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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity

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

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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity

On-line since: 6th February, 2006


The Fundamental Desire for Knowledge

Two souls alas! are dwelling in my breast;

And each is fain to leave its brother.

The one, fast clinging, to the world adheres

With clutching organs, in love's sturdy lust;

The other strongly lifts itself from dust

To yonder high ancestral spheres.

                 Faust I, Sc. 2

(Priest translation)

With these words Goethe expresses a characteristic deeply founded in human nature. Man is not whole in the organization of his being. He demands always more than the world gives him of its own accord. Nature has given us needs; among these are such whose satisfaction it has left to our own activity. Abundant are the gifts apportioned us, but still more abundant is our desiring. We seem born to be discontented. One particular instance of this discontent is our urge to know. We look twice at a tree. The one time we see it branches at rest, the other time in motion. We do not content ourselves with this observation. Why does the tree present itself to us the one time at rest, the other time in motion? We ask about things in this way. Every look into nature produced a number of questions in us. With every phenomenon that comes our way a task is set us along with it. Every experience becomes a riddle for us. We see emerge from the egg a being that resembles the mother animal; we ask for the reason for this resemblance. We observe in a living being growth and development to a particular level of perfection; we seek the determining factors of this experience. Nowhere are we content with what nature spreads out before our senses. We seek everywhere what we call explanation of the facts.

The fact that what we seek in things exceeds what is directly given us in them, splits our entire being in two parts; we become conscious of our polar opposition to the world. We confront the world as independent beings. The universe appears to us in the polarity: I and the world.

We erect this wall of separation between us and the world as soon as consciousness lights up within us. But never do we lose the feeling that we belong even so to the world, that a bond endures that joins us to it, that we are not beings outside, but rather inside the universe.

This feeling creates the striving to bridge the polarity. And the entire spiritual striving of mankind ultimately consists in the bridging of this polarity. The history of our spiritual life is a continuous searching for the unity between us and the world. Religion, art, and science all pursue this goal. The religious believer seeks, within the revelation which God allots to him, the solution to the world riddle that his “I,” not content with the world of mere phenomena, poses him. The artist seeks to fashion into matter the ideas of his “I,” in order to reconcile what lives in his inner being with the outer world. He too feels himself unsatisfied by the world of mere phenomena and seeks to mold into it that something more which his “I,” transcending the world of phenomena, contains. The thinker searches for the laws of phenomena; he strives, thinking, to penetrate what he experiences observing. Only when we have made the world content into our thought content, only then do we find again the connection from which we ourselves have detached ourselves. We will see later on that this goal will only be attained if the task of the scientific researcher is in fact grasped much more deeply than is often done. The whole relationship I have presented here confronts us in a world-historical manifestation: in the polarity of the one-word view or monism, to the two-world theory or dualism. Dualism directs its gaze only upon the separation between “I” and world brought about by the consciousness of man. Its whole striving is an ineffectual struggle to reconcile this polarity, which it sometimes calls spirit and matter, sometimes subject and object, sometimes thinking and phenomenon. It has a feeling that there must be a bridge between the two worlds, but it is not capable of finding it. In that the human being experiences himself as “I,” he cannot but think of this “I” as being on the side of the spirit; and in that he sets the world over against this “I,” he must reckon to this world, the world of perception given to the senses, the material world. Man places himself thereby into the polarity of spirit and matter. He must do this all the more since his own body belongs to the material world. The “I” belongs in this way to the spiritual as a part of it; the material things and processes that are perceived by the senses belong to the “world,” All the riddles relating to spirit and matter must be found again by man within the fundamental riddle of his own being. Monism directs its gaze upon the unity alone and seeks to deny or obliterate the polarities actually present. Neither of the two views can satisfy, for they do not do justice to the facts. Dualism sees spirit (“I”) and matter (world) as two fundamentally different entities, and therefore cannot grasp how the two can interact with each other. How should the spirit know what is going on in matter, if matter's essential nature is entirely alien to it? Or how should the spirit under these circumstances work upon matter in such a way that its intentions transform themselves into deeds? The most ingenious and most contradictory hypotheses were set up in order to solve these questions. Up to the present, however, monism is not in a much better position. It has sought help up till now in three ways: either it denies the spirit and becomes materialism; or it denies matter, in order to seek its salvation in spiritualism; or, it maintains that matter and spirit are already inseparably joined even in the most simple entity in the world, for which reason one need not be surprised if these two kinds of existence, which after all are nowhere separated, appear within the human being.

Materialism can never provide a satisfactory explanation of the world. For every attempt at an explanation must begin with one's forming thoughts for oneself about the phenomena of the world. Materialism therefore takes its start with the thought of matter or of material processes. Thus it already has two different realms of facts before it: the material world and thoughts about it. It seeks to understand the latter by grasping them as a purely material process. It believes that thinking takes place in the brain in about the same way as digestion does in the animal organs. Just as it attributes to matter mechanical and organic effects, so it also ascribes to it the capability, under specific conditions, to think. It forgets that it has now only transferred the problem to another place. It attributes the capability of thinking not to itself but to matter. And in doing so it is back again at its starting point. How does matter come to reflect upon its own being? Why is it not simply satisfied with itself and accepting of its existence? The materialist has turned his gaze away form the specific subject, from our own “I,” and has arrived at an indefinite, hazy configuration. And here the same riddle comes to meet him. The materialistic view is not able to solve the problem, but only to shift it.

