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The Philosophy of Freedom

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The Philosophy of Freedom

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RUDOLF STEINER was born in 1861 and died in 1925. In his autobiography, The Course of My Life (see fn 1), he makes quite clear that the problems dealt with in The Philosophy of Freedom played a leading part in his life.

His childhood was spent in the Austrian countryside, where his father was a stationmaster. At the age of eight Steiner was already aware of things and beings that are not seen as well as those that are. Writing about his experiences at this age, he said, “... the reality of the spiritual world was as certain to me as that of the physical. I felt the need, however, for a sort of justification for this assumption.”

Recognizing the boy's ability, his father sent him to the Realschule at Wiener Neustadt, and later to the Technical University in Vienna. Here Steiner had to support himself, by means of scholarships and tutoring. Studying and mastering many more subjects than were in his curriculum, he always came back to the problem of knowledge itself. He was very much aware: that in the experience of oneself as an ego, one is in the world of the spirit. Although he took part in all the social activities going on around him — in the arts, the sciences, even in politics — he wrote that “much more vital at that time was the need to find an answer to the question: How far is it possible to prove that in human thinking real spirit is the agent?”

He made a deep study of philosophy, particularly the writings of Kant, but nowhere did he find a way of thinking that could be carried as far as a perception of the spiritual world. Thus Steiner was led to develop a theory of knowledge out of his own striving after truth, one which took its start from a direct experience of the spiritual nature of thinking.

As a student, Steiner's scientific ability was acknowledged when he was asked to edit Goethe's writings on nature. In Goethe he recognized one who had been able to perceive the spiritual in nature, even though he had not carried this as far as a direct perception of the spirit. Steiner was able to bring a new understanding to Goethe's scientific work through this insight into his perception of nature. Since no existing philosophical theory could take this kind of vision into account, and since Goethe had never stated explicitly what his philosophy of life was, Steiner filled this need by publishing, in 1886, an introductory book called The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception. His introductions to the several volumes and sections of Goethe's scientific writings (1883–97) have been collected into the book Goethe the Scientist. These are valuable contributions to the philosophy of science.

During this time his thoughts about his own philosophy were gradually coming to maturity. In the year 1888 he met Eduard von Hartmann, with whom he had already had a long correspondence. He describes the chilling effect on him of the way this philosopher of pessimism denied that thinking could ever reach reality, but must forever deal with illusions. Steiner was already clear in his mind how such obstacles were to be overcome. He did not stop at the problem of knowledge, but carried his ideas from this realm into the field of ethics, to help him deal with the problem of human freedom. He wanted to show that morality could be given a sure foundation without basing it upon imposed rules of conduct.

Meanwhile his work of editing had taken him away from his beloved Vienna to Weimar. Here Steiner wrestled with the task of presenting his ideas to the world. His observations of the spiritual had all the exactness of a science, and yet his experience of the reality of ideas was in some ways akin to the mystic's experience. Mysticism presents the intensity of immediate knowledge with conviction, but deals only with subjective impressions; it fails to deal with the reality outside man. Science, on the other hand, consists of ideas about the world, even if the ideas are mainly materialistic. By starting from the spiritual nature of thinking, Steiner was able to form ideas that bear upon the spiritual world in the same way that the ideas of natural science bear upon the physical. Thus he could describe his philosophy as the result of “introspective observation following the methods of Natural Science.” He first presented an outline of his ideas in his doctoral dissertation, Truth and Knowledge, which bore the sub-title “Prelude to a ‘Philosophy of Freedom’.”

In 1894 The Philosophy of Freedom was published, and the content which had formed the centre of his life's striving was placed before the world. Steiner was deeply disappointed at the lack of understanding it received. Hartmann's reaction was typical; instead of accepting the discovery that thinking can lead to the reality of the spirit in the world, he continued to think that “spirit” was merely a concept existing in the human mind, and freedom an illusion based on ignorance. Such was fundamentally the view of the age to which Steiner introduced his philosophy. But however it seemed to others, Steiner had in fact established a firm foundation for knowledge of the spirit, and now he felt able to pursue his researches in this field without restraint. The Philosophy of Freedom summed up the ideas he had formed to deal with the riddles of existence that had so far dominated his life. “The further way,” he wrote, “could now be nothing else but a struggle to find the right form of ideas to express the spiritual world itself.”

