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The word idea (Greekεἶδος eidos / ἰδέα idea "conception, image, pattern, model or archetype, idea") was first used by Plato in philosophical contexts to designate the "what" of things, their essence, their "in itself", and is derived from the Greek word for "to see, to behold, to recognise" (idein)[1][2] and thus means: that which is seen. The idea refers first of all to a mental imagination, a thought or concept.

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

Ideas grasp the general, the universals, in contrast to the sensually appearing individual. In the sense of the Platonic doctrine of ideas, one could therefore say: Whenever we see, we idealise - and only through this do we recognise things for what they are, i.e. we lift in our consciousness, through idealisation, out of the given reality its actual essence. In the mind, we give the chaotic sensory data an ideal form, through which their true, spiritual reality is revealed, compared to which the mere world of the senses appears only shadowy. Plato spoke about this in detail in his "Politeia" in the famous allegory of the cave. Philosophising is based on a spiritual "seeing", a supersensible "vision" of pure ideas, a vision of ideas. The archetypal ideas exist independently of sensually tangible things, which owe their being and essence only to the participation (Greekμέθεξις methexis) in the unchanging eternal ideas; they are only a transient imitation (Greekμίμησις mimesis) of their imperishable spiritual archetypes. According to Aristotle, however, the human faculty of cognition is so limited that by far the most ideas can only be experienced in or on the manifold sensual things and can be lifted out of them by abstraction. Only the highest and most general ideas, such as those of mathematics, can be grasped purely intellectually. Thomas Aquinas later distinguished the universalia ante rem, which live before all individual things in divine reason, from the universalia in re, which work in things, and the universalia post rem, which are formed as concepts in the mind of man.

„What is called idea: that which always comes to appearance and therefore confronts us as the law of all appearances.“ (Lit.: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Maxims and Reflections[3])

Will is the idea that acts as a force

Main article: Will

Will is, one can also say, the idea that becomes really active, i.e. that acts as a force, as Rudolf Steiner already expressed it in his "Introductions to Goethe's Natural Scientific Writings". In this sense it is not a blind, i.e. lawlessly chaotically active, but spirit-filled will:

„Will is therefore the idea itself conceived as force. To speak of an independent will is completely inadmissible. When man accomplishes something, one cannot say that the will is added to the idea. If one speaks in this way, one has not grasped the concepts clearly, for what is the human personality, if one disregards the world of ideas that fills it? But an active existence. Whoever conceived it otherwise, as a dead, inactive product of nature, equated it with the stone in the street. But this active existence is an abstraction, it is nothing real. It cannot be grasped, it is without content. If one wants to grasp it, if one wants a content, then one obtains the world of ideas conceived in action. E. v. Hartmann makes this abstract a second world-constituting principle alongside the idea. But it is nothing other than the idea itself, only in a form of appearance. Will without idea would be nothing. The same cannot be said of the Idea, for activity is an element of it, while it is the self-supporting entity.“ (Lit.:GA 1, p. 197f)

The world of ideas

Ideas, like concepts, are formed through thinking, whereby Rudolf Steiner refers to more extensive concepts as ideas. The total of all ideas forms the world of ideas or world of thoughts.

„Through thinking, concepts and ideas come into being. What is a concept cannot be said with words. Words can only make a person aware that he has concepts. When someone sees a tree, his thinking reacts to his observation; an ideal counterpart is added to the object, and he regards the object and the ideal counterpart as belonging together. If the object disappears from his field of observation, only the ideal counterpart of it remains. The latter is the concept of the object. The more our experience expands, the greater the sum of our concepts becomes. The concepts, however, do not stand there in isolation. They join together to form a lawful whole. The term "organism", for example, joins the others: "lawful development, growth". Other concepts formed on individual things merge completely into one. All the concepts I form of lions merge into the overall concept of "lion". In this way, the individual concepts combine into a closed system of concepts in which each has its own special place. Ideas are not qualitatively different from concepts. They are only more substantial, more saturated and more extensive concepts....

