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Riddles of Philosophy
Part I
GA 18

I. Guiding Thoughts on the Method of Presentation

If we follow the work of the mind invested by man in his attempts to solve the riddle of world and life, the words, “Know Thyself,” which were inscribed as a motto in the temple of Apollo, will suggest themselves to the soul in its contemplation. The understanding for a world conception rests on the fact that the human soul can be stirred by the contemplation of these words. The nature of a living organism involves the necessity of feeling hunger. The nature of the human soul at a certain stage of its development causes a similar necessity. It is manifest in the need to gain from life a certain spiritual return that, just as food satisfies hunger, satisfies the soul's challenge, “Know Thyself.” This feeling can lay hold on the human soul so powerfully that it can be forced to think, “Only then am I fully human in the true sense of the word when I develop within myself a relation to the world that expresses its fundamental character in the challenge, ‘Know Thyself’.” The soul can reach the point where it considers this feeling as an awakening out of the dream of life that it dreamt before this particular experience.

During the first period of his life, man develops the power of memory through which he will, in later life, recollect his experiences back to a certain moment of his childhood. What lies before this moment he feels as a dream of life from which he awoke. The human soul would not be what it should be if the power of memory did not grow out of the dim soul life of the child. In a similar way the human soul can, at a more developed stage, think of its experience of the challenge expressed in the words, “Know Thyself.” It can have the feeling that a soul life that does not awake out of its dream of life through this experience does not live up to its inner potentialities.

Philosophers have often pointed out that they are at a loss when asked about the nature of philosophy in the true sense of the word. One thing, however, is certain, namely, that one must see in philosophy a special form of satisfying the need of the human soul expressed in the challenge, “Know Thyself.” Of this challenge one can know just as distinctly as one can know what hunger is, although one may be at a loss to give an explanation of the phenomenon of hunger that would be satisfactory to everybody.

It was probably a thought of this kind that motivated Johann Gottlieb Fichte when he stated that the philosophy a man chooses depends on the kind of man he is. Animated by this thought, one can examine the attempts that have been made in the course of history to find solutions for the riddles of philosophy. In these attempts one will find the nature of the human being himself revealed. For although man will try to silence his personal interests entirely when he intends to speak as a philosopher, there will, nevertheless, immediately appear in a philosophy what the human personality can make out of itself by unfolding those forces that are most centrally and most originally its own.

Seen from this viewpoint, the examination of the philosophical achievements with regard to the world riddles can excite certain expectations.

We can hope that such an examination can yield results concerning the nature of human soul development, and the writer of this book believes that in exploring the philosophical views of the occident he has found such results. Four distinctly discernible epochs in the evolution of the philosophical struggle of mankind presented themselves to his view. He had to recognize the difference of these epochs as distinct as the difference of the species of a realm of nature. This observation led him to acknowledge in the realm of the history of man's philosophical development the existence of objective spiritual impulses following a definite law of evolution of their own, independent of the individual men in whom they are observed. The achievements of these men as philosophers thus appear as the manifestation of these impulses that direct the courses of events under the surface of external history. The conviction is then suggested that such results arise from the unprejudiced observation of the historical facts, much as a natural law rests on the observation of facts of nature. The author of this book believes that he has not been misled by preconceptions to present an arbitrary construction of the historical process, but that the facts force the acknowledgment of results of the kind indicated.

It can be shown that in the evolutionary course of the philosophical struggle of mankind, periods are distinguishable, each of which lasts between seven and eight centuries. In each of these epochs there is a distinctly different impulse at work, as if it were under the surface of external history, sending its rays into the human personalities and thus causing the evolution of man's mode of philosophizing while taking its own definite course of development.

The way in which the facts support the distinction of these epochs is to be shown in the present book. Its author would like, as far as possible, to let the facts speak for themselves. At this point, he wants to offer a few guiding lines from which, however, the thoughts expressed in this book did not take their departure; they are the results of this book.

One can be of the opinion that these guiding lines correctly should have been placed at the end of the book because their truth follows only from the content of the complete presentation. They are, however, to precede the subject matter as a preliminary statement because they justify the inner structure of the book. For although they were the result of the author's research, they were naturally in his mind before he wrote the book and had their effect on its form. For the reader, however, it can be important to learn not only at the end of the book why the author presents his subject in a certain way, but to form his judgment concerning this method of presentation already during the reading. But only so much is to be stated here as is necessary for the understanding of the book's arrangement.

