Overview and Summary of the Philosophy of Freedom

Philosophy of Freedom
The Philosophy of Freedom is Rudolf Steiner's fundamental philosophical work. It focuses on the problem of free will. Steiner initially divides this into the two aspects of freedom of thought and freedom of action. Inner freedom is achieved when we bridge the gap between our sensory impressions, which reflect the outer appearance of the world, and our thoughts, which give us access to the inner nature of the world. Outer freedom is attained by permeating our deeds with moral imagination. Steiner shows that these two aspects of inner and outer freedom are integral to one another, and that true freedom is only achieved when they are united.

From two sides of our existence, our experience works to make us unfree. We can easily recognize that our natural being, that part of us we share with the animal world - our drives and desires, our prejudices and habits - tends to determine our deeds and soul life from one side. Just as constraining, however, are the dictates of conscience and abstract ethical or moral principles. Freedom is only possible because these various constraining factors work in contradictory directions. Between the impulses of our two natures, neither of which is individualized, we find the freedom to choose how to think and act. By overcoming the dictates of both our 'lower' and 'higher' sources of experience, we become true and free individuals.

At least since Kant's time, philosophy has recognized that dualism is innate to human consciousness. This dualism arises because we perceive the outer nature of the world and its inner nature in radically separated ways. Our sensory perceptions inform us about the outer appearance of the world, while our thought life penetrates its inner nature. This division is particular to and defines human experience. Steiner suggests that we actually have the capacity to overcome the dualism of experience by reuniting perception and thought.

By both perceiving and thinking through a subject, and then bringing our perceptions and conceptions of this subject into harmony, we establish a unified relationship to the world. This relationship is also a free one, as out of it we can act without being determined by one or the other side of our dualistic experience.

It is notable that Steiner expressly includes our subjective, inner life as one of the realms we perceive dualistically, and thus in which we are initially unfree. Our inner subjectivity is thus as much in need of our overcoming its essential duality and unfree nature, as our experience of the objective outer world is.

Once we have brought the two sides of our experience into harmony, we need to forge a new synthesis of these at every moment in a situationally-appropriate, free deed. Steiner coins the term moral imagination for this act of creative synthesis. We only succeed in achieving freedom when we find a moral imagination, an ethically impelled but particularized response to the immediacy of a given situation. This response will always be individual; it cannot be predicted or prescribed. This radical moral individualism is characteristic of freedom.

A Detailed Look at the Philosophy
Steiner wrote his work in two parts. The first of these discusses our understanding of freedom, and addresses freedom of thought. The second part examines the realization of this in freedom of action.

Understanding Freedom
Steiner begins by defining the importance of consciousness, in particular of rational thought, for the attainment of freedom. He explores the various compulsions of motives on different levels, and points out that freedom only exists if we overcome the force of the various motives acting within us. In his 1919 lectures on The Study of Man, Steiner further differentiated these motives into seven levels: reflexes, drives, desires, motifs, wishes, intentions, and commitments. Consciousness is a quality of the mind generally regarded to comprise such key features as subjectivity, self-awareness, sentience, sapience, and the ability to perceive the relationship between oneself and ones environment.

Steiner then takes up Schiller's exploration of the polarity between the moral compulsion of our rationality and the animal compulsion of our bodily nature (see Schiller's essay in letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man) to show that freedom is possible where compulsion from neither of these polar aspects of the human being dominates. He quotes Goethe here:

Two souls dwell, alas, in my breast
Each would from the other split;
One clutches, in its dullish lust
Tight to the world with its organs' grip;
The other raises itself forcibly from dust:
High ancestral fields are its quest.
Faust I, lines 1112-7

The polarity in consciousness is between perception through the senses, which gives us access to the outer nature of things, and perception through thinking, which gives us access to the inner nature of things. Steiner treats thinking as an organ of perception as valid as the senses themselves; both are subject to illusion and distortion, but both can reveal true aspects of the world to us. Our consciousness is dualistic in that the two sides of the world (and of every object or element of the world), the inner and the outer, are only available to us split between two modes of perception. It is then the work of the human mind or spirit to reconcile these two, to bring our thoughts about a given aspect of the world and our perceptions of this into harmony.

Steiner emphasizes that thinking is unique in its access to the true inner reality of the world. We can be conscious of our thought processes in a way that we cannot be of our feelings, will or perceptions. Because of this, we can be sure that our thoughts are truly objective, while our feelings about a thing (for example) may say more about our subjective reactions or condition than about the phenomena to which they seem to be directed. In addition, we correct our perceptions (for example, when these include perspective distortions) through our conceptual framework. Thinking is thus necessary if we are to properly interpret our perception.

