Chapter 03 Audiobook

The Philosophy of Freedom
Intuitive Thinking As A Spiritual Path, Lipson translation
copyright © Anthroposophic Press, 1995
Audio by Dale Brunsvold
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Chapter 03

Thinking In The Service Of Understanding The World


(39:20) Whole chapter audio

Part 1 of 4 audio within text
[1] When I observe how a billiard ball, once struck, transfers its movement to another, I remain completely without influence over the course of this process. The direction of motion and the velocity of the second ball are determined by the direction and velocity of the first. As long as I remain a mere observer, I can say something about the movement of the second ball only after it has actually begun. But the situation is different when I begin to think about the content of my observation. The purpose of my thinking is to form concepts about the process I observe. I connect the concept of an elastic sphere with certain other concepts of mechanics and take into consideration the particular circumstances prevailing in the given case. Thus, to the process that plays itself out without my participation I seek to add a second process, which goes on in the conceptual sphere. This sphere depends on me, as is evident in my being able to content myself with observation, renouncing any search for concepts, if I have no need of them. But if this need is present, then I am satisfied only when I have brought concepts such as “sphere,” “elasticity,” “movement,” “impact,” “velocity,” etc. into a certain connection with each other. To this interconnection of concepts the observed process then stands in a particular relation. Certainly the process that I observe completes itself independently of me. Just as certainly, however, the conceptual process cannot play itself out without my participation.

[2] Whether my activity is really an expression of my independent essence, or whether contemporary physiologists are right in saying that I cannot think as I wish, but rather have to think as the thoughts and thought-connections currently in my consciousness determine —this will be the subject of later discussion. For the time being, we wish merely to establish that, with regard to the objects and processes given us without our participation, we feel compelled continually to seek concepts and conceptual connections that stand in a certain relationship to those objects and processes. For the moment, we shall leave aside the question of whether this activity is really our activity, or whether we carry it out in accord with unalterable necessity. Certainly, it is unquestionable that it initially appears as our own. We know perfectly well that the corresponding concepts are not given with the objects. That I am myself the active one may depend upon an illusion; nevertheless, that is how immediate observation portrays the matter. Therefore the question is: what do we gain by finding the conceptual counterpart to an event?

[3] There is a profound difference, for me, between the way in which the parts of an event relate to one another before and after the discovery of the corresponding concepts. Mere observation can follow the parts of a given event in succession, but their connection remains obscure until concepts are brought in to help. I see the first billiard ball move toward the second in a certain direction and with a certain velocity; I must wait to see what will happen upon impact and, even then, I can only follow what happens with my eyes. Let us suppose that, at the moment of impact, someone conceals from me the area where the process goes on. As a mere observer, I am then without knowledge of what happens next. The situation is different if, before the process is concealed from me, I discover the concepts corresponding to the constellation of relationships. In that case, I can report what happens even if I can no longer observe it. By itself, a process or object that is merely observed suggests nothing about its connection to other processes or objects. The connection only becomes evident if observation is linked to thinking.

[4] Insofar as we are conscious of it, observation and thinking are the two points of departure for all human spiritual striving. The workings of both common human    understanding and the most complicated scientific investigations rest on these two pillars of our spirit. Philosophers have proceeded from various primal oppositions— such as idea and reality, subject and object, appearance and thing-in-itself, I and Not-I, idea and will, concept and matter, force and substance, conscious and unconscious— but it can easily be shown that the contrast between observation and thinking precedes all of these as the most important antithesis for human beings.

[5] No matter what principle we wish to establish, we must either show that we have observed it somewhere or we must express it in the form of a clear thought that anyone can rethink. When philosophers begin to speak about their first principles, they must put things in conceptual form and therefore they must make use of thinking. Thus, indirectly, they admit that their activity presupposes thinking. Nothing is being said yet about whether thinking or something else is the chief element of world evolution. But it is clear from the start that, without thinking, philosophers can gain no knowledge of such an element. Thinking might play a minor role in the origin of world phenomena, but in the origin of a view of those phenomena, it surely plays a major role.

