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Self Observation

Rudolf Steiner Archive & e.Lib Document

Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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Self Observation

On-line since: 31st October, 2016



Two or three feet away from me, I see a rose. How do I gather my knowledge of this rose? What account must I offer myself of the way in which it comes into my head?... I give myself some such explanation as the following: — “Out there, two or three feet away from me, is the point-of-origin of the cognitive process. From this point, ‘light-waves’ have been set going, out into space. Some of these ‘waves’ reach my eye. In the eye these stimulate physicochemical occurrences. These arouse further such occurrences in the optic nerve. These arouse further occurrences in the brain-matter. Out of these is finally born what I am pleased to call ‘a rose’ ... Of the “rose” at the point-of-origin I have no experience whatever. I “know” only the effect of the effect of the effect of the effect of some entirely obscure cause. I am in contact with nothing except my own mental state ... The “rose” of which I am finally aware has been light-waves in space, whirling atoms in my eye, other atoms in my optic nerve, other atoms again in my brain ... That my inner rose can be identical with the outer rose is unimaginable; that it can resemble it is unimaginable. The utmost I can imagine is that it may have some oblique symbolic correspondence with it... Matters are made very much worse still because I am specifically dependent upon my own individual physiological organisation; e.g., if I am colour-blind, the rose will not acquire redness on its journey to me. Etc., etc. What sort of idea I in particular have of the rose is private and personal to myself.

Thinking, seen in this context, is merely some sort of terminal flickering up of each individual's sense-organisation. What it delivers is merely some dubious personal opinion. We may well be highly “sceptical of the instrument.”

Galileo in the early days of Modern Science prophetically declared how it would come to look at the world: — “Hence, I think that these tastes, odours, colours, etc., which seem to exist in the object are nothing else than mere names and hold their residence solely in the percipient.”

In his various philosophical works, Dr. Steiner frequently quotes from the views of thinkers of his own time. In his “Theory of Knowledge according to Goethe's Conception of the World,” he quotes from Volkelt to this effect: — “All acts that call themselves objective cognitions are inseparably bound up with the individual cognising consciousness; they take their course at first and immediately nowhere else than in the consciousness of the individual; and they are utterly incapable of reaching beyond the sphere of the individual and laying hold of the sphere of the real, lying outside.”

Bertrand Russell has made this statement: — “Light-waves travel from the brain that is being observed to the eye of the physiologist, at which they only arrive after an interval of time, which is finite though short. The physiologist sees what he is observing, only after the light-waves have reached his eye. Therefore, the event which constitutes his seeing comes at the end of a series of events which travel from the observed brain into the brain of the physiologist. We cannot, without a preposterous kind of discontinuity, suppose that the physiologist's percept, which comes at the end of this series, is anywhere else but in the physiologist's head.”

Though it is the central science; though all that they do at every turn involves cognition; very few scientists pay much heed to epistemology. If they did, they would see in what a strange situation they stand. As epistemologist, the scientific worker is convinced that the only rose he knows of is a rose totally devoid of reality; a rose merely faked up within himself; a rose devoid of all those qualities of colour and fragrance which make it what it is for us. As human being, the scientist finds it impossible to believe what as epistemologist he asserts; his common-sense routs his scientific theories. That the rose stands objectively before our eyes with colour of its own is the ineradicable belief of every sane man and woman.

Why has Science thus bedevilled itself? It is not because the prevalent Theory of Cognition (along the lines set out above) is in itself illogical. It is because Modern Science has the tendency to look at the world only from one side; because it investigates more or less exclusively the sense-perceptible aspects of existence. Ignoring other aspects; confining itself to physical and physiological factors; it endeavours to explain human cognition. The implications of the account it gives do violence to common-sense. It is much as if a biologist brought forward an explanation of generation exclusively from the side of the female agent.

Whitehead avers that the picture of Nature given us by Modern Science is “quite unbelievable.” He further declares that “No alternative system of organising the pursuit of scientific truth has been suggested” ... We will accept forthwith the first of these statements. Before we accept the second, we will consider what Goethe and Steiner have to say.

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