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The Philosophy of Freedom

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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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The Philosophy of Freedom

On-line since: 22nd November,1996

The Reality of Freedom


World Purpose and Life Purpose
(The Ordering of Man's Destiny)

AMONG the manifold currents in the spiritual life of mankind, there is one to be followed up which can be described as the overcoming of the concept of purpose in spheres where it does not belong. Purposefulness is a special kind of sequence of phenomena. True purposefulness really exists only if, in contrast to the relationship of cause and effect where the earlier event determines the later, the reverse is the case and the later event influences the earlier one. To begin with, this happens only in the case of human actions. One performs an action of which one has previously made a mental picture, and one allows this mental picture to determine one's action. Thus the later (the deed) influences the earlier (the doer) with the help of the mental picture. For there to be a purposeful connection, this detour through the mental picture is absolutely necessary.

In a process which breaks down into cause and effect, we must distinguish percept from concept. The percept of the cause precedes the percept of the effect; cause and effect would simply remain side by side in our consciousness, if we were not able to connect them with one another through their corresponding concepts. The percept of the effect must always follow upon the percept of the cause. If the effect is to have a real influence upon the cause, it can do so only by means of the conceptual factor. For the perceptual factor of the effect simply does not exist prior to the perceptual factor of the cause. Anyone who declares that the blossom is the purpose of the root, that is, that the former influences the latter, can do so only with regard to that factor in the blossom which is established in it by his thinking. The perceptual factor of the blossom is not yet in existence at the time when the root originates.

For a purposeful connection to exist, it is not only necessary to have an ideal, law-determined connection between the later and the earlier, but the concept (law) of the effect must really influence the cause, that is, by means of a perceptible process. A perceptible influence of a concept upon something else, however, is to be observed only in human actions. Hence this is the only sphere in which the concept of purpose is applicable.

The naïve consciousness, which regards as real only what is perceptible, attempts — as we have repeatedly pointed out — to introduce perceptible elements where only ideal elements are to be found. In the perceptible course of events it looks for perceptible connections, or, failing to find them, it simply invents them. The concept of purpose, valid for subjective actions, is an element well suited for such invented connections. The naïve man knows how he brings an event about and from this he concludes that nature will do it in the same way. In the connections of nature which are purely ideal he finds not only invisible forces but also invisible real purposes. Man makes his tools according to his purposes; the naïve realist would have the Creator build organisms on the same formula. Only very gradually is this mistaken concept of purpose disappearing from the sciences. In philosophy, even today, it still does a good deal of mischief. Here people still ask after the extra-mundane purpose of the world, the extra-human ordering of man's destiny (and consequently also his purpose), and so on.

Monism rejects the concept of purpose in every sphere, with the sole exception of human action. It looks for laws of nature, but not for purposes of nature. Purposes of nature are arbitrary assumptions no less than are imperceptible forces (see Chapter 7). But even purposes of life not set by man himself are unjustified assumptions from the standpoint of monism. Nothing is purposeful except what man has first made so, for purposefulness arises only through the realization of an idea. In a realistic sense, an idea can become effective only in man. Therefore human life can only have the purpose and the ordering of destiny that man gives it. To the question: What is man's task in life? there can be for monism but one answer: The task he sets himself. My mission in the world is not predetermined, but is at every moment the one I choose for myself. I do not set out upon my journey through life with fixed marching orders.

Ideas are realized purposefully only by human beings. Consequently it is not permissible to speak of the embodiment of ideas by history. All such phrases as “history is the evolution of mankind towards freedom,” or “... the realization of the moral world order,” and so on, are, from a monistic point of view, untenable.

The supporters of the concept of purpose believe that, by surrendering it, they would also have to surrender all order and uniformity in the world. Listen, for example, to Robert Hamerling:

As long as there are instincts in nature, it is folly to deny purposes therein.

Just as the formation of a limb of the human body is not determined and conditioned by an idea of this limb, floating in the air, but by its connection with the greater whole, the body to which the limb belongs, so the formation of every natural object, be it plant, animal or man, is not determined and conditioned by an idea of it floating in the air, but by the formative principle of the totality of nature which unfolds and organizes itself in a purposeful manner. (see fn 1)

And on page 191 of the same volume we read:

The theory of purpose maintains only that, in spite of the thousand discomforts and distresses of this mortal life, there is a high degree of purpose and plan unmistakably present in the formations and developments of nature — a degree of plan and purposefulness, however, which is realized only within the limits of natural law, and which does not aim at a fool's paradise where life faces no death, growth no decay, with all their more or less unpleasant but quite unavoidable intermediary stages.

When the opponents of the concept of purpose set a laboriously collected rubbish-heap of partial or complete, imaginary or real maladaptations against a whole world of miracles of purposefulness, such as nature exhibits in all her domains, then I consider this just as quaint ...

What is here meant by purposefulness? The coherence of percepts to form a whole. But since underlying all percepts there are laws (ideas) which we discover through our thinking, it follows that the systematic coherence of the parts of a perceptual whole is simply the ideal coherence of the parts of an ideal whole contained in this perceptual whole. To say that an animal or a man is not determined by an idea floating in the air is a misleading way of putting it, and the point of view he is disparaging automatically loses its absurdity as soon as the expression is put right. An animal certainly is not determined by an idea floating in the air, but it definitely is determined by an idea inborn in it and constituting the law of its being. It is just because the idea is not external to the object, but works within it as its very essence, that we cannot speak of purposefulness. It is just the person who denies that natural beings are determined from without (and it does not matter, in this context, whether it be by an idea floating in the air or existing outside the creature in the mind of a world creator) who must admit that such beings are not determined by purpose and plan from without, but by cause and law from within. I construct a machine purposefully if I connect its parts together in a way that is not given in nature. The purposefulness of the arrangement consists in just this, that I embody the working principle of the machine, as its idea, into the machine itself. The machine becomes thereby an object of perception with the idea corresponding to it. Natural objects are also entities of this kind. Whoever calls a thing purposeful simply because it is formed according to a law, may, if he wish, apply the same term to the objects of nature. But he must not confuse this kind of lawfulness with that of subjective human action. For purpose to exist, it is absolutely necessary that the effective cause shall be a concept, in fact the concept of the effect. But in nature we can nowhere point to concepts acting as causes; the concept invariably turns out to be nothing but the ideal link connecting cause and effect. Causes are present in nature only in the form of percepts.

Dualism may talk of world purposes and natural purposes. Wherever there is a systematic linking of cause and effect for our perception, the dualist may assume that we see only the carbon copy of a connection in which the absolute cosmic Being has realized its purposes. For monism, with the rejection of an absolute cosmic Being — never experienced but only hypothetically inferred — all ground for assuming purposes in the world and in nature also falls away.

Author's addition, 1918

No one who has followed the preceding argument with an open mind will be able to conclude that the author, in rejecting the concept of purpose for extra-human facts, takes the side of those thinkers who, by rejecting this concept, enable themselves to regard everything outside human action — and thence human action itself — as no more than a natural process. He should be protected from this by the fact that in this book the thinking process is presented as a purely spiritual one. If here the concept of purpose is rejected even for the spiritual world, lying outside human action, it is because something is revealed in that world which is higher than the kind of purpose realized in the human kingdom. And when we say that the thought of a purposeful destiny for the human race, modeled on human purposefulness, is erroneous, we mean that the individual gives himself purposes, and that the outcome of the working of mankind as a whole is compounded of these. This outcome is then something higher than its component parts, the purposes of men.


  1. Atomistik des Willens, vol ii, p. 201.

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