Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Philosophy of Freedom
GA 4

3. Thinking in the service of Knowledge

When I observe how a billiard ball, when struck, communicates its motion to another, I remain entirely without influence on the course of this observed process. The direction of motion and the velocity of the second ball are determined by the direction and velocity of the first. As long as I remain a mere spectator, I can only say anything about the movement of the second ball when it has taken place. It is quite different when I begin to reflect on the content of my observation. The purpose of my reflection is to form concepts of the occurrence. I connect the concept of an elastic ball with certain other concepts of mechanics, and take into consideration the special circumstances which obtain in the instance in question. I try, in other words, to add to the occurrence which takes place without my assistance a second process which takes place in the conceptual sphere. This latter one is dependent on me. This is shown by the fact that I can rest content with the observation, and renounce all search for concepts if I have no need of them. If however, this need is present, then I am not satisfied until I have brought the concepts Ball, Elasticity, Motion, Impact, Velocity, etc., into a certain connection, to which the observed process is related in a definite way. As surely as the occurrence goes on independently of me, so surely is the conceptual process unable to take place without my assistance.

We shall have to consider later whether this activity of mine really proceeds from my own independent being, or whether those modern physiologists are right who say that we cannot think as we will, but that we must think just as those thoughts and thought-connections determine that happen to be present in our consciousness.1E.g., Ziehen, Leitfaden der physiologischen Psychologie, Jena 1893, p 171. For the present we wish merely to establish the fact that we constantly feel obliged to seek for concepts and connections of concepts, which stand in a certain relation to the objects and events which are given independently of us. Whether this activity is really ours or whether we perform it according to an unalterable necessity, is a question we need not decide at present. That it appears in the first instance to be ours is beyond question. We know for certain that we are not given the concepts together with the objects. That I am myself the agent in the conceptual process may be an illusion, but to immediate observation it certainly appears to be so. The question is, therefore: What do we gain by supplementing an event with a conceptual counterpart?

There is a profound difference between the ways in which, for me, the parts of an event are related to one another before, and after, the discovery of the corresponding concepts. Mere observation can trace the parts of a given event as they occur, but their connection remains obscure without the help of concepts. I see the first billiard ball move towards the second in a certain direction and with a certain velocity. What will happen after the impact I must await, and again I can only follow it with my eyes. Suppose someone, at the moment of impact, obstructs my view of the field where the event is taking place, then, as mere spectator, I remain ignorant of what happens afterwards. The situation is different if prior to the obstruction of my view I have discovered the concepts corresponding to the pattern of events. In that case I can say what will happen even when I am no longer able to observe. An event or an object which is merely observed, does not of itself reveal anything about its connection with other events or objects. This connection becomes evident only when observation is combined with thinking.

Observation and thinking are the two points of departure for all the spiritual striving of man, in so far as he is conscious of such striving. The workings of common sense, as well as the most complicated scientific researches, rest on these two fundamental pillars of our spirit. Philosophers have started from various primary antitheses: idea and reality, subject and object, appearance and thing-in-itself, “I” and “Not-I”, idea and will, concept and matter, force and substance, the conscious and the unconscious. It is easy to show, however, that all these antitheses must be preceded by that of observation and thinking, this being for man the most important one.

Whatever principle we choose to lay down, we must either prove that somewhere we have observed it, or we must enunciate it in the form of a clear thought which can be re-thought by any other thinker. Every philosopher who sets out to discuss his fundamental principles must express them in conceptual form and thus use thinking. He therefore indirectly admits that his activity presupposes thinking. Whether thinking or something else is the chief factor in the evolution of the world will not be decided at this point. But that without thinking, the philosopher can gain no knowledge of such evolution, is clear from the start. In the occurrence of the world phenomena, thinking may play a minor part; but in the forming of a view about them, there can be no doubt that, its part is a leading one.

As regards observation, our need of it is due to the way we are constituted. Our thinking about a horse and the object “horse” are two things which for us emerge apart from each other. This object is accessible to us only by means of observation. As little as we can form a concept of a horse by merely staring at the animal, just as little are we able by mere thinking to produce a corresponding object.

