On Rudolf Steiner’s The Philosophy of Freedom (3): Thinking, Freedom, & Love

Irrespective of The Philosophy of Freedom’s immense value as a training manual for the development of an individual’s own consciousness and insight, which, as I indicated above, I understand to be its foremost virtue, Steiner’s work received criticism from all sides. And perhaps the harshest critic is the one who ignores such a work altogether. It must be conceded that Steiner’s philosophical oeuvre has scarcely had the slightest effect on academic philosophy. The Philosophy of Freedom seldom appears on official syllabi[1] and it is safe to say that most people we meet will never have heard of the work. And yet, the fact that The Philosophy of Freedom has not been accepted into the canon of academic philosophy might be a good sign given the present nature of that field.[2] In any case, that it has not received greater recognition does not necessarily establish that it fails to merit this recognition, and the question of its value is certainly not to be decided by folks who have never read it. Rather, this question is for every individual to answer as measured by the fruits of his own practice with it.

And yet, some folks who do read it also find reason to dismiss it. From one side, The Philosophy of Freedom may be criticized for lack of intellectual rigour. This criticism often hinges on Steiner’s failure to confirm the fundamental postulates of a great deal of modern science and philosophy. Steiner quotes an eighteenth century French physiologist’s statement that “the brain secretes thoughts as the liver does gall or the spittle-glands spittle …” as a representative view on this matter and proceeds to demonstrate the ineluctable shortcomings of these analogies in the quest the understand thinking.[3] Notably, the validity of such a statement depends on having established the identity between brain processes and thoughts or experience, which it indeed assumes and yet never argues for. It might be imagined that a great deal has changed in 200 years and of course it has. But it is necessary to distinguish progress in observational techniques, theories, and discoveries, from progress in paradigms. Thus, while the intervening centuries have seen scientific advances in respect to the correlation of mind and brain, all of these advances have transpired within a basic outlook that has not changed.[4] In fact, the invention of the computer, the developments in Artificial Intelligence, and the advent of the transhumanist fantasy of merging with robots that these advances have spurred, have had the effect that it now appears more, and not less, credible than in the eighteenth century that the brain is just an experience-machine comparable with a squishy super-computer, which might one day be constructed just like any other machine. After all, Leibniz wrote his notorious “Mill Argument for the Immateriality of the Mind”[5] in that century, while in our own, it must be conceded that few people have read it and fewer still deeply considered it. 

But it is not only analytic philosophers who have been inclined to levy criticisms at Steiner’s work. The Philosophy of Freedom is also faulted for being excessively intellectual. It is evident that Steiner was forced to confront a great deal of this sort of criticism during his lifetime, as can be seen by the subject matter of a 1918 addition to the eighth chapter of the work. “No other activity of the human soul is so easily misunderstood as thinking,” he writes, and defends his statement by explaining that people tend to confuse thought with thinking, or cogitations with cognition:

The difficulty of grasping the essential nature of thinking by observation lies in this, that it has all too easily eluded the introspecting soul by the time the soul tries to bring it into the focus of attention. Nothing then remains to be inspected but the lifeless abstraction, the corpse of the living thinking. If we look only at this abstraction, we may easily find ourselves compelled to enter into the mysticism of feeling or perhaps the metaphysics of will, which by contrast appear so “full of life”. We should then find it strange that anyone should expect to grasp the essence of reality in “mere thoughts”. 

The difference between thinking and thought is the difference between freedom and its lack. We are no more free in our thoughts than an apple is free to fall to the Earth when it is subject to gravity. Perhaps the reader will oblige me in thinking about the apple that I just mentioned. Next, ask yourself whether you are free not to have thought about it. Obviously, no. Clearly you would have been free to refrain from thinking about it this would have occurred to you before reading the first instruction. But after you have already thought of the apple, it is senseless to imagine that you could unthink the having thought of it, at least in the way that is relevant to this inquiry. Thus, the above observation establishes consciousness or presence of mind as a condition for the exercise of freedom

