Is Anthroposophy a Science? Examining Rudolf Steiner’s Claims

by Sven Ove Hansson, Uppsala

[Conceptus XXV (1991), No. 64, pp. 37-49. Reproduced by permission of the author.]


Anthroposophy is one of the most successful occult movements in Europe. In this paper, its claim to be a science is examined. Two criteria are used that have both been accepted by the founder of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner: (1) intersubjectivity, and (2) confirmation by empirical science. Neither of these criteria is satisfied. The claims that anthroposophy is a science are not justified.

Anthroposophy, originally an outgrowth of theosophy, is one of the most successful occult movements in Northern and Central Europe. New adherents axe attracted by its Waldorf schools, its herb medicines and its pesticide-free agriculture. However, anthroposophy is more than a collection of social movements. Its adherents claim that it is a science. The strength and influence of the anthroposophical movement is reason enough to examine the claim that anthroposophy is a science. Another reason is that precise and authoritative statements of its epistemology are available, so that anthroposophy is more accessible to philosophical analysis than are most other movements with related aims and methods.

1. The anthroposophical road to knowledge

Anthroposophy is a doctrine about hidden, spiritual realities. It is almost entirely based on the teachings of its founder, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Steiner’s pronouncements are in practice never questioned in the anthroposophical movement, and very little of substance has been added to the doctrine after his death. It is in his writings that the (esoteric) epistemology of anthroposophy can be found. [1]

Steiner emphasized that he was doing “science” [Wissenschaft]. He interchangeably called his undertaking “occult science” [Geheimwissenschaft], “Divine Science” [göttliche Wissenschaft] and – most commonly – “spiritual science” [Geisteswissenschaft].[2] Spiritual science “would speak of the non-sensible in the same spirit in which Natural Science speaks of the sensible”.[3] It works by developing in the individual an ability to see directly into spiritual reality (“clairvoyance” [Hellsehen]). The process of acquiring this ability is called “initiation” [Einweihung].[4] Steiner has provided fairly detailed guidelines for the first stages of the initiation process. Some individuals have, according to Steiner, a personality that facilitates the development of clairvoyance.

“There are children who look up with reverent awe [heilige Scheu] to certain venerated persons. Their reverence for these people forbids them, even in the deepest depths of their hearts, to admit any thought of criticism or opposition… Many occult pupils [Geheimschüler] come from the ranks of such children.”[5]

If a disciple has not been born with this attitude, it is necessary that he “undertakes by rigorous self-education to engender within himself this attitude of devotion”. The reason for this is that “every criticism, every adverse judgment passed, dispels the powers of the soul for the attainment of higher knowledge, just as reverent veneration develops these powers”.[6]

When the disciple has got rid of his critical attitudes, the next step is to perform daily meditations. One of the meditations described by Steiner is to look at a seed and try to see, with an inner eye, how it grows into a plant. Gradually, this will lead to an ability to see the potential plant within the seed.[7]

For the clairvoyant ability to develop, the disciple must continuously restrain any inner tendency to analyze or criticize. “By such intellectualising [Verstandesarbeit] he merely diverts himself from the right path. He should look out on the world with fresh, healthy senses and a keen power of observation, and give himself up to his feelings.”[8] Or, in other words:

“We must say to ourselves: our thinking ceases, and our head becomes the scene of the influence [Wirken] of the higher hierarchies.” [9]

When he has acquired knowledge in this way, the clairvoyant “will in doing so have experienced the proof, and nothing more can be achieved by any added proof from outside”. [10]

The successful clairvoyant will experience dramatic mental changes. Previously, his consciousness was “continually interrupted by the periods of sleep”.[11] Not so any longer. “His dreams, hitherto confused and haphazard, now begin to assume a more regular character. Their pictures begin to arrange themselves in an orderly way, like the thoughts and ideas of daily life.”[12]

The clairvoyant will gain access to knowledge that is unavailable to the uninitiated. As one example, he will transcend the limits of historical science, and sense “past events in their eternal character”.[13] In particular, he will be able to read the so-called Akasha chronicle. This is not a chronicle in the ordinary sense of a historical text. Instead, it consists in the supersensual traces of past events.

“Those who are initiated into the reading of such a living script, will be able to look back into a much more distant past than what is related by external history [åussere Geschichte]; and they are also able – through immediate spiritual perception [unmittelbare geistige Wahrnehmung] – to give a much more reliable account of the subject-matter of this history than what it is itself capable of.”[14]

Steiner was a frequent reader of the Akasha chronicle. Significant portions of his voluminous writings consist of exhaustive accounts of historical events. He provided details about Atlantis and other lost civilizations. He corrected the Gospels, revealed the secrets of ancient Egyptian priests, etc. All this he had learnt from the Akasha chronicle.

