The thought initially appears as the more or less solidified, dead product of living thinking, whereby a clear distinction must be made between the subjective form of its appearance in consciousness, for example as an idea, and its objective content. Mentally, thoughts are mostly experienced through image and/or word conceptions. In terms of content, they consist of concepts or ordered conceptual connections. Complex thoughts that are not formed step by step through discursive thinking, but arise intuitively in our consciousness, are called ideas.
It is through thoughts that we become aware of thinking in the first place, because we do not normally observe the living thinking process, at least not in its full depth, but only the products it produces, namely thoughts. However, the observation of thinking is possible for every thinking person with the appropriate training of attention. If this succeeds, the act of thinking itself becomes a component of the experience of thought.
Mere having of thoughts, i.e. the presence of finished thoughts in consciousness, which are called up from memory as the result of earlier thinking without actively experienced insight, or which have been acquired more or less passively as knowledge without one's own deeper insight in reliance on an authority, or which consist only in factually largely unrelated associations of thoughts, is not yet thinking, but a mere perception of the thoughts passing through consciousness. Real thinking must be produced by one's own effort, i.e. by an activity of the will, and must progress self-actively to the immediate clear insight into the present ideal connections.
The thought formation process
Thoughts are reflections of a supersensible. Today, their carrier is the etheric body and their mirroring apparatus is the physical body, which, however, only pictures the living thoughts in a pale dead form shadow-like in our consciousness.
„The etheric body is the carrier of thoughts, which are also reflections. People could easily come to the conclusion that thoughts are reflections of a supersensible. Thoughts will never be able to be prepared under a microscope. Thoughts live in truth in the etheric body. They are formed by thought, and this is reflected in the physical body. From this we can see that cognition, knowledge, depends on the physical body and the etheric body. Only the impressions of the physical plan speak to the physical and etheric body. Other ideas, however, must find a place in the human soul. They must also take hold of the astral body, the whole feeling and willing and the thinking, which is not only exhausted on the physical plane. Otherwise the human being remains inwardly dead. All ideas that depict something only have meaning for the physical plane. The very question: Is an idea justified that does not represent something? - says this. But the ideas that live freely in the spirit, that live freely in the astral body and in the ego, with them one not only recognises, but lives with them. These are ideas that not only represent something, but are inwardly active, alive, that make something of themselves and of us.“ (Lit.:GA 154, p. 131f)
According to their true origin, thoughts are reflections of the spiritual, i.e. of the actual spiritual world, the devachan.
„Now, in the spirit as man has it today, thoughts live, the thoughts as I present them, for instance, in my "Philosophy of Freedom", where they are not saturated with sensory perceptions, but are freely created, pure thoughts in human consciousness. There the thoughts, according to their quality, are at first only an appearance, they are so little a full reality that they do not have an inner power. Because we do not have the mirror image, we can compare them, not entirely, but in a certain sense nevertheless, with mirror images. The image that appears in the mirror does not have force in the direction of its lines; it is entirely passive. Human thoughts have force in their unfolding, so that we can also catch this force, as I said yesterday in the esoteric lesson, and make it permeate the will. But in relation to the universe in its full being, these thoughts which man has in life actually behave like mirror images, so that we already carry the spirit in the human being, but the spirit in the mirror image.
Now, my dear friends, what we carry within us comes from the world which I have described in my "Theosophy" as spirit-land, and we actually, by thinking on earth, bring down to earth the ingredients of spirit-land in appearance, in reflection. We carry what Theosophy calls the Devachan down into the earth realm by thinking, even if it is a faint reflection. We carry these contents in us on earth, in a faint reflection the glow of heaven.“ (Lit.:GA 346, p. 199)
The experience of thoughts has changed greatly in the course of human development. Originally, thoughts were experienced directly in the I. Man felt himself carried by a world of spiritual beings. Later, their spiritual revelation was experienced in the astral body. In the heyday of Greco-Latin culture, it was still possible to experience living thoughts. Only with the dawn of the consciousness-soul age did they take on the shadowy form that we consider the only possible form today. Today it is Michael's mission to revive the shadows of thought, but in such a way that the full freedom of man is preserved.
„Today man feels that ideas are formed in him through the activity of his soul. He has the feeling that he is the formator of ideas, while only the perceptions from outside reach him. Man did not always have this feeling. In older times, he felt that the content of ideas was not something he had made himself, but something he had received through inspiration from the supersensible world.
This feeling went through stages. And the stages depended on the part of the human being's being with which he experienced what he now calls his ideas. Today, in the age of the development of the consciousness soul, what is written in the preceding guidelines applies unreservedly: "Thoughts have their actual seat in the etheric body of man. But there they are essentially living forces. They imprint themselves on the physical body. And as such 'imprinted thoughts' they have the shadowy nature in which ordinary consciousness knows them." We can now go back to times when thoughts were experienced directly in the "I". But then they were not shadowy as they are today; they were not merely living; they were animated and spiritualised. This means, however, that man did not think thoughts, but experienced the perception of concrete spiritual entities [...]
