From Riddles of the Soul, a collection of essays published by Rudolf Steiner in 1917
In Max Dessoir’s book From Beyond the Soul there is a brief section in which the systematic noetic investigation, or spiritual science, called “anthroposophical” and associated with my name, is stigmatized as scientifically untenable. Now it might well be argued that any dialogue between someone with the scientific outlook of Dessoir and an upholder of this anthroposophical method must be a waste of time. For the latter necessarily posits a field of purely noetic experience which the former categorically denies and relegates to the realm of fantasy. Apparently, then, one can speak of spiritual science and its findings only to someone who is antecedently convinced of the factuality of that field.
This would be true enough if the spokesman for anthroposophy had nothing to bring forward but his own inner personal experiences, and if he then simply set these up alongside the findings of a science based on sensory observation and the scientific elaboration thereof. You could then say: the professor of science, so defined, must refuse to regard the experiences of the spiritual researcher as realities; the latter can only expect to impress those who have already adopted his own standpoint.
And yet this conclusion depends on a misconception of what I mean by anthroposophy. It is quite true that anthroposophy relies on psychic apprehensions that are dependent neither on sense-impressions nor on scientific propositions based on these and these alone. It must be conceded therefore that prima facie the two types of apprehension are divided from one another by an unbridgable gulf. Nevertheless this turns out not to be the case. There is a common ground on which the two methodologies may properly encounter one another and on which debate is possible concerning the findings of both. It may be characterized as follows.
The spokesman for anthroposophy maintains, on the basis of apprehensions that are not merely his private and personal experiences, that the process of human cognition can be further developed after a certain fixed point, a point beyond which scientific research, relying solely on sensory observation and inference therefrom, refuses to go. To avoid a lot of tedious paraphrases I propose, in what follows, to designate the methodology based on sensory observation and its subsequent inferential elaboration by the term “anthropology”; requesting the reader’s indulgence for this abnormal usage. It will be employed throughout strictly with that reference. Anthroposophical research, then, reckons to begin from where anthropology leaves off.
The spokesman for anthropology limits himself to the method of relating his experience of concepts of the understanding with his experience through the senses. The spokesman for anthroposophy realizes the fact that these concepts are capable (irrespective of the circumstance that they are to be related to sense impressions) of opening a life of their own within the psyche. Further, that by the unfolding of this energy they effect a development in the psyche itself. And he has learnt how the psyche, if it pays the requisite attention to this process, makes the discovery that organs of spirit are disclosing their presence there. (In employing the expression ‘organs of spirit” I adopt, and extend, the linguistic usage of Goethe, who referred to “spiritual eyes” and “spiritual ears” in expounding his philosophical position). These organs amount to formations in the psyche analogous to what the sense-organs are in the body. It goes without saying that they are to be understood as exclusively psychic. Any attempt to connect them with some kind of somatic formation must be ruled out as far as anthroposophy is concerned. Spiritual organs are to be conceived as never in any manner departing from the psychic and entering the texture of the somatic. Any such encroachment is, for anthroposophy, a pathological formation with which it will have nothing whatever to do. And the whole manner in which the development of these organs is conceived should be enough to satisfy a bona fide enquirer that, on the subject of illusions, visions, hallucinations, and so forth, the ideas of anthroposophy are the same as those that are normally accepted in anthropology. When the findings of anthroposophy are equated with abnormal experiences, miscalled “psychic” or “psychical”, the argument is invariably based on misunderstanding or on an insufficient acquaintance with what anthroposophy actually maintains. Moreover no one who had followed with a modicum of penetration the manner in which anthroposophy treats of the development of spiritual organs could possibly slip into the notion of its being a path that could lead to pathological syndromes. On the contrary, given such penetration, it will be realized that all the stages of psychic apprehension which a human being, according to anthroposophy, experiences in his progress toward intuition of spirit, lie in a domain exclusively psychic; so that sensory experience and normal intellectual activity continue alongside of them unaltered from what they were before this territory was opened up. The plethora of misunderstandings that are current upon this aspect of anthroposophical