Also Sprach Steiner




Also Sprach Steiner (oder Steiner gegen Kant)


Nietzsche was a philosopher whom Rudolf Steiner greatly sympathized, even though he did not share his beliefs – something that was of secondary importance to Steiner. However this article is about another great spirit, Emmanuel Kant, and a first approach to his philosophical system through the critical words of Rudolf Steiner, as we find them in several of his works.


As with Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum”  (which Steiner found it not enough to draw –like Descartes did – further conclusions about other things of the world), talking about Kant, one should right away start with his infamous “categorical imperative” and more specifically, its first expression:


„Handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, dass sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde.“ – Immanuel Kant: AA IV, 421

(“I ought never to conduct myself except so that I could also will that my maxim

become a universal law.”)


There are many implications from this statement. The most known one is that you shall not lie, even if this means that the world will end.


Kant is THE model of deontocracy:  Act according to the absolute and global truths, no matter the consequences. Kantian philosophicoethical system, that combines freedom, rationalism and morality is maybe the single most influential current of our century in disciplines as different as bioethics and education.


“Handle so, dass die Grundsätze deines Handelns für alle Menschen gelten können”?


— Stimmt nicht! Sagte Steiner:

— Das könnte Nicht sein!


“Dieser Satz ist der Tod aller individuellen Antriebe des Handelns. Nicht wie alle Menschen handeln würden, kann für mich maßgebend sein, sondern was für mich in dem individuellen Falle zu tun ist.”

(“Act so that the principles of your actions can be valid for all men?” “This principle is death to all individual impulses of action. How all men would act cannot be a standard for me, but rather what is right for me to do in the particular instance.”


Why is Steiner so negative? Where does he stand? I will try to explain it in a way that will elucidate Steiner’s more general views.


Steiner addresses this issue through his usual epistemological approach. A categorical imperative in morality  is, he notes, a demand that men arrange their actions according to, and in respect to their moral maxims. Anyone, he continues, standing like Kant upon the standpoint that there are absolute, generally valid moral laws, is able to see these so-called “categorical imperatives” in the demand that one is obliged to obey, to subject themselves to these laws.


Steiner will juxtapose (and continue to adopt) Goethe’s view: Like all ideas, moral ones too must be created by an individual by his own productive spiritual power. Therefore, such a categorical imperative can for such a person consist only in the requirement for an individual to act upon their own moral views (intuitions).


Of course Steiner would also adopt Goethe’s wider view, that this sort of categorical imperative is needed as much in natural science: Individuals should make clear to themselves which maxims in natural science they can recognise, and then remain faithful in detail to these maxims. Interestingly, many progressive and well structured current views of learning and knowledge (embodied/situated cognition) draw the same (or similar) conclusions.


This takes us deeper into Steiner’s worldview: Monism of thought, and how we can eventually learn about the outer world through a system of observation – representation and finally, concepts (one leading to the other). What we observe (fluctuations of ourselves and not of the outer world), what is the outer world (we are parts of the outer world except our thought process) and the very nature of the emergent concepts define both our capacities and our limits.



This view is contrasted by the now predominant Kantian view which limits our knowledge to our representations, not because it is convinced that there cannot be things in existence besides these representations, but because it believes us to be so organized that we can experience only the modification in our own self, not the thing-in-itself that causes this modification. This conclusion arises from the view that I know only my representations, not that there is no existence apart from them, but only that the subject cannot take such an existence directly into itself; all it can do is merely through

“the medium of its subjective thoughts to imagine it, invent it, think it, cognize it, or perhaps also fail to cognize it.”

Kant feels this view expresses something absolutely certain, something that is immediately obvious, in need of no proof.

“The first fundamental principle which the philosopher has to bring to clear consciousness consists in the recognition that our knowledge, to begin with, does not reach beyond our representations. Our representation is the only thing we experience and learn to know directly and, just because we have direct experience of it, even the most radical doubt cannot rob us of our knowledge. By contrast, the knowledge that goes beyond our representations – taking this expression here in the widest possible sense, so that all physical happenings are included in it – is open to doubt. Hence, at the very beginning of all philosophizing, all knowledge which goes beyond representations must explicitly be set down as being open to doubt.”

These are the opening sentences of Volkelt’s book on Kant’s Theory of Knowledge. Steiner detects that what is put forward in this viewpoint as an immediate and self-evident truth is in reality the result of a line of thought which runs as follows:


“The naive man believes that the objects, just as he perceives them, are also present outside his consciousness. Physics, physiology and psychology, however, seem to show that for our perceptions our organization is necessary and that, therefore, we cannot know about anything except what our organization transmits to us from the objects. Our perceptions therefore are modifications of our organization, not things-in-themselves.”


