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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Science of Knowing
GA 2

VI. Correcting an Erroneous Conception of Experience as a Whole

At this point we must indicate a preconception, existing since Kant, which has already taken root so strongly in certain circles that it is considered axiomatic. If anyone were to question it, he would be described as a dilettante, as one who has not risen above the most elementary concepts of modern science. The preconception I mean is the view: It is already established from the very beginning that the whole world of perception, this endless manifoldness of colors and shapes, of sounds and warmth differentiations, etc., is nothing more than our subjective world of mental pictures (Vorstellungen), which exists only as long as we keep our senses open to what works in upon them from a world unknown to us. This view declares the entire world of phenomena to be a mental picture inside our individual consciousness, and on the foundation of this presupposition one then erects further assertions about the nature of our activity of knowing. Even Volkelt adhered to this view and founded upon it his epistemology, which is masterful with respect to its scientific execution. Even so, this preconception is not a fundamental truth and is in no way qualified to stand at the forefront of the science of knowledge.

But do not misunderstand us. We do not wish to raise what would certainly be a vain protest against the physiological achievements of the present day. But what is entirely justified physiologically is still far from being qualified on that basis to be placed at the portals of epistemology. One may consider it to be an irrefutable physiological truth that only through the participation of our organism does the complex of sensations and perceptions arise that we have called experience. But the fact remains, nevertheless, that any such knowledge can only be the result of many considerations and investigations. This characterization — that our phenomenal world, in a physiological sense, is of a subjective nature — is already what thinking determines it to be, and has therefore absolutely nothing to do with the initial appearance of this world. This characterization already presupposes that thinking has been applied to experience. The examination of the relationship between these two factors of knowing activity must therefore precede this characterization.

By this view, people believed themselves elevated above the pre-Kantian “naïveté” that regarded things in space and time as reality, just as the naive person with no scientific education still does today.

Volkelt asserts “that all acts claiming to be an objective activity of knowing are inextricably bound to the knowing individual consciousness; that all such acts occur immediately and directly only within the consciousness of the individual; and that they are utterly incapable of reaching beyond the sphere of the individual person and of grasping or entering the sphere of reality lying outside it.”

It is nevertheless still the case that an unprejudiced thinking could never discover what it is about the form of reality which approaches us directly (experience) that could in any way justify us in characterizing it as mere mental picture.

This simple reflection — that the naive person notices absolutely nothing about things that could bring him to this view — shows us that in the objects themselves there lies no compelling reason for this assumption. What is there about a tree or a table itself that could lead me to regard it as a mere configuration of mental pictures? At the very least this cannot therefore be presented as an obvious truth.

By presenting it as an obvious truth, Volkelt entangles himself in a contradiction with his own basic principles. In our view, he had to be untrue to the truth acknowledged by him — that experience contains nothing but an unconnected chaos of pictures without any conceptual characterization — in order to be able to assert the subjective nature of that same experience. Otherwise, he would have had to see that the subject of knowing activity, the contemplator, stands just as unrelated within the world of experience as any other object in it. But if one applies to the perceived world the predicate “subjective,” this is just as much a conceptual characterization as when one regards a falling stone as the cause of the depression in the ground. But Volkelt himself, after all, does not wish to acknowledge any connection whatsoever between the things of experience. There in lies the contradiction in his view; this is where he became untrue to the principle he stated with respect to pure experience. By doing this he encloses himself within his individuality and is no longer capable of emerging from it. Indeed, he admits this without reservation. Everything remains doubtful to him that lies beyond the disconnected pictures of our perceptions. In his view, our thinking does indeed struggle to draw inferences from this world of mental pictures about an objective reality; it is just that going beyond this world cannot lead to really sure truths. According to Volkelt all knowing that we attain through thinking is not protected from doubt. In terms of certainty it cannot compare at all with direct experience. Only direct experience can provide a knowing not to be doubted. But we have seen how defective this knowing is.

But all this indeed stems only from the fact that Volkelt applies to sense-perceptible reality (experience) a characteristic that cannot pertain to it in any way, and then he builds up his further assumptions on this presupposition.

We had to pay particular attention to Volkelt's book because it is the most significant contemporary achievement in this sphere, and also because it can be taken as the prototype for all the epistemological efforts which, in principle, stand in opposition to the direction we are presenting on the basis of the Goethean world view.