What Is intuition?

Intuition is defined by Wikipedia (2017) as “the ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning, or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired”.  Intuition has; however, been the subject of much debate throughout history.  Because of its elusive nature, intuition has remained, to some extent, a subject of mystery.  Eastern and Western cultures have been historically diverted regarding beliefs about intuition.  Eastern cultures have primarily associated intuition with religion whereas Western culture has primarily associated intuition with philosophy.  While Eastern culture places an emphasis on intuition, Western culture places an emphasis on cognition.  However, there is value in both cognition and intuition; in fact, it is within this convergence that the greatest benefit is achieved.  Awareness regarding the evolving thought on intuition is helpful in embracing both the cognitive as well as intuitive aspects of our existence.

Ancient Greek philosophy

Curiosity regarding intuition in Western culture is documented as far back as Parmenides.  In Greece, intuition was referred to as nous.  Although nous was primarily used in reference to direct sensory cognition (intuition), nous was also used to indicate “mind, reason, thinking, wisdom, the soul, and even the heart” (Pietka, 2016).  According to Parmenides, “cognition has value only when it concerns that which is immutable and eternal, one and homogeneous” (Pietka, 2016).  Pietka (2016) notes that Parmenides states of intuition that, “The purpose of the journey is to know the truth”.  Plato recognized two types of intuition: one being natural intuition and one being supernatural intuition.  Natural intuition was believed to be “expressed by the act of associating an idea with a word that we use while making statements about things” (Pietka, 2016) while supernatural intuition is “the direct experience of an idea during the journey of the soul” (Pietka, 2016).  Aristotle also understood intuition as having two types: theoretical and practical (Pietka, 2016).  Theoretical intuition was known to “allow us to accept final premises in the process of theoretical demonstration; it grasps immutable and primary concepts” (Pietka, 2016) and “practical intuition grasps ultimate concepts … and constitutes the reason of reasoning” (Pietka, 2016). Plotinus believed in three foundational elements of spiritual cosmology: the One, the intelligence, and the soul in which the three in unity are responsible for all existence (Moore, 2017).  The One consists of the concept of intuition.  As Moore (2017) describes, Plotinus describes the One as that which “cannot be known through the process of discursive reasoning (Ennead VI.9.4). Knowledge of the One is achieved through the experience of its ‘power’ (dunamis) and its nature”.

French Philosophy

According to Descartes, truth is only achieved via intuition (lumen naturale) and deduction, condemning all other modes of procedure as being prone to error (Mursell, 1919).  In fact, mathematics was considered by Descartes to be “a field of undiluted intuitive knowledge” (Mursell, 1919) and was regarded as the “ideal method of all research” (Mursell, 1919), proclaiming Mathesis Universalis as the superior philosophy (Mursell, 1919).  Descartes describes intuition in the following statement: “By intuition I understand not the shifting testimony of the senses, or the misleading judgement of the ill regulated imagination but a concept (conceptum) of an untroubled and well directed intelligence (mentis purae et attentae), which is so facile and distinct that absolutely no doubt is left about that which we understand” (Mursell, 1919).

Scottish Philosophy

David Hume had a confusing and rather ambiguous interpretation of intuition often stating that “mere operation of thought” has no weight upon that which actually exists.  However, Hume often contradicts himself, later arguing that “all a priori knowledge (relations of ideas) is analytic, while all knowledge of synthetic propositions (matters of fact) is a posteriori” (Lacewing, 2017).  Lacewing (2017) deciphers this statement to mean that, “anything we know that is not true by definition or logic alone, every ‘matter of fact’, we must learn and test through our senses”.  Hume later refers to intuition in the following example:

Lacewing (2017) quotes Hume as stating: “When any objects resemble each other, the resemblance will at first strike the eye, or rather the mind… The case is the same with contrariety, and with the degrees of any quality. No one can once doubt but existence and non-existence destroy each other, and are perfectly incompatible and contrary. And tho’ it be impossible to judge exactly of the degrees of any quality, such as colour, taste, heat, cold, when the difference betwixt them is very small: yet ’tis easy to decide, that any of them is superior or inferior to another, when their difference is considerable. And this decision we always pronounce at first sight, without any enquiry or reasoning”.

