“Who is afraid of Solipsism?” Questions to Peter Staudenmaier concerning the supposed regression of Rudolf Steiner's thought from Objective Idealism into Naïve Realism.

Open Letter, in response to an earlier exchange on this blog:

(Now with comments by Peter Staudenmaier)

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your reply to my comments. I am taking it as an invitation for further debate. And since you yourself said: essentially there is one fundamental question that separates us, let us take a closer look at that one question: Did Steiner maintain the epistemological and ontological framework, which he outlined in his philosophical writings, even after he turned towards Theosophy? (My position.) Or did he “convert” and began to “believe” at some point in the existence of spiritual beings and the possibility of supersensible cognition and the literalness of the contents of theosophical literature. (Your claim. Correct me if I did not represent it correctly.)

Staudenmaier: That is basically accurate, though it has less to do with the question of metaphysical realism and more to do with textual evidence. In the 1890s Steiner polemicized against theosophy; by 1902 he embraced theosophy. We can call that shift a 'conversion' or simply 'Steiner's turn to theosophy' or something like that.

Rather than entering into the usual academic tit for tat and throwing quotations and references towards one another, I would like to invite you to join me in the philosophical arena in which you, as you have assured me, feel quite at home and comfortable. So let us take our scholarly robes off for a moment, put down all academic weaponry and enter naked into the wrestling arena of pure thought. Our only references will be our own ideas and Rudolf Steiner’s texts. I hope you will accept my invitation and find the terms agreeable. (Due to my poor English, you have a great advantage here).

So let the games begin. You wrote:

“For the mature Steiner, this spiritual reality – just like material reality – does exist independently of the ‘I’ which constructs, perceives and interprets it. In fact one of the more interesting aspects of Steiner’s mature teachings is their synthesis of the physical and spiritual dimensions of reality.”

I, on the contrary, believe that, according to Steiner, the spiritual reality does not “exist independently of the ‘I’ which constructs, perceives and interprets it.” Even more. I believe that, according to Steiner, not even the physical world and physical objects exist “independently of the ‘I’ which constructs, perceives and interprets them.”  

Staudenmaier: Yes, that is the position I have been attributing to you.

Hence I would ask you to please explain what makes you think so and present some evidence from Steiner’s publications. Here lies our fundamental difference, and you have stated this several times, but other than some references to scholars who supposedly solved that question in their research, you have never presented to me the argument that has convinced you to maintain this position. 

Staudenmaier: It's not that other scholars have solved this question; what they have done is examined Steiner's esoteric epistemology in a philosophically and historically informed way. To my mind, formulating this as a matter of 'solving the question' mixes up two very different tasks. The task I have addressed is figuring out what Steiner said in his post-1900 texts. For better or worse, that task has nothing to do with whether Steiner's position was true at a philosophical level. Let's say we all agreed that metaphysical realism is bunk and some sophisticated version of solipsism is true. That won't help us determine what Steiner's stance was in texts like Knowledge of Higher Worlds.

What you describe here as Steiner’s "mature stance" is, in my opinion, pure naïve realism ("what I perceive are things that exist independently from my perception of them: and they are what I perceive them to be") – which Steiner described in his philosophical writings as the lowest stage in the evolution of philosophical consciousness, followed by critical idealism (Kant/Fichte), transcendental realism (Hartmann) and objective idealism (Steiner). 

Staudenmaier: It is indeed a form of metaphysical realism. As I said in our exchange last fall, I don't know why you see it as a naive form. Metaphysical realism is, after all, an eminently respectable philosophical position. Even its critics acknowledge this. If it helps to clarify our respective viewpoints, there is a helpful overview of various challenges to metaphysical realism at the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; since it is from a disinterested party, it could be useful to refer to it:

Are you suggesting that Steiner embraced naïve realism in 1904 although he had refuted it in 1891 and saw himself three evolutionary steps ahead of it? And, if this is not your position: how is what you describe as Steiner's "mature stance" different from naive realism?

