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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 first half of Dr. Steiner's life was essentially occupied with his struggle to come to an understanding with human cognition and to formulate what he came to know. The first seventeen sections of his autobiography give his own account of this struggle. He is in effect telling us how the “Philosophy of Spiritual Activity” came to be written. We have a sort of great preface to it. The student will be well-advised to read these sections before he sets to work upon his real task. In the half-dozen passages here quoted, I have endeavoured to indicate something of what Dr. Steiner has to say].


“Nevertheless, I learned earlier than is usual, to read well; and through this, the assistant teacher was able to arouse in me an interest which gave direction to my whole life-course. Not long after my entry into the school at Neudorfl, I found in his room a book on Geometry. I was on such good terms with him that he at once made me a loan of it. I read it enthusiastically. For weeks on end my mind was full of triangles and squares and polygons. I tormented myself with asking where parallel lines meet. The Theorem of Pythagoras aroused in me wonder and delight.

“That in complete independence of sense-impressions, entirely within oneself, one can shape forms, gave me the profoundest satisfaction. It was consolation for my unanswered questions. That there is something one can lay hold upon exclusively in the spirit — that gave me immense joy. It was in Geometry that I first found such happiness.

“Out of Geometry there emerged for me a way of thinking, which developed further and further. Already, even though more or less unconsciously, it lived in me during my childhood; when I was about 20, it became fully conscious and took explicit shape.

“I argued thus with myself: ‘The objects and processes perceived by the senses are out there in space. This space is outside me. Within me, also, there is a kind of space. Upon this inner-space stage, spiritual occurrences are being enacted. To regard thoughts as pictures of objects, formed by man himself, I found impossible. I saw them as manifestations of a spiritual world. Geometry exemplified for me a kind of knowledge which, while seeming to originate in man, has a significance altogether its own.’ As a child, I could not of course say this clearly to myself but I felt: ‘Like Geometry must one bear within oneself the knowledge of the spiritual world.’

“The reality of the spiritual world was to me as completely certain as that of the physical world. But I felt a need to justify this to my thinking. I was resolved upon demonstrating to my own mind that experience of the spiritual world has the same scientific validity as experience of the physical.”


“The spiritual world stood self-evident before me. But I felt that it was essential for me to enter it through the doorway of nature. I urged upon myself: ‘I must intensify my thinking; I must become able with my thinking to penetrate into the reality within natural phenomena; only in such a way can I legitimately enter the spiritual world.’ While I was in the third and fourth classes of the Realschule, I was full of feelings such as these. Everything I studied was subservient to this one aim.

“One day I happened to pass a bookshop in the window of which was Kant's ‘Critique of Pure Reason.’ Forthwith, in every way I could, I set about getting the money to buy it.

“Of Kant's place in cultural history I was quite ignorant. Of what other thinkers said of him, whether in appreciation or depreciation, I knew nothing. My insatiable interest in the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ arose solely out of the necessities of my own personal-mental life. In my boyish way I was struggling with all my might to discover how far one could penetrate into the reality of things by means of human cognition.

“The study of Kant was beset with hindrances. Every day, on the long journey to and from school, I lost a good three hours. I only reached home at six in the evening. Then there was an immense quantity of homework to get through. On Sundays I felt it essential to devote myself almost exclusively to geometrical drawing. It was my resolve to reach the utmost exactitude in geometrical construction and the greatest possible neatness in hatching and in the laying on of colours.

“Thus, there was scarcely any time available for ‘The Critique of Pure Reason.’ I found the following way out. Our history teacher spoke as if he were lecturing: actually, he read what he had to say from a book. Then we in our turn were expected to learn in our own history books what had been taught us. I decided to let history take care of itself at home. From the ‘lecture’ I got nothing; I could not take in anything at all from the teacher's reading. So I separated from one another the various sections of Kant's ‘Critique’ and bound them in the history book which lay before me during the school lesson and then I read Kant while the history ‘lecture’ was being given us. From the point-of-view of school discipline, this was, of course, a serious fault; but nobody was disturbed by it; and it detracted so little from what I was supposed to be doing that at that very time I was given ‘Excellent’ for History.

“In the holidays I got on fast with Kant. Many a page I read more than 20 times over. My heart was set on finding out what relation human thinking bore to the creative work of nature ...

“‘What is the scope of human thought?’ — this question never left me. My feeling was that if it could be sufficiently intensified, man's thinking would be able actually to penetrate into and make its own the things and processes of nature. A ‘something’ which remains outside there; which we can only think towards; — such notions I found unendurable. Whatever is in things — so did I again and again affirm to myself — must be in our thinking.”