Steiner also taught many other branches of knowledge, such as agriculture, medicine and education. His source of knowledge was always the same: His own clairvoyant visions.

Among the more obvious criticisms that can be made against Steiner’s road to knowledge are (1) that it does not satisfy intersubjectivity, and (2) that its results contradict conventional science. Steiner was well aware of these arguments. Indeed, he emphatically claimed that his method satisfies intersubjectivity and that its results will be confirmed by conventional science. This makes it possible to evaluate his road to knowledge by two criteria accepted both by himself and by practitioners of conventional science. Let us first turn to intersubjectivity.

2. Intersubjectivity

According to Steiner, true clairvoyants are sure to reach the same result. “Just as a round table will be seen as round by two persons with normal sight and not as round by one and square by another, so at the sight of the blossom, the same spiritual figure will present itself to two souls.”[15] Indeed, this intersubjectivity was greater than that of empirical science:

“And what different initiates can report on history and prehistory will be essentially in agreement [im wesentlichen in Übereinstimmung]. Indeed all occult schools have such a history and prehistory. And we have here, since thousands of years, such complete agreement [volle Übereinstimmung] that the agreement to be found between the external historians of a single century cannot be compared to it. In all times and all places the initiates relate essentially the same.”[16]

This standpoint may be somewhat surprising, considering the wide variety of occult teachings that are competing for our souls. And of course, Steiner could not deny that contradictory doctrines are being promoted as true, occult knowledge. But this was only because some practitioners of clairvoyance made mistakes. True occult knowledge was the same for everyone that was able to attain it. “Divergencies exist only so long as men try to approach the highest truths by arbitrary ways, instead of by a pathway that is scientifically sure.”[17]

In order to establish that anthroposophical knowledge is intersubjective it is not sufficient merely to declare that some visions are true and some are mistaken. In addition, a method is required for deciding whether a particular vision is true or not. If such a method can be specified, and if it yields the same result for everyone who uses it, then intersubjectivity has been secured.

Steiner did in fact provide such a method. To avoid making mistakes, and to ensure that his visions were true, the prospective clairvoyant should take advice from a teacher. “You let a teacher transmit to you what has been achieved for humanity by inspired forerunners [inspirierte Vorgånger]”[18] In a very clarifying passage he said:

“One who, without first turning his attention to some of the essential facts of the supersensible world, merely does ‘exercises’ with the idea of gaining entrance there, will find in it a vague and confusing chaos. Man finds his way into that world – to begin with, as it were, naively – by learning to understand its essential features. Then he can gain a clear idea of how – leaving his ‘naive’ stage behind him – he will himself attain, in full consciousness, to the experiences which have been related to him.”[19]

In other words, the practitioner of anthroposophical science must compare his visions to those reported by his teacher and by other “inspired forerunners”. His own visions are true only if they tally with these precedents. Such comparisons are, indeed, a necessary part of the anthroposophical road to knowledge. Steiner said that “the safe guidance by the experienced occult teacher [Geheimlehrer] cannot be completely replaced”.[20]

In an important sense, this criterion establishes intersubjectivity. Let us suppose that every disciple of the anthroposophical road to knowledge judges the authenticity of his visions according to how they conform with those of a forerunner. Let us furthermore suppose that they all use the same forerunner. Then their method is undeniably intersubjective.

However, this particular form of intersubjectivity gives rise to at least two further epistemological problems:

(1) Since there are different occult forerunners with different teachings, how do we (intersubjectively) find out which are the genuine ones?

(2) If the guidance of a teacher is necessary, where did the first occult teacher get his knowledge from?

Steiner does not seem to have tried to solve any of these two problems. In the absence of satisfactory solutions, Steiner’s intersubjectivity consists in the subjection to an authority whose superior access to knowledge is merely stipulated. This is intersubjectivity, but an authoritarian form of intersubjectivity.

In anthroposophical practice, a further problem has ensued: Since Steiner’s death in 1925, no one else has reached anywhere near his clairvoyant ability. As one example, in spite of dedicated efforts by thousands of anthroposophists, no one after Steiner seems to have been able to read the Akasha chronicle.

