Cunningham Summary - Chapter 7

Chapter Summary Of The Philosophy Of Freedom
Eric Cunningham

Chapter 7 Are There Limits To Cognition?

Monism vs. dualism
In the beginning of this chapter on the limits of knowing, Steiner begins by drawing a distinction between "monism" and "dualism." His turns out to be a very case-specific definition of monism, i.e., the case in which it is offered as an oppositional argument to subject-object dualism. For this reason it is not a particularly complete or complex definition of monism, and it would be a mistake to take Steiner's characterization of the idea here as exhaustive. Monism is a deeply rich and nuanced term and has been treated from a wide variety of disciplines and intellectual traditions. I only mention this because Steiner's shorthand characterization of a monistic world as a world that our knowing "elaborates into a ... unity" is really a rough one, and should be seen as a provisional characterization that seeks to describe the way human thinking establishes unity from the apparent duality between the knowing subject and the objective "world of appearances."

The point that dualism is a false construct of the mind is made once again, and again, he lays much of the blame for high modern dualism on the philosophy of Kant, who moved beyond the crude duality of "subject" and "object" into the realm of a new duality of "object" and "thing-in-itself." In this schema, the subjective perception is a kind of ground of reality, so it doesn't exactly oppose the object as in the case of naive realism--it is, rather, the cognitive organization that establishes the ordered place of a perception in an object world. So, by Kant's way of thinking (Steiner suggests), the mental creation of the "thing-in-itself" lying behind the object is an "artificial polarity," that actually has no ground, because the object-world premise is itself but a perception.

The raising of false limits to knowing
"Any kind of existence which is assumed outside the region of perception and concept," Steiner writes, "is to be assigned to the sphere of unjustified hypotheses (101)."

The Kantian "thing-in-itself," he adds, is one of these entities, and the reason for this is that it stems from the root perception of a naive realism, and is then given the identity of a mental image, but then assigned transcendental status as an inherently unknowable, yet some how real ideal. It's there, but we don't (and can't) know what it is. Thus dualism creates not only a subject-object divide, but an object-transcendental divide.

If this is the way dualists proceed toward knowledge (and our modern world generally does), then obviously they will claim that there are barriers to knowledge.

Monists, on the other hand, seeing the world as a unity, have no notion of an unknowable "thing-in-itself" alienated from the unified world of space, time, spirit and matter. The activity of thinking within the monistic world is an expression of that world, and no knowledge lies beyond its borders. What keeps a person from knowing is not his cognitive organization, but his ability to use that cognitive organization. 

Through and for the ego
Steiner tells us that there can be no limits to knowing, and that the "preconditions" for the activity of knowing are "through" and "for" the ego. This follows from the fact that the "inner being of selfhood (ego?) which first perceives the outside world has to make that perception complete as knowledge through its own thinking activity.

"If we pose ourselves questions which we cannot answer, then the content of the question must not be clear and definite in all its parts (104)."

The questions we pose ourselves derive not from the sphere of the subjective perception of objective phenomena of the world, but rather from the "conceptual sphere" that includes the entire mental world. Again, Steiner shows us that the function of thinking is to unite these two spheres, and while thinking is an ego-activity, it is the activity of an ego linked to the entire cosmos in the conceptual sphere.

Dualism breaks the unity of thinking (the unity of perception and concept) into a four-part structure

1. the object

2. the perception the subject has of the object

3. the subject

4. the concept which relates the perception to the object

This structure leads us to assume the reality of a mental process in which perception takes place outside consciousness and the concept formation takes place inside consciousness. Dualism thus reinforces the earlier noted problem between naive realism and critical idealism. As Steiner states it, the dualist "can only create for himself conceptual representations of what is objectively real." The problem of course is that this dualism creates for itself false limits to knowledge by once again placing the "thing-in-itself" (the reality behind the representation) beyond the reach of knowing.

A further elaboration on naive realism
Dualism needs to support its abstract worldview (described earlier as a progression from perception to phantasms of an ideal "thing itself") by establishing "real principles" on which it can be said to be based.

The first of these principles is the core of modern materialist philosophy, i.e., if a thing cannot be perceived with the senses, it does not exist, and vice versa. Strangely, the attraction that many modern materialists feel toward certain kinds of spiritualism, ghosts, messages from "the other side," etc., is actually an expression of this principle. If a medium can channel a dead relative, or if a ghost slams a door, we have the physical evidence required for belief. To the naive realist/dualist, things like "love," "honor," "beauty" are merely concepts--they are actually less real than a good ghostly thing that actually goes bump in the night. To contemplate truth is to merely "think about" truth, and truth, as an idea becomes much more accessible when we associate it to a sensible thing--a fact about which the dualist can say "this is a true fact."

