Cunningham Summary - Chapter 5

Chapter Summary Of The Philosophy Of Freedom
Eric Cunningham

Chapter 5 The Activity of Knowing the World

Berkeley and Kant 

  • Eighteenth-century Irish philosopher George Berkeley speculated that all aspects of everything of which one is conscious are actually reducible to the ideas present in the mind. The observer does not conjure external objects into existence, however; the true ideas of them are caused in the human mind directly by God.
  • Eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant greatly refined idealism through his critical inquiry into what he believed to be the limits of possible knowledge. Kant held that all that can be known of things is the way in which they appear in experience; there is no way of knowing what they are substantially in themselves. He also held, however, that the fundamental principles of all science are essentially grounded in the constitution of the mind rather than being derived from the external world.

This chapter opens with a recapitulation of the relationship between naive realism and critical idealism. Naive realism, again, is taking objects of perception as things independent and real until a new perception comes to replace them, leaving only mental pictures as the real stuff of perception. Critical idealism, then is the result--in which the objective world comes to be seen as not real at all, because all it leaves are mental pictures. Steiner showed that critical idealism, summed up in the phrase, "the world is my mental picture," holds no water because the apparatus of cognition must have objectively real eyes, senses, brains, and nervous systems to make it work.

Nevertheless, critical idealism has been a dominant mode of consciousness in the modern world, and had sought to understand the reality of the world "indirectly" by gaining information from the mental pictures of a naive objectivity. It doesn't always admit that the thoughts that lead even to this indirect understanding, are by its own definitions, mental pictures.

"Such an idealist," Steiner writes, "will then either deny the thing-in-itself completely, or at least declare it to have absolutely no significance for human beings, which means it is as good as not there, because we can no nothing about it (71)."

This seems to be the understanding most moderns have of God and the spirit world. For the critical idealist, Steiner asserts, "there can be only two types of people: deluded ones, who consider their own dream spinnings to be real things, and wise ones, who see into the nothingness of this dream world and who, by and by, must lose all desire to bother themselves further about it (71)."

Where does modern scientific knowledge fit in? Science continues to look for the "thing-in-itself," but scientists can only do so on the basis of information gleaned from their own "mental pictures." Steiner uses von Hartmann's term "transcendental realism" to describe this search for knowledge. 

Getting to "thinking"
Having identified a difference between "illusionism" (dreaming and fantasy) and "transcendental realism," (an acceptance of a true reality that remains concealed beyond the object world) Steiner shows both to be rooted in naive realism, as they both go from observation of the world to mental picture, and try to make reality on the basis of the mental picture.

The first question we might ask transcendental realists (i.e., those who seeks the "thing-in-itself" through mental pictures) is "where do we get these mental pictures?" If experience is just a set of mental pictures, what's the difference between an "I" perceiving the mental pictures of the outside world, and an "I" dreaming? We generally stop thinking about the mental pictures of the dream world when we wake up, but how do we "wake up" consciously from the mental pictures we perceive when we're actually awake? Steiner says that "thinking" is to conscious perception what conscious perception is to dreaming. This suggests that thinking is in itself a mode of conscious reality. 

"Thinking presses in"
As Steiner makes clear in these pages (74-77), thinking is the thing that gives perception its true quality, and as such bridges the gap (or embraces the dichotomy) between the objectivity of naive realism and the subjectivity of critical idealism (which, as we should remember, both stem from naive realism, because both depend on a model of simple observation that passes over into mental pictures). The reason thinking is generally overlooked as a key factor in perception is that the naive observation considers thinking to be something that exists "only in man's head." Steiner, though, asserts that thinking, as a mode of consciousness, has an autonomous quality, and is as much a part of the observed objects of nature as it is of the thinking brain.

"Does not the world bring forth thinking in the head of man with the same necessity as it brings forth the blossom of a plant? Plant a seed in the earth. It puts forth root and stem [...] Set the plant before you. It unites in your soul with a definite concept. Why does this concept belong less to the whole plant than leaf and blossom do? (75)"

Thinking, then, is not something "added on" to a perception by the subject, but part of the objectively real spiritual totality that joins a phenomenon to its perceiver. Thus, seemingly turning Kant's idea on its head, Steiner maintains that "(h)ow I am organized to grasp things has nothing to do with their nature (77)."

Thinking vs. perception
Steiner introduces a new "split," this one between perceiving and thinking, showing that a simple perception derived from naive realism is inadequate to get beyond a purely subjective understanding of the world. Thinking will be identified as the activity that allows human consciousness to embrace the dichotomy between the objects of the external world and the mental pictures of the subject.

Among the various problems of subject-centered apprehension of the world is the inability of subjectivity to see anything but the "individual" quality of things in the world which exist in themselves and in relation to other objects besides just the observer, eg., the color "red" is not "my red," but "red." Thinking allows us to enter into a relationship with the objects of the world that takes us beyond ourselves and even beyond the objects perceived into a universal realm to which all things, including ourselves, belong.

