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Rudolf Steiner's Epistemology

Before emerging as an esotericist, Rudolf Steiner worked extensively on the fundamental questions of knowledge, earning his PhD in Philosophy with a dissertation on the subject. Below is a summary of his efforts:

By James Hindes

Steiner always asserted the continuity of his development. For him, modern scientific methodology and spiritual subject matter are completely compatible. The fabric of science and spirituality is seamless. His answer to the epistemological question, How do I know anything? is independent of the 'thing' investigated. Knowledge of nature presupposes knowledge of the self who does the knowing. So too, knowledge of God must begin with self-knowledge.

A complete description of Steiner's epistemology would ex­ceed the limits of this little book. In Steiner's doctoral dissertation of 1892 we find the shortest account. A full translation of the German title shows Steiner to be in step with contemporary German academia: The Fundamental Problem of the Theory of Knowledge with particular Reference to Fichte's Philosophy. Prolegomena to the Reconciliation of the Philosophical Consciousness with Itself. ' However, his book, The Philosophy of Freedom (1894) contains perhaps the most complete account including consequences.

Steiner explains how Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) began with the idea that our ability to know is inextricably bound up with the way our senses are organized. Kant maintains that 'concepts without perception are empty' and any perception other than of the physical world is not known to ordinary consciousness. Steiner disagrees. He claims that we already participate in a spiritual world through the concepts we think - concepts are not derived from sense experience. The idea of a straight line does not come from the physical world. We are able to recognize straight things because the idea, a non­physical thing, lives within us. Concepts do not come from seeing the physical world but from an 'inner seeing.' Steiner calls this kind of perception, as distinct from sense perception, intuition. With concepts we are intuitively in touch with a supersensory world. It is true that when we perceive sensible objects our senses provide input from the sensible world, but it is the concept that allows us to know what we are seeing. Our activity, which usually goes unnoticed, consists in the addition of the concept. This we call thinking. Higher reflective thinking obviously requires searching for concepts but so, too, does simple seeing.

Through a conscious strengthening and enhancing of this thinking activity (so that it no longer needs the foundation of the physical senses) it is possible to attain to knowledge of supersensory reality. The contents of knowledge are immediately given to us without any mediation of the senses. The world of supersensory beings and their deeds are then step-wise revealed to us in our consciousness where, in the act of know­ing, concept and percept are one.

Thinking itself is the first 'supersensory object' to be grasped in this way. Personal experience, direct and immediate, of the clarity and spiritual substance of the act of thinking conveys to us the certainty of knowledge. To begin with, this clarity applies only to our thinking about the concrete activity of thinking. The individual through his thinking activity 'observes' himself in action, that is, in thinking. This activity then requires no further qualification or characterization through concepts because it is immediately transparent to itself. The only 'content' that is here grasped is the activity of thinking itself. It is the thinking 'l' that is both the place where thinking occurs and the agent actively thinking. Thus the usual subject­object split created by thinking is negated.

Supersensory knowledge

The next step, in Steiner's own words, is: 'We can grasp thinking by means of itself. The question is, whether we can also grasp anything else through it.'

Supersensory reality cannot be deduced from concepts. Kant was correct about that. However, once we have attained pure thinking free from the sense world, thinking in which percept and concept are united, what then appears to human consciousness? If, as Steiner says, reality is a unity which is then split by our human senses into two halves, the sensible world around us and the thinking that takes place in our minds, then there must also be some content that will appear to pure thinking. But the nature of such content cannot be determined by theorizing. Only the actual praxis of supersensory knowing can then determine what I experience. Such a praxis of knowing is described by Steiner in many books, for example, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment.

In his own life this praxis led him increasingly to deepen his knowledge of Christianity. However, as noted earlier, there is an apparent contradiction between his earlier and later pro­nouncements concerning Christianity. In his autobiography he discusses his development saying:

The Christianity which I had to seek I did not find anywhere in the creeds. After the time of testing had subjected me to stern battles of the soul, I had to submerge myself in Christianity and, indeed, in the world in which the spiritual speaks thereof. ... It was during the time when I made the statements about Christianity so opposed in literal content to later utterances that the true substance of Christianity began germinally to unfold within me as an inner phenomenon of knowledge.'

This 'phenomenon of knowledge' was a mystical experience having the transparent clarity of modern thinking. It was an experience of knowledge, an experience which, since the time of the Church Fathers, had been declared to be possible only as a 'mystical feeling' occurring in that part of the soul where faith takes place. Steiner then described this knowledge in the language of western mysticism. His book, Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age praises and discusses the achievements of Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Jacob Boehme and Angelus Silesius. He also points out that their mysticism lacked the power to survive into the future because they had sought to reach the spirit of the universe without first training their thinking in natural science.

From: Hindes, James. Renewing Christianity. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1996. Pages 20-25.

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Hindes, James. Renewing Christianity. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1996.

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