What Does It Mean to See With “Spiritual Eyes”?

In the famous first conversation between Goethe and Schiller on July 20, 1794, Goethe outlined his perception of the “archetypal plant”. Schiller responded by saying that this was not an “experience”—as Goethe claimed—but an idea, to which Goethe replied: “I am very pleased that I have ideas without knowing it and even see them with my eyes.” 1 He thus alluded to the possibility of seeing the supersensory as a reality and, indeed, as a reality that acts in the world perceptible to the senses.

How can we understand Goethe’s words about “seeing with spiritual eyes”? The question is of great importance for anthroposophy and its practical manifestations in education, medicine, agriculture, etc., because Rudolf Steiner repeatedly referred to Goethe in order to characterise his own supersensory vision. The following remarks are the result of a long occupation with this topic. As far as specialist literature is concerned, in addition to the fundamental writings of Rudolf Steiner, we rely on anthroposophical authors such as Frank Teichmann, Herbert Witzenmann, Jochen Bockemühl, and Ernst-Michael Kranich. This path, which can make natural phenomena comprehensible and thus lead to “reading in the book of nature”, can be clearly described, reproduced, and discussed and can therefore be called “scientific”.

Observation and Comparison

The first level on this path consists of precise observation and description of the phenomena under investigation. Let’s take the annual flowering plant from the conversation between Goethe and Schiller as an example. It appears in the forms and colours of the root, stem, leaves, flowers, and fruits. Precise observation requires attention and dedication. “What is the hardest thing of all? The thing that seems the easiest to you: to see with your eyes what lies before your eyes,” says Goethe 2. A good method for precise observation is drawing, which was once a natural part of studying biology.

The second level consists of comparing these different forms, for example the leaves to each other or the leaves with the flower. Goethe practised comparing—which is, after all, one of the most basic intellectual, scientific activities—extensively, for example, by looking at vegetation in Germany, then in the Alps and then in Italy. In The Metamorphosis of Plants, he described the comparisons between different plant organs as metamorphoses. A sequence of adjacent forms appeared to him as a “transformation”: “Everyone who observes the growth of plants to any degree will easily notice that certain of their external parts sometimes transform themselves and change into the form of the neighbouring parts, sometimes completely, sometimes partially.” 3 In fact, the parts of the plant, once formed, do not literally transform into one another but persist side by side – the transformation takes place in the mind of the observer.

It is, therefore, possible to distinguish between a subjective and an objective aspect for each of the levels of cognition outlined above. On the first level, observation is subjective; the natural phenomena are objective. On the second level, there is the comparison on the part of the subject and the connection between forms on the part of the object. While the observer faces the phenomena on the first level, this is no longer the case on the second, where they see the forms as transformations of each other. It is the observer’s inner activity which enables one form to be transformed into the other (and requires that “we keep ourselves so mobile and formative […] following the example which [nature] lays before us” 4). The observer, in a sense, becomes involved in the transformation. The individual forms face them, but they themselves shape the space between the forms with their intellectual activity.

The transformation of form that the observer performs in the contemplation of the movement of metamorphosis is guided by forces (e.g. expansion and contraction) that act not only in their consciousness but also in nature. The observer does nothing other than what happens in nature. However, they only experience these forces if and when they actively carry out the metamorphoses in the spirit. In this sense, young Rudolf Steiner wrote about Goethe’s idea of plant metamorphosis: “The greatness of this thought […] only dawns on you when you try to bring it to life in your spirit, when you endeavour to follow it in the thinking. You then realise that it is the nature of the plant itself translated into the idea which lives in our spirit as much as it does in the object.”5

For a materialistic and dualistic consciousness, this is unacceptable because it is only willing to accept as real that which is independent of the observer. It thus arbitrarily blinds itself to an essential area of reality (namely the living and its formative forces.)

