The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, Introduction, Rudolf Steiner As A Philosopher

The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity




IN THE HISTORY of recent Western philosophy, Rudolf Steiner appears as a unique personality because his whole philosophical work is not the result of a thinking effort, but is based on spiritual experiences. In the world of the East it goes without saying that a great thinker is at the same time a great initiate; in the West, however, it never before occurred that a whole philosophical system was based on immediate spiritual experience. For this reason Steiner had to face the greatest mistrust from the world of the “official” philosophers.

It was Eduard von Hartmann whose works Steiner carefully studied, who influenced his early writings, and to whom he dedicated his doctoral thesis, Truth and Knowledge, published in 1892; and that despite the wide difference in their views. Following Kant, Hartmann believed that true reality can never be grasped by means of our consciousness, and that the experiences of our consciousness are nothing but an unreal reflection of reality. In contrast, there was no doubt for Steiner that “the experiences of our consciousness can enter the true realities by means of strengthening of our soul forces, and that the divine spiritual principle manifests itself in man if he makes this manifestation possible by his soul life.” (See Steiner's autobiography, The Course of My Life.) The unconscious realities of the world which, according to Hartmann, are veiled forever from our knowledge, “can be brought to our consciousness again and again, by means of the efforts of our soul lives,” as Steiner expressed it in the book quoted above. We are by no means separated from the realities of the world forever, but only so long as we are perceiving by means of the senses exclusively. Actually, the world of the senses is spiritual. If by enhancing our soul life, we succeed in experiencing the ideas working in the world of the senses, then we are able to experience the world in its reality. Steiner calls his philosophical system, “concrete” or “objective idealism.”

From his early youth on, Steiner felt the kinship between this kind of idealism and Goethe's world conception. In contrast to almost all philosophers, his education was not a classical, but a technical one-as if this were a kind of presentiment of the world in which, and into which, Steiner wanted to work later. He graduated from the Institute of Technology in Vienna where he was strongly influenced by his personal connection with the famous Goethe researcher, Karl Julius Schröer. Upon Schröer's warm recommendation, Steiner was invited to edit, in 1884, the natural scientific writings of Goethe in the great Goethe edition of Kürschner's Nationalliteratur. Four years later he was invited to join the work at the Goethe Archives in Weimar. Here Steiner lived from 1889 to 1897.

As a fruit of this research work, his book, A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception, Fundamental Outlines with Special Reference to Schiller, was published already as early as 1886. (Further editions appeared in 1924, 1936, 1949 and 1960 respectively.) Up to then, Goethe's scientific endeavors had been considered as mere poetic presentiments of the truth. It was Steiner who proved that all of Goethe's various individual discoveries and presentiments had their origin in a total view, and that this is what matters.


Goethe's understanding of nature brought him in opposition to Kant. The problem here is the limitation of our knowledge. In this difference of views, Steiner in his interpretation of Goethe took the side of the latter, in opposition to Kant, and thus put himself in opposition to the Neo-Kantians, whose views were taught in all German universities at that time. Otto Liebmann who renewed Kantianism in the second half of the nineteenth century, had proclaimed that the human consciousness cannot be enhanced. The same line of thought was the foundation upon which Johannes Volkelt had based his thesis that the world known to man has to be separated sharply from the other world, that of the “things in themselves” which, as such, is unknown to man. Thus, the follower of Kant believed that man's knowledge is limited, and that man can never cross this limit; however, in his Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, Steiner makes the statement that with his thinking, man lives in the reality of the world as a spiritual world, and that the world of the senses is, in truth, a manifestation of the spiritual principle.

In this, Steiner was in full agreement with Goethe. Goethe had conceived the great idea of metamorphosis. According to the latter, the world is a manifestation of ideal forces in the world of the senses. All plants, for example, are nothing but materializations of the one, ideal archetypal plant. The archetypal plant is the fundamental design of all plants: the knot and the leaf. We have to think of this fundamental design as a living, working idea which cannot be seen by means of our sense organs but which manifests itself in the world of the senses. Whenever this fundamental design materializes physically, it varies in a manifold manner, and in accordance with any of these variations, the different plants are formed, following the living archetypal pattern. The archetypal plant is the Proteus who hides himself and manifests himself in all these various forms and whoever is able truly to imagine this archetypal plant, can somehow invent new plants which do not, or do not yet, exist in the world of the senses.

