Alfred North Whitehead, Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield:
Between Ken McClure and Don Cruse
Ken Mcclure: Don, I have been reading Whitehead, and I'm more convinced than ever that there are significant points of consonance between him and Steiner/Barfield. I think it fair to summarize his concept of "simple location" as follows: "Scientific materialism assumes that things are absolutely separate from each other in space and disconnected from each other in time. But if that were true, Newtonian physics could not have the predictive efficacy it does; things must be more intimately connected than scientific materialism assumes them to be, or we couldn't make such successful predictions about them." Now the nature of that more intimate connection is ripe for discussion, and Whitehead certainly has his own ingenious ideas about it. But the point is that some such explanation is required once that premise of scientific materialism is swept away. And swept away it is, as soon as the principle of the fallacy of simple location is grasped.
In addition, Chapter II of SYMBOLISM: ITS MEANING AND EFFECT contains a refutation of Kant and Hume's diverse but allied objections to the notion that we may have direct perception of causal efficacy. The point here is that, if we have no such direct perception, we are hopelessly removed from the heart of things and haven't a prayer of "knowing" the numinous.
Finally, THE FUNCTION OF REASON contains a brilliant analysis of the limited explanatory value of the doctrine of evolution. Whitehead can be hard to understand as he sketches his view of how nature is more intimately connected than we tend to see. But on these limited topics -- the fallacy of simple location, the refutation of Kant and Hume, and the analysis of the limits of conventional evolutionary theory -- he is clear as a bell. And each of these marks points of consonance with Steiner/Barfield.
On another topic, I have come to the following understanding of Steiner/Barfield's distaste for "metaphysics." In general, S/B may be said to agree with the metaphysical contention that there is a supersensible nature to reality, that is, a nature that is beyond the perception of the senses. They disagree with the further contention that, therefore, this supersensible nature is beyond the reach of thinking.
For a complete empiricist, a supersensible nature, because it is beyond the perception of the senses, is for that reason beyond the reach of thinking. For such an empiricist, thought is forever the child of sensation and never can break free of it. I don't know how many card-carrying empiricists are left, and I don't think that really matters. For it has passed over into common sense that thought is nothing more than neural excitation. As such, thought is sensation; supersensible nature is, then, by common-sense definition, beyond the reach of thought.
Steiner/Barfield disagree and insist that, through appropriate cognition, we can reach the supersensible. But I think they assume that, merely by so insisting, they take a non-metaphysical view. If we take Thomas Aquinas to exemplify the classical western metaphysical position on this issue, that seems reasonable. Thomas, of course, holds that reason can take us part way -- but only part way -- on the road to supersensible reality. The rest of the way must be travelled through faith or belief or sacrament, or some way that is beyond reason. And S/B disagree with Thomas, and we could say that they take a nonmetaphysical view by holding -- contra Thomas, who embodies the classical metaphysical view -- we can get there through thinking.
Still, I don't think we should. To say that there is a supersensible nature to reality is to make a metaphysical assertion. If we hold -- with Steiner and Barfield -- that we have access to supersensible nature through cognition, then we get to have that delightful western treat of testing the truth of our metaphysical assertion. Surely the very words "spiritual science" summon us to do such testing, even if it be of a different kind than classical science envisions. But the fact that we deem our metaphysical assertion to be testable does not, in itself, make that naked assertion other than metaphysical; from the standpoint of cognitively demonstrable truth, it remains provisional in the way that metaphysical assertions are.
Finally, it is no longer the case that S/B, alone among all metaphysicians, assert that the supersensible nature of reality is apprehensible through thinking. Without distorting the case, I would argue that Whitehead holds that too. However alien a proposition this may have once been to our culture, there is now a strong current in its favor. Just to preview the argument: On the one hand, intellectual developments have profoundly enfeebled the once-reigning Kantian notion that the mind, through its nature, hopelessly screens us from ever really knowing things; where then we were reconciled to have mind divorce us from things, now we are inclined to think mind might marry us to them. On the other hand, whereas classical theism could not imagine god other than essentially removed from his creation, movements like process philosophy now envision god more intimately involved in the flow of creation. The result is an enhanced sense of the power of mind to know things and an enhanced sense of the power of things to be enlivened by god. Seems like a propitious moment for Anthroposophy.
Don Cruse: Ken, many thanks for your thoughtful commentary, you have brought Whitehead to life for me in a new way. I have always respected him, but have not taken the trouble to really study him as you now have.
