The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

III. Thinking as the Instrument of Knowledge

WHEN I observe how a billiard ball, when struck, communicates its motion to another, I remain entirely without influence on the course of this observed process before me. The direction and velocity of the motion of, the second ball is determined by the direction and velocity of the first. As long as I remain a mere spectator, I cannot tell anything about the motion of the second ball until it has happened. It is quite different when I begin to reflect on the content of my observations. The purpose of my reflection is to form concepts of the occurrence. I connect the concept of an elastic ball with certain other concepts of mechanics, and consider the special circumstances which obtain in the instance in question. I try, in other words, to add to the occurrence which takes place without my assistance a second process which takes place in the conceptual sphere. This latter one is dependent on me. This is shown by the fact that I can rest content with the observation, and renounce all search for concepts if I have no need of them. If, however, this need is present, then I am not content until I have established a certain connection among the concepts, ball, elasticity, motion, impact, velocity, etc., so that they apply to the observed process in a definite way. As surely as the occurrence goes on independently of me, so surely is the conceptual process unable to take place without my activity.

We shall have to consider whether this activity of mine really proceeds from my own independent being, or whether those modern physiologists are right who say that we cannot think as we will, but that we must think exactly as the thoughts and thought-connections determine, which happen to be in our consciousness at any given moment. (Cp. Ziehen, Leitfaden der Physiologischen Psychologie, Jena, 1893, p. 171.) For the present we wish merely to establish the fact that we constantly feel obliged to seek for concepts and connections of concepts, which stand in a certain relation to the objects and processes which are given independently of us. Whether this activity is really ours, or whether we are determined to it by an unalterable necessity, is a question which we need not decide at present. What is unquestionable is that the activity appears, in the first instance, to be ours. We know for certain that together with the objects we are not given their concepts. My being the agent in the conceptual process may be an illusion; but there is no doubt that to immediate observation it appears so. Our present question is, What do we gain by supplementing a process with a conceptual counterpart?

There is a far-reaching difference between the ways in which, for me, the parts of a process are related to one another before, and after, the discovery of the corresponding concepts. Mere observation can trace the parts of a given process as they occur, but their connection remains obscure without the help of concepts. I observe the first billiard ball move towards the second in a certain direction and with a certain velocity. What will happen after the impact I cannot tell in advance. I can once more only watch it happen with my eyes. Suppose someone obstructs my view of the field where the process is happening, at the moment when the impact occurs, then, as mere spectator, I remain ignorant of what happens after. The situation is very different, if prior to the obstruction of my view I have discovered the concepts corresponding to the nexus of events. In that case I can say what occurs, even when I am no longer able to observe. There is nothing in a merely observed process or object to show its connection with other processes or objects. This connection becomes obvious only when observation is combined with thinking.

Observation and Thinking are the two points of departure for all the spiritual striving of man, in so far as he is conscious of such striving. The workings of common sense, as well as the most complicated scientific researches, rest on these two fundamental pillars of our Spirit. Philosophers have started from various primary antitheses, Idea and Reality, Subject and Object, Appearance and Thing-in-itself, Ego and Non-Ego, Idea and Will, Concept and Matter, Force and Substance, the Conscious and the Unconscious. It is, however, easy to show that the antithesis of Observation and Thinking must precede all other antitheses, the former being for man the most important.

Whatever principle we choose to lay down, we must either prove that somewhere we have observed it, or we must enunciate it in the form of a clear thought which can be re-thought by any other thinker. Every philosopher who sets out to discuss his fundamental principles must express them in conceptual form and thus use thinking. He therefore indirectly admits that his activity presupposes thinking. We leave open here the question whether thinking or something else is the chief factor in the development of the world. But it is at any rate clear that the philosopher can gain no knowledge of this development without thinking. In the occurrence of phenomena thought may play a secondary part, but it is quite certain that it plays a chief part in the forming of a view about them.

As regards observation, our need of it is due to our organization. Our thought about a horse and the object “horse” are two things which for us emerge separate from each other. The object is accessible to us only by means of observation. As little as we can form a concept of a horse by merely staring at the animal, just as little are we able by mere thinking to produce the corresponding object.