The first epoch of the development of philosophical views begins in Greek antiquity. It can be distinctly traced back as far as Pherekydes of Syros and Thales of Miletos and it comes to a close in the age of beginning Christianity. The spiritual aspiration of mankind in this age shows an essentially different character from that of earlier times. It is the age of awakening thought life. Prior to this age, the human soul lived in imaginative (symbolic) thought pictures that expressed its relation to the world and existence.

All attempts to find the philosophical thought life developed in pre-Greek times fail upon closer inspection. Genuine philosophy cannot be dated earlier than the Greek civilization. What may at first glance seem to resemble the element of thought in Oriental or Egyptian world contemplation's proves, on closer inspection, to be not real thought but parabolic, symbolic conception. It is in Greece that the aspiration is born to gain knowledge of the world and its laws by means of an element that can be acknowledged as thought also in the present age. As long as the human soul conceives world phenomena through pictures, it feels itself intimately bound up with them. The soul feels itself in this phase to be a member of the world organism; it does not think of itself as an independent entity separated from this organism. As the pure pictureless thought awakens in the human soul, the soul begins to feel its separation from the world. Thought becomes the soul's educator for independence.

But the ancient Greek did not experience thought as modern man does. This is a fact that can be easily overlooked. A genuine insight into the ancient Greek's thought life will reveal the essential difference. The ancient Greek's experience of thought is comparable to our experience of a perception, to our experience of “red” or “yellow.” Just as we today attribute a color or tone percept to a “thing,” so the ancient Greek perceives thought in the world of things and as adhering to them. It is for this reason that thought at that time still is the connecting link between soul and world. The process of separation between soul and world is just beginning; it has not yet been completed. To be sure, the soul feels the thought within itself, but it must be of the opinion to have received it from the world and it can therefore expect the solution of the world riddles from its thought experience. It is in this type of thought experience that the philosophical development proceeds that begins with Pherekydes and Thales, culminates in Plato and Aristotle and then recedes until it ends at the time of the beginning of Christianity. From the undercurrents of the spiritual evolution, thought life streams into the souls of man and produces in these souls philosophies that educate them to feel themselves in their self-dependence independent of the outer world.

A new period begins with the dawn of the Christian era. The human soul can now no longer experience thought as a perception from the outer world. It now feels thought as the product of its own (inner) being. An impulse much more powerful than the stream of thought life now radiates into the soul from the deeper currents of the spiritual creative process. It is only now that self-consciousness awakes in mankind in a form adequate to the true nature of this self-consciousness. What men had experienced in this respect before that time had really only been harbingers and anticipatory phenomena of what one should in its deepest meaning call inwardly experienced self-consciousness.

It is to be hoped that a future history of spiritual evolution will call this time the “Age of Awakening Self-Consciousness.” Only now does man become in the true sense of the' word aware of the whole scope of his soul life as “Ego.” The full weight of this fact is more instinctively felt than distinctly known by the philosophical spirits of that time. All philosophical aspirations of that epoch retain this general character up to the time of Scotus Erigena. The philosophers of this period are completely submerged in religious conceptions with their philosophical thinking. Through this type of thought formation, the human soul, finding itself in an awakened self-consciousness entirely left to its own resources, strives to gain the consciousness of its submergence in the life of the world organism. Thought becomes a mere means to express the conviction regarding the relation of man's soul to the world that one has gained from religious sources. Steeped in this view, nourished by religious conceptions, thought life grows like the seed of a plant in the soul of the earth, until it breaks forth into the light.

In Greek philosophy the life of thought unfolds its own inner forces. It leads the human soul to the point where it feels its self-dependence. Then from greater depths of spiritual life an element breaks forth into mankind that is fundamentally different from thought life—an element that filled the soul with a new inner experience, with an awareness of being a world in itself, resting on its inner point of gravitation. Thus, self-consciousness is at first experienced, but it is not as yet conceived in the form of thought. The life of thought continues to be developed, concealed and sheltered in the warmth of religious consciousness. In this way pass the first seven or eight hundred years after the foundation of Christianity.

The next period shows an entirely different character. The leading philosophers feel the reawakening of the energy of thought life. For centuries the human soul had been inwardly consolidated through the experience of its self-dependence. It now begins to search for what it might claim as its innermost self possession. It finds that this is its thought life. Everything else is given from without; thought is felt as something the soul has to produce out of its own depth, that is, the soul is present in full consciousness at this process of production. The urge arises in the soul to gain in thought a knowledge through which it can enlighten itself about its own relation to the world. How can something be expressed in thought life that is not itself merely the soul's own product? This becomes the question of the philosophers of that age. The spiritual trends of Nominalism, Realism, Scholasticism and medieval Mysticism reveal this fundamental character of the philosophy of that age. The human soul attempts to examine its thought life with regard to its content of reality.

