Introduction to Rudolf Steiner and American Thought

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Introduction to Rudolf Steiner and American Thought

The five articles in this theme issue of Re Vision were originally written for a seminar on Rudolf Steiner and American Philosophy which took place as part of the “Proj­ect for the Renewal of Thinking in Philosophy, Science and Education” (made pos­sible by a generous grant by Laurance S. Rockefeller). This week-long invitational seminar, which met at Wainwright House, in Rye, New York, in January 1991, ex­plored the relevance of Rudolf Steiner’s thought for the American philosophical tradition and for contemporary American thought and culture.

Because the important themes creatively developed in the classical American philosophical tradition, from Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson to John Dewey and the later (metaphysical) thought of A. N. Whitehead, have not been significantly advanced in the sec­ond half of the twentieth century, it is productive and provocative to juxtapose salient charac­teristics of that illustrious tradition with the heretofore neglected but remarkable prescient thought of Rudolf Steiner.

In The Spirit of American Philosophy (1963), John E. Smith offers “three dominant or focal beliefs through which our philosophic spirit can be articulated”:
First, the belief that thinking is primarily an activity in response to a concrete situation and that this activity is aimed at solving problems. Second, the belief that ideas and theories must have a “cutting edge” or must make a difference in the conduct of people who hold them and in the situations in which they live. Third, the belief that the earth [i.e., the natural and human, in contrast to the divine] can be civilized and obstacles to progress overcome by the application of knowledge. Taken together, these beliefs define a basically humanistic outlook. In the end, the spirit of philosophical thinking in America represents another outcropping of that ancient tradition established by the reflective genius of Socrates and Plato in which the Good is the dominant category. From this perspective all things derive their value from the contribution they make to the founding and securing of the good life. (P. 188)
On all three of these counts, Steiner is at least as consistent and consequential as the representa­tives of the American philosophical tradition from Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey and more than any American philosopher since Dewey’s philosophic influence was eclipsed in mid-century by logical positivism and linguistic analysis. Here is a brief summary of Steiner’s phi­losophy according to Smith’s three features:
1. The intent of Steiner’s philosophy could not be more practical: he aims at nothing less than the transformation of the individual and, thereby, the culture. Steiner’s first two philosophical works, Truth and Knowledge ([1892]1981) and Philosophy of Freedom ([1894]1970) aim to show that thinking can and must be developed as a liberating activity, one that grasps the most immediate particular by penetrating to its essential/spiritual core. Steiner strives to lead the thinker to the experience of the practical and transformative power of origi­nal thinking in relation to the empirical world.

2. Steiner is second to none in his insistence that ideas—one’s own ideas generated by think­ing freed of convention—make all the difference. For Steiner, the ills of the world are largely attributable to the failure of human beings to achieve a mode of thinking that is suffused with heart and will and which he refers to synonymously as free or spiritual. For Steiner, the hope for a truly humane world depends entirely on the deep and widespread cultivation of a method of thinking that reunites the thinking, feeling, and willing faculties, thereby producing ideas that are at once individual and universally sharable.

3. As Steiner has a highly articulated account of the earth as such, he would not use the term earth, as Smith does in his third point, to refer to the human or natural as earthly, and as such distinct from the divine. But in Smith’s sense of the term—the earth, nature and the hu­man—Steiner obviously is committed to civilizing “the earth” by thinking that is transformed by disciplined cultivation of feeling and willing. The path to true civility is to intuit and act on ideals in the service of the artistic, scientific, and the educative. To a degree at least equal to Dewey, and to a greater extent than any other American thinker, Steiner offers a detailed paideia—comprehensive ideals for the crea­tion of an entire culture and criticisms of the obstacles to realization of these ideals.
As Smith’s three points clearly indicate, the American philosophical tradition is charac­terized by a commitment to a rugged concep­tion of experience and the practical import of philosophic reflection. As noted earlier, this tradition runs from Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century through Emerson in the nineteenth century to the classic period at the turn of the century, represented by William James, Josiah Royce, and C. S. Peirce. This tradition culminates in two of the major phil­osophical options of the twentieth century, the philosophy of John Dewey, which domi­nated American intellectual life throughout the second quarter of this century, and the metaphysics that Alfred North Whitehead de­veloped during his years at Harvard (1924-47) and articulated primarily in his Process and Reality ([1929]1978).

