steiner’s sanity

The mental health of Rudolf Steiner seems to have turned into an increasingly popular topic (see post comments) over the past week(s). I wouldn’t call it a discussion, as it is quite difficult to discuss with repeated and boldly simplified assertions — with not much substance or background — that Steiner was mentally ill. The only “arguments” backing up the assertion being a couple of quotes from Steiner’s work. We all know Steiner’s work contains a large number of nutty claims and ideas. But as I have written numerous times before, saying nutty things, being mistaken, or professing beliefs that are untrue isn’t in itself a sign that someone is insane. And Steiner’s sanity (or insanity) doesn’t change the nature of the beliefs: he could be perfectly sane and be wrong, he could be bat-shit insane and be right. To know if the claims are accurate or inaccurate, true or untrue, the analysis clearly requires something more. To claim Steiner was insane, because he said something nutty about potatoes, spiritual beings or root races, doesn’t really cut it. To claim that all the things he said were bad, because he was insane, doesn’t either.

This said, I do find Steiner’s mind and personality completely intriguing. Whether or not he was sane. It doesn’t have anything to do with one quote here and there, and the contents of these quotes, because in themselves they aren’t interesting. I’d like to see at least an attempt to explain why the contents of a certain quote should lead to the conclusion that Steiner was insane; preferably the quote would be put into context, the context of the text, of other texts, of Steiner’s life and his other beliefs. Then there would be some sense to it, which frankly is lacking from simplified arguments like: look what Steiner said about potatoes, thus speaks an insane man.

There’s no doubt Steiner wasn’t the average guy — he wasn’t exactly the epitome of normality. He did have wild ideas, did experience — or claimed to experience — some weird stuff, held very unconventional beliefs about the material and immaterial world. He was quite nutty, actually. Of course there’s a possibility he was insane — even clinically insane — periodically or even all his life. You could certainly explore his works and find material to substantiate such a claim. For example, find instances where he could be interpreted as someone having a visual hallucination. Sure. But you’d need an idea of what his illness and its symptoms were, there has to be some kind of reasoning behind it. Not just “he was insane and if you don’t realize it you’re a liar and an idiot” (or whatever). And as far as the visual goes, and also the intensity of the spiritual experience, I have — and I’m certain others have — suggested epilepsy (or temporal lobe epilepsy). It could certainly explain some of Steiner’s experiences (for those of us who do not wish to rely on the explanatory value of a supernatural cause), and it would also explain why he could function so well and so consistently in life. Mental illness, in the form of clinical insanity (rather than a mere divergence from the “normal”), seems unlikely because he was stable. You could say that having a group of adherents made it possible for him to remain in society or to uphold an image of sanity rather than be locked up in an asylum or, at least, being regarded as insane by his environment — but no, that cannot be the only explanation. His behaviour, his dependability (and, if one reads the lectures, even though the content is at times pretty nutty, he is coherent and making sense within the (anthroposophical) framework) and his ability to handle an extensive workload (lecturing, writing, travelling, consulting) are all factors which seem to indicate that he wasn’t a case for the insanity ward anyway. Or a case for relative social exclusion as a mad man, had he not been capable of attracting followers inclined to accept and appreciate his visions.

Lots of people have strange experiences, spiritual experiences, experiences which fly in the face of reality. Mild delusion and even hallucinatory episodes may not be that uncommon at all. Not everything is insanity, neither is the line separating sanity from insanity absolute and uncomplicated.

Gurus are not easily accommodated within our current psychiatric taxonomy. Neither their acute periods of mental distress nor the settled belief systems which follow can be dismissed as forms of insanity unless we are prepared to widen our concepts of insanity to a ridiculous extent. Gurdjieff and Steiner, though neither suffering from paranoid schizophrenia nor being psychotic in the sense of being socially disabled, share certain characteristics with patients whom psychiatrists would designate as paranoid. … As I have indicated, it is indeed grandiose to create one’s own cosmogony in total disregard of accepted scientific opinion. Both Steiner and Gurdjieff did this.  … Steiner, in addition to inventing his own history of the universe, believed that he had special powers of observation which revealed the spiritual reality which lay behind material appearances. […] The belief systems propounded by gurus like those of Steiner and Gurdjieff may be thought delusional, but so-called normal people also express eccentric ideas. For example, a substantial number of people believe that they have seen flying saucers, or that corn-circles are the work of aliens. But we do not judge such people to be psychotic unless there is other evidence of mental malfunction or social incompetence. … The diagnosis of mental illness should not be made on the evidence of beliefs alone, however eccentric these may appear. I have tried to demonstrate that a new belief system, whether it is considered delusional or not, is an attempt at solving problems. Striving to make sense of strange mental experiences is only one example of the universal human desire to bring order out of chaos. [Storr, A. Feet of Clay, p 170-1.]

