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Realism and Nominalism

Lecture by
Dr. Rudolf Steiner
Dornach, January 27, 1923
GA 220

This lecture was given at Dornach in January of 1923, and is included in Volume 220 of the Bibliographic Survey, 1961. It is lecture 11 of 12 from the lecture series: A Living Knowledge of Nature, the Fall of the Intellect into Sin, the Spiritual Resurrection, published in German as, Lebendiges Naturerkennen, Intellektueller Suendenfall und Spirituelle Suendenerhebung. It has been translated from notes unrevised by the lecturer, by an unknown translator.

This lecture has been authorized for the Western hemisphere, and published here by kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.

Copyright © 1934
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Realism and Nominalism.

Lecture by Dr. Rudolf Steiner, held at Dornach
on the 27th of January, 1923.

From a shorthand report, unrevised by the lecturer. Published by permission of the Rudolf Steiner-Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.

The spiritual life of the Middle Ages, from which the modern one derives, is essentially contained — as far as Europe is concerned — in what we call Scholasticism, that Scholasticism of which I have repeatedly spoken. At the height of the scholastic age two directions can be distinguished: Realism and Nominalism.

If we take the meaning of the word Realism, as it is often understood today, we do not grasp at once what was meant by medieval scholastic Realism. It was not called Realism because it approved only of the outer sense-reality and considered everything else an illusion; quite the contrary was the case — it was called Realism because it considered man's ideas on the things and processes of the world as something real, whereas Nominalism considered these ideas as mere names which signified nothing real.

Let us look at this matter quite clearly. In earlier days I explained the conceptions of Realism, by using the arguments of my old friend, Vincenz Knauer. Vincenz Knauer held that people who consider only the outer sense-reality, or that which can be found in the world as material substance, will not be able to understand what takes place, for instance, in the case of a caged wolf, which is fed exclusively on lamb's flesh for a long time. After a certain time the wolf has changed his old substance; this would consist entirely of lamb's flesh and in reality the wolf should turn into a lamb, if its substance is now lamb's substance! But this does not happen, for the wolf remains a wolf — that is, the material aspect does not matter; what matters is the form, which consists of the same substance in the lamb's case and in the wolf's case. We discover the difference between lamb and wolf because we gain a conception of the lamb and a conception of the wolf. But when someone says that ideas and conceptions are nothing at all, and that the material aspect of things is the only one that matters, then there should be no difference between lamb and wolf as far as the material substance is concerned, for this has passed over from the lamb into the wolf! If an idea really means nothing at all, the wolf should become a lamb if it keeps on eating lamb's flesh.

This induced Vincenz Knauer, who was a Realist in the medieval scholastic sense, to form the following conception: — What matters, is the form in which the substance is coordinated; this is the idea, or the concept. Also the medieval scholastic Realists were of this opinion. They said that ideas and concepts were something real, and that is why they called themselves Realists.

Their radical opponents were the Nominalists. They argued that there is nothing outside sense-reality, and that ideas and concepts are mere names through which we grasp the outer things of sense-reality.

We might adopt the following argument: — Let us take Nominalism and then Realism, such as we find it, for instance, in Thomas Aquinas, or in other scholastic philosophers; if we contemplate these two spiritual currents in quite an abstract way, their contrast will not be very evident. We might look upon them as two different human aspects. In the present day we are satisfied with such things because we are no longer kindled and warmed by what is expressed in these spiritual currents. But these things contain something very important. Let us take the Realists who argued that ideas and conceptions — that is, forms taken up by the sensory substance — are realities. The scholastic philosophers already considered ideas and thoughts as something abstract, but they called these abstractions a reality, because they were the result of earlier conceptions, far more concrete and essential.

In earlier ages, people did not merely look at the idea “wolf”, but at the real group-soul “wolf”, living in the spiritual world. This was a real being. But scholastic philosophers had subtilized this real being of an earlier age into the abstract idea. Nevertheless, the realistic scholastic philosophers still felt that, the idea does not contain a nothingness, but a reality. This reality indeed descended from earlier quite real beings, but people were then still aware of this descendancy or progeny. In the same way the ideas of Plato (which were far more alive and essentially endowed with Being than the medieval scholastic ideas) were the descendants of the ancient Persian Archangeloi-Beings, who lived and operated in the universe as Anschaspans. They were very real beings. For Plato they had grown more dim, and for the medieval scholastic philosophers they had grown abstract. This was the last stage of the old clairvoyance. Of course, medieval realistic scholasticism was no longer based upon clairvoyance, but what it had preserved traditionally, as its real ideas and conceptions, living in the stones, in the plants, in animals and in physical man, was still considered as something spiritual, although this spirituality was very thin indeed. When the age of abstraction or of intellectualism approached, the Nominalists discovered that they were not able to connect anything real with thoughts and ideas. For them these were mere names, coined for the convenience of man.

