Translator's Introduction

The Philosophy of Freedom
Intuitive Thinking As A Spiritual Path, Lipson translation
copyright © Anthroposophic Press, 1995
Audio by Dale Brunsvold
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Translator's Introduction


The real heartbreak of translation does not come from the distance between German and English, but from the gap between spiritual and word-bound consciousness. It was Steiner’s life-long sacrifice to engage in this translation, the constriction of spirit into speech. Whether the language he had to use was philosophical, theosophical, or any other, he remained painfully aware of the impossibility of his task.1

In each year of his life after 1900, Steiner continued to recommend this book (formerly called simply The Philosophy of Freedom) as well as his other epistemological works to his students.2 He insisted that his later “occult” communications presupposed, as a first step to understanding them, the radical change in thinking consciousness for which this book can serve as a partial training manual. A transformation of consciousness appropriate to our age begins with the intensification of thinking as we know it in ordinary mental life; it moves beyond, but never denies, the achievements of Western philosophy.

Yet Steiner was capable of calling the book a “stammering”— not in false modesty, but to acknowledge that what we say about higher kinds of cognition is inevitably partial and easily susceptible to distortion. A book like Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path can incite or goad us into inner practices, but it does not even attempt to deliver a fixed content for us to possess. Further, as Steiner emphasized in one lecture, “I surely know that this Philosophy of Freedom bears all the pockmarks of the children’s diseases that afflicted the life of thinking as it developed in the course of the nineteenth century.”3 It therefore has both intrinsic, and cultural /historical, grounds for a certain incompleteness.

It is an incompleteness we, the readers, are called upon to remedy. For Steiner approached the problem of spiritual expression in a supremely tactical way. Instead of establishing a fixed terminology to give his meaning a specious uniformity, he took the opposite course. Without fanfare, he used ordinary words, like “thinking,” “feeling,” and “willing,” to denote processes of cosmic proportions. Without indicating his shifts, he used such words now in the humblest, now in the most exalted sense. And he was content to use several different words, at different times, to express similar meanings. The cumulative effect of these maneuvers is to encourage the reader to develop an especially active style of reading: “How does he mean this?” is a question we should often find ourselves asking. At the end of Chapter 7, Steiner gives explicit prominence to the question of vocabulary, and puts us on notice that he will use language with a rare sense of license. He thus anticipates the constructivists and hermeneuts of our own day, by setting the responsibility for the effects of the book on us, his readers.

The current translation attempts to make the text as contemporary in sound and style as possible while preserving accuracy. This effort owes much to the editorial assistance of Christopher Bamford and Andrew Cooper, as well as an enormous debt to all previous translations, especially that of Michael Wilson.4 Many happy formulations have been simply lifted from that book, because I could not match, much less improve them. Interested readers should also refer to Wilson’s helpful notes on some of the words that present difficulties of translation and interpretation. Among these are Geist, here most often rendered as “spirit”; Vorstellung/Vorstellen, here most often “mental picture/ mental picturing”; Erkennen, here “cognition” or “cognizing”; Wollen, “wishing,” “wanting,” “willing”; Begriff, “concept”; and Wahrnehmung, “percept.” These especially thorny words, like others, are given variously in English depending on the meaning they take in each passage. Of these, only “cognizing” for Erkennen represents a real break with previous translations. I use “cognition” and “cognizing,” despite their Latinate, alienated quality, because they convey the mind’s active grasp of specific meanings in a way that “knowledge” or “knowing” do not. The act of “cognizing,” rather than the relatively passive “knowing,” fits better to a text Steiner originally hoped would bear the English title, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity.5

By suggesting an alternate title in English, Steiner again proved himself flexible regarding terminology. We have taken this as permission to retranslate the title and we have called it, this time, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom. The new title emphasizes the unique focus of Steiner’s work, among all the spiritual movements of our time, on the development of thinking consciousness into something altogether different from its manifestation in ordinary mental life. The thinking appropriate to an understanding of the perceptual world necessarily includes a development in how we perceive, and so we could also have used some such title as Intuitive Thinking and Perceiving as a Spiritual Path, if it were not both awkward and hard to understand. It is clear from Steiner’s emphasis on the two “directions” from which experience comes to meet us that both thinking and perceiving are susceptible of infinite exercise and development.

Despite terminological fluidity, Steiner was exact in his use of the words wahr (true) and wirklich (real). Truth, as a feeling, applies to our sense of the world of thinking; the real, as a feeling, applies to our sense of the world of perception. Cognition of the kind Steiner points to in this book brings us to a new world of “true reality” that involves both the evidentiary clarity of thought (truth) and perception (the real). I have therefore tried to translate these terms consistently, even when it does some violence to English usage, to underscore the precise duality Steiner indicates and overcomes.

I have also tried to preserve Steiner’s implicature. He had many ways of hinting, rather than declaring— subtly alerting us to knowable, if elusive, sources of the known world. One technique was his frequent use of the outmoded “that which” (dasjenige, was) construction (as in, “that which we can form mental pictures about.”) 6 I have resisted the linguistic pressure to collapse such constructions and dry out their suggestiveness. They bear a lineal and substantive relation to the great “that which” of I John 1:1, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life . . . .” 

We should recall that Steiner’s goal was to stimulate the exercise of a thinking independent not only from words, but from the physical body and brain.7 In keeping with this goal, we are well justified in re-translating Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path into English from time to time, both to reflect evolving understandings of the book and to liberate ourselves from a nominalistic equation of words with concepts. In this way, we have an advantage over German-language readers, who are tempted to imagine their version of the text as final. By approaching Steiner through inadequate and changing English terms, we are the more likely to face the inadequacy of all terms, and leap to his meaning.


1. Georg Kühlewind, Working with Anthroposophy (Hudson, NY: The Anthroposophic Press, 1992). See Rudolf Steiner, Der Tod als Lebenswandlung, GA 182, Lecture of 16 October 1918, Zurich.
2. Otto Palmer, Rudolf Steiner on his book The Philosophy of Freedom (Spring Valley, NY: The Anthroposophic Press, 1975).
3. Rudolf Steiner, Lecture of December 19, 1919 (GA 333).
4. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1963.
5. Cf. Wilson, p.xiv.
6. Cf. Dokumente zur Philosophie der Freiheit (Dornach, Switzerland: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1994) pp. 40 and 90 et passim, where Steiner’s 1918 revisions to the text emphasize the importance of just this construction.
7. Rudolf Steiner, GA 163, Lecture of August 30, 1915.