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Wisdom of Man, of the Soul, and of the Spirit
GA 115

2. Supersensible Processes in the Activities of the Human Senses

25 October 1909, Berlin

In dealing with the human senses in our first lecture we merely enumerated them, though in a manner gleaned from the human being himself. We did not confuse and jumble them, as inevitably occurs in the external physiology of the senses where their relationships are not known, but rather, we enumerated them all in the order that accords with the nature of man. Today it shall be our task to examine the realm of the human senses more closely, as this is most important for a deeper fathoming of the human being.

We began with the sense we called the sense of life—the feeling of life, the vital sense. What is this sense based upon, in the true spirit of the word? In order to visualize its source we must delve rather deep down into the subconscious mind, into the substrata of the human organism. This method of spiritual-scientific research discloses first a peculiar co-operation of the physical and etheric bodies. The lowest member of the human being, the physical body, and the second, the etheric body, enter a certain mutual relationship whereby something new occurs in the etheric body. Something that is different permeates and flows through the etheric body, and actually, men of our time don't in the least know in a conscious way what this “something” is. It saturates the etheric body as water does a sponge. Spiritual science can tell us what it is that acts thus in the etheric body. It is what corresponds today to what men will develop in a far distant future as spirit man, or atma. At present, man does not possess this atma as his own. It is bestowed upon him, so to speak, by the surrounding outer spiritual world, without his being able to participate in it. Later on, in the distant future, he will himself have developed it within him. That which saturates the etheric body, then, is spirit man, or atma, and at the present stage of human evolution it is in a sense a superhuman being.

This superhuman atma, or spirit man, expresses itself by contracting the etheric body—cramping it, as it were. Using an analogy from the sense world, we can compare the effect to that of frost, which cramps and contracts the physical body. Man is as yet not ripe for what one day will be his most precious possession, and therefore, in a sense, it destroys him. The result of the contraction described is that the astral element is pressed out, squeezed out. In proportion as the etheric body is pressed together the physical body as well undergoes tension, whereby the astral body makes room for itself. You can visualize it approximately by imagining a sponge being squeezed out. Now, the activities in the astral body are all emotional experiences—pleasure, distaste, joy, sorrow—and this process of being squeezed out communicates itself to sentience as the sense of life. This is the process that takes place in the astral body, and it expresses itself as a feeling of freedom, of strength, of lassitude, etc.

Now let us ascend a bit. As the second sense, we listed the sense of our own movements. In this case, again, an extraneous principle is at work in the etheric body, and again it is one not yet indigenous in man. He has not achieved it through his own efforts; it flows into him out of the spiritual world, and, as with atma, the etheric body is saturated with it as a sponge with water. It is the life spirit, or buddhi, which in time will permeate him, but which for the present he holds as a gift, as it were, from the life spirit of the world. Its action is different from that of atma. As water seeks its level, so buddhi effects proportion, equilibrium, in the etheric and physical bodies, and hence in the astral body as well. This condition operates in such a way that when the balance is disturbed it can re-establish itself automatically. If we stretch out an arm, for example, destroying the balance through this change of position, the balance is immediately restored because the astral body is in a state of equilibrium. In proportion as we stretch out an arm the astral current streams in the opposite direction, thereby re-adjusting the balance. With every physical change of position, even merely blinking, the astral current in the organism moves in the opposite direction. In this inner experience of a process of equalization the sense of movement manifests itself.

We come now to a third element that can permeate man's etheric body, and this, too, is something that has entered human consciousness only to a negligible extent: manas, or spirit self. But inasmuch as precisely at this period it is incumbent upon man to develop manas, this being his earth task, manas acts differently upon the etheric body than do atma and buddhi, which are to be developed in the distant future. Its action is to expand the etheric body, effecting the opposite of what was designated “frost” in connection with the sense of life. This activity could be compared with a pouring, a streaming, of warmth into space, and this expands the elastic etheric body. We have something like streaming warmth when this semi-conscious expansion of the etheric body occurs. The consequence of this elastic expansion of the etheric body is a corresponding rarefaction of the astral body, which can thus expand as well. It need not be pressed out; by having more room it can remain in the expanding etheric body. While the sense of life becomes conscious through the contraction of the astral body, the static sensation results from the expansion of the etheric body, which thus makes more room for the astral body. In the way of a comparison it can be said that the texture of the astral body becomes rarefied, less dense. This thinning of the etheric and the astral bodies offers the possibility for the physical body to expand as well—in a sense, to extend itself.