Medieval scholastic Realism, let us say, of a Thomas Aquinas, has not found a continuation in the more modern world conception, for man no longer considers ideas and thoughts as something real. If we were to ask people whether they considered thoughts and ideas as something real, we would only obtain an answer by placing the question somewhat differently. For instance, by asking someone who is firmly rooted in modern culture: — “Would you be satisfied if, after your death, you were to continue living merely as a thought or an idea?” In this case he would surely feel very unreal after death! This was not so for the realistic scholastic philosophers. For them, thoughts and ideas were real to such an extent, that they could not conceive that, as a mere thought or idea, they might lose themselves in the universe, after death. But as stated, this medieval scholastic Realism was not continued. In a modern world conception, everything consists of Nominalism. Nominalism has gained the upper hand more and more. And modern man (he does not know this, because he does not concern himself any more about such ideas) is a Nominalist in the widest meaning.

This has a certain deeper significance. One might say that the very passage from Realism to Nominalism — or better, the victory of Nominalism in our modern civilization — signifies that humanity has become completely powerless in regard to the grasping of the spiritual. For, naturally, just as the name “Smith” has nothing to do with the person standing before us, who is somehow called “Smith”, so have the ideas “wolf”, “lion”, conceived as mere names, no meaning whatever as far as reality is concerned. The passage from Realism to Nominalism expresses the entire process of the loss of spirit in our modern civilization. Take the following instance, and you will see that the entire meaning is lost as soon as Realism loses its meaning.

If I still find real ideas in the stone, in the plant, in the animals, and in physical man — or better still, if I find in them the ideas as realities — I can place the following question: — Is it possible that the thoughts that live in stones and plants, were once the thoughts of the Divine Being who created stones and plants? But if I see in thoughts and ideas mere names which man gives to stones and plants, I cut myself off from the Divine Being, and can no longer take it for granted that during the act of cognition I somehow enter in connection with the Divine Being.

If I am a scholastic Realist, I argue as follows: — I plunge into the mineral world, into the vegetable world and into the animal world; I form thoughts on quartz, sulphide of mercury and malachite. I form thoughts on the wolf, the hyena and the lion. I derive these from what I perceive through my senses. If these thoughts are something which a god originally placed into the stones and plants and animals, then my thoughts follow the divine thoughts. That is, in my thinking I create a link with the divinity.

If I stand on the earth as a forlorn human being, and perhaps imitate to some extent the lion's roar in the word “lion”, I myself give the lion this name; then, however, my knowledge contains no connection whatever with the divine spiritual creator of the beings. This implies that modern humanity has lost the capacity of finding something spiritual in Nature; the last trace of this was lost with scholastic Realism.

If we go back to the days in which men still had an insight into the true nature of such things through atavistic clairvoyance, we will find that the ancient Mysteries consisted more or less in the following conception: the Mysteries saw in all things a creative productive principle, which was looked upon as the “Father-principle”. When a human being proceeded from what his senses could perceive to the super-sensible, he really felt that he was proceeding to the divine Father-principle.

Only when scholastic Realism lost its meaning, it became possible to speak of atheism within the European civilization. For it was impossible to speak of atheism as long as people still found real thoughts in the things around them. There were already atheists among the Greeks; but they were not real atheists like the modern ones. Their atheism was not clearly defined. But it must also be said that in Greece we often find the first flashes of lightning, as if from an elementary human emotion, precursory of things which found their real justification during a later stage of human evolution. The actual theoretical atheism only arose when Realism, scholastic Realism, decayed.

However, this scholastic Realism continued to live in the divine, Father-principle, although the Mystery of Golgotha was enacted thirteen or fourteen centuries ago.

