Materialism, Spiritualism, Absolutism, and Idealism

Submitted by Tom Last on Tue, 11/25/2008 - 11:20am.

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The Philosophy Of Freedom by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)
Chapter 2 The Desire For Knowledge
What is a the Origin of Thinking? (World View)

Materialistic Conception
[5] Materialism can never provide a satisfactory explanation of the world. For every attempt at an explanation must begin with one’s formation of thoughts about the phenomena of the world. Consequently, Materialism takes its start with the thought of Matter or material processes. In so doing, it is immediately confronted by two different kinds of facts: the material world and the thoughts about it.

Materialist’s seek an explanation of thoughts by regarding them as purely material processes. They believe that thinking takes place in the brain, in much the same way that digestion takes place in the animal organs. Just as they attribute mechanical and organic processes to Matter, so they credit Matter, under certain conditions, with the capacity to think. They overlook that all they have done is shift the problem from one place to another. Materialists ascribe the power of thinking to matter instead of to themselves. And this brings them back to their starting point. How does Matter manage to think about its own nature? Why is it not simply satisfied with itself and content just to exist?

The Materialist’s have turned their attention away from the definite subject, our own I, and occupy themselves with something vague and indefinite. Here the same problem comes up again. The materialistic view cannot solve the problem; it can only shift it from one place to another.

Spiritualistic Theory

[6] And what about Spiritualistic theory? The Spiritualists denies Matter any independent existence and regard it only as a product of Spirit.

But when they try to apply this theory to solve the riddle of their own human nature, they are driven into a corner. Confronting the "I" or Ego, which can be placed on the side of Spirit, there stands directly the world of the senses. No spiritual approach to it seems possible. Only by means of material processes can it be perceived and experienced by the "I". As long as it regards its own nature as exclusively spiritual, the “I” cannot find such material processes within itself. Within all that it achieves spiritually by its own effort, no trace of the sense-perceptible world is to be found. It is as if the "I" has to admit that the world is a closed book to it unless it establishes a non-spiritual relationship to the world.

Similarly, when it comes to action, we have to translate our intentions into realities with the help of material things and forces. We are, therefore, referred back to the outer world.

Absolute Idealism
The most extreme Spiritualist---or rather, the thinker who through his Absolute Idealism appears as extreme Spiritualist---is Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He attempts to derive the whole world structure from the "I".

What he accomplished was a magnificent thought-picture of the world, but one without any content of actual experience.

As little as it is possible for the Materialist to argue away the Spirit , just as little is it possible for the Spiritualist to argue away the outer world of Matter.

One-Sided Idealism

[7] When we direct our consideration upon the "I", we initially perceive the work of this "I" in the conceptual elaboration of the world of ideas.

Because of this, those with a spiritualistically oriented world view may be tempted, when looking at their own essential nature, to acknowledge nothing of spirit except this world of ideas. In this way Spiritualism becomes one-sided Idealism.

Instead of going on to penetrate through the world of ideas to the spiritual world, Idealists identify the spiritual world with the world of ideas itself. As a result, Idealists are compelled to remain fixed with their world outlook in the circle of activity of the Ego, as if spellbound.