In sequence of time observation even precedes thinking. For we become familiar with thinking itself in the first instance by observation. It was essentially a description of an observation when, at the beginning of this chapter, we gave an account of how thinking is kindled by an objective event and transcends what is merely given without its activity. Whatever enters the circle of our experiences becomes an object of apprehension to us first through observation. All contents of sensations, all perceptions, feelings, acts of will, dreams and fancies, representations, concepts, Ideas, all illusions and hallucinations, are given to us through observation.

But thinking as an object of observation differs essentially from all other objects. The observation of a table, or a tree, occurs in me as soon as those objects appear within the horizon of my field of consciousness. Yet I do not, at the same time, observe my thinking about these things. I observe the table, and I carry out the thinking about the table, but I do not at the same moment observe it. I must first take up a standpoint outside of my own activity, if I want to observe my thinking about the table, as well as the table. Whereas the observation of things and processes, and the thinking about them, are everyday occurrences making up the continuous current of my life, the observation of the thinking itself is a sort of exceptional state. This fact must be taken into account, when we come to determine the relation of thinking to all other objects. We must be quite clear about the fact that, in observing the thinking, we are applying to it a method which is our normal attitude in the study of all other contents of the world, but which in the ordinary course of that study is not usually applied to thinking itself.

Someone might object that what I have said about thinking applies equally to feeling and to all other spiritual activities. Thus it is said that when, e.g., I have a feeling of pleasure, the feeling is kindled by the object, but it is this object I observe, not the feeling of pleasure. This objection, however, is based on an error. Pleasure does not stand at all in the same relation to its object as the concept formed by thinking. I am conscious, in the most positive way, that the concept of a thing is formed through my activity; whereas a feeling of pleasure is produced in me by an object in a way similar to that in which, e.g., a change is caused in an object by a stone which falls on it. For observation, a pleasure is given in exactly the same way as the event which causes it. The same is not true of the concept. I can ask why an event arouses in me a feeling of pleasure. But I certainly cannot ask why an occurrence causes in me a certain number of concepts. The question would be simply meaningless. In thinking about an occurrence, I am not concerned with an effect on me. I learn nothing about myself from knowing the concepts which correspond to the observed change caused in a pane of glass by a stone thrown against it. But I do learn something about my personality when I know the feeling which a certain occurrence arouses in me. When I say of an object which I perceive, “this is a rose,” I say absolutely nothing about myself; but when I say of the same thing that “it causes a feeling of pleasure in me,” I characterize not only the rose, but also myself in my relation to the rose.

There can, therefore, be no question of putting thinking and feeling on a level as objects of observation. And the same could easily be shown of other activities of the human spirit. Unlike thinking, they must be classed with any other observed objects or events. The peculiar nature of thinking lies just in this, that it is an activity which is directed solely on the observed object and not on the thinking personality. This is apparent even from the way in which we express our thoughts about an object, as distinct from our feelings or acts of will. When I see an object and recognize it as a table, I do not as a rule say, “I am thinking of a table,” but, “this is a table.” On the other hand, I do say, “I am pleased with the table.” In the former case, I am not at all interested in stating that I have entered into a relation with the table; whereas, in the second case, it is just this relation which matters. In saying, “I am thinking of a table,” I enter already the exceptional state characterized above, in which something is made the object of observation which is always present in our spiritual activity, without being itself normally an observed object.

The peculiar nature of thinking consists just in this, that the thinker forgets his thinking while actually engaged in it. It is not thinking which occupies his attention, but rather the object of the thinking which he observes.

The first observation which we make about thinking is that it is the unobserved element in our ordinary spiritual life.

The reason why we do not notice the thinking which goes on in our ordinary life is no other than this, that it is caused by our own activity. Whatever I do not myself produce appears in my field of consciousness as an object; I contrast it with myself as something the existence of which is independent of me. It comes to meet me. I must accept it as the presupposition of my thinking. As long as I think about the object, I am absorbed in it, my attention is turned on it. To be thus absorbed in the object is just to contemplate it by thinking. I attend, not to my activity, but to its object. In other words, whilst I am thinking, I pay no heed to my thinking which is of my own making, but only to the object of my thinking which is not of my making.

