Archipelagos of the Future

The gap between thought and action has grown wide. The crises in the world arise from this rupture. We know so much, and yet we do not act. Do we need a new theory of science, a new cognitive foundation? Perspectives of an epistemological revolution.1

It’s obvious that unconscious action can be neither free nor responsible—yet the absence of freedom and responsibility pervades our actions. It’s only slowly coming to awareness that inactive thinking is humane—and the longing for creative, world-related thinking is growing, as is skepticism towards rationality and abstraction.

The relationship between thought and action seems to decide whether rules and norms determine human action or whether the humanity of the individual determines ethics. Does the shaping of this relationship decide our way of being-in-the-world? Does this relationship define the quality of ethical individualism, the reality or unreality of a Philosophy of Freedom?

The Trail of Life

“The trail of life is not laid by what is identical, but by what differs. Sameness produces nothing.”2 With these words Édouard Glissant formulates one of the nuclei of the revolution we have found ourselves in for some time. Glissant, along with some contemporary thinkers and artists, plays an essential role in postcolonial identity formation. Born in 1928 in the French-speaking Caribbean, he studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne and became known early on in circles of innovative and culturally critical thought in the second half of the twentieth century. Soon, referring to his origins—the ensemble of Caribbean islands—he calls himself a philosopher of the archipelago and his thinking archipelagic.

This archipelagic thinking sees itself in contrast to continental thinking. A continent is joined together as a great land mass. Hegel is probably one of the most unambiguous ‘continental thinkers’ in this sense. In a self-contained and coherent system of more or less complex parts, something is obtained that claims coherent, argumentative validity and ultimately represents the (only) valid method of hegemonic knowledge. Something that cannot be passed by or escaped from.

Systems thinking is the opposite of archipelagic thinking. Glissant also describes the latter as thinking of the quake, the odyssey, of unpredictability. Where systems thinking relies on conviction, archipelagic thinking counts on resonance, on echoes in the world of sensation, in nature, in inspiration; where the former seeks unity, the latter rejoices in unpredictable diversity. Where thinking becomes archipelagic and one argument no longer seeks to dominate the other, it is not logic that is lost but familiar certainty—only the consistency of thinking itself remains. That is dangerous, in the first instance, or risky at the very least, and in any event uncomfortable.

Édouard Glissant is considered one of the most influential postmodern and decolonising thinkers. This school of thought intensified in the course of the second half of the twentieth century as a reaction to the imperialising thinking of the European tradition of rational enlightenment and has been a growing current since the 1980s and 1990s, first in the field of cultural and art criticism, then increasingly in the reflection on and political resistance to capitalism and economic liberalism.

What seems to me particularly felicitous in Glissant’s work is his discovery that intuition and perception come from the same source. Against the backdrop of his thinking, I had the impression that Rudolf Steiner, in the midst of the most brutal European imperialism, actually laid out a postcolonial way of thinking even before there was a postcolonial development and developed an initially hardly comprehensible but effective practice from it. There was, of course, no postcolonialism between 1861 and 1925, the lifetime of Rudolf Steiner. Even after that, no recipient of Rudolf Steiner would ever have thought of him as a postcolonial thinker. However, identifying the postcolonial elements in Rudolf Steiner’s thinking may possibly be relevant for anthroposophically oriented spiritual science, at least for its connectivity to a contemporary discourse—and probably more appropriate than endlessly-repeated suspicions of racism or nationalism.

A Philosophy of Relation

When I came across Glissant’s last work—a summary of his observations and ideas appearing under the exciting title Philosophie de la Relation (Philosophy of Relation) two years before his death in 2011—it became clear to me that Rudolf Steiner also wrote a philosophy of relation, aptly calling it a Philosophy of Freedom in the tradition of his time; he might equally well have said “anthropology of freedom.” Not that Glissant wants to say the same thing as Steiner or vice versa—but they do seem to have in common an affirmation of the world that emanates from thinking, or more precisely: from a perception-oriented transformation of thought. And a ‘philosophy of relation’ is, after all, a bit of an oxymoron. Because actually philosophy is precisely not in the midst of the world, but steps outside it, thinks outside the world, about the world. This enables it to clarify and explain things in the world. That is its real task and the task of all intellectuals and people who reflect on things. Those who act—politicians—on the other hand, should be guided by this, but above all they should do things. In any case, with Plato, at the beginning of Western thought, philosophy and politics appeared as the two great opposites. Thought and action—the truly different. Does their merging lay the trail of life?

