Thursday, November 28, 2019

Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom, in the light of Goethe


What follows is a look at Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom in the context of Goethe and his understanding of the relationship between the particular and the universal.

Goethe looks at a particular phenomenon in nature, such as a plant, and seeks to understand what universal essence is expressing itself in the particular plant phenomenon.

For Goethe, the particular plant is an expression of the concept of the universal plant - or archetypal plant.

Thus, the natural world is for Goethe a multitude of particular phenomena, each of which is reflecting its own universal – and this universal can be discovered by means of reasoned and imaginative contemplation.

Rudolf Steiner is inspired by Goethe's approach to understanding nature and continues in the spirit of Goethe to study human thought, knowledge and freedom.

In Steiner's epistemology (theory of knowledge) he demonstrates how thought is the thing that connects the universals with the particulars. Steiner formulates this in terms of the relationship between the percept and the concept.

The percept is something particular, it is an instance of experience – whereas the concept is the universal aspect that we grasp in our intuition as belonging to the particular percept – and the act of knowledge is the synthesis of the particular percept with its corresponding universal concept.

Steiner demonstrates that when we bring this synthesis about in our thinking activity, we are living in reality.

Among the multitude of phenomena in the world, there is the phenomenon of my own self. I am a particular phenomenon, or percept, and like all other percepts there must be a corresponding universal concept that is expressing itself in me, just as for Goethe, the particular plant is the expression of a universal plant concept.

The question now is, what is the universal human concept that is expressing itself in the particular human individual? What is the human being's own concept?

We are all conditioned, to varying degrees, by cultural and social customs, and so the universal corresponding concept that fits my particular individuality (the percept of myself) is to begin with a concept appropriate to my ethnicity and culture.

I have a body too, and so biological concepts also determine and express themselves in this percept of myself. This has lead many modern people to conclude that human individuals are basically just biology. They are imagining that the concept “biology” is a sufficient universal concept appropriate for all aspects of individual human expression. In other words, they assume that the human individual is governed by the same laws (concepts) as all other life forms. They are not wrong, they just miss out all the other universal concepts that also express themselves in the human individual, such as the aforementioned cultural ones, to name the most obvious.

Yet both the concept of biology and the concept of culture miss out the concept which is of most importance, the fact that I, as particular percept, can think.

Why is this so important?

Because thinking is that thing which overcomes the dichotomy between particular and universal. It does this in the synthesis of percept and concept.

Thinking is thus a unique phenomenon, it appears in me as a particular percept, but in its essence it is the thing which is able to combine all particulars with their corresponding universals. Thought, in other words, transcends the polarity and bondage of particular and universal.

And so a universal concept appropriate for the human individual has to take into account that I, as particular percept, can think, and am thus not determined to express any universal concept that I contemplate in thought unless I so wish to do so.

So what?

As we have seen, my life of thought is not only concerned with combining percepts with concepts. That is, I am not just a "knower", I am also a "doer". I can bring to particular expression a universal concept that I have grasped by my own intuition and bring into particular form something where otherwise no particular - ie, perceptual – expression would have otherwise existed.

But in this situation, the concept, the universal, now relies on my own individual (particular) intuition. The concept doesn't express itself in human beings in general, it only expresses itself in those who have the intuition of it.

An over-arching universal concept of the human particular must then take into account this characteristic of individual intuition. 

This means, as Steiner points out, that we cannot think out fully the percept of the human being without arriving at the concept of the free spirit as his/her purest expression. The concept “free spirit” is the only concept that fits the particular human phenomenon. Yet crucially, it only manifests in those individuals who of themselves have realised their own power of intuition, that is, who have realised, or made real, their own free spirit.

Now because the concept of the free spirit requires the intuition of a particular human being in order to express itself in particular form, the expression of this universal concept is dependant on the particular percept - the human individual. The human individual must unite this concept with him/herself by his/her own activity.

For everything else in the world this is not necessary; the concept and the percept are indissoluble; they are separated only for our perception. It is our perception that makes it appear that the concept of the plant is not at the same time one and the same thing as the particular percept of the plant. Thinking overcomes this apparent separation in an act of knowledge in the synthesis, in thought, of percept with concept.

But for the human being, it is different. The human being's own concept (the free spirit) is actually separated from the particular percept of the human being, to be just as actually united by him/her. "Concept and percept coincide only if the human being makes them coincide" writes Steiner.
And so, in Goethian terms, the human being is that phenomenon, where-by it falls upon the particular (the individual) to express what is its own universal.

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