The Reality of the Immediately Present – William James and Rudolf Steiner

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Some things in reality force themselves upon us immediately. They appear spontaneously without provocation and they impress themselves upon our senses in ways that we cannot withstand. These things surely must be real. Direct sense impressions – smells, tastes, sensations, sounds and sights – simply appear in awareness. We don’t call them into being and we cannot alter or avoid the way they present themselves. Ideas and intuitions also – upon their initial appearance – share the same unalterable immediacy of presence.

The world presents itself to us through a series of spontaneous, immediate and unalterable first impressions. At its core – before we can do anything about it – our experience is dictated as an unending parade of first impressions – a relentless succession of pure experiences.

In the decade of the 1880’s two daringly original thinkers were working to create a picture of reality that rests upon a foundation of pure experience. Both were scientifically and spiritually inclined. Both were influenced by Goethe’s observational method of scientific inquiry and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. And both published important works describing their conception of a world founded on pure experience in that decade.

One was William James who spent all ten years of that decade completing his master work The Principles of Psychology that was published in 1890. The other was the younger Rudolf Steiner who completed his doctoral thesis entitled A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception in 1886. I have been familiar with James’ vision of a world of pure experience for many years, but I had never been acquainted with Steiner’s remarkably similar conception until I began reading Steiner’s book only a week ago.

It has been a delight to read in Steiner ideas so similar to James and expressed in  ways that help me see James thinking more clearly. Steiner starts by asserting that the world as it presents itself to us is a succession of pure experiences. These experiences in and of themselves cannot be qualified in anyway. Each is simply a pure impression that is made upon us. It is an unqualified multitude of original impressions that cannot be compared or ordered in anyway. The following passage in which Steiner describes the reality of pure experience could have come directly from James – or vice versa.

Let us now take a look at pure experience. What does it contain, as it sweeps across our consciousness, without our working upon it in thinking? It is mere juxtaposition in space and succession in time; an aggregate of utterly disconnected particulars. None of the objects that come and go there has anything to do with any other. At this stage, the facts that we perceive, that we experience inwardly, are of no consequence to each other. This world is a manifoldness of things of equal value. No thing or event can claim to play a greater role in the functioning of the world than any other part of the world of experience. If it is to become clear to us that this or that fact has greater significance than another one, we must then not merely observe the things, but must already bring them into thought-relationships.

In order for these pure experiences to take on any qualities or relationships whatsoever a second element must act upon them. That element is thought. It is thought that attributes qualities to pure experiences and relates some experiences to others and builds a complete picture of the world. Steiner is describing a view of reality that looks remarkably similar to Peirce’s Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness. Initially there is a real object – firstness – then there is a pure experience of that object – secondness – then there is the interpretation through thought that qualifies the object and situates it in relationship to other objects – thirdness.

What is more remarkable about this picture is that Steiner shares with James a vision of a universe that emerges as process. Thoughts are not things that human beings apply to pure experience; thoughts emerge spontaneously in response to pure experience and then arrange and qualify those experiences not according to our direction, but according to what Steiner refers to as organic laws of interconnection. These laws are part of the world of thought itself and not completely within our control. The picture that Steiner paints is one in which pure experience presents itself as a spontaneously occurring stream (to use James’ term) and then thought grow out of the experience qualifying it and situating it in relationship to the rest of experience. If we continue to allow this process of “thinking” to go on unabated we will develop an ever clearer picture of reality. Steiner like James sees this not merely as a process of perceiving reality, but a process of producing reality. Relating this to Peirce’s conceptions of firstness, secondness and thirdness; reality becomes more full through the organic growth of thought that starts as pure experience – firstness – and becomes some final experience – secondness – through the process of thinking – thirdness.

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Catherine
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Catherine

Dear Jeff, I agree that Steiner goes on a road very similar to James. Especially with their remarkable intuition that Reality is not complete without the process of human thought. It is a bit [ for Steiner , for James I don’t know enough to say anything, but it looks very close] as if Thought was the human organ making the link between material and spiritual. A material object with no thought is like a tree with no leaves. The link with Pierce’s firstness secondness and thirdness is less obvious for me. There is a tricky part here ; Steiner… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

Catherine I predict that you are going to really like Peirce by the end. It isn’t accurate that for Peirce firstness is associated only with material objects. Everything has the quality of firstness – matter, ideas, emotions – everything that exists has the quality of firstness. As we go on I will try to explain that even secondness has a quality of firstness. And the most interesting is that even thirdness has a quality of firstness. Peirce was actually an idealist by his own admission. He was also guided in part by a spiritual experience that altered his life. By… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Rudolf Steiner : the 4rth meditation of the book “A road to self knowledge”, about the guardian fo the threshold. ******* FOURTH MEDITATION In which the Attempt is made to form a Conception of the Guardian of the Threshold WHEN the soul has attained the faculty of making observations whilst remaining outside the physical body, certain difficulties may arise with regard to its emotional life. It may find itself compelled to take up quite a different position towards itself from that to which it was formerly accustomed. The soul was accustomed to regard the physical world as outside itself, while… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

About the relation between Pierce and Steiner: we can say that they both start in the same way, like you express in your beautiful blog. Firtsness: an object , secondness : an impression, and thirdness, a thought. The tree together give us access to the spiritual world. This is indeed a very deep and strong similarity. Later on, Steiner starts first to remove firstness: so that we access the spiritual world with impressions and Thoughts only. Then he removes secondness, so that our access to the spiritual world is through Direct access to Thoughts, which he calls “beings”. Then he… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Touché ! Indeed this is starting to catch me in… If this guy is really able to go back to firstness, right way,altogether, then we welcome Gebser and his ever present origin into our circle, right ? Maybe in a short while I will fall in love with Pierce, an american philosopher…. which has never happened before[ with an america philosopher I mean] [smiley!] At some point I shall tell you of a very strange theory of Evolution which showed up. It sounds that we are turning around such ideas all the time. Don ‘t you agree still that Steiner… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

I think you are going to love Peirce…acctually the French did even in his life time. And yes I think that Peirce’s firstness is not different from Gebser’s ever present origin. ANd Steiner is amazing. I have always found him too esoteric for me, but reading his doctoral work has provided a doorway in to his thinking that I couldn’t find in the esoteric writing. I think that The Philosophy of Freedom will make more sense to me when I read it again – it isn’t esoteric, but I had a hard time with it when I tried reading it… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

With Steiner just forget the esoteric part.
My wisdom with him is that when I don’t understand I just admit so and wait for what new he can bring.

