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

Rudolf Steiner and Racism

As a teacher, I do my best to actively encourage deep and sustained dialogue about the racism, implicit or explicit, that shows up in the statements or actions of any figure studied with my students. Many modern European and American thinkers, including all the German idealists, Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson, Whitehead, Jung, Teilhard, Heidegger, etc., have made statements that are racist. 

There are a few things that can be said about this. In an educational context, it is essential that we distinguish the teaching of some aspects of a historical figure’s philosophy from an endorsement of their racist views. We can study the ideas of, e.g., Heidegger, while simultaneously condemning Nazism. Indeed, one reason to closely study such thinkers is to better understand why those who show such wisdom in some areas nonetheless succumb to such detestable political and social views. Sometimes the links between a philosophy and racist views are clearer (e.g., again, Heidegger). But in the case of Rudolf Steiner, I personally believe there is much of tremendous value, not the least of which being that his core insights into the nature of individual freedom and human destiny stand flatly opposed to racism.  

Nonetheless, Steiner has made statements that in my opinion are impossible to describe as anything other than racist. As far as I am concerned, Steiner’s comments (GA 174b) about the significance of skin color with regard to receiving the Christ impulse into human evolution are false and must be rejected. That ideas of racial hierarchy were pervasive among European scientists and intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries is no excuse. One way of addressing this problem is to juxtapose his racist statements to his many other resolutely anti-racist (and anti-sexist) views. For example, from a lecture during WW1:

“… anyone who speaks of the ideals of race and nation…today is speaking of impulses which are part of the decline of humanity. If anyone now considers them to be progressive ideals to present to humanity, they speak untruth. Nothing is more designed to take humanity into its decline than the propagation of ideals of race, nationhood and blood.” 

Oct 26, 1917; GA 177

While no one is under any obligation to take Steiner’s cosmology seriously, it is important to consider how dramatically these issues are reconfigured depending upon whether one takes an edic or emic approach. From an emic perspective, Steiner’s esoteric understanding of reincarnation is such that each of us has in prior lives belonged to various ethnicities and genders. Further, anthroposophy teaches that, while we embody the cultural stream of our birth during our waking hours, during sleep we mix and mingle with all others. The notions of a fixed racial hierarchy or of race as somehow essential to an individual’s identity are incompatible with Steiner’s central ideas of reincarnation and the four-fold human being (e.g., while physical and etheric bodies carry and express generic characteristics, astral body and ego do not). Humanity is rather a plurality-in-unity. Here’s another excerpt from a lecture delivered a few years after WW1: 

“It is just when we penetrate into the inner nature and essence of the Peoples of the Earth that we find the differences of their individual natures. And then we realize that the all-embracing sphere of the ‘human’ is not expressed in its entirety through any individual person, or through the members of any one race, but only through the whole of humankind. If anyone would understand what they are in their whole being, let them study the characteristics of the different peoples of the Earth. Let them assimilate the qualities which they themselves cannot possess by nature, for only then will they become fully human. Full and complete humanity is a possibility for everyone. Everyone should pay heed to what lives in their own inner being. The revelation vouchsafed to other peoples is not theirs and they must find it in others. In our heart we feel and know that this is necessary. If we discover what is characteristically great in other peoples and allow this to penetrate deeply into our own being, we will realize that the purpose of our existence cannot be fulfilled without these other qualities, because they are also part of our own inner striving. The possibility of full humanity lies in every individual, but it must be brought to fulfilment by understanding the special characteristics of the different peoples spread over the Earth.” 

March 1920; GA 335

To reiterate, whether it’s Steiner or other figures like Emerson (who Cornel West referred to as “a typical nineteenth-century ‘mild racist,’” but who nonetheless stood with abolitionists against slavery and spoke out regularly regarding the US government’s treatment of Native Americans) or Whitehead (who ignorantly referred to “the discovery of empty continents” in a treatment of European history while at the same time arguing for the essential values of diversity and freedom for all peoples), I believe we can view their racist statements as not only exceptions to but in contradiction with the core thrust of their thinking and social activities. As always, it is important not to treat anyone, no matter how impressive, as an infallible guru. But nor should we rush to condemn a thinker’s entire philosophical contribution without first making a clear case that racism is so interwoven with the whole that nothing can be salvaged. As I say in the video discussion below, those who find value in Steiner’s work have a responsibility to separate the diamonds from the coal.

I realize that there’s a lot more that could be said, and that others are likely to fill in the gaps. I welcome good faith dialogue about these contentious issues. I also want to acknowledge that discussing racism on the level of ideas, no matter how powerful or transformative we might believe those ideas to be, risks overlooking the ways racism pervades—often violently—the everyday lives of so many people in the US and around the world. There is much work to be done on that front. But I take my task in the role of university professor to be to work toward an understanding of how ideas have shaped consciousness in the past and to retrieve or create those ideas that have the potential to help us develop more virtuous and clear-sighted human individuals and communities today and into the future.

All of this is by way of preface to the following recording of a discussion with a reading group called Urphänomen. After studying Steiner’s Riddles of Philosophy & Philosophy of Freedom together, we turned our attention to two lectures delivered to German anthroposophists on Feb 13 & 14, 1915 in Stuttgart (GA 174b). The issues addressed are controversial and deserve careful consideration. Much has already been written from diverse perspectives on the topic of race in Steiner’s work. We have decided to make our conversation public with the intention of modeling a new kind of dialogue among anthroposophists as well as with the broader public. Our interpretations of these and other lectures by Steiner may differ, but we all believe that the future of humanity depends in large part on how we find our way through these problems. This is just a beginning.

After this discussion a few days ago with our Urphänomen group, Ashton and I discussed some further thoughts on a walk. Listen:



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