Rudolf Steiner: What is Knowing?

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Do we have free will?
Most of us believe we do, at least some of the time.
If I want to write a sentence, I will my fingers to type on the keypad.

Others say we are not free, but in fact, we are controlled by hidden factors,such as genes, upbringing, culture, current situation, unconscious activity, past experiences, etc.
Our sense of freedom is an illusion.
They say the illusion of freedom occurs because we are not aware of the real reasons that determine our action.

Obviously, we are not free if we do not fully know why we act.
Freedom, then, is to know the true reasons that guide our action.
When we have full knowledge of our deed, it is ours, and we are conscious of our freedom.

But what does it mean to know the reason?
What does it mean to know anything?
The way we gain knowledge of things is by means of the process of knowing.
We can learn how we gain knowledge by studying the process of knowing.
And we can strengthen our ability to know with thought-training.
It is the deepening of the process of knowing that is the path to freedom.

It is the deepening of the process of knowing that is the path to freedom.
So developing freedom depends on a desire to strive for knowledge.
Not everyone strives for knowledge.
Children, for example, feel in their hearts the inner harmony of the universe.
They feel themselves to be one with the world.
But they lack the clarity of that unity that thinking gives.

Children only have access to the sense-perceptible aspect of the world.
Thought, however, is an integral part of the full reality.
When we grow up enough to have thoughts, we access the thought aspect of the world.
Then the mental process splits our world into two halves: the outer perceived-world and our inner thought-world.

We confront the world as individuals and begin to speculate.
Our intellect defines the world according to distinctions.
This defining divides the world into separate parts.
We lose our childhood unity.

Dissatisfied, we search further for knowledge due to the feeling we belong to the world.
All our efforts are an ineffectual struggle to reconcile our thoughts with the world.
We seek in vain to find unity through religion, art, and science.

But it is thinking again, on a deeper level, that re-unites us with the world.
The many distinctions created by our intellect are joined together into a higher unity by reason.
What was once dimly felt by the heart --the unity of all existence-- is now clearly recognized by reason.

We gain knowledge by means of thinking.
But what does it mean to think?

First, we are free to think or not think.
For example, a billiard player thinks if he wants to make a shot.
The purpose of reflection is to form concepts of the event.
I connect the concepts ball, elasticity, motion, impact, velocity, etc., so that they apply to my billiard shot.
By discovering the corresponding concepts of the shot, I can predict what will happen.
This conceptual process requires effort on my part.
Spectators can passively watch without effort, and not think at all.
They will have to wait and follow the ball to see what happens.
By observing thought and the thinking process we can learn what thinking is.

The observation of thought consists of two steps:
1. Create thought
2. Observe thought
To create thought the full attention is on the object you are thinking about; not on any thought activity.
To observe thought the full attention is shifted to the thought you have created, which is now a past thought.

When I observe thought I find that it is different than all other observable things.
What I observe is the transparent clarity of thought.
Because I produce thought, I know it more intimately in all its details than anything else.

What I observe in studying a thought process is not what brain process connects one thought with another, but my reason for bringing them into a relationship.
While thinking, I am guided solely by the content of my thoughts, not some material process.

Pure thoughts are ones that don't have to refer to perceptible things, such as the pure concepts “cause” and “effect”.
For example, mathematics is based entirely upon rules of reason that are universal.
Mathematical thinking is pure conceptual thinking that can be done without referring to anything in the external world.
Conceptual thinking is self-supporting; not dependent on anything else.
Pure conceptual thinking is:
1. Detached from anything sense-perceptible.
2. Guided by the content of thoughts.

Free thinking is not ordinary thinking.
It exists on the level of pure concepts, liberated from biological and characterological control.
Freedom occurs most purely at this level, when freely forming ideas out of ego activity.
A free deed has its origin in pure conceptual thinking.

Since childhood, we have gradually built up concepts of the objects that surround us, such as the concept “tree”.
At any moment the content of our consciousness will already be interwoven with concepts in the most varied ways.
These concepts are added to our observations.
When I see a tree, my thinking immediately reacts and adds the concept “tree” to the observation.
I consider the “object tree” and the “concept tree” as belonging together.
I am now conscious of a tree that appears before me.

What would I be aware of if thinking did not react to add thought to my observation?
Pure thought-free observation would be a chaos of sense data; colors, sounds, sensations of pressure, warmth, tastes and odors.
Thinking soon connects specific concepts with these elements of observation to form the picture of the outer world that we first experience.

We also experience our own inner world.
We become aware of our feelings by observing them.
And we become aware of our thoughts too, through observation.

