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Philosophy of Spiritual Activity

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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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Philosophy of Spiritual Activity

On-line since: 14th September, 2005




AN explanation of nature on a single principle (Monism) derives from human experience all the material which it requires for the explanation of the world. In the same way, it looks for the sources of action also within the world of observation, i.e., in that part of human nature which is accessible to our self-observation, and more particularly in the moral imagination. Monism declines to seek through abstract inferences the ultimate causes of the world which is given to our perception and thinking, in a sphere outside this world. For Monism, the unity which the experienced thoughtful observation brings to the manifold multiplicity of percepts, is identical with the unity which the human desire for knowledge demands, and through which this desire seeks entrance into the physical and spiritual realms. Whoever looks for another unity behind this one, only shows that he fails to perceive the coincidence of what is found by thinking with the demands of the desire for knowledge. A particular human individual is not actually cut off from the universe. He is a part of the universe, and his connection with the cosmic whole is broken, not in reality, but only for our perception. At first we apprehend this part of the universe as a self-existing thing, because we are unable to perceive the cords and ropes by which the fundamental forces of the cosmos keep turning the wheel of our life.

All who remain at this standpoint see the part of the whole as if it were a truly independent, self-existing thing, a monad which gains all its knowledge of the rest of the world in some way from without. But the Monism described in this book shows that we can believe in this independence only so long as thinking does not gather our percepts into the network of the conceptual world. As soon as this happens, all partial existence in the universe reveals itself as a mere appearance due to perception. Man can find his existence as a self-contained whole in the universe only through the experience of intuitive thought. Thinking destroys the mere appearance due to perception and assigns to our individual existence a place in the life of the cosmos. The unity of the conceptual world which contains all objective percepts, has room also within itself for the content of our subjective personality. Thinking gives us the true shape of reality as a self-contained unity, whereas the multiplicity of percepts is but an appearance conditioned by our organization (cp. p. 63 ff.). The recognition of the true reality as against the appearance of perception, has at all times been the goal of human thinking. Science has striven to recognize percepts as reality by tracing their inter-relations according to natural law. But, owing to the view than an inter-relation discovered by human thinking has only a subjective validity, thinkers have sought the true ground of unity in some object transcending the world of our experience (inferred God, will, absolute spirit, etc.). Further, basing themselves on this opinion, men have tried to gain, in addition to their knowledge of inter-relations within experience, a second kind of knowledge transcending experience which should reveal the connection between empirical inter-relations and those realities which lie beyond the limits of experience (Metaphysics gained not by experience, but by inference). The reason why, by correct thinking, we understand the nexus of the world, was thought to be that an original creator has built up the world according to logical laws, and, similarly, the ground of our actions was thought to lie in the will of this original being. It was overlooked that thinking embraces in one grasp the subjective and the objective, and that it communicates to us the whole of reality in the union which it effects between percept and concept. Only so long as we contemplate the laws which pervade and determine all percepts, in the abstract form of concepts, do we indeed deal only with something purely subjective. But this subjectivity does not belong to the content of the concept which, by means of thinking, is added to the percept. This content is taken, not from the subject but from reality. It is that part of reality which is inaccessible to perception. It is experience, but not the kind of experience which comes from perception. Those who cannot understand that the concept is something real, have in mind only the abstract form, in which we grasp it in our spirit. But the concept exists in this abstract form solely because of our organization, just as the percept does. The tree which I perceive, taken in isolation by itself, has no existence; it exists only as a member in the immense organism of nature, and it is possible only in real connection with nature. An abstract concept, taken by itself, has as little reality as a percept taken by itself. The percept is that part of reality which is given objectively, the concept that part which is given subjectively (by intuition; cp. p. 70 ff.). Our spiritual organization breaks up reality into these two factors. The one factor appears to perception, the other to intuition. Only the union of the two, which consists of the percept fitted according to law into its place in the universe, is reality in its full character. If we take mere percepts by themselves, we have no reality but only a disconnected chaos. If we take by themselves the laws which permeate percepts we have nothing but abstract concepts. Reality is not contained in the abstract concept. It is revealed to thoughtful observation which considers neither the concept by itself nor the percept by itself, but the union of both.

