Anthroposophical Spiritual Science


♦ The process of cognition starts with the entrance of a multiplicity of distinct perceptions of objects, beings and phenomena which do not reveal their true nature, nor any relationships between them. We designate this as the world of percepts and the activity through which it comes to our awareness as perception.

♦ Inside us we have the world of concepts, thoughts, and ideas which reveal the characteristics of things we perceive, the relationships among them, and with our own being. We designate this as the world of ideas and the activity through which it comes to our awareness as thinking.

♦ True cognition is an act of synthesis of two streams of the world existence, reunited by means of our own effort. We ourselves achieve reality when we unite the percepts and concepts in the process of acquiring knowledge.

Cognition as a Synthesis of Percepts and Concepts

The common definition of cognition is: "the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses." [1] There is probably no dispute about this. But there are many explanations of how we acquire the correct understanding of the world – in fact, the whole history of philosophy is the history of the search for the adequate answer on this fundamental question in relation to the nature of the human knowledge.

This is little surprise when we realize that "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 from another; otherwise they would not appear to us as endless unrelated multiplicity" [2] of sense perceptions.

This condition of pure experience is for many people hard to imagine due to the fact 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" [3] with the aim to understand the nature of cognition. The condition of pure perception we would experience only if we could observe the world while simultaneously removing all thoughts from our consciousness.

Therefore we need to recognise "the unquestionable fact that in the world, merely as we perceive it spread around us, truth cannot directly be found. A consideration of the actual world of sense-experience, if it is made objectively and thoroughly, leads to the knowledge that this world, as we perceive it with our senses, is not complete in itself, and that it is brought to a state of full reality only through ourselves." [4]

Due to this fact some philosophers have arrived at the following conclusion: "Man observes the sense-world and then, through the working of his soul-life, he attaches to it the world of ideas. As a result of this it appears to him that this idea-world must be a picture of the outer world. On the other hand, he perceives that the idea-world exists within himself. What relation can there be between this idea-world man finds in himself and the world outside him? This was the question, and the only answer they could find to it was this: In attaching our idea-world to the outer world which we perceive, we create truth." [5]

But these philosophers were mistaken. For if they were correct then "all possibility of penetrating to the reality of objects would be destroyed, all possibility of searching for the truth, for truth cannot exist if it can only be created subjectively," [6] by man himself.

The path out of this blind alley is this: "If we consider the act of sense-perception with an unprejudiced mind, we find that in itself it is incomplete, that in every way it is not self-sufficient. By the fact that we have been placed in the world, born into the world, we split the actual world of reality in two. It is true that, in one sense, we have the whole world-content here with us. But owing to the way in which we are placed as human beings in the world, we split the world-content into the ‘percept-world’ which appears to us from the outside, and the ‘idea-world’ which appears to us from within our own soul. Owing to the manner of our existence in the world, the world is for us divided into a percept-world and an idea-world. [7]

Whoever regards this division as absolute and says to himself ‘The world is over there, and I am here,’ will never be able to unite his idea-world with the percept-world. The true solution of the problem is this: I look at the percept-world. It is everywhere incomplete: everywhere something is lacking. I receive an endless number of unrelated impressions. Now I myself with my whole being have come into existence out of the same universe to which this percept-world also belongs. So I look into myself: and I see in myself just that which the percept-world lacks, namely ideas, relationships, arrived at by thinking. I must, therefore, through my own being reunite that which for me – as a result of my coming into the world – has divided itself into two parts. I gain reality by my own effort.

Owing to the fact of my being born as I am into the world, that which is really one, appears to have branched into two parts – that given by outward perception, and the world of ideas. By living and growing and developing my being, I unite the two streams of reality. In the process of acquiring knowledge, I myself achieve reality. As a matter of fact I should never have attained self-consciousness had I not, by the way in which I entered the world, divided the world of ideas from the outer world of perception. But I should never find the bridge to the real world if I did not bring the idea-world, which I have separated off in myself, once more into unity with that which, without the idea-world, is no reality at all." [8]

It is of decisive importance that it is clear to us that "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 of as a receptacle for the world of ideas, containing the thoughts within itself, but as an organ which perceives the thoughts" [9] as precisely and consistently as we are capable of using it for this purpose.

All disagreements about the nature of the world are the result of incomplete observations and incapacity for a thorough investigation of the world of ideas and the manner in which ideas can harmonise with the facts of existence. For "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" [10] and their agreement with all experiences we encounter in our life.

In this manner "our theory of knowledge establishes the conviction that in thinking the essence of the world is mediated. Through thinking alone the relationship between the details of the world-content become manifest, be it the relation of the sun to the stone it warms, or the relation of the man to the external world. In thinking alone the element is given which determines all things in their relations to one another." [11] For that reason spiritual science lays great stress on the need for the development of the capacity of thinking for all those who want to arrive at a real understanding of the nature of the things, beings, and phenomena which exist in the world.

However, this doesn’t mean that there is no need for the development of our capacities of perception and observation, and for ever new experiences that life circumstances are enabling. For example, if a person would study a lot about apples – about their origin, cultivation, use in nutrition, etc. – and he would not at the same time eat any of them, he could not arrive at the real cognition of the nature of apple. In the same manner as we arrive with the help of singular concepts to more complete mental picture of what we investigate, so the isolated perceptions of colours, shapes, tastes, smells, sounds, etc. enable us a more complete experience of what we perceive.

Thus we can arrive at the conclusion 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. Cognition is the synthesis of percept and concept. Only the two together constitute the complete thing" [12] – or expressing it more precisely, cognition is the synthesis of all precepts and ideas that offer suitable explanations of things, beings and phenomena we investigate.


  1. Google Dictionary, June 2019
  2. Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, 24.05.1920; The Redemption of Thinking, Anthroposophic Press, 1956/83
  3. Rudolf Steiner, A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception, Anthroposophic Press, 1968
  4. Rudolf Steiner, Truth and Knowledge, SteinerBooks, 1981
  5. See note 2
  6. See note 2
  7. This statement is referring to the nature of the FOURFOLD HUMAN BEING which determinates the manner in which the process of human cognition is evolving in the present stage of cosmic evolution. While the physical body is mediating to us via its sense organs the perceptions of the outer world, the life body is mediating to us the perceptions of thoughts. However, the activities of perception and thinking are the activities of our soul body and spiritual body which enable us to become conscious of the objects outside us and our own being.
  8. See note 2
  9. See note 3
  10. See note 3
  11. See note 4
  12. Rudolf Steiner, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity – The Philosophy of Freedom, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1992 (new translation The Philosophy of Freedom)

Anthroposophical Spiritual Science as a Path of True Cognition
By Brane Žilavec