Positivism and Anthroposophy

Anthroposophical Quarterly 2.1 (Spring 1957): 7-10

In his interesting article on “Perceiving, Thinking and Knowing” in the 1957 issue of the “Golden Blade” Mr Peter Carpenter sought to establish that the type of philosophy known as Positivism is not, and more particularly that Logical Positivism and Linguistic Analysis are not opposed to Anthroposophy in their principles. One of his reasons for doing so was, that I had strongly suggested the contrary in certain brief references to Logical Positivism and Existentialism, which I had made in an article in the 1955 issue. I have felt, therefore, that some further comment from me may be desirable, and the Editors of “Anthroposophical Quarterly” have kindly consented to find room for it here.

Mr Carpenter explains in his article the basic distinction which Logical Positivism draws between (i) Empirical Propositions and (ii) Tautological Statements, and he goes on to emphasise the damage which Positivism has done with this weapon to the Subjective Idealism that was widely current in the earlier part of this century. He reminds us that Rudolf Steiner, in “The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity”, also attacked subjective idealism, though by a different method, and finds in this respect a parallel between Positivism and Anthroposophy. Here I find myself in agreement with him.

But he also goes much farther than this; for, though towards the end of his article he concedes that “the achievements of Positivism and Linguistic Analysis are largely negative”, he also suggests in many places that the Positivist theory of knowledge is substantially, or potentially, the same as Rudolf Steiner’s; and it is here that I am obliged to part company with him.

This is obviously not the place for a paragraph-by-paragraph argument and the best I can do is to give the page-reference where I quote from “Perceiving, Thinking and Knowing”, for the benefit of those readers of the “Quarterly” who possess the “Golden Blade” for 1957 and may wish to refer to it. Beyond that, I must confine myself to stating one or two essential reasons why I think Mr Carpenter is wrong.

But I must first remark how grateful I am to him for having done me the same service. Outside Anthroposophy itself I have found few things more precious – or more rare – than well-reasoned opposition to it, or at all events to my own interpretation of it. And although I know that Mr Carpenter is not personally opposed to Anthroposophy, I do find (for reasons which I shall hope to show) that some of the opinions he has expressed are directly opposed to Rudolf Steiner’s theory of knowledge, as I understand it.

I think, then, that he very much underrates the importance of the principal assumption on which the Positivism he expounds is based. “The positivist,” he says (p. 88), “finds the ‘problem of perception’ a pseudo-problem – in so far as it raises philosophical puzzles – because he has a pragmatic approach, and finds that he can have satisfactory criteria for ‘true’ and ‘fa1se’ observations without speculating about the process of perception itself.” These criteria – by means of which we distinguish illusion from reality – are (p. 84) “known norms of valid observation”.

I think Mr Carpenter has rather overlooked the fact that these known norms of valid observation are the foundation of his whole structure; they are the ne plus ultra, beyond which a theory of knowledge cannot, according to Positivism, seek to penetrate. Observation is, for Positivism, valid because it is normal, and normal observation is the way in which the average man of the 20th century perceives the world.

Perhaps it would somehow be dismissed as a “pseudo-argument”, if I were to object to the introduction of the word “known” into a description of the means by which knowledge is attained. So I will content myself with pointing out that Rudolf Steiner himself was careful to avoid any such pitfall. Thus, in his doctorial thesis, “Truth and Science”, he distinguished carefully between the starting-point of theory of knowledge and the starting-point of knowledge:–

Nobody who is about to occupy himself with epistemological problems stands at the same time at what we have rightly called the starting-point of knowledge, for his knowledge is already, up to a certain degree, developed. Nothing but analysis with the help of concepts enables us to eliminate from our developed knowledge all the gains of cognitive activity and to determine the starting-point which precedes all such activity.

