The importance of Steiner – a more personal note

I feel I owe to my readers, and especially to those who are engaged with anthroposophy, a more personal note, adding to my latest post. Let me explain how I came into contact with Steiner’s heritage, and got interested in his work. I first heard of anthroposophy when I was a student. My first encounter was with a reading group of believers, which I visited on the invitation of a friend. They discussed Steiner’s cosmic views on Christ. The people over there were very confidant on their beliefs, which struck me as odd, for their emphasis that they were based on real knowledge, a thing which I could not make sense of, back then, being immersed in the scientific worldview through my studies (that was sociology, back then). Later, when I studied philosophy, I got a friend who had been raised and schooled anthroposophically, and who told about Steiner’s epistemology. I tried to read some of it then, but didn’t succeed. I left it at that, and although I was sympathetic to my friend’s approach of the things of life, I didn’t research their foundation further.

My next encounter with anthroposophy resulted from some horrific experiences, while raising my children, with mainstream schooling in my country. It seemed, despite all the advertising of the mainstream schools – that they would put the child central, that they had methods to go against bullying, and that the best of the child would be addressed by their approach – that they completely missed what they should do: let children enjoy learning, and develop themselves in a safe atmosphere. Bullying was addressed by fruitless talks in which the aggressor should ‘see’ what he did, and the victim should see what he contributed to becoming a victim. Ridiculous psychologizing which might be well for rational adults who are in a conflict (with the emphasis on rational), but completely useless, and even harmful for children’s relationships. Learning was entirely focused on intellectual goals, which were again narrowed down to measurable steps of attaining ready made knowledge, which was endlessly tested to get quantifiable results on the schools performance. Safety was absent, and the development of children was practically overlooked.

When in the end I turned to a Steiner school (also called Waldorf school in the English speaking countries), it seemed I met for the first time some educators who seemed to know what education was about, on the basis of a sound insight in how children behave and develop. I must admit, though, that this was a ‘liberal’ Steiner school, attended by a lot of children whose parents are no anthroposophists, and also manned by a lot of teachers who are neither. It is open to new developments, accepting the importance of computer knowledge, for instance, next to the traditional importance given in such schools to handicraft.

In the book I discussed last time, Lachman highlights that Steiner’s main goal was to initiate a movement that could counter the prevailing materialism of western culture, by turning to its own spiritual tradition (think Eckhart, Paracelsus, Bruno). The materialism (it is not only that, to my view, it is also, perhaps even more, a stress on quantification and statisticalization, although that word does not exist – organizing humanity in categories, forgetting it’s ‘organical’ potential to grow in ‘natural’ and unpredicted ways) is a factor that makes humans dumb, and even endangers their potential to be moral agents (I agree with that).

I think Steiner’s work to be of great importance for having left behind at least places where there is openness in western culture (which is not only western, however, about that another time) for a different view of humanity, and especially for having tried out practical ways to investigate and develop human potential that is left to lie waste otherwise.

Having said that, I am for openminded, creative, experimentation with the essentials of his heritage, and in order to make this possible, it is important to criticize what is wrong or distorted in his ideas. Every great spiritual movement deserves such criticism. Here is where philosophy comes in, as well as taking serious original experiences of people (instead of living off second-hand spirituality as James called orthodoxy). I aim to study further on these things, but for now some of the things that I think wrong in Steiner’s views are a) his emphasis on Western culture (although rediscovering it’s spiritual tradition is important, I did something of that when graduating, it is false to see it out of the context of it’s relations and being influenced by other traditions, wrong historically and morally), and, b) what goes along with this, his lack of distinction between the spiritual experiences he had, and his uncritical expression of them in the language of the christian and esoteric traditions which he thought best to describe them in.

Whereas original spiritual experiences can inspire to do great deeds (as were his experimental development of environmental, agricultural and educational awareness), the choice of the language in which to express them is not an innocent one. It has to be scrutinized thoroughly, and discussed publicly. Again, here is where the instruments of philosophy can fulfill their task. They are different jobs, to develop, for instance, good methods of education, and to reflect on the ideas they are based upon. But equally important. Complementary. My job it is to contribute to the reflection part.

  1. onesis said:

    Wonderful! Well done Angela. This supplies the ontological hermeneutics the other blog lacked. Now we know that you are both “with” and “not with” Steiner, and your job is to explore the “not with”, and so contribute to a critical reconstruction of his work.