[6] As for observation, we need it because of the way we are organized. Our thinking about a horse and the object horse are two things that arise separately for us. And the object is accessible to us only through observation. Merely staring at a horse does not enable us to produce the concept horse, and neither will mere thinking bring forth the corresponding object. 

[7] Chronologically, observation even precedes thinking. For we can become aware of thinking, too, only through observation. At the beginning of this chapter, when we showed how thinking lights up in the face of an event and goes beyond what it finds given without its assistance, this was essentially the description of an observation. It is through observation that we first become aware of anything entering the circle of our experience. The content of sensations, perceptions, views, feelings, acts of will, dream and fantasy constructions, representations, concepts and ideas, illusions and hallucinations—the content of all of these is given to us through observation.

[8] Thinking differs essentially, as an object of observation, from all other things. The observation of a table or a tree occurs for me as soon as the objects enter the horizon of my experience. But I do not observe my thinking about the objects at the same time as I observe them. I observe the table, and I carry out my thinking about the table, but I do not observe that thinking in the same moment as my observation of the table. If I want to observe, along with the table, my thinking about the table, I must first take up a standpoint outside my own activity. While observation of objects and processes, and thinking about them, are both everyday situations that fill my ongoing life, the observation of thinking is a kind of exceptional state. We must take this fact properly into account if we are to determine the relationship of thinking to all other contents of observation. We must be clear that, when we observe thinking, we are applying to thinking a procedure that is normal when we consider all the rest of our  world-content but that is not normally applied to thinking itself.

[9] Someone could object that what I have noted here about thinking applies equally to feeling and other spiritual activities. The feeling of pleasure, for example, is also kindled by an object, and I observe the object, but not the feeling of pleasure. This objection is based on an error. Pleasure does not at all stand in the same relation to its object as the concept formed by thinking does. I am definitely aware that the concept of a thing is formed by my activity, while pleasure is created in me by an object in the same way as, for example, a falling stone causes a change in an object on which it falls. For observation, pleasure is given in exactly the same way as the process that occasions it. The same is not true of concepts. I can ask why a specific process creates the feeling of pleasure in me. But I certainly cannot ask why a process creates a specific number of concepts in me. To do so would simply be meaningless. Thinking about a process has nothing to do with an effect on me. I learn nothing at all about myself by knowing the concepts corresponding to the observed change that a hurled stone causes in a pane of glass. But I learn a great deal about my personality if I know the feeling that a specific process awakens within me. If I say of an observed object, “This is a rose,” then I express nothing at all about myself. But if I say of the rose, “It gives me a feeling of pleasure,” then I have characterized not only the rose but also myself in relationship to the rose.


[10] As objects of observation, then, thinking and feeling cannot be equated. The same conclusion could easily be derived for the other activities of the human spirit. Unlike thinking, these can be grouped with other observed objects and processes. It is part of the peculiar nature of thinking that it is an activity directed only to the observed object, and not to the thinker. This is clear from how we express our thoughts about a thing, compared to how we express our feelings or acts of will. If I see an object and recognize it as a table, I do not generally say “I am thinking about a table,” but rather “This is a table.” Yet I could certainly say, “I am pleased with the table.” In the first case, I am not concerned with communicating that I have entered into a relationship with the table; but in the second case it is precisely this relationship that is significant. Furthermore, with the statement, “I am thinking about a table,” I have already entered into the exceptional state mentioned above, in which I make into an object of observation something that is always contained within my spiritual activity but not as an observed object.

[11] This is the characteristic nature of thinking. The thinker forgets thinking while doing it. What concerns the thinker is not thinking, but the observed object of thinking.

[12] Hence the first observation that we make about thinking is that it is the unobserved element in our normal spiritual life.

