"The least read, most important book,
Steiner ever wrote"*

* Owen Barfield, referring to the book: A Theory of Knowledge
Implicit in Goethe's World Conception, during a conversation at Rudolf
Steiner College in 1986, in response the question of whether he (Barfield) had
a book he read over and over again, in the light of Steiner's remark that he would
rather people read one book fifty times, than read fifty books once.

by Joel A. Wendt

Consider, for a moment, that it might be possible to write a sentence, using ordinary words, with the same precision and elegance of an arithmetical equation written using the symbolism of pure mathematics.  Ponder that idea for a moment, and then take to heart the suggestion of this article, that Rudolf Steiner wrote a whole book that way, during the flowering genius of his mid-twenties: A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception (Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung, 1886).

Is there a hidden treasure at the heart of anthroposophical Spiritual Science?  Let us consider the possibility.  However, before turning to the book, we should perhaps take a look at writing and reading and meaning and words and sentences and such....

The writer thinks, and writes.  The words on the page are not what was thought, although an effort has been made (sometimes) to do just that.  Especially for anthroposophists, we know that the content of cognitive activity is not always  just a stream of words, what we might call ordinary discursive thinking (the spirit speaks, the soul hears).  Matters transcendent of language can often be the content of true cognition, after which the words on the page cannot then be what was originally perceived by the thinking.  In such a case, the words on the page have to have another purpose.

We must read them, and in the act of reading do something more than just passively let the concept content of the words on the page wash over us.  The words on the page are an entombment of the experience of the writer, and we, as readers, must now bring about the resurrection of this experience, which is something that often is impossible when we consider the content about which Steiner has so often lectured and written.  How do we, for example, have more than the most remote and abstract a concept of such an entity as Archangel Michael?

This is a serious problem, but perhaps in seeking to solve it, we can go to places in the World of Ideas we do not ordinarily go.

Consider a sentence - almost any sentence will do, so for example: "I don't understand you."

The meaning seems obvious, but clearly it is not in the individual words themselves.  Our reading and thinking adds up the words into what might be called the sentence's concept or meaning.  This meaning hovers over the sentence, and is not on the page, but only in our own mind.  Our active reading understands the sentence.  We can also enter more deeply into this process of understanding, and with other sentences notice what might be called the picture quality of the sentence.  Perhaps it evokes an image in the mind, such as: "And in the darkness the light is shinning and the darkness never got hold of it."(John 1:5, the Unvarnished Gospels).

But even with that image quality, which evokes not just our word-unifying thinking gesture leading to the understanding of meaning but also the capacity we have for imagination, there is an even higher quality toward which our knowledge-seeking can reach.  Above even the picture is the reasoning of the sentence, its logic or logos-nature.  Depending then upon the quality of thought of the writer, the sentence has descended from its reasoning or logos-nature, through a picture in the imagination, to the naked understanding of the unity of the words.  Could we say that this gesture is a descent from the Christ Presence, via the Sophia Presence and into our I consciousness presence?  A difficult question, for few among us knows these exalted Beings, or their relationship to writing and reading.

Even so, in seeking to read Steiner, for example, do we not wish to strive to rise from the spare unity of the meaning in the sentences, through the picture quality to the logos-nature out of which they descended?  Well maybe, sometimes.  

With a paragraph, a writer can create a set of ideas we have never before encountered; that is take us into an aspect of the World of Ideas (1) that is fresh and unique.  Here is the opening paragraph of the writer Ursula K. LeGuin's novel: The Dispossessed:

"There was a wall.  It did not look important.  It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared.  An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it.  Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary.  But the idea was real.  It was important.  For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall."

Now this is a book of fiction, of the imagination.  What happens if one is seeking to write a book about the mind, and the human being, in such a way that a very accurate and coherent description arises in the reader of processes the knowledge of which the reader has never before been aware.  There is no fiction in such a task, but it certainly seeks to bring before us something as ephemeral as a work of the imagination alone.  The writer wants to guide us inward, into and through our soul - our mind, into a territory that was previously in darkness.  At the same time the writer wants to do this with the same full clarity of a work of science - to illuminate the ephemeral aspects of mind and spirit with the precision and elegance of a work of mathematics.

What an absolutely astonishing purpose!

Consider the structure of the themes as Steiner gave them in his book: A Theory of Knowledge, on what is typically called the contents page:

A. Preliminary Questions
   I. The Point of Departure
   II. Goethe's Science Considered According to the Method of Schiller
   III. The Function of this Branch of Science

B. Experience
   IV. Definition of the Concept of Experience
   V. Examination of the Content of Experience
   VI. Correction of an Erroneous Conception of Experience as a Totality
   VII. Reference to the Experience of the Individual Reader

C. Thought
   VIII. Thinking as a Higher Experience within Experience
   IX. Thought and Consciousness
   X. The Inner Nature of Thought

D. Knowledge
   XI. Thought and Perception
   XII. Intellect and Reason
   XIII. The Act of Cognition
   XIV. Cognition and the Ultimate Foundation of Things

E. The Science of Nature
   XV. Inorganic Nature
   XVI. Organic Nature

F. The Spiritual, or Cultural, Sciences
   XVII. Introduction: Spirit and Nature
   XVIII. Psychological Cognition
   XIX. Human Freedom
   XX. Optimism and Pessimism

G. Conclusion
   XXI. Scientific Knowledge and Artistic Creation

In 1892, in between writing Theory and Philosophy, Steiner published his PhD thesis: Truth and Knowledge.  Here is its contents page.