Steiner also points that the train of thought here indicated has, in fact, been characterized by Eduard von Hartmann as the one which must lead to the conviction that we can have a direct knowledge only of our own representations. Outside our organisms we find vibrations of physical bodies and of air; these are sensed by us as sounds, and therefore it is concluded that what we call sound is nothing but a subjective reaction of our organisms to these movements in the external world. In the same way, color and warmth are found to be merely modifications of our organisms. And, indeed, the view is held that these two kinds of perceptions are called forth in us through effects or processes in the external world which are utterly different from the experiences we have of warmth or of color. The process of a fire that burns (the phenomenon of combustion), has little – if anything – to do with the phenomenon of my perception of it which might for example be a process that is related to the release of certain neurotransmitters. If these external processes stimulate the nerves in the skin, one has the subjective perception of warmth; if they happen to encounter the optic nerve, one perceives light and color. Light, color and warmth, then, are the responses of sensory nerves to external stimuli. Even the sense of touch does not reveal to me the objects of the outer world, but only conditions in myself. In the sense of modern physics, Steiner continues, one must imagine that bodies consist of infinitely small particles, molecules, and that these molecules are not in direct contact, but are at certain distances from one another. Between them, therefore, is empty space. Across this space they act on one another by attraction and repulsion: If I put my hand on a body, argues Steiner, the molecules of my hand by no means touch those of the body directly, but there remains a certain distance between body and hand, and what I sense as the body’s resistance is nothing other than the effect of the force of repulsion which its molecules exert on my hand. I am completely external to the body and perceive only its effects upon my organism. This point is the thesis of critical idealism.


Modern neurophysiology, physiology and psychology seemingly provide ample evidence to support this viewpoint, something that should make Kant even more confident that his convictions hold. Alas, Steiner exclaims. “In the history of man’s intellectual endeavour it would be hard to find another edifice of thought which has been put together with greater ingenuity and yet which, on closer analysis, collapses into nothing.”




Steiner detects two errors. The first is that the closer I get to the concept of say, red, following assumptions that get all the more hypothetical, the closer I get to higher brain centers. For example in the case that I try to find where color is, being a critical idealist:


“We are conscious of a colored object. This is the starting point; here the building up of thoughts begins. If I had no eye, for me the object would be colorless. I cannot, therefore, place the color on the body. I start on a search for it. I look for it in the eye: in vain; in the nerve: in vain; in the brain: in vain once more; in the soul: here I find it indeed, but not attached to the body. I recover the colored body only there at the point from which I started. The circle is closed. I am confident that I recognize as a product of my soul what the naive man imagines to be present out there in space.”


The problem here, as mentioned above is that the level of certainty from moving from the object to the eye is much higher that moving from the optic nerve to a brain center.



However, more importantly, critical idealism is able to refute naive realism only by itself assuming, in naive-realistic fashion, that one’s own organism has objective existence. The eye, critical idealism implicitly accepts, is real and part of myself, and with it I try to know the outer world. The error here is, Steiner argues, that the eye, the optic nerve, the brain (etc) are parts of the outer world as well. Therefore, critical idealism collapses.












Why is Kant so much more influential in western academic culture? This is a question that when answered, reveals a lot about the core difference of the two great philosophers.


Kant represents the western philosophical culture which by large consists of thought experiments, cognitive constructions, hypotheses and arguments. Philosophical approach per se is thinking on a large scale. Then one may recognize theoretical and practical thinking as parts of this division. Theoretical thinking may include the science and practical thinking may well be the thinking of the “just plain folk”.


As Uspenski puts it:

“In philosophical language you speak not so much about things as about possibilities, in other words, you do not speak about facts In theoretical language you speak about laws, and in practical language you speak about things on the same scale as yourself and everything around you, that is, about facts. So it is really a difference of scale.”


Academically, the hierarchy usually is:





But in Steiner’s view, the exact opposite is the case.


Steiner uses speech to refer to what can be referred to as “practical philosophy”. Not in the Kantian way, that is to make laws and rules about how to live, but in an a more practical way: facts determine the philosophical edifice and not the other way around. This difference has many important consequences as to what purpose and what relation to reality each system serves. The way uspenski would simplistically explain it is the following. I am presenting this imaginary example to compare it afterwards with Steiner’s views, thus elucidating major differences between theosophy and Steiner’s anthroposophy.


