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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



Instinctively, in these days, we look for a natural cause for every occurrence, not excluding occurrences wherein man himself is the seeming agent. We find it almost impossible to credit that there can be in man a final source of free spiritual activity. Our ways of thinking dispose us to assert that whatever man does is the result of physical-physiological causes, external to himself and beyond his own control.

Is this view of man justified? Is it the result of open observation? Dr. Steiner holds it to be an oblique and almost incidental consequence of five centuries of physical science and technical civilisation. He insists that, apparently scientific though it may be, it is in actuality merely a prejudiced way of looking at things. He says that we do not look at the facts about ourselves objectively. He says that we look at them with all sorts of pre-existent mental habits, applicable no doubt to physical nature but not proper for an understanding of man ... This chapter sums up his book. It is a final effort to get us to look at ourselves not through the spectacles of materialistic science but with our own eyes. He says that if we can succeed in this, we shall know of our own incontrovertible experience that we have within us a source whence free actions can issue.

Before he proceeds to look at my own notes, the reader may find it helpful to ponder for a while upon the following extracts from this chapter. If indeed he does this sufficiently, he may well find that the notes have become superfluous.

“A particular human individual is not actually cut off from the universe. He is a part of the universe and his connection with the cosmic whole is broken, not in reality, but only for perception. At first we apprehend this part as a self-existing thing, because we are unable to see the cords and ropes by which the fundamental forces of the cosmos keep turning the wheel of our life. All who remain at this stand-point see the part as if it were in truth an independent, separate, self-existing thing, gaining all its knowledge of the rest of the world in some way from without. But the Monism described in this book shows that we can believe in this separateness only so long as thinking has not gathered our percepts into the net-work of the conceptual. As soon as this happens, all partial existence in the universe reveals itself as mere appearance, due to perception. Man can find his existence rightly in the universe only through the experience of intuitive thought. Thinking destroys the mere appearance of perception and assigns to our individual existence its place in the life of the cosmos.

“The tree which I perceive, taken in isolation by itself, has no existence; it exists only as a member in the immense organism of nature, and it is possible only in actual connection with nature. An abstract concept, taken by itself, has as little reality as a percept taken by itself. The percept is that part of reality which is given from without; the concept is that part which is given from within (by intuition). Our mental organisation breaks up reality into these two aspects. The one aspect is given to perception; the other to intuition. Only the union of the two — percept fitted, according to law, into its place in the universe — gives us reality in its full character.”

“Even the most orthodox Subjective Idealist will not deny that we live in a real world; that, as real beings, we are rooted in it; but he does deny that our knowledge by means of our ideas can grasp the reality in which we live. As against this view, Monism shows that thinking is neither subjective nor objective but a principle which holds together both sides of reality. Thinking-observation is a process which itself belongs to the stream of real events. By thinking we overcome, within the limits of experience itself, the one-sidedness of mere perception. We are not able by purely conceptual reflection to decipher the real, but in so far as we find the ideas for our percepts, we live in the real.”

In my (now very remote) school-days, I learned a piece of verse which began: —

“There were six men of Hindustan,

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see an elephant,

Though all of them were blind.”

One of them grasped the elephant's tail and concluded that an elephant is “very like a rope;” another felt an elephant must be some sort of a tree; another, that it is like a spear; etc. ...

Before thinking begins — so long as we depend exclusively upon perception — the world appears to us thus in fragments. From such fragments we receive no complete picture but mere illusion.

Before I think — “The tree which I perceive, taken by itself in isolation has no existence; it comes into existence only as a member in the immense organism of nature and it is possible only in actual connection with nature.”

Before we think — the world appears to us as mere multiplicity, mere unrelated particulars, mere blobs of colour, noise, smell, etc., — without values, without meaning.

The animal accepts some such world; so does the tiny child; the grown human being cannot accept it., He has a feeling that at this stage of cognition he is on the outside of things, excluded from reality. He longs in the words of Faust for “the Breasts of Nature.”

He instinctively and spontaneously sets about getting real knowledge. This is to be achieved not by the acquisition of a further quantity of perceptual facts but only by supplementing perception with an entirely different sort of human activity. The name of this qualitatively different human activity is Thinking.

What does Thinking do? it transforms the unintelligible of mere perception into intelligibility.

How does Thinking do it? It does it by assigning to the perceptual particulars their place in appropriate groupings, contexts, wholes. The tail takes on its proper significance when it is thought into its place as a member of the elephant; and the elephant takes on meaning and value as soon as we see it as a member in the vast organism of nature. The tree becomes more and more a tree as we relate it to other trees of the same kind as itself; to all other plants; etc., etc. The world itself is not split into two. It is we who split it into two. We first of all get a feeble spectral hold of things by Perception; then by Thinking we get them in their full reality. If we are active only with our sense-organisation, we are able to cognise only particulars, fragments, outsides, shadows, appearances. As soon as we think, we get relationships, groupings, wholes, laws, reality.

“The percept is that part of reality which is given from without. The concept is that part of reality which is given from within. Our own organisation breaks up reality into these two aspects. The one aspect appears to perception; the other, to thinking-intuition. Only the union of the two, which consists of the percept fitted according to law into its place in the universe, gives us reality in its full character.”

So long as I live in percepts alone, I live in unintelligibility. As soon as I think, I live in the intelligible.... What then has thinking effected? What is the role of this thinking of mine? What must be the nature of thinking?

To me personally, it would seem that the following assertions about thinking have been established beyond controversy: —

  1. With my Thinking, I am in the most intimate way identified. Without it, I fall to pieces. With it, I am completely equipped for understanding the world and living in it. So much is Thinking my very self, that if I try to throw doubt on its dependableness, I can do it only by making use of thinking. Rightly taken, the words of Descartes are entirely acceptable: — “I think, therefore I am.” Thinking is at the centre of my selfhood. Without Thinking, I could not be a human being.

It is impossible to question the me-ness of our Thinking. But it is equally impossible to doubt that it is a World-activity. It is as real an event in the universe as the courses of the stars or the falling of the rain or the beat of the heart. It is implanted in man that, by means of it, man may be man. True though it is to say: — “I think;” it is even more true to say: — “The World thinks in me.” When we think, we are participant in the higher workings of the world-order. Thinking directly mediates reality. In so far as we think, we live in reality. When we think, “The fundamental forces of the cosmos are turning the wheel of our life.”

(3) Giving them thus value and meaning. Thinking arranges the perceptual particulars into groupings, patterns, wholes. These relationships, these groupings, these wholes, these laws, cannot he held in the hand or seen with the eye. They are nevertheless unquestionably real existences ... Unless the reader is so materialised that he refuses downright to look at the fact, he is obliged to admit that Thinking not only mediates Reality but also that the Reality which it mediates transcends physical phenomena.

We are looking for a Source of free, spiritual, human activity. Such a Source must be in our own selfhood. Such a Source must be world-factual. Such a Source must be uncaused and unconditioned by the physical world ... If we observe without prejudice what goes on within ourselves; if we are capable of seeing things “Monistically;” we see that such a Source exists. We know that man is “free.”

Last Modified: 30-Nov-2020
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