Home > Roy Wilkinson Book > Chapter 10 "The Philosophical Approach to the Spirit"


Each to the whole its substance gives,
Each in the other works and lives.

Goethe, through the voice of Faust, is expressing here the fact that the world is a unity, that the parts make up a whole, that the whole is the sum of the parts, that everything is connected in some way with everything else.

Our gaze may fall on the plant world. It does not exist for itself alone. It purifies the air, provides food for man and beast and other essentials for the needs of man. But it can only exist in conjunction with other elements. It needs soil in which to grow, nutrients in the soil, water, air, light and warmth.

We may look up to the heavens and note the orderly procession of Sun, Moon and stars, all of which have some relationship to the Earth.

Science points to the remarkable fact that in the evolution of the Earth just those things appeared which made life possible. It is, however, conceivable that had other elements been deposited, another form of life would have developed. In any case these facts point to unity.

The human being is also a product of nature. His physical body is made up of the ingredients of nature. When he has finished with it, it disintegrates into natural substances. Throughout his life man is bound up with and dependent on the natural world. He needs the firm earth on which to tread, the products of earth for his sustenance, air to breathe, light and warmth.

Yet when the human being begins to reflect about himself, he experiences a duality. On the one hand there is the natural world to which he is obviously related, yet a consciousness of self tells him that he is something apart. The questions arise: Can this dichotomy be resolved? Is it possible to overcome this feeling of separation? Is there a point at which unity is established?

Let us consider again the grand tableau of the natural world. Not only is there unity but there is also order. Life follows a certain pattern, the constellations revolve in definite sequence, the Sun rises and sets regularly. Have all these arrangements happened accidentally or are we led to think of some design in the universe. We may observe the functioning of a piece of mechanism but behind it lies the thought or the idea of the inventor. Similarly we can consider the world and the universe and infer that behind the manifestation lies a thought or an idea but these are emanations of the Divine Mind.

If man is really one with the world then not only are there corresponding physical factors but there must be something within man to correspond to the Divine Thought. At our present stage of evolution this is human thought.

The outside world and the body of man are one. The same substances are in nature as in the body. Man's thoughts also exist in nature. They are the spiritual background. The thoughts man thinks are everywhere in the world outside. He is not conscious of this due to the limitations of his development but he can aspire to greater consciousness.

The Evolution of Thinking

The capacity to think is a relatively late development in human evolution. The year 600 BC, or thereabouts, saw the birth of philosophy and this marks a new way of thinking. At the same time the feeling of ego-consciousness grew stronger. Peoples of previous civilizations had not experienced themselves so strongly as individuals but more as members of a family, race or tribe. In ancient Egypt, Persia, India, the mind of man had been differently constituted. The people of those times had been aware of spirituality in the universe. They had experienced spiritual beings in the cosmos. Sun, Moon and stars had possessed spiritual qualities. Nature was endowed with spirit. The background of the natural world came to them as revelation, either direct or through the Mystery schools.

(The Mystery schools were a sort of church and university combined but the leaders were initiates and the pupils learned to appreciate and perceive spiritual forces behind the world of matter, becoming initiates themselves. The influence of the Mystery schools permeated general culture.)

The faculty of spiritual perception began to disappear in Greek times and thinking took its place.

When the human being awakens to a consciousness of self, questions begin to arise in his soul as to his place in the world, his connections with the rest of the world and of his ultimate destiny. The questions arise as a need of the soul. There is a parallel to this experience in childhood when the emerging individuality begins to seek its way in life. There arises then a striving for knowledge, that particular form of knowledge which can satisfy the need.

Among the Greek philosophers Aristotle is outstanding. He taught his pupils to observe and to relate their thinking to their observation. He was the founder of logic and he inaugurated that way of thinking which leads step by step to knowledge. Aristotle spoke of 'form' and 'matter'. Today we should use other expressions but what he had in mind was that our initial knowledge is provided by sense impressions of objects. These represent the 'matter'. But when we begin to think we arrive at the 'form'. The 'form' is the vital principle. It expresses the universal. The 'matter' which is perceived through the senses is the individual object.

In the course of history the faculty of logical thinking concentrates on the material world. The centre of culture shifts to Europe and in the sixteenth century thought takes a noticeable step in the direction of materialism.

