Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Case for Anthroposophy
GA 21

VII. Principles of Psychosomatic Physiology

My object here is to present in outline certain conclusions I have reached concerning the relations between the psychic and the physical components of the human being. I may add that, in doing so, I place on record the results of a systematic spiritual investigation extending over a period of thirty years. It is only in the last few of those years that it has become practicable to formulate these results in concepts capable of verbal expression, and thus to bring the investigation to at least a temporary close. I must emphasise that it is the results and the results alone that I shall be presenting, or rather indicating, in what follows. Their foundation in fact can certainly be established on the basis of contemporary science. But to do this would require a substantial volume; and that my present circumstances do not permit of my writing.

If we are seeking for the actual relation between psychic and physical, it will not do to take as our starting-point Brentano’s distribution of psychic experience into representation, judgment and the responses of love and hate. Partitioning in this way, we are led to shelve so many relevant considerations that we shall reach no reliable results. On the contrary we have to start from that very trichotomy of representation, feeling and will which Brentano rejected. If we survey the psychic experience of representation as a whole, and seek for the bodily processes with which that experience is related, we shall find the appropriate nexus by relying substantially on the findings of current physiological psychology. The somatic correlatives to the psychic element in representation are observable in the processes of the nervous system, extending into the sense organs in one direction and into the interior physical organism in the other. Here, however wide the divergence in many respects between the anthroposophical point of view and that of contemporary science, that very science provides an excellent foundation.

It is otherwise when we seek to determine the somatic correlatives for feeling and willing. There we have first to blaze the requisite trail through the findings of current physiology. And once we have succeeded in doing so, we shall find that, just as representation is necessarily related to nervous activity, so feeling must be seen as related to that vital rhythm which is centred in, and connected with, the respiratory system; bearing in mind that, for this purpose, the rhythm of breathing must be traced right into the outermost peripheral regions of the organism. To arrive at concrete results here, the findings of physiological research need to be pursued in a direction which is as yet decidedly unfamiliar. If we take the trouble to do this, preliminary objections to bracketing feeling with respiration, all disappear, and what at first looks like an objection turns out to be a proof. Take one simple example from the wide range available: musical experience is dependent on some feeling, but the content of musical form subsists in representations furnished by auditory perception. How does musical emotion arise? The representation of the tonal shape (which depends on organ of hearing and neural process) is not yet the actual musical experience. That arises in the measure that the rhythm of breathing, continuing further into the brain, confronts within that organ the effects produced there by ear and nervous system. The psyche now lives, not alone in what is heard and represented, or thought, but in the breathing rhythm. Something is released in the breathing rhythm through the fact that neural process impinges on rhythmic life. Once we have seen the physiology of respiration in its true light, we are led on all hands to the conclusion that the psyche, in experiencing emotion, is supported by the rhythmic process of breathing, in the same way that, in representation and ideation, it is supported by neural processes. And it will be found that willing is supported, in the same way, by the physical processes of metabolism. Here again one must include the innumerable offshoots and ramifications of these processes, which extend throughout the entire organism.

When something is “represented”, a neural process takes place, on the basis of which the psyche becomes conscious of its representation; when something is “felt”, a modification is effected in the breathing rhythm, through which a feeling comes to life; and in the same way, when something is “willed”, a metabolic process occurs that is the somatic foundation for what the psyche experiences as willing. It should be noted however that it is only in the first case (representation mediated by the nervous system) that the experience is a fully conscious, waking experience. What is mediated through the breathing-rhythm (including in this category everything in the nature of feelings, affects, passions and the like) subsists in normal consciousness with the force only of representations that are dreamed. Willing, with its metabolic succedaneum, is experienced in turn only with that third degree of consciousness, totally dulled, which also persists in sleep. If we look more closely at this series, we shall notice that the experience of willing is in fact wholly different from the experience of representation or ideation. The latter is something like looking at a coloured surface: whereas willing is like looking at a black area in the middle of a coloured field. We see nothing there in the uncoloured part of the surface precisely because—unlike the surrounding part, from which colour impressions are received—no such impressions are at hand from it. We “have the idea” of willing, because within the psyche’s field of ideational experience a patch of non-ideation inserts itself, very much as the interruptions of consciousness brought about by sleep insert themselves into the continuum of conscious life. It is to these differing types of conscious apprehension that the soul owes the manifold variety of its experience in ideation, feeling and willing.