[13] It is because thinking is based on our own activity that we do not observe it in everyday spiritual life. What I do not produce myself enters my observational field as an object. I see it as something that arose without me. It confronts me; and I must accept it as the prerequisite for my process of thinking. While thinking about the object, I am occupied with it and my gaze is turned toward it. My attention is directed not toward my activity, but toward the object of this activity. In other words, when I think, I do not look at my thinking, which I myself am producing, but at the object of thinking, which I am not producing.

[14] I am in the same situation even if I allow the exceptional state of affairs to occur and think about my thinking itself. I can never observe my present thinking; only after I have thought can I take the experiences I have had during my thinking process as the object of my thinking. If I wanted to observe my present thinking, I would have to split myself into two personalities, one that thinks and one that looks on during this thinking, which I cannot do. I can observe my present thinking only in two separate acts. The thinking to be observed is never the one currently active, but a different one. For this purpose, it does not matter whether I make observations about my own earlier thinking, follow the thought process of another person, or, as with the movement of billiard balls, suppose an imaginary thought process.

[15] These two are therefore incompatible: active production and contemplative confrontation. The first book of Moses already recognizes this. In the Book of Genesis, God produces the world in the first six days of creation; only once it is there is it possible to contemplate it: “And God looked at everything he had made, and behold, it was very good.” The same holds true of our thinking. It must first be there if we are to observe it.

[16] It is impossible for us to observe thinking as it occurs at each moment for the same reason that we can know our thinking more immediately and intimately than any other process in the world. Precisely because we ourselves produce our thinking, we know the characteristics of its course and how it occurs. What can be found only indirectly in other spheres of observation—the appropriate connections and the relationship of individual objects— we know in a completely immediate way in thinking. Without going beyond the phenomena, I cannot know why thunder follows lightning for my observation. But I know immediately, from the content of the two concepts, why my thinking links the concept of thunder with that of lightning. Naturally it is not a question of whether I have correct concepts of lightning and thunder. The connection between those that I do have is clear, by means of the very concepts themselves.

[17] This transparent clarity we experience in relation to the thinking process is completely independent of our knowledge of the physiological bases of thinking. I am speaking here of thinking as given by observation of our spiritual activity. I am not concerned with how one material process in the brain occasions or influences another when I carry out an operation in thought. What I observe about thinking is not the process in my brain linking the concepts of lightning and thunder, but rather the process enabling me to bring the two concepts into a specific relationship. Observation tells me that nothing guides me in combining my thoughts except the content of my thoughts. I am not guided by the material processes in my brain. In a less materialistic age than our own, this observation would of course be completely superfluous. But today—when there  are people who believe that once we know what matter is we will also know how matter thinks—it must still be stated that one can talk about thinking without immediately running into brain physiology. Most people today find it hard to grasp the concept of thinking in its purity. Whoever immediately counters the view of thinking developed here with the statement of Cabanis that “the brain secretes thoughts as the liver does gall or the salivary ducts saliva” simply does not know what I am talking about. Such a person wants to find thinking through a mere process of observation—wants to proceed with thinking in the same way as we proceed with other objects of the world content. But thinking cannot be found in this way, because precisely as an object of world content thinking eludes normal observation, as I have shown. Those who cannot overcome materialism lack the capacity to induce in themselves the exceptional state that brings into consciousness what remains unconscious during all other spiritual activity. Just as one cannot discuss color with the blind, so one cannot discuss thinking with those who lack the good will to place themselves in this position. But at least they should not imagine that we take physiological processes to be thinking. They cannot explain thinking because they simply do not see it.

[18] But for everyone who has the capacity to observe thinking—and, with good will, every normally constituted human being has this capacity—the observation of thinking is the most important observation that can be made. For in thinking we observe something of which we ourselves are the producers. We find ourselves facing something that to begin with is not foreign to us, but our own activity. We know how the thing we are observing comes about. We see through the relationships and the connections. A secure point has been won, from which we can reasonably hope to seek an explanation of the other world phenomena.

