critique contributed by Peter Wilberg with discussion below:
Steiner’s ‘spiritual science’ is imbued through and through with conventional scientific
‘positivism’ – a view that truth is a property of the correctness of verbal propositions or
assertions about reality. Paradoxically, he adopted this ‘positivistic’ view of ‘science’ at just the
time when positivism itself was being radically questioned by phenomenological philosophy and
phenomenological science – which both he and his followers seem to have totally ignored.
● Steiner’s positivistic claims about the ‘literal’ truth of the assertions he makes about spiritual
reality, when today we know that language – both ordinary everyday language and that of the
sciences – is pervaded through and through by metaphor (see the works of Lakoff and Johnson –
in particular Metaphors we Live By).
● Steiner’s positivistic schematism – for example in schematically categorising different bodies
(etheric, astral etc.) without first of all questioning – as the German thinker Martin Heidegger did
- what the nature of bodyhood as such essentially is. The mere attachment of hosts of different
categorical adjectives to a single basic noun such as ‘body’ or ‘soul’ (for example through terms
such as ‘consciousness soul’, ‘spiritual soul’ etc.) becomes a substitute for deeper, meditative
questioning of the noun– of what can be understood by the single word ‘soul’ for example.
● Steiner does not follow his own principle that the verb is more fundamental than the noun,
unlike Heidegger – who speaks not of multiple bodies, all with different names, but of bodying,
just as he also speaks not of worlds but of worlding etc.
● Steiner falls into the old positivistic trap of assuming that just because a word or term esoteric or
exoteric, everyday or scientific (for example words such ‘etheric body’, ‘force’ or ‘energy’) has
become part of common usage there necessarily exists some ‘thing’ corresponding to that word.
● Steiner’s consequent failure to radically and deeply question – rather than simply assume the
meaning of basic words such as spirit, body, soul, consciousness, science, truth, beings, world
etc. (let alone words belonging to his own highly syncretic esoteric vocabulary).
● Steiner declares it as a fundamental philosophical truth that reality ultimately consists of a
multitude of spiritual beings – but does so just at the fundamental historical turning point at
which Martin Heidegger, for the first time in the history of human thought – begins to question
the nature of Being as such i.e. what it means for any thing, being, body, self or world to ‘be’.
● Steiner’s greatest failure – in marked contrast to Martin Heidegger – was to not even be able to
touch on the ‘Greatest Mystery’ of all, namely the fundamental philosophical and spiritual
question of why is there is anything at all (including spiritual beings, worlds, hierarchies etc.)
rather than nothing? (See Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’).
● The failure of Steiner’s followers to in any way historically contextualise Steiner’s work in the
context of his times and the other great and truly profound thinkers around at his time (To date,
for example, I still have not still found a single Anthroposophical study or book on the relation
between Steiner and his ‘spiritual science’ on the one hand, and the ‘phenomenological science’
of Husserl and Heidegger.)
● One reason for all this is that the entire world and indeed the entirety of world history – even
the history of philosophy – continues to be contextualised by Anthroposophists solely within the
context and framework of Anthroposophy itself – and yet without any attempt whatsoever to
historically and culturally contextualise Steiner’s work – and Anthroposophy itself.
● By not placing Steiner’s work within the rich cultural, linguistic and historic context of his own
world and times Anthroposophy itself – and paradoxically – blocks in advance a vital way by
which to come to a far deeper understanding and appreciation of Steiner and his work that can
be attained within the context and framework of that work and of Anthroposophy alone.
● Just as importantly, by sticking purely within the framework of Anthroposophical language.
Anthroposphy also blocks in advance a genuine and renewed individual access to – and further
exploration and explication of – the dimensions of wordless inner cognition that were the source
of Steiner’s work (I think here of the utter failure of the 1 st Class of Spiritual Science to create a
new generation of initiates – people capable of doing what Steiner did rather than what he said.)
● Steiner’s failure to grasp the fundamental distinction between any world view or science on the
one hand (exoteric or esoteric) and philosophy – or to understand philosophy itself as the most
‘primordial science’ – since it alone begins with the most basic questions: such as why there is
anything rather than nothing or what it is that essentially constitutes what it is that we call
‘consciousness’, ‘thinking’, ‘world’, ‘ego’, ‘spirit’, ‘soul’, ‘body’ etc. etc.
