Rudolf Steiner's Science of Consciousness

Excerpt from
Towards an Adequate Epistemology and Methodology for Consciousness Studies
Contributions from the Western Contemplative Tradition

by Arthur Zajonc


Rudolf Steiner's Science of Consciousness

Rudolf Steiner distinguished between three different domains of science: the inorganic, the organic, and the spiritual (or cultural) sciences.27 Each domain required a method of investigation suited to itself. Specifically Steiner felt that much harm had been done by the inappropriate extension into the organic and cultural sciences of methods developed specifically for the domain of inorganic science (physics).

In the inorganic sciences the factors affecting the phenomenon are external in character. The objects under consideration may have characteristics such as mass or charge, but the external arrangement of the objects, their relative motion, collision, etc., determine everything. The purpose of scientific investigation in this arena is to so arrange the external factors (through experimentation) "that an occurrence will appear to us in transparent clarity as the inevitable result of these conditions."28

Here Rudolf Steiner is following the scientific method of Goethe who saw the goal of scientific inquiry in this domain as the elimination of non-essential factors so that the phenomenon can be experienced as the self-evident manifestation of natural law. One varies the conditions of appearance in order to discover the invariant feature within the phenomena, which remains constant throughout. In the archetypal phenomenon one sees the ideal in the real. It is not a matter of replacing an experience by a formalism. Both Steiner and Goethe viewed the goal of science as achieving a "higher experience within experience" itself.29 The cognitive event or insight was termed by Goethe the apercu and was taken as fundamental. This feature of Steiner's approach, which he took from Goethe, is crucial for an understanding of his science of consciousness. Experience itself is refined, enhanced so what had been inchoate becomes meaningful. The moment of epiphany is the fruit of thoughtful engagement with the world of experience. In adopting Goethe's approach, Rudolf Steiner is explicitly rejecting the theory of knowledge advanced by Imanuel Kant, a view that has, in one form or another, continued to dominate much of Western philosophy. For Steiner, insight is the goal, not the discovery of a hypothetical reality beyond the experience of the human mind.

Specifically Rudolf Steiner rejects Kant's approach, declaring the noumena to be illusory. "There is, however, not the slightest reason for seeking the foundation of things outside the given physical and spiritual world.…"30 Instead Steiner advances an approach that begins with the "given," and goes on to ask where in the given can one already find the certainly one is searching for. He identifies thought as that starting point. From that beginning one moves to an understanding of truth not as a conceptual repetition in consciousness of a transcendent noumenal reality, but rather insight arises through a co-creative spiritual activity of the human being and the world.

The object of knowledge is not to repeat in conceptual form something which already exists, but rather to create a completely new sphere, which when combined with the world given to our senses constitutes complete reality. Thus man's highest activity, his spiritual creativeness, is an organic part of the universal world-process. The world-process should not be considered a complete, enclosed totality without this activity. Man is not a passive onlooker in relation to evolution, merely repeating in mental pictures cosmic events taking place without his participation; he is the active co-creator of the world-process, and cognition is the most perfect link in the organism of the universe.31

Far from being an epiphenomenon, Steiner situates the activity of human cognition into the world in a profound way. Indeed he sees man as the "active co-creator of the world process." Instead of being a passive on-looker, the creative spirit of the human being participates and so completes what would otherwise remain a partial creation.32 Such a view can only make sense if one takes the phenomenal world fully seriously, as Goethe and Steiner did. From a materialistic standpoint human cognition can add nothing to the material processes occurring in the world. The higher experience of cognitive insight, which from a phenomenological standpoint means so much to Goethe and Steiner, means nothing to a materialist reductionism.

