goethe’s scientific researches, Steiner finds it necessary to navigate between a number of contemporary schools of philosophy without falling into the specific distortions that they advocate in respect to the relation between the human being and world. Ultimately, all these philosophies end in a subversion of human freedom. Steiner presents freedom—or “spiritual activity”—as he would have preferred to see his choice German word Freiheit rendered in English—as the pith and essence of the human being itself. In the “Translator’s Appendix” to the 1986 translation of Steiner’s Die Philosophie der Freiheit, William Lindeman gives a concise summary of Steiner’s view of the situation when Lindeman defends his choice of departing from the standard English title of Steiner’s work and opting instead for the title The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity:

Something must still be said about the word Freiheit (literally, “freehood”). In a lecture in Dornach on January 5, 1922 (GA 303), Rudolf Steiner said of his book Die Philosophie der Freiheit that it should “never bear the title in English of ‘Philosophy of Freedom.’” In a lecture in Oxford on August 29, 1922 (GA 305), he again indicated that Freiheit has a different meaning than “freedom” does, and that in England one must speak of a “world view of spiritual activity (spirituelle Aktivität)”— a world view “of action, thinking, and feeling out of the spiritual individuality of man.” In the text, I have translated Freiheit as “inner freedom” (for Rudolf Steiner, Freiheit points more to man’s inner being than “freedom” does); or as “freedom,” in the case of freedom of the will, for example.

Steiner regards the potential for Freiheit or freedom as the core of the human being and the realization of freedom as its highest calling— its formal as well as its final cause. In disputing the philosophies which seek to deny such freedom, Steiner is serving at once as a sort of spiritual anthropologist, or “anthroposopher” (to employ a nomenclature consistent with the manner that that he himself referred to his method and body of work) and an advocate for the human being.

As indicated above, freedom is a term that acquires a very precise meaning as Steiner’s argument progresses. Suffice it here to note that Steiner has in mind neither the libertarian “freedom” of “alternative possibilities,” nor the liberalist “freedom” of “doing what I want,” nor the Spinozan “freedom” of “free necessity.” The first is understood as the ability to have chosen an alternative possibility to the one I did, the second in being able to act according to my desires, and the third in acting according to my nature. Libertarian freedom fails to differentiate freedom from arbitrariness or caprice. After all, if I chose something for a reason the first time around, then, ceteris paribus, I ought to choose the same thing a second time. If I chose that thing without reason, then it was hardly a choice in the first place but rather just a whim or an impulse that had its origin somewhere other than me. The liberal conception of freedom fails to distinguish freedom from hedonism, which philosophers since at least Plato’s day have all recognised as coercion of the most pernicious sort. After all, I did not choose my desires. By identifying them with my motives, I indenture my own will to their authority. The reason I said this is “coercion of the most pernicious sort” is precisely because a person in this condition is inclined to imagine himself to be free, and is even likely to retaliate against someone who hinders the exercise of this illusory freedom. The person who thinks himself free remains the least inclined to win through to true freedom. Spinozan freedom, despite being, in many ways, more sophisticated than either of the varieties hitherto mentioned, is also rejected by Steiner. At the outset of The Philosophy of Freedom, he quotes a letter in which Spinoza outlines his view that only God is truly free because “he exists out of the necessity of his nature alone” while all created things are unfree by dint of the fact that they do not. The concept of freedom that emerges from Spinoza’s pantheistic philosophy stands so contrary to the common meaning of that term that it can be difficult to understand why it should be considered a kind of freedom at all. Naturally, Spinoza amply defends the coherence of his view but a critique of Spinozan metaphysics is a topic other than the one that the present study has chosen to pursue. Let it be enough to indicate that while libertarian freedom fails to differentiate freedom from arbitrariness and liberal freedom fails to differentiate it from acting on desire, Spinozan freedom fails to differentiate freedom from necessity. Steiner is adamant that freedom is synonymous, or “syngenous”[2], with creativity and also love. Therefore, a conception of freedom that casts aspersions on it is a conception that must be disputed. 

The Philosophy of Freedom is separated into fourteen chapters, but the most fundamental division comes between the first and second halves. In respect to their ideal content, they are reciprocal images, or inversions, of one another. If the first half concerns knowledge, the second action. If the first concerns the logic of science, the second concerns the logic of art. The first addresses how to know facts, the second how to create them. The first concerns how the human being comes to know the world and to understand its place in that world, the second how he lives in that world, and by living in it, shapes it. The first is centripetal, the second centrifugal. The first concerns the structure of reality and perception while the second concerns the manner in which the human will flows out and through that structure. Thus, the first may be likened to a consonant while the second may be likened to a vowel because, just as in the act of vocalization, the first provides the shape and the second the content. I hope to make the basis of these comparisons clear with a brief exploration of each of the two parts.

