Anthroposophy, A Fragment
II. The Human Being as a Sensory Organism
We shall begin anthroposophy with an examination of the human senses. Through our senses, we enter on one side into a relationship with an external world. In talking about the senses, however, two things should be borne in mind. We will disregard for the moment how human beings enter the other outer world, the spiritual world described above. And we will also disregard for the moment the possibility of something spiritual lying behind what our senses observe. In speaking about the senses, our attitude toward the spirit should be one of waiting to see to what extent an indication of the spiritual results naturally from sensory observation. This spiritual aspect should be neither denied nor presupposed; we must wait and see if it shines in.
We are here looking not at the objects of
sense observation but at our senses themselves, the human organs. Based on
what our senses convey to us, we develop ideas about an outer world. This is
how our knowledge of this outer world comes about. With regard to this
knowledge, we can speak of truth and error. Does error arise in the domain
of the senses or only in the domain where, through conclusions, memory, and
so on, we formulate ideas about what our senses tell us? It is justified to
speak of sensory deception. For example, if some irregularity in our ears or
eyes causes a sound or a light impression to appear differently than it
would appear if the organ in question had developed normally, this is a case
of deception by the senses. Does this mean that Goethe is unjustified in
saying, "You may boldly trust your senses; they will not let you see
anything false if your sound reason keeps you awake"? 1In the fourth stanza of his poem
Den Sinnen hast du dann zu trauen, Kein Falsches lassen sie dich schauen, Wenn dein Verstand dich wach erhält.
The senses you must trust then
They will let you see nothing false
If your reason keeps you awake.
A slight misquotation by Rudolf Steiner is reflected in the English version. — TRANS. Goethe' s statement immediately proves justified if we consider the following. An error brought about by understanding or memory has a different character than a sensory deception, because the latter can be corrected by sound reasoning. For instance, if, due to faulty eyesight, we mistake a tree for a person, we will be in error only if we do not correct our mistake and, taking the illusory person to be an enemy, attack the tree. An error in understanding is different because here our reason itself errs; therefore, it cannot correct its own mistake at the same time. Deceptions by the senses become real mistakes only through our reason. This is a necessary distinction, not mere pedantry.
In speaking about sense perception, many people are accustomed to listing five different types — seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching (or feeling). We can-not stop at these, however, because we also enter into relationships with the outer world that are different from how we relate to it through hearing or seeing, for instance. Contemporary anthropological science also speaks about senses in addition to those listed above. We need not go into which senses anthropology enumerates, but it should be mentioned that this is one of those gratifying instances in which a science based purely on sense-perceptible physical realities is forced through its own observations to come to views that coincide in part with what spiritual researchers conclude. More and more such points of contact will be established as time goes on, and, if good will prevails on both sides, a time will soon come when natural and spiritual research will each recognize the validity of the other.
In an anthroposophical light, all that may be called a human sense which induces the human being to recognize the existence of an object, being, or process in such a way as to justify placing its existence into the physical world.
Seen in this way, the sense that appears least specific and most general is the one we may call the sense of life. We really notice that this sense exists only when what we perceive with it disrupts the order of our physical being. Suppose we feel tired or fatigued. We do not hear tiredness, nor do we smell it, yet we perceive it in the same sense that we perceive a smell or a sound. This perception, whose object is our own physical existence, is to be attributed to the sense of life. Basically, it is always present when we are awake, even though it really becomes noticeable only when some disturbance is present. It is by means of this sense that we each perceive ourselves as space-filling, bodily selves.
Another sense, different from the sense of life, is the one through which we perceive movements we carry out. For example, we move a leg and perceive the movement. We will call the sense through which this perception occurs the sense of self-movement. The difference between this sense and the sense of life becomes evident when we consider that what we perceive with our sense of life is only what is present in our inner physical being without our doing anything. What the sense of self-movement perceives has an activity or a motion as a prerequisite. 2Since Rudolf Steiner's time, science has coined terms for this — kinesthesia, or muscle sense. — TRANS.
A third sense becomes apparent when we notice that we are able to stay in the same position with regard to up and down, right and left, and so on. This sense can be called the sense of balance or static sense. Its characteristic feature becomes evident when we consider that we need to be able to perceive our position in order to maintain ourselves as conscious beings within it. If our sense of balance is not working, we succumb to dizziness and fall over. An object that does not possess consciousness will maintain its position without perceiving it; it cannot become dizzy. In speaking of this sense, anthropology refers to an organ in the human ear, to three little semi-circular canals in the inner ear. When these are injured, dizziness occurs.
