«Johannes Denger The long way from the head to the hand – and back as a challenge to professional training This transcript of a lecture by Johannes ...»
The long way from the head to the hand – and back
as a challenge to professional training
This transcript of a lecture by Johannes Denger focuses on how we can support students in finding
their own access to anthroposophical human studies and to the disabled person. If we investigate why
there is such a seemingly unbridgeable gap between disabled and not disabled, or between theory and
practice, and how this gap can be bridged with a three-step method developed out of meditatively acquired human studies we realize that it is the foremost task of the training facilitator to meet the student with a ‹prophetic eye› and act as ‹midwife› in helping him or her ‹give birth to their true self.› The idea in Reality Contrary to a widespread misconception anthroposophy is not a philosophy that commits its followers to a particular set of values or even code of practice but is there as a help in looking at the world.
People interested in anthroposophy have questions about our origin, about our past and future, about the meaning of life in general and their own biography in particular. Rudolf Steiner’s spiritually acquired knowledge helps them to ask their life questions and to answer for themselves the basic philosophical question of ‹What shall I do with my life?› Especially people who are about to embark on training or are in training live with this question. Conventional answers are rarely satisfactory. This is most evident in curative education and social therapy, for in the encounter with children or adults with so-called ‹mental disability,› traditional norms and Pisa standards tend to fail. If I want to find access to a disabled person I have no choice but go towards him with an open mind and develop, in the actual encounter, ideas for teaching and educating him or for supporting him on his individual path.
What help can anthroposophy give me in that situation?
Becoming aware of the idea in reality – that is anthroposophy! We can also call it phenomenology or Goetheanism. When the young Rudolf Steiner, at the age of 23, commented and edited Goethe’s scientific writings, he wrote in his preface: ‹Becoming aware of the idea in reality is the true communion of human beings.› It is that, if it really happens, which makes anthroposophical initiatives so successful, whether it is the physician looking at his patient, the farmer looking at the soil or the teacher looking at the child. ‹Anthroposophical› means that we gain knowledge out of the essence of the other person and act in accordance with it. If that is successful there can be no question of dogmatism. Any kind of philosophical dogmatism was suspicious to Rudolf Steiner. Which is why he wrote as the last sentence of his Philosophy of Spiritual Activity: ‹We must be able to confront the idea in living experience or else fall into bondage to it.› Fallen away from the all-embracing After long, historically well-documented, periods of excluding disabled people from all kinds of areas we have for some time witnessed a paradigm shift that has aimed, first, at integration through welcoming back and ultimately at inclusion in the sense of unconditional belonging. It is probably an endeavour for generations that will have to overcome long-established habits and views. One basic problem that tends to lead to segregation is rooted in our cognitive constitution which students also have. It might therefore be helpful to begin with some epistemic considerations.
How do we think about people with disabilities and what is the effect of such thinking gestures? The basic epistemic problem is that whenever we think about something we create a division of subject and object – here is the thinking subject and there the object that my thinking relates to, or as Karl Jaspers said: ‹Having been thought means having fallen away from the all-embracing.› (Jaspers 1971, p. 26) As human beings we can’t but repeat this ‹falling away,› this fall from paradise, as it were, because of the way our mind works. What Günther Dellbrügger (2000) proclaims in his book about Hegel’s struggle with human intelligence, namely that ‹knowledge inflicts the wound – and heals it› is expressed even more radically by Hegel himself: ‹Knowledge heals the wound that it itself is› (Hegel, quoted from Dellbrügger 2001, p. 33). This is why ‹God› cannot really be thought: if I grasp the allencompassing, the all-embracing, in a concept, I make it my – the thinking subject’s – object. This ‹disability› in our cognitive constitution, the fact that we cannot fully and comprehensively grasp reality, is also the basis for the development of self-awareness.
It is on the object that we achieve self-awareness in our relation to the world. We separate I and world, subject and object, because we separate perception and concept. Perception and concept – we could also say appearance and inherent law – are in reality one in the world. It is only the human mind that separates them in order to reunite them in the thinking process. The ‹right› way of thinking, that is, the thinking that corresponds to the object, therefore really heals the wound inflicted by the tearing apart of perception and concept. Rudolf Steiner says: ‹Because it is through our subject that the whole appears to be torn into perception and concept, true knowledge arises from the reunion of the two.› (p.
125) Karl Jaspers (1971) calls attention to another division that is caused by thinking: ‹Each specific object, thought clearly, always relates to other objects. It is their specificity that distinguishes the one from the other. Even in thinking of being as such, I think it as the opposite of nothingness.› (p. 26) Separating is our nature! Not only are we separate from creation due to our conscious mind, we separate in the process of getting to know the world, for instance into disabled and not disabled. The act of gaining knowledge itself has therefore a segregating, separating dimension. I therefore propose the thesis that segregation and its overcoming through integration and inclusion are initially knowledge problems – how do we prevent the necessary distinction, the capacity to differentiate, from becoming condescending discrimination?
