The Theory of Categories by Rudolf Steiner (concepts)

The Theory of Categories / Kategorienlehre1

Lecture by Rudolf Steiner,
Berlin, 13 November 1908.

Das Goetheanum,
13 & 20 December 1936. 

GA 108

The lecture today will be put into such a form, that through particular remarks connected with the elucidations you will be able to see where the bridge is to be made between Anthroposophy and Philosophy, and how certain philosophical concepts and knowledge can be of importance in the practice of spiritual science. Something is to be stated at the outset that will be useful to us in bringing the philosophical edifice altogether into a right relation to spiritual science. As a preparation, you have heard the logic lectures during the General Meeting (22 Oct. 1908, on the 4thDimension; 25 Oct. 1908, on Fichte, Schelling, Hegel). There we recognized thinking as the capacity, to place oneself over against the world in a technique of concepts. We characterized it in a certain way, when we wanted to obtain a concept from pure formal logic. We can only really speak of thinking, when it takes its course in concepts, and we strictly distinguished between perception, representation and concept. If such distinctions are said to be difficult, it must be borne in mind, that in spiritual science it is obligatory that one engage in strict soul exercises, which will increase to sharp and energetic conceptual contours.

We have learnt to know the concept itself as something, which is constructed wholly within our spirit, and this construction is a true one. All psychological disquisitions, which see in the concept only a shadow, arising through abstraction, of that which we have in the representation, remain stationary half way. The concept has not arisen thus, but in inward construction.

In order to get a picture of the place of the concept and the conceptual system, let us just represent to ourselves, what relation this world of concepts takes on the one side to sensible perception, and on the other side to the higher reality, which comes to us through supersensible observation. The whole network of concepts that a man possess, beginning from the concept of number etc. to the concepts that Goethe constructed, but which in our western culture remain wholly in inception, you may represent as a tablet (Tafel), forming the boundary between the supersensible and sensible worlds. Between these two spheres the world of concepts forms the boundary. If the observer of sense things were to direct only his eye or other perceptive organs to the outer world, he would merely experience representations. That was shown in the representation of the circle, which remains to us from the perception of the horizon on the ocean. If the human being on the other hand constructs the picture merely in the spirit, the pictures of all the points which are equal in distance from a point within, then in antithesis to the representation of the circle he possess the concept of the circle. Thus we could construct other concepts than mathematical ones, and could finally rise to real knowledge of the Goethean morphology, whose concepts have come into existence just as inwardly as the concept of the circle and so on. When we accordingly imagine the network of all the concepts which man can form, then one can approach the sensible reality with these concepts, and then one finds, that the sensible world agrees with one's concepts. What one has constructed as circles coincides with the circle that is given to him in the perception, through journeying out on the ocean. In this way in all true conceptual thinking we relate ourselves to the reality. The concept is decidedly not gained through observation — that is a conception which is very wide-spread today — the concept is plainly something wherein a man takes no account of the external reality. Now through this we established the place of the network of concepts in regard to the external sensible reality.

Now we must ask: how is it with the position of the network of concepts in regard to supersensible reality? When he, who through the methods of clairvoyance discloses the supersensible reality, now approaches this reality with his concepts, he will thus find the network of concepts coincides just as much with the supersensible world. From the other side the supersensible reality throws its rays as it were on the network of concepts, as on the one side does the sensible reality.

Now whence comes this network of concepts itself? Here that can only be asserted as fact, for the answer to this question can only result as the consequence of the logical path which we shall yet be able to take together. Today I will only give you a picture of this network of concepts, in order to show whence the network, which a man weaves within him, takes it origin. That is best made clear by a shadow picture. The shadow-picture of the hand would never arise if the hand were not there. The shadow-picture resembles its prototype, but it has one peculiarity! it is nothing! Through the fact that in the place of light the non-light comes, through the obliteration (obscuring??) of the light the shadow-picture comes into being. 2 The concepts arise in exactly the same way, through the fact that behind our thinking soul there stands the supersensible reality.

The concepts also are really only an obliteration of the supersensible reality, and because they resemble the spiritual world, as the shadow-pictures do the prototypes, for this reason the human being can form an inkling of the supersensible worlds. When the perception of the supersensible makes concept with the sensible, then these shadow-pictures arise. In the conceptual shadow-pictures you have the supersensible reality just as little as in the shadow-picture of the hand you have the hand itself. Accordingly we have recognized here that the concepts are the boundary between the two realities, but originate from the supersensible reality.

