Thursday 9 June 2016

My understanding of Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom

What is the relation between total reality and the ideas of the human mind? Steiner asserts (and I think proves, given his assumptions) that the ideas of the human mind are the same thing as total reality (albeit a tiny and biased sample from that total reality).

By 'same thing' - he means identical with.

The modern positivist/ relativist skeptic asks why (on earth!) this should be?

Steiner's answer is that the creator deity made things so.

(This I infer based on assumptions that are not given clearly and explicitly in PoF - and this makes it harder to understand this book, and Steiner's whole system, than it was 100 plus years ago).


Total relativity is sampled by thoughts as they occur in the process of thinking. This reality is generated, as it were, automatically: it is what thinking does.

Steiner regards thinking as not just automatic but necessarily valid. This arises from the fact that the units of 'thoughts' are identical with the units of total reality (insofar as any 'unit' detached from an inter-related-whole, can be valid).

More specifically, reality comes to us cloven in twain - split between percepts (coming through the senses - external and internal) and concepts which we derive from the totality of reality.

Thinking matches the percept to its complementary concept - that is what thinking does - and then weaves these thoughts into understanding.

And this understanding is a microcosm of total reality.

(All this is given us - by the basic set-up of creation.)  


But Men are variably conscious of this thinking - because consciousness has different strength and different focus.

Hunter-gatherers and youngish children unconsciously accept the validity of thinking.

Modern Man (older children and adolescents) became aware of the separate (and radically incomplete) realities of percepts and concepts; and becomes aware of the metaphysical assumptions of deity, creation, Man's make-up and thus doubts the validity of thought - notices that these assumptions are not compelled (and therefore denies them).

Future Man (mature adults, of whom there are apparently very few) will become conscious of thinking as valid - as reality itself.


So thinking actually is in itself a microcosm of reality. But what of the incompleteness and bias of thinking? How can each person discover these inaccuracies, and correct and improve their thinking - to make a more complete and representative sample of reality? And why should Man do this?

Further assumptions - that Man is made by God to-do-this, because Man's destiny is to become more divine. God has knowledge of the totality of reality: Man's destiny is to approach ever closer to this condition.

So Man is set-up with innate and spontaneous impulses to seek knowledge; to correct, make more consistent and complete knowledge. Furthermore, deity purposively assists this process, by many and various means.


The message of Philosophy of Freedom is therefore to restore confidence in the truth of thinking. Thoughts are real and true, they are indeed identical with ultimate reality. We should not waste time on doubting thoughts and thinking - but we should strive to be aware of them.

We should instead consciously seek to increase experience by exposure to the most helpful percepts. Don't waste time on doubting deity - accept that you dwell in a created universe, you were put into that creation and the whole fits together - communicated directly and reliably. Work towards the fullness of knowledge and increase of deity.

(If a Man was - after vast aeons of experience perhaps - to attain total knowledge: what then? Would he merge with deity? If so, then what would be the point of the whole protracted exercise? The answer is that Man would become a different deity - different on the basis of having a unique set-up, and different in the linearity of experience.)

The common distinctions between subjective and objective, spiritual and material, imagination and common sense are collapsed - all these are obliterated in thinking: if some-thing can be thought (really thought) then it is real and true.


But consciousness is what enables us to be aware of thinking, and consciousness may abstract from thinking, may create abstractions from thoughts, may create models from these abstractions.

Modern consciousness has fallen into many bad habits of abstraction; bad habits of abstracting artificial concepts from thoughts, and manufacturing abstract model systems from these abstractions.

These are not real - most of what is in modern consciousness is not real. Our automatic, unthinking consciousness, automatically misreads thinking.

To repeat: Modern Man automatically and habitually fails to observe thinking and instead focuses on abstracted, detached, modelled (hence unreal) phenomena. What consciousness is telling us are our thoughts and thinking, are not our thoughts and thinking but instead abstractions and models.


The test of un-reality is that we cannot think it!

Contrariwise - anything and everything we can and do think is real - including anything we can imagine and think.

So - The problem for modern Man is not Thinking but Consciousness.

What Modern Man needs to do (must do, if he is to fulfil his destiny) is to redirect consciousness away from percepts and concepts and onto thinking. To do this we need to be aware of what we are doing wrong with consciousness.

