The Question of Freedom

Submitted by Tom Last on Tue, 01/02/2007 - 9:16pm.

The Philosophy of Freedom Study

The Question of Freedom


The Philosophy of Freedom begins with the question:

(1-0) “Is a human being in their thinking and acting, a spiritually free being, or are they compelled by the necessity of natural lawfulness?”

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the wisest figures of history have sought deeper truth into the mystery of the human being. The question of free will has been one of the great debates concerning the human being for over two millennia with just about every major philosopher having something to say about it. Earlier in history it was generally assumed that everything about someone was ultimately determined by unchangeable fate which could be foretold by astrology or other forms of divination. This was opposed by the foundational idea of Christianity and other religions that we possess some level of free will in order to make a choice between doing good or not.

In the mid-1600s philosophers asserted that our minds operate according to definite mechanisms and therefore cannot express free will. Then it was claimed at least parts of our minds are free. With the increasing success of science in the 1800s it came to be widely believed that there must be definite natural laws for all human actions - providing a foundation for the development of psychology and the social sciences. Notions of free will are considered naïve.

Scientists have found it increasingly difficult to locate a place within a human being from which freedom could originate. In the first half of the 20th century cognitive science, the study of mind, began to avoid the study of abstract mental things like “thoughts” and “ideas” and focus on measurable stimuli and responses. Brain imaging has come into use linking behavior with brain function. Today’s discoveries in human genetics indicate behavioral tendencies and personality traits are inherited.

Being Free Seems Like Our Natural State
While scientific evidence continues to build a strong case against free will even the scientists themselves go about every day life with an assumption of some kind of freedom. In our normal existence it seems quite natural to say we are completely free to think out what we want to do and then free, at least some of the time, to do it. We don’t normally question this traditional belief but take it for granted. It is implied in many of the things we say, many of the attitudes we take, and many of the things we do. For example, this evening you may have a choice of activity. Catch up with some house work, plan an upcoming birthday party, or just have some fun by going out with a friend to see a movie. You decide to go to a movie. You assume this to be a choice freely made. You could have chosen differently, right? If your friend assures you a 7PM pickup and they arrive at 8PM you may become upset and hold them responsible for being late. This is based on your belief that your friend has free will and control of their actions. They could be on time if they wanted to.

The common view is “yes, human beings have free will”. My pinky wiggles as a consequence of my intention to wiggle it. I will myself to do something and I do it. This theory is very simple and seems perfectly reasonable. It assumes we have control over our thoughts, actions, and destiny.

No one doubts that we use our will to do this or that. The question is whether the will is free or not. Most of us can point to moments when our willing was not free. Perhaps we reacted with some harsh words which we later regretted or find life dictated by duty rather than the creative expression of love. Opponents of free will point to factors that hinder the possibility of freedom or remove it all together such as physical/causal, biological, psychological, or theological influences. These factors may lie hidden and deny our freedom without us even being aware of it.

The superficial thought of today avoids the complexities inherent in those two short words, “free will”. Others are convinced that if we probe far enough into the heart of our being there dwells something noble, something worthy of development. For them the importance of this question is something that can be deeply felt.

”And one may well feel that if the soul has not at some time found itself faced in utmost seriousness by the problem of free will or necessity it will not have reached its full stature.” Rudolf Steiner, in the Preface to The Philosophy of Freedom

Scientific Determinism Views Human Action As Compelled
Freedom requires an inner conquest of those things outside ourself that would determine us. Chapter one of The Philosophy of Freedom describes many common meanings of being free and asks us to question these concepts of freedom through introspective observation. Is it freedom or does a hidden element compel our action?
Can we become conscious of these hidden factors that may be determining our activity? By gaining knowledge of them do they loose their hold over us?

In the study of the human being this hidden element may be called a determinant. A determinant is something that restricts freedom by being the cause that determines the outcome. Heat is a significant determinant in forcing water to boil. One who views all things, including human actions, as resulting solely and exclusively from outside factors or determinants is known as a "Determinist." A Determinist views human activity as compelled by unique and complex determinants such as genes, upbringing, culture, current situation, unconscious activity, past experience etc. Their understanding of the human being is that each of our thoughts, feelings, and decisions are compelled by the necessity of determinants. Any feeling of freedom is an illusion; the result of being unconscious of the myriad of determinants.

