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Anthroposophy and Science

What is Anthroposophy?

I will be writing another article addressing at length the question "What is Anthroposophy?"[1] Essentially, anthroposophy can be defined as a lifestyle, a system of teachings, or a path of self-development. We shall consider the relationship of all three forms of anthroposophy to the various types of science listed below. As a system anthroposophy seeks to answer the deepest questions of life and existence, including, "Why are we here?" and "Where is here?"

What is science?

The word science is derived from the Latin "scientia" to know. In ordinary usage it has several meanings. Webster's lists seven:

sci·ence - noun

1.         a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.

2.         systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

3.         any of the branches of natural or physical science.

4.         systematized knowledge in general.

5.         knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

6.         a particular branch of knowledge.

7.         skill, esp. reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency.

Notice that the first definition does not specify what the object of study might be, hence the frequent modifier "natural". This creates the phrase "natural science", designating a science of the natural world. Rudolf Steiner maintained that his investigations were a form of "spiritual science", a study of the inner or spiritual world. This world, he maintained, was accessible only through pure thought or mental activity.

The second and third dictionary definitions of "science" indicate that the phrase "natural science" has been abbreviated in many contexts - shortened to just the one word "science". The use of the single word "science" to mean "natural science" has lead many people to object that anthroposophy can't possibly be a "science" since it does not deal exclusively with the material world. Within this narrow definition, they are correct. But considering the first, fourth, fifth sixth and seventh dictionary definitions of "science" it is clear that anthroposophy qualifies. Anthroposophy is a systematically arranged body of knowledge about the nature of the human soul and spirit, as well as the whole spiritual cosmos.

The word science has meanings beyond those listed in Webster's. These meanings are the implications and cultural baggage from centuries of historical development. Starting in the 17th century many people found a clear distinction between the discovered knowledge of the natural world and the revealed knowledge of traditional western theologies. And many felt that they could believe the knowledge and conclusions that were reasoned from material, sensory experiences, and not those revealed or dictated from tradition. This culminated in the 19th century in great intellectual battles between the proponents of Darwinian evolution and traditional theologies. This lead to a common cultural perception that all knowledge derived from material facts is "science", and all thoughts concerning spiritual matters are "religion". Religion, of course, was "unscientific". Numerous philosophers have attempted to reconcile the two polarities, among them Rudolf Steiner.

Steiner's relationship to science?

With anthroposophy Steiner attempted to go beyond science without contradicting it. That is, he does not contradict the facts determined by the various physical sciences, only sometimes the conclusions drawn from these facts. Anthroposophy only contradicts "science" as a nebulous worldview built on the thousands of speculative hypotheses, and then only on certain points. That this worldview itself is continually changing as new data is discovered should give pause to those who would declare the error of alternate hypotheses. Paleoanthropology, to take but one example, is continually one discovery away from completely revising the picture of human evolution. Such revisions number several per century.

Rudolf Steiner himself had extensive training in natural science. Beyond tutoring science students at the university level, he conducted laboratory experiments at his own expense in the field of optics. In his books and lectures he displayed a thoroughgoing understanding of the scientific advances of his day. When Rudolf Steiner appears to be inveighing against "science" the reader should read carefully. A close reading will show that it was the materialistic philosophical implications of natural science the Rudolf Steiner was hostile towards. Never did Rudolf Steiner claim that an investigation of the natural world was harmful. On the contrary, he repeatedly called it necessary, and further stated that such training in exactitude was tremendously helpful as a preparation for approaching Anthroposophy.

[1] (The question is similar to "Who is an Anthroposophist?")

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