A Thought Experiment in Three Parts: The Observation of Thinking
The following thought experiment was built up by working through the content of the third chapter of the Philosophy of Freedom:
1) Observe an occurrence in your environment.
2) Think about your observation.
3) Observe the thinking that you did.
Questions to Explore While Observing your Thinking
What concepts did your thinking bring together to explain the phenomena you observed?
What was the nature and quality of your thinking activity?
How did your experience of observing the occurrence in your environment differ from your experience of observing your thinking.
How the exercise was built up out of chapter three of The Philosophy.
The Foundational Exercise was constructed by working through the various indications provided in the third chapter of the Philosophy of Freedom. The following notes show the exercise in an expanded format while demonstrating the specific passages in the Philosophy from which the exercise is derived. Quotes from the Philosophy of Freedom are in blue. (All quotes are taken from the Michael Wilson translation.) The developing exercise is in violet.
In Chapter Three of the Philosophy of Freedom, Steiner writes:
When I observe how a billiard ball, when struck, communicates its motion to another, I remain entirely without influence on the course of this observed process… It is quite different when I begin to reflect on the content of my observation. The purpose of my reflection is to form concepts of the occurrence. I connect the concept of an elastic ball with certain other concepts of mechanics, and take into consideration the special circumstances which obtain in the instance in question. I try, in other words, to add to the occurrence which takes place without my assistance a second process which takes place in the conceptual sphere. This latter one is dependent on me…
An event or an object which is merely observed, does not of itself reveal anything about its connection with other events or objects. This connection becomes evident only when observation is combined with thinking.
Observation and thinking are the two points of departure for all the spiritual striving of man, in so far as he is conscious of such striving.
1) To get started, observe an occurrence in your environment. If you are outside, you may notice how the leaves of a tree are gently moving. Inside, you might observe a shadow which falls on a wall or object.
2) Now, think about your observation.
Steiner emphasizes and elaborates upon the difference between observation and thinking from various perspectives throughout chapter three. For example, he writes:
As regards observation, our need of it is due to the way we are constituted. Our thinking about a horse and the object “horse” are two things which for us emerge apart from each other. This object is accessible to us only by means of observation. As little as we can form a concept of a horse by merely staring at the animal, just as little are we able by mere thinking to produce a corresponding object.
Steiner then makes a fundamental point about thinking as an object of observation. He writes:
In sequence of time, observation does in fact come before thinking. For even thinking we must get to know first through observation. It was essentially a description of an observation when, at the beginning of this chapter, we gave an account of how thinking lights up in the presence of an event and goes beyond what is merely presented… But thinking as an object of observation differs essentially from all other objects. The observation of a table, or a tree, occurs in me as soon as these objects appear upon the horizon of my experience. Yet I do not, at the same time, observe my thinking about these things… Whereas observations of things and events, and thinking about them, are everyday occurrences filling up the continuous current of my life, observation of thinking itself is a kind of exceptional state. This fact must be taken into account when we come to determine the relationship of thinking to all other contents of observation. We must be quite clear about the fact that, in observing thinking, we are applying to it a procedure which constitutes the normal course of events for the study of the whole of the rest of the world-content, but which in this normal course of events is not applied to thinking itself.
Our next task, therefore, is to become familiar with this exceptional state, the observation of thinking.
3) Return to what you did in part 2). Explore the nature of the thinking that you did when you observed the occurrence. How did you first come to feel the need to supplement what you experienced merely through observation? What, through the process of thinking, did you add to the observation? What concepts did your thinking bring together to explain the phenomena you observed? Did your thinking send you in search of additional observations, either in your immediate environment or through memory? Now, examine how your experience of observing the occurrence in your environment differed from your experience of observing your thinking.
These questions are mere suggestions to help you get started. As you observe your thinking you may find more interesting and relevant questions to explore, based on the unique quality of the thinking you did and based on your own singular point of reference. Whatever the object you selected and thought about in Part A), what’s important in Part B) is that you make your thinking itself your object of observation.
Over the course of chapter three, Steiner takes great pains to re-emphasize from various viewpoints that observation always precedes thinking. For example, he writes:
In other words, while I am thinking I pay no heed to my thinking, which is of my own making, but only to the object of my thinking, which is not of my making.
I am moreover in the same position when I enter into the exceptional state and reflect on my own thinking. I can never observe my present thinking: I can only subsequently take my experiences of my thinking process as the object of fresh thinking…
He is sharing a seminal experience into which we need to enter should we choose to proceed along our epistemological path. And he is telling us how to go about doing it: think first, then observe what you have created through your own activity. He writes:
The reason why it is impossible to observe thinking in the actual moment of its occurrence, is the very one which makes it possible for us to know it more immediately and more intimately than any other process in the world. Just because it is our own creation do we know the characteristic features of its course, the manner in which the process takes place. What in all other spheres of observation can be found only indirectly, namely the relevant context and the relationship between the individual objects, is, in the case of thinking, known to us in an absolutely direct way. I do not on the face of it know why, for my observation, thunder follows lightning; but I know directly, from the very content of the two concepts, why my thinking connects the concept of thunder with the concept of lightning. It does not matter in the least whether I have the right concepts of lightning and thunder. The connection between those concepts that I do have is clear to me, and this through the very concepts themselves.
