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Senses serve the perception of the sensual world by means of suitable physical sense organs and are therefore also called organs of perception. Rudolf Steiner distinguishes between twelve senses of man which, as sense organisation, enable him to sensory perception. According to Steiner, the awake-conscious sensory perceptive faculty only began to develop gradually at the end of the Atlantean period and even today sensory perception, insofar as it is not permeated by clear thinking, has a largely only dream-conscious character. Before that, humanity had a natural, dream-like clairvoyant consciousness, of which the very last remnants have survived into our present consciousness soul age.

What is a sense?

The senses do not deceive, judgement does.

Goethe: Maximen und Reflexionen[1]
A possible assignment of the 12 senses to the signs of the zodiac according to a notebook recording of Rudolf Steiner's lectures "Anthroposophy as Cosmosophy" Volume II (Lit.:GA 208) from 1921 Beiträge (Contributions) 058-059, S. 26. The order of the senses, beginning with the sense of touch and ending with the sense of I, does not follow the circle but a lemniscate corresponding to the inversion from the inner (sense of touch to sense of taste) to the outer senses (sense of sight to sense of I).

„In anthroposophical illumination, everything may be called a human sense which causes man to recognise the existence of an object, being or process in such a way that he is entitled to transpose this existence into the physical world.“ (Lit.:GA 45, p. 31)

Whereby a sense is quite generally something "... where a cognition comes about without the cooperation of the intellect, the memory, etc." (Lit.:GA 45, p. 35)

Judgment is eliminated in the pure experience of sense:

„Sense is that by means of which we acquire knowledge without the cooperation of the intellect.“ (Lit.:GA 115, p. 31)

„You must be clear about the fact that there is something unconscious - at least subconscious - in sense. If that which is unconscious in sense perception were to be made conscious, it would no longer be a sense, not a sense perception, but one would have to speak of a judgement, a concept formation and the like.“ (S. 50)

„The other thing that belongs to the life of the soul, judgement, is switched off precisely in the immediate experience of sense. There the desire, the surrender and exposure of the soul to external impressions alone asserts itself. A sense-impression is characterised precisely by the fact that the attention is so directed to it that judgement as such is eliminated. When the soul exposes itself to red or to any sound, only desire lives in this exposure, and the other soul activity, judgement, is in this case switched off, suppressed.“ (S. 160)

That there are beings capable of sensory perception is already a clear indication of the existence of a supersensible world. A notebook entry by Rudolf Steiner (Notebook 210/17) states:

„Sense can only give a section of the world; for in this world must lie the reason for its own lawfulness: these reasons it can no longer give. - The fact that organisms are incorporated into the world, which perceive this world, indicates a supersensible world. A sense organ which perceived not merely its object but itself would give an image of this supersensible world.“ (Lit.: Contributions 34, p. 24)

Goethe was of the opinion that the whole of nature expresses itself through each sense undivided, but in each case in a special way, which is why he already writes in the preface to his Theory of Colours with regard to the sense of sight:

„The colours are deeds of light, deeds and sufferings. In this sense, we can expect information about light from them. Colours and light stand in the most exact relation to each other, but we must think of both as belonging to the whole of nature: for it is nature in its entirety that thereby wishes to reveal itself especially to the sense of the eye.

In the same way, the whole of nature reveals itself to another sense. Close the eye, open it, sharpen the ear, and from the softest breath to the wildest noise, from the simplest sound to the highest harmony, from the fiercest passionate cry to the gentlest word of reason, it is only nature that speaks, reveals its existence, its power, its life and its relations, so that a blind man, to whom the infinitely visible is denied, can grasp in the audible an infinitely living thing.“

Goethe: On the Theory of Colours, Preface

The teaching on the senses is one of the most essential core pieces of the anthroposophical study of man and a result of Rudolf Steiner's spiritual-scientific investigations over many years (Lit.: GA 93a, p. 67ff, GA 45, p. 31ff). Steiner gradually modified and refined the theory of the senses, extending the circle of the known five senses, first by two senses yet to be developed, to seven, then to ten and finally to twelve.

The head with its twelve pairs of cranial nerves, which is a metamorphosis of the twelve-membered body of the previous incarnation, forms the actual sensory centre of the human being today, although some sense organs are also spread over larger areas of the body or even over the whole body.

How external perception comes about

Main article: Perception

Man is inside the things and beings he perceives with his spiritual-soul, i.e. with his I and his astral body. He only becomes aware of these experiences, however, because they are reflected back to the sense organs of the physical body.