Now we ask ourselves: how can a man arrive at concepts, when he has no experience in supersensible worlds? If he had only the sense-reality, he could only have representations. But it is not requisite to ascend into supersensible reality in order to form concepts. The seer can perhaps arrive more easily at a complete conceptual world, because he has of course learnt to know the forces, which form the concepts. You will find the spiritual-scientific explanation of what is here said in my Theosophy. A man arrives at his concepts because he causes them to stream down upon him in that form (formlich). Now how is it possible for a man to arrive at a network of concepts filled with content? The majority of people have only arrived at pure concepts in mathematics. Most men, of course, believe that concepts arrive through abstractions. Naturally that is not at all the origin of concepts. Even thinking men are in general quite unclear as to this. When I tried to make clear the self-constructiveness of the concept in The Philosophy of Freedom I had the opportunity of experiencing something very curious. You find elucidated there, in adverse connection with Herbert Spencer, that to start from outer experience is a thoroughly unsatisfactory mode of forming the concept. (p. 55, 1932 ed.)

The concept cannot be gained from observation. That arises from the fact, that the growing human being only slowly and gradually forms the concepts conforming to the objects which surround him. The concepts are added to the observation.

A much read philosopher of the present day (Herbert Spencer) describes the spiritual process, which we carry out in connection with the observation as follows: when in walking through the fields on a September day, we hear a rustling a few steps in front of us, and at the side of the ditch from which it seems to come, we see the grass in movement, we shall probably go straight to the spot in order to learn what has produced the noise and the movement. At our approach a partridge flutters into the ditch, and therewith our curiosity is satisfied: we have what we call an explanation of the phenomenon. This explanation, be it remarked, amounts to the following: since in life we have so often experienced, that a disturbance of the quiet situation of small bodies accompanies the movement of other bodies situated between them, and as we have for this reason generalized the connections between such disturbances and such movements, we regard this special disturbance as explained as soon as we find that it is an example of this very connection! On closer inspection, the matter shows itself to be wholly different from the description given here. When I hear a noise, I first seek the concept for this observation. This concept only points one to something beyond the noise. One who does not reflect further, hears just the noise and is satisfied with that. But my reflection makes it clear to me, that I have to regard the noise as an effect. Thus it is only when I combine the concept of the effect with the perception of the noise, that I am led to go beyond the single observation and to seek for its cause. The concept of the effect calls up that of the cause, and then I seek for the object which causes it, and which I find in the form of the partridge. But these concepts, cause and effect, can never be gained through mere observation, however many cases it should embrace. The observation calls forth the thinking, and it is only this that shows me the way to link the single experience to another.

If one demands of a ‘strictly objective science’ that it should take its content from observation alone, that it should take its content from observation alone, one must demand at the same time that it should renounce all thinking. For thinking, according to its nature, transcends what is observed ...

If one would follow Spencer's line of thought, one would arrive at this, that concepts only arise through the crystallizing of the special observations out of the general. 3 So long as I relate myself in regard to the noise, as Spencer describes it, I can never come to cognition at all.

Something is still requisite. A prominent philosopher of the present day, to whom I dedicated a copy of my book, wrote in the margin at the place just quoted: “the hare certainly does not do that”, and sent me the book back. But here we are of course not intending to write a philosophy of the hare. Our soul must be in a condition in which it is able to gain the network of the concepts when it is not in the position to get it from perception. The methods, even when they are the scientific methods, which one employs to form representations about the world through outer experience, all these methods cannot aid us to construct the real network of concepts in the human soul. But there must be a method, which is independent of external experience as well as clairvoyant experience, for the human soul ought in truth, as we presuppose, to be able to form concepts before it mounts up to the supersensible. Accordingly a man has to proceed from one concept to another then he remains within the network of the concepts itself. That that takes place in the soul, makes it requisite that we presuppose a method having nothing to do with external observation or with clairvoyant experience. This movement in pure concepts one now calls, in the sense of the great philosopher Hegel, the “dialectic method”. That is the true dialectic method, where the human being lives only in concepts, and is as it were in a condition to cause one concept to germinate out of another. The man then lives in a sphere, where he takes no account of the sensible world and of that which stands behind it the supersensible world.


We have pointed out what the soul does inasmuch as it continues mobile in the network of concepts. It begins to spin concept to concept in the sense of the dialectic method. It leads man from concept to concept. Granted that we have to begin somewhere, then we pass on from concept to concept. This must give as a result the sum of all concepts. They would constitute the sum of all concepts, which in the world-all are adapted below to the sense world and upwards to the supersensible world as well. In the widest sense of the word one terms all these self-mobile concepts, adapted to the two worlds, “the Categories”. Whence it follows that at bottom of the whole human network of concepts is composed of the categories alone. With the same justice one might say: all concepts are categories, as one might say: all categories are concepts. One has, in truth, habitually called the weightiest, the radical concepts, the nodal points of the concepts, Categories. These more important concepts, following Aristotle, are called categories. But in the strict sense one can use the words ‘concept’ and ‘category’ interchangeably, so that we are justified in calling the sum of our self-mobile, self-producing concepts ‘theory of categories’. And Hegel's work — is really a system of categories. 4 Hegel himself, of course, says this very thing: if one establishes the network of concepts in the whole ambit, one then has in it the ideas of the divine being before the creation of the world. Since we find the concepts in the world, they must have been originally established there. If we trace the concepts back, we discover the divine ideas, the categorical content of the world.