Positivism points out that propositions which purport to analyse the starting-point in this way are unverifiable. We have no means of telling whether they are true or not; because the data, etc., of which they speak are never in fact experienced – and are therefore not really data at all, but metaphysical entities. Steiner has seen that such an objection is irrelevant. For he continues:–

But the concepts thus employed have no cognitive value. They have the purely negative task to eliminate out of our field of vision whatever is the result of cognitive activity and to lead us to the point where this activity first begins. The present discussions point the way to those primitive beginnings upon which the cognitive activity sets to work, but they form no part of such activity. Thus, whatever Theory of Knowledge has to say in the process of determining the starting-point must be judged not as true1 or false, but only as fit or unfit for this purpose.

There is all the difference in the world between the “perceptions” or “normal observation” which the Positivists accept as the veridical “materia prima” of knowledge and the pure “percept” of which Steiner treats in the “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity” and elsewhere; and the Positivists’ whole theory of knowledge is, in my opinion, stultified by their refusal to admit that these normal perceptions of the average man, from which they start, are already conceptually determined. For, as Steiner himself points out a little further on:–

– a theory of knowledge which sets out from some object (or subject) with a definite conceptual determination is liable to error from the very start, viz. in this very determination. Whether this determination is justified or not, depends on the laws which the cognitive act establishes. This is a question to which only the course of the epistemological inquiry itself can supply the answer.

What matters is not, as Mr Carpenter at one point rather suggests, whether the territory between the starting-point of theory of knowledge and the starting-point of knowledge ought to be assigned as the province of philosophy or of psychology; but whether a theory of knowledge which mistakes the one for the other can possibly be valid.

Positivism assumes that empirical, and “normally” empirical, observation is the only possible starting-point, not merely for a theory of knowledge, but for knowledge. I do not know whether Mr Carpenter agrees with it in this or whether his remark that “most positivistic philosophers are, of course, materialists” is to be taken somehow to imply the contrary. If he does not agree with it, then it seems to me that the philosophy which he has at the back of his mind is not Positivism, but something else – just as (if he will allow me one fairly hard knock) what the Dean of Canterbury has at the back of his mind is not Communism but something else. For take away that fundamental assumption and the whole edifice crumbles.

Positivism wilfully chooses to ignore the conceptual and cognitive element which is already woven into normal perceptual experience and forms so large a part of it. In doing so it closes the gates to what Rudolf Steiner understood by knowledge, at least as effectively as Kant ever did. It is precisely because subjective idealism, in the last resort, made much the same mistake that Positivism has been able to reveal the epistemological bankruptcy of subjective idealism, in the act of acknowledging its own. Positivism holds that the only foundation for knowledge is sense-perception or, as it sometimes prefers to say, observation, plus hypothesis and ratiocination. (“Knowledge,” said A. J. Ayer in “Language, Truth and Logic”, “is a disposition to believe.”) Rudolf Steiner held that knowledge is “the Given” taken up into imagination, inspiration and intuition. And “the Given” is very far from being the same as the empirically observed. It is, rather, all “that” in the empirically observed which is non-conceptual; and which, though it is never in fact experienced in isolation, can be notionally isolated without any very great difficulty. The “Given” must indeed be accepted as veridical without further investigation, for any such investigation is ex hypothesi impossible. But this is not true of normal everyday experience in perceiving (“empirical observation”); for a quite elementary investigation of this shows, as Steiner and others have pointed out, that that is already conceptually determined – or, to put it colloquially, “drenched with thinking”. Whereas Steiner occupied himself long and intensively with just this problem, the Positivists claim that it is better solved by dismissing it as “pseudo”.

If, starting from empirical observation, we proceed to build up a theory of knowledge, we may find, as we go on, that the content of empirical observation is already in some sense known. This is in fact what both Steiner and the Positivists do find. But, whereas Steiner takes the discovery as obliging him to enquire further, in order to complete his theory, Positivism declares dogmatically that both its own and every other theory of knowledge must leave out the bit of knowledge that went before empirical observation and confine their attention to the bit that comes after it. Why? The arbitrary assumption of title to a piece of open ground, purely for the purpose of chasing everyone off it, is a good game for children, I know; but apparently it is more than that, and Tom Tiddler was a modern philosopher in disguise.

