Steiner’s Research Methodology

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Jennifer Gidley:

"Although much of Steiner’s writing, particularly prior to the turn of the 20th century, was purely philosophical—in the traditional academic manner of his day — much of his later work was based on what he referred to as his spiritual-scientific research. Steiner (1904/1959) discussed his research methods in his book Cosmic Memory where he detailed much of his research on early periods of pre-history. He claimed that, as a result of decades of disciplined thought practice, he was able to read information that was stored in what he called the Akasha record/chronicle. Ironically, some of the terms Steiner used to characterize his spiritual-scientific methodology—such as cosmic memory and Akashic record are currently being re-introduced into the scientific discourse by László: “Ervin László’s concept of the Akashic Field includes the idea of cosmic memory” (Sheldrake, 2006, abstract). Before going into Steiner’s method in more detail, I would like to contextualize it from within László’s (2007) theory of an enduring In-formation Field that, under special circumstances, can be read . The following extract from László’s recent book, Science and the Akashic Field , bears remarkable similarity to Steiner’s descriptions. The evidence for a field that would conserve and convey information is not direct; it must be reconstructed in reference to more immediately available evidence. Like other fields known to modern physics, such as the gravitational field, the electromagnetic field, the quantum fields, and the Higgs field, the in-formation field cannot be seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled . . . it seems evident that a further field is required to account for the special kind of coherence revealed at all scales and domains of nature, from the microdomain of quanta, through the meso-domain of life, to the macrodomain of the cosmos . . . In my previous books I named the universal in-formation field the Akashic Field . . . In the Sanskrit and Indian cultures, Akasha is an all-encompassing medium that underlies all things and becomes all things. . . . Our bodily senses do not register Akasha, but we can reach it through spiritual practice. The ancient Rishis reached it through a disciplined, spiritual way of life, and through yoga. (p. 73-76)Steiner spent the last 25 years of his life developing and consolidating a methodology of thought training/discipline. He claimed that, if practiced, these methods could lead to new levels of cognitive and psycho-spiritual development, building on the rigorous methods of the natural sciences. Although his methods are claimed to lead to spiritual perception, they should not be confused with pre-rational, mythic, atavistic methods.

He practiced these methods himself and his research methodology proceeds from them. I have included a rather long quote here, as I believe it is important to read Steiner’s own words on these matters. The practice Steiner refers to appears to be aligned with László’s claims above. If what Steiner and László are claiming is valid, then it is of major significance and requiring far more substantive research attention than has currently been given. Steiner (1904/1959) states: By means of ordinary history [humans] can learn only a small part of what humanity experienced in prehistory. Historical documents shed light on but a few millennia. . . .Everything belonging to the external world of the senses is subject to time. In addition, time destroys what has originated in time. . . . Everything which comes into being in time has its origin in the eternal. But the eternal is not accessible to sensory perception. Nevertheless, the ways to the perception of the eternal are open for [humans]. [We] can develop forces dormant in [us] so that [we] can recognize the eternal . . . from transitory to non-transitory history . . . written in other characters than is ordinary history. In gnosis and in theosophy it is called the "Akasha Chronicle." Only a faint conception of this chronicle can be given in our language. For our language corresponds to the world of the senses. That which is described by our language at once receives the character of this sense world . . . The one who has acquired the ability to perceive in the spiritual world comes to know past events in their eternal character. They do not stand before [us] like the dead testimony of history, but appear in full life. In a certain sense, what has happened takes place before [us]. Those initiated into the reading of such a living script can look back into a much more remote past than is represented by external history; and—on the basis of direct spiritual perception—they can also describe much more dependably the things of which history tells. (pp. 38-40) Although the latter statement of Steiner’s is a somewhat radical truth claim for a method of research that is difficult to validate, he does qualify his claims in various ways, as for example in the following two quotes :In order to avoid possible misunderstanding, it should be said that spiritual perception is not infallible. This perception also can err, can see in an inexact, oblique, wrong manner. No man is free from error in this field, no matter how high he stands. (Steiner, 1904/1959, p. 41) It will be evident in the narrative that some of Steiner’s findings from his research are only recently being rediscovered and formalized into scientific theory. László’s (2007) theory of the Akashic field itself, is an excellent example of this process. Steiner (1954/1981a) also qualifies the difficulties in this process: We must take all this as but approximate description, for we are bound to words which are coined for things only come into existence in our Earth period.

