Schematic conceptualizations and logical-semantic artifices in the work of Sergei O. Prokofieff
I read Anthroposophy and the Philosophy of Freedom, by Sergei Prokofieff. It has almost 300 pages, sixteen chapters, two annexes and about forty sketches! After going through such a vast material, in which the author seeks to condense the entire anthroposophy and even more, it is difficult to make an overall assessment without severely challenging your reflection abilities. Nevertheless, let’s be daring.
When we begin to acknowledge the world and ourselves, our ‘I’ – the eternal and thinking part inside of us – finds itself caught in the net of ephemeral things and is cooped up from every direction, especially when it comes to knowledge. It doesn’t know who he/she is, nor what it is doing here and what does it have to do in the world of beings which are born, live and die. Anthroposophy is the knowledge which takes us out of this state of confusion and longing, and offers a firm ground for the fulfilment of our most noble aspirations, which help us give a deep meaning to life.
I came to anthroposophy, in the first instance, due to the fact that Rudolf Steiner is an extraordinary thinker, whom you cannot leave aside. The understanding began for me with the cold judgment, and continued by asking questions and keeping an open attitude. The soul opening towards the message came then and together with it the most inner soul forum has been touched. Indeed, getting to know the laws which are full of wisdom of the spiritual world, especially the moral laws, has led me to both the conceptual understanding with much clearness of the issues in discussion, as well as an understanding as a confirmation which comes from the most profound level of the soul. I consider of special importance the dimension of the experience, as it is the sine qua non means of changing or correcting those ‘surface’ attitudes and habits, and of conceptions which can only result from ignorance. This experience which I referred to has, as one can see, an objective dimension – of concepts and ideas – and a subjective one – of soul perceptions. This being said, it is easy to acknowledge the minimum pretentions that a message needs to satisfy, when we talk about an anthroposophical contribution. In the following, I shall discuss the book of Prokofieff in respect to two aspects.
In respect to the aspect of soul experiences, as I can only have a subjective opinion, I shall not insist too much. I can imagine that there can be people for whom reading this book could give a special impression. For me, Anthroposophy and the Philosophy of Freedom is a conglomerate of representations with a strictly informative role. We meet, of course, the great ideas of anthroposophy – Sergei Prokofieff, as we well know, is a remarkable connoisseur of the work of Rudolf Steiner – but they are incarcerated in a schematic warp of thinking proposed by the author.
In regard to the conceptual clearness, about the way in which the author handles terms, notions and ideas, we have several thing to say. Here they are.
”A sevenfold path”
The first chapter starts with the linking of some of the terms in The Philosophy of Freedom with other terms from The Stages of Higher Knowledge (GA12). Once the respective link is made, the author has an open way into freely walking his reader in all anthroposophy, which he really does. It seems that the walk is not at all meaningless for the reader – Prokofieff provides much information which he transmits in a very direct way. Nevertheless, I would like to draw attention to something else: the second phrase of the chapter already takes us to an encounter, and not a pleasant one, with the first semantic side-slip. In GA12, Rudolf Steiner talks about four stages of knowledge, the first one being the knowledge mediated by the sensible world, and the other three levels of supersensible knowledge (imaginative, inspirative, intuitive). Afterwards, he enumerates and details the elements which compose the first level of knowledge: the object, the picture, the concept and the ‘I’. Although Rudolf Steiner names them every time ‘elements’, Prokofieff finds it proper to say the following: “Following this, he [Rudolf Steiner] points out that, properly speaking, the first stage includes four more levels or four factors”. In what follows, Prokofieff refers to the four elements as if they were different levels of knowledge, referring to them all the time as ‘stages’. That in an act of knowledge of the sensible world the interaction of all enumerated elements would be required, and that no level of knowledge of the ‘object’ could be discussed without the knowing subject (the ‘I’) is a self-explanatory thought, but still a secondary one, if the chief aspiration of the author is to align them to his scheme.