The concept cannot be obtained from observation. This is already evident from the fact that the growing human being only slowly and gradually forms the concepts of the objects that surround him. The concepts are added to the observation.“ (Lit.:GA 4, p. 57)

In the highest sense, the idea is eternal and unique, as Goethe already expressed it. It incorporates the multitude of individual concepts into 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.“

Goethe: Maxims and Reflections[4]

Rudolf Steiner has emphatically emphasised that the "ideas" are neither to be misunderstood in the Platonic sense as free-floating, disembodied entities nor in the Aristotelian-Thomistic sense as forces effective in things. Rather, they are a free creative product of the human spirit, which would not exist anywhere if man did not bring it to manifestation in his consciousness through his activity of cognition. Only this "creatio ex nihilo", the "creation out of nothing" is appropriate for the spirit, which is in no way to be regarded as an "existing" anywhere in the world. Rudolf Steiner also emphasised this creative character of cognition quite clearly in the outlook with which his "Welt- und Lebensanschauungen im neunzehnten Jahrhundert" (World and Life Views in the Nineteenth Century), published in 1900 and later expanded into "Die Rätsel der Philosophie in ihrer Geschichte als Umriss dargestellt" (GA 18), concludes:

„When I penetrate things with my thoughts, I therefore add to things something that is experienced in me according to its essence. The essence of things does not come to me from them, but I add it to them. I create a world of ideas that I regard as the essence of things. Things receive their essence through me. It is therefore impossible to ask about the essence of being. In the recognition of ideas, nothing at all is revealed to me that has any existence in things. The world of ideas is my experience. It exists in no other form than the one I experience.“ (Lit.: Rudolf Steiner: Welt- und Lebensanschauungen im neunzehnten Jahrhundert, Berlin 1900, p. 188)

The spirit works in all things, but only in the human being does it appear as an "idea" through his creative thinking. Truth is not something that already "exists" in the world, but something to be created freely and individually by the I - Rudolf Steiner had already advocated this point of view in his fundamental philosophical work "Truth and Knowledge" (1892):

„The result of these investigations is that truth is not, as is usually assumed, the ideal reflection of some real thing, but a free product of the human spirit, which would not exist anywhere at all if we did not bring it forth ourselves. The task of cognition is not to repeat in conceptual form something that already exists elsewhere, but to create an entirely new realm which, together with the sensuously given world, only results in full reality. Thus the highest activity of man, his spiritual creation, is organically integrated into the general world event. Without this activity, world events could not be thought of as a self-contained whole. In relation to the course of the world, man is not an idle spectator who figuratively repeats within his spirit what takes place in the cosmos without his intervention, but the active co-creator of the world process; and cognition is the most complete link in the organism of the universe.“ (Lit.:GA 3, p. 11f)

Hegel's philosophical view can very easily be misunderstood to the effect that he postulated a world of ideas independent of man, free-floating, as it were, and existing for itself. Hegel himself did little to dispel this misunderstanding. In contrast to this, therefore, two things must be noted: Firstly, the field in which thoughts occur is solely individual human consciousness; secondly, however, thought is based on its own inherent regularities, which is why it is always one and the same world of thought, common to all human beings, from which each individual, through his activity of thinking, draws the thoughts that occur in his consciousness. The appearance of thoughts brought about by thinking is therefore subjectively caused, but the thought content as such is objective.

„Hegel has an absolute trust in thinking, indeed it is the only factor of reality in which he trusts in the true sense of the word. However correct his view may be in general, it is precisely he who has deprived thinking of all prestige by the all-too-crass form in which he defends it. The way he has put forward his view is to blame for the hopeless confusion that has come into our "thinking about thinking". He wanted to make the significance of the thought, of the idea, quite clear by describing the necessity of thought at the same time as the necessity of facts. In this way he gave rise to the error that the determinations of thought were not purely ideal but actual. His view was soon taken to mean that he himself had sought thought as a thing in the world of sensuous reality. He never quite made this clear. It must be established that the field of thought is solely human consciousness. Then it must be shown that through this circumstance the world of thought loses nothing in objectivity. Hegel only brought out the objective side of thought; but the majority, because this is easier, see only the subjective; and it seems to them that the latter treated something purely ideal like a thing, mystified it. Even many scholars of the present day cannot be absolved from this error. They condemn Hegel on account of a defect which he does not have in himself, but which can certainly be put into him because he has not clarified the matter in question sufficiently.

