“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

The Spirit of Philosophy

I am passionate about philosophy not because I desire answers to arbitrary questions or explanations of abstract problems. My passion arises because life, as given–as it at first appears to my everyday consciousness–is incomplete and unaccounted for. The reason for my existence has never been self-evident, and yet discovering this reason is the prerequisite of selfhood, of knowing who and what I am.

As far back as my conscious memory will reach, I’ve known with certainty that there is more to my earthly experience than I can as of yet perceive. My certainty is no more than a knowing that I do not know of what exactly this moreness consists, and it is in this “learned ignorance,” as Nicholas of Cusa put it, that my longing for wisdom finds its source. I do not desire an answer so much as the wisdom to ask the proper question.

Perhaps it is here that the hubris of our scientistic age has been led furthest astray. The human spirit has gone into hiding not because of the supposed answers to long standing questions that materialistic science has brought, but because of the shallow form of questioning that it has forced upon us. It is relatively easy for any sufficiently rigorous thinker to dismiss reductionistic physiological explanations of consciousness, but once rejected, these same thinkers seem unable to devise a line of questioning that might free us from the aporia of the “hard problem.”

Einstein is often credited with the remark that “a problem cannot be solved by the same consciousness that created it.” How right he is. The sense-bound intellect, so successful at mastering the mechanisms of the inorganic material world, is powerless in the face of the higher order phenomena of biology, psychology, and spirituality. If our thinking is dead, it is no wonder that life and consciousness remain beyond our comprehension. The proper question is not “how does the brain produce consciousness”; it demonstrably does not (you will never find qualia–blueness, sweetness, sadness–in neural tissue). The question is rather “how are we to resurrect our thinking so as to become adequate to supersensible phenomena?”

It is this question that lead me to Rudolf Steiner‘s spiritual science. As an interpreter, Jonael Schickler, has described it, Steiner’s is a metaphysics as Christology. His prescription for our fallen age is radical, and no doubt will leave many materialistically oriented thinkers in disbelief, if it does not also evoke downright derision. Steiner demands that we widen our line of questioning to the extent that Christ becomes an ingredient of any adequate account of human and cosmic existence.

For Steiner, Christianity is not a religion, but the embodiment of a world-historical fact. He finds truth in all of the world’s spiritual traditions, and is well aware of the seeming exclusivity of his claims. It is for this reason that he often avoided the title “Christ” when articulating his vision, because it is merely a culturally constructed label which has been chosen to represent a principle that lives in all of humanity and is at work in cosmic evolution itself. A more apt label for this principle might be the “I am.” It is eternal: that which was in the beginning and will be in the end. It is also that which works in the time between through love in order to redeem the world. But it is less a “what” than a “who,” because this spirit lives within the soul of every human being, more you than the limited personality you at first appear to be. From Steiner’s perspective, the question is not “what is the truth?”, but “who is the truth?” The answer is “I am.”

If philosophy is to become relevant in our world once again, such a spiritual principle must be at its root. It cannot be a belief accepted as dogma, but the result of an experience of the unconditioned Absolute underlying all things, seen and unseen.

The natural world may remain a mystery to me, but in knowing that I do not know, I have already found myself.

Who am I?

I am.

All else will follow in time.






3 responses to “The Spirit of Philosophy”

  1. Leland BeBee Avatar
    Leland BeBee

    Grüsse, mein Freund!

    Doubt proves both the parent and the offspring of understanding, making understanding always “provisional.” From Query “A,” springs Understanding “A,” with which we may for a time be well-satisfied — that is until the limits of the question come into view or the boundaries of the answer become evident. Then, we either revise Query “A” into Query “A1,” to achieve a refined Understanding A1, or we devise query “B” on the foundation of Understanding “A,” in order to attain Understanding “B.” Left to our own, completely, without the burdens of expectations of others, and with all the time in the universe, we could, perhaps, inquiry fully and perfectly about all things, including even our own nature.

    Such is the path of the rational inquiry, which will go as far as it can, until the individual is exhausted by the process, defeated by the results, or thwarted by the exigencies of life. For some, a little of this is too much. For others, a lifetime is too little.

    When one poses the questio, “Who am I?” one may do so because it is one of those questions that rises from the rational inquiry process. Or, one may do so because of the overwheliming surprise of existence — waking up (either from sleep or from the sleep-resembling state of unexamined existence) startled by the thought, that “I am” and at once or shortly afterward discovering that the sense of personal existence is as much a question as a statement of being — a question of, initially, “Who am I,” followed inexorably by the question, “Why am I?”

    1. matthewdsegall Avatar

      Greetings Leland! It is my last day in Basel and I have absolutely nothing to do… I will go wander downtown in hopes of finding good food and good conversation, not necessarily in that order but hopefully both at once!

      I am unable to remember whether I responded to your email about visiting San Francisco? Did I? It is hard to keep track with so much new stimuli these past weeks. Are you still coming?

  2. On reading Plato… « Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] described as an essayist, though through the medium of the stylistic essay, he is able to quicken the spirit of philosophy in his readers as well as any in the […]

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