FOR ARGUMENT’S SAKE – Anti-Anthroposophy


a sequel to the five installments on Transpararent Authority

It has been said that man can believe the impossible, however not the improbable. The improbable, then, cannot be anything else but argument’s territory.


Depending on the type of claim the onus of argument sometimes rests on the claimant shoulders, then again on those of the addressee. Yet, it must always be clear on whose shoulders.


Rudolf Steiner’s claims and insights consist mainly of non-sequiturs, seemingly consequential statements that make use of an invalid ‘thus…’, ‘therefore…’ or a ‘because…’ They suggest it is his reader who should give a counterargument, while in fact Steiner himself has never argued.


My ‘distant’ approach to Anthroposophy, as developed in my book Authoritarian Architecture,  is surely the result of its obscure metaphysics. However, to explain my actual distaste I need to outline the ‘pragmatics of argument’ as contrasted with the logician’s theory of ideal debate.


Toulmin begins his analysis of argument with the verb ‘cannot’, the applicability of which is somewhat wider than the noun ‘impossible’. [1]


If phrased properly, a ‘cannot’ sentence either refers to an impossible act, or to the injunction of a rule whose infraction risks a sanction in for instance grammar, law or mathematics.


An example of a statement of a practical impossibility: “The seating capacity of the Town Hall being what it is, you can’t get ten thousand people into it.” The following sentence, by contrast, refers to rule infraction: “The terminology of hunting being what it is, you can’t talk about a fox’s tail.”


However, it is also important to differentiate between ‘working logic’ and ‘idealized logic’:


To say that a conclusion is logically necessary, or logically impossible, is not to say that in the first case the problem has been solved by the discovery of cast-iron arguments or utterly overwhelming evidence, while in the latter case the proposition had to be ruled out for similar reasons. It is to say, rather, that in the latter case the problem never really got under way, since the proposed solution turned out to be one which, for reasons of consistency alone, was ruled out from the start; while in the former case, having accepted the data to begin with, we were no longer in the position of having to assess the strength of any argument involved – since no arguments were needed.



The danger, then, is to confuse logical possibility with other sorts of possibility. When Russell suggests that the world might possibly have been created five minutes ago, this only means that his suggestion is not formally out of order. That conclusion, however, has nothing to do with the actual merits of any argument. Crucial to note is, that purely logical non-contradiction involves no more than ‘bare meaningfulness’. [3]


Whether backed by mathematical calculations or no, the characteristic function of our particular, practical probability-statements is to present guarded or qualified assertions and conclusions. [4]


Or in the words of H. Putnam’s, a philosopher who also opts for a ‘working’ logic:


In ordinary circumstances, there is usually a fact of the matter as to whether the statements people make are warranted or not. [5]


‘A fact of the matter’ refers to a situation to which the assertion ‘applies’. Wittgenstein was saying the same thing when he pointed out that each ‘language game has a point’. [6]


The notion of a ‘warranted assertion’ derives from the pragmatist philosophy of Dewey, who considered such statements as necessarily the outcome of inquiry. It is not a matter of ‘proof’ according to criteria outside the realm of inquiry, but of arguments developing within situations where facts and inquiry develop from the indeterminate to the more determinate. [7]


Facts and claims refer to one another reciprocally. It is only within its finite circle that argumentation may take place. Everybody has beliefs or convictions. However, most people are not in a position to inquire as to their validity. Yet, even the certainty we feel after such inquiry into ‘what is the matter’ remains a ‘belief’. This implies that warranted assertions, resulting from inquiry, do not make the original beliefs that give us that feeling of certainty any less irrational.


All what has been said above involves the logical status of claims to knowledge. There is, however, an essential point regarding the pragmatics of argument. Precisely the complete absence of any progress in the encounter between a sectarian and the critical outsider creates fake arguments. Even a supposed ‘counterargument’ from a critic is fake, as without the progressive exchange of reasons and facts there is in fact no ‘argumentation’.


Knowledge claims are social claims. Someone asserting a warranted claim is entitled to expect the other to have the same critical habit. However, to make an assertion on the one hand and to argue it on the other, are not necessarily the same thing. After all, both warranted and unwarranted assertions inhabit the realm of ordinary social exchange. Pragmatically at stake is the question under whose argumentative responsibility an assertion resides.


