Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Truth and Science
GA 3

III. Epistemology Since Kant

All epistemologists after Kant have been influenced to a greater or lesser extent by Kant’s flawed reasoning. Kant’s view (that all objects given to us are merely our mental representations) arises due to his a priori stance. His view consequently has been made the principle starting point of almost all epistemological systems. What is initially and immediately certain to us, he claims, is that we only know our mental pictures (Vorstellungen). This view has been believed almost universally by philosophers. As early as 1792, G. E. Schulze claimed in his Anesidemus 45Gottlob Ernst Schulze (1761–1833), Aenesidemus, Helmstädt, 1792. that mental pictures are all that we know, and that we can never go beyond them. Schopenhauer presents this same view with his own philosophical pathos, that the lasting attainment of Kant's philosophy is the view that the world is simply my own mental picture. Eduard von Hartmann finds this sentence so inviolable, that in his work Critical Foundations of Transcendental Realism he takes for granted that all his readers, by critical reflection, have freed themselves from the naive identification of their perceptual image with a thing-in-itself, and consider as evident that the seeming diversity of objects of observation in the act of mental picturing is a singular subjective-ideal content of consciousness, and consider as evident that something else exists in and of itself, independent of the form of consciousness. In other words, his readers are permeated by the conviction that the totality of what is immediately given to us consists of mental pictures (Vorstellungen).46Eduard von Hartmann, Kritische Grundlegung, Berlin 1875, Foreword, p. 10 of the German ed.

In his last epistemological publication, Hartmann tried to justify his view. Our further discussion will show how an unprejudiced epistemology must respond to this sort of justification. Otto Liebmann states as the sacrosanct supreme principle of all epistemology, “Consciousness cannot leap over itself.” 47Otto Liebmann, Zur Analysis, p. 28 ff. of the German ed Vokelt had the opinion that the first, most immediate truth is that "all our knowing extends initially only to our mental pictures, the positivistic principle of knowledge, and he only considers that theory of knowing as eminently critical which contains this principle, and then develops its consequences”.48Vokelt, Kant’s Erkenntnistheorie, section 1. Other philosophers put other claims at the forefront of epistemology, for example, that the real problem lies in the question of the relationship between thinking and existence, and the possibility of mediating between the two, or the question how a being becomes conscious.49J. Rehmke, Die Welt als Wahrnehmung und Begriff uns; Berlin 1880. Kirchmann 50Julius Heinrich v. Kirchmann (1802–1884), Die Lehre vom Wissen, The Theory of Knowledge, Berlin, 1868. starts from two epistemological axioms, “what is perceived is” and “the contradiction is not.51A. Dorner, Das menschliche Erkennen, usw., Human Cognition, Berlin, 1887. According to E. L. Fischer, cognition consists in the knowledge of something actual, real,52E. L. Fischer, Die Grundfragen der Erkenntnistheorie, Basic Questions of the Theory of Cognition, Mainz 1887, p. 385. and he leaves this dogma unexamined, just as does Göring, who claims something similar, “Knowing always means recognizing a being, and that is a fact which neither skepticism nor Kantian criticism can deny.” 53C. Göring, System der kritischen Philosophie, System of Critical Philosophy, Leipzig, 1874, Part I, p. 257. In the case of the last two, one simply decrees what knowing consists of, without asking by what right this can happen.

Even if these various claims were correct or led to correct problems, they could not be discussed at the beginning of a theory of knowing, because, as very specific insights, they all already stand within the domain of knowing. When I say that my knowledge initially only extends to my ideas or mental pictures, that is a very specific cognitive judgment. Through this sentence a predicate is added to the world given to me, namely existence in the form of a mental picture. But above all, how am I supposed to know that the things given to me are mental pictures?

We will best convince ourselves of the correctness of not placing this sentence at the forefront of epistemology if we follow the path that the human mind must take to get to it. Yet the phrase has become a part of modern scientific consciousness. The considerations that pushed it to the front can be found systematically and completely compiled in the first section of Eduard von Hartmann's Critical Foundation of Transcendental Realism.54Eduard von Hartmann, Kritische Grundlegung des transzendentalen Realismus; 2. Aufl. Berlin 1875, S.37. What has been put forward can therefore serve as a kind of guide, if one sets out to discuss all the reasons that could lead to that assumption. These reasons are physical, psycho-physical, physiological, and specifically philosophical.

