1. Introduction

In a couple of recent articles, Wouter Hanegraaff has turned attention to imagination in an attempt to reenvision the field of religious studies. Echoing the work of Lucia Traut and Annette Wilke,1 he notes that currently “there is no general theoretical debate going on about the imagination, its function, or its relevance to the historical, social, discursive, or cognitive dimensions of religion”.2 Furthermore, he argues that “the concept of ‘imagination’ should be restored to the status of a crucial key term in the study of religion”.3 More broadly, Hanegraaff suggests that telling a historically well-informed grand story in which imagination is “the ‘true’ hero” would be a way of making religious studies, which tends to get lost in criticism and deconstruction, exciting again.4 He expands this vision to include the topics of experience, altered states of consciousness, and spirituality,5 which remain a “taboo sphere for secular scholars”.6 Insisting that “there is something beyond language”,7 Hanegraaff sketches an approach to the study of religion that focuses on the experiences people have in other states of consciousness, experiences that they deem as highly significant and meaningful. These experiences often involve deep shifts in imagination and in how people conceive of themselves and the world they inhabit.

There is hardly any way to better justify investigating Steiner’s conception of imagination. Steiner’s work, and in particular anthroposophy, represents a spiritual conception of what the human being and the cosmos are, and it is claimed that this conception is based on individual experiences in altered states resulting from meditation. As I will argue below, the ‘altered’ or ‘higher’ state of consciousness called imaginative consciousness plays a central role in Steiner’s anthroposophy. However, my main interest is not in the historical investigation of Steiner, but rather in the phenomenological and contemplative realm. By ‘phenomenology’ I mean the scientific investigation of the basic features and structure of consciousness, both in a descriptive and genetic sense.8 Phenomenology cannot be complete if it does not include altered states of consciousness. In fact, investigating non-ordinary structures of consciousness, such as the one Steiner calls ‘imagination’, can potentially help us understand the ordinary structure more clearly, simply by highlighting how the ordinary structure is or can be different from the non-ordinary. And comparing ordinary and altered states may reveal whether there are any structures or aspects of consciousness that are universal.

‘Contemplative science’ is often used as a name for a new and emerging discipline that studies the meditative mind and its experiences. I have elsewhere argued for including first-person approaches in contemplative science, which would be based on the comparative analysis of experiential accounts (traditional and contemporary) of meditative experiences.9 Using a first-person version of micro-phenomenology, I have begun studying meditative phenomena such as breath cessation10 and altered states such as access concentration or dhyāna.11 This approach can potentially be used to study any and all altered states of consciousness, including the ones that Steiner describes.

Indeed, all of these approaches may justify an interest in studying Steiner’s idea of imagination: For historical investigations, it is necessary to understand the basic terms used in the author’s studies. For phenomenological investigations of altered states, it is vital to have a clear understanding of how exactly an altered state is structured. For contemplative science, it is vital to have an explicit concept of what a meditative experience consists of—otherwise it would be impossible to identify an experience as an instance of a state.

As I will try to show, Steiner’s concept of imagination has many aspects, some of which are unclear in his presentation. It may be superfluous to state it explicitly, but I have no interest in providing either a one-sided apology or a one-sided critique of Steiner. Rather, I attempt to find a middle ground:12 I am a proponent of the ‘principle of charity’ in academic research (as introduced by Neil Wilson),13 which means that the conception of imagination that I present below is the strongest and most rational interpretation of Steiner’s statements I can conceive of. Applying the ‘principle of charity’ does not imply that one shies away from identifying problems. Rather, using this principle acknowledges that the strongest conception of an idea or a position is the one that can be subjected to the most effective critique. Furthermore, although I think there may exist altered states of consciousness that are similar or identical to the one Steiner designates as imaginative state, I have not myself published any systematic first-person investigations of whether such states exist and what their features may be. This is also not my aim in this paper. Such an investigation would only be possible once it is clear what the state involves. Hence, I will here focus exclusively on understanding Steiner’s conception of this state; any opinions I have on Steiner, including whether imaginative consciousness is experientially realizable and whether it may correspond to other contemplative states, will be bracketed as far as possible. It is worth noting, however, that some anthroposophic meditation practitioners claim to have access to imaginative consciousness and that this claim is something I have studied using a qualitative or second-person interview approach.14

To introduce the subject of imagination in relation to experience, meditation, altered states, and spirituality, I will give an outline of different conceptions of visual experiences in different spiritual systems throughout history. This will naturally only be a rough outline, but it will serve to show that Steiner continues a certain way of treating meditative visual experiences in a spiritual context. Within this paper, the expression ‘visual’ will be taken in a broad sense, including subtle impressions, inner and outer images, and perceptions.