If I disagree with you at all, it is only very mildly on the issue of what constitutes metaphysics. I think that where Steiner and Barfield depart most strongly from metaphysical thought in general, is by their insistence that thought is primary, and although it is obvious, existentially speaking, that ‘being’ must come before thinking, it is the exact opposite where cognition is concerned; i.e. that without thinking we can know nothing whatever about existence, and that, moreover, thinking is a self-confirming activity, for as Bo Dahlin has so succinctly put it:Thinking can never be explained by anything other than itself, because it is always thinking that does the explaining.
This makes of thinking a strictly monist activity, and as a result the dualism that accompanies all of metaphysical thought, which includes most of conventional theology, is immediately dispelled. This does not of course mean that the theology in question is untrue, but only that its truth can never be critically arrived at through metaphysical speculation.
I used the following quote from Whitehead in one of my recent essays:Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science.
And I would suggest that while religion remains the stronghold of metaphysics it will never be able to meet the high standard that science requires of human thought. Indeed there are many areas in which science itself does not even meet that standard, because it has unknowingly succumbed to a metaphysical dualism — see the essay ‘Post Cartesian Dualism’ in my book with Robert Zimmer.
’s observations about the natural world were extremely important, and his conclusion that an evolution of natural organisms had occurred is essentially correct, but his further conclusions about how it all happened have involved a huge but unconsciously concealed error in logic. He had no right at all, in logic, to compare his account of how he believed Natural Selection worked with the many human attempts at selective breeding, because the latter was an intentional activity whereas the former was, by his own definition unintentional. But by building his theory on the use of intentional and volitional language he concealed this crucial difference even to himself. By doing this he unconsciously attributed human intentions and purposes to nature, and so began a nearly two-century long error in scientific logic, one that was willingly but thoughtlessly perpetuated by so many others, and that caused Whitehead to acutely observe that: DarwinScientists, animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless, constitute an interesting subject for study.
Yes, indeed they do, and when that study is complete the Darwinian theory of Natural Selection, as a process from which consciousness is excluded, must out of iron necessity collapse, because it has been profoundly irrational from the very outset. It concealed a hidden causal dualism in which the wonders of natural creativity were given an unobserved human source by the kind of language in which the theory was framed. Without intentional and volitional language the theory would not even appear to work, yet by using such language Darwin had unwittingly turned science into a kind of materialist religion (see my paper Was Darwin Wrong? in Southern Cross Review).
These unwitting parallels between Darwinism and religion have often been discussed, although their underlying cause has not. For example, in a recent television biography of
, one of his grandsons reported that people seem to have the compulsion to want to touch him, so as to come closer to the great man himself. This one can easily see has a disturbing dimension to it; it has the makings of a kind of sacramental activity, one in which Darwin replaces the Christ. A recent DVD lecture entitled ‘One Nation under Darwin ’ by Philip Johnson, points to the same phenomenon, i.e. to fact that Darwinism like religion has become faith-based. However, this development presents a difficulty for religion that Johnson does not mention, and that has so far gone largely unnoticed. It is this: that religious Darwinism, based as it is on a fictitious causal dualism, can never be overcome until religion itself ceases to be faith-based and dualist. This perhaps is why mainstream religion has today become so anxious to accommodate Darwinian materialism, because there is a growing but still largely unconscious awareness of the fact that faith-based religion and faith-based science (Darwinism) must ultimately share the same fate. Darwin
To clearly show, as I think I have done, that the Darwinian theory in all of its forms, because it depends entirely on the misuse of volitional language, is a profoundly irrational structure, is today rather like claiming that God does not exist, only much worse, because the latter has been around since Nietzsche, while the former is fairly new and both science and mainstream religion will now jointly view it as an affront. Ironically, religion is partly responsible for this hidden dualist alliance, because by having no evolutionary content of its own it originally left the door wide open for Darwinism. This is what has caused me to suggest, that perhaps Darwinism’s principle task, historically speaking, has been and is to cure us of religious dogma by confronting it with a materialistic dogma. And only when this cure has had a chance to work will we begin to clearly see that an evolution of consciousness is taking place, and that Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield are among its most able representatives.