But the Mystery of Golgotha — I have often spoken of this — could really be grasped only through the knowledge of an older age. For this reason, those who wished to grasp the Mystery of Golgotha through what remained from the ancient Mystery wisdom of God the Father, looked upon the Christ merely as the Son of the Father.

Please consider carefully the thought which we shall form now. Imagine that someone tells you something concerning a person called Miller; you are only told that he is the son of the old Miller. Hence, the only thing you know about him is that he is the son of Miller. You wish to know more about him from the person who has told you this. But he keeps on telling you: — The old Miller is such and such a person, and he describes all kinds of qualities and concludes by saying — and the young Miller is his son. It was more or less the same when people spoke of the Mystery of Golgotha according to the ancient Father-principle. Nature was characterized in such a way that people said — the divine creative Father-principle lives in Nature, and Christ is the Son. Essentially, even the strongest Realists could not characterize the Christ otherwise than by saying that he was the Son of the Father. This is an essential point.

Then came a kind of reaction to all these forms of thought adhering to the stream which came from the Mystery of Golgotha, but which grasped it according to the Father-principle. As a kind of counter-stream, came all that which asserted itself as the evangelic principle, as protestantism, etc., during the passage from medieval life to modern life. A chief quality among all the qualities of this evangelization, or protestantism, is this that more importance was given to the fact that people wished to see the Christ in his own being. They did not base themselves on the old theology which considered the Christ only as the Son of the Father, according to the Father-principle, but they searched the Gospels in order to know the Christ as an independent Being, from the description of his deeds and the communication of the words of Christ. Really, this is what lies at the foundation of the Wycliffe and Comenius currents in German protestantism: — to consider the Christ as an independent Being.

However, the time for a spiritual way of looking at things had passed. Nominalism took hold of all minds and people were no longer able to find in the Gospels the divine spiritual being of the Christ. Modern theology lost this divine spiritual more and more. As I have often said, theologians looked upon the Christ as the “meek man of Nazareth”. Indeed, if you take Harnach's book — “The Essence of Christianity”, you will find that it contains a relapse; for in this book a modern theologian again describes the Christ very much after the Father-principle. In Harnach's book, the “Essence of Christianity”, we could substitute the word “Christ” wherever we read the word “God-Father” — this would make no great difference.

As long as the “wisdom of the Father” considered the Christ as the Son of God, people possessed in a certain sense a way of thinking which had a direct bearing on reality. However, when they wished to understand the Christ himself, in his divine spiritual being, the spiritual conception was already lost. They did not approach the Christ at all. For instance, the following case is very interesting (I do not know if many of you have noted it): — when one of those who wished at first to take part in the movement for a religious renewal, — but he did not take part in the end —, when the chief pastor of Nuremberg, Geyer, once held a lecture in Basle, he confessed openly that modern protestant theologians did not possess Christ — but only a universal God. This is what Geyer said, because he honestly confessed that people indeed spoke of the Christ, but the Father-principle was in reality the only thing that remained to them. This is connected with the fact that the human being who still looks at Nature spiritually (for he brings the spirit with him at birth) can only find the Father-principle in Nature. But since the decay of scholastic Realism he cannot even find this. Not even the Father-principle can be found, and atheistic opinions arose.

If we do not wish to remain by the description of the Christ, as being merely the Son of God, and wish instead to grasp this Son in his own nature, then we must not consider ourselves merely such as we are through birth; we must instead experience, during earthly life itself, a kind of inner awakening, no matter how weak this may be. We must pass through the following facts of consciousness and say to ourselves: — if you remain such as you were through birth, and see Nature merely through your eyes and your other senses and then consider Nature with your intellect, you are not a full human being, you cannot feel yourself fully as a human being. First you must awaken something in you which lies deeper still. You cannot be content with what you bring with you at birth. You must instead bring forth again in full consciousness what lies buried in greater depths.