Visualizing and having visual experiences during meditation are common to various spiritual traditions. Some forms of meditation make use of visual imagery as part of the meditative activity, and visual experiences can also happen spontaneously as a meditative process deepens. The objects that are visualized or experienced range from pure light to concrete imagery, such as figures, symbols and scenes. The first account of meditative visions can probably be found in the Upanishads (800–500 BC).15 Although light visions are also present in the older Rigvedas (1500–1200 BC), the connection to meditation is not evident, but light continues to play a role in the yogic traditions, for instance in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.16

Various early Buddhist sources (such as the very detailed Visuddhi-Magga)17 also describe visual experiences, ranging from quasi visual experiences arising as concentration increases during meditation (the uggaha-nimitta and patibhāga-nimitta) to a host of different visual experiences or illuminations. Furthermore, visualisations are an essential part of the repertoire of spiritual practices found in Tibetan Buddhism, such as guru yoga, deity yoga, and dream yoga, and these visualisations are also used when awakening the ‘inner fire’ or tummo.

Visual experiences can also be found in the Western traditions. Such experiences were, for example, part of the ritual life of ancient Greek culture,18 but they are also considered to be an essential part of the Christian contemplative path, particularly the stage of illumination or photismos and the beatific vision.19 Visualisations were part of the spiritual practices of Christianity, such as in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises, which include visualising scenes from the Gospels. Meditative visions resulting from spiritual practice form central motifs not only in the life of Christian saints such as Catherine of Siena20 and Teresa of Ávila21 but also in medieval kabbalah.22

The academic research on meditative visions in contemporary practitioners is scarce, but some work has been done on these experiences, such as light experiences in Buddhist practitioners.23 Contemporary in-depth accounts of visual experiences in meditation can also be found, such as the tögal visions of the Tibetan traditions.24 Some historical work has also been done recently on light experiences and spiritual perception in various traditions.25 However, current research is mainly focused on the various health benefits of meditation. Such lack of interest and even caution toward the value of meditative visions, however, is by no means just a modern or a Western phenomenon. In Zen Buddhism there is the concept of makyo and in Tibetan Buddhism the concept of nyam is spoken of.26Makyo and nyam refer to illusory content that can appear in meditation, including visual experiences. Such experiences are described as potentially seductive and it is said to be important to not regard them as significant and proceed to deepen meditation. A similar view of visions can be found in John of the Cross’s Ascent to Mount Carmel.27 However, alongside such skepticism toward visual material that comes up in meditation, meditative traditions also may regard visual experiences as both truthful and highly significant. Buddha’s enlightenment included visions and Paul’s conversion to Christianity was based on a vision. In other words, the situation is complex.

Visual experiences in meditation play a central role in Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy. Up until now, there has been no extensive survey of these kinds of experiences in Steiner’s work. Considering the amount of material available, this survey would be a considerable task and an important addition to the growing research on Steiner and anthroposophy. There are some anthroposophic authors who describe meditation-related visual experiences,28 and such experiences are also known to be part of the meditative life of contemporary anthroposophic practitioners.29 However, interpreting these visual experiences poses a challenge. In particular, it is unclear what counts as an authentic, non-hallucinatory visual perception of spiritual reality. The possibility of perceiving a spiritual reality is fundamental to Steiner’s original idea of anthroposophy, and it is important to anthroposophic meditation practitioners.30 One reason for this confusion is that Steiner gave many different descriptions of what such visual experiences—sometimes referred to as ‘imaginations’—consist of. Not only did he want to differentiate clearly between authentic and inauthentic visual experiences, but the phenomenology he gave of authentic visual experiences is also quite complicated and contains seemingly contradictory elements. For example, authentic visual experiences are typically presented as taking place in an altered state of consciousness. However, as we will see, such experiences can also be described as part of the normal state of consciousness. Furthermore, the stated characteristics of such visual experiences are sometimes conflicting: Sometimes the duration of imaginations is described as short, but they can apparently also be relatively long (see below). Sometimes imaginations lack tone completely, sometimes this is apparently not so. Sometimes they are associated with fear, sometimes with bliss. Sometimes imaginations are hallucinations, sometimes they are perceptions. Finally, Steiner makes it clear that color experience within the imaginative consciousness is different than normal color experience.31 The imaginative colors refer to a subtle dimension of color experience. Ordinary colors are never experienced in imaginations. Is this also true in relation to symbols, lines, and figures (another aspect of imaginative experience)? How can a symbol be experienced without it having a specific color and shape? Did Steiner speak about symbols and lines as somehow being subtle experiences as well?

