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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



The famous physiologist Du Bois-Reymond, once delivered himself of the following utterance: — “It is absolutely and for ever unintelligible that it should be other than indifferent to a number of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc. how they lie and move, how they lay and moved or how they will lie and will move. It is in no way understandable how, through their interaction, consciousness can come into existence.”

When Science thus communes with itself — as it did in Dr. Steiner's time; as it is still doing to-day — what are we being asked to accept?

  1. We are being told that at the centre of our selfhood there is continuously taking place an occurrence so miraculous — so out of keeping with all that is known about the laws of the universe — that Science can find no explanation for it and regards any such explanation as impossible of discovery. Particles of matter, which by no hypothesis can have the possibility of any such notion or design, give birth to our sensations and ideas. Outside my being are “atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen,” etc.; they have no conceivable qualitative resemblance to or affinity with our inner mental states; yet they somehow manage to metamorphose themselves into “the rose” with which we so confidently and completely identify ourselves.

  2. We are required to believe 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;” that the birds do not themselves sing their songs, nor the flowers deck themselves with their colours but that it is we ourselves who inside ourselves sing the songs and that it is we ourselves inside ourselves who create the colours — and that we then wantonly attribute our own activity to the birds and the flowers.

  3. We are being urged to acknowledge that between what goes on inside us (our mental states) and what goes on outside us (atoms, etc.), there is an unpassable chasm. There is, it is alleged, quite obviously no way of getting across from the privacy of our own selves (the “I,”) to the outer conditions which we call “the World.” Mentality is qualitatively altogether different from matter: how can we get from the one to the other? We can speculate, as Kant did, about “Things-in-themselves;” we can infer; we can use scientific imagination; we can guess; but if we are true to our scientific training we shall be compelled to confess that anything that can be called “Knowledge” or “Science” is limited to experience of our own inner mental states.

To such points-of-view, Dr. Steiner opposes the following account of cognition: — “In knowledge, we are concerned with questions which arise for us through the fact that a Sphere of Percepts, conditioned by time, space and our subjective organisation, stands over against the Sphere of Concepts, pointing to the totality of the universe. Our task is to reconcile these two spheres, with both of which we are well-acquainted. There is no room here for speaking of ‘Limits of Knowledge’.”

Let us examine this statement, piece by piece: —

  1. “A Sphere of Concepts, pointing to the totality of the universe.

If we consider our conceptualising, we find ourselves pointed to a cosmic background wherein there is a ubiquitous and perpetual tendency towards the forming of greater and greater wholes. Every item gets to itself context upon context, background upon background. Fact links itself with fact, occurrence with occurrence; ever-larger groupings become apparent; and we find ourselves at last in the presence of the totality of the universe, of world-oneness.

Modern Physical Science thinks of a Law of Nature as subjective. It says to itself: — “This law is not a self-existent entity; it does not really exist; it cannot really exist.” To a science accustomed to regarding every item of knowledge through physical eyes there is nothing in a Law for Nature which it can make real to itself. When Science speaks of “Laws,” these are only man-made hypotheses or conjectures. The only things that for Science have genuine existence are the individual sense-perceived objects, — (e.g. the single tulips). “Laws,” are merely a convenient subjective way of provisionally lumping together a number of things or occurrences of the same sort.

Steiner affirms that “things exist and act on one another according to laws which can be discovered by thinking;” that “things exist in indivisible unity with laws.” He insists that the Laws of Nature — these groupings — these wholes — are objective realities. They are not visible to physical eyes: they are not tangible to physical fingers: they are nevertheless completely actual and factual. ... And unless we can come by thinking-intuition to see them — or at least to realise that we must postulate their self-existence — we shall never be able to make sense of what takes place in the knowledge-process.

  1. A Sphere of Percepts, conditioned by time, space and our subjective organisation.

I was once travelling alone in a compartment of a non-corridor railway train; I lay down on the seat and went to sleep: I was awakened by a thump on my side. Of what had taken place I could for the moment give no explanation. This was pure percept. ... In one of his absurd stories Chesterton tells of a man who heard in the passage outside his study an extraordinary medley of noises: — rifle-shots, running water, whirring machinery; he could for a time give himself no intelligible account of what they were. Here again we have pure percept.

In actuality, this sort of thing is all the time taking place with us. The reader can observe it easily enough for himself. By means of our sense-organisation, we get a percept. For a very brief space of time, it is only percept. Then — as a rule, more or less spontaneously; but sometimes after an appreciable time-lag — it ceases to be a mere empty percept and gets lit up from within by the relevant concept.

At the lower level, at the first stage of cognition, what we get is blobs of colour, noises, etc., — mere unintelligible items of sense-experience. They are mere indications (in and of themselves without content or meaning) of the Wholes or Laws which we have just been describing. Things themselves undergo no change; it is we who are at fault. As creatures of time and space; conditioned by our subjective organisation; we are able to apprehend only fragments of reality — specialisations, exemplifications, particulars. We have the power to see only a mere aspect or hint of the actuality. What we thus get is in and of itself only enigma and illusion. “Through sense-perception,” says Goethe, “objects appear separately.”

  1. My task consists in reconciling these two spheres.

In order that I may reconcile these two spheres, I must let them come together again. That they may take on intelligibility I must allow the percepts to enter into groupings, contexts, laws, wholes. This reconciliation is effected by Thinking.

  1. We cannot speak of ‘Limits of Knowledge.

Modern Thought sees in Percepts a world altogether alien to our thinking and declares it to be “inaccessible to knowledge.” ... Dr. Steiner asks us to make crystal-clear to ourselves the function and significance of thinking. Thinking is simply Things realising themselves within us. Only in a very circumscribed way can we say — “I think.” When we have learned our manners as cosmic citizens, we shall say — “The World thinks in me. What we call our thinking is merely the assertion within us of the patterns, the relationships, the wholes, which are the substance of what we get with our senses. Thinking is subjective only in the sense that our head is the stage on which it appears; in itself, it is objective through and through.

We cannot all at once plunge into omniscience, into world-vision. We are required to overcome the limitations of time and space. On our long evolutionary journey, we are subject to all manner of temporary hold-ups to knowledge. But as soon as we comprehend the nature and function of Thinking, we see that any absolute limits to knowledge are inconceivable. Relying upon our sense-organs, we are on the outside of things; as soon as we begin to think, we get inside. Man as constituted by his thinking is free of all the secrets of the universe.

Last Modified: 17-Oct-2020
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