Rudolf Steiner and the Essence of Monism


by Don Cruse


The word ‘monism’ when used in a philosophical context means that everything in the universe has only one source. There are, of course, only two possible sources, either ‘spirit’ or ‘matter,’ so that the only alternative to monism is a ‘dualism’ in which both sources are seen to be somehow active. The problem here being that the two sources proceed in opposite directions, which mean that they are logically antithetical to one another and under any normal circumstance, will cancel each other out. This is why Descartes, in proposing his well-known body/mind dualism, erected a complete disjunction between its two halves. It is, of course, possible to think dualistically, but only if one is prepared to accept a fundamental contradiction at the root of one’s worldview, one which science can never accept. Dualism is, therefore, mainly connected with religious thought wherein a miraculous component is added to an otherwise physically caused universe. This contradiction explains Rudolf Steiner’s strong aversion to dualism, because in all his epistemological writings he is seeking to lay the foundation for a future ‘science of the spirit’.


In his Philosophy of Freedom Rudolf Steiner proposes a “monism of thought” in which thought is defined as being a “spiritual activity,” this, therefore, can only be a spiritual monism. The only alternative, which he everywhere rejects, would be a monism of matter. There are, of course, many possible kinds of spiritual monism, indeed prior to the age of science nearly all religious views were monist, but I am dealing here with what must be termed the very essence of monism, namely: with the fact already mentioned that for a monist the primary creative forces in the universe work from one direction only, so that although two directions are possible only one of them can be true.


Why is it then, that in most of the remainder of Steiner’s life’s work, after his work on epistemology was complete, and I refer here especially to the many thousands of lectures that he gave on anthroposophy, he constantly uses the word ‘monism’ in a correct but rather pejorative sense only when referring to scientific materialism, his critical monism of thought being there in the background but unmentioned. It is almost as if he were leaving hints that there exist two opposite monisms, but without actually saying as much. After writing his Philosophy of Freedom, he hardly ever uses the term ‘monism’ in the positive sense developed in that work, i.e. to describe anthroposophy itself; nor does he ever directly contrast the two possible monisms or draw attention to their antithetical character with the result that many anthroposophists still do not understand this and confuse monism in its essence with the multiplicity of possible monist worldviews. We need to ask, therefore, was there a deeper issue at stake which weighed against his doing this, and if so what might that have been?



The Great Tabu

In the realm of new scientific discovery what would constitute the greatest and most revolutionary change possible in modern thought? Would it not be the realization and widespread acceptance of the view that all of primary causation in nature is spiritual not material in origin? Which is to say that for centuries now science has been deceived by mere appearances, and that ultimately the primacy of physical causation turns out to be a philosophic impossibility (see our essay ‘Barfield, Darwin & Galileo’)


Implicit in Steiner’s anthroposophy, therefore, and very explicit in his ‘monism of thought’, is a causal premise that is the exact opposite to that which now holds sway in the natural sciences—wherein a spiritual world cannot exist as a causal force without creating a logically unacceptable conflict. This is what stands behind Owen Barfield’s ‘great tabu’, namely: that science is loath to reverse its understanding of the fundamental direction of causality in nature, because—dualism not being an option—doing so would bring all belief in materialism necessarily to an end. Then, and only then, would Barfield’s prediction concerning a deep and lasting Christian revival become a reality:


“There will be a revival of Christianity when it becomes impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the incarnation of the Word.”


This brings me back to my original question: if the proposed causal direction in nature dictated by Steiner’s ‘monism of thought’ is true, then why did he not constantly stress that truth instead of using the word ’monism’ only to describe scientific materialism? Why his reluctance to state repeatedly and unequivocally what the word ‘monism’ really means? Was it perhaps prudence on his part, because he knew that science must still continue for a while on its materialistic path and that to draw attention at that time to the causal contradiction existing between it and anthroposophy was almost certain to be counterproductive? It was certainly much too early for his newly developing science of the spirit to challenge existing science in so fundamental a manner, so he may have chosen to allow that challenge to remain implicit, and to himself avoid making it explicit. Perhaps he realized that the materialistic approach to science had much still to teach us, and had yet to fulfil its historical task—the discovery of atomic energy, DNA, nanotechnology etc. (it is our destiny to know such things, so that we may learn to use that knowledge wisely)—and perhaps most importantly to replace religion as the dominant force in human culture, as has since become the case. In this light consider the following passage taken from the book The Limitless Power of Science by Peter Atkins, published by the Oxford University Press:

