The Study of Rudolf Steiner's Lecture Cycles, and the Problem of Cognition

musings on the epistomological swampland of the Anthroposophical Movement

Joel A. Wendt

Cognition - the German word erkennen, and its relatives, seems to have no specific English equivilant. One German speaker advised me it means "active thinking", and another spoke of it as having to do with the "relationship" of the knower to the inner nature of the object of knowledge. My own sense of this problem is that its real solution will only be found as a matter of inner experience. Erkennen can't be understood as a matter of definition or translation, but only by my direct experience of my own thinking activity.

Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy of Spiritual Activity begins with an examination of the problem of freedom: Can we choose what we desire? He solved this problem by suggesting that we can in fact choose the impelling motive, the moral ground from which our actions (both inner and outer) proceed. From this he moved to the problem of percept and concept: What is the relationship between our thinking activity and our experiences?

This second question was also approached in Steiner's The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception. I find his expression there the more beautiful; namely, that the sense percept is incomplete without the act of cognition. Thinking is the final act in the process by which Nature is created.

When I think about this truth, I am always reminded, with wonder, of the verse in Genesis about God's having given to humanity the power to name the "beasts of the field and the birds of the air". World Reality needs the human being's cognitive activity to compete Itself.

The reader may have perhaps noticed that I referred above to the "sense" percept. What about the supersensible "percept"? What about those experiences which are apparently internal, which are in my soul, and for which I have many concepts (e.g. feelings)? Are those not a kind of "percept" as well. And, more significantly, what about those experiences (percepts) which are spiritual in nature; not just congnitions about objects of the sense world or within my own soul, but what about congnitions concerning invisible, supersensible Beings and their activities?

In a footnote, written forty years later, in the same text, Steiner writes:

"Therefore, what is said in this writing about the essential nature of knowledge holds good also for the knowledge of the spiritual worlds, with which my later writings are concerned. The sense-world in its manifestation to human perception is not reality. It possesses its reality in connection with that which reveals itself in man in the form of thought concerning this sense-world. Thoughts belong to the reality of the sensibly perceived; only, that which is present in the sense-existence as thought manifests itself, not externally in this existence, but inwardly in man. But thought and sense-perception are a single essence. While man enters the world in sense-perception, he separates thought from reality; but the thought merely manifests itself in another place within the mind. The separation between percept and thought possesses no significance for the objective world; it occurs only because man takes up a position in the midst of existence. It is to him that this appearance thus occurs, as if thought and percept were twofold. Nor is it otherwise in the case of spiritual perception. When this occurs by reason of processes in the soul which I have described in my more recent book Knowledge of the Higher World and Its Attainment, this then forms likewise one aspect of (spiritual) existence; and the corresponding thoughts of the spiritual form the other aspect. A difference occurs only to this extent, that sense-perception reaches its consummation through thought in reality, as it were, in an upper direction at the beginning of the spiritual; whereas spiritual perception is experienced in its true being from this beginning downward. The fact that the experience of sense-perception occurs through the senses formed by Nature, and that of the perception of the spiritual through spiritual organs of perception, first formed in a psychic manner, does not constitute a distinction in principle."

Nothing could be clearer, could it? Let me draw from this paragraph, written in 1924, what I believe is relevant to our discussion:

The same dynamic, between experience and thought, in terms of a science of knowledge, exists for both the sense world and the spiritual world. In the case of the former, the sense world, the nature object (the experience) is not the reality, as this reality is only found in the thought brought about by human cognition. This apparent division between thought and experience arises only because the human being is present; in reality they are united.

In the case of the latter, the spiritual world, the same is true, with these two differences. In spiritual perception the reality (the unity of thought and experience) is apprehended from the beginning; and, psychic organs need to be first developed in order for spiritual perception to take place.

What has this to do with our theme? Throughout the world, where anthroposophy is practiced, groups of anthroposophists engage in the common and collective study of the works of Rudolf Steiner. These works are of two kinds: works actually written to be read (e.g. Occult Science); and lectures, only spoken, whose transcriptions were never read or revised by the speaker (e.g. World History in the Light of Anthroposophy).

When I read a text, any text, not just something by Steiner, what is happening? What is the nature of my experience? What light can a science of knowledge shed on this experience? What is percept and what is concept?

I begin with the most obvious fundamentals, because it is essential not to wonder off at the very beginning by letting in any assumptions. I look at a text, and discover on a page a series of symbols - written language. Right away, just in the act of reading, I interpret meaning. This meaning is not inherent in these symbols, but is supplied entirely by my own thinking and imagination, and colored by my own life experience, prejudices and assumptions.

I have not entered into the author's mind. I do not see what he/she saw, nor do I know what she/he thought. I only know my interpretation.

This is a different experience from just looking at the book, at the sense experience. I know what a book is, what language and printing are and what a page is. These are sense objects. The ideas conveyed by the symbol system of the text are generated by me in a largely unconscious internal process seeking to reconstruct the imaginations and the thoughts of the author.

Let us consider something more familiar as an example. We read a novel. Later we see a film constructed by some others who have read and interpreted the novel. Often we do not agree with their interpretation. It has conflicted with our own personal envisioning.

