Submitted by John Ralph on Wed, 11/11/2009 - 3:00pm.


  • Idea
  • Notion
  • Thought
  • Mental image
  • Mental picture
  • Mental representation



The debate so far – apologies if other posts are missing –


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I like Lipson's use of Vorstellung using idea, mental image and picture in chapter 1 ... We will need to use mental picture regularly later. Lipson gives a good transition to it in chapter 1 from idea to image to picture.


John: [slightly edited]

Everyone understands the term mental image! Picture limits Vorstellung because it cuts out all the other phenomenal sensations that we can hold in the mind, e.g. a song. So does image, but not so severely. Steiner did not mean just pictorial mental appearances so image remains preferable as a compromise.


Vorstellung: idea, perception, conception, imagination, performance, show, belief

Most English readers will not have realised (erkennen!) how rich the German concept of Vorstellung really is. I hope that we are able to exorcise this ghost in our translation. What Lipson has done is his own incursion into the issue of untranslatability. We are not bound to follow his lead here, especially if we can bring out Steiner’s actual meaning, which I suggest has not yet been discovered by English readers.


One native German speaker told me “it’s what you imagine. It is your imagination.” Obviously, in English my imagination of New York may simply be fantasy. The ambiguity is clear, but this ambiguity also stirs in the heart of Steiner’s argument for the reality of thinking. This mental picture business has led English readers down a long and winding side-track as I have painfully experienced in my first encounters with PoF. As a non-pictorial thinker by nature, it was years before I woke up to this. So I recognise I have a bias on this one.

As far as meaning goes, mental picture is an impoverished compromise, no matter how neat it looks in an English translation. I do not have a definitive English equivalent to offer for Vorstellung. The nearest remains imagination. We may be able to call on the verb, to picture (to depict in thought) at some point.


mental image/picture

My hunch is if we think it through we will find "representation", which is the philosophy meaning of Vorstellung, to be the only word that can encompass the vast meaning of mental picture. Chapter 4, 5, and 6 try to explain what a mental picture is and give many meanings.


All of these various meanings are ways we represent things. You can find major flaws in the other terms. But "representation" reads very poorly for a new reader.


Hoernle is the only translator that tried to use different words for Vorstellung depending on the context. I am gaining respect for Hoernle. He is the only English translator up until now that actually applied thinking to his translation. The others were anthroposophical society dogmatists who liked to define a word according to "Steinerism" and then just plop it in mindlessly. Hoernle, from what I can find, was very intelligent and accomplished in German, English, philosophy and actually thought through the philosophy issues in the book and wrote about them on his own outside the fixed thinking found in anthroposophy. I haven't found any evidence he was an anthroposophist. I think he was chosen to translate because of his qualifications rather than his loyalty to Steinerism. He wrote to the world as Steiner did in POF rather than to a narrow-minded group of followers which the other barely qualified translators wrote for. (this is not to diminish their contribution but only to put it in perspective)


We can try using various words for Vorstellung but may have to settle for one. In chapter 1 Hoernle used "idea" in 1.4 when the Vorstellung came from the outside and "thought" later when we formed it since chapter 1 was about recognizing how "thought" was behind everything. It was a great try but doesn't seem to fit quite right.


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Here I am revealed as a fumbling beginner.  However, if I am to be able to contribute to the translation work effectively, I need to learn. 


My current understanding of one aspect of the Vorstellung issue is that a concept will be considered later in PoF as existing in its own right as another given that is attached to a given perception – and not merely the private construction of individual thinking. So we are dealing here with what has been called archetypes elsewhere (this term is disallowed here as it is not a PoF term).  The Vorstellung terms listed above are all generally considered to be personal mental constructions except, for example, when one says that ‘an idea’s time has come’. 


The ethical individual can also arrive at new concepts through ethical/moral imagination. This comes about as a creative and evolving process of developing existing concepts into previously unmanifest ones.  Thus the thinker participates actively in the universal field of thinking and we need a word that distinguishes the individual perception of thought from the universal or general concept itself.


Please put me straight if this is nonsense.