this — the post title — is a statement by Jost Schieren in a recent article in the waldorf journal, RoSE. [PDF.] The article’s intriguing title: ‘The scientific credibility of anthroposophy’. It contains a few very interesting passages; I’ll come to them. A friend sent me the link to this little gem of an article some weeks ago (thanks!) and, since then, I’ve noticed, it has, quite understandably, made the rounds on facebook and elsewhere. But let’s start from the beginning. Schieren says that while the
fruits of anthroposophy find ever wider social acceptance and appreciation,
(Do we know this for a fact?)
the tree itself is generally avoided or ignored.
That is certainly true. He goes on to say
Anthroposophy continues to be regarded as an obscure body of spiritual teaching. Apparently what people want – as the magazine Der Spiegel said a few years ago – are Waldorf Schools without Steiner. And it is in fact the case nowadays that this demand has already become reality in many schools and other anthroposophical institutions. The success anthroposophy has had in many areas of modern life seems to have gone hand in hand with a sell-out of its own basic principles.
With which I agree. Just look at — this is only one example — how waldorf schools try to distance themselves from anthroposophy and Steiner. They almost try to erase anthroposophy or at least downplay it and its importance. Yet, oddly, keeping it at the same time. Which is a confused situation.
Anyway, he talks some about the relationship between science and anthroposophy as well as accreditation for anthroposophical courses (eg, pedagogical courses). The Science Council of Germany has been reluctant to accredit anthroposophical courses as accreditation would mean ‘basing the work of a university-level institution on an extra-scientific theory of education involving methodology influenced by a particular worldview’; the way to address this issue, according to Schieren, cannot be
in the usual manner of putting forward a vigorous apology for anthroposphy as science, but rather by means of an open discussion, that would at least begin the job of giving anthroposophy its place in the scientific landscape.
That is very wise, although I do
doubt suspect that ‘giving anthroposophy its place in the scientific landscape’ may be a futile pursuit. I recommend you to read this article as a whole, but I’m now going to proceed to comment a few things — out of context and in a summary fashion. Sorry.
The problem is the notion of supersensible knowledge, based solely upon untestable assertions made by Rudolf Steiner. Anthroposophists bridge this gap by a gesture of trust, but this cannot be expected of everyone.
No, definitely not. And it’s more than trust; it’s faith. (Now, Jan Luiten, would say something different: no trust is needed. Anthroposophy is a ‘path of inquiry’, right? A path which should not build on trust, but on individual knowledge and experience gained on said path. Schieren might agree to some extent I guess, because later in the article he wants to describe anthroposophy as ‘a path of knowledge that offers a perspective on the truth and holds out the possibility of approaching it, rather than reducing it to an ingredient of a particular individual’s store of knowledge.’ There, again, we have the contrast between what it would be or could be and what it actually is to anthroposophists who work with anthroposophy in practice, for example in waldorf schools.)
To try and use the esoteric pronouncements of Rudolf Steiner as a basis for justifying the scientific nature of anthroposophy is – for the foreseeable future – not a recipe for success.
No, definitely not.
In such an undertaking it may be sensible, in principle, to demand a different concept of science, centred upon an inner empiricism or inner evidence; but to do so would necessarily imply a complete paradigm shift of the whole scientific enterprise …
ah! only that and nothing more! (It won’t happen easily, not through the work of anthroposophists alone, he admits. Personally, I don’t wish for a science devoid of… scientific thinking and reason.)
It is much more likely that the currently ruling paradigm of science will of itself come to an end, because the technocratic worldview built into it will have caused ever more disasters and destruction …
The question is, though, if what anthroposophy offers would cause less disasters and destruction. When applied to reality, would it work any better? I quite doubt it. Knowledge about the real world, not the supersensible, still seems the surest path to success.
In an earlier essay, [Heiner Ullrich] states: “In contrast to the conscious detachment, plurality and unresolved openness of scientific method, Steiner and his disciples desire dogmatic knowledge, or visionary experience, of the world as a well-ordered whole resembling an eternal, unchangeable truth. [ … ] Their way of thinking is degenerate philosophy, mere worldview. [ … ] With the formulation of the anthroposophical ‘occult science’ Steiner fell prey to all the dangers of such a way of thinking. Here the pre-modern, dogmatic-metaphysical speculation of neo-Platonism is transformed into the contrived, re-mythologised world picture of theosophy” (Ulrich, 1988, p. 174). As profoundly felt as these reproaches are, it would be wrong to suppose – as anthroposophists are sometimes wont to do – that behind them lurk the dark intentions of an “organised enemy”. What we have here is simply a contrary position, which quite naturally has attracted much argumentative attention from the anthroposophical perspective.
