Chapter 01 Audiobook

The Philosophy of Freedom (Intuitive Thinking As A Spiritual Path) is available as an audiobook with text.  The chapters are listed on the  Content Page.

The Philosophy of Freedom
Intuitive Thinking As A Spiritual Path, Lipson translation
copyright © Anthroposophic Press, 1995
Audio by Dale Brunsvold
Content Page

Chapter 01

Conscious Human Action


  Option 1: (20:18) Whole chapter audio

  Option 2: Part 1 of 4 audio within text
[1] Is a human being spiritually free, or subject to the iron necessity of purely natural law? Few questions have excited so much ingenuity. The idea of the freedom of human will has found both sanguine supporters and stiffnecked opponents in plenty. There are those who, in their moral zeal, cast aspersions on the intellect of anyone who can deny so obvious a fact as freedom. They are opposed by others who see the acme of unscientific thinking in the belief that the lawfulness of nature fails to apply to the area of human action and thinking. One and the same thing is explained equally often as the most precious possession of humankind and as its worst illusion. Infinite subtlety has been expended to explain how human freedom is consistent with the workings of nature of which, after all, human beings are also a part. No less effort has gone into the attempt from the other side to explain how such a delusion could ever have arisen. All but the most superficial thinkers feel that we have to do here with one of the most important questions of life, religion, conduct, and science.

And it is among the sad signs of the superficiality of contemporary thinking that a book intending to coin a "new belief" from the results of recent scientific research—David Friedrich Strauss’s The Old and New Belief—contains nothing on this question but the words:

"We need not here go into the question of the freedom of human will. The supposed freedom of indifferent choice has been recognized as an empty phantom by every philosophy worthy of the name, while the moral valuation of human conduct and character remains untouched by the question."

I cite this passage, not because I think the book from which it derives has any special significance, but because it seems to me to express the opinion which the majority of our thinking contemporaries have been able to achieve on this question. Today, everyone who can claim to have outgrown scientific kindergarten appears to know that freedom cannot consist in choosing arbitrarily between two possible actions. There is always, so it is claimed, a quite specific reason why a person performs one specific action from among several possibilities.

[2] This seems obvious. Nevertheless, present-day opponents of freedom direct their principal attacks only against freedom of choice. After all, Herbert Spencer, whose views daily gain wider acceptance, says:

"That anyone could desire or not desire arbitrarily, which is the real proposition concealed in the dogma of free will, is refuted as much through the analysis of consciousness as through the content of the preceding chapter [on psychology]."


Others also proceed from the same point of view when they combat the concept of free will. Their arguments can all be found in germinal form as early as Spinoza. What he presented with clarity and simplicity against the idea of freedom has since been repeated countless times, only generally sheathed in the most sophistic theoretical doctrines, so that it becomes difficult to recognize the simple course of thought on which everything depends. In a letter of October or November, 1674, Spinoza writes:

"Thus, I call a thing free that exists and acts out of the pure necessity of its nature; and I call it compelled, if its existence and activity are determined in a precise and fixed manner by something else. Thus God, for example, though necessary, is free, because he exists only out of the necessity of his nature. Similarly, God knows himself and everything else freely, because it follows from the necessity of his nature alone that he should know everything. You see, then, that I locate freedom not in free decision, but in free necessity."

[3] "Let us, however, descend to created things, which are all determined to exist and to act in fixed and precise ways by outside causes. To see this more clearly, let us imagine a very simple case. A stone, for example, receives a certain momentum from an external cause that comes into contact with it, so that later, when the impact of the external cause has ceased, it necessarily continues to move. This persistence of the stone is compelled, and not necessary, because it had to be established by the impact of an external cause. What applies here to the stone, applies to everything else, no matter how complex and multifaceted; everything is necessarily determined by an outside cause to exist and to act in a fixed and precise manner."

[4] "Now please assume that the stone, as it moves, thinks and knows that it is trying, as much as it can, to continue in motion. This stone, which is only conscious of its effort and by no means indifferent, will believe that it is quite free and that it continues in its motion not because of an external cause but only because it wills to do so. But this is that human freedom that all claim to possess and that only consists in people being aware of their desires, but not knowing the causes by which they are determined. Thus the child believes that it freely desires the milk; the angry boy, that he freely demands revenge; and the coward flight. Again, drunkards believe it is a free decision to say what, when sober again, they will wish that they had not said, and since this prejudice is inborn in all humans, it is not easy to free oneself from it. For, although experience teaches us sufficiently that people are least able to moderate their desires and that, moved by contradictory passions, they see what is better and do what is worse, yet they still consider themselves free, and this because they desire some things less intensely and because some desires can be easily inhibited through the recollection of something else that is familiar."

