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The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception

11. Thinking and Perception

On-line since: 20th March, 2002


11. Thinking and Perception

Science permeates perceived reality with the concepts grasped and worked through by our thinking. Through what our spirit, by its activity, has raised out of the darkness of mere potentiality into the light of reality, science complements and deepens what has been taken up passively. This presupposes that perception needs to be complemented by the spirit, that it is not at all something definitive, ultimate, complete.

The fundamental error of modern science is that it regards sense perceptions as something already complete and finished. It therefore sets itself the task of simply photographing this existence complete in itself. To be sure, only positivism, which simply rejects any possibility of going beyond perception, is consistent in this regard. Still, one sees in nearly all sciences today the striving to regard this as the correct standpoint. In the true sense of the word this requirement would be satisfied only by a science that simply enumerates and describes things as they exist side by side in space, and events as they succeed each other in time. The old style of natural history still comes closest to meeting this requirement. Modern natural science really demands the same thing, setting up a complete theory of experience in order then to violate it right away when taking the first step in real science.

We would have to renounce our thinking entirely if we wanted to keep to pure experience. One disparages thinking if one takes away from it the possibility of perceiving in itself entities inaccessible to the senses. In addition to sense qualities there must be yet another factor within reality that is grasped by thinking. Thinking is an organ of the human being that is called upon to observe something higher than what the senses offer. The side of reality accessible to thinking is one about which a mere sense being would never experience anything. Thinking is not there to rehash the sense-perceptible but rather to penetrate what is hidden to the senses. Sense perception provides only one side of reality. The other side is a thinking apprehension of the world. Now thinking confronts us at first as something altogether foreign to perception. The perception forces itself in upon us from outside; thinking works itself up out of our inner being. The content of this thinking appears to us as an organism inwardly complete in itself; everything is in strictest interconnection. The individual parts of the thought-system determine each other; every single concept ultimately has its roots in the wholeness of our edifice of thoughts.

At first glance it seems as though the inner consistency of thinking, its self-sufficiency, would make any transition to perception impossible. If the statements of thinking were such that one could fulfill them in only one way, then thinking would really be isolated in itself; we would not be able to escape from it. But this is not the case. The statements of thinking are such that they can be fulfilled in manifold ways. It is just that the element causing this manifoldness cannot itself then be sought within thinking. If we take one of the statements made by thought, namely that the earth attracts all bodies, we notice at once that the thought leaves open the possibility of being fulfilled in the most varied ways. But these are variations that can no longer be reached by thinking. This is the place for another element. This element is sense perception. Perception affords a kind of specialization of the statements made by thoughts, a possibility left open by these statements themselves.

It is in this specialization that the world confronts us when we merely make use of experience. Psychologically that element comes first which in point of fact is derivative.

In all cognitive treatment of reality the process is as follows. We approach the concrete perception. It stands before us as a riddle. Within us the urge makes itself felt to investigate the actual what, the essential being, of the perception, which this perception itself does not express. This urge is nothing else than a concept working its way up out of the darkness of our consciousness. We then hold fast to this concept while sense perception goes along parallel with this thought-process. The mute perception suddenly speaks a language comprehensible to us; we recognize that the concept we have grasped is what we sought as the essential being of the perception.

What has taken place here is a judgment (Urteil). It is different from the form of judgment that joins two concepts without taking perception into account at all. When I say that inner freedom is the self-determination of a being, from out of itself, I have also made a judgment. The parts of this judgment are concepts, which have not been given to me in perception. The inner unity of our thinking, which we dealt with in the previous chapter, rests upon judgments such as these.

The judgment under consideration here has a perception as its subject and a concept as its predicate. The particular animal in front of me is a dog. In this kind of judgment, a perception is inserted into my thought-system at a particular place. Let us call such a judgment a perception-judgment.

Through a perception-judgment, one recognizes that a particular sense-perceptible object, in accordance with its being, coincides with a particular concept.

If we therefore wish to grasp what we perceive, the perception must be prefigured in us as a definite concept. We would go right by an object for which this is not the case without its being comprehensible to us.

The best proof that this is so is provided by the fact that people who lead a richer spiritual life also penetrate more deeply into the world of experience than do others for whom this is not the case. Much that passes over the latter kind of person without leaving a trace makes a deep impression upon the former. (“Were not the eye of sun-like nature, the sun it never could behold.” Goethe) Yes, someone will say, but don't we meet infinitely many things in life about which previously we had not had the slightest concept, and do we not then, right on the spot, at once form concepts of them? Certainly. But is the sum total of all possible concepts identical with the sum total of those I have formed in my life up to now? Is my system of concepts not capable of development? Can I not, in the face of a reality that is incomprehensible to me, at once bring my thinking into action so that in fact it also develops, right on the spot, the concept I need to hold up to an object? The only ability useful to me is one that allows a definite concept to emerge from the thought-world's supply. The point is not that a particular thought has already become conscious for me in the course of my life, but rather that this thought allows itself to be drawn from the world of thoughts accessible to me. It is indeed of no consequence to its content where and when I grasp it. In fact, I draw all the characterizations oi thoughts out of the world of thoughts. Nothing whatsoever in fact, flows into this content from the sense object. I only recognize again, within the sense object, the thought I drew up from within my inner being. This object does in fact move me at a particular moment to bring forth precisely this thought-content out of the unity of all possible thoughts, but it does not in any way provide me with the building stones for these thoughts. These I must draw out of myself.

Only when we allow our thinking to work does reality first acquire true characterization. Reality, which before was mute, now speaks a clear language.

Our thinking is the translator that interprets for us the gestures of experience.

We are so used to seeing the world of concepts as empty and without content, and so used to contrasting perception with it as something full of content and altogether definite, that it will be difficult to establish for the world of concepts the position it deserves in the true scheme of things. We miss the fact entirely that mere looking is the emptiest thing imaginable, and that only from thinking does it first receive any content at all. The only thing true about the above view is that looking does hold the ever-fluid thought in one particular form, without our having to work along actively with this holding. The fact that a person with a rich soul life sees a thousand things that are a blank to someone spiritually poor proves, clear as day, that the content of reality is only the mirror-image of the content of our spirit and that we receive only the empty form from outside. We must, to be sure, have the strength in us to recognize ourselves as the begetters (Erzeuger) of this content; otherwise we see only the mirror image and never our spirit, that is mirrored. Even a person who sees himself in a real mirror must in fact know himself as a personality in order to know himself again in this image.

All sense perception dissolves ultimately, as far as its essential being is concerned, into ideal content. Only then does it appear to us as transparent and clear. The sciences for the most part have not even been touched by any awareness of this truth. One considers the characterizations given by thought to be attributes of objects, like color, odor, etc. One therefore believes the following characterization to be a feature of all bodies: that they remain in the state of motion or rest in which they find themselves until an external influence alters this state. It is in this form that the law of inertia figures in physics. But the true state of affairs is completely different. The thought, “body,” exists in my system of concepts in many modifications. One of these is the thought of a thing which, out of itself, can bring itself to rest or into motion; another is the concept of a body that alters its state only as a result of an external influence. I designate the latter kind as inorganic. If, then, a particular body confronts me that reflects back to me in the perception this second conceptual characterization, then I designate it as inorganic and connect with it all the characterizations that follow from the concept of an inorganic body.

The conviction should permeate all the sciences that their content is purely thought-content and that they stand in no other connection to perception than that they see, in the object of perception, a particular form of the concept.

Last Modified: 03-Jul-2017
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