The purpose of that simple exercise, which it shares with most of The Philosophy of Freedom, is not to argue anything, but to draw the reader’s attention to a feature of her own experience. Here, the observation can be made that there is no freedom in thought because it has already happened. Once I have made this observation, then someone else’s rejection of it is insignificant. If someone indeed wished to dispute this observation, no argument of his would have the slightest effect on my knowledge unless something he said were to lead me to further observations that complemented or cast new light on the observation that I had already made. In any case, The Philosophy of Freedom is intended to teach an individual how she may learn from observation and thinking. As a result, we need no longer remain beholden to extrinsic testimony for our beliefs: “Close the shop of debate. Open the teahouse of experience.” If the above exercise was successful, it will have been observed that thoughts are unfree because they are facts. The exercise of freedom is always an act, and therefore it is made manifest in thinking and not amongst its products. This is saying no more than that freedom will not be found except in presence. It is just like love, in this respect. And in fact, it is love, as Steiner will go on to argue:

Thinking all too readily leaves us cold in recollection; it is as if the life of the soul had dried out. Yet this is really nothing but the strongly marked shadow of its real nature—warm, luminous, and penetrating deeply into the phenomena of the world. This penetration is brought about by a power flowing through the activity of thinking itself—the power of love in its spiritual form.[6]

Let us try to understand this connection. What does Steiner mean by “love in its spiritual form”? One way to approach this question is to contrast “love in its spiritual form” with love in other forms. Ultimately, the spiritual form of something is its essence or being and other forms are instances or expressions of this essence as the latter may be inflected in different media or planes of existence. Put another way, the essence of love may be accompanied with different accidents, and there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is wonderful. It is only problematic if the expression is confused for what it is an expression of. A similar mistake has been called “idolatry” in other contexts.[7] Thus, we can learn about love from other forms of it besides the spiritual one, but ultimately when we are learning about love and not something else, it is the spiritual form of it that we are learning about. 

Let us, however, consider other forms. The physical form of love, for instance, appears with the greatest intensity in motherhood or sexual love. In both of these cases, the reason for their intensity is precisely because they most perfectly express the essence of love, or “love in its spiritual form,” within the constraints of physical existence. In both of these examples, we see a couple of things which are ultimately the same thing (i.e. love) in different aspects. One is the impulse to will the good of the other. Sometimes this is difficult to perceive because “the good” is not necessarily the same thing as pleasure. The degree to which they are the same is the measure of the agent’s freedom. In other words, one has to be free from the tyranny of arbitrary desires in order to be pleased by the right things instead of believing things are right insofar as they produce pleasure.[8] Another aspect of love that is discernable in both of its quintessential physical expressions is an impulse for unity which at once overcomes but also preserves the differences. In fact, the differences are a condition for love, as is the impulse for union. Lack of identity is necessary for the impulse to reconcile it. In the physical examples I have provided, we can see this two-fold movement realized to the greatest degree possible while still respecting the constraints of physical existence. After all, the spatial boundary between two bodies cannot be entirely overcome without the annihilation of one or both of the bodies. At the same time, the impulse for union seems everywhere to flirt with just such a sublation. 

The psychic form of love allows for, arguably, a more faithful expression of love than the physical one precisely because this necessary constraint on co-extension that is the constitutive principle of physical existence is lifted. Love as a feeling or emotion always also implies a sharing in the emotional condition of the beloved, and a wish for her wellbeing. Clearly, however, love as an emotion, though it is as true as a summer’s day, is also as temporary. By temporary, I don’t necessarily mean brief, but rather that it is subject to time, whose essence is change. So psychic love comes and goes just like the weather. And just because the sun has given way to stormclouds, this does not mean that the fair weather was false. Such a proposition hardly makes sense. After all, the weather is always just what it is. Still, the fair weather is no longer current once it has changed, and love as an emotion comes and goes in the same way as all others. Steiner notes in The Philosophy of Freedom that, once we begin to understand the dynamics of our own souls and minds, there is a great deal that we can do to cultivate feelings of love. For instance, we can chose to represent the other to ourselves in her highest ideal. As a result, we will kindle feelings of love for her in us. Conversely, we could represent all of the things we do not like about her to the opposite effect. In Steiner’s words:

