Intuition in Philosophy

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Intuition in Philosophy

Dr. Gisle R. Henden

A dissertation submitted to The University of Seven Rays

for the degree of MSE

October 31st 2005


1 Introduction 3

2 Socrates and Plato 6
3 Immanuel Kant 14
4 Henri Bergson 22
5 Carl Gustav Jung 32
6 Buddhism 41
7 Theosophy 49
8 Conclusion 64
9 References 70

Appendix 83

1. Introduction

Why is it that philosophers define intuition as rational and superior to analytical thinking while psychologists tend not to? Anyone acquainted with the heuristics and biases literature has noted that intuition is conceived as a largely unconscious, biased, automatic and effortless cognitive process.1 Those familiar with philosophy know that here intuition is considered supreme intelligence and according to Plato the apprehension of it, is rather to be thought of as a revelation which can only follow upon a long intellectual training.2 Indeed this is an intriguing issue. It is so to speak a Copernican reversal in our entire history of epistemology. The theoretical rationale and objective of this inquiry is thus to painstakingly track the evolution of this elusive concept from its origins to modern day folklore and in this way address the question; what is intuition? That is, I limit my exploration to philosophy.
In each paragraph there are three main issues that I work at. The first issue is the definition of intuition. This will be elaborated at some length. The second and equally important issue is the distinction between analytical and intuitive thinking. As this is indeed an intricate matter I do not intend to contribute in the debate. Within the scope of this thesis there is little space for it. Rather I try in a hermeneutic spirit to present one authentic view, which apparently is properly justified. Finally, as science is characterized by a distinct methodology it is of relevance to see how these two orientations of mind are anchored in different methods.3 Concerning the choice of authors I have diligently scrutinized the field of philosophy aiming at the authorities on the subject. There are others as well that could add a point or two. However, in considering the limitations of this thesis we are probably well off with Plato, Kant, Bergson, the Buddhist and the Theosophical doctrines.4 The table below summarizes their methods.

Methods of;

Rational Intuition

Analytical Thinking








Metaphysical Science

Physical Science

As Jung is the only psychologist who has provided a proper theory of intuition, his contribution is included. He did discover very interesting aspects of both the personal and collective unconscious and because these repositories are claimed to be the main domains of interest for intuition his account is of relevance to this study.

