Writing books is, of course, a way to communicate. A very complicated way, perhaps. When you are at it, there are no responses, you do it alone. The process needs a temporary reduction, even, of the normal intensity of communication with those surrounding you. Still the purpose is to communicate. Why even write books, as it takes so long, before you get some response, if you even get meaningfull responses at all. The point is that writing books is also a process of communication with oneself – a process of finding out whether you can uphold some views you arrived at, over against the potential readers that are in the back of your mind – among whom you yourself are one. It might also be a way to claim something, a position in a debate. Or a way to make a debate possible. The background is alway some form of communication – a form that cannot be done in tweets and posts, or even articles, because there are many sides to the subject which you all want to do justice to and treat in their connectedness.
Looking back, I find that the books I wrote did different things for me. Some where, in fact, the closure of a project of research – like my book on Spinoza. I had researched all there was, at that time, and had said all I could or wanted to say on his work. There were times I thought I could add something, but it never seemed urgent enough. My second book (Return of Nature) was meant to clear the ground to move beyond the separations that I thought wrong, and that had created difficulties in wording what I experienced. Separations between discourses such as poetry and science, religion and reason, politics and spirituality. That done, I moved on, and didn’t feel the need to return to it. People have asked me why I never translated one of those books. The reason was that I already had become involved in the next set of questions, and didn’t allow myself the time to return to the former one.
The latest book, on ghosts/spirits, had an altogether different effect – it seems to have been an appetizer. In the process of doing the research for it, I found so much material that I never heard about, not only in the philosophy curriculum, but neither in discussions with colleagues or on conferences. It seemed that almost every philosopher known for his strict reasoning or fundamental empiricism had said something on ghosts or spirits. In the years since that book appeared, I have read more and more on the subject. Digging into what thinkers so diverse as James, Feyerabend, Kant, Derrida said on the spiritual. I also try to read on spiritual phenomena from other angles than philosophy, as you might have noticed, like anthropology and religious studies.
So this last week I thought I’d start this book on Steiner that was lying around now for some time. Just an introduction into his life and work, nothing heavy yet. The writer is Gary Lachman, one of the founders and musicians of the band called Blondie – which is funny to me, having watched Debbie Harry jump on the screen when I was a teenager, and never having been able to guess back then that I would share my profession with one of her band members. Gary Lachman studied philosophy, and developed this interest in esoteric writers in the Western tradition. He produced quite a series of very readable, and interesting introductions into people like Swedenborg, Madame Blavatsky, and Steiner, among other books on spirituality and spiritualism.
He gets the skeptical reader, by sharing his difficulty with the dryness of Steiner’s philosophical work as well as with the lack of argumentation or foundation of his esoteric disclosures (citing one of his followers as having said of Steiner’s work on occult science ‘if I read it for any length of time, a feeling of nausea came over me’). He relates of Steiner’s life, combining material from his autobiography and from other sources, and resists too much psychologizing. Above all, he treats Steiner’s philosophical work, which deals a.o. with epistemological and anthropological questions, with great seriousness. He shows how Steiner was influenced by Fichte as well as by Nietzsche, and aimed to overcome the idea that the knower is a passive observer – an idea which he saw as a false result of Cartesian and Kantian epistemology. Lachman got me curious to try to find and read some of those works, as ‘forgotten’ philosophers are always interesting – revealing what was discussed against the main stream – reading them a way to open some black boxes (as Latour called established views that are seen as given truths after the process of being debated and sometimes almost dismissed).
But having come to the second half of the book, the one in which Steiner’s connections with theosophy, and his final break with it – establishing anthroposophy as a movement of those who left the theosophical ‘church’ in his support, my interest is declining. Am I too much only interested in the philosophical project of finding words for the spiritual that are open to argumentation? And not enough in the history of its politics? It must be so. It has been the same in my relation to the catholic church, which formed the backdrop of my religious formation – it’s power struggles can annoy or irritate me, they never capture my full attention. My project is to try to find connections in language, webs, to venture past anything directed towards strengthening walls or creating tight-knit communities. To open black boxes and closed discourses, for they might be in need of reconstruction and surely of deconstruction. Finding words for experiences that could not find space yet. So when Steiner stopped writing philosophy and became the leading figure of a spiritual movement, his meaning for history might have begun – that is where my interest as a philosopher got lost.
I read (the first half of) Gary Lachman’s Rudolf Steiner. An Introduction to His Life and Work, Floris Books, 2007