Zvi Szir, ‹The unmeasurable distance to an island Close by 2022›, 110 × 80 cm, oil on canvas

What would happen if thinking actually determined action? According to Steiner, this would give rise to freedom, to action out of cognition. What is an action similar to which is still an action, and yet arises from the quality of thinking? What is thinking similar to, which remains thinking but arises from the quality of action? In his aesthetic letters, Friedrich Schiller excludes the possibility of action completely taking on the quality of thinking while acting; and he considers it equally impossible for thinking to completely take on the quality of action while thinking.3 Because then thinking would no longer be thinking and acting would no longer be acting. But he continues: something new emerges that is neither one nor the other and yet both. That is hard to think about and even harder to do. That it happens nevertheless—and Schiller, Steiner and Glissant agree on this—comes from something that is not identical with either of them, but different from both. This is the human will. It lies on the far side cognition and on this side of action.

An Intangible Something

The will lives in a space of indeterminacy. But it is the thing determining. Hannah Arendt discovers in this centre of human existence, of human possibility, which can be grasped neither in cognition nor in action, the power of overcoming or transforming evil. Her ethics are based in this will. For her, evil does not exist as a great, sinister power but only as a series of judgments made with little consciousness and as a series of small decisions, but above all as a lack of judgement and weakness in decision-making which in their sum, under certain circumstances, result in something very evil. Her notion of the ‘banality of evil’ was initially as controversial as it is familiar today. When she discovered during the Eichmann trial in 1961 that we all have the freedom to decide one way or another at any time, she became an ‘archipelago thinker’. She no longer forms continents: systems that draw up universally valid guidelines for good and evil that apply to all people. Her ethic, that is, the distinction between good and evil, is conceived like an archipelago; she counts on the creative individual who, depending on their situation in life, is capable of reflection and action, that is, is fully ethically responsible even if they cannot determine the consequences of their actions in advance.4

So there is something in me that has a determining effect in the indeterminate, which I cannot recognise to its full extent, which reveals itself in my actions, but is not this something. It remains intangible. This is what archipelagic or intuitive thinking is all about.

The Epistemological Revolution

In no era have we known as much as we do today. And knowledge grows exponentially as a result of the Cartesian, the ‘continental’ power of thought. At the same time, and at the latest since 1972, we know that this way of thinking has limits.5 The ‘limits to growth’ refer to our ways of acting, but also to the thinking that guides that action. Today we know that many of our profit- and knowledge-based actions lead to disasters. Our actions no longer correspond to our knowledge, although this knowledge has come about in the same way as the catastrophic consequences of the actions. Something is breaking open between thinking and acting. It is the same predetermined breaking point where the origin of freedom lies – and where postcolonial thought begins. If we could only act as we think and only think as we act, freedom would be unthinkable and impossible. Without the dangerous distinction between thought and action, there is no freedom. This difference becomes manageable when we question and examine our own thinking.

Epistemology is the study of how substantiated knowledge comes about. Where cognition wants to know itself, we are epistemologically underway, questioning the activity of the thinking, thus are active in the thinking with the will, with the aim of examining its correspondence with itself and the world. In other words, we also refer here to hermeneutics, to the understanding of understanding. We can still quite easily be aware that cognition and what is cognised never actually correspond one to one. We know that the activity of cognition is always different from that which is to be cognised. And we suspect that the greatest challenge for the thinking consists in the cognition of cognition, that is, in epistemology, because that is where the activity and the object of cognition are identical. In this respect, we are living in an epistemological crisis today. It is probably the most existential and the most dangerous.

