The Boundaries of Natural Science. Lecture 2 of 8.
Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, Switzerland, September 28, 1920
To those who demand of a cycle of lectures with a title such as ours that nothing be introduced that might interfere with the objective presentation of ideas, I would like, since today I shall have to mention certain personalities, to say the following. The moment one begins to represent the results of human judgment in their relationship to life, to full human existence, it becomes inevitable that one indicate the personalities with whom the judgments originated. Even in a scientific presentation, one must remain within the sphere in which the judgment arises, within the realm of human struggling and striving toward such a judgment. And especially since the question we want above all to answer is: what can be gleaned from modern scientific theories that can become a vital social thinking able to transform thought into impulses for life? — then one must realize that the series of considerations one undertakes is no longer confined to the study and the lecture halls but stands rather within the living evolution of humanity.
Behind everything with which I commenced yesterday, the modern striving for a mathematical-mechanical worldview and the dissolution of that worldview, behind that which came to a climax in 1872 in the famous speech by the physiologist du Bois-Reymond concerning the limits of natural science, there stands something even more important. It is something that begins to impress itself upon us the moment we want to begin to speak in a living way about the limits of natural science.
A personality of extraordinary philosophical stature still looks over to us with a certain vitality out of the first half of the nineteenth century: Hegel. Only in the last few years has Hegel begun to be mentioned in the lecture halls and in the philosophical literature with somewhat more respect than in the recent past. In the last third of the nineteenth century the academic world attacked Hegel outright, yet one could demonstrate irrefutably that Eduard von Hartmann had been quite right in claiming that during the 1880s only two university lecturers in all of Germany had actually read him. The academics opposed Hegel but not on philosophical grounds, for as a philosopher they hardly knew him. Yet they knew him in a different way, in a way in which we still know him today. Few know Hegel as he is contained, or perhaps better said, as his worldview is contained, in the many volumes that sit in the libraries. Those who know Hegel in this original form so peculiar to him are few indeed. Yet in certain modified forms he has become in a sense the most popular philosopher the world has ever known. Anyone who participates in a workers' meeting today or, even better, anyone who had participated in one during the last few decades and had heard what was discussed there; anyone with any sense for the source of the mode of thinking that had entered into these workers' meetings, who really knew the development of modern thought, could see that this mode of thinking had originated with Hegel and flowed through certain channels out into the broadest masses. And whoever investigated the literature and philosophy of Eastern Europe in this regard would find that the Hegelian mode of thinking had permeated to the farthest reaches of Russian cultural life. One thus could say that, anonymously, as it were, Hegel has become within the last few decades perhaps one of the most influential philosophers in human history. On the other hand, however, when one perceives what has come to be recognized by the broadest spectrum of humanity as Hegelianism, one is reminded of the portrait of a rather ugly man that a kind artist painted in such a way as to please the man's family. As one of the younger sons, who had previously paid little attention to the portrait, grew older and really observed it for the first time, he said: “But father, how you have changed!” And when one sees what has become of Hegel one might well say: “Dear philosopher, how you have changed!” To be sure, something extraordinary has happened regarding this Hegelian worldview.
Hardly had Hegel himself departed when his school fell apart. And one could see how this Hegelian school appropriated precisely the form of one of our new parliaments. There was a left wing and a right wing, an extreme left and an extreme right, an ultra-radical wing and an ultra-conservative wing. There were men with radical scientific and social views, who felt themselves to be Hegel's true spiritual heirs; and on the other side there were devout, positive theologians who wanted just as much to base their extreme theological conservatism on Hegel; there was a center for Hegelian studies headed by the amiable philosopher Karl Rosenkranz — and each of these personalities, every one of them, insisted that he was Hegel's true heir.
What is this remarkable phenomenon in the evolution of human knowledge? What happened was that a philosopher once sought to raise humanity into the highest realms of thought. Even if one is opposed to Hegel, it cannot be denied that he dared attempt to call forth the world within the soul in the purest thought-forms. Hegel raised humanity into ethereal heights of thinking — but strangely enough, humanity then fell right back down out of those heights. It drew on the one hand certain materialistic and on the other hand certain positive theological conclusions from Hegel's thought. And even if one considers the Hegelian center headed by the amiable Rosenkranz, even there one cannot find Hegel's philosophy as Hegel himself had conceived it. In Hegel's philosophy one finds a grand attempt to pursue the scientific method right up into the highest heights. Afterward, however, when his followers sought to work through Hegel's thoughts themselves, they found that one could arrive thereby at the most contrary points of view.