In sequence of time, observation does in fact come before thinking. For even thinking we must get to know first through observation. It was essentially a description of an observation when, at the beginning of this chapter, we gave an account of how thinking lights up in the presence of an event and goes beyond what is merely presented. Everything that enters the circle of our experience, we first become aware of through observation. The content of sensation, perception and contemplation, all feelings, acts of will, dreams and fancies, mental pictures, concepts and ideas, all illusions and hallucinations, are given to us through observation.

But thinking as an object of observation differs essentially from all other objects. The observation of a table, or a tree, occurs in me as soon as these objects appear upon the horizon of my experience. Yet I do not, at the same time, observe my thinking about these things. I observe the table, and I carry out the thinking about the table, but I do not at the same moment observe this. I must first take up a standpoint outside my own activity if, in addition to observing the table, I want also to observe my thinking about the table. Whereas observation of things and events, and thinking about them, are everyday occurrences filling up the continuous current of my life, observation of the thinking itself is a kind of exceptional state. This fact must be properly taken into account when we come to determine the relationship of thinking to all other contents of observation. We must be quite clear about the fact that, in observing thinking, we are applying to it a procedure which constitutes the normal course of events for the study of the whole of the rest of the world-content, but which in this normal course of events is not applied to thinking itself.

Someone might object that what I have said about thinking applies equally to feeling and to all other spiritual activities. Thus for instance, when I have a feeling of pleasure, the feeling is also kindled by the object, and it is this object that I observe, but not the feeling of pleasure. This objection, however, is based on an error. Pleasure does not stand at all in the same relation to its object as the concept formed by thinking. I am conscious, in the most positive way, that the concept of a thing is formed through my activity; whereas pleasure is produced in me by an object in the same way as, for instance, a change is caused in an object by a stone which falls on it. For observation, a pleasure is given in exactly the same way as the event which causes it. The same is not true of the concept. I can ask why a particular event arouses in me a feeling of pleasure, but I certainly cannot ask why an event produces in me a particular set of concepts. The question would be simply meaningless. In reflecting upon an event, I am in no way concerned with an effect upon myself. I can learn nothing about myself through knowing the concepts which correspond to the observed change in a pane of glass by a stone thrown against it. But I do very definitely learn something about my personality when I know the feeling which a certain event arouses in me. When I say of an observed object, “This is a rose,” I say absolutely nothing about myself; but when I say of the same thing that “it gives me a feeling of pleasure,” I characterize not only the rose, but also myself in my relation to the rose.

There can, therefore, be no question of putting thinking and feeling on a level as objects of observation. And the same could easily be shown of other activities of the human spirit. Unlike thinking, they must be classed with other observed objects or events. The peculiar nature of thinking lies just in this, that it is an activity which is directed solely upon the observed object and not on the thinking personality. This is apparent even from the way in which we express our thoughts about an object, as distinct from our feelings or acts of will. When I see an object and recognize it as a table, I do not as a rule say, “I am thinking of a table,” but, “this is a table.” On the other hand, I do say, “I am pleased with the table.” In the former case, I am not at all interested in stating that I have entered into a relation with the table; whereas in the latter case, it is just this relation that matters. In saying, “I am thinking of a table,” I already enter the exceptional state characterized above, in which something that is always contained—though not as an observed object—within our spiritual activity, is itself made into an object of observation.

This is just the peculiar nature of thinking, that the thinker forgets his thinking while actually engaged in it. What occupies his attention is not his thinking, but the object of his thinking, which he is observing.

The first observation which we make about thinking is therefore this: that it is the unobserved element in our ordinary mental and spiritual life.

The reason why we do not observe the thinking that goes on in our ordinary life is none other than this, that it is due to our own activity. Whatever I do not myself produce, appears in my field of observation as an object; I find myself confronted by it as something that has come about independently of me. It comes to meet me. I must accept it as something that precedes my thinking process, as a premise. While I am reflecting upon the object, I am occupied with it, my attention is focussed upon it. To be thus occupied is precisely to contemplate by thinking. I attend, not to my activity, but to the object of this activity. In other words, while I am thinking I pay no heed to my thinking, which is of my own making, but only to the object of my thinking, which is not of my making.