And the scheme continues as such: The first ‘stage’, which is the ‘object’, ‘corresponds’ to the term of ‘perception’ in The Philosophy of Freedom; the second, which is the ‘mental picture’, is “also called by Rudolf Steiner ‘individual concept (or idea)’.” Let’s stop for a moment to observe that, while the first claim is just completely futile, the second is, moreover, also inexact. The notion of ‘picture’ in GA12 cannot be assimilated to the notion of representation, in the sense of ‘individual concept’. “Let us imagine, says Steiner, that we see an object with a circular form. Then let us take our eyes from it and keep in mind the picture of the circle. Here we still don’t have the ‘concept’ of the circle. This result only when it’s said: ‘a circle is a geometrical figure by which all points are equally distant from the centre’.”
“As a further elaboration – continues Prokofieff in the same dilettante manner, referring to the Goethean terminology this time – the faculty of the ‘participative power of discernment’ belongs here as well”, as it “unfolds in that region of the soul that lies between outer perception and pure thinking”. Let us see if this is right. Goethe names ‘intuitive power of discernment’ the faculty through which we can understand organic matter (Rudolf Steiner, Goethean Science). Only at this point can we say that we are at another level of knowledge, as the explanatory element – the concept – and the explained element – the perception – are one and the same. This is however nothing else, then the case of pure thinking, and because it is the pure thinking, it cannot stand under any circumstance between itself and something else. To be more clear, we can distinguish between ‘pure thinking’, as a process through which thinking, in general, becomes the object of observation, and ‘intuitive thinking’, where the thinking of the researcher creates (1) and observes a precise thought, which must have an objective reality in the structure of the object of knowledge – the case of the research of the organic world – or a moral idea, on the basis of which one shall act in a particular situation. To put it simple, the thinking of the researcher discovers the thought of God as lively reality, as Idea in the objective world, respectively decides to introduce the Idea in a creative way in the world of perceptions, through moral doing. The Idea is not in any case the result of abstractions based on representations of the sense world, but it is the product of the thinking which contains in itself the force to go beyond the borders of sensitive observable objects.
(1) In order for any idea to be observed, first it needs to be created with one’s own thinking. Even in the case of reading, one must, from the letters of the text, to reproduce myself the ideas asserted by the author.
After passing this obstacle as well, the persevering reader meets the third ‘stage’, of ‘the concept’. Here the author distinguishes between ‘intuitive thinking’ and ‘pure thinking’ and this distinction seems so important to him, that he finds it appropriate to solve it in a footnote at the end of the book. Therefore, in order not to complicate even more a situation which is already tangled, we shall leave it there where it lies, with the confessed hope that no one might take it seriously.
Further, the author writes: “The fourth stage, that of the ‘I’, corresponds to the ‘exceptional state’, as described in The Philosophy of Freedom in which, through the heightened activity of the ‘I’ (an activity that brings forth thinking creatively), perception of the ‘I’ itself can likewise take place. On this stage the ‘I’ is thus the entity that brings forth thinking and observes it.” As this ‘exceptional state’ is nothing else than the state where thinking observes itself and, therefore, “the observed object is of the same nature as the activity which is aimed at it” (GA4, chap. III), it seems obvious that in this place the topic is again the pure thinking.
Then Prokofieff adds to these four ‘stages’ the other three – intuition, inspiration, and imagination, and so, from four elements enumerated by Rudolf Steiner, he makes seven – ‘a sevenfold path’.
As we managed to get here, we cannot suppress a question: is it maybe the mystical weight of the number seven the cause-purpose of this conceptual Babylon?
