Bologna lecture

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Rudolf Steiner

The so-called Bologna Lecture was given by Rudolf Steiner on 8 April 1911 at the IV International Congress of Philosophy in Bologna. It was the first and only lecture in which Rudolf Steiner presented the epistemological foundations of Theosophy or Anthroposophy to an international philosophically and scientifically trained audience. The lecture was published under the title "The Psychological Foundations and the Epistemological Position of Theosophy"[1] (Lit.:GA 35, p. 111ff) in the official congress proceedings "Atti del IV Congresso Internazionale di Filosofia Bologna MCMXI", Genoa o. J.[2] Although the lecture was followed by a lively discussion, Rudolf Steiner was aware that, in accordance with the contemporary scientific way of thinking, it would find little further resonance. Nevertheless, he attached great importance to this lecture, as it documented the epistemological foundations of anthroposophy (or theosophy) in a recognised scientific context.

Central ideas

In his auto-abstract entitled "A Word on Theosophy at the IV International Congress of Philosophy" Rudolf Steiner summarised the central ideas. At the same time he gives an extremely clear and compact overview of the anthroposophical path of spiritual training. Whereas all contemporary efforts at cognition are based on the present sensual, rational state of consciousness, anthroposophy, before it begins with the actual activity of cognition, strives through specific training for an expansion of the capacity of consciousness and cognition through imagination, inspiration and intuition, through which supersensible higher worlds would also open up to clear scientific cognition.

„Theosophy, however, in the sense in which the speaker represents it, must say of the soul that it can rise above the so-called normal state and thereby extend its powers of cognition from the realm of the sensuous and intellectual into that of the supersensible. However, by such a different state of the soul is not meant that which in ordinary psychology is called the 'subconscious' or 'unconscious', nor that of a vision, ecstasy or the like, but a state which can be reached under the strictest self-control of the soul. In order to attain it, the soul must subject itself to rigorous, intimate exercises. It must permeate itself with ideas, thoughts and sensations which do not bear the ordinary character of images of an externally real thing, but which have a more symbolic character. The soul must now exclude from its life all sensual, memory and intellectual impressions and contents, and in continual repetition become completely unified again and again with the characterised symbolic ideas. The result is a very specific experience which consists in the soul grasping itself as an inner reality which rests in itself independently of the body's organisation. Through this experience, the man knows that as a soul he can really live independently of his body. The exercises must continue from this point. Man must again remove the symbolic ideas from his soul-life and direct his inner sense only to his own activity, to that activity through which he has experienced the symbols in himself. Through this exercise a condensation of the soul independent of the body is achieved; and into this inner life now flows the content of a spiritual world in the same way as the sensuous content flows into sensuous perception when eyes and ears are directed towards the physical outer world. New stages of cognition are thus opened up; the first, in which the symbolic conceptions transform the life of the soul, may be called imaginative cognition, the second, which arises only when the symbols have again been removed from consciousness, cognition by inspiration. The speaker then went on to point out how the theory of science at present could not agree with such a description of the development of the soul, because from the outset it shifts the "I" of the human being into the bodily inner world. But an epistemology of the future will recognise that the I in truth already lies in the spiritual outer world and that the ordinary I is only reflected as its image in the bodily organisation. Such a theory of knowledge will be able to reconcile itself completely with Theosophy.“ (Lit.:GA 35, p. 152ff)

The I and its mirror image

One can only speak of insurmountable limits to cognition if one erroneously places the "I" in the bodily inner world. A future theory of cognition would have to recognise that the "I" in truth always already lies in the external world and that only its image is reflected in the body's organisation. What we experience with our untrained consciousness as the everyday I, and thus feel separated from the world, is only this mirror image of the true I.

„Man is actually always outside his body and its bodily functions with the part that recognises. He lives in things, I have often said. And the fact that he recognises something is based on the fact that his experience in things is reflected in his body.“ (Lit.:GA 163, p. 74)

