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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

XIV. Individuality and Species

The view that it is inherent in man to develop into an independent, free individuality seems to be contradicted by two facts: that he exists as a member within a natural totality (race, tribe, nation, family, male or female sex) and that he is active within a totality (state, church, etc.). He shows the general characteristics of the community to which he belongs, and he gives his deeds a content that is determined by the place he occupies within a plurality.

Is individuality possible nevertheless? Can we regard man as a totality in himself when he grows out of a totality and integrates himself into a totality?

The characteristic features and functions of the individual parts belonging to a whole are determined by the whole. A tribe is such a whole, and all the human beings comprising it have characteristic features which are conditioned by the nature of the tribe itself. How the individual member is constituted and his actions will be determined by the character of the tribe. This is why the physiognomy and activity of the individual will express something generic. If we ask why some particular thing about him is like this or that, we are referred beyond the nature of the individual to the species. The species explains why something about the individual appears as it does.

But man makes himself free from what is generic. For the generic qualities of the human race, when rightly experienced by the individual do not restrict his freedom, and ought not to be made to restrict it by artificial means. Man develops qualities and activities, the sources of which we can seek only in himself. In this, the generic element serves him only as a medium through which to express his own particular being. The characteristic features that nature has given him he uses as a foundation, giving them the form that corresponds to his own being. We shall look in vain among the laws of the species for the reason for an expression of this being. Here we have to do with something individual which can be explained only through itself. If a person has advanced so far as to loosen himself from the generic, and we still attempt to explain everything about him from the character of the species, then we have no sense for what is individual.

It is impossible to understand a human being completely if one's judgment is based on a concept of the species. The tendency to judge according to species is most persistent where the differences of sex are concerned. Man sees in woman, and woman in man, nearly always too much of the general character of the other sex, and too little of the individual. In practical life this harms men less than women. The social position of women is often so unworthy because in many respects it is not determined, as it should be, by the individual qualities Or the particular woman herself, but by general representations of what is considered the natural task and needs of woman. Man's activity in life comes about through the individual's capacities and inclinations, whereas woman's tends to be determined exclusively by the fact that she is a woman. Woman is supposed to be the slave of her species, of womanhood in general. As long as men continue to debate whether according to her “natural disposition” woman is suited to this or that profession, the so-called woman's question cannot advance beyond the most elementary stage. What woman is capable of in terms of her own nature, woman must be left to judge for herself. If it is true that women are useful only in those occupations they occupy at present, then they will hardly have it in themselves to attain anything else. But they must be allowed to decide for themselves what is in accordance with their nature. The reply to him who fears an upheaval of our social conditions as a result of accepting woman, not as an example of her species but as an individual, would be that social conditions, in which the status of one-half of humanity is below the dignity of man, are indeed in great need of improvement. [Immediately upon the publication of this book (1894) I met with the objections to the above arguments that, already now, within the character of her sex, a woman is able to shape her life as individually as she likes, and far more freely than a man who is already de-individualized, first by school, and later by war and profession. I am aware that this objection will be urged today, perhaps even more strongly. Nonetheless, I feel bound to let my sentences stand, and must hope that there are readers who also recognize how utterly such an objection goes against the concept of freedom developed in this book and will judge my sentences above by another standard than that of man's loss of individuality through school and profession.]

One judging human beings according to their generic qualities stops short just at the very frontier beyond which they begin to be beings whose activity depends on free self-assessment. What lies below this frontier can naturally be the object of scientific study. Thus the characteristics of race, tribe, nation and sex are subjects of special sciences. Only men who wanted to live simply as examples of the species could possibly fit the general picture of man these scientific studies produce. All these sciences are unable to reach the particular content of the individual. Where the sphere of freedom (in thinking and doing) begins, there the possibility of determining the individual according to the laws of the species ceases. The conceptual content which man, through thinking, must bring into connection with perception in order to take hold of full reality (cp. p. 29 ff.), no one can fix once for all and hand over to mankind ready-made. The individual must gain his concepts through his own intuition. How the individual has to think, cannot be deduced from any concept of a species; this depends singly and solely on the individual himself. Just as little is it possible from general human qualities to decide what concrete aims an individual will set himself. One wishing to understand a particular individual must broaden his understanding to encompass the essential nature of the other, and not stop short at those qualities which are typical. In this sense every single human being is a problem. And every science which deals with abstract thoughts and concepts of species is only a preparation for that insight which becomes ours when a human individuality shares with us his way of looking at the world, and that other insight which we obtain from the content of his will. Whenever we feel: here we have to do with that in a man which is free from the typical way of thinking and free from a will based on the species, there we must cease to make use of any concepts that apply to our own I if we want to understand him. Cognition consists in combining the concept with the perception by means of thinking. In the case of all other objects the observer must gain his concepts through his own intuition; when it is a case of understanding a free individuality, the essential thing is to receive into our own I those concepts by which the free individuality determines himself, in their pure form (without mixing them with our own conceptual content). People who immediately mingle their own concepts with every judgment of another, can never reach an understanding of an individuality. Just as a free individuality frees himself from the characteristics of the species, so our cognition must become free from the means by which all that belongs to species is understood.

Only to the degree that a man has made himself free from the characteristics of the species in the way indicated, can he be considered to be a free spirit within a human community. No man is all species, none is all individuality. But every human being gradually frees a greater or lesser part of his being from the animal-like life of the species, as well as from the commands of human authorities ruling him.

With that part of his being for which a man is unable to achieve such freedom, he is a member of the natural and spiritual organism of the world in general. In this respect he does what he sees others do, or as they command. Only that part of his activity which springs from his intuitions has ethical value in the true sense. And those moral instincts that he has in him through the inheritance of social instincts become something ethical through his taking them over into his intuitions. All moral activity of mankind has its source in individual ethical intuitions and their acceptance by human communities. One could also say: The moral life of mankind is the sum-total of the products of the moral imagination of free human individuals. This is the conclusion of monism.