Rudolf Steiner and Hegel

Anthroposophical Quarterly 18.2 (Summer 1973): 31-36

The Editors have received a number of letters about the article ‘Rudolf Steiner and Hegel’, which appeared in the Winter number and, since it would take up too much space to print them all, they have been handed to me as an appropriate person to respond. In view of the fact Mr. A. V. Miller opened his article by recording that it had been written at my suggestion, this seems reasonable. Or in other words, as the late President Truman might have put it, the buck stops here.

One correspondent, a member of long standing, ‘was very much pleased to read Mr. Miller’s excellent article’. Another evinced his interest in it by taking the trouble to write four pages of wide-ranging notes. The remainder took exception to it, one or two of them very strong exception. They feel, if I am summarising correctly, that Anthroposophical Quarterly is probably the wrong place for any substantial criticism of Rudolf Steiner, but that it is quite certainly the wrong place for an allegation so grotesque as that Steiner did not really understand Hegel. This of course raises the preliminary question of the true nature and function of this Journal, a practical issue on which there may well be difference of opinion. Perhaps for that reason a word about its history may not be out of place to start with. In the earliest days of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain the only periodical publication the Society produced was a translation of the weekly News Sheet issued from the Goetheanum, to which our own announcements etc. were added when necessary. Very soon however the English Society began publishing a quarterly journal called Anthroposophy, which was intended not only for members but also for the general public. This went on for some years and, by the time it ceased publication, the Society was already distributing its own Members’ New Sheet under the title Anthroposophical Movement, which it still bears today. The demise of the quarterly Anthroposophy meant (since there was as yet no Golden Blade) that there was now no periodical available to the general public, and to meet this deficiency, Anthroposophical Movement was converted to a monthly Journal, distributed gratis to members, but also available on sale to the public, the News Sheet being distributed to members only. Whether it was from the start or only after it had been running for some time I cannot recall, but there was a period of a year or two during which I myself edited the monthly journal. Its format was much the same as today’s Anthroposophical Quarterly, though I cannot claim its quality was as high. It was converted from a monthly to a quarterly in 1956. Today we have the three periodicals, Anthroposophical Movement (our News Sheet for members), Anthroposophical Quarterly and the Golden Blade, an annual.

I have gone into all this because the question whether occasional contributions from non-members, and especially of course critical ones, are appropriate material for inclusion in the Quarterly does seem to me to depend largely on whether one regards it as a ‘House Organ’, so to speak, of the Society or as a published periodical. Partly as a result of its history it seems not unreasonable for members to feel about it either way. As it is on sale to all and sundry in the Bookshop and has a subscription list of non-members, my own way is the latter; and while I should think anything critical of Steiner out of place and even offensive, if I saw it in Anthroposophical Movement, it is otherwise with both the Quarterly and the Golden Blade. Such is my own view, but if a great many members feel differently, I should not want to press it as far as the Quarterly is concerned.

I differ more sharply from two of the complainants, who object strongly that the article ought not to have been published precisely because the Quarterly is read by some members of the general public as well as by members of the Society. I cannot argue this at length. I will merely say that myself I only wish the thoughts of Rudolf Steiner were sometimes honestly attacked by dissidents instead of being sedulously ignored by all but his not very numerous  followers; and further that he wished the same himself, as he more than once emphasised when he was replying to dishonest attacks like those of Max Dessoir. No doubt it would be much better if we did not have to provide the platform ourselves; but everything has to begin somewhere, and where else could Mr. Miller have hoped to get such an article published?