We admit that there is a difficulty here for our judgment. But we believe that this difficulty can be overcome by any energetic thinking. We must imagine two things: first, that we actively bring the ideal world into existence, and second, that what we actively bring into existence is based on its own laws. We are, of course, accustomed to imagining an appearance in such a way that we only have to face it passively, observing. But this is not an absolute necessity. Unaccustomed as we may be to the idea that we ourselves actively bring an objective into appearance, that we, in other words, not only perceive an appearance but at the same time produce it, it is not an inadmissible one.

One need only abandon the ordinary opinion that there are as many worlds of thought as there are human individuals. This opinion is in any case nothing more than a long-established prejudice. It is everywhere tacitly assumed, without any consciousness that another is at least equally possible, and that the reasons for the validity of one or the other must first be considered. In place of this opinion, consider the following: there is only one thought-content at all, and our individual thinking is nothing more than a working of our self, our individual personality, into the thought-centre of the world.“ (Lit.:GA 2, p. 51f)

Subjectivity and objectivity of the world of ideas

That the world of ideas, which the human being actively brings to manifestation in his consciousness through thinking, not only has subjective validity, but forms the self-supporting, subject and object overlapping basis of the world, was already stated by Rudolf Steiner around 1886 in his "Credo. The Individual and the All." emphasised:

„The world of ideas is the primal source and principle of all being. In it there is infinite harmony and blissful peace. Being which it did not illuminate with its light would be a dead, insubstantial being which would have no part in the life of the world as a whole. Only that which derives its existence from the idea means something in the tree of creation of the universe. The idea is the spirit that is clear in itself, sufficient in itself and with itself. The individual must have the spirit in itself, otherwise it falls off, like a dry leaf from that tree, and was there in vain...“ (Lit.:GA 40, p. 15)

In "Goethe's Weltanschauung" (Goethe's World View) he later remarks on this (1897):

„If man really succeeds in rising to the idea, and in comprehending the details of perception from the idea, he accomplishes the same thing that nature accomplishes by letting her creatures emerge from the mysterious whole. As long as man does not feel the working and creating of the idea, his thinking remains separated from living nature. He must regard thinking as a merely subjective activity that can create an abstract picture of nature. But as soon as he feels how the idea lives and is active within him, he regards himself and nature as a whole, and what appears as subjective within him is at the same time regarded as objective; he knows that he no longer faces nature as a stranger, but feels himself grown together with the whole of it. The subjective has become objective; the objective is completely permeated by the spirit. Goethe is of the opinion that Kant's fundamental error consists in the fact that he "now regards the subjective faculty of cognition itself as an object and distinguishes the point where subjective and objective meet, sharply but not quite correctly." (Sophien-Ausgabe, 2. Abteilung, Bd. XI, S.376.) The faculty of cognition appears to man as subjective only as long as he does not consider that it is nature itself that speaks through it. Subjective and objective meet when the objective world of ideas comes to life in the subject, and that which is active in nature itself lives in the spirit of man. When this is the case, then all opposition of subjective and objective ceases. This opposition only has a meaning as long as man artificially maintains it, as long as he regards the ideas as his thoughts, through which the essence of nature is represented, but in which it is not itself active. Kant and the Kantians had no idea that in the ideas of reason the essence, the Ansich of things is directly experienced. For them, everything ideal is merely subjective.“ (Lit.:GA 6, p. 54f)

And in the "Introductions to Goethe's Natural Scientific Writings" it says:

„Whoever recognises thinking's ability to perceive beyond the senses must of necessity also recognise objects that lie beyond the mere sensuous reality. But the objects of thought are the ideas. By taking possession of the idea, thought merges with the source of the world's existence; that which works outside enters into the spirit of man: he becomes one with objective reality at its highest potency. Becoming aware of the idea in reality is the true communion of man.

Thought has the same significance towards ideas as the eye has towards light, the ear towards sound. It is the organ of conception.“ (Lit.:GA 1, p. 125f)

„He who knows that man lets a divine stream flow into him with every thought, he who is conscious of this, receives as a result the gift of higher knowledge. He who knows that knowledge is communion also knows that it is nothing other than that which is symbolised in the Lord's Supper.“ (Lit.:GA 266a, p. 48)

The laws of nature as ideas that are effective in the world

Main article: Law of nature

The laws of nature describe the one-sided spatial and temporal order of cosmic events, which is only a shadowy revelation of the much more comprehensive spiritual world order, which also includes a moral dimension. Examples of elementary laws of nature are the law of inertia, the law of gravitation, Maxwell's equations of electrodynamics, the theory of relativity, the quantum theory, and so on.