My focus in this article is to give an outline of Steiner’s concept of visual experiences in meditation and to point out some problems that need to be addressed in order to make the concept consistent. Section 2 gives an overview of the topic of meditation-related visual experiences, or imaginations, in Steiner’s work. Section 3 traces the development of this concept whereas section 4 presents the phenomenology of the altered state of imagination. In section 5 the notion of different areas of imagination is introduced in addition to stages to address the problem of conflicting statements, and section 6 concludes.

2. Meditation-Related Visual Experiences in Steiner’s Work

Steiner develops a unique conception of visual experiences in relation to meditation and his conception of spiritual perception. According to him, certain kinds of visual experiences, referred to as ‘imaginations’, appear in altered, or in Steiner’s terms, higher, states of consciousness (which include ‘inspiration’ and ‘intuition’ in addition to ‘imagination’). Steiner’s conception of imagination is rather intricate, and it is hard to summarize it with a short description. In Steiner’s presentation, imagination aims at providing concrete, differentiated knowledge of a spiritual reality; not abstract descriptions of an undifferentiated unity with the divine (c.f. SE, 215).32 The claim of providing such knowledge is reflected in what can be seen as one of the central features of the anthroposophic movement, namely that it has a strong practical profile. Anthroposophy is well known for seeking renewal in many social or cultural domains, such as pedagogy, medicine, agriculture and art. This renewal is based on the concrete spiritual insights presented by Steiner. In other words, the central character of anthroposophy and its cultural influence is fundamentally linked to Steiner’s concept of imagination.

A preliminary definition of Steiner’s original concept of imagination can be offered here: Imagination is a concrete perception of a spiritual reality that takes on a visual character, consisting for example of light, colors, and shapes. However, as we will see, Steiner expands his conception of imagination to include a broader range of experiences. Furthermore, many different aspects connect to Steiner’s presentation of imagination on his work. Here is a list of different topics that are discussed in relation to imaginative consciousness in his work:

  • General characteristics
  • Historical aspects
  • Cosmological aspects
  • Anthropological aspects
  • Phenomenological aspects
  • Epistemological aspects
  • Knowledge gained through imagination
  • Examples of imaginations
  • Development of imagination through spiritual practice
  • 10  Comments on different persons’ imaginative abilities (e.g. Goethe and Swedenborg)

To give a comprehensive account of Steiner’s conception of imagination would require a book-length treatment of these (and perhaps even more) aspects. Here I will mainly focus on the phenomenology of imagination as Steiner presents it and also suggest a taxonomy. The phenomenological aspect is significant because it concerns the kind of experiences Steiner has in mind when he uses the term ‘imagination’. There are, however, other aspects that can be deemed to be important, such as the physical and mental foundations of imagination (as presented in Von Seelenrätseln [VS, 1917]33) and the actual transformation of regular mental activity into imagination as described in Steiner’s writings on cognitive development. Since these do not directly relate to the experiential descriptions of imagination, I will not discuss these here.

Since, as we will see, Steiner is not always consistent in his use of the term ‘imagination’, a central research question arises. When he uses the term differently, is he referring to certain kinds of imaginations, or is his understanding of the term inherently contradictory? Before we address these issues, I will give a short account of the development of Steiner’s idea of imagination. This will help us to understand the term better and to approach the sometimes conflicting descriptions of imagination, especially when developing the idea of different areas and stages of imagination in section 5.

3. The Development of Steiner’s Conception of Imagination

Descriptions of visual experiences related to spiritual practice and meditation can be found in Steiner’s earliest esoteric books, such as Theosophie (TH, 1904) and Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse der höheren Welten? (WE, published in 1904/05). The latter work in particular presents specific practices aimed at developing the capacity of having visual experiences in an altered state of consciousness. In this book, Steiner also notes that there are higher forms of knowledge connected to a transformation of the dream and sleep state (WE, 160–171). However, the term ‘imagination’, which refers to a state of consciousness connected to the sleep (dream) state, is first presented in Die Stufen der höheren Erkenntnis (SE, published 1905–1908). As Christian Clement has pointed out, the correspondence of higher knowledge with altered states of consciousness can be traced back at least to a statement from 1902, made in Das Christentum als mystische Tatsache und die Mysterien des Altertums (CM).34 He also suggests that the idea of higher knowledge in general can already be found in Steiner’s earliest philosophical works and plays a prominent role in his epistemology.35 A further connection can also certainly be drawn to the Goethean notion of ‘seeing’ ideas or immaterial entities like the ‘archetypal plant’ (Urpflanze).

