Reframing the Mind-Body Problem

An Exercise in Letting Go of Dualist Assumptions

Stephen L. Talbott

We are all dualists now — often none more so than those of us who loudly refuse the "Cartesian mind-matter dichotomy." For the dichotomy is built into our experience at such a fundamental level that academic thoughts have little bearing on it. It has become our common sense. Material things are "out there," substantial and objective; mind is "in here," insubstantial to the point of nonbeing and isolated within its own subjectivity. If I imagine I am free of dualism at the level of my experience, chances are I merely confirm that I haven’t yet become aware of the depth of its hold upon me.

In slightly different terms: dealing satisfactorily with the problems of mind, world, and cognition may depend less upon finding new, breakthrough ideas than in working upon the established and slowly evolving structure of our experience — experience that determines what does and does not make sense to us (Barfield 1965). The right ideas may already be lying around, if only we could recognize them. And one clue to guide our recognition might be this: if the ideas are to be fruitful in delivering us from the distortions of our common-sense dualist experience, they will necessarily outrage our common sense.

My aim here is to sketch very broadly and as suggestively as possible certain ideas that have indeed been lying around for a long while, and my hope is that they may prove intriguing precisely because they outrage common sense in just the needed way while also respecting both reason and experiment. In pursuing this task, I will skirt many of the established ruts of the existing polemical landscape, and will use certain common terms in a way that may strike most readers as odd. This will not be a conventional philosophical exposition. My challenge is not so much to establish and defend a particular position in the current debates as to make conceivable an unfamiliar, nondualist point of view from which all positions take on a different and perhaps unexpected aspect.

An Irresistible Prejudice

Our inherited dualist proclivity is not without its contradictions. That there is a problem built in to our experience — a problem causing exactly the kind of difficulties we are now wrestling with regarding consciousness — was recognized by Samuel Taylor Coleridge during the first half of the nineteenth century. He referred to two fundamental presumptions we all share. The first, an "innate prejudice ... at once undemonstrable and irresistible," is that "there exist things without us" — things that are "extrinsic and alien" to ourselves. The second is that we are the ones perceiving these things (Coleridge 1906, chapter xii, pp. 139-40).

And so "we at once identify our being with that of the world without us, and yet place ourselves in contra-distinction to that world" (Coleridge 1969, p. 497). This is essentially the dualist split, simultaneously denied and asserted in the paradox of our experience. We seem to encounter a world "out there" and independent of ourselves, and yet the encounter occurs within our own being, as our own experience. Re-stating the matter in order to highlight the paradox, Coleridge put it this way: man is compelled "by an obscure sensation which he is unable to resist or to comprehend ... to contemplate as without and independent of himself what yet he could not contemplate at all, were it not a modification of his own being" (1969, p. 509).

Anyone who looks at the survival of this paradox into our own day cannot help being struck by the impossibility of the situation: the experience of the dualistic divide is so universal, our ways of thinking about it are so contradictory, and our dual apportionment of the various features of our cognitive landscape between the subjective and objective sides of the divide is so shifting and illogical, that you might think all cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind would by now have renounced their profession and become talk show hosts.

Here are a few examples of the confusion I am referring to, as it is expressed throughout our culture.

There is a certain kind of assertion that most of us have imbibed almost with our mother’s milk. It goes something like this:

The baseball and the bat are mostly empty space. Their solidity is an illusion created by the electromagnetic force field that binds their atoms together .... We credit the home run to the batter, but the fundamental force responsible is electromagnetism. (Ferris 1985)

Or listen to cognitive scientist Paul Churchland, when confronted with an argument for the value of introspection as a source of knowledge about the mind. He assures us that introspection could not possibly reveal things "as they are in their innermost nature." This is because "we already know that our other forms of observation — sight, hearing, touch, and so on — do no such thing. The red surface of an apple does not look like a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths, but that is what it is" (Churchland 1988, p. 15).

And biologist Richard Lewontin was only pretending to be in doubt when he wrote:

Many of the most fundamental claims of science are against common sense and seem absurd on their face. Do physicists really expect me to accept without serious qualms that the pungent cheese that I had for lunch is really made up of tiny, tasteless, odorless, colorless packets of energy with nothing but empty space between them? (Lewontin 1997)
It would have been good if Lewontin’s feigned disbelief were a little more genuine. What, at the end of the day, are we to make of these claims about the true nature of reality contrasted with the appearance to our senses? Apart from sense-based imagery — apart from the picture of photons bouncing off molecules, and apart from the imagination of some vague sort of "stuff," however tenuous, whose common-sense substantiality is emphasized by the contrasting tracts of empty space — there would be no material content at all to make these statements persuasive. If Churchland were really appealing to the theoretical constructs of particle physics and not to the material imagery so naturally furnishing the popular (and philosophical) imagination, he would have said:
The red surface of the apple does not look like a matrix of mathematical probabilities, but that is what it is.
The red apple is really a matrix of probabilities? This would hardly have been convincing. Only by picturing particles and waves as little bits of the naïvely and qualitatively experienced world does the reader fill in Churchland’s description in a way that makes it sound meaningful. But this experience and these qualities are exactly what Churchland is trying to dismiss. While asking us to ignore the familiar qualities of the world, he invites us to project these same qualities into the sub-microscopic realm. That realm then becomes proof that the familiar qualities aren’t to be taken seriously. Apparently they are illusions here (where we can experience them), but real there (where we can’t). Or, if he denies their reality there also, then let him tell us what he is really talking about — what the reality is by comparison to which our senses deliver only illusions — and let him do so without appealing to the illusions.

