Rudolf Steiner's Riddles of Philosophy, Presented in an Outline of Its History is not a history of philosophy in the usual sense of the word. It does not give a history of the philosophical systems, nor does it present a number of philosophical problems historically. Its real concern touches on something deeper than this, on riddles rather than problems. Philosophical concepts, systems and problems are, to be sure, to be dealt with in this book. But it is not their history that is to be described here. Where they are discussed they become symptoms rather than the objects of the search. The search itself wants to reveal a process that is overlooked in the usual history of philosophy. It is the mysterious process in which philosophical thinking appears in human history. Philosophical thinking as it is here meant is known only in Western Civilisation. Oriental philosophy has its origin in a different kind of consciousness, and it is not to be considered in this book.
What is new here is the treatment of the history of philosophic thinking as a manifestation of the evolution of human consciousness. Such a treatment requires a fine sense of observation. Not merely the thoughts must be observed, but behind them the thinking in which they appear.
To follow Steiner in his subtle description of the process of the metamorphosis of this thinking in the history of philosophy we should remember he sees the human consciousness in an evolution. It has not always been what it is now, and what it is now it will not be in the future. This is a fundamental conception of anthroposophy. The metamorphosis of the consciousness is not only described in Steiner's anthroposophical books but in a number of them directions are given from which we can learn to participate in this transformation actively. This is explicitly done not only in his Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment but also in certain chapters of his Theosophy, An Outline of Occult Science and several other of his anthroposophical books.
The objection may be raised at this point that the application of concepts derived from spiritual exercises is not admissible in a field of pure philosophical studies, where every concept used should be clearly comprehensible without any preconceived ideas. Steiner's earlier philosophical books did not seem to imply any such presuppositions and his anthroposophical works therefore appear to mark a definite departure from his earlier philosophical ones.
It is indeed significant that the anthroposophical works appear only after a long period of philosophic studies. A glance at Rudolf Steiner's bibliography shows that it is only after twenty years of philosophical studies that his anthroposophy as a science of the spirit appears on the scene. The purely philosophical publications begin with his Introductions to Goethe's Natural Scientific Writings (1883 – 97) and with the Fundamental Outline of a Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception (1886). They are followed by his own theory of knowledge presented in Truth and Science in 1892 and his Philosophy of Freedom (also translated as Philosophy of Spiritual Activity) of 1894. This work presents clearly the climax of Steiner's philosophy and it should be studied carefully by anyone who intends to arrive at a valid judgment of his later anthroposophy. It is, however, still several years before the books appear that contain the result of his spiritual science. Not only his book on Nietzsche, a Fighter against his Time of 1895 and his Goethe's World Conception of 1897 but also his World-and Life-Conceptions in the Nineteenth Century of 1900 and even his Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age and Its Relation to Modern World Conception of 1901 could have been understood as merely historical descriptions.
With Steiner's next work we seem to enter an entirely different world. Christianity as Mystical Fact and the Mysteries of Antiquity clearly begin the series of his distinctly anthroposophic works. Like his >Theosophy (1904), his >Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment (1905/08) and his >Occult Science (1910) it could only have been written by an occultist who spoke from a level of consciousness that one did not have to assume as the source of his earlier books.
To the casual reader it could appear that there was a distinct break in Steiner's world conception at the beginning of the century, and this is also the conclusion drawn by some of his critics.
Rudolf Steiner's own words, however, as well as a study of both phases of his work leave no doubt that there was no such break in his world conception. He clearly states that knowledge derived from a higher level of consciousness was always at his disposal, also at the time of his early philosophical publications. His deep concern was the question: How could one speak about worlds not immediately accessible to scarcely anybody else in an age in which materialism and agnosticism ruled without any serious opposition. He found both so deeply rooted in Western Civilisation that he had to ask himself at times: Will it always be necessary to keep entirely silent about this higher knowledge.
In this time he turned to the study of representative thinkers of his time and of the more recent past in whose conceptions of world and life he now penetrated to experience their depth and their limitations. In Goethe's world he found the leverage to overcome the basic agnosticism and materialism to which the age had surrendered. In Nietzsche he saw the tragic figure who had been overpowered by it and whose life was broken by the fact that his spiritual sensitivity made it impossible for him to live in this world and his intellectual integrity forbade him to submit to what he had to consider as the dishonest double standard of his time.
