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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Riddles of the Soul
GA 21

2. The Appearance of Limits to Knowledge

Thinkers who strive with all their strength to gain the kind of relation to true reality that is demanded by the inner nature of the human being discuss a great number of the limits to knowledge referred to on page 16ff.; and if one looks at the nature of these discussions, one can see quite clearly that the thrust experienced by genuine thinkers in their encounter with such "limits" is in the direction of that inner soul experience which is the subject of this first essay. Take a look, for example, at the way the gifted thinker Friedrich Theodore Vischer, in the important essay he wrote on Johannes Volkelt's book Dream Fantasy, describes the cognitive experience he had in the encounter with one such limit:

“No spirit where there is no nerve center, where there is no brain,” declare our opponents. “No nerve center, no brain,” we reply, “if not evolved from below upward, through innumerable levels.” It is easy to speak scornfully of mind (spirit) hovering about in granite and limestone, no more difficult than it would be for us to ask scornfully how protein in the brain can wing its way up to ideas. Measuring the different levels defies human knowledge. It will forever remain a secret how it happens that nature—beneath whose surface, after all, the spirit must be slumbering—stands there as so complete a counterstroke of the spirit that we bruise ourselves against it; this separation seems so absolute that Hegel's formulation, as brilliant as it is, of something “other than,” or “outside of,” oneself is as good as meaningless and only hides the extreme nature of this wall of seeming separation. One does find in Fichte's work a true recognition of the cutting edge and blows of this counterstroke, but no explanation for it.

(See Friedrich Theodore Vischer, Views Old and New, 1881.) Friedrich Theodore Vischer points vigorously to one of the places to which anthroposophy must also point. But the fact does not enter his consciousness that at such a borderland of knowledge a different form of knowing activity can enter. He wishes to live at these borderlands in the same kind of knowing activity which sufficed for him before he arrived at them. Anthroposophy attempts to show that science does not end where our ordinary knowing activity gets “bruised,” where these “cuts and blows” occur in the counterstroke of reality; anthroposophy tries to show that the experiences resulting from these “bruises, cuts, and blows” lead to the development of a different kind of knowing activity, which transforms the counterthrust of reality into a spiritual perception that, to begin with, on its first level, is comparable to tactile perception in the sense world.

In the third section of Views Old and New, Friedrich Theodore Vischer states: “Good, there is no soul alongside of the body (Vischer means for the materialist); thus, precisely what we make a point of calling ‘matter’—at the highest level of its formation known to us: in the brain—becomes soul, and the soul evolves into spirit. We are supposed to form a concept [of matter], which to the analyzing intellect is in complete contradiction with itself.” Again anthroposophy must reply to Vischer's presentation: Good, for the intellect that breaks things down into their component parts, there is a contradiction here; but for the soul, this contradiction becomes the point of departure for an activity of knowing at which the analyzing intellect halts because this intellect experiences the “counterstroke” of spiritual reality.

Gideon Spicker, who, besides a number of other astute books, has also written Philosophical Confessions of a Former Capuchin Monk (1910), points to one of the borderlands of our ordinary knowing activity (using words that are certainly vivid enough):

No matter what one's philosophy is, whether dogmatic or skeptical, empirical or transcendental, critical or eclectic, they all, without exception, take their start from an unproven and improvable premise: the essentiality of thinking. No investigation will ever get behind this essentiality, no matter how deep it may dig. This essentiality must be accepted unconditionally and cannot be substantiated by anything; any attempt to prove its validity only presupposes this essentiality. Under it there gapes a bottomless abyss, a frightful darkness unlit by any ray of light. We do not know, therefore, where it comes from or where it is leading. Whether a merciful God or an evil demon has laid this essentiality into our reason is equally uncertain.

Thus, even the contemplation of thinking itself leads the thinker to the limits of ordinary knowledge. Anthroposophy sets in with its knowing activity at these Emits; it knows that essentiality confronts the abilities (art) of intellectual thinking like an impenetrable wall. For a thinking that the thinker experiences, however, the impenetrability of this wall disappears; this experienced thinking finds a light with which to illuminate and look into the “darkness unlit by any ray of light” of a merely intellectual thinking; and the “bottomless abyss” is so only for the realm of sense perception; anyone who does not halt at this abyss but dares to proceed with thinking even when this thinking must set aside what the sense world has inserted into it, such a person finds a spiritual reality in this “bottomless abyss.”

We could continue indefinitely like this, presenting the experiences that serious thinkers have at the limits of knowledge.

Such examples would show that anthroposophy is the natural result of the evolution of present-day thought. Many things point to anthroposophy if these many things are seen in the right light.