So dear friends – To think or not to think, that is the question…?!?
Often we think we are thinking, when we are actually rearranging our prejudices, or justifying our opinions based on sympathies or antipathies. – Often we are regurgitating a societal norm, or simply parroting unconscious propaganda.
We think we are thinking when we are merely trying to rationalize our unconsciously generated, habitual feelings – building defense mechanisms to warrant hatred, alleviate anxiety, fear or doubt.
I am most certainly still learning how to think. And I often ask myself: What does it mean to be a free thinker? Well, it isn’t what the current label holds- it’s not willy-nilly or lazy.
How can we steadily become more objective; a better researcher; more precise in our use of language, a better evaluator of what’s true; more humble & able to take in all perspectives?
How can we formulate useful questions?
How can we objectively critique rampant scientism – that distortion of true
science, even as we make rigorous use of the spiritual scientific method, with its
beautiful, clean, elegant approach to assessing the world.
The effort to become a better thinker is hard work. It’s an art, it’s a science & it must seek the spirit behind matter.
During this pandemonium, at this time of the upcoming elections, I have been reworking Rudolf Steiner’s seminal book, “The Philosophy of Freedom (or Spiritual Activity)” This great 20th century initiate explores the nature of human freedom by saying “that an action, of which the person does not know why he performs it, cannot be free,” & asking what happens when a person becomes conscious of their motives for acting. Steiner proposes that thru introspective observation we can become conscious of the motivations of our actions, & that the sole possibility of human freedom, must be sought in an awareness of the motives of our actions.
Steiner discusses how an awareness of the division between mind, or subject, & world, or object, gives rise to a desire to re-establish a unity between these polarities. After criticizing solutions to this problem provided by dualism, Steiner suggests that only by locating nature’s manifestations within our subjective being can we overcome this division. This is one of the secrets of Michaelmas, expounded on much later by Steiner in ‘Michael & the Soul Forces of man’.
Can we simultaneously observe thinking, & our thoughts about thinking?
Normally we don’t pay attention to the process of thinking, only its results, the thoughts themselves: “The first observation which we make about thinking is this: that it is the unobserved element in our ordinary mental and spiritual life“. Steiner connects this “first observation” to the fact that thinking is entirely due to our own activity. It does not appear before us unless we ourselves produce it. The thinker & the observer of the thinker are one & the same. This is what Steiner calls the transparency of our thinking process. If we are unable to do this, we think of thinking as a brain-process.
Human beings are two-sided, as they both think & also perceive. The two activities together give a complete view of the world. Knowledge is the union of what is produced in thinking, the concept, & what is produced in perceiving, the percept.
We can become conscious of our thought processes in a way that we can’t yet achieve in our feelings, will or sense perceptions.
Steiner proposes that the apparent dualism of experience can be overcome by discovering the inner & initially hidden unity of perception & thinking. By observing a thinking process sufficiently intensively, perceiving & thinking can begin to unify. This is knowledge. By the same token, a clear-eyed study of what is revealed in observation can lead to appropriate concepts – thinking.
With the concept of ‘mental picture’ we arrive at the relation of knowledge to the individual, & to the life of feeling. Steiner describes a mental picture as an intuition or thought related to an individual percept. And so the mental picture is defined as an individualized concept.
Experience is the “sum total” of mental pictures of the individual. But there is more to the human being’s cognitive inventory than percept, concept & mental picture. There is the relation of these things to the “I”; & this is feeling. Feeling gives our personal relation to the world, & we oscillate between it & the “universal world process” given in thinking. The mental pictures we form gives our mental life an individual stamp, & relates it to our own life.