We think in truths: our task is to stop ignoring the fact. 

In 1894 Rudolf Steiner published a book Die Philosophie der Freiheit variously Englished as The Philosophy of Freedom (PoP), The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity and Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path.
The book can be read online at:
Or listened to at:


Sean Cory said...

This is very deep stuff and it will take me some time to form an understanding. Thank you.

Is yoga as described by Patanjali and others a system for thinking about thought and the origins of thought? These sages all agree that the yogas all converge as one approaches liberation. The convergence is apparently on the ultimate source of all. And I see variations on these in other religions. We are told to study and ponder, pray and give devotion, serve others in selflessness and contemplate the reality of God. It seems to me that doing all these would lead to what you describe.

Nathaniel said...

I am having trouble following even your simplification. It sounds like you are saying our thinking actively participates in the creation of reality, but it also sounds like you are saying we are also, by thinking, expanding our knowledge of all reality (and this is preventing the prior from just being nonsense and relativism?)

Bruce Charlton said...

@SC - I don't think it is likely to be the same as yoga - I don't know enough about yoga to say that, but from Owen Barfiled's essays in Romanticism Comes of Age it seems that the kind of next-step envisaged by Steiner would have to come from the West, and probably from the most long-developed parts (Western Europe and specifcially the Anglosphere) which has gone furthest into the alienation stage.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathaniel - If you are intrigued you may need to 'read the whole thing' because I am only presenting the conclusions (as I understand them) and making clearer some of the unstated assumptions (which, I think, would have helped me understand the book more rapidly).

Thinking itself doesn't expand knowledge - it is experience which does this. Thinking doesn't so much participate in the creation of reality - it IS reality, literally.

That is, our thoughts are bits of ultimate reality, our thinking a micocosm of ultimate reality.

ted said...

What Modern Man needs to do (must do, if he is to fulfil his destiny) is to redirect consciousness away from percepts and concepts and onto thinking. To do this we need to be aware of what we are doing wrong with consciousness.

This is quite profound Bruce. But if we were to be more practical in manifesting this growth in man, what would be the practices that could cultivate such thinking? It seems it would take many that cohere around a common faith, since each on their own would be ineffective.

Clear Waters said...

The most interesting element of Steiner for me was his ordering the schemata as follows

The Washing of the Feet. (Goodness?)
The Scourging. (Knowledge?)
The Crowning with Thorns. (Self-Control?)
The Bearing of the Cross. (Perseverance?)
The Mystic Death. (Godliness?)
The Entombment. (Brotherly Affection?)
The Resurrection. (Love?)

Gornahoor gave really good detail about it:

Bruce Charlton said...

@ted - That is what Anthroposophy/ Spiritual Science is supposed to do. Steiner taught exercise for this purpose, esepcially in Knowledge of the Higher World - - But I am critical of this method if you see the first two of these:

My current understanding is that each person will usually need to work on this for himself - once he has understood what he is aiming at. Obviously, if he can find one or more other persons to share his experiences with - that would be great. But it is easier said than done.

Abraham said...

"Modern Man automatically and habitually fails to observe thinking and instead focuses on abstracted, detached, modelled (hence unreal) phenomena. What consciousness is telling us are our thoughts and thinking, are not our thoughts and thinking but instead abstractions and models."

So are abstractions/models not a form of thought/thinking? In which case, how should one go about differentiating between habitual abstractions, which our consciousness perceives as thinking and therefore 'real' according to this, and actual thought which is real?

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - No, abstractions and models may be derived from thinking - but nowadays they are perhaps usually not derived from thought but instead from unintegrated percepts or concepts.

For example, most of my theoretical science was explicitly done as modelling - in which several abstract phenomena were combined in a simplified causal model - ignoring the matter of human thinking - asif everything happened in an abstract realms autonomous from any mind.

This kind of reasoning was not thinking in the sense that Steiner means. The ingredients were not thoughts.

How to go about differentiating? Well, that is the big question. Clearly it isn't easy or straightforward and probably takes time and effort - in a sense our education and culture are against us, and there is a lot of unlearning to do.

One way to understand it may be that we need to think 'like a child' (to recover that mode of thought) - but *consciously* so.