I am, moreover, in exactly the same position when I enter into the exceptional state and reflect on own thinking. I can never observe my present thinking, I can only subsequently take my experiences about the process of my thinking as the object of fresh thinking. If I wanted to watch my present thinking, I should have to split myself into two persons, one to think, the other to observe this thinking. But this is impossible. I can only accomplish it in two separate acts. The thinking to be observed is never that in which I am actually engaged, but a different one. Whether, for this purpose, I make observations of my own former thinking, or follow the thinking-process of another person, or finally, as in the example of the motions of the billiard balls, assume an imaginary thinking-process, is immaterial.

There are two things which are incompatible with one another: productive activity and the contemplation of it. This is recognized even in the First Book of Moses. It represents God as creating the world in the first six days, and only after its completion is any contemplation of the world possible: “And God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good.” The same applies to our thinking. It must be there first, if we would observe it.

The reason why it is impossible to observe the thinking in its actual occurrence at any given moment, is the same as that which makes it possible for us to know it more immediately and more intimately than any other process in the world. Just because it is our own creation do we know the characteristic features of its course, the manner in which the process, in detail, takes place. What in the other spheres of observation we can discover only indirectly, viz., the relevant objective nexus and the relations of the individual objects, that is known to us immediately in the case of thinking. I do not know off-hand why, for perception, thunder follows lightning, but I know immediately, from the content of the two concepts why my thinking connects the concept of thunder with that of lightning. It does not matter for my argument whether my concepts of thunder and lightning are correct. The connection between those concepts which I have is clear to me, and that by means of the very concepts themselves.

This transparent clearness concerning our thinking-processes is quite independent of our knowledge of the physiological basis of thinking. I am speaking here of thinking as it appears to our observation of our own spiritual activity. For this purpose it is quite irrelevant how one material process in my brain causes or influences another, whilst I am carrying on a process of thinking. What I observe in thinking is not what process in my brain connects the concept of thunder with that of lightning, but what impels me to bring these two concepts into a definite relation. Observation shows that, in linking thought with thought, I am guided by nothing but their content, not by the material processes in the brain. This remark would be quite superfluous in a less materialistic age than ours. To-day, however, when there are people who believe that, when we know what matter is, we shall know also how it thinks, it is necessary to affirm the possibility of speaking of thinking without trespassing on the domain of brain physiology. Many people to-day find it difficult to grasp the concept of thinking in its purity. Anyone who challenges the description of thinking which I have given here, by quoting Cabanis' statement that “the brain secretes thoughts as the liver does gall or the spittle-glands spittle, etc.,” does not indeed know of what I am talking. He attempts to discover thinking by the same method of mere observation which we apply to the other objects that make up the world. But he cannot find it in this way, because, as I have shown, it eludes just this ordinary observation. Whoever cannot transcend Materialism lacks the ability to lead himself to the exceptional state I have described, in which he becomes conscious of what in all other spiritual activity remains unconscious. It is useless to discuss thinking with one who is not willing to adopt this attitude, just as it would be to discuss colour with a blind man. Let him not imagine, however, that we regard physiological processes as thinking. He fails to explain thinking because he does not see it at all.

For everyone, however, who has the ability to observe thinking, and with goodwill every normal man has this ability, this observation is the most important he can make. For he observes something which he himself produces. He is not confronted by what is, to begin with, a foreign object, but by his own activity. He knows how that which he observes comes to be. He perceives clearly its connections and relations. He has gained a firm point from which he can, with well-founded hopes, seek an explanation of the other phenomena of the world.

