understanding (the ‘real’) anthroposophy

(Whatever that is.) On DC’s improbable science blog, there’s a discussion going on right now. Begins around this comment.* The latest one is this however; Jan Luiten wrote:

Please don’t become an anthroposophist of the kind you think of as an anthroposophist, rather stay a critic, stay who you are.
You mentioned the “standpoint of anthroposophists”. Should I have that standpoint too ? It is just that generalizing thought that leads to so much misunderstanding. You cannot say: “ he is an anthroposophist so this is the way he looks at the world”. I can assure you there are very few people who see the things like I do. It would be nice when you and others would take me as an individual and not just as a member of a group about which you have stereotypical thoughts.

Of course, you ‘shouldn’t’ have any standpoint at all, unless you happen to agree with that standpoint. What I was pointing out, however, was that your expressed stance — that we don’t know or understand what anthroposophy really is — happens to be quite common to anthroposophists. If ‘we’ — whoever we are — don’t agree, it must be because we don’t understand, rather than because we do understand but nonetheless choose to reject what we understand. The assumption is, apparently, that nobody who truly ‘understands’ will say what critics say about anthroposophy.

I would say, too, that it would be impossible to talk about anthroposophy and anthroposophists if there didn’t exist a set of beliefs typically held by anthroposophists. Paths and processes and whatnot aside, there are some beliefs typical for anthroposophy. There is a way of looking at the world that is typically anthroposophical. And, I have to say, this way of looking at it does not seem absent from Jan’s reasoning. You, Jan, may be more aware of the differences between you and other anthroposophists. Outsiders may be more likely to notice the similarities. Which, of course, does not make anybody think you’re identical to every other anthroposophist. That would be foolish. But it would be equally foolish to deny you share some beliefs with other anthroposophists. And it’s pretty darn difficult to talk about anthroposophical beliefs or views without somehow labelling anthroposophists and their beliefs. It’s inevitable, and obviously not intended to hurt or harm anybody.

In addition, I’d like to question that last sentence: are you sure you don’t really see me — and others among critics — as ‘just a member of a group about which you have stereotypical thoughts’? I mean, I sometimes get this feeling that this is the case.

What I also sense is that while some anthroposophists like to tell ‘us’ we don’t ‘understand’ anthroposophy (what it really is… its essence… whatever!) at the same time as we — or anybody else — are not allowed to use definitions of anthroposophy (and subsequently discuss it or criticize it) because it’s up to everyone (every anthroposophist) to decide for themselves (except us critics who are not competent… ah well), they’re quite eager to say certain other anthroposophists are sectarian, ignorant or bad somehow. They don’t want to be judged based on what these other anthroposophists do or say (understandably!). Obviously disregarding the fact that maybe these other anthroposophists, whom they don’t want to be identified with, may be onto ‘true’ anthroposophy! So, it’s not ok to reject state funding for waldorf schools because all anthroposophists aren’t fundamentalist crack-pots. How could we know reasonable anthroposophists won’t let the fundies steal the show — once again? Really?

In principle, I agree very much with Michael Eggert’s two recent comments (this and this). In discussing anthroposophy’s role in education, however, I find similar approaches inadequate, if understood literally and, as said, placed in an entirely different context than the one they were written to address — it’s insufficient to know that Jan Luiten, e g, only supports nice anthroposophy and not crazy anthroposophy. Or that sane anthroposophists don’t think fanatic dogmatists are good representatives of anthroposophy. (The crazies will always volunteer…) We really need to discuss the actual beliefs of waldorf teachers. It’s not enough to know waldorf teachers are on some obscure spiritual path only they understand. It’s not personal or individual anymore — not when you’re teaching other people’s children. On one hand, there may be no anthroposophical thought police to decide what is proper anthroposophical thinking. On the other hand, parents and politicians are justified in wanting to know what waldorf teachers think and how this relates to anthroposophy. As long as anthroposophy is part of teacher training and as long as it remains the foundation of waldorf education — and, in my opinion, the connection between anthroposophy and waldorf cannot be severed without waldorf losing everything it is except its name — we must discuss what anthroposophy is. Even if some anthroposophists continue to claim we cannot understand it. Sure — there is, or shouldn’t be, an anthroposophical inquisition, I agree with that. Anthroposophy should reject certain kinds of fanaticism, for its own good (and everybody else’s). But this doesn’t mean anthroposophy can be just anything anybody — except its critics! — pleases. You can still discuss what beliefs are contained in anthroposophy and are typically held by anthroposophists — and discussing this content does not inevitably show you don’t understand anthroposophy.