At a younger age determinants play a significant role in our development. The nature versus nurture debate is over which determinants have more influence in our upbringing. The automatic behavior (following natural urges and instincts) and learned obedient behavior (conforming to established standards) are necessary stages of growth, but at some point they must be overcome by the free spirit. We are the only ones who can add the finishing touches toward our development as a free human being.

Spiritual Activity Arises From The Individual Spirit
The position taken on the question of freedom may depend on what one means by the word “free”. More than 200 meanings of the word have been distinguished by those who have worked with the question of freedom. Rudolf Steiner preferred the term “spiritual activity”. He wrote The Philosophy of Freedom in German and entitled it Die Philosophie der Freiheit. Steiner was not satisfied with the English word freedom as an adequate translation of the meaning conveyed by the German word Freiheit. He views freedom as the creative expression of spiritual activity that arises from the individual spirit. In a lecture he gave at Oxford in 1922, he said,

“Therefore today we need above all a view of the world based on Freiheit — one can use this word in German, but here in England one must put it differently because the word ‘freedom’ has a different meaning — one must say a view of the world based on spiritual activity, on action, on thinking and feeling that arise from the individual human spirit.” Rudolf Steiner, Wilson introduction to POF

Steiner recommended the term “spiritual activity” be used rather than freedom in English translations as he thought it more closely pointed to what he meant. This is why the book can also be found under the title The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. English translators Hermann Poppelbaum, William Lindeman, and Rita Stebbing used this title. The popular Michael Wilson translation is entitled The Philosophy of Freedom as he thought the meaning of spiritual activity would be wrongly understood by the prospective reader.

The modern translator Michael Lipson recognized that the book represents a unique focus from among all the other spiritual movements of our time. That focus is the further development of today’s ordinary thinking to a more conscious level of pure spiritual activity –intuitive thinking-. The thinking is freed from physical and environmental influence through the practice of the more active thinking required for the reading of the book. This inspired the contemporary sounding Lipson translation is be entitled Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path.

The intensification of thinking produced by the study of The Philosophy of Freedom and the somewhat mysterious sequential order of thoughts in the book leads the reader to a place where our intuitions school us anew each time we read a section of the text. Being immersed within the thoughts, struggling to clearly comprehend what is written, our thinking is activated to where our own intuition becomes our tutor. A power flows through the activity of thinking itself. In this sense our intuitive thinking becomes our individual spiritual path. The saying “Each one of us must choose his hero in whose footsteps he toils up to Olympus” no longer holds for us.

Shocked Out of Complacency
The issue of what to title the book came about because of a concern that many people have a misunderstanding as to what freedom is. If freedom just means being able to decide and do, our first impression is that we already have that capability. But without a deeper introspective look we cannot be sure if the “decider” is really us or one of the many determinants. If it is you then your activity is spiritual activity, action, thinking and feeling that arise from your individual human spirit. You act creatively, out of love for the deed. This is not an inherited natural state but one that can be developed. In the Wilson translation of The philosophy of Freedom it says that Steiner,

“expressed the view that English people believed that they already possessed freedom, and that they needed to be shocked out of their complacency and made to realize that the freedom he meant had to be attained by hard work.”

Is it possible to attain to spiritual activity if we do not know what it is? Is it possible to possess a view of the world based upon spiritual activity if we do not know whether we participate in it or not? Yet the greatest threat, especially in America, could be a satisfaction with ourselves, a sense that we already have a good life in the land of the free. Goethe wisely warns us:

“None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.”

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Welcome to the Second Week

I posted this note at the end of this weeks article to encourage comments. Please post a comment, we would all love to read your view. If you preview a comment remember that you still have to hit the post tab.

Warm Regards,

What is your view on the Question of Freedom or anything else related to POF? Please post your view. Truth is found by a diversity of views.

"...the world discloses itself only to someone who knows that one must look at it from all sides." Rudolf Steiner, Human and Cosmic Thought, p. 39.

view of freedom

I hope I won't become the board blabbermouth, but I really hope to get the benefit of other points of view, so I'll put mine out there to start.