● To summarise: what I have here termed Steiner’s outdated ‘positivism’ consists in believing that
truth as such is a property of propositions or statements about reality, rather than something
that can only be explored or expressed by first of all questioning the individual words and terms
in which those propositions or statements are couched.
● Steiner does the very opposite: failing to recognise however deep or authentic one’s
‘clairvoyant’ abilities, without a questioning awareness of the language and terms into which
wordless inner cognitions or gnosis are couched and translated, the result is inevitably a
linguistically closed worldview – one that cannot evolve because it is framed by a totally
unquestioned consensual language or ‘group speak’.
● This has become the unfortunate fate of Anthroposophy – all the more unfortunate because
Steiner’s goal of creating a new ‘spiritual science’ was indeed founded on authentic inner
cognitions. Pity then, that he and his followers still rigidly identify these cognitions with the
terms, symbols and language in which Steiner couched them – and seem to show no interest at
all in a deeper awareness and cognition of the role of language as such in not only expressing
but also often distorting such valid inner cognitions.
● As a result, Anthroposophy has effectively become a religion – mistaking its own symbols for the
wordless cognitions they give expression to – and with its adherents feeling bound to use those
same symbols, i.e. the language of Anthroposophy and of Steiner alone, in coming to and giving
expression to their own inner cognitions and comprehensions.
● I should add however, that this is in no way a critique of Steiner or Anthroposophy alone but
rather a critique of the language and symbols of almost all religions and ‘spiritual traditions’ –
which almost invariably fail to distinguish wordless cognition or gnosis from the culturally and
historically determined languages and symbols used to express it – and therefore end up
substituting their own symbol systems, terms and propositions for the inner knowing they are
used to translate. Hence the importance of Heidegger’s distinction between inter-linguistic
translation and intra-linguistic translation, i.e. language as such understood in the manner of
poetry – as a translation of the wordless.
● On the other hand it is also true to say that ‘There is a wordless knowledge within the word’
(Seth). But herein however lies the great trap of Anthroposophy and perhaps also the guarantor
of its decline. For precisely because Steiner’s words do indeed resound with deeper layers of wordless knowledge than many other spiritual traditions, it become all the easier to identify that
wordless knowledge with his words and statements – and his alone.
Final note: one rather pathetic and sadly ignorant result of all this that I have come across
myself is the continuing adherence to what could be called Steiner’s ‘phonemic parochialism’. By
this I mean that even today one cannot find a single Anthroposophical teacher of Eurythmy or
‘Creative Speech’ (i.e. the deep esoteric significance that Steiner saw in basic vowels and
consonants) who is aware enough of elementary phonemics to realise that many of what Steiner
himself taught were the most basic and fundamental individual ‘vowels’ are not in fact single
vowels at all but rather double vowels or ‘diphthongs’ (‘I’ as in ‘like’ being /a/ as in ‘ah’ +/i/ as in
‘thin’). Even more ignorantly and sadly (and as the above example shows, Anthroposophical
teachers of Speech and Eurythmy don’t even seem to recognise a basic difference between the
pronunciation of a sound or phoneme and that of the letter by which it is symbolised! Then
again, some of what Steiner saw as basic ‘vowels’ are also highly particular to the German
language – and so can in no way be taken as cosmically ‘fundamental’.
Postscript: just a few of the many fundamental differences between my work and that of Steiner:
- I do not see philosophy as having come to an end with Hegel.
- I see Steiner’s ‘Philosophy of Freedom’ as quite a poor and highly questionable work from a
philosophical point of view – and one that in no way does justice to Steiner as a great seer
–for a deep and profound philosopher he was most certainly not – a serious deficit in his
work, like that of so many spiritual teachers who simply do not recognise the importance of
of philosophy in relation to theosophy or ‘anthroposophy’.
- I have evolved a philosophically concise, coherent and above all linguistically aware teaching
– The Awareness Principle – which does not sidestep the most fundamental question of all
(‘The Question of Being’ raised by Heidegger) whilst at the same time being no less
practically applicable to many different areas of life and science than Anthroposophy.
- I recognise feeling (what I call ‘feeling awareness’) as a more fundamental mode of cognition
than either Thinking, Imagination, Inspiration or Intuition.
- I have clearly conceptualised the nature of ‘soul’ as awareness and of ‘soul qualities’ as tonal
qualities of awareness or qualia (for example a quality of warmth of feeling in contrast to a
feeling of (bodily) warmth).
