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Dualism is a philosophical system that bases all world events on two fundamentally different and non-reducible principles, such as good and evil, this world and the otherworld, or spirit and matter.

Historical background

The origin of dualism lies in the ancient Persian culture, which was characterised by the constant struggle between two spiritual entities. Ahura Mazda, the god of light, was opposed by Ahriman, the spirit of darkness. They were, however, twins who had sprung from Zurvan and Zeruane Akarene, respectively, the "uncreated time". So there was still an awareness of the common origin. This continued as ethical-religious dualism in post-Christian times in Manichaeism, which sees world events as determined by the struggle between good and evil.

The contrast between spirit and matter was felt particularly strongly by the intellectual and mind soul that developed in the Greco-Latin period. Mythology was replaced by philosophy and with it the essential struggle between the gods receded into the background. The difference between one's own thinking activity and the externally perceived world of the senses was now felt much more strongly. Already Anaxagoras distinguished between the passive substance, fragmented into a chaotic multiplicity, and the actively ordering uniform impersonal principle of the world spirit, the Nous (Greekνοῦς). Plato contrasted the world of sense with the world of ideas, and Aristotle distinguished between substance and form or act and potency. In the ethical dualism of the Stoics, the strictly causal natural order was opposed to the moral freedom of man.

In modern times, with the growing I-consciousness of the dawning consciousness-soul age, the gap felt between the I and the world became even greater. René Descartes made a strict distinction between the res extensa and the res cogitans. His interactionist substance dualism sharpened the mind-body problem that still confronts science with seemingly insoluble problems today.

„Descartes' sentence "Cogito, ergo sum" is actually wrong. The sentence should actually be: Cogito, ergo non sum, I think, therefore I am not, because thinking never illuminates a reality, but on the contrary, it is the annihilation of reality. Only when one approaches the I through imagination, inspiration and intuition is the real certainty of the I present. If we have become accustomed to applying the criteria of being to our surroundings, we must say: I think, therefore I am not. It is precisely in this non-being that the possibility of receiving something new lies. That is what lies in intellectuality. The intellectualistic concepts are actually empty in relation to reality, they are holes in the universe, and this is necessary for the development of freedom.“ (Lit.:GA 343a, p. 433)

John Locke's distinction of primary and secondary sense qualities only further worsened the situation. Nevertheless, Cartesian dualism has had a lasting influence on philosophical-scientific thought up to the present day. Karl Popper and John Eccles were the best-known interactionist dualists of the 20th century[1], but they too failed to find a convincing bridge between being and consciousness. "The hard problem of consciousness"[2] leads neuroscientists and philosophers to limits they still cannot cross - a problem Emil du Bois-Reymond had already pointed out in his famous Ignorabimus speech in 1872. It is not recognised that our everyday consciousness is in fact only an unreal, i.e. non-effective, mirror image. That it is precisely in this that the possibility of human freedom lies has been emphasised again and again by Rudolf Steiner.

„Here, you see, lies the difficulty which philosophers continually encounter and which they cannot overcome with their philosophy, the main difficulty. Nothing else is given to these philosophers but what they imagine. But remember that being is pressed out of the imagination, out of the content of consciousness. It cannot be in it, for what is in consciousness is only a reflection. Being cannot be in it. Now the philosophers seek being through consciousness, through ordinary physical consciousness. They cannot find it that way. And it is quite natural that such philosophies had to arise as Kant's, for example, which seeks being through consciousness. But because consciousness, quite naturally, can only contain images of being, one can come to nothing other than to acknowledge that one can never approach being with consciousness.“ (Lit.:GA 162, p. 31)

Contemporary philosophers and consciousness researchers such as Daniel Dennett or Susan Blackmore, who deny the reality of contemporary human consciousness and ultimately want to explain it away altogether, are more correct than those who grant consciousness an independent efficacy. The former end up with one-sided materialism, but at the same time they also help to get rid of the false dualistic body/soul conceptions that have had a lasting influence on Western culture and still make understanding the real spirit even more difficult than materialism, which is quite justified in its field.

