We say of people that they have intuition. We apparently mean that they apprehend things directly without belaboring them by analysis or even without accosting them with too close an inspection. Intuition is what we long for, thinking is what we can do. What follows?
You asked me to speak about “Intellect and Intuition,” an enormous topic and yet an intimate one—enormous because the title encompasses the two most distinctively human activities, and intimate because I have, after all, no way to come to terms with it but to look into myself. But it is a congenial inquiry you’ve chosen and a congenial setting you’ve provided, because I can speak my thoughts to you pretty nearly as I do to myself. In fact most of what I will say now I thought to myself last summer wandering up and down among the pinyons of Monte Sol.
As I tried to concentrate on the matter, one obtrusive difficulty proved to be the very advantage we have in common—an acquaintance with the texts which most enticingly shape the terms in question. My effort to think would be again and again deflected by remembered formulations, resulting in a kind of short-circuiting of the tension of perplexity. That tendency to be, off and on, sucked into trusted formulations happens to be my Charybdis of reflection. The opposing Scylla of brooding consumes her victim with the need to revise and to reconstrue things from sheer honest contrariness. I must say that I am always fascinated by the fact that the world submits to the latter treatment, which indeed seems to yield very original notions; I guess this mode too catches hold of an aspect of things.
I have tried, then, really to find out what I think rather than to remember what has been thought.
Nonetheless the outcome, as you will recognize, is often what a much-loved dean of our college used to call in Russian English “discovering America,” namely coming wide-eyed upon well-known worlds. In my case it means arriving, after much casting about, at places opened to us all as long as two-and-a-half millennia ago. Such forays bring back no new product and cannot be made in behalf of anyone else. But I think what holds us all together is just this-that we think well of each other for undertaking these voyages and want to see each others’ logs.
Well, to the beginning, which is to ask myself how the title is meant. Is it intended to imply that intellect and intuition are antagonists, that is, “intellect vs. in tuition”? After all, if I come across one of those trite double headings like “The Individual and Society” I know perfectly well that the writer will not be celebrating a harmonious fit. On the other hand, the two terms might be meant to be joined on the same side; you will recall that Kant directs his critique against a so-called “intellectual intuition,” by which he means a vision of thought. He claims that there cannot be such a faculty because thinking cannot confront or encompass thought itself; it can only form and function over sense material. The requirement behind this denial is that the relation of thinking to its object must be firmly certified, and if thinking the truth is beholding independent thought objects; such certification becomes, Kant thinks, unintelligible.
At this moment I have to observe that there seem to be two kinds of starting points for any inquiry. Sometimes I am oppressed by some vague unease—indeed it would be more accurate to call it an uneasy vagueness—which eventually draws me to that first and most mystifying step of cogitation: the coagulation of a question. But sometimes, as in our case, a problem about terms is put to me, and then I find myself, by a pretty firm intellectual habit, first of all collecting and inspecting in order their corrupt, their trite, and their unfaded uses. (Incidentally, I feel entitled to use such a method for rightly directing the mind only because I try to remember how easily it can turn into a routine for avoiding thought.)
I’ll begin with intuition, because it is the word more widely and commonly used. And right away I notice that it sometimes means an activity and sometimes the object of that activity—either the power or its product. Here are the uses I can distinguish.
1. We say of people—though I try not to—that they are intuitive, and people say it to themselves. They apparently mean that they apprehend things directly without belaboring them by analysis or even without accosting them with too close an inspection. There do seem to be people who, from minimal observation and no articulable reflection, see what’s up. I must say that in my experience this gift is often accompanied by a royal obtuseness to those aspects of the world which are not immediately apprehensible, and that more often than not “being intuitive” means just a will-less (or even willful) habit of sticking with those feelings that accompanied first impressions. Intuitive people often accuse their supposed opposites of “being so analytical,” and of course, they have a point: there are people who pry things apart with deft inaccuracy.
The object of intuition in this sense is often said to be the ineffable, and it seems to be apprehended preferably in fugue states.
Sometimes, again, what is meant is something more delicate in the same line, what Pascal calls the esprit de finesse and opposes to the mathematical mind. It is a disposition to learn from a multitude of immediate sources rather than to reason from a few remote principles—what we might call quick sensitivity.