While still at Weimar, Steiner wrote two more books, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fighter for Freedom (1895), inspired by a visit to the aged philosopher, and Goethe's Conception of the World (1897), which completed his work in this field. He then moved to Berlin to take over the editing of a literary magazine; here he wrote Riddles of Philosophy (1901) and Mysticism and Modern Thought (1901). He also embarked on an ever-increasing activity of lecturing. But his real task lay in deepening his knowledge of the spiritual world until he could reach the point of publishing the results of this research.

The rest of his life was devoted to building up a complete science of the spirit, to which he gave the name Anthroposophy. Foremost amongst his discoveries was his direct experience of the reality of the Christ, which soon took a central place in his whole teaching. The many books and lectures which he published set forth the magnificent scope of his vision. (see fn 2) From 1911 he turned also to the arts — drama, painting, architecture, eurythmy — showing the creative forming powers that can be drawn from spiritual vision. As a response to the disaster of the 1914-18 war, he showed how the social sphere could be given new life through an insight into the nature of man, his initiative bearing practical fruit in the fields of education, agriculture, therapy and medicine. After a few more years of intense activity, now as the leader of a world-wide movement, he died, leaving behind him an achievement that must allow his recognition as the first Initiate of the age of science. (see fn 3) Anthroposophy is itself a science, firmly based on the results of observation, and open to investigation by anyone who is prepared to follow the path of development he pioneered — a path that takes its start from the struggle for inner freedom set forth in this book.

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THE PHILOSOPHY OF FREEDOM can be seen as the crowning achievement of nineteenth-century philosophy. It answers all the problems of knowledge and morality that philosophers had raised, argued over, and eventually left unsolved with the conclusion that “we can never know”. Yet this great achievement received no recognition, and only when Steiner had acquired a large following of people thankful for all that he had given them of his spiritual revelation, did there arise the desire to read also his earlier work, upon which he always insisted his whole research was firmly based. Perhaps if Steiner had spent the rest of his life expounding his philosophy, he would today be recognized throughout the world as a major philosopher; yet his achievement in going forward himself to develop the science of the spirit is much the greater, and this will surely be recognized in time. Indeed, philosophy has got itself a bad name, perhaps from its too-frequent negative results, and it might even be better to consider the Philosophy of Freedom not just as a chapter of philosophy, but as the key to a whole way of life.

Considered just as a piece of philosophy, it might in any case be thought out of date, having only historical interest. For instance, a modern scientist may well believe that any philosopher who spoke up against atomism has been proved wrong by the success of atomic physics. But this would be to misunderstand the nature of philosophy. Steiner deals in turn with each possible point of view, illustrating each one with an example from the literature, and then showing the fallacies or shortcomings that have to be overcome. Atomism is justified only so long as it is taken as an aid to the intellect in dealing with the forces of nature; it is wrong if it postulates qualities of a kind that belong to perceived phenomena, but attributes them to a realm that by definition can never be perceived. This mistaken view of the atom may have been abandoned by science, but it still persists in many quarters. Similarly, many of the old philosophical points of view, dating back to Kant, survive among scientists who are very advanced in the experimental or theoretical fields, so that Steiner's treatment of the problem of knowledge is still relevant. Confusion concerning the nature of perception is widespread, because of the reluctance to consider the central part played by thinking. Thinking is all too often dismissed as “subjective” and hence unreliable, without any realization that it is thinking itself that has made this decision. The belief that science can deal only with the “objective” world has led to the position where many scientists are quite unable to say whether the real world is the familiar world of their surroundings, as experienced through the senses and pictured in the imagination, or the theoretical world of spinning particles, imperceptible forces and statistical probabilities that is inferred from their experimental results. (see fn 4) Here Steiner's path of knowledge can give a firmer basis for natural science than it has ever had before, as well as providing a sure foundation for the development of spiritual science. Although there are many people who find all that they need in contemplating the wonders of the spiritual world, the Philosophy of Freedom does not exist mainly to provide a philosophical justification for their belief; its main value lies in the sound basis it can give to those who cannot bring themselves to accept anything that is not clearly scientific — a basis for knowledge, for self-knowledge, for moral action, for life itself. It does not “tell us what to do”, but it opens a way to the spirit for all those for whom the scientific path to truth, rather than the mystical, is the only possibility.