23 thoughts on “steiner’s sanity

  1. “The only “arguments” backing up the assertion [that Rudolf Steiner was mentally ill] being a couple of quotes from Steiner’s work.”

    It’s up to you to read more than just “a couple of quotes from Steiner’s work.”

    Then you would find: “That Steiner built up a complete parallel-universe that has no connection to any aspect of the outside world, let alone to the world of science. This is the reason why no serious scientist ever tried to work on Steiner’s unique cosmos: it would ruin his scientific career.”

    Then you would find: “That Steiner is building up his own cosmos of “races”. Crazy as it is, this cosmos in itself is rather coherent. Helmut Zander, German historian who wrote a book of 1884 pages on Steiner, speaks of “Steiner’s raceTHEORY”. Being a historian he could not write about “mental illness”. But he thinks it is an interesting hypothesis that Steiner’s “races” reflect different aspects of Steiner’s personality, i.e. reflect Steiner’s mental disorder.”

  2. Andreas,

    Quote: Then you would find: “That Steiner built up a complete parallel-universe that has no connection to any aspect of the outside world, let alone to the world of science. This is the reason why no serious scientist ever tried to work on Steiner’s unique cosmos: it would ruin his scientific career.”

    You haven’t even read my post, have you. If you had, you may find, indeed, that I haven’t disputed that Steiner created his version of cosmos, neither have I stated that his cosmos has anything to do with scientific knowledge.

    I VERY much doubt that Helmut Zander equates “Steiner’s personality” with “Steiner’s mental disorder”, which you insinuate in your last sentence. (Which I don’t know why you put within quotation marks — what you conclude others would find is simply what YOU have found. YOU have found that Steiner’s race theories reflect his personality and therefore his “mental disorder” as diagnosed by YOU yourself.)

    A personality can encompass an astonishing amount of illogical, irrational and contradicting beliefs without there being a mental disorder causing it.

    If you believe something else, you are sadly very misinformed and would benefit from educating yourself about mental disorder and mental illness.

    Also, you know very well I’ve read a lot more than a “few quotes”. It’s you who keep posting quotes on people’s blogs as “evidence” of Steiner’s supposed insanity.

  3. I do recommend to read this article of Ansgar Martins very attentively:

    “Ahriman, Avitchis und die Apokalypse – Anthroposophie als religiöse Heilslehre”

    Ansgar Martins writes:

    “Ich bin mir zwar (1.) relativ sicher, dass Steiners Visionen von Dämonen und ihren irdischen Manifestationen Projektionen oder sogar Persönlichkeitsabspaltungen waren (Die ihm unheimliche Emotion wurde zum Reich des Luzifer, das, was er Materialismus nannte, zum Reich Ahrimans), die er aber meditativ tatsächlich so erlebte und wahrnahm”

    What does Ansgar Martins want to say? That Rudolf Steiner was mentally ill? If so, why does he restrain from using a straightforward term? Ask him, I did.

  4. @ zooey

    I put my statements into quotation marks to show I already said this before. If you think it’s necessary to give a link, too: go ahead!

    I read your article.

    You didn’t get the point of the discussion with Helmut Zander: Zander thinks it is “an interesting HYPOTHESIS that Steiner’s “races” reflect different aspects of Steiner’s personality.” Something that has still to be proved. Nobody stops you to research on this.

    You write: “Also, you know very well I’ve read a lot more than a “few quotes”. It’s you who keep posting quotes on people’s blogs as “evidence” of Steiner’s supposed insanity.”

    Then you should start to look at what quotes/lectures/books of Rudolf Steiner do have in common and stop seeing only ISOLATED things. It doesn’t matter at all on which particular topic Steiner talks. It’s HOW Steiner EXPLAINS things. It’s these explanations that are nuts.

