The Case for Anthroposophy


by Owen Barfield


The prolonged historical event now usually referred to as �the scientific revolution� was characterised by the appearance of a new attitude to the element of sense perception in the total human experience. At first as an instinct, then as a waxing habit, and finally as a matter of deliberate choice, it came to be accepted that this element is, for the purposes of knowledge, the only reliable one; and further that it is possible, and indeed necessary, to isolate, in a way that had not hitherto been thought possible, this one element from all the others that go to make up man�s actual experience of the world. The word �matter� came to signify, in effect, that which the senses can, or could, perceive without help from the mind, or from any other source not itself perceptible by the senses.

Whereas hitherto the perceptible and the imperceptible had been felt as happily intermixed with one another, and had been explored on that footing, the philosopher Descartes finally formulated the insulation of matter from mind as a philosophical principle, and the methodology of natural science is erected on that principle. It was by the rigorous exclusion from its field, under the name of �occult qualities�, of every element, whether spiritual or mental or called by any other name, which can only be conceived as non-material, and therefore non-measurable, that natural knowledge acquired a precision unknown before the revolution � because inherently impossible in terms of the old fusion; and, armed with that precision (entitling it to the name of �science�), went on to achieve its formidable technological victories. It is the elimination of occult qualities from the purview of science that constitutes the difference between astrology and astronomy, between alchemy and chemistry, and in general the difference between Aristotelian man and his environment in the past and modern man and his environment in the present.

When two mutually dependent human relatives are separated, so that, for the first time, one of them can �go it alone�, there may be drawbacks, but it is the advantages that are often most immediately evident. By freeing itself from the taint of �occult qualities�, that is, by meticulously disentangling itself from all reference, explicit or implicit, to non-material factors, the material world, as a field of knowledge, gained inestimable advantages. We perhaps take them for granted now; but the men of the seventeenth century � the members of the Royal Society for instance had a prophetic inkling of what the new liberty promised. You have only to read some of their pronouncements. For them it was an emotional as well as an intellectual experience. �Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive ...�

But when two people separate, so that one of them can go it alone, it follows as a natural consequence that the other can also go it alone. It might have been expected, then, that, by meticulously disentangling itself from all reference, explicit or implicit, to material factors, the immaterial, as a field of knowledge, would also gain inestimable advantages. That is what did not happen. But it will be well to state at once that it is nevertheless precisely this correlative epistemological principle that is the basis of Rudolf Steiner�s anthroposophy. It belongs to the post-Aristotelian age for the same reason that natural science does; but in the opposite way. Thus, the parallel terms, �spiritual science� and �occult science�, which he also used, do not betoken a fond belief that the methodology of technological1 science can be applied to the immaterial. The methodology of technological science is, rightly, based on the exclusion of all occult qualities from its thinking. The methodology of spiritual science is based on an equally rigorous exclusion of all �physical qualities� from its thinking. That is one of the things I hope this book will help to make clear.

What did happen was well expressed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, when he pointed out in his Aids to Reflection that Descartes, having discovered a technical principle, which �as a fiction of science, it would be difficult to overvalue�, erroneously propounded that principle as a truth of fact. (The principle in question was the necessity of abstracting from corporeal substance all its positive properties, �in order to submit the various phaenomena of moving bodies to geometrical construction�.) And of course the same point has since been made by A. N. Whitehead and others. But Coleridge could also point prophetically, in another place,2 the necessity of a general revolution in the modes of developing and disciplining the human mind by the substitution of Life, and Intelligence (considered in its different powers from the Plant up to that state in which the difference of Degree becomes a new kind � man, self-consciousness but yet not by essential opposition) for the philosophy of mechanism which in everything that is most worthy of the human Intellect strikes Death, and cheats itself by mistaking clear Images for distinct conceptions ...