Reviewing the characteristic features of the three senses enumerated above, we find that, through each of them, we perceive something about our own physical existence. By means of the sense of life, we receive general sensations about our bodily existence; by means of the sense of self-movement, we perceive changes in this bodily existence; and, by means of the sense of balance, we perceive our relationship to the external spatial world — which, however, is disclosed to us as our position, as something belonging to our own physical condition. These three senses give us a feeling for our own bodily existence as a totality, which is the basis of our awareness of ourselves as physical beings. We may say that, through the senses of life, self-movement, and balance, the soul opens its doors to our own bodily existence and perceives this as the physical external world nearest to it.
With the senses to be considered next, we encounter an outer world that does not belong to us in the same way. The first sense we will consider here is the one that brings us into closest contact with what we call matter. Only gaseous or airy masses permit this close contact, which is conveyed to us through the sense of smell. A substance cannot be perceived by means of the sense of smell unless it is very finely dispersed and spreads like a gas.
At the next stage of sense perception, we no longer perceive merely the substance as such, but effects (actions) of the material element. This happens through the sense of taste. Only a watery mass, or one that has been dissolved in the fluid in our mouth, can be perceived by this sense. Through the sense of taste, we penetrate one stage deeper into outer substantiality than we did through the sense of smell. In smelling, the substance itself approaches us and discloses its particular character. In tasting, it is the substance's effect on us that is perceived. The difference between them is best felt by visualizing how, in the sense of smell, a gas-like substance approaches us in a finished state so that we can perceive it as it is, while, in the sense of taste, we use our own fluid to dissolve the substance — that is, we cause a change in it — in order to delve into peculiarities of this substance that it does not reveal to us on its own. This means that the sense of smell is suited to perceiving the outside of the material element, while the sense of taste already, to some extent, goes inside material things. For the inside of an object to be disclosed, we must change its outside.
The next sense, the sense of sight, allows us to delve still more deeply into the physical outer world. Whether we see a mass as red or blue divulges more to us about its inside than is contained in the effect conveyed to us by the sense of taste. It depends on the essential nature of an object whether it relates to colorless sunlight in a way that makes it seem red or blue under the influence of the light. Color is revealed as the outer surface of a mass. However, we can say that how a mass reveals itself on its surface is its inner nature becoming visible through the medium of light.
The sense of warmth delves still more deeply, down under the surface of a mass, so to speak. When we feel a piece of ice or a warm object, the cold or warmth is clearly not something that appears merely on the outer surface, like color, but something that permeates the object. Note that the sequence of senses described here is such that with each consecutive sense we dive down more deeply into the body of the outer world.
The sense of hearing constitutes another step in this direction. It leads into the interior of a body to a much greater extent than the sense of warmth. Sound makes a body's inwardness start to tremble. It is more than merely metaphorical to say that a body's soul comes to manifestation through sound. Through the warmth contained in a body, we experience something of the difference between it and its surroundings, but through sound its particular inner nature, its individual aspect, steps forth and commu¬nicates itself to our perception.
If we speak of a sense whenever cognition comes about without involvement of reason, memory, and so forth, we must acknowledge other senses in addition to the ones that have been enumerated so far. On the basis of this distinction, we can easily recognize that the word sense is often inappropriately used in everyday life, as when we say "sense of imitation," "sense of secrecy," and so forth. Our reason and judgment are already involved in what emerges as imitation, secrecy, and so on. In these instances, we are dealing with more than mere sense activity.
It is a different matter, however, when we hear speech and we perceive what is revealed through its tone. 3Steiner differentiates between Ton and Laut in the original German. Ton is translated as "sound," Lout as "tone" or "phonetic tone." The word "tone' is not used here primarily in the musical sense, but in the sense of feeling-tone in language, as used by Henry Head in his Aphasia and Kindred Disorders of Speech, Cambridge, 1926 (cited by Oliver Sacks in his essay on the sense of word, "The President's Speech," in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). — TRANS. It goes without saying, of course, that a complex evaluating activity comes into play in grasping what is spoken and that this involves extensive mental processes that cannot be encompassed by the term sense. But, in this domain, too, there is something simple and direct that precedes using mental judgment and that constitutes a sensation, just like a color or a degree of warmth. A phonetic tone is not perceived merely as sound, but, accompanying the sound, something much more inward is apprehended. If we say that within sound the soul of a body abides, then we can further say that in tone the soul manifests detached, freed from the bodily aspect, and thus appears with a certain independence. Because the sensation of phonetic tone precedes using mental judgment, children learn to sense the meaning of the tone of words before they can use judgment. In fact, they learn judgment by way of language. It is completely justifiable therefore to speak of a special sense of tone or sense of word . We have difficulty recognizing this sense only because, as a rule, so many different mental judgments accompany the direct sensation of what reveals itself in tone. But careful reflection own experience shows that, whenever we listen to what is given to us in tone, our relationship to the being from which the tone issues is as direct and free of judgment as is the case when we perceive an impression of color. Insight into this fact comes more easily when we recall how a cry of pain allows us to directly co-experience the pain of another being even before this perception mingles with any sort of reasoning or the like.