With the best possible intentions some people start discussing about martial arts.  Some of them may have actually seen at some point two people fighting. Indeed they use their rational in the best possible way. “If someone punches me, it seems appropriate that I should step back or go to the side to avoid it” they say. Practice would not differ from this either. But then, instead of applying their thoughts into practice, they go on building a whole martial art in their minds – again without ever attempting to actually physically test any of their ideas. At some point, what they created is so big, that they decide to give degrees to each other and teach it.


At some later point, some well-intended people who are willing to know the truth about martial arts go to them. They study with them, learn, take degrees, take PhD’s and some of them become new teachers etc.


Now, again at some later point, some people feel that something is not correct about this. They have two options. The first is the hard one. To discredit everything they know, and try the “real” thing. The second choice is somewhat easier. One will try to differentiate himself from the old teachings and offer new theories and new explanations. Soon people of the second category will try to build their own schools just by altering whatever they can in the things they learned. Because this has nothing to do with real practice, people will loose every sense and create theories as absurd and as metaphysical as they wish. One could say for example “ If someone punches you, the punch does not exist in some other dimension and you should go there”. Another one might say “If someone kicks you, transform into a solid rock. Again, there is noone to actually test all these. Kant belongs to that kind of philosophers.


What about the people that went for the hard choice – the first one? Even they deal with a very difficult problem. It is highly unlikely that they will even consider real practice as they (like Decartes) are so used to the current thought that even when they question everything, they ultimately build something similar.


The very few people that might be able to think outside the box and actually decide to study martial arts by touching (not to mention hitting) each other, would be perceived as heretics, as lunatics or at best, as odd individuals. “Mainstream” martial arts schools would not even refer to them. Of course these people who decided (or were able) to think outside the box, are complete beginners and amateurs in the real world of martial arts that people actually punch each other.


There are some individuals who never even troubled themselves with all that. They studied martial arts in their physical, practical – and painful! – sense from the very beginning. They formed deferent schools and different methodologies. Through their tough training, they have developed some form of practical philosophy as well. For them, mainstream martial art schools are a joke (at best). For mainstream martial art schools (as defined in this example), these individuals, with different schools, fighting, pain and physical characteristics do not even exist – they are metaphysical in a way!




Steiner belongs to this practical philosophy tradition. He watches some of the best minds using their sharp intellect (like Kant) in vain, as the very texture of their reality is distorted. Again, one, by mere philosophizing, can and will draw some very exact, correct and even ingenious conclusions. But like real martial arts, one may then go to war prepaired in every way and simply die because he had one concept wrong (like the idea that he is a bit better in sword fighting than he really is) – one concept too many for the war. In a way, search for the truth is a kind of inner war.  This example elucidates the difference between Steiner’s and Kant’s philosophical approaches.


Now if we are to examine Steiner’s view, it would be both useful and interesting to present Steiner’s presentation of Kant’s philosophical building blocks and then refer to Steiner’s objections. In Steiner’s words:


“This is the riddle with which Kant later feels himself confronted; how is knowledge that is produced in the soul and nevertheless supposed to have validity for world entities lying outside the soul, possible?”


“Seen from the present age, Kant and Goethe can be

considered spirits in whom the evolution of world conception

of modern times reveals itself as in an important moment of

its development. These spirits experience intensely the

enigmatic problems of existence, which have formerly, in a

more preparatory stage, been latent in the substrata of the life

of the soul.”


“Give me matter, and I will build you a universe!” The absolute certainty of all mathematical truths was so firmly established for him that he maintains in his Basic Principles of Natural Science that a science in the proper sense of the word is only one in which the application of mathematics is possible.”


“Kant was confronted with the question that disturbed him deeply: How is it possible that man is in possession of true and certain knowledge and that he is, nevertheless, incapable of knowing anything of the reality of the world in itself?”


Kant, Steiner explains, sought  the solution to the impenetrableness of the real world by reason (due to the very nature of our minds). “Reason does not derive its laws from nature but prescribes them to nature” sums up Kant’s conviction about our inability to know any other world than our own inner one- even if an impression from without is necessary to produce such an inner reality. Can we go beyond ourselves and learn anything about “things in themselves” which constitute the outer world?


God, freedom and immortality can never become mere phenomena. They truly are part of the world but we may have an original knowledge of these (we have an inner appearance of these truths even if we do not know whether their origin is divine or not). This is what Kant accepts and helps him save the phenomena in his epistemology: Categorical Imperative, the voice of duty, may be directly derived from the aforementioned highest truths – which we may directly observe. We may not have any other kind of certainty; that is, any other but moral certainty Kant argues. This – as already mentioned, saves the phenomena – in Steiner’s words:


“The very thing about which we are denied possible knowledge is,

therefore, magically produced by Kant out of the moral belief

in the voice of duty. It was respect for the feeling of duty that

restored a real world for Kant when, under the influence of

Hume, the observable world withered away into a mere inner

world. This respect for duty is beautifully expressed in his

Critique of Practical Reason:


Duty! Thou sublime, great name that containest nothing

pleasurable to bid for our favor, but demandest submission, . .

