Human and Cosmic Thought
20 January 1913, Berlin
In these four lectures which I am giving in the course of our General Meeting, I should like to speak from a particular standpoint about the connection between Man and the Cosmos. I will first indicate what this standpoint is.
Man experiences within himself what we may call thought, and in thought he can feel himself directly active, able to exercise his activity. When we observe anything external, e.g. a rose or a stone, and picture it to ourselves, someone may rightly say: “You can never know how much of the stone or the rose you have really got hold of when you imagine it. You see the rose, its external red colour, its form, and how it is divided into single petals; you see the stone with its colour, with its several corners, but you must always say to yourself that hidden within it there may be something else which does not appear to you externally. You do not know how much of the rose or of the stone your mental picture of it embraces.”
But when someone has a thought, then it is he himself who makes the thought. One might say that he is within every fiber of his thought, a complete participator in its activity. He knows: “Everything that is in the thought I have thought into it, and what I have not thought into it cannot be within it. I survey the thought. Nobody can say, when I set a thought before my mind, that there may still be something more in the thought, as there may be in the rose and in the stone, for I have myself engendered the thought and am present in it, and so I know what is in it.”
In truth, thought is most completely our possession. If we can find the relation of thought to the Cosmos, to the Universe, we shall find the relation to the Cosmos of what is most completely ours. This can assure us that we have here a fruitful standpoint from which to observe the relation of man to the universe. We will therefore embark on this course; it will lead us to significant heights of anthroposophical observation.
In the present lecture we shall have to prepare a groundwork which may perhaps appear to many of you as somewhat abstract. But later on we shall see that we need this groundwork and that without it we could approach only with a certain superficiality the high goals we shall be striving to attain.
We can thus start from the conviction that when man holds to that which he possesses in his thought, he can find an intimate relation of his being to the Cosmos. But in starting from this point of view we do encounter a difficulty, a great difficulty — not for our understanding but in practice. For it is indeed true that a man lives within every fibre of his thought, and therefore must be able to know his thought more intimately than he can know any perceptual image, but — yes — most people have no thoughts! And as a rule this is not thoroughly realized, for the simple reason that one must have thoughts in order to realize it. What hinders people in the widest circles from having thoughts is that for the ordinary requirements of life they have no need to go as far as thinking; they can get along quite well with words. Most of what we call “thinking” in ordinary life is merely a flow of words: people think in words, and much more often than is generally supposed. Many people, when they ask for an explanation of something, are satisfied if the reply includes some word with a familiar ring, reminding them of this or that. They take the feeling of familiarity for an explanation and then fancy they have grasped the thought
Indeed, this very tendency led at a certain time in the evolution of intellectual life to an outlook which is still shared by many persons who call themselves “thinkers”. For the new edition of my Welt- und Lebensanschauungen im neunzehnten Jahrhundert (Views of the World and of Life in the Nineteenth Century). 1First published (two volumes) in Berlin, 1900–1. In 1914 the contents were recast and published in a different form as Die Rätsel der Philosophie (Riddles of Philosophy). The fourth edition is included in the Complete Edition of Rudolf Steiner's work. (Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.) I tried to rearrange the book quite thoroughly, first by prefacing it with an account of the evolution of Western thought from the sixth century B.C. up to the nineteenth century A.D., and then by adding to the original conclusion a description of spiritual life in terms of thinking up to our own day. The content of the book has also been rearranged in many ways, for I have tried to show how thought as we know it really appeared first in a certain specific period. One might say that it first appeared in the sixth or eighth century B.C. Before then the human soul did not at all experience what can be called “thought” in the true sense of the word. What did human souls experience previously? They experienced pictures; all their experience of the external world took the form of pictures. I have often spoken of this from certain points of view. This picture-experience is the last phase of the old clairvoyant experience. After that, for the human soul, the “picture” passes over into “thought”.
My intention in this book was to bring out this finding of Spiritual Science purely by tracing the course of philosophic evolution. Strictly on this basis, it is shown that thought was born in ancient Greece, and that as a human experience it sprang from the old way of perceiving the external world in pictures. I then tried to show how thought evolves further in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle; how it takes certain forms; how it develops further; and then how, in the Middle Ages, it leads to something of which I will now speak.
The development of thought leads to a stage of doubting the existence of what are called “universals”, general concepts, and thus to so-called Nominalism, the view that universals can be no more than “names”, nothing but words. And this view is still widely held today.
