Cunningham Summary - Chapter 9

Chapter Summary Of The Philosophy Of Freedom
Eric Cunningham

Chapter 9 The Idea of Freedom
Before getting into this chapter, I should point out that Steiner would probably not have liked the fact that I am calling this book "The Philosophy of Freedom." His word "freiheit" can be translated "freedom," but it literally means "freehood." The most commonly used English translation for this book is "The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity," as in the text I'm referring to, which is the fine 1986 translation by William Lindemann.

I think Steiner may have feared that the word "freedom" would summon up for English readers too many connotations of modern political or social freedom--rather than the deep spiritual free-ness that he wanted to convey.

I don't use "spiritual activity" because it seems too linguistically remote from the word "freiheit," and much too New-Agey to do justice to the complexity of Steiner's philosophy.

In this chapter, Steiner begins to describe more concretely what he means by thinking. Thinking is "a self-contained entity" that can be observed by the thinking subject. As Steiner writes, "(w)hoever observes thinking lives during his observation directly within a spiritual, self-sustaining weaving of being (134)." Thinking is thus "founded upon itself" and is the key to grasping the spiritual quality of the human condition.

Thinking and intuition
According to Steiner, thinking brings about the unity of perception and concept, two things which are usually considered separate in most modern mental constructs. If we don't recognize (and presumably think about), the role that thinking plays in making this unification, we will be stuck with both flawed perceptions and flawed concepts, and will tend to falsely favor one over the other as the chief characteristic of reality.

The most interesting comment in this section is an introductory remark about intuition--Steiner maintains that when thinking arises in our consciousness, it is not a "shadowy copy of reality, but rather self-sustaining, spiritual, essential being (134)." He goes on to say that this "being" is present for him through "intuition," which he characterizes as "the conscious experience, occurring within the purely spiritual, of a purely spiritual content (135)."

What this means is that the "being" of thinking is purely spiritual, and that through our intuition (a word with layers of meaning in the Steiner lexicon) we participate in this purely spiritual enterprise. Whether his readers buy into this or not, it's fascinating to ponder the idea that the material object, the material eye, the material brain, etc., permit us access to an experience that is autonomous and wholly non-material--moreover this is not deep meditation, or a revealed vision of something, but merely day-to-day thinking.

Thinking and the human organism
In this section, Steiner puts forth one of his most peculiar ideas about thinking, but one that becomes an essential piece of the teachings of Anthroposophy.

When we come to grips with the intuitive (and spiritual) quality of thinking, we realize that the human physical organization "can bring about nothing with respect to the essential being of thinking (135)." In fact, the operations of the human organism withdraw, or make room for thinking as it makes its appearance. This means that the body is not "doing" the activity of thinking, rather thinking appears "through" the body.

But, even though thinking is not dependent on the bodily organization, "I-consciousness" is, because thinking leaves traces upon the bodily organization which contribute to the subject's sense of ego-identity. Steiner makes a distinction between the "real I" and "I-consciousness." The "real I" can be found in thinking, but "I-consciousness" is a by-product of thinking, again, the "trace" or imprint of thinking upon the thinker. 

Acts of will
In relation to acts of the will Steiner distinguishes between "motives" for action, and "mainsprings" of action. The former is a "conceptual or mentally-pictured" factor, or an "immediate" cause for action; the latter is the "directly conditioning factor of willing in the human organization," in other words sustaining quality underlying the action.

He refers to a "characterological" disposition, or individual make-up for each individual that largely influences the acts of will--this disposition is formed over the whole of life, influenced by the experiences and concepts each person holds, in particular the individual's life of feeling.

"When I feel pleasure or pain with respect to a definite mental picture or concept, upon this will depend whether I want to make it a motive for my action or not (138)."

So, a positive felt response to a concept becomes a motive for action, but the characterological disposition of a person will determine the way energies are marshaled to act.

Steiner then makes an unexpected, but not unreasonable leap to morality, suggesting that the feeling and willing that prompt our actions, and the motives and mainsprings associated with feeling and willing are all moral in nature.

Mainsprings of morality
The mainsprings of morality, Steiner tells us, are located in the "elements" from which our lives are composed.

The first of these elements are perceptions (the nature of which he has discussed at length in previous chapters, but), which are now discussed as "drives," or, impulses that activate the will in an attempt to satisfy desires triggered by the perception. He distinguishes between the drives activated by the "lower" senses with those drives that activate the higher senses; his example of the latter is "social propriety" or "tact." It's not entirely clear how the perception of a higher order phenomena should lead to a "mainspring of morality" as pedestrian as tact, but it does invite us to consider the degree to which social order may be maintained through the apprehension of higher order objective truths.

The second "element" of human life is feeling--feelings become attached to perceptions just as willful desires do. Pity, shame, pride, honor, remorse, revenge, etc., can all in their turn become mainsprings for moral action of one kind or another.