Further remarks on imagination can be found later in Steiner’s books Die Geheimwissenschaft im Umriss (GU, 1910) and Ein Weg zur Selbsterkenntnis des Menschen (WS, 1912). Steiner also adds36 important remarks to his earlier books about imaginative visions, as documented in detail by the recently published critical editions of these texts. One example is a remark in Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse that was added to the fifth reprinting in 1914 (WE, 44), noting that the colors seen through spiritual perceptions should not be taken as literal colors, but as a reference to their subtle quality. A similar remark is added to the sixth reprinting of Theosophy in the same year (TH, 130f.). However, there is already a comment about color experience in the first edition of Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse. Steiner states that uses of color terms are only approximations (WE, 44). So this explanation is more of a general remark about the inadequacy of words and concepts for describing supersensible perception, which can also be found elsewhere.

There are also a few series of lectures that go into more depth about the nature of imaginative consciousness and add new perspectives. One of these series, also presented in 1914, is part of Okkultes Lesen und okkultes Hören.37 Additionally, in 1920 Steiner connects imagination to his doctrine of the twelve senses.38 Steiner’s doctrine of the human senses develops over many years and reaches a final stage with the formulation of twelve senses. The notion that there are twelve senses goes back at least to 1916,39 whereas in 190940 Steiner had spoken of only ten senses.

Finally, though I have not been able to identify when exactly this happened, at some point Steiner introduces the idea that physical reality can take on the shape of an imagination. For example, in his Letters to the Members (written between 1924 and 1925 and known as Anthroposophische Leitsätze today), Steiner describes the shape of the human head as “in a sense imaginative forms that have coagulated into physical density”.41 This statement may seem confusing because imagination in this sense is not about an altered state of consciousness. We could take this as an example of monism or non-dualism in anthroposophy—spiritual or ‘higher’ reality is not necessarily separate from physical reality—while the spiritual content that is experienced in altered states of consciousness can indeed manifest within the ‘lower’, normal or physical reality. This widening of the sense of imagination that seems to take place in his later works makes it possible to speak of imagination in narrow and broad senses in Steiner’s work. The narrow sense is imagination as an altered state of consciousness related to the sleep state. Imagination in the broad sense includes the narrow sense but also visual experiences within physical reality. I will expand on this distinction in the penultimate section of this article.

4. The Phenomenology of the Altered State of Imagination

This section deals with imagination as visual experiences in an altered state of consciousness in the narrow sense. Sixteen main characteristics can be identified and sorted into three main categories: general aspects, objective aspects, and subjective aspects. This is not a distinction that Steiner makes use of himself but is simply a way of organizing the aspects of experience involved. Note that the use of the term ‘objective aspects’ in this context does not imply that imaginations are epistemologically objective but rather that some of the features of the images are object-related rather than subject-related. Although the subjective and objective aspects of consciousness are not so clearly separated within the imaginative state according to Steiner, at least some of the terms used to describe the experiences have either a more subjective or objective emphasis. ‘Figures and lines’ for instance, refer to the features of an object, while ‘happiness’ refers to the subjective aspect—and both characterize imaginative consciousness.

4.1 General Aspects

The general aspects concern the features of the imaginative consciousness that are not clearly either subjective or objective but are still related to experience. This relationship exists either because they are neither subjective nor objective (spatio-temporal transformation) or represent a unity of subjective and objective aspects (unity with the visual object, duration, immediate intelligence).

4.1.1 Spatio-Temporal Transformation

As the imaginative consciousness emerges, the relationship between time and space is transformed: Time becomes space.42 An example of this is the so-called ‘life tableau’ or ‘panorama’, known from near-death experiences, in which a large time sequence is presented at once in one panoramic experience. Steiner explicitly refers to such panoramas as imaginations (as discussed by Andreas Neider).43

4.1.2 Duration

The imaginations can sometimes last for an “extraordinarily short amount of time.”44 “As soon as they have appeared”, Steiner writes in Ein Weg zur Selbsterkenntnis des Menschen, “they are already gone.”45 But they can also, if inner experiences are taken as the basis for the imaginations, last relatively long.46

4.1.3 Unity with the Visual Object

Another change that takes place in imaginative consciousness is that the three-dimensionality of visual experience is “lost completely” (SE, 294). During this experience one has the feeling of being inside the color image, or “Farbenbild” (ibid.), and of participating in its emergence. This sense of participation has to be present for an experience to count as a real imagination for Steiner. If one is standing in front of a color image, as in normal consciousness, then one is dealing with a “fantastical” (ibid.) or made-up image. Possible formulations of the unity with the image include feeling that “you live inside that“, that you are “moving inside the image”,47 or simply that “you are that”.48 Even the experience of figures and lines in the imaginative state (see 4.1.4) is such that one feels that the self is both, the one doing the drawing as well as the material being used for the drawing (SE, 249).