In order to make this clear, let us take a general concept that is easily observable — the concept “triangle”. Now anyone still in the grip of Nominalism of the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries will say somewhat as follows: “Draw me a triangle!” Good! I will draw a triangle for him:
“Right!” says he, “that is a quite specific triangle with three acute angles. But I will draw you another.” And he draws a right-angled triangle, and another with an obtuse angle.Then says the person in question: “Well, now we have an acute-angled triangle, a right-angled triangle and an obtuse-angled triangle. They certainly exist. But they are not the triangle. The collective or general triangle must contain everything that a triangle can contain. But a triangle that is acute-angled cannot be at the same time right-angled and obtuse-angled. Hence there cannot be a collective triangle. ‘Collective’ is an expression that includes the specific triangles, but a general concept of the triangle does not exist. It is a word that embraces the single details.”
Naturally, this goes further. Let us suppose that someone says the word “lion”. Anyone who takes his stand on the basis of Nominalism may say: “In the Berlin Zoo there is a lion; in the Hanover Zoo there is also a lion; in the Munich Zoo there is still another. There are these single lions, but there is no general lion connected with the lions in Berlin, Hanover and Munich; that is a mere word which embraces the single lions.” There are only separate things; and beyond the separate things — so says the Nominalist — we have nothing but words that comprise the separate things.
As I have said, this view is still held today by many clear-thinking logicians. And anyone who tries to explain all this will really have to admit: “There is something strange about it; without going further in some way I can't make out whether there really is or is not this ‘lion-in-general’ and the ‘triangle-in-general’. I find it far from clear.” And now suppose someone came along and said: “Look here, my dear chap, I can't let you off with just showing me the Berlin or Hanover or Munich lion. If you declare that there is a lion-in-general, then you must take me somewhere where it exists. If you show me only the Berlin, Hanover, or Munich lion, you have not proved to me that a ‘lion-in-general’ exists.” ... If someone were to come along who held this view, and if you had to show him the “lion-in-general”, you would be in a difficulty. It is not so easy to say where you would have to take him.
We will not go on just yet to what we can learn from Spiritual Science; that will come in time. For the moment we will remain at the point which can be reached by thinking only, and we shall have to say to ourselves: “On this ground, we cannot manage to lead any doubter to the ‘lion-in-general.’ It really can't be done.” Here we meet with one of the difficulties which we simply have to admit. For if we refuse to recognize this difficulty in the domain of ordinary thought, we shall not admit the difficulty of human cognition in general.
Let us keep to the triangle, for it makes no difference to the thing-in-general whether we clarify the question by means of the triangle, the lion, or something else. At first it seems hopeless to think of drawing a triangle that would contain all characteristics, all triangles. And because it not only seems hopeless, but is hopeless for ordinary human thinking, therefore all conventional philosophy stands here at a boundary-line, and its task should be to make a proper acknowledgment that, as conventional philosophy, it does stand at a boundary-line. But this applies only to conventional philosophy. There is a possibility of passing beyond the boundary, and with this possibility we will now make ourselves acquainted.
Let us suppose that we do not draw the triangle so that we simply say: Now I have drawn you a triangle, and here it is:
In that case the objection could always be raised that it is an acute-angled triangle; it is not a general triangle. The triangle can be drawn differently. Properly speaking it cannot, but we shall soon see how this “can” and “cannot” are related to one another. Let us take this triangle that we have here, and let us allow each side to move as it will in any direction, and moreover we allow it to move with varying speeds, so that next moment the sides take, e.g., these positions:
In short, we arrive at the uncomfortable notion of saying: I will not only draw a triangle and let it stay as it is, but I will make certain demands on your imagination. You must think to yourself that the sides of the triangle are in continual motion. When they are in motion, then out of the form of the movements there can arise simultaneously a right-angled, or an obtuse-angled triangle, or any other.
In this field we can do and also require two different things. We can first make it all quite easy; we draw a triangle and have done with it. We know how it looks and we can rest comfortably in our thoughts, for we have got what we want. But we can also take the triangle as a starting-point, and allow each side to move in various directions and at different speeds. In this case it is not quite so easy; we have to carry out movements in our thought. But in this way we really do lay hold of the triangle in its general form; we fail to get there only if we are content with one triangle. The general thought, “triangle”, is there if we keep the thought in continual movement, if we make it versatile.
This is just what the philosophers have never done; they have not set their thoughts into movement. Hence they are brought to a halt at a boundary-line, and they take refuge in Nominalism.