For the most part, scientists today hardly even pretend to distinguish rigorously and consistently between the external reality and the appearance-for-us into which they would divide the world. This is rather odd for a discipline whose entire striving is presumably toward the external reality. Typically, the researcher is content to wear two different hats. The ornithologist investigating bird songs in relation to behavior routinely speaks and thinks as if the songs were really out there in nature. But when pressed, he will quickly put on his philosophical hat and point out that only pressure waves are really there; the sound itself is somehow manufactured in creaturely heads as a kind of subjective epiphenomenon — Churchland’s illusion.

On Being in Touch with the World

It’s remarkable how easily and how long we have managed to ignore the evident implication that if, according to the usual argument, the song (as it is heard) does not belong to the objective world, then neither do the sound waves. If we want illusion, then we should look for it in that other tale we hear from the youngest age — a tale intended to pinpoint the mind-versus-matter problem. It runs something like this:

The piano string is struck, causing it to vibrate. Its oscillatory motion is conveyed to the air, and via the air to my ear drum and the complex mechanisms of my inner ear. There, various motions are finally transduced into nerve impulses that travel to my brain. In the brain these impulses take their place within the almost unfathomably elaborate signaling and processing of that organ. Then — and this is where the mysterious divide is supposed to occur — I hear sound. "How," the narrator of this sequence then wonders aloud, "can we possibly understand the relation between the sound I am conscious of and all the physical events associated with it?" Such, we are informed, is the mind/body puzzle.

The same sort of story can be told about vision and our other senses. One of its unsettling implications was brought out by the physiologist Johannes Müller in the first half of the nineteenth century:

Sensation, therefore, consists in the communication to the sensorium, not of the quality or state of the external body, but of the condition of the nerves themselves, excited by the external cause. We do not feel the knife which gives us pain but the painful state of our nerves produced by it. The probably mechanical oscillation of light is itself not luminous; even if it could itself act on the sensorium, it would be perceived merely as an oscillation; it is only by affecting the optic nerve that it gives rise to the sensation of light. Sound has no existence but in the excitement of a quality of the auditory nerve; the nerve of touch perceives the vibration of the apparently sonorous body as a sensation of tremour. We communicate, therefore, with the external world merely by virtue of the states which external influences excite in our nerves. (Quoted in Hensel 1998, pp. 72-4)

Add to this the usual reference to the "specific energies" of the senses — any stimulation of the eye, whether by light, mechanical pressure, or electric current, yields a sensation of light, and similarly with the other senses — and you end up with the human knower radically disconnected by his very organs of perception from the reality he would perceive. The subject is imprisoned within his own subjectivity, however hard he strains toward the object.

The fact that this line of thought, long known to collapse of its own weight, continues to have such a natural appeal is testimony to extraordinarily tenacious habits of human experience. Despite all our knowledge to the contrary, something about the argument feels compelling. The problem, already pointed out in the late nineteenth century by Rudolf Steiner (1981; 1979; 1978), is that the entire chain of events, from the striking of the piano string to the audible experience of tone and timbre, is given through perception. Whatever question we raise about the perceived sound also has to be raised about the perceived motion of the hammer striking the string, the perceived vibrations of the string and air, the perceived tissues of the ear, nerves, and brain — and anything else we point to in the overall constellation of events. If we dismiss the sound as something more or less "invented" by our sensory apparatus, then we have to dismiss the seen or felt vibrations for the same reason.

A lot of the trouble arises because we more easily recognize the subjective aspects of sound than of our tactile experiences (for example, the feeling of pressure and hardness). Our imagination of things-in-themselves — things out there, independent of ourselves — has been founded above all upon the sense of touch, especially when it can be correlated with sight. Coleridge, anticipating one of the lessons accruing to the twentieth-century physicist, decries the "habitual slavery to the eye ... under the influences of the corpuscularian philosophy," together with the "exclusion of all modes of existence which the theorist cannot in imagination, at least, finger and peep at" (1970, pp. 58, 45). But his insistent objections notwithstanding, our gut feeling remains: surely what we feel through touch is really there as some sort of substantial physical reality that has nothing to do with our subjective experience!

Yet there can be no consistency when we try to pick and choose among the senses. After all, we’ve just heard Paul Churchland giving his own peculiar voice to the conviction that the solid red surface of the apple is not really there — not, at least, as a solid red surface. Is a matrix of probabilities more substantial than sound? Or, if we take the probabilities as pointers to some sort of independent reality lying behind them, can we in any way characterize this reality — can we say what our probabilities are about — without appealing, as Churchland did, to the qualities of the senses? (Try describing any sort of materiality without drawing upon the qualities of your senses.) If, on the other hand, the identifying characteristics of things-in-themselves really are given by touch, then on what grounds do we dismiss our other sense perceptions (including our audible perceptions) as illusory or "out of touch" with reality?

Direct or indirect accessibility by the physical senses has sometimes been taken as the test for material reality. It is stunning to realize how distorted our notion of this test has become. If we shake ourselves free of the distortions, then we no longer have anything like the usual tale of hammer and strings, air vibrations, nerves, and all the rest. Instead, we realize that what the test gives us as a measure of physical reality is, purely and simply, heard song, felt vibrations, seen gray brain tissue ... and nothing else. This seems a problem we ought to take seriously when our aim is to understand the relation between our own conscious contents and whatever we construe the physical world to be.

We Have a Hidden Trust in Experience

We experience things as outside ourselves, and can hardly doubt this experience. Few of us do in fact doubt it — so score one for experience. Apparently we trust our experience to convey something truly fundamental about the external world — to begin with, the bare fact that it is out there; it is not merely an internal creation of the individual subject. This recognition of "things existing without us" — a recognition of ourselves and of something set over against ourselves — already presents us with all the elements of the problem of knowledge. For to know that a world is there is already to know something — a remarkable accomplishment for creatures in a supposedly alien world! And yet, far from requiring us to transcend our own experience, the recognition of things out there arises within immediate experience and by grace of the qualities of that experience. It would seem that Coleridge posed the problem correctly: our confidence in what he called the "outness" of things is at the same time a kind of closet confidence in the way things appear to us, a confidence apparently contradicting the very outness in which it is vested.