As late as medieval times the Earth was considered the centre of the heavens and everything had a purpose connected with man. The new age is heralded by scientists such as Francis Bacon, Galileo and Harvey. It is now assumed that only sense-observation of nature is reliable. Galileo works at the laws of physics, invents a telescope and the planets are no longer the homes of spiritual beings but bodies of matter, like our own Earth, hurtling through space. Bacon trains himself to observe the material phenomena, to experiment and to deduce laws in conformity with physical aspects. Harvey dissects the human body, makes outstanding discoveries but interprets the bodily activities mechanistically. The heart is seen as a pump and organic processes are interpreted mechanically.

Newton (1643--1727) discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation. He worked out the laws of the tides and improved the telescope. He formulated the mechanics of the universe. He suggested that the solar system kept going by its own momentum. He allowed that perhaps the planets had been hurled into space by God in the first instance but then were left to their own momentum. Newton confirmed mathematically the quite new concept of the planetary system, proclaimed by Galileo and Kepler, in which the Earth had become a planet revolving around the Sun with many others. The spiritual agencies of the universe were negated, colours and sounds became 'vibrations' — in short, scientists came to the conclusion that everything was explainable in terms of mechanics or physics.

And what of man? He too was involved. Man lost his cosmic status and it was anticipated that he also could be explained in terms of the material and mathematical.

The change in outlook is also recognizable in the philosophers of the period. In the new age human thought begins to be considered as something outside nature and it becomes necessary to make thought valid through its own strength. Descartes produced the famous dictum 'Cogito, ergo sum' (I think, therefore I am) and he argued the two independent worlds of mind and body.

Now various philosophic 'systems' develop, the crucial problems of which are based on this duality. Spinoza builds purely on thought. He attempts to build up a system of philosophy as Euclid had constructed a system of geometry, by a chain of reasoning depending on definitions and axioms. Leibniz cannot accept as truth anything that appears in the outside world. His picture of the world is one which is formed by the inner energy of the self-conscious soul.

(The reader wishing to explore all the philosophical points in depth is recommended to study Rudolf Steiner's work The Riddles of Philosophy, which is the basis for most of what appears in this chapter.)

In England we have the philosophies of the Empiricists — knowledge is based on experience. Locke says that all our knowledge is ultimately derived from experience. The soul cannot have any knowledge except that which it derives from interaction with the outer world. Hume believes that only sense impressions and rational observations can be true; any ideas that men form above and beyond these can only exist as belief. But we also have the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley for whom all knowledge is mental — I can know nothing of the things outside; I can only know of the impressions that the things make on me.

Of great impact in the thinking world was Kant. He is one who realized that speculation is not fruitful and he wished for certainty in the field of philosophy. He put the question: What can I know? He maintained that the world outside only affects us through observation. How, therefore, can there be anything certain for us through this observation. The mind builds the world according to its own constitution. Mathematics and science contain only the laws of our own mental organization. This, when explored, gives absolute truth. Reason does not draw its laws from nature; it dictates them to nature. The mind, however, is stimulated from outside to develop its inner world, and therefore there must be something in the outer world. This is the 'thing-in-itself', but we can know nothing of such things-in-themselves except that they exist. What we can know does not refer to real things outside but to processes within ourselves. For Kant the ultimate reality of nature remains outside man. Man can only know or experience nature through the formulations of his mind.

But what of God? Immortality? Freedom? These are not observable but they exist within the mind and give rise to our state of soul. But these things we cannot know. We apprehend them through the voice of duty (categorical imperative). Kant believes that the soul is free to follow the inner voice of duty. This is morality. In the soul, as in nature, human knowledge comes to a halt. The laws of human reasoning apply only to the inner world of the mind.

Into this whirlpool of ideas and counter-ideas comes Goethe. In direct opposition to Kant, he declares that we can know everything. For Goethe the spirit of man is wholly in nature because nature herself is spirit.

We shall refer to Goethe later.

In 1859 a work was published that was to have a tremendous impact. This was Darwin's book on evolution, "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life".

It contributed greatly to the materialistic conception of man which predominates in today's culture. It used to be thought than an omniscient, all-powerful Being created man with the words 'Let us make man in our own image'. We humans were at the centre of things; we were known by God and loved by Him. We addressed Him as 'Our Father'.

But modern science has changed all that. It indicates that there was never any purpose in creation but what has taken place in evolution is a series of accidents. The origins of the Earth go back to some accidental happenings in the cosmos that resulted in the creation of a planet on which by chance the physical conditions were suitable to make life possible as we know it. Then special compounds came into existence having the property of livingness. Living matter, having brought itself forth, maintained itself. Different forms evolved from stage to stage, leading finally to man. What had been a creation in God's image became something arising from the primeval mud.

