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The Philosophy Of Freedom


"The purpose of The Philosophy Of Freedom is to lay the foundations of ethical individualism and of a social and political life." Rudolf Steiner

Ethical individualism is a humanist world-view that recognizes that the most cherished human dignity is to live according to one's own freely chosen values.

New Translation Project

I'm revising the Hoernle translation of The Philosophy Of Freedom to make it more readable, 11th-12th grade level, and will be regularly posting the new revisions on the front page. You are welcome to post your suggestions on improving the readability in the comment box below the new chapter translations. Chapter links are below. Links to existing translations are here for reference.

The new translation will be available free online and published at cost as a group project.

The Theory of Freedom





1995 Intuitive Thinking As A Spiritual Path translated by Michael Lipson
Number of Words: 00 
Reading Grade Level: 00 (Grade --)

2016 The Philosophy Of Freedom edited by Tom Last (see below)
Number of Words: 00
Reading Grade Level: 00  (Grade --)


What does it mean to think?
3.0 Reflective Thought
3.1 Observation Of Thought
3.2 Establish Concepts Related To Observation
3.3 Thinking Contemplation Of Object
3.4 Thinking Contemplation Of Thought
3.5 Know Content Of Concept
3.6 Pure Thinking Guided By Content Of Thought
3.7 I Originate My Content Of Thought
3.8 Remain Within Realm Of Thought
3.9 Create Before Knowing
3.10 Self-Supporting Thought
3.11 Impartial Consideration Of Thinking
3.12 Application Of Thought

3.0 Reflective Thinking
[1] WHEN I observe how a billiard ball, when struck, transfers its motion to another ball, I remain completely without influence over the course of this observed event. The direction and velocity of the second ball is determined by the direction and velocity of the first. As long as I remain a mere spectator, I can say nothing about the motion of the second ball until after it has happened. The situation is different when I begin to reflect on the content of my observation. The purpose of my reflection is to establish the concepts of the event. I connect the concept of an elastic ball with other concepts of mechanics, and take into account the special circumstances of this event. I try, in other words, to add to the process that takes place without my participation, a second process that takes place in the conceptual sphere. The conceptual process depends on me. This is shown by the fact that I can remain content with the observation, and not make the effort to search for concepts if I have no need of them. But if the need is present, then I am not content until I have brought the concepts ball, elasticity, motion, impact, velocity, etc., into a certain connection with each other so that they apply to the observed event. As certain as it is that the observed event takes place independently of me, it is just as certain that the conceptual process is dependent on on my effort for it to take place.

[2] We will discuss later whether this thinking activity of mine really expresses my own independent being, or whether physiologists are right in saying I cannot think as I wish, but must think in the way determined by the thoughts and thought-connections that happen to be present in my mind at any given moment. (Theodor Ziehen, Principles of Physiological Psychology). At this point we only wish to establish the fact that we constantly feel obliged to seek for concepts and connections of concepts that relate in a specific way to the objects and events given independently of us. Whether this thinking activity is really ours, or whether we carry it out according to an unalterable necessity, is a question we will leave aside for now. That it appears, at first sight, to be our activity is undeniable. We know for certain that the corresponding concepts are not given at the same time and together with the objects. That I am myself the active one in the conceptual process may an illusion, but to immediate observation it appears so. The question now is this: What do we gain by finding a conceptual counterpart to an event?

[3] There is a far reaching difference in the way the details of an event are related to one another before, and after, the discovery of the corresponding concepts. Mere observation can follow the parts of a given event as they occur, but their connection remains obscure without the help of concepts. I observe the first billiard ball move toward the second in a certain direction and with a certain velocity. What will happen after the impact I cannot tell in advance. I must wait to see what will happen, and can still now only follow it with my eyes. Suppose someone, at the moment of impact, obstructs my view of the field where the event is taking place. As a mere spectator, I will know nothing of what happens next. The situation is very different if, before my view is obstructed, I have already discovered the concepts corresponding to the details of the event. In that case I can predict what will happen, even when I am no longer able to observe. There is nothing in a merely observed object or event that reveals anything about its connection to other objects and events. This connection only becomes evident when observation is combined with thought.