There are plenty of examples from past and present of people being made objects. The question is: is there a specific kind of cognition that allows us to distinguish between object and person? To be sure, this is no sentimental attempt at performing intellectual pirouettes to deny the fact that disability exists. On the contrary, it is to show that any differences between a person with and a person without conspicuous disabilities, however pronounced these differences might be, are a matter of degree and not of principle. We each of us, disabled or not, have ourselves as a task. It lies in the nature of this development that knowing and accepting the task of becoming oneself is possibility and not obligation. Habermas wrote, in his reworking of Sören Kierkegaard: ‹The individual person must bring himself to an awareness of his individuality and freedom.[…] He must retrieve himself from the anonymous distraction of a breathless fragmented existence and lend continuity and transparency to his life. A person who has become self-aware in this way has himself as a task that is set for him, although it has become his through him having chosen it.› (Habermas 2001, p. 18f.) This havingchosen-oneself includes the disability. Some people with disabilities are authentic to a degree that we can only dream of! There is an obvious destiny dimension here.
Does choosing oneself rely on superior intellectual capacities and are people who don’t have these capacities therefore excluded? No, on the contrary: ‹… and so the richest person is nothing before choosing himself, and what one would have to call the poorest person is everything if he has chosen himself; because greatness is not being this or that, but being oneself. And every person can be that if he chooses to.› (Kierkegaard 1975, p. 728)
Gradually overcoming dualism
Students face two problems: how do I get from understanding to doing (from theory to practice, from the head to the hand) and how do I get from doing to understanding (from practice to theory, from the hand to the head)? The ideas we absorb in our studies – such as the knowledge of the human being – were thought almost a hundred years ago and can be seen as
impositions. We search for the reality that guarantees their validity. And vice versa: we are overcome by the perceptions of reality – and we search for the idea in them that gives us knowledge. One could say, in somewhat absolute terms: we cannot convey an idea to reality because reality already holds the idea. It is terrible – although it is often done – to suggest to students: if you just listen well in the theory lessons and put what you understood straight into practice all will be well!
Learned ideas are abstract and abstractions don’t go well with living practice. Life seems to be allergic to abstractions. They either quench life or life swallows them and they vanish ineffectively. The practician who is overcome by the sheer multitude of perceptions, on the other hand, will never comprehend others or his own actions without exercising his intellect in order to penetrate the practice cognitively. The growing need for documentation is an example of the danger that arises from the ultimately pointless attempt to bring order to life through conceptuality. The colleague who is busy documenting draws back from the life around him and instead of the documented reality the act of documenting in itself becomes a reality! In his lectures on a meditatively acquired understanding of the human being Rudolf Steiner (1983) suggested a very fruitful method for overcoming the theorypractice dichotomy (see also Andreas Fischer’s contribution). ‹As teachers we must study the human being; we must come to understand the human being through meditation; we must hold the essence of the human being in our memory – then the memory will become vigorous life. It is not ordinary remembering but a remembering that generates new inner impulses. Memory wells from spiritual life and brings to our working life what we know as the third stage: Understanding through meditation is followed by the creative remembering which is also a receiving from the spiritual world.› (p. 52f.) One page before that we read: ‹If you study the human being as we did you first become conscious of it. If you then meditate on it, an inner process of digestion will go on in your soul and spirit and that will make you a teacher and educator. Just as a healthy metabolism makes you a living person, this meditatively digested true knowledge of the human being makes you an educator. You stand differently in front of the children if you have experienced this meditative process and its results. What makes you a teacher is what grows out of the meditative effort of acquiring such knowledge.› (p. 51)
A highly effective three-stage method
If we simply studied the human being and tried to apply the acquired knowledge in practice we would end up being overcome by abstractions as described earlier. Anthroposophy would become rigid dogma. It is through the meditative digestive process in soul and spirit that the ideas are internalized and individualized. That involves a fourth step (in fact the third) that Steiner does not explicitly mention but that I think has to take place and indeed does take place: forgetting what we learned about the human being! Only what has sunk deep down in meditative digestion can be remembered creatively in a fourth step in the actual situation. Let’s say I studied the constitutional polarity of hysteria and epilepsy and connected with the contents in a way that lets me experience how a thinskinned person feels when exposed to an onslaught of unfiltered impressions. If that experience has sunk from waking consciousness into oblivion and I then meet a person with just that constitution, I will intuitively behave different towards him and have more ideas for dealing with the situation than if I simply refer to the ‹hysteria chart› and try to determine who fits in where.
The incomplete person
The question of choosing oneself and being able to be oneself is of course also critical for ‹anthroposophists›. Do we not often practise and present anthroposophy as an ideology? Or can anthroposophy be a possibility to better understand the world and individual people? What is the human essence, what is good for a human being and how can we discover, foster and develop that? I would like to go back to and deepen the above mentioned epistemic considerations, which Rudolf Steiner elaborates on in the Philosophy of Spiritual Activity and which, in my opinion, are crucial when we ask about the difference between a person with and a person without disability. A disabled young woman once said in a discussion: ‹All people are disabled!› We say that because it feels right, but the feeling can be cognitively corroborated.