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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

III. Thinking in the Service of Apprehending the World

When I observe how a billiard ball that is struck communicates its motion to another, I remain thereby completely without influence on the course of this observed occurrence. The direction of motion and the velocity of the second ball are determined by the direction and velocity of the first. As long as I act merely as observer, I can say something about the motion of the second ball only when the motion has occurred. The matter is different when I begin to reflect on the content of my observation. My reflection has the purpose of forming concepts about the occurrence. I bring the concept of an elastic ball into connection with certain other concepts of mechanics, and take into consideration the particular circumstances which prevail in the present case. I seek, that is, to add to the occurrence that runs its course without my participation a second occurrence that takes place in the conceptual sphere. The latter is dependent upon me. This shows itself through the fact that I can content myself with the observation and forgo any seeking for concepts, if I have no need of them. But if this need is present, then I will rest content only when I have brought the concepts ball, elasticity, motion, impact, velocity, etc. into a certain interconnection, to which the observed occurrence stands in a definite relationship. As certain as it is, now, that the occurrence takes place independently of me, it is just as certain that the conceptual process cannot occur without my participation.

Whether this activity of mine really issues from my own independent being, or whether the modern physiologists are right who say that we cannot think as we want, but rather must think as determined by the thoughts and thought connections now present in our consciousness [cf. Ziehen, Guidelines of Physiological Psychology],1Leitfaden der physiologischen Psychologie is a question that will be the subject of a later discussion. For the moment we merely want to establish the fact that, for the objects and occurrences given us without our participation, we feel ourselves constantly compelled to seek concepts and conceptual connections that stand in a certain relationship to what is given. Whether the activity is in truth our activity, or whether we perform it according to an unalterable necessity, this question we will leave aside for the moment. That this activity appears to us at first as our own is without question. We know full well that along with objects, their concepts are not given us at the same time. That I myself am the active one may rest on an illusion; to immediate observation in any case the matter presents itself that way. The question is now: What do we gain through the fact that we find a conceptual counterpart to an occurrence?

There is for me a far-reaching difference between the way that the parts of an occurrence interact with each other before and after the discovery of the corresponding concepts. Mere observation can follow the parts of a given occurrence in progress; their connection, however, before recourse is taken to concepts, remains dark. I see the first billiard ball move toward the second in a certain direction and with a definite velocity; what will happen after the resulting impact, this I must wait for, and then again I also can only follow it with my eyes. Let us suppose that, at the moment of impact, this I must wait for, and then again I also can only follow it with my eyes. Let us suppose that, at the moment of impact, someone covered the field on which the occurrence that takes place; then I—as mere observer—am without knowledge of what happens afterwards. It is different if, for the constellation of relationships, I have found the corresponding concepts before the covering takes place. In this case I can say what will happen, even if the possibility of observation ceases. An occurrence or object that is merely observed does not of itself reveal anything about its connection with other occurrences or objects. This connection becomes visible only when observation joins itself with thinking.

Observation and thinking are the two starting points for all the spiritual striving of man, insofar as he is conscious of such a striving. The workings of common sense and the most intricate scientific research rest on these two basic pillars of our spirit. The philosophers have started from various ultimate polarities: idea and reality, subject and object, phenomenon and thing-in-itself, “I” and not-“I,” idea and will, concept and matter, force and substance, conscious and unconscious. It is easily shown, however, that the polarity of observation and thinking must precede all these others as the most important for the human being.

Whatever principle we may ever set up: we must show that it was somewhere observed by us, or express it in the form of a clear thought which can also be thought by everyone else. Every philosopher who begins to speak about his ultimate principles must make use of the conceptual form, and thereby of thinking. By doing so he admits indirectly that he already presupposes thinking as part of his activity. Whether thinking or something else is the main element of world evolution, about this nothing yet is determined here. But that the philosopher, without thinking, can gain no knowledge of world evolution, this is clear from the start. In the coming into being of world phenomena, thinking may play a secondary role; but in the coming into being of a view about them, a main role certainly does belong to thinking.