Coleridge’s solution to the problem was to interpret both his fundamental presumptions from a vantage point within experience, instead of pretending that he could offer an objective critique from some vantage point outside experience. Things may indeed appear, and appear truly, to be out there, but whatever the nature of this outness, it cannot mean that what appears is wholly extrinsic and alien to ourselves. The outness cannot be of an absolute, dualist sort. Coleridge refuses to translate one selected aspect of our perceptual experience — the appearance of outness — into an ontological principle governing an external realm supposedly independent of perceptual experience. And so his first proposition, as an assertion of a radical dichotomy, dissolves upon analysis, gaining its proper meaning only with the help of the second proposition, whose truth withstands all critical inspection. In Coleridge’s formulation:

Now the apparent contradiction, that the former position, namely, the existence of things without us, which from its nature cannot be immediately certain, should be received as blindly and as independently of all grounds as the existence of our own being, the [epistemologist] can solve only by the supposition, that the former is unconsciously involved in the latter .... (Coleridge 1906, chapter xii, p. 140)

That is, our commonsensical acceptance of a kind of radical, dualistic outness of things is rooted in an unconscious confidence in the validity of our own experience — experience that, if truly reckoned with, would prevent us from taking the outness in a radical and dualistic sense.

To point out in this way that the externality we attribute to objects is an appearance of externality — an externality that must be understood as a quality of human experience — might prod us in either of two directions. If we are convinced of the illusory character of our experience, we could ignore the entire Coleridgean paradox and simply redouble our efforts to penetrate, somehow, the unknown reality lying behind experience. We would then be left to sort out as best we could the above-mentioned contradictions in the usual ways of speaking about appearance and reality. Or, in the second place, we could take the appearance at face value, and accept it as the appearance of reality. We could accept "that reality, although it is indeed real, is also appearance; and that appearance, although it is indeed appearance, is also reality" (Barfield 1971, p. 66).

Apart from our inherited dualism — our assumption of a radical incommensurability between the inner character of human experience and the outward character of the physical world — there is no reason not to investigate what this second alternative might mean. For if we can know only appearances-to-experience, and if we provisionally assume we have at least some knowledge of an objective world (which we already assume when we speak of a world "out there" to be known), then one possible explanation for our knowing is simple: we are not aliens in the world, but rather belong to it. We share, with all our nature, in its nature. It’s not such a strange assumption, after all!

Why shouldn’t we suspect that the reason we really can know the world is that our cognitive powers participate in the reality of the world, just as our hearts, muscles, and bones do. These powers — powers to apprehend expressive content, the qualities of things, meaning, beauty, form, law — have arisen from the world fully as much as our physical bodies. If our experience takes on certain qualities, might this not be because the world actually exhibits those qualities? All of which is to suggest that, whatever else it may be, the world is a power of manifestation — a power to appear, a power to declare itself and be known, a power of meaningful expression. Or, in more traditional terms: "In the beginning was the Word."

In sum, we can ask whether the apparent outness of things is properly understood only when it is seen to be a law of our own being — a being large enough to embrace both an in here and out there — and therefore is not the alien sort of outness usually attributed to objects. Our knowledge of the outness of things would then be a knowledge of certain qualities within the domain of our experience — a domain that is born of, and therefore shares in, the nature of the objectively appearing world. Which, of course, also implies that the world shares in the nature of experience.

A dualistic sensibility will have overwhelming difficulty hearing all this as anything but a consignment of reality to the inner shadow-world of the individual subject. Yet Coleridge, oddly enough, calls his point of view "the truest and most binding realism." Realism, he goes on to say,

believes and requires neither more nor less, than the object which it beholds or presents to itself, is the real and very object. In this sense, however much we may strive against it, we are all collectively born idealists, and therefore and only therefore are we at the same time realists. (1906, chapter 12, p. 141)
That is, precisely because we behold the object ideally, within the intimacy of our own experience, we are in a position to assure ourselves of its objective reality.

So here we are catapulted into the midst of claims that, without more context (which Coleridge, throughout his far-flung works, is perhaps too profligate and unfocused in supplying), can only strike most of us as bizarre. I will try to show that the claims deserve our serious attention.

My central purpose in the remaining space will be to sketch a more systematic elaboration of Coleridge’s solution — an elaboration offered at the end of the nineteenth century by Rudolf Steiner. (Steiner, however, was stimulated in his thinking, not by Coleridge, but by the work of Coleridge’s like-minded contemporary, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose scientific writings he edited for Kürschner’s Deutsche National-Literatur.) But first I wish to clear the way by (1) briefly acknowledging the sort of objection most commonly voiced against any "naïve" acceptance of human experience in the service of cognition, and (2) recalling the place of thinking in the world of phenomena.

Staying with Experience

The reader will by now have glimpsed what I meant at the outset by "outraging common sense." Having so thoroughly learned to disparage the appearances, we tend to meet any claims on behalf of their direct cognitive value with disbelief. Perhaps the classic example offered in justification of this disbelief has to do with an appearance we witness every day: it looks, we are told, as if the sun goes around the earth, not as if the earth is rotating. In his play, Jumpers, Tom Stoppard skewered this particular claim by having one of his characters ask: "Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?"

The fact is, it should look exactly as it does look; any other appearance would have been false. At the same time, it is not at all false to say, in a perfectly objective sense, that the sun goes around the earth. It all depends on what vantage point we choose to take up. Copernicus chose to look, in imagination, from the vantage point of the sun. But surely we have no more right to absolutize that perspective than we do the one from earth. The heliocentric view is as "parochial" as the geocentric view compared, say, to a galactocentric view. The fact is that much scientific work quite rightly employs a geocentric coordinate system — or, more exactly, a coordinate system originating at particular locations on the earth’s surface. But there is no particular difficulty in holding all the various possible perspectives harmoniously together.

