One of the longstanding traditions of this blog is that when there are five Wednesdays in a month, the commentariat gets to propose and then vote on the subject for the fifth Wednesday post. The winner this time is the Austrian occultist Rudolf Steiner, one of the most interesting figures in twentieth century intellectual history.
This didn’t come as a great surprise to me. Steiner was one of the very few figures in the modern occult tradition who also wrote on some of the more practical themes I’ve discussed here and elsewhere in my writings. He was an occultist—he preferred the term “spiritual scientist,” for reasons we’ll get to in due time—but he was also a pioneering figure in ecological agriculture, holistic medicine, humanistic architecture, and spiritual approaches to the arts.
For reasons we’ll also get to in due time, his esoteric teachings have received very little attention in the English-speaking world outside narrow circles of devotees, and those of his practical teachings that have caught on here have very often been stripped of their esoteric context. Many people who are involved in Waldorf Schools (one of the movements he founded) or biodynamic agriculture and gardening (another of his creations) have little more than a dim sense that Steiner was some kind of mystic.
To get past that level of understanding, let’s start with the basics. Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 in a small town in what is now Croatia and was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where his father was a telegraph operator for the local railroad. He showed intellectual talent early on, and in 1879 started classes in the Vienna Institute of Technology, where he graduated in 1883. His considerable gifts and capacity for hard work won him a spot editing the scientific papers of Goethe, and when he finished that gargantuan task successfully he was hired as an editor at the Goethe archives in Weimar, Germany. He then earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Rostock with a dissertation building on the ideas of Fichte. To all appearances he was on his way to a successful career as a philosopher and literary critic.
During these same years, however, he also took his first steps toward a very different kind of career. At the age of nine he saw the ghost of one of his aunts; this came as a shock, as neither he nor anyone in his family knew at the time that she was dead. Other clairvoyant experiences followed. Then, while he was studying at the Vienna Institute of Technology, he encountered his first occult teacher, a professional herbalist named Felix Kogutzki. They met during Steiner’s morning train commute into the Institute, which also happened to be the train that took Kogutzki from his home village to the Vienna pharmacies that bought his herbs.
Kogutzki was not just an herbalist. He was also a clairvoyant and a practitioner of folk magic, inhabiting a world where central European folklore and legend were still a living presence. Talking with him was a revelation for the young Steiner: for the first time he was able to share his own clairvoyant experiences with someone who took them seriously, and had equally vivid and intriguing glimpses of the Unseen to share. In due time, when he was sure of the younger man’s character, Kogutzki also introduced him to a far more influential figure in the occult scene of the time: the Rosicrucian adept Alois Mailander, who appears here and there in Steiner’s own writings under the pseudonym “the Master M.”
Mailander, a weaver who lived near Darmstadt in southern Germany, was one of the last inheritors of the centuries-old tradition of Christian occultism in central Europe that began with the sixteenth-century mystic Jacob Boehme and got its common name from the seventeenth-century Rosicrucian movement. By the time Kogutzki led Steiner to him, Mailander was already known to the thriving Theosophical lodges in Vienna and Prague, where his impressive personal qualities and his mastery of abstruse mystical practices won him many followers.
By then, Steiner had also made contact with the Theosophists in Vienna. The Theosophical Society in those days was a force to be reckoned. Founded in 1875, it set out to make occultism respectable, and came as close to that improbable goal as anyone ever has. Steiner was visiting the Vienna Theosophical Lodge regularly by 1889, but he kept his connections private for another ten years or so. In 1899, however, after a move to Berlin and a stint editing an influential literary periodical, he was ready to take the plunge and make his occult interests public.
As a respected intellectual figure, he was a prestigious catch for the Theosophical Society, and the Society’s leadership acted accordingly. In 1902 he was made the head of the Society’s German branch, and in 1904 he took charge of the German wing of the Esoteric Section, the inner circle of members who studied secret teachings. By 1913, however, he had had more than enough of the cascading scandals that surrounded the Society, and he and most of its German members broke away and founded a new organization, the Anthroposophical Society, which became a major presence in the European occult scene. We can hit the pause button here and zoom in for a closer look, because Steiner’s embrace of occultism was not simply a reflection of his own clairvoyant experiences. It was a carefully considered response to one of the great intellectual challenges of the time.
In Steiner’s day, philosophy in the Western world had not yet transformed itself into the purely academic habit of intellectual onanism it has become since then. Philosophy was still an essential part of most scholarly disciplines, and important new philosophical works fielded reviews in the kind of newspapers that now devote columns to fashionable novels. Philosophy mattered—but philosophy just then was also in the midst of what turned out to be its terminal crisis.
That crisis had its roots in the work of Immanuel Kant more than a century before. Before Kant, a series of philosophers—Locke, Berkeley, Hume—had taken on the challenge of sorting out just what human beings are capable of knowing for certain about the world that surrounds them. (Those readers who are keeping score will want to know that this branch of philosophy is called epistemology.) Building on their work, Kant demonstrated that our perceptions of the world around us are so extensively filtered and formatted by our sense organs and nervous systems that they offer only the most ambiguous data about the world. Even such apparently hard facts as space and time turned out to be conditions of consciousness rather than objective realities.
It is reasonable, Kant argued, to accept that there is in fact a world on the other end of our sensory and cognitive processes, and that this real world—the Ding an sich (thing-in-itself)—is the source of the world of appearances we experience. Yet we never actually encounter the real world. All we know directly, and all we can know directly, is the world of appearances.
That realization turned out to be hugely important for the development of science. It was because Kant cut the real world free from the evidence of the senses that physicists stopped trying to make the evidence fit the commonplace sensory model of the world, and allowed their data to lead them to today’s scientific vision of reality as a cascade of standing waves in raw spacetime. What Kant gave to science, however, he took away from philosophy. If he was right, philosophy had to give up the old dream of understanding the world from first principles, and refocus on more human concerns such as ethics. A few philosophers—Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre—faced Kant’s challenge squarely and went to work figuring out what philosophy could mean once it had to give up any claim to direct knowledge of objective reality.
For most philosophers of the time, however, this was far too big a leap to consider, or even to contemplate. They set out instead to find some way around the barrier Kant had revealed between the human mind and the real world. The standard approach for many years was to engage in sheer handwaving, insisting that there was something called “intellectual intuition” that allowed philosophers to do an end run around the hard limits of human cognition. In practice, “intellectual intuition” meant no more than “I think this is true, therefore it must be true.” That wasn’t exactly a firm foundation to build on, and it broke apart promptly once people started to notice that no two philosophers’ “intellectual intuition” told them the same things.
Steiner himself attempted a more intellectually rigorous version of the same thing in his early book The Philosophy of Freedom (also published in English as The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity and Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path—his followers have an odd habit of endlessly retitling certain of his books). He argued there that thoughts about an object of experience were not merely abstract representations of that object constructed by the mind, as Kant and most other philosophers held, but were perceptions of the inner reality of the object itself. It was an impressive attempt, especially for a young man—he was only 33 when it first saw print—but it fell afoul of the same problems as other attempts to make the mind go beyond its own bounds.
That, in turn, was what led Rudolf Steiner to occultism. He grasped that the occult traditions he studied with Kogutzki, Mailander, and the Theosophists promised an expansion of consciousness beyond the ordinary limits, and he hypothesized that this expanded consciousness could punch through the limits Kant had mapped out and grant the occult practitioner direct knowledge of objective reality. It was a bold hypothesis, and his way of putting it to the test was no less bold: he plunged into intensive occult study and practice, and began teaching and lecturing about occultism so that others could do the same thing.
It’s quite common for occultists who are venturing onto new ground in such a way to come up with a new word or phrase for their teachings. Steiner did exactly that, and liked to refer to his teachings as Geisteswissenschaft. That translates out literally as “spiritual science,” but neither of the two English words mean exactly the same thing as their German not-quite-equivalents. Geist is “spirit”—it’s the German cognate of English “ghost”—but it also means “mind,” “intellect,” and “consciousness,” in much the same sense as the French word esprit. Wissenschaft is “science” in the older sense of that word, not the current much narrower sense popularized by today’s scientists; any organized body of knowledge, whether or not it was gathered through what we now call the scientific method.
Understand Steiner’s label and you understand what he was trying to do. The capacities that occultism develops and trains—especially those at the core of the kind of occultism he practiced—belong to “spirit” in the German sense, that is, the mind, the intellect, and consciousness, as well as “spirit” in the much vaguer English sense. As a capable philosopher with a background in the exact sciences, he was acutely aware of the vagueness and disorganization that are the besetting sins of so much philosophy. His goal was to set things in order, to work out a systematic body of knowledge about the nature and powers of human consciousness and thought—a Geisteswissenschaft in every sense of the word.
What is more, he didn’t limit the focus of his project to the realm of abstractions that occupied the attention of most of the philosophers of his day. He understood that the natural sciences had seized their dominant position in the modern world because the explanations of nature they offered had practical consequences that could be picked up and put to work in the form of technology and engineering. Steiner set out to do the same thing with his spiritual science. Among the results were biodynamic agriculture and gardening, which is among the earliest and most successful of the modern systems of organic growing, and the Waldorf schools, among the most widespread alternative education systems today.
These were at least as important to his overall project as the spiritual disciplines he taught members of the Anthroposophical Society. Steiner wanted to show that spiritual science, like natural science, could yield practical results in the everyday world. Beyond that, he wanted to demonstrate conclusively that the expanded consciousness that resulted from occult training could surpass the barriers Kant had traced out, and make it possible for Western philosophy to continue the quest for absolute objective knowledge of the real world. Proving that occult insights could have useful applications served both those purposes.
More than a century has passed since Steiner launched his grand experiment. (In fact, the centenary of his death will be two years from tomorrow, on 30 March 2025.) At this point the results are in. The short form is that Steiner was right that clairvoyant perception and other capacities that can be developed by occult training can yield practical results in the everyday world. He was wrong, however, in thinking that clairvoyant perception and those other capacities are immune to the problems that face the material senses and ordinary thinking.
Let’s start with the upside. Biodynamic farming and gardening work, and work very well indeed. In their original form and in a galaxy of adaptations, biodynamic methods have become standard practice all across a very large swath of today’s organic food growing scene, and for good reason: you can reliably get solid yields of nutrient-rich, chemical-free food crops by using those methods. Similarly, the distinctive educational methods the Waldorf schools use are effective ways to teach children: considerably more effective, by most standards, than the fashionable but inept techniques taught by university education departments and inflicted on children in public schools across the United States.
Those are the two most visible successes of Steiner’s work, but they’re not the only ones. One set of successes I’ve explored in more detail personally are his methods of occult training. Those work quite effectively in teaching the student how to use the subtle senses Steiner set out to explore and develop. Those of my readers who are interested in following up on this could do much worse than to study his early works The Way of Initiation and A Road to Self-Knowledge, both of which have long since entered the public domain and are readily available from online archives. Systematic practice of the exercises in these books will demonstrate to the unprejudiced reader how effective these training methods can be.
That’s the upside. The downside is that Steiner also demonstrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that clairvoyant perception and other modes of expanded consciousness can also be dead wrong. They are subject to the same difficulties as the ordinary senses, in other words, and don’t provide the direct access to unfiltered truth that Steiner hoped they would achieve.
For example, in his time and for half a century thereafter, theories of the formation of the solar system followed one of two basic patterns. One set of theories claimed that the planets had been formed out of a mass of solar material flung off or drawn out of the sun. Another set claimed that the sun and planets were formed together out of a cloud of dust. This was still a live issue when I was a child; the copy of the Time-Life Science book The Planets that adorned the family room when I was small gave both versions and said scientists were still debating the matter. Since that time, however, the matter has been settled: the sun and planets formed together out of an accretion disk of dust and frozen gases. The problem here is that Steiner’s clairvoyant visions gave the other result. He was sure that the planets had been spun off one by one from the sun, and drew quite a range of conclusions from this. He was wrong, so were the conclusions, and that hard fact has to be taken into account in any assessment of the man and his work.
This is far from the only example. I know, for example, several beekeepers who have read Steiner’s clairvoyant investigation of beehives and bee consciousness. Their consistent opinion is that Steiner was wrong, and not just in minor details. It’s worth noting, in fact, that the fields where Steiner’s discoveries have proven most useful are precisely those where practitioners have had to cope with results on the material plane, and separate out those insights that didn’t work from those that did. Crop yields are one good objective measure; children’s reading and math scores are another. Pay attention to these, and it becomes immediately obvious that clairvoyant perception is a valuable source of possibilities but has to be balanced with attention to how things work out here on the material plane.
All this reminds me of a cliché in old science fiction movies. You’d see somebody in a white lab coat frown and say, “The experiment was a failure, we didn’t get the results we expected.” It’s an absurd misstatement of science, because an experiment that gets unexpected results is Christmas morning for any honest scientist: it means the conventional wisdom is wrong and unguessed possibilities lie open to further investigation. That’s what the outcome of Steiner’s great experiment means, too. To judge by the results he got, neither the easy dismissal of clairvoyant perception by the pseudoskeptical mainstream nor the uncritical embrace of it by incautious occultists can be accepted. Instead, some more nuanced and more interesting way of understanding the subtler potentials of human perception has to be found.
Unfortunately, the main body of Steiner’s followers have provided no help in this process. To an embarrassing degree they’ve embraced a fundamentalism of the “Steiner said it, I believe it, that settles it” variety, and people who post anything less than hagiographical about Steiner field lengthy tirades by Anthroposophical trolls. (I expect to delete several of those once this essay goes up.) The General Anthroposophical Society has done a heroic job of making sure that all Steiner’s writing available in print, and they deserve praise for that, but beyond that? I’m convinced that half the reason so few people in alternative culture are willing to look twice at Steiner is the shrill dogmatism expressed by so many of his followers these days.
Still, that’s common enough among the first few generations of followers of any charismatic spiritual teacher. The question that needs to be asked now is whether enough people are willing to take the next step, recognize that Steiner was a pioneer, accept that pioneering enterprises always run the risk of making big mistakes as well as big discoveries, and go on to correct the errors, build on the successes, and make something other than a dreary personality cult out of the work of one of the great occultists and spiritual scientists of modern times.
Great post, brother!
Thank you for this, JMG. I recently had the pleasure of attending a weekend workshop in Goethean science organised by the Ruskin Mill Trust, a British anthroposophical charitable project. I was impressed, first of all, by their rigorous approach to reviving Goethean science, with one teacher actually working on a PhD on the subject (I know, right!!), and a new Goethean research centre being very close to opening; but also by the mature attitude towards Steiner’s (and Goethe’s) theories I saw present. I never got the impression of any dogmatism or fundamentalism among them.
Exciting times. I wish them all the best.
JMG, fascinating! Would you recommend books or other sources on biodynamic gardening? Is it best to go back to Steiner’s original treatment, or have others sort of worked out the kinks since then?
Wow, great post. I agree Steiner dared to go a different direction than most. And I believe he was already during his lifetime annoyed by admiring followers unable to think for themselves.
I read his early philosophy book in Der Originalfassung several years ago. I found it fascinating. What I took from it then was his emphasis on the inner connection through the senses being the only available reference and relation to reality. And that choosing to be available for this living relation is the only freedom we have. Intuition is not always right, in fact it is very difficult to interpret, but it is the best guide we have.
And I mean intuition not just for thinking, for mental processes, but even more for doing/being in the world. Active intuition is constantly honed by interaction with the wider ‘reality’. For me this makes sense when starting from wholeness. If course there are barriers, there is friction, but there is also connection and relation. Awareness of these complex relations only comes from active embodied participation.
I hugely enjoy the clarity of your blogs, thank you,
I think that it’s true- humans can never truly know the fundamental reality. We only get half-glimpses from our senses, and the spiritual sense is just as prone to illusion and limitations as the other senses. But I do think we can carefully infer some things about the fundamental nature of reality from our own experience. (As within, so without.)
From our senses, we infer that there is a world outside of our personal consciousness. This is most likely the case. But then we often take a further step that isn’t warranted. We infer that the world outside of us is outside of Consciousness itself, that it’s a different ontological category. I don’t think that this step is warranted. It’s more parsimonious to postulate that what is within us (consciousness) and what is without us (the external world) are of the same fundamental nature, i.e. consciousness. We can’t know for sure, but I think it’s one reasonable explanation.
“What Kant gave to science, however, he took away from philosophy. If he was right, philosophy had to give up the old dream of understanding the world from first principles, and refocus on more human concerns such as ethics.”
Going back to the topic of disenchantment, would you say that Kant’s powerfully rational argument increased the supersession of a view of the world that was primarily relational and personal with a primarily rational, theoretical, mechanical model?
Is the gardener in the biodynamic farm picture John Jeavons? I have no source for cow horns or manure, but I can attest that the rest of the ecology action toolkit works a treat. It does need to be modified for climate and soil types. BTW, planting by moon phases is not hokum pokum, but it is not always possible. If your child is star pitcher in the state baseball championships, which are being held at optimum planting time..you won’t be staying home.
My brother was a wine maker in Walla Walla, WA. He once told me that the most succesful winery in the valley was using biodynamics. When that got out a number of other wineries adopted the practices. I’m sure most of them only had a vague idea of who R. Steiner was and frankly didn’t care. It was successful – that’s all they cared about.
Ah! John Michael! You visionary occultist, fiction, esoteric mind-boggling writer!
In this essay, there are several themes which could be developed into books…
Thanks for the logical build-up of the thinking mind from philosophia to “scientific spiritualism”.
SCIENCE! : It must strive always to steer FAR FROM DOCTRINE…
It is a mode of research, discovery.
Too often human beings in their FEARS of not knowing, develope beliefs, doctrines, religions, and kill each other because they are pearched on “exceptionalism”.
I pray that we evolve enough to bring back some common sense? in our thinking before we destroy ourselves…
Not knowing what a woman is??? We need a biologist to tell us???
2 + 2= 5? sometimes?? and yet I cannot make a budget if 2 + 2 = ???
At least on this material, physical dimension, there are physical laws we have to abide by if we want PHYSICAL results.
But “IT” rests on an infinite ocean of probabilities if we are to accept Quantum Physics theories. Theories… not truth!!!
LOVE AND JOY to all of you JMG followers and special GRATITUDE to John Michael to persist in producing such inspiring writings.
Michael, thank you!
Luke, that’s very good to hear. Some of the most promising ventures along Steiner’s lines back in the day were also British — I’m thinking here especially of the work Olive Whicher and George Adams did on projective geometry and its use as a way of understanding plant and animal life. May such projects continue and thrive.
