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Cognition in General

Christoph Hueck (DE)

The foundation of scientific cognition is the cognition of cognition itself. Without a founding epistemology, there would be a blind spot in the scientific process. Epistemology must answer the questions of how cognition comes about and when a phenomenon can be considered cognised.

The various epistemologies that have been developed since antiquity and that range from empiricism, rationalism and idealism to positivism, constructivism and structuralism cannot be dealt with here. Instead, Rudolf Steiner's epistemology will be sketched in outline, as the anthroposophically inspired Goetheanism of the 20th century builds on it.

Steiner first referred to Goethe and described the "Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung" ("Basic lines of an epistemology of the Goethean world view" (Steiner 1886), which he deepened in further writings (Steiner 1884-1897, 1897) and developed into a general epistemology (Steiner 1892, 1894). According to Steiner, the basis of scientific knowledge must be experience, because only in this way can objectivity of knowledge be striven for. Everything that flows into cognition must be in some way experiential or "observable". Steiner's epistemology is therefore a phenomenology of cognition itself.

Observation shows that cognition is mainly composed of two elements: the "given", which approaches the subject as world content without the subject's own intervention, and the inner processing of the given through "thinking". Thinking has above all the task of establishing connections between the - more or less complex - individual contents of observation. In doing so, scientific thinking ideally only re-establishes those connections from which the world contents were torn out by the act of observation. It should not add anything to the contents of experience that does not belong to them. Thus, for example, when observing a plant, one always has only a certain section of its developmental process in front of one, whereas the "whole" plant also includes its past and future developmental states, which are added to the present experience by thinking.

This activity of thinking, which orders the phenomena, is supplemented and deepened by the fact that thinking can also grasp the regularities (concepts and ideas) that determine the phenomena and their interrelationships. (For the annual flowering plant, for example, a lawful alternation of expansion and contraction can be described). While the concrete contents of experience depend on the observer (on his sensory organs, his spatial and temporal position, his previous experiences, etc.), concepts and ideas are general and apply to any cases and cognizers. The work of cognition comes to an end when the observed and ordered phenomena coincide with the concepts found without contradiction.

Active generation of concepts and ideas

Concepts and ideas have a different meaning for the knower than perceptions not only because they are general, but also because the knower has a different relationship to them from the very beginning. Perceptions come to the cognising subject ready-made, whereas concepts and ideas are actively generated inwardly. Perceptions are therefore incomprehensible and "dark", whereas concepts can be completely bright and clear. One knows exactly what one means by a certain concept because one actively generates it or, as Steiner once put it, because from the very beginning one has "stood within the process by which a thought arose"[1].

This important point of Steiner's epistemology only becomes fully comprehensible if one really observes the inner production of concepts and ideas, which in turn is only possible if one actually carries it out. Anthroposophy thus opens up an inner field of experience which, paradoxically, only becomes observable when it is actively created. Most theories of cognition are tempted to explain cognition through given factors, e.g. through Kant's a priori categories, through habit, social imprinting, evolutionary selection, brain activity, etc. For Steiner, the point is that the knower becomes inwardly active.

The full depth of Steiner's theory of cognition becomes apparent when one considers that Steiner sees world contents not only in perception but also in the actively produced concepts and ideas, which are not determined by the knower but by themselves: "We must imagine two things: first, that we actively bring the ideal world into existence, and at the same time, that what we actively bring into existence is based on its own laws. " (Steiner 1886, pg. 51)

There seems to be a paradox here: a thought is supposed to be both generated by the subject and completely self-determined in content. This is only possible if the subject lives in the origin of thought, as it were, selflessly in the conceptual content, the content in the subject. This is the spiritual place where subject and object coincide in one. Rudolf Steiner's view that man in his innermost being is one with the ideal, spiritual world, that he lives in it as a spiritual being, is based on this insight.

The contents of perception initially appear as "incoherent chaos" in which no single observation is more significant than another (Steiner 1894). They therefore do not in themselves represent experienced reality. The general concepts are also not experienced as real in themselves. The experience of a concrete and yet coherent and lawfully ordered reality only arises through the combination of perceptions and concepts.

From the connection of individual perceptual contents and integrating concept, a third thing arises which Steiner calls "Vorstellung" (conception) . Our reality, our ordinary world view, is composed of such conceptions. While perceptual contents always appear anew and concepts always have to be produced anew, conceptions once formed remain in memory. A large part of our conscious life and our orientation in the world is based on conceptions that are present in our memory.

While perceptions are changeable and concepts are mobile, conceptions have a relatively rigid character (according to the motto: "if you've seen one, you've seen them all"). Imaginative consciousness is therefore not very mobile and easily leads to an inner drying out of the soul's life. In contrast, the Goethean view of the world relies on the constantly new and fresh perception of phenomena and on the inner, active mobility of concepts ("... we must, if we want to attain to some extent to a living view of nature, keep ourselves as mobile and vivid as the example with which it presents itself to us" (Goethe 1807, pg. 14)).


[1] "The vivid reality confronts us as a finished thing. It is just there; we have contributed nothing to it, that it is so. We therefore feel ourselves confronted with an alien being that we did not produce, indeed, we were not even present during its production. We stand before something that has become. But we can only grasp that of which we know how it became so, how it came about; if we know where the threads are on which that which appears before us hangs. It is different with our thinking. A thought-formation does not appear before me without my own participation in its creation; it only enters the field of my perception in such a way that I myself lift it up out of the dark abyss of perceptlessness. The thought does not appear in me as a finished structure, as does sense perception, but I am conscious of the fact that, if I hold it in a finished form, I myself have brought it to this form. What is before me appears to me not as the first, but as the last, as the conclusion of a process that has grown together with me in such a way that I have always stood within it." (Steiner 1884-1897, pg. 160)


Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1807, 1817): Bildung und Umbildung organischer Naturen. 1807; Zur Morphologie. Band 1 Heft 1, 1817. In: Goethe. Berliner Ausgabe 24. Berlin 1965-1978 (digital 2005), S. 11–21.

Steiner, Rudolf (1884-1897): Einleitungen zu Goethes naturwissenschaftlichen Schriften. GA 001, 4. Aufl. Dornach 1987.

Steiner, Rudolf (1886): Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung. GA 002, 7. Aufl. Dornach 1979.

Steiner, Rudolf (1892): Wahrheit und Wissenschaft. GA 003, Dornach 2009.

Steiner, Rudolf (1894): Die Philosophie der Freiheit. GA 004, 16. Aufl. Dornach 1995.

Steiner, Rudolf (1897): Goethes Weltanschauung. GA 006, 8. Aufl. Dornach 1990.

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