Our total experience consists of the sense data mentioned, and also includes perceptions, opinions, feelings, deeds, dreams and imaginations, mental pictures, concepts and ideas, even illusions and hallucinations.
This makes up the facts of our experience.
We designate the facts confronting us as pure experience before working on it with thinking.
At the start, no fact of experience is given greater significance than any other.
They are all of equal value.
They make up our given world-picture.
Which experience is important and which is not will only become clear through reflection.

Non-thinkers do not critically examine their experience, whether that experience is of an event in the world, a deed, a feeling, or an idea.
Living the unreflective life, first impressions quickly flicker past before we have decided anything about them.
Non-thinkers passively observe the stream of experience that passes before their consciousness.
Life is without reflection, and therefore, is simply non-critical.
What follows is a description of a brief moment in the unreflective life.
It consists of a sequence of pictures that pass before consciousness in an unconnected way.

I am conscious of the mental picture of having worked hard today; immediately joining itself to this is a mental picture of being able, with good conscience, to take a walk; but suddenly there appears the perceptual picture of the door opening and of the mailman entering. The mailman appears, now sticking out his hand holding a letter, now opening his mouth, now pulling back his hand. At the same time the mouth opens, I have an auditory impression; “it is starting to rain outside”.

The mailman disappears from my consciousness, and a sequence of pictures occur: picking up scissors, opening the letter, criticism of illegible writing, visible images of diverse written characters, diverse imaginations and thoughts associated with them; then the mental picture appears again of having worked hard today and the perception, accompanied by ill humor, of the rain continuing.

This disappears from my consciousness, and a mental picture appears of a problem at work that I believed was resolved,… it was not actually resolved!; following quickly are the mental pictures: freedom of will, empirical necessity, responsibility, value of virtue, absolute chance, incomprehensibility, etc. These all join together with each other in the most varied and complicated way; and so it continues.

This is what we really experience, the form of reality in which reflection plays no part at all.
Living the unreflective life we passively accept the happenings of daily life.
Or we may become absorbed in activity without worrying about the causes that drive it, such as the unthinking artist who uses feeling and sensitivity to create.
By activating thinking, however, the artist can know the scope and justification for what they do.
It is not that we should construct a fantasy, as the metaphysicians love to do,
or rationalize causes and relationships that do not actually exist.

For the thinker, pure experience is the starting point of reflection.
By activating our thinking, we find the concept; the actual driving and active principle in things.
We discover which experience is important and which isn’t, and how it relates to the whole of reality.
We advance from the world as it first appears to a conceptual knowledge of it that satisfies our reason.

Most people assume they are dealing with real things in a real world.
The unreflective person regards his observations, as they first appear, to be things that have an existence completely independent of him.
When he sees a tree he believes that it stands in the shape that he sees it, with the colors of its various parts, and
so on, there on the spot that he is looking at.

A reflective person becomes aware of the fact that we form mental pictures about the things and events we encounter.
These pictures deflect our attention away from the world and toward our inner life of mental pictures.
Psychology considers these pictures as only a representation of the real world created by our own psychological condition.
These mental pictures will insert themselves between the observer and what exists outside in the world.
A real world is no longer seen through the intervening world of mental pictures.
How can we know anything of the outside world if the picture called up in our mind inserts itself between the real world and ourselves?

If all I experience are "mental pictures", then my everyday life would be like a dream.
But we cannot remain in this dream unless we intentionally close our mind to our desire for knowledge.
By means of thinking we recognize the thing we could not see when we were blinded by mental pictures.
It is the deepening of thinking that will awaken us from this dream.

When I, as thinker, approach a plant, the plant connects itself with a concept in my mind.
The world causes thoughts in my mind with the same necessity as it causes the blossom on a plant.
Plant a seed in the earth.
It puts forth root and stem, it unfolds into leaves and blossoms.
Set the plant before yourself and it connects itself, in your mind, with a definite concept.
Why should this concept belong any less to the whole plant than leaf and blossom?
The concept of a plant appears when a thinking consciousness approaches the plant.

Only concepts and ideas are given us in a way that could be called intellectual seeing.
Without the penetration of reality by intellectual seeing, our thinking will just extract the concepts we have already added.
The form in which the concept first appears we call intellectual intuition.
Our observation remains unintelligible until we have the corresponding intuition.
Intuition may dive down to greater or to lesser depths of reality.
The deepening of knowledge depends on the powers of intuition.

What philosophers call the absolute, the eternal being, the ground of the world, what the religions call God, this we call: the idea.
Everything in the world that does not appear directly as idea, will ultimately be recognized as going forth from the idea.
Thinking does not create the idea, it perceives it.

Thinking unifies our separate individuality into one whole with the cosmos.
In so far as we sense and feel (and also perceive), we are single beings.
In so far as we think, we are the all-one being that pervades everything.

Things have their own existence outside of us.
They exist according to laws.
We can discover these laws through thinking.

