Steiner and modern science: A contradictory relationship?

As is well known, Steiner developed several practical and cultural innovations from his general account of anthroposophy. Today, these impulses continue as growing and evolving movements such as Waldorf and special needs education, biodynamic agriculture and anthroposophical medicine – and they are well recognized even by people who do not necessarily want to have anything to do with Steiner or would not be perceived as typical Steiner followers. This is illustrated, for example, by the fact that in Germany a considerable proportion of Waldorf parents are teachers in state schools1 and most Waldorf parents in Silicon Valley work in the tech business while supporting the tech-free or low-tech Waldorf approach.2 Other examples can be found in agriculture, in which a Bavarian Demeter dairy received the German Sustainability Award in 2019, and in which an increasing demand and appreciation of biodynamically grown wine by consumers can be observed.3 However, this is only one side of the coin. While the public looked quite favorably on Steiner in 2019 on the 100th anniversary of Waldorf education, an icy wind of criticism has been blowing against him and his followers again since the beginning of the COVID–19 crisis. In this context, Steiner and anthroposophy have been framed to be closely related to ‘Covid-deniers’, ‘anti-vaxxers’, and right-wing conspiracy theorists who place esoteric doctrines above scientific facts and open discourse.4 But even before 2021, academics had argued from a mainstream perspective that anthroposophy cannot claim to be scientifically founded and is incompatible with sober reason and an enlightened modern mindset, which in turn calls into question the theoretical consistency of anthroposophically inspired practice.5 Nevertheless, in many of his writings, Steiner claims the methodological roots of anthroposophy to be exactly the same as of modern science, as, for example, in the second subtitle of his 1894 book Die Philosophie der Freiheit (PF): “Some results of introspective observation following the methods of natural science” (see SKA 2, 76). In his Geheimwissenschaft im Umriss (GU), in an addendum made in 1920, Steiner elaborates on this idea in more detail:

Occult science desires to free the natural-scientific method and its principle of research from their special application that limits them, in their own sphere, to the relationship and process of sensory facts, but, at the same time, it wants to retain their way of thinking and other characteristics. […] While natural science remains within the sense world with this method of research and way of thinking, occult science wishes to consider the employment of mental activity upon nature as a kind of self-education of the soul and to apply what it has thus acquired to the realms of the non-sensory. […] It retains the mental attitude of the natural-scientific method; that is to say, it holds fast to just the thing that makes natural research a science. For that reason, it may call itself a science. (see GU, 4)

However, without further explanation of how this alleged relationship can be concretized in terms of specific research questions, the assertion that anthroposophy in principle builds on the same means as natural science and even develops them further may seem irritating or simply naive.6

Instead of joining the chorus of all-too-certain critics, it is worth pursuing this irritation more closely. Steiner and other scholars pointed to the difference between general historical structures of consciousness, such as the modern mindset, on the one hand, and their various aspects and manifestations through the centuries, on the other. Roughly said, the modern principle launched during the Renaissance favors an active and individualized, perspectival approach to knowledge by autonomous thinking coupled with systematic experimentation, which can be understood as an emancipation from older forms of knowledge imbued by theological or antique doctrines and authorities.7 As a first and significant step of realizing the modern principle, the natural sciences emerged over the last 400 years and sustainably shaped the minds of more and more people by many significant discoveries and technological innovations. In this way, however, modern science also became the intellectual focus of power and infiltrated other disciplines and cultural fields that were outside their original scope of application.8 Thus, we can also speak of a methodological or even ideological ‘imperialism’ that is not a necessary part of the modern mindset.9 Rather, the prevalence of the materialist scientific paradigm can be assumed to be at least partly responsible for some of the global crises today, for example, in terms of military technology, environmental destruction and scandals in the pharma industry.

This brief overview shows that today’s forms of scientific culture and application, like all forms of culture, have emerged historically and are shaped politically and therefore should not be the final answer to all questions. Rather, it seems possible and necessary to develop more sophisticated forms of scientific research that do not dictate materialist measures and models to human life, culture, and consciousness but explore these phenomena more directly than only by detour of physical-bodily or other third-personal forms of research.10 Nevertheless, as will be shown in subsequent sections, anthroposophically inspired consciousness studies need not contradict the core principle of empirical science but can learn from its previous attempts, great successes as well as one-sided developments, and help to realize its humanistic ideals and intentions. Although Steiner did not map out concrete forms of future consciousness research, this option can be understood as lying in his original intention to trace anthroposophy and modern science back to the same roots and “to lead through scientific thinking to the spirit world”.11 Today, over a century after Steiner’s basic works were published, we can find their essential topics such as thought, perception, social cognition, and ethics addressed in current philosophy, psychology, and the cognitive sciences. Here, however, these topics are predominantly conceived from a naturalistic or materialistic perspective.12 To balance this one-sidedness and to show that Steiner’s core ideas are principally accessible and justifiable by modern empirical research, a first step can be to establish systematic first-person observation as a data source on equal footing with external behavior measurement and standard survey accounts.