We should first have to invent a language if we would express what is seen by the eye of the Seer. All the same these descriptions are important, for they are the first way of coming to the truth. Only through picture, through imagination do we find the way to vision. We should make no abstract concepts, mechanical schemes, nor draw up diagrams of vibrations, but let pictures arise within us; that is the direct path, the first stage of knowledge. (p. 113) As an echo of Steiner’s words, László (2007) also writes of the importance of expressing the visions of the Akashic field, not just through science but also through poetry. He spends several pages writing poetically of his own Akashic vision of the birth and rebirth of our universe “addressed not to our intellect, but to our heart” (pp. 129-133. László’s text is not greatly dissimilar in tone from some of the passages in Steiner’s books, demonstrating further congruence between their works. Steiner (1930/1983a) has written substantially about the search for truth, with some of his statements indicating that he had something of a postmodern sensibility in regard to the notion of truth. Since truth is manifold in meaning, all we can reasonably say is that [humans] must set out to grasp truth and to kindle in [themselves] a genuine sense of truth. Hence we cannot speak of a single, all-embracing truth. (p. 34) There are no grounds at any time for remaining content with something already known. (p.50)Steiner developed his evolutionary theories in a time when many controversial socio-cultural models were in vogue. However he eschewed their materialistic biological underpinnings and their simplistic unilinearity. Although his theoretical approach was unquestionably developmental, a basis of much of his writing was aimed at significantly broadening 19th century notions of human development and evolution. As will be demonstrated below, his early 20th century writings on the evolution of consciousness and spiritual development foreshadowed contemporary notions of the emergence of postformal-integral consciousness, conscious evolution and the emergence of moral imagination, and to some degree the new biological theory of emergentism (Steiner, 1894/1964b). The appearance of completely new moral ideas through moral imagination is, for the theory of evolution, no more miraculous than the development of a new animal species . . .Ethical individualism, then, is the crowning feature of the edifice that Darwin and Haeckel have striven to build for natural sciences. It is spiritualized theory of evolution carried over into moral life . . . the free moral life [is] the spiritual continuation of organic life. (pp. 165-166) This statement encapsulates how Steiner’s epistemology represents a dialectical integration of scientific and spiritual features into his spiritual science."

If Wilber is the Man with the Map, then Steiner goes straight for the Territory, and reflects on it post-formally

Jennifer Gidley:

"Steiner is, in my view, unquestionably the most comprehensive of the three when it comes to entering, from the depth perspective of spiritual research, into multiple fields of life inconsiderable detail—education, agriculture, medicine, art, architecture, philosophy, science, comparative spirituality, and socio-economic organization among others. However, a major weakness is that for many contemporary people—even highly educated, motivated researchers— he is largely inaccessible. His writing, in addition to being complex in both content and style— which he did not actually separate in the way I just have—exudes the tenor of the highly intellectual, philosophical life of late 19th and early 20th century Germany. His work covers vast conceptual and spiritual terrain but he does not simplify it with any easy-read guidebooks. There are no “three easy steps” to reading Steiner – it is just hard work. Because of this the great conceptual treasures he has to offer may continue to go largely unnoticed to the scholars— particularly Anglophone scholars—of today and tomorrow as they have for the last century. By endeavoring to introduce him in association with Wilber and Gebser, I am hoping to lead readers to consider sourcing his primary writings. However, I think it would be helpful to approach them as if one was reading a sacred text with the type of hermeneutic sensitivity that is needed in such a case. I believe it may then be possible for the depth of the message to be transmitted.

Steiner’s work, rather like Wilber’s, developed through different phases.

- From 1883 to 1903 his writing was primarily philosophical (including major writings on Kant and Fichte, as well as editing Goethe’s scientific writings and helping to organize the Nietzsche archives).