But mathematics itself also has an intuitive mode, namely the ability to “see” mathematical objects and to form conjectures of mathematical truths way ahead of their deduction. I have heard that there are certain mathematicians who are famous for their theorems and notorious for their proofs. The object of mathematical intuition is particularly familiar to us in its imaginative geometric form, of which more in a moment. (Oddly enough for the mathematical school specifically called “intuitionist,” the term intuition means just the opposite: It is adopted from Kant and refers to the constructive rules of temporal finite thinking.)
These objects of the geometric imagination are, I would guess, those intuitions all of us here most articulably share. For an example, let me quickly remind you of that high-point of your freshman mathematics tutorial, the penultimate proposition of Euclid’s first book, the Pythagorean theorem. The picture itself, as you probably brought out in your discussions, was not the intuition: It was far too determinate in its blackboard place and far too inexact in its broomstick boundaries. But neither was the interior image of the bare enunciation, the two smaller squares constructed on the short sides of the right triangle and the large square on the hypotenuse, the revealing geometric intuition of the theorem, for the imagination is scandalously unable to discern the equality of differently shaped areas or to sum them. To see that the two smaller squares together are equal to the larger one it was necessary to see Euclid’s construction at work: to view it as a kind of engine for squashing half of each small square into a triangle and pivoting that triangle into half of the adjoining parts of the large square. When you saw that, you knew the truth immediately and for good and without words—if I called on you right now you could, no doubt, sketch it out. It was that dynamically immobile image which was the intuitive object. The proof accomplished another purpose.
As a ground for all spatial and temporal imagining, Kant introduced a receptive faculty which he called the intuition; a capacity for both receiving and forming sensory material into ordered spatial and temporal structures. Hence for Kant all experience of the world is in one aspect intuition. The pure objects of this faculty, namely space and time themselves, he also called intuitions. I mention this use only because here the term designates so stupendously original and influential a concept.
The final meaning I can think of, most remote from ordinary use and yet, I would guess, the spring of my whole inquiry, is that very one intended by the phrase I mentioned before, “intellectual intuition.” The Greeks had a single word for the capacity, nóesis: they called the corresponding object noetón, meaning that which is for the intuitive intellect.
But before describing—broadly—what it seems to me the two Greeks whose works we have all read both meant by nóesis, let me dispose of a more recent derivative use. I say “dispose of” because try as I will I cannot grasp it in my thinking. Descartes in particular speaks of intuiting propositions; people in general speak of intuitive concepts. They mean those elements and connections of thinking which are clear and distinct to them. “Clear and distinct” is a phase which seems to me primarily applicable to things seen, and might be used analogously of some vision-like apprehension, but I have never held and cannot think that I ever could hold in mind a proposition which was so well illuminated and so incisively contoured as to be called intuitive. It is not only that I have never met with a proposition that stayed evident for more than a moment—Descartes’ examples, such as “I exist,” turn into enigmatic murk under the lightest probing—but that propositional thinking seems to me ipso facto incapable of immediate apprehension.
The ancient notion of nóesis arises from the sense that appearances mask, or alternatively communicate, what it is they are. While we can reach for this “whatness” and circumscribe it with thinking we can also know it directly. As I mentioned, it is such direct taking in of what things are which is called nóesis; what is thus intuitable is called eídos, signifying that which is for the sight of the soul, that is to say, intuition.
In trying to make something of all these usages I must remind myself that none of the several ways to go about that business is innocuous and free of a heavy freight of pre-judgements. For example, I can restrict myself to following out a concatenation or a family of uses, refraining strictly from the supposition of a possible common meaning; or I can analyze how expressions containing the term are formed, attending to pre-set logical criteria rather than to the speaker’s intention; or I can look for a common factor, positing that as the central meaning; or I can rank the uses, attempting to reveal a primary significance of which the others are analogies.
Now in the case of the term intuition, there is a common feature that jumps out, namely that of directness and immediacy. Intuiting is not laboriously temporal; an intuition is effortlessly and instantaneously all there. That is not to say that it may not take effortful time to come up to the point of intuition or that I cannot dwell on it and range over it and even play with it. But these are preparations and reactions. The intuiting proper and the intuition itself just take place.