One might say, that if we educate a human being only according to his innate capacities, we do not really educate him to be a complete human being. A child will grow into a full human being only if we teach him to look for something in the depths of his being, something he brings to the surface as an inner light, which is kindled during life on earth. Why is it so? Because the Christ who has gone through the Mystery of Golgotha, and is connected with earthly life, dwells in the depths of man. If we undertake this new awakening, we find the living Christ, who does not enter the usual consciousness which we bring with us at birth, and the consciousness that develops out of this innate consciousness. The Christ must he raised out of the depths` of the soul. The consciousness of Christ must arise in the life of the soul, then we shall really be able to say what I have often mentioned: — If we do not find the Father, we are not healthy, but are born with certain deficiencies. If we are atheists, this implies to a certain extent, that our bodies are ill. All atheists are physically ill to a certain extent. If we do not find the Christ, this is destiny and not illness, because it is an experience to find the Christ, not a mere observation. We find the Father-principle by observing what we ought to see in Nature. But we find the Christ, when we experience resurrection. The Christ enters this experience of resurrection as an independent Being, not merely as the Son of the Father. Then we learn to know that if we keep merely to the Father, in our quality of modern human beings, we cannot feel ourselves as complete human beings. The Father sent the Son to the earth in order that the Son might fulfill his works on earth. Can you not feel how the Christ becomes an independent being in the fulfillment of the Father's works?

In the present time, Spiritual Science alone enables us to understand the entire process of resurrection — to understand it practically, as an experience. Spiritual Science wishes to bring these very experiences to conscious knowledge out of the depths of the soul; they bring light into the Christ-experience.

Thus we may say, that with the end of scholastic Realism, it was no longer possible to grasp the principle of the Father-wisdom. Anthroposophical Realism, or that kind of Realism which again considers the spirit as something real, will at last be able to see the Son as an independent Being and to look upon the Christ as a Being perfect in itself. This will enable us to find in Christ the divine spiritual, in an independent way.

You see, this Father-principle really played the greatest imaginable part in older times. The theology which developed out of the ancient Mystery-wisdom was really interested only in the Father-principle. What kind of thoughts were predominant in the past? — Whether the Son is at one with the Father from all eternity, or whether he arose in Time and was born into Time. People thought about his descent from the Father. Consider the old history of dogmas; you will find throughout that the greatest value is placed on the question of Christ's descent. When the Third Person of the Trinity, the Spirit, was considered, people asked themselves whether the Spirit proceeded from the Father, with the Son or through the Son, etc. The problem was always connected with the genealogy of these three Godly Persons — that is, with what is connected with descent, and can be comprised in the Father-principle. During the strife between scholastic Realism and scholastic Nominalism, these old ideas of the Spirit's descent from the Father and from the Son were no longer understood. For you see, now they were three Persons. These three Persons who represent Godly Persons, were supposed to form one Godhead. The Realists comprised these three Godly Persons in one idea. For them, the idea was something real, hence the one God was something real for their knowledge. The Nominalists could not very well understand the Three Persons of the one God — consisting of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. When they summarized this Godhead, they obtained a mere word, or name. Thus the three Godly Persons became separate Persons for them, and the time in which scholastic Realism strove against scholastic Nominalism was also the time in which no real idea could be formed concerning this Godly Trinity. A living conception of the Godly Trinity was lost.

When Nominalism gained the upper hand, people understood nothing more of similar ideas, and took up the old ideas according to this or to that traditional belief; they were unable to form any real thought. And when the Christ came more to the fore in the protestant faith — although his divine spiritual being could no longer be grasped, because Nominalism prevailed — it was quite impossible to have any idea at all concerning the Three Persons. The old dogma of the Trinity was scattered.

The things had a great significance for mankind in the age when spiritual feelings were predominant, and played a great part in the human souls for their happiness and unhappiness. These things were pushed completely in the background during the age of modern narrow-mindedness. Are modern people interested in the connection between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, unless the problem happens to enter into theological quarrels? Modern man thinks that he is a good Christian, yet he does not worry about the relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He cannot understand at all that once this was one of mankind's burning soul-problems. He has grown narrow-minded, and for this reason we can term the age of Nominalism the narrow-minded age of European civilization, for narrow-minded people have no real feeling for the spiritual, that continually rouses the soul. These kinds of people live only in their habits. It is not possible to live entirely without spirit, yet the narrow-minded people would like to live without any spirit at all — get up without the spirit — breakfast without the spirit — go to the office without the spirit — lunch without the spirit — play billiards in the afternoon without the spirit — in fact they would like to do everything without the spirit! Nevertheless the spirit permeates the whole of life, but narrow-minded people do not bother about this — it does not interest them.

