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

Origins of Natural Science

Schmidt Number: S-5113

On-line since: 29th May, 2004

Lecture V

Dornach, December 28, 1922


The isolation of man's ideas (especially his mathematical ideas) from his direct experience has proved to be the outstanding feature of the spiritual development leading to modern scientific thinking. Let us place this process once more before our mind's eye.

We were able to look back into ages past, when what man had to acquire as knowledge of the world was experienced in communion with the world. During those epochs, man inwardly did not experience his threefold orientation — up-down, left-right, front-back — in such a manner that he attributed it solely to himself. Instead, he felt himself within the universal whole; hence, his own orientations were to him synonymous with the three dimensions of space. What he pictured of knowledge to himself, he experienced jointly with the world. Therefore, with no uncertainty in his mind, he knew how to apply his concepts, his ideas, to the world. This uncertainty has only arisen along with the more recent civilization. We see it slowly finding its way into the whole of modern thought and we see science developing under this condition of uncertainty. This state of affairs must be clearly recognized.

A few examples can illustrate what we are dealing with . Take a thinker like John Locke, who lived from the seventeenth into the eighteenth century. His writings show what an up-to-date thinker of his age had to say concerning the scientific world perception. John Locke 43 ] divided everything that man perceives in his physical environment into two aspects. He divided the characteristic features of bodies into primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities were those that he could only attribute to the objects themselves, such as shape, position, and motion. Secondary qualities in his view were those that did not actually belong to the external corporeal things but were an effect that these objects had upon man. Examples are color, sound, and warmth. Locke stated it thus: “When I hear a sound, outside of me there is vibrating air. In a drawing, I can picture these vibrations in the air that emanate from a sound-aroused body and continue on into my ear. The shape that the waves, as they are called, possess in the vibrating air can be pictured by means of spatial forms. I can visualize their course in time — all this, belonging to the primary qualities, certainly exists in the external world, but it is silent, it is soundless. The quality of sound, a secondary quality, only arises when the vibration of the air strikes my ear, and with it arises that peculiar inner experience that I carry within me as sound. It is the same with color, which is now lumped together with light. There must be something out there in the world that is somehow of a corporeal nature and somehow possesses shape and movement. This exercises an effect on my eye and thus becomes my experience of light or color. It is the same with the other things that present themselves to my senses. The whole corporeal world must be viewed like this; we must distinguish between the primary qualities in it, which are objective, and the secondary qualities, which are subjective and are the effects of the primary qualities upon us.”

Simply put, one could say with Locke that the external world outside of man is form, position, and movement, whereas all that makes up the content of the sense world exists in truth somehow inside us. The actual content of color as a human experience is nowhere in the environment, it lives in me. The actual content of sound is nowhere to be found outside, it lives in me. The same is true of my experience of warmth or cold.

In former ages, when what had become the content of knowledge was experienced jointly with the world, one could not possibly have had this view because, as I have said, a man experienced mathematics by participating in his own bodily orientation and placing this orientation into his own movement. He experienced this, however, in communion with the world. Therefore, his own experience was sufficient reason for assuming the objectivity of position, place, and movement. Also, though in another portion of his inner life, man again had this communion with the world in regard to color, tone, and so forth. Just as the concept of movement was gained through the experience of his own movement, so the concept of color was gained through a corresponding internal experience in the blood, and this experience was then connected with whatever is warmth, color, sound, and so forth in the surrounding world. Certainly, in earlier times, man distinguished position, location, movement, and time-sequence from color, sound, and warmth, but these were distinguished as being different kinds of experiences that were undergone jointly with different kinds of existence in the objective world.

Now, in the scientific age, the determination of place, movement, position, and form ceased to be inward self-experience. Instead, they were regarded as mere hypotheses that were caused by some external reality. When the shape of a cannon is imagined, one can hardly say: This form of the cannon is actually somehow within me. Therefore its identification was directed outward and the imagined form of the cannon was related to something objective. One could not very well admit that a musket-ball was actually flying within one's brain; therefore, the hypothetically thought-out movements were attributed to something objective.

On the other hand, what one saw in the flying musket-ball, the flash by which one perceived it and the sound by which one heart it, were pushed into one's own human nature, since no other place could be found for them. Man no longer knew how he experienced them jointly with the objects; therefore, he associated them with his own being.