One might have expected anthroposophy, as practiced today, to be based mainly on clairvoyant visions by its contemporary practitioners (i.e., visions certified by their agreement with the teachings of Steiner). In practice, however, only a very small part of what anthroposophists believe in has this basis. Instead, Steiner’s books and (stenographically recorded) lectures are the dominating source of anthroposophical doctrine.

It would be wrong, however, to denounce this practice as contrary to Steiner’s methodology. If one accepts one’s own visions only when they are in accord with the teachings of a “forerunner”, then nothing could be more natural than accepting these teachings even when one has not had any corresponding visions. Indeed, this is exactly what Steiner adviced those of us to do, “who cannot or do not desire to tread the path into the supersensible world”.[21]

There is an obvious parallel between this short cut to anthroposophical knowledge and the normal way of learning science at schools and universities. We do not learn mechanics by meticulously repeating the experiments of Galilei or the observations of Tycho Brahe. We learn ancient Egyptian history without trying to decipher hieroglyphs, etc. Instead, we learn from “forerunners”, whose results are summarized in textbooks.

But in spite of the similarity there are at least two important differences. One of them concerns the attitude to critical thinking. In the teaching of ordinary science, the official ideal is to inspire the student to think critically. In anthroposophy, the ideal is to help him suppress critical thinking. This applies not only to the practice of clairvoyance, but also to the secondary acquisition of occult knowledge:

“If such truths are communicated to you, then they will by their own force arouse inspiration in the soul. However, if you want to partake in such inspiration, you must try not to receive these insights [Ertkenntnisse] in a sober-minded and intellectual way [nüchtern und verstandesmåssig], but to let the exaltation of the ideas bring you to all emotional experiences that are at all possible.”[22]

The other major difference concerns access to knowledge. In conventional science, teachers are supposed to encourage beginning students to learn as much as they can, even about the most adlvanced parts of science. It is not considered “dangerous” for the beginning physicist to try to understand quantum chromodynamics or for the beginning linguist to study some half-deciphered ancient pictographs.

In anthroposophy, however, there are strict limits to what information should be accessible to non-initiates. The disciple’s physical senses hide from him “things which, if he were unprepared, would throw him into utter disarray; the sight of them would be more than he could endure. The pupil [Geheimschüler] must be able to endure this sight.”[23] It is “a natural law among all Initiates” not to reveal any information to those of us who are not prepared for it.[24]

“You my flatter him, you may torment him: nothing can induce him to divulge anything which he knows should not be divulged to you because at your present stage of development you do not understand how to prepare in your soul a worthy reception for this mystery [Geheimnis].”[25]

3. Testable predictions

According to Steiner, there is no contradiction between anthroposophy and conventional science.

“The results of spiritual science do not in any instance contradict the factual research of natural science. In all cases, when you look impartially at the relation between the two, something quite different will appear for our epoch. It turns out that this factual research steers for the goal of being brought, in not too distant time, into full harmony with what spiritual science must, from its supersensible sources, establish for certain areas”.[26]

In other words, conventional science is bound to gradually rediscover the truths already discovered by spiritual science.

Steiner did not accept empirical science as a judge of anthroposophy. Nevertheless, his prediction of the convergence of ordinary science towards anthroposophy put him in a position where his claims can be tested against ordinary science. If it turns out that natural science has moved in the direction of anthroposophy in the 66 years since his death, then this is a very strong support of his road to knowledge. If, on the other hand, natural science has moved further away from anthroposophy, then we know for sure that Steiner’s occult knowledge was not infallible.

It should be emphasized that Steiner’s prediction about the future of natural science makes a test against natural science more relevant in this case than it is for many other doctrines about spiritual knowledge. Many occultists have withdrawn from testability by claiming to speak about a reality that is completely separate from physical reality.

In what follows, I will consider three test cases, drawn from Steiner’s writings. Examples 1 and 2 have been chosen since they concern basic issues in natural science. Example 3 has been chosen since it contains an unusually precise prediction.

My first example is the structure of atoms. In 1917, Steiner said:

“The materialists [Stoffler] – we will simply call them that – imagine that the world consists of atoms. What does spiritual science show us? Most certainly, natural phenomena bring us back to such atoms, but what are they, these atoms?… According to the materialists, space is empty, and the atoms totter around in it. Thus, they are the most solid that there is [das allerfesteste]. But this is not so, it all depends on misapprehension [Tåuschung]. The atoms are bubbles of the imaginative cognition [Blasen vor der imaginativen Erkenntnis], and reality is where the empty space is; and the atoms consist exactly in that these bubbles are inflated. Within the bubbles there is exactly nothing, contrary to their surroundings. Do you know the pearls of a bottle of mineral water, there is nothing in the water where the pearls are, but there you see the pearls. In this way, the atoms are bubbles. The space is empty there, there is nothing inside them.”[27]

According to Steiner’s prediction about the relationship between anthroposophy and natural science, there should have been since 1917 at least some movement in natural science towards a conception of atoms as something that contains “exactly nothing”. However, atomic physics has moved in the very opposite direction. From the point of view of natural science, it is well-established – to say the least – that atoms are not empty bubbles.