The necessity for such a revolution, he said, arises from the fact that, for self-conscious man, although to experience a world of corporeal substance as existing quite apart from his thinking self is �a law of his nature,� it is not "a conclusion of his judgment�. That this is indeed the case hardly needs arguing today, since it has become the discovery of technological science itself. Whether we go to neurology or to physics, or elsewhere, we are confronted with the demonstrable conclusion that the actual, macroscopic world of nature � as distinct from the microscopic, submicroscopic and inferred world of physical science � is (as, for instance, the biologist, Professor Marjorie Grene, puts it in her book The Knower and the Known) �mediated by concepts as well as presented through the senses�. What is remarkable is the rapidity with which the presence of this Trojan Horse in the citadel of its methodology was detected by technological science itself, as it was progressively realised that everything in nature that constitutes her �qualities� must be located on the res cogitans, and not the res extensa, side of the Cartesian guillotine. But this is as much as to say that those qualities are, in the technological sense, �occult�; and it could be argued without much difficulty that any science which proposes to enquire into them must also be �occult� � unless it is content to do so by extrapolating into the psyche a theoretical apparatus applicable, by definition, only to subject-matter that has first been sedulously dehydrated of all psyche. Yet this last is the approach which the methodology of natural science, as we have it, renders inevitable. If you have first affirmed that the material world is in fact independent of the psychic, and then determined to concentrate attention exclusively on the former, it does not make all that difference whether or no you go to the behaviouristic lengths of explicitly denying the existence of psyche. Either it does not exist or, if it does exist, it is occult and must be left severely alone. In any case you have withdrawn attention from it for so long that it might as well not be there, as far as you are concerned. For the purpose of cognition, it will gradually (as the author puts it on page 77) has �petered out�.

Moreover this continues to be the case even after the failure of science to eliminate psyche from the knowable world has become evident. The demonstrative arguments of a Coleridge, a Whitehead, a Michael Polanyi are perforce acknowledged; but the acknowledgment remains an intellectual, not an emotional experience. The Trojan Horse certainly does seem to be there, and in rather a conspicuous way; but the necessary traffic-diversions can be arranged, and it is much less embarrassing to leave it standing in the market-place than to get involved.

There is however one experience inseparable from the progress of natural science, which is apt to be an emotional as well as an intellectual one. And that is the fact that the exclusion of the psychic, as such, from matter of science entails recognition of the limits of science. This is, of course, the opposite experience from the one that enthralled the scientists of the seventeenth century. They rejoiced in a conviction that all the boundaries had gone and the prospects opened up to human knowledge had become limitless. Whereas, more and more as the nineteenth century progressed, it was the opposite that was stressed. �Ignorabimus.� We shall never know. There are limits beyond which, in the very nature of things, the mind can never pass. One of the things heavily stressed by Steiner (in Section I and again more specifically in Section III) is the significance, from the point of view of anthroposophy, of precisely this experience, and not so much in itself as for what it may lead to. The more monstrous and menacing the Horse is felt to be, towering there and casting its shadow over the centre of the town, the more ready we may be to begin asking ourselves whether there may not perhaps be something alive inside it.

This experience can be an emotional, and indeed a volitional one, because it involves a frustrating, if suppressed, conflict between the scientific impulse, which is a will to know and a refusal to acknowledge boundaries except for the purpose of overthrowing them � and the scientific tradition, followed for the last three hundred years, which has ended in itself erecting boundaries that claim to be no less absolute than the old theological ones it did overthrow.

In developing his contention that the shock of contact with these self-imposed limits of knowledge may itself be the necessary first step towards breaching them, the author refers in particular to two German writers, F. T. Vischer and Gideon Spicker. It would be a mistake to conclude from this, or from the nineteenth century idiom of the quotations, that the theme is out of date. The boundaries are still there and are still felt. The substance is the same, whether it is Gideon Spicker pointing out that every one, without exception, starts from an unproven and unprovable premise, namely the necessity of thinking. No investigation ever gets behind this necessity, however deep it may dig. It has to be simply and groundlessly accepted ... or Bertrand Russell, in Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, conceding that the foundation, on which the whole structure of empirical science is erected, is itself demonstrably non-empirical:

"If an individual is to know anything beyond his own experiences up to the present moment, his stock of uninferred knowledge must consist not only of matters of fact, but also of general laws, or at least a law, allowing him to make inferences from matters of fact ... The only alternative to this hypothesis is complete scepticism as to all the inferences of science and common sense, including those which I have called animal inference."