For the inorganic sciences the search is for the external conditions of appearance that govern the phenomena. The endpoint is reached with the perception of the archetypal phenomenon as the transparent expression of natural law. In the organic sciences a new element enters. If one treats the organic exactly as one did the inorganic, then only the material aspects of life will show themselves, and so one misses precisely the essential aspect of the organic world. Steiner held that Goethe's approach, by contrast, was perfectly suited to a science of the organic kingdom in nature. Goethe's study of the metamorphosis of plants was an important example. While Goethe recognized the importance of the environment on plant morphology and development, he refused to reduce plants to inorganic processes alone. Instead of the natural law one searched for the "type" which could be studied via a comparative and evolutionary method. In Steiner's words, "Just as we trace a phenomenon in the inorganic to a law, so here we evolve a specific form from the primal form (or type)."33 Today we would understand this to imply an understanding in terms of DNA and evolutionary genetics. By contrast Goethe and Steiner once again sought for a direct cognitive encounter but now with the type. Since the type manifests itself in each single organic entity, the mind should be able to reach back through these manifestations to the living principle that operates and animates within the organic forms. Steiner termed this an "intuitive" form of thinking, and recognized that it is normally held in suspicion. However a good case can be made that all scientific discovery occurs through such intuition,34 and in the case of the life sciences, Steiner saw it as the correct method.

Although much more could be said concerning both the inorganic and organic sciences, our interest is particularly with the study of consciousness. According to Steiner's classification of the sciences, with the introduction of consciousness one moves beyond the natural sciences to the spiritual or cultural sciences.35 These sciences not only include psychology but also social and political science, history, and the arts. They must be distinguished from both the organic and inorganic sciences, according to Steiner. In the inorganic sciences one is concerned only with the outer causal conditions that determine a system's behavior. These factors, of course, still obtain for the physical aspect of human beings, but Steiner explicitly maintains that human nature is not exhausted by the physical. Likewise for organic aspects of the human being, humans are alive and so the principles of life are to be found operating here as well. In addition, however, another distinct and defining feature in active directly within the human being. It is this that defines his nature and thereby also the nature of the spiritual and cultural sciences.

Psychology is concerned with the study of this distinctly human characteristic. Its method is a disciplined form of self-observation.36 Steiner writes

The first science in which the human spirit deals with itself is psychology. The mind here stand observing itself… the psychological method consists in the immersion of the mind it its own activity. Here, then, self-apprehension is the method.

Steiner contrasts the proper psychological method with the false one adopted by the behaviorists, who were already in evidence in the late 19th century. They sought to avoid the human spirit, seeking rather to examine only the external phenomena it caused. These external manifestations were then analyzed according to the methods of science developed in the inorganic sciences like physics. "Just here they [psychologists] have allowed themselves to be brought to the false standpoint which would apply to all sciences the methods of mechanics, physics, etc."37 The result was "a theory of soul without any soul." One loses sight of the essential, according to Steiner.

Rudolf Steiner pursued this method in various directions including philosophy. His Philosophy of Freedom was subtitled "Results of Soul Observation Arrived at by the Scientific Method." In it Steiner addressed, among other things, the so-called "hard problem," which had already found articulation in the 19th century by Du Bois-Reymond. Du Bois-Reymond had written that "it is, indeed, thoroughly and forever incomprehensible that it should not be a matter of indifference to a number of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc how they lie and move… There is no way to understand how consciousness could arise out of their interaction."38

In this context Steiner describes with great thoroughness the reigning dualism of his own time (which he called "metaphysical realism"), and contrasts it with his own monism. In metaphysical realism, transcendent noumena or things-in-themselves constitute reality. We can only come to a partial knowledge of these through inference from our subjective experiences. It is a form of dualism that transfers our sense-based notions of physical reality to the inaccessible realm of transcendent entities that stand behind sense appearance. "Dualism makes the mistake of transferring the antithesis of object and subject, which has significance only within the realm of perception, onto purely imaginary entities outside the realm of perception."39 In metaphysical realism, ideas themselves have no reality as such, but are understood merely as a way of describing transcendently real entities (noumena). Du Bois-Reymond's atoms are such transcendent entities. Steiner's description of dualism does not, therefore, map directly onto the mind-body problem. Rather the dualism of which he writes is between appearance and reality. What is "real" may, for example, be taken to be matter and matter only. However, matter never appears unmediated to the observer as it is in itself, but only as our senses or scientific instruments permit it to appear. Contemporary materialist reductionism is, in this sense, dualistic and a form of metaphysical realism.