It may be noted here that Steiner also speaks of learning to separate oneself from the image—to remain self-conscious in relation to it, so that it does not disappear, as in a dream. Fully unifying oneself with images is, furthermore, part of what turns the imagination into an inspiration.49

4.1.4 Immediate Intelligence

An important topic in relation to imagination in Steiner is the transformation of the capacity of thinking into imagination. We will not be able to address this in depth here, as it belongs within a discussion of the development of the imaginative capacity, but there is one aspect of it that is essential to the phenomenology of imagination. When “all the senses become silent”50 and the sleep-like state is entered, the capacity of thinking can remain active.51 The visual experiences in the state of imagination appear as “immediately intelligent” (SE, 252). My suggestion is that this is similar to how, for instance, hand gestures or facial expressions appear ‘immediately intelligent’ in the sense that their meaning appears directly in connection to the visual impression.52 One does not need to make an explicit inference in order to understand what a smiling face means. Its meaning is directly linked to the expression.

4.2 Objective Aspects

The objective aspects of imagination concern those that parallel the features of visual phenomena or objects as seen in normal consciousness: light, color, figures and vibrancy.

4.2.1 Light and Radiation

Light is both a fundamental and undifferentiated visual experience. Without light, we would not see anything specific. But if we were to see only pure light, it would not tell us anything specific about the objects of the world either. In the context of religion and contemplation, light is a common, perhaps even universal, topic. Initiatory experiences in Steiner are connected to the appearance of light (GU, 76f.) or light bodies.53 The light that appears is described as the ‘clothes’ of spiritual beings that show themselves, as the light differentiates into color. The following quotation describes such a process:

If we feel, for instance, how the sun consists only of spirit and creative joy, while the moon acts as something cold, coarse, contracting and fossilizing, then the latter experience evokes certain light phenomena ranging from orange through red into brown. In the case of the sun, however, the sentiment condenses into color phenomena that range from blue through a blue violet into a reddish violet. As these phenomena intensify, entities emerge as the carriers of that light and of those colors, assuming form and shape.54

The process of visual spiritual perception consists of a sensation or feeling evoking an appearance of light or color, which, if intensified, becomes that material through which spiritual beings can manifest themselves.

4.2.2 Transparency and Self-Illumination

Imaginations can come in different degrees of transparency and self-illumination. Opaque formations relate to lower spiritual beings, more transparent and shining formations relate to mid-level ones, and self-illuminating or radiating (“in sich aufstrahlend”) appearances relate to higher beings (SE, 295).

4.2.3 Color

The imaginations are often characterized using color terms, even as ‘glittering’ or ‘sparkling with color’.55 The colors can represent different mental qualities like feelings or moods, but they can also represent spiritual beings. The color experiences are, however, not like ordinary visual experiences. Rather, as Steiner repeatedly remarks, the colors of imaginations concern their subtle mental or moral qualities, what Goethe referred to as the ethical-perceptual (“sinnlich-sittlich”)56 aspect of color experience. As already noted, Steiner underlined this in the comments he added to Theosophie and Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse in 1914.

One such comment was also added to Die Schwelle der geistigen Welt in 1918. It reads,

One could say, for instance, that a spiritual entity reveals itself as if through a color phenomenon. However, as one receives such descriptions of a supersensual entity, one should never forget that the genuine spiritual researcher, when he speaks of color in such a way, means the following: that his inner experience can be compared to the experience of his soul when he perceives the respective color in the sense-based mode of consciousness. Someone who means to say by such a description: I am experiencing something that is similar to sensual color, is not a spiritual researcher, but has a visionary experience or a hallucination. Those experiences of sympathy and antipathy, however, are indeed the first genuine supersensual perceptions one can have in the supersensual world.57

According to Steiner, seeing a sensory color during meditation would be a hallucinatory experience. The colors of the authentic imaginations are instead characterized by feelings such as sympathy and antipathy. He elaborates on this in a lecture held in Penmaenmawr in August 1923:

Genuine higher cognition occurs only when imaginations are experienced in such a way that, for example, color is no longer perceived in the same way in which we experience it in the world of physical color perception. How do we experience color, then? Well, when we perceive color in the physical world, then the various colors are always accompanied by various subtle inner experiences. Red, for instance, is perceived as something, that is attacking you, that wants to jump at you. The bull therefore, when he is jumped at by the red color, defends himself against this attack as he experiences it in a stronger way than we do. In humans, all these experiences are much fainter.58

We could add here that it would seem that everyone can have imaginative color experiences in this sense insofar as they are able to sense this subtle or ethical-perceptual dimension of color experience. No meditation or any special practices are necessary to have such experiences. This would make imaginations commonplace and not a matter of an altered state of consciousness. However, if we consider the other characteristics of imagination that are being presented here, it is easy to differentiate imaginations from simple subtle color experiences. Authentic imaginations would be two-dimensional and accompanied by heightened awareness, loss of the external senses and so on.

4.2.4 Figures, Lines, and Symbols

The imaginations, “Lichtleiber”59 or “Lichtgebilde”,60 can take on specific shapes, such as figures, lines, and symbols. These figures and lines are connected to specific phenomena – for instance, a blossoming flower is related to a certain line—and Steiner claims that there is nothing contingent about the way these phenomena are connected.61 The figures and lines are like letters forming words that can be read.62 Another shape that the visual experience can take on is that of a cloud (GU, 170 & 314).

4.2.5 Vibrancy or Aliveness

The imaginations are just as alive or vibrant (“lebhaft”) as sensory impressions.63 They are not pale and shadowy in the way memories typically are (SE, 219). They are also much more alive than dream images.64 Not only the quality of the visual impressions but also the representations themselves are experienced as being alive and vibrant.65

4.2.6 Materiality

Some imaginations take on a form of materiality, presenting themselves as phantoms or ghosts.66

4.3 Subjective Aspects

The subjective aspects concern the aspects of a visual experience that we would normally ascribe to the subject having the experience, such as their alertness and their feelings.

4.3.1 The Disappearance of the External World

As one enters into the altered state of imagination, all external sensory impressions disappear and one ends up in a state similar to the sleep state.67 In this state the physical body has become imperceptible.68 I understand this to mean that the sense impressions are not just dampened but have also disappeared completely and are not accessible to conscious awareness. In this state, it would not be possible to direct one’s attention to what one is touching, seeing, smelling, etc. in physical reality. These impressions are gone. Furthermore, in this state it would not even be possible to move one’s body, since the limbs are paralysed.69 The experience of the external senses shutting off and the ensuing disembodied state are described as very frightening70 and distressing (GU, 374).

4.3.2 Wakefulness

Even though imagination is similar to sleep, it differs from the sleep state in which full wakefulness71 and inward activity are retained.72 The level of wakefulness is even described as heightened in comparison to normal consciousness (GU, 278). But Steiner appears to say different things about this phenomenon at different times. In one place, 73 for example, he suggests that wakefulness can also be dampened, while imaginative content is understood, though the process of understanding may instead be related to inspiration.

4.3.3 Happiness

Imaginations are also said by Steiner to be accompanied by an “extremely strong subjective feeling of happiness”74 or a feeling of being “full of bliss”,75 meaning that the fearful experiences mentioned above should probably be understood as appearing before one properly enters into the imaginative state. If we understand encounters with the human double (‘Doppelgänger’) as imaginations or proto-imaginations, this could represent an exception to the rule that imaginations are accompanied by a sense of happiness, since such encounters are often stated to be rather frightening.

4.3.4 Smell and Taste

The imaginations can have qualities that are similar to taste and smell.76 Such imaginations that are related to the senses arise, as Steiner explains, because the mental activity is not completely separated from the physical body in the imaginative state. Imaginations related to the sense of smell and taste have a tint of materiality (4.2.6).

4.3.5 Sympathy/Warmness and Antipathy/Coldness

Imaginations can also be either cold or warm (SE, 295). Hence, they can be related to the sense of warmth, although these qualities should be understood as consisting of sympathy (warmth) or antipathy (coldness).77 In other words, it is more an impression of a feeling than an impression of a physical sense.

4.3.6 Lack of Tone

The experience of sound is completely78 or “almost completely lacking” (SE, 295) in the imaginative state.

