Part One of The Philosophy of Freedom examines the basis for freedom in human thinking, gives an account of the relationship between knowledge and perception, and explores the reliability of thinking as a means to knowledge. In a central chapter Steiner argues that thinking proceeds only on the basis of its own internal content. In Part Two Steiner analyzes the conditions necessary for freedom of action. In human action the internal content of thinking insulates it from the effects of external causality and results, when it is applied, in freedom. He develops a moral philosophy he describes as "ethical individualism". The book's subtitle, Some results of introspective observation following the methods of natural science, describes the philosophical method Steiner intends to follow.
Originally published in 1894 in German as Die Philosophie der Freiheit, with a second edition published in 1918, the work has appeared under a number of English titles, including The Philosophy of Freedom, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, and Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path.
The twofold structure of The Philosophy of Freedom partly parallels Hegel's description of freedom: "Ethical life is the Idea of freedom as the living good which has its knowledge and volition in self-consciousness, and its actuality through self-conscious action." However, Steiner differs from Hegel in an essential way: Steiner finds the activity of thinking to be something much greater and more real than the concepts which crystallize out of thinking.
Steiner seeks to demonstrate that we can achieve a true picture of reality only by uniting perception, which reflects only the outer appearance of the world, and conception, which together give us access to the world's inner structure. He suggests that freedom arises when we bridge the gap between our ideals and the constraints of external reality, letting our deeds be inspired by moral imagination.
Knowledge of freedom
Steiner begins exploring the nature of human freedom by accepting "that an action, of which the agent does not know why he performs it, cannot be free," but asking what happens when a person becomes conscious of his or her motives for acting. He proposes (1) that through introspective observation we can become conscious of the motivations of our actions, and (2) that the sole possibility of human freedom, if it exists at all, must be sought in an awareness of the motives of our actions.
In Chapter 2, "The Fundamental Desire for Knowledge," Steiner discusses how an awareness of the division between mind, or subject, and world, or object, gives rise to a desire to reestablish a unity between these poles. After criticizing solutions to this problem provided by dualism in the philosophy of mind and several forms of monism as one-sided, Steiner suggests that only by locating nature's manifestations within our subjective nature can we overcome this division.
In Chapter 3, "Thinking in the Service of Knowledge," Steiner observes that when confronted with percepts, we feel obliged to think about and add concepts to these: to observation we add thinking. Steiner seeks to demonstrate that what he considers the primary antithesis between observation and thinking underlies all other related antitheses and philosophical distinctions, such as subject vs. object, appearance vs. reality, and so on. For most objects of observation, he points out, we cannot observe both the percept and our thinking about this percept simultaneously, for a tree and thinking about a tree are fundamentally different; we can only attend to one at a time. In contrast, we can simultaneously observe thinking and observe our thoughts about thinking, for here the percept (thinking) and our thinking about the percept consist of the same element (thought): Just thinking and thinking about thinking are the same process; observing the latter, we are simultaneously observing the former.
Normally, however, for just that reason we do not pay attention to the process of thinking, only its results, the thoughts themselves: "The first observation which we make about thinking is therefore this: that it is the unobserved element in our ordinary mental and spiritual life". Steiner connects this "first observation" to the fact that thinking is entirely due to our own activity. It does not appear before us unless we ourselves produce it. Nevertheless, when I apprehend the content of thinking, a concept, this is self-justifying, in the sense that it can be asked why I feel this or that way about something, but not why it produces in me this or that concept. Such a question would be "simply meaningless". Their contents justify the relations of concepts to one another.
Furthermore, when observing my thinking, it is always a past instance of thinking that I observe, not a present one. That the thinker and the observer of the thinker are one and the same explains why I can know thinking "more intimately and immediately than any other process in the world" This is what Steiner calls the transparency of our thinking process. To appreciate this point, we must be able to adapt to our own thinking the "exceptional" procedure mentioned above: we must apply it to itself. If we are unable to do this, and we think of thinking as a brain-process, it is because we do not see thinking, because we are unable to take up the exceptional position needed to do so.
Steiner takes Descartes' dictum, "I think, therefore I am," to signify the truth that "I am certain . . . that [thinking] exists in the sense that I myself bring it forth," However, Steiner advances the objection (common to many others, beginning in Descartes' own time,) that the further claim that I am is more problematic.
Steiner's full view is found in the following passage.
