The Archetype of “Reversal” (περιπέτεια, peripeteia) or “the Flip” in Perception and Thinking

In ordinary sense perception, consciousness is given by way of percepts. This is to say that the consciousness of objects of perception is directly given with the perception of them and requires no initiative or effort on the part of the subject to achieve. The Moon makes manifest the light of the Sun, which but for this reflection, during the night might stream unnoticed into cosmic space. In the same way, the objects of perception, disclosed to consciousness, also disclose consciousness to the one who understands how to look. In other words, the contents of consciousness are simultaneously a container for consciousness, as higher content. While percepts are directly given to consciousness, to understand their meaning, essence, and formal cause, however, requires effort on the part of the subject. To wit: we must actively elaborate and supply, through our own initiative, the concepts that are correlative to these directly given percepts. The former serve to disclose their correlative percepts in the light of meaning. 

The above is intended to present a basic phenomenological characterisation of ordinary perception. In The Philosophy of Freedom, Rudolf Steiner describes a transcendental state of consciousness whose entry-point can be discovered through an intensification of attentiveness to the operation of ordinary perception. “Whereas observation of things and events, and thinking about them, are everyday occurrences filling up the continuous current of my life,” Steiner writes, “observation of the thinking itself is a kind of exceptional state.” In this “exceptional state”, the function of thinking undergoes a sort of reversal or peripeteia (περιπέτεια, 1, 2, 3) and its function is thereby transformed into an organ of perception. The objects of this perception are not objects of sense, however, but objects of thought. Hence, while in the ordinary state, percepts are given to consciousness and concepts must be supplied through thinking, in the extraordinary state, concepts are already given in themselves, but not at first to consciousness—not at first as percepts. In other words, the concepts are given transcendentally and thinking must strive to perceive them. In the second state, it is not, therefore, concepts, but consciousness, that we must supply through our own initiative if we are to become aware of this transcendental givenness. The concepts possess an objectivity themselves, but this is not, at first, perceptible to us. 

It is possible to present the characterisation in the Aristotelian terms of form (i.e. quiddity or “whatness”) and matter (i.e. quantity or “what something is made of”). In the first instance, the matter is given to consciousness and the I must supply the correlative form through its own activity of cognition. The inverse holds in the transcendental consciousness: the forms are given and the I must provide the cognitive matter. This is to say that the I must render concepts into percepts. This is possible because thinking is the middle term, or inflection point, between conceptual and the perceptual world. It is to be hoped that the foregoing discussion has served to disclose the truth of this statement.

Steiner’s explains in his own words, the manner by which thinking reconciles the apparent disjunction and serves as a portal between the ordinary state and the transcendental one: 

When we make thinking an object of observation, we add to the other observed contents of the world something which usually escapes our attention. But the way we stand in relation to the other things is in no way altered. We add to the number of objects of observation, but not to the number of methods. While we are observing the other things, there enters among the processes of the world…one process which is overlooked [i.e. thinking]. Something is present which is different from all other processes, something which is not taken into account. But when I observe my own thinking, no such neglected element is present. For what now hovers in the background is once more just thinking itself. The object of observation is qualitatively identical with the activity directed upon it. This is another characteristic feature of thinking. When we make it an object of observation, we are not compelled to do so with the help of something qualitatively different, but can remain within the same element.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Wayne Fair says:

    Maybe only tangentially related (if that) – but your post made me think of a beautiful insight from George MacDonald,
    “For the world is–allow us the homely figure–the human being turned inside out. All that moves in the mind is symbolized in Nature. Or, to use another more philosophical, and certainly not less poetic figure, the world is a sensuous analysis of humanity, and hence an inexhaustible wardrobe for the clothing of human thought.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Lovely, thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. c l barton says:

      Macdonald believed we have a spiritual duty to discover the divine imagination in whose image “it was made” and to do so, one “must watch its signs, its manifestations” (“The Imagination” 10).

      Liked by 2 people

  2. stolzyblog says:

    Hello. I am not certain about this explication you have attempted. Maybe I must re-tread it more exhaustively. I am thinking most pointedly about your summarizing statement: “This is to say that the I must render concepts into percepts.” It seems to me more the case that (in the exceptional state) the I must render thinking itself into a percept — into something observed (which normally goes unnoticed). The perception of concepts during normal cognition actually seems more commonplace to me, as though our inner experience freely blends the connecting between previously generated or experienced concepts with percepts and also previous percepts, or memories. The problem might have to do with how it is described — I will review it.

    Steiner’s book, especially chapters 3 and 4 (which talk about your topic) is definitely revelatory and valuable… can easily say that working with it is a lifelong activity. I think for me personally, the conviction that living thinking is real, a different than normally recognized state, and also different from a mere computational connecting of concepts, is made more manageable via early experience with seeing mathematical proofs and truths unfolding within my mind, even going back to age 10 or 11. Steiner indicates this also in several places, how the -doing- of mathematical thinking, free of usual sensory percept objects, can act as a stepping stone or halfway point towards experiencing thinking as a legitimately spiritual activity.

    Very good post; also liked the other comment!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      THank you for the comment I see what you mean. Still, I have considered what you said and I stand by the statement. I think it is right that concepts are present in ordinary perception but at the same time, there is something else that happens when the concept is encountered from the other side, through the peripeteia. Ordinarily, concepts are “mirrored” in percepts. The flip mirrors percepts in concepts so the active organizing power of the latter is perceptible. This vision seems to disclose the living thinking that brings them into relation and sustains the relationship and which ordinarily goes unnoticed, “Not known, because not looked for,” to quote T.S. Eliot.

      DOes this seem right?


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