- I distinguish ‘ego’ and ‘self’ and do not conflate them in a single word ‘Ich’ (German for ‘I’)
usually translated from Steiner as ‘the Ego’.
- My new philosophical language of awareness eliminates the need for archaic terms and
symbols but instead explicates their essence.
- I have had more success than decades of Anthroposophy in evolving practices which give
students a direct experience – albeit couched in wholly new terms – of inner cognition.
Thanks you for this. It helps in my own ongoing thought regarding a more critical and contemporary approach to occult epistemology. I do think you misread Steiner himself and his philosophy a bit in this piece, but most of what you say applies pretty well to the Anthroposophical society and many of his followers. Steiner wasn’t perfect of course and I think your critiques are understandable given much of the language he uses, language that did not help his movement escape treating him like an authority. But he was definitely not a positivist. His whole philosophy was grounded on Goethean epistemology, which as I have pointed out to you has always had a contention with the idealistic strain of thought that you tend to, but which is anything but positivistic. Empiricism does not equal positivism. I am not sure why you say he thought philosophy ended with Hegel. He was very critical of Hegel and took a lot from his own contemporaries, especially Brentano. His book “riddles of philosophy” summarizes the history of philosophy and devotes a fair amount to post-Hegel, though he definitely had a vision of it evolving into some kind of spiritual science, as do I.
I think you are interested in different problems and some of this reads as faulting him for not being interested in the same problems as you. I think the direction that he wanted philosophy to go was more where Bergson was going and Steiner did have nice things to say about Bergson before he died. Deleuze liked the empirical tradition because it partook in a kind of “orgy of concept creation” of which Steiner was a supreme example. Heidegger took philosophy in a different direction, drilling down into fundamental questions, an approach that I am also interested in, but which has less affinity with my own highest interests. I do like what you have done with Heidegger and have much interest in the problems that you have explored in relation to him and the connections you make to your vision of spiritual practice. But there is room for both empiricism and idealism in spiritual thought, I believe, as well as for critique of the drawbacks, as indeed there are drawbacks to both phenomenological and empirical language.
Positivist in the sense of positing entities. Also find it incomprehensible that Steiner, Husserl and Heidegger were contemporaries for a good time but there are still no comparitive studies of their works.
I see one one major article comparing Steiner and Heidegger online. Looks interesting: link
Also Anthroposophical philosopher Yeshayahu Ben-Aharo wrote a book I read called “The Event” where he compares Steiner and academic philosophy. He also wrote this piece surveying 20th century philosophy and mythologizing its role in spiritual evolution: link
But I prefer reading academics like Christopher Bamford and Owen Barfield to religious anthroposophists like Ben-Aharo. Bamford does some passing comparison of Steiner to Heidegger (through their common influence coming from Brentano) in his long intro to the new edition of Stiener’s “Goethe’s Theory Of Knowledge”. Barfield comments on Heidegger from time to time, but does not engage him very deeply. Looks like someone has tried to compare them though:link
In any case, you are right to question any naive realism about independent entities. Empiricism founders when its “orgy of concept creation” takes its creations to be simple discoveries of a separate world of things.
But then what are things? put simply every thing is just a pattern in existence, whether it be a well framed one or not; so the important question really isn’t what something essentially is—since everything is some kind of pattern, and no pattern is capable of attaining some kind of context free objectivity—but whether that pattern has been put in a good context or not, what we call “understanding” something well.
Does covid actually exist? I keep getting asked this. Like everything, it is a pattern, one with more grounding in social forces than the mainstream wants to admit. One better understood and framed within a larger sociological context than the frame used by the mainstream. But none of that necessitates throwing out all discussion of things as mere artifacts of our metaphors, (since everything has contamination with metaphoricity). The question always is whether we are using the best metaphors, forms and figures to bring any thing into a more illuminating relation, which is why I stress continuity. Questioning the framing of anything by exposing it to the light of more and more contexts to see what connects and achieves a reality beyond any limited frame.
“Everything is just a pattern in existence.” The ontological question for me what are such patterns patterns ‘of’? Do we ’empirically’ perceive or experience such patterns or they essentially nothing but patterns OF perception and experiencing as such? This position is what I came to call ‘experientialism’ recently. One can say of course that a painting is a pattern of colours, and one can speak of patterns of all sorts of things. The deeper question is whether those patterns are things we experience – or simply experiences – actual or potential experiential patterns arising from and within consciousness, but not things in themselves. In word, there is nothing experienced, only experiencing. Everything we take as something experienced IS an experience and not an object of experiencing. Terms like empiricism don’t do justice to this philosophy. Put in other terms, everything experienced within consciousness is itself a species or plane or pattern of consciousness itself, manifesting as qualia.
