[RSArchive Icon]
Rudolf Steiner Archive Section Name Rudolf Steiner Archive & e.Lib

Highlight Words

Spiritual Soul Instructions and Observation of the World

Schmidt Number: S-0722

On-line since: 31st March, 2014

Course II - Lecture II

The Epistemological Basis
of Theosophy II

GA 52

December 4, 1903

With the remark that the present, in particular the German philosophy and its epistemology makes it difficult to its supporters to find access to the theosophical world view I have started these talks before eight days, and I added that I try to outline this theory of knowledge, this present philosophical world view and to show how somebody with an absolutely serious conscience in this direction finds it hard to be a theosophist.

On the whole, the theories of knowledge which developed from Kantianism are excellent and absolutely correct. However, one cannot understand from their point of view how the human being can find out anything about beings, generally about real beings which are different from him. The consideration of Kantianism has shown us that this view comes to the result in the end that everything that we have round ourselves is appearance, is only our mental picture. What we have round ourselves is no reality, but it is controlled by the laws which we ourselves prescribe to our surroundings. I said: as we must see with coloured glasses the whole world in this colour nuance, in the same way the human being must see the world — after Kant’s view — coloured as he sees them according to his organisation no matter how it may be in the external reality. That is why we are not allowed to speak of a “thing-in-itself,” but only of the quite subjective world of appearance. If this is the case, everything that surrounds me — the table, the chairs et cetera, is an image of my mind; because they all are there for me only, in so far as I perceive them, in so far as I give form to these perceptions according to the law of my own mind, prescribe the laws to them.

I cannot state whether still anything exists except for my perception of the table and the chairs. This is basically the result of Kant’s philosophy in the end. This is not compatible, of course, with the fact that we can penetrate into the true nature of the things. Theosophy is inseparable from the view that we can penetrate not only into the physical existence of the things, but also into the spiritual of the things; that we have knowledge not only of that which surrounds us physically, but that we can also have experiences of that which is purely spiritual.

I want to show you how a vigorous book of the world view which is called “theosophy” today represents that which became Kantianism later. I read up a passage of the book that was written a short time before Kantianism was founded. It appeared in 1766. It is a book which — we can say it absolutely that way — could be written by a theosophist. The view is represented in it that the human being has not only a relationship to the physical world surrounding him, but that it would be proved scientifically one day that the human being belongs also to a spiritual world, and that also the way of being together with it could be scientifically proved. Something is well demonstrated that one could assume that it is proved more or less or that it is proved in future: “I do not know where or when that the human soul is in relation to others that they have effect on each other and receive impressions from each other. The human being is not aware of that, however, as long as everything is good.” Then another passage: “Indeed, it does not matter whichever ideas of the other world we have, and, hence, any thinking about spirit does not penetrate to a state of spirit at all ...” and so on.

The human being with his average mental capacity cannot realise the spirit; but it is said that one can assume such a common life with a spiritual world. With such a view Kant’s epistemology is not compatible. He who wrote the foundation of this view is Immanuel Kant himself. That means that we have to register a reversal in Kant himself. Because he writes this in 1766, and fourteen years later he founds that theory of knowledge which makes it impossible to find the way to theosophy. Our modern philosophy is based on Kantianism. It has taken on different forms, those from Herbart and Schopenhauer to Otto Liebmann and Johannes Volkelt and Friedrich Albert Lange. We find more or less Kantian coloured epistemology everywhere according to which we deal only with phenomena, with our subjective world of perception, so that we cannot penetrate to the being, to the root of the “thing-in-itself.”

At first I would like to bring forward to you everything that developed in the course of the 19th century, and what we can call the modified epistemology of Kant. I would like to demonstrate how the current epistemology developed which looks with a certain arrogance at somebody who believes that one can know something. I want to show how somebody forms a basic epistemological view whose kind of view is based on Kant. Everything that science has brought seems to verify the Kantian epistemology. It seems to be so firm that one cannot escape from it. Today we want to roll up it and next time we want to see how one can find the way with it.

First of all physics seems to teach us everywhere that that is no reality the naive human being believes that it is reality. Let us take the tone. You know that the oscillation of the air is there outside our organ, outside our ear which hears the tone. What takes place outside us is an oscillation of the air particles. Only because this oscillation comes to our ear and sets the eardrum swinging the movement continues to the brain. There we perceive what we call tone and sound. The whole world would be silent and toneless; only because the external movement of our ear is taken up by the ear, and that which is only an oscillation is transformed; we experience what we feel as a sound world. Thus the epistemologist can easily say: tone is only what exists in you, and if you imagine it without this, nothing but moved air is there.