German Philosophy

As one of the most well known philosophers of the Enlightenment Period, Immanuel Kant was greatly involved in the Philosophy of Mind (McLear, 2017).  Kant’s beliefs were such that all mental activity produces what he referred to as ‘representations’ (McLear, 2017).  He divides representations into three categories: sensations (Empfindungen), intuitions (Anschauungen), and concepts (Begriffe) (McLear, 2017).  According to McLear (2017) Kant ultimately believed that “the capacity to cognitively ascend from mere discriminatory awareness of one’s environment (intuition), to an awareness of those features by means of which one discriminates (perception), and finally to an awareness of the objects which ground these features (experience), depends on the kinds of mental processes of which the subject is capable” (McLear, 2017), suggesting that intuition is what allows us to discern between features of distinct objects, while perception is such that it allows us to distinguish one object from another (McLear, 2017).

Dutch Philosophy

Brouwer developed what was regarded as intuitionism (Atten, 2003).  According to Atten (2003), “Brouwer characterized mathematics primarily as the free activity of exact thinking, an activity which is founded on the pure intuition of (inner) time”.  According to Brouwer mathematical truth does not exist without the activity of thinking and the proposition only becomes true when the person has experienced its truth through mental construction (McLear, 2003).  The opposite is valid in regards to falsehoods.  The proposition only becomes false through the experience of its falsehood via mental construction (McLear, 2003).  Therefore, according to Brouwer (1975), non-experienced truths do not exist (McLear, 2003).

Swiss Psychology

Carl Jung developed the theory of psychological types which categorizes people according to psychological functioning (Boeree, 2006).  This theory is based on the idea that there exists different functions and attitudes of consciousness (Boeree, 2006).  The functions of consciousness refer to the ways in which the mind comprehends reality (Boeree, 2006).  These include: sensing, intuiting, thinking, and feeling (Boeree, 2006).  Jung refers to intuiting and sensing as non-rational functions of the mind while he refers to thinking and feeling as rational functions of the mind (Boeree, 2006).  Jung believed that one function dominates the other so that if a person is dominant in intuiting, that person’s function of sensing would be; therefore, unconscious (Boeree, 2006).  This is also true in regards to the coupling of thinking and feeling.  According to Boeree (2006), Jung imagined intuiting as, “a kind of perception that works outside of the usual conscious processes. It is irrational or perceptual, like sensing, but comes from the complex integration of large amounts of information, rather than simple seeing or hearing”.  Boeree (2006) states that Jung referred to intuiting as the ability “to see around corners”.

American Philosophy

According to John Dewey (1931), the word intuition has various meanings but has retained the most prominent usage which closely connects the quality which underlies that of explicit reasoning.  Dewey (1931) states that, “Reflection and rational elaboration spring from and make explicit a prior intuition”.  He goes on to explain that this does not mean that there are two modes of thought: one which corresponds to one type of subject matter and another to the other (Dewey, 1931).  Instead Dewey (1931) states that, “Thinking and theorizing about physical matters set out from an intuition and reflection about affairs of life and mind consists in an ideational and conceptual transformation of what begins as an intuition”.  In summary, Dewey believed that intuition signifies the realization of that which is of a pervasive quality and regulates the final accepted thought (Dewey, 1931).  Bealer (1996) later states that intuition has historically been used “primarily as a term for an intellectual, or rational, episode intimately tied to a priori knowledge”.  Bealer (1996) posits that “an intuition is a non-inferential awareness of something: a concept, a proposition, space or time, a physical object, our own existence, or God” and explains that it is common practice in many disciplines to use intuitions as evidence.  Klein (2002) states that intuition is essential and describes intuition as “the way we translate our past experience into decisions about our present actions”.  He also posits that intuition is not magical, that we are all born with it, and that it can be enhanced (Klein, 2002).

British Philosophy

Dibblee (1929) believed that intuition has two forms: simple intuition (consisting of self evident truths) and intuition based on experience.  Dibblee (1929) asserts that intuition is such that it “precedes thought” and that in both forms of intuition, there is a “spontaneous recognition of truth”.  He states that while there must be a relationship between the capacity of one’s brain and the form of truth which is perceived, it has been largely agreed that intuition surpasses that of cognitive ability, stating that intuitive thought is always accompanied by a ‘convincing immediacy’ and an ‘inspired force’ which catapult them into reality (Dibblee, 1929).  Dibblee (1929) acknowledges that referencing intuition is involuntary and provides an example in reference to arriving at the solution of a mathematical equation.  He furthers notes that it is difficult to specifically assign unconscious activity to either intuitive or instinctual faculties (Dibblee, 1929).  Williamson (2004) later suggests that knowledge cannot be analyzed and posits that intuition is merely an “impossible ideal of unproblematically identifiable evidence”.


