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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

XI. World-Purpose and Life-Purpose

AMONG the manifold currents in the spiritual life of humanity there is one which we may call the overcoming of the concept of purpose in spheres to which it does not apply. Adaptation to purpose is a special kind of sequence of phenomena. Such adaptation is genuinely real only when, in contrast to the relation of cause and effect in which the antecedent event determines the subsequent, the subsequent event determines the antecedent. This applies, first of all, only to human actions. Man performs actions which he first represents to himself, and he allows himself to be determined to action by this representation. The consequent, i.e., the action, influences by means of the representation [See Translator's Preface p. ix.] the antecedent, i.e., the human agent. For the connection to have purposive character this detour through the representation is absolutely necessary.

In the process which we can analyse into cause and effect, we must distinguish percept from concept. The percept of the cause precedes the percept of the effect. Cause and effect would simply stand side by side in our consciousness, if we were not able to connect them with one another through their corresponding concepts. The percept of the effect must always be consequent upon the percept of the cause. If the effect is to have a real influence upon the cause, it can do so only by means of the conceptual factor. For the perceptual factor of the effect simply does not exist prior to the perceptual factor of the cause. Whoever maintains that the flower is the purpose of the root, i.e., that the former influences the latter, can make good this assertion only concerning that factor in the flower which his thinking establishes in it. The perceptual factor of the flower is not yet in existence at the time when the root originates.

In order to have a purposive connection, it is not only necessary to have an ideal connection of consequent and antecedent according to law, but the concept (law) of the effect must really, i.e., by means of a perceptible process, influence the cause. Such a perceptible. influence of a concept upon something else is, however, to be observed only in human actions. Hence this is the only sphere in which the concept of purpose is applicable.

The naive consciousness, which regards as real only what is perceptible, attempts, as we have repeatedly pointed out, to introduce perceptible elements even where only ideal factors can actually be found. In sequences of perceptible events it looks for perceptible connections, or, failing to find them, it imports them by a dream-like fantasy. The concept of purpose, valid for subjective actions, is very convenient for inventing such imaginary connections. The naive man knows how he produces events, and consequently concludes that nature proceeds likewise. In the connections of nature which are purely ideal he finds, not only invisible forces, but also invisible real purposes. Man makes his tools to suit his purposes. On the same principle, so the Naive Realist imagines, the Creator constructs all organisms. It is but slowly that this mistaken concept of purpose is being driven out of the sciences. In philosophy, even at the present day, it still does a good deal of mischief. Philosophers still ask such questions as: What is the extra-mundane purpose of the world? What is the extra-human destination (and, consequently, purpose) of man, etc.?

Monism rejects the concept of purpose in every sphere, with the sole exception of human action. It looks for laws of nature, but not for purposes of nature. Purposes of nature, no less than imperceptible forces (p. 93), are arbitrary assumptions. But even life-purposes which man does not set up for himself are, from the standpoint of Monism, illegitimate assumptions. Nothing is purposive except what man has made so, for only the realization of an Idea originates anything purposive. But an Idea becomes effective, in the realistic sense, only in man. Hence human life has no other purpose and destination than the one which man gives to it. If the question be asked: What is man's task in life? Monism has but one answer: The task which he gives to himself. I have no predestined mission in the world; my mission, at any one moment, is that which I choose for myself. I do not enter upon life's voyage with a fixed route mapped out for me.

Ideas are purposively realized only by human beings. Consequently, it is illegitimate to speak of the embodiment of Ideas by history. All such statements as “history is the evolution of man towards freedom,” or “the realization of the moral world-order,” etc., are, from a Monistic point of view, untenable.

