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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

XI. World Purpose and Life Purpose

Among the manifold streams in the spiritual life of mankind, there is one we can follow which may be described as the overcoming of the concept of purpose in realms where it does not belong. Purposefulness has its own particular nature within the sequence of phenomena. It is a truly real purposefulness only when, in contract to the relationship of cause and effect where a preceding event determines a later one, the reverse applies and a subsequent event affects and determines an earlier one. This happens, to begin with, only in the case of human actions. A person carries out an action, which he pictures to himself beforehand, and lets himself be moved to his action by this mental picture. What comes later, the action, works with the help of the mental picture upon what comes earlier, the person who acts. This detour through mental picturing is, however, altogether necessary in order for a connection to be purposeful.

In the process which breaks down into cause and effect, the perception is to be distinguished from the concept. The perception of the cause precedes the perception of the effect; cause and effect would simply remain side by side within our consciousness if we were not able to connect them with each other through their corresponding concepts. The perception of the effect can only follow upon the perception of its cause. If the effect is to have a real influence upon the cause, then this can only be through the conceptual factor. For the perceptual factor of the effect is simply not present at all before that of the cause. Whoever maintains that the blossom is the purpose of the root, which means the former has an influence upon the latter, can maintain this only about that factor of the blossom which he can establish through his thinking. The perceptual factor of the blossom has as yet no existence at the time when the root comes into being. For there to be a purposeful connection, however, not merely the ideal lawful connection of the later with the earlier is necessary, but also the concept (the law) of the effect must really, through a perceptible process, influence the cause. A perceptible influence of a concept upon something else, however, we can observe only in human actions. Here alone, therefore, is the concept of purpose applicable. The naive consciousness, which accepts as real only what is perceptible, seeks — as we have repeatedly noted — to transfer something perceptible even into an area where only something ideal is to be known. Within perceptible happenings it seeks perceptible connections, or, if it cannot find such, it dreams them up. The concept of purpose valid for subjective actions is an element which lends itself to such dreamed-up connections. The naive person knows how this makes something happen and concludes from this that nature will do it in the same way. Within the purely ideal interconnections of nature he sees not only invisible forces, but also unperceivable real purposes. Man makes his tools to suit his purposes; the naive realist has the Creator build organisms by this same formula. Only quite gradually is this incorrect concept of purpose disappearing from the sciences. In philosophy, even today, it is still up to its mischief in a very harmful way. There people ask about the purpose, outside the world, of the world, about the determinants (and consequently, about the purpose), outside man, of man, and so on.

Monism rejects the concept of purpose in all areas with the sole exception of human action. It seeks laws of nature, but not purposes of nature. Purposes of nature are arbitrary assumptions just as unperceivable forces are (see page 109f). But also purposes of life which man does not give himself, are unjustified assumptions from the standpoint of monism. Only that is purposeful which man has first made to be so, for only through the realization of an idea does purposefulness rise. The idea however, becomes operative in the realistic sense only within man. Therefore human life has only the purpose and determination which man gives to it. To the question: What kind of task does man have in life?, monism can only answer: the one which he sets himself. My mission in the world is no predetermined one, but rather it is, at any given moment, the one I choose for myself. I do not enter upon my life's path with fixed marching orders.

Ideas are realized purposefully only through human beings. It is therefore inadmissible to speak of history as the embodiment of ideas. All such expressions as: “History is the development of man toward freedom,” or the realization of the moral world order, and so on, are untenable from the monistic point of view.

The adherents of the concept of purpose believe that to give up purpose, they would have to give up all order and unity in the world at this time. Listen, for example, to Robert Hamerling (Atomistic Theory of the Will) 1Atomistik des Willens “As long as there are drives in nature, it is foolishness to deny purposes in nature.”

“Just as the form of a limb of the human body is not determined and controlled by an idea of this limb that is hovering somewhere in the air, but rather by its connection with the greater whole, with the body to which the limb belongs, so the form of every being of nature, whether plant, animal, man, is not determined and controlled by an idea of the same hovering in the air, but rather by the formal principle of the greater whole of nature which purposefully expresses itself and gives shape to everything.” And on page 191 of the same volume: “The theory of purpose maintains only that, in spite of the thousand discomforts and sufferings of our creaturely existence, a lofty purposefulness and plan are unmistakably present within the forms and developments of nature — a plan and purposefulness, however, which realize themselves only within the laws of nature, and which cannot aim for some fool's paradise where no death confronts life, and no decay with all its more or less unpleasing but simply unavoidable intermediary stages, confronts growth.”

“When the opponents of the concept of purpose bring a small, laboriously collected rubbish heap of partial or complete, imaginary or real examples showing lack of purpose, against a world full of wonders of purpose such as nature shows in all its realms, then I just find that ludicrous.”

What is here called purposefulness? A harmonizing of perceptions into a whole. Since, however, underlying of perceptions, there are laws (ideas), which we find through our thinking, so the systematic harmonizing of the parts of a perceptual whole is, in fact, the ideal harmonizing of the parts of an ideal whole contained within this perceptual whole. The notion that the animal or the human being is not determined by an idea hovering somewhere in the air, is all askew, and when it is set right, the condemned view automatically loses its absurd character. The animal is, to be sure, not determined by an idea hovering somewhere in the air, but is very much determined by an idea which is inborn and which constitutes the lawful nature of its being. Precisely because the idea is not outside the thing, but rather works within it as its very being, one cannot speak of purposefulness. Precisely the person who denies that a being of nature is determined from outside (whether by an idea hovering somewhere in the air, or by an idea existing outside the creature in the mind of a world-creator, makes no difference at all in this connection_ must admit that this being is not determined purposefully and according to plan from outside, but rather causally and lawfully from within. I construct a machine purposefully when I bring its parts into a relationship which they do not have by nature. The purposefulness of the arrangement consists then in the fact that I have incorporated the machine's way of working into it as its idea. The machine has become thereby an object of perception with a corresponding idea. The beings of nature are such entities as well. Whoever calls a thing purposeful because it is lawfully formed should then apply this term also to the beings of nature. But this lawfulness should not be confused with that of subjective human actions. For purpose, it is in fact altogether necessary that the cause which is at work be a concept, and indeed the concept of the effect. In nature, however, concepts as causes are nowhere to be found; the concept always shows itself only as the ideal connection of cause and effect. Causes are present in nature only in the form of perceptions.

Dualism can talk about purposes of the world and of nature. Where a lawful joining of cause and effect appears to our perception, there the dualist can assume that we are only seeing the copy of a relationship within which the absolute world being realizes his purposes. For monism, with the falling away of the absolute world being who cannot be experienced but is only hypothetically inferred, there also falls away any reason for ascribing purpose to the world and to nature.

Addendum to the Revised Edition of 1918

If one thinks through without prejudice what has been set forth here, one could not conclude that the author, in his rejection of the concept of purpose outside the human domain, stands on the same ground as those thinkers who, by throwing out this concept, create the possibility of grasping everything which lies outside human actions — and then these also — as only a happening of nature. The fact that in the book the thought process is represented as a purely spiritual one should guard against any such conclusion. When here the thought of purpose is also rejected for the spiritual world lying outside of human actions, then this is done because in that world something higher than the purpose which realizes itself within humanity comes to manifestation. And when a purposeful destiny of the human race, thought up along the lines of human purposefulness, is spoken of as an erroneous idea, then by this is meant that the individual person gives himself purposes and out of these the result of the total activity of mankind is composed. This result is then something higher than its parts, the purposes of men.