Course II - Lecture I
The Epistemological Basis
of Theosophy I
November 27, 1903
It will be nothing strange to many among you that one
can find if the word theosophy is pronounced nothing else than a smile
with many of our contemporaries. Also it is not unknown to many that
just those who demand scholarship or, we say, philosophical education
in the present look at theosophy as something that one must call a dilettantish
activity, a fantastic belief. One can find in particular in the circles
of scholars that the theosophist is regarded as a type of fantastic
dreamer who bears witness to his peculiar image worlds because he has
never made the acquaintance with the bases of knowledge. You find particularly
in the circles which consider themselves as the scientific ones that
they presuppose easily that the theosophist is basically without any
philosophical education, and even if he has also acquired it or speaks
of it, it is a dilettantish, a picked up matter.
These talks should not deal
with theosophy directly. There are enough others. It should be a discussion
with the western philosophical education, a discussion how the scientific
world behaves to theosophy, and how it could behave, actually. They
should disprove the prejudice, as if the theosophist is an uneducated,
dilettantish person with regard to science. Who has not heard often
enough that philosophers of the most different schools — and there
are enough philosopher schools — state that mysticism is an unclear
view filled with all kinds of allegories and feeling elements, and that
theosophy has not achieved a strictly methodical thinking? If it did
this, it would see that it walks on nebulous ways. It would see that
mysticism could root only in the heads of eccentric people. This is
a well-known prejudice.
However, I do not want to
begin with a reprimand. Not because it would not correspond to the theosophical
conviction, but because I do not consider theosophy as anything dilettantish
from my own philosophical education and speak, nevertheless, out of
the depths of its conviction. I can understand absolutely that somebody
who has taken up the western philosophy in himself and has the whole
scientific equipment has it hard to see something else in theosophy
than what is just known. For somebody who comes today from philosophy
and science it is much more difficult really to familiarise himself
with theosophy, than for that who approaches theosophy with a naive
human mind, with a natural, maybe religious feeling and with a need
to solve certain riddles of life. Because this western philosophy puts
so many obstacles to its students, offers them so many judgments which
seem to be contradictory to theosophy that it makes it apparently impossible
to get involved with theosophy.
Indeed, it is true that
the theosophical literature shows little of that which resembles a discussion
with our contemporary science and which one could call philosophical.
Therefore, I have resolved to hold a series of talks on it. They should
be an epistemological basis of theosophy. You will get to know the concepts
of the contemporary philosophy and its contents. If you look at this
in a real, true and deep sense, you see — but you must really
wait till the end — the basis of the theosophical knowledge following
from this western philosophy. This should not happen juggling with expert
dialectic concepts, but it should happen, as far as I am able to do
it in some talks, with any equipment which the knowledge of our contemporaries
provides us; it should happen with everything available to give something
that can be experienced of a higher world view also to those who do
not want to know it.
What I have to explain would
not have been possible in another age to explain in the same way. But
it has been necessary to look around, maybe just in our time, at Kant,
Locke, Schopenhauer or at other writers of the present, we say at Eduard
von Hartmann and his disciple Arthur Drews, or the brilliant theorist
of knowledge Volkelt or Otto Liebmann, or at the somewhat journalistic,
but not less strictly rational Eucken. Who has looked around there who
has familiarised himself with this or that of the shadings which the
philosophical-scientific views of the present and the latest past took
on understands and conceives — this is my innermost conviction
— that a real, true understanding of this philosophical development
does not lead away from theosophy, but to theosophy. Just somebody who
has argued thoroughly with the philosophical doctrines has to come to
I would not need to deliver
this speech unless the whole thinking of our time were influenced just
by a philosopher. One says that the great mental achievement of Immanuel
Kant gave philosophy a scientific basis. One says that what he performed
to the definition of the knowledge problem is something steadfast. You
hear that anybody who has not tackled Kant has no right to have a say
in philosophy. You may examine the different currents: Herbart, Fichte,
Schelling, Hegel, from Schopenhauer up to Eduard von Hartmann —
in all these lines of thought only somebody can find the way who orientates
himself to Kant. After different matters were striven for in the philosophy
of the 19th century, the calling resounds from Zeller in the middle
of the seventies, from Liebmann, then from Friedrich Albert Lange: back
to Kant! — The lecturers of philosophy are of the opinion that
everybody has to orientate himself to Kant, and only somebody who does
this can have a say in philosophy.
Kant dominated the philosophy
of the 19th century and of the present. However, he caused something
else than he himself wanted. He expressed it with the words: he believes
to have accomplished a similar action like Copernicus. Copernicus turned
around the whole astronomical world view. He removed the earth from
the centre and made another body, the sun, to the centre which was once
imagined to be movable. However, Kant makes the human being with his
cognitive faculties the centre of the physical world view. He really
turns around the whole physical world view. It is the opinion of most
philosophers of the 19th century that one has to turn around. You can
understand this philosophy only if you understand it from its preconditions.
