Rudolf Steiner’s theory of the senses

Rudolf Steiner’s theory of the senses

28 January 2024 Christiane Haid 3270 views

Earthly incarnation is the basis of ‘I’ development. The relationship between the quality of encounter and the higher senses is the subject of the project Scientific Reappraisal of Rudolf Steiner’s Theory of the Senses.

Over the last decades, mechanization and digitalization have led to a dramatic loss of sensory activity[1] with the effect that the healthy development of the senses has become severely restricted and endangered. People enter ever more deeply into mechanical processes and their actions become more automated. As part of this development, we increasingly lose the capacity to meet nature and other people empathically and to recognize the deeper layers of their being. However, experiencing the world through the senses is crucial for our ‘I’ experience; it even trains the ‘I’ in a special way without which it could not become objective. Rudolf Steiner mostly refers to more than the eight or nine senses acknowledged by science today, describing three additional sensory dimensions: the sense of sound or speech, the sense of thought or concept and the sense of ‘I’.

Conditions for ‘I’ experience

The sense of ‘I’ enables us to become aware of another ‘I’. This sense is particularly endangered by the technological media because its development depends on the physical presence of the other ‘I’. Rudolf Steiner describes that ‘this ‘I’ which ensouls one inwardly, is not the same as the sense of ‘I’. […] Just as the eye can perceive light, darkness and colours, the sense of ‘I’ can become directly aware of another ‘I’. The relationship to the ‘I’ is sensory. One needs to experience it. And just as colour affects me through the eye, another ‘I’ affects me through the sense of ‘I’. When the time has come for this, we will be able to speak of sensory organs for the sense of ‘I’ as we now speak of sensory organs for the sense of vision. With the latter it is easier to point to a material manifestation than with the sense of ‘I’. But it is all there.’[2] The question is whether or not perceiving another ‘I’ with one’s own sense of ‘I’ requires the physical presence[3] of the other person.

In both cases, and due to the prevalence of the media, the question needs to be taken extremely seriously, given that the most recent technological developments make it possible, on the basis of just a short video, to produce an avatar (artificial double) and present this as the actual person. These new technological developments accentuate the importance of the three higher senses and the question of the recognizability of artificially generated products. The senses of thought and speech also need intensive cultural practice and they need to be understood so that they are not reduced to pure information transmission.

For human social and educational interaction, real-world encounters based on physical presence cannot be valued highly enough. As an embodied human being[4] I need the other person to be physically present. Without that, the possibility of an ‘I’ to ‘I’ encounter is questionable.

The dimensions of these questions need to be recognized and examined so that we can realistically gauge media-based encounters and foster a universally human culture of social interactions. This is no appeal against media, rather a call to understand the conditions required for ‘I’ experiences. There is clearly great need for research, particularly with regard to discovering the physical organ of the sense of ‘I’.

Fully presenting the science of the senses

There have so far been various descriptions of the twelve senses by individual anthroposophical authors. They need to be continued. Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy. A Fragment (GA 45) is a good starting point for this. Additionally, one needs to consult partly incomplete and scattered comments as well as instructive descriptions in lectures and written texts and make them fruitful for further research.

We should aim at a comprehensive presentation of Rudolf Steiner’s theory of the senses that includes the findings of perception research, takes the state of academic research into account and brings the topic closer to a wider audience. We should also aim at conveying an understanding of the crucial importance of the senses for human beings and their free ‘I’ to complement merely information-based, automated and routinized approaches.

Discovering how the ‘I’-organ is developed is a matter of medical research among others. Rudolf Steiner’s original indications are highly relevant for the research in neurology, psychology, cognitive philosophy, phenomenology as well as in education and anthropology and they can open up entirely new perspectives for an understanding of the connection of physical and life body, soul and spirit.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

The project ‘Scientific Reappraisal of Rudolf Steiner’s Theory of the Senses’ brings together representatives of different disciplines such as media education, medicine, art, literary studies and philosophy.

Three conferences on ‘Anthroposophy. A Fragment’ have taken place since 2018 and another one, scheduled for 15 to 17 March 2024, will be on ‘The I as community – the open secret of the upper senses’. In 2020 an interdisciplinary ‘Science of the Senses’ colloquium was established within the Humanities Section, which meets twice yearly and communicates its findings in public conferences and publications (for instance in the magazine ‘Stil’ [style], Easter 2022).

The research project is planned to last for five to seven years and includes at least one or two research positions.

1. Hartmut Böhme and Gernot Böhme: Die andere Vernunft, Frankfurt 1989; Horst Rumpf: Die übergangene Sinnlichkeit. Drei Kapitel über Schule, 1981
2. Rudolf Steiner: GA 170, 16 August 1916, 1992, p. 111f.
3. Cf. Rudolf Steiner: GA 45, chapter II; GA 40, Dornach 2009, p. 21
4. Cf. Thomas Fuchs: In Defense of the Human Being. Foundational Questions of an Embodied Anthropology, 2021

Bibliography (selection)

Rudolf Steiner: GA 45
Hans Jürgen Scheuerle: Die Gesamt-Sinnes-Organisation. Überwindung der Subjekt-Objekt-Spaltung in der Sinneslehre, 1984
Wolfgang Michael Auer: Sinnes-Welten. Die Sinne entwickeln, Wahrnehmung schulen, mit Freude lernen, 2007
Friedrich Edelhäuser: Wahrnehmen und Bewegen. Grundlage einer allgemeinen Bewegungslehre, 2022

Scientific Reappraisal of Rudolf Steiner’s Theory of the Senses

100 Years School of Spiritual Science

During the Christmas Conference of 1923/1924 the School of Spiritual Science was also inaugurated. In preparation for the centenary of the conference the Goetheanum Leadership documented current research plans of the School in a brochure entitled ‘Insights’. Some of the projects are presented in Anthroposophy Worldwide, starting with projects on the training of perception
Sebastian Jüngel