„How does external perception actually come about? Well, isn't it true that people usually think - especially people who think they are very clever - that external perception comes about because things are outside, the human being is in his skin, that external things make an impression on him, and that his brain thereby creates an image of the external objects and forms inside him. Well, it is not at all like that, but it is quite different. In truth, man is not at all within his skin [with his spiritual-soul]; he is not that at all. For example, when a person sees this rose bouquet, he is in fact inside the bouquet with his I and astral body, and his organism is a reflecting apparatus and reflects things back to him. In truth, you are always spread out over the horizon that you survey. And in waking consciousness you are also in the physical and etheric body with a substantial part of your I and your astral body. The process is really like this - I have often mentioned this in lectures -: Imagine you are walking around in a room with a number of mirrors on the walls. You can walk around the room. Where you don't have a mirror, you don't see yourself. But as soon as you come to a mirror, you see yourself. If there is a place without a mirror, you do not see yourself, and if there is another mirror, you see yourself again. It is the same with the human organism. It is not the producer of the things we experience in the soul, it is only the mirroring apparatus. The soul is together with the things out there, for example here with this bouquet of roses. The fact that the soul consciously sees the bouquet depends on the fact that the eye, in connection with the brain apparatus, reflects back to the soul what the soul lives with. And at night man does not perceive, because when he sleeps he withdraws the I and the astral body from his physical and etheric body, and these thereby cease to be a reflecting apparatus. Falling asleep is like taking away a mirror that you had before you. As long as you can look into the mirror, you have your own face in front of you; take the mirror away and there is nothing of your face left.

Thus man is indeed with his soul-spiritual being in that part of the world which he overlooks, and he sees it consciously through the reflection of his organism. And at night this mirroring apparatus is drawn away, he sees nothing more. The part of the world that we see is ourselves.

That is one of the worst parts of Maya, that man believes that he is in his own skin with his spiritual-mental being. He does not. In reality, he is in the things he sees. When I face a person, I am inside him with my I and astral body. If I did not hold my organism up to him, I would not see him. That I see him is the fault of my organism, but I am inside him with my I and astral body. That it is not seen in this way is one of the most, I would say, fatal things about Maya.

Thus we obtain a kind of conception of how perception and experience are on the physical plane.“ (Lit.:GA 156, p. 22f)

In the 171st anthroposophical leading thought - written in March 1925 shortly before his death - Rudolf Steiner clearly states that in perception man participates with his spiritual-soul being in what the world experiences in him through his senses. Human perception is thus at the same time and primarily a world process in the form of a self-perception of the world in which man participates.

„171. The human sense organisation does not belong to the human being-ness, but is built into it by the environment during life on earth. The perceiving eye is spatial in the human being, it is essential in the world. And the human being stretches his spiritual being into that which the world experiences in him through his senses. Man does not absorb the physical environment during his life on Earth, but grows with his spiritual-soul being into this environment.“ (Lit.:GA 26, p. 236)

The zodiac and the twelve senses of man

The twelve senses of man were formed by the forces of the zodiac and the spiritual beings connected with them.

„Remember that only recently we spoke of twelve senses, and related these twelve senses which man carries within himself to the twelve forces corresponding to the twelve constellations of the zodiac. We carry, we said, within us microcosmically the macrocosm with its forces working first from the twelve constellations. Each of these forces is different, different are the forces of Aries, different the forces of Taurus, different the forces of Gemini and so on, how different is the perceptive faculty of the eye, different the perceptive faculty of the ear and so on. Twelve senses correspond to the twelve constellations of the zodiac. But they do not merely correspond to them. We know that the basis of the human sense organs was laid on Old Saturn, and that it continued to develop during the Solar and Lunar periods right up to our time on Earth. It was only during our time on earth that man and his senses became such a self-contained being as he appears to us. He was much more open to the great cosmos in earlier times, during the Lunar, Solar and Saturnian periods. During these three periods preceding the time on Earth, the forces of the twelve signs of the zodiac really worked their way into our human being. While our senses were being formed, the forces of the zodiac worked upon them. It is not merely a correspondence, but a search for those forces which our senses have built into us, when we speak of this correspondence of the senses with the zodiacal pictures. We do not speak in a superficial way of any correspondence of the I-sense with Aries and of the other senses with this or that sign of the Zodiac, but speak in this way because during the earlier processes of our Earth planet man's senses were not yet so developed that they sat in his organism and took in the outer world. They were first built into his organism by the twelve forces. We are built up out of the macrocosm, so by studying the human sense organs we are studying world-spanning forces which have worked in us through millions and millions of years, and the results of which are such wonderful parts of the human organism as the eyes or the ears. It is really so that we study the parts for their spiritual content, as if we had to study every brick in a house which we look at for its artistic construction.“ (Lit.:GA 169, p. 144f)

In a lecture given in Berlin in 1916 on the twelve senses of man, Rudolf Steiner describes the basic principle of the anthroposophical sense doctrine thus:

„During our last reflection I referred again on a certain occasion to these lectures on Anthroposophy (Lit.:GA 115), namely to the fact that I emphasised at that time that man actually has twelve senses. And I explained last time that what is spread about the nerve substance of man in connection with his senses is ordered according to the number twelve, because man is in this deepest sense a microcosm and represents the macrocosm. Twelve constellations through which the sun's cycle passes in the year, outside in the macrocosm - twelve senses in which the human I actually lives here on the physical plane! Certainly, things are somewhat different outside, successively in time: the Sun moves from Aries through Taurus and so on back again through Pisces to Aries. But the annual solar cycle passes through these twelve constellations. Everything, including what we carry within us, what we experience in our soul, is in relation to the outer world through our twelve senses. I have listed these twelve senses before: the sense of touch, the sense of life, the sense of movement, the sense of balance, the sense of smell, the sense of taste, the sense of sight, the sense of warmth, the sense of hearing, the sense of speech, the sense of thought, the sense of ego. In the circle of these twelve senses, as it were, our whole soul life moves, just as the Sun moves in the circle of the twelve constellations.“ (Lit.:GA 169, p. 58ff)

The twelve senses of man

Rudolf Steiner distinguishes between twelve senses:

Drawing from GA 206, p. 25
The five senses, painting by Hans Makart from 1872-1879: sense of touch, hearing, sight, smell, taste
Pietro Paolini: Allegory of the Five Senses (about 1630), where each individual represents one of the five senses.

„If we now analyse in reality the cesamt area, the circumference of our outer experiences, which we perceive in a similar way, let us say, like the visual experiences or like the tactile experiences or like the warmth experiences, then we come to twelve senses which can be clearly distinguished from one another, and which I have often enumerated before in the following way: firstly, the sense of ego, which, as I have said, is to be distinguished from the consciousness of one's own ego; by sense of ego is meant nothing other than the ability to perceive the ego of the other. The second is the sense of thought, the third the sense of word, the fourth the sense of hearing, the fifth the sense of warmth, the sixth the sense of sight, the seventh the sense of taste, the eighth the sense of smell, the ninth the sense of balance. Whoever can really analyse in this field knows that there is a quite limited field of perception, just as there is the field of vision, a limited field which simply gives us a feeling that we as human beings are in a certain equilibrium. Without a sense that would convey to us this standing in equilibrium or this floating and dancing in equilibrium, without this we would certainly not be able to build up our consciousness completely. Then the sense of movement is next. The sense of movement is the perception of whether we are at rest or in motion. We must experience this perception in us in exactly the same way as we experience our facial perception. Eleventh, the sense of life, twelfth, the sense of touch (see drawing page 25).“ (Lit.:GA 206, p. 11f)

The twelve senses of man
sense of ego (sense of I) specifically external senses
related to thinking
sense of thought
sense of speech
sense of hearing
sense of warmth external-internal senses
related to feeling
sense of sight
sense of taste
sense of smell
sense of balance specifically internal senses
related to willing
sense of movement
sense of life
sense of touch

The five classical senses

The classical five sensory faculties, which were already described by Aristotle, are:

  1. Seeing (Visual perception)
  2. Hearing (Auditory perception)
  3. Smelling (Olfactory perception)
  4. Tasting (Gustatory Perception)
  5. Touch (Haptic perception)

Corresponding to these are the five tanmatras (Sanskritतन्मात्र) of Samkhya philosophy, which are the basic building blocks of all things insofar as they affect our senses, namely form (rupa)[2], taste (rasa), smell (gandha), touch (sparsha) and sound (shabda). This makes the connection with the region of mobile sensitivity in the astral world clear.

Further senses

However, modern physiology has confirmed that the circle of human senses is not yet exhausted. According to the current state of research, there are four more senses:

Steiner also mentions three further senses which are particularly important in human social life, namely the sense of speech, the sense of thinking and the sense of self, which contemporary physiology does not yet recognise as independent senses.

Division into senses of will, senses of feeling and senses of knowledge

According to their relation to thinking, feeling and willing, the twelve senses are divided into three groups of 4 senses each.

Will senses

„First we have four senses: sense of touch, sense of life, sense of movement, sense of balance. These senses are mainly permeated by will activity. The will has an effect on perception through these senses. Just feel how the will works into the perception of movements, even if you carry out these movements while standing! The dormant will also works into the perception of your balance. It has a very strong effect on the sense of life, and it also has an effect on touch: for when you touch something, it is basically a conflict between your will and the environment. In short, you can say that the sense of balance, the sense of movement, the sense of life and the sense of touch are senses of will in the narrower sense. With the sense of touch, the human being sees externally that, for example, he moves his hand when he touches something: therefore it is obvious to him that this sense is present for him. In the case of the sense of life, the sense of movement and the sense of equilibrium, it is not so obvious that these senses are present. But as they are senses of will in a special sense, man sleeps through these senses, because he sleeps in the will. And in most psychologies you will not find these senses mentioned at all, because in regard to many things science comfortably sleeps along with the sleep of the outer man.“ (Lit.:GA 293, p. 128)