[4] Observation and thought are the two points of departure for all human spiritual striving, to the extent that he is consciously striving. Everyday common sense as well as the most complicated scientific research, rest on these two fundamental pillars of our mind. Philosophers have proceeded from various basic starting-points, such as the contrast between Idea and Reality, Subject and Object, Appearance and Thing-in-itself, Ego and Non-Ego, Idea and Will, Concept and Matter, Force and Substance, the Conscious and the Unconscious. However, it is easy to show that the contrast between observation and thought must precede all others, as the most important antithesis for the human being.

[5] Whatever principle we wish to establish, we must either prove we have observed it somewhere, or we must express it in the form of clear thought any other person can rethink. Every philosopher setting out to explain his fundamental principles must express them in conceptual form, and so use thinking. By doing so he indirectly admits his philosophical activity already presumes thinking, which is taken for granted. Nothing is being said yet about whether thinking or something else is the main factor in the development of the world. But it is clear from the start that, without thinking, philosophers can gain no knowledge of world development. Thinking may only play a supporting role in the occurrence of world events, but it certainly plays a leading role in forming a view of these events.

[6] As for observation, we need it because of the nature of our organization. Our thought about a horse and the object “horse” are two things that appear to us separate from each another. The object is accessible to us only through observation. As little as we can formulate a concept of a horse by merely staring at it, just as little can we magically conjure up the object horse by merely thinking of it.

3.1 Observation Of Thought
[7] In sequence of time, observation actually comes before thought. For even thought must first be observed before we can gain knowledge of it. It was essentially a description of an observation when, at the beginning of this chapter, we showed how thought is kindled by an objective process (billiard event) and goes beyond what is given, transcending the event. It is through observation that we first become aware of whatever enters the circle of our experience. The content of our sensations, perceptions, opinions, our feelings, acts of will, dreams and imaginations, memory images, concepts and ideas, illusions and hallucinations, are all given to us through observation.

[8] However, as an object of observation thought differs essentially from all other things. The observation of a table or a tree occurs as soon as these objects appear on the horizon of my experience. Yet I do not, at the same time, observe my thought about these things. I observe the table and I carry on a process of thought about the table, but I do not at the same moment observe this thought-process.

If I want to observe the table while at the same time observe my thoughts about it, I have to remain in a place outside any activity of my own. While the observation of things and events, and thinking about them, is the everyday state that occupies my ordinary life, the observation of the thoughts themselves require entering an exceptional state. It is important to understand the exceptional state, because we are going to compare thought, as an object of observation, to all other observed things.

When observing our thought-process, we must be sure to apply the same method we use to study any other object in the world. But in the normal course of our study of other things, we do not usually apply this method to examine our thought as well.

3.2 Establish Concepts Related To Observation
[9] Someone might object that what I have observed here about thinking is equally true of feeling and all other spiritual activities. For example, a feeling of pleasure is also kindled by the object and it is this object I observe, not the feeling of pleasure.

This objection does not hold, because a concept built up by thought is related to what is observed in a completely different way than a pleasure is. I am definitely aware that a concept of a thing is established by my own activity, while pleasure just happens to me. Pleasure is aroused by an object in the same way as a change is caused in an object by a stone falling on it. To observation, a pleasure is given, in exactly the same way as the event that causes it. It is not the same with concepts. I can ask why an event arouses a feeling of pleasure in me. But I certainly cannot ask why an event calls up a certain set of concepts in me. The question would simply make no sense.

When I am reflecting about an event, I am not concerned with how it affects me. I learn nothing about myself by knowing the concepts that correspond to the observed change in a pane of glass caused by a stone thrown against it. But I definitely learn something about my personality when I know the feeling that an event arouses in me. If I say of an observed object, “This is a rose,” I say nothing about myself. But if I say of the rose, “It gives me a feeling of pleasure,” I characterize not only the rose, but also myself in my relationship to the rose.