The way to the heart is through the head. Love is no exception. Whenever it is not merely the expression of bare sexual instinct, it depends on the mental picture we form of the loved one. And the more idealistic these mental pictures are, just so much the more blessed is our love. Here too, thought is the father of feeling. It is said that love makes us blind to the failings of the loved one. But this can be expressed the other way round, namely, that it is just for the good qualities that love opens the eyes. Many pass by these good qualities without noticing them. One, however, perceives them, and just because he does, love awakens in his soul. What else has he done but made a mental picture of what hundreds have failed to see? Love is not theirs, because they lack the mental picture.[9]

In directing our capacity for observation to our own souls, The Philosophy of Freedom has the potential to render our opinions to us in painful transparency. As a result of engagement with Steiner’s text, it will become necessary to meet a far higher internal standard before I am able to fault someone. Before achieving this insight, I imagined that I was not accountable for my own emotions, opinions, and representations. Once I observe, however, that it is by way of the latter that I engender the former, however, I must conclude that my emotions are my own responsibility. In considering the psychic form of love, I hope to have shown that feelings are subject to the kind of thoughts that we entertain about something and that they will always be comparatively fickle relative to their object.

Thus, it is clear that the expression of spiritual love is limited in physical manifestation by the constraints of spatial extension, and that the expression of spiritual love in psychic manifestation is similarly limited by temporal ones. But now, by way of something like a via negativa, I hope I have established the conditions by which to attain clearer insight into the essence of what it is that is being so constrained. Still, it might seem that I have failed to answer just why thinking should be equated with “love in its spiritual form.” Again, I believe the connection will reveal itself if through an attempt to consider the essence of what is really at stake. In section I of this study, I contrasted thinking to brain processes by observing that, while physical states are always just what they are and “identical to themselves at any moment in time,” the exact opposite holds in the case of thinking. Thinking is, by its very nature, ecstatic in the sense that it is always outside of its self in some way and its being is to be about everything else. My thought of the flower is not the flower. And yet, it is not other than the flower. I would not assert the existence of (a) one flower in the field and (b) another that I think about. Instead, it is the same flower that is and that is thought.[10] Thus: not one, not two; a union that preserves the difference. Perhaps now, Steiner’s assertion quoted from the excerpted text above—that the “real nature [of thinking is] warm, luminous, and penetrating deeply into the phenomena of the world” may no longer seem so improbable. We may further ask: what impels our thinking to eternally seek beyond itself to join with everything else? Steiner answers: “This penetration is brought about by a power flowing through the activity of thinking itself—the power of love in its spiritual form.”[11]

“No,” someone might say, “it is something other than love which inspires thinking to action.” But one what basis can this be denied? As Wittgenstein once observed “To draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable”[12] and obviously, to think the yonder side of the limit annuls it as a limit to thinking altogether. In this case, it is also thinking that must pose the question and thinking that must answer. “It is feeling,” someone might object, but they are again only confirming what was said above in a number of ways, not the least of which is that only on the basis of thinking that they found their objection to be a suitable one. Of course, any assertion in this respect depends on what is meant by “feeling” and by “thinking,” and so forth, and to have a productive disagreement, the semantic field of these terms would have to be circumscribed and delineated so that the combatants could enter a common ring and not tilt at windmills. I am speaking in figure and exaggeration, of course, but it is to emphasize that it does little good to dispute a position that someone does not hold, and the manner by which we come to see another’s position is by understanding what she means by what she says. It is through thinking that we articulate these meanings, and we are motivated to understand in the first place out of tacit love, which seeks to transcend differences without abolishing them. 