[5] Because this view is expressed clearly and definitely, it is easy to discover the fundamental error in it. Just as a stone necessarily carries out a specific movement in response to an impact, human beings are supposed to carry out an action by a similar necessity if impelled to it by any reason. Human beings imagine themselves to be the free originators of their actions only because they are aware of these actions. In so doing, however, they overlook the causes driving them, which they must obey unerringly. The error in this train of thought is easy to find. Spinoza and all who think like him overlook the human capacity to be aware not only of one’s actions, but also of the causes by which one’s actions are guided.

No one will dispute that a child is unfree when it desires milk, as is a drunkard who says things and later regrets them. Both know nothing of the causes, active in the depths of their organism, that exercise irresistible control over them. But is it justifiable to lump together actions of this kind with those in which humans are conscious not only of their actions but also of the reasons that motivate them? Are the actions of human beings really all of a single kind? Should the acts of a warrior on the battlefield, a scientist in the laboratory, a diplomat involved in complex negotiations, be set scientifically on the same level as that of a child when it desires milk? It is certainly true that the solution to a problem is best sought where it is simplest. But the lack of a capacity to discriminate has often brought about endless confusion. And there is, after all, a profound difference between knowing and not knowing why I do something. This seems self-evident. Yet the opponents of freedom never ask whether a motive that I know, and see through, compels me in the same sense as the organic process that causes a child to cry for milk.


[6] Eduard von Hartmann, in his Phenomenology of Moral Consciousness, claims that human willing depends on two main factors: motive and character. If we consider all human beings as the same, or at least see their differences as negligible, then their will appears to be determined from without, namely by the circumstances they encounter. But if we consider that different human beings make an idea or mental picture into a motive only when their character is such that the idea in question gives rise to a desire, then human beings appear to be determined from within and not from without. But because we must ourselves make an idea that impinges from without into a motive of action in accordance with our character, we imagine that we are free, that is, independent of external motivation. But, according to Eduard von Hartmann, the truth is that

"even though we ourselves first raise ideas into motives, yet we do this not arbitrarily, but according to the necessity of our characterological organization; that is, we are anything but free."

Here, too, no consideration is given to the difference between motives that I allow to affect me only after having permeated them with my consciousness, and those that I follow without having a clear knowledge of them.

[7] This leads immediately to the standpoint from which the matter will be considered here. Can the question of the freedom of our will be posed narrowly by itself? And, if not, with what other questions must it necessarily be linked?

[8] If there is a difference between a conscious motive and an unconscious drive, then the conscious motive will bring with it an action that must be judged differently from an action done out of blind impulse. Our first question will concern this difference. The position we must take on freedom itself will depend on the result of this inquiry.

[9] What does it mean to have knowledge of the motives of one’s actions? This question has been given too little attention, because we always tear in two the inseparable whole that is the human being. We distinguish between the doer and the knower, but we have nothing to say about the one who matters most: the one who acts out of knowledge.

[10] People say that human beings are free when they obey reason alone and not animal desires. Or they say that freedom means being able to determine one’s life and actions according to purposes and decisions.

[11] Nothing is gained by such claims. For the question is precisely whether reason, purposes, and decisions exercise control over human beings in the same way as animal desires. If a reasonable decision arises in me of itself, with the same necessity as hunger and thirst, then I can but obey its compulsion, and my freedom is an illusion.

[12] Another turn of phrase puts it thus: to be free does not mean being able to will whatever one wills, but being able to do what one wills. In his Atomistics of the Will, the poet-philosopher Robert Hamerling expresses this idea incisively:

"Human beings can certainly do what they will— but they cannot will what they will, since their willing is determined by motives. They cannot will what they will? Let us look at these words more closely. Do they contain any reasonable meaning? Must freedom of the will then consist in being able to will something without having grounds, without a motive? But what does willing mean other than having grounds to do or attempt this rather than that? To will something, without grounds, without motive, would mean willing something without willing it. The concept of motivation is inseparably linked to the concept of the will. Without a determining motive, the will is an empty capacity: it only becomes active and real through the motive. Thus it is quite correct that the human will is not ‘free,’ inasmuch as its direction is always determined by the strongest motive. But it is absurd, in contrast to this ‘unfreedom,’ to speak of a conceivable ‘freedom’ of the will that involves being able to will what one does not will."