We will now translate what I have just been saying into a language that we know, that we have long known. If we are to rise from the specific thought to the general thought, we have to bring the specific thought into motion; thus thought in movement becomes the “general thought” by passing constantly from one form into another. “Form”, I say; rightly understood, this means that the whole is in movement, and each entity brought forth by the movement is a self-contained form. Previously I drew only single forms: an acute-angled, a right-angled, and an obtuse-angled triangle. Now I am drawing something — as I said, I do not really draw it — but you can picture to yourselves what the idea is meant to evoke — the general thought is in motion, and brings forth the single forms as its stationary states.
“Forms”, I said — hence we see that the philosophers of Nominalism, who stand before a boundary-line, go about their work in a certain realm, the realm of the Spirits of Form. Within this realm, which is all around us, forms dominate; and therefore in this realm we find separate, strictly self-contained forms. The philosophers I mean have never made up their minds to go outside this realm of forms, and so, in the realm of universals, they can recognize nothing but words, veritably mere words. If they were to go beyond the realm of specific entities — i.e. of forms — they would find their way to mental pictures which are in continual motion; that is, in their thinking they would come to a realization of the realm of the Spirits of Movement — the next higher Hierarchy. But these philosophers will not condescend to that. And when in recent times a Western thinker did consent to think correctly in this way, he was little understood, although much was said and much nonsense talked about him. Turn to what Goethe wrote in his “Metamorphosis of Plants” and see what he called the “primal plant” (Urpflanze), and then turn to what he called the “primal animal” (Urtier) and you will find that you can understand these concepts “primal plant” and “primal animal” only if your thoughts are mobile — when you think in mobile terms. If you accept this mobility, of which Goethe himself speaks, you are not stuck with an isolated concept bounded by fixed forms. You have the living element which ramifies through the whole evolution of the animal kingdom, or the plant-kingdom, and creates the forms. During this process it changes — as the triangle changes into an acute-angled or an obtuse-angled one — becoming now “wolf”, now “lion”, now “beetle”, in accordance with the metamorphoses of its mobility during its passage through the particular entities. Goethe brought the petrified formal concepts into movement. That was his great central act; his most significant contribution to the nature-study of his time.
You see here an example of how Spiritual Science is in fact adapted to leading men out of the fixed assumptions to which they cannot help clinging today, even if they are philosophers. For without concepts gained through Spiritual Science it is not possible, if one is sincere, to concede that general categories can be anything more than “mere words”. That is why I said that most people have no real thoughts, but merely a flow of words, and if one speaks to them of thoughts, they reject it.
When does one speak to people of “thoughts”? When, for example, one says that animals have Group-souls. For it amounts to the same whether one says “collective thoughts” or “group-souls” (we shall see in the course of these lectures what the connection is between the two). But the Group-soul cannot be understood except by thinking of it as being in motion, in continual external and internal motion; otherwise one does not come to the Group-soul. But people reject that. Hence they reject the Group-soul, and equally the collective thought.
For getting to know the outside world you need no thoughts; you need only a remembrance of what you have seen in the kingdom of form. That is all most people know, and for them, accordingly, general thoughts remain mere words. And if among the many different Spirits of the higher Hierarchies there were not the Genius of Speech — who forms general words for general concepts — men themselves would not come to it. Thus their first ideas of things-in-themselves come to men straight out of language itself, and they know very little about such ideas except in so far as language preserves them.
We can see from this that there must be something peculiar about the thinking of real thoughts. And this will not surprise us if we realize how difficult it really is for men to attain to clarity in the realm of thought. In ordinary, external life, when a person wants to brag a little, he will often say that “thinking is easy”. But it is not easy, for real thinking always demands a quite intimate, though in a certain sense unconscious, impulse from the realm of the Spirits of Movement. If thinking were so very easy, then such colossal blunders would not be made in the region of thought. Thus, for more than a century now, people have worried themselves over a thought I have often mentioned — a thought formulated by Kant.
Kant wanted to drive out of the field the so-called “ontological proof of God”. This ontological proof of God dates from the time of Nominalism, when it was said that nothing general existed which corresponded to general or collective thoughts, as single, specific objects correspond to specific thoughts. The argument says, roughly: If we presuppose God, then He must be an absolutely perfect Being. If He is an absolutely perfect Being, then He must not lack “being”, i.e. existence, for otherwise there would be a still more perfect Being who would possess those attributes one has in mind, and would also exist. Thus one must think that the most perfect Being actually exists. One cannot conceive of God as otherwise than existing, if one thinks of Him as the most perfect Being. That is: out of the concept itself one can deduce that, according to the ontological proof, there must be God.
