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The 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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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity

On-line since: 6th February, 2006


Individuality and Genus

Against the view that the human being has it in him to be a complete, self-contained, free individuality, there seems to stand the fact that he appears as a part within a natural whole (race, ancestral line, folk, family, male or female gender), and that he is active within a whole (state, church, and so on). He bears the general characteristics of the community to which he belongs, and gives a content to his actions which is determined by the place he holds within the larger group.

Given this, is individuality still possible at all? Can one still regard the human being himself as whole in himself, seeing that he grows out of one whole and integrates himself into another?

A part of a whole, in its characteristics and functions, is determined by the whole. An ethnic group is a whole, and everyone belonging to it bears the characteristic traits that are determined by the nature of the group. How the single person is constituted and how he acts is determined by the character of the group. Through this the physiognomy and behavior of the individual person takes on something of a generic quality. If we ask for the reason why this or that about a person is this or that way, then we are directed away form the individual person and toward his genus. The genus explains to us why something about him appears in the form in which we observe it.

The human being frees himself, however, from these generic qualities. For man's generic qualities, when rightly experienced by him, are not something which restrict his freedom, and should also not be made to do so by artificial means. The human being develops traits and functions for himself whose determining factors can only be sought within man himself. His generic qualities serve him thereby only as a medium through which to express his particular being. He uses the characteristic traits given by nature as a basis and gives to what is generic a form in accordance with his own being. Now we would seek in vain the reason for an action of this being within the laws of the genus. We have to do with an individual who can be explained only through himself. If a person has won his way through to this detachment from the generic, and if, even then, we still want to explain everything about him by the characteristics of the genus, then we have no organ for what is individual.

It is impossible to understand a person entirely, if one bases one's judgment upon a generic concept. One persists the most in judging according to the genus where it is a matter of gender. A man sees in a woman, a woman in a man, almost always too much of the general characteristics of the opposite sex and too little of what is individual. In practical life this does less harm to men than to women. The social position of women is such an unworthy one mostly because in many respects what her position ought to be is not determined by the individual qualities of a particular woman but rather by the general picture one forms of the natural task and the needs of women. The activities of a man direct themselves in life according to his individual abilities and inclinations; those of a woman are supposed to be determined exclusively through the fact that she is after all a woman. A woman is supposed to be a slave to what is generic, to womanhood in general. As long as it is debated by men whether a woman is fitted “by natural disposition” for this or that profession, the so-called woman's question cannot get out of its most elementary stage. What a woman can want according to her nature must be left up to the woman to judge. If it is true that women are fitted only to the tasks which are presently theirs, then they will hardly be able out of themselves to attain to any others. But they must be allowed to determine for themselves what is in accordance with their nature. The response is someone who fears an upheaval of our social structure if women are to be regarded, not as generic entities, but rather as individuals, is that a social structure in which one half of mankind leads an existence unworthy of a human being is in fact very much in need of improvement .*

*Immediately upon publication of this book (1894) the objection was raised against the above arguments, that, within her generic sphere a woman can already now live out her life just as individualistically as she could want, much more freely than a man can, who, through schooling and then through war and profession is already stripped of his individuality. I know that one will raise this objective perhaps even more strongly today. In spite of this I must still let these sentences stand here and would like to hope that there will also be readers who understand how great a violence such an objection does to the concept of inner freedom which is developed in this book, and who will judge the above sentences of mine by something other than by how a man is stripped of his individuality by schooling and profession.

Whoever judges people according to generic characteristics gets only as far, in fact, as the boundary line beyond which people start to become beings whose activity is based upon free self-determination. What lies below this boundary can, of course, be the object of scientific study. The characteristic traits of races, ancestral lines, peoples, and sexes are the content of particular sciences. Only people who wanted to live solely as examples of genus could make themselves coincide with the general image which arises out of the observations of such sciences. All these sciences, however, cannot penetrate through to the particular content of the individual. Where the realm of freedom (of thinking and doing) begins, the determining of the individual by generic laws ends. The conceptual content which man, through his thinking, must bring into connection with perception in order to take hold of full reality (see page 77ff.), this no one can establish once and for all and leave behind for mankind in a finished form. Each individual must gain his concepts through his own intuition. How the individual person is to think cannot be deduced from any generic concepts. It it purely and simply the individual who decides this. And just as little should the concrete goals which the individual wants to set for his willing be determined out of general human characteristics. Whoever wants to understand the single individuality must enter into his particular being, and not stop short at typical characteristics. In this sense every single human being is a riddle. And every science that concerns itself with abstract thoughts and generic concepts is only a preparation for that knowledge which is afforded us when a human individuality communicates to us his way of viewing the world, and for that other knowledge which we gain from the content of his willing. Wherever we have the feeling that here we have to do with that in a person which is free of any typical way of thinking and free of any generic willing, there we must cease from taking recourse to any concept out of our spirit, if we want to understand his being. The activity of knowing consists in the joining of concept and perception through thinking. With all other objects the observer must gain his concepts through his intuition; with understanding a free individuality it is only a matter of purely (without mixing in our own conceptual content) taking over into our spirit his concepts, by which he, after all, determines himself. People who immediately mix their own concepts into every judgment about another person can never arrive at an understanding of an individuality. Just as the free individuality makes himself free of the characteristics of genus, so must our knowing activity free itself from the way generic qualities are understood.

Only to the extent that a person has made himself free of generic qualities in the way indicated does he come into consideration as a free spirit within a human community. No man is entirely genus; none is all individuality. But every person gradually frees a greater or lesser sphere of his being, both from the generic qualities of animal life and from the commandments, ruling him, of human authorities.

In that part of his being in which he cannot attain such inner freedom, however, man is incorporated into the organism of nature and of the spirit. He lives in this respect as he sees other live, or as they command. Only that part of his actions which springs from his intuitions has an ethical value in the true sense. And whatever he has about him in the way of moral instincts, inherited from social instincts, becomes something ethical through his taking it up into his intuitions. All moral activity of mankind springs from individual ethical intuitions and from their being taken up into human communities. One can also say that the moral life of mankind is the sum total of the creations of the moral imagination of free human individuals. These are the findings of monism.

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