Or, again, the thought will occur: what about the limitations imposed by our senses? Assuming appearances constitute reality, wouldn’t we live in a different reality if, say, we had the senses of a bat? Of course we would — but only in the way we would live in a different reality if we were deaf or blind. If I were born deaf and then, while experiencing a stormy day amid some wildly waving trees, magically and suddenly gained a mature and well-functioning sense of hearing, I would discover the new sensations harmonizing perfectly with what I knew from sight and my other senses. With sound added to the storm, my world would be richer, but it would not contradict what I knew before. Similarly if I were to acquire infrared vision or a bat’s sonar capabilities.

If the world is a world of appearances, there’s no more need to claim that any one organism exhausts with its senses the possibilities of appearance than there is for one person in a group to claim that his own vantage point upon a given tree is the only correct one. We overcome naïveté, not by rejecting sense appearance, but by bringing all relevant elements of that appearance, all possible perspectives, into proper relationship. Then I come to understand that my view of the tree — while it is indeed the "correct" one, given my position in relation to the tree — is not at all the only possible view.

In fact, if you try to imagine an "absolute" perspective — one where the observer need not be taken into account — you will find the very idea to be nonsensical. (Try representing a tree from no point of view.) The world demands multiple relational views in order to be apprehended in its fullness. That is part of its essential character as appearance.

Yet another familiar objection runs this way. If, for a time, I place one hand next to a hot stove and the other hand in a bowl of crushed ice, and if I then immerse both hands in a single tub of lukewarm water, one hand will feel the water as cool and the other as warm. This is supposed to show that the felt qualities of things are subjective and misleading compared to the objective report of a thermometer.

The conclusion is wrong. If you follow an identical procedure with two thermometers, you get a similar result: the two columns of mercury move in opposite directions until, as with our hands, equilibrium is reached (Edelglass et al. 1997, p. 25). Nor does hand or thermometer offer false reports during the period of adjustment. At every moment the reading correctly reflects the changing relations between water and measuring instrument.

What gives these remarkably transparent objections so much force is our long training in the conviction that there’s a world of things out there whose essential character is independent of the appearances we behold in consciousness. These things are supposed to be fixed and perfectly definable, without the qualitative character and perspective-dependence we find not only in all appearance, but in any sort of physical reality we might conceive. Abandon these gratuitous and endlessly troublesome assumptions, and the objections fall away.

The World is Inseparable from Thinking

It is important to come to terms with a widely recognized and just as widely ignored fact about the phenomenal world, or world of appearances: every appearance is woven through and through with thinking. If the world we are considering is the appearing world — the world that, in experience, we routinely take to be out there — then thinking belongs out there in that world fully as much as it belongs in our own heads. In other words, the world we participate in every day, and the world we speak of in all but a few highly confused technical contexts, is inseparable from thinking.

With a little focused effort, everyone can satisfy himself on this point. Remove all thinking content from the world you perceive (notionally, of course; thought and world are inseparable, but, as Coleridge incessantly urged, we must often distinguish where we cannot divide). To the degree you can do this in imagination, you will find that nothing is left except, in William James’ famous phrase, a "blooming, buzzing confusion." Actually, there wouldn’t even be that, for each of those words already offers a conceptual determination of what is perceived. Without thinking, there would be nothing at all — certainly nothing that one could distinguish from all the rest and recognize as whatever it was, since we cannot bring any distinction to consciousness without concepts. Anyone inclined to doubt this point could hardly find a more magisterial guide than the late philosopher, Ronald Brady (Maier et al. 2008, chapters 1, 4, 8; see also Brady 1998).

The point here is not just that we look out at the world through our own web of thoughts. It is not that we perceive objects and then cannot help infecting them with our thinking. Rather, it’s that we have no world to look out at, no appearances at all — no objects — without thinking. "All phenomena are cognitions," in Brady’s words. The things we behold — the things that we may indeed subsequently reflect upon — are and must be already constituted by thinking before we ever have a chance to think about them. Brady supplies a wealth of exercises and examples on this score, and it is essential that the reader come to terms with the topic. The understanding I am urging here will prove unapproachable as long as one holds to the view that the appearances are simply given to us and that thinking begins only after we have them.

When walking in the woods at dusk, I may take a dark mass ahead for a deer. That’s what I seem to see, albeit vaguely. The object is brought to appearance through my intentional proposal: it appears to be a deer. But after taking a few more steps, I recognize that I am really seeing a peculiarly shaped shrub — a recognition that becomes possible only through a radical shift in the kind of relations I conceive to hold between the parts of the image. The same sense reports can yield entirely different appearing objects depending on the proposed relations governing the appearance.

Few ventured proposals are wholly fruitless in producing appearances. Suppose I think I see a deer at first, but it turns out to have been a bear. The "deer" was not altogether contradicted by the "bear"; the former concept correctly characterized "the substantial, living bulk of a four-legged animal." Even the mistaken "bush" produced an appearance — "a dark mass of roughly a certain size" — partially preserved by the later proposal.

Or again: A small child shown a square and told that this is a "square" may at first grasp only a much more general concept — say, something like "closed form." He will then identify many different things — rectangles, triangles, trapezoids, circles — as "squares." At this point the square and triangle are not there for him as different objects; having no concept for the distinction, he sees only what comes to appearance through the more general concept (a fact upon which the supposed retinal image has little or no bearing). He is by no means speaking a falsehood when he calls a circle a "square." We simply have to realize what concept, and therefore what appearance, he has in mind.