At the outset of The Philosophy of Freedom Steiner surveys various schools of contemporary philosophy and notes that, despite their substantial differences, they all share a fundamental similarity in their approach to the question of knowledge. Steiner notes the way in which each of the various schools establishes itself on the foundation of premises that it never subjects to thorough scrutiny. Steiner argues that such tacit postulates, axiomatically affirmed and yet never examined, have tended to lead philosophers astray and encouraged them to attempt answers to questions that are not being posed. One such example is the question “how does the world get into my brain for me to perceive it?” Another is “how does my perception and representation of the world relate to the world itself?” Steiner acknowledges the vast amount of philosophical literature devoted to answering these questions, but contends that they assume departure points that are by no means self-evident, and arguably absurd to someone who had not already accepted them. Nothing about my perception of a tulip reveals that it is “in my head” or that I am perceiving a representation of the tulip but not the tulip itself. Thus, the proposition that “perception involves electromagnetic oscillations being translated into nervous impulses and entering my brain at which point the image of a tulip is conjured forth in my mind” ought to be the eventual conclusion to be demonstrated by a chain of reasoning and not a postulate that can be assumed at the outset. And directly it is evaluated in this light, it reveals to depend on premises that appear improbable to say the least, and certainly unexamined. For instance, we know that all of the relevant physical and physiological processes can transpire without resulting in a perception if attention is lacking. How many times have I stared at a paragraph only to realize that my eyes had been skirting over the words and my brain had been imitating them, and yet I remain entirely unaware of what I had read? Feigned attentiveness is as useless to perception as faux flowers are to real bees.

Moreover, reduction to physics and physiology only pretends to have explained something that it has in fact merely swept under the rug of neurology: it remains just as unexplained how neurons could produce an experiential, conscious perception as how the tulip itself could. This is because, just like the tulip itself, the neurons are just what they are. They are not of or about anything. Physical processes are always identical with themselves at any moment in time, from which moment they evolve to the next in an orderly manner in a process that physicists can ostensibly calculate with an exceedingly high degree of accuracy. Nothing about either the physical processes themselves, nor their evolution, suggests in the slightest way how any of it can become a matter of experience. Thus, the perception of a tulip, and of anything else, depends on more than physical and physiological processes to explain it.

Steiner answers this dilemma by pointing out that, in contrast to physical things which are always just what they are, thinking is always about things other than just itself. At the same time and in somewhat of a paradox, thinking must, at least for a moment, become about itself—take itself as its own intentional object—in order to reveal this fundamental difference between thinking and physical facts that Steiner is attempting to draw our attention to. Steiner is adamant that the theory of cognition that he will propose is not the product of speculating about the question, but of attempting an intimate phenomenological examination of the relevant processes. Indeed, the subtitle of The Philosophy of Freedom is “Some results of introspective observation following the methods of Natural Science.” Steiner was writing at a time before the tradition of phenomenology that established itself as a result of Edmund Husserl’s work had become widely known. Otherwise an explicit reference to this tradition in Steiner’s work would have been very likely and would have succeeded in making this connection apparent. Together with this topical connection, both Steiner and Husserl, at different times, regarded Franz Brentano as their teacher,[3] though nothing attests to Steiner and Husserl having ever met other than indirectly by confluence of their philosophical concerns.

To recapitulate Steiner’s argument from above: in the standard theories of cognition of his day, the fact that perceptions are objects of experience is never accounted for unless it is by relegating everything to mere representations, at which point the term loses its basis both from lack of evidential and conceptual ground. Nothing in direct perception suggests that it is a representation and so it is hard to understand where evidence for this notion could hail from except for the foregone affirmation of the very conclusion that is in question. If it be nonetheless affirmed, in the spirit of Kant and Schopenhauer, that “the world is my representation,” the term loses its meaning because a representation implies something of which it is a representation. Just like a simulation cannot but be of something that is not a simulation, so if the reality that cause such representations is totally unknown, on what basis do we believe in the theory that says everything we do know is a representation? After all, it was ostensibly formed in response to the very evidence which it now calls into question. On the other hand, if reality is in fact known, then the world is not just my representation so the theory is also moot.

Here, Steiner introduces what he believes to be the answer to these riddles and which he claims to be a discovery that anyone can make. Steiner argues that the true theoretical categories by which to understand cognition are observation and thinking. To draw the distinction between mind and matter like Descartes or phenomenon and noumenon like Kant, results in theories that lead to impertinent questions that have no true answers any more than a trumpet blast can wake a person who is pretending to be asleep. Steiner defends the thesis that he has found the proper departure point for true philosophy by beginning with the categories of observation and thinking. The matter of observation are percepts and the achievements of thinking are concepts, which are not objects but “relations” or “organizing ideas” that lend intelligibility to observation. I said “matter” in respect to observation to draw attention to the manner in which our perception is confronted with something given, in whose genesis we played no active part. I described concepts as the “achievements” of thinking to emphasize the manner in which concepts depend on our active initiative to grasp them or call them forth. Further, in the process of perception, we are also tasked to achieve something when we seek to discover specific instances (within the configurations of matter that is the object of observation) of the concepts that we first grasped in their generality. In other words, concepts are not immediately given to observation in the way that percepts are. Instead they must be invoked, or called forth. In this consists our freedom; a point to which I will return below.