...thinking must never be regarded as merely a subjective activity. Thinking lies beyond subject and object. It produces these two concepts just as it produces all others. When, therefore, I, as thinking subject, refer a concept to an object, we must not regard this reference as something purely subjective. It is not the subject that makes the reference, but thinking. The subject does not think because it is a subject; rather it appears to itself as a subject because it can think. The activity exercised by man as a thinking being is thus not merely subjective. Rather is it something neither subjective nor objective, that transcends both these concepts. I ought never to say that my individual subject thinks, but much more that my individual subject lives by the grace of thinking.
The Chapter on thinking is followed by a shorter one on perception, Chapter 4. It contains two main and very important points. Steiner points out the inconsistency of treating all our perceptions as mere subjective mental images inside the brain. If that were true, the perception of the brain itself would have to be a mere subjective mental image inside the brain! In that case the basis for our knowledge of the brain would be completely undermined. The scientific claim is made, on the basis of physiology and psychology, that our percepts are produced by a causal process within the organism and hence are subjective. This is called "critical idealism" But physiology and psychology are based on these percepts. So our knowledge of physiology and psychology is subjective. But then it cannot validate the claim that percepts are subjective. Furthermore, critical idealism leaves unaccounted for the passage from the brain process to the sensation.
What are the consequences of such a view of perception for the concept of knowledge? In Chapter 5 Steiner presents his concept of knowledge. Man is a two-sided being who thinks and also perceives. The two activities together give a complete view of the world. Knowledge is the union of what is produced in thinking, the concept, and what is produced in perceiving, the percept. Steiner argues that there can be no relationship among the objects of perception other than what is revealed in the ideal element produced by thinking, the concept. Accordingly, the relation between some perceived object and ourselves is also an ideal one.
An important passage analyzes the view that we cannot experience the world itself but only subjective images somewhere inside the brain, or in the soul inside the brain. This view is based on treating the perceptual relationship between self and world as other than ideal, as naively real, just as we perceive it, as a process derived in its content from perception itself.
At the end of Chapter 5 Steiner completes the view of perception begun in Chapter 4. What is the percept that perceiving produces? Steiner rejects this question. 'The question asked in this way is absurd.' For a percept is the determinate content of the perception, and its "what?" - what it is - can only refer to this content.
We can become conscious of our thought processes in a way that we cannot be of our feelings, will or sense perceptions. We know that what we experience in thinking is exactly what it seems, so that appearance and reality become one. By contrast, our feelings' meaning is not directly apparent, while we only perceive the meaning of a percept after some form of conceptual framework has been brought to bear (for example, we give the right spatial meaning to the visually converging lines of railroad tracks through our understanding of perspective). Mathematics is an example of thinking in which thought itself forms the perceptions; no sense-perceptions are needed to form a basis for mathematical principles. In this sense mathematics could be said to be one discipline that studies the inner aspect of reality.
Steiner proposes that the apparent dualism of experience can be overcome by discovering the inner and initially hidden unity of perception and thinking. By observing a thinking process sufficiently intensively, perceiving and thinking can begin to unify. This is knowledge. By the same token, a clear-eyed study of what is revealed in observation can lead to appropriate concepts - thinking.
Steiner argues that thinking is more pervasive in our ordinary perceiving than we often recognize. If, for example, we had not as infants learned, unconsciously, to think with our eyes and limbs, then our eyes, even if functioning perfectly in a physical sense, would see only something like what the philosopher William James referred to as a "blooming buzzing confusion,” or what Steiner referred to as a highly chaotic stage of the “given.” We would not perceive spatial or temporal structure or recognize distinct qualities. If that conclusion seems surprising, that is because the thinking-in-perceiving learned in childhood becomes habitual and automatic long before we attain fully consciousness, so we rarely become aware of the key role cognition plays in even the simplest perceptions. Similarly, we are unconscious of the ways we perceive our thinking.
'Our next task must be to define the concept of "mental picture" more closely', Steiner writes at the end of the Chapter 6. With this concept we arrive at the relation of knowledge to the individual, and to life, and feeling. After an interesting refutation of the subjectivity of percepts, Steiner describes a mental picture as an intuition or thought related to an individual percept. And so the mental picture is defined as an individualized concept.
