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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



In his “Theory of Knowledge according to Goethe's Conception of the World,” Rudolf Steiner gives what he believes to be a truly scientific account of human cognition. In a passage in Chapter XI he summarises his argument in these words: — “In all working over of reality through cognition, the process is as follows. We meet with a concrete percept. It confronts us as a riddle. Within us the impulse manifests itself to investigate the ‘What?’ of it — its real nature — which the percept of itself does not express. This impulse is the upward working of a concept out of the darkness of consciousness. We hold this concept firmly. The mute percept suddenly speaks to us intelligibly. We know that the concept which has arisen in us is the real being of the percept.”

We perceive the world with our senses. Upon what we thus perceive we bring to bear the concepts created by thinking. We then get knowledge. What is passively received is by our mind lifted out of the darkness of mere potentiality into full validity. What is given to perception alone is nothing final; it is merely provisional; it is valueless and meaningless, unless and until it is supplemented by the activity of the mind.

The Senses give us only one side of reality; the other is supplied by Thinking. When we make use of experience alone, we get the merely specialised aspects of reality; mere particulars. “What comes first into consciousness is in actual fact derivative.”

The knowledge-process, as Rudolf Steiner elucidates it, has two sides: — the perceptual and the conceptual. Let us look first at what we get by means of our physical sense-organs; and, secondly, at what we further get by means of our thinking.

If the reader will imagine himself deprived of the power to think, he will get some notion of the world of percepts, taken by itself. Let him picture his unthinking self, say at a cricket-match — observing on a great green slab all manner of meaningless movements of white things; or looking at a book and only able to see a long procession of little black hieroglyphics. This “demented” world is apprehended as mere juxtaposition of things in space; mere succession of occurrences in time; blobs of colour, sound, smell, etc.; mere multiplicity of sense-impressions; a rubbish-heap of particulars. The world of mere sentience is “as if it had been shot at us out of a gun.” The objects I see and hear are just “there.”

In their coming about I have had no participation. They emerge from the unknown. They are alien to me. They tell me nothing of themselves.

So long as I remain at this first stage of cognition — limited to what the sense-organs tell me — my world is something like that of the animal or tiny child. It is a world without values. Objects are certainly there for me but they are meaningless. Things merely declare that they exist; of their real being they make no disclosure.

Into this darkest of worlds comes Thinking with its brightest of lights. What the senses cannot offer, Thinking gives. What the senses lack, Thinking has. When I think, I am unavoidably associative. If I think of “yellow,” I thereby summon every buttercup and every case of jaundice and every wedding-ring from the three corners of the world. If I think of “organism,” I cannot help thinking spontaneously of “growth” and “evolution” Thinking will not have things in isolation; we find it intolerable to hold in our minds an idea not merged with the ideas already there. Thinking means togetherness; Thinking means grouping; Thinking means looking at items in this or that context; Thinking means taking things in wholes; Thinking means orientation. What is gained by this associating; this grouping; this relating? Intelligibility in place of meaninglessness! Light in place of darkness!

So long as the sense-perceptible item stands by itself in isolation before the senses, it is devoid of significance. Immediately it is related by our Thinking to other items, it takes on value and meaning. By revealing things in this or that context, Thinking elucidates and evaluates them. There arise for us the everyday generalisations by which we conduct our lives; there arise the laws which it is the pride of science to formulate.

Once again: — There are two sides to the cognitive process. At the first stage of knowledge, we apprehend only unrelated and unrelatable percepts, mediated to us by our physical sense-organs. The world thus given us consists of a meaningless mass of particulars. At the second stage of knowledge, Thinking relates these individual items into all manner of conceptual contexts, revealing them thus as having value and meaning.

So long as we look out upon the world with our physical senses alone, we get only a half-reality or much less than a half-reality. Only when Thinking supplements and completes what the senses offer do we get the full reality of the world. Thinking makes the world understandable. Thinking is the organ of intelligibility.

What Dr. Steiner says may be here repeated: — “We meet with a percept. It confronts us as a riddle. We are impelled to investigate it, to find out its real nature. Out of the darkness of our consciousness the relevant concept arises. As a result, the mute percept suddenly opens its mouth and speaks to us and declares its real being.”

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