I am, moreover, in the same position when I enter into the exceptional state and reflect on my own thinking. I can never observe my present thinking; I can only subsequently take my experiences of my thinking process as the object of fresh thinking. If I wanted to watch my present thinking, I should have to split myself into two persons, one to think, the other to observe this thinking. But this I cannot do. I can only accomplish it in two separate acts. The thinking to be observed is never that in which I am actually engaged, but another one. Whether, for this purpose, I make observations of my own former thinking, or follow the thinking process of another person, or finally, as in the example of the motions of the billiard balls, assume an imaginary thinking process, is immaterial.

There are two things which are incompatible with one another: productive activity and the simultaneous contemplation of it. This is recognized even in Genesis (1, 31). Here God creates the world in the first six days, and only when it is there is any contemplation of it possible: “And God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good.” The same applies to our thinking. It must be there first, if we would observe it.

The reason why it is impossible to observe thinking in the actual moment of its occurrence, is the very one which makes it possible for us to know it more immediately and more intimately than any other process in the world. Just because it is our own creation do we know the characteristic features of its course, the manner in which the process takes place. What in all other spheres of observation can be found only indirectly, namely, the relevant context and the relationship between the individual objects, is, in the case of thinking, known to us in an absolutely direct way. I do not on the face of it know why, for my observation, thunder follows lightning; but I know directly, from the very content of the two concepts, why my thinking connects the concept of thunder with the concept of lightning. It does not matter in the least whether I have the right concepts of lightning and thunder. The connection between those concepts that I do have is clear to me, and this through the very concepts themselves.

This transparent clearness concerning our thinking process is quite independent of our knowledge of the physiological basis of thinking. Here I am speaking of thinking in so far as we know it from the observation of our own spiritual activity. How one material process in my brain causes or influences another while I am carrying out a thinking operation, is quite irrelevant. What I observe about thinking is not what process in my brain connects the concept lightning with the concept thunder but what causes me to bring the two concepts into a particular relationship. My observation shows me that in linking one thought with another there is nothing to guide me but the content of my thoughts; I am not guided by any material processes in my brain. In a less materialistic age than our own, this remark would of course be entirely superfluous. Today, however, when there are people who believe that once we know what matter is we shall also know how it thinks, we do have to insist that one may talk about thinking without trespassing on the domain of brain physiology.

Many people today find it difficult to grasp the concept of thinking in its purity. Anyone who challenges the description of thinking which I have given here by quoting Cabanis' statement that “the brain secretes thoughts as the liver does gall or the spittle-glands spittle ...”, simply does not know what I am talking about. He tries to find thinking by a process of mere observation in the same way that we proceed in the case of other objects that make up the world. But he cannot find it in this way because, as I have shown, it eludes just this ordinary observation. Whoever cannot transcend materialism lacks the ability to bring about the exceptional condition I have described, in which he becomes conscious of what in all other spiritual activity remains unconscious. If someone is not willing to take this standpoint, then one can no more discuss thinking with him than one can discuss color with a blind man. But in any case he must not imagine that we regard physiological processes as thinking. He fails to explain thinking because he simply does not see it.

For everyone, however, who has the ability to observe thinking—and with good will every normal man has this ability—this observation is the most important one he can possibly make. For he observes something of which he himself is the creator; he finds himself confronted, not by an apparently foreign object, but by his own activity. He knows how the thing he is observing comes into being. He sees into its connections and relationships. A firm point has now been reached from which one can, with some hope of success, seek an explanation of all other phenomena of the world.

