Stuck in a book on Steiner

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

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8 comments
  1. onesis said:

    This is an interesting insight into, not Rudolf Steiner of course, or Gary Lachman, but one of the modes of thinking of Angela Roothaan the writer of philosophy books. Now, as one of your readers, I happen to know, and have come to know just recently, that what you do like are responses that further an engagement with your ideas.

    Here you are telling us what interests you philosophically about Steiner is that he “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.” This is in connection with your current research and interest into spiritual phenomena.

    If we put these two items together we get the information that your interest in Steiner is that he didn’t merely passively observe spiritual phenomena, but rather, at least by implication, he actively engaged with them. Then we discover that your interest wanes once he gets into the actual engagement, which developed into anthroposophy, which became one of those tight knit communities with their black boxes and closed discourses that you say stand in need of deconstruction and reconstruction.

    In a word, this is an agenda. It is the agenda of one standing on the outside of a community with a philosophical toolkit ready made for the opening of black boxes. One does not know, in advance, whether the toolkit will open the black box, or even if it does, what will fly out.

    We philosophers are those who stand wondering at the universe. I wonder how much of the universe is contained in Steiner’s back box. Or in the whole array of black boxes inside the black box. I wonder, Angela, how much you know of this already, and whether you have had a sneak preview of what is inside. I’m asking this, not because I’d like you to say what it is, but because it leads me to ask a different set of questions.

    Are living philosophers fated to be always staring into the silent dead tombs which are the books of philosophers long dead? What about that other way to be engaged, a more direct route, an experiential route, albeit one where we are within the language pertaining to the phenomena in question? Is not this the route that many philosophers still seem to shy away from? And if they do shy away from it, is this because they are operating under the assumption that the most reliable form of knowledge is that which comes before having lived, having experienced and having engaged? And is this not the same metaphysical assumption that has dogged philosophy and condemned it to irrelevance in the eyes of many?

    Of course, these are only questions, and I do not wish to assert that you are one of these disengaged philosophers.

    • Thanks David, for your analysis of my blogpost, and the questions that it involves. It gives me the opportunity, first, to make some things more clear than they were.

      It is not the actual engagement of Steiner with the spiritual that put me off, for I want to know much more about such actual engagement, which we all practice, all the time, I think, also without knowing it. According to the book Steiner had an extraordinary gift for seeing spiritual reality, which makes me more interested in him. Perhaps only Lachman’s difficulty to write enthusiastically on the theosophical period put me off. But I share this with him: an aversion to unclear use of language. When Steiner introduces Atlantis, Ahriman, Lucifer, and other mythical figures and places to indicate what spiritual life is about, I want to know why he chooses these names and no others.

      My main reason for this aversion is that it makes me suspicious of unconscious (or conscious) politics riding along with those words – like a colonialist preference for things that belong to ‘Western’ culture, for instance. So here is also an answer to one of your questions, regarding engagement. Here is my engagement: I do not think that language is innocent. What language you use. I rather think the modern writer, poet, philosopher can be compared to a shaman, who uses magical words intentionally to heal someone or to heal a situation (or to put an ennemy out of combat). Therefore I study the use of language, to try to find out for whom it is used – is it used to maintain and repair the world (see the motto in ‘about me’), or to give advantages to some group with destructive consequences for the whole. My objective is to expose that kind of language and make people aware that they might choose other words and expressions, that heal themselves and their relations to others (also non-humans).

      I think that all philosophers have, in different forms, this interest for language and expression – but they put their talents to use in different ways, according to their psychology and experience of life. Some just enjoy their intelligence and ‘play chess’ at champion level with words. Others let themselves be used by some establishment (this is the most dangerous trap, as one might not have willed it expressly). Some use their understanding of the magic of words to preach revolution. The problem there is of course that actual revolutions always create new inequalities and injustices.

      I do not know exactly what you mean with a sneak preview of Steiner’s experiences. I would be interested in that next set of questions, for perhaps they will lead to another theme for a post!

      Thanks again.

  2. Thank you angela for disclosing someof your soul as well as your intricate mind in this blog. Your mind is large and hard to follow for me but i recognise your soul. Like here, when you say that powerstruggles in the rc church dont interested you enough to… Or probably powerstruggles about femnism or energy or whatever doesn’t inetrest you enough either. They are, to me too, at most a hindrance to be overcome or ignored, not a focus for creative attention. Here i know your soul. your statement about your books Spinoza and Nature as closing statements of where you stand i understand. That spirits are of ongoing interest arouses me too, maybe the creativity of it, a search for light as well as enlightenment?