cognition arise from the fact that many people have difficulty in focusing their attention on what is purely and distinctively psychic. The power to form ideas fails them, unless it is supported by some surreptitious reference to sensory phenomena. Failing that, their mental capacity wilts, and ideation sinks to an energy-level below that of dreaming — to the level of dreamless sleep, where it is no longer conscious. It may be said that the consciousness of such minds is congested with the after-effects, or the actual effects, of sense-impressions; and this congestion entails a corresponding slumber of all that would be recognized as psychic, if it could be seized at all. It is even true to say that many minds approach the properly psychic with hopeless misunderstanding precisely because they are unable, when it confronts them, to stay awake, as they do when they are confronted by the sensory content of consciousness. Such is the predicament of all in whom the faculty of vigilant attention is only strong enough for the purposes of everyday life. This sounds surprising, but I would recommend anyone who finds it incredible to ponder carefully a certain objection raised by Brentano against the philosopher William James. “It is necessary,” writes Brentano, “to distinguish between the act of sensing and that upon which the act is directed, and the two are as certainly different from one another as my present recollection of a past event is from the event itself; or, to take an even more drastic example, as my hatred of an enemy is from the object of that hate.” He adds that the error he is nailing does “turn up here and there”, and he continues:
Among others it has been embraced by William James, who endeavoured to establish it in a longish address to the International Congress on Psychology in 1905. Because, when I look into a room, there is evidently not only the room but also my looking; because fancied images of sensible objects only distinguish themselves gradually from objectively stimulated ones; because, finally, we call some bodies beautiful, and yet the difference between beautiful and ugly relates to different emotions — therefore we must stop regarding physical and psychic phenomena as two different classes of appearance! I find it hard to understand how the speaker himself could be unaware of the weakness of these arguments. To appear simultaneously is not to appear as one and the same. For simultaneity is less than identity. That was why Descartes could recommend his readers, without fear of contradiction, to deny, at least to begin with, that the room which I see is, and to hold fast to the-fact-that-I-see-it as the one thing free from doubt. But if the first argument falls to the ground, then obviously the second one does also. For why should it matter that fancy differs from seeing only by the degree of intensity, since even if the degrees of intensity were the same, total similarity between fancying and seeing could prove no more than the similarity of fancying to a psychic phenomenon? Finally there is the argument from beauty. Surely it is a very odd sort of logic which draws from that fact that pleasure in the beautiful is something psychic, the conclusion that that, with the appearance whereof the pleasure is connected, must also be something psychic! If that were so, every displeasure would be identical with what we are displeased about; and a man would have to be very careful not to regret a past mistakes, because the regret (being identical with the mistake) would repeat the mistake itself.
For all these reasons there ought not to be much fear that the authority of James, which he unfortunately shares with that of Mach among German psychologists, will seduce many people into overlooking such a glaring distinction.
All the same, this “overlooking of glaring distinctions” is far from rare. The reason is that our faculty of ideation only operates vigilantly with the somatic component of representation, the sense-impressions; the concurrent psychic factor is present to consciousness only to the feeble extent of experiences had during sleep. The stream of experience comes to us in two currents: one of them is apprehended wakefully; the other, the psychic, is seized concurrently, but only with a degree of awareness similar to the mentality of sleep, that is, with virtually no awareness at all. It is impermissible to ignore the fact that, during ordinary waking life, the psychology of sleep does not simply leave off; it continues alongside our waking experience; so that the specifically psychic only enters the field of perception if the subject is awake not only to the sense world (as is the case with ordinary consciousness), but also to the existentially psychic — which is the case with intuitive consciousness. It makes very little difference whether this latter (the slumber that persists within the waking state) is simply denied on crudely materialistic grounds or whether, with James, it is lumped in with the physical organism. The results in either case are much the same. Both ways lead to ill-starred myopias. Yet we ought not to be surprised that the psychic so often remains unperceived, when even a philosopher like William James is incapable of distinguishing it properly from the physical.