Through the action of atma the physical body is contracted, through the action of buddhi it is stabilized, through the action of manas it is unburdened. The result is that at certain points it pushes out tiny particles, and this occurs in those three marvelous organs, the semi-circular canals of the ear. Such spreading out of physical matter does not arise from a forcing from within, but from a cessation or diminution of pressure from without, through the unburdening of the physical matter in question. This in turn enables the astral body to expand more and more. It makes contact with the outer world and must achieve equilibrium with it, for when this is not the case we cannot stand upright; we even fall over. If we would move in space we must take our bearings, and for this reason those three little canals are arranged in the three dimensions of space at right angles to each other. If these canals are injured we lose our sense of balance, we feel dizzy, we faint.

In the animal kingdom we find that everything of the kind in question results from the animal's premature descent into physical matter. A certain hardening is the consequence. We even find little stone formations in them, the so-called otoliths, that lie in such a way as to indicate the measure of balance.

A study of these three senses shows us clearly the difference between the factual results of spiritual-scientific research and the opinions held by the present-day inadequate thinking of the savant group soul, which clings to externals. Thus far we have considered three senses, passing outward from within, and the last of them lies close to the boundary line between what we experience within us and what must be experienced without if we are to identify ourselves with the outer world. We must distinguish clearly between facts and the inadequate thinking of the savant group soul. Just here, for example, the latter has shown us how we must not think. Quite recently, special events have brought external science face-to-face with the necessity for at last recognizing these three sense regions, but its failure to do so has proved how badly it must stray without the right guiding thread. These formations that signify a human sense organ were promptly compared with certain organs in the plant kingdom; in certain plants there appear formations that up to a point can be compared with the semi-circular canals in the human ear. Modern thinking, which as a rule is abandoned by logic precisely at the moment when adequate judgment is called for, infers from the appearance of these similar formations in plants that the latter, too, have a sense of equilibrium. It is not difficult to carry such logic ad absurdum. If you maintain that a plant has a sense on the grounds that it purposefully rolls up its leaves, a sense that goes so far as to entice and snap up its nourishment by means of certain contrivances, I can suggest a being that can do all that just as efficiently, that is, a mousetrap. What science has put forth concerning the human sense organs can be applied quite as logically to the mousetrap as to the plant. With equal propriety it could be maintained that scales have a sense of equilibrium. Mental derailments of this type derive from an inflexible sort of thinking that cannot really penetrate into the nature of things.

Until modern science learns to illuminate the edifice of the human organism with the light of theosophy, it will not be able to master the nature of these three senses. Theosophy enables us to understand the entire structure of the human organism anthroposophically. By means of spiritual-scientific observation, man in his entirety must be comprehended through his own inner nature.

We pass to the sense of smell. The reason for not occupying ourselves particularly with what science calls the sense of touch has already been indicated. As generally described, it is a mere figment of the imagination, an invention of physiology, hence we will disregard it. Because I can give but four lectures at this time I must pass rapidly over certain matters and utter many a paradox. In dealing with a number of senses we can speak of touch sensations, but not of a special touch sense in the way modern physiology does. All that takes place when we touch something is wholly comprised in the concept “sense of equilibrium.” If we press down on a table, stroke a velvet surface, pull a cord, everything that there manifests itself in pressure, stroking and pulling as a process of touch is nothing but a change of equilibrium within ourselves. While all this can be found in the sense of touch, the sense of touch proper must be sought higher up in the sense of equilibrium—there where this sense comes to fullest expression. An unimpaired sense of equilibrium provides the sense of touch. In science the most distressing theories prevail concerning this sense of touch.

