Sensual world

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The sensual world, also called sensory world or sense world, comprises for man all that which he can in principle perceive through their physical sensory organs. These are, in the broadest sense, the objects of the physical world. The terms sensual world and physical world are often used synonymously, but they differ for a more detailed consideration in that physical refers to everything that is subject to physical laws, while sensual refers to everything that can be perceived through the senses. In the first case, the accent is on a conceptual factor, namely physical regularity, in the second case, however, on direct perception.

In his theory of the senses, Rudolf Steiner pointed out that one cannot stop at the five sense organs usually mentioned, but that the human being has a total of 12 physical senses. Accordingly, the sensual world encompasses everything that can be perceived through these 12 senses.

However, the fact that the human being has corresponding physical sense organs is not yet sufficient to be able to consciously perceive the sensual world. He must also have developed a corresponding awareness of objects, which only gradually develops as the human being grows up. The sensory organs of a newborn child are already largely formed, but not its object consciousness; it is therefore initially hardly able to perceive anything of the sensual world. Its sensory horizon expands only gradually and reaches quite different degrees of alertness in different people.

The sensual world appears like a narrow band or a plane that separates the super-sensible world from the sub-sensible world. The super-sensible and the sub-sensible world are fundamentally of the same origin and nature, in both of which astral and actually spiritual realms can be distinguished, only the sub-sensible world is in a certain sense corrupted by the fact that it is under the influence of the adversary powers.

„When you look out into the vastness of the cosmos and you see, I would say, the ensemble of stars; what is this sight? Why do we have this sight? - We have this special sight, the sight of the Milky Way, the sight of the otherwise starry sky, for the reason that it is the revelation of the Luciferic nature of the world. What surrounds us in a certain luminous, radiant way is the revelation of the Luciferic essence of the world; it is that which is now as it is because it has remained behind on an earlier stage of its existence. And when we go over the Earth, the rigid Earth, then this rigid Earth has its rigidity, its hardness, for the reason that in it, as it were, are clustered together the Ahrimanic entities, those entities which should actually only have that stage, which they now artificially acquire, at a later time of their development.“ (Lit.:GA 203, p. 133)

The fact that man's senses were opened outwards is a consequence of the Luciferic influence and the associated Fall of man. Previously man perceived only the supersensible astral world and even earlier the spiritual world. What we experience today as sense qualities originally came from one of the lower regions of the astral world, namely the region of mobile sensitivity. Through Lucifer, parts of this region of the world were permeated by desires, by antipathy forces that repel much and egoistically want to keep only a few things for themselves. In order for these experiences to be consciously experienced, a dark veil had to spread over the supersensible worlds, obscuring our view into these worlds and at the same time reflecting the Luciferically permeated astral forces back into our consciousness. This dark veil, which is nothing other than matter, the material world, was woven by Ahriman and the Spirits of Darkness. Since then, the sensual world appears to us as a reflection of the sub-sensuous astral world, which is permeated by Lucifer, on the dark sub-sensuous Ahrimanic world. The sensual and the material world are therefore to be clearly distinguished from each other and both are also by no means identical with the actual physical world, in which the physical laws of form prevail, and which in truth can only be perceived supersensually.

„If you want to make clear to yourself what constitutes your physical body, you say: the physical body can be seen. - You cannot see the etheric body because it is one step higher with its substantiality. You cannot see the astral body either, because it is one level higher than the etheric body. But there is not only substantiality above, but also below physical matter, and this again cannot be seen, because of all matter only a middle band is visible, precisely that which makes up physical matter, which is seen with the physical eyes. And just as the substantial continues upwards in the physical basis of the etheric, the astral, so it continues downwards and there again becomes invisible.“ (Lit.:GA 102, p. 169f)

The sensual world as an illusory reality

According to Rudolf Steiner, one of the basic errors of philosophising is to regard the sensual world as a finished reality. This would leave us with a naïve realism. In truth, the world appears to us at first as a mere illusory reality. But this does not mean that reality remains closed to us forever, as transcendental philosophy, following Immanuel Kant, believed. For thinking, which penetrates perceptions with appropriate concepts, reveals their inner laws, without which they could not exist, and thus leads to full reality. Without thinking, perception would remain an incoherent diffuse aggregate of objects of sensation that cannot be grasped any further.

„This is the fundamental error of 19th century philosophising, that the sense world is always simply taken as finished. We have not become aware that man belongs to true reality, that that which arises in man, especially in thought, splits itself off from reality, in that man is born into reality, that reality is at first hidden, so that it confronts us as an illusory reality; and only when we penetrate this illusory reality with that which can come to life in us, do we have the full reality before us. But this would characterise from the outset, philosophically, from the point of view of a certain theory of knowledge, all that which in turn later underlies my Anthroposophy. For it has been attempted from the beginning to prove that the world of the senses is not a reality, but that it is an illusory reality, to which must first be added that which the human being brings to it, that which lights up in his inner being and which he then works out. The whole of Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy basically assumes that we have a finished reality before us and that we can then ask the question: Yes, can we recognise this finished reality or can we not recognise it? - But it is not a finished reality, it is only half a reality, and the whole reality only comes into being when man adds to it and pours into it that which arises in his innermost being.“ (Lit.:GA 255b, p. 41f)

According to Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom, reality is not given to man directly, but flows to him from two sides, namely through observation and thinking. This initially opens up a seemingly unbridgeable gap (→ chorismos) in human consciousness. Only by connecting the two halves, which are always inseparably connected in reality but are initially only given separately to human consciousness, in the act of cognition, i.e. by penetrating perception with the corresponding concept, does man advance to full reality.

„The objectively given does not at all coincide with the sensually given, as the mechanical conception of the world believes. The latter is only half of the given. The other half of it are the ideas, which are also the object of experience, albeit a higher one, whose organ is thought. The ideas, too, are accessible to an inductive method.“ (Lit.:GA 1, p. 126)

„It is not because of the objects that they are first given to us without the corresponding concepts, but because of our mental organisation. Our total beingness functions in such a way that for every thing of reality the elements which come into consideration for the thing flow to it from two sides: from the side of perception and of thought.“ (Lit.:GA 4, p. 90)

„The concept of the tree is conditioned for cognition by the perception of the tree. I can only lift a very definite concept out of the general system of concepts in relation to the definite perception. The connection of concept and perception is determined indirectly and objectively by thinking of perception. The connection of perception with its concept is recognised after the act of perception; but the connection is determined in the thing itself.“ (Lit.:GA 4, p. 145)

The fact that reality is not given to man directly, but initially only in the form of two unreal halves, which he must actively connect, establishes the possibility of his freedom.

Our everyday reality

In the case of things we are familiar with from everyday life, perception and concept flow together so naturally and quickly into a ready-made imagining that we do not even become aware of this process. The corresponding concept has long been pre-formed in us and does not have to be painstakingly brought to perception. Such terms are indispensable for quick, routine orientation in everyday life. However, today, when we are shaped by a strongly materialistic way of thinking, they usually refer only to the purely objective spatial-material existence. In this way, we immediately recognise a certain group of sensual perceptions as an oak tree, a beech tree, a rock-crystal, a lion, and so on. These "things" appear to us in this way quite immediately as given objective material reality and we believe their whole essence to be exhausted therein. But this is not the case. Their real, deeper essence is only revealed when we succeed in breaking through this "automatic cognition". For this, on the one hand, perception must be freed from the conceptual elements and purified into a perception that is as pure as possible, and on the other hand, the concept must be deepened spiritually, which is only possible through appropriate spiritual training.


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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