The core belief in Hinduism is such that al of creation emerged from the One Source of all Being and that by connecting with this source, a person can be free of all sorrow.  In order to experience this truth, a direct intuitive personal experience is required (spiritual practice). Guided by a Guru, this is achieved through an individually unique spiritual journey.  According to Aurobindo (1920), intuition has two aspects: one being an imprint of psychological experiences and the second being an awareness of self.  His belief was such that humans are accustomed to arriving at truth via the senses; however, through knowledge of identity, existence is extended outside of ourselves resulting in intuition.  Osho (formerly known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, 1931–1990) believed in a hierarchy of consciousness beginning with animal instinct, moving on to intelligence, and finally intuition.  Thus, human beings tend to oscillate between these states of consciousness with the ultimate desired state being that of intuition.


According to Buddhist teachings, intuition transcends that of conscious thinking since conscious intellect cannot access subconscious information.  In developing one’s intuition it is believed that one gets closer to reaching enlightenment (satori).  Zen Buddhism acknowledges that intuition exists between that of the Universal Mind and the discriminating mind.  The discriminating mind being that which is composed of self centeredness and the Universal Mind which consists of the one intelligent consciousness which pervades the entire universe and is all knowing.


Islamic religion is such that the “light of the One dominates all multiplicity and multiplicity is always seen in the light of Unity” (Nasr, 1979).  Islamic perspective posits a hierarchy of knowledge which begins with the sensual, then the imaginal, and finally the intellectual (Nasr, 1979).  All rational knowledge is known as ‘attained’ knowledge; whereas, all irrational knowledge is known as ‘presential’ knowledge.  The mind is believed to be a reflection of the heart and is known as the center of the microcosm (Nasr, 1979).  These three aspects of knowledge are all complimentary mechanisms within the Islam doctrine of Unity, a supreme form of knowledge (Nasr, 1979).  Suhrawadi states that intuitive knowledge is attained through illumination and has a mysterious quality; whereas, Sinā suggests that intuition is prophetic in nature and is acquired unintentionally, stating that “regular knowledge is based on imitation while intuitive knowledge as based on intellectual certitude (Wikipedia, 2017).

Nature of Intuition

Ambady (2010) states that “intuition is essential to optimal and social interpersonal functioning” and states that humans are regularly able to  interpret the behavior of others rather smoothly, rapidly, unconsciously, and automatically suggesting an intuitive nature to these processes (Ambady, 2010).  Ambady (2010) suggests that social psychological processes that are all considered to be intuitive and automatic also share in their efficient nature.  These processes are not disrupted by other tasks and information (Bargh, 1996, 1997; Devine, 1989; Neuberg, 1988; Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977, Srull & Wyer, 1979; Ambady, 2010).  Interestingly, Ambady notes that “Increased attention and capacity devoted to an intuitive, automatic process is thought to reduce the efficiency of the process”. One explanation of this phenomenon suggests that this is due to the tendency to focus on the wrong reasons for personal preferences (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977; Ambady, 2010).  Implicit knowledge which is applied appropriately will; therefore, be associated with accurate judgements (Ambady, 2010).  Ambady (2010) points out that judgements based on stereotypes are not considered accurate judgements.

Ambady (2010) posits that “happy people process information in a more heuristic and less systematic manner, relying more on cognitive shortcuts and general knowledge structures and less on careful, logical thought” (Andrews, Bless, Bohner, Schwarz, & Strack, 1990; Forgas, 1998; Mackie & Worth, 1989; Schwarz & Bless, 1991; Sinclair, 1988; Ambady, 2010); while, “Individuals in a sad mood are more likely to spontaneously engage in detail-oriented, cognitively taxing, highly analytical processing” (Bless, Bohner, Schwarz, & Strack, 1990; Mackie & Worth, 1989; Ambady, 2010).  William James (1890/1983) states that, “effortless attention is the rule” while Caesar states of Shakespeare: “He thinks too much; such men are dangerous”.  Ambady (2010) defines intuition as “the subjective experience of a mostly non-conscious process that is fast, a-logical, and inaccessible to consciousness that, dependent on exposure to the domain or problem space, is capable of accurately extracting probabilistic contingencies”.

Awareness regarding the evolving thought on intuition is helpful in embracing both the cognitive as well as intuitive aspects of our existence.  Despite the prevailing notion that intuitive judgements are commonly more accurate than that of deliberation, there is still contention regarding the accuracy of intuition and its nature.   Varying beliefs between Western and Eastern culture have added to the mysteriousness of intuition.  However, intuition plays an important role in our lives.  We rely on intuition to make sense of the world around us on a daily basis.


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