I. Preface

II. Introduction

III. Preliminary Remarks

IV. Kant's Basic Epistemological Question

V. Epistemology Since Kant

VI. The Starting Point of Epistemology

VII. Cognition and Reality

VIII. Epistemology Free of Assumptions and Fichte's Science of Knowledge

IX. Epistemological Conclusion

X. Practical Conclusion

This book would seem to be a bridge between the Theory and Philosophy.

Now, just to be clear, it is not the point of this essay to set out an argument suggesting Theory of Knowledge is a better book than The Philosophy of Freedom (1894).  To do so would be like comparing apples and oranges.  Something else is involved.  Let us look at the same structure of The Philosophy, so as to see what that might reveal:

Knowledge of Freedom
1. Conscious Human Action
2. The Fundamental Desire for Knowledge
3. Thinking in the Service of Knowledge
4. The World as Percept
5. The Act of Knowing
6. Human Individuality
7. Are there Limits to Knowledge?

The Reality of Freedom
8. The Factors of Life
9. The Idea of Freedom
10. Freedom-Philosophy and Monism
11. World Purpose and Life Purpose (The Ordering of Man's Destiny)
12. Moral Imagination (Darwinism and Morality)
13. The Value of Life (Optimism and Pessimism)
14. Individuality and Genius.

In Theory, the problem of Freedom is not mentioned until the third to last chapter, while in the Philosophy it is where Steiner begins.  Both have, near their ends, chapters with more or less the same name: Optimism and Pessimism.  In the case of Theory, Steiner is trying to explicate something he saw in the background of Goethe's mind and will, but which Goethe had never articulated himself.  In the Philosophy, Steiner is going out on his own, and from a richer life of inner spiritual experience, such that he says in 1908, in the 12th and last of the lectures on the St. John Gospel, after defining katharsis as the purification of the astral body so that it becomes capable of imprinting the developing organs of clairvoyance on the ether body:

"A person can go very far in this matter of katharsis if, for example, he has gone through and inwardly experienced all that is in my book, Philosophy of Freedom, and feels that this book was for him a stimulation and that now he has reached the point where he can himself actually reproduce the thoughts just as they were there presented.  If a person holds the same relationship to this book that a virtuoso, in playing a selection on the piano, holds to the composer of the piece, that is, he reproduces the whole thing within himself - naturally according to his ability to do so- then through the strictly built up sequence of thought of this book - for it is written in this manner - katharsis will be developed to a high degree."

In Theory then we might say, we are led to knowing something consciously, that had only lived instinctively in the will of Goethe, while in the Philosophy we are brought even more consciously to the highest possible pre-stage to initiation.  Steiner continues, in the St. John lectures, to say that all that is necessary at this point, for the developed astral body now to imprint itself properly on the ether body, is for the student to undertake meditative contemplation, in the manner learned in the Philosophy, of the opening Chapters of the John Gospel, beginning with: "In the beginning was the Word..." and ending with "...full of devotion and truth." John 1: 1-14.


When the Philosophy lives in us in the right way, we stand on the threshold where we are about to know Ideas as independent realities.  We participate in their arising in the soul's consciousness (experience), but they (the Ideas) are nearly objectively independent entities.  Yet, for the final element of initiation to arise there needs to be an Initiator, that is Christ, so we take the skill learned in the Philosophy to nearly experience Ideas as independently real, and then meditatively contemplate the opening verses of the St. John Gospel, for in those Ideas we come upon the spiritual garments of Christ in their most profound expression, such that it is Christ who mets us and brings about the impression of the seed organs of clairvoyance in the katharsis purified astral body into and onto the ether body.

The Philosophy prepares us, and Christ takes us through the final step.

So then, what is the relationship between Theory and the Philosophy?  Or between the now consciously understood instinctive will of Goethe and the Rite of Initiation fostered by Steiner?  Is the former trivial, or is there a very definite reason that in Steiner's biography the one precedes the other?  Could Steiner have written the Philosophy without first thinking through and writing Theory?

Many people find the Philosophy difficult.  Some even suggest it might be time to rewrite the Philosophy for modern times.  The problem here is clear, for in this suggestion we have the problem of dumbing down, of meeting the laziness of the Age with a co-dependent enabling gesture, as if struggle and effort are not part of spiritual development.  What would be the point of chopping the top off of Mt. Everest so that it was easier to climb?

The fact is that no one would actually climb it (it isn't there anymore), and that skill, only attainable through the effort, would be lost.  Rewriting the Philosophy would destroy the potential to do the work needed to engage it, and in effect destroy the prelude to the new thinking initiation.  So then what do we do in response to the obvious reality of difficulty so many find in the Philosophy?