Time and again, Steiner pointed to a conversation between Goethe and Schiller which took place in the summer of 1794 during which Goethe claimed to look at nature in such a way that nature is to be thought of as “working and living, and having the tendency from the whole into the single parts.” In the course of this conversation, Goethe drew a sketch of the “archetypal plant” as a physical super-physical form according to which all existing plants are shaped. Schiller, the follower of Kant, answered that this “archetypal plant” is nothing more than an id ea which man builds up in order to understand the particulars. Goethe did not agree with this. He said that in the spirit, he saw the whole in the same way as physically he saw the particulars; there was no fundamental difference between the spiritual and the physical view. To him both were parts of the reality. Whereupon Schiller answered, “This is not an experience; this is an idea.” To this Goethe replied, “I am very happy about this, that I do have ideas without my knowledge, and that I even see them with my very eyes.”

This conversation reveals two typical approaches to the problem of the relationship between a spiritual and a sense experience. Schiller, on the one hand, emphasizes the contrast: the two experiences can never be united. In Goethe's view, on the other hand, the idea and the sense perception complete each other, forming two means of knowledge by working together. Man has to let things speak to him in a twofold way: one part of their reality is given him without his cooperation, if only he opens his senses; the other part, however, can be grasped by him by means of his thinking only, and if he is blessed as was Goethe, he is able to see it with his very eyes. However, together the two parts form the complete whole of the object itself.

Schiller considers the ideal part as a subjective addition on the part of man. Though Kant had realized that we have to use the concept of the inner functionality if we really want to understand the various products of nature, and that we cannot grasp the reality without this concept, he still allotted it to the “reflective power of judgment” of man only; or, in other words, he considered this concept to be nothing but an invention of man, though an indispensable one. In contrast to this, the young Schelling in 1797, exclaimed, entirely following Goethe's ideas, “No longer is there any reason to be afraid of statements!” And consistently, he wanted nature explained from the side of the idea. And here are Goethe's words: “By looking at ever-creative nature, we become worthy of spiritually participating in her productions. Didn't I, first unconsciously, and only following an inner urge, time and again insist upon that archetypal, typical principle? I even succeeded in building up a description which follows the formative forces of nature; and nothing was able any longer to prevent me from courageously undergoing the adventure of the reason, as the Old Man from Konigsberg himself calls it.” But for Kant, the “Old Man from Konigsberg,” the postulation of an objectively existent idea still remained an “adventure of the reason.”

But how is man able to grasp this idea which, of its own nature is non-physical, yet working in the physical world of the senses? Goethe considered himself as possessing a power of judgment by looking at an object (an “anschauende Urteilskraft”); he says that the thinking itself must be metamorphosed, must be enhanced, in order to experience the idea of metamorphosis; a spiritual activity is needed, a dynamic thinking.


By adopting Goethe's theory of knowledge, Steiner also answers the question as to what meaning man's activity of knowledge has in the cosmos. The positivistic thinkers consider knowledge nothing but a mere comprising of individual objects into groups; and these groups are for us, then, abstract concepts or names. Thinking as such serves economic purposes exclusively, but it will never create anything new, although the latter might be of great importance for man. In contrast to this, Steiner states that Science is by no means a mere repetition of what is presented to us by our senses, in some abbreviated form, but rather it adds to it something fundamentally new, something which can never be found in the mere perception, or in the experience. This fundamentally new principle, however, is by no means something of a subjective nature which, according to Kant, man projects on the given perception, or on nature, but rather the true essence of the world of the senses itself. The physical phenomena are riddles which the thinking solves; but what this thinking thus brings about, is the objective world itself. For the world is presented to us by two means: by sense perception and by spiritual knowledge. Both are parts of the objective world. According to Kant, the unity of the objects as it is expressed in concepts, is merely loaned to them by man's I; every connection, he says, originates in our “transcendental apperception.” Steiner, on the other hand, says that just the opposite is true: that objects have their ideal content within themselves. The objects, however, are not presented to our senses in their completeness. By thinking about the objects, we develop the ideas which are working in the specific objects, thus adding to the perception what has been missing from it. This missing, however, is not an objective fact but only the consequence of the fact that by means of our senses we perceive the world in a fragmentary manner only.

Consequentially, the idea is, and works objectively; however it is not presented to our sense organs but appears, in our own thinking, on the subjective stage of our consciousness. This is the reason why it seems to us to be subjective only. Man, by means of his thinking, reveals the ideal nucleus of the world. If it were supposed that man's spirit did not exist, the ideas as expressed in natural laws would be working, but they would not be expressed, not grasped as such. Thus, our intellect does not create order in the objective outer world, but restores the order and the unity of this objective world, which has been interfered with by its own means of understanding, subject to two ways of knowledge. This, however, entitles him to grasp the concept as such, thus adding to the already existing form of existence, a completely new form. (Here the question arises as to whether or not Peter Wust was influenced by Steiner when in the former's Dialektik des Geistes, Dialectic of the Spirit, page 293 in the original German edition, he expresses almost the same lines of thought.)

