Introduction - Matthew Barton

Introduction to The Philosophy Of Freedom

Matthew Barton
The Philosophy of Freedom was first published in 1894 when Steiner was 32, during the period of his editorship of Goethe's scientific writings and collaboration on a complete edition of Schopenhauer's work. Weimar was a thriving center of European culture at the time, and Steiner was in the thick of it. There he met many prominent artists and cultural figures such as Hermann Grimm, Ernst Haeckel and the philosopher Eduard von Hartmann, to whom he dedicated his doctoral thesis, later published as Truth and Science. At this period of his life, Steiner was still highly regarded in academic and cultural circles and must have hoped that his ideas would enter the cultural mainstream and exert a major influence on contemporary thought. 

Despite the apparent failure of this book to meet with rightful acknowledgement, it remained an absolutely key text for Steiner himself. In a conversation with Walter Johannes Stein, he said that it contained the essence of his subsequent teaching and was the key foundation for it. Despite being rooted in contemporary philosophical discourse, he says in The Boundarics of Natural Science that his primary intention in the book was "to make the reader directly engage his thinking activity on every page".

He compares the experience of reading this book with waking up in the morning, as a transition from passive thinking to full activity. The reader 'should be able to say, "Yes, I have certainly thought thoughts before. But my thinking took the form of just letting thoughts flow and carry me along. Now, little by little, I am beginning to be inwardly active in them." '

As Steiner says in his original preface to this book, philosophy is not, or need not be, a dry or merely logical pursuit, but an "art like music". The philosopher can be a creative artist in the conceptual realm, rising beyond "mere passive reception of truths" to find himself participating in more vivid and dynamic reality. But to give full credence to this view we have to follow Steiner into the core insight upon which The Philosophy of Freedom is founded: that in essence thinking is, or can be, not a subjective mode, or even some kind of secretion of the brain, but an activity in which reality enters us, and the only way that it does so. Initially appearing to be bound up with our picture of oneself, our subjectivity, in fact it transcends this self in its capacity to kindle in us universally valid concepts that are a true response to all that we perceive in our inner and outer surroundings, including our own actions.

The common experience that thoughts are somehow 'drier' and less alive than feeling or will impetus is, says Steiner, due to the fact that we cannot fully grasp thinking activity in the actual moment it arises, but only subsequently, by reflecting upon it. We cannot therefore really 'see' it in the same way we experience feelings or actions, but are usually only aware of the 'shadow' of thinking's luminous nature, of its capacity to penetrate into the world's phenomena. Much of The Philosophy of Freedom seeks to awaken our perception of this luminosity, and hence give us the experience of real participation in the world.

Steiner is therefore quite right in saying that it is not, or not only, a philosophical work in the usual sense, but also offers a transformative impetus that can change our lives. For of course if we follow his ideas through into their consequences for human life, we find that the self-sustaining activity of living thinking is both the tool with which to examine everything else and also the means for full, individual self-realization. If objective reality enters us in thinking and is individualized in our subjective relationship with the world, this subjectivity has a means to engage fully with reality and to do so in a wholly self-determining way. The gulf, in other words, is bridged. In thinking we can have an intuitive experience of the manifest core of our being, and act out of that core. No wonder this seemed such a radical and revolutionary idea to the academics and thinkers of Steiner's day that they could not countenance it.

As well as offering full human empowerment it also asks full human responsibility—of a kind not determined by any external or even inner commandments, laws or memories of what has been done the past, but instead by a 'moral imagination' that is alive enough to every situation to seek the fitting response and action that accords with it. And that, of course, is the embodiment of what Steiner means by freedom. We are only fully human, he believes, in so far as we achieve this freedom—though he also acknowledges that it is something we only slowly work our way through to.

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