I think the quote is interesting, because I can’t remember having read the essay. (Is it online somewhere? In case anyone knows, I’d be happy to read it.) But, also, I like Schieren’s approach. He is so right: it is a contrary position. The world needs not fall apart because of it. This is very welcome. (Schieren’s discussion following this quote is interesting, too.) Getting back to eternal issue:
The problems with its cultural profile that anthroposophy habitually encounters do not normally stem from Steiner’s works; they are “home-made”. They reside with anthroposophists not with anthroposophy.
… we have discussed it numerous times on the blog. I brushed upon it above, because it’s a discussion we had with Jan Luiten just days ago. The intelligent, reasonable (et c) poster-people for anthroposophy aren’t always the most typical. If they ever are. Perhaps the following is more representative of the implementation of anthroposophy in, e g, waldorf schools?
A serious problem demanding mention is that of the uncritical use of Steiner’s utterances, with no attempt made on the part of users to test them for themselves or to bring their own observational ability to bear upon them. Here what counts is belief in Rudolf Steiner’s words, rather than any personal striving for knowledge.
Absolutely to the point. He continues, and this is actually even better, it’s somewhat surprising — surprisingly good –, coming from an anthroposophist and coming from the journal RoSE:
When this then leads to the issuing of compilations from Steiner’s works embellished with speculations arising from them, the sure ground of scientific rigour has been entirely vacated. A large proportion of the publications of anthroposophical authors treat the utterances of Rudolf Steiner as indubitable facts. There is much musing done upon such subjects as reincarnation sequences and conditions in the so-called spiritual world, with no apparent concern about the obvious lack of any independently thought-out contribution to the content. Even worse: the decades-long habit of studying Steiner leads to the belief that one is completely clued up and in the picture about the things he presented and consequently can (and should) instruct others about them. Through years of reading Rudolf Steiner’s works the individual ability to reserve judgement with regard to their knowledge content is usually undermined. This is rather like spending a lot of time in galleries and as a consequence fancying that one could paint like Raphael. This lack of awareness of the rational detachment necessary in relation to the utterances of Rudolf Steiner is not the source of anthroposophy’s being regarded as unscientific, it is what actually makes it unscientific.
On the other hand, if these ‘believer’ anthroposophists are in the majority, who’s to say they’re wrong? It may be more reasonable, at least for academic credibility, to focus on what wisdom can be derived from Steiner’s early works, rather than on his extraordinarily concrete pronouncements about the facts of the higher worlds — but would it be more ‘right’? And maybe, what waldorf teachers (to use this group as an example again), too, are doing, is treating Steiner’s utterances ‘as indubitable facts.’ There is a saying that goes: ‘you don’t get the anthroposophists you want’ — isn’t there? If there isn’t, there should be. You don’t actually get the ideal guys, the ones you could parade in front of the public and they’d behave impeccably and reasonably. The guys you get, communicate telepathically with imaginary penguins on the south pole and with other strange beings. And write books about it. They bleed like Christ or are afraid of computers.
An interesting exposition follows, and then a conclusion:
Epistemology thus becomes ontology. In relation to the natural world – the reality encountered by the senses – anthroposophists usually have no problem concurring with such an argument, and it is not unfamiliar to them. Applied to the spiritual world, however, it will often provoke in them the naïve realism that Steiner was so keen on superseding. They persist in believing in a self-existent spiritual world, and thus fall into outworn modes of spirituality.
This seems a bit tricky though (later in the article):
In the foregoing the attempt has just been made to outline a new, epistemologically justified concept of mind, which combines a spiritual view of man and world with the modern claim to complete human autonomy and the perspective of individual growth towards freedom. Outside of anthroposophical circles, however, such an attempt will find little acceptance. However important and decisive this concept may be in the long term, it nevertheless seems more sensible in the meantime to approach the question of the scientific status of anthroposophy by looking at its areas of application with a view to validating these scientifically.
I don’t quite like this, although I may be interpreting it in a negative way. On the other hand, it is similar to how testing whether a medicine works is different from knowing how it works. Or something like that. But I still don’t like it, not in this case (somewhat later, Schieren sort of confirms my suspicions as he writes: ‘Using the scientific approach to anthroposophy presented above generates various, medium-term, strategic advantages.’). What is it that they’re going to validate scientifically in the areas of application though? You’ve got to come up with very specific anthroposophical practices and see how they compare. That would require scientific stringency to yield any reliable results. Can we hope for that?