There are some noteworthy observations on feeling and willing in Theodor Ziehen’s Manual of Physiological Psychology—in many ways a standard work within the tradition of current scientific notions concerning the relation between the physical and the psychic. He deals with the relation between the various forms of representation and ideation on the one hand and neural function on the other in a way that is quite in accord with the anthroposophical approach. But when it comes to feeling (see Lecture 9 in his book), he has this to say:

The older psychology, almost without exception, treats of affects as manifestations of a special, independent faculty. Kant placed the feeling of desire and aversion, as a separate faculty, between those of cognition and appetite, and he expressly emphasised that any further reduction of the three to a common source was impossible. But our previous discussions have shown that feelings of desire and aversion have in fact no such independent existence, they are not any sounding of the “note of feeling”, but simply attributes or signals of sensations and representations.

Here is a theoretical approach which concedes to feeling no independent existence in the life of the soul, seeing it as a mere attribute of ideation. And the result is, it assumes that not only ideation but feeling also is supported by neural processes. The nervous system is thus the somatic element to which the entire psyche is appropriated. Yet the whole basis of this approach amounts to an unnoticed presupposition of the conclusions at which it expects to arrive. It accepts as psychic only what is related to neural processes and then draws the inference that what is not proper to these processes, namely feeling, must be treated as having no independent existence—as a mere signal of ideation.

To abandon this blind alley and return instead to unprejudiced observation of the psyche is to be definitively convinced of the independence of the whole life of feeling. But it is also to appreciate without reserve the actual findings of physiology and at the same time to gain from them the insight that feeling is, as already indicated, peculiar to the breathing-rhythm.

The methodology of natural science denies any sort of existential independence to the will. Unlike feeling, willing is not even a signal of ideation. But this negative assumption, too, is simply based on a prior decision (cf. p. 15 of Physiological Psychology) to assign the whole of the psyche to neural process. Yet the plain fact is that what constitutes the peculiar quality of willing cannot really be related to neural process as such. Thus, precisely because of the exemplary clarity with which Ziehen develops the ideas from which he starts, he is forced (as anyone must be) to conclude that analysis of psychic processes in their relation to the life of the body “affords no support to the assumption of a specific faculty of will”.

The fact remains that unprejudiced contemplation of the psyche obliges us to recognise the existential independence of the will, and accurate insight into the findings of physiology compels the conclusion that the will, as such, must be linked not with neural but with metabolic processes. If a man wants to form clear concepts in this field, then he must look at the findings of physiology and psychology in the light of the facts themselves and not, as so often happens in the present day practice of those sciences, in the light of preconceived opinions and definitions—not to mention theoretical sympathies and antipathies.1Compare p.79 FN.

Most important of all, he must be able to discern very clearly the mutual interrelation of neural function, breathing-rhythm and metabolic activity respectively. These three forms of activity subsist, not alongside of, but within one another. They interpenetrate and enter each other. Metabolic activity is present at all points in the organism; it permeates both the rhythmic organs and the neural ones. But within the rhythmic it is not the somatic foundation of feeling, and within the neural it is not that of ideation. On the contrary, in both of these fields it is the correlative of will-activity permeating rhythm and permeating the nerves respectively. Only materialistic presupposition can relate the element of metabolism in the nerves with the process of ideation. Observation with its roots in reality reports quite differently. It is compelled to recognise that metabolism is present in the nerve to the extent that will is permeating it. And it is the same with the somatic apparatus for rhythm. Everything within that organ that is of the nature of metabolism has to do with the element of will present in it. It is always willing that must be brought into connection with metabolic activity, always feeling that must be related to rhythmic occurrence, irrespective of the particular organ in which metabolism and rhythm are operating.

But in the nerves something else goes on that is quite distinct from metabolism and rhythm. The somatic processes in the nervous system which provide the foundation for representation and ideation are physiologically difficult to grasp. That is because, wherever there is neural function, it is accompanied by the ideation which is ordinary consciousness. But the converse of this is also true. Where there is no ideation, there it is never specifically neural function we discern, but only metabolic activity in the nerve; or rhythmic occurrence in it, as the case may be. Neurology will never arrive at concepts that measure up to the facts, so long as it fails to see that the specifically neural activity of the nerves cannot possibly be an object of physiologically empirical observation. Anatomy and Physiology must bring themselves to recognise that neural function can be located only by a method of exclusion. The activity of the nerves is precisely that in them which is not perceptible by the senses, though the fact that it must be there can be inferred from what is so perceptible, and so can the specific nature of their activity. The only way of representing neural function to ourselves is to see in it those material events, by means of which the purely psycho-spiritual reality of the living content of ideation is subdued and devitalised (herabgelähmt) to the lifeless representations and ideas we recognise as our ordinary consciousness. Unless this concept finds its way somehow into physiology, physiology can have no hope of explicating neural activity.