Steiner rejects, or perhaps better, transforms metaphysical realism to a form of monism that acknowledges the subject-object split but does not reify it. Rather Steiner viewed the world as essentially unitary, or undivided. That we experience the world as subjective and objective is an artifact of consciousness, not a fact about the world. "Through my specifically human perception, I am placed as subject over against the object. The connection of things is broken."40 We experience the world in this way, but we should not go further to mistake an epistemological fact for an ontological one by instantiating a world of noumena over and against a world of phenomena. There is no inaccessible realm of noumena. Rather, "everything one needs to explain any given phenomenon of the world must lie with the sphere of this phenomenon."41 Steiner maintained that the broken connection is re-established though thinking. Thus the high role Steiner assigns to cognition, it is a reunification of what is torn apart in perception.

I would now like to return to my initial treatment of Einstein's theory of relativity and to Shepard's studies of mental rotation, seeing them in relation to Steiner's philosophy of cognition. Recall that Steiner rejects the notion of reality as a world of eternal, transcendent objects somehow behind the world of phenomenal appearances. Rather the object only arises as object by virtue of the act of perception. He states explicitly that, "The object is not something absolute, but only something relative with respect to this particular subject."42 This philosophical viewpoint is of immense significance when trying to comprehend modern physics. As we have seen, when we falsely reify the object, making it and spacetime an absolute, we encounter direct contradictions with relativity theory. If instead we understand the object (and spacetime) as arising through perception, as the other pole to the subject, then no contradictions occur. In relativity one has a detailed example of how different perceiving subjects encounter different objects. Moreover, coherent cognition is possible in all frames of reference. That is to say, the laws of physics obtain in all frames. It is only when we reify "the object" to become "the absolute object" that contradictions arise. Steiner's philosophy avoids these contradictions neatly, while also affirming the laws of nature, viewing them again not as material forces but as "ideal connections which one gains through thinking."43

Shepard's studies are excellent examples of studies that do not reach beyond the phenomenal realm at hand. Developing Goethe's approach, Steiner maintained that the appropriate method of investigation in psychology is self-apprehension. Shepard's experiments relied on both a quantitative measure and, to a lesser extent, verbal self-reporting. Even the quantitative measure of time used in their studies, however, required self-apprehension, namely the judgement of whether the two figures were identical or not. Here again one does not need to reach to a transcendent "reality." Rather, as already remarked before, "everything one needs to explain any given phenomenon of the world must lie with the sphere of this phenomenon."44

Finally, Steiner maintained that the faculties for self-apprehension, while meager at the outset, could be schooled and developed. In this regard he is to be understood as in the contemplative tradition. That our knowledge may today be limited is a reflection of our particular organization now, and is not an indication of our permanent condition. Steiner, therefore rejects any ultimate limits to knowledge including knowledge of the psychological or spiritual. His writings and lectures after 1900 are largely a report of his exploration of these realms and the methods by which others could also explore them. He felt throughout his life that he was pioneering a science of the soul and spirit, one that would have important consequences for education, medicine, agriculture and the arts. For a more comprehensive treatment, I refer the reader elsewhere.

Few theories of science are more elegant or rigorous than Einstein's special theory of relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics, both of which were developed in the first decades of the 20th century. While they were formulated to describe an objective physical world, both theories shed light on the troubling question of the place of the experiencing subject in science. This issue is at the margins of physics, but it is at the very center of consciousness studies, where consciousness itself becomes the object of inquiry. By first examining the treatment of the observer in modern physical theory, I lay the ground for a phenomenological stance to science generally. This approach is uniquely suited to first-person consciousness research. Finally, I use J.W. Goethe and Rudolf Steiner as two western exemplars – artist and contemplative – who struggled mightily to frame a phenomenological epistemology suited to their direct artistic and spiritual experiences.

The objectification of space and time away from subjective human experience is a well-studied area. The importance of the observer's position and relative velocity in Einstein's theory is an argument for inclusion of the observer, but the inclusion is only formal. Likewise, quantum theory must include a treatment (no matter how inadequate) of the observer in order to make contact with experiment. Modern physics requires an inclusive or holist treatment of subject and object. Relativity and quantum mechanics, however, remain silent on the status of qualia, that is on the experience of a perceiving subject. This deeper and extremely significant extension was treated in the second part of the paper.

The methods of investigation and the epistemology we hold to are important factors affecting the science of consciousness. Physics, cognitive psychology and the Western contemplative tradition can all contribute to the project.