“What philosophy I could learn from others had no thought-technique for the perception of the spiritual world. Frustrated in that direction, I began to shape a Theory of Knowledge of my own. Man's life in thought came more and more to seem to me a reflection of what can be perceived in the spiritual. In his thinking man lives through and through within a reality; there is no place here to doubt. But the life of the senses seemed to me less veridical; we cannot lay hold upon it as our own; conceivably, it mediates some hidden reality. Man, however, finds himself in a world of sense-impressions; and the question arose for me: — ‘Can this sense-perceptible world be a complete reality? If from out of himself man weaves into this world thoughts which fill it with light, how can he be bringing to it something alien?’ This does not in the least correspond with the feeling we have when into the sense-world; we introduce thinking; our thoughts seem rather to be as if the sense-world were expressing its own being. My inner life was at that time largely occupied with the following up of reflections such as these.”


“The mechanical theory of heat and the wave theory of light and electricity drove me back to epistemology. The external world was conceived as motion-processes in matter; sensations were merely the subjective effects of these upon the human sense-organs. Out there in space occurred motion-events; if they affected man's heat sense, he experienced the sensation of heat. Outside man, there were wave-processes in the ether; if these reached the optic nerve, light and colour experiences arose inside him.

“These views reached me from all sides. They caused for my thinking difficulties which I was unable at that time to overcome. They drove spirit entirely out of the external objective world. But I had my own spiritual experience, and I knew that such a point-of-view had no foundation. Í could see how tempting were all such hypotheses to natural scientific thought; I was not then, however, capable with a way of thought of my own of confronting the prevalent ways of thought. This caused me the utmost distress. I saw that it was of no use to bring a superficial criticism against the prevailing views; I had to wait until out of deeper sources of knowledge, I had gained greater certainty.”


“Schiller's way of thinking deeply interested me. It suggested that if man is to gain a relationship to phenomena such as is proper to his own nature, he must first of all raise his consciousness to the necessary level. Something was here intimated whereby my questions about cognition became much more clarified. Schiller had in mind the state of consciousness we must attain if we are to apprehend Beauty in the world. Might I not likewise envisage a state of consciousness which would mediate Truth? I saw that if such reasoning is justified, it is futile to ask (as Kant does) whether we can penetrate into reality with our existing consciousness. We must first raise ourselves into that condition of consciousness to which things can declare their own being.

“I believed that I knew, moreover, that such a state of consciousness may be attained — at any rate, up to a certain point — if man entertains not thoughts which merely reproduce outer things and processes but thoughts which are experienced in themselves. This life in thought revealed itself to me as quite other than that which we utilise for everyday life or for scientific research. If we push forward into this life of thought, we find that spiritual reality comes to meet us. We are taking the way of the soul to the spirit. Yet upon this inner path we are getting to a spiritual reality which is then found again in Nature. The spiritual reality found in living thought has become the answer to the riddles set us by natural phenomena.

“If he strives forward beyond the usual abstract thinking to the dignity and beauty of spiritual perception, man enmembers himself in a reality from which the everyday consciousness excludes him. Such spiritual perception has on the one side all the living quality of sense-knowledge; on the other, all the abstract quality of thought-forming. Spiritual perception apprehends the spiritual world as the physical senses apprehend the natural. But whereas the everyday consciousness with its thinking stands apart from its perceiving; spiritual perception in its thinking becomes one with the perceiving.

“I now saw that there is a way of cognising supersensibly which is altogether free from mystical obscurity. It possesses the through-and-through clearness of mathematical thinking. I was at last very near being able to say to myself that my perception of the spiritual could be justified out of natural scientific thought.

“These, at the age of 22, were my mental experiences.”


How one must think, in order to comprehend living phenomena, was what I wanted to state in my comments upon Goethe's Organic Science writings. His views called for such an explanatory basis. My contemporaries conceived cognition in a manner which could never come to terms with Goethe's way of looking at things. They had in mind natural science as it then existed. What they had to say about cognition held good only for the inorganic. Between what I was saying and what they were saying, no accommodation was possible.

“Thus, whatever I said about Goethe's Organics sent me back once again to epistemology. There stood before me views like those of Otto Liebmann, declaring in all sorts of ways that human consciousness cannot get outside itself; that it must be content with what is sent into it from the outer world; that it is only capable of cognising a subjective spiritual. To such a way of looking at things Goethe's mode of investigating organic nature is altogether uncongenial. All that is then possible is to confine oneself to the spiritual inside the human consciousness and assert that the use of our spiritual faculties for the observation of nature is illegitimate.

“There was no theory of cognition which explained Goethe's kind of knowledge-getting. Out of an inner need I felt impelled to try to outline such a theory. Before going on to prepare the further volumes of Goethe's Natural Science writings, I accordingly wrote my ‘Theory of Cognition according to Goethe's View of the World.’ This little book was finished in 1886.”


“The first three decades of my life seem to me in retrospect to make a single self-contained chapter. I then went to Weimar to work in the Goethe-Schiller Institute. During the period in Vienna — before I went to Weimar — those thoughts towards which I had all my life been striving came to a certain finality. I began to shape them into my ‘Philosophy of Spiritual Activity.’

“The sense-world was for me no true reality. In the articles and lectures I did at the time, I strove to explain that the human mind attains reality not in thought drawn from the sense-perceptible but only in thoughts drawn in freedom from the supersensible. When it thinks such sense-free thoughts, I pictured the mind as participant in the spiritual being of the world.