The Task-based Introspective Inquiry as a methodological bridge


Historical background

Parallel to the emergence of Steiner’s basic works and anthroposophy, experimental psychology developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a new synthesis of philosophy and empirical science. Although both lines of development unfolded almost independently of each other, a common aspect can be found in the role of introspection and particularly in the work of Franz Brentano, who, among many other scholars of the time, also influenced Steiner to some extent.13 While introspective self-observation was for many philosophers, at least since Augustine’s Confessions, a self-evident component of their methodological arsenal (e. g., J. Locke, R. Descartes, J. G. Fichte, and F. P. G. Maine de Biran), the voices critically questioning its reliability, validity, and objectivity have increased. Kant argued that introspection as a mental process necessarily alters its observation object – mental states and processes – and A. Comte accordingly denied that subject and object of introspection could be separated as a fundamental precondition of scientific research.14 Therefore, although the first constitutive steps toward modern psychology still clearly referred to the introspection of testpersons, as in Weber’s and Fechner’s psychophysics and W. Wundt’s investigations, they increasingly strove to eliminate the aspects that were difficult to control by deploying external forms of behavioral measurement, standardized data collection, and statistical analysis.15 In this intellectual climate, Brentano attempted to balance a general defense of what he called inner perception, with some limitations, such as that it cannot be deployed as intentional, goal-directed (self-) observation but acts as casual inner reception, the objects of which can only be made retrospectively conscious.16 Through this seemingly inevitable concession to the project of a scientific psychology, Brentano prevented himself, as Steiner pointed out, from penetrating not only intellectually arguing but also observing the active part of mental phenomena, in Aristotelian terms, the nous poietikos.17 Thus the stage was already set for a more passive or receptive attitude, and although schools of introspective psychology were still developing at the beginning of the 20th century following Brentano and Wundt, they were soon discredited by behaviorism, which elevated purely external measurement to the exclusive method, and were finally promoted to insignificance. On closer examination, however, the failure of early introspectionist projects such as that of E. Titchener and O. Külpe, however, can be traced back to methodological flaws such as few and biased testpersons, diverging interpretations of interview data due to unclear conceptualization (e. g., ‘imageless thought’), and opposing philosophical convictions.18 While these were methodological problems that could be solved in principle, they did not, of course, contribute to the credibility of this line of research.19 On the other hand, behaviorism’s promise to predict and control human behavior in industrial mass production and advertising to manipulate consumer preferences and habits corresponded more to political and economic interests in the U.S. of the 1920s and 1930s than to introspection.20 In this respect, the success of behaviorism was not fed by a fundamental methodological superiority but must also be seen in connection with extra-scientific factors, as its relativization in the cognitive turn since the 1950s has also shown. Even though cognitivism predominantly adopted a computational and information processing perspective, it sparked new interest in internal mental processes, which was also shared by the emerging constructivist tendencies in psychology. And since the 1980s, a century after Wundt’s laboratory was founded in Leipzig, there have been new attempts to address introspection, which has often played its indispensable role in psychology in a ‘camouflaged’ form, more explicitly again and to seek new ways of its systematic use.21


Methodological outline

This brief historical overview illuminates the background against which new forms of first-person methodology were developed and applied in recent decades – though initially without any reference to Steiner or anthroposophy. In recent years, however, some researchers have begun to explore anthroposophical key topics such as the self,22 mental states like awe and wonder,23 forms of meditation,24 and the epistemic basic structure of various cognitive processes25 by systematic first-person observation and have published their studies in academic journals. Here, the method developed by the author in this context – the Task-based Introspective Inquiry (TBII) – and its results will be exemplified and then briefly compared with other first-person approaches. This method was chosen because, on the one hand, as will be shown, it is suitable to explore the epistemological and anthropological foundations of anthroposophy and, on the other hand, because it is compatible in important aspects and quality criteria with established standard psychological methods.

For TBII, the concrete and well-defined experimental task is central since it transfers a general philosophical question into something that can be practically done and empirically explored by many people in the same way. On the one hand, this is important for providing person-independent replicability of the experimental setting; on the other hand, the fine-tuned demand characteristic of a task in which, dependent on their effort, people can fail or succeed stimulates their awareness of mental activity. Phenomenologically speaking, this serves for bracketing the everyday or natural attitude of the subjects and directs them toward their own mental activity.26 More precisely, it is about balancing the passive and receptive (more state-related) aspects of experience (see the preceding historical outline) that are often the focus of other introspective approaches with active and productive ones (more process-related). As another consequence from the previously described shortcomings of early introspectionism and as a useful concession to experimental psychology, the author decided to work in principle with multiple independent and nonexpert participants, which is intended to generate a rich and comprehensible data basis and serves as a safeguard against the experimenter or expectation bias. For data acquisition, in the framework of TBII, different qualitative methods can be used basically, such as interviews, written accounts, or think-aloud techniques, the selection of which should be made according to the specific research question and depending on the empirical quality criteria to be met. In our context, open-ended written self-reports turned out to be the method of choice because of their nonreactivity and the quick and easy handling of data collection and analysis they afford, both of which are advantageous compared with interview methods. The reason for this choice is that even with specially trained interviewers, such as in the micro-phenomenological approach,27 nonverbal cues and other (possibly subliminal) social dynamics can influence the content answered by interviewees, which can be problematic, at least for hypothesis-driven research.28 Think-aloud techniques do not support focusing on mental micro-activities (compared to logically or temporally ordered propositions about mental states),29 as verbalizing during the task could interfere with their rapid and elusive occurrence. Regardless of the data collection method, first-person data is analyzed with a mixed-methods approach including the following features. In qualitative hierarchical coding, which is controlled by intercoder reliability tests, the full range of experiential content occurring during the experiment is captured at different thematic levels, each with multiple categories. At this stage, phenomenologically thick descriptions of mental experience and agency are systematically analyzed and structured. Then, to meet the ‘gold standard’ of modern evidence-based (instead of ‘eminence-based’) research, the qualitative results are quantitatively analyzed using descriptive and inferential statistics and examined for significant differences with respect to different samples of participants or experimental conditions. In the final step of theory building, results are discussed and generalized, if possible, with a view on structural, dynamic, and agentive aspects of first-person experience and are related back to the philosophical research question. In sum, this method offers a methodologically controlled empirical access route to a consciousness-immanent theory of consciousness that can then also be related to Steiner’s concepts.