Now let us consider something more familiar. We are in a study group, struggling (sometimes) to come to an consensus interpretation of a Steiner text. We do not always agree here as well. Are there differences between a novel, or a work of non-fiction, and a Steiner text on supersensible realities? Yes, many differences.

In a work of fiction the author is presuming he/she is creating something in my imagination. The whole art of the act of writing fiction is to give fuel to that process, to enable it. Yet, there are limits, and the limits are as much or more in the reader than in the author. Some characters need my sympathy, others my antipathy. Some situations require of me a similar experience in order to properly interpret the scene and its dynamics. Further, the author has the whole of the novel to create character, setting and the tension of the plot as its inhabitants move through it.

Moreover, the more I believe it, the stronger the feelings evoked in my soul. Where the author uses facts to create a scene I must consent to them. Where she/he uses insight into human nature to develop a character, I must buy into it. I participate at all levels in this creation in my imagination.

Even my motives in reading become a factor. One kind of novel lets me escape the drabness of my own life; another shows me a soul life and a world I would never otherwise know. The one fills my time, but leaves little trace. The other lifts (or drops) my heart and gives me the gift of an experience I can receive in no other way.

In the case of a non-fiction work, there is less appeal to the imagination (although such processes are still possibly active). Instead, my critical judgment is evoked; or not, if I do not properly participate. If I am a "true believer" the thoughts I am lead to will be accepted without doubt, assumed true, and therein after made a part of my world view. If I am more "objective" I will take the author's word with a grain of salt, withhold judgment and make some independent effort to verify.

In each case the work has stimulated inner activity on my part, but the images and the way I accept or reject them remains my own act. The author leads me to a world of thoughts, not unlike a traveler leading a newcomer to a place previously explored. Except, this is not the sense world, with its independent given, but rather the world of thoughts and ideas, which, we (as anthroposophists) have been told, are mere shadows of the world of spirit.

In the case of a novel, there remains only my imaginative attempt to follow the author's lead. I have been given an experience of which it is not necessary to examine the truth, as much as consent to it (the truths of literature often depend upon our reconfirming them within our own experience). In the case of a work of non-fiction, its truth is verifiable should I be willing to make the effort. In a work of the imagination there are no percepts to go with the concepts. In the case of a work of non-fiction, there are assumed to be percepts, if I were to trouble myself to seek them out.

In the case of the Steiner text, the percepts are beyond the threshold (supposedly), which places them at even a further distance then the usual non-fiction text. Not only that, but I don't even have this-world experiences that can be used by way of analogy. Whatever a Steiner text says, I remain within my self-created images of what it means. I dare not confuse those weak and impotent images for the true percepts, the Presence, which is said to lie across the threshold. The map is not the territory.

Steiner was not unaware of these problems. Each lecture cycle reminds us that this transcribed work has not been corrected by the speaker. Again and again he enjoins us to not take his word for granted, but to exercise our own common sense and to verify everything, whenever possible, through our own efforts. He understands he is creating pictures (imaginations) of the spiritual world, but he insists we seek for objectivity, and in The Philosophy of Freedom he specifically warns against becoming captured by the concept - becoming so attached to an idea that we lose completely our objectivity. He has even said (The Boundaries of Natural Science) that the world would be better off with materialists who thought, than with anthroposophists who didn't.

Having now seemed to have tied myself up within my own soul, let us examine this from another direction. Let us grant for the moment that Steiner is accurately relating his experiences of the spiritual world, within those limits of language to which he so often referred. What has to have been sublime experiences, awesome in their subtlety and humbling reality, has been reduced by the initiate to abstract concepts - to the ordinary language of our age. Steiner has cognized for us - has given birth to the names of - beings and events we ourselves are unlikely to meet in our own lives. Carried upward by the language and the imaginative pictures, we are graced with thought-concepts for which we have not the related experience - percepts.

If thoughts are the shadows of things unseen, then at the least, with a Steiner text, we have shadows from objects (beings/events) with a deeper penetration of the truths of the invisible world. Steiner has told us that, armed with these concepts, our experiences in the life between death and a new birth will be different then it would be absent these ideas coming into our souls.

Granting a best result from this experience of these ideas (whose meaning and imaginative picturing remains products of my own activity) the best that is possible is the arising in my soul of a set of concepts in harmony with spiritual reality. Even so, I remain divorced from the actual perception of that reality by the laws of the threshold.

What then is the nature of my knowledge of the spiritual world? In terms of a science of knowing, what lives in my soul as a result of having traveled the thought-trails created by the spiritual researcher? Am I justified in saying to someone else, for example, that the Earth had three previous incarnations? Do I possess such factual knowledge? I don't think that I can do such a thing. Whatever I do know, it is not that; and, if it is not that, then what do I know?

I can say something on the order of..."Ruldof Steiner said...". But what could that mean to someone else? Further, in calling upon authority I am violating Steiner's own admonitions regarding this kind of knowledge - it is not to be based upon authority. In fact, the whole philosophic basis of anthroposophy turns me ever and again back upon myself as cognizer.