"Although poets may aspire to understanding, their talents are more akin to entertaining self-deception.  They may be able to emphasize delights in the world but they are deluded if they and their admirers believe that their identification of the delights and their use of poignant language are enough for comprehension of the universe.  Philosophers too I'm afraid, have contributed to the understanding of the universe little more than poets. They have not contributed much that is novel until after the novelty has been discovered by scientists. While poetry titillates and theology obfuscates, science liberates".


This passage, which has been described as “belligerent,” is certainly not written in the modern spirit of tolerance. These are the words of a material monist speaking about the historically liberating role of science, and there is much truth to what he says. He is also expressing the uncompromising character of a monist worldview, especially that of material monism, because if materialism is true then all claims made about things spiritual, including the possibility of human freedom, must of necessity be false. Remember, for a true monist dualism is not an option.


For the reason stated above, a science of any kind can only be monist and today we live in the age of science. A modern spiritual monism, therefore, must lead us to a ‘science of the spirit’ and not to just another belief system. Such a monism  would by its very nature include the subject matter of religion or of the arts, and not preclude them as is the case with materialism. However, it would need to maintain the same stern commitment to truth that is required of any science. Does this mean that a science of the spirit must also be intolerant? To a degree, yes, but only in the sense that a commitment to discover the truth about any subject is by its very nature intolerant, because it requires us to reject that which is untrue.


The Great Impulse

This need for a form of intolerance, if it were to manifest too early, would have put Steiner’s nascent spiritual research in a rather difficult position, one that would perhaps justify a decision on his part not to press the monist issue—i.e. the issue of contradictory causal logics—and to allow anthroposophy to coexist non-confrontationally with materialistic science, while at the same time being aware that a time of confrontation must eventually come, perhaps in a hundred years, after anthroposophy had become a stronger and more mature force. If this were a conscious decision on Steiner’s part, it would allow students of anthroposophy to remain, for that same period, tacit dualists, because this is what happens to any spiritual worldview the moment that it accepts the direction of causality implicit in modern science. The end of scientific materialism, once its logical impossibility were realized, would then allow anthroposophy to cease being a tacit dualism and to become a true monism. Is it to this that Rudolf Steiner is referring when in this passage in one of his many Karmic Relations lecture cycles he talks about events coming at the end of the twentieth century?


"For then the great impulse will be given for a spiritual life on earth, without which earthly civilization would finally be drawn down into decadence..." (Karmic Relationships Vol. IV Lecture VI, p. 97).


He talks here and elsewhere of significant individualities who will incarnate at this time, indicating that when the Platonists work together with the Aristotelians; the “great impulse” is that which will result from their work. It was Owen Barfield who first called attention to science’s use of a “great tabu” to outlaw the existence of spiritual causes in nature. Was this “great tabu” then specifically aimed at forestalling or preventing “the great impulse”? Those who knew Barfield considered him an Aristotelian, but there is no denying the Platonic content of much of his thought, so that in a sense he himself already embodied Steiner’s expectations in this regard. I propose, therefore, that the core of the ‘great impulse’, if I may call it that, is the overcoming of the ‘great tabu,’ and that this must involve a complete reversal of the accepted direction of causality in science. This would be a revolution in thought like no other.


The adoption of the primacy of spiritual causation in science would certainly lead to the result that Steiner and Barfield suggest, because then and only then could a popular manual of science be written that would of necessity refer to “the incarnation of the Word.” And the importance of Steiner’s epistemology in providing a long missing foundation for scientific knowledge would become clear to all who are concerned with such matters. This Barfield well understood, and he expressed it in his essay ‘Rudolf Steiner’s Concept of Mind.’