It is important to regard Rudolf Steiner, an esoteric and spiritual teacher, in terms ba­sically sympathetic to the American prag­matic emphasis on the problem-solving func­tion of philosophy. James invariably asked, not only of a possible philosophical response but equally of a philosophical question, what difference does it make in a lived experience? It is in his last work, the posthumously pub­lished Pluralistic Universe ([1909]1977) that James insists that the single most important fact about a person is his (or her) vision.

In addition to the three characteristics cited by Smith, Steiner also shares with James—as with all of the American thinkers except Dewey—a consistent and deep concern for the transformative power of religious experi­ence. James and Royce, despite the difference in the degree to which their writings issue from their own religious experience, stand together more or less at the center between their profoundly religious predecessors, Ed­wards and Emerson, and their successors, Dewey and Whitehead.

Steiner worked from the same sense of ur­gency that characterizes the classical Amer­ican philosophical tradition, most forcefully articulated by Dewey’s insistence that the task of philosophy is to solve the problems of ordi­nary human beings, not the technical prob­lems of philosophers. Yet even Dewey, the most practical-minded of philosophers, rec­ognized that in the long run, there is no more practical problem, or set of answers, than

one’s philosophy—and in this respect, he was as committed as Steiner to philosophy as transformation. Steiner and Dewey are at op­posite ends of the spectrum—with James, Royce and Whitehead in the middle—with re­spect to the sources and appropriate method­ology for transformation. Steiner’s method represents the possibility of attaining another level of insight and transformation, one that is unabashedly spiritual but not reducible to conventional religious belief systems. In this respect, Steiner exemplifies and advocates in­dividual and cultural transformation on a far greater scale than that envisioned by any American philosopher.

However different their linguistic expres­sion and cultural mood, Steiner and the American philosophical tradition represent essentially complementary methods and in­tent. Steiner’s work can rightly be regarded as an adventuresome version of some of the philosophic aspirations that remained largely unfulfilled at mid-century, when the Ameri­can tradition came to the end of its creative course. It would seem, then, potentially en­riching to introduce to that tradition some of the powerful contributions of Steiner’s phi­losophy.

Although Steiner obviously worked with late-nineteenth-century intellectual materials

—drawing heavily on the natural philosophy of J. W. von Goethe and the idealist epis­temology of J. G. Fichte—his radical com­mitment to experience and to the solution of cultural problems encourages a comparison between his philosophic and religious ideas and the philosophic and religious thought of the classical American philosophic tradition.

The articles in this issue focus primarily on Steiner’s exoteric and particularly on his phil­osophic works. Except for the middle section of David Ray Griffin’s article, the rest gener­ally ignore his esoteric disclosures on such topics as the evolution of consciousness, karma and rebirth, diverse sciences .and arts, and the inner life of the child (which forms the basis of the Waldorf approach to education).

Of the five articles in this issue, those by Gertrude Reif Hughes, Dougias Sloan, and me offer comparisons influenced by long and sympathetic association with Steiner’s thought; the articles by Frank M. Oppenheim and David Ray Griffin view Steiner from per­spectives that reveal at least as much contrast as similarity with Steiner’s.

My article, “William James and Rudolf Steiner,” offers a comparison between the philosophic method and religious thought of Steiner and William James. Hughes’s “Ru­dolf Steiner’s Activist Epistemology and Its Relation to Feminist Thought in America” explains the significance for feminist thought of Steiner’s activist epistemology, his con­cepts of “philosophy of freedom” and “spiri­tual activity” and the exploitative relations of power. “John Dewey’s Project for ‘Saving the Appearances’: Exploring Some of Its Im­plications for Education and Ethics,” by Sloan, explores the significance and limita­tions of John Dewey’s attempt to overcome the dualism of science and values. Oppen­heim’s “Josiah Royce and Rudolf Steiner: A Comparison and Contrast” examines the similarities and differences between Steiner and Josiah Royce (1855—1916), specifically Steiner and the “mature” phase (1912—1916) of Royce’s religious and ethical thought. In “Steiner’s Anthroposophy and Whitehead’s Philosophy,” by Griffin, a brief summary of fourteen similarities between the positions of Steiner and Whitehead is given. The article goes on to show “that Whitehead supported some of that side of Steiner that is probably most responsible for the widespread neglect and rejections of his thought—his concern with ‘occult’ realities.” The article concludes by commending to Whiteheadians Steiner’s method of spiritual discipline, particularly his emphasis on the intensity of thought, feeling and desire.