Let it be said that this materialistic outlook did not originate with Darwin himself. Darwin contented himself with stating the sequence of facts as they appeared to him. It was his followers who drew the conclusions that man had evolved in this way.

But there were still thinkers concerned with the process of knowing. They were still concerned with the nature of reality. Does reality lie in the objects of the world or is it existent only in the mind? John Stuart Mill builds his philosophy on the recognition and comparison of facts and observable phenomena but can find no absolute distinction between mind and matter. He allows that this mode of thinking does not exclude the supernatural. Spencer decides that the world is appearance and our knowledge of it depends on human nature. So the question really arises as to the soul nature of the human being and the nature of the self-conscious ego.

A high point of idealistic thought is reached with the trio of German thinkers, Hegel, Fichte and Schelling.

They represent the view that creative thinking, i.e. thinking not tied to the sense world, is the key to the development of the ego which then experiences its unity with the spiritual world.

Whatever philosophical statements may have been expressed, or whatever philosophical systems may have been created by the above thinkers, one thing is obvious and that is that they are striving energetically to try to discover the nature of man and his relationship with the world. They seek in the self-conscious mind a source of knowledge which illuminates the world. The soul is surrounded by a world that reveals itself to the senses but it is also aware of its own inner creative life.

According to Emerson great men are incarnated when others have prepared the ground. Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 and with a sense of mission he began his anthroposophical or spiritual-scientific work at about the turn of the century. Earlier he had published a work on Goethe, Goethe's World Conception, and The Philosophy of Freedom, translated into English also as The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. These are relevant to our considerations in the next chapters. The subtitle of The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity is A basis for a modern world conception, and a note included on the title page of early editions states: 'The results of observing the human soul according to the methods of natural science'.

Thinking: The Gateway to Knowledge

In the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh is an episode that throws light on the reason for man's search for knowledge. Gilgamesh, the king, represents the forward evolutionary development of mankind and in the story he wishes to go on a journey, which we can interpret as something taking place in the soul world. But first he seeks guidance from the Sun-god who wants to know the reason for the journey. Gilgamesh explains that he is tired of the city; he wants to go where no man's name is written to set up a monument to the gods (i.e. he is tired of the physical and seeks the spiritual). Then he asks, 'Why did you give me the desire for this adventure if it is not to be fulfilled?' It is the cry of a man seeking to know his own nature and his own destiny.

For modern man, in the welter of civilization, the cry is even more urgent. He seeks facts; he seeks explanations. In this day and age man no longer wants to believe; he wants to know. He requires more of the world than the world immediately gives him. Whatever or whoever has placed him into the world has bestowed many gifts on him but also many desires. Among these is his thirst for knowledge.

The fact that man feels himself to be a part of nature and yet separated from it has already been mentioned. What is it that has been separated out? What is it within us that is akin to nature apart from the physical? The answer has already been indicated — the power of thought.

Every explanation begins with thought and thought is a spiritual activity. It is not an automatic process like digestion. Although thought may be activated in connection with objects, it also has another side. One can use thought, for instance, to create shapes in the mind that are independent of sense impressions. The mind can create in imagination. The materialist may say that the brain produces thoughts but matter cannot really engage in active thinking. It would be more cor-

rect to say that the brain provides the instrument for thought.

We come back to Goethe. For him there are no two worlds. There exists only an abounding nature who pours forth her spirit into the world both of nature and of man.

The following extracts illustrate his outlook. They are from his 'Essay on Nature', freely translated:

Nature! We are surrounded by her, entwined with her and unable to escape from her.

Unasked and unwarned, she takes us into the circle of her dance and carries us along until we are weary and fall from her arms.

She creates new forms, but the new are always the old.

She builds and destroys.

She lives in countless children but the mother, where is she?

She is the outstanding artist. Each one of her works is a separate creation, yet all are parts of the one.

All men are within her and she is in all.

Life is her fairest invention, death her means to create more life.

We obey her laws even when we resist them.

We work with her even when we would work against her.

She has no speech nor language but she creates tongues and hearts through which she feels and speaks.

She is totality. Everything exists in her always.

For Goethe it is the same spiritual force which works throughout created nature as works in man. His attitude is this: Here I am with my physical body. The world outside is made up of the same matter. Because of this relationship my physical eye perceives physical things. In the plant is a superphysical force but also the same force is in me and if I do not perceive the superphysical in the plant it is because my own faculties are not sufficiently developed.