Hence we may argue: Anthroposophy should therefore strive to maintain the Universal-Divine. But it does not do this. It finds the divine-spiritual in God the Father; it also finds this divine-spiritual in God the Son. If we compare the conceptions of Anthroposophy with the earlier wisdom of the Father we will find more or less the following situation: — Please do not mind my using a somewhat trivial expression, but I should like to say, that, as far as Christ was concerned, the wisdom of the Father asked above all — ”Who was his Father? Let us find out who his Father was and then we shall know him.” Anthroposophy is, of course, placed into modern life, and in working out natural sciences it should of course continue the wisdom of the Father. But Anthroposophy works out the wisdom of the Christ and begins with the Christ. Anthroposophy studies, if I may use this expression, history, and finds in history a descending evolution. It finds the Mystery of Golgotha and from thence an ascending evolution. In the Mystery of Golgotha it finds the central point and meaning of the entire history of man on earth. When Anthroposophy studies Nature it calls the old Father-principle into new life, but when it studies history it finds the Christ. Now it has learned two things. It is just as if I were to travel into a city where I make the acquaintance of an older man; then I travel into another city and I learn to know a younger man. I become acquainted with the older and with the younger, each one for himself. At first they interest me, each one for himself. Afterwards I discover a certain likeness between them. I follow this up and find that the younger man is the son of the older one. In Anthroposophy it is just the same — it learns to know the Father, and later on it learns to know the connection between the two; whereas the ancient wisdom of the Father proceeded from the Father and learned to know the connection between Father and Son at the very outset.

You see, in regard to all things, Anthroposophy must really find a new way, and if we really wish to enter into Anthroposophy, it is necessary to change the way of thinking and of feeling in respect to most things. In Anthroposophy, it is not enough if anthroposophists consider on the one hand a more or less materialistic world conception, or a world conception based more or less on ancient traditional beliefs, and then pass on to Anthroposophy, because this appeals to them more than other teachings. But they are mistaken. We must not only go from one conception to the other — from the materialistic monistic conception to the anthroposophical one — and then say that the latter is the best. Instead we must realize that what enables us to understand the monistic materialistic conception does not enable us to understand the anthroposophical conception. You see, theosophists believed that the understanding of the materialistic monistic conception enabled them also to understand the spiritual. For this reason we have the peculiar phenomenon that in the monistic materialistic world conception people argue as follows: — everything is matter; man consists only of matter — the material substance of the blood, of the nerves, etc.

Everything is matter. Theosophists — I mean the members of the Theosophical Society — say instead: — No, this is a materialistic view; there is the spirit. Now they begin to describe man according to the spirit: — the physical body which is dense, then the etheric body somewhat thinner, a kind of mist, a thin mist — these are in reality quite materialistic ideas! Now comes the astral body, again somewhat thinner, yet this is only a somewhat thin material substance, etc. This leads them up a ladder, yet they obtain merely a material substance that grows thinner and thinner. This too is a materialistic view. For the result is always “matter”, even though this grows thinner and thinner. This is materialism, but people call it “spirit”. Materialism at least is honest, and calls the matter “matter”, whereas, in the other case, spiritual names are given to what people conceive materialistically.

When we look at spiritual images, we must realize that we cannot contemplate these in the same way as we contemplate physical images; a new way of thinking must be found.

Things become very interesting at a special point in the history of the Theosophical Society. Materialism speaks of atoms. These atoms were imagined in many ways and strong materialists, who took into consideration the material quality of the body, formed all kinds of ideas about these atoms. One of these materialists built up a Theory of Atoms and imagined the atom in a kind of oscillating condition, as if some fine material substance were spinning round in spirals.

If you study Leadbeater's ideas on atoms, you will find a great resemblance with this theory.

An essay which appeared recently in an English periodical discussed the question of whether Leadbeater's atom was actually “seen”, or whether Leadbeater contented himself with reading the book on the Theory of Atoms and translating it into a “spiritual” language.

These things must be taken seriously. It matters very much that we should examine ourselves, in order to see if we still have materialistic tendencies and merely call them by all kinds of spiritual names. The essential point is to change our ways of thinking and of feeling — otherwise we cannot reach a really spiritual way of looking at things. This gives us an outlook, a perspective, that will help us to achieve the rise from sin as opposed to the fall into sin.

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