My second example concerns special relativity. In the same speech from 1917, Steiner devoted a passage to special relativity. I will quote the whole of that passage:

“All the brilliant nonsense that is today served for instance as realist philosophy [Realphilosophie], and through which Einstein was made a great man, must be rejected if you want to have clear conceptions about these things, that correspond to reality. Do you know how obvious the theory of relativity is? You just have to imagine that when a gun is fired at a distance you will hear it only after a certain time. Now, however, let us suppose that we move towards the gun. Then we will hear it earlier, the closer to it that we come, won’t we? Now the theorist of relativity concludes: if you move as fast as sound, then you will go with the sound and not hear it. And if you go faster than the sound, then you will here something that was fired later, earlier than something that was fired earlier. This is today a common assumption, but it has no relation whatsoever to reality. The fact is that when you move as fast as the sound, then you can yourself be a sound, but you cannot hear a sound. These quite unsound ideas are alive today as the theory of relativity, and they have the best of reputations.”[28]

According to Steiner’s predictions about the relationship between anthroposophy and natural science, we should expect relativity theory to have a weaker position in natural science than it had in 1917. This, however, is not the case. Instead, its standing has been much strengthened by accumulated empirical evidence in its favour.

Incidentally, Steiner’s pronouncement about relativity has a surprising similarity to what might have been said by someone whose acquaintance with relativity was restricted to reading (and misunderstanding) a popular science text in which the Doppler effect of light was explained by a comparison with sound waves.

Steiner’s claim that someone who moves with the speed of sound “cannot hear a sound” must be seen in its historical context, When he said this, it was considered by scientists to be wrong, whereas the general public did not know very much about it. Today, in the age of supersonic aircraft, virtually everyone will consider it to be wrong. It is surprising that such a statement should have been made by someone who was able to foresee the future development of natural science.

My third and last example concerns therapy against syphilis. Steiner was a firm believer in the therapeutic usefulness of the so-called planet metals, including lead and mercury. He made a very clear prediction about the future use of mercury against syphilis:

“And with respect to these effects of mercury on syphilitic diseases it should be mentioned that mercury has recently been replaced in many ways. The famous new drugs that have replaced it are, however, already today known in their not quite unobjectionable effects, and very soon [sehr bald] medicine will in this field have completely returned to mercury.”[29]

Almost seventy years later, no sign has been seen of any return to mercury.

The list of failed predictions could be prolonged ad nauseam. It is clear from a reading of Steiner’s writings that he was wrong in his prediction that natural science was developing in the direction of confirming more and more of his own teachings.

It can, of course, be maintained that although Steiner often failed, reliable knowledge is obtainable by his method. However, this makes one of the problems pointed out in section 2 much more acute. If I can only know when my visions are correct by comparing them to those of someone with correct visions, but Steiner’s visions were sometimes mistaken, then how do I find a “forerunner” whose visions I can rely on?

I can only see one possible escape for the faithful anthroposophist. That is to take seriously Steiner’s warnings against a critical attitude towards the occult (i.e., towards Steiner’s teachings). If some of Steiner’s pronouncements seem false or contradictory, then that must be because we do not understand them. So what is the problem?

The problem is that there is virtually nothing left that anthroposophy can have in common with science.

4. Epilogue

Clearly, it does not follow from the non-scientific nature of anthroposophy that it is of no value. In this final section, a few words will be said about other possible ways in which anthroposophy might be valuable. Anthroposophy includes practices and beliefs, and its positive contributions should be sought in these two categories.

As an example of a prominent anthroposophical practice we may take its “biodynamical” agriculture. The major differences between biodynamical and conventional fanning are (1) the absence of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and (2) the presence of various magical practices, such as sowing and harvesting according to astrological calendars, spreading the ashes of a burnt vole-skin in order to avert further attacks by voles, etc. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that them magical practices are superior to conventional farming. Indeed, to the extent that the farmer harvests according to the planets and not according the crops and the weather, this will make him a less successful farmer. On the other hand, to reduce or discontinue the use of agricultural chemicals clearly has environmental advantages. Such changes in agriculture also have many proponents outside of the biodynamical movement. To the extent that there are positive elements in anthroposophical farming, these elements will have a stronger impact if they are freed from their connection with the rest of biodynamics.