Kant tried to refute this proof by showing that out of a “concept” one could not derive the existence of a thing, and for this he coined the famous saying I have often mentioned: A hundred actual thalers are not less and not more than a hundred possible thalers. That is, if a thaler has three hundred pfennigs, then for each one of a hundred possible thalers one must reckon three hundred pfennigs: and in like manner three hundred pfennigs for each of a hundred actual thalers. Thus a hundred possible thalers contain just as much as a hundred actual thalers, i.e. it makes no difference whether I think of a hundred actual or a hundred possible thalers. Hence one may not derive existence from the mere thought of an absolutely perfect Being, because the mere thought of a possible God would have the same attributes as the thought of an actual God.
That appears very reasonable. And yet for a century people have been worrying themselves as to how it is with the hundred possible and the hundred actual thalers. But let us take a very obvious point of view, that of practical life; can one say from this point of view that a hundred actual thalers do not contain more than a hundred possible ones? One can say that a hundred actual thalers contain exactly a hundred thalers more than do a hundred possible ones! And it is quite clear: if you think of a hundred possible thalers on one side and of a hundred actual thalers on the other, there is a difference. On this other side there are exactly a hundred thalers more. And in most real cases it is just on the hundred actual thalers that the question turns.
But the matter has a deeper aspect. One can ask the question: What is the point in the difference between a hundred possible and a hundred actual thalers? I think it would be generally conceded that for anyone who can acquire the hundred thalers, there is beyond doubt a decided difference between a hundred possible thalers and a hundred actual ones. For imagine that you are in need of a hundred thalers, and somebody lets you choose whether he is to give you the hundred possible or the hundred actual thalers. If you can get the thalers, the whole point is the difference between the two kinds. But suppose you were so placed that you cannot in any way acquire the hundred thalers, then you might feel absolutely indifferent as to whether someone did not give you a hundred possible or a hundred actual thalers. When a person cannot have them, then a hundred actual and a hundred possible thalers are in fact of exactly the same value.
This is a significant point. And the significance is this — that the way in which Kant spoke about God could occur only at a time when men could no longer “have God” through human soul-experience. As He could not be reached as an actuality, then the concept of the possible God or of the actual God was immaterial, just as it is immaterial whether one is not to have a hundred actual or a hundred possible thalers. If there is no path for the soul to the true God, then certainly no development of thought in the style of Kant can lead to Him.
Hence we see that the matter has this deeper side also. But I have introduced it only because I wanted to make it clear that when the question becomes one of “thinking”, then one must go somewhat more deeply. Errors of thought slip out even among the most brilliant thinkers, and for a long time one does not see where the weak spot of the argument lies — as, for example, in the Kantian thought about the hundred possible and the hundred actual thalers. In thinking, one must always take account of the situation in which the thought has to be grasped.
By discussing first the nature of general concepts, and then the existence of such errors in thinking as this Kantian one, I have tried to show you that one cannot properly reflect on ways of thinking without going deeply into actualities. I will now approach the matter from yet another side, a third side.
Let us suppose that we have here a mountain or hill, and beside it, a steep slope. On the slope there is a spring and the flow from it leaps sheer down, a real waterfall. Higher up on the same slope is another spring; the water from it would like to leap down in the same way, but it does not. It cannot behave as a waterfall, but runs down nicely as a stream or beck. Is the water itself endowed with different forces in these two cases? Quite clearly not. For the second stream would behave just as the first stream does if it were not obstructed by the shape of the mountain. If the obstructive force of the mountain were not present, the second stream would go leaping down. Thus we have to reckon with two forces: the obstructive force of the mountain and the earth's gravitational pull, which turns the first stream into a waterfall. The gravitational force acts also on the second stream — one can see how it brings the stream flowing down. But a skeptic could say that in the case of the second stream this is not at all obvious, whereas in the first stream every particle of water goes hurtling down. In the case of the second stream we must reckon in at every point the obstructing force of the mountain, which acts in opposition to the earth's gravitational pull.