The same applies to the colours and the light of the external world. The physicist has the view that colour is an oscillation of the ether which fulfils the whole universe. Just as the air is set swinging by the sound and nothing else than the movement of the air exists if we hear a sound, light is only an oscillatory movement of the ether. The ether oscillations are a little bit different from those of the air. The ether oscillates vertically to the direction of the propagation of the waves. This is made clear by experimenting physics. If we have the colour sensation “red,” we have to do it with a sensation. Then we must ask ourselves: what is there if no feeling eye exists? — It should be nothing else of the colours in space than oscillatory ether. The colour quality is removed from the world if the feeling eye is removed from the world.

What you see as red is 392 to 454 trillions oscillations, with violet 751 to 757 trillions oscillations. This is inconceivably fast. Physics of the 19th century transformed any light sensation and colour sensation into oscillations of the ether. If no eye were there, the whole colour world would not exist. Everything would be pitch-dark. One could not talk about colour quality in the outer space. This goes so far that Helmholtz said: we have the sensations of colour and light, of sound and tone in ourselves. This is not even like that which takes place without us. We are even not allowed to use an image of that which takes place without us. — What we know as a colour quality of red is not similar to about 420 trillions oscillations per second. Therefore, Helmholtz means: what really exists in our consciousness is not an image but a mere sign.

Physics has maintained that space and time exist as I perceive them. The physicist imagines that a movement in space takes place if I have a colour sensation. It is the same with the time image if I have the sensation red and the sensation violet. Both are subjective processes in me. They follow each other in time. The oscillations follow each other outside. Physics does not go so far as Kant. Whether the “things-in-themselves” are space-filled whether they are in space or follow each other in time, we cannot know — in terms of Kant; but we know only: we are organised this and that way, and, therefore, something — may it be spatial or not — has to take on spatial form. We spread out this form over that. For physics the oscillatory movement has to take place in space, it has to take a certain time ... The ether oscillates, we say, 480 trillions times per second. This includes the images of space and time already. The physicist assumes space and time being without us. However, the rest is only a mental picture, is subjective. You can read in physical works that for somebody who has realised what happens in the outside world nothing exists than oscillatory air, than oscillatory ether. Physics seems to have contributed that everything that we have exists only within our consciousness and except this nothing exists.

The second that the science of the 19th century can present to us is the reasons which physiology delivers. The great physiologist Johannes Müller found the law of the specific nerve energy. According to this law any organ reacts with a particular sensation. If you push the eye, you can perceive a gleam of light; if electricity penetrates it, also. The eye answers to any influence from without in such a way as it just corresponds to it. It has the strength from within to answer with light and colour. If light and ether penetrate, the eye answers with light and colour sensations.

Physiology still delivers additional building stones to prove what the subjective view has put up. Imagine that we have a sensation of touch. The naive human being imagines that he perceives the object. But what does he perceive really? The epistemologist asks. What is before me is nothing else than a combination of the smallest particles, of molecules. They are in movement. Every particle is in such movement which cannot be perceived by the senses because the oscillations are too small. Basically it is nothing else than the movement only which I can perceive, because the particle is not able to creep into me. What is it if you put the hand on the body? The hand carries out a movement. This continues down to the nerve and the nerve transforms it into a sensation: in heat and cold, in softy and hard. Also in the outside world movements are included, and if my sense of touch is concerned, the organ transforms it into heat or cold, into softness or hardness.

We cannot even perceive what happens between the body and us, because the outer skin layer is insensible. If the epidermis is without a nerve, it can never feel anything. The epidermis is always between the thing and the body. The stimulus has an effect from a relatively far distance through the epidermis. Only what is excited in your nerve can be perceived. The outer body remains completely without the movement process. You are separated from the thing, and what you really feel is produced within the epidermis. Everything that can really penetrate into your consciousness happens in the area of the body, so that it is still separated from the epidermis. We would have to say after this physiological consideration that we get in nothing of that which takes place in the outside world, but that it is merely processes within our nerves which continue in the brain which excite us by quite unknown external processes. We can never reach beyond our epidermis. You are in your skin and perceive nothing else than what happens within it.

Let us go over to another sense, to the eye, from the physical to the physiological. You see that the oscillations propagate; they have to penetrate our body first. The eye consists of a skin, the cornea, first of all. Behind this is the lens and behind the lens the vitreous body. There the light has to go through. Then it arrives at the rear of the eye which is lined with the retina. If you removed the retina, the eye would never transform anything into light. If you see forms of objects, the rays have to penetrate into your eye first, and within the eye a small retina picture is outlined. This is the last that the sensation can cause. What is before the retina is insensible; we have no real perception of it. We can only perceive the picture on the retina. One imagines that there chemical changes of the visual purple take place. The effect of the outer object has to pass the lens and the vitreous body, then it causes a chemical change in the retina, and this becomes a sensation. Then the eye puts the picture again outwardly, surrounds itself with the stimuli which it has received, and puts them again around in the world without us. What takes place in our eye is not that which forms the stimulus, but a chemical process. The physiologists always deliver new reasons for the epistemologists. Apparently we have to agree with Schopenhauer completely if he says: the starry heaven is created by us. It is a reinterpretation of the stimuli. We can know nothing about the “thing-in-itself.”