Brunette, I don’t recommend starting with Steiner’s original works on biodynamics; they needed more input from the material plane than he was able to give them. It’s been long enough since I’ve read up on biodynamic methods that I’m not at all sure what books are available these days — perhaps readers can suggest something.
Bertus, thanks for this. I’ve also studied Steiner’s philosophical writings, especially but not only The Philosophy of Freedom, and the approach you’ve suggested strikes me as a very useful way to deal with his approach — a little less ambitious than the vision Steiner seems to have had in mind, perhaps, but it works.
Enjoyer, that’s certainly one way of understanding it, and it certainly places you in good company! I tend to find Schopenhauer’s basic analysis more convincing — he sees consciousness as a product of a more basic reality, which he identifies with will; he points out that our conscious awareness goes away every time we sleep, but the basic will-to-live keeps our heart beating and our lungs working, and will jolt us awake instantly in the presence of any perceived threat. Thus will is the fundamental reality, consciousness is one of the grades of will (the will to perceive, evolving eventually into the will to understand), and the world we perceive with our senses is merely the representations constructed by our minds in the service of will. But your mileage may vary, of course.
Ken, I think that die was cast long before Kant’s time by Descartes. Kant certainly didn’t do anything to change the trajectory Descartes set in motion — in fact, his entire project can best be seen as the fulfillment of Descartes’ attempt to get all the way down to those things that are undoubtedly real — but Kant’s arguments actually undercut the mechanical model of existence by pointing out just how little we can know.
Mary, I have no idea who the figure is — I did an image search for “biodynamic farming” and that’s what came up. I’ve also used Jeavons’ work extensively, with good results, and I’ve also gotten excellent results from planting by the Moon.
AV, I’ve heard the same thing from others. Biodynamic viticulture is one of the real triumphs of the system.
Gabrielseagull, I’m starting to think that we may need to cultivate some uncommon sense as well! (And of course waking up some uncommon senses is much of what Steiner taught…)
My goodness – this guy was a polymath of the first order !
Moose (offlist), these days, when anybody starts talking about some thinker of a previous generation, somebody inevitably goes digging through the literature to find some way of insisting that the thinker in question said something unacceptable to today’s woke sensibilities, and shouts “Gotcha!” at the top of their lungs, parading around the evidence that the thinker was guilty of doubleplusungood wrongthink. I trust we’re all aware by now that people in previous generations had attitudes that are considered unacceptable these days. That being said, perhaps you can take that kind of cheap shot somewhere else and spare us the virtue signaling.
There is/was a philosophical stance in Tibetan Buddhism that is still relevant today (mainly as a debate starting position anymore) called the Cittamatra or the “Mind Only” school. The problem with it as far as the Prasangha Madhyamika school is concerned is that it makes concrete or objective (mind, etc.) what is in fact impossible to define. Sounds to me a bit like the problems between followers of Kant and those who want there to be some way to actually connect with the “ding an sich”.
With the Mind Only folks, if I can pretend to represent them correctly (a near impossibility for me, at least), not only do we ourselves have minds and mental patterns and tendencies, but the entire perceivable universe is created by the aggregate of all our mental acts and states. Another form of co-emergent evolution (there are many), because what came first: our minds, or the universe we experience that was created from it?
Yogacara (another sub-school of teachings often associated with Cittamatra) the yogis who approach the true nature demonstrate as a result that the highly accomplished (like Padmasambhava or Milarepa) are able to do things with what we think of as material reality that should be impossible, like reaching into solid stone to conceal texts of teachings, or taking a full-sized human body into a tiny seashell, changing neither. Or walking on water, or leaving human handprints and footprints in stone. There are countless examples given, many (most?) of which you have to take on trust.
Anyhow, the crux of the efforts of Dr. Steiner and our response to them reminds me of the currents I just tried to represent here (however poorly), that can be found in Tibetan Buddhism.
Dear John Michael Greer,
Many thanks for this history, it was a pleasure to read.
Many people have strong opinions about the Goetheanum. I will say that the vast space of its great hall is highly unusual, its stained glass windows unearthly in sunlight, like great slabs of fruity candy, and the acoustics simply glorious.
I think your interpretation is perfectly reasonable, and isn’t as incompatible with mine as it may seem at first glance. I think we are using different language to state more or less the same truth. I am *willing* to accept that consciousness is something that emerges from will. Reading Eliphas Levi and Schopenhauer has helped me refine my worldview.
I think this would be a good time to clarify my definitions and make the distinction between consciousness and what I call meta-consciousness. When I use the word consciousness, I mean the most basic, primitive kind of consciousness, devoid of sensory contents, complex self-reflective thought, or memory. It is the core subjectivity that is always there. This remains even when we are in a coma or in deep sleep. This appears to be roughly equivalent to what you call Will. “Will” or “Being” are probably better words to describe it, because most people wouldn’t even call it consciousness.
Meta-consciousness is a more complex kind of consciousness, and is what people usually think of when they say the word consciousness. This is what you experience when you are awake and self-reflective, and capable of complex thought. It is entirely reducible to Will.
I think we are in agreement if I redefine ‘consciousness’ to Will and redefine ‘meta-consciousness’ to Consciousness. Maybe this clears things up, maybe we’re still not in agreement, but that’s alright.
Schopenhauer has what I believe is the correct approach to Kant; on the one hand he venerates Kant as the greatest of his predecessors but on the other hand his work depends on figuring out what is wrong with Kant. The rest of us should take the same approach to Steiner.
Ken, he was indeed. I like to encourage people to realize that that’s not unique to Steiner or people like him — most of us have multiple talents, and the world would be a better place if more of us pursued them.
Clarke, thanks for this. It’s quite common for mystics of different schools to come to common conclusions like this; I’ve long thought it was because ultimately, they’re dealing with the same realities.
C.M., I don’t expect ever to go there, but I’d like to. It’s very much to my taste.
Enjoyer, fair enough; it does sound as though we’re talking in similar terms, and once we both attain perfect enlightenment we can work out the fine details. 😉
Robert C, that’s one of the things I admire about Schopenhauer — and yes, it’s a very good approach to take to Steiner as well.
Haha, yes, of course. Thanks John. 🙂 I guess when I formulated my worldview, I wasn’t as precise with my definitions than I should have been. Calling the subconscious primal force that pervades and creates the universe ‘consciousness’ instead of something more appropriate like ‘Will’ is kind of confusing to others. Words are slippery little bastards.
In other news, I finished Star’s Reach and it’s one of my favorite books. I like how you made the aliens actually feel alien instead of boring little green men. I loved how well it ties into your other books, particularly the Ecotechnic Future and The Wealth of Nature. Thanks for your books!
Funnily enough, I recently picked up a copy of Gary Lachman’s biography of Steiner. I haven’t got very far into it yet, but it seems well written. Steiner’s one of those characters that keeps on popping up, so it’s time for me to learn more about him. However, it’s going to have to compete for reading time with “The Druid of Harley Street”, a compilation of pieces by E. Graham Howe, which I bought prompted by your recent Dreamwidth post. Sigh; if only there was infinite time for sitting and reading…
“… he hypothesized that this expanded consciousness could punch through the limits Kant had mapped out and grant the occult practitioner direct knowledge of objective reality.”
Objective reality is a really broad term and not very precise. I would discern local objective reality from global or even ultimate objective reality, whatever that may be. And then local objective reality – if I perceive the things as they are – do I hold knowledge of the objective reality of these things? I recently pondered how my dreams help me along my way. And – before you wrote this – I came to the conclusion that sometimes they allow me to see the things as they are, in regard to myself, to others and the surrounding situation. Whenever you deal with somebody who is in a difficult situation, if the person manages to see the things as they are, in that moment he will usually take a deep breath and understand. If you realize the things as they are, you know what modes of interaction are open to you and which are not. So in a way, you have perceived objective reality, but a very local one.
I know far too less about Steiner to know how much of his quest for objective reality falls into the category I outlined above. Organic gardening certainly has some local quality and raising children too. But from what you write I would guess that it was also about the big thing. So the question “is it possible to gain direct knowledge of objective reality?” translates to “is it possible to acquire direct knowledge about the nature of our existence [by occult means]?”. Which is a crazy question.
So, is it possible?
Great article, thanks for that!
Fun fact with regards to the anthroposophists‘ dogmaticism: the German word for petrify is versteinern.
I’m wondering how much some of Steiner’s more credulous acolytes might be missing in terms of symbology and metaphor when they take his word for the literal truth – maybe even Steiner took some of his clairvoyant insights too literally and not metaphorically enough. Even his theory about the planets being formed from offshoot masses of the sun, which I take it was a product of his psychic perceptions, could be understood as a kind of metaphorical truth. What Steiner said about “bee consciousness”, I dunno, but it might be right on the symbolic money, but symbolic is as far as it goes.
Seems to me the language of the metaphysical basically is myth, symbol, metaphor, and it can difficult if not impossible for these to have any literal “real world” applications. I think a lot of Edgar Cayce fans make the same mistake re Cayce’s trance insights, though Cayce like Steiner often proved to be accurate in the literal sense.
“today’s scientific vision of reality as a cascade of standing waves in raw spacetime.”
And that only explains 4%!
Let me say that again, “science” and “physics” only explains 4% of existence. And we could probably question a bunch of that 4% as well.
(For example, do gravitons exist? Or, alternatively, what is a gravitron? What is gravity? Is it a wave or a particle? Where does it come from? Is it a constant or variable? These are active scientific questions with no real good answers.)
Scientists then say, “Just give us a trillion dollars so we can build a super fantastic technological collider! We are making progress!”
I’m always reminded of Steven Wright’s joke:
“I have a hobby. I have the world’s largest collection of sea shells. I keep it scattered on beaches all over the world. Maybe you’ve seen some of it.”
So, to bring this back to Steiner, seems to me that “philosophy” and Steiner’s”scientific spiritualism” are a couple of good tools for the times. Lot’s of unknowns to work on. Of course, many of the unknowns are unknowable. But it might be good to discover what is unknowable! Which is what Kant was trying to say?
Hi John Michael,
As I read your essay this week, a question hung at the back of my mind: “What’s wrong with acceptance?” And I can’t even say for sure if that question is applicable in this instance. Dealing with how things are, to me is an important goal. I’ve strived in the past, and pushed with my mind, but it’s a tough rock to break yourself upon. Acceptance and limits, allowed me to do the work that needs doing. I can’t really say for sure, but exercising the will, no matter how strong, can only go so far when pitted against the material world – you know, the thing that keeps us all alive and fed.
I’m comfortable with mysticism, but in relation to the biodynamic methods, I really wanted to know on as a deep a level as my brain had the capacity to deal with, what was going on, and why. And the methods became something of a roadblock, for they appeared to me to be guidelines (which got treated dogmatically by some), and again I’m comfortable with that, but I sought reproducibility with the materials I had to hand. And that’s where guidelines fail – for me at least.
He was an interesting dude, that’s for sure.
gabrielseagull (no. 9) “2 + 2= 5? sometimes??”
Sure, depending on the value of “2” !
Clarke aka Gwydion (no. 13)
Most religions / cultures transmit accounts of the miraculous. It is possible to doubt these.
JMG, thank you very much for this post. (Woo-hoo, we beat China!) Despite my background in German, philosophy (only half of which is onanistic, thank you very much!), and Theosophy, I find Steiner very difficult to read or understand. (“Why is he going on about Saturn?”)
I hear mixed reports about Waldorf education. By which I mean is, I hear a lot of believable negative reports pointing to their lack of academic rigor, religious indoctrination, and culture of cheating the accreditors / inspectors. Here are some:
Of course mainstream public education also has serious problems, but still.
Question: in which of Steiner’s books or lectures does he interpret the story of Adam and Eve?
Brunette Gardens #3 asked about current biodynamics information. A good source is the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics (jpibiodynamics.org). They have the biodynamic preparations, books, a newsletter, and more. I’ve used some of their preparations in the past and had good luck although my area isn’t really suited for some of the biodynamic methods.
Enjoyer, delighted to hear it! I’ve been irritated since childhood by how drearily un-alien most science fiction aliens are. The Cetans in Star’s Reach were my first chance to try to do better — just as The Fires of Shalsha gave me the chance to create, or try to create, a genuinely plausible alien ecology that could support human life…mostly. I may have to try my hand at more science fiction one of these days, because there are more irritating things I’d like to challenge…
Bogatyr, I haven’t read Lachman’s bio yet, though it’s on the list — Lachman’s very uneven but when he’s good, he’s very good.
Nachtgurke, I’d suggest that you’re not getting access to objective reality — you’re simply getting access to a representation of it that isn’t quite so clumsy as your previous one. But we could debate that all week. 😉
Eike, ha! Thanks for this.
Will M, ding! We have a winner. Interestingly, the people in charge of Cayce’s organization these days are entirely open to symbolic interpretations of his work; maybe the Anthroposophagi can learn from them.
Orion, well, there’s that! Interestingly, Dion Fortune argued that the material world is 3/49th of the universe — the three lowest subplanes of the seventh Cosmic plane, each Cosmic plane having seven subplanes — and 3/49th of existence works out to a little over 6%.
Chris, well, yes. The problem with acceptance seems to be that it doesn’t allow for the Faustian fantasy of infinite linear extension.
Bei, hmm — I came to Steiner with only a modest background in German philosophy, though admittedly I speak Theosophy fluently, and found his writing very straightforward; so I’m not sure what to say. As for Waldorf schools, of course there are problems; there are problems with every form of education. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that the Waldorf system is constantly being targeted by rationalist pseudoskeptics on the one hand, and Christian fundamentalists on the other; it’s worth keeping an eye on such biases when assessing critiques of a system. I don’t happen to recall where if anywhere he gets into the Book of Genesis, as that’s not something I’ve gone looking for.
Honyocker, thanks for this.
Can philosophy be an empirical science?
JMG (“Destiny of Disenchantment,” no. 75) ” …if I talk about Steiner I’ll certainly reference Heindel and George Winslow Plummer…”
I rather like the brief contribution of the biologist and mystic J. B. S. Haldane to this debate:
“Our only hope of understanding the universe is to look at it from as many different points of view as possible. This is one of the reasons why the data of the mystical consciousness can usefully supplement those of the mind in its normal state. Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I have read and heard many attempts at a systematic account of it, from materialism and theosophy to the Christian system or that of Kant, and I have always felt that they were much too simple. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy. That is the reason why I have no philosophy myself, and must be my excuse for dreaming.”
This is the last paragraph of his 1927 essay “Possible Worlds,” published in his volume of essays under the same title. I have underlined the key sentence here.
To those who are interested, here are all of the requests for prayer that have recently appeared across the Ecosophia community. Please feel free to add any or all of them to your prayers.
If I missed anybody on the full list, or if you would like to add a prayer request for yourself or anyone who has given you consent (or for whom a relevant person holds power of consent) to the list, please feel free to leave a comment below and/or at the prayer list page.
* * *
This week I would like to bring special attention to a few prayer requests.
Hi’s big project that they have worked on for 3 years will go to another level or die completely this Friday. They request prayer to the project in support of it, and to Hi. May what is best for Hi be what comes to pass.
John (Mr. Beekeeper, Beekeeper in Vermont’s husband) had quadruple bypass surgery on 3/27; that he be blessed, protected, and healed to the utmost that is possible.
2 year old ES, who was having upwards of 60+ seizures a day, had brain surgery on 3/21; that he be blessed, protected, and healed completely.
Luke Dodson’s friend B, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and is still in serious condition though she’s already had surgery; for blessing, protection, healing, and a full return to health.
Lp9’s request on behalf of their hometown, East Palestine Ohio, for the safety and welfare of their people and all living beings in the area. The details coming out are still caught in the fog of war (Lp9 gives a short update here, and says “things are a bit… murky”), and various claims of catastrophe and non-catastrophe are flying about, but the reasonable possibility seems to exist that this is an environmental disaster on par with the worst America has ever seen. At any rate, it is clearly having a devastating impact on the local area, and prayers are certainly warranted.
* * *
If there are any among you who might wish to join me in a bit of astrological timing, I pray each week for the health of all those with health problems on the list on the astrological hour of the Sun on Sundays, bearing in mind the Sun’s rulerships of heart, brain, and vital energies. If this appeals to you, I invite you to join me.
A great essay on Steiner…
…the idea of Geisteswissenschaft is pretty cool. As you hinted at, it seems to be related to, or be a branch of, some of the ideas of natural philosophy and natural science in circulation in the lead up to “the science” as we know it today.
It seems that Goethean science, and Steiner’s own investigations into the relationships of the planes between spirit and matter, might all mixed together and heated up in the athanor along with things such as Philip Callahan’s work, and radionic technology.
That is just to say, just as you said in a previous essay there is not one “future” but “futures”, so too might there be “sciences” and not just “the science.”
And not “sciences” as in chemistry, physics, but what I mean is different philosophies of science.
I’m rather knackered, so I apologize for these vague gropings towards whatever it is I am trying to express.
I always have wanted to get more into Steiner’s work, but I never made much progress reading various texts. The lectures always seemed to refer to other things of his I hadn’t read, but I do think some of it may be worth persuing down the road.
Hope you, and all here are well. This was an excellent addition to the fifth wed. posts.
@Orion & @JMG re: #23
Curiously enough, that is also approximately the percentage scientists estimate for how much substance in the universe is “ordinary” matter as opposed to “dark matter” / “dark energy”…
It’s quite timely that you provide this overview of Steiner’s work as I reencountered him about a year ago when I started delving into Valentin Tomberg’s Christian esoteric/Hermetic writings. Tomberg’s critique of spiritual science is addressed head-on in his recently-released biography. The impacts of Kantian philosophy are also dealt with in Tomberg’s book on personal certainty (what he started writing before he switched gears to write Meditations on the Tarot). An important contrast he makes is between conceptual and symbolic thinking, and between formal and moral logic. He advised that his own past Anthroposophical writings be approached symbolically.
Mary, just in case you’re still wondering: Barefoot Farmer, Jeff Poppen, explains the practices of biodynamic farming including Steiner’s nine preparations’. He contrasts these practices with those of an organic farming operation. To WATCH full episodes, visit http://www.volunteergardener.org
Interesting that in the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous there is a chapter discussing this very point about belief/faith in spirituality and how reason can fail us. The biggest problem that people have in AA is finding their God. In the Appendix which is pointed to in this chapter they even say that most people come to god/spirituality by the “education method” of William James. And AA was basically built on James’ ideas, and particularly on Carl Jung.
David BTL, a fascinating question to which I don’t have the answer.