Today we hear about the “free world” and the “value of the individual”, and yet the current scientific view of man seems to lend little support to these concepts, but seems rather to lead to a kind of morality in which every type of behavior is excused on the plea that “I cannot help being what I am!” If we would really value the individual, and support our feeling of freedom with knowledge, we must find a point of view which will lead the ego to help itself become what it wants to be — a free being. This cannot mean that we must abandon the scientific path; only that the scope of science must be widened to take into account the ego that experiences itself as spirit, which it does in the act of thinking. Thus the Philosophy of Freedom takes its start by examining the process of thinking, and shows that there need be no fear of unknown causes in unknown worlds forever beyond the reach of our knowledge, since limits to knowledge exist only in so far as we fail to awaken our thinking to the point where it becomes an organ of direct perception. Having established the possibility of knowing, the book goes on to show that we can also know the causes of our actions, and if our motive for acting comes from pure intuition, from thinking alone, without any promptings from the appearances and illusions of the sense-world, then we can indeed act in freedom, out of pure love for the deed.

Man ultimately has his fate in his own hands, though the path to this condition of freedom is a long and a hard one, in the course of which he must develop merciless knowledge of himself and selfless understanding of others. He must, through his own labors, give birth to what St. Paul called “the second Adam that was made a quickening spirit”. Indeed Steiner himself has referred to his philosophy of freedom as a Pauline theory of knowledge.

Notes on the translation

This book was first translated into English by Professor and Mrs. R. F. Alfred Hoernle, in 1916, and was edited by Mr. Harry Collison, who wrote that he was fortunate to have been able to secure them as translators, “their thorough knowledge of philosophy and their complete command of the German and English languages enabling them to overcome the difficulty of finding adequate English equivalents for the terms of German Philosophy.”

Following the publication of the revised German edition in 1918, Professor Hoernle translated the new passages and other incidental changes that Dr. Steiner had made. For this 1922 edition the title was changed, at the author's request, to The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, with the added remark that “throughout the entire work ‘freedom’ should be taken to mean ‘spiritual activity’.” The reasons for this change and also for the present decision to change back to the original title are given below (see Freedom, below).

The translation was revised in 1939 by Dr. Hermann Poppelbaum, whose object was to “check certain words and phrases from the strictly Steiner point of view”. He wrote in his preface as follows:

The readers of the German original of this book will know that the author's argument is largely based upon a distinction between the different elements making up the act of Knowledge. English philosophical terms are rarely exact equivalents of German philosophical terms, and the translator's standing problem is to avoid, or at least to minimize, the ambiguities resulting therefrom. The aim of the present revision of the original translation has been to help the reader to understand the analysis of the act of Knowledge and to enable him to follow the subsequent chapters without being troubled by ambiguous terms.

In spite of Dr. Poppelbaum's removal of certain ambiguities, readers were still troubled by difficulties that did not derive from the original German. When I was asked by the publishers to prepare this new edition, it soon became clear to me that further alterations to words and phrases would not be sufficient to remove these difficulties. It may therefore be helpful to state briefly what my guiding principles have been in making this translation.

Steiner did not write his book as a thesis for students of philosophy, but in order to give a sound philosophical basis to the experience of oneself as a free spirit — an experience that is open to everybody. The book is written in such a way that the very reading of it is a help towards participating in this experience. For this reason all the terms used must convey a real meaning to the reader, and any explanations required must be in words that are self-evident. Indeed, Steiner states clearly that the terms he uses do not always have the precise meanings given in current scientific writings, but that his intention is to record the facts of everyday experience (see Chapter 2). I have tried throughout to convey the essential meaning of Steiner's original words, and to follow closely his train of thought, so that the English reader may have as nearly as possible the same experience that a German reader has from the original text. Thus the structure of the original has been preserved, sentence by sentence. It might be argued that a “free” translation, making full use of English idiom and style, would be far more appropriate for an English reader; this could cut out the wordy repetitions and lengthy phrases typical of German philosophical writing and make for a more readable text. But it would also have to be written out of the English philosophical tradition, and would require a complete reconstruction of Steiner's arguments from the point of view of an Englishman's philosophy. This might be an excellent thing to do, but would constitute a new work, not a translation. Even if it were attempted, there would still be the need for a close translation making Steiner's path of knowledge available in detail for the English reader.

The method I have followed was to make a fresh translation of each passage and then compare it with the existing one, choosing the better version of the two. Where there was no advantage in making a change, I have left the earlier version, so that many passages appear unaltered from the previous edition. This is therefore a thoroughly revised, rather than an entirely new, translation. It is my hope that it will prove straightforward reading for anyone prepared to follow the author along the path of experience he has described. The following notes explaining certain of the terms used are intended for those who want to compare this edition with the German original, or who are making a special study of philosophy.