Of course we need campaigns, indeed popular movements for peace and against war, for ecologically responsible ways of life, against environmental destruction, exploitation and so on. With the same urgency—only it is more difficult to understand and even more difficult to implement—we need a movement for a thinking that knows itself, that corresponds to the trail of life; a school for a science of the spirit whose task is to stimulate and carry out an epistemological revolution. In its intention, such a school has existed for almost a century. The core element of this school has been published since 1893: to conceive of thinking itself as a phenomenon accessible to experience like all other phenomena; thinking belongs to the world of observable phenomena.

It was a revolutionary innovation when Rudolf Steiner proposed this in his Philosophy of Freedom even before the age of phenomenology and implemented it himself persistently and soon imaginatively. At the latest since postcolonial thinking, it has been one of the elementary tools to question how we understand the origins and consequences of our cultural, ecological and social catastrophes in such a way that we recognise ourselves as parts of the world, not as uninvolved subjects in a world of objects, but as causative subjects in a world of other beings. Thus the core of the epistemological revolution would be the question of the relationship between intuition (that which comes to me internally via the capacity for ideas) and perception (that which comes to me externally via sense perception). And what if they came from the same origin?

Capacity for Intuition and the Situations of Life

“People vary with regard to their capacity for intuition. One person’s ideas bubble up. The other acquires them laboriously. The situations in which people live and which provide the setting for their actions are no less different.”6 The capacity for intuition and the situations of life are as different as people are from each other, because no two people are alike in this respect; however, every person certainly has intuitions and circumstances in life, but they never combine them in the same way.

Zvi Szir, ‹El Dorado is an island›, 132 × 112 cm, oil on canvas, 2022

Rudolf Steiner calls this simple ‘observational result in accordance with scientific method’ “ethical individualism”. Ethical individualism means that I am aware that I am capable of ideas and that everything that happens acquires a relation in me that has consequences. This can be verbalised, expressed through sentiment or action, but it is of an ideational nature. If I deal with ideas a lot, because I am one of those in whom ideas just bubble up, everything will possess a certain complexity. If I am one of those who have to struggle laboriously to achieve every single idea, everything will be less complex. But the situations of life will always be without comparison and unique, their inexhaustible diversity.

Here, at the latest, Rudolf Steiner begins to become a postcolonial thinker. “The trail of life is not laid by what is identical, but by what is different.” And he also suggests intensifying and individualising this diversity through attentiveness, observation, and engagement—the capacity for ideas as well as sensory perception.

He proposes strengthening the capacity for ideas through meditation in such a way that, from their resonant effect, the situations of life increasingly gain an order that corresponds to the ordering of spiritual relationships—without, for example, the idea ruling over perception, or the concept over life. Such meditation7 is not designed to diminish or indeed to lose the relatedness with the world. On the contrary, it in turn strengthens the relatedness with perception, so that I notice: If perception is not reciprocal, if I look at nature in such a way that it can no longer look at me, I look into the sensory world as an alien. And the alien gaze, which can only see the utility of nature, destroys it. In the face of a nature that is increasingly destroyed, there is a growing call for a mindful connection with the world that encounters us, with the world that we perceive – and many feel this more and more strongly today; we say and hear it again and again, not only from those who will have to live with the consequences of an abstractly dominated world in the future.

In the late 1970s, Hans Jonas formulated an ethic of ecological consciousness based on this insight: “Act in such a manner that the effects of your actions are compatible with the permanence of true human life on earth.”8 So even before the actual start of the ecological movement, it was clear that the climate crisis was preceded by a crisis of consciousness—and thus also that the climate crisis naturally calls for ecological measures, but even more for a change in consciousness. And this seems to begin today not necessarily in ideation, but rather in perception.

The situations of life may now speak more perceptibly, more audibly, and more visibly than intuitions. They speak a language that does not correspond with the ideas, with the narrative, or with our interpretation of the life lived. But when experience (perception) and narrative (intuition, interpretation, discourse, etc.) come together and harmonise, a spiritual contour of existence arises that is realised in this moment of life, a spiritual signature that is not pre-determined by one’s concepts. In other words, morality arises—or more precisely: aesthetic experience. Experience and intuition come together at every moment in a way that is fit for the world, in which their union shows itself as a trail of life that generates itself out of the world’s variety. This trail is probably never predictable, but always beautiful.