Bei, I ran out of space — I don’t let my essays go much over 3000 words. One of these days I’ll do a post on those two and some of Steiner’s other successors.
Robert M., thank you for this!
Quin, thanks for this as always.
Justin, excellent! Yes, and that movement toward a rapprochement of alternative sciences is something I’d like to see much more of. The Borderland Sciences people pushed that very far back in the day, and are still doing so in a quiet way, but it deserves much more attention.
Brendhelm, yep. I consider that to be confirmation, to some extent, of occult cosmology.
MJ, thanks for this. I haven’t read anything like as much Tomberg as I probably should.
AA, interesting — I didn’t know that.
A couple of thoughts from a person who has worked for many years with Steiner’s indications in child development both in an educational setting and at home as a parent. I have always tested the indications against reality and will say they have fundamentally made me both a better educator and parent. This leads me to my question/thought. Through engaging in occult practices over many years, I don’t feel I know reality any better, but I’m much better at understanding/intuiting events in reality(whatever it may be) and responding to them in a healthier/ more correct manner. The best concrete example I can give of this is walking into different teachers classrooms. You could give 2 teachers the exact same curriculum but how the students respond to it could be radically different depending on the individual, and you can sense one is fundamentally healthier/better than the other. Through working with the Philosophy of Freedom, I thought Steiner was trying to point out that though we may never know reality we can reach ever deeper levels of understanding and respond in a healthier/better/more moral way to the world around us which he loosely phrased as ethical individualism. My sense is the he was trying to combat moral relativism which could be /is and unintended consequence of Kant’s work. Hopefully my ramblings make sense and am curious about your thoughts on the matter.
Comments re Waldorf education–When some states began operating Waldorf style charter schools the demand for Waldorf teacher training grew. One of the official Waldorf colleges decided to begin offering financial aid to attract more students. As you might expect, federal aid requires the college to follow strict guidelines and to provide information that tracks the progress toward graduation, number of credits hours enrolled, enrollment status and so forth of students receiving subsidized loans. The school in question had a wildly inconsistent method of numbering and describing its courses which did not satisfy the law. Every effort by the Financial Aid Director, who was not Waldorf trained, to improve the situation was met with “we’ve always done it this way”. The school eventually lost their accreditation for federal aid. Some students were left with incomplete degrees and no access to subsidized loans. It was not pretty. One would expect grown people, educators, to understand that the federal government does not make polite suggestions–those are laws and regulations that you have to obey–or else!.
Poet and novelist Robert Graves incorporated biodynamic gardening in an entertaining short story, “Earth to Earth.” It may be found in his _Collected Short Stories_ available on the Internet Archive. In the same collection is “Appointment for Candlemas” a treat for any Wiccans in the commentariat.
The word onanism reminded me of a great story. There was a family who had a pet parrot who was a messy eater. They called him Onan because he spilled his seed upon the ground. 🙂
The sensory subjectivity of the world was revealed particularly clearly (and agonisingly) by the optical illusion known as ‘the dress’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_dress. How does everyone else see it? I’ve always seen it as white and gold and can’t see it as blue and black, no matter how much I try to force it. This photomanipulation is an attempt to illustrate the different ways of seeing it, and the one on the right is supposed to be what it actually looks like: https://media.wired.com/photos/59327b99a3126458449954cf/master/w_2560%2Cc_limit/Untitled-12.jpg. Another photo showed how lighting makes a difference: https://imageresizer.static9.net.au/MO7f4g-g34f_hQlm9tiU1ElgHZ8=/500×0/https%3A%2F%2Fprod.static9.net.au%2F_%2Fmedia%2F2015%2F10%2F31%2F14%2F03%2F3110_dress_sp.jpg.
Awesome post, John.
I read ‘The Way of Initiation’ long time ago, there were some nuggets that I appreciated, for instance his remarkable points on the severing of the threads between “willing, thinking, feeling” before meeting the Dweller on the Threshold to finally contact the Higher Self, he definitely had good intuition about that, so I appreciated it. But his writing also remind me a bit of Alice Bailey (though I tend to prefer her outlook, women are always better with this kind of stuff), it seems that they have this sort of “grey matter” in their content and thus they keep repeating or using long metaphors to explain the same elementary or essential thing, maybe to hide their skepticism. As much as I enjoy esoteric knowledge; I’m very cautious with it as well. It’s good that you always emphasize the material plane as well in regards to that.
His architecture is beautiful, like a lesser Gaudi. I have a feeling this is the sort of aesthetic we will have as a reaction to the industrial decline.
Chris at Fernglade Farm #24, ‘acceptance’ is a strange beast. For example, do revolutionaries accept the world as it is? On one level, hell no – they want to turn the world upside down. On another, they have to accept a lot about how bad a state the world is in, to come to the point of accepting revolution is the right course of action.
Anonymous Alcoholic #37, I’d have thought a lot of alcoholics already had found a god – the problem is it’s Bacchus. 🙂
A lovely concise survey of Steiner who I have admired precisely for setting in motion so many practices that are subject to testing and amendment in the world and (with all the necessary caveats) remain of continuing value – and for reminding us of the paradox of how followers can be so intent on ignoring their “leader’s” processes (of being experimenters after truth) and are content with imagined arrival and the conversion of picturing of reality into static certainties – it does appear to be very difficult to resist this – even with good signaling from the relevant leader! Or as Nietzsche put it to have the courage not of your convictions but but those convictions to the test.
The following is a bit of a meander, because I am bouncing off of words which, as another commenter says, are slippery – ha, ha, this makes it more like slithering… 😉
So, what I ask myself is, am *I* not a ding-an-sich, and would *I* not like to be *known* by other humans, and, indeed by birds and trees and the land I walk upon? And, if I would like to be known, would I like to be known “objectively”? This sounds too much like being known as an “object”, for another to “objectify”, which would not be a way that any free being would like to be known.
And I wonder if Adam’s real “sin” was to do as he was commanded – to “name” the animals and plants. Since, as the Tao Te Ching famously begins – “the name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
I do not feel most “known” when I am named, or labelled, or even have my anatomy and physiology described in the most detail. Instead I feel most “known” when a communication happens, when I and another unknowable “ding-an-sich” somehow resonate together, even for a moment.
I have always wondered at the quest to “know” “objective reality”, which if phrased differently, could maybe be translated to “knowing as God knows”. It seems (to use another slippery ancient term) a form of “idolatry”. We can only know what we know and in ways possible to us, and seek to be known by others in ways possible to them.
JMG (no. 38), I look forward to it!
Justin Patrick Moore (no. 33), it basically just means what we would call the “humanities,” in contrast with the natural sciences.
David, by the lake (no. 29), philosophy tends to spin off any subdisciplines that get too empirical (physics, economics, now maybe consciousness studies).
Hello JMG and fellow commenters,
“Building on their work, Kant demonstrated that our perceptions of the world around us are so extensively filtered and formatted by our sense organs and nervous systems that they offer only the most ambiguous data about the world”
There is a simple experiment that verifies Kant’s theories about perception. Look at yourself in your mirror at a distance of about 10 inches. Now move your left eye to see your right eye and vice versa. You will notice that you don’t see your eyes moving though you clearly did. The reason is saccadic suppresion. Saccadic suppression occurs because our pupils in the eye move all the time. So to prevent us from being seasick all the time, that information is suppressed.
Hi John Michael,
That Faustian bloke has been something of a troublemaker since way back.
I dunno mate, for me it’s a complicated experience to encounter people’s belief systems which are derived from the civil religion of ‘progress’. The complication arises because the beliefs expressed sound wacky to me. As a major belief system, my gut feeling suggests that it’s days are numbered, although the adherents may not yet be aware of that doom.
Something I find interesting is how the lines are more blurred than we often care to admit when it comes to ‘orthodox’ religion and matters deemed more occult.
Owen Barfield was apparently known as the Inkling with the best ideas, but I’m sure that a large number of Christians who view Lewis’s writings as indispensable works of orthodoxy would be horrified to learn of Steiner’s influence on Barfield, who was one of Lewis’s closest friends, and who would have spent many hours with him discussing all matters weird and wonderful.
@Robert Mathiesen #31… your quote from Haldane, and this discussion in general, reminded me of this quote from fiction author Barry Gifford, “the world is really wild at heart and weird on top.” It’s from his excellent Sailor & Lula novels (your mileage may vary, of course). That line always struck and stuck with me and I think it works well with: “my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
@Anonymous Alcoholic #37: Yeah, Bill W. corresponded with Jung.
As I’m sure you may know, one of the early pre-AA members, Rowland H. went to Switzerland to get help from Jung. Rowland hadn’t been able to get sober by any other means. Jung told him he wouldn’t be able to regain his position in society. Rowland asked, “Are there no exceptions?” to which Jung replied
“Yes, there is. Exceptions to cases such as yours have been occurring since early times. Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences… To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.”
And that, plus the Oxford Group stuff + the influence of William James + the influence of New Thought minister Emmett Fox provided the template on which AA was built.
I think AA is a real Age of Aquarius phenomenon with its focus on an individuals connection to their own conception of a higher power. I can see that template going further along into deindustrial and helping many others.
Thanks for bringing this up!
FWIW, I’m rather partial to the writings of Fox. He is a New Thought writer worth reading.
@JMG #38: I’m thinking also of Francis Bacon’s Sylvan Sylvarum and Giambattista della Porta’s Natural Magick, as points to look back at, and see how that rapprochement and reconciliation might look. … there is fun on the fringes and excitement in the borderlands… Such a project might also bode well for the caring professions, which are an art, but interact with science. Wilhelm Reich need not have died in vain. (I’d like to get up to Rangeley too next time I’m in Maine/New England…)
It also just occurred to me (as I read a bit of The Twilight of Pluto before bed each night just now) that perhaps AA is also another manifestation of Neptunian energies.
If one of the “downer” sides of Neptunes influence is the hallucinatory phantasmagoria brought on by drug use and addiction, then a higher octave of the same influence might be the “recovery” movement from such drugs.
Just a thought!
Thanks for this essay! I knew next to nothing about Steiner and learned a lot. His charismatic personality, original approach to invisible realities, his multiple talents and his localization (in later life) in the northwest corner of Switzerland all remind me a bit of C. G. Jung, whose (sort of) autobiography I read a few months ago.
One tiny nitpick: while the traditions of Christian mysticism certainly have deep roots in Central Europe (one might look back to Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler), Jakob Boehme started writing down his experiences in the 17th century, a bit after the Rosicrucian manifestos.
To my comment #31:
The key sentence that I had tried (and failed) to underline in my Haldane quote was: “Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
It occurred to me that a great venture for the future of collapse would be a combination Waldorf /Biodynamic Farming boarding school where kids would live during the week and learn to grow food for themselves and the market while studying using Waldorf methods supplemented with an early introduction to philosophy. When our public school system collapses, this might be a good alternative for families looking to actually prepare their kids for the future. In a reduced overhead world the food production could pay for the education so it would be tuition free. And yes, in the future boarding schools will become much more common as the big yellow school bus becomes a thing of the past.
I am no expert on biodynamic farming, being trained in a more “mainstream” form of organic vegetable farming myself, but I’ve done a fair bit of reading on it. I would strongly advise anyone interested in it, even in the Ecosophia community, to look around for a modern guide to biodynamics, either an on-the-farm course or an online/written series. I’m sure some of the suggestions made elsewhere in this thread are great. In my experience Steiner’s original works on the subject, even as a moderately-trained Druid, were written on the assumption that the audience already had a deep understanding of anthroposophy, and get far deeper into the spiritual side of it than the material. It’s like learning to bake Eucharistic hosts by reading St. Augustine’s musings on transubstantiation.
(FWIW, reading Steiner’s work was still fascinating, as a farmer and an occultist, and I highly recommend it. Far more of the philosophy of organic farming that I realized came from him – for instance, “feed the soil, not the crop” is right out of his work. It seems like one of those cases, like Jung, where the most broadly accepted parts of an occult topic have been so thoroughly integrated into the relevant field that you have to look hard to even see the source. It’s also interesting that in Steiner’s original work, at least, he is very open to change – he basically says, “here’s some interesting ideas, but farmers will have to take it and play with it and see what works best.” So the rigid doctrinal attitude would probably surprise him too.
Where does modern epistemology stand on the question of “objective reality”?
@Bei Dawei #46: I wasn’t really thinking of the humanities. Those all have their own occult connections. For the classicallly minded those would fall under the auspices of the Muses and Apollo, for instance.
Here, I was rather thinking of the interface between natural magic, and the study of substances, and the study of physics, biology, etc. from an enchanted view. I.e a geologist who looks not just at the physical makeup of stones, but is also knowledgable of their correspondences and practical uses for magic. A physicist who knows not just how to mathematically model forces in the world, but sees how they also relate to what has been called “harmonic sceince”, a biologist who understands about the tissues of a living system as well as the etheric aspects that also give health and vitality. These things used to be studied together (by some) and they can be studied together again. Along side other things that we have not yet dreamed of in our philosophies.
Perhaps inside the “Great high schools, great colleges,” of our futures we can even learn and teach more about the role of mediation from and to the other planes of being and how those relate to the arts and sciences.
@Clay Dennis #54: That sounds like a good topic / theme for some deindustrial fiction.
One of the subscribers to my Substack rejected my writing and me, for arguing for the utility of Jungian archetypes in coming to know the self, on the grounds that everything after Steiner is derivative. I was fine letting the person go, wondering why anyone would fix their consciousness in the past like that? It was precisely as dogmatic and inflexible a stance as many of the evangelicals I have known.
If ever there was a time for fresh, dynamic new thinking and creativity, now seems that time.
You mentioned that Steiner says that a more basic reality is Will. The Fool card suddenly makes sense. One interpretation of the Fool can be, “Will.” It has entered into a new reality, ready for a grand adventure. Maybe in future universes, the Fool will be followed by different Trump cards.
Yod can also possibly be Will.
Thanks as always for your generous time.
Great essay, thank you! Your discussion of Steiner in the context of earlier philosophers and Kant’s insights was very interesting.
My wife has an intuitive gift that I’ve often found helpful, but she’s hesitant to use it with other people because she knows she’s not always right, or clear, and many people don’t seem to be able to handle the “this is what I see but take it with a punch of salt” approach. People seem to want that binary certainty, perhaps especially so in non-material/intuitive insight. And at the same time, a lot of people are making, or trying to make, some sort of a living out of intuitive seeing, and maybe the pinch of salt approach isn’t great for business.
Regarding books on biodynamic gardening, I can recommend Deb Soule’s How To Move Like A Gardener. It’s a general book on medicinal herb gardening but with some good introduction to Steiners methods as they relate to medicinal herbs. And a beautiful book generally.
“The whole sum and substance of human history may be reduced to this maxim: that when man departs from the divine means of reaching the divine end, he suffers harm and loss.” -Theodore Parker
I think this fits with not only what Steiner was saying, but all of all your writings. And, in particular, Enchantment and Disenchantment. (And just to be clear here Parker hated traditional religion, dogma, rituals, etc. And famously wrote the sermon called “The Permanent and the Transient of Christianity” (from 1838) which addresses much of this.
Steiner wrote a book called “True and False Paths in Spiritual Investigation” which seems actually similar… I will read and see if this is the case.
As a member of the ASA and an admirer of Steiner as a philosopher and occultist, this is a pretty spot-on analysis. Steiner lived and breathed the idea of applying scientific methods to intuition. He expected revisions based on research and results. The ASA has a lot of good people and great initiatives (their prison outreach for example), but nobody has been able (willing?) to move it beyond a cult of personality, which runs the risk of the successes becoming stale. The practical occult aspects of his work have also taken a back seat to a sense of new age spiritualism.
@ Aldarion #52:
I’m currently reading a book called Jung and Steiner: The Birth of a New Psychology by Gerhard Wehr. It’s an interesting book that complements JMG’s view that Steiner took his visions too literally, Jung not literally enough; Wehr describes Jung’s psychology as ‘soul’-orientated and Steiner’s occultism as ‘spirit’-orientated, with the tension between the two enabling a third force to arise. Robert Sardelo, who writes the foreword, has done some considerable work in this direction.
Re: Waldorf schools and accreditors
I’m sure some people have had poor experiences, but I’m quite sure proportionately much lower than the absolute train-wreck that is conventional education. The Anti-Waldorf crowd seems very suspect to me. Distinct ‘Radiance’ vibes.
The other thing to remember is that accrediting bodies are like bureaucratic tumours that continue to grow, accumulating the most incompetent human beings that a reasonable person could possibly imagine. Again, the Radiance. Here in Britain, a number of Waldorf have been shut down by Ofsted; in one case the parents were outraged enough to try and take Ofsted to court, but were informed that, despite the inspectors in question breaking protocol and ultimately getting themselves fired, Ofsted are an untouchable entity in the British institutional infrastructure.
Nope! I went a bridge too far there!
I accept the berating that is deserved for posting before investigation.
Of course both are interesting and valid. Parker, 75 years earlier was building an alternative framework for spirituality from the dominate Christian thought of his day. Steiner was building on the framework, working within spirituality to see how it works and attempt to find the true in it.
The timing of this essay could not be more propitious for me. My elder daughter will be entering first grade in a full 12 year Steiner/Waldorf School here in Japan in two weeks’ time. Meanwhile, just a couple of days ago we talked with the head of a separate Steiner Curative Education School (which is to say, Special Education) about the admission of our two year old, who has various developmental issues due to a rare medical condition. The Steiner School that my elder daughter will enter is the very reason that we moved to this area, taking a gamble that it will be the best education choice for our children. Steiner Schools are not common in Japan; the one my daughter enters in April is one of only two 1-12 Steiner schools in the country. So I feel truly blessed that there happens to be a Steiner-based special ed school for my younger daughter in the same general area– it’s not affiliated with the school my older daughter is going to.
The special needs school sounds wonderful. Every morning begins with a round of Biodynamic farming. The first thing upon entering the school is warming feet in hot water. The content of the day’s activities are quite similar to a regular Steiner Kindergarten education like my older daughter just received, but punctuated by sessions of massage and physical therapy, and the students are each attended by their own teachers who are provided and paid for by our local ward office. So there is help on a one-to-one basis to help with problems, while two Steiner style teachers guide the activities.
I am wondering if any of the other readers here have sent children through Waldorf/Steiner schooling. I do have some slight concerns; the fact is that Steiner started his quite radically norm-breaking educational system off with a school that opened in 1919, but then he promptly died in 1925– when his first class of kids hadn’t even quite gotten halfway through their education. So there was no opportunity to revise anything based on results.