The greater the conceptual riches we possess, the more fully the world can come to appearance for us. The geologist walking through a ruggedly carved landscape sees many things the geologically ignorant do not. I have heard of someone who was well through adult life before it consciously dawned on her that there are not just "trees" in the woods, but distinct kinds of trees. Before that realization — and whatever the images on her retina — her world no more contained oaks and birches than the child’s world contained distinct squares, triangles, and circles.

When I say, as above, that the same sense reports can yield entirely different objects depending on the proposed relations governing the appearance, the modern temptation is to affirm quickly that there is just one fact of the matter, which of course we may apprehend more or less truly. In reality the oaks and birches are really there. Of course they are. But it is very hard for the contemporary intellect to say this without picturing the "fact of the matter" as a world of objects independent of thinking — and this is to go beyond the fact of the matter into metaphysics. Better to say that we can always discover more fully and truly the world’s potentials for coming to appearance. And whatever the "fact of the matter" may be — however we choose to describe it — it will prove to be an appearance constellated by thinking.

I suppose that — in our perceiving, if not also our theorizing — it would be very hard to produce an intentional proposal that was absolutely false. Even a complete hallucination is a real experience; we simply need to find the proper place of this experience within its context — a context that may include many other elements of experience we can systematically relate to each other and form judgments about: the food we ate, the states of our nerves and psyche, a feverish condition, and so on.

In none of this are we dealing merely with yes-or-no, propositional truth. A preoccupation with propositional truth is one of the great barriers to a grasp of the place of thinking in the world of appearances. So far as we are dealing with appearances, truth is less a matter of logic than of meaning. The question is always how full, how rich with content, are the appearances constituted by our thinking. We can in this sense always see things more truly, more fully, but this does not mean our previous understandings were simply false.

What is needed is always to understand the limitations of our views, as when we view a tree from one angle only. Only when our descriptions collapse toward the relatively empty terms of a formal language such as mathematics or logic does the multivalence of meaning contract toward the univalence of propositional truth. That is why purely formal languages cannot by themselves give us the content of any experienceable material world; they must be applied to something, and the application always brings in a certain multivalence belonging to the "something."

While the education of our senses by thinking has long been recognized and demonstrated, it is often ignored. When the geologist talks about the hardness of minerals, the contours of the Grand Canyon, or the shifting of continental plates; when the naturalist talks about flowers or the bear’s coat of fur or the behavior of a spider; when the geneticist talks about genes and chromosomes; and when the astrophysicist talks about the frozen surface of Mars or the heat and chemical reactions in the sun’s interior — in all these cases it is easy to overlook the fact that the world-content being described already contains thinking within itself. How would we describe something that does not contain thinking?

Rudolf Steiner’s Epistemological Argument

In light of all the foregoing, how might we approach the problem of cognition? What is the relation between mind and world, and how can we have confidence in the truth of our knowledge of the world?

Rudolf Steiner, attacking these questions in a decidedly non-standard fashion, made the following argument (1981; 1979; 1978), which I summarize rather freely:

I will briefly suggest an approach to each of these contentions except for the last, which length restrictions forbid treating here 1.

On Avoiding Questionable Assumptions

If we are inquiring into the nature and validity of our cognitive activity, we should base the inquiry as little as possible upon previous, uncritically accepted results of this activity. To ask, "How does the mind know the external world?" or "How does the human subject gain a knowledge of objects?" is, according to the usual reading of these questions, to accept that the world we are trying to know exists in a mode wholly independent of the mentality of the knowing subject. This subject must therefore try to infer something about things-in-themselves that are not directly available to experience. But in an era so vexed by questions about the relation between consciousness and physical reality, we hardly have a right to start by assuming such a hypothetically independent world. Better to back off as far as possible from all assumptions than to begin within the very muddle we are trying to escape.

Actually, the subject should no more be taken for granted at the outset than the object, since it is we, as cognizing beings, who have designated certain things as objects and ourselves as subjects — suggesting not only that we (the ones capable of the cognizing and designating) are more than mere subjects (or objects), but also that we have no business taking the subject as given before we begin our investigation of cognition. As Brady puts it, "the inner-outer relation of subject and object is just not there before cognition," and therefore cannot be used to frame the problem of cognition.

To begin more neutrally would be to start with what is most directly given in our experience and make no assumptions about anything else. Then we could analyze the structure of this experience and see what sort of understanding, if any, it leads to, and how. It’s not an unreasonable project, for if we do possess at least some reliable knowledge of the world we live in — and we all seem convinced of this, regardless of our philosophical positions — then it makes sense to investigate unprejudicially how this knowledge in fact arises from our experience. The initial question becomes not "How can we know?" (based on preconceived relations between subjects and objects), but rather "How do we know?" (based on whatever happens to be directly available to us in experience). We can hope that answers to questions about the reliability of our knowledge will emerge from the inquiry, but we should assume in advance neither such reliability nor any particular obstacle to reliability elaborated through previous cognitive efforts.

Two Aspects of the Given

We find our experience constituted from two sides. There is, on one hand, that which meets us through the senses. It comes from "outside" insofar as it is given without our being aware of doing anything. Sense impressions arrive without our making an effort, but they are, in normal perception (as I pointed out earlier), always accompanied by the conceptual determinations of thinking. If we could subtract these conceptual elements from our perception, we would find that nothing "spoke" to us; nothing had a determinate character. The reports of the senses, apart from thinking, remain uncharacterized. They are the "blooming, buzzing confusion" mentioned above, but without the blooming or buzzing or confusion, which all bespeak conceptual determination.

A second kind of content is thinking, which — as originating act rather than as mere remembrance of prior thinking — must always be my own act. It is not hard to confirm in experience that we have to make an effort in order to think — we have to do something in order to produce the thought that shows up in consciousness. Thinking is hard work, as vividly suggested in Rodin’s sculpture, "The Thinker."