The abiding question is, how we choose to react to the boundaries. We may, with Russell and the empiricists, having once conscientiously �shown awareness� of them, proceed henceforth to ignore them and hope, so to speak, that they will go away; or, with the linguistic philosophers, we may flatly decline to look at them; or we may wrap ourselves in the vatic �silence� of a Heidegger or a Wittgenstein or a Norman O. Brown to be broken only by paradox and aphorism, or fall in behind the growing number of distinguished enthusiasts for metaphor, symbol and myth; or, with the scientific positivists, we may resign ourselves to the conviction that there is really no difference between knowledge and technology; we may even perhaps attempt some new definition of knowledge along the lines of the groping relativism, or personalism, of Karl Popper or of Michael Polanyi. But how far all of these are from the vision that was engendered by the scientific impulse in its first appearance among men! Steiner, as will be seen, advocates a different response, and one which, it seems to me, is more in accord with the fateful impulse itself, however it may differ from the methodology and the tradition which that impulse has so far begotten.

At intervals through the ensuing pages the reader will encounter a passing reference to, and sometimes a quotation from, the German philosopher and psychologist, Franz Brentano. Here too he may be inclined to form a hasty judgment that the book is unduly �dated� by them. But here too it is the substance that matters, and that is far from being out of date. What that substance is, it is hoped, may be sufficiently gathered from the book itself. Brentano is however so little known to English readers that I have thought it best to omit from the translation that part of it which amounts to an exegesis of his psychology. There remain two points to which I wish to draw attention here. In a short section entitled �Diremption of the Psychic from the Extra-psychic in Brentano� (also omitted) the author briefly capitulates the former�s refutation of a certain influential and still widely accepted psychological fallacy: namely, that the degree of conviction with which we treat a proposition as �true� (and thus, the existential component in any existential judgment) depends on the degree of intensity � the �passion�3 � with which we feel it. This, says Brentano, is based on an impermissible analogy (�size�) between the psyche itself on the one hand and the world of space on the other. If conviction really depended on intensity of feeling, doctors would be advising their patients against studying mathematics, or even learning arithmetic, for fear of a nervous breakdown. What it in fact depends on, adds Steiner, is an inner intuition of the psyche neither similar nor analogous, but corresponding in its objectivity, to the psyche�s outer experience of causality in the physical world. And this experience is considered elsewhere in the book, for instance in Sections VII and VIII.

The other point concerns Brentano�s relation to the present day. It is not always the philosopher whose name is best known and whose works are still read, whose influence is most abiding. Brentano was the teacher of Edmund Husserl, who acknowledged that teaching as the determining influence in his intellectual and vocational life; and without the Phenomenology of Husserl, with its stress on the �intentionality� or �intentional relation� in the act of perceiving, there is some doubt whether Existentialism would ever have been born. Thus, while from a superficial point of view the relation to Brentano, which certainly pervades the book as a whole, may be felt as a dating one, for anyone at all acquainted in detail with the history of western thought it can have the consequence of bringing it almost modishly up to date.

Steiner�s Von Seelenr�tseln (of which what follows is a partial translation) is not a systematic presentation of the philosophical basis of anthroposophy. For that the reader must go to his The Philosophy of Freedom, or Goethe�s Theory of Knowledge, or Truth and Science; and perhaps especially the last. The Foreword to Von Seelenr�tseln does in fact describe it as a Rechtfertigung �vindication� of anthroposophical methodology, but my choice of a title for these extracts came from the impression I had myself retained of its essential content after reading the whole and translating a good deal of it. Steiner�s Von Seelenr�tseln was published in 1917, the year of Brentano�s death; and its longest section (here omitted) amounts, as its title, Franz Brentano (Ein Nachruf), suggests, to an obituary essay. Steiner had always, he says in a Foreword, been both an admirer and an assiduous reader of Brentano and had long been intending to write about him. The main body of the essay is thus a patient and detailed exposition, supported by quotations, of Brentano�s psychology, in which the word �judgment� is used to name that intentional relation between the psyche and the extra-psychic, or physical world, which enables it either to reject a representation as subjective or to accept it as objective. This �judgment� is an exclusively psychic activity, and must be sharply distinguished as such from both representations and feelings. As the essay proceeds, Steiner makes it clear that he sees Brentano�s emphasis on intentionality as a first step in the direction of that psychological elimination of �physical qualities�, to which I have already referred. And he suggests that the only reason why Brentano himself could not take the logically indicated second step (which must have carried him in the direction of anthroposophy) was that at the very outset of his philosophical career, following Emanuel Kant, he had irrevocably nailed his colours to the back of the Cartesian guillotine, by accepting the axiom that concepts without sensory content are �empty�. Is this why today, although we have a philosophical and an ethical existentialism, and now even an existential psychology, we have as yet no existential epistemology?