3.3 Thinking Contemplation Of Object
[10] There can be no question, then, that thought and feeling are not on the same level when compared as objects of observation. The same could easily be shown for all other activities of the human mind. Unlike thought, they belong in the same category as other observed objects and events. It is part of the unique nature of thought that it is an activity directed solely on the observed object, and not on the thinking personality. This is evident even in the way we express our thoughts about an object, in contrast to the way we express our feelings or acts of will. When I see an object and recognize it as a table, I do not normally say, “I am thinking of a table”, but rather, “This is a table.” Yet I could certainly say “I am pleased with the table.” In the first case I am not interested in expressing my relationship with the table, but in the second case it is just this relationship that I am drawing attention to. In saying, “I am thinking of a table,” I have already entered into the exceptional state described above, where something that is always present in our mental activity is observed, although normally it is not noticed.

[11] The unique nature of thought is that the thinker forgets thinking while applying it. What occupies the attention is not thinking, but rather the object to which the thought is being applied.

[12] The first thing we observe about thought is that it is the unobserved element in our normal mental life.

[13] The reason why we do not notice the thinking that goes on in our everyday mental life is none other than this: thinking is our own activity. What I do not originate appears as something ‘objectively there’ in my field of observation. I see myself before something that is not of my doing. It confronts me. I must accept it before I begin my thinking-process. While I am reflecting on the object, I am absorbed in it, my attention is focused on it. To focus the attention on the object is, in fact, to contemplate it by thought. This is thinking contemplation. My attention is not directed toward my activity, but rather toward the object of this activity. In other words, while I am thinking I do not see the thinking I am producing. I only see the object I am thinking about, which I did not produce. 

3.4 Thinking Contemplation Of Thought
[14] I am also in exactly the same position when I enter the exceptional state and reflect on my own thinking. I can never observe my present thought. Only afterward can the past experience of my thought-process be made into the object of fresh thoughts. If I want to observe my present thought, I would have to split myself into two persons: one to think, and the other to observe this thinking. This I cannot do. I can only accomplish it in two separate acts. The thought being observed is never the one currently being produced. For this purpose it makes no difference whether I observe my own earlier thoughts, or follow the thought-process of another person or, as in the above example of the motion of billiard balls, set up an imaginary thought-process.

[15] There are two things that do not go together: productive activity and confronting this activity in contemplation. It is not possible to contemplate and create at the same time. This is recognized even in the First Book of Moses. In the first six days God is represented as creating the world, and only after the world is there is any contemplation of it possible: "And God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good." The same applies to our thinking. It must first be there before we can observe it.

3.5 Know Content Of Concept
[16] The reason why it is impossible to observe the thought-process while it is presently taking place, is the same reason that makes it possible for us to know it more directly, and more intimately than any other process in the world. It is just because we produce the thought-process through our own creative activity, that we know the characteristic features of its course, and the details of how the process has taken place. What can be discovered only indirectly in all other fields of observation,— the factually corresponding context and the connection between the single objects—in the case of thought is known to us in an absolutely direct way.

Without going beyond the observed phenomena, I do not know why thunder follows lightning. But I know immediately, from the content of the two concepts, why my thought connects the concept of thunder with the concept of lightning. The point being made here does not depend on whether I have the correct concepts of lightning and thunder. The connection between those concepts that I do have is clear to me, and is so through the concepts themselves.

3.6 Pure Thinking Guided By Content Of Thought
[17] This transparent clarity of the thought-process is completely independent of our knowledge of the physiological basis of thought. I am speaking here of thought when we make our own mental activity the object of observation. For this purpose I am not concerned with how one physical process in my brain causes or influences another while I carry on a line of thought. What I observe in studying a thought-process is not what process in my brain connects the concept lightning with the concept thunder, but my reason for bringing these two concepts into a certain relationship. Introspection shows that in linking thought with thought I am guided by the content of my thoughts. I am not guided by physical processes in the brain. In a less materialistic age this remark would of course be entirely unnecessary. But today—when there are people who believe that once we know what matter is, we will know how matter thinks—it is necessary to point out that we can discuss thought without entering the field of brain physiology.

Many people find it difficult to grasp the concept of pure thinking. Anyone who counters the idea of thinking I have developed here with the assertion of Cabanis' that "the brain secretes thoughts as the liver does gall or the salivary ducts saliva . . .", simply does not know what I am talking about. Such a person is trying to find thought in the brain by the ordinary method of observation, in the same way we approach other objects in the world. But, as I have shown, thought cannot be found in this way because it eludes normal observation.

