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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

III. Thinking in the Service of Understanding the World

WHEN I SEE how a billiard ball, when struck, communicates its motion to another ball, I remain entirely without influence on the course of this event which I observe. The direction and velocity of the second ball is determined by the direction and velocity of the first. As long as I do no more than observe, I cannot say anything about the motion of the second ball until it actually moves. The situation alters if I begin to reflect on the content of my observation. The purpose of my reflection is to form concepts of the event. I bring the concept of an elastic ball into connection with certain other concepts of mechanics, and take into consideration the special circumstances prevailing in this particular instance. In other words, to the action taking place without my doing, I try to add a second action which unfolds in the conceptual sphere. The latter is dependent on me. This is shown by the fact that I could rest content with the observation and forgo all search for concepts if I had 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 certain as it is that the event takes place independently of me, so certain is it also that the conceptual process cannot take place without my doing it.

We shall consider later whether this activity of mine is really a product of my own independent being or whether the modern physiologists are right who say that we cannot think as we will, but that we must think exactly as the thoughts and thought-connections present in our consciousness determine. [17] For the time being we wish merely to establish the fact that we constantly feel compelled to seek for concepts and connections of concepts standing in a certain relation to objects and events given independently of us. Whether this activity is really ours, or whether we accomplish it according to an unalterable necessity, we shall leave aside for the moment. That at first sight it appears to be our activity is beyond doubt. We know with absolute certainty that we are not given the concepts together with the objects. That I myself am the doer may be illusion, but to immediate observation this certainly appears to be the case. The question here is: What do we gain by finding a conceptual counterpart to an event?

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 follow 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 toward the second in a certain direction and with a definite velocity. I must wait for what will happen after the impact, and again I can follow what happens only with my eyes. Let us assume that at the moment the impact occurs someone obstructs my view of the field where the event takes place: then—as mere onlooker—I have no knowledge of what happens afterward. The situation is different if before my view was obstructed I had discovered the concepts corresponding to the nexus of events. In that case I can estimate what occurs, even when I am no longer able to observe. An object or event which has only been observed does not of itself reveal anything about its connection with other objects or events. This connection comes to light only when observation combines with thinking.

Observation and thinking are the two points of departure for all spiritual striving of man insofar as he is conscious of such striving. What is accomplished by ordinary human reason as well as by the most complicated scientific investigations rests 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, ego and non-ego, 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, as the one the most important for man.

Whatever principle we wish to advance, we must prove that somewhere we have observed it, or express it in the form of a clear thought which can be re-thought by others. Every philosopher who begins to speak about his fundamental principles must make use of the conceptual form, and thereby makes use of thinking. He therefore indirectly admits that for his activity he presupposes thinking. Whether thinking or something else is the main element in the evolution of the world, we shall not decide as yet. But that without thinking the philosopher can gain no knowledge of the evolution of the world, is immediately clear. Thinking may play a minor part in the coming into being of world phenomena, but thinking certainly plays a major part in the coming into being of a view about them.

As regards observation, it is due to our organization that we need it. For us, our thinking about a horse and the object horse are two separate things. But we have access to the object only through observation. As little as we can form a concept of a horse by merely staring at it, just as little are we able to produce a corresponding object by mere thinking.

In sequence of time, observation even precedes thinking. For even thinking we learn to know first by means of observation. It was essentially a description of an observation when, at the opening of this chapter, we gave an account of how thinking is kindled by an event and of how it goes beyond what is given without its activity. Whatever enters the circle of our experiences we first become aware of through observation. The contents of sensation, of perception, of contemplation, of feelings, of acts of will, of the pictures of dreams and fantasy, of representations, of concepts and ideas, of all illusions and hallucinations are given us through observation.

However, as object of observation, thinking differs essentially from all other objects. The observation of a table or a tree occurs in me as soon as these objects appear within the range of my experience. But my thinking that goes on about these things, I do not observe at the same time. I observe the table; the thinking about the table I carry out, but I do not observe it at the same moment. I would first have to transport myself to a place outside my own activity if, besides observing the table, I wanted also to observe my thinking about the table. Whereas observation of things and events, and thinking about them, are but ordinary occurrences filling daily life, the observation of thinking itself is a sort of exceptional situation. This fact must be taken into account sufficiently when we come to determine the relation of thinking to all other contents of observation. It is essential to be clear about the fact that when thinking is observed the same procedure is applied to it as the one we normally apply to the rest of the world-content, only in ordinary life we do not apply it to thinking.