”The exceptional state”
Unfortunately for the reader, neither the idea of the observation of thinking, layed out in Chapter III of The Philosophy of Freedom (GA4) – which Prokofieff, during the whole book, exasperating calls ‘exceptional state’ –, does not slip away unharmed. Thus, although Rudolf Steiner says, in respect to the situation where one observes the thinking itself that “I can never observe thinking in the moment when it unfolds” (Rudolf Steiner, GA4), on page 9, Prokofieff writes the following: “This is precisely the nature of the exceptional state, where thinking directs its attention upon itself so as to be able to observe its own activity. At this instant, in so doing, the bringing about of this exceptional state and its observation form a unity.” For this assertion – which is evidently in contradiction to the text of Steiner, which, as he confesses in the Epilogue, he intends to make accessible to us – Prokofieff does not have, so far, any explanation. Only on page 33 (?) he resumes the idea and says Rudolf Steiner has referred to the situation on this side of the threshold. “After crossing the threshold however”, Prokofieff ensures us, “one can produce thinking and simultaneously observe it.” This statement, which the author, being very convinced, takes as obvious and does not bother to establish it in any way, comes as an addition to the description made by Steiner, regarding the first spiritual experience of the splitting of personality in the case of the occult disciple.
Therefore, these are the facts. Let’s take them one by one. When referring to the simultaneousness of producing and observing thinking, by saying “This is precisely the nature of the exceptional state”, although Rudolf Steiner denies on many occasion this possibility, Sergei Prokofieff shows an elemental lack of fidelity towards the thinking of the author which he comments. And this lack of fidelity is not at all softened by the ‘amendment’ on page 33. When he places in a hypothetical ‘other side’ the possibility to produce and observe thinking simultaneously, it is clear that it does not relate to what Steiner names, in GA4, ‘exceptional state’.
But the consequences of the confusion which Prokofieff produces around an important idea in The Philosophy of Freedom can only be assessed by someone who participated in study groups. For someone who is in his first excursions into the universe of philosophical writing, and who wriggles because he does not understand much, the idea that it is possible, although not yet, to produce thinking and, simultaneously, to observe it, is like a wooden board for the shipwrecked. What does it matter that somewhere, in the impenetrable thicket of the text, Steiner states that such a thing is not possible? The intention of the author is so far away, that one cannot see it anymore. Although I can never emphasize adequately its importance, I shall cite it here, hoping that it shall not be put aside: “The reason for which we cannot observe thinking in the time when it unfolds is identical with the one who allows us to experience it more direct, more intimate than we could experience any other process in the world” (our emphasis added) – Rudolf Steiner, GA4, chap. III. This must be understood, observed, experienced, felt.
At the end of this discussion, one must add that it is a very plausible hypothesis, that one may find enough people who would support the idea that ‘on the other side of the threshold’, the observation of thinking is possible at the same time when it is being created. In order to support such a statement, that person would need either to find the premises in the work of Rudolf Steiner, or to describe it as a personal experience. In both cases, the probability for it to be true would perhaps increase. But the certainty can only be obtained by personal experience, and, when we are embarking on a path of knowledge, certainty is all that matters most. One can only get gravelled when one sees the easiness with which many people take all kinds of assertions, as certain knowledge.
As the elucidation of the issue in discussion by direct experience is impossible for me at this time – as perhaps it was also the case of the author that I am discussing here (according to his own confession, Prokofieff was not clairvoyant) –, I can however examine how things stand with my present knowing capacities, and that is the sense of any serious study. The observation of thinking can only be done by thinking. I shall thus have observed thinking and observing thinking. But in the moment when it is created, the observed thinking does not exist, otherwise there would not be any creation. So we are left with the observing thinking which, if it turns towards itself, then we would not pertain to a thinking process, but to the perception of the ‘I’. When one perceives oneself in this way as an ‘I’-being, who lives the living process of thinking, one feels different in day-to-day life, when, consciously or not, one identifies with the one’s bodily nature, when one differentiates from one’s sensitive impressions the feeling of one’s individuality. Also, the relation with the world of ideas takes a different quality. Ideas are not anymore abstractions, pale shades which the brute force of sensitive impressions annihilate, sending them towards nothingness; rather now they produce a stronger impression, one feels them and takes them into account.