I use the word ‘attack’ because any philosophical argument that is worth the paper it is written on does take, more or less overtly, the form of a mental attack, defence and counter-attack. It is true that confident criticism, claiming to be disproof, of an intellectual position which has come to be much more than that – on which we are perhaps basing our whole lives – may also be felt as an ‘attack’ in another and more wounding sense. But that is precisely because it matters so much. Vigorous argument about things that really matter is impossible unless we can somehow train ourselves to enjoy the fray in spite of the wounds. All very well, it may be objected, but Mr. Miller was not content with arguing a Hegelian against an Anthroposophical position. He actually claimed that Steiner failed to understand Hegel; and that surely was going beyond the philosophical into the offensively personal! I did not find it so. It is simply another inevitable feature of philosophical argument that, when two friends are arguing for truth and not just for victory, each will feel sure the other has misunderstood him. ‘You may not understand my system …’, said Coleridge on one occasion, ‘but this I will say, that if you once master it, or any part of it, you cannot hesitate to acknowledge it as the truth.’ It is what anyone must feel who has arrived at the position where he now stands as the result of lifelong reflection, whether he is a Hegelian or an Anthroposophist; and Mr. Miller has been a lifelong adherent, as well as a devoted translator, of Hegel. Therefore he says, on behalf of Hegel, to Steiner: You do not appear to agree with me, so you must have misunderstood what I am saying! Whether Hegel himself would have said either is a different question.

Much more interesting than all this of course is the question which the article raised, and was intended to raise, of the actual relation between Steiner’s thought and Hegel’s; with which is closely connected the true relation of Anthroposophy to Logic. One of the things for which I am grateful to it is that it has forced me to think further, or try to, about the latter. It has long been clear to me that the familiar distinction (which Steiner himself so often emphasised) between logical, or brain-bound, thinking on the one hand, and ‘living’, or imaginative thinking on the other was not, in his view, the last word on the subject. Like patriotism, it is ‘not enough’. Much that he said and wrote about Hegel in particular testifies to this; but not only about Hegel. There is for instance the passage in Lecture 12 of At the Gates of Spiritual Science (to which the article sent me back), where we read:

When we are on the physical plane, we perceive with the physical senses only what is to be found on that plane. Astral perceptions are valid for the astral place; devachanic hearing is valid only in Devachan. Thus each plane has its own specific form of perception. But one activity – logical thinking – goes through all worlds. Logic is the same on all three planes.

Those are observations on which I should be glad of further light. Meanwhile however I must begin my task of replying to Mr. Miller’s article, and in doing so I hope I shall also be adequately representing those correspondents who addressed themselves to the substance as well as to the propriety of his argument. This does not apply, I fear, to the four pages of notes I have already referred to. These are, as I said, wide-ranging. They include, for instance, a comparison, historically considered, between Aristotle’s Categories and Hegel’s, and it may well be that, in doing so, they point towards that further light. But I think that they are too specialised for this particular arena, and in any case I fear I doubt if I am competent to digest them properly.

Miller starts by suggesting that Steiner ‘may possibly have regarded Hegel’s standpoint as identical with what Coleridge called the “Understanding”’ (that is, in effect, ‘brain-bound’ thinking). It is politely put, but it is also the central contention of his article, as it seems to be chiefly on that contention that he bases his suggestion that Steiner misunderstood ‘the standpoint of Logic’. In support of it he quotes, first, the two sentences in the Philosophy of Freedom in which Steiner distinguishes his own position from Hegel’s:

I must attach special importance to the necessity of bearing in mind that I make thinking my starting point, and not concepts and ideas which are first gained by thinking. (I make special mention of this because it is here that I differ from Hegel, who regards the concept (Begriff) as something primary and ultimate.

Now I think it must be conceded that, if those two sentences are taken in isolation, they might possibly be interpreted as Miller has interpreted them. It would merely be necessary to ignore the rest of Part I of the book, its treatment of Herbert Spencer in Chapter IV, to take only one example. Spencer was a philosopher of the ‘Understanding’ par excellence and Steiner’s analysis of a fairly long quotation from him traverses his whole position. If therefore the author of the Philosophy of Freedom really saw Hegel’s concept of mind as resembling Spencer’s, he would never have introduced that almost parenthetical distinction later on, to avert the risk of his own position being confused with Hegel’s. It only makes sense if he was speaking from a position, not opposite to, but beside Hegel. A better argument, if we must have one based on the Philosophy of Freedom alone would surely have been that Steiner was nearer to Hegel than he there admits.