The feeling that he had found such a firm foundation, induced the father of modern philosophy, Descartes, to base the whole of human knowledge, on the principle, “I think, therefore I am.” All other things, all other processes, are there independently of me. Whether they be truth, or illusion, or dream, I know not. There is only one thing of which I am absolutely certain, for I myself am the author of its indubitable existence; and that is my thinking. Whatever other origin it may have in addition, whether it come from God or from elsewhere, of one thing I am sure, that it is there in the sense that I myself produce it. Descartes had, to begin with, no justification for reading any other meaning into his principle. All he had a right to assert was that, in apprehending myself as thinking, I apprehend myself, within the world-system, in that activity which is most uniquely my own. What the added words “therefore I am” are intended to mean has been much debated. They can have a meaning on one condition only. The simplest assertion I can make of a thing is, that it is, that it exists. What kind of existence, in detail, it has, can in no case be determined on the spot, as soon as the thing enters within the horizon of my experience. Each object must be studied in its relations to others, before we can determine the sense in which we can speak of its existence. An experienced process may be a complex of percepts, or it may be a dream, an hallucination, etc. In short, I cannot say in what sense it exists. I can never read off the kind of existence from the process itself, for I can discover it only when I consider the process in its relation to other things. But this, again, yields me no knowledge beyond just its relation to other things. My inquiry touches firm ground only when I find an object, the reason of the existence of which I can gather from itself. Such an object I am myself in so far as I think, for I qualify my existence by the determinate and self-contained content of my thinking activity. From here I can go on to ask whether other things exist in the same or in some other sense.

When thinking is made an object of observation, something which usually escapes our attention is added to the other observed contents of the world. But the usual kind of behaviour, such as is employed also for other objects, is in no way altered. We add to the number of objects of observation, but not to the number of methods. When we are observing other things, there enters among the world-processes — among which I now include observation — one process which is overlooked. There is present something different from every other kind of process, something which is not taken into account. But when I observe my own thinking, there is no such neglected element present. For what hovers now in the background is just thinking itself over again. The object of observation is qualitatively identical with the activity directed upon it. This is another characteristic feature of thinking. When we make it an object of observation, we are not compelled to do so with the help of something qualitatively different, but can remain within the same element.

When I weave a tissue of thoughts round an independently given object, I transcend my observation, and the question then arises: What right have I to do this? Why do I not passively let the object impress itself on me? How is it possible for my thinking to be related to the object? These are questions which everyone must put to himself who reflects on his own thought-processes. But all these questions lapse when we think about thinking itself. We then add nothing to our thinking that is foreign to it, and, therefore, have no need to justify any such addition.

Schelling says: “To know Nature means to create Nature.” If we take these words of this daring philosopher of Nature literally, we shall have to renounce for ever all hope of gaining knowledge of Nature. For Nature after all exists, and if we have to create it over again, we must know the principles according to which it has originated in the first instance. We should have to borrow from Nature as it exists the conditions of existence for the Nature which we are about to create. But this borrowing, which would have to precede the creating, would be a knowing of Nature, and would be this even if after the borrowing no creation at all were attempted. Only a kind of Nature which does not yet exist could be created without prior knowledge.

What is impossible with regard to Nature, namely, creating before knowing, is accomplished with regard to thinking. Were we to refrain from thinking until we had first gained knowledge of it, we should never attain it. We must resolutely think straight ahead, and then afterwards gain knowledge of the thinking we have done by observing it. When we want to observe thinking, we must ourselves first create the object to be observed: the existence of all other objects is provided for us without any activity on our part.

My contention that we must think before we can examine thinking, might easily be countered by the apparently equally valid contention that we cannot wait with digesting until we have first observed the process of digestion. This objection would be similar to that brought by Pascal against Descartes, when he asserted we might also say “I walk, therefore I am.” Certainly I must digest resolutely and not wait until I have studied the physiological process of digestion. But I could only compare this with the analysis of thinking if, after digestion, I set myself not to analyse it by thinking, but to eat and digest it. It is not without reason that, while digestion cannot become the object of digestion, thinking can very well become the object of thinking.

This then is indisputable, that in thinking we have got hold of one bit of the world-process which requires our presence if anything is to happen. And that is the very point that matters. The very reason why things seem so puzzling is just that I play no part in their production. They are simply given to me, whereas in the case of thinking I know how it is done. Hence there can be no more fundamental starting-point than thinking from which to regard all world-happenings.

