Steiner Shorts #3: The Social Problem and Human Development


A previous essay provided a broad introduction to Steiner’s threefold social organism which included a short section on the social problem as Steiner saw it. The aim of this essay is to expand on this short section to consider the social problem in more detail, particularly the element of ‘becoming’ rather than achieving a specific end state. Later in this essay this position is brought into contact with the work of Jamie Heckert, particularly his piece on anarchist ethics as a continual becoming, allowing us to highlight possible connections between Steiner’s ethical position and that developed in the course of anarchist theory.

To recap, the social problem as Steiner identified it was that individuals are prevented from fully developing, but the focus here is not on the end-state of a ‘developed’ individual, but on the process of continual transformation. This approach is underpinned by a particular view of humanity and human nature which is the first area to be unpacked here.

For a way into Steiner’s understanding of humans and human nature a good starting point is his book The Philosophy of Freedom (Steiner, 1964). Divided into two parts, the first deals with epistemology as the building block for the second part to address questions of the individual and freedom. For the purposes of this essay it is not necessary to summarise the entirety of the book, nor get into the weeds on Steiner’s epistemology. It is sufficient to go straight to the question of the freedom of the individual as this is revealing of Steiner’s understanding of the human and human nature. As the title suggest, The Philosophy of Freedom is concerned with exploring what it means to be free, and how that freedom can be worked towards. Opening the book Steiner writes:

“The idea of the freedom of the human will has found enthusiastic supporters and stubborn opponents in plenty. There are those who, in their moral fervor, label anyone a man of limited intelligence who can deny so patent a fact as freedom. Opposed to them are others who regard it as the acme of unscientific thinking for anyone to believe that the uniformity of natural law is broken in the sphere of human action and thinking. One and the same thing is thus proclaimed, now as the most precious possession of humanity, now as its most fatal illusion” (Steiner, 1964).

These opening lines provide the starting point for Steiner’s own consideration of human action and freedom in relation to themselves and the wider world, a relationship that cannot be broken nor reduced to one or the other of the above positions.

Before getting further into issues of human nature, let us first address the question of freedom in Steiner’s work. Freedom is intimately connected with ethics, morality and action. There are three processes of action identified in Steiner’s work, the first of which is instinctual, or those actions we complete for the satisfaction of our basic natural processes. Eating and drinking are prime examples here. Beyond this there are those actions individuals engage in as a result of their ongoing socialization in society, actions determined by the implicit and explicit behavioural codes of conduct relevant to that society. These take the form of both legal regulation as well as broader and less-tangible moral systems. Finally, there are those actions carried out in freedom. To be free is to act without recourse to externally or internally imposed and predetermined rules, those legal and moral systems individuals are socialized into. If an individual is able to do this, the action they perform is ethical and they are acting in freedom. Steiner has referred to this as acting for the “love of the action” (Steiner, 1964), motivated by intuition and without needing to refer to established notions of good or bad, or right or wrong. To be free is to act from oneself. Importantly, this is not a rejection of externally or internally imposed sets of behavioural conduct as Steiner is keen to point out that such rules are important in guiding action in between the times when the individual is able to act freely. But there is a recognition in this understanding of freedom that in those times when individuals rely on already established rules of behaviour they cannot be acting freely because they are not acting for themselves (Steiner, 1964). There is an inescapable tension the individual finds themselves in between the socialized expectations of behaviour and the free actions they might perform. That is not to say that actions as directed by existing moral systems and actions performed in freedom would not necessarily align, and may indeed look identical to the outside observer, but it is the starting point of that action which determines whether the individual is acting in freedom or otherwise.

At its heart Steiner’s is an ethical individualism which places the responsibility of free and ethical action squarely on the shoulders of the individual while maintaining sufficient nuance to recognize the difficulty of such action. Indeed, to be free, to act for themselves, individuals must engage in a continual process of reflection and engagement, approaching actions in the context and immediacy of the moment of action. This is not an approach which is present without practice, and while some might display greater intuition regarding these actions than others, all individuals need to make a concerted effort and pay particular attention to their actions.

It is this notion of effort which introduces the focus on process rather than end-state in Steiner’s conception of freedom. As to be free is to respond to the context of a situation and to act according to one’s own decisions rather than predetermined conduct or past experience of a similar situation, it is not possible for a fixed standard of behaviour to be attained, nor is it possible to be continually free as each new context demands the individual engage in a process of free action anew. It is not possible in this approach to act in freedom on a single occasion and claim freedom has been achieved after the action is over. The endless process of acting toward freedom is what makes the presence of externally and internally imposed rules of conduct necessary in Steiner’s work. While individuals cannot be free while acting under the auspices of these predetermined rules of conduct, they are able to have some guidance to their actions which enable them to function as part of a wider society (Steiner, 1964).