A physicist tries to reach out through observation to actual events in our environment. When we, for instance, have a sensation of sound, a physicist conjectures that there is nothing in these actual happenings that has even the remotest similarity to what we simply perceive as sound. Outside, in the space surrounding us, only longitudinal vibrations of the bodies and the air can be found. From this it is concluded that what we call sound or tone in ordinary life is merely a subjective reaction of our organism to that wave movement. Likewise, one finds that light, color, and heat are all purely subjective. The varieties of color-scattering, light-refraction, light-wave-overlapping, and polarization teach us that the above-mentioned sensory qualities correspond to vibrations or waves moving in external space, which we feel compelled to attribute partly to bodies and partly to something immeasurably fine, elastic, and flowing in the atmosphere. Furthermore, due to certain phenomena in the physical world, the physicist is forced to give up the belief in the continuity of objects in space and to trace them back to systems of the smallest parts (molecules, atoms) whose sizes are immeasurably small in relation to their relative positions in space. From this he concludes that all effects of bodies on one-another work through empty space, which indicates forces acting over distances.55 t/n Physicists consider electromagnetic forces, gravitational forces, weak and strong nuclear forces, as well as quantum entanglement (EPR pairs). Physics believes it is justified in assuming that the effect of bodies on our sense of touch and warmth does not occur through direct contact, because there must always be a certain, albeit small, distance between the area of skin touching the body and the body itself. From this it follows that what we perceive, for example, as the hardness or warmth of the body, are only reactions of nerve endings that are sensitive to touch or heat, and heat, reacting to the molecular forces acting through empty space.

These considerations of physicists are supplemented by those of psychophysicists,56t/n A psychophysicist is someone who deals with the relationship between a physical stimulus and the sensation and perception it produces. which find expression in the doctrine of specific sensory energies. J. Müller 57t/n Johannes Müller (1801–1858) has shown that every sense can only be affected in its own way, determined by its organization, and that it always reacts in the same way, whatever external impression is made on it. When the optic nerve is excited, we sense light, regardless of whether it is pressure or electric current or light that acts on the nerve. On the other hand, the same external stimuli produce completely different sensations, depending on how they are perceived by this or that sense. From this it has been concluded that there is only one type of process in the external world, namely movement, and that the diversity of the world we perceive is essentially a reaction of our senses to these processes. According to this view, we do not perceive the external world as such, but only the subjective feelings it triggers within us.

In addition to the considerations of physics and psychophysicists, there are also those of physiologists. The former follows the phenomena that occur outside our organism and which correspond to our perceptions. Physiology seeks to explore the processes in people's own bodies that take place when certain sensory nerves are stimulated. Physiology teaches that the epidermis is completely insensitive to stimuli from the outside world. So, if the end-organs of our touch-sensitive nerves near the surface of the body are to be stimulated by the influences of the outside world, the vibrations or waves that lie outside our body must first propagate through the epidermis. In the auditory and visual senses, the external movement process is also modified by many organelles in the sensory apparatus before it reaches the auditory or visual nerves. This action on the end-organs is then conducted through the nerves to the central organ, and only there, from purely mechanical processes in the brain, the sensation is generated, is born.

It is quite clear that the sensory organ stimulation is converted on its way into the brain, so much so that every trace of resemblance between the first impact on the sensory system and the final sensation in awareness is obliterated. Hartmann summarizes this consideration in the following words, “This content of consciousness originally consists of sensations with which the soul reacts reflexively to the states of movement in its highest brain center, but which do not have the slightest resemblance to the molecular states of movement through which they are exercised”. Anyone who thinks this train of thought through to the end must admit that if it is correct, not the slightest remnant of what can be called external existence would be contained in the content of our consciousness.

To his physical and physiological objections to what he calls naive realism, Hartman adds what he calls purely philosophical objections. When we examine the first two objections logically, however, we notice that we can only really come to the result indicated if we start from the existence of and our connection to external things, just as ordinary naive consciousness assumes, and afterward examine how this external world can come into our awareness inside our bodily organization. We have seen that we lose every trace of such an external world on the way from the sensory impression to the entry into consciousness, and in the latter, in our awareness, nothing remains but our ideas, our mental pictures (Vorstellungen). We must therefore assume that our image of the external world is built by the soul based on sensations. First, a spatial picture of the world is constructed from the sensations of sight and touch, into which the sensations of the other senses are then inserted. If we find ourselves forced to think that a certain complex of sensations is coherent, we come to the concept of substance, which carries itself. If we notice that certain sensed qualities of a substance disappear as others appear, we attribute this to a change in the material world, regulated by the law of causality. According to this view, our entire worldview is made up of subjective sensory content, which is regulated by our own soul activity. Hartmann says, “The subject perceives only modifications of his own psychological states and nothing else.” 58Hartmann's Grundproblem, p. 37

Let us now ask ourselves, how do we come to such a conclusion? The skeleton of the thought process is that if an external world exists, we do not perceive it as such, but rather transform it into a world of mental pictures through our organization. What we are dealing with here is a premise, that if pursued rigorously, cancels itself out. Is this line of thought a suitable basis for any conviction? Are we justified in viewing the world given to us as subjective conceptual content when this view necessarily leads to the assumption of naive consciousness, of naive realism? Our goal is to prove this assumption itself to be invalid. Can it be possible for an assertion to turn out to be false, and yet arrive at a proper conclusion? Well, that may happen, but the conclusion can never be regarded as proven in that way.

