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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

VI. The Human Individuality

The main difficulty in explaining mental pictures is found by philosophers to lie in the fact that we are not ourselves the outer things, and yet our mental pictures must still have a form corresponding to the things. On closer examination, however, it turns out that this difficulty does not exist at all. We are not, to be sure, the outer things, but we belong, with the outer things, to one and the same world. The section of the world that I perceive as my subject is swept through by the stream of general world happening. To my perception I am at first enclosed within the boundary of my skin. But what is present there inside this skin belongs to the cosmos as a whole. Therefore, in order for a connection to exist between my organism and the object outside me, it is not necessary at all that something of the object slip into me or make an imprint in my spirit like a signet ring in wax. The question as to how I take cognizance of the tree that stands ten steps distant from me, is all askew. It springs from the view that the boundaries of my body are absolute barriers, through which information about the things wanders into me. The forces which are at work inside my skin are the same ones as those existing outside it. I am, therefore, really the things; not I, to be sure, insofar as I am the perceiving subject, but I, insofar as I am a part within general world happening. My perception of the tree exists within the same whole as does my “I.” This general world happening calls forth just as much there the perception of the tree as here the perception of my “I.” If I were not a world knower, but rather a world creator, then object and subject (perception and “I”), would originate in one act. For they determine each other mutually. As world knower, I can find what both have in common — as two sides of one existence which belong together — only through thinking, which relates both to each other through concepts.

Most difficult to drive from the field will be the so-called physiological proofs for the subjectivity of our perceptions. If I exert pressure on my skin, I perceive it as a sensation of pressure. I can perceive the same pressure through the eye as light, and through the ear as sound. I perceive an electrical discharge through the eye as light, through the ear as sound, through the nerves of the skin as impact, through the nose as a phosphoric smell. What follows from this fact? Only this, that I perceive an electrical discharge (or a pressure) and then a certain quality of light, or a sound, perhaps a certain smell, and so on. If no eye were there, then the perception of a light quality would not accompany the perception of a mechanical concussion in the environment; without the presence of an organ of hearing, no perception of sound, and so on. By what right can one say that without organs of perception the whole process would not be present? Whoever concludes from the fact that an electrical process calls forth light in the eye that therefore what we experience as light is, outside of our organism, only a mechanical process of motion — he forgets that he is only passing from one perception to another, and not at all to something outside of perception. Just as one can say that the eye perceives a mechanical process of motion in its environment as light, one can just as well maintain that changing an object in an ordered way is perceived by us as a process of motion. If I paint a horse twelve times all the way around a rotatable disk, in exactly those forms which his body would assume if he were running along, then, through rotating the disk I can call forth an appearance of motion. I only need to look through an opening in such a way as to see, at the right intervals, the sequence of the horses' positions. I do not see twelve pictures of a horse, but rather the picture of a galloping horse.

The physiological fact mentioned above can therefore throw no light on the relationship between perception and mental picture. We must find our right course in a different way.

The moment a perception rises up on the horizon of my observation, thinking also becomes active through me. An entity within my system of thoughts, a particular intuition, a concept, joins itself to the perception. When the perception then disappears from my field of vision, what remains? My intuition — with its connection to the particular perception — which formed at the moment of perceiving. The liveliness with which I can then later make this connection present to myself again, depends upon the way my spiritual and bodily organism functions. The mental picture is nothing other than an intuition related to a particular perception, a concept which was once connected to a perception, and for which the relation to this perception has remained. My concept of a lion is not formed out of my perceptions of lions. But my mental picture of a lion is very much formed from perception. I can convey the concept of a lion to someone who has never seen a lion. But I will not succeed in conveying to him a lively mental picture without his own perception.