To demonstrate that this method can serve as a bridge between Steiner and modern cognitive science, three aspects of Steiner’s method presented in his basic works shall be considered that are included in TBII.30 First, Steiner demands first-person observation be performed in an exceptional state of mind in which the observer’s attention is not absorbed by external objects and according thoughts, feelings, intentions, or actions but directs itself toward the mental processes and activities that lead to the former.31 This notorious blind spot in everyday consciousness ignoring its inherent cognitive processes needs to be addressed and clarified, which, as previously explained, can be achieved through an experimental task that requires subjects to invest their mental activity in a mindful and reflective manner. Therefore, in the first place, it is not about passively experiencing what shows up in the stream of consciousness but rather what must be done to succeed in the task – which, of course, does not preclude the observer shifting their attention intermittently to passively experienced aspects as well. This challenges participants to intentionally observe their mental efforts, forms of activity, and content-specific strategies that are not otherwise explicitly addressed in everyday situations.

The second point refers to what Steiner denoted as gaze direction, which means to motivate an observer (who can be oneself) to turn their attention in a certain direction of interest without making (pre-)judgments about what could be observed.32 In other words, the potential contents of observation must not be suggested, but attention is intentionally oriented to the general field of mental experience and performance in a specific task. Methodologically, this means that while research hypotheses are withheld to avoid cognitive bias, participants are explicitly instructed to observe what they do mentally to perform the task and what they experience in terms of thoughts, feelings, and their mental will.

The third aspect considers that, in principle, fine-grained observation requires persistent effort and repetition. On the one hand, this is self-evident in the context of spiritual development often extending over a lifetime;33 on the other hand, it is included in TBII to the extent that participants are instructed to repeat the task over one week, for example, on their own responsibility. Moreover, the higher education context in which all studies presented here have been conducted allows the outcomes of the trial to be brought back to the students and discussed with them to stimulate further processes of personal and consciousness development. At this stage, it is especially important to discuss options of consciousness-immanent theory building as this can directly become relevant for the participants’ individual lives and professional practice, for instance, in terms of refined perceptual skills, increased self-efficacy experience and self-understanding, and mindful social interaction.


Milestone studies of TBII


Topics and tasks

Following this methodological overview, milestone studies on thought, perception, and social cognition that were conducted by the author with TBII are presented. First, the topics and tasks will be briefly introduced before summarizing the results in both general and specific terms. To begin with, the Seven-animals task was implemented as suggested by Alfred Mele in the context of analytic philosophy but under experimental conditions.34 The task consists of thinking about seven animal names according to a random starting letter, for example ‘C’: crab, cow, and so on, which was implemented according to the experimental constraints as previously explained.

Another topic deals with perceptual change or reversal that can be observed and intentionally executed upon exposure to ambiguous stimuli in different sense modalities such as vision and audition. Here, we have to distinguish whether the task consists of voluntarily changing between different possible percepts with one and the same physical stimulus, for example, tone frequencies of a singing bowl35 or geometrical variants of the Necker cube,36 or of holding a certain percept while the stimulus changes in a distracting way.37 The latter scenario was realized with a video stimulus with disambiguated and ambiguous stages of the Necker cube that were seamlessly blended into each other and presented in a loop. Here, the task was to voluntarily hold one of the perceptual variants under increasingly adverse conditions.

In another study, participants were instructed to count a random number of moving dots on the screen and to report on their mental processes and counting strategies.38 Last but not least, in a study on nonverbal social encounter, dyadic couples formed themselves out of a moving group of 22 persons, interacted briefly, and separated again.39 In all of these studies, as previously mentioned, participants were instructed not only to complete the task as indicated but also to report what they mentally did and experienced and the extent to which they were successful.


General results

Following, some of the most important results are presented, first in more general terms and then regarding individual studies. Since the author is convinced that consciousness research must not stop at raw data and provide only ideographic descriptions of distinguished individuals but rather must aim at generally valid structures and regularities based on a broad and reliable database, this aspect is reported on first. Actually, data analysis in all studies led to differentiated and dynamic structures of mental activity exhibiting both task-specific and generalizable aspects. At a most general level, two basic forms of mental activity were found to govern processing that could be denoted as productive or proactive, on the one hand, and as receptive or observant, on the other. Depending on the different tasks, these two activity forms appeared also modified or further divided into subphases, as will be explained in more detail in the following paragraphs.