  5. Hi again Andreas,
    You are well aware that I’ve read Ansgar’s post. I think I even commented on it. Your argument on the quotation marks doesn’t make sense, because you wrote: “Then you would find: “That Steiner….”” As if you were quoting what I would find — according to your fantasies — not that you were quoting something you had already written here before. I wouldn’t say there’s anything in your use of quotating markts to indicate you’re simply repeating old stuff (although those of us who have become familiar with how you operate might of course suspect it’s just repeat–repeat–repeat).

    As for the last passage of your latest comment — that is exactly what I do. And I still DO NOT AGREE with your contention on insanity.

    Yes, THAT is exactly what I say about Zander: PERSONALITY. All Steiner’s theories reflect his personality to some degree. Zander may very well have said Steiner’s theories reflect his personality. It makes sense! I do not dispute it!

    What I am VERY sure of is that Zander did not say: Steiner’s theories reflect his personality, i e, his mental illness.

    And that was what YOU said. And it is a VERY VERY different thing.

  6. “What does Ansgar Martins want to say? That Rudolf Steiner was mentally ill? If so, why does he restrain from using a straightforward term?”

    Because he isn’t quite so simple-minded. He does take a more complex view on Steiner than you’d be capable of or than you would allow if you were in charge.

    “Ask him, I did.” Good for you.

  7. This is a well written piece, Zooey. As the comments seem to point out, there are many people who never even bother to read the material. The very first sentence in Steiner’s “Knowledge of the Higher Worlds” says more than just words: “There slumber in every human being faculties by means of which he can acquire for himself a knowledge of higher worlds.” Everyone can do this! But you have to try. And once you experience those higher worlds — even if only for an instant — there is no more arguing over Steiner’s anything!

    I would wager that every Steiner-ite has had moments of doubt … moments where you think, “What!!! Why that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!! How could anyone say that!” But this is the same guy that developed Biodynamics … he started Camphill … there’s Eurythmy, his contributions to architecture, to art, drama, and society … all of things he has done in his life, perhaps I should give him a little slack … perhaps it is up to me to see if this seemingly “crazy” idea has merit.

    For me, it all fits. And it fits within the current scientific/religious/societal view. It can fit for everyone … but you have to try. Else, you have nothing to say of relevance. How can one speak — in any way — of something they have no knowledge of? You need to try — a sincere try. Then …

    Thank you, Zooey.

  8. @ zooey

    “Thank you, Zooey”, says the true believer in Rudolf Steiner, “James Stewart”.

    Congratulations! You are really making big progress!

  9. @ zooey

    I say: “What does Ansgar Martins want to say? That Rudolf Steiner was mentally ill? If so, why does he restrain from using a straightforward term?”

    Zooey answers: “Because he isn’t quite so simple-minded. He does take a more complex view on Steiner than you’d be capable of or than you would allow if you were in charge.”

    I told you TO ASK him. Your presumption is completely wrong. Otherwise why should I have stated Ansgar Martins?

  10. Thanks, James.

    And I would say that even if his ideas have no merit (which, given the shere amount of ideas, some are bound to have some merit, some are bound to have none), he still couldn’t be dismissed as “insane”. For exemple, if one were to speak of specifics, Steiner’s scientific ideas are more often than not incompatible with current, factual, scientific knowledge. What I mean is, it’s easy to find things he claimed about science which are patently untrue (when compared to scientific facts). Still, I can find his ideas creative or imaginative — although not as science per se, but as a kind of art, a form of expression more than anything else. In which case sanity would be over-rated anyway.

    But I would be suspicious of the scientific researcher who’d apply Steiner’s spiritual scientific methods directly to his/her (academic) research. It’s a whole other framework, and the requirements totally different. (Then again, nobody would apply literary theory to nuclear physics either.) Maybe, sometimes, the aspirations of anthroposophists on spiritual science are a bit unrealistic, mainly because the word “science” has a number of implications for most non-anthropsophists, and these implications clearly differ from what spiritual science entails.

    I myself am so ahrimanic that the Higher Worlds High Court have had me extradicted with a special permanency order, to be executed by the spiritual guard, the border patrol, that I’ll never be allowed over there again ;) I may have to study the Knowledge of the Higher Worlds very thoroughly before they’ll even consider retrying my case!