Someone might object that what I have said here about thinking also holds good for feeling and for all other soul activities. When, for example, we feel pleasure, the feeling is also kindled by an object, and it is this object I observe, and not the feeling of pleasure. This objection, however, is based upon an error. Pleasure does not have at all the same relationship to its object has has the concept which thinking builds up. I am absolutely conscious of the fact that the concept of a thing is built up by 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 upon it. For observation, a pleasure is given in exactly the same way as that is given which causes it. The same is not true of concepts. I can ask: Why does a particular event arouse in me a feeling of pleasure? But it is never possible to ask: Why does an event produce in me a certain number of concepts? That simply has no sense. When I reflect about an event there is no question of an effect on me. I learn nothing about myself by knowing the concepts which correspond to the change observed in a pane of glass when a stone is thrown against it. But I very definitely do 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: 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 comparing thinking and feeling as objects of observation. And the same could easily be shown concerning other activities of the human soul. Unlike thinking, they belong in the same sphere as other observed objects and events. It is characteristic of the nature of thinking that it is an activity directed solely upon the observed object and not upon the thinking personality. This can already be seen from the way we express our thoughts, as distinct from the way we express our feelings or acts of will in relation to objects. When I see an object and recognize it as a table, generally I would not say: I am thinking of a table, but: This is a table. But I would say: I am pleased with the table. In the first instance I am not at all interested in pointing out that I have entered into any relationship with the table, whereas in the second it is just this relationship that matters. In saying: I am thinking of a table, I already enter the exceptional situation characterized above, where something is made an object of observation which is always contained within our soul's activity, only normally it is not made an object of observation.

It is characteristic of thinking that the thinker forgets thinking while doing it. What occupies him is not thinking, but the object of thinking which he observes.

The first thing then, that we observe about thinking is that it is the unobserved element in our ordinary life of thought.

The reason we do not observe thinking in our daily life of thought is because it depends upon our own activity. What I myself do not bring about, enters my field of observation as something objective. I find myself confronted by it as by something that has come about independently of me; it comes to meet me; I must take it as the presupposition of my thinking process. While I reflect on the object, I am occupied with it, my attention is turned to it. This activity is, in fact, thinking contemplation. My attention is directed not to my activity but to the object of this activity. In other words: while I think, I do not look at my thinking which I produce, but at the object of thinking which I do not produce.

I am even in the same position when I let the exceptional situation come about and think about my own thinking. I can never observe my present thinking, but only afterward can I make into an object of thinking the experience I have had of my thinking-process. If I wanted to observe my present thinking, I would have to split myself into two persons: one to do the thinking, the other to observe this thinking. This I cannot do. I can only accomplish it in two separate acts. The thinking to be observed is never the one actually being produced, but another one. Whether for this purpose I observe my own earlier thinking, or follow the thinking process of another person, or else, as in the above example of the movements of the billiard balls, presuppose an imaginary thinking process, makes no difference.

Two things that do not go together are actively producing something and confronting this in contemplation. This is already shown in the First Book of Moses. The latter represents God as creating the world in the first six days, and only when the world is there is the possibility of contemplating it also present: “And God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good.” So it is also with our thinking. It must first be present before we can observe it.

The reason it is impossible for us to observe thinking when it is actually taking place, is also the reason it is possible for us to know it more directly and more intimately than any other process in the world. It is just because we ourselves bring it forth that we know the characteristic features of its course, the manner in which the process takes place. What in the other spheres of observation can be found only indirectly: the relevant context and the connection between the individual objects—in the case of thinking is known to us in an absolutely direct way. Off-hand, I do not know why, for my observation, thunder follows lightning, but from the content of the two concepts I know immediately why my thinking connects the concept of thunder with the concept of lightning. Naturally here it does not matter whether I have correct concepts of thunder and lightning. The connection between those concepts I have is clear to me, and indeed this is the case through the concepts themselves.

