Anthroposophy and Science
23 March 1921, Stuttgart
The eight lectures of Rudolf Steiner were given at the Stuttgart Free University Courses between March 16th and 23rd, 1921. There were other subjects and also other speakers. The invitation was directed to students and scientists. One main intention is formulated by Steiner in his concluding address: “We have attempted to introduce the seminar work in such a way that perhaps it could really be recognized that a genuine scientific spirit is our aspiration”— that no sectarianism or desire to found a new religion is at work ...
The time was that of social upheaval in Germany after World War I. In that period Steiner and his co-workers were intensely active in scientific, social, educational and medical work. In the brief span of not quite seven years after the end of World War I (1918) and Steiner's death in 1925, an incredible amount of advice and concrete instruction was given; but also given were new tasks as to what to investigate, individual prescriptions for doctors (including curative education), to farmers for what is now called Bio-dynamic agriculture and last but not least to Waldorf Education in lectures and regular teacher's conferences.
Growing recognition of Waldorf Education and Bio-dynamic Farming — to name just two representative fields — lead quite naturally to the question: in which form were these things given? Thus, there is a legitimate demand for the lectures given in that period.
Among the different lecture series of that time the one offered here is of special methodological nature. Already the long title gives an idea of the scope of subjects treated.
There could be raised an objection: Mathematics has changed in the more than 70 years that have elapsed. Indeed, it has changed as never before a science has changed its methods, its object and general outlook. No science has moved farther away from the intuitive notions of space and of number which had been the basis of geometry and calculus as developed in the 2000 years before our century.
A similar objection can be raised with regard to the Experiment. Even the hectic search in the forties of this century for the properties of uranium-235 and of plutonium — both didn't even exist in weighable quantities — was still straightforward experimentation of the known type even though refined e.g. to purity of ingredients unthinkable up to then. But compared with them, the more recent experiments at Livermore, CERN, Dubna have completely different goals, quite aside of their difference in method. They do not handle any longer material substances and do not investigate properties of such, they are directed to hypothetical particles like “quarks.”
These, often enough, do not “exist” in a form similar to that of a physical solid, they exist “virtually”; they are thought of first and “produced” afterwards — and by that their outcome verifies a theory or, as to that, refutes it if the particles in question do not turn up, let us say, in predicted numbers. But coming back for a moment to pure mathematics. What is said in the first lecture about the certainty of mathematical knowledge is today far more evident than in those days when still one could believe that mathematical concepts were abstracted from Nature (like John Locke's contention that concepts are only percepts stripped of unnecessary details). Today, we know with absolute certainty that mathematical concepts are free creations of the human mind.
The problems, it is true, connected with the foundations of mathematics have raised some doubts about its "certainty" by questioning whether mathematics is absolutely exempt of contradictions. But for all scientific purposes mathematical reasoning still stands as a model of exactness. 1Some mathematical concepts have been expressly created in mathematical physics in order to show certain structures which would correspond to this or that “model” and thus would give substance to hunches or pipe dreams of the theorizing physicist, enabling him, in the ideal case, to check this theory with predicted numerical values or else to either refute or modify his brainchild.
Steiner really does not just pay lip service to the scientific method of Natural Science. In this book one will find very brief and concrete descriptions of the step from the ordinary approach to knowledge to the mathematical — and from there to “Imaginative Cognition.” It is discussed how one can proceed from the study of the eye as a physical apparatus to an entity permeated with life and to form an Imagination of the etheric body in the eye. “Through imaginative activity one has grasped the etheric nature of the human being in the same way as one grasps the external inorganic world through a mathematical approach.”(Lecture 3, p. 51)
And it is discussed in detail how to proceed from imagination to inspiration. In comparison to the, so to speak, general method of the “Path of Knowledge” (As in Steiner's Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, here, a method for the scientist is given. Furthermore, whether this method is scientific in the general sense of the word was put to the listener's own judgement as it will be now for the reader.
There is a remarkable passage where Steiner relates the conversation between a pupil of the brain researcher MENGER who had made a drawing an the blackboard of the hypothetical connections between parts of the brain explaining in his opinion its functioning — and a man who spoke in the sense of HERBART stating that he would make the same drawing, but now for the thought masses and their combinations. I think this is quite remarkable because N. WIENER relates in his book Cybernetics (1947, p 32 and 164) a similar situation. In a Symposium about how to make a reading apparatus for blind people, there was a drawing on the blackboard describing a possible circuitry. The connections should symbolize layers of electrical switches (nowadays just called neurons as in anatomy) in a network that should be able to extract shape (“Gestalt”) from the imitation of a retinal image in the eye. Then a brain anatomist (Dr. VON BONIN) saw the drawing and immediately asked whether this represented the fourth layer of the visual cortex of the brain.
Steiner's event must have taken place somewhere in the nineties of the last century; Wiener's event about half a century later in the forties of our century. Of course, there is a difference: Steiner pointed to an archetypical correspondence between certain thoughts, Wiener relates something that was planned for technical development, which now is becoming hardware.
I do not hesitate to take this "coincidence" as a Symptom for the lasting actuality of the lectures presented here.
Georg Unger, Ph. D.