To affirm that thinking, and not feeling, is impelled by “the power of love in its spiritual form,” is not to deny or repress feelings. Instead, it is to respect them by seeking to understand them on their own terms so as to regard them for what they are rather than for what they are not. And again, as I noted in the first part of this study, the fact that thinking holds such an essential position in Steiner’s philosophy does not make everything subjective or “in my head.” In fact, quite the contrary is the case. “The subject does not think because it is a subject; rather it appears to itself as subject because it can think,”[13] as Steiner writes. It is only by the virtue of thinking that I am able to distinguish myself as a subject against an external world:

Thinking 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….[Thinking is] neither subjective nor objective… [it] 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.[14]

As I attempted to describe in the first section of this study: it is by way of thinking that I attain to participation in the reality that the process of perception provisionally estranged me from. Through thinking, I am able to recognize the meaning towards which what is directly given to me as percept functions as something like a sign or gesture, and in accomplishing this, I have also integrated myself into the world that initially confronted me as wholly other. Feelings initially come upon me in the same way as other percepts, but thinking at once sets about an effort to understand them in the same way as it seeks to understand all other phenomena. The gesture of humility behind seeking to understand the other reveals a further dimension of the identity of thinking and love. “Love” that tries to change its object—or more specifically, that tries to divert its object from its entelechy or realization of its ideal—ought rightly to be called by another name and associated with “over-standing.” Under-standing, by contrast, humbles itself before what it seeks to know. Thinking is moved by love to understand: what we love, why would we insist it be something other than it is?

Finally, when love is the impulse behind our deeds, they are performed for their own sake. This is to say that they are done in freedom. Meister Eckhart expresses this mystery in his own peerless way:

From this deeper principle you must do your works, without a why. I affirm it decisively: even if you do your works for the kingdom of heaven, for God, or your sanctity, although motivated by the other, even then you will not really be in the right. If you ask a true man, a man who acts from his depth: “Why do you do all your works?” he will answer you rightly only if he says: “I act only for the action itself.”

As long as I only act so as to achieve some ulterior end or to alter the state of something extrinsic to me—so long am I acting under a compulsion. To act out of compulsion is antithetical to acting out of freedom and love. The thought of a result has placed me under its bondage, or rather, I have indentured myself to it. Outside of presence, there is neither freedom nor love nor timelessness. The result does not exist at the time of my action except as my own thought of it, and therefore I ought not to pretend that I act for any reason extrinsic to my thinking which produced that thought. I ought not to sell my freedom for the mess of pottage and allow my motives to be dictated by non-existent things. Each of these mistaken notions is a scale and one by one, they can fall from our eyes “and we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory.”[15]


Aristotle. Physics. Translated by R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye. Internet Classics Archive:


Bortoft, Henri. The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way toward a Science of Conscious Participation. Hudson,

NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1996.

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Aaron Simmons and Mason Marshall. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, New Series, 19, no. 3 (2005): 229-37. Accessed January 19, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25670570.

Leibniz, Gottfried. Leibnitz’ Monadologie. Good Press Verlag, 2020.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, state, and utopia. London, UK: Basic Books, 1974.

Plotinus. Enneads. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Sepper, Dennis. Goethe Contra Newton: Polemics and the Project for a New Science of Color. Cambridge, UK:

Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Steiner, Rudolf. Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts (GA 26). Translated by George Adams and Mary Adams.

Sussex, UK: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1924. First published 1923.

———.Goethean Science (GA1). Translated by William Lindeman. Spring Valley, NY: The Mercury Press,

1988. First published 1883.

———.Goethe’s World View (GA 6). Translated by William Lindeman. Spring Valley, NY: Mercury

Press, 1992. First published in German in 1897.

———.Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung (GA2). Dornach, Switzerland:

Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1979. First published 1886.

———. Riddles of Philosophy. Translated by Fritz C. A. Koelin.Spring Valley, NY: SteinerBooks,

1973. First published 1923.

———.The Philosophy of Freedom (GA 4). Translated by Michael Wilson. London:

Rudolf Steiner Press, 1964. First edition published in 1894.

———. The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception (GA2). Translated by Olin

Wannamaker. New York, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1940. First published 1886.

———. Truth and Knowledge (GA 3). Translated by Rita Stebbing. West Nyack, NY: Rudolf Steiner

Publications, 1963. First published 1892.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2003.

Zajonc, Arthur. “Facts as Theory: Aspects of Goethe’s Philosophy of Science.” In Goethe and the

Sciences: A Reappraisal, edited by Frederic Amrine, Francis J. Zucker, and Harvey Wheeler, 219–46. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers Group, 1987.