A second “achievement” for cognition is to condense the intuition of a concept into an image. An invocation that is not prompted by a sensation will immediately implicate a process of creation as we seek to substantiate the concept with an imaginal form or image-body. This process of imagination draws from the universal concept and allows it to inform an inner representation of it as a picture. For instance, the concept “tulip” places a demand on our imaginative faculty which will respond by conjuring forth an inner picture. The latter, of course, is at once consistent with, but neither identical with nor exhaustive of, the meaning contained in the concept. It is at once subjective and objective, since it draws on an objective concept to create a subjective picture of it. What color is your tulip? Even a bulb is a tulip, so the answer could be “the color of dirt.” Creating an image of the concept is accomplished in the way that an artist might produce a replica of an icon. We understand that many artists may depict the pietà without affecting the subject in any way other than to unfold further leaves of its endless potentiality of expression, and similarly we need not assume that the concept of the tulip is different for each person that elaborates it. Surely, it is elaborated differently and with greater or lesser detail and dimension according to the intelligence and artistic sensibility of the thinker, but it remains the same concept that we all participate; the same well from which we draw to fill our individual buckets. If we did not share in this common and objective world of concepts, we could not understand one another’s speech. In any case, both the intuition of the concept as an act, and the image that we create of it as a fact, represent something not-given and thus they are achievements

A third achievement for cognition occurs in respect to observation. If the concept is not condensed into an image, but rather employed as a source of illumination into the matter of observation, the result is perception. In other words, the concept provides insight into the percepts of observation. Thus we can say that: 

  • The process of imagination involves inwardly creating a token image of a concept. 
  • The process of perception involves permeating the stuff of observation with the light of understanding.

Put another way, perception is to achieve conceptual insight into the percepts that confront our sight and other senses. The process of perception is akin to the manner whereby the significance of a text is read from the lexical signs; whereby black marks on white paper are transformed into configurations of meaning. Thus we can say that cognition means perceiving the meaning of what we observe. Imagination is akin to deriving an illustration from the text following its having been understood. This creative aspect of imagination forms the bridge to the second part of The Philosophy of Freedom. Before traversing it, however, a little bit more needs to be said about the relation of thinking and observation. 

The immediately given objects of observation, which we called “percepts,” are like boundary conditions of intelligibility. By themselves, they are potentially intelligible, but they are not actually so before their meaning is disclosed by the light of an idea or concept. Thus, by themselves, percepts are not of or about anything in the same way that brain processes are not of or about anything. Thinking, conversely, is about things by its very nature. For this reason it can be true. But by the same token, it can also err. Brain processes cannot err because they are always just what they are as determined by the physical and physiological environment and stimulation that causes them. Neither can brain processes be true for the same reason.

The same could be said of percepts, and in this way, the description of percepts as “boundary conditions” has the possibility to offer an important insight into the relation of the physical world to the world of our experience. Pure sensation unelaborated by cognition is essentially an extension of the physical world into the gulfs of our senses. At this point it touches upon experience, only this “touching” must not be conceived in spatial terms because otherwise we would fail to progress beyond the lack of explanation provided by the attempt to explain perception through merely physical processes. Because pure percepts are not about anything, they cannot be untrue or incorrect because they are simply facts. Truth emerges as an achievement of the process of cognition, whereby we try make sense out of these mere data of experience. Thus, perception is the manner by which we interpret mere data to know its meaning. From a “view from nowhere” perspective, this would represent a process of discovering the meaning that the outer signs express through sensation. From the perspective of the human being as a knower, the process is best described as a restoration of meaning to objects which the process of sensory perception, by its very nature, necessarily effaced from them. Thus, they initially appeared not as objects but as percepts. This “restoration” can go awry, as if I supposed the tulip to be a plastic replica, or a painted squirrel. In this case, my perception would be untrue. But this very fact—that thinking can lead to conclusions that are true or untrue—proves that it is more than percepts (i.e. as Empiricists might argue) or brain processes (i.e. as contemporary physicalists believe). The fact of error proves the existence of a supra-sensory order. 

[1] See Steiner, Goethean Science (1940) and The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception(1992). See also Bortoft, Wholeness of Nature (1996), Sepper, Goethe Contra Newton (2003), Zajonc, “Facts as Theory: Aspects of Goethe’s Philosophy of Science” (1987), and Zajonc and Holdrege. Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature (1998) for other illuminating exegeses of Goethe’s way of science to complement Steiner’s.

[2] Cf. Plato, Meno, 81c-e:

For as all nature is akin (syngenous), and the soul has learned all things, there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing—an act which men call learning—discover everything else, if we have courage and faint not in the search; since, it would seem, research and learning are wholly recollection. So we must not hearken to that captious argument: it would make us idle, and is pleasing only to the indolent ear, whereas the other makes us energetic and inquiring.

[3] Cf. Steiner, The Story of My Life, III.

I will write the second part of this study next. In the mean time, interested readers may be obliged to read these studies that concern a similar theme:

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