Now with respect to observation, it lies in the nature of our organization that we need it. Our thinking about a horse and the object “horse” are two things which for us appear separately. And this object is accessible to us only through observation. As little as we are able, by mere staring at a horse, to make a concept of it for ourselves, just as little are we capable, by mere thinking, to bring forth a corresponding object.

In sequence of time, observation comes in fact before thinking. For even thinking we must learn to know first through observation. It was essentially the description of an observation when we gave an account at the beginning of this chapter of how thinking is kindled by an occurrence but goes beyond what is thus given before our thinking participation. It is through observation that we first become aware of everything that enters the circle of our experiences. The content of sensations, of perceptions, of contemplations, our feelings, acts of will, dream and fantasy images, mental pictures, concepts and ideas, all illusions and hallucinations, re given to us trough observation.

But as object of observation, thinking differs essentially from all other things. The observation of a table or of a tree occurs for me as soon as these objects arise on the horizon of my experiences. My thinking about these objects, however, I do not observe at the same time. I observe the table, I carry out my thinking about the table, but I do not observe my thinking at the same moment. I must first transfer myself to a standpoint outside of my own activity, if I want, besides the table, to observe also my thinking about the table. Whereas the observing of objects and occurrences, and the thinking about them, are the entirely commonplace state of affairs with which my going life is filled, the observation of thinking is a kind of exceptional state. This fact must be properly considered when it is a matter of determining the relationship of thinking to all other contents of observation. One must be clear about the fact that in the observation of thinking one is applying to it a way of doing things which constitutes the normal condition for the consideration of all other world content, but which, in the course of this normal state of affairs, does not take place with respect to thinking itself.

Someone could make the objection that what I have observed here about thinking also hold good for feeling and for our other spiritual activities. When we, for example, have the feeling of pleasure, this is kindled also by an object, and I observe in fact this object, but not the feeling of pleasure. This objection rests however upon an error. Pleasure stands by no means in the same relationship to its object as does the concept which thinking forms. I am conscious in the most definite way that the concept of a thing is formed through my activity, whereas pleasure is produced in me through an object in the same way as, for example, the change which a falling stone effects in an object upon which it falls. For observation, pleasure is a given in exactly the same way as the occurrence causing it. The same is not true of the concept. I can ask why a particular occurrence produces in me the feeling of pleasure. But I can by now means ask why an occurrence produces in me a particular sum of concepts. That would simply make no sense. In my reflecting on an occurrence it is not at all a question of an effect upon me. I can experience nothing about myself through the fact that I know the appropriate concepts for the observed change which a stone, thrown against the windowpane, causes in the latter. But I very much do experience something about my personality when I know the feeling which a particular occurrence awakens in me. When I say with respect to an observed object that this is a rose, I do not thereby say the slightest thing about myself; when, however, I saw of the same thing that it gives me a feeling of pleasure, I have characterized thereby not only the rose, but also myself in my relationship to the rose.

To regard thinking and feeling as alike in their relationship to observation is therefore out of the question. The same could also easily be demonstrated for the other activities of the human spirit. They belong, in contrast to thinking, in a category with other observed objects and occurrences. It belongs precisely to the characteristic nature of thinking that it is an activity which is directed solely upon the observed object and not upon the thinking personality. This manifests itself already in the way that we bring our thoughts about a thing to expression, in contrast to our feelings or acts of will. When I see an object and know it to be a table, I will not usually say that I am thinking about a table, but rather that this is a table. But I will certainly say that I am pleased with the table. In the first case it does not occur to me at all to express the fact that I enter into relationship with the table; in the second case, however, it is precisely a question of this relationship. With the statement that I am thinking about a table, I enter already into the exceptional state characterized above, in which something is made into an object of observation that always accompanies and is contained within our spiritual activity, but not as an observed object.

That is the characteristic nature of thinking, that the thinker forgets his thinking while exercising it. It is not thinking that occupies him, but rather the object of thinking that he is observing.

The first observation that we can make about thinking is therefore this: that it is the unobserved element of our ordinary spiritual life.