  11. Hello again, Andreas

    three comments in such a short time! What an honour. (Sarcasm.)

    “I told you TO ASK him.” Yes, I’m familiar with your numerous questions to Ansgar and everyone else. I am also familiar with his replies, believe it or not. Now, go pester somebody else, you should be aware by now that I’m not one to follow orders. It’s never really been my cup-of-tea, you see.

    “You may ask Helmut Zander, too. ”

    I certainly may. But since you were the one claiming Zander’s opinion is that (in sum) “Steiner’s rece theories reflect his personality, i e, his mental illness” I would guess you have a source and that in this source Zander states explicitly what you claimed, including the part about mental illness. You can give me a page reference in his big opus. I’ve got it, and can easily check it for myself. Otherwise I’ll continue to assume you’re making it up.

    “Congratulations! You are really making big progress!”

    Thank you. Isn’t it great! At last a welcome break in these otherwise quite mind-numbing blog comment exchanges… Interesting how I’ve come to appreciate the presense of people I may not fundamentally agree with at all. Thank dog, something new!

  12. @ zooey

    You write: “Otherwise I’ll continue to assume you’re making it up.”

    same procedure as always …

    I can tell only: I do NOT make things up. I talk with people a lot. I care about their opions. I’m not as egomanic as somebody else who doesn’t want to research just to stay the person that is right.

    You write: “Interesting how I’ve come to appreciate the presense of people I may not fundamentally agree with at all”

    I say: You agree with them. Maybe you don’t see, but you do.

  13. Andreas

    “I can tell only: I do NOT make things up. I talk with people a lot.”

    Well, then, you don’t have a reference to a page in Zander’s work. It is only your interpretation of something you’ve heard or thought you’ve heard. You may believe that you

    “care about their opions”

    but you don’t at all, which my experience with you has made blindingly clear to me.

    “I’m not as egomanic as somebody else who doesn’t want to research just to stay the person that is right.”

    Oh, I’ll check that page in Zander’s work the second you give it to me. I can promise you that.

    “I say: You agree with them. Maybe you don’t see, but you do.”

    I say: maybe you don’t have the competence to judge whether I do or don’t. I don’t think you’re interested enough in other people’s viewpoints to keep reading far enough to be able to ascertain whether they are in agreement or not.

  14. Andreas,
    in the kitchen, cutting tomatoes for my soup, I found myself reflecting on something that I think is pertinent to your… work.

    I may not care *that* much personally, I’m not very concerned whether I change people’s minds or not, whether I convince anybody, and so forth (not even about how many care about what I write in the first place, which is even more basic than the issue of persuasion). But you seem to find these aspects utterly important. If I’m correct, you really don’t find anthroposophy the slightest entertaining. This seems to indicate, too, that you do what you do with the aim of *convincing* people that you are right about anthroposophy/Steiner.

    Do you ever stop and think about the effects of your work, i e, do you think you are *managing* to convince people of your position through your commentaries on other people’s blogs?

  15. Quite lively exchanges! You’re welcome, Zooey. Just a couple of points and I will leave it: I do not believe I believe IN anything … perhaps myself! I believe Rudolf Steiner was an exceptional human being, I believe the ideas he has set forth are true, even those that pertain to Natural Science, as it is today. I believe the heart is not a pump! Why? Because I was part of a scientific team that proved it — scientifically. I’ve even seen the video tape. Many other scientists and doctors agreed, but many were unwilling to stake their careers on debunking a 350 year old supposed mainstay of medicine. See Ralph Marinelli’s work at the Archive.

    Also, quantum physicist’s have some interesting explanations about certain quark behavior: they postulate some communication through the “ether.” Hmmm. Is science and religion coming together? Why DID Steiner call it Spiritual Science? Science works, but you have to do the experiments to truly understand what is going on!

    One needn’t try the exercises outlined by Steiner, nor does one need to understand the principles set forth. After all, what is free will? What is important is that you know it is there. The door is always open, but you need to enter it yourself … happy reading, Zooey. Perhaps in your next life?!

  16. Yes, quantum physics is one of these areas which is… frequently misunderstood, and applied in the weirdest ways by people who haven’t really grasped it. I wouldn’t attempt to say anything about it since it’s all on a theoretical level of science that I can’t ever reach — I’ve never trained in science!