(This quite beside the more important question — is it reasonable, in the first place, to accord permission to operate or to give state funding to schools based on a philosophy that nobody is thought competent to describe, define or discuss… because it can be anything its adherents choose it to be at the spur of moment… based on a process only anthroposophists (sorry, stereotype…) are supposed to understand. This would be quite bizarre wouldn’t it? Maybe it’s not really ok to sell an educational philosophy to people who cannot understand it?)

I’m thinking about something else too: that, as soon as you begin to judge that other people don’t understand, aren’t you sort of beginning to walk down the same path the intolerant fundies are walking? Because at the same time you come to this judgment, you’re making all sorts of implicit assumptions about what anthroposophy ‘really’ is — as you understand it, your interpretation being superior to that of mine for example. Much like the fanatics are doing, but of course they do it on another scale and they are way more insistent in their supremacy.

If anthroposophy is an individual path — and everybody is to be his or her own master in walking it — who are you to say I don’t understand it? I’m just wondering. Either there is some kind of dogma pertaining to what anthroposophy is or how the process or its results should look like. Or there isn’t. In which case I may as well say I understand it and you don’t! Of course, I wouldn’t say that. I’d say that, given my present position, I understand it differently than you do. My explanation is that my perspective isn’t the perspective of an insider but that of an outsider. It’s a different kind of understanding. It’s about approaching anthroposophy from a different angle. (Having my experiences, I couldn’t have done it in any other way.) But I resent that there’s anything particularly wrong about my understanding compared to anybody else’s. At least as long as all I hear is that I’m not understanding but nothing concrete to indicate what I have understood wrong and no argument as to why.


* Jan Luiten wrote: ‘Are you, Zooey, trying to understand what anthroposophy is about?
The trying, of course, is good.
But I am sorry to say that most people here, including – with all respect- you, really misunderstand anthroposophy. This does not have to be problematic. A lot of people don’t.’

To which I replied:

@Jan — Yes, I [am understanding or trying to understand it], and I think I’ve not been entirely unsuccessful. It would be splendid to keep in mind, though, that the person I responded to has been very explicit: he’s not interested in familiarizing himself at all with Steiner’s texts. I think it’s fair to say he’s not intending to even try. You can believe I haven’t ‘understood’ Steiner (the way anthroposophists think Steiner should be understood, is my reply then), but you sure can’t tell me I refuse to engage with what Steiner wrote or said. Not unless you want to be wrong, at least.

And, unfortunately, as long as anthroposophists who epitomize the sectarian caricature are running waldorf schools, well, then that’s going to be a huge problem for the movement. (And not a problem anyone can blame us dreaded critics for.) Those — the sectarians — are the people who will be receiving government money.

I can’t say, though, that I’m not looking forward to the day when anthroposophic and waldorf organizations kick out the mad sectarians, or at least remove them from positions of power. Not that I think it will ever happen, but, yes, it’s for us to hope for it and anthroposophists to work on it.

Jan’s reply: ‘Of course there can be no doubt about your engagement for what Steiner said or wrote.
I think that because of this engagement you also possess considerable knowledge about Steiners texts and about the anthroposophical subculture. Still this is something different from understanding what Anthroposophy is.’

I then wrote:

‘Still this is something different from understanding what Anthroposophy is.’

I know that from the standpoint of anthroposophists, this is very much the case. The problem is, none of us critics of anthroposophy (or, more to the point, anthroposophy in steiner waldorf education), will ‘understand’ anthroposophy in a way anthroposophists will consider ‘right’. Because that would require of us to more or less become anthroposophists! Not until we see things as anthroposophists see them will we be considered knowledgeable. But then we’ll also be anthroposophists!

Well, admittedly, this picture is simplified, but it is so for a reason: to show that, as critics, we’re in an impossible situation in this regard. As long as we’re not anthroposophists, we’re not really worth listening to. But if we show a proper attitude towards anthroposophy, criticism of it is rendered impossible. Again, simplified.