"Everything depends now on determining the place of that being, which we ourselves are, in relationship to other beings. This determination must be distinguished from the mere becoming conscious of ourselves (79)." This indirect jab at Descartes suggests that mere self-perception is a very limited application of consciousness. Our activity of thinking, again, takes us out of self-perception into a universe of autonomous forms, and rescues us from the naive judgment that we create our own concepts of the world. Ideal forms, such as the "triangle," exist independently of our mental pictures of a triangle. Thinking puts us in touch with this world of spiritual forms.

Thinking and the drive for knowledge
After stating that the thinking of the many (i.e., everybody) is itself a unity, Steiner goes on to say that thinking is our nexus to the entire cosmos. Although our feeling and experience are individual matters, thinking puts us in contact with an "absolute power," even if our participation in this power is only peripheral.

The drive for knowledge attends our awareness, however peripheral, of being in contact with the absolute. Our thinking, seeking relationship with the rest of the cosmos, delivers new knowledge to us through its own activity. The concept, which, again, comes in response to the perception of an external object appears within us as received, existing qualities of the object. The act of knowledge, then, is "the synthesis of perception and concept (81)."

More on the primacy of thinking
We should seek no greater world-unifying phenomenon than that of thinking. Our notions of a personal God are too attached to our personalities to be satisfactory, and material or physical forces are too externalized and detached to be satisfactory. What about "will," as Schopenhauer suggests?

In a fairly long passage (pp, 82-83) Steiner rehearses Schopenhauer's own argument, essentially that through the will, the activity of the body, and the activity of willing are brought together. The will prompts the body to act even as it contemplates the act itself.

Steiner refutes this, arguing that perception is still preliminary to willing, i.e., preliminary to those actions of the body that Schopenhauer would interpret as being linked to some willed impulse. 

Toward the "absoluteness of thinking"
Moving closer to the end of this important chapter, Steiner reinforces his argument for the primacy of thinking as "the activity of knowing the world." Asserting that thinking is "full of content" rather than mere abstraction, he states that only thinking allows us to make any distinctions between the multiplicity of impressions our senses perceive. Thinking is the thing that comes to meet sense impressions, bringing forth concepts and ideas so that the perception can be made intelligible.

He introduces the term "intuition," describing it as the "form" in which the content of thought first arises. Accordingly "intuition is for thinking what observation is for perception (84)," i.e., the interior/subject component of the relational phenomenon. A person without intuition sees only disconnected perceptual fragments.

A thing becomes intelligible when it is placed back into the holistic context from which our perceptions tear them. Our perceptions necessarily distort the totality of reality because through our sensory organization, we only perceive such a thin, individual slice of reality, but actually, "(t)here is no such thing as an object separated off from the whole world (85)." Thinking is the thing that restores a disconnected perception to wholeness, because the world of our thinking is interconnected to all of other thoughts, concepts, and intuitions.

How things "really stand"
The final piece of Chapter Five is a recapitulation of earlier arguments about perception, and a final answer to the misguided impression that critical idealism leaves us with. Steiner reminds us that critical idealism "bases itself on the fact that naive realism, consistently pursued, cancels itself out (86)." As a reminder of what he means by this, remember that naive realism takes impressions of the outside world at face value. The critical idealist argues that these observations are mere sense impressions of the subject observer. The observer then is said to transform the impressions into purely subjective representations, or "mental pictures." These mental pictures eventually form the basis of all knowledge, and we are left with the sense that what we know of the world is purely subjective, and based upon the "cognitive organization" of the sensory organs and brains possessed by the subject observer, summed up in the idea that "there is no color without the color sensitive eye." The problem, i.e., the place where this model "cancels itself out" is in its acceptance of the objective reality of the eye, brain, nervous system, etc., that allows the subject to receive the raw impressions needed for mental pictures. In this way critical idealism can only be held up by its own version of naive realism.

By the end of Chapter Five, we know that "the other way" to correctly know the world is thinking, and "the way this works" is as follows: a perception arises in consciousness, and the subject immediately becomes aware of associated perceptions (sound with color, motion with sound and color, smell with motion, sound, and color, etc.) "Only thinking joins all these perceptions to each other and reveals them in their mutual relationships (86)."

What this means is that the senses don't bring forth knowledge, thinking does, and it isn't the subject that creates knowledge unilaterally. As Steiner tells us, a perception is subjective to the degree that it triggers a conceptual intuition in the subject observer; yet it is also objective inasmuch as it depends upon the presence of an object in the "horizon of perception." As soon as we grasp this we can come to a better understanding of the relationship between the mental picture and the object itself, and more importantly, we can cross "over the boundary where the relationship between human subject and the object belonging to the world will be led down from the purely conceptual field of knowing activity into our concrete individual life (89).

5/14 Next

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