Metaphysics of the ‘Unconditionality’
Fortunately for us, in the vast contents of his book, Prokofieff does not often meet with philosophy. This is why, from chapter I, we shall jump directly to chapter IX, which has the title “Metaphysical Foundations for the Unconditionality in The Philosophy of Freedom”. If we set aside the title, where the author proposes the far-fetched task of finding in the field of metaphysics the basis for an epistemological undertaking, this chapter is questionable from the first phrase, which states: “The fundamental characteristic of the theory of knowledge presented in The Philosophy of Freedom is its unconditionality. Rudolf Steiner describes and motivates this unconditionality mostly in his book Wahrheit und Wissenschaft (Truth and Knowledge), which he names ‘Prologue to a Philosophy of Freedom’.”
First, it must be said that in The Philosophy of Freedom we are not dealing with a ‘theory’ of knowledge, in the sense in which it is the case in Truth and Knowledge (GA3) or in Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World-Conception (GA2), which are by their form and content works of the theory of knowledge. It is obvious that they are about the same conception on knowledge, only described in different manners. And the essential difference is emphasized by the author in the subtitle of The Philosophy of Freedom: “Some results of introspective observation following the methods of natural science”. Therefore, the cognitive itinerary which Steiner proposes here, has at its base the mental observation, as the first words of chapter III, where he practically begins the research of the nature of knowledge, are: “When I observe how a billiard ball…”. On the other side, in GA3, the author starts from the status of the theory of knowledge as a fundamental philosophical discipline, and in GA2 from specific issues of this discipline, such as „establishing the concept out of experience”. Therefore, the difference between these works and The Philosophy of Freedom is similar to the one between the theory of scientific knowledge (epistemology) and the actual implementation of the scientific methods of knowledge in a particular field of research. I say ‘similar to’, as in essence it is the same conception of knowledge, but the path to it is somewhat different. Hence, the mental observation is the defining element of the conception presented in GA4, and not the ‘unconditionality’, which is specific to a purely theoretical approach.
Let us now briefly clarify the issue of the ‘unconditionality’. As a discipline meant to answer, among other things, the question: ‘what is knowledge?’, epistemology must realize this endeavour without starting from preliminary knowledge or premises, as these are in the end already results of some ways of cognition, which would therefore contain elements whose nature I do not yet know, that I just started to determine. Moreover, any knowledge base contains theoretical assumptions, hidden circumstances which can influence the results of the research, which justifies once more the pretention of the unconditionality which a true research of the nature of knowledge must fulfil. These issues, related by Steiner in GA3, are generally accepted, only that the main epistemological systems contain, at their starting points, hidden premises which bias the results.
This being said, let us come back to what Prokofieff proposes, namely, an incursion in metaphysics. Simply expressed, he wants to show us no less than the fact that every element of the structure of the act of knowledge, as it is described in GA3, corresponds, on a macrocosmic scale, to a step in the process of formation of the Holy Trinity from primordial Absolute. For this purpose, the author needs again the scheme of the structure of an act of knowledge, but, in comparison to the first chapter, where from four elements he needed to produce four stages, in order to come to the noble sevenfold path, this time, from four as they are, he needs to make three, in order to associate them with the Holy Trinity. The procedure deserves a closer look.
First, the reader finds in front of his eyes a passage from GA3 which states this: “Both outer and inner perceptions, as well as its own presence are given directly to the ‘I’, which is the centre of consciousness. The ‘I’ feels a need to discover more in the given than is directly contained in it. In contrast to the given world, a second world — the world of thinking — rises up to meet the ‘I’ and the ‘I’ unites the two through its own free decision, producing what we have defined as the idea of knowledge.” Although in the text we find four elements of knowledge: the ‘I’, the perception, the thinking, and the unity of perception and thinking, Prokofieff tells us that we must distinguish only three: “In what was said we must clearly distinguish three stages or three elements of knowledge.” And he gets rid of the ‘I’ from the scheme, but, as we shall see, he keeps with iron will the semantic equivalence of ‘stage’ and ‘element’, a sign that it is hard to part from the artifice which helped him develop his first scheme.