We must also take into account that audible tone is not alone in revealing to us an inwardness such as that present in tone of speech. In the end, gestures, mimicry, and facial expressions also lead us to something simple and direct that must be included, along with the content of any audible tone, in the domain of the sense of word.
The sensory character of the next sense to be described is concealed to an even greater degree. When we understand a person who is communicating by means of the spoken word, gestures, and so forth, it is primarily our judgment, memory, and so on, that are at work in this understanding. Accurate self-reflection, however, will lead us to recognize that in this case, too, there is a direct grasp or understanding that can precede any thinking or conclusion-drawing. The best way to get a feeling for this is to clarify for ourselves how we are able to understand something we are not yet even capable of judging or evaluating. Indeed, there also exists a direct and immediate perception for that which is revealed in a concept, so that we must speak of a sense of concept . What we can experience within our own soul as a concept, we can also receive as revealed from an external being.
In perceiving a concept, we delve even more deeply into a being than we do through perceiving the ensouled tone it makes. In fact, it is not possible through sense perception to delve more deeply into another being than we do through sensing what lives in that being as concept. Thus the sense of concept appears as the sense that pene-trates the most inward aspect of another being. With the concept that lives within another human being, we perceive what lives, soul-like, within ourselves.
The sensory character of what is usually called the sense of touch does not appear in the same way as that of the ten senses already described here. The sense of touch conveys to us pressure or resistance from outside, hardness or softness. Let us recall the nature of what we call "pressure." The process is by no means a simple one. In reality, we do not perceive the object applying the pressure directly; rather, we perceive the fact that it makes us draw back with some particular part of our skin, or that we have to make a greater or lesser effort in order to make an impression on it. There is a remarkable difference between this perception and, for example, our perception of the degree of warmth an object reveals. Although it is true that a cold bath will feel different to someone who is overheated than it does to someone who is freezing — that is to say, our subjective condition is perceived along with the perception of warmth — it is nonetheless true that, for all practical purposes, the state of the external object is what is revealed in its warmth. This results in a direct and Immediate relationship of the sensing person to the condition of the object. This is not how it is when we say that we have to make more or less of an effort to make an impression on an external object or to overcome the resistance its hardness or softness presents. What we are describing in this case is an inner experience we have due to an external body.
In actuality, although this is generally concealed, conclusion-drawing, secretly accompanies our perception: "I am encountering considerable resistance; therefore, this body is hard." It is true that the perceptions of our sense of word can be totally direct and immediate, without any evaluating going on at all, but our sense of touch is always underlain by a judgment, even though it may be thoroughly concealed. What is directly felt through the sense of touch can always be found in the domain of the first three senses enumerated here. For example, a body that presses on me causes a change in position within my bodily makeup, and this change is perceived by means of my sense of life, my sense of self-movement, or my sense of balance.
We must keep the difference between the domains of the various senses clearly in mind, because we enter into a different relationship to external objects through each sense. Through the senses of life, self-movement, and balance, we delve into our own bodily nature and experience ourselves as beings of the outer world. Through the senses of smell, taste, and sight, the bodily aspect manifests itself to the extent that it reveals itself outwardly. It reveals inwardness through the sense of warmth, but still in an external way. With the help of our senses of hearing, word, and thought, we perceive an inwardness that is external to us. If we recognize the differences between these sensory domains, we will be less tempted to speak in generalities about what a sense is or what sense perception is. Instead, we will pay more attention to how we enter into a specific relationship to the outer world through each different sense. Describing sensory perception as an impression that is called up in the soul as a direct result of stimulating sensory nerves does not say much. Definitions like this make it all too easy for the character of each individual sense to get lost in vague generalizations. It is important, however, that our impression of a body's warmth is of a totally different character than the impression caused by light. If we do not take this into account, we will be easily misled into placing great value on statements such as, "Human beings perceive the outer world through their senses and develop ideas and concepts based on these sense perceptions." This sets up a simple contrast between sense perception and conceptual thinking. Drawing conclusions like this obscures our much-needed independent view of the fact that the sense of smell, for example, is very far removed from conceptual experience, while the sense of hearing facilitates sense perception that is already becoming similar to what is present within the soul as a conceptual experience.