One can understand what has flowed from Kant’s philosophy only
if one understands it from its bases. Who understands how Kant came
to his conviction that we can never recognise the things “by themselves,”
because all things we recognise are only phenomena who understands this
can also understand the development of the philosophy of the 19th century,
he also understands the objections which can be made against theosophy,
and also how he has to behave to them.
You know that theosophy
rests on a higher experience. The theosophist says that the source of
his knowledge is an experience which reaches beyond the sensory experience.
You can see that it has the same validity as that of the senses that
what the theosophist tells about astral worlds et cetera is as real
as the things which we perceive with our senses round us as sensory
experience. What the theosophist believes to have as his source of knowledge
is a higher experience. If you read Leadbeater’s
Astralebene (Astral Plane), you think that the things are as
real in the astral world as the cabs and horses in the streets of London.
It should be said how real this world is for somebody who knows them.
The philosopher of the present argues immediately: yes, but you are
mistaken, because you believe that this is a true reality. Has the philosophy
of the 19th century not proved to you that our experience is nothing
but our idea, and that also the starry heaven is nothing else than our
idea in us? — He considers this as the most certain knowledge
which there can only be. Eduard von Hartmann considers it as the most
natural truth that this is my idea, and that one cannot know what it
is also. If you believe that you can call experience “real,”
then you are a naive realist. Can you decide anything generally about
the value experience has facing the world in this way? This is the great
result to which Kantianism has come that the world surrounding us must
be our idea.
How did Kant’s world
view come to this? It came from the philosophy of the predecessors.
At that time when Kant was still young, the philosophy of Christian
Wolff had the mastery over all schools. It distinguished the so-called
knowledge of experience which we acquire by the sensory impressions
and that which comes from pure reason. According to him, we can get
to know something of the things of the everyday life only by experience,
and from pure reason we have things which are the objects of the highest
knowledge. These things are the human souls, the free will of the human
being, the questions which refer to immortality and to the divine being.
The so-called empiric sciences
deal with that which is offered in natural history, in physics, in history
et cetera. How does the astronomer get his knowledge? He directs his
eyes to the stars; he finds the laws which are commensurate with the
observations. We learn this while opening our senses to the outside
world. Nobody can say that this is drawn from mere reason. The human
being knows this because he sees it. This is an empiric knowledge which
we take up from life, from the experience in ourselves, not caring whether
we order them in a scientific system or not; it is knowledge of experience.
Nobody can describe a lion from his very reason. However, Wolff supposes
that one can draw that which one is from pure reason. Wolff supposes
that we have a psychology from pure reason, also that the soul must
have free will that it must have reason et cetera. Hence, Wolff calls
the sciences which deal with the higher capacities of the soul rational
psychology. The question whether the world has a beginning and an end
is a question which one should decide only from pure reason. He calls
this question an object of rational cosmology. Nobody can decide on
the usefulness of the world from experience; nobody can investigate
it by observation. These are nothing but questions of the rational cosmology.
Then there is a science of God, of a divine plan. This is a science
which is also drawn from reason. This is the so-called rational theology,
it belongs to metaphysics.
Kant grew up in a time when
philosophy was taught in this sense. You find him in his first writings
as an adherent of Wolff’s philosophy. You find him convinced that
there is a rational psychology, a rational theology et cetera. He gives
a proof which he calls the only possible proof of the existence of God.
Then he got to know a philosophical current which had a stupefying effect
on him. He got to know the philosophy of David Hume.
He said that it waked up him from his dogmatic slumber. — What
does this philosophy offer? Hume says the following: we see that the
sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. We have seen this
many days. We also know that all people have seen sunrises and sunsets
that they have experienced the same, and we get used to believing that
this must take place forever.
Now another example: we
see that the solar heat falls on a stone. We think that it is the solar
heat which warms up the stone. What do we see? We perceive solar heat
first and then the warmed up stone. What do we perceive there? Only
that one fact follows the other. If we experience that the sunbeams
warm up the stone, then we have already formed the judgment that the
solar heat is the cause that the stone becomes warm. That is why Hume
says: there is nothing at all that shows us more than a sequence of
facts. We get used to the belief that there a causal relationship exists.
But this belief is only a habituation and everything that the human
being thinks of causal concepts exists only in that experience. The
human being sees a ball pushing the other, he sees that a movement takes
place through it, and then he gets used to saying that lawfulness exists
in it. In truth we deal with no real insight.
What is the human being
considered from the knowledge of pure reason? This is nothing else —
Hume says — than a summary of facts. We have to connect the facts
of the world. This corresponds to the human way of thinking, to the
tendency of the human thinking. We have no right to go beyond this thinking.
