Introduction - Gertrude Reif Hughes

Gertrude Reif Hughes

Rudolf Steiner’s study of human freedom is really a study of human ways of knowing. Steiner made knowledge a key to freedom and individual responsibility, because he discovered that the processes of cognition, which he usually just called “thinking,” share an essential quality with the essence of selfhood or individuality: each could, in some sense, know itself. Accordingly, his “philosophy” of freedom is actually a meditation on human capacities to know and on individuality as a basis for socially responsible action. These three elements—freedom, thinking, and individuality—interweave in Steiner’s work like three strands of a single braid, uniting through their dynamic cooperations the subtle interconnections of a complex and powerful vision.

Steiner’s argument may sound technical, as though one needs to be particularly competent in epistemology or the history of philosophy to follow him. In fact, expert knowledge may be a hindrance. His book is designed to stimulate more than to instruct. If it is read responsively but without the distractions of either assent or dissent, it arouses confidence in the possibility of human free will and a desire to work toward developing it.

Steiner is interested in freedom as a creative force. Instead of focusing on the various legal, biological, or cultural conditions that foster or inhibit freedom, he presents it as a potential for human beings to realize more and more fully in their personal and interpersonal lives. Every chapter of his book calls us to become free by recognizing and developing the spiritual nature of our human cognitive powers.

In his preface to the revised edition of 1918, published on the book’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Steiner emphasized the centrality of thinking, apparently because early readers had missed its significance. If you want to investigate the limits that biological or social conditions place upon human freedom and responsibility, he recommended, first try to settle a prior question: Can absolute limits be set to human knowledge? He showed that such limits make no epistemological sense because, in the very act of identifying something as unknowable, our thinking renders it known. Enormous consequences for human freedom follow. If there is no theoretical limit to what humans can know, then we cannot authorize our actions by claiming that some unassailable dogma allows them. Demonstrably the authority for any human action must derive from what human beings can, at least in principle, understand for themselves. Nothing need be taken on faith.

Readers sometimes find it daunting to have to consider such matters closely. Steiner, however, was not just devising an elegant argument against determinism, he was sounding a challenge to live responsibly with urgent questions about the conduct of life. He wanted to awaken in his readers a disposition to act both independently and constructively. His book speaks to us if we seek the basis for human freedom in an understanding of human thinking and knowing so that our moral decisions can be based on knowledge, not just on belief.

Thinking has a bad reputation with many people, perhaps especially with those who incline toward a spiritual path. Steiner’s emphasis on it sets him apart from other writers who concern themselves with soul life. Compared to the warmth of feeling and the visibility of action, thinking seems cold and remote. “No other activity of the human soul is as easily misunderstood as thinking,” he says in his 1918 addition to Chapter 8, “The Factors of Life.” He uncovers the reason for this misconception by contrasting “essential thinking” with merely remembered thinking. Usually only our remembered thinking is evident to us; we notice only what we’ve already thought, not what processes are occurring right now as we think those thoughts.

When we merely remember our thinking, we remember it as much less vital than our emotions and desires. But “whoever turns toward essential thinking finds within it both feeling and will” in their deepest reality. As distinct from merely remembered thinking, “essential thinking” consists of the unique property that Steiner discovered: thinking can notice itself. Simple to say, the phenomenon is hard to experience because it is so comparatively subtle and because we are not disposed to pay attention to it.

When we do notice our thinking—not our thoughts but the processes that produce our thoughts—what do we notice it with? The very same activity that we call thinking. “Essential thinking” is an exceptional case of knowing in the same way that the pronoun, “I,” is an exceptional case of pronoun reference. Just as “I” always refers to the sayer of “I” and to no one else, so, in the special case when thinking notices itself instead of anything else, observer and observed are identical. Hidden in this obvious yet elusive property of thinking lies a long list of powerful implications for personal and social life: that thinking is essentially intuitive, that it is neither subjective nor objective, that we as individuals can undertake to cultivate its intuitive nature and so develop moral insight, and that our moral insights, though individually achieved, can serve rather than alienate our fellow human beings. To appreciate what these interconnected implications mean for the practice of freedom, it is helpful to turn first to the other strand in the threefold braid, individuality.