Law and Being

The transformation of plant forms does not happen chaotically but follows certain laws, which Goethe also described. The development of the flowering plant, for example, is subject to a threefold expansion and contraction: “The same organ which has expanded as a leaf on the stem and assumed a most varied form, now contracts in the calyx, expands again in the petal, contracts in the reproductive organs in order to expand for the last time as fruit” 6, and contracts again for the last time in the seed. In the leaves, the forms are formed “consecutively,” in the flower ” side by side” and in the fruit “within each other”. In the wonderful way Goethe interwove subject and object, he wrote: “Recognising the existence and activity of related living entities alongside, with and within each other guides us in every observation of the organism and illuminates the incremental path from the imperfect to the perfect.”7

The cognition of these laws of the transformation of form represents a third level of reading in the book of nature. These laws cannot be found by simply participating in the metamorphosis, but only if we observe our own activity at the same time, if we listen sensitively, we might say—that is, if we pay attention to “what” we “experience” while participating in the transformation of form. True cognition is always an experience; feeling, when purified from self-reference, becomes a higher organ of perception. This inner perception fosters conceptual understanding: “The person who can transform seeing into an inner perception will have made the concept much easier for themselves.”8

Finally, on the fourth level, we see the unified being (“type”, “principle”, “idea”) that underlies the various phenomena and manifests and realises itself in them and in their metamorphosis. “It is cognisance of the essential form with which nature only ever plays and playfully brings forth manifold life.”9 And of this form, he says: “Forwards and backwards the plant is only ever a leaf.”10 Goethe was not referring to the “leaf” as we imagine it objectively as a leaf on the stem. “It goes without saying that we ought to have a general word by which we could designate this organ, metamorphosed into so many different forms, and compare all the phenomena of its shape with it: at present, we must content ourselves with accustoming ourselves to considering the phenomena forwards and backwards in relation to one another.”11

Goethe also described how subject and object relate to each other on this fourth level of cognition: “This would, therefore, in my experience, be the point where the human spirit can come closest to objects in their generality, bring them closer to itself, amalgamate with them, as it were, […] in a rational way.” 12 Subject and object here become one in the spirit.

Being and I

What does “in a rational way” mean? It cannot be mere reason that is meant because the unity between observer and object can certainly not be experienced purely intellectually. Rather, it is an inner creation, an active production or “actualisation” (Herbert Witzenmann) of the idea. Rudolf Steiner, once again: “Goethe imagines the archetypal plant to be an entity that cannot become present in our spirit if the latter is merely passive towards the outside world. However, what can only appear through the human spirit does not necessarily have to originate from the spirit. In fact, it is very easy to arrive at an erroneous notion here. It is impossible for the majority of people to imagine that something for which subjective conditions are absolutely necessary for its appearance can nevertheless have an objective meaning and entity. And the “archetypal plant” is precisely of the latter type. It is the objective essence contained in all plants, but if it is to acquire manifest existence, it must be freely constructed by the spirit of the human being.”13

Interestingly, bringing forth the essence in this way is entirely analogous with the process by which we express ourselves as an I. The name “I” does not denote something outside myself but is a self-created and, at the same time, a self-creative manifestation of the spirit “in” me. In fact, it is an inner process of will through which I constitute or actualise myself as a spiritual being and become self-conscious in the process. Johann Gottlieb Fichte called the I a “force which has an eye” 14. The I is a volitional and creative spiritual being, and through its volitional creation, the idea of the plant manifests: “leaf”. This creation is intuitive, which means that the I knows exactly what is meant by the thought. It knows it from the inside because it creates it. The thought contains nothing that is not put into it by the I that produces it. But what the I puts into the thought does not come from itself but from the world.