Pressure is something that does not interest the ordinary human being. He speaks of “pressing,” but does not enquire further into the nature of the phenomenon. But from the spiritual-scientific point of view the question must arise. What takes place in pressing? What occurs in the sense of equilibrium? What compensation is effected by the astral body? The extent of misconception connected with the sensation of being pressed is revealed in physics. Physics talks of atmospheric pressure, and when some alert boy asks his teacher how we can stand the high atmospheric pressure without being squeezed to death, he receives the answer that pressure and counter-pressure are always equal; we are filled with air, so the outer pressure is canceled. But if the boy is bright enough he will object that he has often sat in the bathtub, completely surrounded by water, and although he was not filled with water he wasn't squeezed to death.

If the state of affairs were as represented by the physicists, an enormous atmospheric pressure would be exerted on the body's surface, and they explain our unawareness of it by the counter-pressure, by our being filled with air. This is one of the absurdities resulting from purely materialistic explanations. No, what we have to deal with here is an eminently spiritual process. The human being is so strong that he can push the astral body into the constricted portions and thereby re-establish equilibrium. When pressure is exerted, a little lump, as we may call it, always results, and this effect is so strong in the astral body that the latter, from within, overcomes the whole pressure of the outer air. In this realm the spirit is literally tangible.

After this short digression we will now return to the sense of smell. Here the human organism is taken in hand and affected by something other than was the case in the senses just dealt with, something less remote from human consciousness, that is, by the consciousness soul itself, which comes into action in the process of smelling. We shall see why all such things are accomplished by means of special organs. The consciousness soul not only effects an expansion and rarefaction at a certain place in the organism, but causes the astral body to extend its impulses beyond the organism. In proportion as the gaseous substance penetrates the mucous membrane of the nose, the astral substance presses outward, leaves the organism, penetrates the gaseous substance, and experiences something in it, not only in itself but in the substance. What it thus experiences it calls aroma, pleasant or unpleasant scent, etc., as the case may be. It is an antenna of the consciousness soul, projected by the latter through the agency of the astral body.

In the fifth sense, taste, the mental soul is active. It pours its astral currents outward through the organ of taste, sending the astral substance to meet whatever matter comes in contact with the tongue. The resulting process in the astral body is of a special nature. Let us first recall and examine the sense of smell. What is the nature of the stream emanating from the astral body in smelling? It is none other than the nature of will. The impulse of will that you feel within you streams forth to meet the inflowing matter. The process of smelling is one of resistance, an impulse to force back the instreaming matter. Spiritual science can tell you that this substance flowing in is but maya; it is external will. Your inner and your outer will attack each other and fight. Smelling is a conflict of will forces. Schopenhauer, who had an inkling that the interior and the exterior wills hinder and obstruct each other in the activity of the senses, built a philosophy of will upon it. But that is unsound metaphysics because this interplay of the two wills actually occurs only in smelling. In the other cases it is merely read into the processes.

Now, while in the sense of smell the outgoing stream is of the nature of will, it pertains to feeling when the current results from tasty food. What enters as food is also mere maya, an external image that is experienced as feeling. In the process of tasting, the interplay is between feeling and feeling. That is the real process of tasting; the rest is merely an outward image, and we shall see that the tongue is formed accordingly. For this reason this sense of taste is a sense of touch [TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: It is perhaps not without significance that Gefühl can mean “touch” as well as “feeling.” With this in mind let the student now read the sentence as follows: “For this reason the sense of taste is a Gefühlssinn.” It is most suggestive but unfortunately untranslatable, a sort of higher play on words. Cf. also footnote on p. 16.], notably of feeling, agreeable or disagreeable, repulsive, and the like. The point, however, does not center in feeling as such, but in the clash of feelings and their interaction.

In the sixth sense, sight, it is the sentient soul that works on the etheric body and flows into it, but strange to say, this effect partakes of the nature of thought. It represents a mental principle, and the thoughts constitute the subconscious element of the process. The sentient soul subconsciously bears within it what the consciousness soul then raises to consciousness as thought. What flows out of the eyes is a thinking in the sentient soul. Real thought substance streams out of the eyes from the sentient soul. This thought substance has far greater elasticity than the other substances that flow out when the sense of smell or of taste is active. It can reach out much farther toward its objects—indeed, it is a fact that something of an astral substance streams forth from men to far distant objects, unchecked until some other astral element offers resistance.