Man is spirit. And his world is that of spirits. The next stage is the one where thought is no longer experienced by the "I" but by the astral body. There the immediate spirituality is lost to the soul's sight. The mental appears as an animate living thing [...]
There the concrete spiritual beings conceal themselves; their reflection, as animate life, appears. One begins to bring the "life of nature" to this "life of the souls". One looks for the effective spiritual beings and their deeds in the natural beings and natural processes. In what later appeared as the alchemical search, the historical precipitation of this stage of consciousness can be seen [...]
A third epoch of the development of consciousness brings thoughts to consciousness, but as living thoughts, in the etheric body.
When Greek civilisation was great, it lived in this consciousness. When the Greek thought, he did not form a thought through which he looked at the world as with his own construction; but he felt life excited within him, which also pulsated outside in things and processes.
There arose for the first time the longing for freedom of one's own actions. Not yet real freedom, but the longing for it [...]
Only when the thoughts took on their imprint in the physical body and consciousness extended only to this imprint, did the possibility of freedom arise. This is the condition which is given with the fifteenth century after Christ [...]
When thoughts seized the physical body, spirit, soul, life had been eradicated from their immediate content; and the abstract shadow clinging to the physical body remained alone. Such thoughts can only make physical-material things the object of their cognition. For they are themselves only real in the physical-material body of man.
Materialism did not arise because only material beings and processes could be perceived in outer nature, but because man had to pass through a stage in his development which led him to a consciousness which at first was only capable of beholding material revelations. The one-sided shaping of this human need for development resulted in the view of nature of modern times.
Michael's mission is to bring into the human etheric body the forces by which the thought-shadows gain life again; then souls and spirits of the supersensible worlds will incline to the animated thoughts; the liberated human being will be able to live with them as formerly the human being lived with them, who was only the physical image of their working.“ (Lit.:GA 26, p. 76ff)
The thought content of the world
Through our thinking we bring to appearance in our consciousness the thoughts which, according to their reality, belong to the world of which we ourselves are also a part.
„The materialist does not admit that the thoughts which we form in nature are previously contained in it. He believes that we put them into it.
The Rosicrucians of the Middle Ages placed a glass of water in front of the neophyte and said to him: In order for this water to be in the glass, someone must have put it in. It is the same with the ideas that we find in nature. They must have been put there by the divine spirits, the helpers of the Logos.
The thoughts we draw from the world are in truth found in it. Everything we create is necessarily included in it.“ (Lit.:GA 94, p. 34)
Thoughts are spread throughout the world, they are the forces at work in things. But they do not float about freely in the world, but are carried or streamed out by spiritual beings.
„It is a prejudice of the present so-called enlightened humanity that its thoughts are only in the mind. We would not know anything about things through thoughts if these thoughts were only in people's heads. The person who believes that thoughts are only in people's heads is subject to the same prejudice, paradoxical as it may sound, as the person who believes that the sip of water with which he quenches his thirst originated on his tongue and did not flow from the water jug into his mouth. Basically, it is just as ridiculous to claim that thoughts originate in the human head as it is to say - when I quench my thirst with a drink of water that I have in my jug - that the water originated in my mouth. Thoughts are indeed spread out in the world. Thoughts are the forces that are at work in things. And our organ of thought is only something that draws from the cosmic reservoir of thought forces, that takes the thoughts into itself. So we must not speak of thoughts as if they were something that belongs only to man. We must speak of thoughts in such a way that we are conscious of them: Thoughts are the world-dominating forces that are spread everywhere in the cosmos. But these thoughts do not therefore fly about freely, but are always carried, worked on by some beings. And, what is most important, they are not always carried by the same beings.“ (Lit.:GA 222, p. 45f)
Until about the 4th century A.D., the Exusiai, the spirits of form, called Elohim in Genesis, were the bearers of cosmic intelligence. Then this task passed to the Archai, the spirits of personality. This process of handing over began in pre-Christian times and was not completed until the 14th century. As a result, man's access to the world of thought also became different. Whereas in former times thoughts were received from the outside like sensory perceptions, they now appeared more and more within and thus increasingly came into the possession of the personality. (Lit.:GA 222, p. 46ff)
The cosmic origin of thoughts
„Man is built according to the thoughts of the cosmos. The cosmos is the great thinker who engraves our form in us to the last fingernail in the same way as our little thought-work makes the little engravings in the brain during everyday life. Just as our brain - that is, only in relation to the small parts where engravings can happen - is under the influence of thought-work, so our whole human being is under the influence of cosmic thought-work [...]