This transparent clarity of the process of thinking is quite independent of our knowledge of the physiological basis of thinking. I speak here of thinking insofar as it presents itself to observation of our spiritual activity. How one material process in my brain causes or influences another while I carry out a line of thought, does not come into consideration at all. What I see when I observe thinking is not what process in my brain connects the concept of lightning with the concept of thunder, but I see what motivates me to bring the two concepts into a particular relationship. My observation of thinking shows me that there is nothing that directs me in my connecting one thought with another, except the content of my thoughts; I am not directed by the material processes in my brain. In a less materialistic age than ours this remark would of course be entirely superfluous. Today however, when there are people who believe: When we know what matter is, we shall also know how matter thinks,—it has to be said that it is possible to speak about thinking without entering the domain of brain physiology at the same time. Today many people find it difficult to grasp the concept of thinking in its purity. Anyone who wants to contrast the representation of thinking I have here developed, with Cabanis [18] statement, “The brain secretes thoughts as the liver does gall or the spittle-glands spittle, etc.,” simply does not know what I am talking about. He tries to find thinking by means of a mere process of observation such as we apply to other objects that make up the content of the world. He cannot find it in this manner because as I have shown, it eludes normal observation. Whoever cannot overcome materialism lacks the ability to bring about in himself the exceptional situation described above, which brings to his consciousness what remains unconscious in all other spiritual activities. If a person does not have the good will to place himself in this situation, then one can no more speak to him about thinking than one can speak about color to a person who is blind. However, he must not believe that we consider physiological processes to be thinking. He cannot explain thinking because he simply does not see it.

However, one possessing the ability to observe thinking,—and with goodwill every normally organized person has this ability,—this observation is the most important he can make. For he observes something which he himself brings to existence; he finds himself confronted not by a foreign object, to begin with, but by his own activity. He knows how what he observes comes to be. He sees through the connections and relations. A firm point is attained from which, with well-founded hope, one can seek for the explanation of the rest of the world's phenomena.

The feeling of possessing such a firm point caused the founder of modern philosophy, Renatus Cartesius, [19] to base the whole of human knowledge on the principle, I think, therefore I am. All other things, all other events are present independent of me. Whether they are there as truth or illusion or dream I know not. Only one thing do I know with absolute certainty, for I myself bring it to its sure existence: my thinking. Perhaps it also has some other origin as well, perhaps it comes from God or from elsewhere, but that it is present in the sense that I myself bring it forth, of that I am certain. Cartesius had, to begin with, no justification for giving his statement any other meaning. He could maintain only that within the whole world content it is in my thinking that I grasp myself within that activity which is most essentially my own. What is meant by the attached therefore I am, has been much debated. It can have a meaning in one sense only. The simplest assertion I can make about something is that it is, that it exists. How this existence can be further defined I cannot say straight away about anything that comes to meet me. Each thing must first be studied in its relation to others before it can be determined in what sense it can be said to exist. An event that comes to meet me may be a set of perceptions, but it could also be a dream, a hallucination, and so forth. In short, I am unable to say in what sense it exists. I cannot gather this from the event in itself, but I shall learn it when I consider the event in its relation to other things. From this, however, I can, again, learn no more than how it is related to these other things. My search only reaches solid ground if I find an object which exists in a sense which I can derive from the object itself. As thinker I am such an object, for I give my existence the definite, self-dependent content of the activity of thinking. Having reached this, I can go on from here and ask: Do the other objects exist in the same or in some other sense?

When thinking is made the object of observation, to the rest of the elements to be observed is added something which usually escapes attention; but the manner in which the other things are approached by man is not altered. One increases the number of observed objects, but not the number of methods of observation. While we are observing the other things, there mingles in the universal process—in which I now include observation—one process which is overlooked. Something different from all other processes is present, but is not noticed. But when I observe my thinking, no such unnoticed element is present. For what now hovers in the background is, again, nothing but thinking. The observed object is qualitatively the same as the activity directed upon it. And that is another characteristic feature of thinking. When we observe it, we do not find ourselves compelled to do so with the help of something qualitatively different, but can remain within the same element.

When I weave an object, given independently of me, into my thinking, then I go beyond my observation, and the question is: Have I any right to do so? Why do I not simply let the object act upon me? In what way is it possible that my thinking could be related to the object? These are questions which everyone who reflects on his own thought processes must put to himself. They cease to exist when one thinks about thinking. We do not add anything foreign to thinking, and consequently do not have to justify such an addition.

Schelling [20] says: “To gain knowledge of nature means to create nature.” If these words of the bold nature-philosopher are taken literally, we should have to renounce forever all knowledge of nature. For after all, nature is there already, and in order to create it a second time, one must know the principles according to which it originated. From the nature already in existence one would have to learn the conditions of its existence in order to apply them to the nature one wanted to create. But this learning, which would have to precede the creating, would, however, be knowing nature, and would remain this even if, after the learning, no creation took place. Only a nature not yet in existence could be created without knowing it beforehand.