The mental picture is therefore an individualized concept. And now we have the explanation as to why the things of the real world can be represented for us through mental pictures. The full reality of a thing yields itself to us at the moment of observation out of the coming together of concept and perception. The concept receives, through a perception, an individual form, a relation to this particular perception. In this individual form, which bears within itself as a characteristic feature the relation to the perception, the concept lives on within us and constitutes the mental picture of the thing in question. If we meet a second thing, with which the same concept connects itself, we then recognize it as belonging, with the first thing, to the same kind; if we meet the same thing again a second time, we find within our system of concepts not only a corresponding concept, but also the individualized concept with its characteristic relation to the same object, and we recognize the object again.

The mental picture stands therefore between perception and concept. It is the particular concept pointing to the perception.

The sum of that about which I can form mental pictures I may call my experience. That person will have the richer experience who has a greater number of individualized concepts. A person who lacks any capacity for intuitions is not capable of acquiring experience for himself. He loses the objects again from his field of vision, because he lacks the concepts which he should bring into relation with them. A person with a well-developed ability to think, but with poorly functioning perception because of dull sense organs, will be equally unable to gather experience. He can, it is true, acquire concepts in one way or another; but his intuitions lack the living relationship to particular things. The unthinking traveler and the scholar living in abstract conceptual systems are equally unable to acquire a rich experience for themselves.

Reality presents itself to us as perception and concept; our subjective representation of this reality presents itself to us as mental picture.

If our personality manifested itself merely as knower, then the sum of everything objective would be given in perception, concept, and mental picture.

We are not content, however, to relate, with the help of thinking, the perception to the concept, but we also relate it to our particular subjectivity, to our individual “I.” The expression of this individual relationship is feeling, which has its life in pleasure or pain.

Thinking and feeling correspond to the twofold nature of our being upon which we have already reflected. Thinking is the element through which we participate in the general happening of the cosmos; feeling is that through which we can draw ourselves back into the confines of our own being.

Our thinking unites us with the world; our feeling leads us back into ourselves, first makes us into an individual. If we were merely thinking and perceiving beings, our whole life would have to flow in unvarying indifference. If we could merely know ourselves as self, we would be completely indifferent to ourselves. Only through the fact that we experience a feeling of self along with self-knowledge, and pleasure and pain along with our perceptions of things, do we live as individual beings, whose existence is not limited to the conceptual relationship in which they stand to the rest of the world, but who also have a particular value for themselves.

One might be tempted to see in the life of feeling an element that is more richly saturated with reality than is our thinking contemplation of the world. The reply to this is that it is only for my individuality, in fact, that my life of feeling has this richer significance. For the world as a whole, my life of feeling can achieve any value only when my feeling, as a perception made about my self, unites itself with a concept, and in this roundabout way members itself into the cosmos.

Our life is a continuous swing of the pendulum between our life in general world happening and our own individual existence. The farther we ascend into the general nature of thinking, where what is individual still interests us only as example, as one instance of the concept, the more there is lost in us the character of our being a particular entity, an altogether specific single personality. The farther we descend into the depths of our own life and let our feelings sound along with our experiences of the outer world, the more we separate ourselves from universal existence. A true individuality will be the one who reaches up the farthest with his feelings into the region of the ideal. There are people with whom even the most general ideas that settle in their heads still bear that particular coloring which shows them to be unmistakably connected with their bearer. Other people exist whose concepts approach us without any trace of individual character, as though they had not sprung forth at all from a person of flesh and blood.

Our mental picturing already gives out life of concepts an individual stamp. Every person has, after all, his own place in the world where he stands and from which he contemplates the world. His concepts unite themselves with his perceptions. He will think universal concepts after his own fashion. This particular determining factor is a result of the place where we stand in the world, of the sphere of perception that is connected to our place in life.

Over against this determining factor there stands another one, which is dependent upon our particular organization. Our organization is, after all, a specific fully determined entity. Each of us unites particular feelings — and this, indeed, with the most varying degrees of intensity — with his perceptions. This is what is individual about our own personality. It still remains as what is left when we have taken into account the determining factors of our place in life.

A life of feeling completely devoid of thought would gradually have to lose all connection with the world. Knowledge of things, for the person who cares about totality, will go hand in hand with the cultivation and development of his life of feeling.