Our bookstore now ships internationally. Free domestic shipping $50+ →

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Anthroposophy, A Fragment
GA 45

III. The World Underlying the Senses

Our sense perceptions provide the basis for the rest of our soul life. Mental images arise from our interaction with the outer world, based on the first three senses and also on smells, tastes, colors, sounds, and so on. Through these images, what comes to us from outside is mirrored in our souls. An ordering takes place that allows us to orient ourselves in this outer world. Experiences of sympathy and antipathy take form, and our feeling life takes shape within them; our wishes, urges, and willing develop.

A common identifying feature for this inner life of the human soul can only be found by looking at how it is held together and permeated, as it were, by what we each call our own I. A sensory perception becomes a soul experience when it is taken up out of the senses' domain and into the realm of the I. We can get an idea of this by pursuing the following simple line of thinking.

I feel, for example, the warmth of a certain object. As long as I touch the object, an interrelationship is present between my I and the outer world. Within this interrelationship, an image of the object's state of warmth develops in my I. When I take my hands off the object, this image remains in my I and constitutes something essential within my soul life. We must not fail to note that it is precisely this image that frees itself from sensory experience and goes on living in the soul. Within certain limits, we can call these experiences, which we have with the help of our senses and persist in our soul, "our world."

However, if we ponder how this world enters our domain, we are forced to presuppose another existence for it. How can this world ever become soul experience? How can we know anything about it? Simply by virtue of the fact that we have senses. Before the world can present itself to human beings as sensory perception, the senses themselves must be born out of it. The world would be soundless for us if we had no sense of hearing, without warmth if we had no sense of warmth. On the other hand, it is equally clear that no sense of hearing could come about in a world in which there was nothing to hear, no sense of warmth in a world without warmth. We need consider only the fact that no eyes develop in beings who live in darkness, or the fact that eyes developed under the influence of light degenerate when their owners give up their existence in the light to dwell in darkness.

We need only to think this through in all clarity to be able to say that the world presented to us through our senses, the world on which we base our soul life, must be underlain by another world, a world out of which the senses arise, thereby making the sense-world itself possible. This other world cannot possibly fall within the domain of the sense World, since it must precede it entirely.

This relationship of the senses to the world that gives rise to them opens up to our contemplation the view of another world lying behind the sense world, a world that is imperceptible to our senses, but out of which the sense world rises as if out of a sea of existence lying behind it. Our sense of warmth perceives warmth; behind the warmth lies something that has shaped our sense of warmth. Our eyes perceive by means of light; behind the light lies something that has shaped our eyes. We must distinguish between the world that is given to us through our senses and another world that underlies it. Is there anything we can say about this second world simply on the basis of reflection? Indeed, there is. Through our interrelationship with the outer world as conveyed to us in sense perception, our inner world of concepts, feelings, and desires comes about. Our relationship to the other world that we are presupposing underlies the sense world can be thought of in exactly the same way—through it, our sense organs come about.1An alternate version of the following text can be found in Appendix 1 We are present with our I in everything there is to experience in the sense world, and our soul world develops within the I on the basis of sensory experiences. The process of building up our sense organs, that necessarily precedes all sense perception, must take place in a domain of reality that no act of sense perception can penetrate. (We scarcely need to consider an objection that might arise in passing, specifically, that we can observe the development of sense organs in another being. What we can perceive in this case is perceived by means of our senses. We call observe how a hammer comes about without using a hammer ourselves, but we cannot possibly have a sensory perception of the development of a sense organ without ourselves making use of one.)

We are totally justified in saying that our sense organs must be built up out of a world that is itself supersensible [beyond sense perception]. And the nature of sense perceptions, as described in the previous chapter, provides a starting point for us to contemplate this other world and say more about it. Since our sense organs ultimately appear as the result of this world's activity, this activity must be manifold, working on us from as many different sides as we have sense organs. The streams from this world pour themselves into those wellsprings that lie in the sense organs, so that we may draw from them for our soul life. And because what we draw from these wellsprings is finally gathered together into the I, so it must, although coming from many sides, originally well up from something that is unified in its activity. The manifold sense perceptions are unified in the I. In this unity, they show that they belong together.

What impinges on the soul as sense perceptions is such that the inner life of the I can separate itself out from them. From this it is apparent that, in a supersensible world behind the sense world, there exist as many springs of activity as there are sense organs. These springs of activity reveal themselves through their working in the building up of the sense organs.