Whoever is unable to enter the exceptional state I have described cannot transcend Materialism and become conscious of what in all other mental activity remains unconscious. If someone lacks the willingness to view thought from this position, then one can no more discuss thought with him than one can discuss color with someone born blind. But he should certainly not imagine that we consider physiological processes as identical with thinking. Materialism fails to explain thought because it simply does not see it.

3.7 I Originate My Content Of Thought
[18] For everyone who has the ability to observe thought—and with the willingness, every normal person has this ability—this observation is the most important he can make. For he himself is the originator of what he is observing. He is not facing something that is, at first, unfamiliar to him. He faces his own activity. He knows how it comes about. He clearly sees into its conditions and relationships. He gains a secure point of reference from which he can seek, with a reasonable hope of success, the explanation for all other world phenomena.

--more of the new translation added each day--

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How Readable is The Philosophy Of Freedom?

I have seen the need for a more "readable" edition of the Philosophy Of Freedom. Readability has to do with removing waste words that can be eliminated without losing the meaning of the sentence. It means not overusing adverbs, using less difficult words, and shortening sentences. My first attempt at a better translation was to write more clearly in order to make the long sentences make sense. Then I discovered some tools that grade your writinging readability  and found that my new edition was not any more "readable" than the existing translations. It was a waste of time if that is the case.

All of the English translations, and probably the native German, are written for those who have the reading and comprehension skills of someone with 2 years of college, according to the online analysis tools. This is not OK if your objective is to make the Philosophy Of Freedom available to a wider readership.

I experimented and rewrote a paragraph readable at the high school grad level. Now this is what is needed. There is nothing inherent about The Philosophy Of Freedom that requires it be written at a level that you need to have completed 2 years of college to read it. This has only to do with the writer. Steiner's audience included accomplished German philosophers. Today's audience is the general public. Now the average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level, yet The Philosophy Of Freedom is only available at the 14th grade level. Could this be a big part of the reason nobody reads it?

The readability level of the writing example above rates at the high school graduate level but would be at the 8th or 9th grade level with a simpler vocabulary. But the more difficult words are needed as they point to concepts of knowledge. The reader can focus on these and use a dictionary and the internet when outside help is needed. 

I used the readability tools to compare my recent editing (which I thought was more readable) with the popular Lipson and Wilson translations. All 3 of them require the reading ability of someone who has completed 2 years of college. Below is a more readable translation edited for the high school graduate. It uses 25% less words by removing waste words and has shorter sentences. Anything more difficult than this just won't work.

Today/2016 The Philosophy Of Freedom edited by Tom Last
Number of Words: 154 25% less words
Reading Grade Level: 11.83 (Complete high school)

"Is a human being free to act and think, or compelled by the unyielding necessity of natural law? Few questions have been the focus of so much ingenuity. The idea of freedom has many enthusiastic supporters and stubborn opponents. Moral zealots accuse anyone of stupidity who denies so obvious a fact as freedom. Scientific thinkers oppose them. They say its just ignorance for anyone to believe the universality of natural law suspends itself in the field of human action and thought. The same thing is as often called humanity's most precious possession as its worst illusion. Endless distinctions are used to explain how freedom is consistent with the laws working in nature. Man, after all, is a part of nature. No less effort has gone into explaining how this delusion could arise. The importance of the question of freedom for life, religion, conduct, and science is felt by anyone with any depth of character."

Earlier in May/2016 The Philosophy Of Freedom edited by Tom Last
Number of Words: 187
Reading Grade Level: 14.30 (Complete 2 years of college)

"Is the human being free in action and thought, or compelled by the unyielding necessity of natural law? Few questions have expended so much ingenuity. The idea of freedom has found enthusiastic supporters and stubborn opponents in large numbers. There are people who, in their moral zeal, declare it to be sheer stupidity to deny so obvious a fact as freedom. Standing against them are others who say it is naively unscientific for anyone to believe that the universality of natural law is suspended in the field of human action and thought. One and the same thing is as often proclaimed to be humanity's most precious possession as it is declared to be our worst illusion. Endless distinctions have been used to explain how human freedom can be compatible with Determinism; that is, a freedom consistent with the laws working in nature, of which man is, after all, a part. No less effort has gone into explaining how this delusion has come about. The importance of the question of freedom for life, religion, conduct and science can be felt by anyone whose character is not totally lacking in depth."

