Spiritual Science And Academia

Spiritual Science And Academia

Introducing the Forum on Spiritual Science & Academia

Written by James Steil, with revisions by John A. McCurdy

2009-07-02

I have just come inside from reading on the deck; my Master’s thesis is handed-in and it is time for a little rejuvenation. Working through an old copy of An Attempt to Interpret the Metamorphosis of Plants, I have been taking some time to study the book of nature through Goethe’s eyes.

Goethe and his method of phenomenological inquiry remind me of the historical and contemporary relationship between spiritual science and academia, and so now I sit-down to write this introduction. In Goethe’s time – the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – humankind was only just waking from the Kali Yuga, a five thousand year slumber of the mind. The age of the Archangel Michael had yet to dawn. Still naïve in their ideas regarding nature, most of Goethe’s intellectual contemporaries dismissed his attempts at spiritualising the scientific method as beyond poetry, but too ambitious for science [1][2]. Yet Goethe’s method of studying and observing nature (including, but not limited to the metamorphosis of plants) has since led many a curious and rigorous mind to be stimulated beyond the bounds of conventional thought to a more immediate and forthright perception of the spiritual in matter – a much needed impulse for our times [3]. My own research has confirmed this need: researchers are now asking new questions, and applying new methods; leading them into domains of knowledge and experience to which anthroposophy has a great deal to offer. Having wandered, child-like, and sometimes aimlessly, science finds itself again at the threshold of the grail, this time asking earnestly of Nature: “Who are you?” Must we remain silent?

My thesis has been about imagination, inspiration, intuition, and their appearances in cognitive development [4]. Not only does Rudolf Steiner have much to say about cognition to academics today, cognitive scientific literature is already full of invaluable starting-points for making just such connections. Using the lens of anthroposophy, I have been able to illuminate the paradoxes within Buddhists’ research on embodiment and cognition, and the dead-ends of materialist analyses of language and metaphor. Ultimately, building on these thoughts has made it possible for me to fashion a phenomenal bridge from the conventional cognitive sciences right to the threshold of spiritual science.

As anthroposophists, we can and often do make use of contemporary ideas to further develop anthroposophical ones. Perhaps the time is right to carry our ideals and insights back into the work and world of academia, nourishing the dead concepts that too often predominate there, and quenching the thirst of those who seek higher thoughts. The naturalness of the impulse to give-back reminds me again of the plant world. Think of the bee which nourishes itself from the flower: In doing so it provides for its own community while at the same time fructifying the plant.

We might also imagine this symbiotic relationship in terms of a bridge, which facilitates movement in two directions at once. My own work, although dedicated to enriching the world of academia, has also deepened my understanding of and appreciation for anthroposophy – another benefit. What Steiner indicated in his books and many lecture-cycles was often only a brief outline of what could be known, and could also be one-sided at times. My research has yielded its greatest insights, its highest meanings, bridging anthroposophy and academia; requiring that I make both forms of knowing wholly and uniquely my own in my thinking, feeling, and willing. Wrestling with vague intuitions arising from the findings of others has strengthened my own capacity for perceiving truth, and expanded my understanding of anthroposophy. Building bridges from inner to outer is the living work of anthroposophy.

There are many examples of outstanding research borne out of anthroposophy, yet little finds its way into contemporary thought because most of this work unfolds outside the bounds of academia. Recognizing the need of our times, can we as anthroposophists, reach out beyond our own circles? Do we have the courage and wisdom to contribute to the emergence of a contemporary, living science? Do we have the resources needed to bring our work to the scholarly table? As was the case with Goethe, we cannot simply do, we must strive to be understood. This understanding will require anthroposophists develop concepts that can be clearly spoken across the traditional scientific/spiritual-scientific divide. Dialogue must be opened, cultivated, and sustained using new and existing vehicles and forums. Unlike in the past, this time science might be ready, willing, and able to listen.

To this end (or at least similar ones) a group of us has been discussing online the subject of spiritual science in academia. Not all of us are academics, and recently we decided to open-up our conversation to the participation of members at large. At this stage our purpose is simple and straightforward: to share perspectives on how each of us can work, or begin to work, with spiritual science in academia. Introducing our group (and this forum) with these few words we invite your listening, and your input. Given the needs of our time, I feel and hope our discussion may be a fruitful one. Welcome to the Forum on Spiritual Science in Academia – may all who enter flourish!

[1] “It has been suggested by a literary critic that Goethe was ‘a great poet who grew out of poetry’. Approaching him as we have done here, through the medium of his plant studies, we may perhaps offer the comparable conclusion, that Goethe was a great biologist, who, in the long run, overstepped the bounds of science.” This is the final sentence in the 20 page introduction to Goethe’s Metamorphosis as written by Agnes Arber D. Sc., F.R.S. in Chronica Botanica, an international collection of studies in the method and history of agriculture, Vol. 10 (Summer, 1946), the text I have been reading from.
[2] The discipline of Phenomenology itself has been practiced in various guises for centuries, but only came into its own in the early 20th century in the works of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others (copied from Wikipedia).
[3] See for example, lecture 6 of The Mission of Michael, the Revelation of the Secrets of Man’s Being, where in reference to the value of Goethe’s phenomenology Steiner says: “To learn to recognize the externally-material as a soul-spiritual element: this is what matters … what is necessary is the following: in the future we must cease to differentiate abstractly between the material and the spiritual, but we must look for the spiritual in the material and describe it as such…” (p 107). I have an older publication of this lecture, but it is available as part of the compilation: The Archangel Michael: His Mission and Ours: Selected Lectures and Writing, edited by Christopher Bamford
[4] Anyone who is interested in knowing more about my thesis is welcome to contact me at jim.steil@gmail.com, and I will send you a copy of the preface and introduction. These present a good picture of the thesis as a whole, which I will also happily send if you request it.