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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 THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
IMPLICIT IN GOETHE'S
WORLD-CONCEPTION”

[Rudolf Steiner edited Goethe'sWorks in Natural Science:” — Volume I, published in 1884,” Volume II, in 1888; Volume III, in 1891; Volume IV (Part I), in 1895; Volume IV (Part II), in 1897. From 1891 to 1897 he lived and worked in Weimar, making contributions to the Natural Science volumes of theWeimar Edition,” then being officially prepared, of Goethe's entire writings.

In 1886 he published on his own account a book called (in the present English version)The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception” ... “How does man stand within the phenomena of nature? How does he grasp outer existence in his consciousness? What is the explanation of his thinking?” ... To questions such as these Dr. Steiner felt that Modern Science was giving no satisfactory answers. He averred that by observation of Goethe's method of handling scientific problems the proper solutions could be discovered. What follows is an attempt to give an outline of this work of Dr. Steiner's. It is offered as a brief but valid account of human cognition.]

Two spheres of experience stand over against one another: —

  1. The Appearance of Things to our Senses: — The green of the grass; the barking of a dog; etc.

  2. Our Thinking: — What we make of these sense-perceptible phenomena when we work upon them with our minds.

We are enquiring into the relationship between these two spheres. We are asking: — “What significance has the reflection in our consciousness of the external world?”

Following the rule that every good scientific investigator or thinker makes his own, we shall look for an answer exclusively in experience.

Let us first get clear about the way in which things appear to our Senses. We can then go on to elucidate the precise function of Thinking in the knowledge-process.

Let us suppose that there sits, watching a game of cricket, some lover of the game and on his knee, also watching, a tiny child. The grown-up sees every occurrence against a vast invisible, complicated mental background of all that he knows about the game. If we try to “un-think” or “de-think” all that the grown person knows of the game, we shall get to something like the sort of picture of it which is in the consciousness of the tiny child: — mere movements of white on a green background; mere sense-perceptions. At this level of cognition, we are like a cow looking at the Mona Lisa or like a person who has never learned to read looking at a page of Shakespeare.

Such virginal sense-experience is sheer multiplicity: — a medley of impressions; mere juxtaposition in space; mere succession in time; single items of experience; blobs of smell and colour and noise; each item standing in entire isolation; mere particulars.

These sense-particulars make no disclosure of their nature. Taken in this way, they present themselves as entirely enigmatical, entirely unintelligible entities. So long as we depend passively upon what our senses bring to us, we are in darkness. Things seem as if they were shot at us from a gun out of the unknown. We are in a world without values and without meanings; in a world of appearance and illusion.

If as human beings we were limited all our lives to cognition by our senses alone, the world would be for ever completely unintelligible. Thinking — to the first meaningless appearance of things for the sense-organs — brings: — INTELLIGIBILITY. (Thought, we say, “enlightens;” “illuminates;” “throws light.”)

Things, as mediated to us by our senses, tell us nothing about themselves. They are enigmatic, obscure, unyielding, lifeless. Things, as mediated to our thinking, are infinitely alive; they are always in metamorphosis; they spontaneously declare their inner being.

While we are standing amid sense-percepts, we know as little about the world as an animal does. We feel as if we were surrounded by the impenetrable outsides of objects. Standing in our thoughts, we feel as if we are on the inside of the world. Secrets are being told to us; we are behind the scenes.

In the appearance it had for the senses, reality seemed to consist of single, isolated objects — each self-contained — each keeping exclusively to itself. But as it appears to Thinking, reality seems to consist of objects that smile upon each other; that stretch out helping hands to each other; each communicating gladly with all the rest. Every thought helpfully relates itself to others. We cannot conceive of gold without conceiving also of buttercups and wedding-rings and hair and goodness. We are travelling about the universe upon a magic-carpet at lightning-speed. Here we find ourselves in a world of associativeness and affinity. Things automatically group themselves. Towards the concept “organism” rush other such concepts as “growth” and “evolution.” Whereas, so to speak, a percept likes to be alone, a concept refuses to be alone. We find it intolerable to have in our minds a concept not brought into relationship with those already there.