1995 Intuitive Thinking As A Spiritual Path translated by Michael Lipson
Number of Words: 192
Reading Grade Level: 14.16 (Complete 2 years of college)

"Is a human being spiritually free, or subject to the iron necessity of purely natural law? Few questions have excited so much ingenuity. The idea of the freedom of human will has found both sanguine supporters and stiffnecked opponents in plenty. There are those who, in their moral zeal, cast aspersions on the intellect of anyone who can deny so obvious a fact as freedom. They are opposed by others who see the acme of unscientific thinking in the belief that the lawfulness of nature fails to apply to the area of human action and thinking. One and the same thing is explained equally often as the most precious possession of humankind and as its worst illusion. Infinite subtlety has been expended to explain how human freedom is consistent with the workings of nature of which, after all, human beings are also a part. No less effort has gone into the attempt from the other side to explain how such a delusion could ever have arisen. All but the most superficial thinkers feel that we have to do here with one of the most important questions of life, religion, conduct, and science."

1964 The Philosophy Of Freedom translated by Michael Wilson
Number of Words: 212
Reading Grade Level: 14.33 (Complete 2 years of college)

"Is man in his thinking and acting a spiritually free being, or is he compelled by the iron necessity of purely natural law? There are few questions upon which so much sagacity has been brought to bear. The idea of the freedom of the human will has found enthusiastic supporters and stubborn opponents in plenty. There are those who, in their moral fervor, label anyone a man of limited intelligence who can deny so patent a fact as freedom. Opposed to them are others who regard it as the acme of unscientific thinking for anyone to believe that the uniformity of natural law is broken in the sphere of human action and thinking. One and the same thing is thus proclaimed, now as the most precious possession of humanity, now as its most fatal illusion. Infinite subtlety has been employed to explain how human freedom can be consistent with the laws working in nature, of which man, after all, is a part. No less is the trouble to which others have gone to explain how such a delusion as this could have arisen. That we are dealing here with one of the most important questions for life, religion, conduct, science, must be felt by anyone who includes any degree of thoroughness at all in his make-up."

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Is the exceptional state similar to witness observing?

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  • Question: When Steiner in Chapter 3 talks about the exceptional point of view, is he referring to the witness observer from spiritual traditions? Just a thought I had while reading. -JS

    From the internet, after I wade through all the spiritual gibberish of energies, beyond mind, and observing truth, witness observing is:

    1. aware of very subtle emotions, impulses, feelings in your body, and behaviors
    2. notice chatter of internal dialog
    3. notice when thoughts are arising
    4. notice the idea that we could spend some time with in quiet meditation
    5. notice that your mind thinks all by itself
    6. watch the images the mind projects

    This sounds to me more like pure unthinking observation described in chapter 4. Chapter 3 is more about “thinking” observation. But we can't be sure this is different because I think witness observing has a broad meaning.

    Chapter 3, along with the other chapters, are interesting as Steiner is talking about one thing --the observation of thinking-- but as he moves along he is describing deeper states.

    3.1 I observe a table and I carry out my thinking of a table.

    The first state is to look at a table and chat to ourselves about the table. This goes on at the same time. The reason it can go on at the same time is because our attention is not focused on the table or our thought. To think requires directing our attention to become completely focused on one thing.

    3.1 Whereas the observation of things and processes, and the thinking about them, are everyday occurrences making up the continuous current of my life, the observation of the thought-process itself is an exceptional attitude to adopt.

    We enter the exceptional state when we HOLD our attention on a PAST thought or thought process. Then we enter the exceptional state of THINKING ABOUT THINKING. Then we can STUDY the thought and produce new thoughts about it. Scientists and philosophers think about their thinking all the time, but in ordinary life people don't do it that much. If you are in what Steiner calls the materialism state you don't think about your thinking.

    3.6 Whoever cannot transcend Materialism lacks the ability to throw himself into the exceptional attitude I have described.

    In the witness observing list above they speak of observing thinking as it is happening. Steiner says this is impossible, that it is a two step process. First you think about or study something which will produce new thought. Then in step 2 you direct your attention on the new thought to study that.

