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

In the last section, I noted that the second part of Steiner’s The Philosophy of Freedom forms something like a mirror-image of the first. I likened the first to a consonant and therefore, the second part can be compared, by the same token, to a vowel.[1] The first part concerns the structure of the human being and its relation to the world, while the second concerns the way in which the human will expresses itself through that structure. The first part presents a sketch for self-knowledge of ourselves as knowers; the second part for ourselves as doers. Thus, neither the first nor the second part is complete without the other any more than a triangle could have interior angles without exterior ones. In the present study, I hope to explore some important elements of The Philosophy of Freedom with specific concentration on the second part.

As I emphasized in the last study, an understanding of Steiner’s meaning hinges on a proper grasp of the idea of freedom (Freiheit). There are many ways to misconstrue this idea, many of which involve confusing it with caprice or hedonism. The first is not freedom but arbitrariness and the second is not freedom but captivity—indentured servitude to one’s desires. Fundamentally, acting out of freedom means striving to realize ideals that one has set for oneself. Put another way, a free deed is one that is performed for reasons that are one’s own. A reason that I do not know about cannot be called my own. At most it has the possibility to become my own, but I would first have to become conscious of it; to come to know it. Thus, freedom implies consciousness. In this way, the question of freedom cannot be separated from the question of consciousness and, a fortiori, the human being as doer cannot be considered without also considering the human being as knower. This is why The Philosophy of Freedom has a first part and a second one.

In somewhat of a recapitulation of the prior study: Steiner’s epistemology might be described as something like the hermeneutics of the percept. Knowledge, for Steiner, is the fruit of interpreting what confronts us as uninterpreted given, or percept. Perception is achieving insight into the meaning towards which the percept gestures, as it were. For us, the world presents itself as the conjunction of two aspects: the percept and the concept. Phenomenologically, the task of relating these two aspects contains two elements: what is directly given and what is the fruit of our own activity. The first is the object of observation and the second is the achievement of thinking. In respect to the percept and concept, both of these more or less confront us as directly given. Establishing the proper relation between these two aspects of reality, by contrast, is the task that thinking must achieve. I said, “for us, the world presents itself in two aspects” because there is no need to imagine that percept and concept are separated in reality outside of our knowing of it. In other words, the division of percept and concept is an epistemological and not a metaphysical division. The division of given and not-given, similarly, is a phenomenological one and not one of the other kinds. In other words, the percept-concept division pertains to the process of knowledge and not the results of this process while the given-not-given division pertains to the experience of achieving this knowledge. If the division of percept and concept were more than an epistemological one, then conceptual insight into the perceptual given could not tell us anything except about our own minds. This may be familiar to someone who has studied Kant’s doctrines, but Steiner is careful to differentiate his view from that of his forebear. Specifically, Steiner disputes Kant’s claim that reality beyond appearances can never be an object of human knowledge. Steiner’s theory of knowledge affirms that reality is precisely what is to be achieved through cognition. Put another way, what immediately confronts us as given is not reality, but something like an abstraction of its sensible aspects, which appear to our senses, and its intelligible aspects, which our minds may grasp. Sensory perception begins by splitting reality into something it is not so that it may be recollected through cognition.

This may sound quite speculative, but in truth it merely articulates a process that is intimately familiar to us. The activity of reading is something like the quintessence of the same process that subtends all cognition. To write something, we must transcribe meaning into ordered series of glyphs. These themselves are, in themselves, just as unintelligible as pure percepts. After all, they are only sequences of shapes and figures. Nevertheless, it will be immediately clear that legibility, just like intelligibility, consists in restoring or recognizing a meaning in something from which that meaning had necessarily been split off as a condition of its sensible appearance. If text could not be sundered from the speaker, it could not be text. To present epistemology as a hermeneutics of the percept naturally invites the comparison of the world to text and perception to textual interpretation. This analogy might seem to risk implying too much. It is clear that a text presents our attention with something like a set of instructions as to how it is to configure itself to participate in the writer’s intention. But this presupposes the author as an intelligent and intentional agent that wrote the text. To extend this comparison to the sensory world might invoke a great deal of resistance in some people. Are we to suppose that there are intelligences behind the manifestations of nature?

For Steiner, the answer is “yes,” and though he does not expand on this dimension of his theory of knowledge in The Philosophy of Freedom, a great deal of his work in his greater Anthroposophical corpus is dedicated to just this task of characterizing the various beings and intelligences that are responsible for the world that appears to us and that we take for given.[2] Clearly, the notion that there are intelligences behind the world of appearances is anathema to the scientific paradigm of today, together with all of the disciplines that adopt the postulates of the scientific outlook. But this is just what the proposition that “there is no intelligence behind the laws and manifestations of nature” is: a postulate. It is not a fact or finding or discovery. It is a theory by which findings are interpreted. The view implied, though not explicitly advanced, in The Philosophy of Freedom—that there are intelligences behind the appearance of the natural world—has the advantage that it is consistent with what we know about the origin of those things and objects that are entirely familiar to us. We know that a book does not produce itself. We do not know where the tulip comes from. The Anthroposophical view begins with what we can see and attempts to move to what we cannot. The scientific view, by contrast, moves in the opposite direction by positing hypotheses about things that are unknown to us and then attempting to fit what we do know into the mold of those hypotheses. This will immediately become clear if we consider the present debate about consciousness and brain processes. It is imagined that the latter are comparatively well-understood and that consciousness is something mysterious or elusive, or even illusive. For Steiner, this approach is looking at the issue through the wrong end of the telescope since it overlooks the fact that any knowledge about brain-processes, or anything else for that matter, presupposes a trust in the consciousness that has that knowledge and the thinking that won through to it.