„Today it is already something quite dilettantish to want only to refute materialism. The theoretical views which refer to materialism, which either doubt or completely deny a spiritual world, or at least doubt or deny knowledge of it, these points of view are not what primarily come into consideration. Rather, what comes into consideration in the first place is the tremendously impressive, the significant aspect of materialism. What is the use, after all, if people, out of some state of mind or religious tradition, say that man's thinking, man's feeling, man's willing must be something independent outside the brain, and the science of the present day then comes and carries off - either by one means or another, mostly by doing brain research on pathological conditions - piece by piece from the brain and thus apparently also carries off piece by piece the soul of man? What use is it if we speak of the immortality of the soul's life out of some state of mind or religious tradition - and if this soul's life is diseased, for example, we can think of nothing else at all but first of all of healing the brain or the nervous system? But all this has been brought to us by materialism. And many who today want to refute materialism do not really know what they are doing; for they have no idea of the tremendous importance of the detailed knowledge which materialism has brought. And they do not suspect what a consequence for the whole of human knowledge materialism has brought.“ (Lit.:GA 231, p. 59)

Already in his basic epistemological works, namely in his "Philosophy of Freedom", Rudolf Steiner emphatically emphasised that dualism is rooted in our specifically human organisation, which tears the world, which is in itself unified, into two unreal halves. The resulting subject-object split enables us to have I-consciousness. As a result, we perceive ourselves as a separate personality in relation to the world. But both - personality and world - are only unreal mirror images. Only in the act of cognition, in which perception and concept are united again into a wholeness, does this gap close, whereby reality can be consciously grasped. We are therefore dealing with a purely epistemological dualism, which in reality is based on an ontological monism. Ontological dualism, as postulated by Descartes, on the other hand, lacks any basis in Steiner's view.

If our ordinary daytime consciousness is indeed a mere mirror image, the question naturally arises: what is the reality of the mirror and what reality is reflected in it? Roughly speaking, it is the spirit that is reflected in the body, which in turn is nothing other than condensed spirit. Insofar as we first experience the spirit through thinking in the form of thoughts, one can also say that the world thoughts are thereby reflected in consciousness. In order to be able to grasp these in their essence, higher levels of consciousness are required, which can only be acquired through spiritual training. Rudolf Steiner puts it more precisely like this:

„Let us think of the world in a schematic picture as an outer circle and ourselves opposite it (drawing p. 30). First of all, it will be clear to all of us that we form a picture of the world in our thoughts. How we come to conscious thoughts in the physical world, we spoke of this yesterday. That which is present in our physical interior through our soul as our thoughts, we want to designate by this circle (small inner circle). And I want to say: This circle is to represent that which we feel as the content of our soul with the help of our body, as our thoughts about the world.

Now we know from the various observations that what we call thoughts is actually based in us on a certain reflection. I have often used the comparison that we are actually awake outside our physical body, and that the physical body reflects back like a mirror that which comes to our consciousness. So when we think of ourselves as soul-spiritual beings, we must not think of ourselves inside, where - to put it clearly - our thoughts come to light through our body, but we must think of ourselves outside our physical body, even when awake. So that we actually have to think ourselves into the world with our spiritual-soul.

And what is actually reflected? Well, when thoughts occur in us, something is mirrored in the universe. Let that which lives in the universe and is reflected in us be indicated by this circle (green). Just as I have the yellow circle here in the human organism as a reflection of something in the universe, so I want to indicate something that is reflected in our thoughts by this green circle in the world itself. And we can say: That which is indicated here by this green circle is actually the real, the actual, of which our thoughts are only the image, that image which is reflected back from our body. Of course, all this is only meant schematically.

Drawing from GA 162, p. 30
Drawing from GA 162, p. 30

If we understand in the right sense what actually happens when we confront the world, then we must say that something is produced in us: the whole sum of our ideas is produced in us as a mere image of something that is outside in the world. All that is inside our intelligence is an image of something that is outside in the world.

Those who have always known something of the true facts of such things in the world have therefore spoken of the fact that the true content of human thought is in truth spread out in the universe as the thoughts of the world, and that what we have as the content of thought is only the image of the world thoughts. The thoughts of the world are reflected in us. If our true being were only in our thoughts, then this true being of ours would naturally be only an image. But from the whole context it must be evident to us that our true being is not in the head, but that our true being is in the world, that we ourselves are only reflected in ourselves with the world thoughts. And what we can find in ourselves through the mirroring apparatus of our body is the image of our true reality. All this has already been emphasised in various contexts.

When the physical body dissolves in death, the images that arise in us naturally also dissolve. That which remains of us, our true reality, is basically inserted into the cosmos throughout our whole life, and it only creates a mirror image of ourselves during our life through our body.“ (Lit.:GA 162, p. 29ff)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: verlag@steinerverlag.com URL: www.steinerverlag.com.
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.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold
steinerbooks.org - 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. Karl Popper, John Carew Eccles: Das Ich und sein Gehirn. 8. Auflage Piper, München u. a. 2002, ISBN 3-492-21096-1
  2. David Chalmers: The Character of Consciousness. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2010, ISBN 978-0195311112, p. 39