Now, one can argue about worldviews in the study, one can argue within the academies, and one can even argue in the academic literature, so long as worthless gossip and barren cliques do not result. These offspring of Hegelian philosophy, however, cannot be carried out of the lecture halls and the study into life as social impulses. One can argue conceptually about contrary worldviews, but within life itself these contrary worldviews do not fight so peaceably. One must use just such a paradoxical expression in describing such a phenomenon. And thus there stands before us in the first half of the nineteenth century an alarming factor in the evolution of human cognition, something that has proved itself to be socially useless in the highest degree. With this in mind we must then raise the question: How can we find a mode of thinking that can be useful in social life? In two phenomena above all we notice the uselessness of Hegelianism for social life.
One of those who studied Hegel most intensively, who brought Hegel fully to life within himself, was Karl Marx. And what is it that we find in Marx? A remarkable Hegelianism indeed! Hegel up upon the highest peak of the conceptual world — Hegel upon the highest peak of Idealism — and the faithful student, Karl Marx, immediately transforming the whole into its direct opposite, using what he believed to be Hegel's method to carry Hegel's truths to their logical conclusions. And thereby arises historical materialism, which is to be for the masses the one worldview that can enter into social life. We thus are confronted in the first half of the nineteenth century with the great Idealist, Hegel, who lived only in the Spirit, only in his ideas, and in the second half of the nineteenth century with his student, Karl Marx, who contemplated and recognized the reality of matter alone, who saw in everything ideal only ideology. If one but takes up into one's feeling this turnabout of conceptions of world and life in the course of the nineteenth century, one feels with all one's soul the need to achieve an understanding of nature that will serve as a basis for judgments that are socially viable.
Now, if we turn on the other hand to consider something that is not so obviously descended from Hegel but can be traced back to Hegel nonetheless, we find still within the first half of the nineteenth century, but carrying over into the second half, the “philosopher of the ego,” Max Stirner. While Karl Marx occupies one of the two poles of human experience mentioned yesterday, the pole of matter upon which he bases all his considerations, Stirner, the philosopher of the ego, proceeds from the opposite pole, that of consciousness. And just as the modern worldview, gravitating toward the pole of matter, becomes unable to discover consciousness within that element (as we saw yesterday in the example of du Bois-Reymond), a person who gravitates to the opposite pole of consciousness will not be able to find the material world. And so it is with Max Stirner. For Max Stirner, no material universe with natural laws actually exists. Stirner sees the world as populated solely by human egos, by human consciousnesses that want only to indulge themselves to the full. “I have built my thing on nothing”— that is one of Max Stirner's maxims. And on these grounds Stirner opposes even the notion of Providence. He says for example: Certain moralists demand that we should not perform any deed out of egoism, but rather that we should perform it because it is pleasing to God. In acting, we should look to God, to that which pleases Him, that which He commands. Why, thinks Max Stirner, should I, who have built only upon the foundation of ego-consciousness, have to admit that God is after all the greater egoist? Who can demand of man and the world that all should be performed as it suits Him? I will not surrender my own egoism for the sake of a greater egoism. I will do what pleases me. What do I care for a God when I have myself?
One thus becomes entangled and confused within a consciousness out of which one can no longer find the way. Yesterday I remarked how on the one hand we can arrive at clear ideas by awakening in the experience of ideas when we descend into our consciousness. These dreamlike ideas manifest themselves like drives from which we cannot then escape. One would say that Karl Marx achieved clear ideas — if anything, his ideas are too clear. That was the secret of his success. Despite their complexity, Marx's ideas are so clear that, if properly garnished, they remain comprehensible to the widest circles. Here clarity has been the means to popularity. And until it realizes that within such a clarity humanity is lost, humanity, as long as it seeks logical consequences, will not let go of these clear ideas.