4.4 A Comment on Different Forms of Imagination

As pointed out earlier, Steiner developed his conception of imagination throughout his life. One example of this is how different degrees of transparency are related to different spiritual beings. Steiner differentiates between three forms of imagination with different tints that arise depending on which physical sense is used as a basis for connecting to the spiritual realm.79 One of the benefits of the phenomenological structure of imagination developed here is that such forms can be constructed using the list of properties presented in Table 1.

Table 1

The Tint of Different Forms of Imagination in Relation to Sense Modalities

Sensory Basis of the Imagination The Resulting Tint of the Imagination
Taste Materiality, phantoms (4.2.6)
Warmth Sympathy and antipathy (4.3.5)
Seeing None/Pure image (lacking materiality, sympathy and antipathy)

5. The Different Stages and Areas of Imagination

The most thorough presentation of the development of the capacity of imagination in Steiner’s work is given in Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse. The developments happen through certain practices involving, for example, meditating on a plant seed or experiencing growth and decay in the sensory world. The plant seed meditation is said to lead to an experience of flame-like figures with different colors in the vicinity of the seed. Such experiences are, as Steiner clarifies later, to be understood as hallucinations at first, but they still constitute the material through which a spiritual entity or reality can later express itself. This process is also described as an activation of the different chakras or “lotus flowers” (GU, 327) and as an experience of illumination and initiation. Before the visual experiences that result from such a process can take on an objective character, the meditator has to go through an encounter with one’s lower nature, which is what is sometimes called “der Doppelgänger” or the “guardian of the threshold” (ibid., 338f.). Hence, the process consists of initial hallucinations, then seeing reflections or projections of oneself, and finally attaining perceptions of a spiritual reality or entity. Note that the distinction between hallucination and projection is not necessarily clear because projections can be understood as hallucinations.

Before this happens, however, there are certain subtle impressions—‘feine Eindrücke’—that can be experienced. These can be similar to the subtle atmosphere one experiences when reading a poem.80 Steiner also refers to “shadowy images” (SE, 219 & 253), consisting of color experiences in which there still is an experience of distance in relation to the image. Such shadowy images and atmospheres are not completely rejected but are said to constitute a “bridge” or a “preliminary state” (ibid., 294) of the imaginative consciousness (GU, 375f.).

Elsewhere I have referred to this area of experience as the in-between area.81 Here I wish to expand on this idea in relation to the imaginative consciousness. The in-between area lies between normal sensory perception and fully fledged supersensible experience. Steiner himself even refers to such an area, calling it a “Grenzgebiet”.82 I would also locate the color hallucinations that Steiner describes in this area. In contrast to the completely developed imaginations, such images are vague—shadowy—and, in contrast to authentic imaginations, still three-dimensional. Furthermore, the outer senses have not entirely disappeared in the in-between area, and although Steiner might not say so explicitly, the visual experiences of the in-between area might lack one or more of the subjective and objective aspects of imagination laid out above.

As I have indicated, imaginations in the narrow, supersensible sense of the term occur in a state where the external senses have been wholly shut off. As the imaginative capacity develops, the impressions of the state will become as strong as sensory impressions. In a lecture series, Steiner also adds that at a later point it becomes possible to switch into the altered state quickly, so that it becomes relatively easy to perceive things spiritually in addition to the normal senses.83 Steiner calls this a “higher capacity”84 that requires a deepening of the meditative capacity and implies that the supersensible perception can be activated by will.85

There is only one more piece that needs to be added before we can give a comprehensive account of Steiner’s conception of imagination—namely, the imaginations that happen within normal consciousness. The example I gave above was of the human head as an imagination. Steiner even states that recognizing the human shape in general is a kind of “clairvoyance that is always and everywhere present in life”.86 In its most general sense, imagination refers to “the activity that the soul performs when it devotes itself perceptually to an object that presents itself as a self-contained image”87. So imagination can refer to everything from recognizing certain forms within normal consciousness to supersensible perceptions of a spiritual reality or entity, with subtle impressions and hallucinations lying between those two extremes. We can summarize the areas of imagination and the process of developing the supersensible capacity with Figure 1 (p. 22, the dotted lines indicate that the distinctions are not necessarily fully clear as noted above in relation to hallucinations and projections).

We can use this scheme to create an overview of the other modes of experience in the imaginative consciousness, seen in Figure 2 (p. 23).