The question remains: Having ingested Steiner lecture cycles and texts, what do I in fact know about the spiritual world?

Up to this point I have specifically left aside what arises when one begins to undertake self development. Certainly this kind of work results in greater self knowledge, and, if I have been fortunate, there will begin to be various kinds of experiences of the threshold. We certainly do learn things on the anthroposophical path and this knowledge is of another order than that which we acquire/create in the reading of Steiner texts. What I have made my own, in this way, I can speak of as knowledge. The rest remains an interpretation, lacking direct experience, of someone else's reports from a far country.

Personally, I am unable to justify, to my conscience, failing to make a clear distinction between these two kinds of experiences: one direct and personal, the other indirect and interpretive. The first is knowledge, the second, because of the manner of its arising in my soul, cannot make the same claim.

What then happens in a study group when a Steiner text is read and discussed?

Here, I can only speak from experience, and give testimony that conversations with others have indicated that these experiences are not uncommon. Critical judgment is basically suspended and an assumption is lived out, that not only has Steiner given us the truth, but that as against all other authorities his view is the most perfect. Moreover, social pressure exists within these groups, especially upon the newcomer, to consent to these abuses of the ideals of a true science of knowledge.

In fact, a good portion of the dialogues I have been exposed to have contained, as a major theme, the never disputed proposition that Steiner has done a "great deed", always gives the perfect example or metaphor, never makes a mistake of fact, and is frequently spoken of in such glowing terms that one is tempted to pray to him as a minor deity.

There is no excuse for such behavior existing in anthroposophical groups. After over one hundred years of knowledge of the two main philosophical works noted at the beginning of this essay, the fact that study groups cannot carry out conversations, with the relevant philosophic self-discipline, means that not even the most basic fundamentals of anthroposophy have become understood.

Anthroposophy is not a content. Being anthroposophical is not about knowing about reincarnation and karma, or about the hierarchies, or the Saturn, Sun and Moon incarnations of the Earth. Being anthroposophical is about the method by which we form cognitions - the nature of the processes by which we "erkennen". Anthroposophy is not a what, it is a how.

"Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge, to guide the Spiritual in the human being to the Spiritual in the universe." Rudolf Steiner, First Leading Thought. The word knowledge in this quotation is a translation from the German term: erkennen. This term is where we began this work, many thoughts ago; concluding then that knowledge of its meaning could only come from the experience of one's own soul life. To understand erkennen, one must catch one's self in the act of doing it.

Study groups generate and pass on, in their living and becoming, various practices and understandings. What lives in the present has roots in the past. That study groups lack a practical grasp of epistomological fundamentals, and even more saddening, that they also lack secure knowledge and practice of the reverse cultus (a theme too complex for this small essay), means only one thing: Within the most fundamental and common structure of the anthroposophical movement - the study group, anthroposophy does not exist.

New members imitate what they see, and rightly assume that what they see is anthroposophy. Critics judge us for what they see, and also rightly assume the same. At the turn of the millennium, just who are we fooling? My experience is that we are only truly fooling ourselves.


Addendum: It may occur to the reader to wonder what do Waldorf teachers, or anthroposophical doctors do, for example, who study anthroposophy and make use of the many indications that Steiner has given. What is the nature of their knowledge?

Again, it depends upon the individual soul relationship to the concepts, the degree to which that individual soul is awake inwardly, and the nature of that soul's practice of epistomological discipline. In both the above cases, as well as other callings of a like nature, the soul can make a clear distinction between what Steiner has directed it to pay attention to and the actual phenomena of experience.

For example, the doctor is encouraged to see behind the various degrees of health and illness, which each patient brings to him or her, the activity of the subtle bodies, i.e., the etheric, the astral and the warmth or ego body. The experience generated by treating the patients with these ideas in mind creates the constant possibility of confirming the given indications. The same is true of the teacher, who will see, in the phenomena presented by the children, evidence confirming all that material about development and so forth which has been previously studied. As well, each discipline is directed to be awake to the intuitions formed inwardly in response to these sense phenomena; intuitions which are themselves an inward experience-phenomena, towards which one can have an objective and free relationship (i.e. philosophically disciplined).

This is also true for those of us who do not answer a professional anthroposophical calling. We know children, we follow the health and illness cycles within ourselves and within our families, and there is no reason not to make practical use of all the indications Steiner has provided over the many years of his life's work. But to do this in a truly anthroposophical way, we need to be awake to what is knowledge, and what, in reality, is an act of faith.

An act of faith is not a bad thing. All that Spiritual Science really calls for is for us to know the difference between the two and when we act on the basis of one, and not the other.

Science orients itself in the world through the application of doubt, even Spiritual Science. Science says, this is what I know objectively, and this is how I came to know it. Religion orients itself in the world through the application of faith. "Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed." John 20:29.

The healthy soul can (and should) contain both impulses, and be awake to and know the differences. They are not a contradiction, but rather complete and compliment each other. In fact, we could say that the art (imaginative core) of soul life is to integrate and unite the impulses toward science (reason) and religion (devotion).