But all this is not Miller’s position. He mentions several other books which, or in which, he has read, among them Die Rätsel der Philosophie (Riddles of Philosophy) and the Lecture Das Ewige in der Hegelschen Logik und ihr Gegenbild (The Eternal in Hegel’s Logic and its Opposite Reflection in Marxism). Omitting the lecture for the moment, I confess I do find it very difficult to see how anyone, who had read and pondered any single one of a dozen or more passages in the two separated chapters of Rätsel der Philosophie where Steiner treats of Hegel at length, could possibly imagine that he himself was not at least as well aware as Miller is that ‘Hegel’s Notion [Begriff] is the polar opposite of the empty universal of the Understanding’. I must again select a single example and I take it from page 240 of the Gesamtausgabe edition:

The modern thinker in Hegel is determined to live himself into the creating world, to transform himself into it; he believes he finds himself in it and allows what the spirits of the world expresses as its being (Wesen) to express itself in him, inasmuch as this being of the World-spirit is present and living in self-consciousness. What Plato is within the Greek world, Hegel is within the world of today.

Miller himself does not refer to either of these two chapters. He does, however, quote from the final chapter of Rätsel der Philosophie, in which Anthroposophy itself is explicitly foreshadowed:

For Hegel the world of true thoughts became the inner essence of the world … but one must advance beyond the life of thought to a soul-experience that leads away from and beyond the ordinary consciousness. For Hegel’s life of thought, too, runs its course in the sphere of the ordinary consciousness.

On which he comments: ‘Does this mean that Hegel lacked the faculty of clairvoyant vision?’ To this question the answer must be yes; but I fail to see how it demonstrates misunderstanding. Miller continues: ‘If so, I cannot regard this as a defect limiting his [Hegel’s] insight into the nature of absolute truth.’ Surely what he is in fact saying then that he (Miller) prefers Hegel to Steiner because he is dubious about clairvoyant vision. Which of course he is perfectly entitled to say.

Actually a good deal seems to depend on what is meant by ‘ordinary consciousness’. If, in the passage from Rätsel, it is taken to signify merely ‘Understanding’, it is certainly a gross misrepresentation of Hegel. But I have tried to show that it would be an equally gross misrepresentation of Steiner to suppose him ever interpreting Hegel in that way. It is clear to me that what is meant by ‘ordinary consciousness’ here is consciousness at all levels short of clairvoyance, and that it includes the ‘pure thinking’, without sense-content, which mathematics, Hegel’s logic and Goethe’s morphology alike demand. I rather hope that Mr. Miller will find time to read a very short Lecture – actually Notes of a lecture – entitled Das Bilden von Begriffen und die Kategorienehre Hegels (The Formation of Concepts and Hegel’s Doctrine of Categories), which Dr. Steiner gave to his followers in 1908, but I will not let that hope prevent me from giving a short account of it here. Having previously held two, mainly educational, lectures on Formal Logic and on Analytical and Synthetic Judgments,1 he opens this third one by temporarily deserting the intellectual approach for an attempt to represent pictorially the ontological status, or let us say the actual nature, of those pure concepts into which logic can take us. He puts it this way. The whole system of concepts resembles a sheet (Tafel) between the supersensuous world on one side and the sense world on the other. Without it an observer of the sense world would be furnished with no more than incoherent representations (Vorstellugen). As it is, when he brings the inter-locking web of concepts (Begriffsnetz) within him to the sense-perceptions that meet him from without, he finds the sense world in accord with them. But similarly a mind which has, through modern methods of clairvoyance, become open to the world of supersensuous reality finds the web of concepts in accord with that world also. ‘Supersensuous reality casts its rays on the web from this side, no less than sensuous reality does from the other.’

Next he raises the question: Whence does it come, this web of concepts? And again he answers with a simile. He compares it to shadow – the shadow of a hand for instance. The shadow could not come about if the hand itself were not there. The shadow-shape resembles its archetype, but it has this peculiarity: that it is, properly speaking, nothing. It is brought about by substituting for light the absence of light, by effacing the light. ‘In just the same way concepts come about through the fact that behind our thinking soul there stands the supersensuous world.’ Concepts, too, are properly speaking only an effacing of supersensuous reality. And it is because they are like (ähnlich) the supersensuous world they efface (as the shadow is like its archetype) that man in his concepts can divine something (eine Ahnung bilden) of that world. The shadows arise at the point where supersensuous perception meets the sensuous. But they no more are the supersensuous world than the shadow of a hand is a hand.