Furthermore, mental activity turned out to be coupled with certain metacognitive feelings that are to be distinguished from affective feelings as they do not refer to external objects or situations. Metacognitive feelings rather reflect participants’ own cognitive performance in the context of the task and can be understood to indicate specific phases in the mental processes, such as the experience of difficulty or failure, as located on the negative side, and resonance, insight, and success, on the positive side.40 They are controversially debated by philosophers as instances of non-sensory cognitive phenomenology, which shows an interesting nexus with Steiner’s claim of supersensory levels of human existence.41

Besides this, participants also expressed different forms of intention referring to their own mental activities, which thus are not only introspectively reported random occurrences but rather can be seen as voluntarily planned and performed mental actions. This plays an important role especially in the philosophical Mental Action debate, where conscious intentions to mentally do something or persistently trying to mentally achieve something are discussed as criteria for mental action.42 With a view to Steiner, we can already establish here a reference to thinking, feeling, and willing as manifestations of mental activity on a higher, processual, and probably constitutive level of consciousness.43


Directed thought

More concretely, with the Seven-animal task, analysis led to four forms of mental activity oscillating between the mental states of ‘Not Knowing’ and ‘Receptive Finding’ (Figure 1).44 The difference between mental actions and states can be determined by whether the reported experience referred to something the agent consciously performs as an immanently (or self-referentially) caused activity or whether this activity resonates with something outside itself, which can be a lack of thought content or its successful delivery. For the agentive status of mental activities, it turned out to be of particular importance that they were observed and performed independently of each other and that in ‘Self-Motivation’ and ‘Productive Searching’, an anticipation of ‘Receptive Finding’ by pressurizing-focusing and relaxing-opening activity could be demonstrated (Figure 2). Such anticipatory strategies can be understood as (proximal) intentions, which, as previously suggested, supports the action character of these mental activities. In connection with the lack of content in the initial state, this favors the view that mental activity, whether performed unconsciously or deliberately, is not caused by preceding mental states or representations but rather can be seen in terms of ‘immanent causation’45 or even, in the latter case, as ‘self-forming action’.46

Figure 1 

Dynamic structure of mental actions and states in directed thought. MCF: Metacognitive feeling.

Figure 2 

In-depth analysis of Categories 2, 3 and 4. Forms of self-motivation (PF, RO) anticipate activity characteristics of Categories 3 and 4, notably without reference to content. Productive Searching exercieses PF in a content-related form (→) and anticipates receptive finding without having the content as yet (e. g., by metaphors). Receptive finding exercises RO (→) and receives the sought-after content (←).


Perceptual change

Interestingly, the studies on perceptual change reveal a quite similar structure of mental activities. In order to change one’s percept in face of an unchanged physical stimulus, one has to turn attention away from it, produce an alternative conceptual structure, turn toward the undetermined stimulus again, and search for anchor points for this concept before finally perceiving the intended content with full distinctness (Figure 3). Based on qualitative analysis of the self-reports, quantitative analysis shows the relative frequencies of these four phases over the subjects. In comparing ‘Turning Away’, ‘Producing’, ‘Turning Toward’, and ‘Perceiving’, both frequency patterns increase equally from less to more consciously experienced activities up to ‘Perceiving’, which represents the end of the change dynamic and was reported by almost all persons. This result can be interpreted as a cross-modal confirmation of the four-phase hypothesis of conscious mental activities, similar to the directed thought study.

Regarding the differences, ‘Turning Away’ and ‘Producing’ are higher for audition, while ‘Turning Toward’ is higher for vision, although the raw differences were not statistically significant. However, the deviations of ‘Producing’ and ‘Turning Toward’ from linear modeling were (marginally) significant in the auditory trial, which could mean that audition is more inwardly oriented than vision.47 Taken together, we can understand this as a gradual and developable introspective access to different stages of the perceptual process that can be further differentiated for seeing and hearing.

Figure 3 

Comparison of Auditory and Visual Change Studies. TA: Turning Away; PR: Producing; TT: Turning Toward; PE: Perceiving. The y-axis shows the relative frequency of binarized occurrence of the categories in the text data.

Figure 4 

Nonverbal social interaction study. N = 44, PF: Proactive-focused activity; RO: Roomgiving-opening activity. Frequencies normalized to 100%.

With regard to the three-phase structure of the change of attention (disengaging, reorientation, engaging)48 established in cognitive psychology (through externally measuring methodology), one can speak of a differentiation, since the reorientation from an introspective perspective is subdivided again into a thematic production and stimulus-related turning leaves.


Social cognition

For the perception of one’s own and another person’s mental activities in nonverbal encounter, again a similar structure of four mental micro-gestures could be demonstrated.49 As observed from person A’s perspective, a proactive-focused and a receptive-opening activity can be distinguished, each of which can be further differentiated according to whether it originates from person A or person B (Figure 4). Regarding the experimental conditions, specific activity patterns were observed: one group was forbidden to engage in physical contact such as hugging or hand shaking during the task, while the other group did the task without these restrictions. In the diagrams, the deviations of frequencies from a balanced distribution are shown for both groups. Under the first condition, proactive activity of both persons is significantly more strongly experienced than receptive-opening activity. This result is reasonable because in everyday life we are used to attending more to self-assertive intentions that are connected to certain contents than to their perception and acceptance by the other person or by ourselves.50

Under the second condition with allowed physical contact, the activity pattern was even more distorted in that both gestures of person A were significantly more salient than those of the other person. This result is also understandable, considering that when we have physical contact with other people, we primarily experience our own embodied existence more strongly at the expense of more subtle mental intentions and expressions of the other person.51

Furthermore, a follow-up study on nonverbal dyadic encounter in the context of social-distancing measures during the COVID–19 pandemic has been conducted with two experimental conditions (without face mask vs. with face mask), in which this structure of mental activities could be reliably replicated, was shown to be highly susceptible to the conditions (significantly decreasing activities with face mask), and revealed graded forms of embodiment.52 The latter finding resulted from a half-automated text analysis in which the occurrence of body-related words (body, exterior, eye, face, mask, to view/see) in the two types of mental activity (proactive-focused vs. receptive-opening) was explored. Without going into further detail here, it can be said that proactive-focused activity is clearly associated with body-related expressions, whereas receptive-opening activity is not, so that stronger and weaker forms of embodied experience in the dyadic encounter can be distinguished. This idea will be explained in more detail in the section that follows.