FREEDOM is not an exact equivalent of the German word Freiheit, although among its wide spectrum of meanings there are some that do correspond. In certain circumstances, however, the differences are important. Steiner himself drew attention to this, for instance, in a lecture he gave at Oxford in 1922, where he said with reference to this book,

“Therefore today we need above all a view of the world based on Freiheit — one can use this word in German, but here in England one must put it differently because the word ‘freedom’ has a different meaning — one must say a view of the world based on spiritual activity, on action, on thinking and feeling that arise from the individual human spirit.” (Translated from the German.)

Steiner also drew attention to the different endings of the words; Freiheit could be rendered literally as “freehood” if such a word existed. The German ending -heit implied an inner condition or degree, while -tum, corresponding to our “-dom”, implied something granted or imposed from outside. This is only partly true in English, as a consideration of the words “manhood”, “knighthood”, “serfdom”, “earldom”, and “wisdom” will show. In any case, meanings change with time, and current usage rather than etymology is the best guide.

When describing any kind of creative activity we speak of a “freedom of style” or “freedom of expression” in a way that indicates an inner conquest of outer restraints. This inner conquest is the theme of the book, and it is in this sense that I believe the title The Philosophy of Freedom would be understood today. When Steiner questioned the aptness of this title, he expressed the view that English people believed that they already possessed freedom, and that they needed to be shocked out of their complacency and made to realize that the freedom he meant had to be attained by hard work. While this may still be true today, the alternative he suggested is now less likely to achieve this shock than is the original. I have not found that the title “The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity” gives the newcomer any indication that the goal of the book is the attainment of inner freedom. Today it is just as likely to suggest a justification of religious practices. Throughout the book it has proved quite impossible to translate Freiheit as “spiritual activity” wherever it occurs. The word appears in the titles of the parts of the book and of some of the chapters; the book opens with the question of freedom or necessity, and the final sentence (see Consequences of Monism) is “He is free.” Undoubtedly “freedom” is the proper English word to express the main theme of the book, and should also appear in the book's title. Times have changed, and what may well have been good reasons for changing the title in 1922 are not necessarily still valid. After much thought, and taking everything into account, I have decided that the content of the book is better represented today by the title The Philosophy of Freedom. Moreover, with this title the book may be instantly identified with Die Philosophie der Freiheit, and I have already remarked that this edition is intended as a close translation of the German, rather than a new book specially written for the English.

SPIRIT, SOUL and MIND are not precise equivalents in English of the German Geist and Seele. Perhaps because we use the concept of mind to include all our experiences through thinking, the concepts of spirit and soul have practically dropped out of everyday use, whereas in German there is no distinct equivalent for “mind” and the concepts “spirit” (Geist) and “soul” (Seele) are consequently broader in scope. Any work describing Steiner's point of view in terms of English philosophy would have to deal with the mind as a central theme (see fn 5), but here our task is to introduce readers to Steiner's concepts of spirit and soul. For Steiner, the spirit is experienced directly in the act of intuitive thinking. The human spirit is that part of us that thinks, but the spiritual world is not limited to the personal field of the individual human being; it opens out to embrace the eternal truths of existence. The English word “spirit” gives the sense of something more universal, less personal, than “mind”, and since Steiner's philosophical path leads to an experience of the reality of the spiritual world, I have kept the word wherever possible, using “mind” or “mental” in a few places where it seemed more appropriate. The “spiritual activity” here meant is thus more than mental activity, although it starts at a level we would call mental; it leads the human being, aware of himself as a spirit, into the ultimate experience of truth.

The soul, too, is directly experienced; it is not a vague metaphysical entity, but is that region in us where we experience our likes and dislikes, our feelings of pleasure and pain. It contains those characteristics of thought and feeling that make us individual, different from each other. In many common phrases we use the word “mind” where German has the word Seele, but since Steiner recognizes a distinction between soul and spirit, it is important to keep these different words. Even in modern English usage something of this difference remains, and it is not too late to hope that Steiner's exact observations in this realm may help to prevent the terms “soul” and “spirit” becoming mere synonyms. Therefore I have kept these words wherever the distinction was important, though in a few places an alternative rendering seemed to fit better; for instance, the “introspective observation” quoted in the motto on the title-page could have been rendered literally as “observation of the soul” — this observation involves a critical examination of our habits of thought and feeling, not studied from outside in the manner of a psychological survey of human behavior, but from inside where each person meets himself face to face.