The reason why we do not observe thinking in our everyday spiritual life is none other than that it depends upon our own activity. What I do not myself bring forth comes as something objective into my field of observation. I see myself before it as before something that has occurred without me; it comes to me; I have to receive it as the prerequisite for my thinking process. While I am reflecting on the object, I am occupied with it; my gaze is turned to it. This occupation is in fact thinking contemplation. My attention is directed now upon my activity, but rather upon the object of this activity. In other words: while I am thinking, I do not look at my thinking, which I myself bring forth, but rather at the object of my thinking, which I do not bring forth.

I am, as a matter of fact, in the same position when I let the exceptional state arise and reflect on my thinking itself. I can never observe my present thinking; but rather I can only afterward make the experiences, which I have had about my thinking process, into the object of thinking. I would have to split myself into two personalities, into one who thinks, and into the other one who looks on during this thinking itself, if I wanted to observe my present thinking. This I cannot do. I can only carry this out in two separate acts. The thinking that is to be observed is never the one active at the moment, but rather another one. Whether for this purpose I make my observations in connection with my own earlier thinking, or whether I follow the thought process of another person, or finally whether, as in the above case of the motion of billiard balls, I set up an imaginary thought process, does not matter.

Two things are incompatible with each other: active bringing forth and contemplative standing apart. This is recognized already in the first book of Moses. In the first six-world days God lets the world come forth, and only when it is there is the possibility present of looking upon it. “And God saw everything that He had made and behold, it was very good.” So it is also with our thinking. It must first be there if we want to observe it.

The reason it is impossible for us to observe thinking in its present course at given moment is the same that allows us to know it more directly and more intimately than any other process of the world. Just because we bring it forth ourselves, we know the characteristics of its course, the way the happening to be considered takes place. What, in the other spheres of observation, can be found only in an indirect way—the factually corresponding connection, namely, and the interrelationship of the single objects—this we know in the case of thinking in a completely direct way. Why for my observation thunder follows lightning, I do not know at once; why my thinking joins the concept thunder with that of lightning, this I know directly out of the contents of the two concepts. Naturally the point is not at all whether I have the right concepts of lightning and thunder. The connection of those that I have is clear to me, and is so, in fact, through the concepts themselves.

This transparent clarity with respect to our thinking process is entirely independent of our knowledge about the physiological basis of thinking. I am speaking here about thinking insofar as it presents itself to the observation of our spiritual activity.* How one material occurrence of my brain causes or influences another while I am carrying out a thought operation, does not come thereby at all into consideration. What I observe about thinking is not what occurrence in my brain joins the concept of lightning with that of thunder, but rather, what motivates me to bring the two concepts into a definite relationship. My observation shows that for my thought connections nothing is present for me by which to guide myself except the content of my thoughts; I do not guide myself by the material occurrences in my brain. For a less materialistic age than ours this observation would of course be altogether superfluous. In the present day, however, where there are people who believe that when we know what matter is we will also know how matter thinks, it must indeed by said that one may speak of thinking without heading right away into a collision with brain physiology. It is difficult for many people today to grasp the concept of thinking in its purity. Whoever raises as an objection to the picture of thinking painted here the statement of Cabanis that “The brain secrets thoughts as the liver does bile, the salivary glands saliva, etc.,” simply does not know what I am talking about. He tries to find thinking through a mere process of observation in the same way as we proceed with other objects from the content of the world. He cannot find it in this way, however, because just there it eludes our normal observation as I have shown. A person who cannot overcome materialism lacks the ability to call forth the characterized exceptional state which brings to his consciousness what remains unconscious to all other spiritual activity.2geistigen Tätigkeit With someone who does not have the good will to take this standpoint, one could as little speak about thinking as with a blind person about color. Still he should not believe that we regard physiological processes as thinking. He does not explain thinking, because he simply does not see it at all.

For everyone, however, who has the ability to observe thinking—and with good will every normally developed human being has it—this observation is the most important one he can possibly make. For he observes something that he himself brings forth; he does not see himself confronting an object at first foreign to him, but rather sees himself confronting his own activity. He knows how what he is observing comes about. He sees into its relationship and interconnections. A firm point has been won from which one can seek, with well-founded hope, the explanation of the rest of world phenomena.