Like thinking, individualism has a bad reputation, particularly among socially concerned people. Once prized and still valued for its entrepreneurial power, individualism is now also widely regarded as the cause of sexual, racial, and economic injustices. How, then, can individualism enhance freedom, and what does either of them have to do with thinking or cognition? Answers to both questions evolve from Steiner’s view that human beings can practice an “ethical individualism” as he sometimes called it.

When Steiner speaks of “ethical individualism” he means that it is communitarian rather than antisocial. Instead of conceiving individuals and society at one another’s expense, Steiner notes that social arrangements are produced by individuals for the benefit of individuality. Codes of law and morality do not exist independently of human beings, to be restrictively imposed upon us. We ourselves create the codes and we ourselves can change them. “States and societies exist because they turn out to be the necessary consequence of individual life. . . . The social order is formed so that it can then react favorably on the individual,” who is “the source of all morality.”

Of course, individualism may provoke conflict, but it can also create a matrix for mutual understanding. Instead of competing with you selfishly, I can use my selfhood to recognize yours. When human beings manage to respond to individuality rather than to type, they are most likely to achieve social harmony. When we view one another generically we cannot hope to understand one another. The real opposite of individual is not “society” but “genus” or type. Steiner devotes an entire chapter, “Individuality and Genus,” to this point. To illustrate, he uses misunderstandings and inequities based on gender:
"We are most obstinate in judging according to type when it is a question of a person’s sex. Man almost always sees in woman, and woman in man, too much of the general character of the other sex and too little of what is individual."

Generalizing or generic thinking erases individuality. When sex is constituted as a genus, individuals of either sex tend to become invisible as individuals. This is particularly true of women, at least when they are considered to be the second sex and men the first, as is usually the case. Steiner continues:

"The activity of a man in life is determined by his individual capacities and inclinations; that of the woman is supposed to be determined exclusively by the fact that she is, precisely, a woman. Woman is supposed to be the slave of the generic, of what is universally womanish."

The opposition between the individual and the generic also produces a useful way to counter the standard fear that individualism creates anarchy. When I perform a criminal act, Steiner says, I do so not from what is individual in me but from shared instincts and urges that I have accepted uncritically without deciding consciously whether they are appropriate for me:

"Through my instincts, my drives, I am the kind of person of whom there are twelve to the dozen; I am an individual by means of the particular form of the idea by which, within the dozen, I designate myself as I.

Far from being in conflict with freedom, individualism as Steiner presents it is the expression of freedom. In this more profound sense, a free society requires of its members not less individualism but more.

But individualism will express freedom, and freedom will accommodate all individualities, only if motives can be brought to a certain level. Steiner’s discussion of motives brings his findings about thinking to new heights of individual responsibility and liberty. At this high point of Steiner’s increasingly powerful exposition, the activity of thinking—in the form of an intuitive understanding of motive—takes on its full significance as the starting point for a path of spiritual development.

The argument, which centers around the scope and nature of intuition, goes like this: To identify a motive for action that can be freely chosen by a particular individual in a specific situation requires a particular kind of cognition, the ability to intuit. Intuition knows without arguments, demonstrations, or other discursive means. For Steiner, the intuitive is not the instinctual or dimly felt but that which is directly knowable, without mediation. In a classic description, he calls it “the conscious experience, within what is purely spiritual, of a purely spiritual content.” Then he links intuition to the activity of thinking: “The essence of thinking can be grasped only through intuition.”