Goethe had a universality of outlook. He sought the whole. He realized that the different manifestations in the plant world were parts of one whole and he set out to find the universal mother. What he found is of tremendous importance. He discovered the Urpflanze, the archetypal plant. This is the universal creative force that manifests in an individual way in each plant but it does not exist physically. It is a supersensible force that may be perceived if the human mind is sufficiently developed.

What then is Goethe's particular attitude to knowledge and the obtaining of knowledge?

For him, there is no such thing as an object and idea — the idea is expressed in the object. Whereas some philosophers see reality only in ideas and others in a world of perception free of ideas, Goethe unites object and idea.

Whereas Kant says man has nothing to do with the thing-in-itself, Goethe says the same principle works in both. Goethe's view is that the phenomena reveal themselves fully to a man who approaches them with a free, unbiased spirit of observation and with a developed inner life in which the ideas of things manifest themselves. The question might arise as to why people see differently and the answer he gives is that every person has his own truth but this is only a part of one whole.

Goethe realized that the spiritual force working in the phenomena revealed itself to him at the same time as he watched the material object or process. There is no 'behind the phenomena'. He sought to find the relationship between thinking about objects and the objects themselves.

To begin with, objects appear as single entities but the process of thinking creates interrelationships. Outside of myself are the objects; thinking is my own activity. Thinking discovers something other than what is given by the senses. It finds what is hidden from the senses. Sense perception provides one side of reality, thinking the other. The thought then that lives in the mind is what is contained in the object and as such it is objective. Knowledge is the product of the activity of the human mind, i.e. spiritual activity. Thoughts belong to the reality of the sensibly perceived. They manifest inwardly in man. Thought and sense-perception are a single essence.

If we think about the nature of thinking it is clear that thinking makes the rest of experience intelligible. But the nature of thinking is given to us by nature. 'The World thinks in me.' Knowledge is perception and thinking. This is the attitude that Goethe assumed. He applied his method to the study of plant and animal but stopped short of the human being.

One could sum up Goethe's achievements in this particular respect as follows:

  1. He practises 'observe and think', not like his predecessors Bacon and Aristotle but in a quite new way which leads him to:

  2. The epochal discovery of the plant archetype which in its nature participates in thought and being. This leads to:

  3. The vital principle of metamorphosis in plant and animal life.

The roles of observation and thinking in order to acquire knowledge have already been discussed. The next step to attain further knowledge is to consider the activity of thinking itself.

One has to differentiate in the first place between ordinary everyday thinking and the active concentrated thinking that can be used as a means of cognition. In ordinary parlance we 'think' we will go for a walk; we 'think' to take a drink, have a sandwich. We 'think' something is good or bad, attractive or otherwise. This sort of thinking is something that happens, something that is usually sparked off by some subjective experience and that for the most part occurs unconsciously. This is not thinking in the search for knowledge.

When our thinking is directed to a particular object then our consciousness is directed towards this object. But the object need not necessarily be something belonging to the outer world. Object in this sense can be something within ourselves — our feeling, our will, the content of our ideas. Without our thinking objects would appear as pure percepts and there would be no cohesion. Thinking establishes a relationship. It is through thinking that man connects himself with the world but it is also through thinking that he becomes conscious of himself as something separate. It might be thought that thinking is subjective but it is only through thinking that the human being becomes aware of his own subjectivity. It must therefore have an objective quality. Thinking is therefore an organ of perception which enables us to correlate the information given by the physical organs through sense impressions.

There are two aspects of thinking:

The content of ideas

The necessary inner activity which brings the ideas to consciousness.

It is with the latter that we must now concern ourselves.

Thinking is an activity that arises within ourselves and it is of our own making. Normally it does not come naturally to think about thinking. While the presence of all other objects is given, and we can direct our thinking to them, in the case of thinking we ourselves create the object but observation of it can normally only take place later. Even to do this requires practice but a further development of thinking is also possible.

It is not unknown for a light to dawn in the soul which we call intuition. It is often seemingly accidental but more likely it follows after we have been pondering something over a period of time. But it can come about through concentrated effort. We think, and think, and suddenly we see the point. Some revelation is vouchsafed us. This we can also call intuition. The light or the intuition comes from somewhere and the place it comes from is the spiritual world. The greater the capacity of the mind, the easier will be the attainment of the intuition. We can equate intuition in this sense with a manifestation of a spiritual reality.