The necessary continuation of predetermined rules of conduct is one part of what maintains sociability in Steiner’s conception of freedom, the other brings us back to the question of human nature. When an individual engages in the process of becoming free through their actions they do so in the reassurance that all other individuals have the capacity to do the same, even if have not yet developed that capacity to the point of action. When individuals have not developed or are not acting on this capacity what remains is a belief that every human contains the possibility:

“The perceptual object “man” has in it the possibility of transforming itself, just as the plant seed contains the possibility of becoming a complete plant. The plant transforms itself because of the objective law inherent in it; the human being remains in his incomplete state unless he takes hold of the material for transformation within him and transforms himself through his own power. Nature makes of man merely a natural being; society makes of him a law-abiding being; only he himself can make of himself a free man.” (Steiner, 1964).

This understanding of freedom and the relationship to human nature not only gives freedom its form as a process rather than an end-state, it also helps us to better understand the social problem Steiner sought to address through his critique of the unified state and his response with the threefold social organism.

The social problem lies in the obstacles preventing humans from fully developing. With this understanding of freedom and human nature this essay can now give greater body to the notion of human development and therefore, a greater insight into the social problem. As the unified state has developed over time and brought politics, economics, and culture within defined borders and with defined populations, each of the three areas of social life have come to interfere with the others. Furthermore, in a unified state these three areas have become imbalanced with culture becoming subservient to politics and/or economics. Each of the three areas of society are guided by their own concepts, equality for politics, solidarity for economics, and freedom for culture. In this approach the role of politics is to ensure equality in interpersonal relationships through the establishment and promotion of human rights which contribute to a dignified life. Economics concerns the collaborative management of the relations of groups of producers and consumers to each other and to the natural world around them. Finally, cultural life aims at the development of the individual which is rooted in the process of freedom and free ethical action.

In the unified state each of these three areas of social life are prevented from fulfilling their aims, this essay concentrates for now on the cultural sphere of life. Steiner argues that the imbalances between the three areas of social life result in culture being dominated by either politics, economics, or both. An example of such domination is the interference of politics in education. Education, as concerning the process of growth and development of individuals, is a system which belongs firmly in the cultural realm (Steiner, 1945). And yet the existence of government controlled and regulated education systems brings the political into the cultural by attempting to govern the process of individual development along standardized and predetermined lines. In addition to the standardization of development, government run education is also directed toward whatever the current government deems to be desirable in its future citizens, and this can change as governments do. In both cases, the standardization of development, and the specific externally defined aim of that development are obstacles to the free development of all humans. The claim is not that state education makes it impossible for an individual to be free, but that it adds unnecessary barriers to the individual development needed in the process of freedom. In reference to the quote above, political interference in education attempts to hold the individual in the development stage of the law-abiding citizen.

The argument in favour of state education is that it ensures an equality across all individuals within the unified state, but for Steiner this is precisely the problem. Others have suggested that attempts to introduce equality into education simply leads to a levelling to the lowest common denominator, thus suppressing the potential creative excellence and innovation of individuals (Usher, 2018). This is not an argument I am keen to follow as it is made in the space of a few lines and presents an overly simplified understanding of education, state-derived or otherwise. However, there is more nuanced response which can be framed through the points already included here. Equality is the guiding concepts of politics to help establish certain interpersonal relationships between individuals towards the aim of a dignified life. In my reading of Steiner education is not about interpersonal relationships, but intrapersonal ones, the relationship of the individual to themselves and their development. This relationship and the process of development it involves is, and can only be, individual due to the differing capacities, abilities, and interests each individual has. Therefore any attempt to introduce equality through a standardized education process hinders the development of individuals along their own paths, and thus is an obstacle to their process of full human development: a contribution to the social problem writ-large.

The specifics of education will be explored in a later essay, but this brief example is sufficient to illustrate and add greater depth to the understanding of the social problem through the introduction of human nature and the practice of free and ethical action. State education is presented as but one of the examples of the interference of one area of social life with another which in turn creates barriers to full human development through the attempt to limit the process of freedom. This is not to say that doing away with state education would be a singularly sufficient response to the social problem, nor would the separation of the three areas of society in an attempt to prevent interference. To take such an approach would fall back into an understanding of freedom and full human development as an end-state to be reached rather than a process to be continually engaged in. However, for Steiner the distinction of politics, economics and culture might not be sufficient but are most certainly necessary elements in addressing the social problem, clearing the way individuals to engage in the process of human development and freedom without facing unnecessary obstacles.

With this brief treatment of Steiner’s understanding of freedom as a process and the social problem, this essay now turns it’s attention to the concept of ‘becoming’ which is so central to Steiner’s work on freedom. Suffice-to-say Steiner is not the only thinker to examine the concept of becoming in relation to freedom and ethics, and we now introduce the work of Jamie Heckert, particularly a chapter of his entitled ‘Listening, Caring, Becoming: Anarchism As an Ethics of Direct Relationships.” Not only does Heckert explore the role of becoming in relation to personal development, this is also then attached to ethical considerations, much as Steiner links becoming, freedom, and ethical action.