Experience is the "sum total" of mental pictures of the individual. But there is more to the human being's cognitive inventory than percept, concept and mental picture. There is the relation of these things to the Ego; and this is feeling. Feeling gives our personal relation to the world, and we oscillate between it and the the "universal world process" given in thinking. The mental pictures we form gives our mental life an individual stamp, and relates it to our own life.
Chapter 7 takes up the consequences of the view that knowledge consists of the restoration of the unity of the content of the percept and the concept. Steiner calls those who make the epistemological distinction into a permanent metaphysical one dualists. For the monist ‘The world is given to us as a duality, and knowledge transforms it into a unity.' Working with an irresolvable distinction, the dualist is bound to assert that there are limits to knowledge: ‘the “in itself” of a thing.’ For the monist there is no in-principle limit to knowledge.
For monism in Steiner’s sense there are only concepts and percepts, which, united, form the object; for the dualist there is the subject, the object, the percept, and the concept. We must not conceive of the process of perception as though it is naïvely real, as we do when we take perception to be a causal effect of the things as they are in themselves on us. Metaphysical realism is the view that there is an object in the world that is imperceptible as it is in itself, but is also to be conceived naïve realistically. It 'is a contradictory mixture of naïve realism and idealism. Its hypothetical [elements] are imperceptible entities endowed with the qualities of percepts’). For the monist, the process of perception is an ideal relation. The metaphysical realist, however, is left with the unanswerable question how the metaphysically real objects are converted into subjective percepts. Here Steiner can be read as giving his account of the structure and basis of what is today called the mind-body problem.
The reality of freedom
Steiner begins the second part of the book by emphasizing the role of self-awareness in objective thinking. Here he modifies the usual description of inner and outer experience by pointing out that our feelings, for example, are given to us as naively as outer perceptions. Both of these, feelings and perceptions, tell about objects we are interested in: the one about ourselves, the other about the world. Both require the help of thinking to penetrate the reasons why they arise, to comprehend their inner message. The same is true of our will. Whereas our feelings tell how the world affects us, our will tells how we would affect the world. Neither attains to true objectivity, for both mix the world's existence and our inner life in an unclear way. Steiner emphasizes that we experience our feelings and will - and our perceptions as well – as being more essentially part of us than our thinking; the former are more basic, more natural. He celebrates this gift of natural, direct experience, but points out that this experience is still dualistic in the sense that it only encompasses one side of the world.
Chapter 9 With regard to freedom of the will, Steiner observes that a key question is how the will to action arises in the first place. Steiner describes to begin with two sources for human action: on the one hand, the driving forces springing from our natural being, from our instincts, feelings, and thoughts insofar as these are determined by our character - and on the other hand, various kinds of external motives we may adopt, including the dictates of abstract ethical or moral codes. In this way, both nature and culture bring forces to bear on our will and soul life. Overcoming these two elements, neither of which is individualized, we can achieve genuinely individualized intuitions that speak to the particular situation at hand. By overcoming a slavish or automatic response to the dictates of both our 'lower' drives and conventional morality, and by orchestrating a meeting place of objective and subjective elements of experience, we find the freedom to choose how to think and act.
Freedom for Steiner does not consist in acting out everything subjective within us, but in acting out of love, thoughtfully and creatively. In this way we can love our own actions, which are unique and individual to us, rather than stemming from obedience to external moral codes or compulsive physical drives. Both of the latter constitute limitations on freedom:
Whether his unfreedom is forced on him by physical means or by moral laws, whether man is unfree because he follows his unlimited sexual desire or because he is bound by the fetters of conventional morality, is quite immaterial from a certain point of view...let us not assert that such a man can rightly call his actions his own, seeing that he is driven to them by a force other than himself.
Freedom arises most clearly at the moment when a human being becomes active in pure, individualized thinking; this is, for Steiner, spiritual activity. Achieving freedom is then accomplished by learning to let an ever larger portion of one's actions be determined by such individualized thought, rather than by habit, addiction, reflex, or involuntary or unconscious motives. Steiner differentiates pure thinking into "moral intuition" (formulation of individual purposes), "moral imagination" (creative strategies for realizing these larger purposes in the concrete situation), and "moral technique" (the practical capacity to accomplish what was intended). He suggests that we only achieve free deeds when we find an ethically impelled but particularized response to the immediacy of a given situation. Such a response will always be radically individual; it cannot be predicted or prescribed.