Implications for the actuality of Steiner’s approach in modern philosophy and cognitive science

After this condensed review of empirical studies, it must be noted that many details and contexts had to be omitted for reasons of space. Nevertheless, what matters most was to show that it is possible to acquire valid and reliable first-person data by reconciling the mentioned methodological aspects of Steiner’s approach to introspective or meditative self-observation with established cognitive science principles. However, it should not be overlooked that Steiner expanded his approach in his later work with additional aspects and manifold meditative exercises, which makes it difficult to speak of a unified methodological concept. Even though the question of a consistent methodology in Steiner’s work will be addressed again in the following paragraphs, a limitation to the three aspects mentioned initially seems sufficient for this explorative consideration. From the task-related processual attitude (or the ‘exceptional state’) of observation, the attention guidance (or ‘gaze direction’) with an open, performative target, and a skill formation by repeated practicing already results the perspective confirmed in the studies of gaining differentiated insights into mental processes, which normally run pre-reflectively. Challenged by cognitive tasks, people are apparently able to become aware of constitutive dynamics of consciousness, the variations of which can be traced back to a cross-modal and, in this sense, universal basic structure of mental activities. The demonstration of such a universal and pre-reflective cognitive structure that can be made conscious through systematic introspection is a first, crucial entry point to show that, in addition to methodological connectivity, some content-related aspects of Steiner’s anthroposophy are also supported by the study results.

Just as the methodological consideration has been limited to a few but fundamental aspects, we limit the following content-related discussion to key structural aspects of Steiner’s epistemology, his holistic-dynamic layered anthropology, and its general implications for human development in terms of freedom and meditation.



The so-called ‘basic structure’, which Herbert Witzenmann has identified as a thread running through Steiner’s entire work,53 describes the nexus between reality and consciousness, bringing together three aspects over which philosophy, psychology, and neurobiology have long wrestled without finding a consensual solution (Figure 5).54 First, in this context, sensory stimuli are understood as the phenomenally conscious effects of sensorial and neural processes that are necessary though not sufficient conditions of cognitive processing. While with perception, this is what the visual or auditory systems provide, in the study of directed thought this takes the role of stimulating the search for further animal names, or whatever is searched for, when faced with the lack of thought content or other intellectual crises. Steiner calls this ‘pure experience’55 or bare perception’56, which confronts the mental agent as receptively given without inherent coherence.

Second, ‘qualitative coherence’ serves as an umbrella term for all kinds of meaning comprising logical understanding and perceptual regularities exemplified in the studies as certain visual variants (for instance, different geometrical forms), certain tone frequencies (such as low, mid, and high), or whatever can be of interest when we try to perceive or understand something in a meaningful way. Steiner calls this “thinking taken purely for itself […]”57 or the “pure concept”58, which gives the mental agent insight into a coherent context depending on their producing activity.

Third, the receptive and productive activities performed by the mental agent provide access to the two other aspects, thus qualifying the basic structure as a dynamic unification of pure percept and pure concept into what we become aware of as representational reality.59

Consequentially, this basic structure elucidates perception and thought as relying on analogous epistemological components and processes that are adapted to their specific anthropological conditions of appearance.60 Of decisive importance with a view on Steiner’s stratified conception of the human being is that the according structural components of (pure) concept and (pure) percept are not to be confounded or mixed with each other – an aspect that is also being wrestled with in the McDowell-Dreyfus debate, which will be briefly sketched.61 While John McDowell holds that perceptual experience is always and fundamentally pervaded with conceptuality from the outset, Hubert Dreyfus maintains that there are also nonconceptual forms of perceptual experience. Although at first glance, Dreyfus’s position could be taken as supporting Steiner’s finding of pure percepts, a closer look reveals that Dreyfus justifies his nonconceptualism with our pre-reflective skillful coping with world phenomena, which, however, from McDowell’s – and Steiner’s – point of view is not possible at all without deploying concepts, albeit not necessarily in a propositional form.62 The partial agreement and divergence of Steiner’s position with respect to the other two suggests that his referential (or gaze-directing) use of terms like ‘non-conceptual’ and ‘conceptual’ addresses phenomenologically deeper layers of cognitive processing than are dealt with in this debate. Indeed, these more fundamental layers are at least initially unraveled by participant reports in the studies presented, which show that concept (consistent meaning) and percept (phenomenal aspects of proximal stimuli) are functionally independent, at least to some extent, because the same perceptual stimuli or intellectual problems can be processed by different conceptual content. According to Steiner, the functional independence of concept and percept in the individual emergence of consciousness can be traced back to their separation or decomposition by organic (neural) degradation processes, while they are reconnected or recomposed by mental activity.63 Therefore, the empirical focus on mental activity is paying off insofar as it stratifies different dimensions or layers of human existence between concept and percept and explains how they are dynamically integrated. This is proven by the empirical fact that mental activity takes on different forms that adapt to the complementary components of reality.

