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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Truth and Knowledge
GA 3

i. Preliminary Remarks

Epistemology is the scientific study of what all other sciences presuppose without examining it: cognition itself. It is thus a philosophical science, fundamental to all other sciences. Only through epistemology can we learn the value and significance of all insight gained through the other sciences. Thus it provides the foundation for all scientific effort. It is obvious that it can fulfill its proper function only by making no presuppositions itself, as far as this is possible, about man's faculty of knowledge. This is generally accepted. Nevertheless, when the better-known systems of epistemology are more closely examined it becomes apparent that a whole series of presuppositions are made at the beginning, which cast doubt on the rest of the argument. It is striking that such hidden assumptions are usually made at the outset, when the fundamental problems of epistemology are formulated. But if the essential problems of a science are misstated, the right solution is unlikely to be forthcoming. The history of science shows that whole epochs have suffered from innumerable mistakes which can be traced to the simple fact that certain problems were wrongly formulated. To illustrate this, we need not go back as far as Aristotle's physics73Aristotle (384–322 B.C.): Physica Auscultatio, On Nature as Cause and Change, and the General Principles of Natural Science. or Raymond Lull's Ars Magna74Raimon Lull (Raymond Lully), (0.1235–1315) Catalan author, mystic and missionary. Born Majorca. In 1266 a series of visions led to a marked change in his life and purpose. Spent 9 years studying Arabic in order to refute the heretical teachings current in his time. At Ronda he wrote his famous Ars Major and Ars Generalis. He made many journeys in France, Italy, North Africa in a burning crusade against the teachings of Mohammedanism. At Bougie, North Africa he was stoned outside the city walls and died on June 29, 1315. ;—there are plenty of more recent examples. For instance, innumerable problems concerning the purpose of rudimentary organs of certain organisms could only be rightly formulated when the condition for doing so had first been created through the discovery of the fundamental law of biogenesis.75biogenesis, the teaching that living organisms come from other living organisms, as opposed to abiogenesis. The author of the modern formulation of “the fundamental law of biogenesis” was Fritz Müller (1864). Haeckel (see note 54, above) called Müller's formulation “the biogenetic fundamental law,” which can be stated briefly as the teaching that in its development from the egg to adult stage, the animal tends to pass through a series of stages which recapitulate the stages through which its ancestry passed in the development of the species from a primitive form. In other words, the development of the individual is a condensed expression of the development of the race. While biology was influenced by teleological views, the relevant problems could not be formulated in a way which could lead to a satisfactory answer. For example, what fantastic ideas were entertained concerning the function of the pineal gland in the human brain, as long as the emphasis was on its purpose! Then comparative anatomy threw some light on the matter by asking a different question; instead of asking what the organ was “for,” inquiry began as to whether, in man, it might be merely a remnant from a lower level of evolution. Another example: how many physical questions had to be modified after the discovery of the laws of the mechanical equivalent of heat and of conservation of energy!76The earliest statement of the law of mechanical theory of heat was formulated by the French physicist, Sadi Nicholas Lèonhard Carnot (1796–1832) in notes written about 1830, published by his brother in the latter's Life of Sadi Carnot, Paris, 1878. Further work in this direction was done by Ségun, Paris, 1839, by Julius Robert Mayer, c. 1842, and by J. P. Joule, who (1840–43) placed the mechanical theory of heat on a sound experimental basis.

Julius Robert Mayer (1814–1878), German physician and physicist, is the discoverer of the law of conservation of energy, which—within limits of the data he obtained from experiments and reasoning—he applied “with great power and insight to the explanation of numerous physical phenomena.”
In short, success in scientific research depends essentially on whether the problems can be formulated rightly. Even though epistemology occupies a very special place as the basis presupposed by the other sciences, nevertheless, successful progress can only be expected when its fundamental problems are correctly formulated.

The discussion which follows aims so to formulate the problem of cognition that in this very formulation it will do full justice to the essential feature of epistemology, namely, the fact that it is a science which must contain no presuppositions. A further aim is to use this philosophical basis for science to throw light on Johann Gottlieb Fichte's philosophy of science.77On Fichte, see note 13, above. Rudolf Steiner's Inaugural Dissertation for his doctoral degree before the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Rostock (Defense, beginning of May, 1891; Promotion, October 26, 1891) was titled Die Grundfrage der Erkenntnistheorie mit besonderer Rücksicht auf Fichtes Wissenschaftslehre, usw., The Fundamentals of a Theory of Cognition with Special Reference to Fichte's Scientific Teaching. When the thesis was published in book form, as it appears here in English translation, a Foreword and one chapter were added to the original by Rudolf Steiner. These latter are included in the present translation. Why Fichte's attempt in particular to provide an absolutely certain basis for the sciences is linked to the aims of this essay, will become clear in due course.