A logical analysis of falsifiable assertions does not yet give us a clue as to the pragmatic status of everyday life arguments which take place outside the sphere of proper scientific statements. Popper’s appeal to reasonable attention, written in the middle of the 20th century, seems even more valid in our age of Post-Modernity with its renewed surge of forms of sectarianism.


At stake is, whether different parties, interested in some ‘truth’, are ready to pay attention to one another, as well as to communicate reasonably. The crux is not so much whether sectarian metaphysics falls logically outside the field of falsifiable statements, but whether it falls within the precinct of argumentation. And if so, on whose shoulders the onus of argument is resting.


A rigorous rationalism demands from the metaphysician indubitable statements of fact. That is asking too much. Metaphysical argument – my claim – must be conceived in aesthetic terms, like a dispute on the quality of a work of art. The starting point here is a ‘pleasure felt’ – individually and ineffably. Such dispute takes off when two people are inclined to an inter-subjective search for shared reasons for such pleasure.


Such inter-subjectivity need not imply a shared final agreement on the work of art in question, but merely an agreement on the criteria used for judgment. It is the criteria that allow for debate. These criteria, however, can only be found in the work of art itself. Once detected and indicated by those who are judging its ‘value’, they are ‘given’.


This search is an intrinsic element of any interactive argument between at least two persons and the work of art. Aesthetic pleasure in itself is not ‘rational’, nor is the original felt pleasure ‘rationalized’ or ‘rationalized away’. Pleasure, however, may be complicated and enhanced, thanks to an argument which makes the participants see or hear more in the work of art than they did before. [8] They may enlighten one another.


In the same manner, ethical or metaphysical communication can be argumentative. Such argumentation does not devalue religious intuition, a feeling which the believer may even experience as ‘grace’. However, once a person is willing to share his intuition or belief with someone else – and only if he does not aim at indoctrination – reasonable argument in the manner described beckons.


In this context the pragmatics of argument becomes relevant. To phrase a warranted assertion is basically to invite the other to disprove it. However, when someone suggests something that simply might be the case because it is not logically impossible, albeit highly implausible in the eyes of the addressee, the full weight of the argument rests on the small shoulders of the claimant, who must arguably transform his not-logical-impossibility into an actual plausibility or probability that may be accepted by the addressee or not.


If, however, without such argument the sectarian first demands that the skeptic addressee proves him wrong, his rhetoric abuses the notion a logical possibility-that-is-logically-not-impossible. The skeptic cannot possibly give such proof whenever the logically-not-impossible is factually a practical impossibility which however can never be falsified, nor even given the simplest positive check. After all, there is not  even a check available here which might give the skeptic at least a strong impression that the suggestion made is not all that unreasonable. Demanding of the skeptic, then, to first give a counterargument is in itself unreasonable.


The realm of reasonable argument is much larger than the territory of reasonable scientific statements where falsifiability is at stake. Popper’s ‘falsificationism’ not withstanding, even within scientific discourse one may ask for a verifying argument from the side of the one who asserts an implausible claim.


An experimenter, for example, tears out the various little paws of a flea one by one. After each operation, he instructs the poor animal to jump. Which it does, thought each time slightly less high. Till finally the last remaining paw has been taken out – alas, when instructed once again the flea fails to perform. The experimenter now concludes that his ‘experiment has proven that a flea without paws becomes deaf and cannot hear the instructions of the experimenter any longer’.


Even apart from all future testing of his hypothesis, a reasonable, perhaps one might say: normal person would ask the experimenter why, of all conjectures, this one seems most plausible to him. In my book on the ideologies of Expressionism and Anthroposophy precisely that has been my reaction to almost all of Steiner’s silly statements.




1 Toulmin, The Uses of Argument, 22, 29/30.

2 Idem, 172/3, italics mine.

3 Idem, 205.

4 Idem, 93.

5 Putnam, Realism wit a Human Face, 21.

6 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, paragraph 564.

7 Dewey and Bentley, Knowing and the Known, 89, 208.

8 My argument here owes to the poetry of the otherwise highly analytical T.S. Eliot and his essay ‘Dante’, in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, 205. Compare also Dewey, Art as Experience.




Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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