The feeling that he had found such a firm point led the father of modern philosophy, Descartes, to base the whole of human knowledge on the principle: I think, therefore I am. All other things, all other events, are there independently of me. Whether they be truth, or illusion, or dream, I know not. There is only one thing of which I am absolutely certain, for I myself give it its certain existence; and that is my thinking. Whatever other origin it may ultimately have, may it come from God or from elsewhere, of one thing I am certain: that it exists in the sense that I myself bring it forth. Descartes had, to begin with, no justification for giving his statement more meaning than this. All that he had any right to assert was that within the whole world content I apprehend myself in my thinking as in that activity which is most uniquely my own. What the attached “therefore I am” is supposed to mean has been much debated. It can have a meaning on one condition only. The simplest assertion I can make of a thing is that it is, that it exists. How this existence can be further defined in the case of any particular thing that appears on the horizon of my experience, is at first sight impossible to say. Each object must first be studied in its relation to others before we can determine in what sense it can be said to exist. An experienced event may be a set of percepts or it may be a dream, an hallucination, or something else. In short, I am unable to say in what sense it exists. I cannot gather this from the event in itself, but I shall find it out when I consider the event in its relation to other things. But here again I cannot know more than just how it stands in relation to these other things. My investigation touches firm ground only when I find an object which exists in a sense which I can derive from the object itself. But I am myself such an object in that I think, for I give to my existence the definite, self-determined content of the thinking activity. From here I can go on to ask whether other things exist in the same or in some other sense.

When we make thinking an object of observation, we add to the other observed contents of the world something which usually escapes our attention. But the way we stand in relation to the other things is in no way altered. We add to the number of objects of observation, but not to the number of methods. While we are observing the other things, there enters among the processes of the world—among which I now include observation—one process which is overlooked. Something is present which is different from all other processes, something which is not taken into account. But when I observe my own thinking, no such neglected element is present. For what now hovers in the background is once more just thinking itself. The object of observation is qualitatively identical with the activity directed upon it. This is another characteristic feature of thinking. When we make it an object of observation, we are not compelled to do so with the help of something qualitatively different, but can remain within the same element.

When I weave an independently given object into my thinking, I transcend my observation, and the question arises: What right have I to do this? Why do I not simply let the object impress itself upon me? How is it possible for my thinking to be related to the object? These are questions which everyone must put to himself who reflects on his own thought processes. But all these questions cease to exist when we think about thinking itself. We then add nothing to our thinking that is foreign to it, and therefore have no need to justify any such addition.

Schelling says, “To know Nature means to create Nature.” If we take these words of this bold Nature-philosopher literally, we shall have to renounce for ever all hope of gaining knowledge of Nature. For Nature is there already, and in order to create it a second time, we must first know the principles according to which it has originated. From the Nature that already exists we should have to borrow or crib the fundamental principles for the Nature we want to begin by creating. This borrowing, which would have to precede the creating, would however mean knowing Nature, and this would still be so even if after the borrowing no creation were to take place. The only kind of Nature we could create without first having knowledge of it would be a Nature that does not yet exist.

What is impossible for us with regard to Nature, namely, creating before knowing, we achieve in the case of thinking. Were we to refrain from thinking until we had first gained knowledge of it, we would never come to it at all. We must resolutely plunge right into the activity of thinking, so that afterwards, by observing what we have done, we may gain knowledge of it. For the observation of thinking, we ourselves first create an object; the presence of all other objects is taken care of without any activity on our part.

My contention that we must think before we can examine thinking might easily be countered by the apparently equally valid contention that we cannot wait with digesting until we have first observed the process of digestion. This objection would be similar to that brought by Pascal against Descartes, when he asserted that we might also say, “I walk, therefore I am.” Certainly I must go straight ahead with digesting and not wait until I have studied the physiological process of digestion. But I could only compare this with the study of thinking if, after digestion, I set myself not to study it by thinking, but to eat and digest it. It is after all not without reason that, whereas digestion cannot become the object of digestion, thinking can very well become the object of thinking.

This then is indisputable, that in thinking we have got hold of one corner of the whole world process which requires our presence if anything is to happen. And this is just the point upon which everything turns. The very reason why things confront me in such a puzzling way is just that I play no part in their production. They are simply given to me, whereas in the case of thinking I know how it is done. Hence for the study of all that happens in the world there can be no more fundamental starting point than thinking itself.