With those who are no better able than James to keep the positively psychic separate from the content of the psyche’s experience through the senses, it is difficult to speak of that part of the soul wherein the development of spiritual organs is observable. Because this development occurs at the very point on which they are incapable of directing attention. And it is just this point that leads from intellectual to intuitive knowledge.
It should be noted, however, that such a capacity to observe the authentically psychic is very elementary; it is the indispensable precondition, but it assures to the mind’s eye no more than the bare possibility of looking whither anthroposophy looks to find the psychic organs. This first glimpse bears the same relation to a soul fully equipped with the spiritual organs of which anthroposophy speaks as an undifferentiated living cell does to a full-blown creature furnished with sense organs. The soul is only conscious of possessing a particular organ of spirit to the extent that it is able to make use of it. For these organs are not something static; they are in continual movement. And when they are not being employed, it is not possible to be conscious of their presence. Thus, their apprehension and their use coincide. The manner in which their development — and, with that, the possibility of observing them — is brought about will be found described in my anthroposophical writings. There is one point, however, I must briefly touch on here.
Anyone given to serious reflection on the experiences occasioned through sense phenomena keeps coming up against questions which that reflection itself is at first inadequate to answer. This leads to the establishment by those who represent anthropology of boundaries of cognition. Recall, for instance, Du Bois-Reymond’s oration on the frontiers of natural knowledge, in which he maintained that man cannot know what is the actual nature of matter or of any elementary phenomenon of consciousness. All he can do is to come to a halt at these points in his reflection and acknowledge to himself: “there are boundaries of knowledge which the human mind cannot cross”. After that there are two possible attitudes he may adopt. He may rest content with the fact that knowledge is only attainable inside this limited zone and that anything outside the fence is the province of feelings, hopes, wishes, inklings. Or he can make a new start and form hypotheses concerning an extrasensory realm. In that case he is making use of the understanding, in the faith that its judgments can be carried into a realm of which the senses perceive nothing. But, in doing so, he puts himself in peril of the agnostic’s objection: that the understanding is not entitled to form judgments concerning a reality for which it lacks the foundation of sense-perception. For it is these alone which could give content to judgments, and without such content concepts are empty.
The attitude of an anthroposophically oriented science of the spirit to boundaries of cognition resembles neither the one nor the other of these. Not the second, because it is in substantial agreement with the view that the mind must lose the whole ground for reflection if it rests satisfied with such ideas as are acquired through the senses and yet seeks to apply these ideas beyond the province of the senses. Not the first, because it realizes that contact with those “boundaries” of knowledge evokes a certain psychic experience that has nothing to do with the content of ideation won from the senses. Certainly, if it is only this content that the mind presents to itself, then it is obliged, on further introspection, to admit: “this content can disclose nothing for cognition except a reproduction of sensory experience”. But it is otherwise if the mind goes a step further and asks itself: What is the nature of its own experience, when it fills itself with the kind of thoughts that are evoked by its contact with the normal boundaries of cognition? The same exercise of introspection may then lead it to say: “I cannot know in the ordinary sense with such thoughts: but if I succeed in inwardly contemplating this very impotence to know, I am made aware of how these thoughts become active in me”. Considered as normally cognitive ideas they remain silent, but as their silence communicates itself more and more to a man’s consciousness, they acquire an inner life of their own, which becomes one with the life of the soul. And then the soul notices that this experience has brought it to a pass that may be compared with that of a blind creature which has not yet done much to cultivate its sense of touch. Initially, such a creature would simply keep on knocking up against things. It would sense the resistance of external realities. But out of this generalized sensation it could develop an inner life informed with a primitive consciousness — no longer a general sensation of collisions, but a consciousness that begins to diversify that sensation, remarking distinctions between hardness and softness, smoothness and roughness, and so forth.