Figure 5 

Synoptic overview of the empirically validated basic structure of mental activities and Steiner’s epistemology and anthropological conception.



Against this background, it appears reasonable to distinguish in epistemological terms what enters the cognitive process under different conditions. Notably, these mental-activity conditions are not a theoretical construct or speculation but result only from what independent test persons observe when performing the task as embodied and mentally active agents. Therefore, in a first attempt, the basic structure can be considered empirically validated, which sheds new light not only on Steiner’s epistemological conception, as previously indicated, but also on his anthropology. With a view on Steiner’s General Education course (in German: Allgemeine Menschenkunde),64 the four micro-actions can be assigned to what Steiner denoted as sympathy and antipathy and clearly distinguished from affective emotions. While Steiner’s notion of sympathy can be associated with those forms of mental activity that are closely concerned with meaningful, qualitative coherence (Producing, Turning Toward), antipathy encompasses mental activities that are confronted with sensory stimuli in one way or another (Turning Away, Perceiving; see Figure 5). Importantly, the fragmentation of sympathy and antipathy into two subforms of activity operating in opposite directions explains the dynamic relationship in which sympathy and antipathy constantly merge, forming the nexus between the bodily-material and the mental-logical realms.

In anthropological terms, the basic structure gives rise to nothing else than a trichotomic stratification of humans into body, soul, and spirit with the option to further differentiate these layers, as indicated in Figure 5, with shaded colors. Thus, for Steiner, the ‘soul’ is neither an abstract substance as in medieval scholasticism nor a vague expression of subjective experience but can be related – at least in terms of the ‘consciousness soul’ – to our self-performed and potentially self-conscious mental activity, the core of which can be called the ‘I’.65

The results of the empirical studies can thus be interpreted to mean that the pre-reflective or reflective-conscious activity of the I works on the stimulus material offered by the sense-nerve processes, and through this work, the varieties of a bodily-habituated everyday consciousness fixed on perceptual (e. g., distinct shapes or tones) or rational (e. g., certain animal names) results emerge. Therefore, according to Steiner, the soul’s substratification into self-referential (consciousness soul) and non-self-referential (sentient soul and rational soul) layers of consciousness results from mediating interaction of the I’s expressions of mental will with the individual body and the potentials of universal spirit.66

With a view to the social interaction study, the basic structure – the dynamic unification of concept and percept – also applies to the interaction of mental agents whose different gestures of activity can be understood to permanently change the roles of an integrating, encompassing concept and an individualizing, challenging percept between the persons. This means that one person opens up space to the proactively focused utterance of the other person, and that this relationship is constantly and very quickly reversed in the dyadic encounter. Steiner called this the ‘sense of I’ or sense of (the other) self, which he regarded as a distinct modality beyond other senses such as touch, vision, and audition. In Philosophie der Freiheit and in Allgemeine Menschenkunde,67 Steiner presents different descriptions of this sense that, however, agree in that the stimulus and receptor of this sense are of the same nature – mental activity – varying only in terms of ‘confronting’ or ‘attacking (antipathetic) and self-extinguishing’ or ‘devotional’ (sympathetic) forms.68 As explained previously, exactly these activities could be found in the empirical studies on nonverbal social interaction. Although from a modern sensory-psychological point of view there is much to be said for recognizing this mental dynamic as an independent modality,69 the I-Thou sense is not completely independent of other persons’ expressive behavior that can be experienced through conventional senses. This dynamic becomes initially clear in the study presented in more detail in previous paragraphs (dyadic encounter with vs. without the possibility of physical contact) based on varying frequencies of proactive-focusing and receptive-opening activities. As also indicated, this finding is substantiated in the follow-up study to the extent that a graded (in-)dependence on the bodily level of experience becomes apparent between these activity forms. For example, if we start with person A focusing on certain aspects of person B’s facial expressions, a change is initiated when B in turn begins to observe A’s physical appearance and behavior. Then, A is aware not only that she is proactively observing B but also that she is being looked at by B, so initially goes into receptive-opening activity. Now it depends on A whether she then immediately returns to her more body-related observation or engages with B’s intentional gaze directed at her without further pursuing her own observation intention. In the latter case, A switches to the receptive-opening gesture, which makes her more aware of it, and which is directed precisely not at B’s external appearance and behavior (including gaze) but at B as a mental agent from whom this intentional activity change emanates. In other words, the reference object of attention shared by both persons continuously alternates between the persons’ expressive bodily behavior, on the one hand, and their mental activity, on the other. Overall, this contribution to the current debate on Direct Social Perception70 could be interpreted as another case of (potentially) conscious access to different constitutive layers of human existence that flow unnoticed into each other in the natural everyday attitude.