The overall import of these five articles from quite dissimilar perspectives would seem to be that Steiner’s thought is worth being mined for a variety of contemporary individ­ual and cultural needs. His writings can make a contribution at least comparable to the sin­gular contributions of each of the great American thinkers. He offers a spiritual tech­nology at least as experiential and as observ­ant as that of Jonathan Edwards, a wisdom philosophy continuous with and more con­temporary than that of Emerson. His episte­mology and psychology of the spiritual would seem more authoritative, and surely more comprehensive, than that of James. It re­mains to be argued whether a full account of his social thought would compare with the empirically precise social philosophy of Dewey, but there is little doubt that his ap­proach to education (which is the source of the worldwide Waldorf school movement) is more detailed, multilayered, and has proven more influential, than the courageous and largely untried pedagogy of Dewey. Finally, Steiner offers an account of history and civili­zation, including the interplay of sciences and

the arts that awaits full comparison with the grand synthesis of the scientific and the imag­inative found in the later writings of A. N. Whitehead.

Although Steiner offers an epistemology rather than a metaphysics comparable to the systems articulated in Royce’s The World and the Individual (1899—1901) or Whitehead’s Process and Reality, he generated an aston­ishing number of observations about diverse realities to be included in any complete ontol­ogy; for example, on the evolution of the cos­mos, on subtle bodies, life forces, and on the relation of beings to the widest range of con­sciousness. The difficulty with Steiner’s dis­closures from the perspective of a more con­ventional philosophical position is simply that he bequeathed too much information and particularly too much that runs against, or falls outside, our usual ways of knowing. In this respect, all of the thinkers with whom Steiner is compared in these articles are more accessible and, on average, less troublesome than Steiner’s overwhelming legacy of in-sights in a dozen fields.

Steiner’s spiritual science or anthropo­sophy nevertheless seems to offer a promising method, with altogether positive conse­quences (artistic, scientific, and practical as well as philosophical) by which to lead the American philosophical tradition out of its present impasse. It might be that American philosophy and religious thought can be bet­ter lifted and advanced by Steiner’s spiritual-scientific philosophy than by conventional contemporary American intellectual and re­ligious assumptions or, simply, than by the dominant intellectual paradigm.

Steiner offers a comprehensive case for the kinds of experiences, particularly for a spiri­tual-scientific way of thinking, that comple­ment the interests of the major American philosophical and religious thinkers from Ed­wards and Emerson, to Royce and especially to James, but not beyond. James and Royce, at the turn of the century, were the last two major American philosophers to take seriously extraordinary and exceptional states of con­sciousness. Since the second half of the pres­ent century, the dominant schools of Amer­ican philosophical and religious thought have continued to generate analyses and arguments on the same level of thinking as gave rise to the general poverty of contemporary Western thought.

Robert A. McDermott

James, W. (190911977. A pluralistic universe. In The

works of William James. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard

University Press. An Approved Edition, Center for

Scholarly Editions, Modern Language Association of


Royce, J. 1899—1901 (2 vols.) The world and the in­dividual. New York: Macmillan.

Smith, J. 1963. The spirit of American philosophy. New

York: Oxford University Press.

Steiner, R. [189211947. Truth and knowledge. Trans. Rita Stebbing. Ed., notes Paul M. Allen. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Garber Communications.

[189411970. The philosophy of freedom: The basis for a modern world conception. Trans. Michael Wilson. London: Rudolf Steiner Press.

Whitehead, A. [192911978. Process and reality. Corrected ed. edited by D. R. Griffin and D. W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press.

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