But immediacy is only a relation, and a negative one at that, namely the relation of coming before us without anything intervening. Perhaps to get somewhat nearer to intuition itself—and I now find myself supposing that I do have that sort of apprehension—it would be best to begin at the other end, to turn to the way of intervening steps and mediating words, which is usually called discursive thinking, or just thinking. Reasonings, particularly proofs, are regarded as examples par excellence of this mode.
Now just because it seems to me so unlikely and so contrary to my experience that thinking should really be preeminently reasoning, I want to begin by inspecting the notion of proof—and why not use as example the one that accompanies the Pythagorean theorem? I say “accompanies” for I have argued that the geometric truth is in the picture.
The first thing about this or any proof is that it is in words. I am indeed discovering America when it comes to me that, above all, reasoning speaks. Now the proof seems to speak out of both sides of the mouth. On one side it only prompts me to look at the picture in a certain way. Here its words function to focus me on the geometric situation, particularly to see the dispositions of the construction we all know so well. On the other side, the proof is not concerned with its matter as a theorem to be seen but as a proposition to be positioned in a system. In this aspect the proof is really a sequence of validations which, in ensuring that the proposition has legitimate antecedents, incidentally also shows what its place in the system is.
It seems to me that in reflecting on this proof, I come upon a curious discrepancy. On the one hand, the reasoning is about the picture, but in such a way that the “why” and the “that,” which are one and the same in intuition, are now separated and strung out in a sequence. On the other hand, this reasoned sequence is driven from enunciation to conclusion by a necessity quite apart from what it is about. If all the words of the proof which direct me to the picture were deprived of this reference—that is to say, if they became mere symbols—the proof would remain a structure of reason, although it would be about nothing. In other words, it is possible for orderly thinking, which is about something, to turn itself into mere reasoning, mere rationality. Such thinking is the last thing I come to in life, and that is why I got it out of the way first.
There is then a primary thinking, it seems to me, which begins long before it is time for reasoning and proving. Searching, inquiring thinking is not like the linear stepwise progression of proof. (I am somewhat reluctant to say that, because so many people who despise “linear thinking” appear to want to know nothing of the effort needed for any other kind.) Thinking, once done, can always be presented in reasoned form—though rarely is its significance in the concluding line.
In fact, I now remember a very famous case in point—the basic Aristotelian syllogism: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal. As a way to discovering the conclusion it is an absurdity. Whatever effort there is goes into establishing the premise that “All men are mortal,” and to do that I must surely already know that we will all die, including Socrates—as indeed he did, with great flair. Now Aristotle himself never meant the syllogism to be taken as a deductive proof form, but rather as a record of an illumination, the discovery of the reason why we must die, namely as a consequence of our human essence, because we are human beings, because of the middle term, man. To know that is surely to know something.
Working with and against these preceding examples of thinking in extremis, so to speak, I want to make an inventory of traits shown by living, inquiring, provisional thought as I know it. I don’t, by the way, suppose that everyone does as I do—I do mean that they do what I do, that we are about the same business even if the occasions of our perplexity, the tempo of our grappling and the idiom of our articulations are very different. The cavalier claim that “every one thinks differently” seems to me based on willful inexperience. (And yet—I have sometimes wondered whether some, a very few people, might not have genuinely different thinking experiences.) I will number my first observation, as mathematicians so nicely do, with the number zero.
0. Thinking is unmistakably done by me in a body, but in a body set aside in the sense that it requires to be at ease in a balmy or buoyant environment (Descartes had an oven-heated room and I, to compare small with great, have a hot bath), or independently occupied by rhythmic motion in monotonously beautiful surroundings, among sights pleasant to gaze at without real looking. But there is also a stranger and somewhat humiliating connection: Physical stimulants affect, or better, release thinking, and a cup of coffee can cause a revelation.
1. My guess is that it is because of its bodily basis that my thinking has a motoric and mechanical mode. It can labor in low gear, lug in high gear, stall and idle-all familiar thought-experiences. Of these, that thinking which runs in neutral is the most disturbing but also illuminating phenomenon—when my mind babbles on by itself, disengaged. It shows that real thinking requires—a moment-to-moment effort to hold it to its matter, a continual spontaneity. Accordingly, no truly-thought thought seems to follow as a necessary effect from a previous thought; each comes from a fresh effort to understand. I do not mean to say that thoughts may not have necessary connection—only that I myself must think it. Indeed it now seems to me that thinking is largely the effort to break out of motoric mentation.