The end of scientific materialism would doubtless be a boon to the spiritual life as a whole, but perhaps more than anything, if science is to survive, it would make necessary the development of a genuine ‘science of the spirit,’ for which Steiner had already laid the foundation. I am suggesting then, that Steiner himself was fully aware long before Barfield drew attention to it, of the existence within science of the ‘great tabu’ (Freud's barrier against 'occultism' was a symptom of it), but that he decided not to challenge it directly in his lifetime—because it would have placed his newly founded science of the spirit in too confrontational a light, one that it was not yet strong enough to handle. And because he knew that then was not the time to challenge scientific materialism head on, because it still had important tasks to perform relating to the gradual evolution of human consciousness? Let me examine this possibility.



For all of its epistemological shortcomings, Steiner tells us that materialism remains the vehicle for the initial development of human freedom. It was the task of materialistic science to lead us away from the overwhelming dominance of theology and theocracy in human affairs, and from the unfreedom that had for so long been associated with them. And, as Steiner repeatedly asserts, it is in our relationship as spiritual beings to the physical world that the possibility for human freedom first manifests itself. Put differently, materialism for all its faults and limitations had a very important task to perform, and it needed time to complete it.


Steiner certainly knew that the deeper truths can manifest themselves only very gradually in human history, and that certain ideas and influences can only be fully effective when the time is right for them to appear. This surely is why he supported Darwinism, which has since become the chief pillar of modern materialistic thought, and why he so strongly defended the material monist Ernst Haeckel against criticism coming from religious sources. In his Philosophy of Freedom he strenuously opposes metaphysics, which is dualist by definition, and which may be seen as philosophy’s principal means of escape from the stern dictates of monism. Because monism as the necessary basis for science is an uncompromising taskmaster, in that either spirit or matter is nature’s true causal source, but never both. There were also many discoveries that needed first to be made at a purely physical level, DNA for example, before their spiritual significance could begin to be explored. Consider here the significance of the article ‘Unravelling the DNA Myth: The Spurious Foundation of Genetic Engineering’ by Barry Commoner, a highly respected scientist—published in Harper’s Feb 2002—in which the great tabu begins to be met head-on. One can build a material monism on say Newtonian mechanics, or on quantum theory, or perhaps on ‘string theory,’ but because we are dealing with science and there is the constant need, as Julian Huxley put it, “to hold a theory with a light hand” the question remains open while the various possibilities are being explored — an admirable attitude which, because of the ‘Great tabu,’ does not yet extend to the possibility of spiritual causation. Similarly a spiritual monism can be built upon the work of any of ten thousand seers or prophets (although if it includes the acceptance of modern science at its face value it becomes a dualism), but here, as a rule the question does not remain open. Instead the demand for an unswerving faith and the threat of perdition closes it, and only gradually over long periods of time, sometimes many generations, does a real questioning of such matters become possible. It was Steiner’s mission to help change this and to open all spiritual issues to the freedom of scientific enquiry, why else would he have supported the work, for example, of Frederick Nietzsche as a “fighter for freedom”? Steiner was awake to the existence of an evolving human consciousness that would allow the scientific attitude to gradually extend beyond the physical realm, and his critical ‘monism of thought’ was a vital means to that end, giving science that which it had hitherto lacked, a sound epistemological foundation.


Unconscious Dualism

Today science is often referred to as 'naturalism' rather than a 'monism of matter,' the word 'supernatural' then becomes its opposite, a word which always has a dualistic interpretation. It must be remembered, therefore, that for Rudolf Steiner both of the possible monisms are by definition ‘natural’ so that the idea of there being a supernatural realm does not even arise. This means that if in thinking about nature one contrasts the concept of ‘natural causes’ with ‘supernatural causes,’ as many do habitually, then one is already a dualist, albeit probably an unconscious one. Steiner’s monism of spirit is not otherworldly, instead it offers an explanation of the everyday world that we experience by using 'thought' as its starting point.