Even God, or the highest good can only be known by analogy, as in the case of the ubiquitous "bearded man on the throne" image of Renaissance art. So, ultimately, when the dualist tries to talk about the ideal "thing-in-itself" he or she always resorts to metaphors or symbols.

Dualism, science, and experience
The kind of science that emerges from dualism (i.e., modern science) is the kind of science that, as Steiner puts it, only makes a "description" of the contents of perception.

"The naive realist regards as real only the individual tulips which are seen; he regards the one idea of tulip as an abstraction, as the unreal thought picture which the soul has composed for itself out of the features which all tulips have in common (108)."

Steiner maintains that lived experience refutes this kind of "science," showing that the tulips we see (the ones the naive realist says are REALLY real) are in fact transitory. They bloom and disappear. But we know by experience that the real thing is the tulip species, which to the naive realist is only an abstraction. Paradoxically, the critical modern science that grows from naive realism says that the real thing is an abstraction, and the passing thing is real. To bridge the gap between the false real and the real falsehood, the dualist invents hypothetical realities like "heredity," the "life force," the "soul," and the "Divine being." Each of these terms, which are invented to indicate something ideally transcendent, generally refer only human attributes and sensibilities. For example for modern dualists who use these terms, the Divine being seems to exhibit human characteristics and judgments, the soul is an amalgam of human emotions and responses, "life force" is some intangible thing that animates nature.

Ultimately, modern dualism in science actually reifies (assigns the status of concrete reality) to the pure abstractions, even as it claims to say that only sense-perceptible things are real. This is a wild mental inconsistency that Steiner refers to as "self-contradictory world view."

Metaphysical realism
Steiner argues that the self-contradictory worldview described below, i.e., the worldview based on assigning perceptible qualities to hypothetical constructs, is the basis of metaphysical realism. Metaphysical realism, moreover, is "a contradictory mixture of naive realism and idealism (111),"involving objects of perception in flux, and unperceivable forces that cause these objects to change. While metaphysical realism admits that thinking is necessary for acquiring knowledge of the objects of perception, it fails to properly acknowledge the importance of the "concept" as the substance of the relationship between perceptions acquired through thinking (we should remember that Steiner earlier (p 46) characterized concepts as the ideas that remain after the object of perception is gone from view).

Accordingly, when we dispense with the hypothetical constructs of metaphysical realism, we are left with perceptions and the concepts which make their relationships intelligible.

"When metaphysical realism asserts that, besides the ideal relationship between the object of perception and its perceiving subject, there must exist in addition a real relationship between the 'thing-in-itself' of the perception and the 'thing-in-itself' of the perceivable subject...this assertion rests upon the incorrect assumption of an unperceivable real process analogous to the processes of the sense world (112)."

When metaphysical realism dispenses with the hypothetical constructs of these unperceivable forces, processes, and "things-in-themselves," the result is "monism," uniting, as it does, concept with perception without any artificial mediating processes.

Steiner concludes this important chapter by explaining how monism (interpreted in this specific case) resolves the problems knowing peculiar to metaphysical realism that dualism tends to create. We should remember, in the spirit of the chapter, that "limits" to knowing are created, falsely, when we fail to understand the unity that contains the perceiving subject and the perceived object. The kind of monism Steiner posits here is one in which thinking serves to "bridge over" the antithesis between subjectivity and the object world.

He is somewhat critical of the practical assumptions of scientific induction, i.e., that if enough iterations of an experiment, or enough pieces of experience should confirm a hypothesis, we can take this as knowledge of the "thing-in-itself" of the object under examination.

Steiner's primary aim, in this chapter and in the entire first part of the book is to show that treating knowledge of the world as mere sense-perception leads to a division of reality into the subjective and objective components. The division, which he has characterized in terms of the dichotomies of "naive realism vs. critical idealism" and "dualism vs. monism," leads to the same outcome in each case. This is the tendency to treat the objects of the world as mere sensory perceptions, yet at the same time to seek for an ideal reality behind the mental pictures that these sensory perceptions give rise to. The reason we do this is that to make the world intelligible, some sense has to be made of the mental pictures of which life apparently, ultimately, exists. For Steiner, looking to make sense of the world as mere mental pictures leads us down the road of fantasy.

The notion that all scientific and philosophical roads end in this kind of fantasy is that which leads Steiner to assert that the subject-object division is in fact resolved by thinking. For Steiner, thinking, the forming of concepts and ideas about perceived things, is the means by which the dichotomy is embraced, the divided world is made whole, and limits to knowledge are removed.

7/14 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