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Spiritual Soul Instructions and Observation of the World

Schmidt Number: S-0713

On-line since: 31st March, 2014

Course II - Lecture I

The Epistemological Basis
of Theosophy I

GA 52

November 27, 1903

It will be nothing strange to many among you that one can find if the word theosophy is pronounced nothing else than a smile with many of our contemporaries. Also it is not unknown to many that just those who demand scholarship or, we say, philosophical education in the present look at theosophy as something that one must call a dilettantish activity, a fantastic belief. One can find in particular in the circles of scholars that the theosophist is regarded as a type of fantastic dreamer who bears witness to his peculiar image worlds because he has never made the acquaintance with the bases of knowledge. You find particularly in the circles which consider themselves as the scientific ones that they presuppose easily that the theosophist is basically without any philosophical education, and even if he has also acquired it or speaks of it, it is a dilettantish, a picked up matter.

These talks should not deal with theosophy directly. There are enough others. It should be a discussion with the western philosophical education, a discussion how the scientific world behaves to theosophy, and how it could behave, actually. They should disprove the prejudice, as if the theosophist is an uneducated, dilettantish person with regard to science. Who has not heard often enough that philosophers of the most different schools — and there are enough philosopher schools — state that mysticism is an unclear view filled with all kinds of allegories and feeling elements, and that theosophy has not achieved a strictly methodical thinking? If it did this, it would see that it walks on nebulous ways. It would see that mysticism could root only in the heads of eccentric people. This is a well-known prejudice.

However, I do not want to begin with a reprimand. Not because it would not correspond to the theosophical conviction, but because I do not consider theosophy as anything dilettantish from my own philosophical education and speak, nevertheless, out of the depths of its conviction. I can understand absolutely that somebody who has taken up the western philosophy in himself and has the whole scientific equipment has it hard to see something else in theosophy than what is just known. For somebody who comes today from philosophy and science it is much more difficult really to familiarise himself with theosophy, than for that who approaches theosophy with a naive human mind, with a natural, maybe religious feeling and with a need to solve certain riddles of life. Because this western philosophy puts so many obstacles to its students, offers them so many judgments which seem to be contradictory to theosophy that it makes it apparently impossible to get involved with theosophy.

Indeed, it is true that the theosophical literature shows little of that which resembles a discussion with our contemporary science and which one could call philosophical. Therefore, I have resolved to hold a series of talks on it. They should be an epistemological basis of theosophy. You will get to know the concepts of the contemporary philosophy and its contents. If you look at this in a real, true and deep sense, you see — but you must really wait till the end — the basis of the theosophical knowledge following from this western philosophy. This should not happen juggling with expert dialectic concepts, but it should happen, as far as I am able to do it in some talks, with any equipment which the knowledge of our contemporaries provides us; it should happen with everything available to give something that can be experienced of a higher world view also to those who do not want to know it.

What I have to explain would not have been possible in another age to explain in the same way. But it has been necessary to look around, maybe just in our time, at Kant, Locke, Schopenhauer or at other writers of the present, we say at Eduard von Hartmann and his disciple Arthur Drews, or the brilliant theorist of knowledge Volkelt or Otto Liebmann, or at the somewhat journalistic, but not less strictly rational Eucken. Who has looked around there who has familiarised himself with this or that of the shadings which the philosophical-scientific views of the present and the latest past took on understands and conceives — this is my innermost conviction — that a real, true understanding of this philosophical development does not lead away from theosophy, but to theosophy. Just somebody who has argued thoroughly with the philosophical doctrines has to come to theosophy.

I would not need to deliver this speech unless the whole thinking of our time were influenced just by a philosopher. One says that the great mental achievement of Immanuel Kant gave philosophy a scientific basis. One says that what he performed to the definition of the knowledge problem is something steadfast. You hear that anybody who has not tackled Kant has no right to have a say in philosophy. You may examine the different currents: Herbart, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, from Schopenhauer up to Eduard von Hartmann — in all these lines of thought only somebody can find the way who orientates himself to Kant. After different matters were striven for in the philosophy of the 19th century, the calling resounds from Zeller in the middle of the seventies, from Liebmann, then from Friedrich Albert Lange: back to Kant! — The lecturers of philosophy are of the opinion that everybody has to orientate himself to Kant, and only somebody who does this can have a say in philosophy.