The laws of nature are by no means separate from nature, but form an inseparable whole with it. They are directly effective ideas in the physical world. It is only due to the nature of man himself that we experience them in separate ways: The natural phenomena by qualitative sensual perception or by quantitative metrological registration on the one hand, and the laws of nature by our thinking comprehension of the connection between the phenomena on the other.

„The laws of nature are spirit, only that in ordinary perception man perceives this spirit only in the shadowy reflection of thought.“ (Lit.:GA 52, p. 208)

This spiritual character of the laws of nature is also emphasised by many physicists. For example, the quantum chemist Walter Heitler writes:

„A mathematically formulated law is something spiritual. We can call it that because it is human spirit that recognises it. The term spirit may not be very popular today, when an exuberant materialism and positivism is doing its sometimes quite nasty blossoms. But for this very reason we must be clear about what natural law and knowledge of nature is. Nature therefore follows this non-material spiritual element, the law. Consequently, spiritual elements are also anchored in nature itself. Among these is the mathematics necessary to formulate the law, even high and supreme mathematics. On the other hand, the researcher who is gifted to make a discovery is able to penetrate this very spiritual element that pervades nature. And here the connection between the human, discerning spirit and the transcendent elements existing in nature becomes apparent. We see the matter best if we use the Platonic mode of expression, although Plato did not yet know this kind of natural law. According to this, natural law would be an archetype, an "idea" - in the sense of the Greek word eidea - which nature follows and which man can perceive. This is then what is called the idea. Through this archetype, man is connected with nature. Man, who can perceive it, nature, which follows him as a law.“

Walter Heitler: Naturwissenschaft ist Geisteswissenschaft, p. 14f.

Heitler, like Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, also invoked the Platonic theory of ideas. Particularly in his work Die Natur und das Göttliche (Nature and the Divine), he also addressed a broad readership. From his Christian conviction, it was a central concern of his to uncover relationships between the physical world of experience and the metaphysical world of revelation on the basis of texts from the Old and New Testaments. From his point of view natural science is spiritual science.

„Three things belong together: nature, which we observe with our senses, the world of transcendence, which is the home of the spiritual archetypes by which nature is interwoven, and the human spirit, which has access to this world of transcendence and gradually gains knowledge of its content.

We now come to a central question. The world of transcendence obviously possesses contents of no small intelligence. Even in the field of mathematics and physics, we will be far from being able to claim that we already know the full measure of this intelligence and have made it accessible to us. When we shall speak of biological facts and processes in the next chapter, we shall get an inkling of how much deeper our intellect is, even at its best, than the "intelligence", or rather wisdom, that is present in the structure of living organisms. One will hardly be able to avoid the question where this wisdom or intelligence comes from. Has it simply existed from eternity? Or who devised these laws? Our biological knowledge points to evolution. Should it be different with physics, should its laws have applied since eternity? We will see that this is hardly conceivable, that these laws also came into being once. Many researchers, especially in past decades and centuries, have spoken of a divine creation as a matter of course. The world of transcendence that we recognise is the creation of an infinitely superior divine spirit. The primordial ground from which all being flowed is the spirit which we call God because of its inconceivable greatness.“

Walter Heitler: Die Natur und das Göttliche, p. 39f

The moderate realism of ideas advocated by Thomas Aquinas clearly resonates here. Thomas had distinguished between universals that are formed in divine reason and exist before the individual things (universalia ante rem), universals that exist as generalities in the individual things themselves (universalia in re) and universals that exist as concepts in the mind of man, that is, after the things (universalia post rem).

One must be able to confront the idea experientially

Reality cannot be grasped with abstract ideas. Living ideas arise from a concrete artistic-creative design process. If one confronts them experientially and grasps them in their inexhaustible creative capacity, full human freedom is preserved in thinking, whereas dead ideas act with compelling necessity.

„All real philosophers were conceptual artists. For them, human ideas became the material of art and the scientific method became the artistic technique. Abstract thought thus gains concrete, individual life. The ideas become life powers. We then have not merely a knowledge of things, but we have made knowledge a real, self-controlling organism; our real, active consciousness has taken precedence over a mere passive reception of truths.