Schieren then mentions an example that seems a bit suspect to me (it would be interesting if someone with knowledge of medicine would like to investigate that further — I’m speaking of the reference to the thesis by Heusser, see p 6 in Schieren’s article). Schieren explicitly states that he’d rather see the question of whether anthroposophy is a science or not in the background, because then ‘It is no longer a question of whether anthroposophy is any use as a science, but of how it can be used scientifically.’ It seems an odd thing to do — push the most important aspect of anthroposophy (the most important in this particular context) in the background, in order to… validate its usefulness? Or is it impossible to discuss (science) the actual method of anthroposophy itself, because it would be scientifically untenable? But, in the end, the method should matter. Because anthroposophy isn’t just the results. In fact, following some of the arguments, the method itself might be more important, if it is to be, as Jan says, mainly a method of inquiry. The results are the fluff. It’s the method that matters. Not only for the individuals spiritual path — but it should be so also for the scientific inquiry. (Or am I wrong here? Aren’t the results a bit like gnomes — icing on the cake?)
What Schieren then says about ‘critical detachment’ is absolutely true, and it should be practiced even if (which I suspect) there’s never any hope of getting anthroposophy to be more scientific — or accepted in a scientific context — or science more anthroposophical. Under the heading ‘Systematisation’ there’s a quite comical statement: ‘There will then remain a tiny percentage of statements by Rudolf Steiner, that according to the current climate of thinking will be considered inconceivable.’ — Only a tiny percentage, huh? I’m not sure about that. And although I welcome any attempts at exploring the first point — ‘Verifiable statements. What is meant here are statements by Rudolf Steiner that can be substantiated by normal scientific methods. In my estimation, this will apply to a relatively high percentage of them’ — I doubt that these statements constitute a high percentage of Steiner’s work. (You really need to look at this — I’m not just saying so. It gets a bit entertaining, and I can’t copy all the entertaining bits!)
Another truth follows almost immediately:
Trust in the possibility of an appropriate scientific approach to anthroposophy grows among non-anthroposophists to the extent that anthroposophists throw off the habit of “we know better”. For the fact is that they do not know better; they have simply invested their trust in the fact that Rudolf Steiner knows better. This, however, is a personal decision, open to anyone, but obviously possessing no scientific validity.
I think he’s so right. It is very rare to find an article, by an anthroposophist, which makes me say: he’s so right. And to say it so often. There are so many parts of this article I really agree with, and I find Schieren’s approach sympathetic. However, I can’t shake off the feeling it’s… it’s still about putting up a facade of academic respectability… in front of a house of woo. Even though I like it (and distrust it at the same time), and think Schieren is on to something important — what about the rest of anthroposophy? What about all those religious believers? They’re the ones responsible for the practical applications. They are the ones truly in need of a facade. Schieren is not. And I agree with him also about this:
The quest for knowledge, that does not rest upon dogmatic articles of faith, but upon the individual’s own mental effort, is foremost. Anthroposophists are among those who often tend to ideologise topics which could actually be given a thoroughly objective treatment. Occasionally credence is given to an “adversary-myth”, which renders all objective debate impossible. A further cultural advance would accrue from the uncompromising rejection of all kinds of esoteric presumptuousness and unjustified uses of esoteric terms. Authentic insights arrived at by the efforts of individuals would then be the hallmark of anthroposophical discourse.
Perhaps it would, or should, but maybe, if that’s what Schieren wants, he’d do better to look elsewhere, than to anthroposophy, for it. Because, although this is definitely some great stuff, it isn’t what you’d expect from anthroposophy.
Last but not least, there’s also a small nugget in this article for everyone who relishes the racism debate:
… it is already apparent that many of the attacks upon anthroposophy – for instance, the longstanding charge of racism – are now sounding hollow. Representatives of science at university level (e.g. Heiner Ullrich) attest to the fact that Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy have nothing to do with racism.
Now — is that true, my dear friends? (Jan Luiten shouts: Yes!! Despite the fact that anthroposophy is a path of inquiry and not a set of doctrines… or?)
Jost Schieren is coming to Sweden — for the waldorf teachers’ conference in January. That is, in two weeks. Here’s the program. He’s talking about anthroposophy and science (probably similar to the questions he deals with in the article), but, more intriguingly, one evening he’s going hold a lecture entitled: ‘Between Day and Night’. (I guess there’s no point in making this appeal, because I’m not going to hear anything from anyone attending the conference, but please… if anyone feels inclined to tell me more, I’m curious. I want to be between day and night. All the time.)