I should like to mention a widely current error which prevails with regard to thinking. It is often said that thinking, in its original nature, is never given. The thinking-processes which connect our perceptions with one another, and weave about them a network of concepts, are not at all the same as those which our analysis afterwards extracts from the objects of perception, in order to make them the object of study. What we have unconsciously woven into things is, so we are told, something widely different from what subsequent analysis recovers out of them.

Those who hold this view do not see that it is impossible in this way to escape from thinking. I cannot get outside thinking when I want to study it. We should never forget that the distinction between thinking which goes on unconsciously and thinking which is consciously analysed is a purely external one and irrelevant to our discussion. I do not in any way alter a thing by making it an object of thinking. I can well imagine that a being with quite different sense-organs, and with a differently constructed intelligence, would have a very different representation of a horse from mine, but I cannot think that my own thinking becomes different because I observe it. I myself observe what I produce. We are not talking here of how my thinking appears to an intelligence different from mine, but how it appears to me. In any case, the representation which another intelligence forms of my thinking cannot be truer than the one which I form myself. Only if I were not myself the thinking being, but the thinking were transmitted to me as the activity of a quite foreign being, might I then so speak that my picture of thinking appeared indeed in a definite manner; but how the thinking of the being may be itself, that I should not be able to know.

So far, there is not the slightest reason why I should regard my own thinking from any other point of view than my own. I contemplate the rest of the world by means of thinking. How should I make of my thinking an exception?

I think I have given sufficient reasons for making thinking the starting-point for my study of the world. When Archimedes had discovered the lever, he thought he could lift the whole cosmos from its hinges, if only he could find a point of support for his instrument. He needed a point which was self-supporting. In thought we have a principle which is self-subsisting. Let us try, therefore, to understand the world starting from this basis. Thinking can be grasped by itself. The question is whether we can also grasp anything else through it.

I have so far spoken of thinking without taking account of its vehicle, the human consciousness. Most present-day philosophers would object that before there can be thinking, there must be consciousness. Hence we ought to start, not from thinking, but from consciousness. There is no thinking, they say, without consciousness. In reply I would urge that, in order to clear up the relation between thinking and consciousness, I must think about it. Hence I presuppose thinking. One might, it is true, retort that, though a philosopher who wishes to understand consciousness, naturally makes use of thinking, and so far presupposes it; in the ordinary course of life, however, thinking arises within consciousness and, therefore, presupposes that.

Were this answer given to the world-creator, when he was about to create thought, it would, without doubt, be to the point. Thinking cannot, of course, come into being before consciousness. The philosopher, however, is not concerned with the creation of the world, but with the understanding of it. Hence he is in search of the starting-point, not for creation, but for the understanding of the world. It seems to me very strange that a philosopher is reproached for troubling himself, above all, about the correctness of his principles, instead of turning straight to the objects which he seeks to understand. The world-creator had above all to know how to find a vehicle for thinking; the philosopher must seek a firm basis for the understanding of what is existent. What does it help us to start with consciousness and make it an object of thinking, if we do not first know how far it is possible at all to gain any insight into things by thinking?

We must first consider thinking quite impartially without relation to a thinking subject or to an object of thought. For subject and object are both concepts formed by thinking. There is no denying that thinking must be understood before anything else can be understood. Whoever denies this, fails to realize that man is not the first link in the chain of creation but the last. Hence, in order to explain the world by means of concepts, we cannot start from the elements of existence which came first in time, but we must begin with that element which is nearest and most intimately connected with us. We cannot, with a leap, transport ourselves to the beginning of the world, in order to begin our analysis there, but we must start from the present moment and see whether we cannot advance from the later to the earlier. As long as Geology fabled fantastic revolutions to account for the present state of the earth, it groped in darkness. It was only when it began to study the processes at present at work on the earth, and from these to argue back to the past, that it gained a firm foundation. As long as Philosophy assumes all sorts of principles, such as atom, motion, matter, will, the unconscious, it will hang in the air. The philosopher can reach his goal only if he adopts that which is last in time as the first in his theory. This absolutely last thing in the world-process is indeed Thinking.

