The Psychology and Philosophy of Intuition

At a wine bar in Corsica, I ordered a glass and shared some low-key wine talk with the chap who brought it to me. After some time, I ordered another glass, and we spoke again. I like testing my intuitions, so I said, at point blank, “You’ve written poetry, haven’t you?” The chap turned out to be a published poet.

‘Intuition’ derives from the Latin tuere, ‘to look at, watch over’, and is related to ‘tutor and ‘tuition’ and perhaps also to the Sanskrit tavas, ‘strong, powerful’. Broadly speaking, an intuition is a disposition to believe evolved without hard evidence or conscious deliberation. I say ‘disposition to believe’ rather than ‘belief’ because an intuition is usually held with less certainty or firmness than a belief; and ‘believe’ rather than ‘know’ because an intuition is not justified in the normal sense, and not necessarily true or accurate.

Intuition is often confused with instinct. Instinct is not a feeling about something, but a tendency towards a particular behavior that is innate and common to the species. “Karen stepped back, intuiting that the dog would follow its instinct and bite.” Although instincts tend to be associated with animals, human beings also have quite a few, even if they are, or can be, strongly modified by culture, temperament, and experience. Examples of human instincts include any number of phobias, territoriality, tribal loyalty, and the urge to procreate and rear their young. These instincts are often disguised or sublimed, for example, tribal loyalty may find an outlet in sport, and the urge to procreate may take the more rarefied form of love. Aristotle says in the Rhetoric that human beings have an instinct for truth, and in the Poetics that they have an instinct for rhythm and harmony.

If intuition is not instinct, how does it operate? An intuition involves a coming together of facts, concepts, experiences, thoughts, and feelings that are loosely linked but too profuse, disparate, and peripheral for deliberate or rational processing. As this process is sub- or semi-conscious and the workings are hidden, an intuition appears suddenly and unexpectedly, and cannot, or at least not immediately or easily, be justified. But what makes an intuition especially hard to support is that it is founded not so much on arguments and evidence as on the interconnectedness of things. It hangs, delicately and invisibly, like the web of a spider. The surfacing of an intuition, which can also occur in dream or meditation, is usually associated with a concordant feeling such as joy or dread, or simple pleasure at the high cognitive and human achievement that an intuition represents.

If this is how intuition works, then we can encourage intuition by expanding the number and range of our experiences, and by tearing down the psychological barriers, such as fears and taboos, that are preventing them from coalescing. We should also give ourselves more time and space for free association: my own intuitive faculty is sharpest when showering, traveling, or dreaming, and when I am well rested. Finally, it would help if we actually believed in our ability to form intuitions. We have micro-intuitions all the time, about what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, what road to take, whom to talk to, what to say, how to respond, and so on. I call them micro-intuitions because they depend on a large number of subtle variables, and escape, or largely escape, conscious processing. But what about the macro-intuitions? Never in the history of humanity has the intuitive faculty been more neglected or devalued than in our rational-scientific age.

As a writer, some of what I consider to be my best lines are intuitions, and work by prompting similar open-ended associations in the reader (you can read some of them on my website).

Similarly, in Zen practice, a kōan is a paradox or riddle that encourages the apprentice to connect the dots by subverting the rational and egotistic mind.

One day, a monk said to Joshu, “Master, I have just entered the monastery. Please give me instructions.”

Joshu replied, “Have you had your breakfast?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Then wash your bowls.”

The monk understood something.

Before reading on, try to work it out for yourself. You will have to shift gears, or pass into neutral.

The monk may have understood that life is to be found in all of life; that life, at all times, is right in front of us, simply waiting to be lived. Suddenly it seems so obvious, but it’s not something that the rational, task-driven mind either grasps or remembers.

Socrates is often held up as a paradigm of reason and philosophy. Yet, he seldom claimed any real knowledge. All he had, he said, was a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or sense that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics or escaping Athens. “This is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic.” In the Phaedrus, he goes so far as to say:

Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings… the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art… So according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense… madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.

In the Meno, which features Meno in conversation with Socrates, Plato explores the nature of intuition. At one point, Meno confesses that he is unable to define virtue, even though he has delivered many speeches on the subject. He compares Socrates to the flat torpedo fish, which torpifies or numbs all those who come near it. “And I think that you are very wise in not leaving Athens, for if you did in other places as you do here, you would be cast into prison as a magician.” Socrates, the paradigm of reason and philosophy, is the very embodiment of a kōan.

Meno asks Socrates how he will look for virtue if he does not know what it is.

And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Socrates says that he has heard from certain wise men and women ‘who spoke of things divine’ that the soul is immortal, has been born often, and has seen all things on earth and below. Since the soul already knows everything, ‘learning’ consists merely in recollecting that which is already known. Socrates traces a square in the dirt and asks one of Meno’s slave boys a series of questions that lead the uneducated boy, effectively, to derive Pythagoras’ theorem. Socrates claims to have proven that the boy found this knowledge not through teaching, but through recollection.

Reason is not the only road to knowledge. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that the types of disposition (hexis) by which the soul can arrive at truth are five in number: (1) scientific knowledge (episteme), which arrives at necessary and eternal truths by deduction and induction; (2) art or technical skills (techne), which is a rational capacity to make; (3) practical wisdom (phronesis), which is a rational capacity to secure the good life, and includes the political art; (4) intuition (nous), which apprehends the first principles or unarticulated truths from which scientific knowledge is derived; and (5) philosophic wisdom (sophia), which is scientific knowledge combined with intuition of the things that are highest by nature.

What is interesting in Aristotle’s schema is that scientific knowledge (and reason more broadly) is not independent of intuition. Rather, it is intuition that makes scientific knowledge possible. Centuries later, Locke made a similar point in contrasting intuition and demonstration: demonstration requires conscious steps, but each step is or should be intuitive. At the very least, intuition underpins the reasoning process, since fundamental axioms and elementary rules of inference cannot be established by any other means—and, of course, the same is also true of our fundamental moral beliefs, of ‘practical wisdom’. Today, there is a summit in Antarctica called ‘Intuition Peak’ in honor of the role of intuition in the advancement of human knowledge.

But one important caveat to climb down from this high point. If you put a right-wing person in a room with a left-wing person, or a religious one with a non-religious one, you will soon find that their intuitions conflict.

Intuition can and should be used to form hypotheses, but never to justify claims.