Staudenmaier: Because it isn't naive. It is simply a version of realism, a complex and elaborate one. Surely you don't think it is somehow impossible to hold a non-naive form of realism? In any case, the important philosophical question would be realism about what, realism with respect to what. I'm not entirely sure from your presentation here, but it sounds like you are saying that Steiner throughout his life rejected realism across the board, regarding any entities whatsoever.
You also wrote:

“Consider the example of Atlantis. According to Steiner, Atlantis really existed. It existed independently of any individual's conscious awareness, just as other continents (and planets and mountains and clouds and rivers and stars and so on) exist independently of any individual's conscious awareness.”

I have considered. And I am still convinced that Steiner would NOT agree that Atlantis, as he describes it in his texts, does or did exist separated from and independently of the “I” that is aware of it. The same is true for the Angels, Guardians of the Threshold, Ahriman, ancient Saturn etc. etc. And, most importantly, I am convinced it is even true for the "clouds and mountains and rivers and stars" you have mentioned. This is, in my opinion, the essential consequence of Steiner’s epistemological writings of 1891/92 and 1893/94. Based on this interpretation I think I can consistently maintain that the hypothesis of a fundamental change or conversion on Steiner’s part is an unnecessary assumption and, in light of his own assertions and his work as a whole, even an unlikely hypothesis. 

When Steiner spoke about angels and Guardians after 1904, he was always aware, in my opinion, that he spoke in a figurative way about certain aspects of reality.(If you say that ,according to Clement, Steiner "did not believe in these entities", you are misrepresenting my stance.) Reality, however, if experienced on the highest level of cognition (in intuition) does in Steiner's view not consist of separated entities, both in his philosophical and esoteric writings. Rather, it is pure oneness, and any separation and division within that reality is a result of its interaction with the conscious mind that perceives it. 

Staudenmaier: We don't disagree about Steiner's monism. He did indeed hold that reality consists of interlinked entities, not separate ones, and that all that exists is part of an overarching oneness, part of one big connected whole. Where we disagree is about whether any of these entities, for Steiner, exist independently of an I that is aware of them, independently of a human consciousness that perceives them.

Any distinction between "this thing" and "that thing" is a result of cognitive activity, according to Steiner, both in ordinary and in spiritual cognition. The "Philosophy of Freedom" does not say, that this is the case only for ordinary sense-based cognition, not even in the revision of 1918. The same idea I see expressed in "The stages of Higher Knowledge". Hence I think it legitimate to apply Steiner's analysis of the act of cognition to spiritual cognition as well. The imagination of the "angel", as the seer experiences it, is for Steiner a result of spiritual perception penetrated by cognitive activity, just as the mental image of the "chair" is a result of perception suffused by thought.

Staudenmaier: Our disagreement isn't about the mental image of the entities, but about the entities themselves. By the way, I think you are somewhat overstating the early Steiner's stance (in the original edition of PoF, for example), though that is of course distinct from our dispute over the post-1900 Steiner. I agree that much Steiner's back-and-forth in PoF was part of his reaction against Kantian epistemology, but this doesn't turn him into Hegel or Schelling.

"Imaginations" as such are, as Steiner explicitly states, mere images, even illusions and hallucinations, just as the mental representations (Vorstellungen) of the ordinary sensual consciousness: the only “real” thing about them is the activity which can be experienced through them, an activity that creates them (as it creates everything else) and then perceives them. But that activity is not some transcendent "thing" or "realm" or "being", it is the very activity of the “I” itself that perceives it. Thus we get to the most fundamental idea in Steiner's thought: The inmost core of reality is the inmost core of the human being, and as a human beings becomes conscious, it is reality itself that becomes conscious of itself. Regardless, whether it perceives itself in the form of chairs and tables or in the form of angels and etherbodies. 