There are people who say it is impossible to ascertain with certainty whether our thinking is right or wrong, and that, so far, our starting-point is a doubtful one. It would be just as intelligent to raise doubts as to whether a tree is in itself right or wrong. Thinking is a fact, and it is meaningless to speak of truth or falsity of a fact. I can, at most, be in doubt as to whether thinking is rightly employed, just as I can doubt whether a certain tree supplies wood adapted to the making of this or that useful object. It is just the purpose of this book to show how far the application of thinking to the world is right or wrong. I can understand anyone doubting whether, by means of thinking, we can gain any knowledge of the world, but it is unintelligible to me how anyone can doubt that thinking in itself is right.


In the preceding discussion I have pointed out the important difference between thinking and all other soul activities. This difference is a fact which is patent to genuinely unprejudiced observation. Anyone who does not try to apply this unprejudiced observation will be tempted to bring against my argumentation such objections as these: When I think about a rose, there is involved nothing more than a relation of my “I” to the rose, just as when I feel the beauty of the rose. There subsists likewise a relation between “I” and object in thinking as there does, e.g., in feeling or perceiving. Those who urge this objection fail to bear in mind that it is only in the activity of thinking that the “I,” or Ego, knows itself to be identical, right into all the ramifications of the activity, with that which is active. Of no other soul activity can we say the same. For example, in a feeling of pleasure it is easy for a more intimate observation to discriminate between the extent to which the Ego knows itself to be identical with what is active in the feeling, and the extent to which there is something passive in the Ego, so that the pleasure is merely something which happens to the Ego. The same applies to the other soul activities. The main thing is not to confuse the “having of thought images” with the elaboration of thought by thinking. Images may appear in the soul dream-wise, like vague intimations. But this is not thinking. True, someone might now urge: If this is what you mean by “thinking,” then your thinking contains willing, and you have to do, not with mere thinking, but with the will to think as well. However, this would justify us only in saying: Genuine thinking must always be willed thinking. But this is quite irrelevant to the characterization of thinking as this has been given in the preceding discussion. Let it be granted that the nature of thinking necessarily implies its being willed, the point which matters is that nothing is willed which, in being carried out, fails to appear to the Ego as an activity completely its own and under its own supervision. Indeed, we must say that thinking appears to the observer as through and through willed, precisely because of its nature as above defined. If we genuinely try to master all the facts which are relevant to a judgment about the nature of thinking, we cannot fail to observe that this soul activity has the unique character which is here in question.

A personality of whose powers as a thinker the author of this book has a very high opinion, has objected that it is impossible to speak about thinking as we are here doing, because the presumably observed active thinking is nothing but an illusion. In reality, what is observed is only the results of an unconscious activity which lies at the basis of thinking. It is only because, and just because, this unconscious activity escapes observation, that the deceptive appearance of the self-subsistence of the observed thinking arises, just as when an illumination by means of a rapid succession of electric sparks makes us believe that we see a movement. This objection, likewise, rests solely on an inaccurate view of the facts. The objection ignores that it is the Ego itself which, standing inside thinking, observes from within its own activity. The Ego would have to stand outside the thinking in order to suffer the sort of deception which is caused by an illumination with a rapid succession of electric sparks. One might rather say that to indulge in such an analogy is to deceive oneself by force, just as if someone, seeing a moving light, were obstinately to affirm that it is being freshly lit by an unknown hand at every point where it appears. No, whoever is bent on seeing in thinking anything else than an activity produced — and supervised by — the Ego has first to shut his eyes to the plain facts that are there for the looking, in order then to invent a hypothetical activity as the basis of thinking. If he does not blind himself by force, he must recognize that all these “hypothetical additions” to thinking take him away from its real nature. Unprejudiced observation shows that nothing is to be counted as belonging to the nature of thinking except what is found in thinking itself. It is impossible to discover what causes thinking if one leaves the realm of thinking.