In the same way, the soul is able to undergo, and to diversify, the experience it has with ideas it forms at the boundaries of cognition and to learn from them that those boundaries are simply events that occur when the psyche is stimulated by a touch of the spiritual world. The moment of awareness of such boundaries turns into an experience comparable with tactile experience in the sense world. In what it previously termed boundaries of cognition it now sees a pneumato-psychic stimulus through a spiritual world. And out of the pondered experience it can have with the different boundaries of cognition, the general sense of a world of spirit separates out into a manifold perception thereof.
This is the manner in which the, so to say, humblest mode of perceptibility of the spiritual world becomes experiential. All that has been dealt with so far is the initial opening up of the psyche to the world of spirit, but it does show that anthroposophy, as I use the term, and the noetic experiences it ensues, do not connote all manner of nebulous personal affects, but a methodical development of authentic inner experience. This is not the place to demonstrate further how such inchoate spiritual perception is then improved by further psychic exercises and achievements, so that it becomes legitimate to use the vocabulary of touch in this context, or of other and “higher” modes of perception. For a cognitive psychology of this kind I must refer the reader to my anthroposophical books and articles. My present object is to state the principle basic to “spiritual perception” as it is understood in anthroposophy.
I shall offer one other analogy to illustrate how the whole psychology of anthroposophical spiritual investigation differs from that of anthropology. Look at a few grains of wheat. They can be applied for the purposes of nutrition. Alternatively they can be planted in the soil, so that other wheat plants develop from them. The representations and ideas acquired through sensory experience can be retained in the mind with the effect that what is experienced in them is a reproduction of sensory reality. And they can also be experienced in another way: the energy they evince in the psyche by virtue of what they are, quite apart from the fact that they reproduce phenomena, can be allowed to act itself out. The first way may be compared with what happens to wheat grains when they are assimilated by a living creature as its means of nourishment, the second with the engendering of a new wheat plant through each grain. Of course we must bear in mind that, in the analogy, what is brought forth is a plant similar to the parent plant; whereas from an idea active in the mind the outcome is a force available for the formation of organs of the spirit. It must also be borne in mind that initial awareness of such inner forces can only be kindled by particularly potent ideas, like those “frontiers of knowledge” of which we have been speaking; but when once the mind has been alerted to the presence of such forces, other ideas and representations may also serve, though not quite so well, for further progress in the direction it has now taken.
The analogy illustrates something else that anthroposophical research discovers concerning the actual psychology of mental representation. It is this: Whenever a seed of corn is processed for the purposes of nutrition, it is lifted out of the developmental pattern which is proper to it, and which ends in the formation of a new plant — but so also is a representation, whenever it is applied by the mind in producing a mental copy of sense-perception, diverted from its proper teleological pattern. The corresponding further development proper to a representation is to function as a force in the development of the psyche. Just as little as we find the laws of development built into a plant, if we examine it for its nutritive value, do we find the essential nature of an idea or a representation, when we investigate its adequacy in reproducing for cognition the reality it mediates. That is not to say that no such investigation should be undertaken. It can all be investigated just as much as can the nutritive value of a seed. But then, just as the latter enquiry throws light on something quite different from the developmental laws of plant growth, so does an epistemology which tests representations by the criterion of their value as images for cognition, reach conclusions about something other than the essential nature of ideation. The seed, as such, gave little indication of turning into nourishment: nor does it lie with representations, as such, to deliver copies for cognition. In fact, just as its application as nutriment is something quite external to the seed itself, so is cognitive reproduction irrelevant for representation. The truth is that what the psyche does lay hold of in its representations is its own waxing existence. Only through its own activity does it come about that the representations turn into media for the cognition of some reality.
There remains the question: how do representations turn into media for cognition? Anthroposophical observation, availing itself as it does of spiritual organs, inevitably answers this question differently from epistemological theories that renounce them. Its answer is as follows.