Birth of Individual Morality

In one of the most beautiful passages of his Philosophie de la Relation, Édouard Glissant describes this consciousness that creates relationship with the world: “Relationship with the world does not prescribe morality; it is up to us alone, in a frighteningly autonomous effort of consciousness and our conceptions of the world, to bring morality into it. Moral behavior has a hard time because it can no longer be guided by what we have told ourselves in stories, but is supposed to emerge directly from the aesthetics (the undistorted or imaginary view) of a world that we experience collectively, directly and, furthermore, mostly as chaos. What we do not know of the world forms the very part that we as individuals must infer from our moral and political knowledge, and yet only the action that follows from this will survive of us in the end.”9

The world was morality-free—human beings were those beings who bring morality into it. It was entirely up to us to act in an “autonomous effort of consciousness” and no longer according to what we once told ourselves in stories, entirely on the basis of an aesthetic (“undistorted, imaginary view”) that pushes us towards ethics, that is, on the basis of the immediate perception of an interrelationship with the world! In short, when I see you now, the morality that applies between us arises now and in this situation. The vision of the intuitively awake person applies. That is what Glissant would suggest? This gives rise to a world that we experience together, directly and mostly as chaos, because it is initially morality-free, but does not remain so.

Isn’t that exactly where we are today? With regard to suffering and longing? And is it not so, that only an action that follows from this will be valid? What counts in the end is not motivation, but the consequences of my actions. I cannot know beforehand whether my action is good or evil. Steiner: “I do not examine intellectually whether my action is good or evil; I do it because I love it. It becomes ‘good’ when my intuition, immersed in love, stands in the right way within the world context to be experienced intuitively; ‘evil’ when that is not the case.”10

Zvi Szir, ‹Islanding (Is it an actual verb?)›, 61 × 46 cm, gouache on paper, 2022

Glissant comes to this insight as follows: “The essential solitude in artistic expression, as in ethical decision-making, throws light on the responsibility imposed on every community, but also and above all on every individual in their society or in the totality of the world. The more the fabric of world relation becomes visible and effective, expanding as far as taking into account all the differences in the world without neglecting a single one, the greater the space of freedom for the individual becomes. And the more compellingly this responsibility imposes itself on them.”11

That is a quite magical thought that functions in a dichotomy and is captured by Glissant in a new image. What happens here is what Schiller discovers as a unique, human aesthetic capacity, that we are capable of creating something impossible, something completely new. All my previous ideas of freedom and responsibility are replaced by the essential loneliness of every ethical decision, because I cannot or do not want any longer to imitate anything. And the more visible and effective the fabric of my world relation becomes, the greater the space of freedom becomes—and I bear full responsibility. This would be the proposal of an epistemological revolution or an epistemological life, a life of cognition that shuns reflection insofar as it is alien to action. We can also call this revolution an aesthetic one in the sense of Schiller and Glissant: “Aesthetics as a living, non-normative way of looking at things, which follows the trail of those places where diversities confront and actively coordinate with each other.”12 The connection between thinking and activity, between thinking that becomes active, and a self-determined activity, is the starting point and consequence of the epistemological or aesthetic revolution.

Human Becomes Ethical

But that does not happen by itself. I cannot make this connection automatically, that is, without will. No one can do it for me, and I cannot delegate it. But I can notice immediately when it takes place in someone or in myself. The resonance that then results has to do with an archipelagic relationship with the world. Hannah Arendt formulated a perhaps related revolutionary turn in 1965 to the question of what is wrong and what is right: “I tried to show that our decisions about right and wrong will depend on the company we choose to keep. On the choice of those with whom we wish to spend our lives.”13 Up to this point, it was necessary and fortunate that ethics determined people’s actions; as of this moment, it will increasingly be the case that individuals determine ethics. There is a reversal. The first act in this rebirth, according to Hannah Arendt, is that I decide with whom I want to share my life. She certainly doesn’t mean marriage counseling here, but whom I work with, whom I connect with, whom I relate to. I have to decide from my capacity of intuition in my situation in life—from this arises a morality of world relation.