The third "element," or level of life is the level of "thinking and mental picturing." Our mental pictures, especially those we can call up in memory become powerful as sustained mainsprings for moral action. When these pictures become "models" for action through repeated associations with similar kinds of perception, we can call them "practical experience."

The highest element of life is conceptual thinking without regard to a specific content of perception(italics mine). When we can summon up a concept through pure intuition (which, we remember, Steiner characterizes as the conscious experience of spiritual content) and have this concept become the core of willful activity, we can say that the mainspring of our moral action is pure thinking. If too, we want to equate pure thinking to reason, we can call the mainspring of this moral act "practical reason."

More on motives of moral acts
Having discussed the motives and mainsprings of willed actions, Steiner turns his focus to moral acts and the 1) mental pictures and 2) concepts that serve as their motives. He rejects the standard utilitarian idea that "pleasure" is a motive to action, because at the point of motives, there is no "pleasure" in existence, but only the mental picture of the pleasure to be attained.

According to Steiner, "egoism," is the name of the principle by which one seeks to attain personal pleasure as the consequence of one's acts, and the egoistic desire (which come in varying degrees) can serve as the mental picture which moves a person to act. From this point, concepts also play a role in sustaining the action, as they link the action to a pre-existing moral landscape that generally conditions the ways in which one acts. The "conceptual content" may be less immediate than the desire-motive, but it makes the performance of the action intelligible in a larger inner-life context. When we act consistently with the conditions of our inner life, we can be said to be obeying our conscience.

Moral progress
"It signifies moral progress," says Steiner, "when a person no longer simply takes the commandment of an outer or inner authority as the motive of his action but rather when his striving is for insight into the reason why one or another maxim of action should work in him as a motive (144)." This progress here is the movement from authority-based moral action to free action based on acquired moral insight.

A person who has made this progress has sought and attained knowledge of the "needs" of moral life. Steiner lists these as:

1) the greatest possible good of all mankind

This need is something that may be a matter of personal interpretation depending on life conditions and knowledge

2) cultural progress (which seems to refer to moral development in the historical world)

This kind of progress comes with a cost as "development" in history necessarily involves the destruction or abandoning of older forms

3) the realization of "individual goals of morality grasped intuitively."

This "third" need is especially interesting because it shows the importance of personal development--the importance of forming high ideals and living up to them, not by internal violence, but by "pure intuition." Within this "need" we can identify another kind of process taking place, and take note of the differences between actions that are made with a "moral" end in mind, and actions that "spring" from intuition and can later be seen to have had a clear moral origin. There are times when we act with the greatest good in mind, and other time when we act with human progress in mind, but the "highest" moral acts are those that emerge directly from our conceptual intuition.

A principle of ethical morality
Steiner has now identified both the highest disposition of character (pure thinking), and the highest motive for moral activity (conceptual intuition). The combination of these two things indicates an elevated definition of ethical freedom. Our most morally ethical actions are those that spring from purely ideal, or spiritually intuitive motives.

It goes to reason that people who lack the capacity for moral intuition are not capable of free moral activity. They will act under some compulsion from external, or even internal forces (whether these be conditioned responses, dogma, brainwashing, etc.) to execute moral acts.

Steiner suggests that this kind of moral activity is the "antithesis" to the Kantian principle of ethical morality that is often called "the categorical imperative," which Steiner summarizes as "(a)ct in such a way that the basic tenets of your action can be valid for all men." Steiner believes that this imperative is "the death of all individual impulse to action."

Reconciling moral and personal motives
Following his surprising assertion that Kant's categorical imperative is the "antithesis" of moral activity, Steiner goes on to state that in performing authentic moral acts, we should not worry about what might hold true for "all men" but only what holds true for us.

How can it be that our actions can stem from motivations particular to ourselves yet also claim to be purely, objectively ideal actions? It's possible, Steiner says, when we consider the difference between motives to action, and the perceptible content of an action. The ego is always looking at the perceptible content of an action, but does not have to be determined by it--accordingly there is a difference between the concept formed about an action (and its result) and the motive to action itself. When a person decides to do a positive act for the good of society or the world, he or she will think about it, forming a "cognitive concept" of the action and its outcomes. The "moral concept" of the act is not something that the ego can take ownership of--it adheres to the morality of the act from an ideal standpoint. The actor seems to experience points of contact with the moral content of an act in two ways: 1) in intuiting the ideal moral quality of the act and 2) and in choosing the manner in which he or she carries out the act.

Again, owing to circumstances in life, people differ in their capacities for moral intuition--the degree to which we allow an objectively real morality come to life in our activity, in spite of the multitude of choices available to us, is the degree to which we exercise "ethical individualism." 

Love and moral acts
In this section Steiner offers a radical way of thinking about the connection between action, freedom, morality, and love.