The whole book can be considered as a study of the mind, but using an exactness of observation and clarity of thinking never before achieved. Nevertheless, the stream of materialism still flows so strongly that there is a real danger that the mind, and indeed the whole realm of the soul and the spirit, will be dismissed as a metaphysical construction. Only by adopting a philosophy such as is developed in this book will it be possible to retain an experience of soul and of spirit which will be strong enough to stand up to the overwhelming desire to accept nothing as real unless it is supported by science. For in this philosophy Steiner opens the door to a science of the spirit every bit as exact and precise as our current science of nature would be.

CONCEPT and PERCEPT are the direct equivalents of Begriff and Wahrnehmung. The concept is something grasped by thinking, an element of the world of ideas. Steiner describes what it is at the beginning of Chapter 4 (see Chapter 4).

In describing the percept (see Chapter 4), Steiner mentions the ambiguity of current speech. The German word Wahrnehmung, like the English “perception”, can mean either the process of perceiving or the object perceived as an element of observation. Steiner uses the word in the latter sense, and the word “percept”, though not perhaps in common use, does avoid the ambiguity. The word does not refer to an actual concrete object that is being observed, for this would only be recognized as such after the appropriate concept had been attached to it, but to the content of observation devoid of any conceptual element. This includes not only sensations of color, sound, pressure, warmth, taste, smell, and so on, but feelings of pleasure and pain and even thoughts, once the thinking is done. Modern science has come to the conclusion that one cannot deal with a sensation devoid of any conceptual element, and uses the term “perception” to include the whole response to a stimulus, in other words, to mean the result of perceiving. But even if one cannot communicate the nature of an experience of pure percept to another person, one must still be able to deal with it as an essential part of the analysis of the process of knowledge. Using the word “percept” for this element of the analysis, we are free to keep the word “perception” for the process of perceiving.

IDEA and MENTAL PICTURE, as used here, correspond to the German words Idee and Vorstellung respectively. Normally these would both be rendered as “idea”, and this practice led to an ambiguity that obscured a distinction central to Steiner's argument. This was the main cause of Dr. Poppelbaum's concern, and his solution was to render Vorstellung as “representation” and Idee as “Idea” with a capital “I”. Though this usage may have philosophical justification, it has been my experience in group studies of this book over many years that it has never been fully accepted in practice; “representation” remains a specialist term with a sense rather different from its usual meaning in English, and it certainly does not have the same obvious meaning for the English reader that Vorstellung has for the German.

In explaining his use of the word “representation”, Dr. Poppelbaum wrote in his preface as follows:

The mental picture which the thinker forms to represent the concept in an individual way is here called a “representation” ...

Since “mental picture” is here used to explain the term “representation”, it seems simpler to use “mental picture” throughout. It fits Steiner's treatment very well, since it conveys to the reader both the sense of something conceptual, in that it is mental, and the sense of something perceptual, in that it is a picture. In fact, Steiner gives two definitions of the mental picture, one as a “percept in my self” (see Chapter 4) and another as an “individualized concept” (see Chapter 6), and it is this intermediate position between percept and concept that gives the mental picture its importance in the process of knowledge.

Another advantage of the term “mental picture” is that the verb “to picture” corresponds well with the German vorstellen, implying a mental creation of a scene rather than a physical representation with pencil, paints or camera, which would be “to depict”. Of course the visual term “picture” must be understood to cover also the content of other senses, for instance, a remembered tune or a recollection of tranquillity, but this broadening of meaning through analogy is inherent in English usage.

Although mental pictures are commonly regarded as a special class of ideas, here the term “idea” is used only for the German Idee, without ambiguity. Ideas are not individualized, but are “fuller, more saturated, more comprehensive concepts” (see Chapter 4). In the later part of the book, when discussing the nature of a conscious motive, Steiner uses the word to include all concepts in the most general way, individualized or not, which comes very close to the English use of the word “idea”.