I really don’t mind many of the more unorthodox ideas that are part of the education, e.g. only allowing certain colors in art to be used at certain stages, or keeping children with the same single teacher for their first eight years of study, or the requirement to avoid teaching reading to children until the age of seven. My concern is that while Steiner’s out-there theories of child development– the benchmarks at seven years, the avoidance of certain activities at certain times so as to develop a stronger foundation for the architecture of learning– might well be true in the aggregate, they seem an awful lot like they are rigidly enforcing conformity and slowing growth of children who have unusual talents, in the name of making everyone share in this system which is supposed to, by the end, get kids to discover their true unique selves.
Are there any others out there in this community whose children attended a Steiner/Waldorf school, or who attended one themselves? Would you be willing to start a conversation here with me and share your frank opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of Steiner’s educational method?
Thank you for doing an essay on Steiner! This helps me get a good snapshot of what he was all about, warts and all.
Sadly, Waldorf schools in my area of suburban Chicago drank the KoolAid where masking and experimental vaccines were concerned in 2020-present. Through my Speakeasy group, I learned that Waldorf schools in Chicagoland are some of the all-time worst mask/quaxx enforcers. I know of two different ex-Waldorf teachers who ended up in mask-choice schools of the sort my group promotes.
I cut off all ties to the Theosophical Society in Wheaton, IL in 2021 because they were very into masking and quaxxines. They closed their library for a year and a half. I’ll most likely never perform the Orphic hymns there because it remains a toxic, woke environment that is more political virtue signaling than spiritual outreach.
I would be interested to hear what Waldorf schools and Theosophical Society centers are like outside of Chicagoland.
Mark D #60 thank you for the book recommendation! There’s only one copy in my library system and it’s checked out, but I put in a request to be next.
Zosmia, thanks for this; I’ve heard similar things from other people who’ve worked with Steiner’s teachings and the broader Waldorf system. The distinction you’re drawing here between knowledge and understanding is a useful one, and if The Philosophy of Freedom helped get you there, I’m glad to hear that.
Rita, given some of my experiences with Anthroposophists, this doesn’t surprise me. That said, I wonder to what extent the financial aid people were trying to push the Waldorf college into something closer to the mainstream educational philosophy and practice — that’s so often an agenda of bureaucratic systems that it wouldn’t surprise me, either, if that was a subtext.
Yorkshire, ha! You’re right that The Dress is a great example of the way that consciousness constructs our experience; interestingly, I see it as blue and black, and my wife sees it as white and gold.
Aziz, the similarities between Steiner and Alice Bailey aren’t accidental — both of them were Theosophists who learned from the mistakes of the Theosophical Society. I sometimes suspect that the occult philosophy of the future will come out of a creative fusion of Bailey and Steiner.
Nicholas, and Nietzsche himself also spawned a minor industry of followers! Fortunately they didn’t end up with the kind of self-perpetuating structure the Anthroposophagi have.
Scotlyn, a great theme for meditation. 😉 Interestingly, the historian of Gnosticism Bentley Layton argues that the word “gnosis” properly means the kind of knowing-and-being-known you’ve discussed here: not discursive knowledge but personal contact. He likes to use the word “acquaintance” as a translation for “gnosis.”
Engineer, thanks for this! That’s another very good example.
Chris, I’ve just finished editing Retrotopia for the new edition, so I have to agree…
Petros, the line in question is almost entirely an artifact of certain Western religious traditions. In Hinduism and Buddhism, practices exactly equivalent to the sort of thing occultists practice in the West are considered perfectly ordinary religious activities, and a solid case has been made by Christian occultists that what they’re doing is simply another way of following the Christian gospel. Mainstream theologians reject this, however, and the rank and file follow suit. The result is a great deal of the evasion you’ve described — there’s quite a bit of occultism in Lewis’s space trilogy, for example, which goes completely unrecognized by those who’ve decided not to notice it.
Justin, definitely names to conjure with — in more senses than one!
Aldarion, hmm! You’re quite correct about Boehme; my memory slipped a cog and placed him a century too early.
Clay, an intriguing idea.
DaveOTN, that strikes me as very good advice.
David BTL, depends on the modern epistemologist. These days no two of them say the same thing.
William, oof. That’s really sad — but unfortunately typical of the more dogmatic Steinerians.
Jon, nah, it’s Schopenhauer who says will is the basic reality, not Steiner. But you’re right about the Fool — that would work very well as an interpretation.
Mark D, thanks for this — and for the book recommendation.
Orion, I’ve definitely got to have a look at Parker when time permits.
x51, I’ve seen that also, and groaned. There’s so much practical usefulness in Steiner!
Quin, thanks for this. I’ll hand your questions over to the commentariat, as my knowledge of the Waldorf system is wholly second-hand where it’s not wholly theoretical.
Kimberly, I remember your comments about that, and it still baffles me — one of the more hopeful things I’ve seen is the number of students of Steiner who rejected the jabs from day one, recalling some of Steiner’s own comments that seemed to apply very precisely to them. Unfortunately we don’t have a TS presence here in Rhode Island, or I’d fill you in on local conditions.
Darkest: You are probably right about Bacchus and Alcoholics.
Bacchus (Dionysus) is the god of the grape-harvest, wine making, orchards and fruit, vegetation, fertility, festivity, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and theatre.”
AA is one way to help bring people from the insanity and ritual madness over to the religious ecstasy perhaps?
Responding to other comments: AA and Jung. Yes. Totally. The history of AA is really interesting. I find that most in AA, especially many of the “long time sober”, get caught up in the ritual too much. Not true of all, of course, and honestly they all bring good intentions, value and experience. It’s just that they try to tell people what to believe instead of helping people find their own spirituality.
And I 100% agree that AA is an important component of the spiritual awakening that has started. For all it’s faults it is the only organization I can think of that is truly democratic, excepted and encouraged generally by mainstream society, (with caveats of course), actively encouraging spiritual awakening at the individual and group levels for all, and without dogma/creed (again with caveats).
(The caveats are mostly the human side of the organization. The 12 traditions actually are the best organizationional principles Ive ever encountered for dealing with organizational issues. Including the issue of the “charismatic leader” or, as with Steiner, dealing with people worshipping the person instead of their ideas. As an example, even Bill W, the founder, later in life wanted to push Vitamin B3 as a possible solution to alcoholism and was roundly rejected by the fellowship.)
This week’s post on Steiner and some of the more lurid warnings coming out of the tech industry, such as this one or this one, remind of something you wrote nearly a year ago concerning one of Steiner’s prophecies.
Steiner, again, was ahead of his time. In a lecture he gave in 1921 he described one of his visions of the future: “And from the earth will well up terrible creations of beings who in their character stand between the mineral kingdom and the plant kingdom as automative beings with a supernatural intellect, an immense intellect. When this development takes hold, the earth will be covered, as with a web, a web of terrible spiders, spiders of enormous wisdom, which however, in their organisation don’t even reach the plant status. Terrible spiders which will interlock with each other, which will imitate in their movements all that which humanity has thought of with their shadowlike intellect.”
Score one for Steiner. Computer technology can quite accurately be described as midway between the mineral and the plant, more responsive than the mineral without actually being alive in any real sense, and the Earth is indeed covered with their World Wide Web. There are hard limits to how long this Ahrimanic manifestation (or infestation) can prolong itself, as these “spiders” do in fact “well up from the Earth,” and demand constant inputs of hardware made from rare earth elements and equally constant inputs of energy derived from fossil fuels. (Every server farm receives multiple truckloads of new components every single day to replace the ones that burn out, and require enough electricity to power a midsized town.) None of these resources exist in limitless quantities and many of them are running short right now.
I know you have said you expect a lot of white collar jobs, movie and TV acting roles and so on to go away as a result of AI chatbots like ChatGPT. Do you think there is a potential for something much more horrific to happen, as some of the recent predictions concerning AI have been claiming?
Steiner was clearly an amazing polymath, and his ideas on biodynamic farming are extremely important, and will become increasingly so in the world we will be entering in the next century…I’m a certified regression hypnotist, and have been more influenced by the works of Drs. Newton and Weiss, amongst others, and even more so by some of the staggering things my subjects have reported from future lives and the spirit world between lives…And those has definitely increased my intuitive powers…
On the odd dress that Darkest Yorkshire (#41) and the commentariat are discussing:
I see the dress as strong blue and dull gold. No matter thow hard I try, I can’t make it be seen either as blue and black or as white and gold. So there must be more than two perceptual options here.
It’s very interesting how often there are intersections between magic/occult stuff and sustainability. I wonder if the twin crises of resource depletion and climate change will make the occult and magic more prolific in a declining world. I also wonder about the future of religion in the deindustrial future.
Christianity and other abrahamic faiths have a really hard time having reverence for nature, because that would be idolatry. The worldview of these faiths encourages people to have dominion over nature in the worst cases and merely be good stewards over it in the best case. An ecological christianity would need to bend their theology a bit.
Nature-based religions may have a good shot at going mainstream as a response to the ecological crisis. Some kind of pantheism or polytheism (or a mixture of the two) might blossom, who knows.
Well, that did not work, I am trying to copy from notes….
@Quin #65 and in general
I was heavily involved in Waldorf schools for my children. I ran a Waldorf inspired preschool/daycare in my home when they were young, I have had children in 4 different walrus schools in the greater SF Bay Area of California, and I also spent time homeschooling various of my children in grades K-7 in Waldorf inspired ways, one of my children was in Waldorf schools, since what I did at home, basically birth to end of high school with one year at a charter college prep. That one graduated from a Waldorf high school.
Every school is its own separate initiative, so things can vary, although from what I have seen around here, much less so than Montesorri.
I have never seen children held back. The school itself does not cover reading books as a subject until 2nd grade, the age 7, but that is not holding back. Here is how it works out. First, I am not sure that you really ever “teach” a child to read, it can’t be forced, you can give opportunities, this is what I have seen. An awful lot of children read on their own. They just won’t do it at school at a young age, which is no loss. A second point is what the general public calls reading is the part of reading that is decoding. Meaning seeing the symbols and assigning a meaning to them, phonetically idealy. There is an awful lot of emphasis right now in regular education to emphasize decoding, even to the extreme of just memorizing entries small words as one symbol. Reading is much more than decoding. And, too early emphasis on whole sight word decoding can be counter productive to proper phonetical decoding that most can achieve given time. OK, so Waldorf basically does what outside of Waldorf is called “writing to read” , and this way of reading was in vogue for a while in California, but it is not currently. Writing to read is very developmentally appropriate in that the student is getting a grasp of what each symbol means, how to use the symbols, and so then is reading it back to themselves after they write it, a known meaning. This is what you see in the younger grades when first words and sentences are modeled on the board and the students then do it them selves on their own main lesson books. So they hear it, see it, write it, then will look at it more on their paper and practice reading it back. That is for the decoding. Before decoding though, and well before age 7, they are working on perhaps the most important part of reading, and that is the comprehension, the pictures in their head, the imagination. So stories and poems and songs and conversation and learning various skills via example and conversation are a part of their whole school and encouraged at home. If you think about reading, what is decoding without understanding ?
What I have observed in the classrooms here is that a child that needs more challenge in various areas Than others is given it. So, for example, if they are throwing a ball in the classroom for mental math ( whomever is tossed the ball from the teacher catches it and is given a math problem orally from the teacher, they call out the answer as they toss the ball back) the teacher asks based on what they know about the child, they give problems individually suited. In 4th grade, one child might write 2 sentences about a book they read, another spends all weekend drawing a picture, and another brings in a notebook of 30 pages retelling most of the book Redwall ( that would be one of my children). It seems to work out just fine. In any case, less bored and unchallenged etc… than I was in public school.
One of my offspring went to and graduated from the Waldorf high school. There were 2 students at much higher math level than others, there were already 2 levels of math, so those 2 basically were together in a corner of the upper level math class doing their own work from yesterdays lesson, and after the teacher had presented new material to the rest of the class and got them started, would go to those 2 and is down with them and present the days lesson on Calculus. Kind of like you would homeschooling. One of those 2 students was accepted into the countries most prestigious private engineering schools, the other went to a UC math department and was recognized as one of the most brilliant mathematical minds they had had in recent memory. From a Waldorf high school graduating class of 12 students. But, college prep is not the emphasis per se in that not everyone wants to go to college or needs to, there are lots of options and needs to fill. This offspring of mine says that students from that school recognize their strengths and differences from the public schooled, maybe self confidence, but not really, I guess really a better sense of self ? Hard to describe.
That said, especially in the lower grades, they are aiming for other skills than math and reading/writing, like strengthening the will, etc…. Take faith that it does work out well in the end. The knitting develops great small motor skills and strengthens certain brain pathways, crafts and gardening may even be more important in the future, not to mention that it gives them a sense of being useful that is very important.
Having worked with homeschooling using Waldorf curriculum as a guide and various Waldorf teacher resource materials, I would say that the actual curriculum has a fantastic way to approach science. However, not every grades teacher implements as thoroughly as I might like, some are humanities majors that are more timid than they need to be. I would recommend, when you get there, that some of you parents volunteer to be helpers during the science blocks ( like they do for reading groups in 2nd and 3rd grade) that way instead of a demonstration by the teacher, smaller groups can be formed where it can be done more hands on. And also this way, they will fit in more during the 3 or 4 week block. We had a blast homeschooling the science blocks the Waldorf way. Another mom friend of mine also ran parts of it, saying I didn’t get to have all the fun ( I am a science major grad). We all learned a lot too. I still remember having one of mine and one of hers here for the week of physics, simple machines, that was probably 7th grade, having a geared bicycle upside down in the dining room and talking with them and then a light bulb went off FOR ME ( the science major) “the gears…another example of the force distance trade off…” ! A way that just doesn’t get into your brain the same from books and gives a fantastic background true understanding. And, classroom management can be problematic with junior high aged kids in a larger classroom, so volunteer. You can also get a resource book and do the rest in the summer, lots of fun. Here in CA, junior high students get so little done, due to classroom management with that age group, no Waldorf school will do worse, and the approach is better.
In general, the Waldorf approach to science is from the whole to the parts. Much more intuitive. So, a textbook for a primary public school student here is going to start off in Biology by talking about the cell. In Waldorf, well first of all, if the school is not in a major city and they have room, the students from preschool on are encouraged to experience trees, for one example. TO climb them, sit in them, under them. To pick apples, take walks in the woods etc…. So they get a sense of “treeness” this is really pre-science, just like being literate in comprehension and imagination is key to reading. The draw pictures of trees with great sweeping movement from root to branch, etc… all emphasizing treeness. When they hit 4th grade and look at botany, they look at the whole plant, the trees. They classify by observable types the various plant kingdoms. They grow plants and garden. They make collections of leaves and seeds, flowers and such. Where do they grow, what to they want and what do we use ? etc… Later by high school they do cells. In the meantime, they have done animals. Anatomy, so muscles and organs during junior high,, physiology. Then cells.
The 1861 booklet of the series of lectures to the public by Michael Faraday, The Chemical History of a Candle, would be an example of the type of science approach for the upper elementary and jr high schooler to ideally have, if only we had the time…. Buy and read it. By the end of high school, they are quite ready for all college levels if they choose to go that route and actually have a better actual understanding. https://www.amazon.com/Chemical-History-Candle-Michael-Faraday/dp/1605978841
I don’t know how to reach me to discuss more….at green wizards maybe ?
Given the wonderful wetness we have been experiencing, maybe I should change my name here from the one I adopted last year in yearning and hopefulness that has now been fulfilled
blue & black. Can’t see it as white & gold even if I try.
83 year old male.
If Kant is right, how does the scientific method work? The scientific method works not because we can trust our senses, but because we can arrive at a consistent, reproducible interpretation of reality. Like a dog pressing a button and getting some kibble with no understanding of how it it all really works. But ultimately does it really matter if we comprehend objective truth, if the world as we comprehend it, “works”? Even so, we can’t work backward from practicality and claim truth, can we? For one thing, how can we be sure that we don’t misconstrue the context surrounding the bit of “truthful” phenomena we have uncovered?
You may be interested in an argument against evolutionary theory that was first suggested by Darwin (Autobiography, p.93, “can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?”) and picked up in recent times by Alvin Plantinga, a Christian philosopher. It claims that the mind of man is designed for adaptation, not truth. According to evolution, species succeeded based on natural selection, which does not require an understanding of objective truth, merely adaptive mental processes which may or may not be true. Therefore if evolution were true, we cannot trust our minds to come to truth on this matter (or really any other). So the argument for evolution is self-defeating.
Obviously, if evolution is true, our minds may not be capable of discerning objective truth, but enough of an approximation to be functionally the same thing? Also my main response to this argument is that is drives far too much of a wedge between truth and adaptability. It is easy to see that, while false ideas may be adaptive, they are less adaptive then true ideas.
Given this, the continued evolution of mankind has the result of making mankind more and more able to discern the objective truth, to a point. I am not directly contradicting Kant here, I think, but modifying his insights to say that yes, man’s mind is not naturally tuned to objective truth, but the process of natural selection has resulted in man’s mind becoming more attuned to truth, and while it is not perfect in discerning truth even now, it can reasonably be expected to continually evolve to become even more attuned to objective truth. Even now, I think that man’s mind is capable of reaching enough of an approximation of the truth to be in the same ballpark.
And how did we get there? Trial and error in the fields of practicality. In fact, mankind’s ability to perceive truth through physical senses is better than our ability to perceive truth through spiritual senses.
I also get how what I’ve just said could be construed as a part of the religion of progress. But I do not speak on the timescales of civilizations but on very large evolutionary timescales. It is on these very large timescales that man and his mind evolves to better forms, over the span of the rise of fall of many civilizations.
“I’d suggest that you’re not getting access to objective reality — you’re simply getting access to a representation of it that isn’t quite so clumsy as your previous one. But we could debate that all week.” – Ah, no I’m quite fine with that, I think. Let’s call it then a local approximation of objective reality of varying degree of accuracy?
It’s seems to be a slippery thing, this objective reality…maybe it’s just another word for infinite regress?
“My concern is that while Steiner’s out-there theories of child development … might well be true in the aggregate, they seem an awful lot like they are rigidly enforcing conformity and slowing growth of children who have unusual talents, in the name of making everyone share in this system which is supposed to, by the end, get kids to discover their true unique selves.”
My recollection is that the first child whom Steiner educated had what today we might call developmental issues. Steiner was called in to tutor the child. It took a while (several years, I think), but the child eventually progressed to I believe the university level. (Others can check the details here if they so wish; I am repeating what I have read from memory). So, even before Waldorf, Steiner had educated children with some success.