  2. onesis said:

    With some degree of trepidation I’d like to add some more remarks. (The trepidation is that I don’t want to be seen as a nuisance.)

    Putting those last two blogs together, the second as a response to readers’ response to the first, exemplifies for me, quite perfectly, what I’d call occupational philosophy (or occupational ethics). The first blog presents Angela as philosophical writer with an interest in esoteric spiritual phenomena. The second blog grounds the philosophical interest in Angela’s occupational experience as a mother who wants her children to have the best education possible. Suddenly the interest isn’t esoteric; it is everyday. It is relevant to many people.

    What occupational philosophy seeks to do is connect everyday occupational experiences to the communities in which they occur, each with their peculiar or even conflicting world views and underpinning myths, to the possibility for a critique arising out of (a) the background stories of different participants, acknowledging their own culture and traditions (b) an enriched appreciation for individual persons (whether young, old, able-bodied, disabled, and so on) (c) an appraisal of issues such as justice, goodness, respect, and so on, and (b) the possibility for a transformation of the community towards greater openness, inclusion, and awareness of the earth and its current state of travail.

    The aim of such a philosophy is to enable communities to make a transition from being purely ideologically driven, or economically driven, or politically motivated, to being responsive to the fundamental requirement of all humans to do something worthwhile with their lives that has meaning and purpose.

    I don’t see this agenda as necessitating a break with all traditions, however it does expose the traditions to a radical critique, and this exposes the philosopher to hostility. It is a hazardous project, and so the underpinning virtue is the Aristotelian concept of phronesis, which involves taking steps forward warily.

    Given the technologically and instrumentally focussed approach to education that has engulfed the world in the past century, it is little wonder that whenever I try to explain this kind of philosophy on other networks and forums, I typically get what can best be described a puzzled silence. The very notion of what constitutes ethics has largely been lost.

  3. Conny van Lubeck said:

    Steiners contribution has to be viewed in his own cultural context, which is, from our perspective, quite limited indeed.
    Esoteric philosophy is always and still developing, as consciousness develops. And: it is essentially an oral tradition.
    Yet, for a present day view: see Peter Goldman- Goldworte- Aus der Werkstatt der Seele

    • Thanks, Conny, for your response, and for your reading suggestion. As to the cultural context: I think every cultural context is limited, also our own. Cultural context can explain blind spots that we have, not exonerate them. I do not mean to criticize someone else by saying this, it applies as much, or more, to myself. Responsibility to learn and to get to know one’s own blind spots is something which addresses me in the first place, always.

    • Conny van Lubeck said:

      hi Angela, ofcourse I have to agree with your observations on the blind spots that are there lalways and everywhere and in everybody.
      Esoteric philosophy is a future orientated philosophy, tends to look a bit beyond present day circumstances, and a bit ahead of science and the given level of culture. But still within the framework of today.
      If you ever find the opportunity to read the book, I hope to read your comments on it.
      All the best, Conny

  4. Thanks again, David, for your response (it is not a nuisance at all, I am very much interested in your approach). Two remarks in reply:

    1) ‘a mother who wants the best education for her children’ is putting it too mildly: it was about the attempt to prevent the school from bringing more and more damage to the child (among other things he was losing interest in learning, losing confidence, losing joy) – any school that would treat children with normal strictness against misbehavior and with real interest in children, that is in the actual individuals, not in an abstract concept ‘children’, would have done for me – such a school was nearly impossible to find.

    2) about traditions: I agree with what you say there. Breaking with traditions is even impossible (I follow Derrida at this point) – so what is left to us is, indeed, critique, in the original Greek meaning of krisis: distinguishing/sifting. There is no absolute principle to guide the sifting though, and this awareness also seems to guide your work. This does not mean, however, that we should become relativists – we can compare views and acts, and negotiate with those involved, which ones should be preferred for the time being.

    One reason for the puzzled silence you mention might also be that people find it difficult to understand your term ‘occupational’ – I think nowadays people tend to think of the ‘occupy’ movement first. I might be interested if you would describe your use of the word in relation to the different meanings it has in everyday language!

    • onesis said:

      Yes Angela I agree that “occupational” is a word with several everyday meanings. These include an association with work and also as you say, a political movement. The disciplines of occupational therapy and occupational science have tried to expand the meaning of the term to include all meaningful activities conducted on a regular basis, but these disciplines are not well known. I regard Hannah Arendt’s term “Vita Activa” and her book about that as one of the first philosophical attempts to understand occupation at least from a western perspective. I would even go so far as to regard her aim in The Human Condition “to think what we are doing” as a definition of occupational philosophy. But here the verb “to think” has a peculiar meaning. It is best described as “to project thought into” what we are doing, as a counteraction to a banal repetition of half truths and platitudes. This sits well with the postmodern approaches of deconstruction and reconstruction that you advocate.