So in the process of observing our own thinking we come to know it so intimately just because we are looking upon a thing which we ourselves have created. In this way, we begin to unfold that “field of experience in which man’s inner soul activity supplies a living answer to these questions [which Steiner posed in the 1918 preface].
In a later passage, Steiner writes:
When I weave an independently given object into my thinking, I transcend my observation, and the question arises: What right have I to do this? Why do I not simply let the object impress itself upon me? How is it possible for my thinking to be related to the object? These are questions which everyone must put to himself who reflects on his own thought processes. But all these questions cease to exist when we think about thinking itself. We then add nothing to our thinking that is foreign to it, and therefore have no need to justify any such addition.
When you have spent some time on the Foundational Exercise, ruminate over this final quote from Steiner towards the end of chapter three:
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.
Challenges Working with the Foundational Exercise & Responsive Ruminations
The current, modified version of the exercise and the following challenges and responsive ruminations result from a weekend experimenting with the foundational exercise with members of a group. To clarify... neither the challenges expressed nor the responsive ruminations are speculative; rather, they evolve out of work with the exercise.
When we try to observe thinking it is very difficult to avoid re-thinking the very thoughts we are trying to observe.
Observing our thinking is clearly not a mere re-thinking of the thoughts we’re trying to observe. But that doesn’t mean the re-thinking needs to be avoided. As an analogy, when I think about an occurrence (e.g. a movement in the leaves of a plant) in the process of thinking about it I may decide I need to look at the occurrence again. This re-looking is an act I perform in order to enrich my thinking.
Similarly, when I observe the thinking that I have just done, I may need first to re-think my thoughts about the occurrence. The re-thinking is a process of holding the thinking up before me so that it can be observed.
What’s important is that I don’t stop with the re-thinking. It is difficult to take the next step and move on to observation of the thinking. As Steiner says, we’re moving into an exceptional state and this requires a noticeable increase in will activity. But it’s something everybody can do.
When we try to observe thinking it is very difficult to avoid adding fresh thinking to the thoughts. When attempting the foundational exercise I have found it impossible to prevent this “secondary” thinking entirely, although some times have been more successful than others.
In connection with this issue, it’s necessary first to distinguish two different modes of thinking:
A) Thinking which is an observation of thinking AND
B) Thinking which adds fresh thinking to the initial observation of the occurrence
We can distinguish between the two modes by recognizing the object of the thinking. If the object of the thinking is the thinking we have just done, we are in A). If the object of the thinking is the occurrence in the world which we initially observed, then we are in B).
B) can come about in various ways. When we observe our thinking, we may observe shortcomings in the thinking. Or we may discover a new line of thinking which enriches or transforms the initial thinking about the occurrence. This may even lead us back to observe the occurrence again more carefully.
So the process of observing our thinking has the beneficial effect of actually improving the quality of our thinking. It makes good sense that as we come to know thinking more intimately we also become better able to employ it effectively. There’s no reason to work against this beneficial effect. In fact, by enriching the thinking, we prepare a more active and lively foundation for the subsequent observation of the thinking. We have a thinking to observe which is now in motion.
In this way the various steps in the Foundational Exercise can come into conversation with each other. And so long as we can differentiate between them, this is a constructive development. The process becomes iterative, with both the observed thinking and the observing thinking advancing to a higher level.
Sometimes my thinking follows a sequential pattern which I direct and which I can subsequently observe. Other times, the thinking appears in my consciousness as a whole, as a completed "idea package". In the latter case, I can subsequently deconstruct the flow of ideas and related concepts which are connected to the completed whole that I experienced. But then it feels disingenuous to claim I’m observing the thinking. It feels like I’m reading something into the thinking that wasn’t part of my actual initial experience.
Steiner speaks to this at the end of chapter 8, in the Author’s Addition, 1918. He writes, “The difficulty in grasping the essential nature of thinking lies in this, that it has all too easily eluded the introspecting soul by the time the soul tries to bring it into the focus of attention. Nothing then remains to be inspected but the lifeless abstraction, the corpse of the living thinking.”
The challenge, then, is that by the time we begin to observe the “completed whole” thinking which just appears in our consciousness, it is already a corpse of the living thinking. In order to observe the living thinking which preceded the corpse, we need to resurrect it.
This is a further development in the path of the Foundational Exercise and a natural eventual outcome of pursuing the exercise. It takes us into a new territory, a thinking which is an evolution of the process Steiner describes in chapter three.
To begin with we can enter into “the flow of ideas and related concepts which are connected to the completed whole” we received. Then, with an intensification of will activity, we recreate the experience of the completed whole by bringing the extended thought organism before us as a living tableau. If only for a moment…we bring about a rebirth of the thinking in full awareness and we observe it in the moment of its creation.
By Tim Nadelle