“The world comes to meet me as a multiplicity, a sum of separate details. As a human being, I am myself one of these details, an entity among other entities. We call this form of the world simply the given and—insofar as we do not develop it through conscious activity but find it ready-made—we call it percept. Within the world of percepts, we perceive ourselves. But if something did not emerge out of this self-percept that proved capable of linking both percepts in general and also the sum of all other percepts with the percept of our self, our self-percept would remain simply one among many. This emerging something, however, is no longer a mere percept; nor is it, like percepts, simply present. It is produced through activity and initially appears linked to what we perceive as our self, but its inner meaning reaches beyond the self. It adds conceptual determinates to individual percepts, but these conceptual determinates relate to one another and are grounded in a whole. It determines conceptually what is achieved through self-perception conceptually, just as it determines all other percepts. It places this as the subject or “I” over against objects. This “something” is thinking, and the conceptual determinates are concepts and ideas”
Steiner begins the second part of the book by emphasizing the role of self-awareness in objective thinking. Here he modifies the usual description of inner & outer experience by pointing out that our feelings, for example, are given to us as naively as outer perceptions. Both of these, feelings & perceptions, tell about objects we are interested in: the one about ourselves, the other about the world. Both require the help of thinking to penetrate the reasons that they arise, to comprehend their inner message. The same is true of our will. Feelings tell how the world affects us, our will tells how we would affect the world. Neither reaches true objectivity, for both mix the world’s existence & our inner life in an unclear way. Steiner emphasizes that we experience our feelings & will – & our perceptions as well – as being more essentially part of us than our thinking. He celebrates this gift of direct experience, but points out that this experience is still dualistic in the sense that it only encompasses one side of the world.
With regard to freedom of the will, Steiner observes that a key question is how the will to action arises in the first place. Steiner describes to begin with two sources for human action: on the one hand, the driving forces springing from our instincts, feelings, & thoughts determined by our moral character – & on the other hand, various kinds of external motives we may adopt, including the dictates of abstract or societal codes. In this way, both our nature & our culture bring forces to bear on our will & soul life. Overcoming these two elements, we can achieve genuinely individualized intuitions that speak to the particular situation at hand. By overcoming a slavish or automatic response to the dictates of both our ‘lower’ drives & conventional standards, & by orchestrating a meeting place of objective & subjective elements of experience, we find the freedom to choose how to think & act.
Freedom does not consist in acting out everything subjective within us, but in acting out of love, thoughtfully & creatively. In this way we can love our own actions, which are unique & individual to us, rather than stemming from obedience to external codes or compulsive physical drives which constitute limitations on freedom.
Freedom arises most clearly at the moment when a human being becomes active in pure, individualized thinking for the good of the all; this is a spiritual activity. Achieving freedom is accomplished by learning to let an ever larger portion of our actions be determined by thinking aligned with good will, rather than by habit, addiction, reflex, or involuntary or unconscious motives.
Steiner differentiates pure thinking into “moral intuition“ (formulation of individual purposes), “moral imagination“ (creative strategies for realizing these larger purposes in the concrete situation), & “moral technique“ (the practical capacity to accomplish what was intended). We only achieve free deeds when we find an ethically impelled response to the immediacy of a given situation. Such a response will always be radically individual; it cannot be prescribed, or forced.
The highest morality exists when a person acts in the world through deeds of love realized by means of individually developed & ‘contextually-sensitive moral imaginations’.
Steiner’s maxim of social life: “Live through deeds of love, and let others live with understanding for each person’s unique intentions…A moral misunderstanding, a clash, is out of the question between people who are morally free. Only one who is morally unfree, who obeys bodily instincts or conventional demands of duty, turns away from a fellow human being if the latter does not obey the same instincts and demands as himself.”
For Steiner, true morality, the highest good, is the universal, mediated by the individual & the situation. It depends upon our achieving freedom from both our inner drives & outer pressures. To achieve such free deeds, we must cultivate our moral imagination, our ability to imaginatively create ethically sound & practical solutions to new situations, in fact, to forge our own ethical principles & to transform these flexibly as needed – not in the service of our own egotistical purposes, but in the face of new demands & unique situations. This is only possible through moral intuitions, immediate experiences of spiritual realities that underlie moral discernments.
Moral imagination & intuition allow us to realize our subjective impulses in objective reality, creating bridges between the spiritual influence of our subjectivity & the natural influence of the objective world in deeds: “that which is natural is spiritual, that which is spiritual is natural…The action is therefore neither stereotyped, carried out according to set rules, nor is it performed automatically in response to an external impetus; the action is determined solely through its ideal content.” If an act proceeds out of genuine thinking, or practical reason, then it is free.
Steiner concludes by pointing out that to achieve this level of freedom, we must lift ourselves out of the prejudices we receive from our family, nation, ethnic group or religion, & all that we inherit from the past that limits our creative & imaginative capacity to meet the world directly. Only when we realize our potential to be a unique individual are we free. Only when we actively strive towards freedom do we have some chance of attaining it.
My 2 cents for this Michaelmas season