The senses of will are directed entirely towards the interior of the body, the condition of which, however, they perceive quite objectively:

„When we come to the next four senses, the sense of balance, the sense of movement, the sense of life and the sense of touch, we come to the distinctly inner senses. First of all, we have to do with distinctly inner senses. For what the sense of balance conveys to us is our own balance, what the sense of movement conveys to us is the state of movement in which we are. Our state of life is this general perception of how our organs are functioning, whether they are beneficial or detrimental to our life and so on. With the sense of touch it could be deceptive; but nevertheless, if you touch anything, what you have there as an experience is an inner experience. You do not feel the chalk, so to speak, but you feel the skin that has been pushed back, if I may express myself crudely; the process can of course be characterised much more finely. It is the reaction of your own inner being to an external process that is present in the experience, which is not present in any other sensory experience in the same way as in the tactile experience.

Now, however, this latter group of senses is modified by something else. There you must remember something I said here a few weeks ago. Take the human being in relation to what is perceived through these last four senses; they are, in spite of the fact that we perceive things - our own movement, our own equilibrium - , they are, in spite of the fact that we perceive what we perceive in a decidedly subjective way inwardly, nevertheless processes that are quite objective. That is the interesting thing about it. We perceive these things inwardly, but what we perceive there are quite objective things, for it is basically physically indifferent whether, let us say, a block of wood moves or a human being, whether a block of wood is in equilibrium or a human being. For the outer physical world in its movement, the moving human being is to be regarded quite exactly in the same way as a block of wood; likewise with reference to equilibrium. And if you take the sense of life, it is not at first in relation to the outer world - apparently only - but it is so that what our sense of life transmits are quite objective processes. Imagine a process in a retort: it proceeds according to certain laws and can be described objectively. That which the sense of life perceives is such a process, which is situated inwardly. If it is all right, this process, completely as an objective process, then the sense of life transmits this to you, or if it is not all right, then the sense of life also transmits this to you. Even if the process is enclosed in your skin, the sense of life transmits it. After all, an objective process is nothing at all that has any special connection at first with the content of your soul life. And likewise with the sense of touch; it is always a change in the whole organic structure when we really touch. Our reaction is an organic change in our inner being. So in what we have given with these four senses, we have actually given an objective, one that places us as human beings in the world in the way that we are basically objective beings who can also be seen externally in the sense world. So that we can say that they are distinctly inner senses, but that which we perceive through them is in us just as much as that which we perceive externally in the world. Whether we finally set a block of wood in motion or whether the human being is in external motion is not important for the physical progress of events. The sense of movement is only there so that what happens in the outer world also comes to our subjective consciousness, is perceived.

So you see, it is precisely the distinctly external senses that are truly subjective. They must bring what is perceived through them into our humanity in a pronounced sense. I would like to say that a swinging back and forth between the outer and inner world represents the middle group of senses, and a pronounced co-experiencing of something that we are, in that we belong to the world, not to ourselves, is conveyed to us by the last group of senses.“ (Lit.:GA 206, p. 15ff)


Rudolf Steiner
Contributions to Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Blackboard Drawings
Other authors
  • Robert F. Schmidt, Hans-Georg Schaible: Neuro- und Sinnesphysiologie, 5. Auflage, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2006, ISBN 978-3540257004, eBook ISBN 978-3540294917
  • Albert Soesman: Die zwölf Sinne. Tore der Seele. Verlag Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart 1995; 6. überarb. A. 2007, ISBN 978-3-7725-2161-4
  • Karsten Massei: Zwiegespräche mit der Erde: Ein innerer Erfahrungsweg, Futurum Verlag, 2014 ISBN 978-3856362461
  • Johannes Weinzirl (Hrsg.), Peter Heusser (Hrsg.): Bedeutung und Gefährdung der Sinne im digitalen Zeitalter, Wittener Kolloquium für Humanismus, Medizin und Philosophie, Band 5, Königshausen u. Neumann 2017, ISBN 978-3826059919
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.
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.


  • Rudolf Steiner: Man's Twelve Senses in Their Relation to Imagination, Inspiration, Intuition, in Anthroposophical Review Vol 3, #2, 1981(UK) pdf


  1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Maximen und Reflexionen, Werke - Hamburger Ausgabe Bd. 12, 9th ed. Munich: dtv, 1981, p. 408, ISBN 3423590386
  2. This includes above all colour perception; rupa here corresponds to the sense of sight interacting with the eye's own sense of movement, which scans the forms of what is seen.