Saturday 27 October 2018

Scope and limitations of Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom

There is, perhaps, no more-important book that The Philosophy of Freedom (PoF) by Rudolf Steiner; yet it is, of course, limited in its scope - and potentially misleading.

Steiner himself apparently took several years to see its limitations (after-which he became a, very-unorthodox, Christian), and never properly acknowledged the fact that PoF was written from something like an anarchist/ Nietzschian/ anti-Chrstian stance. He pretended that the later Christian and spiritual metaphysics was latent in, and implied by, the PoF - which untruth makes the book extremely bizarre, and deeply puzzling to the spiritual-Christian reader...

It is possible to read PoF as a free-standing and self-justifying work; and indeed I think it likely that that is the best, perhaps the only, way to understand it. Contextualising the work can only come after it has been understood. So I would recommend accepting the book's implicit premises while reading it - until the overall thesis has been grasped. There is a useful website called The Philosophy of Freedom which does exactly this.

This way of reading PoF accepts Steiner's assertion that he has proved his thesis with 'evidence' (evidence from logic and introspection) - and it therefore accepts the book's self-designation as epistemology - and its function in terms of a libertarian-anarchist rationale for absolute individuality. 

But further reflection reveals that PoF is metaphysics, Not epistemology; it is asserting a thesis about the structure of reality, not merely about knowledge of reality. But only if PoF were true epistemology (and only if epistemology could deliver on its promise of assumption-free knowledge - which in fact it cannot ever do!) could PoF legitimately use evidence to prove its thesis - since if the thesis is true, it changes the nature of what-counts-as evidence. And this is to assume what is being proved - and so the argument undercuts its own legitimacy.

At the level of epistemology (as is usual/ universal with epistemology), PoF is therefore circular reasoning - and the reader can only choose either to enter the circle and believe its truth; or else reject it. And on what possible legitimate grounds (other than prior metaphysical assumptions) should he make such a decision?   

PoF leaves-open such questions as why reality really-is the way that it is described by PoF; and if it was - how could we ever know the fact?

Most importantly, the book simply asserts that freedom is the ultimate value - which many or most people would dispute. PoF asserts that a real morality must be independently arrived at and embraced wholly by the individual from his own resources - yet this is the opposite to traditional ideas; and there is no way (other than a kind of mockery) rationally to argue that the one morality is better than the other; except by asserting the (assumed, never proved) primacy of freedom, autonomy, agency...

Furthermore, in order to explain clearly; PoF presents a very simple model of how cognition is inserted into the world, which it splits between sensory phenomena and the concepts requires to make sense of them. This is very helpful, but must be transcended since, again, it is a circular model and gives no idea of how we could know its truth, or its limitations.

(Did Steiner personally observe his consciousness being instered into the world, and the effect it had? Does he personally know what life without/ before consciousness is like? Can he compare individual morality with universal morality to confirm that they are one? Clearly not - so where does this knowledge come-from?)

None of these limitations to PoF are a significant problem if we read it from the Christian metaphysical perspective that there is a loving creator God, we are his children; and creation was set-up and continues mainly to make possible the development of human consciousness towards a divine situation in which freedom/ autonomy/ agency are indeed prime goals.

From such a perspective PoF is revealed as being about both individual agency and the cohesion of reality; because they are the same. The true concepts by-which we understand the perceived world are the same as those of God's creation; and the truly-agent individual is able to participate in God's on-going creation - which is the purpose of the evolutionary-development of consciousness towards freedom and autonomy.  

But we need to bring this metaphysical perspective to our reading of PoF - it is not to be found within the work itself.

My advice is to do just this - and then to read it!


Chiu ChunLing said...

At a fundamental level, what counts as evidence must be assumed. But the practical insight is to realize that in actual fact everyone does make essentially similar assumptions about what counts as evidence, that reason as opposed to unreason consists exactly of accepting the same kinds of things as evidence and rejecting other things. "Legitimacy" of evidence is a matter of whether the type of evidence has been assumed by virtue of those reviewing it being reasonable, that is, not willfully abandoning what they have already assumed for the purposes of all other thought.

To say it "must" be assumed is misleading indeed if we pretend that we haven't already done so.

All reasoning is susceptible to the charge of being circular if we include the assumption that reason is valid as something to be proved through logical analysis rather than accepting that we have already assumed this as a function of even attempting to reason.

The same can be said of the value of freedom. In fact having any 'values' or morality at all assumes freedom, and the goodness of having it as well as the badness of losing it. Merely posing the question of what you should do, or what is preferable to you, is essentially meaningless unless you are free to choose what to do and have. Every preference that is not ultimately oriented to preserving and developing the freedom to voluntarily act on your preference is in practical effect a preference to not have the ability to have what one wants.

That's arrant nonsense on the face of it. Not that nobody really acts out such insanity (nearly everyone flirts with it when they're about two or so, not nearly everyone grows out of it), but it is clearly completely unreasonable.

Of particular importance is the mistaken notion that "subjective" means "not real". What it means to say that something is subjective is that it implicitly involves a relationship to a mind or person. All knowledge is subjective because, without a mind or person knowing it, it is as a matter of definition not knowledge. All evidence is likewise subjective, in that if there is no mind or person before whom the evidence is presented, it is not evidence. Science (knowledge obtained through consideration of evidence) is triply subjective by plain definition, it involves getting something subjective by performing a subjective action on a subjective object.

The attempt to neatly divide things into being either subjective or objectively real is disastrous for philosophy or even for common sense. It is an everyday practical problem to try and find out what someone is really thinking. This would be idiocy if we didn't assume that it is possible for some of their thoughts to have objectively different outcomes despite the thoughts themselves being entirely subjective. In fact, this gets back to the matter of freedom. If people are not free, then the subjective content of their thoughts doesn't matter, only the objective process and outcomes can be said to exist at all. This is what materialistic determinism has to assert as a matter of course. But "assert" is another concept that is subjective and free (along with the concept of "concept", of course).

I think that Steiner is not exactly wrong to say that Christianity is implicit in defending the primacy of freedom and reason. It would be more precise to say that anti-Christianity is the only reason anyone would seriously attack the value of freedom and legitimacy of reason.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - "I think that Steiner is not exactly wrong to say that Christianity is implicit in defending the primacy of freedom and reason. "

I don't think Steiner actually says that - it's really my interpretation of what he did.

"It would be more precise to say that anti-Christianity is the only reason anyone would seriously attack the value of freedom and legitimacy of reason."

Surely there are well over a billion monotheists who would disagree with you? And, much more than another billion polytheists?

I would say that 'freedom' is indeed the ultimate goal, but only at the last stage of the development of consciousness (leading to divine consciousness) when God wants us to become like he is; a friend rather than a child or servant (also, much as Jesus said to the disciples in the 'last supper' episode of the Fourth Gospel) - up to that evolutionary point, there are different priorities than freedom.

The problem for historical Christianity was to become so fixated upon the other, earlier, expedient priorities (treating the laity as children, or servants) that they denied (and still deny) the ultimate goal of creation - which is why mainstream church Christianity strikes the modern mind as childish and servile - It Is!

Chiu ChunLing said...

People who are against Christ often claim that they aren't.

That doesn't mean they're being strictly honest.

And that includes many who have claimed to be speaking by the authority of Christ.

"Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

"And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity."

The great problem with "expedience" is that it usually turns out to have been a lie.