In this thesis we find a consistency in how philosophers have treated intuition. The intricate epistemology of European philosophy turns on the distinction between intuitive and analytical thinking. In the succeeding brief exposition we find, that without exception the intuitive state of mind is perceived as superior to the analytic, discursive, dualistic state of mind. Slightly different arguments are provided but essentially, they all agree in that intuition gives access to the intelligible world of pure reason. Thus, they all define it as rational and intellectual while analytical thought is seen as relative, incomplete and fragmented. Philosophers do so primarily because intuition is anchored in Ideas, Forms and Archetypes, which are perceived as a priori laws governing and conditioning all existence. The coherency discovered, equip us with a rather strong bias when we in psychology find a different view. In psychology, the main tendency is to treat intuition as some sort of unconscious, automatic and biased processing devoid of proper rational qualities. This controversy might have implications for the rationality debate.
A brief synopsis may prepare the reader and facilitate an understanding of the somewhat difficult arguments to come. Plato is arguing that the primary weakness of the analytical or discursive intellect is that it is compelled to employ assumptions and because it cannot rise above these does not travel upwards to a first principle. It starts from unquestioned assumptions, i.e. postulates, axioms, definitions, and reasons from them deductively down to a conclusion. The premises may be true and the conclusions may follow but the whole structure hangs in the air until the assumptions themselves are shown to depend on an unconditioned principle. Rational intuition moves in the other direction, from an assumption up towards a principle, which is not hypothetical. In doing so a proportion is discovered, in which the visible world has been divided. It is corresponding to degrees of reality and truth, so that the likeness stands to the original in the same ratio as the sphere of appearances to the sphere of knowledge.
In his delineation of space and time as Forms of pure or rational intuition, Kant claims that intuition is characterized by being a necessary, infinite, innate, subjective, co-operative and a priori representation. Furthermore, it is a singular whole preceding any part and with immediate representations in it not under it. Intuition is contrasted with the main product of the discursive intellect, conception. According to Kant, concepts mediate and generalize. It is a symbolic representation of a class or genus, and refers to features and marks that several things have in common.
For Bergson the situation is similar. He contrasts intuition with the analytical talents of the discursive intellect. According to him, they are not different cognitive systems but two sides of one thinking activity. An activity powered by the spirit. The thinking activity goes in one direction when it applies a discursive, conceptual, analytic quantitative and external perspective and in the opposite direction when it sympathizes with the qualitative and enduring psychological reality. Bergson thus copies Plato who defines rational intuition as the eye of the psyche or soul. The fixed concepts of the discursive intellect may be extracted by our thought from mobile reality but there are no means of reconstructing the mobility of the real with fixed concepts. The discursive intellect is therefore bound to misunderstand the fact of motion and change. For Bergson then, intuition is primarily occupied with metaphysics or spiritual science, while the discursive intellect is primarily employed in the study and analysis of matter and physical science.
This latter view is elaborated in Buddhist doctrine. Here it is maintained that when the mind is oriented solely towards the empirical, towards the data provided by the six senses, and applies the discursive intellect, it comprehends conceptual, differentiated, analytic, explicit knowledge and evidence.5 When directed towards the eight and ninth class of consciousness, achieved by a turning away from the outside world of objects, to the inner world of enduring oneness and completeness, the energy that sustains their organic unity is intuitively discovered. The claim is that this results in liberation and autonomy. Where Buddhism is clearer, than the other exponents, is in its emphasis on intuition as a stabilizing and central point of balance. It is upholding the coherence of its contents by being the center of reference. The intuitive state of mind is thus a mixture and a meeting point between the first six senses or classes of consciousness on the one side, and class eight and nine on the other. The latter correspond to Jung’s notions of the personal and collective unconsciousness. It is their common ground, with no body of its own and it is in this sense it is an immediate and singular synthesis, as Kant argues.
In building his theory on intuition around archetypes which means original pattern, idea, or model, Jung is copying the Forms of Kant, as well as the main tenet of Platonic doctrine. “Since the unconscious is not just something, that lies there like a psychic caput mortuum, but coexists with us and is constantly undergoing transformations which are inwardly connected with the general run of events, introverted intuition, through its perception of these processes, can supply certain data which may be of the utmost importance for understanding what is going on in the world. It can even foresee new possibilities in more or less clear outline, as well as events, which later actually do happen. Its prophetic foresight is explained by its relation to the archetypes, which represent the laws governing the course of all things we can experience.”6
In Theosophy we find a further delineation of intuition. Here it is advocated that the ideas and archetypes are so to speak musical notes in a great symphony or Plan. “When the intuition functions in any human being, he is enabled to take direct and correct action for he is in touch with the Plan, with pure and unadulterated fact and undistorted ideas—free from illusion and coming direct from the divine or universal Mind. The unfolding of this faculty will bring about a worldwide recognition of the Plan, and this is the greatest achievement of intuition in this present world cycle. When that Plan is sensed, there comes the realization of the unity of all beings, of the synthesis of world evolution and of the unity of the divine objective. All life and all forms are seen then in their true perspective; a right sense of values and of time then eventuates.”7 In this view we recognize the objective of Socratic dialogue, namely to secure a final confirmation and a synoptic view of all knowledge in connexion with the whole of reality, as well as the synthetic method of Kant.8
In this thesis, it is thus indicated that it is reasonably clear that the mind has a duality to it. It is also argued that it is intuition that facilitates a transcending of its more severe limitations.
2 Socrates and Plato 427-347 BC
Greek philosophy and especially the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition distinguished between an ordinary inferential kind of thought often called discursive thought, and a kind of thought, which is non-discursive or intuitive. The usual term for the former in Greek is dianoia for the latter nous and noesis. It goes back to some of the most famous passages in Plato and Aristotle such as the divided line in the Republic and the Metaphysics XII, which discusses God's thought. Then the Neoplatonists combined Plato and Aristotle, added certain features of their own and thus created the notions that are listed below. Emilsson argues that the distinction lived on throughout the Middle Ages and to some extent beyond even if it eventually ceased to be in ordinary use. Aspects of it played a role for some of the great early modern philosophers. Descartes, Pascal and Spinoza are some examples. The concept of intuition is very much behind Spinoza's notion of seeing things sub specie aeternitatis.9 Likewise, there is indeed something of this ancient distinction at work in Kant's notions of intuition and understanding.
Of the many characteristics attached to intuition only one has survived in mainstream Anglophone philosophy, namely the notion of non-inferential knowledge. Though, the idea that there is some foundation of knowledge which itself is not inferred from anything else has of course been fiercely attacked, according to Emilsson. In continental philosophy matters are more complicated. Some other aspects of intuition survive there, partly through German idealism.10 Werner Beierwaltes and others have shown it to be directly influenced by Neoplatonism as well as by Plato and Aristotle and partly through Bergson who drew directly on Plotinus.11 Emilsson also notes that various other aspects of the ancient intuition now are making a comeback into philosophical currency for instance through the holism of Quine and Davidson. The ancient notions then as they appear in Plotinus are listed below.12 Here I will not attempt to discuss them at any length though we will return to them later on.

Intuitive Thinking

Discursive Thinking





Grasps all at once (totum simul, athroos)

Grasps objects piecemeal







The enduring significance of Platonic philosophy is unquestioned. Some will have it that almost everything written in European philosophy is, footnotes to Plato.13 Its main tenet, have survived to this very day and is vitalized by modern physics. Roger Penrose, claimed to be the greatest mathematical physicist alive writes; “To me the world of perfect forms is primary (as was Plato’s own belief) – its existence being almost a logical necessity – and both the other two worlds are its shadows.”14 David Bohm agrees; “it is commonly believed that the content of thought is in some kind of reflective correspondence with ‘real things’, perhaps being a copy, or image, or imitation of things, perhaps a kind of ‘map’ of things, or perhaps (along the lines similar to those suggested by Plato) a grasp of the essential and innermost forms of things.”15 In discussing implications of quantum physics Popper concludes that: “As with Plato the emphasis upon antecedent causes and geometrical cosmology is preserved .”16 Platonic epistemology then stress that rational intuition is the supreme state of mind and this is coherent with Kantian and Bergsonian doctrine, which will be elaborated in the succeeding paragraphs. Only two issues will be mentioned here: First, a very brief note on the divided line presented in the Republic and then an equally brief note on the unique world argument from Timaeus. The divided line is the backbone in Plato’s epistemology and it illustrates the relationship between rational intuition and discursive thinking. The unique world argument is utterly intuitive and it is thus instrumental in revealing additional aspects of Plato’s view on intuition. The latter is included for a second purpose. The intent is that it will facilitate my interpretation of Kant’s account on intuition. The synopsis given is derived mainly from the works of Francis M. Cornford.17

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