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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 concept ‘tree’ is conditioned for our knowledge by the percept ‘tree.’ When faced with a determinate percept, I can select only one determinate concept from the general system of concepts. The connection of concept and percept is mediately and objectively determined by thinking in conformity with the percept. The connection between a percept and its concept is recognised only after the act of perception, but the relevance of the one to the other is determined by the thing itself.

“The procedure is different if we consider knowledge or rather, the relation of man to the world which arises within knowledge. In the preceding chapters the attempt has been made to show that an unprejudiced observation of this relation can throw light on its nature. Correct understanding of this observation shows us that thinking may be intuitively apprehended in its self-contained being. Those who find it necessary, for the explanation of thinking as such, to invoke something else, e.g. physical brain-processes or unconscious spiritual processes lying behind the conscious thinking which they observe, fail to grasp the facts which unprejudiced observation of thinking yields. We live during the observation of thinking immediately within the essence of a spiritual, self-sustaining activity. Indeed, we may even affirm that if we desire to grasp the essential nature of Spirit in the form in which it immediately presents itself to man, we need only look at our own self-sustaining thinking.

“For the study of thinking, two things coincide which elsewhere must always appear apart, viz. concept and percept. If we fail to see this, we shall look upon the concepts which we have elaborated in response to percepts as mere shadowy copies of these percepts and we shall take the percepts as presenting to us reality as it really is. We shall, further, build up for ourselves a metaphysical world after the pattern of the perceived world. We shall, each of us according to his habitual thought-pictures, call this a world of atoms or of will or of unconscious spirit, etc. And we shall fail to notice that all the time we have done nothing but erect hypothetically a metaphysical world modelled upon our perceived world. But if we clearly apprehend what thinking consists in, we shall recognise that percepts present to us only a portion of reality and that the complementary portion (which alone imparts to reality its full character as real), is experienced by us in the permeation of percepts by thinking. We shall regard that which enters into consciousness as thinking, not as some shadowy copy of reality, but as a self-sustaining spiritual essence. We shall be able to say of it that it is revealed to us in consciousness through intuition. Intuition is the purely spiritual conscious experience of a purely spiritual content. It is only through intuition that we can grasp the essence of thinking.

“Only if one wins through, by means of unprejudiced observation, to the recognition of this truth of the intuitive essence of thinking, will one succeed in clearing the way for a conception of the psycho-physical organisation of man. One recognises that this organisation can produce no effect whatever on the essential nature of thinking. At first sight, this seems to be contradicted by obvious facts. For ordinary experience, human thinking occurs only in connection with and by means of such an organisation. This dependence upon the psycho-physical organisation is so patent that we can recognise its true bearing only if we clearly appreciate that in the essential nature of thinking it plays no part whatever. Once we grasp this, we can no longer fail to notice how peculiar is the relation of the human organisation to thinking. This organisation contributes nothing to the essential nature of thought but recedes whenever the thinking-activity appears. It then suspends its own activity and yields ground. And the ground thus set free is occupied by thinking. Thus, the essence which is active in thinking has a two-fold function — first, it restricts the human organisation in its own activity; secondly, it steps into the place of it. Yes, even the former, the restriction of the physical organisation, is an effect of the activity of thinking and more particularly of that part of the activity which prepares the manifestation of thinking. This explains the sense in which thinking has its counterpart in the organisation of the body. Once we perceive this, we can no longer misapprehend what significance for thinking this physical counterpart has. When we walk over soft ground, our feet leave impressions in the soil. We do not believe that the forces of the ground, from below, have formed these foot-prints. We do not attribute to such forces any share in the production of the foot-prints. Correspondingly, if without prejudice we observe the essential nature of thinking, we shall not attribute any share in it to the traces in the physical organism which thinking produces in preparing its manifestation through the body.”