IMAGINATION means the faculty and process of creating mental pictures. The word is the same as the German Imagination, but I have also used it for the German Phantasie, because the word “fantasy” suggests something altogether too far from reality, whereas “imagination” can mean something not only the product of our own consciousness, but also a step towards the realization of something new. Thus the title given to Chapter 12, Moral Imagination (for Moralische Phantasie), seemed to me to be correct, and I have kept it. It describes the process of taking an abstract idea, or concept, and creating a vivid mental picture of how it can be applied in a particular circumstance, so that it may become the motive for a moral deed.

In later writings Steiner describes how this ordinary faculty of imagining, or making mental pictures, can be developed to the point where it becomes the faculty of actually perceiving the creative ideas behind the phenomena of nature. In these later writings “Imagination” becomes a special term to indicate this level of perception, but in this book the meaning remains near to the ordinary usage. However, the gateway to such higher levels of perception is opened through the path of experience here set forth.

INTUITION is again the same as the German word, and means the faculty and process of grasping concepts, in particular the immediate apprehension of a thought without reasoning. This is the normal English usage, though Steiner uses the term in an exact way, as follows (see Chapter 5):

In contrast to the content of the percept which is given to us from without, the content of thinking appears inwardly. The form in which this first makes its appearance we will call intuition. Intuition is for thinking what observation is for the percept.

Later in the book he gives another definition (see Chapter 9):

Intuition is the conscious experience — in pure spirit — of a purely spiritual content. Only through an intuition can the essence of thinking be grasped.

From this it is not difficult to see how again, in later writings, Steiner could describe a stage of perception still higher than that called “Imagination”, the stage of “Intuition” in which one immediately apprehends the reality of other spiritual beings. Although this book deals only with the spiritual content of pure thinking, intuition at this level is also a step towards a higher level of perceiving reality.

EXPERIENCE has two meanings, which correspond to different words in German. “Actual observation of facts or events” corresponds to the German Erlebnis and to the verb erleben, while “the knowledge resulting from this observation” corresponds to Erfahrung. Thus the accumulation of knowledge can be described as “past experience” or “total sum of experience”, if the single word is ambiguous (see, for instance, Chapter 6). When speaking of human behavior that is based on past experience, Steiner calls it praktische Erfahrung, which is rendered as “practical experience” (see Chapter 9).

On the other hand, having direct experience as an activity of observation is expressed by the verb erleben, which means literally “to live through”. Thus, in the latter part of the book, particularly in those passages which were added in 1918 (see Chapter 7 and Consequences of Monism), Steiner speaks repeatedly of the “thinking which can be experienced”. This experience is to be understood as every bit as real and concrete as the “actual observation of facts and events” described above.

MOTIVE and DRIVING FORCE are two elements in any act of will that have to be recognized as distinct (see Chapter 9). They correspond to the German words Motiv and Triebfeder, respectively.

“Motive”, as used by Steiner, corresponds exactly to the common English usage, meaning the reason that a person has for his action. It has to be a conscious motive, in the form of a concept or mental picture, or else we cannot speak of an act of will, let alone a moral deed. An “unconscious motive” is really a contradiction in terms, and should properly be described as a driving force — it implies that some other person has been able to grasp the concept which was the reason for the action, though the person acting was not himself aware of it; he acted as an automaton, or, as we properly say, “without motive”. Nevertheless, modern psychology has contrived to define the “motive” as something no different from the driving force, which precludes the recognition of a motive grasped out of pure intuition, and therefore of the essential difference between a moral deed where a man knows why he acts and an amoral one where his knowledge is a matter of indifference. By making the distinction between motive and driving force, Steiner has been able to characterize all possible levels of action from the purely instinctive to the completely free deed.

The literal meaning of Triebfeder is the mainspring that drives a piece of clockwork. In previous editions, this was rendered as “spring of action”. While this is legitimate philosophical usage, I found that it was often misunderstood by the ordinary reader, being taken to mean a spring like a fountain or river-source, as in the phrase “springs of life”. This immediately causes confusion with the origin or source of the action, which is the motive. Of course, at the higher levels of action there is no other driving force than the idea which stands as the motive, but in order to follow the development from lower levels one must distinguish the idea, which is the motive, from whatever it is in us that throws us into action whenever a suitable motive presents itself. “Mainspring” does not always fit well in the text, and after trying various words and phrases I have chosen “driving force” as best expressing the dynamic nature of this part of our constitution. The driving force differs from the motive in that we may well remain unconscious of it. But if we are not conscious of the driving force behind our actions, we cannot be acting in freedom, even though we are aware of our motives. Only if we make our own ideals the driving force of our will can we act in freedom, because then nothing apart from ourselves determines our action. Thus the final triumph of Steiner's path of development depends on making this clear distinction between motive and driving force. A view that treats all motives as driving forces will not be able to recognize the possibility of freedom, while a view that regards all driving forces as ideal elements will not see the need for overcoming our unconscious urges and habits if freedom is to be attained.

