Rudolf Steiner on Higher Cognition


Rudolf Steiner articulates three capacities of higher cognition, whose “seeds slumber in every soul” but which spring to life only in a few in whom, either by personal initiative or by dint of circumstance, these latencies become reality. Steiner designates these three capacities by the terms Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition, respectively. I will briefly comment on each of these in turn.

Imagination is an intensification of the poetic capacity to create images through metaphor. Put another way, it is the activity of generating a (visible) body to convey a(n invisible) essence or principle. Consider the phrase notorious among lobbyists: “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” It is not really talking about a meal and yet we understand the principle that this image embodies. It was an act of imagination to hit upon that isomorphism and establish the metaphor. Steiner’s Imagination is an intensification of the same capacity to generate images just as Inspiration is an intensification of the capacity to interpret them.

It is worth noting that both of these capacities are active—though in virtual form—in our ordinary process of perception. If we analyze this process, we will discover that the immediate form of sensation through which we make contact with the rest of the world bears no resemblance to the world as it appears to us upon the completion of this same process. To wit, our souls must translate raw sensation into intelligible perception and they accomplish this by lending imaginal body to what at first lacks it. It bears emphasis that “imaginal” is by no means opposed to “actual,” “material,” “physical,” or “real.” Instead, each of these principles is instantiated and made manifest in particular forms by way of imagination at work in perception. This can be verified by observing that neither “actual,” nor “material,” nor “physical,” nor “real” is an object of sense. Instead, each of these things represents a principle or quality that may be predicated of one or another object perception. Hence Steiner’s assertion that “reality is not the first form with which the world confronts me but the last.” 

Inspiration, as indicated above, represents the inverse of Imagination; the capacities are reciprocal. As the latter consists in lending imaginal body to intangible essences, so Inspiration is the process whereby these essences are “inhaled” into the understanding. Put another way, the soul is inspired by the essences that were bodied forth through Imagination working in perception. Imagination is akin to illustration; Inspiration is akin to reading. To take up the saying presented above: the ability to comprehend the significance of the metaphor relies on the same capacity, in latent form, which may appear as Inspiration in its fruition.

Intuition relates to the process of identification and results from the liberation of our ability to say “I” from its typical referent. 

In sum: the object of perception is composed of sensations like colours and temperature. This is the imaginative element of perception. The inspiration element of perception is active in the ability to interpret and understand the meaning of perceptions. This could even be so fundamental as the recognition of “materiality.” The intuitive element is active in the ability to identify the wholeness present in discrete objects of perception and distinguish them from the total field of experience. Every distinction is of course a relation and hence Intuition leads ultimately to the knowledge of God.

Photo by Anni Roenkae on

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