When I think about freedom it's always in some context. It seems that we all have so many parts, and if each of these parts could speak, they'd define freedom in a different way. So for the body, freedom would mean, for instance, not being tied up to a chair, so you can walk around the room. For the emotions, it might mean extricating yourself from an abusive relationship. Socially, it could mean just being able to walk down the street without getting arrested. Economically, winning the lottery would free you from money worries. Intellectually, it could be looking at a situation without prejudice, and only taking the evidence into account, as you are asked to do when serving on a jury, or in any scientific research.

I suppose all of these meanings have something in common, and that is the ability to move forward without some kind of external restraint, or internal restraint that puts blinders on your judgment.

What does freedom mean to the spiritual part of us? To me it means the ability and the resoonsibility we have in modern times to choose our spiritual path.

This is all from the point of view of an English speaker. I'd love to hear what freedom translates to in other languages!

on the question of freedom

My view at this point is that true freedom arises from the individual's spirit. It is unhindered by questions and influences of past conditioning, or current external conditions, though it considers these and takes them up as further fuel to aid in the soul's progress.
True freedom in action is indicated by the utter Beauty of it (not necessarily prettiness), the creativity, the feeling of 'rightness' in any choice. This can be experienced in painting a picture, as well as in more mundane activities, such as cleaning one's teeth...Each action undertaken in 'freedom' produces an original moment, experienced as such.
Additionally, it does not judge, though it does observe clearly, learn, and employ discernment in choicemaking. It is inherently constructive, creative, lively, oriented toward active (chosen) peace, causing constructive experiences in its vicinity (and harming none), and both emerges from and is directed toward higher notions of Beauty.
It is conscious, as apart from impelled.
It is alive and therefore exhibits signs of life...movement and growth...
In action in an individual, it produces an experience of living that is authentic, and richly satisfying.

So there are a few thoughts!
Take care's lovely to be here, and thankyou for the opportunity. :)




Freedom as self knowledge

And one may well feel that if the soul has not at some time found itself faced in utmost seriousness by the problem of free will or necessity it will not have reached its full stature. Rudolf Steiner, in the Preface to The Philosophy of Freedom

This quote reminded me of an experience I had. My most free moment was just after the realization, in a Philosophy of Freedom class at Rudolph Steiner College, that we are not free. It was a joint realization with the rest of the class that came at some point while discussing one of the chapters. At that moment of realizing how unfree we are, I felt my first glimmer of freedom!

On Freedom Yes, I'm not free. 'Letting' go would be important i.e. opinions, prejudices etc. Even letting go of my notion that I may 'know' something. Having the patience and courage to let things come to me, even in the cases of perceived crisis and tragedy. Freedom is probably ... pleasure / displeasure don't really matter that much, but being 'blessed' does. I certainly have to engage my 'will' and intuition to create and to see the 'beauty' in this world. The freedom to know that it is o.k to 'disagree' in this world...thank you for creating this site ... all my best, don

The key for me is Spiritual Activity arising from....

“Therefore today we need above all a view of the world based on Freiheit — one can use this word in German, but here in England one must put it differently because the word ‘freedom’ has a different meaning — one must say a view of the world based on spiritual activity, on action, on thinking and feeling that arise from the individual human spirit.” Rudolf Steiner, Wilson introduction to POF

....the individual human spirit.  So this freedom, to my mind, is the capacity to allow myself to rest in my individual human spirit and allow to arise in me a spiritual activity which is quite different from the normal process of thinking.  This process may involve, for example, a line perhaps from the soul calendar which I then rest within me. There arises in thinking and feeling an imagination which may ignite me to act - and there is a definite feeling of separateness from external or internal determinents that come from everyday life.  It has a living quality about it that is quite different from words or concepts - it is like a being lives and breathes within this spiritual activity that is free. 

When I compare this to what normally goes on in my head, then I could say that ordinary thinking, thoughts actually feel like flat dead objects.  This spiritual activity within the individual human spirit is like breathing in a colourful life filling breath that is inspiring and rich with life force. 

The word freedom is very important but I don't think it has much to do with the choosing of decisions.  It is rather the capacity to be free in an inner way so that the arising can occur within the individual human spirit.  Can we as human beings give ourselves the time and space needed in our day to day lives to experience this inner spiritual activity, and to free up the space in us so that we can rest long enough in our individual human spirit.  I find this very challenging but necessary if any understanding is to be reached regarding the question of freedom or necessity.