It actually took quite some time before those who thought along the lines of the scientific age perceived the impossibility of this arrangement. What had in fact taken place? The secondary qualities, sound, color, and warmth experience, had become, as it were, fair game in the world and, in regard to human knowledge, had to take refuge in man. But before too long, nobody had any idea of how they lived there. The experience, the self-experience, was no longer there. There was no connection with external nature, because it was not experienced anymore. Therefore these experiences were pushed into one's self. So far as knowledge was concerned, they had, as it were, disappeared inside man. Vaguely it was thought that an ether vibration out in space translated itself into form and movement, and this had an effect on the eye, and then worked on the optic nerve, and finally somehow entered the brain. Our thoughts were a means of looking around inside for whatever it was that, as an effect of the primary qualities, supposedly expressed itself in man as secondary qualities. It took a long time, as I said, before a handful of people firmly pointed out the oddity of these ideas. There is something extraordinary in what the Austrian philosopher Richard Wahle 44 ] wrote in his Mechanism of Thinking, though he himself did not realize the full implications of his sentence: “Nihil est in cerebro, quod non est in nervis.” (“There is nothing in the brain that is not in the nerves.” It may not be possible with the means available today to examine the nerves in every conceivable way, but even if we could we would not find sound, color, or warmth experience in them. Therefore, they must not be in the brain either. Actually, one has to admit now that they simply disappear insofar as knowledge is concerned. One examines the relationship of man to the world. Form, position, place, time, etc. are beheld as objective. Sound, warmth, experience and color vanish; they elude one. 45 ]

Finally, in the Eighteenth Century, this led Kant 46 ] to say that even the space and time qualities of things cannot somehow be outside and beyond man. But there had to be some relationship between man and the world. After all, such a relationship cannot be denied if we are to have any idea of how man exists together with the world. Yet, the common experience of man's space and time relationships with the world simply did not exist anymore. Hence arose the Kantian idea: If man is to apply mathematics, for example, to the world, then it is his doing that he himself makes the world into something mathematical. He impresses the whole mathematical system upon the “things in themselves,” which themselves remain utterly unknown. — In the Nineteenth Century science chewed on this problem interminably. The basic nature of man's relation to cognition is simply this: uncertainty has entered into his relationship with the world. He does not know how to recognize in the world what he is experiencing. This uncertainty slowly crept into all of modern thinking. We see it entering bit by bit into the spiritual life of recent times.

It is interesting to place a recent example side by side with Locke's thinking. August Weismann, 47 ] a biologist of the Nineteenth Century, conceived the thought: in any living organism, the interplay of the organs (in lower organisms, the interaction of the parts) must be regarded as the essential thing. This leads to comprehension of how the organism lives. But in examining the organism itself, in understanding it through the interrelationship of its parts, we find no equivalent for the fact that the organism must die. If one only observes the organism, so Weismann said, one finds nothing that will explain death. In the living organism, there is absolutely nothing that leads to the idea that the organism must die. For Weismann, the only thing that demonstrates that an organism must die is the existence of a corpse. This means that the concept of death is not gained from the living organism. No feature, no characteristic, found in it indicates that dying is a part of the organism. It is only when the event occurs, when we find a corpse in the place of the living organism, that we know the organism possesses the ability to die.

But, says Weismann, there is a class of organisms where corpses are never found. These are the unicellular organisms. They only divide themselves so there are no corpses. The propagation of such beings looks like this:


Diagram 1


One divides into two; each of these divides into two again, and so on. There is never a corpse. Weismann therefore concludes that the unicellular beings are immortal. This is the immortality of unicellular beings that was famous in nineteenth-century biology. Why were these organisms considered immortal? Because they never produce any corpses, and because we cannot entertain the concept of death in the organic realm as long as there are no corpses. Where there is no corpse, there is no room for the concept of death. Hence, living beings that produce no corpses are immortal.

This example shows how far man has removed himself in modern times from any connection between the world and his thinking, his inner experiences. His concept of an organism is no longer such that the fact of its death can be perceived from it. This can only be deduced from the existence of something like a corpse. Certainly, if a living organism is only viewed from outside, if one cannot experience what is in it, then indeed one cannot find death in the organism and an external sign is necessary. But this only proves that in his thinking man feels himself separated from the things around him.

