Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Why should understanding begin with thinking? (Rudolf Steiner)

In the third chapter of his Philosophy of Freedom, Steiner argues his core point that thinking ought to be the basis of understanding the world.

To read this chapter slowly and carefully, understanding at each step, may provide a breakthrough for some people.


I believe I have given sufficient reasons for making thinking the starting point for my study of the world. When Archimedes had discovered the lever, he thought he could lift the whole cosmos from its hinges, if only he could find a point of support for his instrument. He needed something that was supported by itself and by nothing else. 

In thinking we have a principle which subsists through itself. Let us try, therefore, to understand the world starting from this basis. We can grasp thinking by means of itself; the question is, whether we can also grasp anything else through it.

I have so far spoken of thinking without taking account of its vehicle, human consciousness. Most present-day philosophers would object that before there can be thinking, there must be consciousness. Hence we ought to start, not from thinking, but from consciousness. There is no thinking, they say, without consciousness... 

To this I must reply that in order to clear up the relation between thinking and consciousness, I must think about it. Hence I presuppose thinking. 

Nevertheless one could still argue that although, when the philosopher tries to understand consciousness he makes use of thinking and to that extent presupposes it, yet in the ordinary course of life thinking does arise within consciousness, and therefore presupposes consciousness...

Now if this answer were given to the world creator when he was about to create thinking, it would doubtless be to the point. Naturally it is not possible to create thinking before consciousness. The philosopher, however, is not concerned with creating the world but with understanding it. 

Accordingly the philosopher (who is not the creator) has to seek the starting point, not for the creation of the world, but for the understanding of it. 

It seems to me very strange that the philosopher should be reproached for troubling himself first and foremost about the correctness of his principles instead of turning straight to the objects which he seeks to understand! The world creator had above all to know how to find a vehicle for thinking, but the philosopher has to seek a secure foundation for his attempts to understand what already exists. 

How, then, does it help us to start with consciousness and subject it to the scrutiny of thinking, if we do not first know whether thinking is in fact able to give us insight into things at all?

We must first consider thinking quite impartially, without reference to a thinking subject or a thought object. For both subject and object are concepts formed by thinking. 

There is no denying that before anything else can be understood, thinking must be understood. Whoever denies this fails to realize that man is not the first link in the chain of creation but the last. Hence, in order to explain the world by means of concepts, we cannot start from the elements of existence which came first in time, but we must begin with that element which is given to us as the nearest and most intimate. 

We cannot at one bound transport ourselves back to the beginning of the world in order to begin our studies from there, but we must start from the present moment, and then see whether we can ascend from the later to the earlier... 

Only if the philosopher recognizes that which is last in time as his first point of attack, can he reach his goal. This last thing at which world evolution has arrived is, in fact, thinking.


There are people who say it is impossible to ascertain with certainty whether our thinking is right or wrong, and thus our starting point is in any case a doubtful one. 

It would be just as sensible to doubt whether a tree is in itself right or wrong! Thinking is a fact, and it is meaningless to speak of the truth or falsity of a fact. 

I can, at most, be in doubt as to whether thinking is correctly applied, just as I can doubt whether a certain tree supplies wood adapted to the making of this or that useful object. I can understand anyone doubting whether, by means of thinking, we can gain knowledge of the world; but it is incomprehensible to me how anyone can doubt the rightness of thinking in-itself.

To show how far the application of thinking to the world is right or wrong, is precisely the task of this book.

Edited from Chapter 3 of The Philosophy of Freedom, by Rudolf Steiner (1896) translated by Michael Wilson.

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