We are not allowed to say that it is something in the things which has
given them lawfulness. We can only say that the things and events flow
past us. But the things “in themselves” do not show such
How can we speak now of
the fact that something manifests itself to us in the things that goes
beyond experience? How can we speak of a connection in experience that
is due to a divine being, that goes beyond experience if we are not
inclined to turn to anything other than to the ways of thinking?
This view had the effect
on Kant that it waked up him from dogmatic slumber. He asks: can there
be something that goes beyond experience? Which knowledge does experience
deliver to us? Does it give us sure knowledge? Of course, Kant denied
this question immediately. He says: even if you have seen the sun rise
hundred thousand times, you cannot infer from it that it also rises
tomorrow again. It could also be different. If you inferred only from
experience, it could also turn out once that experience convinces you
of something different. Experience can never give sure, necessary knowledge.
I know from experience that
the sun warms up the stone. However, I am not allowed to state that
it has to warm up it. If all our knowledge comes from experience, it
can never exceed the condition of uncertainty; then there can be no
necessary empiric knowledge. Now Kant tries to find out this matter.
He looks for a way out. He had made himself used through his whole youth
to believe in knowledge. He could be convinced by Hume’s philosophy
that there is nothing sure. Is anywhere anything where one can speak
of sure, necessary knowledge? However — he says — there
are sure judgments. These are the mathematical judgments. Is the mathematical
judgment similar to the judgment: in the morning the sun rises and sets
in the evening?
I have the judgment that
the sum of the three angles of a triangle is 180 degrees. If I have
given the proof with one single triangle, it suffices for all triangles.
I see from the nature of the proof that it applies to all possible cases.
This is the peculiar of mathematical proofs. For everybody it is clear
that these must also apply to the inhabitants of Jupiter and Mars if
they generally have triangles that also there the sum of the angles
of a triangle must be 180 degrees. And then: never can be two times
two anything else than four. This is always true. Hence, we have a proof
that there is knowledge which is absolutely sure. The question cannot
be: do we have such knowledge? But we must think about the possibility
of such judgments.
Now there comes the big
question of Kant: how are such absolutely necessary judgments possible?
How is mathematical knowledge possible? — Kant now calls those
judgments and knowledge which are drawn from experience judgments and
knowledge a posteriori. The judgment: the sum of angles of a triangle
is 180 degrees; however, is a judgment which precedes all experience,
a judgment a priori. I can simply imagine a triangle and give the proof,
and if I see a triangle which I have not yet experienced, I can say
that it must have a sum of angles of 180 degrees. Any higher knowledge
depends on it that I can make judgments from pure reason.
How are such judgments a
priori possible? We have seen that such a judgment: the sum of angles
of a triangle is equal 180 degrees, applies to any triangles. Experience
has to submit to my judgment. If I draw an ellipse and look out into
space, I find that a planet describes such an ellipse. The planet follows
my judgment formed in pure knowledge. I approach the experience with
my purely in the ideal formed judgment. Have I drawn this judgment from
experience? — Kant continues asking. There is no doubt, forming
such purely ideal judgments, that we have, actually, no reality of experience.
The ellipse, the triangle
— they have no reality of experience, but reality submits to such
knowledge. If I want to have true reality, I must approach experience.
If, however, I know which laws work in it, then I have knowledge before
all experience. The law of the ellipse does not come from experience.
I myself build it in my mind. Thus a passage begins with Kant with the
sentence: “Even if all our knowledge starts from
experience, nevertheless, not everything does arise from experience.”
I put what I have as knowledge into experience. The human mind is made
in such a way that everything of its experience corresponds only to
the laws which it has. The human mind is made in such a way that it
must develop these laws inevitably. If it moves up to experience, then
experience has to submit to these laws.
An example: Imagine that
you wear blue glasses. You see everything in blue light; the objects
appear to you in blue light. However the things outdoors may be made,
this concerns me nothing at all provisionally. At the moment when the
laws which my mind develops spread out over the whole world of experience
the whole world of experience must fit into it. It is not right that
the judgment: two times two is four is taken from experience. It is
the condition of my mind that two times two must give always four. My
mind is in such a way that the three angles of a triangle are always
180 degrees. Thus Kant justifies the laws out of the human being himself.
The sun warms up the stone. Every effect has a cause. This is a law
of the mind. If the world is a chaos, I push the lawfulness of my mind
toward it. I conceive the world like a string of pearls. I am that who
makes the world a knowledge mechanism. — You also see how Kant
was induced to find such a particular method of knowledge. As long as
the human mind is organised in such a way as it is organised as long
everything must submit to this organisation, even if reality changes
overnight. For me it could not change if the laws of my mind are the
same. The world may be as it wants; we recognise it in such a way as
it must appear to us according to the laws of our mind.
