Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Concerning Abstraction

From Riddles of the Soul, a collection of essays published by Rudolf Steiner in 1917.

On page 35 the expression “benumbing” (Herablähmung) is used of representations as they turn into imitations of sensory reality. It is in this “benumbing” that we must locate the positive event that underlies the phase of abstraction in the process of cognition. The mind forms concepts of sensory reality. For any theory of knowledge the question is how that which it retains within itself as concept of a real being or event is related to such real being or event. Has the somewhat that I carry around in me as the concept of a wolf any relation at all to a particular reality, or is it simply a schema that I have constructed for myself by withdrawing my attention (abstracting) from anything peculiar to this wolf or that wolf, and to which nothing in the real world corresponds? This question received extensive treatment in the medieval conflict between Nominalism and Realism: for the Nominalists nothing about the world is real except the visible materials extant in it as a single individual — flesh, blood, bones, and so forth. The concept “wolf” is “merely” a conceptual aggregate of the properties common to different wolves. To this the Realist objects: any material found in an individual wolf is also to be found in other animals. There must then be something that disposes the materials into the living coherence they exhibit in the wolf. This constituent reality is given by way of the concept. It cannot be denied that Vincent Knauer, the distinguished specialist in Aristotelian and medieval philosophy, has something, when he says in his book, Fundamental Problems of Philosophy (Die Hauptprobleme der Philosophie, Vienna, 1892):
A wolf, for instance, consists of no different material constituents than a lamb; its material corporeality is composed of assimilated lambs' flesh; yet the wolf does not become a lamb even if it eats nothing but lambs all its life. Whatever it is that makes it wolf, therefore, must obviously be something other than the “Kyle”, the sensory material, and that something, moreover, cannot possibly be a mere “thought-thing” even though it is accessible to thought alone, and not to the senses. It must be something active, therefore actual, therefore eminently real.
How after all does one get around this objection on a strictly anthropological view of what constitutes reality? It is not what is transmitted through the senses that produces the concept “wolf”. On the other hand that concept, as present in ordinary-level consciousness, is certainly nothing effective. Merely by the energy of that concept the conformation of the “sensory” materials contained in a wolf could certainly not be brought about. The fact is that, with this question, anthropology comes up against one of its frontiers of knowledge. — Anthroposophy demonstrates that, besides the relation of man to wolf, which is there in the sensory field, there is another relation as well. This latter does not, in its immediate specificity, reach into ordinary-level consciousness. But it does subsist as a living continuity between the human mind and the sensuously observed object. The vitality that subsists in the mind by virtue of this continuity is by the systematic understanding subdued, or benumbed, to a “concept”. An abstract idea is a reality defunct, to enable its representation in ordinary-level consciousness, a reality in which the human being does in fact live in the process of sense perception, but which does not become a conscious part of his life. The abstractness of ideas is brought about by an inner necessity of the psyche. Reality furnishes man with a living content. Of this living content he puts to death that part which invades his ordinary consciousness. He does so because he could not achieve self-consciousness as against the outer world if he were compelled to experience, in all its vital flux, his continuity with that world. Without the paralyzing of this vital flow, the human being could only know himself as a scion comprised within a unity extending beyond the limits of his humanity; he would be an organ of a larger organism.
The manner in which the mind suffers its cognitive process to peter out into the abstractness of concepts is not determined by a reality external to itself. It is determined by the laws of development of man’s own existence, which laws demand that, in the process of perception, he subdue his vital continuity with the outer world down to those abstract concepts that are the foundation whereon his self-consciousness grows and increases. That this is the case becomes evident to the mind, once it has developed its organs of spirit. By this means that living continuity with a spiritual reality lying outside the individual, which was referred to on pp. 38/9, is reconstituted. But, unless self-consciousness had been purchased in the first place from ordinary-level consciousness, it could not be amplified to intuitive consciousness. It follows that a healthy ordinary-level consciousness is a sine qua non of intuitive consciousness. Anyone who supposes that he can develop an intuitive consciousness without a healthy and active ordinary-level consciousness is making a very great mistake. On the contrary, normal and everyday consciousness has to accompany an intuitive consciousness at every single moment. Otherwise self-consciousness will be impaired and disorder introduced into the mind’s relation to reality. It is to this kind of consciousness alone that anthroposophy looks for intuitive cognition; not to any sedating of ordinary-level consciousness.


From GA21, Riddles of the Soul. Available from Mercury Press:

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