[19] The feeling of having such a secure point caused the founder of modern philosophy, René Descartes, to base the whole of human knowledge on the sentence, “I think, therefore I am.” All other things, all other events, exist without me, but whether as truth or as fantasy and dream, I cannot say. I am absolutely certain of only one thing, for I myself bring it to its secure existence: my thinking. It might have another source for its existence. It might come from God or somewhere else. But that it exists in the sense that I bring it forth myself—of that, I am certain. Descartes initially had no justification to ascribe a different meaning to his sentence. He could only claim that, in thinking, I lay hold of myself in the activity that is, of all the world’ s content, the most my own. What the tacked-on therefore I am might mean has been much disputed. But it can be meaningful only under one condition. The simplest statement that I can make about a thing is that it is, that it exists. I cannot immediately say how the existence of anything entering the horizon of my experience might be characterized more precisely. To determine in what sense an object can be described as existent, it would have to be examined in relation to others. An experienced event can be a series of perceptions, but it can also be a dream, a hallucination, and so forth. In brief, I cannot say in what sense an object exists. I cannot derive its existence from the experienced event itself, but I can learn it when I consider the event in relation to other things. But there, too, I cannot know more than how it stands in relation to those things. My search finds firm ground only when I find an object the meaning of whose existence I can draw out of itself. As a thinker, I am myself such an object. I endow my existence with the definite, self-reposing content of thinking activity. From there, I can now proceed to ask whether other things exist in the same or in a different sense.


[20] When we make thinking into an object of observation, we add to the rest of the observed world-content something that normally escapes our attention, but we do not change the way in which we relate to it, which is the same as to other things. We increase the number of the objects of our observation, but not our method of observing. As we observe other things, a process that is overlooked intermingles in world events (in which I now include the act of observation itself). Something is present that differs from all other events, and is not taken into consideration. But when I observe my thinking, no such unconsidered element is present. For what now hovers in the background is itself only, once again, thinking. The observed object is qualitatively the same as the activity that directs itself toward it. And this is again a special characteristic of thinking. When we make thinking into an object of observation, we are not compelled to do so with the aid of something that is qualitatively different to it; we can remain within the same element.

[21] If I weave into my thinking an object that is given without my participation, I go beyond my observation, and the question will arise: What gives me the right to do so? Why don’ t I simply allow the object to work upon me? How is it possible for my thinking to have a relation to the object? These are questions that all who think about their own thought processes must ask themselves. But they fall away when we think about thinking itself. We add nothing foreign to thinking, and thus need not excuse ourselves for such an addition.

[22] Schelling says, “To know nature is to create nature.”  Anyone who takes these words of the bold nature philosopher literally must renounce forever all knowledge of nature. For nature is simply there, and to create it a second time, one would have to know the principles according to which it arose. One would first have to look at the conditions for the existence of nature as it is, in order to apply these to the nature one wished to create. But this “looking,” which would have to precede any creating, would be to know nature already, even if, after successfully looking, one did not then go on to create. The only kind of nature that one could create without previously knowing it would be a nature that did not yet exist.

[23] What is impossible with nature—creation before cognition— we achieve with thinking. If we waited, before thinking, until we already understood it, then we would never get to that point. We must think resolutely ahead, in order later to arrive by observation at a knowledge of what we have done. We ourselves create the object for the observation of thinking. The presence of all other objects has been taken care of without our participation.

[24] Someone could oppose my proposition that we must think before we can observe thinking with the proposition that we also have to digest before we can observe the process of digestion. That objection would be similar to the one Pascal made to Descartes, claiming that one could also say, “I go for a walk, therefore I am.” Certainly, I must also go ahead and digest before I have studied the physiological process of digestion. But this could only be compared with the contemplation of thinking if afterward I did not contemplate digestion in thinking, but wanted to eat and digest it. It is, after all, not without reason that digesting cannot become the object of digesting, but thinking can very well become the object of thinking.

[25] Without a doubt: in thinking we hold a corner of the world process where we must be present if anything is to occur. And this is exactly the point at issue. This is exactly why things stand over against me so puzzlingly: because I am so uninvolved in their creation. I simply find them present. But in the case of thinking, I know how it is done. This is why, for the contemplation of the whole world-process, there is no more primal starting point than thinking.