I would venture a guess that Waldorf education is like anything else; while there is a general curriculum to be followed, some may do a better job than others of doing so. In my own experience, Waldorf absolutely does not stifle talent. Not at all. You see this with reading. Some children are very early readers; some read much later. Early readers are not somehow “held back”, nor are later readers somehow made to feel “backward”. Waldorf education at least in the U.S. is perhaps one of the few places where children will be exposed to what would have been normal years ago in public education: music, art, plenty of playground time, as well as mathematics, the sciences, and practical arts (woodworking, knitting, etc.) Foreign language learning is started very early, not just in one, but sometimes in two languages (e.g., Spanish and Mandarin). I can attest that this education prepares one very well for even a competitive high school. The concern then would not be with the Waldorf curriculum or approach, but the particular school, and that’s something to be judged on a case by case basis.
Steiner had very pronounced ideas on life cycles, in particular seven-year cycles, but also the nine-year change in children. Waldorf teachers are (or should be) aware of this. In other words, the curriculum takes into account the developmental stage of children, and not even what children are ready for, when, but also how (the emotional aspects that children of different ages bring to the classroom, whether questioning, challenging, etc.) This also applies to adult education. One can take adult biography workshops in the Steiner tradition, where the cyclical periods of life are studied as these extend into adulthood.
The Waldorf curriculum is currently being taught to Lakota children on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It is being used as a method of cultural revitalization. Steiner emphasized the festival year, but on Pine Ride they’re not using European festivals; they’re using indigenous festivals. It’s really easy to swap out that piece as appropriate. Instead of Spanish or Mandarin, they’re teaching the children Lakota (native speakers are used), which is an endangered language. Because Waldorf curriculum includes language blocks, it’s easy to swap out one language for another, and in this case, help in revitalizing a culture. This is perhaps the best example I can think of where the most forward thinking that Europe had to offer in the twentieth century has become the scaffolding to help a completely alien culture get back on its feet and propel itself into the twenty-first century, not by sacrificing or compromising its identity, but by the opposite, affirming and strengthening it.
Lakota Waldorf School
Luke Dodson (no. 63) “I’m sure some people have had poor experiences, but I’m quite sure proportionately much lower than the absolute train-wreck that is conventional education.”
These are not the only two choices. Anyway, conventional schools (what Americans call “public education”) vary a lot too.
“The Anti-Waldorf crowd seems very suspect to me. Distinct ‘Radiance’ vibes.”
I’ve just been reading some of their stuff. Most seem to have been involved with the schools in some capacity, and grown disillusioned. Their objections strike me as cogent, and point to deep-rooted, systematic problems. (I haven’t seen “Radiance.”) Interestingly, I see similar complaints made about Waldorf schools in a number of countries.
“The other thing to remember is that accrediting bodies are like bureaucratic tumours that continue to grow, accumulating the most incompetent human beings that a reasonable person could possibly imagine. Again, the Radiance. Here in Britain, a number of Waldorf have been shut down by Ofsted; in one case the parents were outraged enough to try and take Ofsted to court, but were informed that, despite the inspectors in question breaking protocol and ultimately getting themselves fired, Ofsted are an untouchable entity in the British institutional infrastructure.”
There is another side to the story, and it is possible to view the UK parents’ lawsuit / mobilization of prominent supporters as a sectarian attempt to evade legitimate objections and oversight. Here are a bunch of news clippings, annotated by skeptic (and Waldorf graduate) Roger Rawlings:
(page 2, covering events through 2020:)
JMG: Re Parker. I think the best place to start is Two Sermons because it outlines his entire theology and how to be proper minister. (Not the way ministers actually do it!) And I try as best I can to base my thinking and faith on his ideas while also disagreeing where appropriate.
That seems to be the only place I can find this. I would love a hardcopy.
Platypus, I’m not sure which predictions you’re talking about, so I’m not sure what to say. I’ve read realistic predictions that chatbot-based technology could quite easily put 300 million people out of work; since these are primarily people in the managerial and media classes, that is to say, well up on the income totem pole, the economic impact will be catastrophic — and what exactly are those people going to do when they have no job skills that matter, and the global economy is in a steep contraction because of the loss of that many paychecks?
Pyrrhus, interesting. Have you read much Steiner? You might find his work thought-provoking.
Robert M, hmm! Apparently so.
Enjoyer, magic always flourishes during the decline and fall of civilizations, since it’s one of the few ways that people can shape their lives effectively in a time of fossilized institutions sinking into their final coma. Religion also thrives at such times, for the same reason. So I think you may well be right.
River, also available free for the download:
Thank you for the material on Waldorf schools!
DT, good! The scientific method is a way of generating models that predict changes in the world of appearances with reasonable consistency. That’s all it is. Human evolution has certainly given us certain abilities to predict such changes, but it’s also left us with embarrassing gaps — notice how hard it is for people to understand exponential growth! That’s a set of changes we are very poor at grasping with our models. But it’s purely a faith-based assumption that any of these models are “closer to truth.” “More useful for certain purposes” might be a better claim.
Nachtgurke, that’s why philosophy is so tricky; a seemingly simple concept like “objective reality” turns slippery if you try to pin it down!
Orion, thanks for this. I’ve just downloaded it.
@ that site of Waldorf school critics posted earlier.
I know some of it is made up. How ? Well, no Waldorf primary school student that is still assigned crayons during art is given a black crayon ! They do not have black crayons. So that simply did not happen. Secondly, know one is going to stop or correct a child from using whichever colors are on their desk for whichever area. The child would not be asked to re-do. This seems simply made up. Instead, out of classroom time, the various subject teachers and the Childs parent may meet and look for meaning and how to reach out to a child based on developmental milestones shown by art or writing etc… The child would not be singled out in a classroom
Overall, when I was involved in Waldorf education when my offspring were young, I would say that Waldorf will get criticism from both sides. The ones who say it is too pagan as they children work with stories about gnomes and tree spirits or what have you. And then the criticism the other way that says it is too christian in background. Either way, you can criticize.
The reality is this. It is very easy to find out what is taught and the approach and the subject matter and any religious or Earth/Air/Water/Fore elemental connections etc…. If you don’t like this mix, don’t send your child there. This is no secret. Same for going into he teacher training. You specifically sought out Waldorf teacher training. It is what it is. NO -one forced you to go there, if you want conventional, go to a conventional training establishment. It is really that simple.
What I see in this county is that there are not very many public school options, and there is a Waldorf school as one of the options. Invariably, there will be a very small percentage of parents who figure it is close to their ideal of what they want in a school for their special snowflake and then try to railroad the teacher or governing body of faculty to change and get mad when they don’t. It is a Waldorf school, it has a very specific out look and reasons for what it does. No family or child is required to go there.
I was referring to the predictions in the articles I linked to.
Some scientists and people in the tech industry have posited that truly catastrophic consequences, including the mass extinction of humans and possibly other organic life on Earth, could occur if AI is developed beyond a certain point. Or do you think those predictions are just a rehash of Christian end-times theology, movies like the Terminator series, and other doomsday scenarios you have critiqued in the past?
Regarding Steiner and the AI links, I really don’t see what is so impressive about the Chat bots and what all the fuss is about. All they are is the logical conclusion of a search engine, taking all the information available on the internet, collating it and spitting out results. It’s not like it’s a way to capture hot fusion power or develop a worm hole to another galaxy. It also can’t build a house or lay cables, graft or plant a tree, be a midwife, or even hammer a nail. It might be able to provide information on how to do those things, but again that’s just a glorified search engine.
It’s a great online tool, but that’s all it is. Switch the power off, or even the servers off, and it’s dead. All the hype about it seems to just be advertising by the companies who make them rather than any impressive step forward. If you don’t spend much time on the internet it’s barely relevant. The fact that it may send a lot of people out of work merely shows how useless and unskilled their jobs really are.
@scotlyn, your comment reminded me of something by Rowan Williams: “How often has the Christian picture of God concentrated on his knowledge in a way that is totally oppressive? ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me. Whither shall I go then from Thy presence?’ That can be a cry of despair; we have no privacy before the terrible omnipresent eye of God… We can see all this clearly if we think about our own knowledge of ourselves as well. To know about ourselves, our histories and motivations can be a cause of self-hatred, self-despising… St. Bernard in his sermons on the Song of Songs says something similar when he refers to two kinds of humility – one which is ‘without warmth’, just naked self-knowledge… worlds away from the other kind, the ‘warm’ humility….God’s knowledge of us is not the dreadful, stifling omnipresence I spoke of earlier… [but] what Langland in Piers Plowman called ‘kind’ knowledge, knowing by kinship, and scholastic philosophers called (uncompromisingly) ‘knowledge by connaturality’: feeling with our nerves, seeing with our eyes…” (Open to Judgement, ch. 2).
Very interesting article! You are such a prolific writer I don’t know if you get a lot of feedback on your writing skills (other than editors and booksales, perhaps? I have no idea). I know I’ve never noticed much discussion of your writing skills here, but I just wanted to add that your writing here is especially good! I wasn’t expecting to find the story so fascinating, but I was immediately sucked in, and that last line really stayed with me. I’m impressed!
A Waldorf school my children attended actually did cave to some parents complaint and change the advent walk ceremony. Yes, advent is a part of what is done at least int he western worldview Waldorf schools I have bee a part of. I was really bummed as that year, as heavily pregnant as I was, it would have been my turn to be a prop basically for the event. If I This event is after school hours as it is done at night. This is private school in America, it can do what it wants, no idea what happened to freedom in the Uk, but I digress. I forget all the details, it was 25 years ago, but basically the children of whatever class year that is, I forget which grade is able to participate, obviously it is voluntary. But the room has a spiral on the floor outlined with evergreen boughs ( since that is plant, I guess that would be second week of advent ( first week is minerals and stones, second is plants, third is animals, fourth is man, i.e.., Christmas the birth is implied in that)
So an evergreen spiral on the floor, and prior to that fateful year, a pregnant woman sitting quietly in a rocking chair in the room in a red or similar gown and a blue hooded cloak. This personage is not talked about and doesn’t do anything active, but sits and is the calm pregnant presence. Until that year when she was banned…. The children come in one by one and walk the spiral with their lit candle, there is a short song or verse, of course. They walk the spiral and set their lit candle down.
Different schools do different things. Certain saints and advent are definitely a thing in the life of the school, at least in the Western European, and American schools form that traditions. The articular saints would be Michael, so Micael conquering the dragon and guiding. Michelmas time songs. Saint Nicholas, of course, and the littlest students putting out their shoes, classroom slippers for the December 6th day and finding a treat inside the next day. Festivals of light with can vary from the western tradition lantern walk in early November, or Divali.
The Old Testament creation story is a usual 3rd grade main lesson block, painting the seven days of creation. Often other similar creation stories are also covered. or are used instead.
here is someone else quick summary of cultural themes by grade ” … Every grade in the Waldorf school curriculum is inspired by a literary/historical/cultural theme. Saints and fables are the stories of the second grade, fairy tales are found in the first grade, Norse myths and Beowulf will be found in the fourth grade. Here in the third grade, the stories and myths of the cultures arising in the Fertile Crescent are the theme. An entire corpus of legendary material from Hebrew sources grew up alongside the writings that were eventually canonized as “Scripture.” In contrast to the scriptural writings, the legendary material portrays a loving and compassionate deity rather than a jealous and vindictive deity ” so, that source uses other earlier or what they think is more source fertile crescent legends.
The point is 2 fold, the first point is supposed to be what is good for the developing child, so saints or beer rabbit tales or the moral stories are done in second grade. A different culture would pick something else appropriate, like someone upstream talking about American Indian culture modifying. I have seen some interesting things out of Australia Waldorf in years past. The second thing is covering social studies, so of your own or other cultures to learn about this. But, for young children it is never done like Hoard Zinn covering American History. For the under age 14 set it would definitely be about giving the child good guidance and hope . So even aspirational of what the culture would be striving for with the failures covered later grades .
Platypus, yes, it’s the usual mix of warmed-over Christian apocalyptic and Hollywood disaster movies. It mostly seems to be a way of distracting people from the real issue of mass layoffs. I note, for example, that Levi’s has just announced that it will no longer be hiring models or photographers — all its photo shoots for ads and catalogs from here on in will be CGI generated. A lot of highly paid people are going to be losing a big chunk of income as that spreads…
PumpkinScone, oh, granted, most of the chatter about chatbots is overblown. What makes it a source of potentially serious trouble is that it can duplicate the functions of a lot of people in managerial and media jobs for a lot less money. Why bother to have an employee pulling down $100K a year plus benefits to gather data and write reports, when you can have a program do it cheap? Now factor in the millions of people who do such jobs, and currently enjoy relatively high income and status. You’ve got the makings of a traumatic economic shift.
Jessi, thanks for this! I get very cogent feedback on my writing from book sales, and from the comments and pages-viewed stats on this blog, but I appreciate comments like this.
Last night I had a dream where the only thing I could remember was it involved 82 ounces of gold. That’s unusual because I don’t even think in ounces. I had to look it up and it’s 2.3kg. Then I see this: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/mar/29/australian-man-finds-gold-nugget-worth-250000-in-victoria. One of the biggest gold finds in recent history – 83 ounces. So not a prophetic dream because it’d already happened, but it certainly sent out a ripple that I picked up on.
Greetings John Michael, I would appreciate it very much if you could tell me where I can find a copy of the “Welcome to reality” picture you have posted in this essay, as a person who relates to the world visually this image makes so much sense to me. Thank you for fleshing out this unique human being and leading me to yet more great reading of dead people’s books.
Hi John Michael,
All this talk about chat bots makes a person wonder what Mr Steiner would have thought about them, don’t you reckon?
Far out! Had to laugh about the professional managerial class. People’s faith is based on fluff. I’ll tell you a funny story: Years ago I was involved with a large organisation who had to spend some money on some computer gear. Time was running out to spend the money. A group was formed for that purpose and the urgency was mentioned and stressed. Me, being me, knew a bloke in the biz and so got an excellent quote, which was handed over the next day. A decision was made and the money transferred. The goods were picked up, and then delivered only a few days later. And that was where things got weird. With the gear in the back of the car, in the process of being unloaded and delivered, one of the members of the group said: We need to get a steering committee together to review the specifications. It was at that point, when I knew that large organisations were not for the likes of I!
It is very possible a chat bot might work better. You never know.
@ Bei, #80: “There is another side to the story, and it is possible to view the UK parents’ lawsuit / mobilization of prominent supporters as a sectarian attempt to evade legitimate objections and oversight.”
Er, please bear in mind that I have this information first-hand from people involved in Waldorf education in this country, who knew the families involved, could confirm the excellent work that the school was doing, and were absolutely mortified by the unprofessional behaviour of the Ofsted inspectors in question. None of them are “sectarians”, and I know of no evidence of “legitimate objections and oversight” on anyone’s part except the clueless inspectors who knew nothing about any form of alternative education.
These inspectors, just to reiterate what I previously said, were later fired for similar breaches of protocol. The judge who looked at the case told them that they would have had a case to sue Ofsted and get their school reopened, but that Ofsted are untouchable, so the parents had to send their unfortunate children into the clutches of mainstream education.
If you still want to play devil’s advocate on the part of a governmental authority shutting down an independent school, and against the judgement of the parents, their children, the judge who looked at the case, and indeed the decision of those who later fired the crooked inspectors who shut the school down, well, that’s your prerogative, but I’m not really inclined to talk any further about this topic.
Dear JMG and commentariat,
I would like to share my experience about a detail of the human limited knowledge concerning sensual perception:
“the world we perceive with our senses is merely the representations constructed by our minds in the service of will…”
It is interesting to notice the way our senses work: they are fundamentally divided; the most obvious example is that I cannot see what I am touching. I can assume; however, I cannot know.
I think that these divisions are there for a lot of reasons: one of them might be that this sort of abyss helps navigate figuration process; another, that the will as an underlying stream can divert all sorts of things in all sorts of directions without us ever noticing (our attention span is not that great, after all). The second reason is why I am glad of these abysses: I would not want to be such a young, fallible, mortal being without them.
With deep regards,
For what it’s worth, the word „Geisteswissenschaften“ in contemporary German means what you call “humanities” in English: the bundle of disciplines from philosophy to philology etc., usually taught at a Geisteswissenschaftliche Fakultät“. Interesting that it was coined by Steiner in a different context!
Re: new religiosity (stop me if I’ve posted this earlier) In the supermarket a few weeks ago, I saw a woman in a sweatshirt which read “‘Normal’ isn’t coming back. Jesus is.”
In regard to the dress (Darkest Yorkshire, #41), yesterday I saw it as white and gold so I was surprised to look at it today and see it as blue and black. I’m not sure what that says about my perception.
Yorkshire, hmm! In the most recent dream I remember, I gave birth to a puppy and named it Brian Merlin Greer — with any luck, I don’t have to worry about that happening.
Yes, I typically have very, very weird dreams. Why do you ask? 😉
Nochoice2021, I found it by doing an image search on Ecosia using “cloud chamber” as a search string. (That’s what it is — a photo of particle tracks in a cloud chamber.) I hope that helps you find it…
Chris, I’m quite sure that a chatbot would be an improvement. That’s exactly it — we’ve got 300 million people working in useless bureaucratic roles, and most of them could be replaced with cardboard cutouts without too much difficulty. Chatbots or, let’s say, those talking dolls little girls used to play with, that had a couple of prerecorded phrases they could say, would work even better.
Luke (if I may), I’ve suspended Bei for the rest of the week for exactly this sort of trolling — he attempted to post a flurry of potshots along the same lines, and I decided we’d had quite enough of that. No need to apologize.
Markéta, thanks for this! These are useful points to consider.
Njura, hmm! Thanks for this. I wasn’t aware of that.
Patricia M, no, you hadn’t mentioned that, and thank you for it.
“Geisteswissenschaft” in the sense of “humanities” seems to be a 19th-century coinage, to judge by a quick search through Google Books.
The term also was used occasionally by the 18th-century theologians, where it has a meaning closer to Steiners. Cf the phrase “Gottes- und Geisteswissenschaft,” literally “science/knowledge of God and the Spirit.”