Unfortunately, we generally are not conscious of what is most essential in the work — not conscious of the actual origin and genesis of the thought, not conscious of the creative act through which it was produced. We cannot say in any detail where a thought comes from or how it got here. In other words, we are not fully conscious in our activity of thinking; but, nevertheless, by becoming aware of both our own effort of attention and its result (the achieved thought) we experience the activity as our own. We have the power to "pursue a line of thought," or to change it if we wish.

The already cognized world is an inextricable mixture of what we receive rather passively through sense observation and what we must participate in more actively through thinking 2. To arrive at the situation we face before the act of cognition, we must — for reasons that will become clearer in the next section — distinguish these passive and active elements. We must distinguish what I will refer to as the "raw perceptual content" delivered through the senses, on the one hand, from the thinking (conceptual) elements that always accompany this content in actual perception, on the other. Their union — already achieved to one degree or another by the time we become aware of perceiving anything — constitutes an act of cognition, and we want to notice the state of affairs prior to that cognition 3.

While I will focus here on the contrast between thinking and the senses as they are usually understood — that is, the senses as directed "outward" toward material reality — it is important to realize that our sensing capacities can be much more widely construed. Whatever we are capable of noticing, whatever appears upon the stage of our consciousness, whatever we find given to our experience, regardless of where it may come from, can be in view when we speak of our sense awareness. And so Steiner writes that "This directly given world-content includes everything that enters our experience in the widest sense: sensations, perceptions, opinions, feelings, deeds, pictures of dreams and imaginations, representations, concepts and ideas." That is, even concepts and ideas, as already achieved results of the activity of thinking, can then show up as elements given to sense observation. After the actual act of thinking, we can register and remember the thought it has yielded. "Illusions and hallucinations too, at this stage are equal to the rest of the world-content. For their relation to other perceptions can be revealed only through observation based on cognition" (Steiner 1981, p. 56).

When we frame the problem of cognition, none of the directly given content — which, remember, we can call "directly given" only because we, as mature humans rather than infants, have notionally distinguished the merely given from the conceptual determinations we have learned to attach to it — none of this directly given can be viewed as the property of the subjective "I", just as none of it can be viewed as belonging to an external world. It is just what is given to our awareness; how we eventually construe it is a matter of cognition.

The question, then, is how we get started with cognition. "How does one part of the world-picture come to be designated as perception and the other as concept, one thing as existence, another as appearance, this as cause and that as effect; how is it that we can separate ourselves from what is objective and regard ourselves as ’I’ in contrast to the ’not-I’?" (Steiner 1981, p. 57).

The Transparency of Thinking

If we ever know anything at all, then there must be something that is absolutely transparent to us, requiring no demonstration. There must be something of which we need no longer say, "Prove it." In order to prove something we have to adduce evidences, and if every piece of evidence requires its own proof in turn and so on ad infinitum .... clearly, the process must stop with something we know directly. All knowledge must finally be established upon such a transparent foundation, and not upon a demand for proof.

Our thinking is one thing we know directly. To the degree we make it our own conscious activity, it is fully transparent to us. What I am thinking is available to me with perfect clarity because I am the one who is thinking it. There is much confusion about this, however. The point is not that I have any understanding at all of whatever topic I may be thinking about, but that I have privileged access to my thoughts themselves, however erroneous. "While we may not know whether our understanding is correct, we always know what it is because we know what we mean" (Brady forthcoming).

And again, "knowing what we mean" does not imply that the Philosophy 101 student spouting nonsense abut Kant has any clear sense of what he is saying even within his own discursive context. It is not the elaborated application of thought to history or physical reality that Steiner has in mind, but rather the purely conceptual content itself as it is being thought, whether vague and muddy or sharply outlined and clear. To take his own example: my concepts of thunder and lightning may relate to physical reality in an altogether erroneous fashion, but the relation between the two concepts themselves, such as I have them, is fully given if and when I actually think the concepts (Steiner 1979, p. 28).

If we did not know what we were thinking, there would be no use thinking or speaking about anything at all, since we would not only be thinking and speaking about that which we did not know, but we would be thinking and speaking that which we did not know. The point has unfortunately often been missed: if we didn’t have privileged access to our own thinking, we could hardly argue meaningfully for or against anything. Putting it the other way around: when we voice our thoughts in anything like the usual way, we are proclaiming that our own thinking is transparent to us.

It is the nature of thinking to determine and clarify, and this nature is fully available to us, without need of argument, through the thinking process itself, because of the way we live intimately in the process. Concepts give us discrete elements (leading, in the extreme, to the "atoms" of logic), and at the same time enable us to articulate those elements together (as in a system of logical relations). This is possible only because concepts we actually think — as opposed, say, to words we simply read without understanding their meaning — relate to each other in a way that we can completely "see through." We can know, for example, when we have wandered off our own topic.

So we do not need evidence for the proper relation between concepts; we need only to think the concepts themselves — which may, of course, require a great deal of concentration and mental adroitness. Concepts are self-ordering in their own, strictly ideal terms. They are themselves the principles of ordering. This is perhaps clearest in such fields as logic and mathematics, which, in their purest forms, are least encumbered with the content of the senses, and which, through their application to sense content, bring a certain (abstract and limited) kind of order to this content.

How We Cognize the World

Thinking gives rise both to our questions and their answers. It is thinking that presents us with the problem of cognition. The problem arises from our own nature as conceptualizing beings, from the demands and potentials of thinking itself, and its solution depends upon thinking finding, in the process of cognition, a receptive content it can determine conceptually.

And this is exactly what thinking does find in the raw perceptual given. However we may regard this given, we can hardly overlook that, far from being incommensurable with thinking, it merges perfectly with thinking in that seamless, perceptual-conceptual unity we experience as the world. Until it does, the world remains blank for us.