Neither Rudolf Steiner's Nietzsche book nor his writings on Goethe's conception of the world are meant to be merely descriptive accounts of philosophical systems or problems. They reveal an inner struggle of the spirit that is caused by the spiritual situation of their time and in which the reader must share to follow these books with a full understanding. When these studies are then extended to comprise longer periods of time as in the World and Life Conceptions of the Nineteenth Century and in Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age soul conditions under which the individual thinkers have to work become more and more visible.
When Rudolf Steiner published the present work in 1914 as The Riddles of Philosophy he used the book on the World and Life Conception of the Nineteenth Century as the second part, which is now preceded by an outline of the entire history of philosophy in the Western world.
At this time Steiner's anthroposophical books had appeared in which the evolution of human consciousness plays an important role. It could now be partly demonstrated in an outline of the philosophic thinking of the Western world.
Rudolf Steiner's approach to history is symptomatological, and it is this method that he also applies to the history of philosophy. The thoughts developed in the course of this history are treated as symptomatic facts for the mode of thinking prevalent in a given time. He sees four distinct phases in the course of Western thought evolution. They are periods of seven to eight centuries each, beginning with the pre-Socratic thinkers in Greece.
Here pure thought as such free of images develops out of an older form of consciousness that is expressed in myths and symbolic pictures. It reaches its climax in the classical philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and ends with the Hellenistic period.
A second phase begins with Christianity and reaches as far as the ninth century A.D. This time Rudolf Steiner characterizes as the age of the awakening self-consciousness and he is convinced that an intense historical study of this period will more and more prove the adequacy of that term. The emergence of a greater self-awareness at this time diminishes the importance of the conceptional thinking as the religious concern of the soul with its own destiny grows. The emerging self-consciousness of this phase is intensely felt, but does not lead to an intellectual occupation with the concept of this “self.” In a third period a new concern becomes prevalent when the scholastic philosophers become more and more confronted with the tormenting question of the reality of thought itself. What is often regarded as an aberration into mere verbal quarrels, the medieval discussions of the significance of the universal concepts, is now seen as a soul struggle of a profound human concern. Thus the long war between Realism and Nominalism appears in a new light. As the nominalists seem to emerge more and more as the victors the thought climate for the fourth phase is gradually prepared.
Since the Renaissance natural science proceeds to develop a world conception in which the self-conscious ego must experience itself as a foreign element. The emergence of this experience leads to a new inner struggle in which the fourth phase of the history of philosophy is from now on deeply engaged in its predominant thought currents: It is the phase of consciousness in which we still live. The various forms of idealistic[,] materialistic and agnostic philosophies are subject to the tension caused by the indicated situation. As Steiner characterizes them he points out that the different thinker personalities can be quite unconscious of the currents that manifest themselves in their thinking although their ideas and thought combinations receive direction and form from them.
In the last chapter of the second part of the book Steiner describes his own philosophy as he had developed it in his earlier books Truth and Science and Philosophy of Freedom. In this description the relation between his philosophical works and his anthroposophical ones also becomes clear. As a philosophy of spiritual activity, the Philosophy of Freedom had not merely given an analysis of the factors involved in the process of knowledge, nor had the possibility of human freedom within a world apparently determined on all sides, merely been logically shown. What the study of this book meant to supply was at the same time a course of concentrated exercise of thinking that was to develop a new power through which man really becomes free. As Aristotle's statement (Metaph. XII, 7) that the actuality of thinking is life in this way becomes a real experience of the thinker, human freedom is born. Man becomes free in his actions in the external world, developing the moral imagination necessary for the situation in which he finds himself. At the same time his spirit frees itself from the bodily encasement in which thoughts had appeared as unreal shadows. The process of his real spiritual development has begun.
In this way the Riddles of Philosophy may be considered as a bridge that can lead from Steiner's early philosophical works into the study of anthroposophy. The undercurrents characterized in the four main phases of the evolution of thought lead from potentiality to ever increasing actuality of the awakening spirit. And for the exercises described in the specific anthroposophic books there can be no better preparation than the concentrated study of Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy of Spiritual Activity.
Fritz C. A. Koelln