If one is inclined by temperament to the other extreme, to the pole of consciousness, one passes over onto Stirner's side of the scale. Then one despises this clarity: one feels that, applied to social thinking, this clarity makes man into a cog in a social order modeled on mathematics or mechanics — but into that only, into a mere cog. And if one does not feel oneself cut out for just that, then the will that is active in the depths of human consciousness revolts. Then one comes radically to oppose all clarity. One mocks all clarity, as Stirner did. One says to oneself: What do I care about anything else? What do I care even about nature? I shall project my own ego out of myself and see what happens. We shall see that the appearance of such extremes in the nineteenth century is in the highest degree characteristic of the whole of recent human evolution, for these extremes are the distant thunder that preceded the storm of social chaos we are now experiencing. One must understand this connection if one wants at all to speak about cognition today.
Yesterday we arrived at an indication of what happens when we begin to correlate our consciousness to an external natural world of the senses. Our consciousness awakens to clear concepts, but loses itself. It loses itself to the extent that one can only posit empty concepts such as “matter,” concepts that then become enigmatic. Only by thus losing ourselves, however, can we achieve the clear conceptual thinking we need to become fully human. In a certain sense we must first lose ourselves in order to find ourselves again out of ourselves. Yet now the time has come when we should learn something from these phenomena. And what can one learn from these phenomena? One can learn that, although clarity of conceptual thinking and perspicuity of mental representation can be won by man in his interaction with the world of sense, this clarity of conceptual thinking becomes useless the moment we strive scientifically for something more than a mere empiricism. It becomes useless the moment we try to proceed toward the kind of phenomenalism that Goethe the scientist cultivated, the moment we want something more than natural science, namely Goetheanism.
What does this imply? In establishing a correlation between our inner life and the external physical world of the senses we can use the concepts we form in interaction with nature in such a way that we try not to remain within the natural phenomena but to think on beyond them. We are doing this if we do more than simply say: within the spectrum there appears the color yellow next to the color green, and on the other side the blues. We are doing this if we do not simply interrelate the phenomena with the help of our concepts but seek instead, as it were, to pierce the veil of the senses and construct something more behind it with the aid of our concepts. We are doing this if we say: out of the clear concepts I have achieved I shall construct atoms, molecules — all the movements of matter that are supposed to exist behind natural phenomena. Thereby something extraordinary happens. What happens is that when I as a human being confront the world of nature [see illustration], I use my concepts not only to create for myself a conceptual order within the realm of the senses but also to break through the boundary of sense and construct behind it atoms and the like. I cannot bring my lucid thinking to a halt within the realm of the senses. I take my lesson from inert matter, which continues to roll on even when the propulsive force has ceased. My knowledge reaches the world of sense, and I remain inert. I have a certain inertia, and I roll with my concepts on beyond the realm of the senses to construct there a world the existence of which I can begin to doubt when I notice that my thinking has only been borne along by inertia.
It is interesting to note that a great proportion of the philosophy that does not remain within phenomena is actually nothing other than just such an inert rolling-on beyond what really exists within the world. One simply cannot come to a halt. One wants to think ever farther and farther beyond and construct atoms and molecules — under certain circumstances other things as well that philosophers have assembled there. No wonder, then, that this web one has woven in a world created by the inertia of thinking must eventually unravel itself again.
Goethe rebelled against this law of inertia. He did not want to roll onward thus with his thinking but rather to come strictly to a halt at this limit [see illustration: heavy line] and to apply concepts within the realm of the senses. He thus would say to himself: within the spectrum appear to me yellow, blue, red, indigo, violet. If, however, I permeate these appearances of color with my world of concepts while remaining within the phenomena, then the phenomena order themselves of their own accord, and the phenomenon of the spectrum teaches me that when the darker colors or anything dark is placed behind the lighter colors or anything light, there appear the colors which lie toward the blue end of the spectrum. And conversely, if I place light behind dark, there appear the colors which lie toward the red end of the spectrum.
What was it that Goethe was actually seeking to do? Goethe wanted to find simple phenomena within the complex, but above all such phenomena as allowed him to remain within this limit [see illustration], by means of which he did not roll on into a realm that one reaches only through a certain mental inertia. Goethe wanted to adhere to a strict phenomenalism. If we remain within phenomena and if we strive with our thinking to come to a halt there rather than allow ourselves to be carried onward by inertia, the old question arises in a new way. What meaning does the phenomenal world have when I consider it thus? What is the meaning of the mechanics and mathematics, of the number, weight, measure, or temporal relation that I import into this world? What is the meaning of this?