The feeling of having such a firm point caused the founder of modern philosophy, Descartes, to base all human knowing upon the statement, I think, therefore I am. All other things, everything else that happens is there without me; I do not know whether as truth, whether as illusion and dream. There is only one thing I know with altogether unqualified certainty, for I myself bring it to its certain existence: my thinking. Though it may have still another source of its existence, though it may come from God or from somewhere else; that it is there in that sense in which I myself bring it forth, of this I am certain. Descartes had at first no justification for imputing another meaning to his statement. He could only maintain that, within the content of the world I grasp myself in my thinking as within an activity most inherently my own. What the attached therefore I am is supposed to mean has been much disputed. It can mean something, however, on one condition only. The simplest statement I can make about a thing is that it is, that it exists. How then this existence is to be more closely determined cannot be stated right away with respect to anything that comes onto the horizon of my experiences. One must first examine every object in its relationship to others, in order to be able to determine in which sense it can be spoken of as something existing. An occurrence one experiences may be a sum of perceptions, but also a dream, a hallucination, and so on. In short, I cannot say in which sense it exists. This I cannot conclude from the occurrence itself, but rather I will learn this when I look at the occurrence in relation to other things. There again, however, I can know no more than how it stands in relation to these things. My searching first comes onto firm ground when I find an object from which I can derive the sense of its existence out of it itself. This I am myself, however, in that I think, for I give to my existence the definite, self-sustaining content of thinking activity. Now I can take my start from there and ask whether the other things exist in the same or in a different sense.

When one makes thinking the object of observation, one adds to the rest of the observed content of the world something that otherwise eludes one's attention; one does not change, however, the way in which the human being conducts himself, also with respect to the other things. One adds to the number of objects of observation, but not to the method of observation. While we are observing the other things, there is mingling with world happening3Weltgeschehen (to which I now reckon on observation as well)—a process that is overlooked. There is something present, different form all other happening, that is not taken into account. When I look at my thinking, however, there is no such element present that has not been taken into account. For, what is hovering now in the background is itself again only thinking. The observed object is qualitatively the same as the activity that directs itself upon it. And that is again a unique characteristic of thinking. When we make it an object to be looked at, we do not find ourselves compelled to do this with the help of something qualitatively different, but rather we can remain within the same element.

When I weave into my thinking an object given without my participation, I go beyond my observation, and the question becomes: What gives me the right to do this? Why do I not simply let the object affect me? In what way is it possible that my thinking has a relation to the object? Those are the questions which each person must ask himself who reflects upon his own thought processes. They fall away when one reflects upon thinking itself. We add to thinking nothing foreign to it, and therefore do not also have to justify any such addition to ourselves.

Schelling says that to know nature means to create nature.—Whoever takes literally these words of this bold philosopher will certainly have to renounce all knowledge of nature forever. For nature is already there once, and in order to create it a second time one must know the principles by which it has arisen. For a nature that one wanted first to create, one would have to detect, from the nature already existing, the conditions of its existence. This detecting, that would have to precede the creating, would however be knowing nature, and would indeed still be knowing nature in the case where, after the detecting is completed, the creating did not take place at all. Only a nature not yet present could one create before knowing it.

What is impossible with respect to nature, namely, creating before knowing, we do accomplish with respect to thinking. If we wanted to wait with thinking until we knew it, we would never come to it. We must resolutely proceed with thinking, in order afterward, by means of observation of what we ourselves have done, to come to knowledge of it. We ourselves first create an object for thinking to observe. The existence of all other objects has been provided without our participation.

Someone could easily oppose my statement that we must think before we can look at thinking, with another, and consider it equally valid, namely, that we cannot wait with digesting either until we have observed the occurrence of digestion. That would be similar to the objection which Pascal made to Descartes when he declared that one could also say, “I take a walk, therefore I am.” Certainly I must also resolutely digest before I have studied the physiological process of digestion. But that could only be compared with looking at thinking if I did not afterward want to look, in thinking, at the digestion, but rather wanted to eat and digest it. And it is in fact not without reason that while digestion cannot become the object of digestion, thinking can very well become the object of thinking.

It is therefore beyond any doubt that in thinking we grasp world happening by one tip where we must be present if something is to come about. And that is after all exactly the point. That is exactly the reason why things confront me as such a riddle: because I am so uninvolved in their coming about. I simply find them before me; with thinking, however, I know how it is done. Thus there is no starting point for looking at all world happening[s] more primal than thinking.