From the uncertainty that has entered all thinking concerning the corporeal world, from this divorce between our thoughts and our experience, let us turn back to the time when self-experience still existed. Not only did the inwardly experienced concept exist alongside the externally excogitated concept of a triangle, square, or pentagram, but there were also inwardly experienced concepts of blossoming and fading, of birth and death. This inner experience of birth and death had its gradations. When a child was seen to grow more and more animated, when its face began to express its soul, when one really entered into this growing process of the child, this could be seen as a continuation of the process of birth, albeit a less pronounced and intensive one. There were degrees in the experience of birth. When a man began to show wrinkles and grey hair and grow feeble, this was seen as a first mild degree of dying. Death itself was only the sum total of many less pronounced death experiences, if I may use such a paradox. The concepts of blossoming and decaying, of being born and dying, were inwardly alive.

These concepts were experienced in communion with the corporeal world. No line was drawn between man's self-experience and the events in nature. Without a coastline, as it were, the inner land of man merged into the ocean of the universe. Owing to this form of experience, man lived himself into the world itself. Therefore, the thinkers of earlier ages, whose ideas no longer receive proper attention from science, had to form quite different ideas concerning something like what Weismann called the “immortality of unicellular beings.” What sort of concept would an ancient thinker have formed had he had a microscope and known something about the division of unicellular organisms? He would have said: First I have the unicellular being; it divides itself into two. Somewhat imprecisely, he might have said: It atomizes itself, it divides itself; for a certain length of time, the two parts are indivisible; then they divide again. As soon as division or atomization begins, death enters in. He would not have derived death from the corpse but from atomization, from the division into parts. His train of thought would have been somewhat as follows: A being that is capable of life, that is in the process of growth, is not atomized; and when the tendency to atomization appears, the being dies. In the case of unicellular beings, he would simply have thought that the two organisms cast off by the first unicellular being were for the moment dead, but would be, so to speak, revived immediately, and so forth. With atomization, with the process of splitting, he would have linked the thought of death. If he had known about unicellular beings and had seen one split into two, he would not have thought that two new ones had come into being. On the contrary, he would have said that out of the living monad, two atoms have originated. Further, he would have said that wherever there is life, wherever one observes life, one is not dealing with atoms. But if they are found in a living being, then a proportionate part of the being is dead. Where atoms are found, there is death, there is something inorganic. This is how matters would have been judged in a former age based on living inner knowledge of the world.

All this is not clearly described in our histories of philosophy, although the discerning reader can have little doubt of it. The reason is that the thought-forms of this older philosophy are totally unlike today's thinking. Therefore anyone writing history nowadays is apt to put his own modern concepts into the minds of earlier thinkers. 48 ] But this is impermissible even with a man as recent as Spinoza. In his book on what he justifiably calls ethics, Spinoza follows a mathematical method but it is not mathematics in the modern sense. He expounds his philosophy in a mathematical style, joining idea to idea as a mathematician would. He still retains something of the former qualitative experience of quantitative mathematical concepts. Hence, even in contemplating the qualitative aspect of man's inner life, we can say that his style is mathematical. Today with our current concepts, it would be sheer nonsense to apply a mathematical style to psychology, let alone ethics.

If we want to understand modern thinking, we must continually recall this uncertainty, contrasting it to the certainty that existed in the past but is no longer suited to our modern outlook. In the present phase of scientific thinking, we have come to the point where this uncertainty is not only recognized but theoretical justifications have been offered for it. And example is a lecture given by the French thinker Henri Poincaré 49 ] in 1912 on current ideas relating to matter. He speaks of the existing controversy or debate concerning the nature of matter; whether it should be thought of as being continuous or discrete; in other words, whether one should conceive of matter as substantial essence that fills space and is nowhere really differentiated in itself, or whether substance, matter, is to be thought of as atomistic, signifying more or less empty space containing within it minute particles that by virtue of their particular interconnections form into atoms, molecules, and so forth.