That said I do not deny there is a wealth of very deep insights to be found in Steiner. But anthroposophy has become a baroque doctrine. It is far from being ‘theo-sophy’ in the pure sense. Steiner himself also insisted that his baroque language of elementals, archangels etc was in no way metaphorical. That’s the positivism.
I also do not deny a Hegelian element to my own thinking, Though I do not call it ‘objective idealism’, I believe that ideas shape and in this sense objectify themselves in subjective perception and experiencing.
I don’t think that the elementals, archangels, etc. are just metaphors. They are real beings, as real as you or I anyway, to paraphrase Seth’s take on this question. And of course the words Steiner used are metaphors. Steiner was not some dogmatist insisting his names for things were the only proper ones. That kind of platonic realism is a strawman for nominalist reductionists. He equated the angels with the Gods of Hinduism, Theosophy, etc; he just thought it important to develop and update Western terminology. When someone says spiritual beings are just metaphors, they are psychologizing spirituality, which I think is a big mistake, and a common one nowadays after the influence of Jung.
But perhaps more to the point, Steiner did not have enough of an appreciation of the dependence his concepts had on his culture, or at least he doesn’t emphasize that enough. He does emphasize that Theosophical maps are built by imaginative cognition to create a world of images to navigate a world that would be incomprehensible otherwise. And he stressed his findings could be critiqued and modified by simple reasoning, requiring no special spiritual abilities. But still, in trying to counter the psychologizing of religion trend he saw rising in culture, he maybe doubled down too hard on the possibilities of clear vision of truth through imagery that was quite obviously and admittedly rooted in or extrapolated from the preconceived notions handed down from tradition.
But what I mean by fundamental metaphoricity, I take from Derrida, who shows well how much experience, since it is always already structured by relations and referentiality, cannot escape metaphor into some kind of pure literalism of present meaning not structured by differance. Steiner, coming before the semiotic/linguistic turn, puts this in Goethean “phenomenological” terms, but it is a similar trajectory of thought. Basically that since thinking/cognition is what organizes perception, thinking and experience are already part of a trans-subjective plane of universal ideas. Goethe was not an idealist because he didn’t think this plane was subjective, but Goethe, Steiner, Bergson and Deleuze, I think all make similar attempts to get out of the bind or realism vs. idealism and its representationalist trap (that truth is either subjective or objective). John Deely claims Hegel almost made it out of this false divide created by nominalism, but it wasn’t until Peirce and Heidegger that Philosophy finally made it out of the trap. Unfortunately Hegel retained too many nominalist assumptions that he could not ultimately escape, though he made a good effort.
I do think Peirce and Heidegger, and the later philosophers coming after the influence of semiotics and poststructuralism like Derrida and Deleuze were able to explain in more clear technical terms what was vague in Goethe and too misleading in Steiner. Geothe’s language was too discrete, too “archetypal”. Steiner in his early work on epistemology gives a feeling of a more continuous plane of ideas, but Bergson and Deleuze are to make continuity an important part of their work and with Deleuze this plane of immanence/consistency becomes crucial to fixing this confused relativism driving the antagonisms plaguing philosophy after nominalism.
Let me share with you a long passage from Gangle’s book “Diagrammatic Immanence”which puts Spinoza, Peirce, and Deleuze all on a similar logical and diagrammatic footing. In this passage he is discussing and quoting Peirce on this question we are pondering considering thinking and things. I put the key phrase in bold text:[Few if any philosophers have more thoroughly rooted their thought in the rich soil of worldly experience than Peirce, giving due consideration to the real capacities of our surroundings to surprise and to instigate us to think. No one has done more to make room in the modern tradition of philosophy for vagueness, guesses, hunches and to show how essential such blurred structures and informal practices are to good scientific inquiry.
