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Riddles of the Soul
GA 21

3. The Abstractness of Our Concepts

In this essay, I speak about the "laming" of our mental pictures when they merely copy sense-perceptible reality.

The real facts behind the working of abstraction in our cognitive process are to be sought in this laming. The human being forms concepts about sense-perceptible reality. For epistemology [the science that investigates our knowing activity] the question arises: How does what man retains in his soul as a concept of a real being or process relate to this real being or process? Is what I carry around in me as concept of a wolf equivalent to any reality, or is it merely a schema, formed by my soul, which I have made for myself by noting (abstracting) the characteristics of one or another wolf, but which does not correspond to anything in the real world? This question received extensive consideration in the medieval dispute between the Nominalists and the Realists. For the Nominalists, the only thing real about a wolf is the visible substance, flesh, blood, bones, etc., present in this one particular wolf. The concept “wolf” is “merely” a mental summation of characteristics common to the various wolves. The Realist replies to this: Any substance you find in a particular wolf is also present in other animals. There must be something else in addition that orders substance into the living coherency found in a wolf. This ordering real element is given through the concept.

One must admit that Vincenz Knauer, the outstanding expert on Aristotle and medieval philosophy, said something exceptional in his book The Main Problems of Philosophy (Vienna, 1892) when discussing Aristotelian epistemology:

A wolf, for example, does not consist of any material components different from those of a lamb; its material corporeality is built up out of the lamb flesh it has assimilated; but the wolf does not become a lamb, even if it eats nothing but lamb its whole life long. What makes it into a wolf, therefore, must obviously be something other than hyle, sense-perceptible matter; and indeed it must not and cannot be any mere thing of thought, although it is accessible only to thinking and not to the senses; it must be something working [productive] and therefore actual—something very real.

But how, in the sense of a merely anthropological investigation, could one wish to attain the reality indicated here? What is communicated to the soul by the senses does not produce the concept “wolf.” But what is present in ordinary consciousness as this concept is definitely not something “working” [productive]. Through the power of this concept, the assembling of the sense-perceptible materials united in a wolf could certainly not occur. The truth is that this question takes anthropology beyond the limits of its ability to know. Anthroposophy shows that along with the relation of man to wolf in the sense-perceptible realm, there exists another one as well. This other relation, in its own particular, direct nature, does not enter our ordinary consciousness. But this relation does exist as a living supersensible connection between man and the object he perceives with his senses. The living element that exists in man through this connection is lamed, reduced to a “concept” by his intellectual organization. The abstract mental picture is this real element—which has died in order to present itself to ordinary consciousness—in which man does live during sense perception, but whose living quality does not become conscious. The abstractness of our mental pictures is caused by an inner necessity of the soul. Reality gives man something living. He deadens that part of this living element which enters his ordinary consciousness. He does so because he could not achieve self-consciousness in his encounter with the outer world if he had to experience his actual connection to this outer world in its full vitality. Without the laming of this full vitality, man would have to recognize himself as one part within a unity extending beyond his human limits; he would be an organ of a greater organism.

The way man lets his cognitive process turn, inwardly, into the abstractness of concepts is not caused by something real lying outside of him, but rather by the developmental requirements of his own being, which demand that, in his process of perception, he dampen down his living connection with the outer world into these abstract concepts that provide the foundation upon which self-consciousness arises. The fact that this is so reveals itself to the soul after the development of its spiritual organs. Through this development, the living connection with a spiritual reality lying outside man is reestablished; but if self-consciousness were not already something acquired by ordinary consciousness, self-consciousness could not be developed within a seeing consciousness.1Das schauende Bewusstsein: i.e., a consciousness that not only thinks the spirit but sees it with spiritual organs as well. Translator. One can understand from this that a healthy ordinary consciousness is the necessary prerequisite for a seeing consciousness. Someone who believes himself able to develop a seeing consciousness without an active and healthy ordinary consciousness is very much in error. In fact, ordinary normal consciousness must accompany seeing consciousness at every moment; otherwise the latter would bring disorder into human self-consciousness and therefore into man's relation to reality. Anthroposophy, with its seeing knowledge, can have to do only with this kind of consciousness, but not with any dimming down of ordinary consciousness.

[Editor's addendum: On January 27, 1923, in Dornach, Rudolf Steiner had the following to say about "concepts" and the Scholastic “Realists”:

The Realists said: The ideas, concepts, and forms in which sense-perceptible matter is ordered are realities. To be sure, for the Schoolmen, these ideas and concepts had already become abstractions. But they considered these abstractions to be something real because their abstractions were descendants of earlier, much more concrete and substantial views. In an earlier age, human beings did not look merely upon the concept “wolf.” They looked upon the real group soul “wolf” present in the spiritual world. This was a real being. For the Schoolmen, this real being had grown insubstantial and become an abstract concept. But in spite of this, the Realistic Schoolmen still had the feeling that the concept was not empty of content, but rather contained something real.

This real element, to be sure, was descended from earlier beings who were totally real. But one still sensed the kinship, in exactly the same way that Plato experienced his ideas—which also were much more alive and substantial than the medieval Scholastic ideas—as descended from the old Persian archangelic beings who, as Amshaspands, lived and worked in the universe. Those were very real beings. For Plato, they were already hazy, and for the medieval Schoolmen they were abstractions. That was the last stage at which the ancient clairvoyance had arrived. Certainly, medieval Realistic Scholasticism was no longer based on clairvoyance; but what it had preserved in its traditions as real concepts and ideas—living everywhere in stones, plants, animals, and physical human beings—was still regarded, in fact, as something spiritual, no matter how diluted that spiritual element had become. The Nominalists—because in fact the age of abstraction, of intellectualism, was approaching—had already become aware that they were no longer able to connect something real to ideas or concepts. For them, concepts and ideas were mere names to make categorization easier.]