Anthroposophy under fire

By Jost Schieren, May 2022

One feature that is characteristic of coronavirus and its time is the fissures, rifts and divisions that run through the various groups in society.

© Hauninho / photocase.de

The vocabulary is harsh and unbending even in how people are designated. They are called (corona) deniers, opponents (of measures), and anti-vaxxers. The expression "going for a walk", which in itself is peaceful with no hidden meaning, and the hitherto rather positively connoted term "lateral thinking" [German: Querdenken] have mutated into euphemisms for a protest movement. [Translator's note: The "lateral thinker" – Querdenker – movement in Germany was founded as a protest movement that rejects government measures against the coronavirus pandemic. One of the ways the Querdenker have sought to circumvent the regulations governing public assemblies is to "go for a walk" together.] Differentiation is unwelcome, the frames of pro and contra, a reductionist distorting black-and-white thinking determine public opinion. The more the stresses and strains of the pandemic manifest, the harsher and more irreconcilable the discourse has become. In the midst of this, anthroposophy is labelled and quasi identified as the source of inspiration for criticism of the coronavirus measures, and with it, as a stronghold of the spirit of resistance, the fields of life of biodynamic agriculture, anthroposophical medicine and Waldorf education. The Nachtwey study presented in Basel (https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/8f4pb/), which does not claim to be representative, is cited by the media as evidence that resistance to the coronavirus measures is so great, especially in German-speaking countries, because of anthroposophy. This ignores how numerically small the influence of anthroposophists and people with an affinity for anthroposophy is in Germany. Not even one percent of all pupils in Germany attend a Waldorf school. Romanticism is cited elsewhere as a further cultural and ideological source of criticism of the measures. Such inadequate and sweeping attributions are reminiscent of a medieval witch hunt. Where there is hardship and discontent, there must be someone to blame. And because the mainstream is unassailable, peripheral groups have to be used instead. It also goes unnoticed that in many other countries, such as France, the USA and especially Canada, there are sometimes fierce coronavirus protests. Can this also be attributed to the influence of Romanticism or anthroposophy? Hardly! Right-wing and nationalistic tones are clearly evident, mixed in with the protests. But for this, too, anthroposophy has to serve, although it is traditionally located more to the liberal left. Here the racism and anti-Semitism attributed to Rudolf Steiner fit well into the picture. If we want to be cynical about it, we might well say that anthroposophy has never been as prominent as it is today. 

Radicalisation of criticism

The style and aim of the criticism against Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy have clearly intensified in the past two years. There has been a radicalisation of the critique of anthroposophy. There have always been radical critics: the brothers Guido and Michael Grandt made a sweeping attack with their Schwarzbuch Anthroposophie in 1997, and Jutta Ditfurth spread similar invective in her book Entspannt in die Barbarei. Esoterik, (Öko-)Faschismus und Biozentrismus (1996). However, the public reaction to them was muted in each case, as the lack of objectivity, errors and biased depictions were hardly convincing.

On the other hand, there have always been critics who should be taken seriously, who have been sharp and clear, sometimes a little exaggerated and too keen to make a point, but who have rarely been unfair and have never tried to be destructive. The Waldorf critic Heiner Ullrich faults the (un)scientific nature of anthroposophy, Ansgar Martins deals (with somewhat greater populism lately) with racism and anti-Semitism in Steiner and on this basis fears a right-wing bias. Eloquent, with many details and knowledge of the literature, always somewhat provocatively pointed, Helmut Zander deconstructs Rudolf Steiner's saintly status. Such critiques, even if they hurt at times, are useful and good, and furthermore healing when anthroposophists face up to them. The critics mentioned are willing and able to engage in dialogue. Discussion with them, a productive discourse is possible and helps to look at all too familiar sectarian tendencies in the anthroposophical movement and to overcome a naive scientific abstinence. Ultimately, these critics have helped rather than harmed the public reception of anthroposophy and Waldorf education because they have brought a degree of normality to the public debate. A devotional Steiner reception, which was still respectable within anthroposophy in the 1970s and 1980s, has rightly lost its place today.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, however, the tone has changed. On the one hand, this is due to the aforementioned tendency for polarisation connected with coronavirus, and on the other hand, it is irreversibly linked with the unrestricted public sphere of the Internet which now exists. The social media world opens up a low-threshold public sphere. This is a kind of democratisation and undoubtedly makes sense. However, factual accuracy and differentiated points of view fall victim to some formats. Bloggers like Oliver Rautenberg are now nominated for audience awards for journalistic activity on the Internet and provide the cues for progressive satirical broadcasts. He paints a distorted picture of an anti-scientific and racist right-wing anthroposophical ideology which might well be suspected of being psychopathological. The campaign has a radical goal, for this critique of anthroposophy is no longer about debate and open discourse, which is desirable in itself, but about an outright destruction of anthroposophy and its fields of life. Anthroposophists are no longer regarded as harmlessly naïve, but now as dangerous. Waldorf schools are declared to be a haven for Querdenker, supported by doctors who are willing to bend the rules to help anyone not wanting to wear a mask. There is a clear intention, if not to ban homoeopathy and Waldorf schools, to exclude them from all public funding.