[13] Even here, only motives in general are discussed, without considering the difference between conscious and unconscious motives. If a motive acts upon me, and I am forced to follow it because it proves to be the “strongest” of its kind, then the thought of freedom ceases to have any meaning. Why should it matter to me whether I can do something or not, if I am forced by the motive to do it? The first question is not whether I can or cannot do something once the motive has operated upon me, but whether there exist only motives of the kind that operate with compelling necessity. If I have to will something, then I may even be utterly indifferent as to whether I can actually do it. If, because of my character and the circumstances prevailing in my environment, a motive were forced upon me that my thinking showed me was unreasonable, then I would even have to be glad if I could not do what I will.

[14] It is not a question of whether I can execute a decision once it is made, but of how the decision arises within me.


[15] What distinguishes humans from all other organic beings rests on rational thinking. Activity we have in common with other organisms. Seeking analogies for human action in the animal kingdom does not help to clarify the concept of freedom. Modern natural science loves such analogies. And when science succeeds in finding among animals something similar to human action, it believes it has touched on the most important question of the science of humanity. Paul Rée’s book, The Illusion of Free Will offers one example of the misunderstandings to which this opinion leads. On page 5, Rée states, with regard to freedom,

"It is easy to explain why it appears to us as if the movement of the stone is necessary while the donkey’s will is not. The causes that move the stone are, after all, external and visible. But the causes by which the donkey desires are internal and invisible: between us and the site of their activity there lies the donkey’s skull. . . . One does not see the causal determination and therefore imagines that it is not present. The will, we say, while it is the cause of the donkey’s turning around, is itself undetermined; it is an absolute beginning."

Here, too, is an utter disregard for human actions in which the human being has an awareness of the reasons for the action, for Rée explains, “between us and the site of their activity there lies the donkey’s skull.” We can see from these words alone that Rée has no inkling that there exist actions (not a donkey’s, but a human’s) for which there lies, between us and the action, the motive that has become conscious. He proves this again a few pages later when he says:

“We are not aware of the causes by which our will is determined, and so we imagine that it is not causally determined at all.”

[16] But enough of examples proving that many fight against freedom without at all knowing what freedom is.

[17] Obviously, my action cannot be free if I, as the actor, do not know why I carry it out. But what about an action for which the reasons are known? This leads us to ask: what is the origin and the significance of thinking? For without understanding the soul’s activity of thinking, no concept of the knowledge of anything, including an action, is possible. When we understand what thinking means in general, it will be easy to clarify the role that thinking plays in human action. As Hegel rightly says,

"Thinking turns the soul, with which beasts too are gifted, into spirit."

Therefore thinking will also give to human action its characteristic stamp.

[18] This is by no means to claim that all our actions flow only from the sober deliberations of our reason. I am far from calling human, in the highest sense, only those actions that proceed from abstract judgment alone. But as soon as our actions lift themselves above the satisfaction of purely animal desires, our motives are always permeated by thoughts. Love, pity, patriotism are springs of action that cannot be reduced to cold rational concepts. People say that the heart, the sensibility (Gemüt), comes into its own in such matters. No doubt. But heart and sensibility do not create the motives of action. They presuppose them and then receive them into their own realm. Pity appears in my heart when the mental image of a person who arouses pity in me enters my consciousness. The way to the heart goes through the head. Love is no exception here. If it is not a mere expression of the sexual drive, then love is based on mental pictures that we form of the beloved. And the more idealistic these mental pictures are, the more blessed is the love. Here, too, thought is the father of feeling. People say that love makes us blind to the beloved’s flaws. But we can also turn this around and claim that love opens our eyes to the beloved’s strengths. Many pass by these good qualities without noticing them. One person sees them and, just for this reason, love awakens in the soul. What else has this person done but make a mental picture of what a hundred others have ignored? Love is not theirs because they lack the mental picture.

[19] We can approach the matter however we like: it only grows clearer that the question regarding the nature of human actions presupposes another, that of the origin of thinking. I shall therefore turn to this question next.


*Gemüt: has no direct equivalent in English. It points more to the totality of man's inner being than "heart" does. It refers to a blending of thinking, willing, and feeling that one can feel with one's whole body, but is centered in the region of one's heart. A poetic translation, "the mind warmed by a loving heart and stimulated by the soul's imaginative power" and this more intellectual one, "the soul in a state of unconscious intuition arising from the working together of heart and mind."

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Missing print 1-4

In listening to chapter 1 (Intuitive Thinking audio) I noticed that the last part of the 4th paragraph was missing in the print transcription (or the printed text, to be more accurate here). Thanks for making the audio available--it opens another dimension to understanding the text I think.

Thanks for the correction.

Thanks for the correction. I don't have time to proof so it helps when others report mistakes.