At present physiology has committed itself to methods which conceal rather than reveal this concept. And psychology, too, has shut the door in her own face. Look, for instance, at the effects of Herbartian psychology. It confines its attention exclusively to the process of representation, and regards feeling and willing merely as effects consequent on that process. But, for cognition, these “effects” gradually peter out, unless at the same time a candid eye is kept on actual feeling and willing; with the result that we are prevented from reaching any valid correlation of feeling and willing with somatic processes. The body as a whole, not merely the nervous activity impounded in it, is the physical basis of psychic life. And, just as, for ordinary consciousness, psychic life is naturally classifiable in terms of ideation, feeling and willing, so is physical life classifiable in terms of neural function, rhythmic occurrence and metabolic process.

The question at once arises: in what way do the following enter and inhabit the organism: on the one hand, sense-perception proper, in which neural function merely terminates, and on the other the faculty of motion, which is the effusion of will? Unbiased observation discloses that neither the one nor the other of these belongs to the organism in the same sense that neural function, rhythmic occurrence and metabolic process belong to it. What goes on in the senses does not belong immediately to the organism at all. The external world reaches out into the senses, as though they were bays or inlets leading into the organism’s own existence. Compassing the processes that take place in the senses, the psyche does not participate in inner organic events; it participates in the extension of outer events into the organism.2For a critical treatment of this subject see my lecture to the Philosophical Congress at >Bologna, 1911. In the same way, when physical motion is brought about, what we have to do with is not something that is actually situated within the organism, but an outward working of the organism into the physical equilibrium (or other dynamic relation) between the organism itself and its environment. Within the organism it is only a metabolic process that can be assigned to willing; but the event that is liberated through this process is at the same time an actual happening within the equilibrium, or the dynamics, of the external world. Exerting volition, the life of the psyche overreaches the domain of the organism and combines its action with a happening in the outer world.

The study of the whole matter has been greatly confused by the separation of the nerves into sensory and motor. Securely anchored as this distinction appears to be in contemporary physiological ideas, it is not supported by unbiased observation. The findings of physiology based on neural sections, or on the pathological elimination of certain nerves, do not prove what the experiment or the case-history is said to show. They prove something quite different. They prove that the supposed distinction between sensory and motor nerves does not exist. On the contrary, both kinds of nerve are essentially alike. The so called motor nerve does not implement movement in the manner that the theory of two kinds of nerve assumes. What happens is that the nerve as carrier of the neural function implements an inner perception of the particular metabolic process that underlies the will—in exactly the same way that the sensory nerve implements perception of what is coming to pass within the sense-organ. Unless and until neurological theory begins to operate in this domain with clear concepts, no satisfactory co-ordination of psychic and somatic life can come about.3In September 1954, forty-seven years after the above words were written, Dr. J. A. V. Bates of the neurological Research Unit (National Hospital) read his paper, Can Voluntary Movement be Localized in the Cerebral Cortex? to a meeting of the British Association at Oxford. He began by demonstrating, on a number of technical grounds, that the inferences drawn from certain well-known facts of observation are not valid inferences, since those facts do not prove that the so-called motor nerve implements movement in the manner that the theory of two kinds of nerve fibre assumes. We should, he suggested. “cease to regard the cerebro-spinal tract as an efferent tract from an area where movements are represented”; and he drew attention to the fact that a similar interpretation of the then observed facts had been brought forward by Francois Franck as long ago as 1886 but had been rejected in flavour of Ferrier’s hypothesis of efferent and afferent nerve fibres. See also Observations on the Excitable Cortex  in Man by J. A. V. Bates (“Lectures on the Scientific Basis of Medicine” Volume V:1955-56).

While engaged on this translation, I ventured to write to the author to enquire after the subsequent fate of what was clearly an attempt (to quote from this selection) to “look at the findings of physiology and psychology in the light of the facts themselves, and not, as so often happens in the present-day practice of those sciences, in the light of preconceived opinions and definitions....” I gather from him that it has neither been answered on the one hand, nor accepted on the other. It appears in fact to have been, at least explicitly ignored—as (with the possible exception of pure physics) is evidently the normal practice with scientific interpretation or hypotheses, however well supported experimentally, that are radical enough to interfere with theories so long accepted as to have become embodied in definitions. In his obliging reply to my letter Dr. Bates put the present position as follows:

“I would say that in the last fifteen years what I referred to as the classical hypothesis has come to be held with far less conviction by most of those who are researching in the field, but that it is still taught in text books, and will remain a seductive hypothesis for the beginner, I’m afraid for many years.”—Editor

Just as it is possible, psycho-physiologically, to pursue the interrelations between psychic and somatic life which come about in ideation, feeling and willing, in a similar way it is possible, by anthroposophical method, to investigate that relation which the psychic element in ordinary consciousness bears to the spiritual. Applying these methods, the nature of which I have described here and elsewhere, we find that, while representation, or ideation, has a basis in the body in the shape of neural activity or function, it also has a basis in the spiritual. In the other direction—the direction away from the body—the soul stands in relation to a noetically real, which is the basis for the ideation that is characteristic of ordinary consciousness. But this noetic reality can only be experienced through imaginal cognition. And it is so experienced in so far as its content discloses itself to contemplation in the form of coherently linked (gegliederte) imaginations. Just as, in the direction of the body, representation rests on the activity of the nerves, so from the other direction does it issue from a noetic reality, which discloses itself in the form of imaginations.