Please correct me if I am wrong but didn't Steiner also say that the only completely free action we ever participate in is meditation?

Meditation Question

Can't recall that comment but would love a follow up on that. If anyone knows.......


I believe it is referenced in the book 'Start Now' which was recently released by Steinerbooks...I would get the book and tell you exactly where it is, but virtually all my books are in storage right now...

I think in the "inner life"

I think in the "inner life" lectures (i must check this out for sure) Steiner states that meditation is only really happening when there is no effort. He goes on the describe that, in this sense, any action from the mundane to the most profound, can be a completely free act. This he describes in order to deepen our understanding of the phrase "not my will, but thy will be done". Because he is so fond of twisting and changing the way he defines words (even within the same lecture) it can be very tricky- and fun- to know what he means when he says things like freedom only happens during meditation. It would be easy to assume he means 'meditation' in the sense of sitting down, closing eyes and engaging in an anthroposophical practice of some sort. At Steiner College I once heard a most wonderful story in which Steiner mentioned to a friend that it was often those who had never heard the word meditation that had the most beautiful and consistant practices. I''ll grab "Start Now" and see what I can find, Jay.


free will

Where did he say that?


Submitted by Lori Perry on Wed, 01/10/2007 - 8:22pm.

Is anyone else having trouble with the concept of Determinism? I thought I knew what it was, but when I read the full-length articles from this week's digest of articles, it turns out to be something else entirely. Does it really only mean that for every effect there is a cause, and the line of causes has to go back for eternity? If so, how does that become the idea that everything is fixed for all time, including our thoughts? I can sort of understand how it can go back to the past, but only after whatever it is has occurred, and can then be traced to the past. Before it occurs, how can it be said to have been determined from the beginning? If someone could just say after every event, "I predicted that," there's no proof one way or another that the person actually did predict it. You just have to believe them. It seems as if the same could be said of Determinism!

Physical Determinism

for every effect there is a cause, and the line of causes has to go back for eternity?

The view Determinism refers to any cause of your action other than yourself. This can be genetic determinism, psychological determinism, social determinism etc. Your description of Determinism is Physical Determinism. At the link it goes further into Physical Determinism. Everything is determined by physical causes that can be traced back to the big bang and predicted forward if you had enough knowledge to know all the laws and positions of matter to figure it out it could be done mathematically in theory.

climb every mountain?

I suppose I can understand that, at least with the top part of my head! But the way you describe determinism, it sounds so tame. And I've always thought it was an idea that one could just take or leave as one sees fit. But the way Strawson and others describe it -- as unfalsifiable, for instance, and even if it could be falsified it wouldn't allow for freedom of any kind -- makes it seem more like a huge mountain standing right where I thought the path would be kind of easy. My question for myself is, do I have to climb this mountain or can I just find a way around it? Because it seems, by the erudite arguments presented by these various authors, that it would take a person like me years to grasp what it is about their argument that is so compelling to them. And if I don't grasp it, how can I refute it within myself?


I think a good place to start is to simply think about your life - here in america where 'freedom' is prized so highly we just automatically think that we are free because that's what we've been told all of our sort of sinks into us and we believe it without really thinking about it.

One could use any example - there are hundreds.

Take your average Harley Davidson rider (I live in Wisconsin - home of Harley Davidson so I get to see them all the time) One of their great slogans is 'Live Free' - and one can see how a motorcycle certainly would feel free, flying dangerously down the highway with the wind blowing through his or her hair, almost as if one were flying...but then look at the way they dress. Black leather jacket and chaps, jeans, bandana, black leather boots with that little metal circle on the side - not to mention the fact that they 'have to' have a Harley (otherwise one certainly would not be a Harley Rider!) Everything about this 'living free' is essentially determined by stereotype.

We can go further - say (for the sake of argument) that we took the same spirit of a Harley Rider and incarnated this spirit on the other side of the world, say in India. The person would then grow up with a completely different set of customs and would find the idea of riding around dressed as a Harley Rider to be absolutely abhorent. The person would now be far more comfortable riding around a city in a crowded bus listening to tinny music.

