The following text was originally published in Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol.XXIV, no. 3/4, 1994, p. 555-572. ©UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2000 This document may be reproduced free of charge as long as acknowledgement is made of the source.
A neo-romantic thinker and reformer
Rudolf Steiner’s reforming ideas still have an exceptionally strong, practical impact today in many spheres, especially in education, medicine, agriculture and the pictorial arts. On the other hand, his theoretical scientific and philosophical writings have so far met with little interest and still less acceptance in academic circles. When his thinking does attract attention it becomes the subject of passionate controversy. Uncritical identification by his followers contrasts with polemic and sweeping criticism by the representatives of academic research. There seems to be no golden mean in the appraisal of Steiner’s conceptual world.
One reason resides in the extraordinary variety and scale of his literary and rhetorical output.3 His often strange and esoteric diction places practically insurmountable obstacles in the path of scientific and philosophical analysis. What is more, few critical biographies have been written about Steiner as yet. Attempts to do so tend to resemble more the nature of hagiography.4 To avoid diminishing Steiner’s prestige, these works gloss over his frequent borrowings from other writers as well as any mediocre traits of his own character, and attempt to create harmony out of the evident discontinuity of his life’s work. In this article, we shall confine ourselves to a brief consideration of the established facts about his life and the readily understandable concepts of his approach to the problem of education.
Rudolf Steiner was born on 25 February 1861 in Kraljevec (Croatia), the son of an Austrian railway official. After attending the higher secondary school (without Latin and Greek), he went on to study mathematics, natural history and chemistry at the Technical University in Vienna between 1879 and 1883 with the intention of becoming a grammar-school teacher. However, he failed to complete his course of study and preferred to devote himself to the pursuit of his literary and philosophical interests. After his scholarship had run out, he earned his living between 1884 and 1890 as a house tutor and educator of the handicapped child of a prosperous Jewish bourgeois family in Vienna.
As a self-taught dilettante in philosophy, and acting on the recommendation of Schroer, his university teacher of literature and his spiritual mentor, he embarked upon a critical edition of the natural scientific writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in the years between 1882 and 1897. From 1890 onwards, he worked as an unpaid assistant in the Goethe and Schiller Archives in Weimar (Germany). His endeavors to define a systematic philosophical basis for Goethe’s objective, but at the same time idealistic, mode of thought led on to Steiner’s early writings, including his main work, the Philosophie der Freiheit (1894) [Philosophy of Freedom]. A preliminary study for that work (subsequently) entitled Wahrheit und Wissenschaft [Truth and Science] enabled Steiner to graduate as a doctor of philosophy in 1891 as an external student of Rostock University (Germany). After completing these publications, Steiner moved to Berlin in 1897. As an editor, author, orator and teacher, he gravitated round the avant-garde literary Bohemia, the workers movement and the reforming religious thinkers. In 1900, Steiner delivered a series of lectures in the occultist Theosophical Library where he also met Marie von Sivers, who was later to become his second wife.
From 1902 to 1913, he served as general secretary of the German section of the Theosophical Society, which was represented internationally by Annie Besant. As the leader of a movement of spiritual renewal,