The point is — there isn’t much we can do to be taken seriously by anthroposophists. (In particular not by the more fundie anthros. Some of whom are running waldorf steiner schools.)

7 thoughts on “understanding (the ‘real’) anthroposophy

  1. This is such a good piece Zooey, I agree wholeheartedly with what you say.

    From a cynical standpoint, it’s an easy way out of explaining what goes on, that parents, outsiders etc “don’t understand”.
    Jan Luiten often says what anthroposophy “should” be, but not what it is in practice. It’s clear that there’s a definite anthroposophical way of seeing things, as you put it

    ” there are some beliefs typical for anthroposophy. There is a way of looking at the world that is typically anthroposophical”

    and that this is essential for teachers to “understand” and of course use.

    It is disingenuous to imply otherwise.

  2. Thanks!!

    I feel that the ‘people don’t understand’ argument is (very often) the easy way out. It’s away to avoiding, rejecting and ignoring relevant viewpoints.

    Ironically, today there’s an interview with Bodo von Plato, of the executive council of the Anthro Society, in a Swiss newspaper. I quote the interview:

    ‘Was ist eigentlich die Anthroposophie?
    Wenn Sie einen einzigen Begriff wollen, dann schlage ich vor: eine Perspektive. Und zwar im doppelten Sinn dieses Wortes: als eine bestimmte Art, in die Welt zu sehen, und als eine Aussicht auf die Zukunft.’

    [Extremely hasty translation, sorry, am in a hurry: Q: What is anthroposophy really? A: If you want one single concept, then I sugges: a perspective. And in a double sense of the word: as a specific way of seeing the world and as an a view of the future.]

  3. @zooey
    I am only just reading your latest answer.
    (Yesterday I was suddenly struck by a virus and couldn’t do anything.)
    I will of course answer you ASAP.

    “Jan Luiten often says what anthroposophy “should” be, but not what it is in practice. It’s clear that there’s a definite anthroposophical way of seeing things, as you put it”

    The core of anthroposophy is the methodology, I thought I mentioned it a few times on DC’s blog. You can also say anthroposophy is a path….. Ein Erkenntnisweg….
    When you are saying “there’s a definite anthroposophical way of seeing things, as you put it” you have to compare this with the way of seeing things by biologists or phycisists.
    In this sciences there is “a body of knowledge” most biologists or phycisists will share.
    This is however not considered as a belief system. This is the same with anthroposophy.
    The problem is, like said before, that people can take it as a belief system (I dare not say anymore that should not be).

  4. @ Jan — no hurry, and get well!

    Sure it’s a methodology, sort of. (This obviously doesn’t stop many, many anthropsophists from being quite adamant about their particular doctrines! which you know.) It’s a path to knowledge — but what is this knowledge? It’s not really just about the path. It leads you somewhere. You don’t go down that path and come out sometime later saying ‘ooops, there’s no reincarnation, but I’m still an anthroposophist’. (Sorry, that was crudely put, I couldn’t think of a better example.)

  5. Speaking of what anthroposophy is or is supposed to be or result in… the fact anthroposophy is not — so it’s said — a set of beliefs, not a doctrine of faith, and still ends up being exactly that, I’m thinking that’s just part of human nature. It’s not a phenomenon unique to anthroposophy, by no means — and despite the intentions of anthroposophy (or at least some anthroposophists’ interpretation of it), it can’t help but turn into a doctrine. Maybe the practical applications of anthroposophy actually help enforcing and supporting various anthroposophical ideas as doctrines of faith on the very concrete level.

    So: anthroposophy shouldn’t be — result in — a belief system, all right, but when anthroposophical activity, despite this ideal, still frequently seems to end in doctrines of faith, one wonders if anthroposophy ignores the weaknesses of the human mind. Or, I shouldn’t say weaknesses, I mean human nature, plain simple. Having doctrines comes easily. And, perhaps, fulfills the need for an identity. So it doesn’t really matter if anthroposophy is not supposed to be doctrinarian, as long as there’s a human drive to create, acquire or live according to doctrines. The path of least resistance (which, I suspect, is no less attractive to anthroposophists than to others). So maybe it’s a sort of ‘failure’ in application of anthroposophy, but at the same time, a predictable kind of failure, because it’s deeply human to fail in this way.

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