    Steiner is describing putting your full attention on an object, such as STUDYING a table. In the background thoughts will appear about the table. Then in step 2 you direct your attention on the background thought to STUDY the thought. By doing this and introspectively thinking about your past thought, you are in the exceptional state by entering the realm of pure thought. This is not a day dreaming state but focused reflection. As Steiner moves through chapter 3 he describes the exceptional state on deeper and deeper levels.

    • Thank you for the explanation, actually gave me some clarity. I still think is the same but the "witness observer" (internal observation/thinking) I was referring is from the self development field and it does happen after the outer observation, reaction, or activity.  But like any abstract term it does have multiple meanings. I will keep reading PoF to comprehensibly understand Steiner words. I really appreciate your time.

      • So if a mechanical engineer reflects on his thinking process to see if it is objective or if a philosopher is thinking about his thinking to develop a new theory of knowledge they would both be "witness observers"? It seems like they would be "witness observers" but in addition also be "witness thinkers" or conscious thinkers. Like you called it "internal observation/thinking" or in POF it would be thinking observation or the contemplation of thinking.

        Steiner is constantly renaming things in the book as a way to expand the meaning. Though a science of freedom does need understood terms. This is the challenge of having a glossary"What a concept is cannot be expressed in words. Words can do no more than draw our attention to the fact that we have concepts." POF 4.0

        • Thank you for the example, it does make sense to me. While I'm reading all this ideas come to me. I'm reading three versions of the book simultaneously including the Spanish version to better understand the philosophy.

          • Whenever I don't understand the text I refer to another translation. Of the 9 translations there is always one translator who will translate it clearly. What would happen if you made an all-star translation that went line by line through the book and selected the best version from among the 9 translations? I have found the clearest translation of a single line may be in any 1 of the 9 English versions. If this was done from a point of overall knowledge of the book you would end up with an amazing edition that encompassed the best of all the translators.

            • Definitely a great project for when I finish the book. I can see how some of the sentences lose their meaning in the different translations.

          • You say "While I'm reading all this ideas come to me." That would be contemplation of the text. The reading of the text "kindles" ideas that come to you. Then, when you turn your attention to these ideas that were kindled, it is contemplation of thinking. These kindled ideas are now past thoughts that you turn your full attention to and think about. The process continues on...

            Except this is not normally the case. It is "exceptional" when this happens. Normally we go about life and observe things. Thoughts are kindled in our head as a running commentary of what we are observing. We may be aware of these thoughts in the background as we go about our day. Step 2 is not taken. We do not stop to go within and introspectively contemplate, with our full attention, the ideas that the world has kindled in us. You can't give your full attention to these inner thoughts while you are running around or you may cause an accident.

            "The Western world no longer demands pious exercises and ascetic practices as a preparation for science, but it does require a sincere willingness to withdraw oneself awhile from the immediate impressions of life, and to betake oneself into the realm of pure thought." POF 0.7

            • I get lost sometimes but I keep reading and at some point  I  feel "energize" reading the text.  I wouldn't have ever read the book this way if it wasn't for this website guidelines and explanations.

              • Steiner says the study of The Philosophy Of Freedom can be like reading strings of words without anything coming out of it, or, if you do it properly (thinking observation and thinking about thinking), you will have moments when it is like "the striking of steel on flint" (insight). This is the mystery of the book that is only known by those who reach this study experience. This is the thought-training that develops modern intuitive thinking suited for our scientific age.

                It is my view that the spiritual gurus of our age are found among the scientists, engineers, and computer programmers. The people who are trained to think. Innovation today, including ethics, is coming from the youthful tech community.

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ONLY original, unrevised edition of "The Philosophy Of Freedom" available on Amazon, ($9.80). Trans. HOERNLE 1916.
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NEW GREEK translation PDF.
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  • The reason why the existing translations of TPOF are mostly unintelligible is because they are translating Steiner and German. They forget that it is a "science" of freedom, they should be translating science. 

  • Currently revising chapter 3 located on the front page. The Preface, Chp 1 & 2, are done and found also on FP. Open for suggestions or for identifying unclear sentences.

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