If one is a hard and fast neo-Darwinist, believing for example that the only causal difference between human beings and chimps are a few minor evolutionary DNA mutations, then one is simply a material monist. But if one seeks to add religion and especially miracles to this same explanatory equation, then one immediately becomes a dualist. Indeed, as I have repeatedly argued, the entire Darwinian theory is in fact a dualist construction (see the essay ‘My Thesis’) by means of which science brought a totally unwarranted but necessary credibility to materialistic thought. Similarly, if one is a student of Steiner’s anthroposophy and yet accepts Darwinism, or any of science’s purely materialistic explanations, then one immediately becomes a defacto dualist, whether one is aware of it or not. If instead one insists that DNA, evolution etc., are themselves the outcome of spiritual causes, even though the precise nature of those causes are as yet unknown, then one becomes a spiritual monist in search of a genuinely ‘natural’ science of the spirit. From this vantage point science is far from at an end—as is suggested in the book The End of Science by John Horgan, in which he argues that all of the important discoveries have already been made. This is true only of materialistic science, whereas the scientific method itself has barely begun its greater task. Science has a profound and challenging future and will eventually, as human consciousness continues to evolve, replace the many disparate and contradictory forms of religious belief that today cause human civilization so much unnecessary conflict.


Healing the Rift

Gnostic Christianity, with its roots in the ancient mysteries, was declared a heresy by the early Christian church because, like so much of ancient spirituality, it undervalued the physical world (the creation), and thereby led to a pronounced rift between the spiritual and the physical. Today a new version of that rift has appeared, but with the very opposite emphasis. It is to be found in much of contemporary Christian thought, and it exists because the task of understanding the physical world has been handed over, almost in its entirety, to a science based on a monism of matter; leaving religion to deal only with the soul and its 'salvation'. This new rift results not from Gnosticism but from epistemological dualism, so that it is now the spiritual and not the physical world that is undervalued. The outcome has been a growing separation in Christian thought between the 'the creation' and individual 'salvation', which are now seen almost as the bailiwick of different Gods. The 'Creator God' has slipped far into the background, almost as an embarrassment, whereas 'God the Father' is concerned only with human salvation. In America, where eighty-percent of the population claim to be churchgoers, this has led to a kind of religious superficiality, to a Christianity that as one observer put it, "is a mile wide but only an inch deep." What then can deepen it? A development of the kind looked for by Owen Barfield certainly could—which may explain the great popularity of his works in America—but an epistemological dualism can never do it. Scientists, for example, who attempt to live as dualists in the spiritual and the physical world, can only do so in a logically contradictory and, therefore, ultimately schizoid manner. This is the malaise that Barfield and Steiner strove to help humanity overcome, and with the seeming irony that it can be accomplished only through the transformation of the Old Gnosis into a New Gnosis, wherein the primacy of the spiritual no longer leads us to undervalue or to neglect the physical, and the cognitive development of each individual once again becomes a path to spiritual knowledge. Simply put, to heal this new rift the ancient mysteries must return, but metamorphosed now, together with human consciousness itself, into a rigorous and disciplined 'science of the spirit' that is based upon a monism of thought.


It is a very long road that lies before us, and we only begin that journey in earnest once we have abandoned all forms of epistemological dualism, conscious or unconscious, and have found our way in complete clarity of mind to a critical striving after knowledge, rather than just the acceptance of an authoritarian belief. Where such a science may eventually lead there is no telling, but it will be the beginning of a totally new chapter in human knowledge. Some sense of its direction, at least where religion is concerned, may be found in the many works of Owen Barfield and in the sublime Christology of Rudolf Steiner (see David’s Question “What is Man?” [Psalm 8] by Edward Reaugh Smith, Anthroposophic Press 2001)


© 2004 Don Cruse


Don Cruse was born in 1933 in London, England, grew up there during the war years and now lives in retirement on a farm in central-Alberta, Canada. He is married with four adult children and two grandchildren, with one more on the way. He has been a student of anthroposophy now for nearly fifty years, and considers 'The Philosophy of Freedom' to be Rudolf Steiner's most important single work.

By Don Cruse: 'Evolution and the New Gnosis, Anti-establishment Essays on Knowledge Science, Religion and Causal Logic' (ISBN 0-595-22445-8)
Why Darwinism is the result of a serious error in verbal logic. (essays 3,4,8,19, 11 & 21).
Why 'goodness'‹ not 'truth'‹ should be the principal concern of religion. (essay 16)
Democracy is often defined as the 'rule of law', but if the law itself is unjust it is tyranny that rules. How may we ensure that only just laws can exist? What constitutes a sufficient 'theory of legal obligation?' (essay 18)