Heckert’s approach is to root anarchist ethics in the relationships themselves which necessitate ethical action, “They are born of relationships, of relating: directly, intersubjectively and warmly. An intimate process which never ends” (Heckert, 2010, p. 187). The argument develops that there are three key elements in this approach to anarchism as an ethics of direct relationships: listening, caring, and becoming. Listening to both yourself and others is central to anarchist work. Listening is at the heart of the reflective capabilities necessary to consider your own experience, knowledge, and indeed, body, but importantly this is not to prioritize or promote listening to yourself over and above listening to others. Listening to yourself prepares the ground for an engagement with others in which you take their words and actions seriously as points for their reflection and your own, while maintaining the connection to self which allows for critique of what you hear from others (Heckert, 2010). In anarchist theory and practice, listening to yourself and others becomes a practice of subversion in a society in which we are so often encouraged to doubt ourselves and approach others as deficient in their understandings.

Listening to oneself and others is a necessity for the development of Heckert’s second element in anarchist ethics: caring. Heckert identifies caring in the anarchist expressions of mutual aid and solidarity, a term we are already familiar with from Steiner’s work, with Heckert arguing that anarchist ethics “emphasizes equality, mutuality, embodiment and interdependence” (Heckert, 2010, p. 194). As with listening, caring can be seen to begin with the self, as it is unlikely that an uncared-for self can practice sustainable and mutual care for others. Once more, this is not to prioritize self-care over caring for others, but to recognize that they are mutually constitutive elements in an anarchist ethics: an ethics which places each individual in relation to others and the world around them.

Finally, we arrive at Heckert’s work on becoming, a central notion shared with Steiner in relation to personal and social transformation, ethics, and freedom: “Rather than an event of liberation, social revolution towards possible anarchist futures might be understood better as a becoming – the process by which people learn self-management (autonomy)” (Heckert, 2010, p. 198). Importantly, this process of learning self-management, echoed in Steiner’s position on free and ethical action, is not a simple state to be achieved, but it is an on-going performance of autonomous action. In this approach individuals and social order are not maintained at a distance from one another, but the individual constitutes and is constituted by the social order. Therefore, as individuals practice listening and caring they engage in a process of becoming and continue to make and re-make themselves and their social relationships. It is the action of becoming which roots the understanding of freedom in Heckert’s, and other anarchist work, as a performance of self, in many ways a similar mechanism to Steiner’s performance of free action as an on-going pursuit.

To bring this notion of becoming in Heckert’s work into contact with the other topics explored in this short essay, we can reframe anarchist direct ethics of listening, caring and becoming as a response to the social problem as anarchists might see it, setting the concerns in the same field as those identified by Steiner. For Steiner, the social problem is that people face obstacles in engaging in a process of development, and that these obstacles arise due to a formation of society in which one area of life can all-too-easily take precedence over others, unbalancing the presence and practice of solidarity, equality, and freedom. More specifically, economics overpowers politics and culture and is misdirected toward a particular understanding of freedom, thereby leaving little room for solidarity and equality, and little room for individual becoming.  We can use a similar framework to consider the anarchist understanding of the social problem, with the caveat that this brief treatment is clearly papering over some areas of difference between anarchism and Steiner.

A central anarchist concern is also with freedom, or to continue with Heckert’s language, becoming. In this approach, as with the Steiner, the current form of social organization is an obstacle to becoming as it seeks to shape individuals and their relationships with others and the world around them through the mechanisms of state and market, and unquestioned authorities. Here individuals face a dual pressure, on the one hand encouraged to act in individualistic and competitive ways in an economic environment which focusses on accumulation, and on the other state forms which establish legal and behavioural norms for living together. In both cases the relationships established between people are predetermined from beyond the relationship itself, and leave little space for the practice of equality and solidarity, listen and caring in Heckert’s terms, and therefore little space for becoming and the development of freedom.

The aim of this short essay was to explore the social problem in more depth by tracing the outlines of Steiner’s concept of freedom and human nature in more detail and highlighting the importance of the transformative process rather than the achievement of an end-state. Coupled with this is a loose sketch an anarchism which presents an equivalent social problem and also frames the response to this problem through the lens of an on-going transformative process. Clearly, this is a connection which would require much greater consideration to fully explore the concepts deployed, freedom, equality, solidarity, listening, caring, and becoming, and to examine their possible areas of overlap, but hopefully this first sketch demonstrates a sufficient enough basis for that further work.

Andy (


Heckert, J., 2010. Listening, Caring, Becoming: Anarchism as an Ethics of Direct Relationships. In: B. Franks & M. Wilson, eds. Anarchism and Moral Philosophy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 186-207.

Steiner, R., 1945. The Social Future, New York: Anthroposphic Press.

Steiner, R., 1964. The Philosophy of Freedom. 7th ed. London: Rudolf Steiner Press.

Usher, S., ed., 2018. Rudolf Steiner. Social Threefolding: Rebalancing Culture, Politics & Economics. Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press.