WILL and WANT are two distinct words in English where the German has only one verb wollen and its derivatives. Here the task of translating runs into a considerable difficulty, for in any discussion of free will it is important to be clear what willing is. The noun forms are fairly straightforward: ein Wollen means “an act of will”, das Wollen means “willing” in general, and der Wille means “the will”. But the English verb “to will” has a restricted range of meaning, and to use it all the time to render the German wollen can be quite misleading. An example is the quotation from Hamerling in the first chapter (see Chapter 1):

Der Mensch kann allerdings tun, was er will — aber er kann nicht wollen, was er will, weil sein Wille durch Motive bestimmt ist.

The previous edition rendered this:

Man can, it is true, do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills, because his will is determined by motives.

If this means anything at all in English, it means that man cannot direct his will as he chooses. The archaic sense of “willing” as “desiring” is kept in the phrase “what he wills”, in keeping with current usage, for instance, in the remark “Come when you will.” But the active sense of “willing” as contrasted with “doing” implies a metaphysical power of compulsion quite out of keeping with Steiner's whole method of treating the subject. This metaphysical attitude to the will is clearly expressed in a sentence such as “I willed him to go”, which implies something more than mere desire but less than overt action. It is less obvious when dealing with the genesis of one's own actions, but the tendency to attribute a metaphysical quality to the will is developed in Schopenhauer's philosophy, and this may well be a tendency inherent in the German language. Steiner has no such intention, and he leaves us in no doubt that his use of wollen implies a definite element of desire (see Chapter 13); indeed, the highest expression of man's will is when it becomes the faculty of spiritual desire or craving (geistige Begehrungsvermögen). Therefore, whenever the archaic sense of the verb “to will” is not appropriate, I have decided that it is better to render the German verb wollen with the English “want” and its variants, “wanting”, “to want to ...” and so on. This makes immediate good sense of many passages, and moreover if one would translate this back into German one would have to use the word wollen. Hamerling's sentence now becomes:

Man can certainly do as he wills, but he cannot want as he wills, because his wanting is determined by motives.

Although Steiner has to show that this view is mistaken, one can at least understand how it could come to be written. That it can be a genuine human experience is shown by the similar remark attributed to T. E. Lawrence, “I can do what I want, but I cannot want what I want.” In other words, “I can carry out any desires for action that I may have, but I cannot choose how these desires come to me.” Both Lawrence and Hamerling leave out of account just those cases where man can want as he wills, because he has freely chosen his own motive. Steiner's treatment of the will overcomes any necessity for metaphysical thinking; for instance, it now makes sense to say that to want without motive would make the will an “empty faculty” (see Chapter 1), because to want without wanting something would be meaningless.

I have dealt with this at some length because it has been my experience that the message of the entire book springs to life in a new and vivid way when it is realized that the original motive power of the will is in fact desire, and that desire can be transformed by knowledge into its most noble form, which is love.

*    *    *

It was the late Friedrich Geuter who showed me, together with many others, the importance of this book as a basis for the social as well as the intellectual life of today. My debt to the previous translators and editors will already be clear. I also owe much to the many friends who have taken part in joint studies of this book over the past thirty years and to those who have helped and advised me with suggestions for the translation, especially the late George Adams, Owen Barfield, and Rita Stebbing. Finally I must mention my colleague Ralph Brocklebank, who has shared much of the work, and, with Dorothy Osmond, prepared it for the Press.

Michael Wilson, Clent, 1964. 


  1. Published in parts from 1923–5, and never completed. The titles given for Dr. Steiner's books are those of the English translations.
  2. The list of titles is long, but the more important books include:
  3. For an account of the life and work of Rudolf Steiner, see A Scientist of The Invisible, by A. P. Shepherd (1954). The range of his contribution to modern thought can be seen in The Faithful Thinker, edited by A. C. Harwood (1961).
  4. See the discussion by Owen Barfield in “Saving the Appearances”, (1957).
  5. See “Rudolf Steiner's Concept of Mind” by Owen Barfield, in The Faithful Thinker, pp. 11–21.

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