Today I cannot go into the historical development of the system of categories, but only show how in the main Hegel, the great master of categorical theory, has developed the system of concepts. Hegel is today perhaps the least understood philosopher. And when anything is ever said about him, it is worth but little. Wherefore people are still apt to say today, as they always said in his lifetime: he wants to develop the whole world in concepts. Even the Leipzig philosopher Krug understood him as though he wanted to construct the rose out of spiritual perceptions, as though one ought to develop it from concepts. Whereupon he received the answer, that it is not quite evident why the writing pen itself of the Leipzig philosopher should (not) be constructed of pure concepts. 5

It is of extraordinary importance for Anthroposophists to make their way into these pure concepts. It is at the same time an important and strongly effective means of training the soul, and a means of overcoming a certain indolence and slovenliness of soul. These are effectively banished by Hegel's ‘Dialectic’. One has, you know, this unequivocal feeling of the slovenliness of the concepts in the perusal of modern books, when one has trained oneself in Hegel's system of concepts. True enough, one must have a starting point, one must begin with something; naturally, this must be the simplest concept, it must have the most diffused (geringsten) content, and the greatest ambit; that is the concept of “SEIN” (being: in existence, entity, mere subsistence). This is the concept that is applicable in the whole circumference of the world. Nothing is expressed about the kind of existence, when we speak of existence in the absolute sense. Hegel starts from the concept of SEIN. But how does one get out beyond this concept? However, in order not to remain at a standstill we must of course have a possibility of causing concept to germinate out of concept. This essential clue which we have not got we find in the very dialectical method itself, when it becomes clear that every concept contains in itself something still more than the concept itself, as, to be sure, the root contains the whole plant in itself which will yet grow out of it. It is so with the concept as well. If we look at the root with outer eyes we certainly do not see what impels the plant out of the root. In the same way there is something incorporated in the concept SEIN, which can cause the germination of a concept, and this, in truth, is the concept NICHT-SEIN (non-being, non-existence), the contrary of the first concept. The NICHTS is incorporated in the SEIN, so that here we have one concept germinate out of the other. If we would form a representation of the concept of NICHTS, that is quite as difficult as it is important. Many people, even philosophers, will say it is altogether impossible to form a concept of the NICHTS. But that is just the important thing for Anthroposophists. A time is coming when much will depend upon the fact that the concept of the NICHTS is grasped in the appropriate way. Spiritual science suffers from the fact that the concept of the NICHTS can not be grasped purely. From the Theosophy has become a theory of emanations.

Imagine yourself confronting the external reality and contemplating the world from a point of view which depends only on yourself. You contemplate, for example two men, one large and one small. You imagine something about them, a concept, which would never be conceived [about them] then unless you had met them both, the small and the large man. It is all one what you think about them, but the concept would never have been formed unless you had encountered them. You can find nothing in the primary causes, which could lead to the concept. It has emerged through the pure constellation, through the reference of things to each other. But now this concept, which has come out of the NICHTS, becomes a factor that continues active in you. The NICHTS becomes accordingly a positively real factor in the phenomena of the world, and you can never lay hold of this world phenomenon unless you have seized the NICHTS in this real significance. You would even understand the concept of Nirvana better if you had a clear concept of the NICHTS.

Now connect the two concepts “SEIN and “NICHTS” with one another; then you come to the WERDEN (becoming); a fuller concept, which prospectively contains the other two. WERDEN is a continuous transition from NICHT SEIN to SEIN. In the concept WERDEN you have [a] play [between] the two concepts SEIN & NICHTS. Starting then from the concept of WERDEN you arrive at the concept of DASEIN (existent there); it is that which next (das nachste) unites itself to the WERDEN; the stiffening of the WERDEN is the DASEIN (existential state), a condensed WERDEN. A WERDEN must precede DASEIN.

Now what [do] we get when we have developed four such concepts within us and gained them in this way? We get much from them. In the concept of WERDEN then, we are thinking of nothing else than of what we have learned as content of the concept. We must forthwith exclude everything that does not belong to the concepts. Only SEIN AND NICHTSEIN belong thereto. Wherefore a strictly trained thinker is so hard to understand. When a concept is spoken of, one ought really just as little to think in connection with [it] of something diverse from it as in the case of the concept ‘triangle’. Dialectic is a splendid schooling for thinking.