“I was at the greatest pains to urge that when man lives in this sense-free thinking in full consciousness, he knows himself to stand within the basic world-reality. Talk about ‘Limits of Knowledge’ was to my way of thinking nonsensical. ‘Knowing’ meant for me merely the re-discovery of the content — already experienced within one's own self — of the sense-perceptible world. If anyone spoke of ‘Limits of Knowledge,’ it meant that, being unable to find reality in himself, he of course could not find it in the outer world.

“My main concern was to refute the dogma that there are limits to knowledge. I wanted to overthrow a theory of cognition which sought to make a way to reality from out of the sense-perceptible. I tried to make it plain that never by any such breaking through from without, but only by getting down deeper into himself, can man find reality. We try to break through from without; find this impossible; and then speak of ‘Limits to Knowledge.’ But to the human mind itself there are no limitations. The seeming impossibility arises only because we are envisaging a situation which to true self-understanding is inconceivable. We are merely trying to press further into the sensible world in order to find in it a continuation of the sensible beyond the sense-perceptible. This is as if a person who lived in illusions found the causes of his illusions in further illusions.

“The drift of my explanations ran as follows: — From birth onwards, we confront the world with our cognising. To begin with, we make use only of sense-perception. To sense-perception, however, the world-content cannot reveal its essential being. Only when we have made ourselves penetrable by finding our own real being, can the Real Being of the World get at us. At this first stage of cognising, all we can achieve is the creation of a world-picture which is sheer illusion. If, however, we then go on from out of ourselves to generate sense-free thinking — thus supplementing and completing what the senses have told us about things — then our illusory world-picture becomes metamorphosed into reality. It is illusory no longer. As soon as we come to our own true selfhood in thought, we cease to think of the World Mind as hidden behind the sense-perceptible phenomena; we see it living and weaving within them.

“I saw that the Being of the World can be found, not by logical inference nor by physical research, but only by moving forward from sense-perception to sense-free thinking.

“The second volume of my Goethe's Natural Science writings (1888) is full of such points-of-view as the following: — ‘If we see in thinking the capacity to comprehend more than can be known to the senses, we are forced on to recognise the existence of objects over and above those which we experience in sense-perception. Such objects are Ideas. In taking possession of the Idea, thinking merges itself into the World Mind. What was working without now works within. Man has become one with the World Being at its highest potency. Such a becoming-realised of the Idea in the World Reality is the true communion of man — thinking has the same significance for ideas as the eye for light and the ear for sound. It is an organ of perception.

“When sense-free thinking, through self-intensification, moves forward to actual spiritual perception, the spiritual world is revealed to us; but to speak of the spiritual world was not at that time my concern. What I wanted to bring out was that the being of nature, as it manifests itself to our physical senses, is spiritual.

“Destiny led me into conflict with contemporary epistemologists. Assuming as self-evident that Nature was devoid of spirit, they concerned themselves to ask with what right human beings try to shape their spiritual ideas about Nature. My own conception of the knowledge-process was entirely different. I found it impossible to envisage man as standing with his thinking outside Nature and from outside concocting theories about her. Thinking was for me the experiencing of reality. I could see man in his thinking only as standing in the very being of things.

“It was my further destiny to relate my own views to what Goethe stood for. Here I had numerous opportunities to speak about the spiritual being of nature. It was in this way that Goethe himself looked at Nature. But Goethe went no further; he did not go on into any direct perceiving of the spiritual. In this Goethe-work accordingly there was no occasion for me to speak of the spiritual being of the world, as such.

“In the second place, I was trying to state what I understood by human freedom. When a man acts out of his instincts and passions, he is unfree. Impulses — comparable for consciousness with sense-impressions — determine his conduct. Upon this level, his real being is not at work; as man, he is hidden away — exactly as the spiritual world is hidden away from mere sense-observation. Of itself, the sense-perceptible world is not an illusion; it is man who lets it become illusion. And man can in like manner in his conduct allow the sense-like instincts and passions to act upon him; then, instead of being himself active, the illusory acts in him. He is allowing the unspiritual to have its way. His own self is at work only when he finds the motive-forces for what he does in sense-free thinking. Then he himself is active and nothing else. We have a free being, acting from out of itself.

“Whoever rejects as a reality man's sense-free thinking will never come to the conception of human freedom. But as soon as we see the reality of sense-free thinking, the conception of human freedom forthwith arises.”


“Thus took shape the ideas out of which my ‘Philosophy of Spiritual Activity’ subsequently arose. The ultimate experience gained by these ideas is of the same nature as that of the mystic. In formulating my ideas, however, I was scrupulous never to allow any mystical elements to intrude. The mystic strengthens his own inner life and by doing so obscures the true form of the spiritual. As I present things, man is called upon, by self-obliteration, to let the objective-spiritual reality arise in him.”


“It was my destiny to experience within the borders of natural science the riddles of our human existence. The answers I found were given expression in the ‘Philosophy of Spiritual Activity.’”

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