I should now like to mention a widely current error which prevails with regard to thinking. It is often said that thinking, as it is in itself, is nowhere given to us: the thinking that connects our observations and weaves a network of concepts about them is not at all the same as that which we subsequently extract from the objects of observation in order to make it the object of our study. What we first weave unconsciously into the things is said to be quite different from what we consciously extract from them again.

Those who hold this view do not see that it is impossible in this way to escape from thinking. I cannot get outside thinking when I want to study it. If we want to distinguish between thinking before we have become conscious of it, and thinking of which we have subsequently become aware, we should not forget that this distinction is a purely external one which has nothing to do with the thing itself. I do not in any way alter a thing by thinking about it. I can well imagine that a being with quite differently constructed sense organs and with a differently functioning intelligence, would have a very different mental picture of a horse from mine, but I cannot imagine that my own thinking becomes something different through the fact that I observe it. I myself observe what I myself produce. Here we are not talking of how my thinking looks to an intelligence other than mine, but of how it looks to me. In any case the picture of my thinking which another intelligence might have cannot be a truer one than my own. Only if I were not myself the being doing the thinking, but if the thinking were to confront me as the activity of a being quite foreign to me, might I then say that although my own picture of the thinking may arise in a particular way, what the thinking of that being may be like in itself, I am quite unable to know.

So far, there is not the slightest reason why I should regard my own thinking from any point of view other than my own. After all, I contemplate the rest of the world by means of thinking. Why should I make my thinking an exception?

I believe I have given sufficient reasons for making thinking the starting point for my study of the world. When Archimedes had discovered the lever, he thought he could lift the whole cosmos from its hinges, if only he could find a point of support for his instrument. He needed something that was supported by itself and by nothing else. In thinking we have a principle which subsists through itself. Let us try, therefore, to understand the world starting from this basis. We can grasp thinking by means of itself. The question is, whether we can also grasp anything else through it.

I have so far spoken of thinking without taking account of its vehicle, human consciousness. Most present-day philosophers would object that before there can be thinking, there must be consciousness. Hence we ought to start, not from thinking, but from consciousness. There is no thinking, they say, without consciousness. To this I must reply that in order to clear up the relation between thinking and consciousness, I must think about it. Hence I presuppose thinking. Nevertheless one could still argue that although, when the philosopher tries to understand consciousness he makes use of thinking and to that extent presupposes it, yet in the ordinary course of life thinking does arise within consciousness and therefore presupposes consciousness.

Now if this answer were given to the world creator when he was about to create thinking, it would doubtless be to the point. Naturally it is not possible to create thinking before consciousness. The philosopher, however, is not concerned with creating the world but with understanding it. Accordingly he has to seek the starting points not for the creation of the world but for the understanding of it. It seems to me very strange that the philosopher should be reproached for troubling himself first and foremost about the correctness of his principles instead of turning straight to the objects which he seeks to understand. The world creator had above all to know how to find a vehicle for thinking, but the philosopher has to seek a secure foundation for his attempts to understand what already exists. How does it help us to start with consciousness and subject it to the scrutiny of thinking, if we do not first know whether thinking is in fact able to give us insight into things at all?

We must first consider thinking quite impartially, without reference to a thinking subject or a thought object. For both subject and object are concepts formed by thinking. There is no denying that before anything else can be understood, thinking must be understood. Whoever denies this fails to realize that man is not the first link in the chain of creation but the last. Hence, in order to explain the world by means of concepts, we cannot start from the elements of existence which came first in time, but we must begin with that element which is given to us as the nearest and most intimate. We cannot at one bound transport ourselves back to the beginning of the world in order to begin our studies from there, but we must start from the present moment and see whether we can ascend from the later to the earlier. As long as Geology invented fabulous catastrophes to account for the present state of the earth, it groped in darkness. It was only when it began to study the processes at present at work on the earth, and from these to argue back to the past, that it gained a firm foundation. As long as Philosophy goes on assuming all sorts of basic principles, such as atom, motion, matter, will, or the unconscious, it will hang in the air. Only if the philosopher recognizes that which is last in time as his first point of attack, can he reach his goal. This absolutely last thing at which world evolution has arrived is in fact thinking.