You know, perhaps, that the modern world conception has sought to characterize the phenomena of tone, color, warmth, etc. as only subjective, whereas it characterizes the so-called primary qualities, the qualities of weight, space, and time, as something not subjective but objective and inherent in things. This conception can be traced back principally to the English philosopher John Locke, and it has to a considerable extent determined the philosophical basis of modern scientific thought. But the real question is: What place within our systematic science of nature as a whole do mathematics, do mechanics — these webs we weave within ourselves, or so it seems at first — what place do these occupy? We shall have to return to this question to consider the specific form it takes in Kantianism. Yet without going into the whole history of this development one can nonetheless emphasize our instinctive conviction that measuring or counting or weighing external objects is essentially different from ascribing to them any other qualities.
It certainly cannot be denied that light, tones, colors, and sensations of taste are related to us differently from that which we could represent as subject to mathematical-mechanical laws. For it really is a remarkable fact,a fact worthy of our consideration: you know that honey tastes sweet, but to a man with jaundice it tastes bitter — so we can say that we stand in a curious relationship to the qualities within this realm — while on the other hand we could hardly maintain that any normal man would see a triangle as a triangle, but a man with jaundice would see it as a square! Certain differentiations thus do exist, and one must be cognizant of them; on the other hand, one must not draw absurd conclusions from them. And to this very day philosophical thinking has failed in the most extraordinary way to come to grips with this most fundamental epistemological question. We thus see how a contemporary philosopher, Koppelmann, overtrumps even Kant by saying, for example — you can read this on page 33 of his Philosophical Inquiries [Weltanschauungsfragen]: everything that relates to space and time we must first construct within by means of the understanding, whereas we are able to assimilate colors and tastes directly. We construct the icosahedron, the dodecahedron, etc.: we are able to construct the standard regular solids only because of the organization of our understanding. No wonder, then, claims Koppelmann, that we find in the world only those regular solids we can construct with our understanding. One thus can find Koppelmann saying almost literally that it is impossible for a geologist to come to a geometer with a crystal bounded by seven equilateral triangles precisely because — so Koppelmann claims — such a crystal would have a form that simply would not fit into our heads. That is out-Kanting Kant. And thus he would say that in the realm of the thing-in-itself crystals could exist that are bounded by seven regular triangles, but they cannot enter our head, and thus we pass them by; they do not exist for us.
Such thinkers forget but one thing: they forget — and it is just this that we want to indicate in the course of these lectures with all the forceful proofs we can muster — that the natural order governing the construction of our head also governs the construction of the regular polyhedrons, and it is for just this reason that our head constructs no other polyhedrons than those that actually confront us in the external world. For that, you see, is one of the basic differences between the so-called subjective qualities of tone, color, warmth, as well as the different qualities of touch, and that which confronts us in the mechanical-mathematical view of the world. That is the basic difference: tone and color leave us outside of ourselves; we must first take them in; we must first perceive them. As human beings we stand outside tone, color, warmth, etc. This is not entirely the case as regards warmth — I shall discuss that tomorrow — but to a certain extent this is true even of warmth. These qualities leave us initially outside ourselves, and we must perceive them. In formal, spatial, and temporal relationships and regarding weight this is not the case. We perceive objects in space but stand ourselves within the same space and the same lawfulness as the objects external to us. We stand within time just as do the external objects. Our physical existence begins and ends at a definite point in time. We stand within space and time in such a way that these things permeate us without our first perceiving them. The other things we must first perceive. Regarding weight, well, ladies and gentlemen, you will readily admit that this has little to do with perception, which is somewhat open to arbitrariness: otherwise many people who attain an undesired corpulence would be able to avoid this by perception alone, merely by having the faculty of perception. No, ladies and gentlemen, regarding weight we are bound up with the world entirely objectively, and the organization by means of which we stand within color, tone, warmth, etc. is powerless against that objectivity.
So now we must above all pose the question: How is it that we arrive at any mathematical-mechanical judgment? How do we arrive at a science of mathematics, at a science of mechanics? How is it, then, that this mathematics, this mechanics, is applicable to the external world of nature, and how is it that there is a difference between the mathematical-mechanical qualities of external objects and those that confront us as the so-called subjective qualities of sensation, tone, color, warmth, etc.?
At the one extreme, then, we are confronted with this fundamental question. Tomorrow we shall discuss another such question. Then we shall have two starting-points from which we can proceed to investigate the nature of science. Thence we shall proceed to the other extreme to investigate the formation of social judgments.
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