This essay is immediately preceded by a lengthy response in detail to a chapter in a then recently published book by Max Dessoir, and that in its turn by the introductory essay entitled Anthropology and Anthroposophy, which also forms the opening section of the book now presented to English readers. The arguments against including Max Dessoir �ber Anthroposophie seemed to me to be the same, only a good deal stronger than those against including the Brentano obituary.

Steiner felt bound to go into Dessoir�s chapter in some detail, because it echoed irresponsibly a number of flagrant misunderstandings, or misrepresentations, of anthroposophy that were current in Germany at the time. Briefly, Dessoir�s arguments are all based on the assumption that anthroposophy ignores the principles of natural science and must collapse as soon as it is confronted with them; whereas Steiner�s real argument is, as he himself formulates it in the Foreword, that �either the grounds for there being such a thing as anthroposophy are valid, or else no truth-value can be assigned to the insights of natural science itself�. What he disputed was not facts, but hypotheses which have come to be treated as facts. I have omitted the Foreword; but the argument, so formulated, is sufficiently apparent from the rest of the book.

The remainder of Von Seelenr�tseln consists of eight Commentary Notes (Skizzenhafte Erweiterungen) of varying lengths, each referring specifically to a different point in the text, but each bearing a title and all of them quite capable, it seems to me, of standing on their own. Seven of them appear here as Sections II to VIII, and I have already borrowed from the eighth (Diremption of the Psychic from the Extra-psychic in Brentano) for the purposes of this Introduction.

We are left with a book rather less than half the length of the original and requiring, if only for that reason, a different title; but still with a book which I have thought it important to make available, as best I can, in the English tongue; and that not only for the general reasons I have already suggested, but also for a particular one with which I will conclude.

One of the Commentary Notes (Section VII) stands on rather a different footing, is perhaps even in a different category, from the others. At a certain point in the Brentano obituary Steiner quotes from a previous book of his own a passage in which he compares the relation between the unconscious and the conscious psyche to that between a man himself and his reflection in a looking glass. In which case the notion that the actual life of the soul consists of the way it expresses itself through the body, would be as fantastic as that of a man, regarding himself in a mirror, who should suppose that the form he sees there has been produced by the mirror. Whereas of course the mirror is the condition, not the cause, of what he sees. In the same way, the ordinary waking experience of the psyche certainly is conditioned by its bodily apparatus; but �it is not the soul itself that is dependent on the bodily instruments, but only the ordinary consciousness of the soul�. Now Section VII is, in form, a Note on this sentence; and it is somewhat odd that Steiner should have chosen a �Note� for the purpose to which he applied it. For he made it the occasion of his first mention (after thirty years of silent reflection and study) of the principle of psychosomatic tri-unity. Moreover it is still the locus classicus for a full statement of that same �threefold� principle, which, as every serious student of it knows, lies at the very foundation of anthroposophy, while at the same time it runs like a twisted Ariadne�s thread through nearly every matter selected for scrutiny. Even those readers, therefore, who are already too well convinced to feel that any �case� for anthroposophy is needed so far as they are concerned, will probably be glad to have it available in book form and in the English language. It has once before been translated � in 1925 by the late George Adams � but his version was only printed in a privately circulated periodical and has been out of print for more than forty years.

It hardly needs adding that this Note in particular will repay particularly careful study. But there is one aspect of it, and of the doctrine it propounds, to which I feel impelled to direct attention before I withdraw and leave the book to speak for itself. If Section I is the statement, Section VII strikes me as a particularly good illustration, of the true relation between Steiner�s anthroposophy and that natural science which the scientific revolution has in fact brought about. Although he criticises, and rejects, a certain conclusion which has been drawn from the evidence afforded by neurological experiments, Steiner does not attack the physiology developed since Harvey�s day; still less does he ignore it; he enlists it. It is not only psychologically (for the reason already given) but also technologically that the scientific revolution was a necessary precondition of anthroposophical cognition. And this has a bearing on an objection of a very different order that is sometimes brought against it. I was myself once asked: What is there in Steiner that you do not also find in Jacob Boehme, if you know how to look for it?