The activities of imagination, inspiration and intuition involve willing as well as thinking, and the knowledge which results from them is, according to Steiner, not a belief about, but a participation in the being of the object known. I agree with Mr Carpenter that Existentialism is not a theory of knowledge. I should rather call it a movement. Its importance for me lies in the “hunch”, which it betrays, that the phenomena among which men live are, or may be, the product of that participation and that that participation may be willed.

“There is much,” writes Mr Carpenter (p. 90), “in the thought-content of Dr Steiner’s ‘Philosophy of Spiritual Activity’ with which a modern philosopher would find himself in sympathy, but the ‘method’ used would probably put him off. No disparagement of Dr Steiner’s philosophy is meant in saying this, but it is a fact that the method of analysing ‘processes of perception’, or ‘the act of knowing’ is frowned on by modern philosophers, and with some reason, for it was just this method which was, apparently, used by the metaphysical philosophers, with not very useful results.”

Here again, I do not myself think it possible to detach the method of knowledge developed in “Truth and Science” and the “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity” from their thought-content or to smile on the one while continuing to frown on the other. The thought­ content is the method; and it is simply as fundamental to Anthroposophy as the “norms of perception” are to Positivism. It consists in becoming aware, not merely of the world which we perceive as we do, but of how it is, and how it came about, that we should so perceive it. In the first of the “Leading Thoughts” which he composed at the end of his life, Rudolf Steiner wrote:–

There are those who believe that with the limits of knowledge derived from sense-perception the limits of all insight are given. Yet if they would carefully observe how they become conscious of these limits, they would find in the very consciousness of the limits the faculty to transcend them. The fish swims up to the limits of the water; it must return because it lacks the physical organs to live outside this element. Man reaches the limits of knowledge attainable by sense-perception; but he can recognise that on the way to this point powers of soul have arisen in him – powers whereby the soul can live in an element that goes beyond the horizon of the senses.

Mr Carpenter, on the other hand, tells us (p. 90) that Positivism and Linguistic Analysis “have shown that attempts to build up theories of knowledge and of the world not based on empirical observation are unnecessary…” He brackets theories of knowledge with theories of the world, as though they were governed by the same considerations. But they are not. Any theory of knowledge must be based on empirical observation; because, wherever we may be going, we can only start from where we are. But whether knowledge itself is based on empirical observation is just one of the things which a theory of knowledge will have to decide. Claiming, as it does, to have determined this question pragmatically in advance, Positivism is, in fact, a theory about knowledge, and indeed about the world, whereas it supposes itself to be a theory about theories of knowledge. Thus, in order to be unambiguous, Mr Carpenter would have had to word his sentence a little differently and say, “Positivism and Linguistic Analysis have shown that any attempts to build up theories that knowledge of the world is not based on empirical observation are unnecessary”.

Unnecessary they no doubt are – for epistemological fishes. But for more curious animals, the empirical discovery that “This is the limit!” will continue to raise the question “How did I get here?”

What are we to conclude? Firstly, I submit, that – unless we are prepared to smuggle into the term “empirical observation” a world of meaning which every self-respecting Positivist would instantly, and rightly, reject – the two points of view are not merely worlds apart; they are mutually exclusive. And only secondly, though still with thankfulness, that some people may be prevented by Logical Positivism and Linguistic Analysis from finding refuge in any form of subjective idealism, and some again of these may find their way instead to the objective idealism of Rudolf Steiner and the Anthroposophy that is based on it.

Owen Barfield


1 It is clear that the word “true” is here used very much in the Positivist sense of “empirically verifiable”. In Positivist terminology meaningful propositions concerning the territory between starting-point of theory of knowledge and the starting-point of knowledge, must be “tautologies”. I think Rudolf Steiner would reply: “By all means, put it that way, if it pleases you – and you should add that their function is the strictly logical one of displaying more clearly the meaning already implicit in certain of the terms (such as ‘percept’ and the ‘Given’) which I employ.” Return.

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