With the close of this third period the character of philosophical endeavor changes. The self-consciousness of the soul has been strengthened through century-long work performed in the examination of the reality of thought life. One has learned to feel the life of thought as something that is deeply related to the soul's own nature and to experience in this union an inner security of existence. As a mark of this stage of development, there shines like a brilliant star in the firmament of the spirit, the words, “I think, therefore I am,” which were spoken by Descartes (1596–1650). One feels the soul flowing in thought life, and in the awareness of this stream one believes one experiences the true nature of the soul itself. The representative of that time feels himself so secure within this existence recognized in thought life that he arrives at the conviction that true knowledge could only be a knowledge that is experienced in the same way as the soul experiences thought life resting on its own foundation. This becomes the viewpoint of Spinoza (1632–1677).

Now philosophies emerge that shape the world picture as it must be imagined when the self-conscious human soul, conceived by the life of thought, can have its adequate position within that world. How must the world be depicted so that within it the human soul can be thought to correspond adequately to the necessary concept of the self-consciousness? This becomes the question that, in an unbiased observation, we find at the bottom of the philosophy of Giordano Bruno (1548–1600). It is also distinctly the question for which Leibnitz (1646–1716) seeks the answer.

With conceptions of a world picture arising from such a question the fourth epoch in the evolution of the philosophical world view begins. Our present age is approximately in the middle of this epoch. This book is to show how far philosophical knowledge has advanced in the conception of a world picture in which the self-conscious soul can find such a secure place, so that it can understand its own meaning and significance within the existing world. When, in the first epoch of philosophical search, philosophy derived its powers from the awakening thought life, the human soul was spurred by the hope of gaining a knowledge of a world to which it belongs with its true nature, which is not limited to the life manifested through the body of the senses.

In the fourth epoch the emerging natural sciences add a view of nature to the philosophical world picture that gradually senses its own independent ground. As this nature-picture develops, it retains nothing of a world in which the self-conscious ego (the human soul experiencing itself as a self-conscious entity) must recognize itself. In the first epoch the human soul begins to detach itself from the experienced external world and to develop a knowledge concerned with the inner life of the soul. This independent soul life finds its power in the awakening thought element. In the fourth period a picture 'of nature emerges that has detached itself in turn from the inner soul life. The tendency arises to think of nature in such a way that nothing is allowed to be mixed into its conception that has been derived from the soul and not exclusively from nature itself. Thus, the soul is, in this period, expelled from nature, and with its inner experiences confined to its subjective world. The soul is not about to be forced to admit that everything it can gain as knowledge by itself can have a significance only for itself. It cannot find in itself anything to point to a world in which this soul could have its roots with its true being. For in the picture of nature it cannot find any trace of itself.

The evolution of thought life has proceeded through four epochs. In the first, thought is experienced as a perception coming from without. In this phase the human soul finds its self-dependence through the thought process. In the second period, thought had exhausted its power in this direction. The soul now becomes stronger in the experience of its own entity. Thought itself now lives more in the background and blends into self knowledge. It can no longer be considered as if it were an external perception. The soul becomes used to experiencing it as its own product. It must arrive at the question of what this product of inner soul activity has to do with an external world. The third period passes in the light of this question. The philosophers develop a cognitive life that tests thought itself with regard to its inner power. The philosophical strength of the period manifests itself as a life in the element of thought as such, as a power to work through thought in its own essence. In the course of this epoch the philosophical life increases in its ability to master the element of thought. At the beginning of the fourth period the cognitive self-consciousness, on the basis of its thought possession, proceeds to form a philosophical world picture. This picture is now challenged by a picture of nature that refuses to accept any element of this self-consciousness. The self-conscious soul, confronted with this nature picture, feels as its fundamental question, “How do I gain a world picture in which both the inner world with its true essence and the external nature are securely rooted at the same time?” The impulse caused by this question dominates the philosophical evolution from the beginning of the fourth period; the philosophers themselves may be more or less aware of that fact. This is also the most important impulse of the philosophical life of the present age.

In this book the facts are to be characterized that show the effect of that impulse. The first volume of the book is to present the philosophical development up to the middle of the nineteenth century; the second will follow that development into the present time. It is to show at the end how the philosophical evolution leads the soul to aspects toward a future human life in cognition. Through this, the soul should be able to develop a world picture out of its own self-consciousness in which its true being can be conceived simultaneously with the picture of nature that is the result of the modern scientific development.

A philosophical future perspective adequate to the present was to be unfolded in this book from the historical evolution of the philosophical world view.