The “Archetypal Plant”

A further, fifth level of reading in the book of nature is to comprehensively clarify the concept of “leaf”. The leaf is, above all, a living surface on which the elemental effects of air and light interpenetrate with those of water and earth.15 This concept also includes the seasonal change of the “leaf” in its development as a cotyledon, stem leaf, sepal, petal, and carpel as well as its species-specific and geographical variation. That the concept of vertically upward and downward striving growth—root and stem—must also be taken into account with regard to the archetypal plant was recognised by Goethe in his late essay on the vertical and spiral tendency in vegetation: “Once the concept of metamorphosis has been fully grasped, attention must further be paid first to the vertical tendency in order to understand the formation of the plant in greater detail. This is to be regarded as a spiritual staff that establishes its existence and is capable of sustaining it for a long time. […] It is through this that the plant takes root in the earth and at the same time raises itself upwards.”16

Taken together, all this results in the answer to Goethe’s question about the existence of an “archetypal plant”: “How else would I recognise that this or that structure is a plant if they were not all formed according to a pattern?”17

Imagination: Seeing with the Eyes of the Spirit as a Creative Process

In a sixth step, we can now turn back to the phenomena and look at them in the light of the intuitively grasped and comprehensively understood idea. As the “eyes of the spirit work together with the eyes of the body” in a “living alliance,”18 we become aware of the archetypal plant in a specific realisation in every plant. Such cognition does not subsume the phenomena under an abstract schema but is “living perception”. The difference lies in the fact that the schema is abstracted from the phenomena, while the perception is “seen into the phenomena,” as it were. By observing the sequence of leaves, the metamorphic transition from the stem leaves to the petals and fruits, and the whole plant as a manifestation of the archetypal plant, I carry these ideas towards the phenomena, “radiating” them spiritually into them. This is an active, creative, and, in a certain sense, artistic process, and yet it is not a projection because what is radiated towards the phenomena comes from them themselves. It was only reborn in the cognitive activity of the I.

We are largely unfamiliar with this imaginative activity in ordinary consciousness. Reading about it is not sufficient; we have to experience it. This is where the exercises from Rudolf Steiner’s Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. How is it Achieved? become relevant. For example, through the reverential and actively receptive inner “letting impressions of nature resonate”, we awaken the ability to experience thought images as imaginative rays.

“Seeing with the eyes of the spirit” thus differs from seeing with the eyes of the body not only in that we “see” something non-sensory, namely ideas, but in that we see them when and only when we produce them. They do not come to us like sensory impressions from outside but are created. What is cognised through them is therefore, not externally “provable” because it only exists and can only be experienced in the living process of creative cognition, which is always bound to the subject. It is not the result of cognition that can be proven, but the path to it can be experienced and described as proof and, thus, as scientific.

With this, Goethe and then Rudolf Steiner solved the old question as to the ideas at work in nature. Ideas are not buzzing around somewhere in a spiritual world, where we could seek them out and observe them like sensory objects in “nebulously diluted materiality” 19, but neither do they not exist. They work in nature because nature is designed according to them, but they only appear in the observer’s encounter with nature as beings to be created and experienced every time afresh. Nature is simply not complete without the human being who recognises it. Spiritual perception is a creative, scientifically artistic process of the spiritual rebirth of nature through the active I, an “imagination”.

The Overall Cosmic Context

Finally, we can describe a seventh level of cognition on the path of reading in the book of nature. It provides insight into the comprehensive, cosmic context in which a being lives and appears and without which it is ultimately inconceivable. In the case of plants, it is the interaction of sunlight with the substances and forces of the earth—the living interplay over the course of the year in which the plant lives, grows and develops. In conjunction with the directing force of gravity, the sun causes the stem to grow upwards and the root downwards. The spiral arrangement of the leaves and the symmetry and numerical laws of flower formation can be seen as an earthly reflection of the (geocentrical) planetary orbits and their laws. Ernst-Michael Kranich has described this “correspondence of images” in detail and also characterised it as an “imaginative method of cognition”.20 (Apart from these, additional, comprehensive aspects can be found for contexts in which the plant being lives).

The seven levels of the path described are thus:

  • open-minded and detailed observation;
  • comparison of related phenomena through the formation of sequences and thinking in terms of metamorphosis;
  • description of the laws experienced through meditative immersion in the phenomena and their metamorphoses;
  • finding the being that remains constant in the changing phenomena and recreating it inwardly;
  • developing a comprehensive concept of this being;
  • imaginative “artistic” perception of phenomena as a sensory revelation of the spiritual being;
  • comprehensive observation of the contexts in which the being appears in its revelations.