Even the most orthodox Subjective Idealist will not deny that we live in the real world (that, as real beings, we are rooted in it); but he will deny that our knowledge, by means of its Ideas, is able to grasp reality as we live it. As against this view, Monism shows that thinking is neither subjective nor objective, but a principle which holds together both sides of reality. The thoughtful observation is a process which belongs itself to the sequence of real events. By thinking we overcome, within the limits of experience itself, the one-sidedness of mere perception. We are not able by means of abstract conceptual hypotheses (purely conceptual reflection) to puzzle out the essence of the real, but in so far as we find the Ideas for our percepts we live in the real. Monism does not seek to supplement experience by something unknowable (transcending experience), but finds reality in concept and percept. It does not manufacture a metaphysical system out of mere abstract concepts, because it looks upon the concept as only one side of reality, viz., the side which remains hidden from perception, but is meaningless except in union with percepts. But Monism gives man the conviction that he lives in the world of reality, and has no need to seek beyond his world for a higher reality which cannot be experienced. It restrains man from looking for Absolute Reality anywhere but in experience, because it recognizes reality in the very content of experience. Monism is satisfied with this reality, because it knows that our thinking is able to guarantee it. What Dualism seeks first behind the world of observation, that Monism finds in this world itself. Monism shows that our knowledge grasps reality in its true shape, not in a subjective image which inserts itself between man and reality. It holds the conceptual content of the world to be identical for all human individuals (cp. p. 64 ff.). According to Monistic principles, every human individual regards every other as akin to himself, because it is the same world-content which expresses itself in all. In the single conceptual world there are not as many concepts of “lion” as there are individuals who form the thought of “lion,” but only one. And the concept which A adds to the percept of “lion” is identical with B's concept, except that in each case, it is apprehended by a different perceiving subject (cp. p. 66). Thinking leads all perceiving subjects back to the ideal unity in all multiplicity, which is common to them all. There is but one world of Ideas, but it lives in all human beings as in a multiplicity of individuals. So long as man apprehends himself merely by self-perception he looks upon himself as this particular being, but so soon as he becomes conscious of the world of Ideas which flashes up within him, and which embraces all particulars, he sees that the Absolute Reality lives and shines forth within him. Dualism fixes upon the Divine Being as that which permeates all men and lives in them all. Monism finds this universal Divine Life in Reality itself. The ideal content of another human being is also my content, and I regard it as a different content only so long as I perceive, but no longer when I think. Every man embraces in his thinking only a part of the total world of Ideas, and to that extent, individuals are distinguished one from another also by the actual contents of their thinking. But all these contents belong to a self-contained whole, which comprises within itself the thought-contents of all men. Hence every man, in his thinking, lays hold of the common primary being which pervades all men. To fill one's life with the content of thought is to live in Reality, and at the same time to live in God. A Beyond that is merely inferred and cannot be experienced owes its origin to the misconception of those who believe that this world cannot have the ground of its existence in itself. They do not understand that, by thinking, they discover just what they demand for the explanation of the perceptual world. This is the reason why no speculation has ever produced any content which has not been borrowed from reality as it is given to us. A God inferred by abstract reasoning is nothing but a human being transplanted into the Beyond. Schopenhauer's will is the human will made absolute. Hartmann's Unconscious, made up of Idea and will, is but a compound of two abstractions drawn from experience. Exactly the same is true of all other transcendent principles which are not based on the experience of thinking.

The truth is that the human spirit never transcends the reality in which it lives. Indeed, it has no need to transcend it, seeing that this world contains everything that is required for its own explanation. If philosophers declare themselves eventually content when they have deduced the world from principles which they borrow from experience and then transplant into an hypothetical Beyond, the same satisfaction ought to be possible, if these same principles are allowed to remain in this world to which they belong as experienced by thinking. All attempts to transcend the world are purely illusory, and the principles transplanted into the Beyond do not explain the world any better than the principles which are immanent in it. When thinking understands itself, it does not demand any such transcendence at all, for every thought-content must find within the world, not outside it, a perceptual content, in union with which it can form a real object. The objects of imagination, too, are contents which have validity only when transformed into representations that refer to a perceptual content. Through this perceptual content they have their place in reality. A concept the content of which is supposed to lie beyond the world given to us, is an abstraction to which no reality corresponds. We can think out only the concepts of reality; in order to find reality itself, we need also perception. An Absolute Being for which we invent a content, is a hypothesis which thinking finds impossible to entertain if it understands itself. Monism does not deny ideal elements; indeed, it refuses to recognize as fully real a perceptual content which has no ideal counterpart; but it finds nothing within the whole range of thinking which could oblige us, by denying the objective spiritual reality of thinking, to transcend the sphere of experience accessible to thinking. A science which restricts itself to a description of percepts, without advancing to their ideal complements is, for Monism, but a fragment. But Monism regards as equally fragmentary all abstract concepts which do not find their complement in percepts, and which fit nowhere into the conceptual net that embraces the whole perceptual world. Hence it knows no Ideas referring to objective factors lying beyond our experience and supposed to form the content of purely hypothetical Metaphysics. Whatever mankind has produced in the way of such Ideas Monism regards as abstractions from experience, whose origin in experience has been overlooked by their authors.