Aside from what I might call a few decorative embellishments intended to justify scientific uncertainty, Poincaré's lecture comes down to this: Research and science pass through various periods. In one epoch, phenomena appear that cause the thinker to picture matter in a continuous form, making it convenient to conceive of matter this way and to focus on what shows up as continuity in the sense data. In a different period the findings point more toward the concept of matter being diffused into atoms, which are pictured as being fused together again; i.e. matter is not continuous but discrete and atomistic. Poincaré is of the opinion that always, depending on the direction that research findings take, there will be periods when thinking favors either continuity or atomism. He even speaks of an oscillation between the two in the course of scientific development. It will always be like this, he says, because the human mind has a tendency to formulate theories concerning natural phenomena in the most convenient way possible. If continuity prevails for a time, we get tired of it. (These are not Poincaré's exact words, but they are close to what he really intends.) Almost unconsciously, as it were, the human mind then comes upon other scientific findings and begins to think atomistically. It is like breathing where exhalation follows inhalation. Thus there is a constant oscillation between continuity and atomism. This merely results from a need of the human mind and according to Poincaré, says nothing about the things themselves. Whether we adopt continuity or atomism determines nothing about things themselves. It is only our attempt to come to terms with the external corporeal world.

It is hardly surprising that uncertainty should result from an age which no longer finds self-experience in harmony with what goes on in the world but regards it only as something occurring inside man. If you no longer experience a living connection with the world, you cannot experience continuity or atomism. You can only force your preconceived notions of continuity or atomism on the natural phenomena. This gradually leads to the suspicion that we formulate our theories according to our changing needs. Just as we must breath in and out, so we must, supposedly, think first continuistically for a while, then atomistically for a while. If we always thought in the same way, we would not be able to catch a breath of mental air. Thus our fatal uncertainty is confirmed and justified. Theories begin to look like arbitrary whims. We no longer live in any real connection with the world. We merely think of various ways in which we might live with the world, depending on our own subjective needs.

What would the old way of thought have said in such a case? It would have said: In an age when the leading thinkers think continuistically, they are thinking mainly of life. In one in which they think atomistically, they are thinking primarily of death, of inorganic nature, and they view even the organic in inorganic terms.

This is no longer unjustified arbitrariness. This rests on an objective relationship to things. Naturally, I can take turns in dealing with the animate and the inanimate. I can say that the very nature of the animate requires that I conceive of it continuistically, whereas the nature of the inanimate requires that I think of it atomistically. But I cannot say that this is only due to the arbitrary nature of the human mind. On the contrary, it corresponds to an objective relating of oneself to the world. For such perception, the subjective aspect is really disregarded, because one recognizes the animate in nature in continual form and the inanimate in discrete form. And if one really has to oscillate between the two forms of thought, this can be turned in an objective direction by saying that one approach is suited to the living and the other is suited to the dead. But there is no justification for making everything subjective as Poincaré does. Nor is the subjective valid for the way of perception that belonged to earlier times.

The gist of this is that in the phase of scientific thinking immediately preceding our own, there was a turn away from the animate to the inanimate; i.e., from continuity to atomism. This was entirely justified, if rightly understood. But, if we hope to objectively and truly find ourselves in the world, we must find a way out of the dead world of atomism, no matter how impressive it is as a theory. We must get back to our own nature and comprehend ourselves as living beings. Up to now, scientific development has tended in the direction of the inanimate, the atomistic. When, in the first part of the Nineteenth Century, this whole dreadful cell theory of Schleiden 50 ] and Schwann 51 ] made its appearance, it did not lead to continuity but to atomism. What is more, the scientific world scarcely admitted this, nor has it to this day realized that it should admit it since atomism harmonizes with the whole scientific methodology. We were not aware that by conceiving the organism as divided up into cells, we actually atomized it in our minds, which in fact signifies killing it. The truth of the matter is that any real idea of organisms has been lost to the atomistic approach.

This is what we can learn if we compare Goethe's views on organics with those of Schleiden or the later botanists. In Goethe we find living ideas that he actually experiences. The cell is alive, so the others are really dealing with something organic, but the way they think is just as though the cells were not alive but atoms. Of course, empirical research does not always follow everything to its logical conclusion, and this cannot be done in the case of the organic world. Our comprehension of the organic world is not much aided by the actual observations resulting from the cell theory. The non-atomistic somehow finds its way in, since we have to admit that the cells are alive. But it is typical of many of today's scientific discussions that the issues become confused and there is no real clarity of thought.

The Rudolf Steiner Archive is maintained by:
The e.Librarian: elibrarian@elib.com