Representations strictly as such — considered as what they themselves originally are — do indeed form part of the life of the soul; but they cannot become conscious there as long as the soul does not consciously use its spiritual organs. So long as they retain their original vitality they remain unconscious. The soul lives by means of them, but it can know nothing of them. They have to suppress (herabdämpfen) their own life in order to become conscious experiences of normal consciousness. This suppression is effected by every sense perception. Consequently, when the mind receives a sense impression, there is a benumbing (Herablähmung) of the life of the representation, and it is this benumbed representation which the psyche experiences as the medium of a cognition of outer reality. All the representations and ideas that are related by the mind to an outer sense reality are inner spiritual experiences whose life has been suppressed. In all our thoughts about an outer world of the senses, we have to do with deadened representations. And yet the life of the representation is not just annihilated; rather it is disjoined from the area of consciousness but continues to subsist in the nonconscious provinces of the psyche. That is where it is found again by the organs of the spirit. Just as the deadened ideas of the soul can be related to the sense world, so can the living ideas apprehended by spiritual organs be related to the spiritual world. But “boundary” concepts of the kind spoken of above, by their very nature, refuse to be deadened. Consequently they resist being related to any sense reality. And for that reason they become points of departure for spiritual perception.
In my anthroposophical writings I have applied the term “imaginal” to representations that are apprehended by the psyche as living. It is a misunderstanding to confound the reference of this word with the form of expression (imagery) which has to be employed in order to analogously suggest such representations. What the word does mean may be elucidated in the following manner. If someone has a sense-perception while the outer object is impressing him, then the perception has a certain inner potency for him. If he turns away from the object, then he can re-present it to himself in a purely internal representation. But the intrinsic strength of the representation has now been reduced. Compared with the representation effected in the presence of the object, it is more or less shadowy. If he wants to enliven these shadowy representations of ordinary consciousness, he impregnates them with echoes of actual contemplation. He converts the representation into a visual image. Now such images are no other than the joint effects of representation and sensory life combined. But the “imaginal” representations of anthroposophy are not effected in this way at all. In order to bring them to pass, the soul must be familiar with the inner process that combines psychic representation with sense-impression, so familiar that it can hold at arm's length the influx of the sense-impressions themselves (or of their echoes in after-experience) into the act of representing. This keeping at bay of post-sense-experiences can only be achieved if the person has detected the way in which the activity of representing is pre-empted by these after-experiences. Not until then is he in a position to combine his spiritual organs with the act itself and thereby to receive impressions of spiritual reality.
Thus the act of representing is impregnated from quite another side than in the case of sense-perception. And thus the mental experiences are positively different from those evoked by sense-perception. And yet they are not beyond all possibility of expression. They may be expressed by the following means. When a man perceives the color yellow, he has an experience that is not simply optical but is also affective and empathetic, an experience of the nature of feeling. It may be more or less pronounced in different human beings, but it is never wholly absent. There is a beautiful chapter in Goethe’s Farbenlehre on the “sensuous-moral effect of colors”, in which he has described with great penetration the emotional by-effects for red, yellow, green, and so forth. Now when the mind perceives something from a particular province of the spirit, it may happen that this spiritual perception has the same emotional by-effect as the sensory perception of yellow. The man knows that he is having this or that spiritual experience; and what he has before him in the representation is of course not the same as in a representation of the color yellow. But he does have, as emotional by-effect, the same inner experience as when the color yellow is before his eyes. He may then aver that he perceives the spirit experience as “yellow”. Of course he could choose to be more precise, always being careful to say: “the mind apprehends somewhat that affects the soul rather as the color yellow affects it”. But such elaborate verbal precautions ought to be unnecessary for anyone who is already acquainted through anthroposophical literature with the process leading to spiritual perception. This literature gives a clear enough warning that the reality open to spiritual perception does not confront the organ of spirit after the fashion of an attenuated sense-object or event, nor in such a way that it could be rendered in ideas that are intuitions of sense (sinnlich-anschauliche) as commonly understood.