Now you see which sense
it has, if one says: Kant turned the whole theory of knowledge, the
whole epistemology. One assumed before that the human being reads everything
from nature. Now, however, he lets the human mind give the laws to nature.
He lets everything circle around the human mind like Copernicus let
the earth circle around the sun.
Then, however, there is
something else that shows that the human being can never go beyond experience.
Indeed, it appears as a contradiction, but you will see that it corresponds
to Kant’s philosophy. Kant shows that the concepts are empty.
Two times two is four is an empty judgment if not peas or beans are
filled into it. Any effect has a cause — is a purely formal judgment
if it is not filled with particular contents of experience. The judgments
are formed before in me to be applied to the observation of the world.
“Observations without concepts are blind —
concepts without observations are empty.” We can think millions
of ellipses; they correspond to no reality if we do not see them in
the planetary motion. We have to verify everything by experience. We
can gain judgments a priori, but we are allowed to apply them only if
they correspond to experience.
God, freedom and immortality
are matters about which we can ponder ever so long about which we can
get knowledge by no experience. Therefore, it is in vain to find out
anything with our reason. The concepts a priori are only valid as far
as our experience reaches. Indeed we have a science a priori which only
says to us how experience has to be until experience is there. We can
catch as it were experience like in a web, but we cannot find out how
the law of experience has to be. About the “thing-in-itself”
we know nothing, and because God, freedom and immortality must have
their origin in the “thing-in-itself,” we can find out nothing
about them. We see the things not as they are, but in such a way as
we must see them according to our organisation.
With it Kant founded the
critical idealism and overcame the naive realism. What submits to causality
is not the “thing-in-itself.” What submits to my eye or
my ear has to make an impression on my eye, on my ear at first. This
is the perception, the sensations. These are the effects of any “thing-in-itself,”
of things which are absolutely unknown to me. These produce a lot of
effects, and I order them in a lawful world. I form an organism of sensations.
But I cannot know what is behind them. It is nothing else than the lawfulness
which my mind has put into the sensations. What is behind the sensation,
I can know nothing about it. Hence, the world which surrounds me is
only subjective. It is only that which I myself build up.
The development of physiology
in the 19th century agreed apparently completely with Kant. Take the
important knowledge of the great physiologist Johannes
Müller. He has put up the law of the specific nerve energy.
It consists in the fact that any organ answers in its way. If you let
light into the eye, you have a beam of light; if you bump against the
eye, you will likewise have a light sensation. Müller concludes
that it does not depend on the things outside, but on my eye what I
perceive. The eye answers to a process unknown to me with the colour
quality, we say: blue. Blue is nowhere outdoors in space. A process
has an effect on us, and it produces the sensation “blue.”
What you believe that it stands before you, is nothing else than the
effect of some unknown processes on a sense. The whole physiology of
the 19th century confirmed this law of the specific nerve energy apparently.
Kant’s idea seems to be thereby supported.
One can call this world
view illusionism in the full sense of the word. Nobody knows anything
about what has an effect outside, what produces his sensations. From
himself he spins his whole world of experience and builds up it according
to the laws of his mind. Nothing else can approach him, as long as his
organisation is made in such a way as it is. This is Kant’s doctrine
motivated by physiology. Kant calls it critical idealism. This is also
that which Schopenhauer develops in his philosophy:
people believe that the whole starry heaven and the sun surround them.
However, this is only your own mental picture. You create the whole
world. — And Eduard von Hartmann says: This
is the most certain truth which there can be. No power would be able
one day to shake this sentence. — Thus the western philosophy
says. It has never pondered how experience basically comes about.
Somebody is only able to
stick to realism who knows how experiences come about and then he comes
to the true critical idealism. The view of Kant is the transcendental
idealism, that is he knows nothing about a true reality, nothing of
a “thing-in-itself,” but only of an image world. He says
basically: I must refer my image world to something unknown. —
This view should be regarded as something steadfast.
Is this transcendental idealism
really steadfast? Is the “thing-in-itself” unrecognisable?
— If this held true, then could not be spoken of a higher experience
at all. If the “thing-in-itself” were only an illusion,
we could not speak of any higher beings. Hence, this is also an objection
which is raised against theosophy: you have higher beings of which you
We see next time how these
views must be deepened.
Webster Leadbeater (1854–1934), clergyman and theosophical
Wolff (1679–1754), German philosopher and mathematician
Hume (1711–1776), Scottish philosopher, historian, economist
Even if all our knowledge starts
… Immanuel Kant in Critique of Pure Reason, Introduction,
“Observations without concepts are blind
… Immanuel Kant in Critique of Pure Reason, Introduction to
Idea of a Transcendental Logic, Part I On Logic in General
Müller (1801–1858), German physiologist
Schopenhauer (1788–1860), German philosopher
von Hartmann (1842–1906), German philosopher