Thus, the number of these wellsprings of activity is equal to the number of our sense organs. The outermost limits of the realm of these wellsprings can be assumed to be set by the I on the one hand and the sense of touch on the other, although neither of these may be reckoned as belonging to our sensory life as such. Once something belongs to the I, it has freed itself from sense perception and should no longer be counted as such, since it is now a wholly inner experience. But intrinsic to any sense perception is the fact that it can become an I-experience. Therefore, every sense organ must have been endowed by the supersensible world with the ability to provide something that can become an I-experience. But the sense of touch provides experiences of the opposite sort, so to speak. Whatever it tells us about an object is presented as something wholly external to us. Thus, we ourselves in our entirety must have been built up out of the supersensible world in such a way as to use experiences of touch to set ourselves apart from a world lying outside us.

If we survey human soul life as it develops on the basis of sensory experiences, our sense organs appear as fixed points as if on the circumference of a circle, and the I appears as something movable that acquires soul experiences as it moves through this circle in different ways. The human organism's entire structure—at least as it reveals itself in the sense organs—points to its origins in the supersensible world. There are as many sensory domains as origins and, within the realm of these origins, a unified supersensible principle that is pointed to by the orientation toward the unity of the I.

Further observation shows that the supersensible activity revealing itself in the structure of our sense organs works in a variety of ways. In the three domains of the senses of life, self-movement, and balance, it works from within our bodily existence outward and makes its presence known right up to the boundary of our skin. In the senses of smell, taste, sight, warmth, and hearing, this outward-directed activity is also present, but it is accompanied by another, which we must describe as working in the opposite direction, into our physical existence from outside. Consider, for example, the organ of hearing as a member of the human organism. Within this organism, forces must be present that actively shape this organ in accordance with the nature of the body as a whole. But there must also be supersensible forces coming from outside, forces that are concealed in the world of sound and that shape the organ in just the right way to make it receptive to sound.

The organs of the last five senses listed above point to a meeting of forces on the surface of the human body, as it were. Forces working from within the body outward configure our individual sense organs according to the nature of the body as a whole; while forces working from outside inward come to meet these inner forces and impress the organs on the body, in such a way that they adapt to the various expressions of the outer world. In the senses of life, self-movement, and balance, only one of these two directions—the one working from inside out—is present.

It becomes further apparent that, in the word sense and concept sense, the direction from within outward is absent. These senses are built into the human being from the outside in. The supersensible activity that shapes these senses is already becoming similar to our inner soul life.

To the extent that we must also already see the potential for the I in the supersensible forces that build up our senses (as described above), we can say that these forces divulge their inner nature to the greatest extent in the I. In the I, however, their inner nature has condensed into a point, so to speak. If we consider the I, it shows a reality in one point, which rests spread out in richest profusion in a supersensible world. This reality, working out of this supersensible world, reveals itself only in its effects, in building up our senses. The sense of touch shows itself to be the opposite of the I in this respect as well. In the sense of touch is revealed that aspect of the supersensible world—or, if you will, extra-supersensible world—that cannot become inner experience for the human being, but is inferred by means of corresponding inner experiences.

Anthropology describes our sense organs as sense-perceptible phenomena. The fact that it does not yet designate specific organs for the three senses of life, self-movement, and balance coincides with the results presented above, since the forces characterized as working from within outward shape the human individual into a sensory organism, which is general, which experiences itself, and which maintains its posture. The organs of these three sensory domains spread out over our general bodily existence. Only when it comes to the sense of balance does anthropology point to the three semicircular canals as a suggestion of a specific sense organ, because, with this sense, we enter into an elementary relationship with the outer world, specifically with the directions of space.

The five middle senses have separate organs. We can easily recognize that the capabilities we have described as working from within outward and from outside inward work together in various different ways to form these organs. (Anthropology still has some doubts about the existence of an outer sense organ for the sense of warmth, but these doubts will be resolved as science progresses.)

Outer organs for the sense of word and the sense of concept cannot be described in the same way as the organs for the other senses because these organs are already located where our bodily life turns inward to become soul life.

The sense of touch, however, will increasingly show itself to science as what it must indeed be in light of what has been considered above. It cannot but work in such a way that we draw back from the objects we are touching, withdrawing into ourselves—shutting ourselves off from the domains of this sense by shutting ourselves up in our inner bodily experiences. We consider the organs of the sense of touch to be structures spread out over the entire surface of the body, and we are thus obliged to recognize in these structures something that intrinsically has to do with the body's surface drawing back from the outer world it touches. The organs of touch, therefore, actually shape the inside of our human bodily form; they give the body the shape through which it closes itself off from the outer world touching it on all sides. (In areas where our organs of touch demonstrate greater sensitivity, we relate differently to the outer world than we do in areas of lesser sensitivity. We push against the outer world to a greater or lesser extent, so to speak. This leads us to notice that in some respects our bodily form is a result of the specific nature of the organ of touch at different points on the surface of the body.)