The world view that accepts the reality of the world picture that is immediately given to us as something that cannot be questioned, and is self-evident, is usually called naive realism. The opposite, on the other hand, which considers this world view to be merely the content of our consciousness, is transcendental idealism. We can therefore also summarize the result of the previous considerations with the following words: transcendental idealism proves its correctness by operating with the means of naive realism, which it aims to refute.

Naive realism may be false, but its falseness is proven here only with the help of the false view itself. Anyone who keeps this in mind has no alternative but to leave the path taken here, and attempt to take up another view of the world. But should this be done on a trial basis, with luck, until we accidentally come across the right thing? Eduard von Hartmann has taken this path; he believes he has demonstrated the validity of his epistemological approach, for it explains world phenomena while others do not. According to him, individual world views struggle for existence, and the one that proves itself best is ultimately accepted as the winner. But such a procedure seems inadmissible to us, simply because there could easily be several hypotheses that lead to an equally satisfactory explanation of world phenomena. Therefore, we would rather stick to the above line of thought for refuting naive realism and see where specifically its deficiency lies.

Naive realism is the viewpoint from which all people start. For this reason alone, it is advisable to start the correction with it. If we understand what in it is defective, then we will be guided onto the right path with a completely different degree of certainty than if we simply try something randomly. The subjectivism outlined above is based on mental processing of certain facts. It therefore presupposes, from an actual starting point, that correct convictions can be obtained through logical thinking (logical combination of certain observations). The right to apply our thinking in this way, however, is not examined from this point of view. And therein lies its weakness. While naive realism is based on the unexamined assumption that our perceived experience has objective reality, the characterized viewpoint above is based on the equally unexamined belief that one can arrive at scientifically justified convictions through the application of thinking. In contrast to naive realism, this point of view can be called naive rationalism. As a means of justifying this terminology, we would like to make a brief comment about the term “naive”. A. Doring seeks to define this concept more closely in his essay on the concept of naive realism.59A. Döring, article in Philosophische Monatshefte, Vol. XXVI, 1890, p. 390. publ. Heidelberg. He says about it, “The concept of naïveté describes, as it were, the zero point on the scale of reflection on one's own behavior. In terms of content, naïveté can certainly make the right decision, because it is indeed without reflection and therefore uncritical, but this lack of reflection and criticism only excludes the objective certainty of doing the right thing; it includes the possibility and danger of failing, but by no means the necessity of it. There is a naïveté of feeling and willing, as well as of imagining and thinking, in the broadest sense of the latter word, as well as a naïveté of the expressions of these inner states in contrast to the repression or modification of them brought about by considerations and reflection. Naïveté (at least consciously, not influenced by what is traditional, learned, and prescriptive) is in all areas what the root word nativus expresses, namely unconscious, impulsive, instinctive, demonic.”

Starting from these sentences, we want the concept of being naive to be a little more precise. In every activity we carry out, two things come into consideration: the activity itself and a consideration of its consequences. We can be completely absorbed in the former without asking about the latter. This is the case when an artist fails to consider how his work affects others, but rather practices his art according to his own feelings and sensations. We call him naive. But there is a type of self-observation that considers the consequences of one's own actions, and which exchanges this awareness for naïveté, and knows exactly the scope and justification of what it is doing. We want to call this critical. We believe that this best captures the meaning of the term critical, as it has become established in philosophy with various degrees of clarity since Kant. Critical prudence is therefore the opposite of naïveté. We call behavior critical when it takes control of the laws of one's own activity, to learn about their safety and limits. Therefore, a theory of knowing, epistemology, can only be a critical science. Its object to a high degree is the subjective human activity of cognition,60t/n Cognition is the mental activity of acquiring understanding of sense perceptions and concepts. and what it wants to demonstrate are the laws of cognition. All naïveté must therefore be excluded from this science. It must see its strength precisely in the fact that it accomplishes what many practical minds boast that they have never done, namely "thinking about thinking."