This in turn raises the question: How can a man attain to concepts, who has no experience in the supersensuous world? To which the reply is, that it is not necessary to ascend to the supersensuous world in order to form concepts, though it is true that the Seer can more easily compass a complete conceptual world, because he recognises the forces that bring concepts about. It is at this point that Steiner begins to speak of Hegel’s Logic and, in doing so, to emphasise the importance, not only of thinking but of Hegelian thinking in particular. But before going on to that let me point out the bearing of the foregoing on Miller’s contention that ‘in Dr. Steiner’s philosophy pure thinking occupies a subordinate place’. It depends on what we choose to mean by thinking. Thus, when we use the word ‘sky’, we may mean only the apparent blue shell, or we may mean that shell together with unfathomable depths of darkness and light and space behind it. In the same way when we use the word ‘thinking’, we may mean simply the Begriffsnetz or we may mean that together with the supersensuous world that engenders it. Similarly it will depend on the context whether the word ‘Intuition’ signifies (as in the Philosophy of Freedom) no more than purely conceptual apprehension or whether it connotes experience at clairvoyant level. There is distinction, but not division, between the two; because Cosmic Intelligence, descending, has become Universal Earthly Intelligence; or, as it is phrased in the passage from Rätsel der Philosophie already quoted: ‘inasmuch as this being of the World-Spirit is present and living in self-consciousness’. Incidentally, where Miller translates (as quoted above) soul-experience that leads away from and beyond ordinary consciousness’, Dr. Steiner’s German has only the single preposition ‘über’.

Continuing the Lecture and coming to Hegel himself, he briefly stresses the importance, especially for his own followers, of entering thoroughly into the web of concepts as such, as a means of educating the soul and purging it of ‘indolent and slovenly’ thinking; then he takes the bull by the horns by fastening on precisely the most difficult and abstruse, but at the same time most essential, ‘moment’ in Hegelian thinking – the Hegel within the Hegel so to speak. I mean the two primary concepts, or categories, of ‘Being’ and ‘Nothing’, with which the Logic opens. I suppose it is this which, more than anything else, has led Hegel’s critics to accuse him of mistaking mere words for thoughts. I am tempted to it myself. Even Coleridge, who might have been expected to grasp it if anyone could, described it in the margin of his borrowed copy of the Logic as ‘a primary error’ and remarked, among other things: ‘An Objective Nothing is not so truly non-ens as non-sens – it is an absurdity Objacet quod omnino non jacet’. Not so Rudolf Steiner. Hegel’s concepts grow from one another rather as plants do, he instructs his hearers. The concept of ‘Nothing’ is hidden within the concept of ‘Being’, and if we truly contemplate the latter, the former emerges from it. ‘Combine the two concepts “Being” and “Nothing” with one another, and you reach the richer concept of “Becoming”, which already contains both the other two …’ It is all very difficult. But that does not prevent him from both emphasising and recommending it to his hearers – as an antidote to materialism in its theosophical disguise, namely, a phantasmally literal, acceptance of the Seer’s figurative descriptions of the spiritual world:

To represent to ourselves (eine Vorstellung machen von) the concept of ‘Nothing’ is no less important than it is difficult. Many people, even many philosophers, will say it is quite impossible to form a concept of ‘Nothing’. But that is just the thing it is so important for anthroposophists to do. A time will come when much will depend on whether the concept of ‘Nothing’ can be grasped in the appropriate manner. Spiritual Science suffers from the fact that the concept of ‘Nothing’ cannot be grasped in its purity. It is the reason why Theosophy2 has become a doctrine of Emanations (Emanationslehre).