By giving name to the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’, Whitehead diagnosed one of the most profound, because most frequently overlooked, pitfalls of philosophy. Anachronistically, the prognosis for this disorder – which from an immanent standpoint amounts to an irrational fear of thinking as such – is to be found with Peirce and his unique conjunction of semiotics, metaphysics and pragmatic epistemology. Indeed, in a different text Peirce reflects on the Molièrean canard of the learned doctor who ascribes ‘dormitive virtue’ to opium, thereby ‘explaining’ why it produces the effects it does.
Yet rather than sharing Molière’s contempt for such empty and pretentious talk, Peirce finds in it – or rather in the tactic of explanation it illustrates – a kernel of insight worthy of serious philosophical consideration. Peirce writes:
“[E]verybody is supposed to know well enough that the transformation from a concrete predicate to an abstract noun in an oblique case, is a mere transformation of language that leaves the thought absolutely untouched. I knew this as well as everybody else until I had arrived at that point in my analysis of mathematics where I found that this despised juggle of abstraction is an essential part of almost every really helpful part of mathematics; and since then what I used to know so very clearly does not appear to be at all so.”
For Peirce, mathematics is involved in the study of any necessary consequential relations whatsoever, and the helpfulness of what he calls the ‘despised juggle of abstraction’ is thus applicable to a much more extensive range of phenomena than just numerical quantities or mathematics in the conventional sense. It is a component, rather, of all processes of reasoning, even the most ordinary. What matters here to Peirce is the power essential to mathematical thinking that turns relations and properties into things. This power, Peirce sees, is in fact at the root of all systematic questioning. In order to investigate the unknown and thereby to gain knowledge, it is necessary first to make a pair of presumptions: something must be presumed there to be known in the first place, and something must be presumed doable that will appropriately disclose it. If the former presumption fails, then inquiry will turn out empty. If the latter, then inquiry will be hopelessly blind. Simply to begin any process of inquiry, one must indicate at least in the projected mode of concrete possibility the invisible reason for the visible given, the potentially lawlike intelligibility of the as yet merely sensed or hoped for.
This ability to stipulate an index of the unknown (‘there must be something at work here’) stands at the very core of what it means to seek explanation and more broadly understanding. It involves a generic instance of what Peirce calls the act of ‘hypostatic abstraction’: ‘that process whereby we regard a thought as a thing’. The ‘unknown X’ is here not an explanatory answer but rather a diagrammatic condition for seeking such answers. In this regard, Peirce conceives a continuum relating the known and the unknown, as well as the sensible and the intelligible. Late in his life, Peirce chose Synechism as the most comprehensive name for his philosophical system because it connotes both continuity and relationality, his most fundamental concepts. More importantly, it suggests a general explanation of relations in terms of how they might be grounded in the structure of the continuum itself.
Hookway glosses: “When we reason about a continuum – about time or a continuous process – we use existential quantifiers to pick out parts of the continuum and we reason about the relational properties of the elements that we refer to. So to speak, we find a relational structure in the continuum and that provides a focus of our reasoning. However, no one relational structure captures the nature of the continuum, and we cannot quantify over all of the elements of the continuum. The relational structures we reason about are, in a sense, determined by the nature of the continuum we are reasoning about, but they do not exhaust its character.”
If the mathematics of category theory provides an infinite universe of structure and relation rich enough potentially to model the absolute infinity of the Spinozist Nature-God, with Peirce we begin to understand just how this structural universe might be put to philosophical work. The relevant conceptual framework for Peirce is that of an immanent nature composed of semiotic processes, and the ensuing investigative method is that of diagrammatic practice.]
Re. (Non) metaphor. I meant not just the names but more what Steiner says about thrones, archangels, elementals etc. I find what Seth/Roberts says about entities, oversouls, pyramid gestalts etc far more convincing.
I think Seth’s account is far more intuitive and contemporary. Steiner’s account is confined by a need to integrate traditional western cosmology not only with occult theosophy, but with scientific explanations of every subject and field of knowledge. It is consequently indeed quite baroque and off-putting at times, but I think he had different goals in mind than Seth, who didn’t have any desire to create a system, and could just focus on a good descriptions in simple terms. Steiner’s spirit felt the need to preserve Christianity, while I think Seth benefits greatly from speaking half a century later through an eccentric American individualist rather than through a Romantic era German. Basically, Seth had no need to preserve the past. Seth really shows what the “New Age” could be: not ignorant of tradition, nor “orgiastically” creating new spiritual systems, but taking advantage of the postmodern age’s openness to the new to paint a detailed but straightforward commonsense picture of the universe and its workings.