The Philosophy of Freedom

Notes on Rudolf Steiner's key philosophical text

Chapter 1
Deliberate human action

In Chapter 1 of The Philosophy of Freedom, Rudolf Steiner introduces the problem of free will. Over the course of a few pages, he sets out a fundamental question. If you know why you do somethinng, is your action free or is it determined?

Obviously, nobody could claim that they're free if they don't know why they're doing something. But are you free when you know what motivates you to act? Steiner argues that we need to understand what it means to know why we act before we can decide whether we're free, or whether the laws of nature always determine our actions.

The problem of free will

People who support the idea of free will tend to believe that the ability to think and act freely is the most precious ability that we possess as human beings. Those who deny the possibility of freedom, on the other hand, tend to believe that free will is humanity's greatest illusion.

It's a sign of the superficial nature of our times, says Steiner, that philosophers have dismissed the problem of free will as a false dilemma. It doesn't matter if you're free or determined, say these philosophers, because it has no implications for how we judge the moral or other character of our actions.

You can't choose to want something

The argument first put forward by the 17th-century philosopher Spinoza is the following. There's always something that causes you to act in a certain way. It's just that you aren't conscious of the causation at work within you. And because you don't know what causes you to act, you simply choose to believe that you're free.

In reality, claims Spinoza, you're merely following whichever one of your desires proves to be the strongest. You can't choose what you want to desire - you just desire it - and so your action is forced upon you by that underlying cause.

But you can know why you do something

But you can know the reason why you do something! Herein lies the fallacy of Spinoza's argument, says Steiner. We're not all drunks who act without thinking – at least not all of the time. Nor are we all babies who cannot do otherwise but cry for milk. There are times when we know exactly why we do something.

And so Steiner asks an essential question: Are all human thoughts and actions alike? Can we really compare the biological necessity that causes a baby to cry with the rational or moral reflections that lead a person to take deliberate action? For Steiner, freedom isn't a matter of whether I'm free to choose a particular course of action, but how the decision to act arises within me.

Thinking comes first

Unlike animals, people understand and can articulate their motives for doing things. That doesn't mean that all deliberate action derives from rational reflection. We often do things influenced by our feelings. But even then, there's a thought or an image in our mind that we're pursuing.

When you're in love, for instance, you hold an idea or a mental image of the other person in your mind. You recognize something about the person. And often, it's whatever you 'see' in the person that causes you to fall in love with them.

So before we can understand deliberate action, we need to understand how our thinking leads us to act. In other words, we need to understand the nature of thinking.

What does to think really mean?

While reading this first chapter of the The Philosophy of Freedom, you might be tempted to dismiss Steiner's arguments with a catch-all claim. For example, you might claim that our thinking is determined by the neurons firing in our brains, or that what we do and what we think is determined by combination of nature and nurture.

Throughout this chapter, Steiner seems to be fighting this temptation within us - the temptation that makes us shy away from thinking about our own thinking. It's almost as if he's goading us into asking ourselves, what does to think really mean?

If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.
— C.S. Lewis

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