The supporters of the concept of purpose believe that, in surrendering it, they are forced to surrender also all order and unity in the world. Listen, for example, to Robert Hamerling (Atomistik des Willens, vol. ii, p. 201): “As long as there are instincts in nature, so long is it foolish to deny purposes in nature. Just as the structure of a limb of the human body is not determined and conditioned by an Idea of this limb, floating somewhere in mid-air, but by its connection with the more inclusive whole, the body, to which the limb belongs, so the structure of every natural object, be it plant, animal, or man, is not determined and conditioned by an Idea of it floating in mid-air, but by the formative principle of the more inclusive whole of nature which unfolds and organizes itself in a purposive manner.” And on p. 191 of the same volume we read “Teleology maintains only that, in spite of the thousand misfits and miseries of this natural life there is a high degree of purpose and plan unmistakable in the formations and developments of nature — a purposiveness, however, which is realized only within the limits of natural laws, and which does not tend to the production of some fantastic fairy-land, in which life would not be confronted by death, growth by decay, with all the more or less unpleasant, but quite unavoidable, intermediary stages between them. When the critics of Teleology oppose a laboriously collected rubbish-heap of partial or complete, imaginary or real, maladaptations to a world full of wonders of purpose, such as nature exhibits in all her domains, then I consider this just as amusing — “

What is here meant by purposiveness? Nothing but the consonance of percepts within a whole. But, since all percepts are based upon laws (Ideas) which we discover by means of thinking, it follows that the coherence according to plan of the members of a perceptual whole is nothing more than the ideal coherence of the members of the ideal whole which is contained in this perceptual whole. To say that an animal or a man is not determined by an Idea floating in mid-air is a misleading way of putting it, and the view which the critic attacks loses its apparent absurdity as soon as the phrase is put right. An animal certainly is not determined by an Idea floating in mid-air, but it is determined by an Idea inborn in it and constituting the law of its being. It is just because the Idea is not external to the natural object, but is operative in it as its very essence, that we cannot speak here of purposiveness. Those who deny that natural beings are determined from without (and it does not matter, in this context, whether it be by an Idea floating in mid-air or existing outside the being, in the mind of a creator of the world) are the very men who ought to admit that such a being is not determined by purpose and plan from without, but by cause and law from within. A machine is produced in accordance with a purpose, if I establish a connection between its parts which is not given in nature. The purposive character of the combinations which I effect consists just in this, that I embody my Idea of the working of the machine in the machine itself. In this way the machine comes into existence as an object of perception linked with a corresponding Idea. The natural objects are beings of this kind. Whoever calls a thing purposive because its form. is in accordance with plan or law may, if he so please, call natural objects also purposive, provided only that he does not confuse this kind of purposiveness with that which belongs to a subjective human action. In order to have a purpose, it is absolutely necessary that the effective cause should be a concept, more precisely the concept of the effect. But in nature we can nowhere point to concepts operating as causes. The concept is never anything but the ideal nexus of cause and effect. Causes occur in nature only in the form of percepts.

Dualism may talk of cosmic and natural purposes. Wherever for our perception there is a nexus of cause and effect according to law, there the Dualist is free to assume that we have but the copy of a nexus in which the absolute Cosmic Being has realized its purposes. For Monism, all ground for assuming purposes in the world and in nature drops away with the rejection of an absolute Cosmic Being, whose existence can never be directly experienced and is only hypothetically inferred.


No one who, with an open mind, has followed the preceding argument, will come to the conclusion that the author, in rejecting the concept of purpose for extra-human facts, intended to side with those thinkers who reject this concept in order to be able to regard first, everything outside human action and, next, human action itself, as a purely natural process. Against such misunderstanding the author should be protected by the fact that the process of thinking is in this book represented as a purely spiritual process. The reason for rejecting the concept of purpose even for the spiritual world, so far as it lies outside human action, is that in this world there is revealed something higher than a purpose such as is realized in human life. And when we characterize as erroneous the attempt to conceive the destination of mankind as purposive according to the pattern of human purposiveness, we mean that the individual sets purposes before himself, and that the result of the total activity of humanity is composed of these individual purposes. This result is something higher than its component parts, the purposes of individual men.