Thus, for Steiner, the proper departure point for any inquiry is with what we know and not with what we do not know but rather seek to prove. He shares this view with Aristotle who famously wrote that the process of scientific inquiry “is to start from the things which are more knowable and obvious to us and proceed towards those which are clearer and more knowable by nature.”[3] Steiner holds that our own thinking is more immediately knowable to us than any conclusions that it ultimately may draw. And indeed, in thinking, Steiner believes to have found something like the origin of both knowing and doing, and the inflection point of transformation between them—a connection I hope to illustrate later in this section. Steiner asserts the central importance of thinking with confidence in Chapter III of The Philosophy of Freedom:


This, then, is beyond doubt: In thinking we are grasping a corner of the universal process, where our presence is required if anything is to come about. And, after all, this is just the point. The reason things are so enigmatical to me is that I do not participate in their creation. I simply find them there, whereas in the case of thinking I know how it is made. This is why a more basic starting point than thinking, from which to consider all else in the world, does not exist.

The essence of thinking is freedom because we can either do it or refrain from doing it: “our presence is required if anything is to come about.” Perhaps it is more faithful to experience to describe this as inviting thinking or declining it. In any case, it is critical to distinguish between thinking, which is free, and thought, which has already happened, as it were, and is therefore not free but determined. Steiner distinguishes his starting point from Hegel on just these grounds.[4] A philosophy that takes its start from the world of concepts cannot be a philosophy of freedom because the concepts present themselves to our consciousness with an objectivity that is already determined. Thus, it is with thinking that we are concerned and not with thought except insofar as it is the issue of spirituelle Aktivität.

As I suggested in the last section with the phrase “achievements of cognition,” thinking is an active process whose products are intelligible things. Thinking sets its seal in these products and this seal is just their intelligibility to us. The freedom in the first part of the work in question consists in the fact that the world itself does not pose questions to us. Instead, it confronts us as just what it is; the percept is just the percept and neither more nor less than this. In itself, it is not a riddle but rather something immediately and entirely given to our awareness. Therefore, the world as percept does not pose questions to us. Instead, we pose questions to ourselves by wishing to understand more of the world than what it immediately presents to us. We are not content with sight alone, but seek insight. When I perceive a tulip, I am inspired to learn more about it, and I may begin by attempting to understand the manner in which the form that confronts me today is a transformation of yesterday’s form. Ultimately I will seek to perceive the artist behind it. The visual encounter as such remains neutral and only my interest inclines me to seek further insight to enrich this perception. On a personal note (though I believe that this is not merely a personal experience): the world delights when we take interest in it.

Whereas the first part of The Philosophy of Freedom concerned the epistemological aspects of freedom, the second concerns its moral aspect. The free deed is the one done for the sake of that of which the deed is meant to be an expression. In other words, the free deed is the deed done for the sake of its own essential content and not for anything ulterior to this. That statement is probably somewhat confusing but I believe that it will become clear if one recall the conclusions from the prior section. I explored the various “achievements of thinking” and identified one of them as “imagination.” I likened it to the manner by which an illustrator furnishes a text with images, and I described it as the condensation of an image from an idea; a picture from a concept. By analogy, a free deed is one which I participate with my thinking; a deed which precipitates out of a conscious reason and becomes an image or expression of that reason. Indeed, Steiner refers to the capacity of formulating courses of action as “moral imagination.”[5] Thus, the free human being is the one whose deeds are expressions or outpourings of his or her spiritual activity. The degree to which our deeds are determined by factors other than this is the degree to which we are unfree. Whatever is our degree of freedom today, we can evolve to become more free tomorrow. Assisting in this evolution was the purpose for which Steiner wrote The Philosophy of Freedom and it is the same reason I have attempted this modest study of it.

[1] For this metaphor I am indebted to Herbert Witzenmann and his ingenious study of the work entitled The Philosophy of Freedom as the Basis of Artistic Creation, which Robert Jan Kelder has kindly translated into English and made accessible: http://freedom-and-creation.blogspot.com/

[2] Cf. Steiner, Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts, (1988) for instance, among many other works on this subject.

[3] Aristotle, Physics, I.1.

[4] Steiner, Philosophy of Freedom, IV.

[5] Steiner, Philosophy of Freedom, XII.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Charles says:

    Good writing. Are you familiar with William I. Thompson. An insightful and imaginative writer that appreciates Steiner.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Thank you for the comment. I know of him but I am more familiar with Evan’s work. Can you recommend something of his?


      1. Charles says:

        Interesting that I was reading the beginning of The Embodied Mind by Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch after I was reading about Enactive theories of mind in another book I appreciate many of his books. I am reading through Imaginary Landscape at the moment. Coming Into Being is good. Imagines a Planetary Culture.


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