You see that this epistemology limits the human being merely to the things, we say to the mental pictures which his consciousness creates. He is enclosed in his consciousness. He can suppose — if he wants — that anything exists in the world which makes impression on him. In any case nothing can penetrate into him. Everything that he feels is made by him. We cannot even know from anything that takes place in the periphery. Take the stimulus in the visual purple. It has to be directed to the nerve, and this has to be transformed anyhow into the real sensation, so that the whole world which surrounds us would be nothing else than what we would have created from our inside.

These are the physiological proofs which induce us to say that this is that way. However, there are also people who ask now why we can assume other human beings besides us whom we, nevertheless, recognise only from the impressions which we receive from them. If a human being stands before me, I have only oscillations as stimuli and then an image of my own consciousness. It is only a presupposition that except for the consciousness picture something similar to the human being exists. Thus the modern epistemology supports its view that the outer content of experience is merely of subjective nature. It says: what is perceived is exclusively the content of the own consciousness, is a change of this content of consciousness. Whether there are things-in-themselves, is beyond our experience. The world is a subjective appearance to me which is built up from my sensations consciously or unconsciously. Whether there are also other worlds, is beyond the field of my experience.

When I said: it is beyond the field of experience whether there is another world, it also beyond the field of experience whether there are still other human beings with other consciousnesses, because nothing of a consciousness of the other human beings can get into the human being. Nothing of the world of images of another human being and nothing of the consciousness of another human being can come into my consciousness. Those who have joined Kant’s epistemology have this view.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte also joined this view in his youth. He thought Kant’s theory thoroughly. There may be no nicer description of that than those which Fichte gave in his writing On the Determination of the Human Being (1800). He says in it: “nowhere anything permanent exists, not without me not within me, but there is only a continuous transformation. I nowhere know any being, and also not my own. There is no being. — I myself do not know at all, and I am not. Images are there: they are the only things that exist, and they know about themselves in the way of images — images which pass without anything existing that they pass; which are connected with images to images. Images which do not contain anything, without any significance and purpose. I myself am one of these images; yes, I myself am not this, but only a confused image of the images.”
Indeed — if you stick to the view that you deal in your subjective opinion only with the things of your own consciousness, then you must get inevitably to the view that you do not know more about yourselves than about the outside world. If you go over to the image of the own ego, then you do not have more of it than of the outside world. Keep this thought in mind in its full significance, then it becomes clear to you that the outside world dissolves in a sum of hallucinations, and that also the inside world is nothing else than a creation of subjective dreams fitted together. You can imagine already from the outside, I would like to say, from the corporeality that also you yourselves like the outside world are nothing else than dream images or illusions if you interpret the view correctly.

Look at your hand which transforms your movements to sensations of touch. This hand is nothing else than a creation of my subjective consciousness, and my whole body and what is in me is also a creation of my subjective consciousness. Or I take my brain: if I could investigate under the microscope how the sensation came into being in the brain, I would have nothing before myself than an object which I have to transform again to an image in my consciousness.

The idea of the ego is also an image; it is generated like any other. Dreams pass me, illusions pass me — this is the world view of illusionism which appears inevitably as the last consequence of Kantianism. Kant wanted to overcome the old dogmatic philosophy; he wanted to overcome what has been brought forward by Wolff and his school. He considered this as a sum of figments.

These were the proofs of freedom, of the will, of the immortality of the soul and of God’s existence which Kant exposed concerning their probative value as figments. What does he give as proofs? He proved that we can know nothing about a “thing-in-itself” that that which we have is only contents of consciousness that, however, God must be “something-in-itself.” Thus we cannot necessarily prove the existence of God according to Kant. Our reason, our mind is only applicable to that which is given in the perception. They are only there to prescribe laws of perception and, hence, the matters: God — soul — will — are completely outside our rational knowledge. Reason has a limit, and it is not able to overcome it.

In the preface of the second edition of Critique of Pure Reason he says at a passage: “I had to cancel knowledge to make room for faith.” He wanted this basically. He wanted to limit knowledge to sense-perception, and he wanted to achieve everything that goes beyond reason in other way. He wanted to achieve it on the way of moral faith. Hence, he said: in no way science can arrive at the objective existence of the things one day. But we find one thing in ourselves: the categorical imperative which appears with an unconditional obligation in us. — Kant calls it a divine voice. It is beyond the things, it is accompanied by unconditional moral necessity. From here Kant ascends to regain that for faith which he annihilates for knowledge. Because the categorical imperative deals with nothing that is caused by any sensory effect, but appears in us, something must exist that causes the senses as well as the categorical imperative, and appears if all duties of the categorical imperative are fulfilled. This would be blessedness. But no one can find the bridge between both. Because he cannot find it, a divine being has to build it. In doing so, we come to a concept of God which we can never find with the senses.

