Observation is, as Rudolf Steiner explains in «Truth and Knowledge», the confrontation of thinking with the given (Lit.:GA 3, p. 67), which appears through (sensory or supersensory) perception. So observation is based on purposeful, attentive and thus already thought-guided perception and as such forms the solid empirical foundation of scientific knowledge. No science can be founded on random, haphazard and disordered perceptions. Conceptually, observed properties are captured by observational concepts.
Perception and sensation
Rudolf Steiner refers here to scientific observation in the broadest sense, which he very clearly distinguishes elsewhere from pure, i.e. thoughtless, observation:
„We must imagine that a being with perfectly developed human intelligence emerges from nothing and confronts the world. What it would become aware of there, before it brings thinking into activity, is the pure content of observation. The world then showed this being only the mere incoherent aggregate of objects of sensation: Colours, sounds, sensations of pressure, warmth, taste and smell; then feelings of pleasure and displeasure. This aggregate is the content of pure, thoughtless observation. Opposite it is thought, which is ready to unfold its activity when a point of attack for it is found.“ (Lit.:GA 4, p. 62)
It should be noted, however, that perception is first given to consciousness as a coherent whole; it must first be dissected in order to arrive at the individual sensations:
„When we face an object, what happens first is the sensation. We notice a colour, a taste or an odour, and this state of affairs, which takes place between man and object, must first be regarded as characterised by sensation. What lies in the statement: Something is warm, cold and so on, is a sensation. But we do not actually have this pure sensation in ordinary life. We not only feel the red colour of a red rose, but when we interact with the objects, we always have a group of sensations. We call the combination of the sensations "red, fragrance, extension, form" "rose". We do not actually have individual sensations, but only groups of sensations. Such a group can be called a "perception".
In formal logic, a sharp distinction must be made between perception and sensation. Perception and sensation are quite different things. Perception is the first thing that confronts us; it must first be dissected in order to have a sensation.“ (Lit.:GA 108, p. 198f)
Knowledge and understanding
Thorough observation, as comprehensive as possible, leads to an exact knowledge of the sensually or supersensually perceptible phenomena in a certain area of reality, but does not reveal their initially still distorted inner lawful connection, and is therefore not yet cognition in the strictly scientific sense. It only reveals itself in the subsequent, more profound thinking.
Observation and thinking
Observation and thinking are the two starting points of all human striving for knowledge, as Rudolf Steiner has explained in detail in his Philosophy of Freedom. Through observation, the world is given to us as perception. But this only gives us one half of reality. We only reach the full reality by thinking through the perception with the corresponding concept. In the concept, the underlying regularity of the field of perception is revealed. In reality itself, perception and concept are directly connected with each other; it is only due to the mental organisation of the human being that they initially appear to be separate to him and that he must first actively connect them with each other in order to come to the full realisation of reality. Precisely through this, however, man is actively involved in world events in the act of cognition.
„Now as far as observation is concerned, it is in our organisation that we need it. Our thinking about a horse and the object horse are two things that occur separately for us. And this object is accessible to us only through observation. As little as we can form a concept of a horse by merely staring at it, so little are we able to produce a corresponding object by mere thinking.“ (Lit.:GA 4, p. 39)
Man's ability to observe is not limited to sensory perception, but also includes mental and spiritual perceptions.
The only thing we do not normally observe is our own thinking. We do produce it by conceptually penetrating the perceptual world, but thinking itself escapes our attention. However, it is precisely the observation of thinking that is the central starting point through which we can directly experience ourselves as spiritual beings.
- Rudolf Steiner: Wahrheit und Wissenschaft, GA 3 (1980) English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Die Philosophie der Freiheit, GA 4 (1995) English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Die Beantwortung von Welt- und Lebensfragen durch Anthroposophie, GA 108 (1986), ISBN 3-7274-1081-7 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
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
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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
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.