The scientific explanation that in seeing, ether waves enter the eye and the latter then projects the image outward, can mean nothing to sound thinking. Somebody would have to be inside to work the projecting business, wouldn't he? What a horribly superstitious notion, this “Something that busily projects!” When in trouble, science, so proud of its “naturalism,” does not disdain the assistance of that “imagination” it professes to scorn.

It is something astral, then, thought substance, that flows toward the object. An astral element leaves the body, streams toward the object, and continues onward until opposed by another astral element. The conflict between these two astral elements engenders color, which we sense as pertaining to objects. Actually, the genesis of color occurs at the boundary of objects, where the astral element emanating from the human being collides with that of the object. Color comes into being where the inner and the outer astral elements meet.

Here spiritual science leads us to a strange phenomenon. We learned that really a kind of thinking resides in the sentient soul, but that its first appearance is in the intellectual soul and that it only becomes conscious in the consciousness soul. In the sentient soul it is subconscious. Now, when we look at an object with both eyes, we have two impressions that in the first instance do not reach our consciousness, although they originate in an unconscious thought process. Two mental efforts must be made, because we have two eyes. If we are to become conscious of these mental efforts, however, we must travel from the sentient soul by way of the mental soul to the consciousness soul. This path can be readily visualized by means of a simple analogy from the sense world. We have two hands and we feel each one individually, but if we wish this feeling to become conscious, that each hand should feel the other, they must touch each other, cross. If the impressions gained in the sentient soul through mental effort are to enter our consciousness, they must cross. In that way you feel your own hand; you render conscious what you ordinarily do not feel. Just as you must touch an external object to become conscious of it, so contact is here necessary if objects are to enter our consciousness. That is also the reason why the two optic nerves in the physical brain are crossed. Through this crossing, an effort made subconsciously in the sentient soul is raised into the consciousness soul; one effort can be sensed by means of the other. That is an illustration of the way anthroposophy teaches us to know the human being down to the most intricate anatomical details.

Seventh among the senses is that of temperature, and again there is something in man that transmits it. It is the sentient body itself, which is of an astral nature. It transmits the sense of temperature by sending its astral substance outward. An experience of warmth or cold occurs only when the human being is really able to ray his astral substance outward, that is, when nothing prevents this. Such an experience of warmth does not occur when, for example, we sit in a bath of the same temperature as our own body, when equilibrium exists between ourselves and our surroundings. We experience temperature only when warmth or cold can flow out of or into us. When our surroundings are at a low temperature we let warmth flow into them; when our own temperature is low we let warmth flow into us. Here again it is obvious that an inflowing and outflowing takes place, and always the effects of the human sentient body are involved. If we are in contact with an object whose temperature is steadily increasing, our sentient body will stream out more and more strongly, until the limit is reached. When the object has become so hot that nothing corresponding to it can flow forth from us, then we can bear the heat no longer, and we are burned. When it is no longer possible for the sentient body to stream out, the heat becomes unendurable and we are burned. When we lack sufficient astral substance to equalize the outstreaming warmth ether, when we can send out no more sentient substance because the object cannot absorb it, it would seem as though in touching an extremely cold object we should have a burning sensation; as a matter of fact, that is exactly what occurs. In touching a very cold object we have a burning sensation that can even raise blisters.

Now we enter the realm of hearing, the eighth sense. What active principle is it, we ask, that participates in the process of hearing? The human etheric body. But this human etheric body, as constituted today, is in reality unable to serve us, as the sentient body still can, without incurring a permanent loss. Ever since the Atlantean time the etheric body has been so constituted that it cannot possibly give off anything, so that a more powerful action must be brought about by means other than through the sense of temperature. The human being can contribute nothing; he possesses nothing by means of which he might develop out of himself a sense higher than that of temperature. No higher senses, therefore, could come into being were it not that at this point something special takes place in man that provides what he lacks. Higher beings permeate him—the Angeloi, the Angels—that send their own astral substance into him. They place their own astral substance at his disposal, and what he cannot ray forth they supply for him. Essentially, then, it is foreign astral substance that permeates man and is active in him. He appropriates it and lets it stream out. The beings active here, the Angels, absolved their human existence in the past. Their astral substance enters us, and then streams forth from the sense of hearing to meet what the tone brings. On the wings of these beings we are carried into the innermost nature, the soul, of objects, so that we may know them. Beings of an order higher than man are here active, but they are of the same nature as his own astral substance.