Hence there is no basis, in my opinion, to assume that Steiner all of a sudden after 1904 started to believe in a second reality beyond the one we experience in normal consciousness. 

Staudenmaier: It's not a second reality. It is supersensible dimensions of the same reality, the part we can't perceive with ordinary senses. 

Because both realities, the "sensual" and the "spiritual" are only manifestations of his own inmost being. 

Staudenmaier: You could also put that the other way around: What we find in our own own inmost being are only manifestations of sensual and spiritual reality. That is why, for Steiner, we can grasp the inmost core of reality by looking deep within ourselves.

What the “seer” experiences in his imaginations of angels and archangels, is, according to Steiner, the same reality, that you and I experience, as we are looking at chairs and tables – only experienced on another level and in different types of representation. But representations, images of that reality in which chairs and tables, angels and conscious human beings are one and the same, they are nonetheless.

This is what I have basically argued in SKA 7. You, however, have represented my argument in this way: "[Clement] resists recognizing that Steiner meant the notion of "supersensible perception" seriously, and that for the theosophical and anthroposophical Steiner there really are spiritual phenomena to be perceived, that they actually exist, not merely as linguistic images or roundabout ways of describing internal self-perception, but as independent entities". Thus you are misrepresenting my argument by infusing the perspective of naive realism into my interpretation that reads Steiner in terms of his own objective idealism. 

As I am reading your statement I am getting the impression, that you actually seem to believe that the "clouds" and "mountains", which you perceive around you, actually do exist, as coulds and mountains, even if you don't think of them as clouds and mountains. Am I correct in this?

Staudenmaier: Sort of. To say that they exist "as clouds and mountains" independently of human perception would be meaningless, since "clouds" and "mountains" are themselves human categories. But the entities do indeed exist independently of human perception. There were clouds and mountains -- though not those categories to describe them -- long before there were humans. This has very little to do with our discussion, however. The question at issue is not whether either of us happens to agree with Steiner's perspective, or whether we find his stance philosophically convincing.
If so, then you are, according to Steiner, a naive realist. So maybe I am not the one who "conflat[es] the different dimensions of Steiner's thought", but maybe you are conflating Steiner's objective idealism and my interpretation of it with your own realistic world conception?


Staudenmaier: That would be a difficult feat, since they are opposite philosophical positions. But it isn't what I have been saying anyway. The mature Steiner held that supersensible perception reveals "a mighty spiritual panorama wherein all the past events of the world are displayed." (Outline of Occult Science, 114) Imagine that no student of spiritual science ever managed to follow the path toward knowledge of the Higher Worlds, that nobody ever succeeded in achieving supersensible perception. The mighty spiritual panorama still exists, according to Steiner. The past events of the world still happened. That is what Steiner's esoteric texts say.

Apart from the philosophical matters at stake, there are basic interpretive issues here. That is something we could productively debate, in my view. Here is another attempt to boil down the differences:

The approach you propose effectively reduces the later Steiner to an extension of the earlier Steiner. It cannot account for the fantastic profusion of new ideas that characterized Steiner's public pronouncements after his embrace of esotericism. The explosion of creativity that marks Steiner's post-1900 esoteric works has no direct precedent in his earlier works. It is not just a shift in tone and style and format, but a profound innovation in content. The fluidity of his categories, the imaginative range of his ideas, the willingness to flaunt established modes of knowledge and challenge conventional conceptions of the world – including recognized philosophical models and existing intellectual frameworks – signal a fundamental departure from his previous approach to understanding reality. The esoteric Steiner is engaged in a daring new project, one that diverges in elemental ways from what came before.

I don't see this as a regression on Steiner's part. It seems to me a crucial aspect of his intellectual development. Thanks once more for your continued willingness to examine these questions,

Peter Staudenmaier

I am looking forward to your reply.

(You may send your answer to me or post it on the Waldorf-Critics list, I will then post it here.)

Thanks again for your willingness to engage in this conversation.

Christian Clement