Science as a whole believes itself to be based upon a material monism, but in actual fact it is largely based, just like religion, on a metaphysical dualism. This is the point that Whitehead seems to be making with the idea of “simple location” that you draw attention to. And it is this same fact that brings Steiner and Barfield into opposition both with conventional religion and with science as it now exists, because neither, despite centuries of trying, was able to solve the epistemological riddle in the clear manner that Steiner has done in his Philosophy of Freedom, and even earlier in his 1892 doctoral thesis Truth and Science, a work in which as you doubtless know he also completely demolishes Kant. Indeed one of the modern world’s chief conceptual difficulties, as Whitehead appears to clearly see, is the continuing deleterious influence of Kantian thought in both science and religion. It is Kant’s assertion that “I had to limit knowledge in order to leave room for faith” that lies behind much of the opposition to spiritual knowledge (Gnosis) that still exists in modern authoritarian religion. Perish the thought, but perhaps the modern world needs a barbaric force like radical Islam, to alert it yet again to the dangers inherent in blind religious belief. A far better way, of course, is the development of clear and unprejudiced thinking on spiritual issues?
This is a confusing but important topic. Here, I will essentially try to come to the service of your argument, so long as we realize that I have disagreements with it and reserve the right to make them in the future.
As far as I can see, metaphysics is necessary precisely because empiricism is impossible; metaphysics, as I use the term, is the heart of reason. When we first see the light, we do not see it, we are it. But even at that moment, we are not empiricists. We do not say, "Aha, here I have a sensation, light" and then proceed to assemble and classify other discrete sensations. We are, you might say, overcome by the sensation and erroneously identify ourselves with it. Sometime shortly after that moment, we begin to be metaphysicians, separating ourselves from our sensations by means of provisional assumptions which allow us to meaningfully deal with them.
So I seem to be saying that metaphysics is the use of provisional assumptions to organize the welter of sensations that assault our nervous system. My statement is unorthodox in that I take metaphysics to be provisional and subject to confirmation and discomfirmatation by experience. This would allow it to change as Whitehead and you believe it should.
Perhaps the first such provisional assumption we make in this scenario that I'm sketching is: "I am not the light." That is to say, we quickly learn to organize our sensations by means of a subject/object dichotomy. When language comes to us, this dichotomy is dramatically enhanced.
But so is the means of overcoming it. There is perhaps no better way to sense what that may mean than to savor the moment when Helen Keller understood language, after her teacher brought to her attention the fact that there was a symbol for the experience of water; and for everything else in the world. For those of us who have had that experience, not by its captive but by its utmost meaning, there dawns a paradoxical journey. We struggle back to return to our initial sense datum, when we did not see but were the light, as if in order to reconceive it: "I see. Uh-huh. I AM the light."
This experience in thought, for me, began with the experience of poetry. In our culture there are remarkably few thinkers who even acknowledge the truth-value and the power of the poetic experience. To my knowledge, Barfield and Whitehead are pre-eminent among them. My inclination is to insist that an adequate appreciation of language or of thought requires us to take into account its poetic reach.
Furthermore, I think we must acknowledge that thinking is essentially miraculous. That is to say, as between
and St. Bonaventura, I side with Bonaventura: In the moment of true thought, we enjoy divine illumination and may be said to participate in the divine mind. That having been said, I do not think we precisely identify with the divine mind even though we participate in it: We know the divine mind not as we know an equation but as we know a poem. This is an important point and needs to be expanded. St. Thomas
I wish also to suggest that religion survives because, in one of its aspects, it can and does face change in the same spirit as does science. Insofar as it encourages contemplation, religion encourages the individual to have a direct experience of the supernatural, which he is then free to refine in conscious life, as he will. There is more to be said about this aspect of religion, but it is important to at least note it, even in this brief a sketch.
Finally, I confess to being a devout dualist. Some of that is due to the intransigence of my ego. But there is a part of it that corresponds to my sense of God's otherness and that seeks to acknowledge the felt truth that He is not simply implicated in his creation but that He also transcends it. Whitehead deserves great credit for managing to provide for a primordial as well as a consequent god while taking a back seat to no one in the intensity of his monism. And the fathers of Christianity, who may be guilty of many sins (don't get me started), deserve the same credit for preserving god's transcendence in the concept of the Trinity.
I acknowledge that Steiner and Barfield summon us to think in such a way that we can dispense with metaphysics. I'm not there yet. But it's not for lack of trying. Thank you for a very thoughtful response.