As a still higher sense, the ninth, we mentioned the sense of speech, the word sense, the sound [TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: Throughout this exposition the term “sound” (Laut) refers to the kind of sounds of which spoken language consists, notably, but not exclusively, the vowels. Articulation in the narrower sense.] sense. To the functioning of this sense the human being can again contribute nothing by himself, can produce nothing. He has nothing to give, hence he must be entered and helped by beings of a substance similar in its nature to that of the human etheric body. These beings possess the corresponding astral substance as well, but this is forced out into the surrounding world during the process in question. They are the Archangels, who permeate the human being with their etheric bodies, which he can then pour out into his surroundings. The Archangels play a far more important role than the Angels. They enable man to hear a sound. They are in man. They enable him not only to hear a tone—say a G or a C-sharp—but to perceive a sound, like “ah,” together with its meaning. Thus we can experience the inner nature of a sound we hear. These beings are at the same time the Spirits of the several folk individualities, the Folk Spirits.

In the sense of hearing the Angels give outer expression to their activity through the medium of the air. They work with the air in the ears, and this results in external activity of the air. The Archangels, on the other hand, produce activity in the lymphatic fluids, as in a watery substance. They guide the circulation of these fluids in a certain direction, enabling us to perceive, for example, the sound “ah” in its full significance. The outer expression of this work is the forming of folk physiognomies, the creation of the particular expression of the human organism as related to a certain people. From all this we can infer that the lymphatic fluids in man flow in a different manner, that the whole organism makes a different impression, according to the way in which the Archangels of the people in question have imparted a certain sense of sound by means of the lymphatic current.

When a people designates the ego with the word Adam (irrespective of the theories it holds regarding the human ego), the Folk Spirit speaks through the two a's that succeed each other in consecutive syllables. A certain basic organization results. A member of that people must feel the nature of the ego to be such as corresponds to the two a's, to “Adam.” The consequences are different when a people expresses the ego with the word “ich.” [TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: Ich means I (or also, ego). As the vowel sounds are so important it should be kept in mind that the i in ich is pronounced as in the word “if.”] Such a people must have a different conception of the ego. A different feeling results when, in place of the two a's, the sounds “i” and “ch” are linked. A certain nuance, a certain color, is inherent in the “i,” suggesting what the Folk Spirit infuses into the individual organism in connection with the conception of the ego.

Through the sequence a-o something different is infused into a people than through the sequence i-e. The words amor and Liebe are very different things. When the Folk Spirit says amor we have one shade of feeling, and quite a different one when he says Liebe. Here we see the Folk Spirit at work, and we also see why the differentiation of sounds came into being. It is by no means immaterial, for example, that the word “Adam” was used in old Hebrew to denote the first human form, but by the ancient Persians to designate the ego. The fact shows that quite different feelings and quite definite trends of these feelings are expressed in this way.

Here we have the first hint of the mystery of speech, or rather, of its first elements. What is involved is the activity of spirits of the order of Archangels, who penetrate man with the sense of sound and vibrate in his whole watery substance. One of the greatest experiences vouchsafed him who ascends to higher cognition occurs when he begins to feel the difference between the various sounds in relation to their creative force.

Tone force manifests its pre-eminent activity in the air, sound force only in the watery element.

Here is another example. When you designate some being with the word Eva, and then wish to express something more, something that is related to this word as the spiritual is to the material, you can apply the reflected image, Ave. This sequence of syllables by which the Virgin is addressed actually affects in the human organism the exact opposite of the word Eva. Here we also find the reason for another variant of E-v-a; place a j before Ave, and you have Jave. When progressing to higher cognition, penetrating the secret of sound, you can learn to know all the connections between Jave and Eva. You will know what a higher being of the order of Archangel has inspired in man. The truth concerning the nature of speech is that it is based upon a real sense, the sense of sound.

Speech did not arise arbitrarily. It is a spiritual product, and in order to perceive it in its spiritual aspect we have the sense of sound, which in a systematic enumeration of the senses is exactly as justified as the others. There are still deeper reasons why the senses must be listed in just this manner. In the next lecture we will ascend to the sense of concept and the higher senses in order to understand the microcosm anthroposophically.