Kant dominated the philosophy of the 19th century and of the present. However, he caused something else than he himself wanted. He expressed it with the words: he believes to have accomplished a similar action like Copernicus. Copernicus turned around the whole astronomical world view. He removed the earth from the centre and made another body, the sun, to the centre which was once imagined to be movable. However, Kant makes the human being with his cognitive faculties the centre of the physical world view. He really turns around the whole physical world view. It is the opinion of most philosophers of the 19th century that one has to turn around. You can understand this philosophy only if you understand it from its preconditions. One can understand what has flowed from Kant’s philosophy only if one understands it from its bases. Who understands how Kant came to his conviction that we can never recognise the things “by themselves,” because all things we recognise are only phenomena who understands this can also understand the development of the philosophy of the 19th century, he also understands the objections which can be made against theosophy, and also how he has to behave to them.

You know that theosophy rests on a higher experience. The theosophist says that the source of his knowledge is an experience which reaches beyond the sensory experience. You can see that it has the same validity as that of the senses that what the theosophist tells about astral worlds et cetera is as real as the things which we perceive with our senses round us as sensory experience. What the theosophist believes to have as his source of knowledge is a higher experience. If you read Leadbeater’s Astralebene (Astral Plane), you think that the things are as real in the astral world as the cabs and horses in the streets of London. It should be said how real this world is for somebody who knows them. The philosopher of the present argues immediately: yes, but you are mistaken, because you believe that this is a true reality. Has the philosophy of the 19th century not proved to you that our experience is nothing but our idea, and that also the starry heaven is nothing else than our idea in us? — He considers this as the most certain knowledge which there can only be. Eduard von Hartmann considers it as the most natural truth that this is my idea, and that one cannot know what it is also. If you believe that you can call experience “real,” then you are a naive realist. Can you decide anything generally about the value experience has facing the world in this way? This is the great result to which Kantianism has come that the world surrounding us must be our idea.

How did Kant’s world view come to this? It came from the philosophy of the predecessors. At that time when Kant was still young, the philosophy of Christian Wolff had the mastery over all schools. It distinguished the so-called knowledge of experience which we acquire by the sensory impressions and that which comes from pure reason. According to him, we can get to know something of the things of the everyday life only by experience, and from pure reason we have things which are the objects of the highest knowledge. These things are the human souls, the free will of the human being, the questions which refer to immortality and to the divine being.

The so-called empiric sciences deal with that which is offered in natural history, in physics, in history et cetera. How does the astronomer get his knowledge? He directs his eyes to the stars; he finds the laws which are commensurate with the observations. We learn this while opening our senses to the outside world. Nobody can say that this is drawn from mere reason. The human being knows this because he sees it. This is an empiric knowledge which we take up from life, from the experience in ourselves, not caring whether we order them in a scientific system or not; it is knowledge of experience. Nobody can describe a lion from his very reason. However, Wolff supposes that one can draw that which one is from pure reason. Wolff supposes that we have a psychology from pure reason, also that the soul must have free will that it must have reason et cetera. Hence, Wolff calls the sciences which deal with the higher capacities of the soul rational psychology. The question whether the world has a beginning and an end is a question which one should decide only from pure reason. He calls this question an object of rational cosmology. Nobody can decide on the usefulness of the world from experience; nobody can investigate it by observation. These are nothing but questions of the rational cosmology. Then there is a science of God, of a divine plan. This is a science which is also drawn from reason. This is the so-called rational theology, it belongs to metaphysics.

Kant grew up in a time when philosophy was taught in this sense. You find him in his first writings as an adherent of Wolff’s philosophy. You find him convinced that there is a rational psychology, a rational theology et cetera. He gives a proof which he calls the only possible proof of the existence of God. Then he got to know a philosophical current which had a stupefying effect on him. He got to know the philosophy of David Hume. He said that it waked up him from his dogmatic slumber. — What does this philosophy offer? Hume says the following: we see that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. We have seen this many days. We also know that all people have seen sunrises and sunsets that they have experienced the same, and we get used to believing that this must take place forever.

Now another example: we see that the solar heat falls on a stone. We think that it is the solar heat which warms up the stone. What do we see? We perceive solar heat first and then the warmed up stone. What do we perceive there? Only that one fact follows the other. If we experience that the sunbeams warm up the stone, then we have already formed the judgment that the solar heat is the cause that the stone becomes warm. That is why Hume says: there is nothing at all that shows us more than a sequence of facts. We get used to the belief that there a causal relationship exists. But this belief is only a habituation and everything that the human being thinks of causal concepts exists only in that experience. The human being sees a ball pushing the other, he sees that a movement takes place through it, and then he gets used to saying that lawfulness exists in it. In truth we deal with no real insight.