Steiner's ethical philosophy is neither utilitarian nor deontological. For Steiner, the highest morality exists when a person acts in the world through deeds of love realized by means of individually developed and contextually-sensitive moral imaginations,
This all is by way of introduction and recapitulation. Steiner then introduces the principle that we can act out of the compulsions of our natural being (reflexes, drives, desires) or out of the compulsion of ethical principles, and that neither of these leaves us free. Between them, however, is an individual insight, a partly situational ethic, that arises neither from abstract principles nor from our bodily impulses. A deed that arises in this way can be said to be truly free; it is also both unpredictable and wholly individual. Here Steiner articulates his fundamental maxim of social life:
Live through deeds of love, and let others live with understanding for each person's unique intentions.
Here he describes a polarity of influences on human nature, stating that morality transcends both the determining factors of bodily influences and those of convention:
A moral misunderstanding, a clash, is out of the question between people who are morally free. Only one who is morally unfree, who obeys bodily instincts or conventional demands of duty, turns away from a fellow human being if the latter does not obey the same instincts and demands as himself.
For Steiner, true morality, the highest good, is the universal mediated by the profoundly individual and situational; it depends upon our achieving freedom from both our inner drives and outer pressures. To achieve such free deeds, we must cultivate our moral imagination, our ability to imaginatively create ethically sound and practical solutions to new situations, in fact, to forge our own ethical principles and to transform these flexibly as needed - not in the service of our own egotistical purposes, but in the face of new demands and unique situations. This is only possible through moral intuitions, immediate experiences of spiritual realities that underlie moral judgments. Moral imagination and intuition allow us to realize our subjective impulses in objective reality, thus creating bridges between the spiritual influence of our subjectivity and the natural influence of the objective world in deeds whereby "that which is natural is spiritual, that which is spiritual is natural".
Toward the end of the second part of the book, Steiner writes that "The unique character of the idea, by means of which I distinguish myself as 'I', makes me an individual." And then, "An act the grounds for which lie in the ideal part of my nature is free." Steiner there is using the term ideal to refer to pure ideation or pure thinking in Steiner's sense. "The action is therefore neither stereotyped, carried out according to set rules, nor is it performed automatically in response to an external impetus; the action is determined solely through its ideal content." What is individual in us is to be distinguished from what is generic by its ideal character. If an act proceeds out of genuine thinking, or practical reason, then it is free.
Steiner concludes by pointing out that to achieve this level of freedom, we must lift ourselves out of our group-existence: out of the prejudices we receive from our family, nation, ethnic group and religion, and all that we inherit from the past that limits our creative and imaginative capacity to meet the world directly. Only when we realize our potential to be a unique individual are we free. Thus, it lies in our freedom to achieve freedom; only when we actively strive towards freedom do we have some chance of attaining it.
Relation to earlier and later work
Before 1900, Steiner was laying the epistemological basis of his thought. Steiner mentioned that The Philosophy of Freedom was intended to give the philosophical foundations for what had been outlined in his earlier work Truth and Science (1892).
In works written after 1900, Steiner began to explain how thinking can evolve to become an organ of perception of higher worlds of living, creative, spiritual beings. Steiner frequently referred to The Philosophy of Freedom in his later lectures and in written works. Near the end of his life, he suggested that The Philosophy of Freedom would outlive all his other works.
The fundamental maxim of free men is to live in love towards our actions, and to let live in the understanding of the other person's will. Chapter 9
Ethical individualism... is spiritualized theory of evolution carried over into moral life. Chapter 12
Only to the extent that a man has emancipated himself...from all that is generic, does he count as a free spirit within a human community. No man is all genus, none is all individuality. Chapter 14
The first edition of Die Philosophie der Freiheit was published in 1893/4. A second revised edition appeared in 1918. Further German editions reprinted the 1918 text until 1973, when a revised edition was produced based on Steiner's corrections of the galley proofs of the 1918 edition. Minor changes, including corrections to some of Steiner's citations, were made in the 1987 German edition.
The first edition included the following passage Steiner removed from later editions: “We no longer believe that there is a norm to which we must all strive to conform. Nothing is accepted as valid, unless it springs from the roots of individuality. The saying Each one of us must choose his hero in whose footsteps he toils up to Olympus no longer holds for us. If only we probe deep enough into the very heart of our being, there dwells something noble, something worthy of development.”