The content of Section VII (here called �Principles of Psychosomatic Physiology�) could never have come to light in the context of an Aristotelian physiology, a physiology of �animal spirits�, for example, and of four �elements� that were psychic as well as physical and four �humours� that were physical as well as psychic, no-one quite saw how. If your need is to know, not only with the warm wisdom of instinctive intelligence, but also with effective precision, you must first suffer the guillotine. Only after you have disentangled two strands of a single thread and laid them carefully side by side can you twist them together by your own act. The mind must have learnt to distinguish soma absolutely from psyche before it can be in a position to trace their interaction with the requisite finesse; and this applies not only to the human organism, but also to nature as a whole. It is the case that there is to be found in anthroposophy that immemorial understanding of tri-unity in man, in nature and in God, and of God and nature and man, which had long permeated the philosophy and religion of the East, before it continued to survive (often subterraneously) in the West in the doctrines of Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Hermetism, etc.; true that you will find it in Augustine, in pseudo-Dionysius, in Cusanus, in Bruno, in William Blake and a cloud of other witnesses, of whom Boehme is perhaps the outstanding representative. It would be surprising if it were not so. What differentiates anthroposophy from its �traditional� predecessors, both methodologically and in its content, is precisely its �post-revolutionary� status. It is, if you are that way minded, the perennial philosophy; but, if so, it is that philosophy risen again, and in a form determined by its having risen again, from the psychological and spiritual eclipse of the scientific revolution. To resume for a moment the metaphor I adopted at the outset of these remarks, it is because the two blood-relations were wise enough to separate for a spell as �family�, that they are able to come together again in the new and more specifically human relationship of independence, fellowship and love.

Just how badly is it needed, a genuinely psychosomatic physiology? That is a question the reflective reader will answer for himself. For my own part, to select only one from a number of reasons that come to mind, I doubt whether any less deep-seated remedy will ultimately avail against a certain creeping-sickness now hardly less apparent from the Times Literary Supplement than in the Charing Cross Road; I mean the increasingly simian preoccupation of captive human fancy with the secretions and the excretions of its own physical body.

A few final words about the translation. I have varied slightly the order in which the Sections are arranged and in most cases have substituted my own titles for those in the original. The German word Seele feels to me to be much more at home in technical as well as non-technical contexts than the English soul; and this is still more so with the adjective seelisch, for which we have no equivalent except soul � (adjectival). It is not however somewhat aggressively technical, as psyche is. I have compromised by using psyche and psychic generally but by no means universally. Habits of speech alter fairly quickly in some areas of discourse. Coleridge apologised for psychological as an �insolens verbum�. The same might possibly have been said of psyche in 1917, but hardly, I think, today and still less tomorrow. The mental or intelligential reference of Geist � operating towards exclusion, even from the sub-conscious imagination, of �physical qualities� � is more emphatic than that of spirit; and once again this is even truer of Geistig and spiritual. I doubt if much can be done about this; but I have sought to help a little by rather infrequently Englishing Geistig and Geist � (adjectival) as noetic. The distinctively English mind and mental sometimes appear to a translator of German as a sort of planets in the night sky of vocabulary and I have here and there adopted them both in seelisch and in Geistig contexts. And then of course there were those two thorns in the flesh of all who are rash enough to attempt translating philosophical or psychological German � Vorstellung and vorstellen. This is a problem that would bear discussing at some length. But it must suffice to say that I have mainly used representation and represent (after considering and rejecting presentation and present) occasionally substituting, where the context seemed to demand it, idea and ideation. The very meaning feels to me to lurk somewhere between the English terms � which is a good reason for using them both. Other usages are based on similar considerations and reflection. As to any habitual reader of Steiner who may suspect that I have taken too many liberties, I can only assure him that, as far as I know, I have at least had no other motive than a keen desire to do the fullest possible justice to thought-laden sentences written by an Austrian in 1917, but being read (as I hope) by an Anglo-Saxon in and after 1970.


up1 The use of this word is not intended to imply that science, as we have it, is valuable only for the purpose of technical manipulation and construction. It does imply that its cognitive value, as �natural� science, is limited to the extent to which nature is governed by physical laws. The fond belief referred to is of course the assumption underlying the �favourite objection�, to which Section VI replies.

up2 Letter to William Wordsworth, 30 May, 1815.

up3 Polanyi�s word.

For the book "The Case for Anthroposophy", by Rudolf Steiner, for which this essay is the introduction, see The Rudolf Steiner Archive