And I also notice that as every instant thinking begins anew, so it ends with a kind of click, and “aha” of having settled the matter (or alternatively, a pause of perplexity). Thinking appears to be in its step-wise way as discontinuous as intuition which is suddenly there and suddenly gone. So in that respect, at least, there is ultimately no difference between them. I may go back and interpose ever more steps into my thought progress; I can include between any two steps the rules for inferring the next step; in short I can make the argument as dense as possible; it will still be discrete. And as the parts, so the whole: the thought sequence ends with a mental click, the sound of the proper seating of the thought, the mark of a satisfaction which is like an assent, whose absence arouses a fidgety agony of new trials. (This experience of thinking incidentally seems to me to account for the peculiar form of a Socratic conversation, in which Socrates proposes thoughts while his interlocutor gets to say only “Yes;’ “How not?” “But Socrates…” It is the internal activity of thinking distributed over two people.) Another observation: Those people who advocate questioning for its own sake seem to regard thinking as a kind of continuum, like a mood, which flows on until it fades or is broken, while it seems to me that thinking is in its very nature positive. As it is a series of small settlements, so in the aggregate it aims to reach a position and rest.
2. Since thinking is continually effortful, and continually monitored, it must have something to do with my willing and wanting—though I see that I shouldn’t confuse that inner monitor who is satisfied or uneasy with my willing, since that monitor’s business is not to force but to follow thought. I, my willful self, ought to govern my thought only insofar as I hold it to its business, and even then my willing is rather a wanting which is more exigent even than the desire for repose. What I want first and last is to possess myself and my world—not in a mode of domination but in a way of bringing out both of our respective and related contours. When I leave an experience or a problem unthought-through there is an un-supportable sense that a fuzzy accretion is interposing itself between me and my existence, that I am going to be enveloped in dumb immediacy and my life will be an unappropriated mess. I think that must be the sense Socrates is expressing when he says that the unexamined life is not to be lived—”not to be lived” is what he literally says. I never could understand Wordsworth’s “We murder to dissect” complaint: The analysis of a thing or an event, far from destroying its integrity, first gives it not merely clarity but the possibility of presence itself; We dissect to maintain life. That, it seems to me, is what thinking does: It makes me try to get hold of things, so that they are there for me. Of course, there is a kind of analysis which with deadly inaccuracy pries things apart in unnatural places and which forces affairs, particularly human affairs, into crude and demeaning patterns; it does indeed murder its matter. But that is not thinking. It is functioning with theory-patterns, and it shows that not only will but also willfulness can move thought. Truth to tell, I know it as an all too familiar temptation—the willful forcing of thought according to a pre-conceived intention.
3. Thinking is speech, quite literally interior speaking, voiceless English utterance. That observed fact makes me doubt the notion that speech is primarily or originally a kind of social interaction. How can I think so when I observe that ninety-nine out of a hundred words that I speak every day are not meant to be heard, because I speak to myself (from whom I can want nothing and can hide nothing and with whom I don’t much want to play speech-solitaire) the same language as I talk with my fellow humans with whom I am supposed to be playing language games or committing speech-acts? I am surely glad that I can use language for communication, that is, for alluding to something we humans have in common, but my sense is that my speech (once I have come into it) can be used to communicate because I use it to speak to myself, not the other way around.
Here is the old mystery on which I can scarcely get a handle: There is admittedly thoughtless speech. Is there perhaps also speechless thought? No matter how hard I try, I cannot get hold of a thought without a word. There may well be speechless apprehensions and they may well be those very intuitions I am trying to distinguish. But that time-taking effort I think of as thinking—can it be anything distinguishable from the speech in which I do it? Of course it cannot be speech in the merely linguistic sense, since I could use another language like German, and sometimes do. It must be (and here once again I am discovering America) speech in the sense the Greeks termed logos, which might be rendered by “thinking speech.” Logos has meaning, something more intimate than significance, which latter is the relation of a sign to its object. Thinking-speech is literally utterance, that is “outerance,” the silently audible embodiment (which my bodily being seems to require) of my inner activity not its sign, but its expression.