Just as the mind becomes acquainted through its spiritual organs with the spiritual world outside of a man, so does it come to know the spirit-being of the man himself. Anthroposophy observes this spirit-being as a member of the spiritual world. It proceeds from observation of a part of the spiritual world to ideas of human being which represent to it the spiritual man as he reveals himself in the human body. Anthropology, too, coming from the opposite direction, proceeds to ideas of human being. Once anthroposophy has reached the stage of developing the methods of observation already described, it attains to intuitions concerning the spiritual core of the human being as that reveals itself, within the sense-world, in the body. The acme of this self-revelation is the consciousness that permits sense-impressions to persist in the form of representations. Proceeding, as it does, from experiences of the extra-human spiritual world to the human being, anthroposophy finds the latter subsisting in a sensuous body and, within that body, developing the consciousness of sensible reality. The last thing it reaches is the soul’s activity in representation which is expressible in coherent imagery. Thereafter, and at the end, so to speak, of its journey of spiritual investigation, it can extend its gaze further: it can observe how positive activity in representation becomes half-paralyzed through the percipient senses. It is this deadened representation process that anthroposophy sees (illumined from the spirit-side) as characterizing the life of man in the sense-world, in so far as he is a representing being. Its philosophy of man is the final outcome of prior researches conducted purely in the realm of the spirit. Through what has transpired in the course of those researches, it comes at its notion of the human being living in the sense-world.
Anthropology investigates the kingdoms of the sense-world. It also arrives, in due course, at the human being. It sees him combining the facts of the sense-world in his physical organism in such a way that consciousness arises, and that through consciousness outer reality is given in representations. The anthropologist sees these representations as arising out of the human organism. And at that point, observing in that way, he is more or less brought to a halt. He cannot, via anthropology alone, apprehend any inner structural laws in the act of ideation or representation. Anthroposophy, at the end of the journey that has taken its course in spiritual experiencing, continues contemplating the spiritual core of man so far as that manifests itself through the perceptions of the senses. Similarly anthropology, at the end of the journey that has taken its course in the province of the senses, can only continue endeavouring to contemplate the way in which sensuous man acts on his sense-perceptions. In doing so, it discovers that this operation is sustained not by the laws of somatic life, but by the mental laws of logic. But logic is not a region that can be explored in the same fashion as the other regions of anthropological enquiry. Logically ordered thought is answerable to laws that can no longer be termed those of the physical organism. Inasmuch as a man is operating with them, what becomes apparent is the same being whom anthroposophy has encountered at the end of its journey. Only, the anthropologist sees this being after the fashion in which it is illumined from the sense side. He sees the deadened representations, the ideas; he also concedes, in acknowledging the validity of logic, that the laws governing those ideas belong to a world which interlocks with the sense-world, but is not identical with it. In the process of ideation carried on by a logical being, anthropology discovers sensuous man projecting into the spiritual world. By this route it arrives at a philosophy of man as a final outcome of its investigations. Everything that has led up to it is to be found purely in the realm of the senses.
Rightly pursued, therefore, the two approaches, anthroposophical and anthropological, converge and meet in one point. Anthroposophy contributes the image of the living human spirit, showing how, through sense existence, this develops the consciousness that obtains between birth and death, while at the same time its supersensible consciousness is deadened. Anthropology contributes the image of sensuous man, apprehending in the moment of consciousness his selfhood but towering into a subsistence in the spirit that extends beyond birth and death. In this coincidence a genuinely fruitful understanding between anthroposophy and anthropology is possible. It cannot fail, if both disciplines terminate in philosophy and humanity.
Certainly the philosophy of humanity which stems from anthroposophy will furnish an image of man delineated by methods quite other than those of the image furnished by the humanist philosophy stemming from anthropology. Yet close observers of the one image and of the other will find that their ideas accord, as the negative plate of a competent photographer accords with his positive print.
These observations began by posing the question whether fruitful dialogue is possible between anthropology and anthroposophy. They have perhaps succeeded in showing that the answer, at least from the anthroposophical point of view, is in the affirmative.
From GA21, Riddles of the Soul. Available from Mercury Press:
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