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Occult Science - An Outline

Preface to the First Edition

(Slightly condensed in translation.)

In publishing a work of this kind at the present time one must be resigned from the outset to every kind of criticism. A reader, for example, versed in the accepted theories, can be heard commenting on the way scientific themes have here been treated: “It is amazing that such absurdities can be put forward in our time. The author betrays utter ignorance of the most elementary notions. He writes of “heat” and “warmth” as though untouched by the whole trend of modern Physics. Such vagaries do not even deserve to be called amateurish.” Ore in this vein can be imagined: “One need only read a few pages to discard the book — according to one's temperament, with a smile or with indignation — shelving it with other literary curiosities such as turn up from time to time.”

What then will the author say to these damning criticisms? Will he not, from his own standpoint, have to regard his critics as without discernment or even lacking the good will for an intelligent judgment? The answer is, No — not necessarily. He is well aware that those who condemn his work will often be men of high intelligence, competent scientists and anxious to judge fairly. Knowing well the reasons for these adverse judgments, he can put himself in the critic's place. He must here be permitted a few personal observations which would be out of place save in so far as they relate to his resolve to write the book at all. For it would have no raison de'etre if merely personal and subjective. The contents of this book must be accessible to every human mind; also the manner of presentation should as far as possible be free of personal coloring. The following remarks on the author's life and work are therefore only meant to show how he could come to write this book while understanding only too well the apparent grounds of adverse judgment. Even these remarks would be superfluous if it were possible to show in detail that the contents are after all in harmony with the known facts of science. But this would need several volumes, far more than can be done under present circumstances.

The author would certainly never have ventured to publish what is here said about “heat” or “warmth,” for example, if he were not conversant with the commonly accepted view. In this student days, some thirty years ago, he made a thorough study of Physics. Concerning the phenomena of heat, the so-called “Mechanical Theory of Heat” was in the forefront at that time, and this engaged his keen attention he studied the historical development of all such explanations and lines of thought associated with such names as J. R. Mayer, Helmholtz, Clausius and Joule. This has enabled him also to keep abreast of subsequent developments. If he were not in this position, he would not have felt justified in writing about warmth or heat as in this book. For he has made it his principle only to speak or write of any subject from the aspect of spiritual science where he would also be qualified to give an adequate account of the accepted scientific knowledge. He does not mean that every writer should be subject to the same restriction. A man may naturally feel impelled to communicate what he arrives at by his own judgment and feeling for the truth, even if ignorant of what contemporary science has to say. But for his own part the author is resolved to adhere to the principle above-mentioned. Thus he would never have written the few sentences this book contains about the human glandular and nervous systems were he not also in a position to describe them in contemporary scientific terms.

Therefore however plausible the verdict that to speak of heat or warmth as in this book argues an utter ignorance of Physics, the fact is that the author feels justified in writing as he has done precisely because he has kept abreast of present-day research and would refrain from writing if he had not. No doubt this too may be mistaken for lack of scientific modesty. Yet it must be avowed, if only to forestall even worse misunderstandings.

Equally devastating criticisms might easily be voiced from a philosophic standpoint. One can imagine such a reader's question: “Has the author been asleep to all the work that has been and is still being done in fundamental theory of knowledge? Has he never even heard of Kant, who proved how inadmissible it is to make such statements as are here contained? … To a trained mind this uncritical and amateurish stuff is quite intolerable — a sheer waste of time.”

Here once again and at the risk of fresh misunderstanding, the author has to introduce a more personal note. He began studying Kant at the age of sixteen, and believes himself to be up-to-date also in this respect — qualified to judge from a Kantian standpoint what is put forward in this volume. Here too, he would have had good reason to leave the book unwritten were he not fully aware that the Kantian boundaries of knowledge are here overstepped. One can be equally well aware that Herbart would have found in it a “na´ve realism” of which the concepts had not been properly worked-over; or that the pragmatic school of William James, Schiller and others would judge it to be trespassing beyond the bounds of those genuine conceptions which man is really able to assimilate, to make effective and to verify in action.1

In spite of all this — nay even because of it — one could feel justified in writing the book. The author himself has written critically and historically of these and other trends of thought in his philosophic work: The Theory of Knowledge implicit in Goethe's World-Conception, Truth and Science, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, Goethe's Conception of the World, Nineteenth-Century Philosophic Views of Life and of the World, Riddles of Philosophy.