- The second phase of Steiner’s work — from 1904 — was devoted to the struggle to communicate the findings from his spiritual-scientific research. This is the period when he commenced his writing and lecturing on the evolution of consciousness. In this second period, Steiner’s work is pre-eminently concerned with gap-diving into the territory —of the spiritual images, currents and ground, beneath and beyond the sensory world — the deeper currents that philosophy needs to elucidate as Wilber indicates above. In the following long quote, he made it clear that his communications about these matters were not mere reproductions of earlier sacred texts— although he had read and studied these—nor ungrounded metaphysical speculations, but grounded perceptions. In the following text Steiner (1910/1939) is arguably foreshadowing Wilber’s notion of the pre-trans fallacy. He notes the significance of the “completely conscious mind” in contrast to “autosuggestion or the unconscious.”

He also refers to his “clear, discerning consciousness” at every step in his process of arriving at advanced perceptionsL

- "My knowledge of things of the spirit is a direct result of my own perception, and I am fully conscious of this fact. In all details and in the wider views I have always examined myself strictly to whether I have made every step, as my perception advanced and developed, so that a completely conscious mind accompanied those steps. Just as the mathematician advances from thought to thought without the intervention of autosuggestion or the unconscious, so must spiritual perception advance from objective imagination to objective imagination without anything living in the soul but clear, discerning consciousness . . . the results of my perception . . . were, at the beginning, “perceptions” without words to designate them. . . . Later I sought in the ancient designations of the spiritual in order to find verbal expressions for what was until then wordless. . . . However, I sought always for the possibility of expressing myself only after the content I wished to clothe in words had arisen in my own consciousness." (pp. xiii-xiv)

It appears to me from this statement that Steiner is also demonstrating postformal reasoning through self-reflexivity about his process “I have always examined myself strictly;” and the dialectical term “objective imagination.” A careful study of this text can leave the reader in little doubt that Steiner is speaking about a postformal reasoning process that could not easily be confused with magic or mythic processes, which he himself clearly identifies as earlier movements of consciousness. Steiner also emphasized that the abilities that he developed to perceive in this manner were not unique to him or a few individuals, but would become increasingly available to anyone who wished to undertake the necessary cognitive and spiritual development and discipline. He claimed that the epistemology that he developed and presented in his books and lectures was not in any way in contradiction to the methods of science, but in fact needed to be founded on—and yet go beyond—the rigors of intellectual thinking and the accuracy of perception of the empirical sciences.

At a certain high level of [our] cognitive power, [we] can penetrate to the eternal origins of the things which vanish with time. . . . then [we] can see in events what is not perceptible to the sense, that part which time cannot destroy. (Steiner, 1904/1959, p. 39)The deeply spiritual nature of his work did not sit well with the materialistic current of his times. Although there were many academics and professionals who were inspired by his work and applied it to numerous practical fields of life—including education, agriculture, medicine, science, psychology, architecture, and all the arts—like Wilber, he was critically attacked from many quarters.

In summary, Steiner dived into the territory itself, and in contrast to Wilber, he did not spend time or energy providing maps of it or of his work. His intention was to be true to the invisible worlds he tried to represent and he admitted frequently that “only a faint conception of this chronicle can be given in our language” (Steiner, 1904/1959, p. 39). He proposed that we need to develop new language which is not so bound to the sensory world, and which can rediscover the Spirit of language in all its living force. The very words and turns of phrase in themselves take on something of a spiritual nature. They cease to be mere signs of what they usually ‘signify’ and slip into the very form of the thing seen. And then begins something like living intercourse with the Spirit of the language. (Steiner, 1929, p. 1)

This statement, especially the second sentence is remarkably similar to the sensibility of Derrida’s deconstruction of language (Derrida, 2001). A question for further research concerns the extent to which some of Steiner’s work foreshadowed poststructuralism. There are also clearly important connections between Steiner’s words and Cook-Greuter’s postformal stage that she calls construct-aware (Cook-Greuter, 2000). Significant theoretical connections have recently been made between Derrida’s deconstruction and Cook-Greuter’s construct-aware stage (Hampson, 2007)."