Human thinking frees the ideal pure form as such; thus, man becomes a creator. Without him, thinking would not exist.


Steiner's Anthroposophy — with which we are not dealing here — differs from the “mystical” schools in the extremely high value it accords to thinking. This high evaluation of thinking originates here, in Steiner's philosophy: man has his right place in the cosmos as a thinking being.

Thinking, on the one hand, and perception, on the other, belong together; however, we experience them as separated Perceptions are presented to us; facing them, we are merely passive; thoughts, again, have to be brought about by the effort of our soul forces. The world insofar as it is perceived, cannot solve any riddles; there, dreams and hallucinations are presented to us in exactly the same way as is the world of the senses. Thoughts, however, are completely familiar to us, and — fundamentally, at least — are transparent. If we wish to find relationships within the world of sense perception, we have to use our thinking forces.

However, what is added to the perception by our thinking is by no means of a merely subjective nature. For it is not we who “have” the thinking, but rather it is the thinking which “has” us. We cannot combine contents of thoughts arbitrarily, but we have to follow their laws. The thinking does not produce the thoughts; it merely receives them, as does the eye the light, and the ear the sound. The only difference is that the senses work automatically while we remain passive, while, insofar as thinking is concerned, we have to activate it ourselves. Perceptions are given to us; concepts we ourselves have to work out.

Let us imagine a spirit to whom the concept is given together with the perception; such a spirit would never achieve the idea that the concept is not an integral part of the subject, but something of a “subjective” nature. Steiner suggests that in earlier times, as a matter of fact, all mankind experienced things in this way.

Therefore it is not the fault of the objects that we first confront them without the corresponding concepts, but of our own spiritual-physical organization. The abyss between perception and concept opens only at the moment when I, the perceiving subject, confront the objects. To explain the object by means of thinking means nothing other than to restore the connection which man's organization has broken up. It is up to man to gain knowledge. The objects themselves require no explanation. We are the ones who ask questions because we face the cleavage between perception and concept.

In this way Steiner has succeeded in building up a truly objective idealism, from Kant back to Plato, or forward to Schelling. What is new in Kant's philosophy — his idealism in contrast to dogmatism — remains in Steiner's world conception. Steiner, however, refuses to accept the subjective nature of this idealism, and with it, the disastrous division of the world into that of human experience and that of the objects in themselves. For Steiner, thinking is neither a mere subjective activity nor a shadowy imitation of the perception, but an independent spiritual reality.


By considering from the outset the nature of the transcendental principle to be conceptual-spiritual, Steiner rejects the dogma of the modern theory of knowledge since Kant: that man is never able to grasp reality. In the thinking process, he himself participates in the transcendental order of laws of the objects. What here leads us constantly in the wrong direction is the fact that we think our I to be somewhere within our physical organization, and that impressions are given to it by the “outside.” The truth however is that our I is living within the order of laws of the objects themselves; but this life of the I in the region of the transcendental principle is not consciously experienced by man. It is rather his physical organization by which he experiences himself.

Steiner frequently uses the example of a mirror which reflects outer events; and this “mirror” is our physical body. The activity of the body represents the living mirror which reflects the life of the I, which in turn is of a transcendental nature. Thus the human I is able to enter the transcendental principle without “forgetting” itself. But the content of our ordinary, empiric, every-day consciousness is to what our I experiences in reality, as the reflection of the mirror is to the original.

This difference between our true life and that which is only “mirrored,” enables Steiner to settle the conflict between natural science tending toward materialism, and spiritual research presupposing the spiritual principle. Natural science studies nothing but the “mirrored reflection” of the reality which is bound to the brain; this “reflection,” of course, depends on the “mirror,” or in other words, on our nervous system. Man's illusion — though necessary for his every-day life — of thinking of his I as an entity living within his physical organization, is relatively justified here. However, the true innermost being of man will never be found within this physical organization, but rather in the transcendental field.

Thus man has to be considered as a being who, on the one hand is living in the spiritual world itself, and on the other, is receiving its experiences “mirrored” by its physical organization. The world of the senses is, in reality, a spiritual world, but it does not appear to us as such.

The training indicated by Steiner in his various anthroposophical books seeks to stimulate man's soul development to the point where he is able to experience this spiritual world consciously; and this training consists of laborious spiritual exercises which require, above all, a great deal of patience and perseverance.