A harmony between the sensory world and the world of moral reason must be produced. Even if one did enough in a life as it were, nevertheless, we must not believe that the earthly life generally suffices. The human life goes beyond the earthly life because the categorical imperative demands it. That is why we have to assume a divine world order. How could the human being follow a divine world order, the categorical imperative, if he did not have freedom? — Kant annihilated knowledge that way to get to the higher things of the spirit by means of faith. We must believe! He tries to bring in on the way of the practical reason again what he has thrown out of the theoretical reason.

Those views which have no connection apparently to Kant’s philosophy are also completely based on this philosophy. Also a philosopher who had great influence — also in pedagogy: Herbart. He had developed an own view from Kant’s critique of reason: if we look at the world, we find contradictions there. Let us have a look at the own ego. Today it has these mental pictures, yesterday it had others, tomorrow it will have others again. What is this ego? It meets us and is fulfilled with a particular image world. At another moment it meets us with another image world. We have there a development, many qualities, and, nevertheless, it should be a thing. It is one and many. Any thing is a contradiction. Herbart says that only contradictions exist everywhere in the world. Above all we must reproach ourselves with the sentence that the contradiction cannot be the true being. Now from it Herbart deduces the task of his philosophy. He says: we have to remove the contradictions; we have to construct a world without contradiction to us. The world of experiences is an unreal one, a contradictory one. He sees the true sense, the true being in transforming the contradictory world to a world without contradictions. Herbart says: we find the way to the “thing-in-itself,” while we see the contradictions, and if we get them out of us, we penetrate to the true being, to true reality. — However, he also has this in common with Kant that that which surrounds us in the outside world is mere illusion. Also he tried in other way to support what should be valuable for the human being.

We come now, so to speak, to the heart of the matter. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that any moral action makes only sense if there is reality in the world. What is any moral action if we live in a world of appearance? You can never be convinced that that which you do constitutes something real. Then any striving for morality and all your goals are floating in the air. There Fichte was admirably consistent. Later he changed his view and got to pure theosophy. With perception we can never know about the world — he says — anything else than dreams of these dreams. But something drives us to want the good. This lets us look into this big world of dreams like in a flash. He sees the realisation of the moral law in the world of dreams. The demands of the moral law should justify what reason cannot teach. — And Herbart says: because any perception is full of contradictions, we can never come to norms of our moral actions. Hence, there must be norms of our moral actions which are relieved of any judgment by mind and reason. Moral perfection, goodwill, inner freedom, they are independent of the activity of reason. Because everything is appearance in our world, we must have something in which we are relieved of reflection.

This is the first phase of the development of the 19th century: the transformation of truth to a world of dreams. The idealism of dreams was the only possible result of thinking about being and wanted to make the foundation of a moral world view independent of all knowledge and cognition. It wanted to limit knowledge to get room for faith. Therefore, the German philosophy has broken with the ancient traditions of those world views which we call theosophy. Anybody who calls himself theosophist could have never accepted this dualism, this separation of moral and the world of dreams. It was for him always a unity, from the lowest quantum of energy up to the highest spiritual reality. Because as well as that which the animal accomplishes in desire and listlessness is only relatively different from that which arises from the highest point of the cultural life out of the purest motives, that is only relatively different everywhere which happens below from that which happens on top. Kant left this uniform way to complete knowledge and world view while he split the world in a recognisable but apparent world and in a second world which has a quite different origin, in the world of morality. In doing so, he clouded the look of many people. Anybody who cannot find access to theosophy suffers from the aftermath of Kant’s philosophy.

In the end, you will see how theosophy emerges from a true theory of knowledge; however, it was necessary before that I have demonstrated the apparently firm construction of science. Science seems to have proved irrefutably that there are only the oscillations of the ether if we feel green or blue that we sense tone by the aerial oscillations. The contents of the next lecture will show how it is in reality.


a vigorous book of the world view …: In a satirical writing by I. Kant Dreams of a Spirit Seer Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics (On Emanuel Swedenborg) (1766)

Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776–1841), German philosopher, psychologist, founder of academic pedagogy

Otto Liebmann (1840–1912), German philosopher

Johannes Volkelt (1848–1930), German philosopher

Friedrich Albert Lange (1828–1875), German philosopher and sociologist

Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894), German physician and physicist

Johannes Müller (1801–1858), German physiologist

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), German philosopher

Last Modified: 15-Nov-2017
The Rudolf Steiner Archive is maintained by:
The e.Librarian: elibrarian@elib.com