He distinguishes between the kind of ethical acts that are historically or culturally constructed, and those that appear authentically, from the core of intuition as the fruits of love. Mundane lawful acts that appear to emerge from the deepest source of ethical rectitude are most often the results of cultural conditioning, and as such are not really free--they are more like programmed responses that seek to fulfill the standards of good religious morality, or good progressive righteousness. The person who executes these acts is only functioning as "a higher kind of automaton."

In contrast to this we have authentic moral acts:

"Only when I follow my love for the object is it I myself who acts. I act on this level of morality not because I acknowledge a master over me, nor outer authority, nor a so-called inner voice. I acknowledge no outer principle for my action because I have found within myself the basis for my actions: love for the action. I do not test intellectually whether my action is good or evil; I carry it out because I love it (149-50)."

Thus our most ethical acts are not done in response to, or with the expectation of meeting, externally defined norms or standards, but emerge freely from within.

Free acts and criminal acts
Steiner entertains an objection to the idea that the freest and highest moral acts are those that come from the deep core of intuitive individuality. If, the objection goes, a person only does what suits him or her, regardless of religious or ethical norms, then there seems to be no difference between good and criminal acts.

The problem with the logic that bad deeds are as real and individualized as good deeds is that it fails to recognize the difference between pure intuition (the source of good acts) and blind drives (the source of criminal acts).

The blind drive which leads to a criminal act is, in fact, not free. When a person responds to a blind drive that leads to the commission of a crime, he or she is actually acting in a way consistent with the non-ideal and unindividuated mass of humanity--responding to the lowest, most common, and most coarse denominator of the human species.

"What is individual in me is not my organism with its drives and feelings, but rather the unified world of ideas which lights up within this organism (151)."

Accordingly criminal acts are not just as free as good acts--they are, by Steiner's understanding, decidedly unfree.

"A person is free only insofar as he is in a position at every moment in his life to follow himself (152)."

The free human being
Freedom does not ignore the laws of morality, it conforms to the--but an act that "includes" the laws of morality is of a higher order than a law that is "dictated" by them. In this sense, Steiner maintains, the bare concept of duty excludes inner freedom, because it appeals to submission not free action--again, the freest actions are those that spring from ethical individualism.

A truly free moral community is not bound together by moral laws. It is bound together by the fact that each member of that community lives freely in the world of ideas that all humanity shares--the world of thought that is alive in all of us.

Our individuality stems from the fact that our intuitions of the ideal world differ from those of our fellow human beings. We are free individuals when we acknowledge and honor the fact that others belong to the same world of ideas, but may have different intuitions of that world.

"To live in the love for one's actions, and to let live in understanding for the other's willing, is the basic maxim of free human beings. They know no other "ought" than that which their willing brings itself into intuitive harmony; what they shall will in a certain case, this their capacity for ideas will tell them (154)."

The freedom of the indwelling spirit
Steiner observes that the ability of human beings to live together in society derives from their shared participation in the spiritual world. We seek each other's approval and company in the realm of free spiritual activity.

Behaving morally and ethical simply because we are compelled to do so is not free morality or ethics. It may be the general belief of systems of the world that behaving morally is a duty not a free act, but if we do act morally under compulsion, this activity is not free.

"Whether one controls this non-freedom through physical means or through moral laws, whether a person is unfree because he follows his unlimited sexual drive, or because he is bound in the fetters of conventional morality is, from a certain standpoint, a matter of complete indifference (155)."

Even in a world of enforced order and political correctness, we are still capable of attaining true freedom, when the "deeper being" that dwells in us expresses him or herself in an authentically free way. This "free spirit" is the "purest expression" of man's nature. 

Free Spirit
In the final pages of chapter nine, Steiner returns to the ideas of "perception" and "concept" in order to support the assertion that "the intellectual and moral life of the human being lead us to his twofold nature: perceiving (direct experience) and thinking."

He then links free moral activity (the dominant subject of chapter nine) to his earlier notions on the primacy of thinking to show that free spirit, which he calls the "purest expression of man's nature," also helps to heal and "bridge" our divided natures. The division between "perception" and "concept" is made whole not only through the process-act of thinking, but through the unifying autonomy of free moral action.

This then leads to the way we, as objects of perception, can transform ourselves through free moral acts.

"The plant will transform itself because of the objective lawfulness lying within it; the human being remains in his unfinished state if he does not take up the stuff of transformation within himself and transform himself through his own power (157)."

Freedom, duty, and morality
Free spirituality, Steiner tells us, is the "human being's last stage of development." Free spirituality trumps duty as a human value, because it does not derive from compulsion. As before, he makes the contrast between duty and freedom, comparing it to the difference between a "merely law-abiding and a free morality."

He points out that every "rule" we have come to obey as law was once the spiritual intuition of a free being expressing morality, not a fettered person trying to impose morality on other fettered people. As Steiner puts it:

"The free person acts morally because he has a moral idea; but he does not act so that morality will arise. Human individuals, with their moral ideas belonging to their being, are the prerequisite of a moral world order (160)."

9/14 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