Scientific aspiration

In fact, most of the accusations are not true. Anthroposophy is not right-wing. Rudolf Steiner was neither a racist nor an anti-Semite. The spiritual science he represents rigorously faces up to the forum of science. His esoteric statements make no claim to truth, but are to be understood heuristically as assumptions. All his accounts anticipate, also as he saw it himself, to be subjected to the scrutiny of rational science. Even if Rudolf Steiner's lectures contain numerous statements – to which the critics mostly refer – that do not always give great prominence to such a scientific orientation, and even if many of Steiner's statements are an imposition on established rational categories and forms of thought, anthroposophy as a whole is scientific in its approach. Steiner's own critique of science is directed towards a one-sided materialistic reductionism, but not towards scientific method as such. Establishing anthroposophy as a form of science is undoubtedly very difficult and not entirely successful. Here lies the great task of posterity, and especially of anthroposophy’s fields of life of: to work on developing a scientific and academic discussion and the possible compatibility of Waldorf education, anthroposophical medicine and biodynamic agriculture through continued research.

Racism and anti-Semitism

As far as the accusations of racism and anti-Semitism are concerned, it should be noted that in a few passages of Steiner's work that are very poor and, indeed, simply bad – perhaps as a tragic legacy of colonialism, or possibly as the result of an image of the human being that is excessively modelled on German Idealism – Rudolf Steiner presents an absolutely unacceptable Eurocentric cultural chauvinism. In the meantime, all official anthroposophical institutions have distanced themselves from this – a good example of fruitful criticism from outside. These include in particular the German Association of Waldorf Schools (Stuttgart Declaration) and also the General Anthroposophical Society at the Goetheanum in Dornach (press release: "Anthroposophy against racism, right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism" and the contribution of the Goetheanum Leadership to "Anthroposophy and racism"). The concept of race has a solely historical-ethnological dimension in Steiner's work. Criticism of Judaism and also Rudolf Steiner's strong evaluation of the content of Christianity in relation to other religions have a content-related cultural function, but never a politically intentional or even executive function. At the core of anthroposophy lies a profound humanism that sees each human being as an individual struggling for freedom. All fields of life serve to strengthen and support the individual's development of freedom and capacity for self-determination. Freedom, love of thy neighbour and social responsibility for the peaceful coexistence of all people regardless of nationality, gender, religion and political conviction are the core ideals for which anthroposophy stands.

Without doubt, there is also a "new right" among anthroposophists – as indeed is the case everywhere in our postmodern society – which is easily identifiable as such in its protagonists (examples: Axel Burkart, Martin Barkhoff, Caroline Sommerfeld-Lethen, Thomas Meyer) and the places it is published. Steiner's esotericism is exploited for their crude argumentation. But this cannot be transferred to anthroposophy as a whole.