We are thought out of the cosmos. The cosmos thinks us. And just as we make little engravings in our brain in our little everyday thought-work, and then the ideas of lion, dog, table, rose, book, up, down, left, right, come to our consciousness as the reflections of what we prepare beforehand in the brain - that is, In the same way that we finally perceive lion, dog, table, rose, book, up, down, write, read, through the processing of the brain, the beings of the world hierarchies work in such a way that they carry out the great activity of thinking, which engraves something more significant in the world than we do with our everyday activity of thinking. Thus it comes about that not only the small tiny engravings arise which are then reflected individually as our thoughts, but that it is we ourselves in our whole being which again appears to the beings of the higher hierarchies as their thoughts. Just as our little brain processes mirror our little thoughts, so we, by being engraved in the world, mirror the thoughts of the cosmos. By thinking, the hierarchies of the cosmos think us human beings, for example. As from our little brain particles come our little thoughts, so from what the hierarchies do and to which we ourselves belong come their thoughts. Just as the parts of our brain are for us the reflecting apparatuses which we first process for our thoughts, so we, we little beings, are that which the hierarchies of the cosmos prepare for their thoughts [...]
Thus we find the connection between the human and the cosmic thought. The human thought is the ruler of the brain; the cosmic thought is such a ruler that we ourselves belong with our whole being to what it has to carry out. Only we must be built up according to its logic, because, by virtue of our karma, it cannot always turn all its thoughts upon us in the same way. Thus we human beings have a logic according to which we think, and thus the spiritual hierarchies of the cosmos also have their logic. And their logic consists in what we have recorded as a scheme (page 69). Just as, for example, when we think "the lion is a mammal", we bring two concepts together to form a judgement, so the spiritual hierarchies of the cosmos think two things together, mysticism and idealism: let mysticism appear in idealism. Think of this first as the preparatory activity of the cosmos: let mysticism appear in idealism - this is how the creative "fiat", the creative word, sounds. For the beings of the spiritual Hierarchies, the preparatory act consists in seizing a human being whose karma corresponds to the formation in him of the disposition to become a mystical idealist. Radiated back into the Hierarchies of the Cosmos, what we would call a thought for us is for them the expression of a human being who is a mystical idealist, who is their thought after they have prepared the cosmic judgement: Let mysticism appear in idealism! [...]
Thus speaks the sum of the spiritual hierarchies in the cosmos. And our human thought activity is an image, a small image of it. Worlds relate to the spirit or spirits of the cosmos as our brain relates to our soul. Thus we can look into what we should, however, only look at with a certain awe, with a holy timidity. For we stand, as it were, with such a thing before the mysteries of human individualities. We learn to understand that - if I may express myself figuratively - the eyes of the beings of the higher Hierarchies wander over the individualities of men and that the individualities are to them what the individual letters of a book in which we read are to us. That is what we may only look at with a holy timidity. We eavesdrop on the thought activity of the cosmos.“ (Lit.:GA 151, p. 76ff)
One obstacle to recognising the cosmic origin of thoughts is the opinion, still dogmatically held today in neuroscience, that thoughts are a product of the brain and that this centrally controls the human will movements. Connected with this is the doctrine of motor neurons, which Rudolf Steiner fiercely fought against. In fact, there were basically only sensory neurons - the so-called motor neurons were in fact also sensory and served exclusively to perceive one's own movement.
„The world is an infinite, qualitatively and quantitatively. And it will be a blessing if individual souls can be found who want to see clearly precisely with regard to what is so terribly occurring in our time in the form of overbearing one-sidedness that wants to be a whole. I would like to say it with a bleeding heart: The greatest obstacle to a realisation of the fact how a preparatory work of the thinking activity is practised in the brain, how the brain is thereby made a mirror and reflects back the life of the soul - a fact, the realisation of which could throw infinite light on many other physiological realisations -, the greatest obstacle to the realisation of this fact is the physiology of the present day, which has gone mad and speaks of two kinds of nerves, of the motor and the sensitive nerves. I have already touched on this matter in some lectures. In order to bring forth this doctrine, which haunts physiology everywhere, physiology really had to lose all sense beforehand. Nevertheless, it is now an accepted doctrine throughout the earth, and it stands in the way of all true knowledge of the nature of thought and the nature of the soul. Human thought can never be known if physiology forms such an obstacle to the knowledge of thought. But we have come so far that a groundless physiology today opens up every textbook of psychology, of the study of the soul, and makes it dependent upon itself. At the same time, this blocks the way to the knowledge of cosmic thought.