Knowledge is an objective discovery.
There is only one single concept of "triangle".
My concept triangle is composed of every single perceived triangle.
No matter how often I picture it, this concept always remains the same.
The concept triangle that my mind grasps is the same as the concept that my neighbor's mind grasps, but it receives an individual coloring in each separate person only because it becomes related to their individual feelings and sensations.
It doesn’t matter to the content of this concept whether it is grasped in A's consciousness or in B's.
It will, however, be grasped by each of the two in their own individual way.

Besides being an objective discovery, knowledge is also, paradoxically, a free creation of the human mind.
Knowledge is not, as is usually assumed, an ideal reflection of something real; it is freely created.
This product would not exist anywhere if we did not create it ourselves.
The task of knowledge is not to repeat, in conceptual form, something that already exists.
If knowledge is just a repetition of things without bringing anything new, it would be senseless to do this.

There outside stands a tree.
The tree connects itself with a concept in my mind.
The concept is indivisibly bound up with the tree.
The content of the concept is part of what is given to me of the tree.
But once within me, the tree becomes more than it is outside.
The tree is no longer isolated in external space.
It combines its content with other ideas that exist in me.
It becomes a part of the whole world of ideas, which embraces the vegetable kingdom.
It is further integrated into the evolutionary scale of every living thing.

Our life is a continual swinging between the universal nature of thinking and our feelings of pleasure or displeasure.
Our thinking links us to the world.
Our feeling leads us back into ourselves and makes us individuals.
The art of thinking requires reaching our feelings up to the farthest possible extent into the region of the ideal.

The art of music composition is similar to the art of thinking.
The composer works on the basis of the theory of composition.
This theory is a collection of rules which one has to know in order to compose.
All real thinkers have been artists in the realm of concepts.
For them, human ideas are their artists' materials, and scientific method their artistic technique.

In this way abstract thinking takes on concrete individual life.
We rise beyond the mere passive reception of truths.
Then, we do not merely have knowledge about things.
Instead, our ideas become powerful forces in life.

Things demand no explanation.
They exist and act on one another according to laws.
They exist in indivisible unity with these laws.

Cognizing is not a concern of the world, but a matter we must settle for ourselves.
Due to the way we are organized reality appears at first as a duality.
Cognition overcomes this duality by fusing the two parts of reality, the perception and the concept gained by thinking, into the complete thing.

In the act of perceiving we are separated from the world.
Our perceptions are determined through our subjectivity, causing the unity of the world to appear broken.
Questions arise as a consequence of this separation.
But our thinking can cancel this self-produced separation.
The specific place where the world unity appears broken depends on the organization of the individual.
Reconciling our thoughts with the world at the point of the break takes place in a quite specific way for each particular individual.

My sphere of perceptions, conditioned by place, time, and my subjective organization, is confronted by my sphere of concepts pointing to the totality of the universe.
My task consists in reconciling these two spheres, both of which I am well acquainted.
I unite the two spheres by my own free decision.
As soon as I fit my self back into the world unity through thoughtful contemplation, all further questioning ceases.

The world does not set us questions, we set our own.
If we cannot answer our own question, the question must not be clear and distinct.
Here one cannot speak of a limit to cognition.
Everything necessary to explain the world is within the reach of our thinking.
Any limits are temporary, and can be overcome by the progress of observation and thinking.

Progress can be made in the deepening of thinking by:
1. Study of the process of knowing
2. Thought-training
Rudolf Steiner's primary book, The Philosophy of Freedom, is a study of the process of knowing.
With proper study of this book, it is also a thought-training for the development of intuitive thinking.

No other activity of the human being is so easily misunderstood as thinking.
Will and feeling still fill us with warmth even when we live through the original event again as memory.
While thinking leaves us cold in recollection; it is as if one’s life had dried out.

If we turn towards thinking in its essence, we find in it both feeling and will, and these in the depths of their reality.
Bet if we turn away from thinking towards “mere” feeling and will, we lose from these their true reality.
If we are ready to experience thinking intuitively, we also experience feeling and will to their fullest extent; but the mysticism of feeling and the metaphysics of will are not able to match the penetration of reality by intuitive thinking.
They conclude all too quickly that they themselves are rooted in reality, but that the intuitive thinker, devoid of feeling and a stranger to reality, forms out of “abstract thoughts” a shadowy, chilly picture of the world.

If we succeed once in really finding life in thinking, we will know that swimming in mere feelings, or being intuitively aware of the will element, cannot even be compared with the inner wealth and the self-sustaining yet ever moving experience of this life of thinking, let alone be ranked above it.
The real nature of thinking is warm and luminous.
It penetrates deeply into the phenomena of the world.
This penetration is brought about by a power flowing through the activity of thinking itself — the power of love in its spiritual form.