[26] I will mention a widespread error regarding thinking. It consists in saying that thinking, as it is in itself, is nowhere given to us. The thinking that links the observations of our experience, interweaving them with a conceptual network, is said to be not at all the same as that which we afterward scoop out of the objects and make into the object of our contemplation. What we first weave unconsciously into things is said to be something completely different from what we then extract from them consciously.

[27] Those who reason like this do not understand that they cannot escape thinking in this way. If I want to look at thinking, I cannot leave thinking behind. If we distinguish preconscious thinking from later, conscious thinking, we should at least not forget that this distinction is quite external and has nothing to do with the matter at hand. I in no way make a thing into something else by contemplating it in thinking. I can imagine that a being with altogether different sense organs and with a differently functioning intellect would have a very different mental picture of a horse than I do, but I cannot imagine that my own thinking becomes something else because I observe it. I myself observe what I myself produce. The issue is not how my thinking appears to an intellect different from my own, but how it appears to me. In any case, the picture of my thinking in a different intellect cannot be a truer one than in my own. Only if I were myself not the being who thinks, and this thinking confronted me as the activity of a being alien to me, only then could I say that although my image of its thinking arises in a certain way, I cannot know how its thinking is in itself.

[28] For the moment, however, there is not the slightest reason for me to regard my own thinking from a different standpoint. I contemplate the rest of the world with the help of thinking. Why should I make an exception for my thinking?

[29] I believe I have now justified beginning my consideration of the world with thinking. When Archimedes had invented the lever, he thought that he could use it to lift the whole cosmos on its hinges, if only he could find a secure point to set his instrument. For this, he needed something that was supported by itself, not by something else. In thinking, we have a principle that exists through itself. Starting with thinking, then, let us attempt to understand the world. We can grasp thinking through itself. The only question is whether we can also grasp anything else through it.

[30] Thus far I have spoken of thinking without giving account of its vehicle, human consciousness. Most contemporary philosophers would object that there has to be a consciousness before there can be thinking. According to them, we should therefore proceed from consciousness and not from thinking, since there would be no thinking without consciousness. To this I would have to reply that if I want to understand the relationship between thinking and consciousness, I must think about it. Therefore I presuppose thinking. One can certainly still reply that, if a philosopher wishes to understand consciousness, then he or she makes use of thinking, and presupposes it to that extent; yet, in the normal course of life, thinking arises within consciousness and therefore presupposes the latter. If this answer were given to the creator of the world, who wanted to make thinking from scratch, then it would doubtless be justified. Naturally, the creator could not let thinking arise without first having consciousness come about. For philosophers, however, it is not a question of creating the world but of understanding it. Hence they do not need to seek a starting point for creating the world, but rather one for understanding it. I find it very peculiar when people reproach philosophers for concerning themselves in the first place with the correctness of their principles and not immediately with the objects they want to understand. The creator of the world had to know how to find a vehicle for thinking, but the philosopher has to seek a secure foundation from which to understand what already exists. What good does it do to begin with consciousness and subject it to a thinking contemplation, if before we do so we do not know whether thinking contemplation can offer insight into things?

[31] We must first consider thinking completely neutrally, without reference to a thinking subject or a thought object. For in subject and object we already have concepts that are formed through thinking. We cannot deny that, before anything else can be understood, thinking must be understood. Those who deny this forget that, as human beings, they are not the first but the last link in the chain of creation. To explain the world through concepts, we cannot proceed from the earliest elements of existence. Rather, we must proceed from the element that is given to us as the nearest, the most intimate. We cannot, in a single bound, set ourselves at the beginning of the world and begin our study there. Instead, we must proceed from the present moment and see whether we can rise from the later to the earlier. As long as geology spoke of imagined catastrophes to explain the present state of the earth, it groped in the dark. Only when it made its starting point the investigation of those processes that are still active on earth today, and reasoned backward from these to the past, did it win for itself a secure foundation. As long as philosophy assumes all kinds of principles—such as atoms, movement, matter, will, and the unconscious—it will hover in the air. Only when the philosopher regards the absolutely last thing as the first can the goal be reached. But this absolutely last thing achieved by world evolution is thinking.

