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Philosophy of Spiritual Activity

Rudolf Steiner Archive & e.Lib Document

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


THE readers of the German original of this book (Philosophie der Freiheit, second edition, 1918) will know that the author's argument is largely based upon a distinction between the different elements making up the act of Knowledge. English philosophical terms are rarely exact equivalents of German philosophical terms, and the translator's standing problem is to avoid, or at least to minimize, the ambiguities resulting therefrom. The aim of the present revision of the original translation has been to help the reader to understand the analysis of the act of Knowledge and to enable him to follow the subsequent chapters without being troubled by ambiguous terms.

“Wahrnehmung” has been rendered as “percept,” and “Begriff” as “concept,” in accordance with general use. There has been, however, a difficulty in finding any satisfactory means of making clear in English, by choice of words, the distinction which exists in German between “Vorstellung” and “Idee.” Both are covered in English philosophical usage by one and the same word: “idea.” Here a definite decision had to be made to which, we trust, the reader will soon become accustomed.

The mental picture which the thinker forms to represent the concept in an individual way (“Vorstellung”) is here called a “representation.” This word, however clumsy it may seem at the first glance, is justified, because the mental picture indeed stands for the concept and represents it [See this book, page 80.] Coleridge has used the term representation in this sense. Recent writers on psychology have adopted it with the obvious aim of avoiding confusion.

The German term “Idee,” on the other hand, means more than an ordinary concept. It is a “fuller, more saturated, more comprehensive concept.” [* See this book, page 37.] The philosophic systems of Kant, Schelling, Hegel and indeed the whole of German philosophy are quite unthinkable without this term. Chapter IX of this book gives an outstanding example in its title: “Die Idee der Freiheit.” In order to indicate this reference with the German term “Idee” we have translated it as “Idea,” printed with a capital “ I ” throughout the book.

Thus, the ambiguous English term “idea” had to be altogether avoided and to be replaced by “representation,” whenever the German text has “Vorstellung,” and by “Idea” when the text has “Idee.”

The point is that a distinction had to be made without which vital passages of this book remain obscure.

It goes without saying that the merits of the previous translation are fully recognized in this revision. Alterations, therefore, have been made only where a greater truth towards the original seemed desirable and could be achieved without spoiling the style, which gave such an excellent reflection of the beauties of the original.

I should like to thank the many friends who contributed to this revision from almost all English-speaking countries.


London, Whitsun, 1939.

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