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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

XI. World Purpose and Life Purpose

Among the many currents of thought pursued in the cultural life of mankind, it is possible to trace one which can be described as the overcoming of the concept of purpose in those spheres to which it does not belong. Purpose belongs to a special sequence of phenomena. In reality one can only speak of purpose when, in contrast to the relation between cause and effect where an earlier event determines a later one, the reverse is the case and the later event influences the earlier. This applies only to human action. Man carries out a deed which he represents to himself first of all, and he lets the representation determine his action. The later, the deed, with the help of the representation influences the earlier, the person who acts. This detour through the act of representing is always necessary for a connection to have purpose.

In a process which can be divided into cause and effect, perception must be distinguished from concept. The perception of the cause precedes the perception of the effect; cause and effect would simply remain side by side in our consciousness if we were not able to connect them with one another through their corresponding concepts. The perception of an effect can follow only upon the perception of the cause. The effect can have a real influence upon the cause only through the conceptual factor. For the perceptual factor of the effect is simply not present prior to the perceptual factor of the cause. If someone says that the blossom is the purpose of the root, that is, that the blossom influences the root, then he can say this only concerning that factor in the blossom which he confirms in it through his thinking. The perceptual factor of the blossom had as yet no existence at the time the root came into being. For a connection of things to have purpose it is necessary to have not merely an ideal connection (the law in it) of the later with the earlier, but also the concept (the law) of the effect must really, i.e. by means of a perceptible process, influence the cause. However, a perceptible influence of a concept upon something else is to be observed only in human actions. This is therefore the only sphere in which the concept of purpose is applicable. Naive consciousness, which regards as real only what is perceptible, attempts—as we said before—to place something perceptible where only ideal factors are to be recognized. In perceptible events it also looks for perceptible connections, or, if it does not find them, imagines them to be there. The concept of purpose, valid for subjective actions, is an element that easily lends itself to such imaginary connections. The naive man knows how he brings about an event, and from this he concludes that nature must do likewise. In the purely ideal connections of nature he sees not only imperceptible forces but also imperceptible real purposes. Man makes his tools to fit a purpose; on the same pattern, the naive realist lets the Creator build up all organisms. Only very gradually does this mistaken concept of purpose disappear from the sciences. In philosophy, even today, it still does a great deal of mischief. The purpose of the world is thought to exist outside the world, and man's destination (therefore also his purpose) outside man, and so on.

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 are arbitrary assumptions, just like the imperceptible forces (p. 33). And from the standpoint of monism, life purposes that man does not set himself are unjustifiable assumptions. Only that is purposeful which man has first made so, for only through the realization of an idea does a purpose arise. And ideas are effective in a realistic sense in man alone. Therefore human life has only the purpose and the destination that the human being gives it. To the question: What is man's task in life? monism can only answer: The task he sets himself. My mission in the world is not predetermined, but at every moment is the one I choose. I do not begin life along a fixed route.

Only by human beings are ideas realized according to purpose. It is therefore inadmissible to speak of the embodiment of ideas through history. All such phrases as: “History is the development of mankind 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 by abandoning it they would also have to abandon all order and uniformity in the world. Listen, for example, to Robert Hamerling: [50a]

“As long as there are instincts in nature, it is foolish to deny purposes in it.

“Just as the structure of a limb of the human body is not determined and conditioned by an idea of this limb, floating in the air, but by the connection with the greater totality, the body, to which the limb belongs, so the structure of every being in nature, be it plant, animal, or man, is not determined and conditioned by an idea of it floating in the air, but by the formative principle of the great totality of nature which expresses and organizes itself according to a purpose.”

And on page 191 of the same volume:

“The theory of purpose maintains only that in spite of the thousand discomforts and miseries of the life of creatures, lofty purpose and plan are unmistakably present in the formations and in the development of nature.—A purpose and a plan, however, that come to realization only within the bounds of natural laws, and cannot aim at a Utopia in which life is not confronted by death, growth by decay, with all the more or less unpleasant, but quite unavoidable intermediary stages between them.

“When the opponents of the concept of purpose bring a 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 find it just as droll.”—

What is it that here is called purpose? A concordance of perceptions that form a totality. But since all perceptions are based on laws (ideas) which we discover by means of our thinking, it follows that the planned concord between single parts of a perceptual totality is just the ideal concord between the single parts of the idea totality contained in the perceptual totality. When it is said that an animal or a man is not determined by an idea floating in the air, then this is a misleading way of putting it, and the condemned view ceases to be absurd when rightly formulated. Certainly an animal is not determined by an idea floating in the air, but indeed is determined by an idea inborn in it and constituting the law of its nature. It is just because the idea is not outside of the object, but is effective in it as its nature, that one cannot speak of purpose. Just those who deny that the beings of nature are determined from outside (whether by an idea floating in the air or existing outside the creature in the mind of a world Creator, is immaterial in this context) should admit that these beings are not determined by purpose and plan from outside, but by cause and law from within. I construct a machine according to a purpose when I bring its parts in connection with one another in a way that they did not acquire from nature. The purpose contained in the arrangement consists in the fact that I have placed the idea of the working of the machine into its foundation. The machine thereby becomes a perceptual object with a corresponding idea. The beings of nature are also entities of this kind. One who says that something contains purpose because it is built according to laws can use the same description for the beings of nature, if he likes. However, the laws at work in nature must not be confused with the purposes in subjective human action. For a purpose to be present, it is always necessary that the effective cause is a concept, and indeed it must be the concept of the effect. But nowhere in nature are concepts in evidence as causes; concepts always appear only as the ideal connection between cause and effect. Causes are present in nature only in the form of perceptions.

Dualism speaks of world purpose and nature purpose. Where, for perception, a link can be seen between cause and effect according to law, there the dualist assumes that one sees only the copy of a connection in which the absolute Being has realized its purposes. For monism, along with the absolute Being that cannot be experienced and is only inferred, the reason for assuming any world purpose also falls away.

Addition to the Revised Edition, 1918: No one who thinks through without prejudice what is presented here, could come to the conclusion that the author rejects the concept of purpose for all facts not produced by man, because his view is similar to that of those thinkers who, by rejecting this concept, create the possibility of presenting, first, everything except human action—and then human action too—as being only a natural process. The fact that thinking is presented here as a purely spiritual process should be a protection against such misunderstanding. The reason for here rejecting the concept of purpose for the spiritual world also, insofar as it lies outside human action, is because in that world something higher is revealed than purpose realized in human life. And when the purpose of mankind's destination. thought of on the pattern of human purpose, is referred to here as a mistaken concept, it is meant that the individual human beings set themselves purposes, and the result of these is the total activity of mankind. This result is then something higher than its parts, the single human purposes.