In Rudolf Steiner’s later work, this insight seems to have been implicit, in contrast to his early philosophy of freedom with its impressive, almost prophetic emphasis on perception and the experience of art: “Essentially, the behaviour of the artistic creator and the person enjoying art in the past age was a kind of external viewing, an appeal to that which can approach the artist from the outside. The dependence of external observation on nature and on the model has become greater and greater. It is not intended to point in a one-sided way to an abandonment of nature, to an abandonment of external reality in the art of the future. On the contrary, the intention is to point to an even more intensive togetherness with the outer world, to such a strong togetherness that it does not merely extend to the outer impression of the colour, the tone or the form, but to that which can be experienced behind the tone, behind the colour, behind the forms, in the tone, in the colour, in the forms, which reveals itself in colour, tone and form. Human souls will make significant discoveries in this respect in the future. They will truly combine their moral and spiritual being with that which sensory appearance brings us. An infinite deepening of the human soul can be foreseen in this field.”14

So: “The trail of life is not laid by what is identical, but by what is different.” And: “They will truly combine their moral and spiritual being with that which sensory appearance brings us.”

Each and everyone will connect what differs differently. Therein lies freedom and responsibility in equal measure. Such joining of opposites establishes a new being-in-the-world, not a stepping-out-of-the-world. We might call this coming into being an ‘archipelagic being-in-the-world,’ for archipelagos emerge from islands that draw near to each other. Then there are groups of islands that have a certain climate, a certain vegetation, a certain flora and fauna, certain possibilities. Some things will be possible here and others not. On other islands, in other archipelagos, it will be different.

This diversity exists in the spirit. We have destroyed the diversity in nature on the ‘continental’ path to an archipelagic consciousness. We are at exactly this dangerous point in the question of freedom and responsibility, where one consciousness could turn into the other. The diversity of the spirit in the world can cushion the dying diversity of nature, but not take its place. For the diversity of the spirit has one condition. It is the human being’s freedom in which they discover their responsibility. The shortest version of this ethical individualism was written by Rudolf Steiner in 1918, when he went through his Philosophy of Freedom one last time, after the First World War, after the European catastrophe, after the beginning of the end of imperialism which then nevertheless still reached so far and so devastatingly into the twentieth century: “We must be able to face the idea in our experience; otherwise we become its slave.”15

Translation Christian von Arnim
Title image Zvi Szir, ‹Island with three Blue Trees›, 120 × 80 cm, oil on canvas, 2022

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  1. Based on a lecture in the Goetheanum Leadership series ‘Responsibility of Freedom’ on March 13, 2023 entitled ‘Freedom as Ethical Individualism – a Bridge between Thought and Action?
  2. Édouard Glissant, Das archipelische Denken, quoted from SZ, October 22, 2007; the formulation is related to more extensive observations and reflections that he compiled in his Philosophie de la Relation in 2009; In 2021, the work was published in Heidelberg in German as Philosophie der Weltbeziehung in a translation by Beate Thill.
  3. Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letters 16–19.
  4. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 2006; Über das Böse, 1965. Susan Neiman, Heimisch bleiben in einer Welt nach Auschwitz, 2016.
  5. Club of Rome (Dennis Meadows), The Limits to Growth, 1972.
  6. Rudolf Steiner, The Philosophy of Freedom, Chapter 9, The Idea of Freedom, CW 4.
  7. Rudolf Steiner, Trust in Thinking. The Nature of the Thinking Soul, in: A Way of Self-Knowledge and The Threshold of the Spiritual World, CW 16–17.
  8. Hans Jonas, Prinzip Verantwortung, 1979.
  9. Edouard Glissant, Philosophie der Weltbeziehung, p. 61 f.
  10. Rudolf Steiner, The Philosophy of Freedom, Chapter 9, CW 4.
  11. Edouard Glissant, Philosophie der Weltbeziehung, p. 62.
  12. Edouard Glissant, Philosophie der Weltbeziehung, p. 61.
  13. Hannah Arendt, Über das Böse, 1965/2003, p. 149.
  14. Rudolf Steiner, Art as Seen in the Light of Mystery Wisdom, lecture in Dornach, January 1, 1915, CW 275.
  15. Rudolf Steiner, The Philosophy of Freedom, Appendix 2, CW 4.

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