By a process of training that also includes moral development, i.e. the ability to cast aside subjective elements, intuition can become perceptible. It becomes a spiritual experience. Thinking in ordinary consciousness stands apart from perceiving, but higher thinking is itself a form of perception. It is spiritual perception. Higher thinking and spiritual perception are one.

We could approach this spiritual activity in another way.

When an object registers its existence in the mind we speak of a percept. The percept is what is observed. By linking percepts together in the process of thinking one arrives at the concept. The concept is nothing material but it has existence. Let us take the specific case of a plant. If I wish to know more about a plant, I can weigh it, measure it, analyse it and find so much potash, so much carbon, etc. But have I really got to know the plant? I know something, but to know it wholly I must know it in the entirety of its growth and development. A plant is in a continual state of movement. First I might consider the seed, but the seed is not the plant. Placed in soil, there will appear in a few weeks shoot and leaves. Day by day there will be change. Eventually a blossom will appear which will fade and die, giving place to seed formation. Thus at every moment I look at a plant, I know that I am seeing only a part of it. To get a picture and an understanding of the whole plant I must visualize its whole growth and metamorphosis from seed to shoot, from shoot and leaves to flower, from flower to seed and this I can do by the mental process of thinking. Thus I gain a concept of the plant. But in the plant there must be some supersensible principle at work that parallels my concept. So the spiritual that lives in the plant is one with my thinking. Although the concept has arisen within me, it is not subjective. Other observers and thinkers would arrive at the same concept. Thus we are dealing with an objective reality. It is obvious that my sense impression of the plant has stimulated me to think, so that what I think must be connected with it. My concentration on the phenomena manifest to the senses will enable me to reach the reality expressed in it.

A Philistine might say that this is all fancy and that only the object is real, but then he is denying his own activity of thinking which makes him able to pass judgement. The object provides one side of knowledge.

The concept, then, is something that arises within me. It is a manifestation — albeit for the moment spiritual and non-perceptible — of something real, and the something real beyond the concept is a spiritual reality. In the case of the plant it is what Goethe calls the Urpflanze, the archetypal plant, i.e. that which as a spiritual force lives in all plants. If thinking is developed further, it becomes perception; we see our thoughts. We shall have penetrated to a sphere where our thoughts do not merely reproduce outer things but where they are experiences in themselves. That is to say that there is spiritual reality in living thought and spiritual realities are experienced in pure thinking. This is knowledge arising from thought but also transcending it. Thought becomes perceptible.

It must be repeated that this stage of thinking is only attained through training that includes not only the training of thinking but also of feeling and willing. This higher thinking can only be attained if all elements of subjectivity are negated. Ultimate truth can only be acquired when something is grasped that is not influenced by the senses.

By outer observation the thinking processes are strengthened. By inner activity the soul qualities are transformed. What lives in the purified thinking is the spiritual counterpart of what is observed. Thinking becomes spiritual vision.

Moral Implications

The use of the senses alone does not attain complete reality. Thinking leads to a knowledge of that which is beyond sense perception, to concepts, to spiritual reality.

In grasping concepts or perceiving the spiritual, thinking merges with the Divine Mind, the spiritual foundation of the world. If man can penetrate thus far, he can recognize universal truth and this is true for all men. Since truth is universal, the more people who can recognize it the more likely will be the establishment of the brotherhood of man.

Morality consists in expressing the ideal but requires action.

In the normal way action is motivated in a number of ways. It may be instinctive; it may be due to feeling, to impulse, to ideas (in the narrow sense). These are subjective, and if one follows their dictates it cannot be said that the deed is accomplished as a result of high ideals. But if a person can attain to truth and then direct his will to the action he is acting as a free being in carrying out what he recognizes as necessity. The will is activated not by the call of duty (Kant) but by the ideal.

In this connection we might quote Rudolf Steiner's contra-statement to Kant's call to Duty: 'Freedom, thou kindly and humane name, thou that dost comprise all that is morally most lovable, all that my manhood most prizes, and that makest me the servant of nobody, thou that settest up no mere law, but awaitest what my moral love itself will recognize as law because in the face of every merely imposed law it feels itself unfree.' (The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, chapter 9.)

Thinking and the transformation of thinking into spiritual perception leads therefore not only to knowledge but to deeds in the service of mankind. For man personally not only is the thirst for knowledge assuaged but he finds satisfaction in fulfilling ideals that have become a part of his being.

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Rudolf Steiner. An Introduction to his Spiritual World-View, Anthroposophy. © Roy Wilkinson 1998