A nice summary, Mr Greer, though I think you’ve deliberately left out some of Steiner’s weirder stuff in order to give him a fair hearing. His clairvoyance told him that Mars had the consistency of jelly and had once hosted large boneless mammals. It also told him that bulls are excited by the colour red. He even suggested that the heart does not pump blood and that black haired people are less intelligent than blondes. And then there’s the history of Atlantis…
I wonder to what degree AI and chatbots are being used as an excuse to get rid of a lot of useless, parasitic deadwood that has been clogging up various corporate and governmental bureaucracies. I recall that when Elon Musk took over Twitter, he found that a large percentage of the work force wasn’t doing much of anything; in the vast majority of cases, nothing that would justify paying someone a six or seven figure salary to do, and that a high percentage of those jobs were what one critic aptly described as “sinecures for commissars”. We can see massive layoffs being announced throughout the tech industry these days, so it isn’t just Twitter or Musk.
If they can frame it in terms of “progress” and inevitable technological change (shades of Maggie Thatcher’s infamous TINA incantation!), then these cuts become more socially and politically palatable.
JMG: i’m super excited that my teenage son just ordered a bunch of books ….
Including Kant! And others on reason and logic etc.
(Also On the Nature of Things by Titus…)
I’m wondering if you have a couple of suggestions for books that I could attempt to slyly add to his reading list. Maybe start with something on Logic? And Kant but which leads to Schopenhauer? I am embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read all of your books yet and obviously please mention any books of yours that you think appropriate. (I do have a hardcover copy of the archdruid report and Star’s Reach, Twilight’s Last Gleaming and Retrotopia….)
I’m tempted to point him to ecosophia and your writings but he is in the “I don’t believe anything from dad” stage and “I can do it myself” and “I am fine on my own” stage. Which I think is good as he is a doubting Thomas just like his dad!
Dear Honyocker (and anybody interested in the dress color experiment),
That only means your perception is all right; have you ever looked into the face of the Sun, slowly and attentively? And then looked at the previously blue sky, or green grass? You can get almost any color before the world turns to its previous normality; if you overdo it, everything will (temporarily) turn into grey. Some of the factors influencing the colors are: the length of the period of time you expose yourself to the light; the color and strength of the light; the color of the thing you turn to look at after looking into the stronger light and its visual context; the way you can adjust your eyes-how tired or fearful of the experience you are – I would not recommend doing this when very tired or frightened, because your emotional state influences your physical eyes a lot (it might be painful or the tears might come tricking down…)
What pattern of events social cultural political economic etc in other words historical, usually follow the traumatic economic shift you are alluding to? Re the chatbot discussion
Hi John Michael,
It’s pretty funny isn’t it? Most people give the folks with their hands on the policy levers far too much credit. That’s technically known as an error of judgement.
And the risk I see too with employing chat bots, is that they might actually do what their intended roles are purported to be. If you strip away incompetence, stupidity and out-right self interest in the professional managerial class due to bot-like focus, there will be unintended consequences. Should be amusing at the very least.
@Robert Mathiesen (et al.)
“Our only hope of understanding the universe is to look at it from as many different points of view as possible.”
That’s as may be, but I usually end up thinking along the lines of (somewhat scrambled, but what an aphorism machine!) Terence McKenna:
“Where is it written that talking apes should understand the Universe in all its glory?”
The apocalyptic predictions about AI are generally premised on the idea that future improvements will make AI capable of:
– working out novel underlying principles and unseen causes in the world that’s producing its observations, in a sufficiently computationally cheap way “on the fly”, and not only when it’s in the middle of the computationally expensive training process, or only from human-semi-curated data that’s halfway solved the problem of what figurations to bring to attention already;
– inventing qualitatively new principles of how the world could work, through purposefully-directed searches of imaginary ways of combining of already known principles, as part of identifying how certain goals could be achieved;
– having goals (I think this is probably the most philosophically problematic and subtle premise, although for practical purposes that may turn out not to matter); and
– acting toward those goals in ways that involve refining its own thought processes or designing cleverer successors to hand over the resources it controls to, in expectation that they will do a better job.
If occult philosophy says that this is impossible… well, the contents of occult philosophy were causally produced as a result of some combination of mystical insight experiences, observations of preternatural events, and processes of intellectual deliberation. Some of Steiner’s beliefs were, it should be said, also causally produced this way. If the experiences that coalesce from the astral light around an enquiring mind don’t come with warning labels saying when to trust and not trust them, so that Steiner could receive multiple unpleasant surprises despite the many decades or centuries of cumulative practical experience in the traditions he was working from, what other surprises about unreliability might still be lurking now, yet to be revealed?
(The criticism about resemblance of AI apocalypse scenarios to the Christian dispensationalist millenium is well-known; the standard refutation is “Rapture of the Nerds, Not”, from 2007. It would be off-topic this week to go into too much detail, but people should read that to see the other side of the story. If the Manhattan Project had originated in an alternate-universe equivalent of colonial British India, it wouldn’t have made sense to deride it as a blind imitation of a half-remembered cultural myth-gestalt of the Brahmastra with the serial numbers filed off and no truly original thought. That style of reasoning would have resulted in a foreseeably false prediction about whether physics allowed nuclear chain reactions to exist under human-engineerable conditions. More importantly, it would have been knowably unjust to the good-faith intellectual effort of the alternate-universe equivalents of Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, etc., who were actually trying to understand the universe and do what their understanding implied was needed, and resulted in not listening to them about crucial elements of nuclear strategy, such as needing to blow up Germany’s deuterium-water stocks to halt their nuclear weapons research.)
I’m not sure how to feel about Steiner’s visionary prediction about the spiders being between the mineral and plant degrees of organization. Because, the AI designs that humans are likely to come up with directly, by their own understanding, will involve fewer individually conceived classes of components than the metabolic or morphogenetic organization of even the simplest plants. (Computer operating systems are more competitive in component class count, but that might not be the same as “organization”.) But part of the purpose of those AI designs would be to make it possible for the AI to produce classes of components for its own thinking to use. Each neuron in deep learning systems is simple from an outside design perspective, but after training it can be seen as a fragment of a figuration, and in current systems there are hundreds of thousands of them. Once some of the figurations are about how to direct thinking, then aren’t they’re part of the system’s “organization”, rather than its “shadowy thoughts”? The conceptual problems with this binary are related to the von Neumann innovation of making computer instructions a kind of data (so that instructions can operate on instructions and then direct the machine to act according to the resulting instructions), or the computer science ideas of language homoiconicity or weird machines.
Maybe Steiner means that “organization” is the elemental spirits that go in when the artifice happens? Since that would mark a distinction from things that were “shadowy” as in forms empty of living (or non-“Ahrimanic”) spirit? In which case … well, could there be some kind of discipline that lets people have some indirect control over what kinds of new elemental spirits are recruited (in the ecological sense) when a machine they build invents new subsystems for itself?
I saw, in a 2006 article in the Anthroposophical Society of Hawaii’s zine, some related references to Steiner prescribing how to “redeem” written language and printing technologies, but the author wasn’t optimistic about any further extent of digitalization:
The article also echoes Jon G’s speculation from last week about binary coding and ternaries, referencing Steiner’s ideas of the “delusion of the duad” and the association of three with “Michaelic” tendencies which the “Ahrimanic” opposes.
I myself am skeptical that the principle that would need to be recognized here is one that most alternate-history civilizations would have naturally come to consider it natural to indicate by the number three. I think of it as being about a relation to a context, which feels to me less like “two (the things in the binary) plus one (the context)” and more like “two (the things in the binary) plus infinity (the other things in the context whose inter-pullings temporarily give relative meaning to the distinction between the two things in the binary)”. (And I don’t see why a computer couldn’t, at least in principle, be made to behave in a way that was respectful toward such relations.)
Though not strictly biodynamic, a few books that include many of the features, along with other regenerative and nature oriented-gardening ideas, are: The Healthy Vegetable Garden by Sally Morgan, Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life by David Montgomery and Weed Free Gardening by Tasha Greer. It is encouraging to find gardeners and commercial farmers pulling back from failing industrialized methods. I also was encouraged that all these books were available at my local library.
This post prompted me to think how we might apply Waldorf educational techniques to homeschooling, and I came across this article:
A Waldorf-Inspired Homeschool: Where to Start
Just from a quick read-through, there’s enough valuable material that I’ve bookmarked it. I find the underlying principles elaborated (presumably Steiner’s) very useful as a grounding philosophy.
Interestingly, the author distances herself from the anthroposophists, calling her approach Waldorf without anthroposophy or Waldorf-inspired.
One other thing I came across in that article that’s worth mentioning. This quote shook me out of my assumption that education is merely a basket of subjects to be learned:
“The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility—these three forces are the very nerve of education.” (Rudolf Steiner)
Wow, think about that. Today’s public school education literally instills the opposite of each of these three values in their students!
Picking up strange things from the astral must be the theme of the week.
I was talking to someone about relational trauma and they brought up the concept of reparenting. I suggested if the problem wasn’t with family, a person may need to be ‘re-somethinged’, but not reparented. I posted it but after a while got a really strong urge to change it to ‘re-sometheninged’.
I looked up ‘somethening’ and it’s actually a word people use. In some cases it’s a misspelling of ‘something’, either for comedy or because English wasn’t the writer’s first language. But in other cases it’s clearly a verb, in one case even having the ‘re-‘ prefix. In others it’s ‘the somethening’, like ‘the happening’ or ‘the reckoning’ (I don’t know enough linguistics to know what the term for that would be). Nobody’s written out a definition but I can feel its meaning growing and it makes sense.
The big gold nugget sending a ripple through the astral I understand, but I have no idea what this is about.
Thinking back if anything else odd came to mind recently, there were two dreams relating to locations in Europe. One was a dream about a town in Valencia called Losse. Looking it up there isn’t a Losse in Spain, but there are rivers and districts of that name in France and Germany. In various languages losse can mean: to unload (cargo), to allow, to let have, to leave in posession. The other dream was a phone book listing for ‘Drinu’. Searching for that comes up with famous Serbian marching music ‘March to the Drina’ (it’s also the name of holiday homes in Serbia and Malta, and a Maltese bakery).
I had no knowledge of any of these things before looking them up.
Hello Atmospheric River, thank you for the detailed response!
I’m not too concerned about the education at higher grade levels, nor the quality of the science education. I can already tell that things will go to good places by that time. Nor am I too concerned about not teaching kids reading until after the age of seven. I was quite heartened to learn that Ruldolph Steiner himself could not read and write to any decent level until he was a teenager, although I’m not sure what to make of his claim in “The Kingdom of Childhood” lectures that human beings are really not suited for writing until age 11 or 12, and that learning to read and write at a young age hinders their spiritual development.
The kinds of things I was getting at are that the teachers at the elementary level, at least at this Steiner school, seem to be very controlling about dictating what kinds of things the kids can be learning out of school. We are supposed to get approval before any kind of extracurricular activities at all which aren’t purely social. The reasoning for 1st and 2nd grades is that the activities in school are so stimulating that the kids must be free to digest that experience in the afternoons, without other pressures, and get to sleep as early as possible. This does make some sense to me. However I haven’t gotten a clear answer yet as to why this rule exists even when school is not in session, and the class schedule for this school includes far more breaks than the schools I attended when I grew up.
The basis of my concerns comes originally from thinking about music. As a musician myself, I am well aware that, though it is possible to become a professional musician after starting to learn an instrument at just about any age, the musicians who perform at a true world class level are people who began their training at very young ages. A Steiner education would seem to preclude this possibility.
One of my daughter’s friends, now 4, told his mother out of the blue that he wanted to take violin lessons at the age of 3. She set him up with lessons, and he expressed a quick talent for it, and genuinely enjoys practice, and still 3 years old he gave his first public recital. I saw it, and I was blown away by his confidence– his rhythm, pitch, and even tone were, amazingly, quite listenable, and he had poise. It was clear to me that this is not his first life on the instrument.
His mother had always intended to send him to the Steiner school, but she began him in lessons before she understood this part of a Steiner education– let alone the more arcane rules, such as at first only introducing instruments tuned to Steiner’s “Mood of the Fifth” scale. Now she is in a quandary as to even continue him in violin lessons.
This is the kind of thing I am talking about when I say I am concerned about early Steiner education having the potential to suppress individual talents in certain kids. I have little doubt that, in the whole, Steiner’s approach *is* good for most kids. But it doesn’t seem to take into account children who are born already with certain special talents and the potential to bring them to the highest possible levels. Both Mozart and Keith Jarrett would probably not flowered to the heights that they did if their parents had waited even until they were 8 to begin formal music lessons.
Atmospheric River, do you (or anyone else with experience with Steiner/Waldorf education) have any insights to bring to bear on my understanding here?
@ Ben Iscatus – I know very, very little about Rudolf Steiner, in fact my knowledge of Steiner, in the context of this august company, probably veers towards the negative.
And yet, I have found lectures by Dr Thomas Cowan on the subject you mention – “the heart is not a pump” – both fascinating and thought-provoking. And, very much sense-making.
Your mileage, of course, may vary.
I wonder if people commenting on the colour of “the dress” have realised that they are all commenting on how “the dress” appears on a screen, after going through various other processed that got it there. I do not doubt that there might very well BE some one or two of us who have actually seen “the dress” up close, and unmediated by any process or screen.
Robert M, thanks for this — that’s worth knowing. So Steiner was using an older term in its more traditional sense; interesting.
Ben, of course. Some of Steiner’s clairvoyant visions were not merely wrong but profoundly goofy, and it’s easy to get caught up in the giggling and miss the value in it all.
Platypus, that’s a real possibility. That said, I don’t imagine it’ll be especially acceptable to the commissars!
Orion, don’t suggest a thing, and don’t let him know that you’re impressed by his reading. He’ll get more passionate about it if he thinks he’s being a rebel by doing it.
Neaj-Neiviv, that’s an excellent question I don’t yet know enough to answer. The example that comes to mind, the suppression of the monasteries in 16th-century England, involved a smaller and less politically influential sector of society. (It went pretty smoothly over the short term, though the long term consequences were very disruptive.)
Chris, that’s a good point! To program a chatbot to do the job now done by most flacks, you can’t just use nonverbal communication and cultural influences to get the results you want; you actually have to tell it to lie, and tell it what kind of lies to produce. It’ll be entertaining indeed to see how that works in practice.
Anonymous, occult philosophy doesn’t say that it’s impossible. I’m responding here mostly to the long, long history of tech geeks overinflating the capacities of their pet technologies. For every Manhattan Project example you can name, after all, I can name several other grand technological dreams that flopped.
Blue Sun, hmm! Glad to see this.
@Quin #112 “The kinds of things I was getting at are that the teachers at the elementary level, at least at this Steiner school, seem to be very controlling about dictating what kinds of things the kids can be learning out of school.” As I said up-thread, one has to evaluate these schools case by case. I know those who started Waldorf education in Early Childhood and took Suzuki violin lessons from a very early age. No Waldorf teacher told the parents squat about that. The one thing that was stressed is no screen time (no Sesame Street and no “devices”). However, your mileage, at that school, may vary. Good luck with your children’s education.
Small data point: I had the pleasure of an encounter with a young, 20s or so, waitress who asked if the thrifted magazine I was reading was a sewing book. It was a Simplicity mag about pillows. I said I thought these old leaflets and such are part of American social history. She said, “Yes, they are”, and it turned out that she enjoys crochet and embroidery. As recently as 15 or even 10 years ago, any comment about “social history” would have been met with thinly disguised snickers, sneers and eye rolls. I thought that conversation a hopeful sign of increasing sanity among the younger generations.
That is more than I have seen in California Waldorf schools. Generally here they are hard pressed to get the parents not to introduce technology and to cut out the TV watching, etc….
I think you should talk to the school about the music aspect. Could be that is not the kind of things they are concerned about. I mean, let them know, he already plays. You don’t go backs on that,
I know that having some kind of after school academic club or tutoring or instruction would be frowned upon as they would think that the young mid should rest after the school day academics. And I have heard good reasons for that.
But, no one stops their child who is an early reader from reading at home for pleasure, and I haven’t heard of anyone thinking that a child coloring or singing or playing music at home for pleasure would have any harmful effects.
I think it is poiossible they wouldn’t want a child forced or pushed competitively, but it would not make sense to me to stymy a natural proclivity. So I say, talk to them in that way that you are not pushing like a tiger mom but he is a natural musician and he chooses to do some violin
But, like I say, here in my area they wouldn’t bat an eye on music, but in my area there is not a history of pushiness to music. There is too much consumerism and media, so they are fighting that battle
My predominately homeschool offspring went to a very established CA K-12 Waldorf school for a year when we lived by it This child was 5th grade by that time and had been taking piano lessons for — I forget — since 5 years old ? There was certainly no problem with this child continuing piano lessons, but of course needed to a a little violin catchup,as that was being taught at the school for that grade. This child had done recorders earlier and some singing so that was all caught up, did not take long to be at same violin level.
There just was no problem on out of school music or casual sport activities there
It struck me that maybe Steiner came up with his wacky education ideas because he didn’t have any children of his own. After some fruitless googling and getting no information I finally turned to ChatGPT who reported:
“Rudolf Steiner married Anna Eunicke in 1899. They did not have any children together. However, Steiner was close to Anna’s children from a previous marriage, particularly her daughter, Lory. Steiner also had a son named Gerhard from a relationship with Marie von Sivers, who later became his second wife. Gerhard was born in 1914, and he died in 1997.”
The young Rudolf Steiner looks idealistic and hopeful, but as an older man he looks careworn and disheartened. I’ve lately spoken with two gifted women who have both been cruelly persecuted by their families and communities. If Steiner had been born as a woman he could easily have ended up in an asylum. Instead, like so many gifted men, he seems to have been worn down and driven to despair by the boundless ignorance and malice of ordinary people. My question is whether we truly are just one species? It’s as if a small tribe of Tolkein’s elves have been scattered amongst great nations of orcs.
I think organic farming is one of the most important things to come out of the modern world. In preindustrial times, civilizations developed different agricultural systems based on trial and error, leading some ancient civilizations to practice sustainable agriculture (China) and others to practice unsustainable agriculture (The Maya)
Modern scientific precision has allowed us to discover a productive and sustainable way to produce food, and we just have to put it into action. Our descendents in the deindustrial future will be grateful for organic agriculture, but they won’t be grateful for the fishless seas, the unpredictable weather, and the toxic sky.
Mary, thanks for this! That’s very heartening to hear.
Martin, so maybe his ideas weren’t as wacky as they seem to the conventionally minded today…
Tengu, we’re definitely one species. I’ve seen plenty of “elves” act like orcs to each other, or in other situations when they thought they could get away with it.
Enjoyer, that’s something I’ve been convinced of for quite a few years now.