Which person is more free? The one who rides around on a motorcycle thinking about how free they are or the one on the bus who never gives it a second thought?

The answer is neither - both are culturally determined to act according to certain norms and are simply acting out their roles in the the culture - they are anything but free.

Take another example, this one from the sporting world. Compare the average NFL fan vs the average soccer fan. You will probably find alot more NFL fans in america than europe and vice versa. Imagine the average football fan sitting in the stadium, cheering on his favorite football team (if he is from Wisconsin, cheering the Packer's he may well have ridden in on a Harley as well!) He genuinely enjoys the game, but is his enjoyment of the game a free emotion? Take that same fan and put him in a soccer stadium and he will probably be miserable. Now you can do the same thing with the soccer fan - they love soccer but would probably not be too interested in american football.

So why the big difference? It is all a matter of cultural conditioning.

What religion does a person belong to? Odds are you can tell what religion a person is simply by where they are born - so how can free choice have anything whatever to do with it?

Now take yourself - the things you like and don't like. Your job...How many of these things are expressions of free action? How different would they all be had you been born in a different country, had different parents or upbringing?

The sad truth is that most of what we think, feel, and do is simply a matter of conditioning.

How often do we use the same facial expressions that our parents used around us as we were growing up? My wife caught me just the other night - she said "Don't say that with that particular inflection - you sound like your mother" (I'm paraphrasing) I said "No she doesn't" But then when we went home to see my parents, guess what!
- again just another example of conditioning.

Is there any possibility of escaping from all this?

That's the big question that Part 2 of Philosophy of Freedom 'answers'.

A good movie to see is 'Little Miss Sunshine' - which is all about this question of freedom, although it is cleverly disguised (and it's really funny anyway)- the question is 'when are we really our SELF? When are we just going along with the crowd?'

check it out

Yes, but

I get the gist of all that, but what's bothering me right now is that Strawson and other determinists say that everything is determined, not just the Harley Davidson rider and his costume, but every thought he would ever think, the dirt under his fingernails, every little thing his eyes see as he flies down the road. That's what has me confused, that some people actually believe that. And not just regular people but people trained in extremely complicated thought processes! They seem to insist that the consequence of believing that every effect has a cause, if followed out to its logical conclusion, is that even our thoughts are predetermined. If you don't want to believe that thoughts are predetermined, they seem to be saying, then you have to give up the notion of cause and effect. Or you have to avoid following your thoughts to their conclusion, and thus live in blissful ignorance of what they really imply. Since I don't particularly want to do either one, I'm in a quandary.

Level of Feeling

I agree that that way of thinking essentially cancels itself out, when viewed completely logically. But we are forgetting that humans are not purely logical beings - we have souls as well, no matter how materialistic and deterministic one is. I think the whole point is that some people are structured such that what logically follows from the current viewpoint of natural science grips them in a way that, even though the thought process cancels itself out, it leaves them with a cold sinking feeling that things really are like that (ie - nature is a mathematical construct, the sun is eventually going to burn out, etc).

As Steiner said 'the thought formation is such which requires more than theoretical refutation.'

You just have to learn how to get inside others ideas and feel what results from those ideas.

Part of the problem may be that, having been steeped in anthroposophy for some time, a person could really have won such a sense of inner freedom, and have such a feeling for the truth of anthroposophy, that when someone says "Look at what science teaches us of the great mechanism of the universe - even our brains work the same way - and therefore what they produce is determined in the exact same way as natural events!", the person steeped in anthroposophy has exactly the same response (in thought and emotion) as if someone had said, "Be careful about walking too far toward the horizon, you might fall off the edge of the earth!"