Freedom and Meditation

Which developmental challenges and opportunities do emerge from mentally active or agentive, conceptually evident, and flexible, as well as gradually embodied, forms of experience or, in the context of Steiner’s anthroposophy, from a stratified conception of the human being? The question of individual freedom can be considered the most comprehensive horizon of human development, which is why some remarks on Steiner’s conception of freedom should be added here as conclusions from the preceding discussion. As a crucial aspect, freedom at a most fundamental level is nothing that can be externally given to people. A ‘given freedom’, be it by God, evolution, or political or other external powers, would undermine the agents’ challenge and dignity to develop freedom on their own as consequently resulting from individual action awareness. Therefore, every individual has the option to struggle for their own freedom by overcoming what makes them unfree, and this process indeed has been occurring since time immemorial in human history and is shown daily in the global news. The ineradicable urge for freedom, which, however, often misunderstands itself in its limitation to political, ethnic, nation-state, economic, and other aspects, can be adequately grasped, if at all, only on an anthropological level. Instead of recommending measures of external power, Steiner pointed out that development of freedom must start with individual learning by doing what action is on a mental level. For as long as we do not understand where our mental contents, emotions, and intentions come from and are unable to control them, it is hopeless to strive for freedom in a sustainable way.

However, this does not entail a merely intellectual understanding of the motives and behavioral dispositions conditioned by individual socialization and biography and their indirect-manipulative control but an immediate, phenomenally conscious access to the mental processes shaping action. If we know from our own observation, as demonstrated by the introspective-empirical studies, how we are causally involved in the creation of thoughts, perceptions, memories, emotions, intentions, and so on, we have the freedom to separate from unwanted content and connect with the mental content that seems truly appropriate – appropriate for ourselves and for the world situation in which we find ourselves in every single moment of our lives. In particular, in the studies on voluntary perceptual change and directed thought, it becomes clear that the processes leading to resultative states of consciousness are observable and intentionally controllable in terms of fine-grained mental activities. This perspective opens up a complementary explanatory approach in philosophy of mind and action, which emancipates itself to a certain extent from the neural processes otherwise assumed to be authoritative without contradicting their functional role as a necessary, anti-causal condition.71 Even if this option is far from being mainstream, there are agent-causal approaches to free will in current philosophy of action that in principle point in this direction.72 Extending such approaches to mental action, the aspect of ‘mental ballistics’ critically posited by Galen Strawson can be relativized insofar as even the necessarily receptive part of the thinker in what Steiner calls (e. g., moral) ‘intuition’, which can be seen as intentional-active reception in which thinking activity and thought content interact in transparent and dynamic reciprocal determination.73 In Steiner’s words:

On the one hand, intuitively experienced thinking is an active process taking place in the human spirit, on the other hand it is also a spiritual percept grasped without a physical sense organ. It is a percept in which the perceiver is himself active, and a self-activity which is at the same time perceived (see PF, 266 f.).

Because for higher levels of experiential expertise, a flow-like resonance of (pro-)active and receptive aspects in mental action awareness is also supported by recent activity-based classification approaches to meditation,74 this topic can be included here as another dimension of human development toward freedom. Although it has been noted previously that Steiner’s method is more elusive in light of his later work and may seem inconsistent with his earlier philosophical writings, this point can now be clarified initially. Based on his previous research on this topic, the author suggests that the decisive perspective for the connection of seemingly unrelated aspects in Steiner’s work lies in his consistent reference to the aforementioned basic structure of mental activity, even if this is presented quite differently in terms of language and context. A first step toward explanation lies in a two-sided comparison of the basic structure, on the one hand, with canonical forms of meditative practice studied in psychological meditation research and, on the other hand, with some typical meditation exercises of Steiner. To begin with the former, focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM) are often referred to as fundamental and complementary forms of mental and neural activity in meditation that are also known from traditional Buddhist meditation practice.75 While FA means to focus attention continuously on an external, bodily, or mental object, OM detaches from all specified objects.76 Interestingly, from a processual first-person perspective, FA and OM belong together because they are, in a sense, mutually inclusive.77 On the one hand, when doing FA and noticing that one’s focus has unintentionally shifted to another object, one needs to break away and return to the intended object. Reorientation therefore also involves finding the originally intended content on a holistic, nonindividualized level before turning to it again in concrete terms. On the other hand, if one is practicing OM and notices that one is unintentionally holding onto a particular object, one must detach from it, which requires focusing briefly on one’s mental activity and bringing it back into a nonfixed, expansive, and opening form. Taken together, these aspects clarifiy that in the “pure” practice of FA or OM, the other form implicitly runs alongside the other to maintain the conscious meditation process. This interplay applies not only, as outlined in the examples, to distractions from the intended form of meditation but in general, insofar as meditation is not a static state but a dynamic developmental process of mental activity and agency. While this brief consideration cannot claim that all forms of meditation can be fully explained by a dynamic interplay of FA and OM, it covers many forms and aspects of meditation (as these can be traced back to FA and/or OM) and, as we will see, typical forms of anthroposophic meditation. In any case, it should be clear that these meditative activities are closely related to the mental micro-gestures constituting the cognitive basic structure, both in terms of the receptive-productive distinction and in terms of the partial aspects. Incidentally, this is also the reason why meditation can ultimately refer to every perceptible object and conceivable content of consciousness as well as to the processes of consciousness themselves, and in this respect stands in a direct, enlightening relationship to an immanent reality of mind.

