Cunningham Summary - Chapter 4

Chapter Summary Of The Philosophy Of Freedom
Eric Cunningham

Chapter 4 The World As Perception
What's a concept? According to Steiner, we can arrive at an understanding of "concept" if we think about what happens when a person sees a tree. When we observe a tree, we immediately think, bringing forth the idea of tree. Even after the object disappears from view, we continue to hold the thought form of the tree. This is the concept of the tree. The difference between ideas and concepts is that ideas are "fuller in content, more saturated, and wider in scope (47)." Since thinking is the means to acquiring ideas and concepts, thinking precedes concepts--a difference, Steiner notes, between himself and Hegel.

On the matter of causality, Steiner maintains that "cause" and "effect" cannot be understood through simple observation. Only thinking can bring together the observed cause and the observed effect in a conceptual pattern that relates one to the other. Accordingly, an objective science that pretends to rely on "observation alone" is a science that has abandoned thinking. 

From thinking to the thinker
Human consciousness, says Steiner, mediates between observation and thinking, which gives the illusion that thinking is a dualistic, subject-object activity. We believe that the thinking subject can either take something from the outside world as its object, or take its own thinking activity as its object. But, Steiner argues, "(t)hinking is beyond subject and object (49)." Thinking is the thing that forms the concepts of "subject" and "object," so thinking is not merely a subjective activity. "I must never say my individual subject thinks; it is much more the case that my subject itself lives by the grace of thinking (50)."

The object comes into consciousness
Steiner invites us to imagine a person with fully developed intelligence dropping out of nowhere into the world. This person starts to see, smell, and hear things, but has no prior experience of any of the world's phenomena. Yet, because this person possesses the ability to think, thinking will begin immediately to form connections between the stuff of the external world. This thinking is not subjective, though--it is the activity that makes observed data intelligible.

The objects of observation, i.e., the things the person sees, hears, and smells are "perceptions." 

The subjective nature of perceptions
Perception, says Steiner, is the object of both observation and sensation--but it is not the thing observed, nor the thing sensed. Perception is what happens when the subject, through thinking, takes hold of an object or an emotion, and comes to some knowledge of them. The difference between a sensed observation, and a thought perception seems analogous to the difference between David Hume's "impression" and "idea," the latter being the result of impressions that are reflected upon. Perception is thus a term that can also be used to describe the thinking that first works upon the observed or felt thing to make it a known thing.

After establishing this relationship between thinking and perception, Steiner goes on to say that perceptions will change as other sense data and other perceptions enter consciousness to either build upon or contradict earlier perceptions. "Every broadening of the circle of my perception obliges me to correct my picture of the world (52)."

Elaborating on the subjective component of the perception, Steiner identifies two subjective properties of the perception--the first property, "mathematical," relates to the actual physical position of the observer vis a vis the object; the other is "qualitative," a term which relates to the soundness of the physical organs which sense the object.

The subjective quality of perception
Perception seems to be a highly subjective operation, so much so that many philosophers in the western tradition have denied the existence of any objective world apart from the mind. Steiner quotes George Berkeley at length, demonstrating Berkeley's famous position that if objects "are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit (55)." The logical conclusion of this thinking, as Steiner observes, is the belief that nothing exists outside of perception.

But, says Steiner, this is a limited appreciation of perception, because the function of perceiving depends on the existence of things outside ourselves.

The object of perception is not only the thing outside ourselves, but also our own "I"s in the act perceiving. "When I am absorbed in the perception of a given object, I have for the moment only a consciousness of it. To this can then come the perception of my self. I am from then on not only conscious of the object, but also of my personality, which stands before the object and observes it (56)."

Once we perceive something, we form a picture of that thing, and retain it. The formation of these "mental pictures," or "representations" (vorstellung), occur as part of our perception of ourselves (in addition to our perception of the thing) and they change us.

Mental pictures and subjectivity
Steiner describes the subjective quality of perception with so much precision you would almost think he is arguing for it--what he's actually doing is showing the degree to which modern philosophy has created the subject-centered definition of perception--only to destabilize it in the final pages of this chapter.

He begins by talking about the "mental picture," which is formed when an external object makes a sense impression on an observer and the observer forms a self-conscious thought about it. The mental picture is now an object of perception too, and the experience of this perception makes an "enriching" change in the observer. The mental picture becomes such a part of the subject observer, that it comes to be seen as the primary object of perception, replacing the external object that was observed in the first place. As Steiner writes, "I supposedly know nothing about the table-in-itself, which is the object of my observation, but only about the change which takes place within my self while I am perceiving the table (57)."

While Berkeley made the radical argument that there was no object world outside of these mental pictures, Kant brought this kind of extreme idealism back to earth--somewhat. He asserted that there could be an objective, a priori "thing-in-itself," but we were unable to know anything of that thing-in-itself beyond what our mental pictures told us. Thus, according to Kant, we are still limited to our mental pictures, and by the cognitive apparatus that perceives them. Our physical and mental "organization" then, is the property that determines the way we perceive the world--the absolute objective Real is not something we can make certain judgments about. The external world is only a source of sense stimuli that the subject's physio-mental organism processes into knowledge.

This assumption about perception has huge implications for modern knowledge because it drives all psychology and cognitive sciences. As long as the brain, nervous system, and senses are the things that determine our perception, we need not worry about any underlying meaning in the object world--not only is it unknowable, it makes no real change to the way we perceive--only the operations between the sense-impression and the brain process does. Quoting Edouard von Hartmann, Steiner writes "What the subject perceives are always only modifications of his own psychic states, and nothing else (62)."

Ultimately (according to this kind of subject-based thinking) any meaningful connection between the external object world and the inner soul is lost to the internal operations of the cognitive, self-perceiving apparatus.

Uncovering the problem of purely subjective perception
Steiner recapitulates the subjective position: if there are no senses, there is no perception. The subject, due to its physical organization produces the perception, and it produces these perceptions on the basis of "mental pictures" of the object.

"But then my sense organs and the processes in them are also merely subjective. I have no right to speak of a real eye, but only my mental picture of an eye. It is just the same with the nerves and the brain process, and no less so with the occurrence of the soul itself through which things are supposedly built up out of the chaos of manifold sensations (64)."

What this means is that even though we may argue that perceptions are derived subjectively from the operations of the physical organism, the physical organism itself can't claim any "objective" reality more absolute than the object perceived. So "critical realism," (subjective realism), is no more authentic than "naive realism" (objective realism)--in fact it "naively" assumes, without critical examination, the objective reality of the subject's perceptive apparatus.

Steiner thus refutes Schopenhauer's axiomatic "The perceived world is my mental picture (vorstellung, 67)." Subjective reality as a model for perception is shown to be unsatisfactory, and"another path must be taken (68)."

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The Knowledge of Freedom

Chapter 1   Conscious Human Action
Chapter 2   The Fundamental Desire for Knowledge
Chapter 3   Thinking in the Service of Apprehending the World
Chapter 4   The World as Perception
Chapter 5   The Activity of Knowing the World
Chapter 6   The Human Individuality
Chapter 7   Are There Limits to Cognition?


The Reality of Freedom
Chapter 8   The Factors of Life
Chapter 9   The Idea of Freedom
Chapter 10  Philosophy of Freedom and Monism
Chapter 11  World Purpose and Life Purpose (Mankind's Destination)
Chapter 12   Moral Imagination (Darwinism and Morality)
Chapter 13  The Value of Life (Pessimism and Optimism)
Chapter 14  Individuality and Genus