One only learns to recognise what thought is in the cosmos when one feels what thought is in man, when one feels oneself in the truth of this thought, which as thought has nothing to do with the brain except that it is itself the master of this brain. But when one has recognised the thought in its essence in oneself as a human thought, then one already feels oneself with this thought in the cosmic within, and our knowledge of the true nature of the human thought expands also to the knowledge of the true nature of the cosmic thought. If we learn to recognise correctly how we think, then we also learn to recognise how we are thought by the powers of the cosmos. Yes, we even gain the possibility of glimpsing into the logic of the hierarchies. The individual components of the judgements of the hierarchies, the concepts of the hierarchies, I have written them down for you. In the twelve spiritual zodiacal signs, in the seven world-view moods and so on lie the concepts of the hierarchies. And what human beings are, are judgments of the cosmos that arise from these concepts. Thus we feel ourselves embedded in the logic of the cosmos, that is, realistically conceived, in the logic of the hierarchies of the cosmos within it, feel ourselves as souls embedded in cosmic thoughts, just as we feel the little thought we think embedded in our soul life.
Meditate once on the idea: I think my thoughts. - And I am a thought thought by the hierarchies of the cosmos. My eternal consists in the fact that the thinking of the hierarchies is an eternal. And once I am thought out by one category of the hierarchies, then I am handed over - as the thought of man is handed over from teacher to pupil - from one category to another, so that the latter may continue to think me in my eternal, true being. Thus I feel myself within the thought-world of the cosmos.“ (Lit.:GA 151, p. 82ff)
- Rudolf Steiner: Theosophie. Einführung in übersinnliche Welterkenntnis und Menschenbestimmung , GA 9 (2003), ISBN 3-7274-0090-0 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Vier Mysteriendramen, GA 14 (1998), ISBN 3-7274-0140-0 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Die Rätsel der Philosophie in ihrer Geschichte als Umriß dargestellt, GA 18 (1985), ISBN 3-7274-0180-X English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Anthroposophische Leitsätze, GA 26 (1998), ISBN 3-7274-0260-1 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Die Tempellegende und die Goldene Legende , GA 93 (1991), ISBN 3-7274-0930-4 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Kosmogonie, GA 94 (2001), ISBN 3-7274-0940-1 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Das Lukas-Evangelium, GA 114 (2001), ISBN 3-7274-1140-6 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Die Geheimnisse der Schwelle, GA 147 (1997), ISBN 3-7274-1470-7 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Der menschliche und der kosmische Gedanke, GA 151 (1990), ISBN 3-7274-1510-X English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Wie erwirbt man sich Verständnis für die geistige Welt?, GA 154 (1985), ISBN 3-7274-1540-1 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Menschenschicksale und Völkerschicksale, GA 157 (1981), ISBN 3-7274-1571-1 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Wege der geistigen Erkenntnis und der Erneuerung künstlerischer Weltanschauung, GA 161 (1999), ISBN 3-7274-1610-6 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Innere Entwicklungsimpulse der Menschheit. Goethe und die Krisis des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, GA 171 (1984), ISBN 3-7274-1710-2 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Die geistigen Hintergründe des Ersten Weltkrieges, GA 174b (1994), ISBN 3-7274-1742-0 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Die spirituellen Hintergründe der äußeren Welt. Der Sturz der Geister der Finsternis, GA 177 (1999), ISBN 3-7274-1771-4 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Erdensterben und Weltenleben. Anthroposophische Lebensgaben. Bewußtseins-Notwendigkeiten für Gegenwart und Zukunft, GA 181 (1991), ISBN 3-7274-1810-9 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Die Brücke zwischen der Weltgeistigkeit und dem Physische des Menschen, GA 202 (1993), ISBN 3-7274-2020-0 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Das Sonnenmysterium und das Mysterium von Tod und Auferstehung, GA 211 (1986), ISBN 3-7274-2110-X English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Das Verhältnis der Sternenwelt zum Menschen und des Menschen zur Sternenwelt. Die geistige Kommunion der Menschheit., GA 219 (1994), ISBN 3-7274-2190-8 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Die menschliche Seele in ihrem Zusammenhang mit göttlich-geistigen Individualitäten. Die Verinnerlichung der Jahresfeste., GA 224 (1992), ISBN 3-7274-2240-8 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Der Mensch als Zusammenklang des schaffenden, bildenden und gestaltenden Weltenwortes, GA 230 (1993), ISBN 3-7274-2300-5 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Aus den Inhalten der esoterischen Stunden, Band II: 1910 – 1912, GA 266/2 (1996), ISBN 3-7274-2662-4 English: rsarchive.org German: pdf pdf(2) html mobi epub archive.org
- Rudolf Steiner: Vorträge und Kurse über christlich-religiöses Wirken, V, GA 346 (2001), ISBN 3-7274-3460-0 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).
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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.