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Gentile ‘meets’ Steiner

Saturday, 5 Oct 2019

philosophy of freedom In September 1919, Benedetto Croce invited Gentile to review, for La Critica (the bi-monthly magazine Croce directed), The Philosophy of Freedom by Rudolf Steiner. On the first of October, Gentile confirmed that he had received the book and undertook to send the review as soon as possible. This was published in the 20th November issue of the same year.

The Philosophy of freedom was the foundational work of Steiner’s voluminous output. Upon this work the rest of the edifice that came to be known as Anthroposophy stands or falls. Steiner’s argument is that there is nothing that cannot be known. At a stroke he swept aside the Kantian residue, i.e. the idealist theory that there is a world of unknowable entities, the things-in-themselves or noumena, that form the basis of everything we perceive and act upon in the mind.

Like Gentile, Steiner too dispensed with naive realism, i.e. the notion that our understanding of the world is simply a reflection in the mind of what we receive into it via sense perceptions such as sight. Such an existence, in which reality is delivered to us without our contribution, based on passive observation and contemplation, was dismissed by Steiner with contempt. So far as these things are concerned, Gentile would have nothing to argue with Steiner about. Gentile even described Steiner’s critique of Kantian critical idealism as one of the most beautiful parts of the book.

Where Gentile parted company with Steiner was on the point of the presupposed. For Gentile, the act of thinking constitutes reality. Nothing can presuppose thinking. But the world for Steiner would not be thought if it was not first perceived. There is a given element in Steiner’s philosophy that was unacceptable to Gentile. Steiner described this given element as consisting of percepts, i.e. the things that are perceived by the individual about the world that exists around him.

The critical point for Steiner is that the reality of the percepts is not exhausted in the perceiving of them. The act of perceiving a percept can only ever result in a partial view. The fullness of reality about anything perceived can only come from thinking about it. Whereas the perceiving is only ever partial, the thinking is always universal. (For example, separate individuals will perceive an actual triangle in different ways, from different viewpoints, but in thinking will always agree on the characteristics of a triangle, i.e. it is the thinking that is universal, not the individual perception.)

For Gentile, who had pushed idealist philosophy to the extreme by equating reality with thinking, a world of percepts could only ever be understood as the Kantian residue of unacceptable presuppositions. It was on this basis that he critiqued Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom as not really leaving the individual free at all. According to Steiner however, that which was once considered to be unknowable i.e. the Kantian noumena, was made known, and it was the universality of thinking that made this possible. This was exactly the point that Gentile rejected in his review of Steiner’s book. He was uneasy about the individual being subject to the universal. How can this be freedom? He missed Steiner’s point that if the unthinking and habitual ego is subjected by the thinking or spiritual ego, then the individual subjects himself to himself. ‘A person is free’, wrote Steiner, ‘in so far as he is able to obey himself in every moment of his life’.

WhereGentile and Steiner did unite is by finding the fulness of reality in the act of thinking. Where they united still further is on the location of the Logos in thinking. Remember we concluded that in Gentile’s philosophy, the very self, along with all other presuppositions, was lost to thinking. By a different route, the Steinerian self too was lost to thinking. The key difference is that Steiner never made man the thinker in the first place.

By taking idealism to its logical conclusion, in an effort to save the ‘I’, Gentile had in fact taken the long route to pulling a pall over the self, of which Spinoza had been guilty in a much more direct manner. Through his approach, however, Steiner had actually attempted to save the ‘I’ - by reinventing it.

© John Dunn.

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