What is impossible with regard to nature: creating before knowing, we achieve in the case of thinking. If we wanted to wait and not think until we had first learned to know thinking, then we would never think at all. We have to plunge straight into thinking in order to be able, afterward, to know thinking by observing what we ourselves have done. We ourselves first create an object when we observe thinking. All other objects have been created without our help.

Against my sentence, We must think before we can contemplate thinking, someone might easily set another sentence as being equally valid: We cannot wait with digesting, either, until we have observed the process of digestion. This objection would be similar to the one made by Pascal [21] against Cartesius, when he maintained that one could also say: I go for a walk, therefore I am. Certainly I must resolutely get on with digesting before I have studied the physiological process of digestion. But this could only be compared with the contemplation of thinking if, after having digested, I were not to contemplate it with thinking, but were to eat and digest it. It is, after all, not without significance that whereas digestion cannot become the object of digestion, thinking can very well become the object of thinking.

This, then, is beyond doubt: In thinking we are grasping a corner of the universal process, where our presence is required if anything is to come about. And, after all, this is just the point. The reason things are so enigmatical to me is that I do not participate in their creation. I simply find them there, whereas in the case of thinking I know how it is made. This is why a more basic starting point than thinking, from which to consider all else in the world, does not exist.

Here I should mention another widely current error which prevails with regard to thinking. It consists in this, that it is said: Thinking, as it is in itself, we never encounter. That thinking which connects the observations we make of our experiences and weaves them into a network of concepts, is not at all the same as that thinking which later we extract from the objects we have observed and then make the object of our consideration. What we first unconsciously weave into things is something quite different from what we consciously extract from them afterward.

To draw such conclusions is not to see that in this way it is impossible to escape from thinking. It is absolutely impossible to come out of thinking if one wants to consider it. When one distinguishes an unconscious thinking from a later conscious thinking, then one must not forget that this distinction is quite external and has nothing to do with thinking as such. I do not in the least alter a thing by considering it with my thinking. I can well imagine that a being with quite differently organized sense organs and with a differently functioning intelligence would have a quite different representation of a horse from mine, but I cannot imagine that my own thinking becomes something different because I observe it. What I observe is what I myself bring about. What my thinking looks like to an intelligence different from mine is not what we are speaking about now; we are speaking about what it looks like to me. In any case, the picture of my thinking in another intelligence cannot be truer than my own picture of it. Only if I were not myself the thinking being, but thinking confronted me as the activity of a being foreign to me, could I say that my picture of thinking appeared in quite a definite way, and that I could not know what in itself the thinking of the being was like.

So far there is not the slightest reason to view my own thinking from a standpoint different from the one applied to other things. After all, I consider the rest of the world by means of thinking. How should I make of my thinking an exception?

With this I consider that I have sufficiently justified making thinking my starting point in my approach to an understanding of the world. When Archimedes [22] had discovered the lever, he thought that with its help he could lift the whole cosmos from its hinges if only he could find a point upon which he could support his instrument. He needed something that was supported by itself, that was not carried by anything else. In thinking we have a principle which exists by means of itself. From this principle let us attempt to understand the world. Thinking we can understand through itself. So the question is only whether we can also understand other things through it. I have so far spoken of thinking without considering its vehicle, man's consciousness. Most present-day philosophers would object: Before there can be thinking, there must be consciousness. Therefore, one should begin, not from thinking, but from consciousness. No thinking can exist without consciousness. To them I must reply: If I want to have an explanation of what relation exists between thinking and consciousness, I must think about it. In doing so I presuppose thinking. To this could be said: When the philosopher wants to understand consciousness he makes use of thinking, and to that extent presupposes it, but in the ordinary course of life thinking does arise within consciousness and, therefore, presupposes this. If this answer were given to the World Creator who wished to create thinking, it would no doubt be justified. One naturally cannot let thinking arise without first having brought about consciousness. However, the philosopher is not concerned with the creation of the world, but with the understanding of it. Therefore he has to find the starting point, not for the creation, but for the understanding of the world. I consider it most extraordinary that a philosopher should be reproached for being concerned first and foremost about the correctness of his principles, rather than turning straight to the objects he wants to understand. The World Creator had to know, above all, how to find a vehicle for thinking; the philosopher has to find a secure foundation for his understanding of what already exists. How can it help us to start from consciousness and apply thinking to it, if first we do not know whether it is possible to reach any explanation of things by means of thinking?