„Now a prejudiced psychology, a doctrine of the soul, believes that this I actually sits inside the human being; where his muscles are, his flesh is, his bones are and so on, that is also where the I is. If one were to survey life only a little, one would very soon perceive that it is not so. But it is difficult to bring such a consideration before people today. I tried to do so in 1911 in my lecture at the philosophers' congress in Bologna. But nobody has understood that lecture to this day. I tried to show how it actually is with the I. This I actually lies in every perception, it actually lies in everything that makes an impression on us. The I does not lie in my flesh and in my bones, but in what I can perceive through my eyes. If you see a red flower somewhere: in your I, in your whole experience, which you have by being devoted to the red, you cannot separate the red from the flower. With all this, you have given the I at the same time, the I is connected with the content of your soul. But your soul content is not in your bones! Your soul content, you spread it out over the whole space. So this I is even less than the air you are breathing in, even less than the air that was in you before. This I is connected with every perception and with everything that is actually outside of you. It is only active within, because it sends the forces in from perception. And furthermore, the I is connected with something else: You only need to walk, that is, to develop your will. But your I goes along with it, or rather the I takes part in the movement, and whether you creep slowly, whether you run, whether you move at a crawl or somehow turn and the like, whether you dance or jump, the I takes part in all that. Everything that emanates from you in terms of activity, the I participates in. But that is not in you either. Think, it does take you along. When you dance a round dance, do you think the round dance is in you? It wouldn't have any place in you! How would it have room? But the I is there, the I joins in the round dance. So in your perceptions and in your activity, that's where the I sits. But it is never actually in you in the full sense of the word, in the way that your stomach is in you, but it is actually always something, this I, which is basically outside of you. It is just as much outside your head as it is outside your legs, except that when you walk it participates very strongly in the movements that your legs make. The I is really very much involved in the movement that the legs make. The head, however, is less involved in the I.“ (Lit.:GA 205, p. 218ff)

The real I lives in the spiritual outer world

The core statement into which Rudolf Steiner's Bologna Lecture flows is of fundamental importance for the whole of anthroposophy. The real I of man is not to be found in the interior of the body. Only his unreal mental reflection appears there. Rather, the true I lives directly in the laws of the outer world, i.e. in the spiritual outer world. The laws of nature are also, as even many physicists emphasise, something spiritual. The physical laws, which are accessible to the rational mind, form only the lowest layer. Higher laws shape the living and even higher ones govern the soul. Walter Heitler, for example, who was significantly involved in the quantum mechanical description of chemical bonds and also published a series of books on natural philosophy and science criticism, also includes the harmony of the spheres in this context:

„As far as we have seen so far, the world of transcendence is home to the mathematical and physical laws that we grasp with the organ of our understanding. It is infinitely richer, richer also especially in much that is not accessible to the rational, analysing mind - as we shall see in the following chapters. We have every reason to be modest before what we do not know; our present knowledge may be so great - what we cannot do is still much greater. Could it not be that the 'harmony of the spheres' also has its home in the world of transcendence (indifferent to Kepler's relations) and is not mere fantasy, but that today we lack the organ of knowledge to recognise it?“

Walter Heitler: Nature and the Divine, p. 46

The I thus stands fully within that which is transcendent for sensual perception. Contrary to Kant's opinion, this transcendent is not accessible to sensual perception, but it is accessible to spiritual perception, which already begins with pure thinking.

„For if one presupposes from the outset that the "I" stands outside the transcendent with the content of the laws of the world brought into ideas and concepts, then it becomes self-evident that this "I" cannot leap over itself, that is, must always remain outside the transcendent. But this presupposition cannot be maintained in the face of an unprejudiced observation of the facts of consciousness. For the sake of simplicity, we shall first refer to the content of universal law, in so far as it can be expressed in mathematical terms and formulae. The inner lawful connection of the mathematical formulae is obtained within consciousness and then applied to the empirical facts. Now there is no discernible difference between what lives in consciousness as a mathematical concept when this consciousness relates its content to an empirical fact; or when it visualises this mathematical concept in purely mathematical deducted thinking. But this means nothing else than that the I, with its mathematical conception, does not stand outside the transcendent mathematical regularity of things, but within it. And one will therefore arrive at a better conception of the "I" epistemologically if one does not imagine it located within the bodily organisation, and lets the impressions be given to it "from outside"; but if one transfers the "I" into the lawfulness of things itself, and sees in the bodily organisation only something like a mirror which reflects back to the I, through the organic bodily activity, the weaving of the I lying outside the body in the transcendent. Once one has become familiar with the thought for mathematical thinking that the "I" is not in the body but outside of it and that organic body activity only represents the living mirror from which the life of the "I" lying in the transcendent is reflected, then one can also find this thought epistemologically comprehensible for everything that occurs in the horizon of consciousness. - And one could then no longer say that the "I" must leap over itself if it wanted to reach the transcendent; but one would have to realise that the ordinary empirical content of consciousness relates to that which is truly inwardly lived through by the human core of being, as the mirror image relates to the being of the one who looks at himself in the mirror.“ (Lit.:GA 35, p. 139f)

However, this has only been the case since the time of the Mystery of Golgotha and especially since the dawn of the consciousness soul age. In pre-Christian times, especially in the Egyptian-Chaldean culture, it was still possible to find the I, even if only dimly, in the interior of the body through initiation.