In which case, perhaps that person has no need of the experience Steiner is talking about, having already gone through it in their own way - perhaps in a previous life.

form of determinism

Lori, in my studies in philosophy of science and epistemology I have encountered a wide variety of respects in which 'determinism' is used to characterize a given viewpoint. There is much dispute within and without by the experts in the various domains that might identify themselves as deterministic. Even within the rather narrow category of materialistic conceptualizations of determinism, you will find vast disagreements. As the type of individual who can easily get trapped within intellectual pursuits to the exlusion of true thinking, I am happy to declare that it is NOT at all necessary to grasp a specific formulation of determinism to practice and develop the capacity of thinking that Steiner's epistemological work points to. Steiner said that it can help to study philosophy but he repeatedly made clear that streangthening thinking depends on one thing and one thing only; each individual independently learning how to bring her own thinking into contact with...........itself! Often Steiner chose examples from math, philosophy or, even, mantric domains when offering exercises for The Philosophy of Freedom, but he made clear that these might be adventageous for some people simply because these concepts already contain lawful patterning within themselves. Why do I blather on, Loari. Not sure, but I guess I just want to give you my humble opinion in response to your question as to whether it is necessary for you to grasp specific formulations of determinism within the domain of philosophy. Again, might be very helpful, but isn't critical to letting your own free being emerge. I'm new to this website, so I do not know if understanding a specific version of determinism is necessary for these discussions. I'll read more and see if we are using one of the formulatoins for the point of these discussions.


Tough Nuts to Crack

You know, Lori, I think all these world views are tough nuts to crack in terms of coming to grips with them. One of the things that assisted me greatly is Steiner's description of the bootmaker in 'Human and Cosmic Thought.' Steiner describes this bootmaker who knows thoroughly his job who then applies his personalised view of the world through his knowledge of bootmaking to the world as his view - a giant boot. Determinism is simply another succint angle or view of the world through a particular lens. I can say 1 + 1 equals 2, and because we all know basic maths, we'll agree. This applies to objects. Now let's apply this to one blob of water and another blob of water, what do we get? We get a larger blob of water so it does not equal two, and that's because we are trying to apply a maths formula to something that stands outside of it - if we said 1 cup that would be different. Determinism is a truth in itself but not the whole truth but that is what a person applying determinism is trying to do when they apply it to everything just like the bootmaker.

I like to listen to my thoughts when I am not thinking consciously, to see where I am at - not a pretty sight. The other day I had this thought, and it took me 10 minutes to track down the source of what made me start thinking about this subject. It was incredibly difficult because it was so subtle but it did come from an identifiable source from my past. So in this instance, I was not free in my thinking (I really don't call this thinking anyway). Now recently I attended a 13 day discussion group on the world views, 7 planets etc. and while contemplating in the group some beautiful verses, thoughts arose that drew my attention to understandings that I had not previously considered. This was very beautiful and so alive inside - this did not come from my thought process that lives in the mundane realm of this world. It stands outside this just like the blob of water. Determinism cannot measure this. If I try to understand determinism then I apply it to the inner and outer mundane world, and yes it is a truth. The question is can someone who lives in this view see the boundaries in which it can stand as a reality and are they able to see its limitations.
Another example is when I was a child and understood ideas from a child's view. Now I can see that I was limited somewhat in my view of the world - I could not even see above the benchtops back then. Now I am older, I can change how I view things because I have greater vision and experience. So I can understand how someone can take a view and apply it to absolutely everything because that's what we do as children.

Thanks everyone -- all your

Thanks everyone -- all your comments gave me great help about this issue of whether or not I had to actually master determinism in order just to move on. I really did have that "cold sinking feeling" at the prospect of having to follow out every ramification of something so foreign, just for the sake of grasping better what Steiner says about it.

I really appreciate the analogy of the bootmaker looking at the world as a giant boot. I'd love to get into the head of a die-hard physical determinist for 5 minutes just to see what the world is like from that point of view. In an odd way, I feel as if this whole exchange of views had helped me to do just that. I had to clarify what my dilemma was, and this gave me a better appreciation of what Steiner is trying to do in POF. I can grasp much more fully now the importance and the pervasiveness of what he's trying to refute, and why he spends so much time trying to convince us that thinking is not a material process. It's because the physical determinists really do believe that thoughts are physical entities, that they have to believe that thoughts are predetermined just as all other physical entities are (from their point of view, that is!)

So he has to try to prove to everybody, not just anthroposophists (who didn't even exist yet at that time!) that thoughts are at a different level of existence than the physical, and then that actions based on thoughts are at least partially due to what arises from that different level of existence, and therefore not predetermined. As Clark says in his article on Hodgson, this would be a scientific revolution of the highest order.

If you all hadn't responded to my question, I might have figured all this out in my own time, but thanks so much for speeding things up!