It is just because speech has meaning in this sense, because it is the external appearance of thinking, that unless I am feeling mighty bloody-minded—I do not ask whether another speaker’s statements mean anything or not according to some pre-determined criterion of meaningfulness. Rather I ask first whether the speaker means anything, that is, whether his words are expressions of a thinking effort, and next what he means, that is, how I can express his thinking as my own, and finally whether I can give assent.
By saying that speech has meaning and is an expression of thinking I have tried to convey a strange apprehension, namely that it is nothing but uttered thinking; speech does not “signify” thinking or thoughts or stand for them, but it means them.
Now thinking and its words are of several sorts, it seems. One sort of word intends something—I think and speak of things. For example, the pronoun “I” has come far too often into this speech. (I cannot tell, incidentally, why it is called a pro-noun since surely the name Eva stands for it, and not the other way around). When I say “I,’ I am sure I intend something-though I should probably not say “some thing.” What I do intend, it would take a whole new talk to try to come near, but in any case, it is that which feels my feelings, “has” my memories and “does” my thinking. Or again, when I say “Monte Sol,” I intend a feature of the land, a mountain that, although not clearly separate in stuff from its surroundings, derives its intendabiliy from rising like a dark green sun behind the campus in Santa Fe. Or “pinyon,” which, unlike the name “Monte Sol,” I can say of numerous appearances and in several ways at once—a capability ex pressed in the term, “logos” itself which has behind it the sense of “gathering.” (Now that I come to think of it, in this gathering lies the power of the word over the world of appearances—but then again, did the appearances not allow themselves to be so gathered, thinking-speech would come to nothing.) Accordingly, I can intend by the word pinyon any one or all of a species of the genus pine, or that kind of tree itself, or a sort of rooted censer from which to pinch aromatic needles, or a rather ragged bush which, when the rain paints its trunk black, suddenly stands forth visibly as a tree. Words of a certain sort, then, namely those called nouns, intend or reach for objects.
I also observe that these intended things incite and inhibit my thinking in revealing ways. For instance if I try to think pinyon, I am almost irresistibly drawn on to thinking tree, although the reverse is not as inevitable, and that makes me say that pinyon “comes under” tree. And although it seems to me as self-evident as anything that whatever thought I can get hold of in speech at all is a thought I can think, the things I think about do evidently have the power to make some thoughts nearly impossible: for instance a pinyon resists being thought of as both being and not being such. If I think these thoughts anyway, I have a lot of explaining to do to myself, mostly concerned with the meaning of that word “being.”
But there are also words which intend no thing. Some of these mean the directing gestures that thinking seems to develop within itself as it runs, hesitates, jolts on, doubles back. For example there is “but,” a hand held up by thinking to itself to admit an opposing train of thought; and there is “although,” which requires thinking to run on two tracks at once; and there is “therefore,” which means home-free. In communicating-speech I use these words to coax another’s thinking into becoming like mine.
The last use of speech is not so interesting as an accomplishment as it is fascinating as a possibility. I can willfully disregard or abstract from any definite intention a word might have, and I have been taught to do that by turning the words into symbols, say the letters A and B. I can also overlook that most intimate striving of thoughtful propositions to be about something (as Euclid’s forty-seventh is about right triangles), and I show that further abstraction by using symbols like p and q. Now I often put my propositions into a kind of word harness, and above all the one called “if . . . then.” I can do that because the propositions are about things or events, and these appear to have inner connection—call them causal. So if it rains, then the ground will grow red, the pinyons will show their shape and the air will become aromatic. Now forget about that real connection of things which my thinking grasps and simply define such a relation; call it implication and let its symbol be a horseshoe on its side. By going on like this, one can establish a kind of ghost-speech, a denatured logos which is (oddly, it seems, to me) called symbolic logic. What is fascinating is the way it is done—by glancing surreptitiously at living thinking and then deliberately formulating its ways as mock-arbitrary rules (equally oddly called “axioms,” a word which, as you know, originally meant “notions deserving assent”). In my experience logical thinking is both more difficult and less demanding than searching thinking and for one and the same reason: because it is about nothing.
But it now comes to me that I have been carried too far in my sense that the motions of thinking-speech, its releases and restraints, are all derived from the way things are, so that speech has no necessity of its own -for that amounts to saying that there is no logic at all. Speech does have a capability, and even one intention, which is all its own: It can negate and it can literally intend “nothing.” Nowhere in the world or beyond it does negation show or is nothing present, and yet my thinking has no definition at all unless I can say “no,” “not,” “none,” “nothing.” I see that with this afterthought I have started a topic too deep for present pursuit. It probably is the topic of logic proper, of logos-logic.