„For the ancient Egyptian, by turning into himself according to the rules of initiation, found something in himself which the man of today cannot find in himself, because it has disappeared, because it is gone. That which could be found even in the pre-Christian and to some extent in the post-Christian Greek state of mind has slipped away from man, has been lost to man. That has been lost, has disappeared from the human being. The human organisation today is different from what it was in ancient times.

If we put the matter differently, we can say that in those ancient times man, even if darkly, even if not in fully conscious terms, found his I by going into himself. This does not contradict the statement that the I was born in a certain way through Christianity. That is why I say: Even if darkly, even if not in fully conscious terms, man nevertheless found his I. It was born as active consciousness only through Christianity, but man found his I. For something of this I, of this real, true I, remained in man of that time after he was born. You will say: Is man today not supposed to find his I? - No, he does not find it either: the real I comes to a standstill when we are born. That which we experience as our I is only a mirror image of the I. It is only something that is a reflection of the I before it was born. It is only something that reflects the prenatal I in us. In fact, we experience only a mirror image of the I, we experience something of the real I only very indirectly. What the psychologists, the so-called soul researchers, talk about as the I, is only a mirror image; it relates to the real I in the same way that the image you see of yourself in the mirror relates to you. But this real I, which could be found during the time of atavistic clairvoyance and up to Christian times, is not in the human being today who looks at his own beingness - in so far as his own beingness is connected with the body. Only indirectly does man experience something of his I, when he enters into relationship with other men and karma takes place.“ (Lit.:GA 187, p. 79f)

„Those mystical impulses that people still have today: to find the true self - which they even call the divine self - by delving into their inner being. - In the future, people will have fewer of these impulses. But they will have to get used to seeing this I only in the outer world. The strange thing will happen that every other person we meet who has something to do with us will have more to do with our ego than that which is enclosed in the skin. Thus man is heading for the social age, that in the future he will say to himself: My self is with all those who meet me out there; least of all is it in there. Living as a physical human being between birth and death, I get my self from everything but what is enclosed in my skin.

This paradox, which seems so paradoxical, is being indirectly prepared today by people learning to feel a little how they are actually terribly little in what they call their ego in this mirror image inside. I recently spoke of how one can arrive at the truth by looking at one's biography, but objectively, and asking oneself what one actually owes to this and that person from birth onwards. One will gradually dissolve into the influences that come from others; one will find extraordinarily little in what one has to regard as one's real self, which, as I said, is only a reflection. Speaking somewhat grotesquely, one can say: In those times in which the Mystery of Golgotha took place, man was hollowed out, he became hollow. That is the important thing, that one learns to recognise the Mystery of Golgotha as an impulse by looking at it in its interrelation to this hollowing out of the human being.

Drawing from GA 187, p. 82
Drawing from GA 187, p. 82
left side: red right side

outer circles:
centre points:

descending in from above:




When man speaks of reality, he must be clear that the place he was able to find in the past, let us say in the Egyptian-Chaldean royal mysteries, must somehow be filled. At that time it was somewhat filled by the real I, which today stops when a human being is born, or at least stops in the first years of childhood, something still shines into the first years of childhood. And this place was taken by the Christ impulse. There you see the true process. You can say to yourself: Here (see drawing, left) the people before the Mystery of Golgotha, here (middle) the Mystery of Golgotha, (right) the people after the Mystery of Golgotha.

The people before the Mystery of Golgotha had something in them which, as I said, was found through initiation (red). People after the Mystery of Golgotha no longer have this in them (blue), they are, as it were, hollowed out there, and the Christ Impulse sinks in (violet) and takes the empty place. So the Christ Impulse should not be understood as a mere doctrine, as a theory, but it must be understood in terms of its actuality. And anyone who really understands the possibility of this descent in the sense of the old Mystery Initiation, only understands the meaning of the Mystery of Golgotha in its inner truth. For today, as was the case in the ancient Egyptian royal initiation, man could not easily become a Christophor; but he becomes a Christophor under all circumstances, in that, as it were, the Christ sinks into the hollow space which is within him.“ (Lit.:GA 187, p. 81ff)

Without knowing or mentioning this background in spiritual science, the German psychiatrist and philosopher Thomas Fuchs also emphasises that today the I is not to be sought inside but outside the body in its surrounding space:

„We have seen that consciousness rises on the foundation of the extended body, above a "spatial unconscious" that is in correspondence with the organic body and its activity. Subjectivity is therefore not extramundane but field-like extended into the world; it explicates what the body has already implicitly anticipated. In conscious perception and action we take up the participatory relationship in which the body stands with the world....