Steiner also emphasizes that modern science depends upon these same two elements of perception and thinking. Perception alone is not science, but the gathering of data, at best. Only when we group and analyze a mass of perceptions can we obtain scientific clarity about it. On the other hand, mathematics is a kind of thinking in which thought itself forms the perceptions; no sense-perceptions are needed to form a basis for mathematical principles. Mathematics could be said to be a science of the inner side of things, where we need not know anything about their outer appearance.

A critical analysis of various philosophical directions' relation to the dialectic of our experience, to this polarity of our outer and inner worlds, concludes with the appeal for a higher monism. Though our experience leads us to an illusion of dualism, in reality we are experiencing two sides of a single phenomenon when we perceive it and think about it: two sides of a single, unified world. All the conclusions of dualistic philosophies - in particular Kant's assertion that there are limits beyond which our understanding can never go - are thus mistaken. There are limits beyond which our understanding does not presently go, but both our perception and our thinking can be extended far beyond their momentary abilities. The telescope and microscope offer us radical extensions of the range of our perceptions; we can look to extend our powers of thought as vigorously as we have extended our powers of perception. Steiner thus throws down a gauntlet to the philosophy of his (and our) time: it is not enough simply to define the limits of possible knowledge, it is necessary to work to extend these as well.

Exercising Freedom
Steiner begins the second section of this work by emphasizing the role of self-awareness, of the awakening of the ego, in objective thinking. Here he modifies the usual description of inner and outer experience by pointing out that our feelings, for example, are given to us as naively as outer perceptions. Both of these, feelings and 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 why they arise, to comprehend their inner message. The same is true of our will. Whereas our feelings tell how the world affects us, our will tells how we would affect the world. Neither attains to true objectivity, for both mix together the world's existence and our inner life in an unclear way. Steiner emphasizes that we experience our feelings and will - and our perceptions as well - as being more essentially part of us than our thinking; the former are more basic, more natural. He celebrates this gift of natural, direct experience, but points out that this experience is still dualistic in the sense that it only encompasses one side of the world.

This all is by way of introduction and recapitulation. Steiner then introduces the principle that we can act out of the compulsions of our natural being (reflexes, drives, desires) or out of the compulsion of ethical principles, and that neither of these leaves me free. Between them, however, is an individual insight, a situational ethic, that arises neither from abstract principles nor from my bodily impulses. A deed that arises in this way can be said to be truly free; it is also both unpredictable and wholly individual. Here Steiner articulates his fundamental maxim of social life:

Live through love of action, and let others live with understanding for their different intentions.

In order to achieve such free deeds, we must cultivate our moral imagination, our ability to imaginatively create ethically sound and practical solutions to new situations, in fact, to forge our own ethical principles and to transform these flexibly as needed - not in the service of our own egotistical purposes, but in the face of new demands and situations.

Steiner concludes the whole presentation by pointing out that in order to achieve this level of freedom, we must lift ourselves out of our group-existence: out of the prejudices we receive from our family, nation, ethnic group and religion, out of all that we inherit from the past that limits our creative and imaginative freedom to meet the world directly. Only when we realize our potential to be a unique individual are we free. Again, it lies in our freedom to achieve freedom; only when we actively strive towards freedom do we have some chance of attaining it.

Philosophical Antecedents
The Philosophy of Freedom appears to build chiefly on the work of three philosophers: Fichte, Schiller and Franz Brentano (Husserl's teacher). Fichte's distinction between formal and material freedom gives the structure to Steiner's presentation: the first half of the book is essentially about formal freedom, the second half about material freedom. Schiller's ideas about human freedom existing in a dynamic polarity between the compulsions of our rational, 'higher' being and those of our sensual, 'lower' being permeate the whole. Brentano's description of soul life as composed of perception, will impulses, feelings and thinking clearly form the basis of Steiner's psychology. It is worth noting that Steiner was a student of Brentano's at the University of Vienna, had studied Fichte intensively from an early date and quotes Schiller's Aesthetic Education extensively in many of his lectures.

Steiner's philosophy lies between Western philosophy's emphasis on freedom as an absence of restraint preventing us from doing and thinking whatever we want (cf. Hume and Locke) and Eastern philosophy's emphasis on freedom being achieved through a withdrawal from the constraints of outer existence, through pure inner contemplation. The Philosophy of Freedom connects the freedom of our inner life (as moral imagination) with freedom in outer life (as deeds done for their own sake, out of love); the two become interdependent aspects of our striving for freedom.