In other words, thinking and intuition overlap because of a simple but subtle fact that Steiner discovered about the “essence of thinking”—that thinking can “know” itself intuitively. Because it knows itself intuitively—that is, without the intervention of anything other than itself— thinking, like all other intuitions, qualifies as an essentially spiritual experience. Other intuitions may be beyond our ordinary powers, but by learning to notice our own thinking activity, not just its results, we become aware that thinking itself constitutes the very cognitive experience, intuition, that Steiner describes as “conscious experience, within what is purely spiritual, of a purely spiritual content”—something qualitatively different from a mere addition to our store of informative ideas, something essentially spiritual.

In its intuitive essence, thinking is a universal human capacity. Its intuitive (that is, spiritual) essence exists as a potential. It awaits our attention. When, with the help of Steiner’s book, we recognize that thinking is an essentially spiritual activity, we discover that it can school us. In that sense—Steiner’s sense—thinking is a spiritual path. We set out on it when we start learning to concentrate at will and begin to feel both need and desire for this willed focus. If we can free our attention from its habitual modes and associations, and if we can focus it at will as we ourselves decide, then we can have, without entering a trance or invoking mystical aids, a conscious experience of a spiritual content. Steiner sometimes called it pure thinking— will-filled or body-free thinking—and he presented it in a style designed to stimulate it in his readers.

Steiner stressed that thinking is not to be viewed as merely personal or subjective, even though it usually feels like a private experience. He firmly refutes the widely held, unexamined assumption (not to say dogma) that thinking must be subjective: “Thinking is beyond subject and object. It forms both of these concepts, just as it does all others.” Developed in one’s own unique way by each individual who undertakes to do so, the thinking capacity can become reliable intuition, allowing one to find the motivation for what one “must” do and to choose it freely. In such choices, individuality and cognition unite to produce freedom, freely undertaken actions that are both fully individual and socially constructive.

No outside authority, however benign or exalted, can motivate a free deed. Steiner emphatically rejects obedience. It is not an appropriate motivating force for free individuals. If my moral decisions merely conform to social norms and ethical codes, I am just “a higher form of robot.” Instead of trying to obey, I should strive “to see why any given principle should work as a motive.” Even the most highminded obedience is not free unless I have first decided for myself why this code should govern me at this moment. General standards, no matter how admirable, can perhaps help one develop an inclination toward responsible actions, but they cannot authorize free deeds. Habit, inertia, and obedience are all anathema to free action. It can come only from individually discovered motivation that is prompted by warm confidence in the rightness of the deed itself, not by a desire for its outcome, not even by a concern for its beneficiary.

According to Steiner’s lofty yet practicable ideal, conduct worthy to be called “free” has to be motivated by a particular person’s own intuitions as to what she or he should do in any particular case. A free being asks, What can I myself do and how do I know what it is right for me to do in this particular situation? If it is cultivated, the essentially intuitive nature of thinking can bring answers. At this level of insight and morality, what motivates is not duty but something like love, a warmly interested yet unselfish desire that cannot be coerced but can arise in us as an intuited intention. “Free beings are those who can will what they themselves hold to be right.”

Steiner designed all his books to discourage passive collecting of information and to encourage instead conscious pondering and questioning, particularly of hitherto unexamined notions. Like Steiner’s other writings, The Philosophy Of Freedom offers a mode of inquiry rather than a set of creeds, pieties, or doctrines. His style makes us practice a more active thinking so that we can become aware of its power, vitality, and essentially spiritual nature. His work stimulates our soul’s own activity, stirring our latent powers and strengthening them so that we may eventually become able to think his insights ourselves.

We need to awaken to the functioning presence of spiritual realities in our lives. They are much more subtle, less sensational, more delicate, less crude, than we may expect. Consequently they are easy to overlook. One hundred years ago, at the close of the nineteenth century, Steiner gave to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries a new understanding of an ordinary human capacity— thinking. He showed that it is essentially a spiritual activity. At the close of the twentieth century, we can become more receptive to the existence of this commonly held, if ordinarily dormant, human ability by developing it. If we don’t use it, we will lose it. Intuitive Thinking shows how and why to begin.

Middletown, Connecticut, 1995

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