All this does not sound to me much like ‘mistaking the standpoint’ of the Logic. I wonder if it does to Mr. Miller. Let me in any case conclude with a word or two on the true relation between Steiner and Hegel, as I see it and as I believe Steiner himself saw it. Hegel’s view of Western philosophy as a whole was historical. He saw it as the organic, evolutionary development as of one single mind. The same is true of Steiner, but there are two differences. Steiner included in his view an underlying development of the unconscious mind, that is of the spiritual foundations of consciousness; and, coming after Hegel, he was able to include Hegel himself in his view. From without, he saw Hegel’s philosophy as the culmination of the whole great process (and so incidentally, from within, did Hegel!). But for that very reason – because the very tip of the summit had been reached – it was, he said, also a dead end, a Totenpunkt. The goal being knowledge of spirit, we can ask for instance (and of course such a skeletal historicism is, from other points of view, painfully superficial): Where did we go from Hume? And we can answer: to Kant. We can ask: Where did we go from Kant? And we can answer: to Fichte and Hegel. But if we ask, as Steiner himself does: Where do we go from Hegel? then, just because we have already reached the summit, the only possible answer is: across the Threshold to clairvoyant perception, that is, to immediate, trans-conceptual awareness of the spiritual world. When you are already standing tiptoe on the cairn, you must either go down again, or stop where you are, or take wings. There is no fourth option.

Hegel’s philosophy, said Steiner, in Lecture 10 of The Mission of the Folk Souls, ‘is the final, the most highly sublimated expression of the Spiritual Soul’. As such it is very far from being a thing of the past, to be put away in the attic neatly labelled: ‘superseded by Anthroposophy’; and there is even a certain fatuity about asking where we go from Hegel before we have yet got to Hegel. I should be glad to feel as much at home in the Begriffsnetz as I believe Mr. Miller does. Let me repeat: Cosmic Intelligence, descending, has become the Universal Earthly Intelligence within us. If the latter is still also cosmic, if there is a distinction but not division between the two, if ‘universals’ can in fact lead a human soul back with them to clairvoyant union with their source in pure spirit, that is because there is a Mystery of Golgotha as well as of Ahriman. But which of these two is to prevail? In that other lecture on ‘The Eternal in Hegel’ given on the 150th anniversary of his birth, in 1920, Steiner observes that Hegel composed his Logic in the second decade of the nineteenth century, at a time when mankind was ‘beginning to grow materialistic’. There was a kind of sinking down into matter. And he goes on:

One sees the picture of humanity sinking down into the material, and Hegel standing, as it were, in the midst, prizing out, tearing free from Ahriman what in Ahriman is good: the abstract logic which we need for our inner liberation, without which we cannot attain to pure thinking – wrenching it free from the Powers of gravity, tearing it away from the earthly Powers and setting it there in its entire cold abstractness, so as to stop it from living in the Ahrimanic element and let it ascend instead into human thinking. Yes, this Hegelian logic was torn away, wrenched free from the Ahrimanic Powers and given to humanity; humanity needs it, cannot progress without it, but it had first to be wrenched from the clutch of Ahriman.

Therefore Hegelian logic remains something eternal, therefore it must work on. It must be sought after again and again. Mankind cannot manage without it. …

This same Lecture is one which I would recommend, as relevant, to the correspondent who castigated and rejected Hegel because of the well-known historical relation between his philosophy and the Prussian doctrine of the Absolute State.

It seems almost impossible to write an article like this without suggesting by innuendo a long and extensive acquaintance with the subject on the author’s part. No such thing. Until quite recently my direct acquaintance with Hegel was almost limited to a brief flirtation with the Phänomenologie des Geistes in early manhood. I owe it to my contact with Mr. Miller, and I must add to his generosity in the matter of his monumental Translations, that I have recently tried to go a little further than that. Moreover, though I always knew it was not slight, it is under the stimulus of his article, and of the correspondence resulting from it, that I have discovered for the first time the truly enormous importance Rudolf Steiner did attach to Hegel, whom he once called ‘the greatest philosopher of the world’. Something of this I have tried to express. I have also expressed sharp disagreement with much that the article contains. What I have not yet expressed is the warm gratitude I feel, and which I believe many readers will share with me, to Mr. Miller himself for having taken the trouble to write it.

Owen Barfield


1 All three lectures are collected in the volume entitled Die Beantwortung von Welt und Lebensfragen durch Anthroposophie. Gesamtausgabe edition: Bibl. No. 108. The fact that Miller translates Begriff ‘Notion’ and not ‘Concept’ can be ignored for present purposes. Return.

2 In 1908 Steiner had not yet broken with the Theosophical Society. Return.

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.