    • Thanks, Ineke, for reading my soul! The question at the end of your blog might well be the beginning of another blogbost. 😉

  3. Dear Angela, I feel urged to give three very short remarks:
    – Reading a book ON Steiner is not understanding his thoughts (of course it differs much of who wrote the book)
    – Steiner is not a philosopher as such, but kind of clearvoyant, who tried to formulate what he ‘saw’ in some kind of scientific language and deriving strategies thereof. He therefore was not influenced by and citing philosophers in his work, although he sometimes mentions them. His most phylosophic work is Phylosophy of Freedom, which I did not manage to swallow, though I read a lot of his other works and speeches. His Akashachronicle is a good starter if you wish to understand some of his spiritual ideas.
    – The political issues relating to the Antroposofical movement and Association are not that important: just skip the passages.

    • Thanks, abubakker, for sharing your knowledge of Steiner. I do agree fully with the first remark. Reading a book about someone should just be a starter. To the second point I would like to reply that to my view all good philosophers should have been some kind of visionaries or clearvoyants, although not all in the same sense. I was intrigued by Lachman’s analysis of Steiner’s reactions to Kant, Fichte and Nietzsche – it came across as trustworthy, and I would like to check it in his own philosophical work. Thanks for the third tip – I should do that 😉

  4. onesis said:

    Angela, the paragraph in which you wrote “Here is my engagement” is a beautiful summary of your philosophical mission. This helps me understand my own attraction to your writings, since it is a poststructural approach to philosophy and one that I use also. (An autobiographical aside: I haven’t published books, although I have a number of papers and chapters in edited books published in the Futures academic discourse. I would also want to say that those papers were preliminary to a much deeper engagement, and my forthcoming work is in the field of occupational studies. I call myself a philosopher of human occupation.)

    My question about black boxes was to call into question Latour’s notion of a black box, as a hermetically sealed container of ideas that are now regarded as truth. My reference to your having had a “sneak preview” was a suggestion that the boxes are not all that airtight and sealed up, and that what you know is not confined to what you can discover using deconstructive and reconstructive methods. It is always interesting to me, that no matter what culture it is, even a traditional Aboriginal culture with no writings as such (except for cave and rock art) can be approached with a degree of understanding even by a rank outsider. An example are the writings of Russian born anthropologists in relation to Australian Aboriginal people. See Elena Govor’s book My Dark Brother. My suggestion is that what gave the Russian anthropologists such an eventually deep insight was not anthropology as such, but the recognition of a common humanity.

    What this indicates is that we are already inside the black box once we allow ourselves to be drawn into its depths by language and compassion. However, even so, words do not fully capture meaning. There are no exact translations. There is no perfect communication.

    So applying these insights into spiritual phenomena, we have grounds to be immediately suspicious of what might be “said” from that dimension. There is no common humanity here. If these be immortals, we are mortals. If these be above the earth, we are on it. If these be above the sky even, then we are under it. What words could translate meaning from another dimension entirely into the human world as perfectly suited to that world and the conditions of living in it?

    I had an experience when walking with an Aboriginal elder, of a black snake on the track immediately in front of us. He pointed to the snake and told me it was a message from the ancestors. When I asked about the meaning of the message, he said it was a warning not to take a white man into sacred country. My thought is this. Out of compassion and friendship for each other, two men, one white, one black, walk together on an ancient land. It is an act of healing and reconciliation. What right then do “the ancestors” have to intervene? And this thought is a point of ongoing contention between us (albeit we are making progress to heal the wound.)

    Let’s cast our net more widely now. How much of the conflict and strife between humans comes directly because someone or other claims some sort of spiritually endowed authority to declare who should and who should not occupy a particular place? I will not mention any further names. Such people are spread across the world.

    As a philosopher I have to ask, how has it come to be that we humans have so easily succumbed to the pressure of spiritual powers, to create what can only be described as conditions of oppression and injustice? Against that, a philosopher worthy of standing up as a human being and not grovelling like a pig in the mud, will stake a claim that the earth is the domain of mortals, not immortals.

    That said, any immortals who are willing to protect humans in their mortal quest to be or become who we authentically are, are most welcome to join us.

  5. dickjan Nieuwenhuizen said:

    Dear Angela,
    I am touched by your remarks on the writing of books as a means to communication. Quite often, not to say nearly always, I have the feeling that by normal communication through speaking or memo’s or such, I never really communicate because the other has a different set of values, background, learning and information. I am often amazed that there is a modicum of understanding. Over the past ten – fifteen years i developed into a mindmapper because that was a way for me to express what was going on in my mind. But is is also a way to build a mental image of a book or a theory through which it is easier to think about and to remember.

    I read the book THE CARETAKERS OF THE COSMOS, LIVING RESPONSIBLY IN AN UNFINISHED WORLD from Gary Lachman. I have been wondering how to place him. Now I know. Thank you.

    About succumbing to the pressures of spiritual powers: I am currently working on a mindmap on compassion, more especially the charter for compassion and all that it involves. According to Karen Armstrong not spirituality but politics are to blame. In their strife to win a certain point people highjack a (small) part of a religion/philosophy and declare their viewpoint to be a God given truth. It is al part of the workings of our brain as modern neurology is discovering.

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