There are people who say it is impossible to ascertain with certainty whether our thinking is right or wrong, and thus our starting point is in any case a doubtful one. It would be just as sensible to doubt whether a tree is in itself right or wrong. Thinking is a fact, and it is meaningless to speak of the truth or falsity of a fact. I can, at most, be in doubt as to whether thinking is correctly applied, just as I can doubt whether a certain tree supplies wood adapted to the making of this or that useful object. To show how far the application of thinking to the world is right or wrong, is precisely the task of this book. I can understand anyone doubting whether, by means of thinking, we can gain knowledge of the world, but it is incomprehensible to me how anyone can doubt the rightness of thinking in itself.

Author's addition, 1918

In the preceding discussion I have pointed out the significant difference between thinking and all other activities of the soul, as a fact which presents itself to genuinely unprejudiced observation. Anyone who does not strive towards this unprejudiced observation will be tempted to bring against my arguments such objections as these: When I think about a rose, this after all only expresses a relation of my “I” to the rose, just as when I feel the beauty of the rose. There is a relation between “I” and object in the case of thinking just as much as in the case of feeling or perceiving. Such an objection leaves out of account the fact that only in the thinking activity does the “I” know itself to be one and the same being with that which is active, right into all the ramifications of this activity. With no other soul activity is this so completely the case. For example, in a feeling of pleasure it is perfectly possible for a more delicate observation to discriminate between the extent to which the “I” knows itself to be one and the same being with what is active, and the extent to which there is something passive in the “I” to which the pleasure merely presents itself. The same applies to the other soul activities. Above all one should not confuse the “having of thought-images” with the elaboration of thought by thinking. Thought-images may appear in the soul after the fashion of dreams, like vague intimations. But this is not thinking. True, someone might now say: If this is what you mean by “thinking”, then your thinking involves willing and you have to do not merely with thinking but also with the will in the thinking. However, this would simply justify us in saying: Genuine thinking must always be willed. But this is quite irrelevant to the characterization of thinking as this has been given in the preceding discussion. Granted that the nature of thinking necessarily implies its being willed, the point that matters is that nothing is willed which, in being carried out, does not appear to the “I” as an activity completely its own and under its own supervision. Indeed, we must say that owing to the very nature of thinking as here defined, it must appear to the observer as willed through and through. If we really make the effort to grasp everything that is relevant to a judgment about the nature of thinking, we cannot fail to see that this soul activity does have the unique character we have here described.

A person whom the author of this book rates very highly as a thinker has objected that it is impossible to speak about thinking as we are doing here, because what one believes oneself to have observed as active thinking is nothing but an illusion. In reality one is observing only the results of an unconscious activity which lies at the basis of thinking. Only because this unconscious activity is not observed does the illusion arise that the observed thinking exists in its own right, just as when in an illumination by means of a rapid succession of electric sparks we believe that we are seeing a continuous movement. This objection, too, rests only on an inaccurate view of the facts. In making it, one forgets that it is the “I” itself which, from its standpoint inside the thinking, observes its own activity. The “I” would have to stand outside the thinking in order to suffer the sort of deception which is caused by an illumination with a rapid succession of electric sparks. It would be much truer to say that precisely in using such an analogy one is forcibly deceiving oneself, just as if someone seeing a moving light were to insist that it is being freshly lit by an unknown hand at every point where it appears. No, whoever is determined to see in thinking anything other than a clearly surveyable activity produced by the “I” itself, must first shut his eyes to the plain facts that are there for the seeing, in order then to invent a hypothetical activity as the basis of thinking. If he does not thus blind himself, he will have to recognize that everything which he “thinks up” in this way as an addition to the thinking only leads him away from its real nature. Unprejudiced observation shows that nothing is to be counted as belonging to the nature of thinking except what is found in thinking itself. One will never arrive at something which is the cause of thinking if one steps outside the realm of thinking itself.