4. And finally and above all, thinking is “about” something. “Discursive thought”—that phrase literally means thought that runs hither and thither, going about its business. I can get hold of this best in a figure. When I think about something I begin by focusing, by getting hold—I know not how—of an intending or reaching word, which is why my first notes are usually just a list of nouns. That intending, I see, reaches for the thing itself, for this particular fragrant pinyon which grows on the mountain, and also, strangely, for the one odorless but definite species of the genus pine in which all pinyons are gathered. But what the word reaches for is not what it gets. What I grasp in thinking-speech is not a full, present object in or out of the sensible world, but my own impenetrably peripheral hold itself; I hold captive a mere circumference. That I try to grasp firmly with one hand of my mind (which is called conceiving) while with the other I try to make out its compass, its contours, its cracks, and its connections (which is called trying to understand). That is why upon thinking my speech usually comes in sentences: subject-predicate—this is such. But here is the point. The discoveries I make in the course of these explorations are often satisfying and even illuminating, yet they are not what I am really after, not the true end of the effort, just because this thinking is always thinking round about something. What I long for in thinking is that I should not forever remain on the surface and in the fissures of this or that matter, but should penetrate within it and find the inner aspects and connections of that which has attracted and withstood my thinking. Such penetration should, I suppose, be called insight, and what I might find there is, I guess, what philosophers call “being,” a word which stands, for me at least, more for an incitement than for an experience.
I appear, once again, to have discovered America. It seems to be my favorite activity, in life and in thought.
Now, after a brief review of the five traits of thinking which I have come upon, the moment will have arrived to formulate just how thinking is un-immediate. That is, after all, what I wanted to find out, so that I could tell better what intuition might be; for whatever it may be, at least it seems always to be described as an immediate mode of apprehension.
To the review then: 0. Thinking is closely connected to the body and has a mechanical, even a motoric mode. 1. However, when it is a genuine effort it does not run continuously but comes in ever-spontaneous starts and settlements which are received or rejected by an inner monitor, myself but not my will. 2. My will, however, or rather, my need, is the source of the effort, and the need is that of coming into my experience, of appropriating my life. 3. That effort appears to my inner ear in unvoiced yet sensory utterance, and therefore this thinking-speech “means” or expresses thinking. Some of the words of this speech “intend” or reach for objects like things or kinds of things, others express the motions of my thinking, and yet others express the connections be tween the things that my thinking apprehends. These last can be abstracted and reestablished in disassociation from meaning. 4. And above all, thinking is “about” something, which implies that as the thinking effort is drawn to embrace being, so it is kept at its circumference. I think I now understand wherein thinking is unimmediate. It has to do with the figures that come to mind in the effort to describe it: the figures of hearing (though in a sense that is no figure since in thinking I literally talk to myself) and of touching and grasping. The heard word which expresses thinking also muffles it. Except for the trivial case of onomatopoeia, it has no similarity, no reference at all, to what it says, nor does it “stand for” anything; if there is one thing the word is not, it is a sign or a symbol. Perhaps vocables, minimal modulations of sound, were fitly elected to express our effort to capture what is: Ampler sound can affect and move us; a cry rouses attention, a music tunes the soul, but the subdued word, unsignificant and unassimilable, expression and screen at once, is the fitting form for the sheer immaterial doing which thinking amounts to.
The same holds for the grasping phase of thinking. To be sure, something is disclosed by the discursive form “this is such;” but what the grasp of thinking holds it also hides. Thinking is not insight. I think I have discovered the human condition with respect to the desire to know: It is to be kept from our end by our means.
Before returning to intuition let me apologize for what I might, if I talked that way, call a terminological shift. You probably noticed that I have substituted the word “thinking” for the assigned term, “intellect.” I had to do that because “intellect” has connotations both too low and too high for our purpose. For on the one hand, from it is derived the name of those whose thinking motors along in theory-patterns, the so-called “intellectuals;’ while on the other hand the term “intellection” serves to translate nóesis , the ancient name for thought which sees, the grandest kind of intuition.