We must first consider thinking quite impartially, without reference to a thinking subject or a thought object. For in subject and object we already have concepts formed by thinking. There is no denying: Before anything else can be understood, thinking must be understood. To deny this is to fail to realize that man is not a first link in creation, but the last. Therefore, for an explanation of the world by means of concepts, one cannot start from the first elements of existence, but must begin with what is nearest to us and is most intimately ours. We cannot at one bound transport ourselves to the beginning of the world, in order to begin our investigations there; we must start from the present moment and see whether we cannot ascend from the later to the earlier. As long as geology spoke in terms of assumed revolutions in order to explain the present condition of the earth, it groped in darkness. It was only when it made its beginnings from the investigations of those processes at present at work on the earth, and from these drew conclusions about the past, that it gained a secure foundation. As long as philosophy assumes all sorts of principles such as atom, motion, matter, will, the unconscious, it will get nowhere. Only when the philosopher recognizes as his absolute first that which came as the absolute last, can he reach his goal. But this absolute last in world evolution is Thinking.

There are people who say: Whether or not our thinking is right in itself cannot be established with certainty, after all. And to this extent the point of departure is still a doubtful one. It would be just as sensible to raise doubts as to whether in itself a tree is right or wrong. Thinking is a fact, and to speak of the rightness or wrongness of a fact has no sense. At most, I can have doubts as to whether thinking is being rightly applied, just as I can doubt whether a certain tree supplies a wood suitable for making tools for a particular purpose. To show to what extent the application of thinking to the world is right or wrong, is just the task of this book. I can understand anyone doubting whether we can ascertain anything about the world by means of thinking, but it is incomprehensible to me how anyone can doubt the rightness of thinking in itself.

Addition to the Revised Edition (1918): In the preceding discussion, the significant difference between thinking and all other activities of the soul has been referred to as a fact which reveals itself to a really unprejudiced observation. Unless this unprejudiced observation is achieved, against this discussion one is tempted to raise objections such as these: When I think about a rose, then, after all, this also is only an expression of a relation of my “I” to the rose, just as when I feel the beauty of the rose. In the case of thinking, a relation between “I” and object exists in the same way as in the case of feeling or perceiving. To make this objection is to fail to realize that it is only in the activity of thinking that the “I” knows itself to be completely at one with that which is active-going into all the ramifications of the activity. In the case of no other soul activity is this completely so. When, for example, a pleasure is felt, a more sensitive observation can quite easily detect to what extent the “I” knows itself to be one with something active, and to what extent there is something passive in it so that the pleasure merely happens to the “I.” And this is the case with the other soul activities. But one should not confuse “having thought-images” with the working through of thought by means of thinking. Thought-images can arise in the soul in the same way as dreams or vague intimations. This is not thinking.—To this could be said: If this is what is meant by thinking, then the element of will is within thinking, and so we have to do not merely with thinking, but also with the will within thinking. However, this would only justify one in saying: Real thinking must always be willed. But this has nothing to do with the characterization of thinking as given in this discussion. The nature of thinking may be such that it must necessarily always be willed; the point is that everything that is willed is—while being willed—surveyed by the “I” as an activity entirely its own. Indeed it must be said that just because this is the nature of thinking, it appears to the observer as willed through and through. Anyone who really takes the trouble to understand all that has to be considered in order to reach a judgment about thinking, cannot fail to recognize that this soul activity does have the unique character we have described here.

A personality highly appreciated as a thinker by the author of this book, has objected that it is impossible to speak about thinking as is done here, because what one believes one is observing as active thinking only appears to be so. In reality one is observing only the results of an unconscious activity, which is the foundation of thinking. Only because this unconscious activity is not observed does the illusion arise that the observed thinking exists through itself, just as when in an illumination made by a rapid succession of electric sparks one believes one is seeing a continuous movement. This objection, too, rests on an inaccurate examination of the facts. To make it means that one has not taken into consideration that it is the “I” itself, standing within thinking, that observes its own activity. The “I” would have to stand outside thinking to be deluded as in the case of an illumination with a rapid succession of electric sparks. Indeed one could say: To make such a comparison is to deceive oneself forcibly, like someone who, seeing a moving light, insisted that it was being freshly lit by an unknown hand at every point where it appeared.—No, whoever wants to see in thinking anything other than a surveyable activity brought about within the “I,” must first make himself blind to the plain facts that are there for the seeing, in order to be able to set up a hypothetical activity as the basis of thinking. He who does not so blind himself cannot fail to recognize that everything he “thinks into” thinking in this manner takes him away from the essence of thinking. Unprejudiced observation shows that nothing belongs to thinking's own nature that is not found in thinking itself. If one leaves the realm of thinking, one cannot come to what causes it.