Zajonc, Arthur, and Craig Holdrege. Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature. Albany: State

University of New York Press, 1998.

[1] My own excepted, of course: I try to ensure that my students hear Steiner’s work mentioned, at the very least, so that they can judge for themselves whether they wish to pursue the subject further. I expect many will not, but I also know that just such a passing reference to Steiner’s work sufficed to fan an unknown spark of interest in me and so I wish to provide the opportunity to those for whom I am in the position to provide it.

[2] I have in mind that it is seen as an abstract discipline rather than a way of life. Cf. Hadot, “There Are Nowadays Professors of Philosophy, but Not Philosophers,” (2005) for an insightful critique of this situation.

[3] Steiner, Philosophy of Freedom, III.

[4] Cf. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (1963), 37:

One of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions. To a great extent these are the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or encourage its members to undertake. Other problems, including many that had previously been standard, are rejected as metaphysical, as the concern of another discipline or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time. A paradigm can, for that matter, even insulate the community from those socially important problems that are not reducible to the puzzle form, because they cannot be stated in terms of the conceptual and instrumental tools the paradigm supplies.

[5] Cf. Leibniz, Monadology, (1714), section 14:

Furthermore, one must concede that perception, and all that depends upon it, are inexplicable on purely mechanical grounds; that is to say, by means of figures and motions. Suppose there were a machine, so manufactured as to think, feel, and have perception: it might be imaginatively increased in size (while maintaining the same proportions) so that one might enter into it even as into a mill. That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which work one upon another, and never anything by which to explain a perception.

The above is my own translation from Leibniz’s original:

Andererseits muß man gestehen, daß die Vorstellungen, und Alles, was von ihnen abhängt, aus mechanischen Gründen, dergleichen körperliche Gestalten und Bewegungen sind, unmöglich erklärt werden können. Man stelle sich eine Maschine vor, deren Structur so eingerichtet sei, daß sie zu denken, zu fühlen und überhaupt vorzustellen vermöge und lasse sie unter Beibehaltung derselben Verhältnisse so anwachsen, daß man hinein, wie in das Gebäude einer Mühle eintreten kann. Dies vorausgesetzt, wird man bei Besichtigung des Innern nichts Anderes finden, als etliche Triebwerke, deren eins das andere bewegt, aber gar nichts, was hinreichen würde, den Grund irgend einer Vorstellung abzugeben. 

[6] Cf. Valentin Tomberg, from Meditations on the Tarot:

There is nothing mechanical or automatic at the foundation of world existence. Take away the mechanical appearances and you will find that the world is something moral—crucified love. Yes, mercenaries took His clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each mercenary, and they drew lots for His tunic; whereas the heart of the world—naked—is love crucified in the middle of two other crucified ones, on His right and on His left.

[7] Cf. Leyf, “Narcissim, Idolatry, and Self-Knowledge”, Five Themes, 2017.

[8] Cf. Nozick, “The Experience Machine,” Anarchy, State, Utopia, (1974), 42-45.

[9] Steiner, The Philosophy of Freedom, I.

[10] Cf. Parmenides, Frag. B 3, quoted by Plotinus, Enneads V, i.8: “For it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.”

[11] Steiner, Philosophy of Freedom, “Author’s Addition 1918.”

[12] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (2003), 3.

[13] Steiner, Philosophy of Freedom, IV.

[14] Steiner, Philosophy of Freedom, IV.

[15] 2 Corinthians 3:18.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    Reading this, Max, is truly synchronistic since I’ve just received an email from New Oxford Review that they’ll be publishing an essay of mine on the great books dealing love and how it liberates us from strife, “hell,” and revenge (since the essay focuses on Homer, Dante, and Tolstoy). With your permission I can include you on a complimentary list where you can receive the essay in electronic form or if you wish for a physical copy (as the email seems to imply), if you provide me an address I can have them send you a full copy with an invitation to respond through a letter to the editor. If you’re interested you can reach out to me at: paul.krause92@yahoo.com.

    I can only help my fellow friend and student who I recommended your blog to is reading, since he was undertaking his thesis on Rudolf Steiner himself!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Thank you Paul, much obliged.


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