By now you have probably forgotten the five uses of intuition which I thought I could distinguish. But no matter, for several were only derivative and a manner of speaking about cases where something was thought to be known right off; what was interesting was only what all the uses had in common, namely immediacy. So let me, keeping in mind that features of thinking I have just delineated, propose three possible kinds of intuitive activities and their objects.
1. I seem to have a world of appearance immediately before me. (To be sure, the organs of sense are often considered as the instruments of its perception, but they are not media in such a way as to drive me to say that they intervene between me and the appearances; they are means rather than media.) But now I see that I for one would hardly want to call the world at large an intuition (though some authors have done just that) if the term is to have any definition at all. Just as thinking is concentrating, so also it seems to me intuiting must be a kind of focusing, but while thinking is about the absent, intuition is of the present.
For example, in my wanderings in downtown Santa Fe, I often stopped before a painting which seemed to me the record of a perceptive intuition in this more restricted sense. It was the very type of a Southwestern landscape, and the Santa Feans among you know that the curse of that genre lies in the natural histrionics of Southwestern weather. In this painting three cottonwoods by an arroyo, seen against a great, vibrantly slate-gray storm sky, were lit up golden-chartreuse by a slanting sun-burst from beyond the frame. The magic of it was solely that of a memory-prompt: I have seen such scenes, briefly but, I would say, intuitively. The word is no longer much used that way, but it once meant a glance of strong regard, and also the sight which was its object. That is, of course, what “intuition” literally says: at-sight. (This ugly but accurate rendition is corroborated in the German version, familiar from Kant: An-schauung.) ”At sight” is directed toward what is more than a mere half apprehended surrounding, toward what is not only before me, but for me, the significant presence beheld in active seeing. I don’t doubt that some people have a gift for such quick salient sight.
2. So much the more will there be intuitions of the imagination, at least if presence is an even deeper feature of intuition than immediacy. For the imagination, insofar as it is a capability for re-presenting perceptions, usually exercises its power for compacting or attenuating them: It may concentrate the inner vision on the high points of perceived scenes. That is why paintings and memories so easily merge. Or again, it may abstract in essentials and rectify irregularities so as to leave a clarified schema of appearance. (Most thinking seems to take its bearing from such residual perceptions.) Or finally, it may produce its own intuitions, either rich sights never before seen, imbued with inexpressible significance, or the spare figures of geometry, the intuitions most inviting to thought. These diagram-sights are the intuitions which words can most reliably call forth and can most satisfyingly be about.
3. And finally, there is the intuition of thought itself, intellectual intuition. When I say “there is” I mean: there might be, there must be, I wish there to be. Its object is what thinking would be about: the fulfillment of its grasp, the immediate presence of its end. It is what the great Greeks call the noetón, the object of thought. Of course, I myself have never broken through thinking to behold the object of thought, though thrice in a decade for half a moment I have had the sense that but a little was wanting. Could it be that I do see it whenever I really perceive what appears around me? Could it be that what appears and what I take in when I see is just what I think about—that what I search for without and within coincides, so to speak, behind my back? It comes home to me that it is the pursuit of those questions which is primarily called philosophy.
Where am I then? I have discovered that thinking, although it can hold and explore its objects, can never penetrate them, can never have insight. And so it never quite attains to “at-sight;” intuition, the direct beholding of what it is about. In our best seeing and imagining we have all experienced the felicity of such immediate presence, but my thinking, at least, seems to be forever about absence. My guess is that it holds for us all: Intuition is what we long for, thinking is what we can do. What follows? An answer comes to my inner ear partly as the remembered sound of a passage that was once read to me, partly as the recollected sense of a meaning that I then took to heart. Happily I know where to find the text, so I can recite to you literally Socrates’ passionately involved speech:
The other points I made in behalf of my argument I won’t fully enforce. But that, in believing we need to search after whatever one of us doesn’t see, we will be better than if we believe that what we don’t know we can’t discover and needn’t search after -that I will fight for fully and to the end and for all I’m worth, in speech and in action. (Meno 87 B-C)
This essay was originally published here in April 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It originally appeared in the St. John’s College Review (Vol. 35, No. 1, 1984) and is republished here with permission.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is a detail from “Fibonacci Word” (2009) by Samuel Monnier, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 .