You might be as surprised as I was.

Catherine
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Catherine

Dear Jeff, with respect to Descartes, what is important to discuss is how Cartesian doubt indeed made a shift between matter and spirit. This doubt, although perfectly valid at the time of classicism, has now to be overcome. The other part, that few people know about, is the part Steiner noticed. It is that Descartes had already the fantastic intuition that Thinking could touch spirit. I myself would never have known this if it had not been first pointed out to me by the first enlightened man I met (Steve Jourdain) and then I found the same argument in the… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

Catherine, thank you for all the information, it is quite a thing to read. I am still looking for the mysticism of Peirce; but then I see that it actually doesn’t matter because Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness are Universal Categories, which means they apply to anything in the Universe. But he does say that religion and science should not be mixed. Reading your last post I had to think of Pierce’ categories’, especially with your : 11. Each object must first be studied in its relation to others before we can determine in what sense it can be said to… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Liesbeth, this is very interesting.

Somehow I noticed after reading your post that indeed “firstness” deserves to be carefully defined.

In this particular passage of Steiner’s PoF, I would say that “firstness” is defined by 9.
“. The simplest assertion I can make of a thing is that it is, that it exists.”

Isn’t the recognition of existence equivalent to “firstness” ?

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

Hi Catherine, yes that is true for sure, but when I was reading the lines: ‘the ideas of freshness, life, spontaneity, freedom”
I saw more in it, started thinking about the ‘talking/acting before thought’, true aliveness, pure action etc. in the light of evolutionary enlightement, but Jeff is going to write about that. I am curious what he is going to say. I read that according to Peirce: processes conform to a ‘great law of evolution’ and that such processes are intelligible only by reference to the ideas of chance and probability.

Anonymous
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Anonymous

I found a beautiful text about this. Will post tomorrow since I am with the iPhone now. About patterns of evolution I really wonder whether the time has come to describe better what Pierce calls freshness. Is there for example a characteristic randomness which is typical of life of the emergence of life. Some kind of form in the soup not like chaos or Brownian motion which are forms typical of other phenomena but another topologically form which would be present at the emergent point of life. Same for consciousness. Dies the emergence of consciousness requires a specific topological form… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

I found a beautiful text about this. Will post tomorrow since I am with the iPhone now. About patterns of evolution I really wonder whether the time has come to describe better what Pierce calls freshness. Is there for example a characteristic randomness which is typical of life of the emergence of life. Some kind of form in the soup not like chaos or Brownian motion which are forms typical of other phenomena but another topologically form which would be present at the emergent point of life. Same for consciousness. Dies the emergence of consciousness requires a specific topological form… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

I absolutely love these posts of yours, I am right up in my chair again, looking for the pages where I found the lines that connect to what you say. It seems all known to you, but I copy a larger part because I do not understand it all and maybe there is something of interest for you, if not just leave it. The writer says that in connection with Peirce doctrine of the Universal Categories, it is worthwhile to ask whether hypotheses approximating in certain respects to any parts of Peirce’s cosmogonic principle can be found. Hypotheses showing an… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

“Catherine, if you have come this far, I am not able to discuss these things with you, maybe Jeff can. I think you will get more out of this than I do. Even though I was happy for the reason to focus on it a bit more, probably we are not any further than the last post….” yes I came this far… i don’t know who is the writer of this, but I am not that convinced with his picture of the arrow of time in physics [maybe I just didn’t get what he meant]. Botzman’s 2nd principle of thermodynamics,… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Dear Liesbeth, here is the text I wanted to share with you. It is about a dialogue talking about : http://www.southerncrossreview.org/41/cruse.htm I quote a few passages from it which might be relevant to us ! “On another topic, I have come to the following understanding of Steiner/Barfield’s distaste for “metaphysics.” In general, S/B may be said to agree with the metaphysical contention that there is a supersensible nature to reality, that is, a nature that is beyond the perception of the senses. They disagree with the further contention that, therefore, this supersensible nature is beyond the reach of thinking. For… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

Thank you Catherine, I value this investigation more than anything else at the moment. It has to do with so many questions. It is the opposite of dry!! I wrote an answer before I read your post, than read it and I ended in total confusion because of the power of what you write. I first wrote about Peirce: I like the idea explaining all without God. I think God always takes the role of filling in the empty space, when we do not know, we say it is God (so does Peirce: ‘it is this way because God made… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

Dear Catherine, thank you for the link. I forgot to read, but it is interesting. Starting it already cleared up a lot. It is obvious that seeing and thinking is restricting reality, we only see a tiny bit of it (as far as our consciousness goes). Knowing beyond thinking exists, Andrew is talking about ‘knowing before thought’, which marks Enlightened consciousness. I think this has to do with vertical evolution, being able to understand more, maybe even more than our present awareness. An example is what they bring in: ’when we first see the light we do not see it,… Read more »

Fairoaks
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grant talabay
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fantastic issues altogether, you just gained a new reader.
What might you recommend in regards to your put up that you
just made some days ago? Any certain?