    But my impression is, nevertheless, that scientists are generally very much inclined to change their views on a phenomenon when compelling evidence is presented that they previously had it all wrong.

    And I do see some very important differences between the scientific method and Steiner’s methods for spiritual science, which is why I think the terminology is unfortunate in that it potentially causes misunderstandings.

    Here’s the link to the Marinelli’s article on the heart, for those interested to have a look:

  17. “quantum physicist’s have some interesting explanations …”

    aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah !

    Alicia, den Schmerzensschrei darfst du dir jetzt mal zweistimmig vorstellen … ich sowieso, das ist klar … aber auch Tobias Maier, ScienceBlogs:

    “Science Wars Reloaded – Pseudowissenschaften und Postmodernisten

    (…) Ich muss gestehen, mir gehen die Windmühlenkämpfe gegen allerlei Pseudowissenschaften, Astrologie, Homöopathie, 2012, Akupunktur, Kreationismus, Anthroposophie, und sonstiger Aberglaube in Form von aktiviertem Wasser, Strahlendetektoren, und so weiter langsam aber sicher auf dem Geist. Es ist halt immer das gleiche, wenn ein mystisches Weltbild und die Realität aufeinander treffen. (…)”

    Im Klartext: Die EsoSpinner (“cranks”) haben Tobias Maiers Artikel mit Irrsinns-Kommentaren zugemüllt und versucht, ihm beide Ohren abzukauen.

    “EsoSpinner”, so wie “Anthroposophen”. Zu denen hatte Tobias Maier mehrere Artikel veröffentlicht. Hier nur mal der … der … der … zur Quantenphysik!

    “Rudolf Steiner und die Schrödingergleichung

    Das Verdrehen historischer Fakten ist eine beliebte Strategie der Pseudowissenschaftler, um ihren realitätsfernen Ansichten ein vermeintlich wissenschaftliches Fundament zu verschaffen.(…)

    Wer hats erfunden? Die Anthroposophen!

    Ein weiteres Beispiel für Geschichtsklitterung findet sich bei den Anthroposophen. Deren Oberindianer Rudolf Steiner soll schon sechs Jahre vor Erwin Schrödinger (Nobelpreis für Physik 1933) die nach ihm benannte Gleichung erfunden haben. Dr. Detlef Hardorp, bildungspolitischer Sprecher der Waldorfschulen in Berlin-Brandenburg und Anthroposoph zur Rolle Rudolf Steiners als Wissenschaftler: (…)”

    Bleibt noch zu sagen, dass der “Bund der Freien Waldorfschulen” trotz des Artikels von Tobias Maier und der Expertise des Physikers Dr. Andreas Krämer weiter mit der ungeheuerlichen Behauptung wirbt, dass Rudolf Steiner der eigentliche Entdecker der Quantenphysik sei:

    “Was will Waldorfpädagogik?

    (…) Rudolf Steiner: Philosoph und Wissenschaftler

    (…) Bemerkenswert ist u.a., dass er in einem dieser Vorträge schon im Jahre 1920 eine Lichtwirkungsgleichung an die Tafel schrieb, die mit der von Erwin Schrödinger 6 Jahre später veröffentlichten und nach ihm benannten Schrödinger-Gleichung mathematisch identisch ist und die Interpretation Feynmans von einer Diffusion mit imaginärer Diffusionskonstante vorwegnimmt.(8) Sie spielte als Grundlage der Quantenphysik in der modernen Naturwissenschaft eine nicht unbedeutende Rolle. (…)”

    aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah !

  18. Oh, hello, you signed your name today, Andreas, well, that’s a welcome change.

    The problem with several of these New Age believers is that they believe they speak about science but, in fact, what they speak about isn’t anywhere close to science. Depending on the quality and nature of these sources, they could be classified as religion, as spirituality, sometimes as literature or science fiction. Some of those guys are probably more well-informed than others, but I don’t see why anybody would turn to them for scientific answers. It isn’t very surprising, though, that anthroposophists are happily reinterpreting Steiner to fit what they perceive to be current science — after all, it justifies their faith in him as a spiritual scientist.

    But it isn’t science, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend we can judge Steiner’s work according to scientific standards. I don’t see why we would, since what he did wasn’t science, and spiritual science is still, to this day, not science. It is something entirely different.

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