How philosophy as an art relates to human freedom, what the latter is, and whether we are or can become partakers of it: this is the main question of my writing. All other scientific explanations are only given here because they finally provide clarification on those questions which, in my opinion, are closest to human beings. A "philosophy of freedom" is to be given in these sheets.

All science would only be the satisfaction of idle curiosity if it did not strive to increase the value of the human personality. The true value of science comes only from a presentation of the human significance of its results. The final aim of the individual cannot be the ennoblement of a single soul faculty, but the development of all the faculties slumbering within us. Knowledge has value only in that it contributes to the all-round development of the whole human nature.

This writing therefore does not understand the relationship between science and life in such a way that man must bow to the idea and consecrate his powers to its service, but in the sense that he seizes the world of ideas in order to use them for his human goals, which go beyond the merely scientific.

One must be able to confront the idea experientially; otherwise one falls under its bondage.“ (Lit.:GA 4, p. 270f)

„Ideas are not only a blessing, they can also be a great danger to human development. They have the tendency to lull the human spirit to sleep. The deceptive thing is that man thinks that by following certain ideas he is acting independently, although he has long since subordinated himself to them and sacrificed his freedom to them. In this way, however, the ideas turn into a lie. Every idea becomes a lie when the one who represents it subordinates himself to it. It is not man who determines more, but an idea, a field of thought that does not originate from him and which he only reproduces. In doing so, however, he sacrifices to the idea precisely what is most sacred: his creative potential. In the face of every idea, no matter how true and convincing it may be, he must preserve his autonomy. Especially today, when ideas have a very dominant, almost magical effect on humanity, it is crucial that the individual remains creative towards ideas. It is indispensable that he constantly produces and examines anew the ideas that are to be decisive for him. If this is neglected, every truth turns unnoticed into a lie. One can indeed assume that ideas have the tendency to take over man and rob him of his autonomy; they are therefore very unpleasant opponents for him, because their power often makes itself felt only insidiously. They have the advantage of exchange on their side, because a mysterious desire for identification emanates from them, with which they capture and convince the individual all too quickly. Even the most noble and virtuous ideas are not immune to developing a poison that so beguiles the individual that he becomes one with them and abandons his critical faculties, his healthy obstinacy. He becomes a follower of an idea, his thinking freezes, becomes one-sided and intolerant.“ (Lit.:p. 89f.pdf GA Massei, p. 89f)

The ideas as primordial causes

In the 9th century, John Scotus Eriugena interpreted the Platonic theory of ideas in the Christian sense in such a way that the Father created the ideas as primordial images in and through the Son and distributes and multiplies them through the Holy Spirit:

„The primordial causes, as I have said before, are called ideas among the Greeks, and by them are understood the eternal kinds and forms and unchangeable reasons according to which and in which the visible and invisible world is formed. For this reason they deserve to be called archetypes by the Greek sages, which the Father created in the Son and distributed into their effects by the Holy Spirit. They are also called predeterminations, inasmuch as in them is predestined at once and unchangeably what happens and has happened and will happen through divine wisdom. For nothing in the visible and invisible creature comes into being naturally except what is determined and ordered in it in advance and before time. They are also called divine determinations of will, because God did everything he wanted to do in them in the beginning and causally, and also everything that is still to come has happened in them from eternity. Therefore they are called the beginnings of everything, because everything that is perceived or thought in the visible or invisible creature exists through participation in them. But they themselves are participations in the One All-Cause, the supreme and holy Trinity, and are therefore considered to be such as are by themselves, because between them and the One All-Cause there is no creature in the middle.“

John Scotus Eriugena: On the Division of Nature[5]


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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  1. vgl. z.B. Pierre Chantraine: Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque. Histoire des mots, Paris 2009, S. 438;
  2. Hjalmar Frisk: Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, Band 1, Heidelberg 1960, S. 708.
  3. Goethe-BA Bd. 18, S. 642
  4. Goethe-BA Bd. 18, S. 528
  5. Translated from: Johannes Scotus Erigena, Ludwig Noack (translator): Über die Eintheilung der Natur, Verlag von L. Heimann, Berlin 1870, Erste Abtheilung, p. 240