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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Scientific Method of Anthroposophy
GA 36

Translated by Lisa D. Monges

For decades it has been the conviction of many people that scientific materialism must be superseded. When opinions are expressed on this subject, they usually refer to the mode of thought current in the 19th Century, which was considered inseparable from a true scientific attitude. To this mode of thought any mention of spirit and soul as beings who may be observed independent of their material conditions was unscientific. Only when the human being was observing material processes did he feel himself standing on solid scientific ground. The development of spirit and soul was seen in connection with material processes; and, by pointing to these material processes which take place during spiritual and psychic phenomena, people believed they did the only thing scientifically possible.

There have always been thoughtful people who did not believe it possible to gain knowledge of the spirit and soul by means of the mode of thought characterized above. There were many, however, who could not concede that science as such can speak of anything but the material conditions of the spiritual and psychic. Under this trend of thought, psychology slipped into the habit of merely describing the processes in the nervous system. Thus, what can be observed by means of the senses was made the basis for gaining knowledge concerning the soul.

Today there are many who hold that by this method of consideration the soul is lost to human perception. It is felt that in observing the life of the nerves we are confronted with the merely material, and that the latter cannot give answers to questions which spirit and soul must ask about themselves.

There are today scientific thinkers, worthy of being taken seriously, who as a result of such feelings forsake the materialistic point of view and come to the conviction that the spiritual must be thought of as effective within the material.

In the middle of the 19th Century it was the common belief that, by overcoming the old conception of “life-force,” great scientific progress had been made. According to this conception, a special force is active within the life processes, capable of drawing into its sphere physical and chemical agencies in such a way that life is called forth. This conception was rejected. The physical and chemical were thought to be so constituted as to be able—in their complicated formations—to reveal themselves as life. There was the sustaining hope that gradually clear concepts of these complicated formations might be evolved

The thinkers of today who again hold that underlying, file there is something special, which employs the physical and chemical for the purpose of higher activity, find themselves dis appointed in this hope.

New hope is linked to what is undertaken in regard to the problem. The unprejudiced observer, however, must oppose this with the same reasoning which in the 19th Century led to discarding the prevalent conception of a “life-force.” The reasoning ran thus: The kind of thinking which permits the clear survey of relationships in the physical and chemical spheres loses itself, when it speaks of “life-force,” in the unclear and nebulous. It was recognized that the approach which leads to physical and chemical relationships cannot lead to the “mystical” life-force.

What was thus recognized was thoroughly justified. And when those entertaining new hopes in the sense indicated will have gained full clarity in the matter, they will have arrived at the same conclusions which in the 19th Century led to a rejection of “life-force.”

A healthy development is possible in this connection only it we recognize that the mode of thought fully justified in the realm of the physical and chemical must be transformed when we advance to a consideration of the regions of life, soul, and spirit. The human being must first transform his thinking, it he would acquire the right to speak about these regions scientifically.

Anthroposophy rests upon this basis. It does not, therefore, feel compelled to destroy the scientific edifice of physics and chemistry in order to build with the same thought-methods something different. It holds that this edifice of science has been established on secure foundations, but that within it must not seek life, soul, and spirit.

If this be true, say those passing superficial judgment, then Anthroposophy places itself outside of science and may claim for itself, at best, certainty of belief.

Anyone who talks that way is not turning vigorously from a consideration of nature back to a consideration of the human being. At the present time, our manner of observing the physical and chemical is based upon a particular constitution of the human soul. And scientific certainty is not the result of something revealed by nature, but of an inner experience of observation. What is experienced by the soul while observing nature gives certainty. Anthroposophical knowledge advances from this to other soul experiences which may be ours if thinking, trained in physical and chemical science, has transformed itself and acquired the faculty of imaginative, inspirative, and intuitive perception. And the latter experiences of the soul permit a similar certainty to gleam forth.

Those who deny the certainty of these other forms of knowledge fail to tell us why they admit the certainty of physics and chemistry. From habit they give themselves up to the latter and reject what has not become a fixed habit. Anthroposophy asks: Why do we accept as certain the knowledge of physics and chemistry? It sees the reason in a particular mode of soul experience. It acquires this mode as a guiding line for knowledge. And it does not deviate from it even when, through transformed thinking, it tries to gain truths concerning life, soul, and spirit.

For this reason, Anthroposophy is fully able to acknowledge the mode of thought which in physics and chemistry has led to the most significant results in the modern age. It is even obliged to credit materialism with the development of that mode of human perception which leads to sound judgment in the sphere of the non-living. But it is likewise obliged to consider it impossible for this mode of perception to establish anything but physics and chemistry. But whoever takes pains to make clear to himself how such a mode of perception comes into being can see that, with the same inner certainty, other modes are possible: those for the regions of life, soul, and spirit. The person who does not treat science as something external to which he accustoms himself, but experiences it in inner clarity, cannot stop short at the physical and chemical realm; for to him the metamorphosis of sensuous and intellectual knowledge into the forms of imagination, inspiration, and intuition is nothing bill an advancement of the child's form to that of the adult The same forces are active in the adult as in the child. The same scientific method is employed in the knowledge of life, soul, and spirit as in physics and chemistry.