What is the human being considered from the knowledge of pure reason? This is nothing else — Hume says — than a summary of facts. We have to connect the facts of the world. This corresponds to the human way of thinking, to the tendency of the human thinking. We have no right to go beyond this thinking. We are not allowed to say that it is something in the things which has given them lawfulness. We can only say that the things and events flow past us. But the things “in themselves” do not show such a connection.

How can we speak now of the fact that something manifests itself to us in the things that goes beyond experience? How can we speak of a connection in experience that is due to a divine being, that goes beyond experience if we are not inclined to turn to anything other than to the ways of thinking?

This view had the effect on Kant that it waked up him from dogmatic slumber. He asks: can there be something that goes beyond experience? Which knowledge does experience deliver to us? Does it give us sure knowledge? Of course, Kant denied this question immediately. He says: even if you have seen the sun rise hundred thousand times, you cannot infer from it that it also rises tomorrow again. It could also be different. If you inferred only from experience, it could also turn out once that experience convinces you of something different. Experience can never give sure, necessary knowledge.

I know from experience that the sun warms up the stone. However, I am not allowed to state that it has to warm up it. If all our knowledge comes from experience, it can never exceed the condition of uncertainty; then there can be no necessary empiric knowledge. Now Kant tries to find out this matter. He looks for a way out. He had made himself used through his whole youth to believe in knowledge. He could be convinced by Hume’s philosophy that there is nothing sure. Is anywhere anything where one can speak of sure, necessary knowledge? However — he says — there are sure judgments. These are the mathematical judgments. Is the mathematical judgment similar to the judgment: in the morning the sun rises and sets in the evening?

I have the judgment that the sum of the three angles of a triangle is 180 degrees. If I have given the proof with one single triangle, it suffices for all triangles. I see from the nature of the proof that it applies to all possible cases. This is the peculiar of mathematical proofs. For everybody it is clear that these must also apply to the inhabitants of Jupiter and Mars if they generally have triangles that also there the sum of the angles of a triangle must be 180 degrees. And then: never can be two times two anything else than four. This is always true. Hence, we have a proof that there is knowledge which is absolutely sure. The question cannot be: do we have such knowledge? But we must think about the possibility of such judgments.

Now there comes the big question of Kant: how are such absolutely necessary judgments possible? How is mathematical knowledge possible? — Kant now calls those judgments and knowledge which are drawn from experience judgments and knowledge a posteriori. The judgment: the sum of angles of a triangle is 180 degrees; however, is a judgment which precedes all experience, a judgment a priori. I can simply imagine a triangle and give the proof, and if I see a triangle which I have not yet experienced, I can say that it must have a sum of angles of 180 degrees. Any higher knowledge depends on it that I can make judgments from pure reason.

How are such judgments a priori possible? We have seen that such a judgment: the sum of angles of a triangle is equal 180 degrees, applies to any triangles. Experience has to submit to my judgment. If I draw an ellipse and look out into space, I find that a planet describes such an ellipse. The planet follows my judgment formed in pure knowledge. I approach the experience with my purely in the ideal formed judgment. Have I drawn this judgment from experience? — Kant continues asking. There is no doubt, forming such purely ideal judgments, that we have, actually, no reality of experience.

The ellipse, the triangle — they have no reality of experience, but reality submits to such knowledge. If I want to have true reality, I must approach experience. If, however, I know which laws work in it, then I have knowledge before all experience. The law of the ellipse does not come from experience. I myself build it in my mind. Thus a passage begins with Kant with the sentence: “Even if all our knowledge starts from experience, nevertheless, not everything does arise from experience.” I put what I have as knowledge into experience. The human mind is made in such a way that everything of its experience corresponds only to the laws which it has. The human mind is made in such a way that it must develop these laws inevitably. If it moves up to experience, then experience has to submit to these laws.

An example: Imagine that you wear blue glasses. You see everything in blue light; the objects appear to you in blue light. However the things outdoors may be made, this concerns me nothing at all provisionally. At the moment when the laws which my mind develops spread out over the whole world of experience the whole world of experience must fit into it. It is not right that the judgment: two times two is four is taken from experience. It is the condition of my mind that two times two must give always four. My mind is in such a way that the three angles of a triangle are always 180 degrees. Thus Kant justifies the laws out of the human being himself. The sun warms up the stone. Every effect has a cause. This is a law of the mind. If the world is a chaos, I push the lawfulness of my mind toward it. I conceive the world like a string of pearls. I am that who makes the world a knowledge mechanism. — You also see how Kant was induced to find such a particular method of knowledge. As long as the human mind is organised in such a way as it is organised as long everything must submit to this organisation, even if reality changes overnight. For me it could not change if the laws of my mind are the same. The world may be as it wants; we recognise it in such a way as it must appear to us according to the laws of our mind.