“If we want – writes Prokofieff further – to seek the absolute unconditionality in the creation of the world, we must return to the Foundation of the world which precedes all things, and that is called in old religions the ‘Absolute’. Only this absolute Divinity, and as such, before it appeared as Trinity, finds itself in the state where nothing precedes it. This original state is at the same time the absolute unconditionality.”
The first correspondence proposed by the author sounds therefore this way: Steiner’s theory of knowledge is unconditional – the Foundation of the world in unconditional. But, if we eliminate the lexical ambiguity introduced by the word “condition”, we shall see that we are in front of two different things. When one says, “the conditions of a flu epidemics have emerged”, it’s clear that one is not referring to the emergence of statements which express the knowledge that will favour the spreading of the nasty virus, but to the causes of the real world: the coming of the cold season, the lack of immunity of the organism etc. While the theoretical endeavour specific to the theory of knowledge is not founded on preliminary knowledge (premises), the original Foundation is uncaused, unpreceded by anything, is the primary cause of the entire world. Here Prokofieff either confuses the field of knowledge with that of existence, or, best case scenario, wants to suggest that there is no difference between them, when it comes to getting from micro- to macrocosm; or finds himself on the position of idealist philosophy, and believes the principle of the world is of the nature of ideas, and the phenomena of the world, in their succession, can be known as transitions from premises to conclusions, while the relations between them are of logical consequence and not in the form of cause and effect.
Simply put, the purpose of Prokofieff is to show that the unity of perception and concept in an act of knowledge corresponds at macrocosmic level, but in the field of existence, with the emergence of the Trinity from the Absolute. The world of perceptions corresponds to the Father, the thinking to the Son, and the unity of perception and thinking to the Holy Spirit. The argumentative means are – to express it euphemistically – arguable. For instance, he forces the adjacency of the ‘world which is directly given’ (the world of pure perception) – which, nota bene, is a state of things hypothetically conceived (2) – and the Absolute, understood as the original state of the Divinity, on the premise that in both these cases we cannot make judgments in knowledge. Only that in the first case the ‘world which is directly given’ as state of things precedes any knowledge, precisely because it is pure perception it cannot constitute, truthfully, a reality; while in the second, on the contrary, we are dealing with the ultimate reality, with the absolute being, for which any determination through an idea would be a constraint.
(2) “… man never encounters this world-picture in this form at any time in his life; he never experiences a division between a purely passive awareness of the “directly-given” (Rudolf Steiner, GA3).
The path of ‘instinct’ and the path of ‘motivation’
In chapter XII, we deal with a mainly esoteric interpretation of some passages from chapter IX of GA4. As we know, in chapter IX of The Philosophy of Freedom, the author discusses the determining elements of an act of will: the motive and the driving force. While the motive is the momentary conceptual factor, the driving force belongs to the characterological structure of the individual with its levels: instinctive, emotional and cognitive. A representation or idea will become motive of an action to the extent in which what it proposes will find the corresponding inclination, in the way the respective individual generally feels and thinks. And Rudolf Steiner enumerates in this chapter all types of driving forces and motives. If we understand the structure of an act of will, we will understand that for every deed one choses to do, one would always have a motive and a driving force. In a surprising way, Prokofieff states here that: “Rudolf Steiner describes two interconnected paths for the attainment of freedom” (p. 138) – “the realm of human instincts” and “the realm of motivations.” Let’s follow.