Sometimes we can almost watch the merger of sense and thought and the consequent coming to light of the world. It requires us to notice the questions we put to cognition, and the way those questions receive their answers. If we lived only in dream or reverie, where thinking is more like something that happens to us than something we do, there would be no questions. No problem of knowledge would present itself to us. This is because we would have no point within the totality of the given where we ourselves were active.

We all fall into such reverie for limited periods — for example, when daydreaming while driving through familiar countryside. And most of us have experienced, in such situations, a sudden feeling of disorientation when, having lost track of our location, we suddenly look out at the familiar setting without being able to place it in any sort of larger context. Certain orienting relations just aren’t there for us any more. Part of what we normally experience has become dark. Our environment suddenly becomes a question for us, and this corresponds to our emergence from reverie. We "come to ourselves", perhaps with a startling jolt. Instead of merely suffering the world, we are now called to activity of our own. Challenged to make sense of what we see, we can notice our rapid mental shuffling and re-shuffling of conceptual standpoints in the effort to bring our immediate surroundings into proper relation with the larger, known environment. When we finally find the right set of relations, the questions vanish, our cognitive "map" of the terrain gains a verifiable order, and we know where we are, which direction we are headed in, and so on. Everything appears as it should.

My reference to the blankness of the raw perceptual given means nothing more than that thought-relations alone are the aspect of the world through which it gains intelligibility in human cognition, and until we grasp those relations, the contents we receive through our senses remain dark for us. The thought-relations are the world’s meaning, the light that shines within the dark substance of the world, enabling us to say, "I see." When we see physically, we do not notice two separate things — an object, and light "bouncing off" the object. Rather, light is the object itself, in its visible aspect 4. Similarly, it is not that there is the object on one hand and thoughts about it on the other; rather, the thought is the object itself in its meaningful, apprehensible aspect. If you ask what the "dark substance" is, the answer can only be, "We know whatever it expresses through the light of thinking that informs it." We can hardly ask for an understanding that is inaccessible to our thinking 5.

Can we at all trace the process by which thinking illumines the given? I mentioned a moment ago that thinking both distinguishes and relates. These phrases point to the polar opposite tendencies we find bound together in all thinking. With varying emphasis in one or the other direction, our thinking both distinguishes and unifies, and does so at every level of conceptualization. By relating things we bring them into the unity of a common framework, but we can do this only so far as we are first given the distinct, separate things we will relate. And how did we get the separate things as coherent entities in their own right? Only by recognizing in each separate thing the significant unity governing all its parts. Every act of analysis presupposes a prior unity, and every act of synthesis presupposes a prior analysis. At one level this twofold activity of thinking (when brought into connection with the senses) gives us things themselves — the immediate appearances of the world; at another level, it gives the higher-order theories and relations sought by the scientist.

Steiner describes how these polar aspects of thinking are at work in all our acts of cognition. Facing the undetermined, cognitively blank given, our thinking, through its conceptual determination, both lifts out individual entities and brings these entities into relationship. It may do so with more or less success. After making a conceptual "proposal" in response to some part of what meets me in the world, I can only wait for whatever may come to light as a result of the proposal. This result is my knowledge. If, however, the relationship proposed (intended) by thinking does not allow the relevant part of the world to take meaningful form, "then this attempt made by thinking would fail, and one would have to try again" (Steiner 1981, p. 65). Thinking cannot arbitrarily impose its determinations upon the raw perceptual given, but neither does the given provide the necessary relations out of itself. Its "role" is to fail to appear

unless we view it — or intend it — through adequate [conceptual] intentions. Thus if we were to ask "what does this figure look like prior to all intentional contribution?" it should now be clear that it has no look at all. And having no look, it also possesses no "outness" — it is not an object "out there," for no relations like "in" and "out" are yet established. Its otherness is completely exhausted by its independence of intentional activity — by the fact that we must suffer rather than produce it. We can bring the given to appearance only through our own intentional activity, but without the element that is only suffered there is nothing to appear. (Brady forthcoming)

At the level where thinking constitutes the appearances, its reliability is not a difficult issue. Our thinking achieves whatever it achieves. It is reliable so far as it brings the world to consistent appearance, and precisely because it brings the world to consistent appearance. It is reliable to the degree that what comes through the senses gains, by means of its marriage to thought, that same transparency, that same self-evidentiality, that same harmony among contextual elements, that we find in thinking itself 6.

To understand ever more deeply what appears in this way is to enter as consciously as possible into the acts of thinking through which the appearances appear, exploring and making fully explicit all the thought-relations. Then we understand because thinking is itself the understandable character of the things it brings to appearance. The understanding of a phenomenon just is the element of thinking in the phenomenon, vague or clear, preliminary or fully elaborated as it may be.

One can hardly stress enough: the fear that this leaves us floating unanchored amidst all sorts of subjective vagaries is nothing but a consequence of the dualist assumption that real things exist out there in complete disconnection from our inner being — and in particular from our thinking. Thinking belongs to the world process and is not subjective; as I remarked above, it is only through thinking that we can designate ourselves as subjects.

It’s obvious enough that something — a real potential — is out there, independent of the purely private aspects of our individual subjectivities. But just as clearly this potential possesses a nature in which we all participate with our shared cognitive powers. It is not independent of our experience. Through our thinking we who belong to the world are active in part of the world process itself. Or: the world thinks in us. The only thing our thirst for knowledge ever demands from us is the progressively greater clarification of a reality already assumed and partially limned, however imperfectly, in our questions themselves. We ask questions only because we already know that we can know. There is simply no place where a question can arise about some hypothetical world closed off from our participation. What is truly hidden from us cannot even provoke a question.