Now suppose someone came along and said: “I don't altogether believe what you tell me about the force of gravity, nor do I believe in the obstructing force. Is the mountain the cause of the stream taking a particular path? I don't believe it.” “Well, what do you believe?” one might ask. He replies: “I believe that part of the water is down there, above it is more water, above that more water again, and so on. I believe the lower water is pushed down by the water above it, and this water by the water above it. Each part of the water drives down the water below it.” Here is a noteworthy distinction. The first man declares: “Gravity pulls the water down.” The second man says: “Masses of water are perpetually pushing down the water below them: that is how the water comes down from above.”
Obviously anyone who spoke of a “pushing down” of this kind would be very silly. But suppose it is a question not of a beck or stream but of the history of mankind, and suppose someone like the person I have just described were to say: “The only thing I believe of what you tell me is this: we are now living in the twentieth century, and during it certain events have taken place. They were brought about by similar ones during the last third of the nineteenth century; these again were caused by events in the second third of the nineteenth century, and these again by those in the first third.” That is what is called “pragmatic history”, in which one always speaks of “causes and effects”, so that subsequent events are always explained by means of preceding ones. Just as someone might deny the force of gravity and say that the masses of water are continually pushing one another forward, so it is when someone is pursuing pragmatic history and explains the condition of the nineteenth century as a result of the French Revolution.
In reply to a pragmatic historian we would of course say: “No, other forces are active besides those that push from behind — which in fact are not there at all in the true sense. For just as little as there are forces pushing the stream from behind, just as little do preceding events push from behind in the history of humanity. Fresh influences are always coming out of the spiritual world — just as in the stream the force of gravity is always at work — and these influences cross with other forces, just as the force of gravity crosses with the obstructive force of the mountain. If only one force were present, you would see the course of history running quite differently. But you do not see the individual forces at work in history. You see only the physical ordering of the world: what we would call the results of the Saturn, Moon and Sun stages in the evolution of the Earth. You do not see all that goes on continually in human souls, as they live through the spiritual world and then come down again to Earth. All this you simply deny.”
But there is today a conception of history which is just what we would expect from somebody who came along with ideas such as those I have described, and it is by no means rare. Indeed in the nineteenth century it was looked upon as immensely clever. But what should we be able to say about it from the standpoint we have gained? If anyone were to explain the mountain stream in this “pragmatic” way, he would be talking utter nonsense. How is it then that he upholds the same nonsense with regard to history? The reason is simply that he does not notice it! And history is so complicated that it is almost everywhere expounded as “pragmatic history”, and nobody notices it.
We can certainly see from this that Spiritual Science, which has to develop sound principles for the understanding of life, has work to do in the most varied domains of life; and that it is first of all necessary to learn how to think, and to get to know the inner laws and impulses of thought. Otherwise all sorts of grotesque things can befall one. Thus for example a certain man to-day is stumbling and bumbling over the problem of “thought and language”. He is the celebrated language-critic Fritz Mauthner, who has also written lately a large philosophical dictionary. His bulky Critique of Language is already in its third edition, so for our contemporaries it is a celebrated work. There are plenty of ingenious things in this book, and plenty of dreadful ones. Thus one can find here a curious example of faulty thinking — and one runs up against such blunders in almost every five lines — which leads the worthy Mauthner to throw doubt on the need for logic. “Thinking”, for him, is merely speaking; hence there is no sense in studying logic; grammar is all one needs. He says also that since there is, rightly speaking, no logic, logicians are fools. And then he says: In ordinary life, opinions are the result of inferences, and ideas come from opinions. That is how people go on! Why should there be any need for logic when we are told that opinions arise from inferences, and ideas from opinions? It is just as clever as if someone were to say: “Why do you need botany? Last year and two years ago the plants were growing.” But such is the logic one finds in a man who prohibits logic. One can quite understand that he does prohibit it. There are many more remarkable things in this strange book — a book that, in regard to the relation between thought and language, leads not to lucidity but to confusion.
I said that we need a substructure for the things that are to lead us to the heights of spiritual contemplation. Such a substructure as has been put forward here may appear to many as somewhat abstract; still, we shall need it. And I think I have tried to make it so easy that what I have said is clear enough. I should like particularly to emphasise that through such simple considerations as these one can get an idea of where the boundary lies between the realm of the Spirits of Form and the realm of the Spirits of Movement. But whether one comes to such an idea is intimately connected with whether one is prepared to admit thoughts of things-in-general, or whether one is prepared to admit only ideas or concepts of individual things — I say expressly “is prepared to admit”.
On these expositions — to which, as they are somewhat abstract, I will add nothing further — we will build further in the next lecture.