Now you see which sense it has, if one says: Kant turned the whole theory of knowledge, the whole epistemology. One assumed before that the human being reads everything from nature. Now, however, he lets the human mind give the laws to nature. He lets everything circle around the human mind like Copernicus let the earth circle around the sun.

Then, however, there is something else that shows that the human being can never go beyond experience. Indeed, it appears as a contradiction, but you will see that it corresponds to Kant’s philosophy. Kant shows that the concepts are empty. Two times two is four is an empty judgment if not peas or beans are filled into it. Any effect has a cause — is a purely formal judgment if it is not filled with particular contents of experience. The judgments are formed before in me to be applied to the observation of the world. “Observations without concepts are blind — concepts without observations are empty.” We can think millions of ellipses; they correspond to no reality if we do not see them in the planetary motion. We have to verify everything by experience. We can gain judgments a priori, but we are allowed to apply them only if they correspond to experience.

God, freedom and immortality are matters about which we can ponder ever so long about which we can get knowledge by no experience. Therefore, it is in vain to find out anything with our reason. The concepts a priori are only valid as far as our experience reaches. Indeed we have a science a priori which only says to us how experience has to be until experience is there. We can catch as it were experience like in a web, but we cannot find out how the law of experience has to be. About the “thing-in-itself” we know nothing, and because God, freedom and immortality must have their origin in the “thing-in-itself,” we can find out nothing about them. We see the things not as they are, but in such a way as we must see them according to our organisation.

With it Kant founded the critical idealism and overcame the naive realism. What submits to causality is not the “thing-in-itself.” What submits to my eye or my ear has to make an impression on my eye, on my ear at first. This is the perception, the sensations. These are the effects of any “thing-in-itself,” of things which are absolutely unknown to me. These produce a lot of effects, and I order them in a lawful world. I form an organism of sensations. But I cannot know what is behind them. It is nothing else than the lawfulness which my mind has put into the sensations. What is behind the sensation, I can know nothing about it. Hence, the world which surrounds me is only subjective. It is only that which I myself build up.

The development of physiology in the 19th century agreed apparently completely with Kant. Take the important knowledge of the great physiologist Johannes Müller. He has put up the law of the specific nerve energy. It consists in the fact that any organ answers in its way. If you let light into the eye, you have a beam of light; if you bump against the eye, you will likewise have a light sensation. Müller concludes that it does not depend on the things outside, but on my eye what I perceive. The eye answers to a process unknown to me with the colour quality, we say: blue. Blue is nowhere outdoors in space. A process has an effect on us, and it produces the sensation “blue.” What you believe that it stands before you, is nothing else than the effect of some unknown processes on a sense. The whole physiology of the 19th century confirmed this law of the specific nerve energy apparently. Kant’s idea seems to be thereby supported.

One can call this world view illusionism in the full sense of the word. Nobody knows anything about what has an effect outside, what produces his sensations. From himself he spins his whole world of experience and builds up it according to the laws of his mind. Nothing else can approach him, as long as his organisation is made in such a way as it is. This is Kant’s doctrine motivated by physiology. Kant calls it critical idealism. This is also that which Schopenhauer develops in his philosophy: people believe that the whole starry heaven and the sun surround them. However, this is only your own mental picture. You create the whole world. — And Eduard von Hartmann says: This is the most certain truth which there can be. No power would be able one day to shake this sentence. — Thus the western philosophy says. It has never pondered how experience basically comes about.

Somebody is only able to stick to realism who knows how experiences come about and then he comes to the true critical idealism. The view of Kant is the transcendental idealism, that is he knows nothing about a true reality, nothing of a “thing-in-itself,” but only of an image world. He says basically: I must refer my image world to something unknown. — This view should be regarded as something steadfast.

Is this transcendental idealism really steadfast? Is the “thing-in-itself” unrecognisable? — If this held true, then could not be spoken of a higher experience at all. If the “thing-in-itself” were only an illusion, we could not speak of any higher beings. Hence, this is also an objection which is raised against theosophy: you have higher beings of which you speak.

We see next time how these views must be deepened.


Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854–1934), clergyman and theosophical author

Christian Wolff (1679–1754), German philosopher and mathematician

David Hume (1711–1776), Scottish philosopher, historian, economist

Even if all our knowledge starts … Immanuel Kant in Critique of Pure Reason, Introduction, p. 1

“Observations without concepts are blind … Immanuel Kant in Critique of Pure Reason, Introduction to Idea of a Transcendental Logic, Part I On Logic in General

Johannes Müller (1801–1858), German physiologist

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), German philosopher

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