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Freedom, Knowledge and the Philosophy of the Young Rudolf Steiner

Lecturer: David Sweeney

Originally Taught: Winter School 2012

This course will introduce students to Rudolf Steiner's (1861-1925) philosophical thought as given in his two early works philosophical works The Philosophy of Freedom and Truth and Knowledge. Two works that are clearly argued and beautifully written. The arguments are situated in epistemology and morality and more broadly in German Idealism. Awaiting the curious reader are many philosophical ideas and arguments that reward further investigation.

During the period 1882-1894 Steiner, a young man from the county, lived in Vienna and Weimar studying, teaching and finding his place in the world. He attended Brentano's lectures (along with Husserl and many others later to become influential); studied the works of (among others) Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Nietzsche; edited Goethe's scientific writings, which lead him to write The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World View; met the ageing Nietzsche; wrote his own dissertation Truth and Knowledge (published as a book in 1892); and wrote and published The Philosophy of Freedom, his answer to the problems of epistemology and German Idealism.

Today, Steiner is perhaps better known for his influence in the fields of education, medicine and anthroposophy, his over 6,000 lectures on a seemingly endless array of topics and his later esoteric work (which sometimes attracts heavy criticism). This course, however, will only focus on Steiner’s early work in Philosophy. Steiner always maintained that while this early work was of a different character to his later work, nonetheless the early work was foundational for the latter.

In this early work, Steiner proposes a monistic (non-dualist) world view in which the world and its truth are within the reach of our knowledge. He argues against both the mind/body split (e.g. Descartes’ dualism) and the existence of a part of the world that is inaccessible to us (e.g. Kant’s ‘the-thing-in-itself’). Steiner bridges the gap between the world of matter and the world of concepts and ideas by arguing that the gap is only introduced by our observation of the world, that this gap is removed by the activity of thinking, i.e. knowledge.

This world view Steiner sees as a way for the modern individual, through individuality, to gain true knowledge of both the physical world and the world of ideas (and in particular morality). In this way Steiner gives a philosophical foundation both for the Sciences and the world of Thought.

The Philosophy of Freedom

Are we free? Steiner starts with this question in Philosophy of Freedom. It is often argued that we are mistaken when we think that we act freely. The real cause, it can be argued, for our actions is outside our conscious self (e.g. physical laws or the unconscious or habit). We think we act freely, but we don’t. But is it possible, asks Steiner, that we could know these reasons for our actions? This leads to the question of knowledge.

How can we know? Is the “world out there” all we can know? Or is the world of ideas all that can truly be called real? Steiner’s path is to deny all dichotomies that cut us off from the world (in the very broadest sense). Rather, Steiner starts with an exquisite examination of thinking and what is immediately presented to thinking. From here he works to gain a view of the world free from assumptions. Along the way he considers: the role thinking plays in creating the subject/object divide (and argues that thinking itself can not be assumed at the outset to be subjective); human freedom - Steiner refuses to say that we are either free or not free, but rather shows how freedom is gained by the individual, step by step though self knowledge; morality, where he argues for ethical individualism which brings us into community through the unit of concepts (rather than driving us apart as some modern individualist philosophies do); and, does evolution and Darwinism conflict with our freedom? (Where Steiner’s concepts differ from traditional or current usage (e.g. Monism) will be explained.)

Course Schedule

In these lectures, I will explain Steiner’s key ideas as well as putting them in their historical and philosophical context. The lectures will follow the structure of the Philosophy of Freedom with some divergence into other philosophies as and where necessary to follow Steiner’s argument.

Week 1:
An overview of Steiner’s early life. How did a country boy end up editing Goethe's scientific work and writing on metaphysics? We start on the philosophical problems of freedom.

Week 2:
We dive into the question of knowledge and look at some of Steiner’s main themes including: the role of thinking, the idea of the given.

Week 3:
We take a detailed look at the idea of the individual. What is it in us that is individual, what is not? And now we apply what has been developed to the problem of freedom.

Week 4:
Morality. We are now ready to consider the possibility and the nature of morality. Is the ethical individual possible?

Week 5:
We consolidate what has been covered and look at the consequences of Steiner’s Monism, and what it can achieve in explaining the world. If there is time and interest, we may have a glimpse at how his world view creates a foundation for some of his later work (for which he is much better known today). And/or we may look at some implications of Steiner’s thought for some current problems, e.g. the environment - can we find a world view in which progress does not conflict with the environment?

Texts and Reading

The lectures will not assume that any particular reading has been done and the course can be taken without reading the texts. Of course reading the texts is a good thing and neither book is long or particularly hard to read. Both the course texts are available free online for download (see below) and printed copies can be cheaply purchased from several online bookshops. Suggestions for reading will be made at the end of each lecture. Supplementary readings will be made available during the course.

The Philosophy of Freedom: The Basis For A Modern World Conception
Some results of introspective observation following the methods of Natural Science

The 1918 edition.

The German and various translations online: http://www.rsarchive.org/Books/GA004/

Downloadable English translation: http://www.rsarchive.org/Books/GA004/English/RSP1964/Download/

Truth and Knowledge: Introduction to the Philosophy of Freedom

The German and various translations online:  http://www.rsarchive.org/Books/GA003/

Downloadable English translation: http://www.rsarchive.org/Books/GA003/English/GC1981/Download/

Difficulty: Introductory