We have emerged out of a nightmare multiplicity of single particulars into a world where, of their own accord, things are grouping themselves. We stand now in generalisations; amid the laws of nature; amid wholes; in that ordered body of knowledge called “Science.”

In Chapter IX of this work, Dr. Steiner puts the matter thus: — “... What comes first into our mind is in actual fact derivative.

“In the achievement 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 its ‘What?’ — its real nature — which the percept itself does not express. This impulse is nothing but the upward working of a concept out of the darkness of our consciousness. We then hold this concept firmly while the sense-percept moves on a parallel line with this thought-process. The mute percept suddenly speaks a language intelligible to us; we know that the concept which we have taken hold of is the real nature of the percept for which we have been seeking.”

Sense-perceptions are mediated to us by our eyes and ears and hands. Then, “in our heads,” takes place an activity which we ourselves originate or mediate ... What is the super-personal background of these happenings? That I may perceive and think as I do — in what relation must I be standing to things all about me? What is the world-context of my perceiving and thinking?

Outwardly, reality exposes itself as mere building materials. If we make use exclusively of sense-perception — so long as we are like an animal or a tiny child — we can take in only this lower, outer, provisional aspect of reality. But immediately we think, reality begins to reveal to us its other inner higher aspect — its complete being.

Nature specializes. She offers me a shower of rain; a rising tide; this steadfast table on which I am writing. Thus she presents her mere outer particulars, her isolated exemplifications ... But she is capable also of a far higher activity. She can generalise. All these single occurrences are mere instances of the Law of Gravitation ... She offers to my eye and ear her single unrelated particulars; to my mind, She reveals her generalising.

We ourselves continuously manufacture that dead outer garment we call our skin. In some like manner, nature seems to clothe herself in common-place matter. Within She is all stir and magic and creation; when She externalises herself, She becomes mere stuff. Use your sense-organs and you see, in her shop-window, only Nature's isolated products. But you can also use your mentality and go into the workshop where She is ceaselessly producing.

If the considerations here brought forward are justified, we see that it is no longer legitimate for us to speak of Thinking as “merely subjective.” Nor to regard it as consisting just of “personal opinions.” Admittedly, it appears in the heads of single persons. Admittedly, we can think more or less effectively; more or less correctly; etc. But the thing itself — Thinking as such — transcends every subjective and personal limitation. What Thinking does in and of itself (e.g. our sense of cause and effect; e.g. the unfailing associativeness of our concepts) is none of our doing. I am only the stage onto which Thinking enters; upon which Thinking performs. It is not I that think but the World that thinks in me. When “I” think, things are in my mind declaring their true being.

Let us recapitulate.

We are in search of a Theory of Knowledge. We desire to understand what this Thinking of ours signifies.

In accordance with the spirit and practice of present-day Science, we are making our appeal exclusively to Experience. Coming of its own accord out of the unknown periphery of things, there looms up upon us through our sense-organs a nightmare world of mere multiplicity: — a chaos of isolated blobs of sensation. This “Appearance for the Senses” is devoid of “values;” it is meaningless; it is unintelligible. It is by itself altogether barren and unprofitable.

Refusing to be befooled by this nightmare, we think. Immediately, things begin to take on intelligibility. These dormant percepts of ours, like the personages in the fairy story, wake up and speak. The Other Half of Reality (hitherto concealed) is now made known to us. We have broken through the outer shell of nature into Her Real Being. We delightedly find ourselves in a world of relationships and groupings; in a world of law and harmony and unity.

To the humdrum sense-organs, the world displays only its external covering. To that unique sovereign organ called “The Mind of Man,” it speaks as its very self... Certainly I must say: — “It is I myself that think.” But far more deeply, far more powerfully, should I affirm: — “When I think, it is the World Itself that thinks in me.”

Among the data of Experience, we have found an item that enables us confidently to solve the world-mystery.




Last Modified: 17-Oct-2020
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