. proclaiming a law in the presence of which all inclinations

are silenced although they may secretly offer resistance. . . .


That the highest truths are not truths of knowledge but moral

truths is what Kant considered as his discovery. Man has to

renounce all insight into a supersensible world, but from his

moral nature springs a compensation for this knowledge. No

wonder Kant sees the highest demand on man in the

unconditional surrender to duty. If it were not for duty to

open a vista for him beyond the sensual world, man would be

enclosed for his whole life in the world of the senses. No

matter, therefore, what the sensual world demands; it has to

give way before the peremptory claims of duty, and the

sensual world cannot, out of its own initiative, agree with

duty. Its own inclination is directed toward the agreeable,

toward pleasure. These aims have to be opposed by duty in

order to enable man to reach his destination. What man does

for his pleasure is not virtuous; virtue is only what he does in

selfless devotion to duty.”


An ever going war between sensual desires and the voice of spirit as the foundation of moral life is going to eliminate all desire from one’s feeling and leave only a very special kind of pleasure element: the “artistic” aesthetic pleasure. For Kant, an object is “beautiful” if it has an appropriate purpous. This is – in the same time – Kant’s justification of art. Kant’s “starred heaven above and moral law within” fill him with the same admiration and awe. This very same realization raises through artistic creation, governed by the same eternal laws of the universe, our values as human beings and extends our limits to the infinite. Remember: all these due to the Moral Law.


Nature- beauty and art-beauty, compose the inorganic domain, which is governed in a Newtonian way through rigid laws that operate with necessity. That is not the case – always according to Kant – with organic beings. Steiner again cites Kant:


“It is, namely, absolutely certain that in following merely

mechanical principles of nature we cannot even become

sufficiently acquainted with organisms and their inner

possibility, much less explain them. This is so certain that one

can boldly say that it would be absurd for man to set out on

any such attempt or to hope that at some future time a

Newton could arise who would explain as much as the

production of a blade of grass according to natural laws into

which no purpose had brought order and direction. Such a

knowledge must, on the contrary, be altogether denied to



Kant’s world acknowledges the possibility for knowledge through the recognition of certain truths (God, Freedom, Immortality) – inherited directly from past generations. It even allows – Steiner goes on to note – the purpose concept that suggests a world of designed order.


“But at what price did Kant obtain all this!”


After an elegant description of the substance of Kant’s philosophy, Steiner is ready to criticize it. Kant had to compromise many things to achieve this otherwise not at all easy task of forming his universe: (quoted from Steiner)


“He transferred all of

nature into the human mind and transformed its laws into

laws of this mind. He ejected the higher world order entirely

from nature and placed this order on a purely moral

foundation. He drew a sharp line of demarcation between the

realm of the inorganic and that of the organic, explaining the

former according to mechanical laws of natural necessity and

the latter according to teleological ideas. Finally, he tore the

realm of beauty and art completely out of its connection with

the rest of reality, for the teleological form that is to be observed in the beautiful has nothing to do with real

purposes. How a beautiful object comes into the world is of no

importance; it is sufficient that it stimulates in us the

conception of the purposeful and thereby produces our



Kant perceived a different source for man’s knowledge, other than the source of the law structure of this very knowledge. He seems to be unable, or unwilling to imagine thoughts that are conceived as active in the entities of nature themselves, hence, the human soul not merely thinks, but in thinking shares the life of nature in its inner experience. There is a step, Steiner would conclude about Kant, that Kant did not take; Goethe did:


“In all essential points, Goethe arrived at the opposite to Kant’s

conception of the world. Approximately at the same time that

Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason, Goethe laid down

his creed in his prose hymn, Nature, in which he placed man

completely into nature and in which he presented nature as

bearing absolute sway, independent of man: Her own and

man’s lawgiver as well. Kant drew all nature into the human

mind. Goethe considered everything as belonging to this

nature; he fitted the human spirit into the natural world





R Steiner (1928) The philosophy of spiritual activity.

Edited by H. Collison,  Authorized English translation by G Metaxa


R Steiner (1928) The story of my life. London – Anthroposophical publishing


R Steiner (1973) The riddles of philosophy. Anthroposophic Press Inc.


Notes from Prof. Virvidakes lectures.


Wikepedia (for Kant’s quotes).


P Uspensky: The fourth way.

Leave a Reply

Page optimized by WP Minify WordPress Plugin