The Nature of Cognition

In each act of cognition we have the meeting of sense perceptions – provided by the activity of perceiving – and concepts, provided by the activity of thinking. In this way each human being becomes an active participant in any acquisition of knowledge. The soul mood which enables the expansion of knowledge is genuine interest in the things, beings and phenomena of the world existence.


Nowadays when one encounters a multitude of nutritional explanations from various schools of knowledge – based either on materialistic or spiritual or any other philosophic background which often contradict each other in specific dietary aspects – one out of necessity asks the question: How do I know what is right and what is wrong?

If we wish to overcome this state of doubt and confusion then we need to start with the science of epistemology. "Epistemology is the scientific study of what all other sciences presuppose without examining it: cognition itself. It is thus a philosophical science, fundamental to all other sciences. Only through epistemology can we learn the value and significance of all insight gained through the other sciences." [1] Epistemology investigates the manner in which we gain the knowledge of the things, beings, and all other phenomena of the world.

With the help of epistemology we gain an insight that "reality has divided itself for us into two spheres: the spheres of experience and thought. Man finds himself confronted by two worlds whose interconnections he must bring about. One is experience which contains only one half of reality; the other is thought into which that external experiential reality must flow if there is to result a satisfying world-view." [2]

In accordance with this we need to look first at the nature of experience. "Pure experience is merely juxtaposition in space and succession in time; an aggregate of nothing but unrelated single entities. No any of the objects which there come and go has anything to do with any other in the causative sense. At this stage the world is a multiplicity of uniform importance. For our experience the snail, which belongs to a lower stage in organization, is of equal value with the most highly evolved animal. The distinction between degrees of perfection in organization become evident to us only when we lay hold conceptually upon the multiplicity given to us in experience, and work it through. That what is presented to us by experience is an endless mass of single entities. These single entities must naturally be different one form another; otherwise they would not appear to us as endless unrelated multiplicity." [3]

What gives the meaning to experiences is the activity of thinking. "Thinking is an organ of apprehension which perceives the thought-content of the world. Our consciousness is not the capacity to produce thoughts and store them up, as is generally supposed, but the capacity to perceive thoughts and ideas. Our mind is not to be conceived as a receptacle of the world of ideas, containing the thoughts within itself, but as an organ which perceives the thoughts." [4]

The fact of life is that "in practice, man never experiences a division between a purely passive awareness of the 'directly-given' and a thinking recognition of it. The boundary between the 'given' and the 'known' must be drawn artificially" [5] with the aim to understand the chief characteristic of cognition – its twofold nature.

There is another way to describe this twofold nature of cognition. "We do not let colours and sounds, impressions of warmth and the like, merely stream across our consciousness, but we lay hold of these impressions and make them into perceptions. In the very act of perceiving we make our perceptions an inward experience.

There is also a world of thoughts through which we acquire knowledge of what is immediately around us, and, in science, of what is more remote or hidden; through thinking we make the outer world into our own inner world in a much deeper sense than through perception. We do not only have perceptions, but we reflect upon them, and are conscious that through reflection we learn something about the secrets of the things perceived." [6]

Thus we can say that "our whole being functions in such a way that the elements which constitute the reality of every object or event come to us from two sides, from perception and from thinking. The percept it therefore not something finished and self-contained but is one side of the total reality. The other side is the concept. Cognition is the synthesis of percept and concept. Only the two together constitute the complete thing." [7] We consider something as real when we have perception and adequate concept which fit to each other as a keyhole and a key.

This is true for simple concepts, like chair, table, pencil, etc. But "the wider the range of our experiences, the greater the sum of concepts. Concepts are never found in isolation. They combine, conforming to law, into a totality." [8] For example, the concept of 'plant' links itself to the concepts of: seed, sprouting, growth, root, stem, leaf, bud, flower, pollination, fruit, ripening, yield, wilting, etc. If we follow this line of thinking in a harmoniously structured way upon any object or being, then we can claim that we think in the right way, for we connect one concept with another in the way that correspond to the facts we perceive. In this manner we learn to stop thinking in a will-o'-the-wisp kind of way, thus developing clarity and mastery of thought.

Here we are encountering the essence of thinking. "Our thinking is a multiplicity of thoughts which are woven and bound or­ganically together in the most complicated fashion. But, when we have once penetrated this multiplicity from all directions, it becomes again a unity, a harmony. All the elements are related one to another; they exist for one another; one modifies another, restricts it, etc. The moment our mind conceives two correspond­ing thoughts, it observes at once that these really flow together to form a unit. It finds everywhere in its whole realm the inter­related; this concept unites with that, a third illuminates or supports a fourth, and so on. If, for example, we find in our consciousness the concept 'organism', and we then scan our conceptual world, we meet with another concept, 'systematic evolu­tion, growth'. It becomes clear that these two concepts belong together; that they represent merely two aspects of one and the same thing. But this is true of our entire thought-system. All individual thoughts are parts of a great whole which we call our conceptual world. When any single thought emerges in consciousness, we cannot rest until this is brought into harmony with the rest of our think­ing. Any isolated concept is an abnormality, an untruth. When we have arrived at that state of mind in which our whole thought-world bears the character of a complete inner harmony, we gain thereby the satisfaction for which our mind is striving. We feel that we are in possession of truth. Thus we perceive truth in the thorough-going agreement of all concepts in our possession." [9]

Throughout our life we are developing in our inner world of thoughts the complex edifice (composed of numerous ideas) which we call our world view. The fact that there exists various – even contradictory – world views does not contradict the above description of the process of cognition, because the reasons for the divergence of world views can be found elsewhere. One of the most important reasons is the fact that people do not take into account all possible experiences people acquire throughout their lives in various spheres of existence. They become selective and they start to exclude experiences which do not comply with their thought-edifice. What is lacking is such an approach is genuine interest in everything we encounter directly or indirectly in our lives. Only when we permeate our striving for knowledge with the soul mood of active interest can we hope to acquire such universal world view which will be consistent with all facts known to all human beings in our collective striving for truth. This is also the direction of the spiritual-scientific approach to nutrition where we do not exclude any facts of life or individual human experiences. With the help of the spiritual-scientific approach we strive to be all-inclusive. [10]


  1. Rudolf Steiner, Truth and Knowledge, SteinerBooks, Blauvelt, USA, 1981
  2. Rudolf Steiner, A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe' s World Conception, The Anthroposophic Press, USA, 1968
  3. As above
  4. As above
  5. See note 1
  6. Rudolf Steiner, Vienna, 9.04.1914; The Inner Nature of Man, Anthroposophical Publishing Company, London, 1959
  7. Rudolf Steiner, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity – The Philosophy of Freedom, Rudolf Steiner Press, Bristol, 1992 (new translation The Philosophy of Freedom)
  8. As above
  9. See note 2
  10. The fact that even among spiritual-scientific researchers one can sometimes find a selective approach does not contradict the all-inclusive nature of spiritual-science, but only demonstrates that the person in question has not yet reached the all-inclusive approach of spiritual-science in all domains of his or her thinking.