With a view on meditation as a methodological tool for anthroposophy, the cognitive basic structure can also be proven to underly many (if not all) exercises developed by Steiner, which can be indicated here only by way of example.78 As an initial exercise, Steiner recommends reflecting on one’s life experiences from a higher vantage point in order to “distinguish between the essential and the non-essential”.79 In doing so, the meditator should not lose themselves in memories but should face themselves like a stranger and try to bring what was significant and what was less significant in the experiences in each case, like from a bird’s-eye view, into a clarifying relationship. In our context, this exercise can be understood as a very concrete way of becoming familiar with and practicing the distinction of (pure) concept and (pure) percept as constitutive components of every conscious experience. In addition to the basic methodological elements of the exceptional state (meditative reflection, bird’s-eye perspective) and the repeated exercise, the aspect of gaze direction to the ‘essential and nonessential’ as well as their specific relationship in future observation situations comes into consideration. In terms of FA and OM, the meditator constantly alternates between focusing on specific life experiences and expanding their attention to a broader meaning that is not a given content but can potentially emerge and embed the meditator’s consciousness in overarching contexts of human life and development.

Another of Steiner’s fundamental exercises shall be cited in his own words:

To begin with, the attention of the soul is directed to certain events in the world that surrounds us. Such events are, on the one hand, life that is budding, growing and flourishing, and, on the other hand, all phenomena connected with fading, decaying and withering. The student can observe these events simultaneously, wherever he turns his eyes, and on every occasion, they naturally evoke in him feelings and thoughts; but under ordinary circumstances, he does not devote himself sufficiently to them. He hurries on too quickly from impression to impression. It is necessary, therefore, that he should fix his attention intently and consciously upon these phenomena. (WE, 31 f.)

While this diction could be easily dismissed as idle nature romanticism, from a structure-phenomenological perspective, it directly refers to the mental micro-activities performed by us in every conscious encounter with our lifeworld. If the preceding example can be understood as exercising the categorical distinction of structural components (concept and percept), this intends for the processual observation of their bidirectional transitions in the emergence of representational consciousness. When looking at phenomena of ‘budding, growing and thriving’, it is not primarily about their specific content (e. g., plants, animals, social relations) but about the increasing effect of a formative principle or meaning structure in the organization of individual (e. g., physical) components or parts, which are ‘universalized’ in this way.80 Accordingly, when observing the ‘fading, decaying and withering’ in lifeworld phenomena, not (only) are these themselves of interest but so is the prevalence of determining to dissolve influences by the underlying physical conditions, whereby the formal principles are ‘individualized’ and finally ‘decomposed’ in their appearance.81 And in becoming aware of the universalization of percepts by concepts and the individualization of concepts by percepts in structure formation, we can also conceive of ourselves as mental agents who are turning away from the perceptual/intellectual stimulus, producing new or alternative conceptual patterns, turning toward the stimulus again, and (dis-) confirming conceptual content being incorporated into the percept.

These examples are intended to show that although Steiner uses more concrete, pictorial language in his meditative instructions, which is therefore more accessible to non-philosophers, he refers to the same cognitive basic structure that underlies his earlier writings. In sum, Steiner’s method of spiritual development has structural connections both to his structure-phenomenologically contextualized epistemology and to basic aspects of other contemplative traditions and corresponding psychological research. As a specific feature of anthroposophic meditation, its role of providing access to Steiner’s metaphysical ontology and its insight-oriented focus can be highlighted in distinction to other contexts and goals of meditative practice.82 For such far-reaching philosophical and metaphysical implications of Steiner’s method, it is crucial that the underlying research has already been published in (mostly double-blind) peer-reviewed psychological and transdisciplinary cognitive science journals and thus has been critically checked by independent and most likely non-anthroposophical experts. In each of the mentioned papers, the Steiner background is explicitly cited and discussed in the context of psychological and philosophical debates as, for example, the mind-brain problem, the McDowell-Dreyfus debate, cognitive phenomenology, and mental action, as previously indicated.


Final remarks

Despite all optimism, this paper concludes with two caveats. First, the outlined approach of an introspective-empirical investigation of Steiner-related topics is only just emerging and therefore still has some limitations. Further dimensions of first-person experience and mental agency have to be discovered, explored, and contextualized with academic research, new tasks must be developed or refined and varied, replication is needed with larger samples and more diverse populations, and data collection and analytic methods must be checked for extension – to mention just a few aspects. Regarding the collection and triangulation of first- and third-person data, the inclusion of neurophysiological measurements is still pending, although the signs are good right now for a transdisciplinary project on speech perception. Generally, interested researchers are cordially invited to exchange and collaborate in this research unfolding in the borderland of philosophy, psychology, and anthroposophy.

The second caveat is that this article should not be misunderstood as intending a general justification or apologetics of Steiner’s entire works. For even if he wanted to, the author could not claim that at all, since he knows only part of Steiner’s works and does not find everything accessible in them, or does even see certain aspects critically. Perhaps the most difficult aspects of Steiner’s work concern the naive-narrative character of many of his detailed descriptions of higher worlds and past world states (e. g., the Atlantean epoch83), which either leads recipients to a quasi-naturalistic adoption of these contents or causes only headshaking when faced with such absurdities.84 As long as such descriptions are neither verifiable nor falsifiable, they should be noticed without (final) judgment and not distract the view from those aspects of Steiner’s work that are quite accessible to current scientific methodology. In this sense, the author intended to show, on the basis of a few fundamental motifs, that anthroposophy cannot become only the object of esoteric belief or philological or historical-philosophical reappraisal and critique but can also inspire empirical and transdisciplinary research that corresponds to Steiner’s own original aspirations.