[32] Some say that, even so, we cannot know for certain whether our thinking in itself is correct, and therefore that, to this extent, the point of departure remains a doubtful one. This statement is just as reasonable as to entertain doubts about whether a tree in itself is correct. Thinking is a fact, and to speak about the correctness or falsehood of a fact is meaningless. At most, I can have doubts about whether thinking is used correctly, just as I can doubt whether a certain tree gives the right wood for a certain tool. The task of the present work is precisely to show how the application of thinking to the world is right or wrong. I can understand someone doubting that thinking can know something of the world, but it is incomprehensible to me that anyone could doubt the intrinsic correctness of thinking itself.



Addendum to the new edition (1918)
[1] The preceding discussion points to the significant difference between thinking and all other activities of the soul, a fact that reveals itself to truly unprejudiced observation. Anyone who does not strive for such unprejudiced observation will be tempted to make such objections as: “When I think about a rose, this thinking expresses only a relationship of my “I” to the rose, just as it does when I feel the beauty of the rose. A relationship exists between the “I” and the object in thinking just as it does, for example,  in feeling or perceiving.” This objection fails to take into account that it is only in the act of thinking that the “I” knows itself as one being with what is active in all aspects of the activity. With no other activity of the soul is this completely so. For example, when pleasure is felt, subtler observation can easily distinguish to what degree the “I” knows itself as one with what is active, and to what degree something passive is present within it, with the result that the pleasure simply arises for the “I.” And the same is true of the other activities of the soul as well. But we must not confuse “having thought-pictures” with working out thoughts by means of thinking. Thought-pictures can emerge dreamily in the soul, like vague suggestions. But this is not thinking.

To be sure, someone could now point out that, if thinking is meant in this way, then there is willing hidden in the thinking, so that not just thinking but also the willing of thinking is involved. But this would only justify our saying that real thinking must always be willed. Yet this is irrelevant to our previous characterization of thinking. It may be that the essence of thinking requires that it always be willed. But the point is that in this case nothing is willed that, in its execution, does not appear to the “I” as wholly its own, self-supervised activity. We must even acknowledge that it is precisely because of the essential nature of thinking put forward here that thinking appears to the observer as completely willed. Anyone who makes the effort really to see into all that is relevant to an assessment of thinking cannot but notice that the special characteristic discussed here does indeed belong to this activity of the soul.

[2] A person whom the author of this book values very highly as a thinker has objected that one cannot speak of thinking as I have done here, because what we believe we observe as active thinking is only an appearance.6 In reality, one only observes the results of a non-conscious activity that lies at the basis of thinking. And only because this non-conscious activity is unobserved does the illusion arise that the thinking that we do observe exists in itself, as when we imagine ourselves to see movement in a rapid succession of electrical sparks. This objection, too, rests on an inexact view of the facts. It fails to take into account that it is the “I” itself that—within thinking— observes its own activity. If it could be fooled, as we are by the rapid succession of electrical sparks, the “I” would have to be outside thinking. We could say instead that anyone who makes such a comparison deceives himself or herself mightily, a bit like one who claims that a light perceived to be in motion is re-lit by an unknown hand wherever it appears.—No, whoever wishes to see in thinking something other than what is produced within the “I” itself as surveyable activity must first become blind to the simple state of affairs available to observation, in order then to lay a hypothetical activity at the base of thinking. Those who do not blind themselves must recognize that whatever they “think up” in this way and add to thinking leads away from the essence of thinking. Unprejudiced observation shows that nothing can be attributed to the essence of thinking that is not found within thinking itself. One cannot arrive at anything that causes thinking if one leaves the realm of thinking behind.


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