Monday, 25 April 2016

The incompleteness of argument in Rudolf Steiner's Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception - the "least read, most important book Steiner ever wrote" according to Owen Barfield

I have recently been grappling (almost literally!) with Rudolf Steiner's The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception (1886) - on the basis that (according to Joel Wendt) Owen Barfield described it in the mid 1980s as 'the least read, most important book that Steiner ever wrote' ; this comment coming from Barfield - a man who had by that time been dedicated to Anthroposophy for more than sixty years, and was (inter alia) intellectually perhaps the leading British Anthroposophist of all time.

It is not easy to read and understand Goethe's Conception - but fortunately I had also read Steiner's following two books which provide the philosophical back-up to the Goethe Volume: these are Truth and Freedom (1892) and The Philosophy of Freedom (1894).

Having given these books my best effort I have reached the following conclusion, that Steiner's views are not wrong but are fatally incomplete - so that what he states as proven is not proven but merely asserted; and that for completeness and cohesion the argument requires the framework of a personal God (i.e. theism); but Steiner did not become a Christian until 1899, so these books did not really make sense at the time they were published.

This is a significant fact from the perspective that Steiner regarded these three volumes as the foundation of all his subsequent thought, Barfield apparently/ probably agreed - and subsequent Goethian science is usually described in the terms of reference established by Steiner in 1886 (in other words, without reference to a deity).

I will attempt an extremely bald summary of what I understand Steiner to have been arguing in these three books, and especially 'Goethe's conception'  - and what is required to complete and make sense of the picture.

Steiner is trying to prove logically that thinking (of a certain kind), as such, is valid - because everything else is inevitably and ultimately known in terms of thinking. On the one hand he shows, I think successfully, that Men have nothing other than thinking as their ultimate knowledge, so that it makes no sense to strive for something more or other than thinking as the basis of knowledge.

So, thinking is the only reality. Steiner goes on later to make a kind of 'pure' thinking the basis of spiritual science - including the claim that it really is a science.

But Steiner also tries to argue that thinking (with some qualification relating to the nature of this thinking) is necessarily valid - that thinking is true, correct, really real. I personally think this is impossible to prove in the way Steiner tries to prove it; the set-up simply does not contain the necessary knowledge elements for such a proof to be possible. 

So Steiner shows that we cannot have anything other than thinking but not that this thinking is a correct 'picture' of reality. Somebody might say that this is the case for humans as a species, but that this might be an arbitrary constraint of the way humans happen to be set-up - also that different humans may be set up differently, with different cognitive processes leading to different 'intuitions'.

In sum - Steiner as of 1886-94 does not successfully prove that intuitive thinking is, as he claims, intrinsically and necessarily 'scientific'.

However, I believe that Steiner (and Goethe, and Barfield) are indeed essentially (and with some qualifications) correct in this assertion - I believe that it is true that Man is set-up to be a scientist, and the true (Goethian) science is built-into our thinking.

What I am stating here is that the real reason that this is true is (to put it simply) because God created Man that way, and God created reality so that Man could understand about reality everything that he would spontaneously ask and need to know.

So there are indeed (as Steiner was at pains to state) no limits to our knowledge of that which we want to know; and (as Goethe was at pains to state) Man is indeed the most exact instrument for attaining scientific knowledge; and therefore all technologies, statistics, computers, machines and mechanisms are intrinsically prone to mislead due to their dazzling 'offer' of what is actually a misleading and ultimately false precision - unless all this is subordinated to the intrinsic and built-in human way of knowing.

In sum - Steiner's early 'epistemology' trio of books are indeed of great importance and vital relevance both to understanding and setting-right our modern condition; but they absolutely require that theistic, and probably specifically Christian, framework which Steiner and Barfield both attained - although both Steiner and Barfield (and perhaps Goethe too) perhaps neglected, or at least underestimated, the logical, rational role that was provided by theism in underpinning their conception of science.


Anonymous said...

I have not to any appreciable extent read Goethe or Steiner, and not that much Barfield.

But I note as of possible interest that the Internet Archive has scans of the 1897 edition of Goethes Weltanschauung, and of the 1918 edition("Ergänzt und erweitert", with new "Vorrede"and "Nachwort"). (It also has one of Grundlinien einer erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen weltanschauung (1886) and of Die Philosophie der Freiheit (1894) and of a modern (1958) edition of the 1918 edition with new "Vorrede" and "Anhang".) So, the 1918 new editions may take some account of the 1899 change you mention.

While I have not read much Goethe or much Novalis, I went to a very interesting series of lectures on Novalis by S.S. Prawer, in part looking at his Heinrich von Ofterdingen as a sort of creative, imaginative answer to Goethe's Wilhem Meisters Lehrjahre. And MacDonald was indebted to Novalis (while Lewis also read him in German). So, there might be an useful approach as well by way of Novalis-MacDonald(-Lewis).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Thank you for th perspective - I don't have German, so such issues will remain beyond me. I am currently thinking hard, and slowly, through the metaphysics of it - with the aim of being able to re-explain Barfield in my own words.