Other criticisms are imaginable. A reader of the author's earlier writings — for example his work on nineteenth century philosophies or his short essay on Haeckel and his Opponents — might well be saying: “How can one and the same man be the author of these works and of the book Theosophy (published in 1904) or of the present volume? How can he take up the cudgels for Haeckel and then offend so grossly against the straightforward monism, the philosophic outcome of Haeckel's researches? One could well understand the writer of this Occult Science attacking all that Haeckel stood for; that he defended him and even dedicated to him one of his main works2 appears preposterously inconsistent. Haeckel would have declined the dedication in no uncertain terms, had he known that the same author would one day produce the unwieldy dualism of the present work.”

Yet in the author's view one can appreciate Haeckel without having to stigmatize as nonsense whatever is not the direct outcome of his range of thought and his assumptions. We do justice to Haeckel by entering into the spirit of his scientific work, not by attacking him — as has been done — with every weapon that comes to hand. Least of all does the author hold any brief for those of Haeckel's adversaries against whom he defended the great naturalist in his essay on Haeckel and his Opponents. If then he goes beyond Haeckel's assumptions and placed the spiritual view side by side with Haeckel's purely naturalistic view of the Universe, this surely does not rank him with Haeckel's opponents. Anyone who takes sufficient trouble will perceive that there is no insuperable contradiction between the author's present work and his former writings.

The author can also put himself in the place of the kind of critic who without more ado will discard the whole book as an outpouring of wild fancy. This attitude is answered in the book itself, where it is pointed out that reasoned thinking can and must be the touchstone of all that is here presented. Only those who will apply to the contents of this book the test of reason — even as they would to a description of natural-scientific facts — will be in a position to decide.

A word may also be addressed to those already predisposed to give the book a sympathetic hearing. (They will find most of what is relevant in the introductory chapter.) Although the book concerns researches beyond the reach of the sense-bound intellect, nothing is here presented which cannot be grasped with open-minded thought and with the healthy feeling for the truth possessed by everyone who will apply these gifts of human nature. The author frankly confesses: he would like readers who will not accept what is here presented on blind faith, but rather put it to the test of their own insight and experience of life.3 He desires careful readers — readers who will allow only what is sound and reasonable. This book would not be valid if relaying on blind faith; it is of value only inasmuch as it can pass the test of open-minded thinking. Credulity too easily mistakes folly and superstition for the truth. People who are content with vague belief in the supersensible may criticize this book for its excessive appeal to the lift of thought. But in these matters the scrupulous and conscientious form of presentation is no less essential than the substance. In the field of Occult Science irresponsible charlatanism and the highest truths, genuine knowledge and mere superstition are often separated by a thin dividing line, and it is all too easy to mistake the one for the other.

Readers already conversant with supersensible realities will no doubt recognize the author's care to keep within the bounds of what can and should be communicated at the present time. They will be well aware that there are aspects of supersensible knowledge for which a different form of communication is required, if not a later period of time should be awaited.

Rudolf Steiner    

December, 1909.



  1. Even in the more recent schools — Bergson, the “As If” philosophy, and the “Critique of Language” — have been studied and appraised in this connection.

  2. Nineteenth-century Philosophic Views of Life and of the World (published in 1900)

  3. This does not only refer to the spiritual test of supersensible research, but to the test — unquestionably valid — of open-minded thought, the test of healthy human intelligence and reflection.

Last Modified: 16-Aug-2017
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