Already we have four sequent categories: SEIN, NICHTSEIN, WERDEN, DASEIN. We could then go on and cause every possible thing to germinate out of DASEIN, and we would obtain a rich DASEIN from this one line. But we can also go otherwise to work. SEIN can also be developed on the other side; this is very fruitful. The pure idea (Gedanke) of the SEIN (existence) is projected into reality in thinking. 6 At the moment when we grasp the concept SEIN we must designate it as WESEN (Nature, essence, being, i.e. existent but not outwardly. Tr.)

The WESEN is SEIN retained within itself, the through and through self-penetrating SEIN. That will become evident upon reflection on the essential (wesentliche) and the inessential (unwesentliche) element in a thing. The WESEN is the SEIN at work within, the SEIN wholly devoting itself to the work, it is the WESEN-being. We speak of the WESEN of man when we associate his higher members with the lower and contemplate the concept of the WESEN as the concept attaching itself directly to the SEIN. From the concept of WESEN we gain the concept of ERSCHEINUNG (appearance or phenomenon), the self-manifestation outwardly, the contrary of WESEN, which has the WESEN within it; it is, namely, that which emerges. WESEN and ERSCHEINUNG are in a lie relation as SEIN to NICHTS. If we again connect WESEN and ERSCHEINUNG with each other, we get the ERSCHEINUNG that once more itself contains the WESEN. We distinguish between the outer appearance and the inner essence. But when inner WESEN overflows into ERSCHEINUNG, so that the appearance itself contains the WESEN, then we are speaking of WIRKLICHKEIT (Reality). No man trained in dialectics will express the concept REALITY otherwise than by thinking therein of APPEARANCE penetrated by WESEN. Reality is the fusion of the two concepts.

All speaking about the world must be permeated by those concepts which receive their contours through the inner texture (Gefuge), the organic edifice (Bau) of the whole world of concepts. We can still go on, ascend of even richer concepts. We could say: Wesen is the Sein which is in itself, which in itself has come to itself, which can manifest itself. If now this Sein not only manifests itself, but furthermore still extends its lines (Linien) to the environment, and is thus capable of expressing something yet different we arrive at the concept of BEGRIFF (concept) itself. We have our Wesen in us it works (arbeitet) in us. But when we cause the concept to work in us then we have something in us that points outwards which embraces the outer world. 7 Accordingly we can ascend from Wesen, Erscheinung, and Wirklichleit to BEGRIFF. We now have the concept in us, and we have seen in formal logic how the concept works in the conclusion. There the concept remains within itself. But now the concept can go out. Then we are speaking of a concept which gives back the nature (Natur) of the things. We there come to true OBJECTIVITY. In the contrast to the subjectively working concept, we come here to objectivity. As appearance (ERSCHEINUNG) relates itself to the WESEN, so objectivity to the concept. And one has only rightly apprehended the concept of objectivity when it has taken place in this way. If we now connect BEGRIFF — concept — and OBJECTIVITY, we come to the IDEE, the idea, which is at one and the same time objective appearance and contains the subjective within itself.

In this way the concepts grow on all sides out of the primary stem-concept, out of the SEIN. Thus there arises the transparent diamond-crystal world of concepts, with which only we should again approach the sense world. Then is exhibited how the sensible and supersensible world coincide with the concept-dialectic, and the human being comes to that concordance of the concepts with the reality, in which really rightful cognition consists.

Note 1:

At the beginning the source document the following is written: “Aristotle's Categories or Classes or Conditions or States: 1. Substance 2. Quality 3. Quantity 4. Relation 5. Action 6. Passion 7. Time 8. Place 9. Situation 10. Habit”

Note 2:

In the source document ‘obscuring’ is placed above ‘obliteration’ as it indicate a correction, but the latter is not crossed out.

Note 3:

In the source document the sentence reads “…crystallising out of the special…”, ‘out’ appears to be crossed out, but this is not absolutely clear.

Note 4:

In the source document ‘theory’ is placed over ‘system’ so as to suggest ‘system of categories’ could also be ‘theory of categories’, also above “Hegel's work”, and under “sum of our self-mobile” is the sentence (hand-written): “the logic derived from Logos, which of course is also a concept”.

Note 5:

In the source document ‘not’ is inserted as a hand-written correction, but with a ‘?’ after it, so as to indicate that the corrector is not sure about this correction.

Note 6:

In the source document ‘projected’ (hard to read) is an alteration from ‘protracted’.

Note 7:

In the source document “… it works (arbeitet) in us. But when we cause the concept to work in us …” is inserted (hand-written) as a correction.