Friday, December 11, 2020

Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom

 Revised from a post of November 2019


What follows is a look at Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom in the context of Goethe’s understanding of the polarity in nature between particular and universal, ie, between phenomenon and Architype.

For example, Goethe looks at a particular phenomenon in nature, such as a particular plant, and he seeks to understand what universal principal is expressing itself in that plant formation.

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

Thus the natural world is, for Goethe, a multitude of particular phenomena, each of which is a manifestation of its own universal law, or architype.

Rudolf Steiner continues his own study in this relationship between universal architypes and particular phenomena. But whereas Goethe never turns his attention onto Human consciousness itself, Steiner does.

Steiner’s use of Goethe’s method for understanding human consciousness forms the basis of his own epistemology. Steiner formulates this epistemology in terms of the relationship between the percept and the concept.

The percept is the particular pole, for it is always a very specific instance of experience – whereas the concept corresponds to the universal pole.

One of the first observations Steiner makes with regards to the relationship between concept and percept is that, whereas percepts arise without any effort on our part, concepts always rely on our own thinking activity in order for them to become realised in consciousness.

The focus of Steiner’s entire thesis then becomes thinking, and in so doing he reveals something profound; if we take the first axiom to be true, that all manifest reality consists of two polarities, the particular object and its corresponding universal architype, then it follows that thought itself is something quite unique. For it is thought that connects all universals with their particulars, all phenomena with their architypes. Without thought, we would never arrive at the concept of a plant at all, we would be left only with each particular plant before us, and we would lose it again as soon as we moved our gaze to something else.

It is thanks to thought that we can recognise the continuity between one (particular) instance of experience and any another.

But this means we have to reformulate our original axiom; we no longer just have a duality between particular and universal, we now have a triad – with thinking being that principal that combines the duality into a higher unity.  

From the perspective of this third unity, (thinking) it is possible to see that, although percept and concept appear at first to be two different things, they are in fact only separate for human consciousness. In reality they are one. Knowledge is the process by which this temporary separation is overcome; in thought, concept and percept are reunited. In this lived moment of reunification, we are living in reality1.

In this way, Steiner demonstrates that the apparent duality between particular and universal/ percept and concept – is resolved in thought.

So much for epistemology and metaphysics, now let’s turn to freedom.

Among the multitude of real things in the world there is the (particular) phenomenon of my own self. As a thing in existence, I too am a percept. And just as for Goethe, the particular plant is the expression of a universal plant (Architype), so too there must be a corresponding universal concept that is expressing itself in me – there must be an architype for the human being itself.

What is this architype? 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 expresses itself in 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 fact has led many modern people to conclude that human individuals are basically just biology. They imagine that the concepts discovered by “biology” are sufficient in explaining all aspects of individual expression. In other words, they assume that an 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 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 something of our human nature that is of most importance; the fact that I, as a particular phenomenon, can think.

Why is this so special?

Because, as we have seen, thinking is that thing which connects all universals with their particulars, it transcends the dichotomy between particular and universal. Sure, Thinking appears in me as my own particular activity, but in its essence, thinking leads out beyond my particularity and points to the source of all existence - that higher unity.

This has significance for my own life. For in reality, I am not only concerned with knowledge. I am also a "doer". By acting out something, I can bring to particular expression a motive that has, as its source, a universal concept that I have grasped by my own intuition. In doing so I bring into particular form something real where otherwise no particular - ie, perceptual – expression would have existed before.


As a knower I am confronted with a percept and curiosity compels me to discover the concept that explains that percept. But in an act of will the situation is reversed; I start with a concept and then find a way to bring that concept into perceptual existence.


This means two things.


1 – in an act of will the concept (universal) relies on my own individual (particular) volition in order to become perceptual. This means that the concept doesn't express itself in human beings in general, it only expresses itself in those who have the intuition of that concept and wish to act on it.


And 2 – because a particular individual can think – he/she is not in bondage to the polarity between particulars and universals. In other words, a universal concept that I contemplate in thought does not determine me as do other cultural or biological concepts. The concept that has become conscious in my thought can only come to expression if I myself wish to bring it to expression. Without anything compelling me, only my love for the concept can be the cause of its expression. 

An over-arching universal concept (architype) of the particular human individual must then take into account individual intuition and self-determination out of love. 

This means, as Steiner points out, “that we cannot think out fully the percept of the (particular) human being without arriving at the concept of the free spirit as his/her purest expression”
3. The concept “free spirit” is the only concept that fully encompasses the full potential of the human phenomenon. However, by definition, this concept (free spirit) 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.


“Man must unite his own concept with the percept “man” by his own activity”4.

As we have seen, for everything else in the world this is not necessary; a plant is always an expression of its architype. It has no choice in the matter. “The concept and the percept are indissoluble; they are separated only for our perception”

“But for the human being, it is different. The human being's own concept (the free spirit) is actually separated, to be just as actually united by him”
6. "Concept and percept (architype and phenomenon) coincide only if the human being makes them coincide"7.

In conclusion, the human being is that phenomenon, where-by it falls upon the particular (the individual) to express what is its own universal.


Thus I, as human individual, am my own determinate; I am free 8.




References 1 to 8 - The Philosophy of Freedom by Rudolf Steiner



  1. An example of this stood out from the time when I was interested in hunter gatherers. I read a report where a western anthropologist was present at a 'shaman' public ceremony duing which all the native hunter gatherers saw a spirit; but the western anthropologist saw nothing. Who was right?

    To the modern western consciousness, there are no spirits - so the natives must have been haveing a shared, 'hysterical' hallucination - or engaging in wishful thinking, or being duped by the shaman. Yet these people are able to live and function well in a natural environment - which they could hardly be doing if they were subject to unreal hallucinations. From the hunter gatherer persepctive, the anthropologist was self-blinded by his prejudices.

    For a postmodernist, the episode illustrates the relativity of all experience, that none of it is real; all of it 'merely' subjective.

    Another (true!) possibility, from Steiner and Barfield, is that there are different consciousnesses at work - the hunter gatherer can perceive the spirit world, and respond to it - but cannot Not see the spirit world, and so is determined by it (to that extent unfree).

    The westerner does not spontaneously see spirits, and is not determined by them - but by refusing to 'know' the reality of spirits, he has also become determined by the spirit world.

    The Steiner/ Barfield 'answer' is seemingly for the modern anthropologist to take advantage of the freedom of not being compelled to perceive and react to spirits; but by 'thinking', voluntarily to know the reality and nature of the spirit world - so that he can participate with spirits by conscious choice.

    My understanding of this is that the anthropologist could have known (in his thinking) that spirits were present and what they were doing, even though he could not perceive them.

    And the anthropologist should not try to perceive spirits; since that could only be done for a modern Man by lowering consciousness and reducing freedom, as with hallucinogenic drugs (or in delirium, psychosis, half-sleep etc).

    1. "The westerner does not spontaneously see spirits, and is not determined by them - but by refusing to 'know' the reality of spirits, he has also become determined by the spirit world."

      This is a very good point, and has got me thinking...


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