I would like still to mention a widespread error prevailing with respect to thinking. It consists in the statement that thinking, as it is in itself, is nowhere given us. The thinking which joins the observations we make of our experiences and interweaves them with a web of concepts, is said to be not at all the same as that thinking which we afterwards lift out of the objects of observation again and make the object of our study. What we first weave unconsciously into the things is said to be something entirely different from what we then extricate from them again with consciousness.

Whoever draws these conclusions does not grasp the fact that it is not possible at all for him to escape thinking in this way. I absolutely cannot get outside of thinking if I want to look at thinking. If one makes a distinction between thinking as it is prior to my consciousness of it, and the thinking of which I am afterwards conscious, one should not then forget, in doing so, that this distinction is entirely superficial and has absolutely nothing to do with the matter itself. I do not in any way make a thing into a different one through the fact that I look at it in thinking. I can imagine that a being with sense organs of a completely different sort and with an intelligence that functions differently would have an entirely different mental picture of a horse than I do, but I cannot imagine to myself that my own thinking becomes a different one through the fact that I observe it. I myself observe what I myself carry out. How my thinking looks to an intelligence other than my own is not the question now; the question here is how it looks to me. In any case, however, the picture of my thinking within another intelligence cannot be truer than my own picture. Only if I were not myself the thinking being, but rather were to approach the thinking as an activity of a being foreign to me, could I saw that my picture of the thinking arises in a particular way, but that I could not know how the thinking of the being in itself is.

But so far there is not the slightest motivation for me to look upon my own thinking from another standpoint. I consider, indeed, all the rest of the world with the help of thinking. How should I make an exception to this in the case of my thinking?

With this I consider it to be well enough justified that I take my start from thinking in my consideration of the world. When Archimedes had discovered the lever, he believed that, with its help, he could lift the whole cosmos from its hinges, if he could only find a point upon which to rest his instrument. He needed something that is supported through itself, not through something else. In thinking we have a principle that exists in and through itself. Let us start here in our attempt to comprehend the world. Thinking we can grasp through thinking itself. The question is only whether through it we can also apprehend something else as well.

I have spoken until now about thinking without taking any account of its bearer, human consciousness. Most philosophers of the present day will object that, before there can be a thinking, there must be a consciousness. Therefore consciousness and not thinking should be the starting point. There would be no thinking without consciousness. I must reply to this that if I want to clarify what the relationship is between thinking and consciousness, I must think about it. I thereby presuppose thinking. Now one can certainly respond to this that if the philosopher wants to understand consciousness, he then makes use of thinking; to this extent he does presuppose it; in the usual course of life, however, thinking arises within consciousness and thereby presupposed it. If this answer were given to the world creator, who wanted to create thinking, it would without a doubt be justified. One cannot of course let thinking arise without having brought about consciousness beforehand. For the philosopher, however, it is not a matter of creating the world, but of understanding it. He must therefore seek the starting point not for creating, but rather for understanding the world. I find it altogether strange when someone reproaches the philosopher for concerning himself before all else with the correctness of his principles, rather than working immediately with the objects he wants to understand. The world creator had to know above all how he could find a bearer for thinking; the philosopher, however, must seek a sure basis from which he can understand what is already there. What good does it do us to start with consciousness and to subject it to our thinking contemplation, if we know nothing beforehand about the possibility of gaining insight into things through thinking contemplation?

We must first of all look at thinking in a completely neutral way, without any relationship to a thinking subject or conceived object. For in subject and object we already have concepts that are formed through thinking. It is undeniable that, before other things can be understood, thinking must be understood. Whoever does deny this, overlooks the fact that he, as human being, is not a first member of creation but its last member. One cannot, therefore, in order to explain the world through concepts, start with what are in time the first elements of existence, but rather with what is most immediately and intimately given us. We cannot transfer ourselves with one bound to the beginning of the world in order to begin our investigations there; we must rather start form the present moment and see if we can ascend from the later to the earlier. As long as geology spoke of imagined revolutions in order to explain the present state of the earth, it was groping in the dark. Only when it took as its starting point the investigation of processes which are presently still at work on the earth and drew conclusions about the past from these, did it gain firm ground. As long as philosophy assumes all kinds of principles, such as atoms, motion, matter, will, or the unconscious, it will hover in the air. Only when the philosopher regards the absolute last as his first, can he reach his goal. This absolute last, however, to which world evolution has come is thinking.

