Thursday, May 9, 2013

What is Anthroposophy?

This article has been written to provide basic information about the spiritual path known as Anthroposophy, which was first formulated by Rudolf Steiner. Anthroposophy means literally “knowledge of the nature of man” and is sometimes called “spiritual science”.

The principal idea of Anthroposophy is that it is possible to use scientific methods to undertake spiritual investigations. Steiner came to this idea logically after deciding that the categorisation of things as either physical or spiritual was artificial and arbitrary.

There is no division between the physical and spiritual world

Today’s world is dominated by two views. Firstly, Materialistic nomism,  typified by pure science and the new atheist movement, says there is only one world. This is the physical world that we can see and that we can investigate with science. Secondly, the dualism of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), which says that there are two worlds: the physical world that we can see and investigate and a spiritual world which we can not.

Steiner said  that this division is artificial and caused by people choosing to categorise things as either spiritual or physical for arbitrary reasons. Steiner believed that the physical (visible) world and the spiritual (invisible) world are inextricably linked and suggested a nomism in which physical and spiritual forces are both manifestations of the same reality. For example, if a man raises his right hand we could understand this by talking about his brain, skeleton and muscles. We might also understand this as an act of his will, and understand why he was raising his hand. Every physical action has a spiritual cause or connection to this invisible or “supersensible” world.

Steiner believed that it was possible to perceive and investigate this invisible world by a process of free thought that he called “intuitive thinking”. Steiner postulated in his book “The Philosophy of Freedom”  that the only really free activity we undertake is the thinking we do inside our own heads. Even then, some of our thoughts are constrained by social norms, external moral or religious rules or learned behaviours. Steiner suggested a number of exercises which could be used to develop our ability to think freely, leading to an ultimate state which he calls the “ethical individualist”.

The Ethical Individualist

The ethical individualist is someone who knows how to think scientifically and use observational analysis to examine his own thoughts and the situations he finds himself in. This means that knowledge of his thoughts and decisions about how he may act in any situation are obtained by pure reason alone. Steiner called this process “intuitive thinking”.

To prevent outside influence on his decision making the ethical individualist uses conceptual analysis to examines each situation in light of the general principles of ethics rather than specific moral laws. This means that any resulting deed originates within himself and is truly free.

The ethical individualist still studies and tries to live according to the generally agreed ethical principles and laws of society (such as science, sociology or ecology) but he also uses his imagination to create ideals of action from these principles. This moral intuition creates a plan of action, or a goal. Without such idealistic plans moral laws and ethical codes codes are unproductive.

The ethical individualist is self empowered because these goals become the content of his own being. They are pursued not as a matter of duty, but out of love for the deed itself. His goals  empower his will against all obstacles and motivate him to acquire the necessary technical knowledge to accomplish them.

In short , the three essential capabilities for the ethical individualist are:

  1. Ethical Intuition. The ability to intuitively select an ethical principle that applies in a particular situation.
  2. Ethical Imagination. The ability to imaginatively translate that general ethical principle into a specific ideal of an action that may be carried out in reaction to that situation.
  3. Ethical Technique. The ability to transform the world according to our individual ethical imaginations without violating the natural laws by which things are connected.


Rather than a magical state conferred through a ritual, initiation is simply  the point at which someone becomes able to perceive the spiritual world. Steiner believed that initiation was open to all and could be achieved by a programme of self training through meditation and spiritual exercises. There is no need for any priest or ceremonial activity in order for someone to achieve this state. The process for initiation was explained by Steiner in his book “Knowledge of the Higher Worlds And Its Attainment”.

The Scientific Investigative Method

Rudolf Steiner rejected eastern style mystical clairvoyance and replaced it with focused meditation. By meditating on a subject, whether it be a physical object or a spiritual issue, Steiner believed that new intuitions would appear. These intuitions could then be tested by logic, in relation to existing knowledge, or through comparisons with the spiritual investigations of others.

Steiner’s starting point was that the definition of an investigation as “scientific” is decided by the methods used rather than the subject matter. Having concluded that the physical and spiritual worlds were really the same holistic world any part of it could be investigated with the scientific method i.e. systematic observation; measurement and experiment; and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

To Steiner, natural science (biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics) and spiritual science (his methods for perceiving the spiritual aspects of the world) were part of the same process. He observed the spiritual world through meditation, but subjected these observations to reason to determine if they were valid and truthful. This process of considered reflection is important because the data being observed is coming through the human mind, which is a subjective tool. This is why he emphasised the need to become free in our own thinking - as ethical individualists. Without freeing our thinking the risk of bias, error or deception from spiritual scientific investigation would potentially make these observations worthless.

Steiner’s Spiritual Insights

Rudolf Steiner’s work is underpinned by his philosophical work on freedom, his new method of self initiation and his use of scientific observation to examine the invisible world. He went on to write a number of books and give hundreds of lectures on the spiritual insights he gained from using these methods. These spiritual insights were the result of his own meditative processes, through which, he believed he received information from the supersensible world. However, he was always careful to ask people to test these ideas through their own investigations. Because of this Steiner’s Anthroposophy was a process of discovery rather than a fixed credal faith.

That said, there are a number of important insights given by Steiner which are central to current Anthroposophical thinking. I hope to write further articles on these in the near future.