It is this noetic, or spiritual, component of the organism which I have termed in my writings the etheric or life-body. And in doing so I invariably point out that the term “body” is no more vulnerable to objection than the other term “ether”; because my exposition clearly shows that neither of them is predicated materially. This life-body (elsewhere I have also sometimes used the expression “formative-forces body”) is that phase of the spiritual, whence the representational life of ordinary consciousness, beginning with birth—or, say, conception—and ending with death, continuously originates.

The feeling-component of ordinary consciousness rests, on the bodily side, on rhythmic occurrence. From the spiritual side it streams from a level of spiritual reality that is investigated, in anthroposophical research, by methods which I have, in my writings, designated as inspirational. (Here again it is emphasised that I employ this term solely with the meaning I have given it in my own descriptions; it is not to be equated with inspiration in the colloquial sense.) In the spiritual reality that lies at the base of the soul and is apprehensible though inspiration there is disclosed that phase of the spiritual, proper to the human being, which extends beyond birth and death. It is in this field that anthroposophy brings its spiritual investigations to bear on the problem of immortality. As the mortal part of the sentient human being manifests itself through rhythmic occurrences in the body, so does the immortal spirit kernel of the soul reveal itself in the inspiration-content of intuitive consciousness.

For such an intuitive consciousness the will, which depends, in the somatic direction, on metabolic processes, issues forth from the spirit through what in my writings I have termed authentic intuitions. What is, from one point of view, the “lowest” somatic activity (metabolism) is correlative to a spiritually highest one. Hence, ideation, which relies on neural activity, achieves something like a perfection of somatic manifestation; while the bodily processes associated with willing are only a feeble reflection of willing. The real representation is alive, but, as somatically conditioned, it is subdued and deadened. The content remains the same. Real willing, on the other hand, whether or no it finds an outcome in the physical world, takes its course in regions that are accessible only to intuitive vision; its somatic correlative has almost nothing to do with its content. It is at this level of spiritual reality, disclosed to intuition, that we find influences from previous terrestrial lives at work in later ones. And it is in this kind of context that anthroposophy approaches the problems of repeated lives and of destiny. As the body fulfils its life in neural function, rhythmic occurrence and metabolic process, so the human spirit discloses its life in all that becomes apparent in imaginations, inspirations and intuitions. The body, within its own field, affords participation in its external world in two directions, in sensuous happenings and in motor happenings; and so does the spirit—in so far as that experiences the representations of the psyche imaginally (even in ordinary consciousness) from the one direction, while in the other—in willing—it in-forms the intuitive impulses that are realising themselves through metabolic processes. Looking towards the body, we find neural activity that is taking the form of representation-experience, ideation; looking towards the spirit, we realise the spirit-content of the imagination that is flowing into precisely that ideation.

Brentano was primarily sensitive to the noetic side of the psyche’s experience in representation. That is why he characterises this experience as figurative, i.e. as an imaginal event. Yet when it is not only the private content of the soul that is being experienced, but also a somewhat that demands judgmental acknowledgment or repudiation, then there is added to the representation a soul experience deriving from spirit. The content of this experience remains “unconscious” in the ordinary sense, because it consists of imaginations of a spiritual that existentially underpins the physical object. These imaginations add nothing to the representation except that its content exists. Hence Brentano’s diremption of mere representation (which imaginally experiences merely an inwardly present) from judgment (which imaginally experiences an externally given; but which is aware of that experience only as existential acknowledgment or repudiation).

When it comes to feeling, Brentano has no eyes for its somatic basis in rhythmic occurrence; instead he limits his field of observation to love and hate; that is, to .vestiges, in the sphere of ordinary consciousness, of inspirations which themselves remain unconscious. Lastly the will is outside his purview altogether; because he is determined to direct his gaze only to phenomena within the psyche; and because there is something in the will that is not encapsulated in the soul, but of which the soul avails itself in order to participate in the outside world. Brentano’s divisive classification of psychological phenomena may therefore be characterised as follows: he takes his stand at a vantage-point which is truly illuminating, but is only so if the eye is focused on the spirit-kernel of the soul—and yet he insists on aiming from there at the phenomena of ordinary everyday consciousness.4The Section concludes with a remark that these observations are intended as supplementary to a passage in the memorial address on Brentano, which constitutes Chapter III of Von Seelenrätseln. The passage is on page 90.