The supposedly objective world independent of our thinking is never experienced, never demonstrated, and, in fact, looks to be inconceivable by definition — which may be why the effort to characterize it has never gotten off the ground even within a science founded upon the assumption that the task can be carried through successfully.

The world exists where we find it in experience, and this is the only world that presents us with questions. It seems almost perverse, if not ungrateful, to charge this obligingly phenomenal (appearing) world with undue intimacy or with coming too close to our inner being to merit our trust.

Concluding Reflections

The world we know will always and only be the world we know, which is also to say: it will be the world we experience. This becomes a problem for us only when we think it necessary to know things lying altogether beyond our experience — in particular, only when we posit a world existing out there, independent of experience, independent of the power of appearing, unrelated to mind and consciousness. This positing itself, as Coleridge showed so clearly, relies on the quality of outness conveyed by our experience — but on a misunderstanding of this quality.

When we analyze the activity of knowing, we find our knowledge arising through the union of thinking with what comes through the senses. In Steiner’s epistemology, the complementarity and intimate union of sense and thinking replaces the radical dualism of subject and object, mind and matter. Thinking is intrinsic to the world we know, not an alien element. It is so naturally conjoined to sense content that we find the two together as soon as we perceive anything at all.

We can be sure that the world is a power of manifestation — a power to generate experience with its appearances — because the world has in fact produced such experience in us. To the degree we believe we have any knowledge of the world at all, we place confidence in that experience. And if the processes expressing themselves in the creation of our organs of sense and cognition are processes of the world, why shouldn’t we consider the possibility that this confidence is well-placed — that a world capable of creating a seeing eye and hearing ear might be a world to which color and sound naturally belong? Why should we be content to elaborate a science of sound and color appropriate only for someone who had never received eyes and ears from an obliging world?

Any adequate understanding of the world must surely reckon first of all with the fact that this world has produced knowers capable of seeking understanding. There is no justification for taking the existence of knowers to be a less significant indicator of the nature of the world than, say, the existence of forces and matter. When we try to explain our knowing as the result of various Cartesian objects and processes — objects and processes whose character results from long-established and inconsistent habits of the knower — we prove ourselves forgetful of the very knowing we are trying to explain.

Perhaps our wearying experience of the intractable epistemological difficulties this forgetting leads to will prompt an openness to some old ideas and to the possibilities for an intentional transformation of our relation to the world. In particular, we may hope to overcome the contradiction in Coleridge’s two "fundamental presumptions" by making an ever more immediate experience of the fact that there is never an out there except in relation to an in here.

Much more needs to be said in order to place these thoughts within a richer perspective embracing man, society, and the cosmos. Three themes especially in need of development are the evolution of consciousness as correlative to the evolution of phenomena (Barfield 1965); the historical emergence of human freedom in conjunction with the emergence of the knower (Steiner 1979); and the polar relation between the act and product of thinking — a distinction necessary for understanding the different senses in which thinking is present in ourselves and in the world of objects. In addition, it would be good to outline pathways by which the intentional transformation of experience might be healthily pursued.


1. For my reading of Steiner’s argument I am particularly indebted to the late philosopher, Ronald Brady (Brady forthcoming), and also to personal conversations with Vladislav Rozentuller and Craig and Henrike Holdrege.

2. Of course, we are physiologically active in sense perception. But we know this only indirectly, through the appropriate scientific investigations (Steiner 1981, p. 60). In normal experience, we simply confront the reports of the senses as givens. By contrast, we know quite directly that concepts arise from our own thinking activity. This difference is enough to support the distinction Steiner is making.

3. We can distinguish between the education of the senses resulting from past thinking — an education yielding current habits of perception — and the thinking we can do now as we perceive, thereby altering or enriching what would otherwise be given by habit.

4. The idea that photons are things traveling through space, however much it has been rendered impossible by the physicist’s discoveries, remains fixed firmly in the imagination of the public — and perhaps also in that of many scientists. The fact nevertheless remains that we know light, not as a traveling object, but only as the visible manifestation or appearance of the world — that is, of illuminating and illumined things. As soon as we try to picture the photon as an object among other objects, we run into the kind of problem presented by the quantum double-slit experiment. Light is the means by which we see, and therefore cannot be understood in the manner of things seen; and in the same way, thinking is the means by which we apprehend the world — not, as in the understanding of those preoccupied with brain processes, just another kind of apprehended thing. I’m convinced that this elementary realization is prerequisite for our escape from the various conundrums bedeviling both physics and the cognitive sciences today.

5. Steiner does speak of knowledge that can come only when we quiet our thinking and employ other aspects of our inner being in cognition. This is a matter of the world speaking at levels deeper than our common, word-bound, largely abstract thinking. However, it is better to imagine this as a deepening of our usual, thought-mediated cognition, not a radical departure from it.

6. Questions of method in ordering the phenomena scientifically are, of course, very important. Steiner’s epistemological work, in fact, developed directly out of his preoccupation with Goethe’s scientific undertakings. He has a good deal to say about the character of a scientific method built upon his fundamental epistemological perspective — for example, in his commentaries on Goethe’s scientific writings (Steiner 2000). See also Goethe 2010.


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Brady, Ronald (1998). "The Idea in Nature: Rereading Goethe’s Organics", in Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, edited by David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc (Albany NY: State University of New York Press), pp. 83-128.

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Steiner, Rudolf (1979). The Philosophy of Freedom: A Basis for a Modern World Conception, translated by Michael Wilson. London: Rudolf Steiner Press. Published earlier under the title, Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, and more recently as Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path. Originally published in 1894.

Steiner, Rudolf (1978). A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception. Spring Valley NY: Anthroposophic Press. Originally published in 1886.

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Steve Talbott :: Reframing the Mind-Body Problem: An Exercise in Letting Go of Dualist Assumptions