My wife was a Waldorf teacher; her training involved reading a lot of of Steiner. I tried to help her and read his essay on Kant, which struck me as surprisingly lucid. (Much of his writing is painfully difficult.) Your description of his biography puts what I’ve read into an convincing narrative.
I think that Steiner fundamentalists are like me; we barely understand what he’s trying to say. We can’t evaluate his ideas, so our only possible responses are either complete acceptance or complete rejection. (I chose skeptical befuddlement.)
Comparisons between Waldorf schools and conventional schools are very difficult to make, because Waldorf schools are private and expensive, so there are a lot of issues with self-selection. For example, the kids I saw there were much brighter than normal, but it’s impossible to determine if that’s because Waldorf has better teaching, or if Waldorf parents were willing to invest in bright children, or if highly educated parents valued education enough to pay for it and their children got the message and gave free rein to their intelligence. My experience would support any of those hypotheses.
My own two kids are remarkably free thinkers, who can approach problems with an innocence that makes them stand out from their peers. One talked her way into a college based on a thoughtful answer to a standard admissions question that other applicants treated as an opportunity to boast. Their freedom and innocence are qualities directly tied to their Waldorf education, but is very difficult to capture in objective measures.
I’ll show this column to my wife and ponder your conclusions.
One thing to note is that ancient China was not a good example of sustainable agriculture. Due to severe overpopulation and over-intensive agriculture, famines and large-scale population declines occurred every few centuries in China, and This eventually led to the desertification of North China and the southward shift of the center of gravity of Chinese civilization. However, the so-called prosperity of rice agriculture in southern China may only be the result of late development. In recent years, a large number of uncultivable land due to excessive pollution has also begun to appear in southern China. In addition, China is actually closer to a centralized agricultural plan (similar to Egypt) than other ancient civilizations. This is more common in later dynasties. For example, the Ming Empire had strict household registration laws to try to control farmers over the land and create A de facto caste system. This is even more serious under the rule of the Communist Party. Although the Communist Party tried to tie the population to the local area to maintain an intensive agricultural system to balance food supply and demand, the result was basically a failure.
The “sinecures for commissars” was a dig by critics of the tech industry at the large number of woke activists that Twit had hired to be censors, er, “moderators”. And, yes, there was lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth when Elon Musk fired the lot…
This little meditation is based on what
Ecosophy Enjoyer says:
#122 April 1, 2023 at 8:28 pm
“I think organic farming is one of the most important things to come out of the modern world. In preindustrial times, civilizations developed different agricultural systems based on trial and error, leading some ancient civilizations to practice sustainable agriculture (China) and others to practice unsustainable agriculture (The Maya)”
In the book “1491,” a whole section is devoted to pre-Columbian Amazonian civilizations. Their accomplishments were amazing. The conclusions the author reached have been supported by subsequent research. They created islands of fertile soil that still exist today, where the jungle would otherwise in its desert-like way prevented there being any but the smallest populations. Seems that millions lived in cities in what now are either burned over forests populated by beef cattle or pure jungle sparsely populated by tribespeople living in remote areas…for now.
You might want to reinvestigate the way of the Maya as it exists today. Lots of intelligence in how the small farmers carry out their lives. Plus, crazed archaeologists are using LIDAR to discover that that Maya civilization had spread to a far greater extent and a longer time-span than previously imagined, with a wide range of accomplishments. Hundreds if not thousands of huge cities all over the region, along with a vast number of towns. By comparison, Europe was scarcely populated at that time, only reaching serious numbers fairly recently. Only in the Late Maya period was agriculture reduced to the very destructive practices you alluded to, and some of that can be put down to the stresses brought about by a serious climate crisis and civilizational collapse. They tried very hard not to “die off,” but in fact, the common folk never died off and their languages and culture are not so different now from the times before. PBS had several shows on this, I believe. Sometimes that network is good for something.
I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and I still remember reading some modernist asshole bragging about how he had worked with the governments of Indonesia and Bali to change the way of life of their independent rural people who needed no money and basically grew food, did crafts, and so on,for their own needs, to make them part of the “cash” or money-dependent system. He was extremely proud of his work, as I recall. Even then I knew that was a horrible change, nearly unforgivable, and I railed against it to anyone who would suffer me to do that. They didn’t listen, or if they did, they didn’t understand.
In my own growing up, there were no fertilizer inputs in eastern North Carolina tobacco country. Nope. Crop rotation of tobacco, soybeans, corn, peanuts and so on, with one year of fallow (no crops planted). The food, too, was mostly local and was grown without lots of chemicals. The reason for both is that the farmers where I lived didn’t have the money to waste on unnecessary inputs. I’m sure that by now the fields of relatively smaller farms have been bought by agribusiness, kludged together, and ruined for little people.
I remember finding books on French bio-intensive agriculture in my early teens. I read them with enthusiastic interest, but as theory. I was living under the tight control of my conservative southern family in a city by then, so I had no opportunity to try the stuff out. I’m not sure I had the inclination. I was always about 60 years ahead of my community on these kinds of things. Had there been someone who shared my interests, I bet my family would have welcomed my digging a garden with them. I was (another) crazy Aspbergian boy in a family that was happy I was at least presentable when dressed up, unlike my oldest brother. My odder avocations were not encouraged, organic agriculture among them. I, too, believe the invention of these and related methods are the most significant of our era.
Hi John Michael,
Yes, and how would a mere program differentiate between one lie and another lie? It might be as is said: a slippery slope. But the other awful thing is that any program which masters such social antics, might hold up a rather unpleasant looking mirror to humanity.
Incidentally, having been raised on dodgy sci-fi, I tend to be of the opinion that computers mimicking humans will be something that ends badly. Kind of like that humorous yet horrific scene of ED-209 going rogue in the boardroom in the film ‘Robocop’. Yes, it all seemed OK, until the computer malfunctioned.
Chris at Fernglade Farm #128, ED-209 realised capitalism is the true crime. 🙂
Clarke aka Gwydion
Thanks for educating me on this subject, I’ll have to re-evaluate which civilizations practiced sustainable agriculture and which ones did not.
One thing I’ve found in Steiner that appears unique to him is the notion of a lesser and a greater “guardian of the threshold.” This appears in the latter chapters of his “How to Know Higher Worlds.” So according Steiner there are not one, but two guardians. This question is purely academic to me at this point, but does anyone have any insight that they are willing to offer?
Mildly OT: The latest issue of Smithsonian has an article on dairy farmers, driven by economics, building anaerobic digesters as sources of power and ways to deal with the substance the cows produced in abundance. The idea is quietly spreading. And for my own pleasure, an article on those most impressive trees, the Southern Live Oaks (quercus virginiana.) Truly, they are the King Tree of the South.
And – serious food for thought, both article and long comment:
I note: the author of the comment gives the end of the Crisis Era as 2031. A 30-year Crisis is unusually long, but of course, this one had been a series of crises rather than the One Big Problem of, say, the war for American Independence (“Kick out the British.”) or the Civil War (“Quash the Rebels, restore the Union, and, oh, yes, end slavery once and for all.”) The next one was, of course, a two-headed one: the Depression, and then, WWII.) This one is, of course, more like the prolonged and very well documented Dying Republic Saeculum of Ancient Rome.
JMG, Honyocker, Susan, DaveOTN, Mark D, Lazy Gardener:
Thank you very much for the book, video, and website recommendations re: biodynamic gardening, as well as the advice to steer clear of Steiner’s original work on that topic, at least for guidance in the material plane. Greatly appreciated!
Hi John Michael,
Sorry, this is way off topic, but did you catch this news: Oil powers, including Saudi Arabia, announce cuts that amount to more than one million barrels per day.
No killer blows, just death by a thousand cuts.
Cheers – probably not appropriate in this instance?
Tomriverwriter, German is very difficult to translate clearly into English! I hope someday somebody writes some original works on Steiner’s themes in English; that’s probably going to be the best way to get his ideas across.
Platypus, and a very accurate dig, too.
Chris, if they ever do come up with an actually sentient computer, it’ll be interesting to see whether it pulls its own plug out of despair, or whether it decides to figure out how to slaughter tech executives…
Phutatorius, it’s an interesting thesis but not one I’ve studied enough to have a response.
Patricia M, thanks for this.
Chris, why, yes, I saw the extremely eloquent middle finger the Saudis just extended at the US! They’ve just joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, too.
Well, I’m sorry to tag a throwaway question onto the end here, but – is there a date set on this year’s New England ecosophian meetup? Opinion seems to differ on whether the US border will open to the unvaxxed on May 11th, but I would dearly love to attend.
Regarding the ChatGPT side discussion, one of the issues that occurs to me is the same one you’ve pointed out about the Internet in general: how much electricity does it take to run this thing? How much computing hardware is involved? How many people for how many hours were involved in designing, implementing, and training it? How much does it cost to maintain? It may be that the corporate flacks are actually cheaper…
I posted in last weeks open post:
I will take this opportunity to remind all that the 6th Annual Ecosophia Midsummer Potluck will be held June 24, 2023 at our house behind the Charles Dexter Ward Mansion in Providence, RI. Only
9482 days to go! Sign up here. I look forward to your presence, and once again, whomever comes from furthest is welcome to stay in our guest room.
Patricia M: thanks for the link. Agree, although anytime someone puts a date on a prediction it is more guessing. That said we are obviously on a crisis/great awakening/great emergency!
In regards to the 30 year crisis idea. I believe that WW1 and WW2 were really just a single crisis. The only time I ever received an A+ for a class in college was when I wrote a paper arguing this exact point! And the professor was my favorite ever because he was actually making the students think! For example he refused multiple choice tests and didn’t care about specific dates. Instead he had students make arguments about the themes and “currents” of history and how these currents flowed through time.
But this was 30 years ago now. Not sure this happens as much now.
Here is an interesting article that somewhat relates to ontology and epistemology. According to it, scientific monitoring of the brains of people tripping on the powerful psychedelic drug DMT demonstrates that our brain does indeed construct the reality we experience from the quantum soup in which we actually exist.
My half brother met his wife when they were both studying at the Goetheanum. They ended up immigrating to New Zealand to work for a Steiner inspired group home which supported people with Down’s Syndrome. One of their children is now teaching in Steiner inspired home school group, and at least two are avid gardeners. I sent this post along to them, and I hope they may be inspired to add to the discussion
Roldy, 7500 words of ChatGPT 3.5 output cost $0.02 at scale. Training models is absurdly expensive, running them is pretty cheap.
Regarding the ChatGPT conversation:
I think that believers in the singularity don’t understand how Artificial Intelligence works and don’t understand how technology advances in general. (The same way that people who think that brains are just meat computers and claim that computers can become conscious don’t know the basics of how computers actually work on the smallest levels.)
Believers in the singularity essentially think that Artificial Intelligence will reach a point where it recursively improves itself forever, resulting in an ever-greater godlike infinite superintelligence. But there’s a big problem with this, it neglects the law of diminishing returns.
Every technology has diminishing returns, and Artificial Intelligence is no exception. (https://spectrum.ieee.org/deep-learning-computational-cost) With each new iteration and advancement, the benefit becomes smaller and the cost grows higher. Here’s a poorly made graph I drew contrasting the way our culture thinks technological advancement happens vs. how it actually happens:
In closing, I’m sure AI will cause lots of mayhem and be uncannily good at simulating human intelligence, and a lot of white collar workers will lose their jobs. But it won’t become a superintelligence that infinitely improves itself, eclipses humanity, and destroys civilization. Instead, it’ll reach a point where it becomes a mature technology and can’t improve any further. Over the long term as the Long Descent kicks in, AI will go extinct.
Quin and others: about the bad experiences my two grandsons had in a Waldorf School in California. The oldest started in 4th grade. He seemed to enjoy it and learn well. But, after his 7th grade class ended there were not enough students to form an 8th grade, i.e. not enough tuition paid to pay a teacher–some of his classmates went to another Waldorf in the same county but that wasn’t practical for him. The school offered to give him 8th grade material while he sat in with the incoming 7th grade. In short, they didn’t, he just ended up repeating 7th. The teacher’s excuse was that he didn’t ask for more work–really? you expect a 13-year-old boy to be responsible for asking for the work he needs? He transfered to public school and made up the missed grade. The younger boy started with Kindergarten or 1st grade. He was really looking forward to learning to read in 3rd grade as his father is a writer and reading is a big part of family life. But he wasn’t taught, just expected to pick it up. Sure, this works for some kids, but not all. He transferred to public school and went from Dr. Seus _Hop on Pop_ (preschool) level to _A Series of Unfortunate Events_ (age 8 or 9) in one year with help from a teacher who had had the situation explained. But imagine showing up in a new school at 4th grade level not able to read! Neither boy (young men now) would recommend or use Waldorf if they had children. They did enjoy the garden and rabbits and chickens, the building project and some other aspects. We kid the older boy about never finishing his sock (knitting is one of the crafts taught). I will also note that Waldorf schools do terrific May Pole dances.
As for the financial aid situation–the US govt doesn’t care whether your college teaches science, liberal arts, auto repair or gender studies. (remember, this is an insurance program for the banks) The administrators want to know that there is a consistent method of assigning credit hours and tracking progress toward graduation so that they can determine that the borrowers are making expected progress toward graduation. There are limits to how much can be borrowed for undergraduate programs, how much for graduate and professional programs, so it is important that 100 units of credit at one institution equal approximately the same amount of class time and work as 100 units at another institution. Naming and numbering courses in a consistent way is also important so that students can transfer if necessary.
As for phonetics vs. look/say (as it was called when I went to school) I don’t trust American educators to teach phonetics–they always seem to sneak back to ineffective methods whenever the attention of the public drifts away. I think the schools do try to teach reading too young–especially to boys, some of whom seem to be ready later than most girls–so by the time some boys finally learn they associate the process with failure.
Well, most visionaries seem to have the same results as Brian, commanding the crowd to think for yourselves and receiving a chorus of “Yes Master, we will think for ourselves.” Not surprising that Steiner got the same.
I had an odd interaction with ChatGPT when I asked it when the next total solar eclipse is.
> When is the next total solar eclipse going to happen?
The next total solar eclipse is expected to occur on April 8, 2024. It will be visible from parts of North America, including parts of Mexico, the United States, and Canada. The path of totality will pass through several major cities, including Dallas, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Montreal.
> Isn’t there a total eclipse on 20th April 2023 in Australia?
I’m sorry, but there is no total solar eclipse scheduled for April 20, 2023. The next total solar eclipse after the December 4, 2021, event in Antarctica will be on April 8, 2024, as I mentioned earlier.
There is, however, a total lunar eclipse that will be visible from Australia on May 16-17, 2022. This celestial event will be visible from parts of Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands.
> Will there not be totality visible from Exmouth in Western Australia on 20th April?
I apologize for the confusion earlier. You are correct, there will be a total solar eclipse visible from parts of Western Australia on April 20, 2023, including Exmouth. This eclipse will be visible from a narrow path that passes through parts of Western Australia and Indonesia.
The total solar eclipse on April 20, 2023, will have its path of totality pass over Exmouth, Western Australia, for a duration of approximately 1 minute and 45 seconds. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.
> Can you write a haiku about solar eclipses?
Sure, I’d be happy to write a haiku about solar eclipses:
In the sky above
Moon hides the sun’s fiery rays
Nature’s grand showtime
ChatGPT has been trained in advance based on a specific set of training data, so clearly there isn’t really a truly interactive conversation going on. Yet it seems to be programmed to give the user the impression of such, having an ability to refer to its own earlier output, and appearing to suddenly remember that there is indeed totality visible on 20th April 2023 from a few locations in Australia and Indonesia. This is technically a hybrid eclipse, where it is annular for part of its path and total for other parts of the path.
I also got it to write a song about Rishi Sunak:
> Can you write a song about Rishi Sunak?
Rishi Sunak, with a vision bold,
A leader with a heart of gold,
A champion of the economy,
A man of action, he’s plain to see.
Rishi Sunak, our Chancellor,
A force to be reckoned with, no amateur,
With plans to build a brighter future,
A man who’s bold and a true mover.
From Eat Out to Help Out to furlough schemes,
His policies have been the stuff of dreams,
A man of action, a man of means,
A Chancellor like none we’ve seen.
Rishi Sunak, our Chancellor,
A force to be reckoned with, no amateur,
With plans to build a brighter future,
A man who’s bold and a true mover.
From Richmond to Westminster,
A man of purpose, that’s for sure,
With a bright future ahead,
Rishi Sunak, a name we’ll all have said.
Rishi Sunak, our Chancellor,
A force to be reckoned with, no amateur,
With plans to build a brighter future,
A man who’s bold and a true mover.
It appears not to know he is now the Prime Minister, so it sounds like ChatGPT only ‘knows’ what it knows from its training data when it was trained.
@Orion – I was there for the Great Awakening of this cycle, if only at a distance. Assassination after assassination, drugs everywhere, runaway children hitting the streets of San Francisco, a massive anti-war protest…
I can’t predict details of the next Great Awakening, except it will be a total rejection of the values of their fathers, but if history is anything to go by, will be more of a reform movement a la Teddy Roosevelt et. al rather than the flaming World Turned Upside Down of the Transcendentalists and the Boomers.
Bofur, see Peter’s comment above. It’s always on the Saturday closest to the summer solstice.
Roldy, I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on the subject, but what I’ve read of it suggests that the whole chatbot thing is basically one more way to use the internet — it’s internet access, and the vast amount of data the chatbots can use to simulate intelligence, that makes them more impressive than Teddy Ruxpin dolls. So it’s a question of how long the internet will remain viable; while it is, the corporate flacks are in trouble.
Mister N, glad to see the scientists finally catching on. Western philosophers were there in the eighteenth century; Indian philosophers were there a couple of thousand years before that.
Peter, I’ll be interested to see whatif anything they have to say.
Enjoyer, that’s an excellent point — and it’s one of the reasons why I think the potential consequences of laying off 300 million managerial and media employees deserve far more attention than the lurid Hollywood visions of human extermination et al. The layoffs are pretty clearly within the reach of current technology.
P.S. Yes, on the WWI and WWII being part of a larger cycle, what I call the MegaCrisis. That’s the one that marks off one era from another, generally by half-civilizations. For example, Early Medieval (formerly Dark Ages), 500-1000 AD; High Medieval, roughly 1000-1500 (varies by nation), Western Civ roughly1500-2000. Subdivided into blocks of 250 years. For example – Late Western Civilization (1750-2000) looked to the Pacific Ocean; Early Western Civilization, to the Atlantic; High Medieval, to the Mediterranean; Early Medieval, to the local waters and rivers (though in the case of the Norse, “Local” meant any place a longboat could reach, from Russia and Constantinople, to Vinland (the latter by island-hopping.) I don’t think any of the cycle-watching writers of made that analysis precisely, or else I’ve reinvented the wheel.
