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Organism, Time & Consciousness

Christoph Hueck (DE)

Living beings are not only spatially but above all temporally organised beings. Their form is always a current section from a continuous process of development and can therefore only be understood by taking time into account. Goethe wrote: "Gestaltenlehre ist Verwandlungslehre", (theory of form is theory of development) and a comprehensive theory of development must therefore also ask about the nature of time.

The classical, Newtonian concept of linear, uniformly flowing time is not sufficient to understand living organisms and their development. It can only be applied to dead matter, which is subject to linear causality. Living organisms, on the other hand, integrate their past and future into their present life processes (Schad 1992). They live in a time structure in which an unconscious continuation of the past and an equally unconscious influence of the future are always effective in the present. Biological time is therefore integrative time, it is anamnestic, actual and proleptic (anticipatory) at the same time. "... dann ist Vergangenheit beständig, das Künftige voraus lebendig, der Augenblick ist Ewigkeit" (then the past is constant, the future ahead is alive, the moment is eternity), Goethe says accordingly. The Newtonian understanding of time, on the other hand, "destroys" the concept of biological time and thus the concept of the organism in general (von Weizsäcker 1942).

In order to understand organic development, the abstract idea of time as a constant measure and medium for change must be replaced by a phenomenological understanding of time. Without change, we would not experience time at all and would therefore have no conception of it. We must therefore look at time not "from the outside" and abstractly, but "from the inside" and concretely, i.e. our inner experience of time.

When we look at experienced time, three different types immediately stand out: (1) The unchanging past, which is presend through memory; (2) the present, in which we perceive the world and ourselves in it; and (3) the future, which is not realized yet but which is present in our more or less unconscious expectation. (The present moment, by the way, is not an "expansionless point" for human experience, but a period of 2-3 seconds. [Pöppel 1984], which is roughly the length of a breath). A thought experiment can show what would happen to the experience of time if one had no memory of the past or no expectation of the future: the world would appear completely incoherent or as if boarded up. Finally, the experience of time presupposes that something remains unchanging in the flow of change: the cognising subject. For it is the "I" that remembers, perceives and expects. Without a continuous I-consciousness, one could not have time-consciousness, because one would simply swim along with the flow of time.

Rudolf Steiner introduced the concept of a double stream of time: From the past into the future and from the future into the past. Steiner visualised these two currents by two arrows pointing in opposite directions (Steiner 1910). The present moment is the meeting of these two currents, of what has already become and what is continually becoming. The full characteristics of the present also include the encounter of the "I" and the world, which according to Steiner are "perpendicular" to the time dimension of the "double current". This figure of the cross in a circle symbolises the structure of the conscious experience of the soul.

The interesting observation now is that the inner, qualitative experience of time corresponds exactly to the living structure of an organism (Hueck 2012). Living beings always originate from the past in which they (or their ancestors) came into being; they always appear as presently perceptible forms in relation to their environment; and they carry their own future of development within them. Finally, they have an unchanging nature (at least in foreseeable periods of time), their species. Just as the ego is always an ego, so the rose is always a rose, whether as a seed, a seedling, a sprouting, flowering or fruiting plant.

​Through the inner observation of the experience of time, therefore, qualities of the living can be explored.

Wolfgang Schad has critically discussed this parallelisation of organic time structure and conscious experience of time (Schad 2013). For a more detailed report, see "Controversies".

Further reading:

Hueck, Christoph (2012): Evolution in the Double Stream of Time. An Inner Morphology of Organic Thought. 2. rev. ed., Stuttgart 2023. Online-Version.

Schad, Wolfgang (1992): Vom Verstehen der Zelt. Naturwissenschaftliche Kriterien für eine Korrektur des Zeitbegriffs. In: Die Drei, 9/1992, S. 679–691.

Schad, Wolfgang (2013): Verstehen wir das Leben in Entwicklung? In: Jahrbuch für Goetheanismus. Stuttgart 2013, S. 187–207.

Steiner, Rudolf (1910): Vortrag vom 04.11.1910 in: Anthroposophie, Psychosophie, Pneumatosophie. GA 115, Dornach 2012.

Pöppel, Ernst (1984): Erlebte Zeit und Zeit überhaupt. In: Das Phänomen Zeit. 1. Aufl. Wien 1984, S. 135-146.

Weizsäcker, Viktor von (1942): Gestalt und Zeit. Göttingen 1960.


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