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

Thinking with Rudolf Steiner

It is hard to believe I’ve been thinking with Steiner for almost 15 years. He is, as the late BBC documentarian and author Jonathan Stedall put it in the title of his 2011 biopic, a “challenge.” In contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s words:

Steiner created a kind of antenna anthropology that we can no longer easily do without, even if we shall reformulate every single sentence of his doctrine. Since the dawn of modernity, humans have actually been listening into the ether, wanting to know what needs to be done. Martin Buber writes in his book Mystical testimonies of all times and peoples (1907), and this is very typical for the reception situation of early modernity: ‘We listen to ourselves—and don’t know what sea noise we are hearing.’ With Steiner, a much more precise reception began. He speaks as if under dictation and evidently hears in the ether an order for a life-reform effort that puts the people of our time on a new track. 100 years later, after that spiritually lost 20th century, we’re back at the same place. The sentence ‘You have to change your life’ is no longer decoded as Buddhist, Christian, Stoic, or in the sense of Nietzsche, but as a mandate to develop a way of life that makes the coexistence of people on this endangered planet possible. If you tune the antennas finer, you can hear it everywhere now. A great many people feel this very clearly. Steiner is an ideal transmitter of this unavoidable message. He remains important because he had already put out the antennas before radio. The antenna people from back then now shake hands with the network people and say: ‘It’s about time you followed suit.’

Interview with Mateo Kries in Welt, 2011

Though there is much that remains beyond my reach, the aspects of his work that I have spent significant time with have provided tremendous spiritual nourishment. He is not just a philosopher, as his work is an invitation to go beyond theoretical reflection into practical transformation of oneself and the world (in that order).

My first serious study of Steiner was in 2009 in a course on esotericism taught by Robert McDermott (I was a graduate student at the time; my term paper for Robert, “Gnostic Consciousness: Knowing With Spiritual Beings,” is linked below). Robert and I would later co-author a foreword for a book by Mario Betti on Steiner’s conception of 12 basic world views (foreword also linked below). Here is a presentation we gave together in 2019 on this topic:

Earlier today a dozen of us wrapped up a reading group on Steiner’s Die Rätsel der Philosophie/Riddles of Philosophy (1923 in German/1973 in English transl. by Fritz C. A. Koelln). In this text, Steiner offers an outline of important historical figures in western philosophy beginning with Pherekydes and the pre-Socratics, moving through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the early church fathers, medieval Scholasticism, early modern science, German idealism, and 19th century materialism. But he is not offering another history of ideas. Rather, somewhat in the spirit of Hegel’s Phenomenology, Steiner is attempting to invite his readers to remember and to participate in furthering an evolution of consciousness beyond the ordinary condition of the sense-bound reflective intellect. Philosophy, in his view, has its roots in a universal striving of the human soul for self-conscious wisdom. Along the way to this wisdom, it was necessary for the human I to experience itself as increasingly isolated from the external natural world, that is, the world of the outward facing senses. By the time of Descartes, human thought had become so abstract that the soul began to question its instinctive connection to the surrounding world. We found ourselves in need of theoretical proofs of the existence of the external world. This alienation challenged the soul to rediscover the link between its ideas and real natural processes. Steiner returns often to Goethe as a prime exemplar of how this challenge can be addressed. But most modern thinkers failed to develop the living or etheric thinking that might re-establish this linkage. Worse, modern materialism left us unable even to affirm our own existence as thinking, feeling, and willing soul-spiritual beings.

“Thinking is the educator of the soul,” as Steiner put it, leading us to an experience of individual freedom, and stemming from that freedom, the capacity to love one another. In the final chapter of Riddles, Steiner introduces anthroposophy (the wisdom of the human), a path for leading the spirit in the human to the spirit in the universe. In short, in our striving to know, we are not building an internal copy of the external sense world; rather, in striving for true knowledge of the cosmos we are the creative essence of the world-process becoming conscious of itself.

Here is the complete playlist of our sessions (nearly 18 hours of discussion!):

In January, we turn to Steiner’s Die Philosophie der Freiheit/Philosophy of Freedom (1894 in German/2011 in English by Michael Wilson). Email archetypalphenomenon@gmail.com if you’d like to join us.

Update: Here’s the playlist of videos of our reading group focused on The Philosophy of Freedom, added to as we go:



2 responses to “Thinking with Rudolf Steiner”

  1. ashramdiary Avatar

    Merry Christmas, Matt! Still here at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, a small community visited often by people of various spiritualities, whom we welcome with open hearts. We are not so much into talking here, but we and our retreatants enjoy plenty of time for meditation and contemplation, against the backdrop of this ocean and the green hills (mostly pine and fir, some redwood). I receive Footnotes2Plato regularly, and find that it enriches my connection with growing things.

    Wishing you every good gift of nature and wisdom,

    Thomas (monk who used to live in Berkeley)

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Great to hear from you, Thomas! I was just thinking of you the other day, remembering fondly that time we recorded a YouTube video on psi phenomena. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and wish you a happy New Year.

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