There are people who say that we cannot, however, really determine with certainty whether our thinking is in itself correct or not. That to this extent, therefore, the starting point remains in any case a dubious one. That makes exactly as much sense as it would to harbor a doubt as to whether a tree is in itself correct or not. Thinking is a fact; and to speak of the correctness or incorrectness of a fact makes no sense. At most I can have doubts about whether thinking is put to a correct use, just as I can doubt whether a particular tree will provide wood appropriate for use in a certain tool. To show to what extent my use of thinking with respect to the world is a correct or incorrect one is precisely the task of this book. I can understand it if someone harbors doubt that something can be determined about the world through thinking; but it is incomprehensible to me how someone can doubt the correctness of thinking in itself.

Addendum to the Revised Edition of 1918

In the preceding considerations the momentous difference between thinking and all other soul activities is pointed to as a fact that reveals itself to a really unprejudiced observation. Whoever does not strive for this unprejudiced observation will be tempted to raise objections against these considerations like the following: When I think about a rose this still expresses only a relationship of my “I” to the rose, just as when I feel the beauty of the rose. There exists in exactly the same way a relationship between “I” and object in thinking as there is for example in feeling or perceiving. Whoever makes this objection does not take into consideration that only in the activity of thinking does the “I” know itself to be of one being with what is active, right into every ramification of the activity. With no other soul activity is this absolutely the case. When, for example, a pleasure is felt, a more sensitive observation can very well distinguish to what extent the “I” knows itself as one with something active, and to what extent something passive is present in the “I” in such a way that the pleasure merely happens to the “I.” And it is also like this with the other soul activities. One should only not confuse “having thought pictures” with working through thoughts in thinking. Thought pictures can arise in the soul in a dream-like way, like vague intimations. This is not thinking.—To be sure, someone could say now that if thinking is meant in this way, then will is present in thinking, and one has then to do not merely with thinking, but also with the will in thinking. This, however, would only justify us in saying that real thinking must always be willed. But this has nothing to do with the characterization of thinking made in this book. The nature of thinking may in fact necessitate that thinking be willed; the point is that nothing is willed which, as it is taking place, does not appear before the ‘I” as totally its own surveyable activity. One must even say in fact, because of the nature of thinking presented here, that thinking appears to the observer as willed, through and through. Whoever makes an effort really to see into everything that comes into consideration for an evaluation of thinking, cannot but perceive that the characteristic spoken of here does apply to this soul activity.

A personality valued very highly as a thinker by the author of this book has raised the objection that thinking cannot be spoken of in the way it is done here, because what one believes oneself to be observing as active thinking is only a semblance. In actuality one is observing only the result of an unconscious activity that underlies thinking. Only because this unconscious activity is in fact not observed, does the illusion arise that the observed thinking exists in and through itself, in the same way that one believes one sees a motion when a line of single electric sparks is set off in quick succession. This objection is also based upon an inexact view of the actual situation. Whoever makes it does not take into account that it is the “I” itself that, standing within thinking, observes its own activity. The “I” would have to stand outside of thinking if it could be fooled as in the case of the quick succession of the light of electric sparks. One could go still further and say that whatever makes such an analogy is deluding himself mightily, like someone, for example, who truly wanted to maintain of a light in motion, that it is newly lit, by unknown hand, at every point where it appears,—No, whoever wants to see in thinking something other than that which is brought forth within the “I” itself as a surveyable activity, such a person would have to first blind himself to the plain facts observable before him, in order then to be able to base thinking upon a hypothetical activity. Whoever does not blind himself in this way must recognize that everything which he “thinks onto” thinking in this way leads him out of the being of thinking. Unprejudiced observation shows that nothing can be attributed to the being of thinking that is not found within thinking itself. One cannot come to something that causes thinking, if one leaves the realm of thinking.