Waldorf education

And yet: anthroposophy is making slow progress on the highways of science. Rational mysticism and scientific esotericism are blatant contradictions for the modern consciousness and hardly digestible concepts. The scientific paths must first be beaten, are laborious and – as is usual in science – prone to error. Every open transparent discourse is welcome here, every view from the outside, every contradiction of substance is indispensable. The rhetoric of demarcation that has been cultivated within anthroposophy for many years is a dead end. This is slowly beginning to be realised and has also reached the academic sphere, especially on the basis of the publication project of Christian Clement's critical edition of Rudolf Steiner's writings (Steiner: Kritische Ausgabe (SKA)), which has been ongoing since 2013 and in which Steiner's fundamental writings are edited text-critically for the first time. But the road will continue to be arduous. The academic substantiation and validation of anthroposophy is a long way off. From a strategic point of view, it is advisable not to take the line of most resistance right away but to focus on what can be achieved. First of all, anthroposophy does not have to be established as a science, but it can be investigated in a sovereign and strong scientific way. In the case of anthroposophy, this means that its language and concepts are framed in modern and precise terms, that it is examined hermeneutically and critically with a certain aspiration for systematisation, and that it is meaningfully contextualised and also delimited.

For the fields of life of Waldorf education, anthroposophical medicine and biodynamic agriculture, however, the situation is different. While anthroposophy can be approached more or less as a private view with an existential dimension of meaning and great potential for edification, these fields of life are part of an overall social responsibility. It is not personal opinion or lofty religious feeling that count here. Ongoing scientific and academic investigation, substantiation and justification are simply indispensable. With regard to Waldorf education, which will be looked at more closely here, much has been done in this regard over the past twenty years. Teacher training initiatives with a tendency to work on a rather informal basis until the end of the last century have been consistently developed academically. It is thanks to the pioneering work of the recently deceased Dirk Randoll and many other researchers that the substance of Waldorf education has been empirically investigated in many different ways. Empirical research is the hard currency of science and it is precisely this research that gives Waldorf education an excellent report card in terms of pupil and parent satisfaction and also with regard to biographically sustained success at school and in relation to the grades achieved. Heiner Ullrich once described Waldorf education as meanwhile the best-researched alternative education system.

Esotericism problem

There is something else too: it is often alleged that Waldorf education is unscientific, mystical and esoteric. To justify this, extensive passages from Steiner's anthroposophical lecture work are drawn upon and interpreted as the occult background of Waldorf education which is otherwise not openly revealed. This is one thrust of the criticism. And numerous secondary writings on Waldorf education and anthroposophy seem to support this interpretive approach. It is striking, however, that especially in Steiner's lectures on education the broad thematic and thought horizons of general anthroposophy do not appear at all. Substantive for anthroposophy are cosmology (a spiritual evolutionary teaching of the human being and the world), Christology (Steiner sees in Christianity a central element of cultural development), the teaching about angels or hierarchies and the teaching about reincarnation and karma, which is very differentiated in content. Steiner makes little or no attempt to apply any of this content to Waldorf education. It is interesting in this context precisely what Steiner did not say. He did not want to place Waldorf education in the world as an extended missionary arm of anthroposophy, as Helmut Zander suspects. On the contrary, anthroposophy has a purely methodological function in Waldorf education. It is not an end in itself, but merely a means to an end. It is intended to help to better understand the children and adolescents in their development through its consideration of the nature of the human being. Epistemology, anthropology and psychology are the central features of Waldorf education. In addition, there is the individual (by all means also esoteric) training path of the teacher, which makes educational qualification possible in the first place in Steiner's view. Reincarnation and karma, by contrast, do not actually have any substantive meaning in terms of content; they merely serve as a mental framework for thinking about the potential for free self-determination inherent in the ego development of the children and young people from Steiner's perspective. This clear abstinence – we might say – from esotericism in Waldorf education makes it easier for it to move in the scientific arena than is the case in other fields of life, such as biodynamic agriculture which is inconceivable without a concrete cosmology.

Summary

Anthroposophy and Waldorf education are experiencing a fierce wave of criticism. At the same time, however, they are also the focus of a great deal of attention and – rightly or wrongly – are accorded substantial societal influence. This increase in attention and discourse can also be seen as an opportunity to correct the distorted public image of an anti-modern sectarian group and to work internally on the scientific and academic validation of the unique humanistic and ecological impulse of anthroposophy in a qualifying way.

About the author: Jost Schieren, born 1963, is professor of school education specialising in Waldorf education and dean of the Faculty of Education at Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences.

Contact: jost.schieren(at)alanus.edu

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