Neither Freud's primary narcissism nor Husserl's pure consciousness stand at the beginning of development in order to then enter into a relationship with the world, any more than an isolated bodily organism; rather, the unity of body and surrounding space, and above all the inter-bodily sphere, is the original basis on which something like an "I" can develop and confront its "body". But even then, being cannot be divided into a mental inner world and a physical outer world; for the subject, as bodily, carries a physical part in itself, just as, conversely, the world, as animate and physiognomic, has a psychic part. Whereas according to the classical one-person paradigm of psychology and philosophy, the soul must be located in an inaccessible interior, the intercorporeality shows that the room of our existence is, from birth, a soul-filled and shared room.“ (Lit.: Fuchs 2000)

That the real I - not its mere reflection - is experienced in pure thinking independently of the body's organisation, Rudolf Steiner had already shown in his "Philosophy of Freedom".

„Anyone who now reads through my "Philosophy of Freedom" will find how these ways of fathoming the nature of human thinking have been sought. And for me it turned out that only he who sees in the highest expressions of this thinking something that takes place independently of our physicality, of our bodily organisation, can understand human thinking correctly. And I believe I have succeeded in proving that the processes of pure thought in man take place independently of bodily processes. In the bodily processes, natural necessities prevail. What emerges from these bodily processes in the form of dull instincts, impulses of will and so on, is in a certain sense determined by natural necessity. What man carries out in his thinking ultimately turns out to be a process which runs independently of the physical organisation of man. And I believe that nothing less than the supersensible nature of human thinking has been revealed to me through this "philosophy of freedom". And once this supersensible nature of human thinking had been recognised, then the proof was given that in the most ordinary everyday life, when man only rises to real thinking, through which he is determined by nothing other than the motives of thinking itself, he then has a supersensible element before him in this thinking. If he then directs himself in life according to this thinking, if he develops in this way, if he is educated in such a way that he bases his actions on motives of pure thinking over and above the motives of his physical organisation, over and above drives, emotions, instincts, then he may be called a free being. At that time I set myself the task of explaining the connection between supersensible pure thinking and freedom.

One can now stop at pursuing such a train of thought merely theoretically. But if one does not pursue such a train of thought merely theoretically, but if it becomes a fulfilment of one's whole life, if one sees in it a revelation of human nature itself, then one does not pursue it merely theoretically, then one pursues it practically. What is this practical pursuit? Well, one learns to recognise - once one has grasped the supersensible nature of thought - that man is capable of making himself independent of his bodily organisation in a certain activity. One can now try to see whether man, apart from pure thinking, is still capable of developing such an activity, which is according to the pattern of this pure thinking. Whoever calls that on which I base my anthroposophical spiritual science as a method of research clairvoyance must also call ordinary pure thinking, which certainly flows up from everyday life into human consciousness, which flows into human action, clairvoyance. I myself see no qualitative difference between pure thinking and what I call clairvoyance. I see the matter in such a way that man can first develop a practice in the process of pure thinking, how one becomes independent of one's bodily organisation in one's inner processes, how one accomplishes something in pure thinking in which the body has no part. At the philosophers' congress in Bologna in 1911, I explained in a quite philosophical way that pure thinking is already something that is carried out in the human being without the body's organisation having any part in it“ (Lit.:GA 255b, p. 299ff)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
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Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.


  1. German: "Die psychologischen Grundlagen und die erkenntnistheoretische Stellung der Theosophie"
  2. Special print herefrom 1911; further publications in: «Anthroposophie. Zeitschrift für freies Geistesleben», 16. Jahrg. Buch 4, Juli-Sept. 1934; «Die Drei. Monatsschrift für Anthroposophie, Dreigliederung und Goetheanismus», 18. Jahrg. Heft 2/3, April/Juni 1948; «Reinkarnation und Karma» und andere Aufsätze, Stuttgart 1961.