Ken, very many thanks. Your own dualism seems to consist in the subject/object dichotomy that arises from the seemingly dominant role played by sense perception in cognition, because looked at in this way sense experience appears primary and thought secondary. Steiner corrects this with his statement that “thinking creates the concepts of subject and object just as it does all other concepts” and “I do not think because I am a subject, but rather I am a subject by the grace of thinking.” So that, while it may be far from obvious, thought is always the primary factor in cognition. He would agree with you that in thinking we participate in the divine mind, but he would not call it the “supernatural” as you have done. For both Steiner and for Barfield thought is the ‘inside’ of nature, and so every bit as natural as the outside that our senses experience. Simply put, thought is supersensible, as you have earlier used the term, but not supernatural.
I agree completely concerning the importance of poetry, because experiencing it can lead to what Barfield termed “a felt change of consciousness,” which then helps to make the primacy of thinking clear to us. The neglect of the rote learning of poetry in contemporary American education is a greatly misguided shame. Michael Knox Beran draws attention to this in the essay In Defence of Memorization, which is available on the net at:
First, with regard to my inveterate dualism. We must not seek to explain away our organic being. There is a sense -- an existential sense -- in which we are dual: I as an organism am apparently set off from everyone else and everything else in the world. That is a distinction that sense perception peremptorily establishes. It may be too much to say that Steiner "corrects" it, although it may be appropriate to say -- and no less great a claim -- that he puts the means of its correction at our disposal, and that that correction involves a kind of thinking.
If it is agreed that in thinking we participate in the divine mind, I need not press here the discussion of whether that participation is or is not supernatural. Bonaventura and Thomas had that discussion, it was resolved in favor of Thomas (no), and in that resolution the skids were greased for degeneration into nominalism. But that is a very long discussion and perhaps not pertinent here.
[However, since you mentioned the notion that thought is the inside of nature, I have to put in another word for Whitehead. That is at the heart of his notion of how the world is structured. I find the consonance breathtaking.]
The poetic experience I am talking about will not involve memorization. Memorization takes us back much closer to original participation (see Chapter 2 in Ong's ORALITY & LITERACY). The notion is that consciousness was restructured by the effects of writing upon it, when writing was, as it were, internalised. The result was an ever-increasing self-awareness, self-reference, and indeed the development of an inner self.
The point is that the roots of language go much further down into that inner self than is revealed by the operation of logic or discursive prose; that they involve powers of thought not apparent in normative consciousness; and that poetry is both created and understood by going down near those roots and engaging those powers. Rosenblatt's THE READER, THE TEXT, THE POEM is a good general discussion of this, and introduces C.S. Peirce's notion of triadic meaning. I think that Peirce -- another startlingly original thinker -- must be brought into harmony with Barfield and Whitehead around poetry before we can even begin an adequate discussion of this topic.
That may seem irredeemably dry. From another angle: Scientific materialism assumes that things are absolutely separate from each other in space and disconnected from each other in time, a world of outsides without insides. These assumptions about the world became enthroned, not merely as unquestionable metaphysical assumptions about the world, but as habits of perception: We have trained ourselves to experience a world of outsides without insides.
In poetry, meaning is achieved by the reader enriching the text by giving the insides back to words; unless poems be a sheer catalyst for telepathy, in no way else can we account for the mystery of the transmission of poetic meaning: How can so few words convey so much meaning? Having experienced meaning in this way -- the brining together of the inside and outside of things through thought -- there is no turning back. Once the world is experienced in its coherence, the world is changed. And so through poetry may we break the perceptual bonds of idolatry and begin to win our world back.
This is especially clear if we realize how significant a role language plays in our sense of self and in our perception of the world. In William James PSYCHOLOGY, the chapter "The Stream of Thought," which explains the concept of the stream of consciousness, is followed by "The Sense of Self," so closely is that sense shaped by that stream. In reading the interior monologues of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, which dramatize the stream of consciousness, we sense that inherent in the web of interior language is the very core of individual personality. What's more, we put much of the world together in that stream of consciousness; the world we perceive is linguistically mediated. These are powerful waters, where self and world are given shape.
I am reading the "Additional Commentary" to your posting on the Barfield Listserv of the publication of Evolution &The New Gnosis. I will burden you with a couple of questions and a few comments next time. But now I must do some work to keep this enterprise, whether it monistic or dualistic, solvent.
© 2005 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 three grandchildren. 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)
Many of Don's essays have been published by Southern Cross Review and may be found in our archives: back issues.
Born in 1949, Ken McClure received his BA from NYU in 1972. Since that time he has worked as a court reporter in New York, Vermont, and South Carolina. From 1996-2004, he and his wife, Kathi, owned and operated Rivendell Books in Montpelier, Vermont. They currently run McClure's Bookstore in Clemson, South Carolina.