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Concepts (from Latinconceptus "thought, idea", actually "that which is grasped", but also "container, pit" or conception "conception, womb"; Greekλόγος logos "word, speech, sense"; GermanBegriff, literally "to grasp, to embrace") are, viewed abstractly, meaningful, meaning-bearing (semantic) mental unities which - to the exclusion of all accidental, changeable, merely external features - are directed towards the essence of a thing, towards the suchness of a being, and are brought to appearance by active thought. Concepts are more than mere designations or words. Furthermore, Rudolf Steiner states: „What is a concept cannot be said with words. Words can only draw man's attention to the fact that he has concepts.“ (Lit.:GA 4, p. 57)

The conceptual content, the intension, ideally comprises the totality of all properties, characteristics[1] and regular systematic relationships that are common to all things encompassed by the concept, i.e. that make up its conceptual scope, its extension (→ extensional and intensional definitions). In practice, however, only individual characteristic properties, features and regularities can be singled out, which often results in very different definitions for one and the same concept. Applied to different areas of existence, terms can also take on different meanings and require a corresponding clarification of terms. Real concepts can never be adequately grasped by a rigid, one-sided definition, but only by a comprehensive, lively and flexible characterisation appropriate to the respective matter.

„Whoever - to use Goethe's words - uses a concept to limit a rich content of life, has no sense of the fact that life is formed in relationships that have different effects in different directions. It is, however, more convenient to substitute a schematic concept for a view of full life; it is easy to judge schematically with such concepts. But through such a process one lives in abstractions without essence. Human concepts become such abstractions precisely because one thinks that one can treat them in the mind as things treat each other. But these concepts are rather like pictures that one takes of a thing from different sides. The thing is one; the images are many. And it is not the attitude to one image, but the looking together of several images that leads to a view of the thing.“ (Lit.:GA 6, p. 215)

Concepts and Ideas

Rudolf Steiner refers to more comprehensive concepts as ideas.

„Ideas are not qualitatively different from concepts. They are only more substantial, more saturated and more extensive concepts.“ (Lit.:GA 4, p. 57)

General concepts or general ideas, under which the common characteristics of a set of material or immaterial individual things (individuals) are summarised, are called universals (Latinuniversalia, from universalis "all-encompassing"). The medieval universals controversy was sparked by the question of whether these general concepts correspond to an independent spiritual reality, as Plato and the realists who followed him believed, or whether they are merely abstract human constructions or even just names, as the nominalists and conceptualists claimed.

In fact, concepts do not occur in isolation, but stand in manifold relations to other concepts, ideas and perceptions, or exist precisely in the regular structure of these reciprocal relations, which are revealed through thinking. The meaning of a concept is revealed precisely by the fact that it points to other concepts, ideas and perceptions that are connected to it. In this sense, concepts form a system of relationships interwoven according to law, and we experience „truth in the consistent coherence of all the concepts we have at our disposal“ (Lit.:GA 2, p. 57), which in principle corresponds to the coherence theory of truth.

„If we have got through to the point where our whole world of thought bears the character of a perfect, inner agreement, then through it we get that satisfaction for which our spirit longs. Then we feel ourselves in possession of the truth.“ (Lit.:GA 2, p. 57)

In the highest sense, the idea is eternal and unique, as Goethe already expressed it. It incorporates the multitude of individual concepts of the indivisible wholeness of the cosmic order.

„The idea is eternal and unique; that we also need the plural is not well done. All that we become aware of and can speak of are only manifestations of the idea; concepts we utter, and in this respect the idea itself is a concept.“ (Lit.: Goethe: Maxims and Reflections[2])

A view of reality opens up only when perceptions are imbued with concepts. Without the concepts formed by thinking, perception would remain an incoherent diffuse aggregate of objects of sensation that cannot be grasped any further.

„Concept is the sum, idea the result of experience; to draw the latter requires understanding, to grasp the latter requires reason.“ (Lit.: Goethe: Maxims and Reflections[3])


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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 (by Steiner Online Library).
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.


  1. Properties and characteristics not in the sense of perceptions or qualia, but in the form of the concepts corresponding to them, e.g. not the perceived red, but redness per se as a concept that distinguishes all red hues from other colours.
  2. Goethe-BA Bd. 18, S. 528
  3. Goethe-BA Bd. 18, S. 642