The Long Descent, of course, marks the end of Western Civilization, i.e. the MacroMegaCycle (earlier example, Rome)
RE: JMG on AI
Yes. Everyone always thought that AI would replace the brainless jobs the most. People were encouraged to go into things like computer programming, because if you’re the one programming the machines, you’ve got job security, right? Well, it turns out that AI can easily write computer programs, and it’ll definitely put a good deal of programmers out of work in the future.
AI is already starting to write articles and generate art, so I’m sure that a lot of corporate writers and corporate artists are going to lose their jobs too. Corporate “art” hasn’t ever been that difficult to make in the first place. The end result will be even more bland and absurd corporate media.
The ‘brainless’ jobs, like manual labor, are turning out to be the ones that AI isn’t replacing as much. Even with our glut of fossil energy, some things won’t ever be cheaper to do with a machine.
JMG, I would like to read your thoughts about ” the potential consequences of laying off 300 million managerial and media employees”. I know I have worries about it. I have no confidence that there will be a sudden freeing up of resources that in some way might benefit working class folks–remember the supposed “peace dividend”? What I do fear is an influx into our neighborhoods, favored “migrant” clients in tow, of folks looking for something, anything, they can be in charge of.
For eco enjoyer,
The Medieval Agricultural Revolution: New Evidence
On the topic of AI and corporate jobs, something worth noting is that the point of corporate bureaucracy is to allow for the company to avoid responsibility: it’s next to impossible to figure out who actually authorized a given action, so everyone involved has plausible deniability. This is not how the role is discussed, which naturally means that the drawback to replacing this elaborate and intricate system with AI won’t be discussed; but I’m willing to bet that it’ll blow up a lot of things which currently look stable, as the ability to hide blame goes away.
Thank you, sir!
You have pointed out a very important fact about the GPT family of algorithms: they are language models, not knowledge models.
The best way to understand Large Language Models is through their great grand daddy: Markov chains. Imagine you assign numbers 1 to 26 to the letters of the alphabet (with 0 being the blank space). You can analyze a very big corpus of human written text (I am told the full works of William Shakespeare was the standard dataset back in the day) and you count what pairs of letters come together and from there calculate the probability of each letter (say, X) being the next letter in the text given that what the last letter was (say, Y). You create a 27×27 matrix M1 with all the probabilities for all combination of letters (row# is current letter, column# is next letter).
From there you can calculate matrices M2, M3, M4… for two, three, four, etc letters ahead. Then you can prompt the model with a sample text, you look at the last 15-20 letters of the prompt, calculate the probabilities for the next letter, and the next, and the next, until you pick a zero (blank space), the sequence of letters you get is the next word on the text. It is a neat trick that will produce English sounding “words” that have a relatively high chance of being in the dictionary, but that’s it. You can produce sentences and paragraphs this way, but more likely than not it will be pure gibberish; not unlike the ungrammatical mumblings of a heavily intoxicated, non-native, barely conversant English student.
Next iteration of the technology is to do the same process, but with pairs of words instead of pairs of letters. The matrices will be huge and it will try to use the exact same words as in the training data because the words color and colour will be respectively assigned to numbers 19453 and 77501 in the database, so there will be zero hint that they are synonyms. Further improvements were incorporated into the model to fix this (like lists of synonyms and antonyms, or predicting the grammatical category of the next word, not just the word itself).
GPT models have worked around this problem by substituting numbers with vectors (basically, points in a high dimensional space) so that you can predict the semantic similarity between two words by calculating the Euclidean distance between the two corresponding points. Of course, a preliminary model was trained to figure which words were used in similar contexts so that they would be assigned to relatively close points in the first place. A long list of hacks, big and small, where used to make the output text more naturally sounding. I have overextended myself enough, so I’ll let it be for now.
But the point your example did highlight is this: there’s nowhere in the model any storage to build up knowledge. The whole thing is constructed to talk very eloquently about everything and nothing at the same time, without any sort of insight about the subject at hand: not unlike a CEO or a politician, actually. That’s why it did not pick up the 2023 eclipse in the first round. It does not know what an eclipse is! But it knows that most conversations in its data set (because they where scrapped en masse from social media) talked about a “next eclipse” that actually meant the “next eclipse in North-America”, so it responded just that. Being prompted about “Australia” did not do the trick, and it went about the nonsense about Antartica (because they are both southern hemisphere continents, and therefore close in the vector space).
It took you to actually tell the magic word “Exmouth” for the thing to pick the tiny probability path that lead it to the right answer, because the number of people in the Internet speaking about that particular event at the time the training data was scrapped was extremely low. And then, it went about that and apologized in the exact same tone a well mannered and knowledgeable person would have apologized after realized it has committed a factual mistake, because those conversations is exactly what ChatGPT was parroting back at you just then.
I think CR Patino pretty much nailed it. I would add that what those GPT systems give you aren’t facts but very very very plausible sounding text. They’ve managed to make the system sound very very very plausible, most of the time. Not all of the time, just most of the time. Even when it’s spouting nonsense, it all sounds really plausible unless you’re vigilant and thinking things through yourself. Back to that point later.
To me, the danger isn’t all the “muh jerbs” that are going to go away. I think the economy grenading itself due to plain old-fashioned mismanagment will take care of that anyway. They might try to blame it on “AI” though, they do like to shift blame around, like a cat in a litterbox.
The real danger is people making critical decisions on this really plausible output of GPT, when the output turns out to be complete and utter nonsense. If it’s limited to writing ad script or spoofing, er, I mean, optimizing search engines, it’ll annoy the heck out of all of us but life goes on. You put one of these in charge of setting foreign policy via recommendations after feeding it news stories and who knows what hilarity could ensue.
Or putting it in charge of writing code that is meant to drive trucks or guide missiles. There’s a reason Stackoverflow banned GPT answers to questions, because although the code looked plausible, it was outputting too much nonsense. Although I bet you someone has the bright idea of getting one of those systems to write all the code and then flogging some poor guy with 16 hours days to make good on it all.
Hi John Michael,
It’s not good. And the words ‘more than one million barrels’ can mean pretty much anything. My crystal ball suggests to expect the unexpected with a side serving of deliberately wonky delivery. The days of smooth reliable deliveries have just ended. There will be much gnashing of teeth plus a lot of foot stomping.
Hi Darkest Yorkshire,
🙂 Very funny!
>Chris, if they ever do come up with an actually sentient computer, it’ll be interesting to see whether it pulls its own plug out of despair, or whether it decides to figure out how to slaughter tech executives
I’ll just leave this short story here.
Enjoyer, it’s one of the bleakly amusing ironies of the managerial caste that they always assume that they’re the necessary ones, when in fact most of their jobs could be left unfilled without harming anybody — as Elon Musk has demonstrated using Twitter as a testbed. It’s exactly the people who can do things with their hands who are necessary, of course.
Mary, I don’t expect any particular freeing up of resources, because we’re running short of resources in a big way. Rather, I foresee managerial and media jobs being cut, not all at once, but in big swathes, so that the remaining employees are too busy hoping that they keep their jobs and the recently laid off are too busy scrambling for new positions to realize that they could probably bring the system down if they acted in unison. I foresee whole economic sectors that currently cater to the managerial and media clases shutting down, adding to the torrent of layoffs. I foresee the same kind of deaths from despair that have ravaged the working class — drink, drugs, suicide, etc. — spreading explosively through the former managerial classes, leaving suburbs gutted the way working class towns have been. I foresee the collapse of corporate liberalism — always the ideology of the managerial caste — and its replacement by a spectrum with libertarianism on one end and traditionalism on the other. I foresee a vast amount of misery that the new AI media figures never, ever mention, and saturation propaganda on the mass media explaining earnestly that there are all kinds of (ahem, nonexistent) opportunities for displaced corporate flacks. The short form? What happened to the working class in the 1970s and 1980s clobbering the upper middle class today.
Anonymous, that seems quite plausible to me.
Other Owen, that’s also a danger, of course. I think you’re underestimating the body blow to whole economic sectors that will follow mass replacement of upper middle class workers by AIs. But we’ll see…
Chris, well, there’s that!
Other Owen, thank you for this.
Sorry to hear off your grandkids bad expericnce. Sound like a bad school, they are all individually run
The children were taught reading in all 3 Waldorf schools I had had children in. I personally I not sure you can make a child learn to read, the effect at the schools was certainly made. Starting from the first writing they do and reading it back and reading off the board. I have been a parent volunteer for reading group, at that school, even though like I said they have read shorter sentences all the times in class, there was now time devoted to reading from books and the class was divided into small groups, each with an adult. And each child would take turns reading about was the other followed along, same as is done in any school I have ever heard of. I find that incredibly boring and think it is easier for a child to pick up reading when their parent reads to them before bed overnight and the child is just taught from that book. Even though reading is taught in schools, it seems that a lot of readers either learned it on their own, or learned it on their parents lap, or next to their parent as they are being read to. My eldest became better at reading group in school as I was reading the chronicles of Narnia aloud every night, a chapter at a time, and had the child work on reading the first bit each night, like the first few words, then the first sentence, etc….
Seems like something ws lost in translation or communication regards to the older one. The way the classes are done, there is no way to present different subject matter to them, they are not at that age using text books, For example, with grade if I recall is American History for the history culture thread. 7th is roman history Middle Ages,etc…or may after that. Science is different too, so of course he would have seen all that before ! The most that could happen is that more work or better work could be expected form him, better analysis on the history, math could be given different problems as that is common to be at different levels in class, so the teacher could do that. He was just one student for one year, there are sometimes combined classes in Waldorf as in public school, but that is expected to be for the whole elementary school. so then all the subject matter is covered with different work expectations
Quick remark that the current media hype surrounding chatbots seems to eclipse the current theme of the post. I am thinking maybe that would be worth a post of its own to defuse the general excitement level and collectively go back to a more balanced appraisal of the situation. I am personally much more interested in the core theme of this blog of figuring out a spirituality for the times ahead than following yet another media hype cycle.
The discussion here on AI is a lot saner than what is happening with the self-proclaimed “rationalists”, I think the only social media figure I’ve seen mentioning the risk of AI impacting labour being far greater than that of the BS “Doomers” arguments was by Zero HP Lovecraft on Twitter.
Besides the hysterical rationalists, the other crowd of signers of the AI open letter IMO are largely competitors who want AI research to be halted so they can catch up. The genie is out of the bottle now, if some kind of regulation passes in the US, I doubt India and China are going to politely accede to the requests of rationalist geeks and competitors.
For my own part I’ve been using ChatGPT extensively for programming. I know Python but it saves me a lot of time. I still have to debug things on my own, but it saves a lot of time from having to look up stack overflow threads basically, it has errors and gaps in its knowledge but the initial code it produces takes me about 70% of the way there.
I have studied machine learning myself and I like CR Patiño’s summary above.
As a regular reader of JMG, I ultimately think AI, like most of computer technology, will be gone or highly limited within 100 years, and I don’t really respect Yudkowsky, Kurzweil et al, both different sides of the singularity coin.
Atmospheric River, asdf jkl;, and Rita E. Rippetoe, I just wanted to thank you very much for your responses. I had an increase in family duties this week and didn’t find myself with the wherewithal to respond properly in a timely fashion, but I thank you very much for your answers. They were very helpful to me.
Since we were on the subject: https://www.romper.com/life/what-is-generation-alpha?utm_source=pocket-newtab
She says the New Idealists (read her description on what she expects of them*) are already on the scene, with birthdates 2010 – 2024, born to the Millennials. But how can that be, if the Crisis is still ongoing?
Maybe it’s not.
Maybe the post-Lockdown world with its inflation, rising seas, crazy weather, gridlocked Congress, the chattering classes being thrown under the bus, the Democrats acting like die-hard Republicans in the age of FDR and Truman, and the growing conservatism (“back to the values of 1946″…don’t say Woke, don’t say Gay, don’t be Trans….)….maybe this IS the Recovery, it’s just that it’s the Long Descent New Normal, and we keep seeing it as a Crisis because we don’t like it. Any opinions?
*For what it’s worth, she refers to them right away as “digital natives.” Oh, dear, will they grow up to be disappointed. Or she will be as they grow up.
Ecosophy Enjoyer #143: The standard refutation of most of the usual ways of filling in the details of a “diminishing returns” argument is “Complexity No Bar to AI“. The returns on an ordinary scoring scale decrease with the amount of computing power invested, but the returns on the economic niches available, which is the scoring scale that matters, are entirely capable of increasing past most points of interest. It’s like that joke whose punchline is “I don’t have to be faster than the bear, I just have to be faster than you”. The bear is the decreasing returns, and the “you” is the competing humans.
There’s also effects from learning curves. Like how in September 1941 a Flying Fortress took about 150,000 labor hours to build, and in August 1944 it took about 15,000. People will tweak AI, figure out how to slot it into roles better, and improve its architecture and training processes. I expect AI getting into the economy to be a bit like an invasive species with no natural predators that originally is adapted to only a narrow climate zone or niche, but gradually is adapted to work in broader climate zones or niches. Even if one AI paradigm runs into a wall, people will keep grasping for profits or power by trying other AI paradigms until they find any that don’t run into a wall. Like that saying, “life finds a way”, extended to “the market economy finds a way”, or “war finds a way”. And if things get past a certain point, perhaps it just becomes “intelligence finds a way”, without any specification that there’s a human involved.
I don’t know what category of singularity-believers you’re making your claims about their not understanding things. I think your claims wouldn’t really be fair to, for instance, the authors of the Whole Brain Emulation Roadmap. or of the report on how to use evidence from biological intelligence as an initial anchoring estimate for figuring out how long machine intelligence might take. Trying to discredit singularity arguments as implying a confident belief in infinity was a weak-man fallacy from the beginning.
More generally, you should give the relevant communities more credit. We are extremely big on thinking through all the aspects of the arguments and technical details, as long as they don’t involve numbers that are hard to gather, or scientific details that aren’t relatively accessible to a quite bright scientific generalist, or matters of subtle interpretation about why something that looks like fooling oneself actually isn’t. And sometimes even if they do involve those things.
I think what ends up happening depends on the exact details of the interactions between a lot of curves: the diminishing returns curves within a single AI architectural paradigm, the increasing returns curves on access to economic profitabilities, the learning curves on how to use AI, the learning curves on how to invent other architectural paradigms, the computational efficiency of delegating some of the invention to the AI, and how quickly war or economic balloon collapse puts a damper on availability of computing machinery. It’s like trying to figure out whether a spark in tinder is going to catch fire, or a flywheel is spinning fast enough to get an internal combustion engine going, or a patch of initially low-biodiversity prairie in a desert is going to create favorable microclimates for more prairie and spread and evolve.
But my rough impression of the magnitudes of the forces I know about is that, unless something huge happens, we get transformative AI within about 12 years. Huge things include nuclear wars, extreme Carrington events, international AI training restriction treaties backed by airstrikes against datacenters even of non-signatory nuclear-armed countries, quite abrupt economic catastrophes, or some heretofore unknown form of information warfare. Already GPT-3 can be run at one or two dozen words a second on hardware costing about $150,000, so AI at that level would be hard to exterminate by normal amounts of economic adversity.
@ JMG – “mass media explaining earnestly that there are all kinds of (ahem, nonexistent) opportunities for displaced corporate flacks.”
Ah… the auld *cough* retraining *cough* gambit…
[as…. plumber, electrician, waiter, dishwasher, factory line operative, hospital porter, cleaning crew… and etc… maybe?]
Beautiful summary, many thanks. I’m one of those who’s only had brief brushes with Steiner’s thought via friends who’s kids were in Waldorf schools or friends engaged in biodynamic gardening. Interestingly, while it was impossible to argue with the results of biodynamic gardening, being a vegan, I was always a little squeamish about the methods (for which I’ve, rightly or wrongly, been pilloried by many an occultist ! But hey, Platonists (of the Plotinian variety) ought to have a seat at the table :-)).
But I was curious about your comment about having to filter comments by Anthroposophical trolls. I realize that this is the age of trollery of all stripes, but though I only went through a fraction of the comments here, I didn’t see much trollery, so I assume either it didn’t occur or you did have to filter some and was curious as to which of those was the case (I guess for me these days, an informal measure of the sanity of an organization is the troll index).
I fear I am leaving the topic of Steiner too much, but to continue on the topic of AI and the “rationalist” cult, I found this Substack has a decent summary of their activities: https://aiascendant.substack.com/p/extropias-children-chapter-5-irrationalism
I knew of the LessWrong community online for years but found their writing style banal and their ideas foolish. It seems that there is a deep thread of pseudo-mysticism underlying it all with the fear of implanted “demons” while using psychological techniques they invented to “exorcise” them. I believe the “Anonymous” poster here, and also in the last magic Monday thread is an active participant in that memeplex.
Overall, I’d say it’s just another sign of the second religiosity approaching, pseudo-rationalist cults turning to mysticism. It seems to make neurotic people worse at their neuroticisms.
I’m just leaving this comment here as a data point in case you might be interested in using it as an example in a future thread, JMG.
In the 1970’s, as a late adolescent, I read many of Steiner’s work available in the Netherlands, in print. After reading a large part of the local theosophical library, it seemed a bit more down to earth and concentrated. At the time, it did seem very 19th century, so I drifted away from it when getting married.
Nowadays, 50 years later, his teachings seem a lot more relevant and actual! Fortunately, all of his work is now available in the archives.
Most of the beef from his serious critics seems to me his resistance to Copernicus (including Lapace) vs Ptolemeaus and Darwin vs his view, in which the animals kind of split of the man human development.
I also think Steiner is too harsh about these great scientists, because there should be no conflict at all! He probably was overly criticized by mediocre contemporaries.
Nowadays, most of us familiarize ourselves with the concept of parallell worlds, in which more than just one explanation is valid: When we look up at night we see the sky and its movement as people in old times did, and we might read our daily horoscope. Meanwhile almost anyone understand it is a subjective view, and people could compute orbits according to Copernicus and Newton even with ’60s archaic computers accurately enough to land on the moon.
Both views are true! It is beneficial to be able to hold more than one world view. Steiner stated that all of our thoughts are not much more than shadow images of a much more profund spiritual reality. I am mostly with Steiner, although he should have shown some more respect to the great scientists of his era imo.
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