How do matters stand with the spiritualistic view? The pure spiritualist denies matter in its independent existence and apprehends it only as product of the spirit. If he applies this world view to solving the riddle of his own human nature, he is, in doing so, driven into a corner. Confronting the “I,” which can be placed on the side of spirit, there stands, without intermediary, the sensory world. Into this, no spiritual entry seems to open; this world has to be perceived and experienced by the “I” through material processes. The “I” does not find any such material processes within itself, if it wants to be considered only as a spiritual entity. The sense world is never present in what the “I” works through spiritually for itself. It seems the “I” must admit that the world would remain closed to it, if the “I” were not to put itself into a relationship with it in an unspiritual way. In like manner, when we come to act, we must transform our intentions into reality with the help of the material substances and forces. We are, therefore, reliant on the outer world. The most extreme spiritualist, or if you will, the thinker presenting himself as extreme spiritualist through absolute idealism, is Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He attempted to derive the whole edifice of the world out of the “I.” What he actually achieved thereby is a magnificent thought picture of the world, without any content of experience. Just as little as it is possible for the materialist to banish spirit by decree, it is possible for the spiritualist to banish the outer material world by decree.

Because the human being, when he directs his knowledge to the “I,” perceives to begin with the working of this “I” within the thinking elaboration of the world of ideas, the spiritualistically oriented world view can feel itself tempted, by looking at its own human nature, to acknowledge of the spirit only this world of ideas. Spiritualism becomes in this way one-sided idealism. It does not come to the point, through the world of ideas, of seeking a spiritual world; it sees in the world of ideas itself the spiritual world. It is compelled thereby to remain as though spellbound within the activity of the “I” itself.

A curious variant of idealism is the view of Friedrich Albert Lange which he has presented in his widely read History of Materialism.* He supposes that materialism is totally right when it explains all phenomena, including our thinking, as the product of purely material processes; but conversely, matter and its processes themselves are again a product of our thinking. “The senses give us ... effects of things, not accurate pictures, let alone the things themselves. To these mere effects belong however also the senses themselves, along with the brain and the movements of molecules thought to be in it.” That means our thinking is produced by the material processes, and these by the thinking of the “I.” Lange's philosophy is thereby nothing other than the story, translated into concepts, of the intrepid Münchhausen, who holds himself up freely in the air by his own pigtail.

*Geschichte des Matrialismus

The third form of monism is that which sees within the simplest entity (atom) the two entities of matter and spirit already united. But all that is achieved here is that the question, which actually arises in our consciousness, is shifted to another arena. How does the simple entity come to manifest itself in a twofold way, if it is an undivided whole?

With respect to all these standpoints we must note that the basic and original polarity comes to meet us first of all within our own consciousness. It is we who detach ourselves from the mother ground of nature, and place ourselves as “I” over against the “world.” Goethe expresses this classically in his essay, “Nature,” even though his approach may at first be considered completely unscientific: “We live in the midst of her (nature) and are foreign to her. She speaks unceasingly to us and does not betray her secret.” But Goethe also knows the reverse side: “Human beings are all within her and she within all human beings.”

As true as it is that we have estranged ourselves from nature, it is just as true that we feel that we are within it and belong to it. It can only be its own working that also lives in us.

We must find the way back to it again. A simple consideration can show us this way. We have, it is true, torn ourselves from nature; but we must nevertheless have taken something over with us into our own being. We must seek out this being of nature within us, and then we will also find the connection again. Dualism neglects to do this. It considers the inner being of man to be a spiritual entity totally foreign to nature and seeks to attach this entity onto nature. No wonder that it cannot find the connecting link. We can find nature outside us only when we first know it within us. What is akin to it in our own inner being will be our guide. Our course is thereby sketched out for us. We do not want to engage in any speculations about the interaction of nature and spirit. We want, however, to descend into the depths of our own being, in order to find there those elements which we have rescued in our flight from nature.

The exploration of our being must bring us the solution to the riddle. We must come to the point where we can say to ourselves: here we are no longer merely “I,” here lies something that is more than “I.”

I am prepared for the objection that many who have read this far will not find my expositions to be in conformity with “the present-day position of scholarship.” I can only reply that up till now I have not wanted to concern myself with scholarship, but rather with the simple description of what everyone experiences within his own consciousness. Individual sentences about attempts of consciousness to reconcile itself with the world have also been included only in order to make the actual facts clear. I have therefore also not thought it important to use such single expressions as “I,” “spirit,” “world,” “nature,” and so forth in the precise way that is usual in psychology and philosophy. Everyday consciousness does not know the sharp distinctions of scholarship, and until now we have merely been dealing with an assimilation of the everyday state of affairs. My concern is not how scholarship has interpreted consciousness until now, but rather how consciousness expresses itself in every moment.

Last Modified: 05-Jun-2020
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