The same can be said of the positive elements that may subsist in other anthroposophical practices, such as its health care and its (Waldorf) education. If positive ingredients can be found in anthroposophical practice, they can be made use of without the wholesale acceptance of anthroposophy. (Incidentally, I know of no such positive ingredient that is unique to anthroposophy.) In other words, a non-anthroposophist who finds positive elements in anthroposophical practices does not need either the teachings or the organizations of anthroposophy in order to avail herself of the advantages of these elements.

To what extent, finally, can the anthroposophical system of beliefs be of predominantly positive value? As should be clear from the above, these beliefs are less efficient than science – or scientifically guided common-sense – as guidelines for coping with empirical reality. What remains then, is essentially the functions that are traditionally claimed for religion: consolation, a sense of meaning and purpose, hope for after-life, foundations for morality.

This is not the place to discuss thc pros and cons of religion. Suffice it to concede that there is no reason to believe that anthroposophy is necessarily worse equippcd than the major traditional religions to satisfy “religious needs”. However, a defense of anthroposophy along these lines would have to be contrary to the teachings of anthroposophy, since the movement emphatically disavows any description of itself as a religion.



[1] In what follows, Steiner will be quoted in English translation. Translations published by the anthroposophical movement will be used when available. The German original of some key words will be given in square brackets.

The following abbreviations will be used for the most frequently quoted writings by Steiner:

  • Akasha: Rudolf Steiner, Aus der Akasha-Chronik, Dornach, n.d.
  • Geheimw: Rudolf Steiner, Die Geheimwissenschaft im Umriss, Leipzig 1920.
  • Knowledge: Rudolf Steiner, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. How it is achieved, London 1969. (Translation of Wie Erlangt.)
  • Occult: Rudolf Steiner, Occult Science. An Outline, London 1979. (Translation of Gehiemw.)
  • Stufen: Rudolf Steiner, Die Stufen der hoheren Erkenninis, Dornach 1931.
  • Wie erlagt: Rudolf Steiner, Wie erlangt man Erkenninisse der hoheren Welten?, Berlin 1918.

[2] for “gottliche Wissenshaft”, see Wie erlangt, p. 25. (Knowledge p. 41.)

[3] Geheimw, p. 4. (Occult p. 27)

[4] Wie erlangt, p. 61. (Knowledge p. 77)

[5] Wie erlangt, pp. 4-5. (Knowledge pp. 22-23.)

[6] Wie erlangt, p. 6. (Knowledge p. 24)

[7] Wie erlangt, pp. 47 ff. (Knowledge pp. 63 ff.)

[8] Wie erlangt, pp. 32-33. (Knowledge p. 49)

[9] Rudolf Steiner, Meditation und Konzentration. Die drei Arten des Hellsehens, Dornach 1935, p. 33.

[10] Geheimw, p. 10. (Occult p. 31)

[11] Wie erlangt, p. 159. (Knowledge p. 170)

[12] Wie erlangt, p. 148. (Knowledge p. 160)

[13] Akasha, p. 2-3.

[14] Akasha, p. 3.

[15] Wie erlangt, p. 32. (Knowledge p. 49)

[16] Akasha, p. 3.

[17] Geheimw, pp. 14-15. (Occult p. 33)

[18] Stufen, p. 65.

[19] Geheimw, p. 21. (Occult p. 37)

[20] Stufen, p. 69.

[21] Wie erlangt, p. X. (Knowledge pp. 15-16.)

[22] Stufen, p. 66.

[23] Wie erlangt, p. 58. (Knowledge p. 74)

[24] Wie erlangt, p. 3. (Knowledge, p. 21)

[25] Wie erlangt, pp. 3-4. (Knowledge, pp. 21-22)

[26] Akasha, p. 227.

[27] Rudolf Steiner, Das Karma des Materialismus, Berliner Vortrage, gehalten im August und September 1917, Berlin 1922, pp. 2:14-15.

[28] Ibid., p. 2:16.

[29] Rudolf Steiner, “Uber Gesundheit und Krankheit”, lectures held in 1922 and 1923, quoted from franz Stratmann, Zum Einfluss der Anthroposophie in der Medzin, Munchen 1988, p. 39.


Appendix: [omitted] texts of quotations in original German