The first category of driving forces metioned in GA4 belongs to the instinctive realm. Here the perceptions – like hunger – determine the will directly, without the intervention of the concept or the feeling. Thus, Steiner states “The satisfaction of our lower, purely animal needs (hunger, sexual intercourse, etc.) comes about in this way.” At this point, the exegesis of Prokofieff hits us in this way: “If one asks from where human beings, who stand on this lowest level of development, bring along such a characterological disposition, the spiritual-scientific reply is that prior to their birth they were above all influenced by the lowest regions of the soul world (Kamaloka)” (pp. 138-139). Did Sergei Prokofieff address these lines to the holy angels? Or to us, mortals who are on the lowest stage of evolution because, to our shame, we are still used to sit before a dish?
Again in the category of driving forces which are perceptions, continues Rudolf Steiner, belong certain “percepts of the higher senses (our emphasis added). We may react to the percept of a certain event in the external world without reflecting on what we do, without any special feeling connecting itself with the percept, as in fact happens in our conventional social behaviour. The driving force of such action is called tact or moral good taste.” For instance, courtesy formulas, through the fact that they repeat at every meeting with different people, develop into automatisms.
Let’s follow now the interpretation of this passage in the light of prokofieffian esoteric knowledge and with the aid of diagonal reading.
“These to begin with ‘purely animalistic needs’ can, however, appear on the first stage in altered form which already here belong to the general level of civilized humanity. Rudolf Steiner calls such higher driving forces of action ‘tact or moral taste’. A human being who brings along these faculties of his characterological disposition into earth-life was connected prior to birth above all with the upper regions of the soul world…” (p. 139). So, dear reader, if you sit before a dish not because you’re hungry, but because of moral taste, you may have a chance: you are part of the ‘general level of civilized humanity’!
Hereafter, Prokofieff argues or, better said, claims that these two paths – of the ‘instinct’ and of the motive – are the paths of Buddha, and, respectively, Zarathustra, but also the paths followed by the Southern Mysteries, and, respectively, by Northern Mysteries, paths which Rudolf Steiner unites in his conceptual intuition on the level of knowledge, as Christ united them as a being. Now everything becomes clear. As in the case of the previously discussed schemes, the author needs to operate semantically on the terms in order to make them fit in his project. Now he makes out of two elements of the act of will, two paths of evolution. To what absurd outcome his endeavour leads, we have already seen.
Instead of conclusions
We cannot handle here all argumentation errors which the author makes in the contents of the entire book. On the other side, it would not be fair to draw conclusions about the value of his writing, from these lines which concentrated on failed aspects of his discourse. Furthermore, I am no connoisseur of the work of Sergei Prokofieff. Still, I think that through the book Anthroposophy and The Philosophy of Freedom, he excludes himself from the list of authors who we may allow ourselves to read anymore. Who affords the luxury to verify on each page if he paraphrased correctly, if he interprets justly, if he makes valid inferences, when it is easier and more efficient to read directly Rudolf Steiner?
Again as a consequence of the observations made here, the hypothesis that the author Sergei O. Prokofieff has proceeded in the same superficial way – by describing in a distorted way also on other occasions the results of the research work carried out by Rudolf Steiner – becomes very plausible.
Finally, we should not forget the ones who were part of the spiritual-cultural environment of the author, the ones who promoted him instead of having a critical attitude towards some aspects of his message. In this sense, to me it seems very appropriate what Irina Gordienko says in the introduction of her book Sergei O. Prokofieff: Myth and Reality, as a reply to the formula of Herbert Wimbauer, in which Prokofieff appears as an exponent of ‘this Eastern, Russian Theosophical mysticism’: “…we would like to affirm that in this particular case neither the East nor Russia itself is to blame, as the Prokofieff phenomenon with its significance as ‘science’ and for the ‘Society’ is a pure product of the West and only of the West. It is there that he was cherished and – with every possible means – supported. His ‘fame’ was – to our great misfortune – reimported into Russia. This fact cannot be challenged.” (http://www.lochmann-verlag.com/Authors%20Foreword.pdf)
As an ending, I wish to express my gratitude towards the work of Sergei Prokokofieff. Through the imprecise manner in which he raised certain issues, it stimulated me to think them more seriously, than I would otherwise have done.