Just as little, according to Monistic principles, are the aims of our actions capable of being derived from an extra-human Beyond. So far as we can think them, they must have their origin in human intuition. Man does not adopt the purposes of an objective (transcendent) primary being as his own individual purposes, but he pursues the aims which his own moral imagination sets before him. The Idea which realizes itself in an action is selected by the agent from the single world of Ideas and made the basis of his will. Consequently his action is not a realization of commands which have been implanted into this world from the Beyond, but of human intuitions which belong to this world. For Monism there is no ruler of the world standing outside us and determining the aim and direction of our actions. There is for man no transcendent ground of existence, the counsels of which he might discover, in order thence to learn the aims to which he ought to direct his action. Man is thrown back upon himself. He himself must give a content to his action. It is in vain that he seeks outside the world in which he lives for any motive forces of his will. If he is to go at all beyond the satisfaction of the natural instincts for which Mother Nature has provided, he must look for those motive forces which are in his own moral imagination, unless he finds it more convenient to let himself be determined by the moral imagination of others. In other words, he must either cease acting altogether, or else act from motives which he puts before himself from the world of his Ideas, or which others select for him from that same world. If he develops at all beyond a life absorbed in sensuous instincts and in the execution of the commands of others, then there is nothing that can determine him except himself. He has to act from an impulse which he gives to himself and which nothing else can determine for him except himself. It is true that this impulse is ideally determined in the single world of Ideas; but in actual fact it is only by man that it can be selected from that world and translated into reality. Monism can find the ground for the actual translation of an Idea through human action only in the human being himself. For an Idea to pass into action it must be willed by man before it can happen. Such a will consequently has its ground only in man himself. Man, then, is the ultimate determinant of his action. He is free.


I. In the second part of this book the attempt has been made to justify the conviction that freedom is to be found in the reality of human conduct. For this purpose it was necessary to sort out, from the whole sphere of human conduct, those actions with respect to which unprejudiced self-observation may appropriately speak of freedom. These are the actions which appear as realizations of ideal intuitions. No other actions will be called free by an unprejudiced observer. However, open-minded self-observation compels man to regard himself as endowed with the capacity for progress on the road towards ethical intuitions and their realization. Yet this open-minded observation of the ethical nature of man is, by itself, insufficient to constitute the final court of appeal for the question of freedom. For suppose intuitive thinking had itself sprung from some other essence; suppose its essence were not grounded in itself, then the consciousness of freedom, which issues from the moral sphere, would prove to be a mere illusion. But the second part of this book finds its natural support in the first part, which presents intuitive thinking as an inward spiritual activity which man experiences as such. To appreciate through experience this essence of thinking is equivalent to recognizing the freedom of intuitive thinking. And once we know that this thinking is free, we know also the sphere within which will may be called free. We shall regard man as a free agent, if on the basis of inner experience we may attribute to the life of intuitive thinking a self-sustaining essence. Whoever cannot do this will be unable to discover any wholly unassailable road to the acceptance of freedom. The experience to which we here refer discovers in consciousness intuitive thinking, the reality of which is not confined to consciousness. Freedom, too, is thereby discovered as the characteristic of all actions which proceed from the intuitions of consciousness.

II. The argument of this book is built up on the fact of intuitive thinking, which may be experienced in a purely spiritual way, and which, in an act of knowledge, assigns to every percept its place in reality. All that this book aimed at presenting was the result of a survey from the basis of our experience of intuitive thinking. However, the intention also was to emphasize what is required of us as regards experiencing this way of forming thoughts. It demands that we shall not deny its presence in cognition as a self-sustaining experience. It demands that we acknowledge its capacity for experiencing reality in cooperation with perception, and that we do not seek reality in a world outside experience and accessible only to inference, in the face of which human thinking would be only a subjective activity.

Thus thinking is characterized as that factor in man through which he inserts himself spiritually into reality. (And, strictly, no one should confuse this kind of world-conception which is based on thinking as directly experienced, with mere Rationalism.) But, on the other hand, the whole spirit of the preceding argumentation shows that the perceptual element yields a determination of reality for human knowledge only when it is taken hold of in thinking. Outside thinking there is nothing to characterize reality for what it is. Hence we have no right to imagine that the sensual kind of perception is the only witness to reality. Whatever comes to us by way of perception on our journey through life, we cannot but expect. The only point open to question would be whether, from the exclusive point of view of thinking as we intuitively experience it, we have a right to expect that over and above sensuous perception there is also spiritual perception. This expectation is justified. For, though intuitively experienced thinking is, on the one hand, an active process taking place in the human spirit, it is, on the other hand, also a spiritual perception mediated by no physical organ. It is a perception in which the percipient is himself active, and a self-activity which is at the same time perceived. In intuitively experienced thinking man is transported into a spiritual world also as a percipient. Whatever within this world presents itself to him as percept in the same way in which the spiritual world of his own thinking presents itself, that is recognized by him as a world of spiritual perception. This world of spiritual perception we may suppose to be standing in the same relation to thinking as does, on the sensuous side, the world of sense-perception. Man cannot feel the world of spiritual perception as something alien, because he has already in his intuitive thinking an experience of purely spiritual character. With such a world of spiritual perception a number of the writings are concerned which I have published since this present book appeared. The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity lays the philosophical foundation for these later writings. For it attempts to show that in the very experience of thinking, rightly understood, we experience Spirit. This is the reason why it appears to the author that no one will stop short of entering the world of spiritual perception who has been able to adopt, in all seriousness, the point of view of the Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. True, logical deduction — by syllogisms — will not extract out of the contents of this book the contents of the author's later books. But a living understanding of what is meant in this book by “intuitive thinking” will naturally prepare the way for living entry into the world of spiritual perception.

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