For those of us who are not — or are not yet — in the position to come to spiritual experiences, Rudolf Steiner's philosophy will still be a highly important contribution toward man's understanding of himself and of the world in which he lives — even though this philosophy can be used only to guide the student on his own right way. However, this whole philosophy is by no means meant to be a mere theoretical line of thought; rather does it find its true completion in the realms of its practical effects. Steiner had good reasons for giving his book — in the original German at least — the title, Die Philosophie der Freiheit, that is, literally, The Philosophy of Freedom, and he poses the question: When is an action free? And he answers this question by stating that it is free when it has its origin in pure thinking. At first glance, Steiner's philosophy of ethics may appear intellectualistic. As in the theory of cognition we have to differentiate between subjective perception on the one hand and the objective concept on the other, in the same way, in the realm of ethics we have to differentiate between motives which originate in the perception and those having their origin in pure thinking. In the first instance we cannot call the deed a free one, since this kind of action is prompted by our surroundings, by our feelings and our will, as well as by our personal nature. None of these is truly free. Only the action motivated by our thinking is truly free. For this kind of action is objective; it is not in the least connected with our I; the world of thinking is common to all of us.

Spinoza, the great Dutch philosopher of the 17th century, objected to the doctrine that man's actions are free by saying that if a stone thrown by someone were endowed with consciousness, it would also make the statement that it flies “freely.” To this Steiner replied that it is not the consciousness as such that builds up in people's minds the belief that they are free; rather it is the fact that man is capable of comprehending the rationality of his motives — provided they are rational. Only that action can be called free which has been determined by the rationality of its ideas.

But how does man materialize his rational motives? The answer is, By means of his moral imagination, which enables him to obtain his motives from the world of ideas. The unfree man is determined passively by the motives of his surroundings which also include his innate nature. The free man, on the other hand, acts according to his moral intuition which, though his own, nevertheless lifts him from the level of his limited I to the objective world of thinking.

Now the problem arises, How can objective morality be united with personal initiative? Steiner strongly rejects Kant's ethics which claim his “categorical imperative” to be a general law which extinguishes the personality. He claims just the opposite, namely a purely individual ethic, expressing it thus: “I do not ask anybody, no man and no law; I perform my action according to the idea which guides me. In so doing, my action is my own, and not the execution of the will of an authority. The urging of my desires means nothing to me, nor does that of moral laws; I want simply to do what seems right to me.” In strict opposition to Kant, any action dictated by a general law appears to him as unfree, heteronomous, while only those actions are autonomous which originate in a law given by man's own self. In a letter dated December 5, 1893, addressed to John Henry Mackay, the follower of Max Stirner, Steiner expressly laid stress on the full agreement of his own philosophy of ethics with that of Stirner, presented in the latter's book, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, The Individual and His Property.

The moral imagination must, out of necessity, be individual. This is the point which counts. However, here we find no opposition between individuality and the general law; we all share in the world of thinking, we all live in one spiritual world. Thus, despite the fact that every single human being draws from his own personal world of ideas, there cannot be any conflict. People are living together, not there is one spiritual cosmos, common to all. This is one of the most important aspects of the picture of Man. For the idea of man is that of a free being. However, we are still rather far from this goal, which belongs to the future. Man's evolution toward this highest goal is far from completed; Man has not yet become a reality. There is something very special in relation to the idea of Man: while all other ideas have materialized, have become one with their perception, as we have seen above, that of Man is still waiting for its materialization, its incorporation. It is Man alone who is able to complete this. While nature performs the task of completion in the case of the plant and animal, so far as Man is concerned nature can do no more than pave the way toward this completion. But it is only and exclusively Man himself who is able to take the last and the decisive step. Books have been written on the question whether or not Man is free, but the manner of asking the question is wrong, for it can never be answered objectively-theoretically. The answer is given by a process of self-liberation.

Rudolf Steiner enthusiastically follows the theory of evolution as it was developed by Darwin and Haeckel. However, he goes far beyond its mere biological aspect. The moral life of man is the continuation of his biological development. Creating new moral ideas out of our “moral imagination” — as, for instance, Gandhi's “non-violence,” or Albert Schweitzer's “reverence for life” — is a “jump” in evolution comparable to the “jump” which creates a new species in the plant or animal kingdom. In a letter dated August 26, 1902, addressed to Wilhelm Hübbe-Schleiden, Steiner wrote, “Nature achieves the most important moments in evolution every time she makes her typical jumps.”

The evolution of mankind as a whole within the hierarchy of the Spiritual Beings is a process of cosmic importance.

The Hebrew University,
Jerusalem, 1961

Translated by Stephen Michael Engel.