Saturday 4 February 2023

How to refute and filter-out the "outlandish and bizarre" content from Rudolf Steiner - using a method that Steiner himself fundamentally-approved and recommended

Of all the important thinkers of the twentieth century, Rudolf Steiner is perhaps the most difficult to come to grips with. For the unprepared reader, his work presents a series of daunting obstacles. 

To begin with, there is the style, which is formidably abstract, and as unappetizing as dry toast. But a determined reader could learn to put up with that.

The real problem lies with the content, which is often so outlandish and bizarre that the reader suspects either a hoax or a confidence trick. 

Books like Cosmic Memory, with its account of Atlantis and Lemuria, seem to belong on the same shelf as titles like Our Hollow Earth, or My trip to Venus in a Flying Saucer

The resulting sense of frustration is likely to cause even the most open-minded reader to give up in disgust.

The first paragraph of Rudolf Steiner, by Colin Wilson, 1985.


The Big Problem with Rudolf Steiner (as I have said many times) is that most of what he said and wrote was wrong; but some of what he wrote is sufficient to establish him as one of a handful of the most vital thinkers of the past couple of centuries. 

But because most of Steiner (a very high percentage!) is wrong; on the one hand, most people reject his work outright; while on the other hand, Steiner's disciples and followers (mostly in the Anthroposophical Society, which he founded) are mostly wrong in what they believe - to the point that they miss the significance and importance of what he was right about.  

What Steiner needs, therefore, is scholars who will take was is good and leave aside what is not; and the closest we have to this is Owen Barfield who, in addition, added much of value to what he took from Steiner. 

But even Barfield seems to have been unable to be clear about the nature of Steiner's work, and respected him to the point that he never (that I have seen) denied anything that Steiner ever said. What Barfield instead did was - in his writings - focus on the aspects of Steiner about which he was most sure; and said little or nothing about the colossal number of claims that Steiner made about... everything under the sun, and indeed from many ages before the sun. 

Barfield always recommended Steiner's earliest philosophical books; but did not make clear to the putative reader that most of Steiner's later books will strike most people as simply absurd, and obviously false. 

My understanding is that the major problem for those who regard Steiner as important, and who accept his core analysis and teachings; cannot find grounds from within this teachings for rejecting anything that Steiner ever said or wrote. 

Steiner purports do be doing a spiritual science; and repeatedly emphasizes that anyone can test his claims for themselves by spiritual investigation - yet, in practice, it seems that nobody ever feels able to do this, and must therefore treat all of Steiner's claims as if they constituted inerrant scripture.  

This seems to be because Steiner was able (at will) to produce in himself - while awake and alert and with full reasoning and memory capacities - a kind of consciousness that perceived the occult world - from which he reported back his observations and interpretations; and nobody else has since been able to do this. Certainly not in the vast volume that Steiner did in his lectures after about 1897, and accelerating until near his death in 1925. 

Because Steiner's followers cannot do what Steiner did to generate his claims, they feel unable to check his claims; and therefore simply take them on trust - regarding them as true because Steiner said them. Steiner discourse is therefore closely analogous to 'fundamentalist' Protestants in terms of Anthroposophists citing their scripture, and argument proceeds by proof-texting - by trading quotes and citations. 

For reasons that I set out in the post earlier today; I believe there is another and practical way of checking Steiner's claims; which can be done by anyone serious about understanding what is valid in Steiner, and using methods that Steiner recommended as the best and himself practiced

And that 'method' is simply by reading Steiner in the spirit of direct-knowing, of heart-thinking

Instead of trying to replicate Steiner's method of observing the hidden spirit world by inner perception; the reader tests Steiner's claims by intuitive means. 

Whenever a claim of Steiner's fails to be sustained by heart-thinking, whenever his premises or a line of argument is unsupported by the direct-knowing of our deepest thinking - then it is rejected as untrue. 

In other words; we accept from Steiner only that which is specifically sustained and confirmed by our own deepest-possible intuitive responses. 

This, I repeat, is exactly what Steiner recommended in those works of his that he regarded as his most important (specifically The Philosophy of Freedom, which he repeated many times was his fundamental publication). 

Therefore, we can - and in a viable and valid fashion - refute the mass of Steiner, and filter-out from the nonsense that which we most need and could benefit from. 


William Wildblood said...

What you say about Steiner is also true about the Theosophy he came out of, at least it is for me. Most of that is wrong but some is very valuable and, as you say, the way to assess it is though one's own intuition. Then you can take what serves you and discard the rest. It's a shame because it would be nice to have something that was wholly reliable but maybe that would just mean our own intuition would never develop properly. This way we can be be stimulated but not have our own spiritual capabilities replaced by something external. Could this even be true about Christianity, at least about how Christianity is in modern times? I think so.

Epimetheus said...

Perhaps someone should simply curate a book or website of worthwhile quotes from Steiner.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I have never grappled with any of the primary texts of Theosophy, although I have read several sympathetic accounts of it, and heard some lectures. It has never appealed to my interests.

@Epi - One problem is that it seems very difficult to 'get' Steiner from quote-length pieces; at least I have never managed to get anywhere with them.

One exception is an excellent little book called 'Rudolf Steiner on his book The Philosophy of Freedom', edited by Otto Palmer.

Steiner's Autobiography (of his early life), up to about 40, is also a good way in; as long as the reader is aware that it isn't a factual account of his *real* life - it is his life as looked back on from its end; weaving together into a single progressive and somewhat self-aggrandizing) arc, many things that were actually trial and error, false starts, immaturity, and mistakes - at the time they happened.