Emotions within the first area are probably varied, while the typical emotions of the second and third areas are fear/distress (and other difficult emotions related to the guardian/double) and happiness/bliss, respectively. The imaginations of all areas can most likely be characterized as having an immediate intelligence: They directly convey something that can be understood, although this might not be true of the hallucinatory imaginations. This most likely also points to an inspirative element of the imagination. Imaginations within the normal sensory realm would probably contain normal color experience but also carry with them subtle qualities that are not separate from what is seen externally, instead being mixed with the sensory color experience. The supersensible color experiences are described as just as alive or vibrant as normal sense perception and hence are referred to as “strong subtle color qualities” in the table. The participation in the arising of the image is strong in the supersensible area. In normal sense perception, such participation is usually not experienced, and is therefore referred to as ‘weak’. The participation in the in-between area is probably stronger than within the first area, since there are no external senses that anchor the experience. The participation is not as strong as in the supersensible area, since sensory consciousness is still there, creating a strong boundary between subject and object.

Figure 1 

The Areas and Capacities of Imagination

6. Conclusion

Steiner’s conception of imagination starts out as a narrow concept concerned with visual experiences in an altered state of consciousness. Throughout the years, the conception is clarified and differentiated. Steiner expands the concept of imagination to include (1) certain normal visual experiences, and (2) some visual experiences that may be called proto-imaginations, which form a bridge or lead to real imaginations later. There are many more issues in relation to imagination that have yet to be covered. However, before these are investigated, it is a good idea to clarify the phenomenological characteristics of imaginations since these help us determine what we fundamentally refer to when we speak about ‘imagination’ in relation to Steiner’s work.

Figure 2 

The Modes of Experience in Imaginative Consciousness

Figure 1 above solves the problem regarding imaginations being described as both supersensible and taking place within normal sensory perceptions. Steiner talks about imagination in different areas of experience. Then there are possible minor confusions, such as that imaginations can have both a short and long duration or that tone experience is either completely or almost completely gone within the imaginative consciousness. In the case of duration, Steiner speaks of a certain kind of imagination, i.e. one that takes inner experience as its basis and lasts longer than the other types of experiences. In the case of tone experience, no qualifications are given, and hence we cannot say for certain whether there are more kinds of imaginations, some of which may involve tone. Fearful experiences can be understood to be part of the encounter with the guardian of the threshold, while supersensible imaginations are blissful. The confusion about whether imaginations are hallucinations or not can be cleared up by understanding them developmentally: At first they are hallucinations, then they become perceptions. The final issue of how to understand figures, lines, and symbols within the imaginative consciousness cannot be solved in any simple way. Imaginative color experiences are similar to color experiences, but they occur in other experiential dimensions. Is this true for figures, lines, and symbols as well? Does it make sense to speak of ‘subtle symbols’? Does not any experience of a symbol necessitate it having some minimal sensory color? We could perhaps try to understand figures and symbols as being ‘tinged with materiality’, as some imaginations are—if we understand ‘materiality’ to mean physical color qualities. But this would open up the possibility of understanding other supersensible imaginations as having normal sensory qualities as well. However, as far as I know, Steiner does not address this issue. Hence, we will leave this question open here. In other words, there is some confusion left to be dealt with regarding Steiner’s theories of imaginative consciousness.

Some basic questions also need to be answered before we have a clear phenomenological concept of imagination in Steiner’s writings: Which of the characteristics are necessary and which are contingent? For example, do the external senses need to be completely shut off every time one has an imagination in the narrow sense? I have already indicated that Steiner states the possibility that one can learn to switch into the state from normal consciousness quickly. This theory probably implies that, for example, the body does not necessarily have to be completely paralyzed when one enters the imaginative state. We can also ask whether the spatio-temporal transformation always has to take place. Yet, Steiner explicitly says that authentic imaginations must have two-dimensionality. With regard to wakefulness, however, the matter is not so clear, since Steiner states that imaginations can be accompanied both by a heightened wakefulness as well as a dampened consciousness. Hence, both characteristics seem contingent. However, as indicated, the dampening may be related to inspiration. But if we separate imagination from inspiration, treating them as independent processes in which inspiration gives an understanding of the imagination, then the characteristic of immediate intelligence seems to be lost. One solution here would be to distinguish imaginations that require further knowledge to be understood and imaginations that appear as immediately intelligible.

I will not go through the rest of the list here; I will only underline that clarifying the concept of imagination in Steiner’s writings would require further interpretation and discussion. The conclusion might of course be that Steiner had a multitude of meanings in mind when he introduced this term in different contexts and that we cannot presuppose that there is one overarching concept of imagination in his work. Whether there is such a unified concept or not, is a central question for future research on Steiner, and the notion of areas of imagination presented in section 5 may help create an initial systematic overview of imagination in his work.