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Reality (Latin: realitas, from res "thing"; French réalité) is in general usage the term used to describe the totality of object-like, spatially extended being, as René Descartes, for example, understood it under res exentensa. Only that which also exists outside of thought, i.e. which has a real existence in space and time independently of being merely thought, is considered real. The contents of ideas, feelings, desires, perceptions are not initially counted as reality, nor the existence of the spiritual.

By translating the Latin concept into German, Meister Eckhart emphasised more clearly the component of effect that is essential for the correct concept of reality: what is real is what acts, i.e. produces effects. For this, he coined the German term Wirklichkeit (Greekἐνέργεια energeia; Latin: actualitas, realitas; French l'actualité). Actuality is a more accurate translation of the German word "Wirklichkeit", which refers to a spiritual activity and not to an objective reality. All reality is, as it were, only a result of this actuality, its own no longer active, dead, thing-like appearing solidified product. As such, it is only an apparent image of the actuality that produced it, but no longer the actuality itself. As a "thing" that has become passive, inert in the physical sense, it lacks the ability to bring about the future of its own accord, i.e. to actively shape it creatively. What we usually regard as reality is therefore only the visible or measurable effect of the actual, non-thing-like actuality. Therefore Goethe rightly says:

„We become aware of effects, and a complete history of these effects would probably at best encompass the essence of that thing.“ (Lit.: Goethe: Zur Farbenlehre, Preface doc)

God Himself ist pure spirit and as such pure activity, pure actuality. He is "pure act" (actus purus) in the sense of Aristotle's doctrine of act and potency[1].

Appearance and Reality

According to Rudolf Steiner, one of the basic errors of philosophising is to regard the sensory world as a finished reality. A way of thinking, which penetrates the perceptions, which uncovers their form and structure and, with the appropriate conceptualisation, also their inner laws, without which they could not exist, can only lead to a full grasp of 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 world of the senses 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 constitutes the basis of 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 the human being directly, but flows to him from two sides, namely through observation and thinking. As a result, a seemingly unbridgeable gulf (→ chorismos) is initially torn open 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 is 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)

According to Rudolf Steiner, truth is not something ready-made in the world, but something to be created freely and individually by the I-self, which together with the sensuously given world only results in the full reality:

„The result of these investigations is that truth is not, as is usually assumed, the ideal reflection of something real, 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 linked to the general world events.

Without this activity, world events could not be thought of as a self-contained whole. Man is not an idle spectator of the course of the world, repeating in his mind what takes place in the cosmos without his intervention, but the active co-creator of the world process; and cognition is the most perfect link in the organism of the universe“ (Lit.:GA 3, p. 11f)

„It is not because of the objects that they are first given to us without the corresponding concepts, but because of our spirited 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 from the side 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.

The distinction between appearance and reality is particularly difficult when consciousness opens up to the spiritual world.

„Please imagine, my dear friends, that you went through the ordinary sensual life you pass through between birth and death in such a way that you could never really know whether anything that confronts you is truth or illusion. You could not check whether a person who confronts you, who tells you something, is a real person or an illusion. You would not be able to distinguish whether some event you encounter is merely dreamed by you or whether it stands within the factual context of the world. Just think what uncertainty, what terrible uncertainty would enter your life!

But just as you would feel if life deprived you of precise control at every turn as to whether you were dreaming or whether you were facing reality, so it is when the pupil first stands at the gate, at the threshold of the spiritual world. That is the very first significant experience, that when he stands at the threshold of the spiritual world, he notices: beyond this threshold is the spiritual world.

We have seen that at first only darkness flows out of this spiritual world. But that which appears there or thereabouts to surge forth, to shine forth, is in the first experience - into which the Guardian of the Threshold still lets his words sound, as we heard them last time -, in the first experience such that you will never at first be able to distinguish, with all that you have acquired in the physical world, whether you have a real spiritual being, a real spiritual fact, or whether, or not, you have before you a dream-image.

That is the very first experience one has of the spiritual world, that appearance and reality are mixed together and that the distinction between appearance and reality is at first sight quite problematic. This is also something that should be taken into account by those who do not follow a regular course of discipleship, but who experience these or other impressions from the spiritual world through elementary forces that can come from all sorts of things, from upsetting events, from illness and so on. He should not delude himself from the outset: Now you have the spiritual world; for it may very well be that that which flashes out to him here or there from the spiritual world is a mere illusion. Therefore, the first thing one must learn in order to be able to enter the spiritual world in the right way is the ability to distinguish between truth and error, between reality and illusion, independently of everything one experiences in the physical world. One must acquire an entirely new faculty of discernment for reality and illusion.“ (Lit.:GA 270a, p. 59f)

Our everyday reality

In the case of things with which we are well acquainted from everyday life, perception and concept flow together so naturally and quickly 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". To do this, on the one hand, perception must be freed from 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. Reality and actuality

The term reality includes a component of "acting", which as a general process can then also be understood as "becoming". Neither "reality" nor "actuality" can adequately grasp the becoming, because their terminology emphasises what is given. However, processes or movements are also meant when reality is spoken of, or are actually meant.

Spiritual entities as primary reality

All effects ultimately emanate from spiritual entities that live in different states of consciousness. They are the actual reality. In their consciousness lies the source of origin and the actual substance from which reality is woven:

„It is good to note that basically there is nothing else in the universe but consciousnesses. Apart from the consciousness of any beings, everything else ultimately belongs to the realm of the Maja or the great illusion. You can gather this fact from two passages in my writings in particular, and also from others, but especially from two passages: first, from the description of the total evolution of the earth from Saturn to Vulcan in the "Secret Science in Outline", where the progression from Saturn to the sun, from the sun to the moon, from the moon to the earth and so on, is described, at first only in states of consciousness. That is to say, if one wishes to ascend to these great facts, one must ascend so far in world affairs that one has to do it with certain qualities of consciousness. So one can only describe consciousnesses when one describes realities. From another passage in a book that appeared this summer, "The Threshold of the Spiritual World", the same thing can be gathered. There it is shown how, through gradual ascension, the seer's vision rises from what spreads out around us as things, as processes in things, how all this, as it were, disappears as a nullity and melts away, is destroyed, and finally the region is reached where there are only beings in some state of consciousness. So, the real realities of the world are beings in the various states of consciousness.“ (Lit.:GA 148, p. 305f)

„For reality consists everywhere in beingness; and what is not beingness in it is the activity that takes place in the relation of being to being. It can only be comprehended if one can cast one's gaze on the active beings.“ (Lit.:GA 26, p. 120)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: URL:
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.


  1. Cf. Aristotle: Metaphysics, XI 7, 1072b ff. according to Regenbogen, Arnim, Uwe Meyer: Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe. Meiner, Hamburg 2005: actus purus.