selective focus photography of red waterlily flower in bloom

Rudolf Steiner’s Theory of the Twelve Senses

by Amy Huntereece, PhD candidate, M.Ed., January 2021

Note: Steiner’s schema is an ancient wisdom that models a spirit imbued view of science. Though other cultures exemplified a similar, common philosophy of thinking, Steiner was inspired by Goethian thinking. His 12 senses theory offered an educational perspective that provided a way to nourish developing human beings with a more nuanced experience in the world. If the human being proceeded through the development and any senses went underdeveloped, they could be noticed as missing even if people could not explain it. Their absence could create a sense of unfulfillment, negatively impacting spiritual development.  Steiner offered a broader understanding of the way in which educators could support the unfolding capacities of the developing human being, and, potentially make up for any capacities that were not appropriately developed in childhood. 

About 100 years ago, Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education, developed and introduced the idea that humans have 12 senses, not just five. 

Tom van Gelder wrote about these on his website about Phenomenology. There he states,

“There is a relationship between sensory perception, and health and vitality. Your vitality increases if you observe intensively and perceptively. At the same time, the healthier and more vital you are, the more intensive and perceptive your observations.”

Steiner grouped the 12 senses in this order into three categories. Some other sources (van Gelder, 2015; Boisvert, 2011) have changed the order but the three categories remain consistent.

Will, feeling, thought

  • The first four senses, the lowest, are called physical senses, or senses of the will because they are used to perceive one’s own body. The willing category includes the senses of life, movement, balance, and touch.
  • The middle four senses are the senses of feeling. Observations made with these senses move awareness from an internal experience outward to an external experience. These senses are also reflected in our language: a tastefully furnished house, a sourpuss, hard to swallow, heart-warming, cold thought. The feeling category includes the senses of smell, taste, sight, and temperature.
  • The last four senses, the senses of thinking, are the spiritual or knowledge senses. The thinking category includes the senses of hearing, speech/word sense, thought and ego.

This year I will focus on one sense per month.  I will explain the sense further, relate it to Unitarian Universalist principles, and give suggestions of games or activities that you can do to fortify the sense.


Boisvert, L. (2011). The wonder of childhood.

Steiner, R. (1986). In A. Howard (Ed.), Spiritual science as a foundation for social forms [Geisteswissenschaft als erkenntnis der grundimpulse sozialer gestaltung] (M. St. Goar, Trans.). Anthroposophic Press. (Original work published in 1920).

van Gelder, T. (2015). The twelve senses.

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