  5. Lee said:

    My daughter spent several years in a Waldorf school in her early grades, and my two boys were homeschooled for some of their early grades. I’m glad they missed the early years of public (government) schooling when children are most innocent and malleable, and the damage goes deepest. After that they generally had their own choice about being in school or not (they chose to be in school), and later about which available school they would go to. I think that the awareness that it was not compulsory, but a matter of choice on their part, helped counteract the stultifying, institutional nature of the government school environment. My general approach with them in dealing with issues and conflicts with the staff and the often rather stupid policies and practices of the school was to agree with them that it was stupid, and remind them that it was their choice to be there. If they wanted to be there, they had to figure out how to deal with the way the school and its staff operated. Occasionally I agreed with the school, and told them so. But in general I conveyed to them that they could evaluate the school for themselves, and maintain their own perspective and critical thinking abilities intact, while still learning how to deal practically with faulty human beings and institutions–something they will have to do all their lives.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Lee. I think homeschooling is not an option in my country. And your approach in talking with the children about school is what I also wanted to do, but as there was no choice for them, I could not do that when they were little – it would be too hard to understand that you have no option and think your parents find it stupid too what happened there.

      • Lee said:

        Yes, those conversations took place when they were pre-teens and teenagers. As you say, it would not have worked when they were younger.

  6. Lee said:

    Hi Angela,

    Thanks again for a pair of fascinating articles about Steiner and the practical application of his writings. Picking up the theme of philosophies expressed in particular human cultures:

    It is not possible for anyone to completely transcend his or her particular culture. All philosophy will be expressed in a particular cultural context. This may be clear at the time it is written, or it may require looking back from a distance in time and space for the cultural content and influence to be clear.

    This is also true, I believe, of all religious and spiritual texts, including the sacred scriptures of the various religions of the world.

    The Bible is no exception. It is indelibly stamped with Hebrew, and later Greek, culture, with many influences from other cultures (Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Roman, etc.) along the way.

    Many skeptics consider this cultural relativism of sacred writings to be an open-and-shut case for why they must be rejected as any sort of divine revelation.

    However, if God is truly as infinite and transcendent as the great religions portray God in their more philosophical and mystical moments, then we humans would not be able to understand God if God were to speak to us directly in God’s own language.

    That’s why the cultural clothing is necessary in all sacred scripture, just as it is in philosophical writing. If there were no human, cultural clothing in which to express deeper ideas, we humans simply wouldn’t and couldn’t understand it. It would go beyond all the parameters of our experience. Our minds are formed within the matrix of particular human cultures. Without at least some tethering to that human experience, we have no ability to grasp and understand what is being communicated–by God or by other humans.

    Far from detracting from the sublime nature of spiritual and philosophical writing, the human, cultural element is what delivers the deeper content to us in a form we can see, grasp, and understand.

    For a much longer version of this analysis focused specifically on the nature of the Bible, see my recent article:
    How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads

    Once we understand the distinction between the message itself and the vehicle by which it is delivered, we can engage in the process of sorting out what is particular and cultural from what is universal and lasting in the various spiritual and philosophical writings we encounter. There is no need to remain stuck in earlier and less enlightened–or just different–cultures to gain great enlightenment from the sacred and philosophical texts that were written in those cultures.

    • Thanks, Lee, for adding your hermeneutical view – to which I think I agree. Reading and dialoguing, and negotiating, the meanings of texts and their practical consequences is a very important art, to which more attention should be given, over against the idea that texts just transfer information in a literal manner.

  7. Janneke said:

    Hi Angela,

    I am reading your recent posts (and replies to it) with great interest.
    Being a masterstudent at the University of Humanistics, an ex-Steinerschool pupil, a mother of two young children, interested in education, and steiner, and spirituality and wanting to find ways to reform/translate/open/connect the antroposofical dircourse (in the field of education), I am curious what more your reading/research is gonna bring.


    • Thanks, Janneke, for your reply. It looks like I will have to follow up my posts on Steiner. Perhaps I will turn to some other subjects first, but I will surely return to this subject when I will have more to say on it. Thanks again, for your interest!

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