The Sensory World as a Revelation of the Spirit and the Debates about Anthroposophy

“What more can human beings gain in life than for God-Nature to reveal itself to them / The way it lets the solid trickle into spirit, the way it preserves in solidity what has been created by the spirit,” writes Goethe in his poem about Schiller’s skull. Recognising this transition between spirit and matter—that is, the effects of the spirit in matter—in order to be able to act accordingly in a meaningful and beneficial way is one concern, perhaps even the main one, of anthroposophical practice in education, medicine, agriculture, and so forth. Rudolf Steiner has given us a wealth of new concepts and indications guiding us where to look, and after 100 years of anthroposophy, we have the opportunity to understand, describe, practise, and discuss the paths to this sensory-supersensory cognition. That would be anthroposophical scientific practice. There would then be no need to keep having fruitless debates about how to deal with Rudolf Steiner’s supposed “revelations”.


Rudolf Steiner, Methodische Grundlagen der Anthroposophie. 1884–1901 [Methodological Foundations of Anthroposophy. 1884-1901], GA 30 (Dornach, 1989).

Translation Christian von Arnim
Sketch Fabian Roschka

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  1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Glückliches Ereignis” [Happy Event] in Ergänzungsband Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften nach der Berliner Gedenkausgabe (BA) [Scientific Writings Supplementary Volume According to the Berlin Commemorative Edition], (Berlin, 2005), Volume 16, p. 868.
  2. Goethe, Xenien und Votivtafeln aus dem Nachlass [Xenia and Votive Tablets from the Estate], BA 2:495.
  3. Goethe, Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen [The Metamorphosis of Plants], BA 17:22.
  4. Goethe, Bildung und Umbildung organischer Naturen [Formation and Transformation of Organic Natures], BA 17:14.
  5. Rudolf Steiner, Einleitungen zu Goethes naturwissenschaftlichen Schriften [Introductions to Goethe’s Scientific Writings], GA 1 (Dornach, 1987).
  6. Goethe, Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen [The Metamorphosis of Plants], BA 17:56.
  7. Goethe, Fragmente zur vergleichenden Anatomie [Fragments on Comparative Anatomy], BA 17:429.
  8. Goethe, Über die Spiraltendenz der Vegetation [On the Spiral Tendency of Vegetation], BA 17:165.
  9. Goethe, Letter to Charlotte von Stein of July 9, 1786, in WA IV 7:242.
  10. Goethe, Italienische Reise [Italian Journey], Account from July, BA 14:561.
  11. Goethe, Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen [The Metamorphosis of Plants], BA 17:57.
  12. Goethe, BA 16:870.
  13. Rudolf Steiner (1884–1901), GA 30.
  14. Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1812), System der Sittenlehre, Johann Gottlieb Fichtes nachgelassene Werke [System of Ethics, Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Posthumous Works], Edited by IH Fichte, (Bonn, 1835).
  15. Andreas Suchantke, Das Blatt – der wahre “Proteus”. Wie weit ist Goethes Metamorphosenlehre heute noch aktuell? [The leaf – the True “Proteus”. To What Extent Is Goethe’s Theory of Metamorphosis Still Relevant Today?], in Die Drei, No. 6, 1983.
  16. Goethe, Über die Spiraltendenz der Vegetation [On the Spiral Tendency of Vegetation], BA 17:154.
  17. Goethe, Italienische Reise [Italian Journey], Account from July, BA 14:441.
  18. Goethe, Wenige Bemerkungen [A Few Remarks], in Ergänzungsband Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften nach der Berliner Gedenkausgabe (BA) [Supplementary Volume According to the Berlin Commemorative Edition], Volume 17:101.
  19. Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy CW 9 (SteinerBooks, 1994).
  20. Ernst-Michael Kranich, Pflanze und Kosmos. Grundlinien einer kosmologischen Botanik [Plant and Cosmos. Foundations of a Cosmological Botany], (Stuttgart, 1997).

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