Well, what we do is get our collective heads out of that place the sun doesn't shine, and realize that Theory is the preparatory step for the Philosophy - the work that exercises the basic inner thinking capacities that are needed before tackling the real mountain.

Consider that in Theory, the problem of Freedom comes last, while in the Philosophy it comes first.  The problem of Freedom then is the bridge between the two.  Theory is the examination of the problem of the relationship between thought and experience, from many sides, and with respect to all sorts of implications once we understand what is at stake.  We need Theory to possess Goetheanism, which is the ability to discipline thinking before the experience of phenomena.  We also need Theory's world view and the inspiration which that view instills in us, in such ideas as:

"It is really the genuine, and indeed the truest, form of Nature, which comes to manifestation in the human mind, whereas for a mere sense-being only Nature's external aspect would exist. Knowledge plays here a role of world significance. It is the conclusion of a work of creation. What takes place in human consciousness is the interpretation of Nature to itself. Thought is the last member in a series of processes whereby Nature is formed."


"Man is not behaving in accordance with the purposes of the Guiding Power of the world when he investigates one or another of His commandments, but when he behaves in accordance with his  own insight.  For in him the Guiding Power of the world manifests Himself.  He does not live as Will somewhere outside of man, He has renounced his own will in order that all might depend upon the will of man.   If man is to be enabled to become his own lawgiver, all thought about world-determinations outside of man must be abandoned."

This then prepares us for later appreciating in the Philosophy the necessity behind Freedom, as well as the training regarding moral imagination, moral intuition and moral technique.  What Rudolf Steiner lived in his biography, we can gain by following that same path.  He broke the trail, and now we can follow in trust.

Just as Nature speaks to us in a Goetheanistic manner concerning its deeper truths, so does Steiner's biography speak to us of the deeper truths of modern initiation.

First we get the Theory - the true concepts about mind, and then in the Philosophy we get to practice, to look within (introspection) and arrive at knowledge of mind.  Once trained inwardly to an awake relationship to the real nature of thinking, then we begin to contemplate those thoughts which are the outer garment of Christ.   This will then show why Owen Barfield described Theory as: the least read most important book Steiner ever wrote.  We begin where our teacher began, and then faithfully follow him.  

Let us now come at this from a slightly different direction in order to deepen our appreciation.

Here is the often erroneously scorned Valentin Tomberg, from his anthroposophical lectures collected under the title: The Four Sacrifices of Christ and the Return of Christ in the Etheric:

"...the transition from all that is most prosaic produced by the nineteenth century to what the future holds is offered by the spiritual manifestation of Goetheanism - Goetheanism is, in fact, a bridge on which the transition can be made from the quantitative thinking of the nineteenth century to a qualitative characterizing thinking.   Now where this transition leads is Spiritual Science.  Here it is not only a matter of being able to think qualitatively, but of placing the moral element in the thinking into the foreground. And by way of comparison, one could say that Goetheanism is related to Anthroposophy, to Spiritual Science, in the same way as the organic world is related to the soul world. The organic calls for qualitative thinking; the soul world, for the formation of moral concepts."

In Theory we are introduced to this qualitative characterizing thinking - that is the picture thinking that adds nothing to its experience of the phenomena.  This organic thinking gesture is necessary in order for thinking to penetrate the living aspects of nature, of the social organism and of all manner of organic and living aspects of reality, such as languages.  In Barfield, for example, it is his organic thinking that gives us the mobile and plastic pictures such as are found in Speaker's Meaning.

So we need to proceed from organic thinking (Theory) to moral (spiritual) thinking (the Philosophy).  The latter is naturally built up out of the former, and the former is a step that cannot be skipped if we want to be able to stand freely within spiritual experience.  In developing organic thinking we build up capacities in the will, like learning to ride a bicycle.  Once present as capacities, they can simply be exercised as the problems of the Philosophy unfold within our introspective experience.  As these develop, and especially as we work with moral imagination, moral intuition and moral technique, we rise from the renewal of true imagination (Goetheanism), to the full embrace of true reason, or the logos-nature of thought (Spiritual Science).

Christ said in the Gospel of John: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.  In that moral reasoning learns to apprehend the truth, it is actually apprehending Christ, for Truth is not just a qualitative characteristic of Reality that rests in the Being of Christ, Himself, but exists because of the Being-nature of that same Reality.  Truth is moral, and it is only the moral in us that can approach truth.

Coleridge grasped this with his perception of the functional organism of the soul (or as Barfield describes it: his - Coleridge's - psychology) as: Sense, Fancy, Understanding, Understanding, Imagination, and Reason.  Humanity has been moving, since the Age of the Sentient Soul, ever deeper into its own nature, such that now we stand on the threshold of knowledge of the Imagination and Reason in their full reality.  Via Steiner, Michael guides us through Sophia into Christ, and A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception (written at the beginning of the current Michael Age) is the gate and starting point for that journey.


(1)  Reference the "world of ideas": The philosophy of Plato conceived of Ideas has having an existence independent of the human being, and among modern platonists (those whose experience leads them to considering that at least mathematical ideas of independent existence), we would find Einstein, Godel and Penrose.

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