We are called upon here, very urgently indeed, for “unprejudiced observation” of thinking. We must not take it for granted — because the tendencies of this particular phase of history run so tumultuously in that direction — that thinking can be explained only as the final product of physical-physiological processes. This hostile prejudice may be latent in the student who feels himself antipathetic to Dr. Steiner's line of thought. But the reader who is sympathetic with Dr. Steiner's line of thought is likely to be in a more unhopeful situation still. The danger is that he will agree with what Dr. Steiner says, not because he has observed it in himself, but because Dr. Steiner says it. ... We are called upon to make, each of us, our own independent observation of our own thinking. Unless we are able to be completely objective, we render ourselves incapable of listening to the argument, of effectively grasping it.

“But if we clearly apprehend what Thinking consists in, we shall see that Percepts present to us only a portion of reality and that the complementary portion — which alone gives complete reality — is experienced by us in the permeation of Percepts by Thinking.”

What do these words mean? Have we taken in what has been argued in Part I of this book? Can we state to ourselves by what right Dr. Steiner is able to make such an assertion?

As apprehended by our senses, the world is mere appearance; it has no true existence; it consists of meaningless particulars; it is unintelligible. But as soon as we grasp it with our thinking, we find it taking on meanings, values, intelligibility, reality. This forces us to ask ourselves — “If Thinking can effect such a transformation, what sort of a thing is it?” We observe that Thinking, like a king, confers relationships, establishes laws, groups particulars into wholes, mediates the world-order. We note that Thinking is not in any way derived from nor dependent upon Percepts; we see that it completely transcends the perceptible; we see that only in and through Thinking have Percepts come to life. We realise that we are in the presence of a “self-existing spiritual essence.”

“Thinking is revealed to us through intuition;” “Only through intuition can we grasp the essence of Thinking” ... All other items of experience are as if “shot at us out of a gun;” they are felt as externals. Thinking however we experience from within. What am I to make of this plainly observable fact? I can give myself no explanation of it except to say that whereas all other things are in existence of themselves, my Thinking arises only through and in me. The world of Percepts consists of things that are not-me, of things un-me-ised; Thinking is ME. America is there already in existence; so is the sky; so is this table; so is my next door neighbour; but not Thinking. If Thinking is to be in existence, I must bring it into existence. “I think, therefore I am” really signifies that Thinking is indissolubly one with my very being.

Man truly enough is part of nature. He is subject to natural causation. His psycho-physical organisation mediates to him external perceptual forces. Impelled by these, he is nothing better than an animal, a plant, or a stone. “Our dependence on the psychophysical organisation is obvious ... but in the essential nature of Thinking it plays no part whatever. It recedes whenever Thinking-activity appears; it suspends its own activity; it yields ground. And the ground thus set free is occupied by Thinking.”

We are actors in a cosmic drama. When we think, we clear the stage of perceptual rubbish so that this drama can go on. Thinking is the power to create within ourselves a free space whereinto physical forces are refused entry. As long as I am only a sleeping, perceptualising creature, I am subject to natural causation; when I awaken, when I become my Thinking Self, I then become myself a cause.

To me personally, observing myself, it seems beyond controversy that by means of thinking, I can and do bring into existence within myself a self-existing essence, wherein and wherefrom I am no longer motivated by the external, the unknown, the perceptual. … To prolong further the argument upon this point would be unprofitable. The reader must forgive me if I assume that the fact is established.

Within me is a source of spiritual activity. Whenever I choose, I can ignore it; I can treat it as non-existent; I can let my actions originate — through my psycho-physical organisation — in the external-perceptual. I can let myself be motivated openly or obscurely by the forces operative in nature or in social conditions. I can allow the determinants of my conduct to be such things as sex, fear, anger, the power of the State, social convention, moral platitudes, obsolete ideas, conscience. In so far as I let this kind of thing happen to me, I am unfree: —

Diagram 1

Alternatively, I can say “No” to the forces that assail me from the external-perceptual and “Yes,” to the intuitions that arise within me. I can refuse to let myself be made into the plaything of obscure forces external to my selfhood. I can, instead, in imaginativeness and in love, in crystal-clear consciousness, creatively, give myself the motives for what I do. This is to be “free.”

Diagram 2

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