Kant, Coleridge and the Power of Intuition

My current presentation of the evolutionary ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson is a good place for a discussion about epistemology to fall in. How do we know what we know? is the question that epistemology asks. Sure we might know something is true, but how do we know it is true? What I am  amazes me most in Emerson is the power of his intuition. He was an incredibly creative thinker and he had gems of ideas in his writing that would take the rest of humanity literally centuries to catch up with – and some of them we may not have caught up with yet. At the same time some of his ideas strike us today as completely implausible and we wonder how this great man could ever have believed in them. But don’t be too hard on Emerson; after all it is likely that many of our own cherished and defended ideas may look equally implausible even to us in the future.

Emerson’s epistemology was largely rooted in his belief in the power of intuition. Intuition is the experience of pure knowing. It is a kind of knowing that verifies itself. We have all had the experience of intuition even if some of us are more inclined than others to take it seriously. Sometimes you just know something because you know it, because you feel with a certain kind of certainty that you don’t have any need to question. This is the kind of knowing that Chuck is raising questions about on this blog and which I think are good  questions to ask – even if I still retain some faith in intuition myself.

Emerson’s conviction about the power of intuition was influenced by the English Unitarian Minister and Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and then wrote his own interpretation of Kant in a book called Aides to Reflection.  Before we talk about Coleridge’s interpretation of Kant, let’s first have a short visit with Kant himself.

In his Critique Kant makes a distinction between understanding and pure reason. Understanding for Kant is constructed knowledge. As we pass through life’s experiences we gather information and then put that information together into an understanding of the world. Kant’s huge insight is that this understanding of the world rests on a deeper understanding that he called pure reason. Pure reason is an apriori, or before thought, understanding of certain absolutely fundamental aspects of reality such as the nature of time, space and causality. Without this underlying pure reason our constructed understanding would not be possible. Let’s illustrate this with a fictitious example.

Imagine you are a detective arriving on the scene of a homicide in New York City. You find a dead body with a gunshot wound and you immediately create an understanding of what happened. You would conclude that someone else must have been present at the time of the incident and that individual must have shot a loaded weapon that created the wound and killed the victim. Pretty simple, but what would happen if you were not able to assume anything about the nature of time, space and causality to name just three?

If you could no longer assume that events happened sequentially in time there would be no way to know if the gun was fired before or after the murder. If you could not assume that objects have to pass from one place to another through all adjacent point in space you could not assume that the gun was ever located on the scene. If these fundamental truths of reality didn’t necessarily hold then it would be plausible that the gun that fired the bullet that killed the victim was actually fired in Vienna, Austria in the year 1571 and ended up striking the victim in New York City in 2010. On top of all that if you couldn’t assume causality then you couldn’t know that the gunshot would had anything to do with the person’s death at all.

Kant is often thought of as the father of modern philosophy because he realized that the world we look at is seen through eyes that have deep assumptions about reality built into them. Before Kant it was generally assumed that the world that we saw was objectively real. Kant proved that what we take as objectively real is to a greater extent than we are aware of actually an interpretation of reality. This insight would forever change the way human beings think about thinking and knowing.

Now back to Coleridge. Samuel Taylor Coleridge read Kant, but in his Aides to Reflection he interprets Kant’s pure reason as intuition. Kant had made a distinction between understanding and reason where understanding was  a kind of “knowing” that was constructed by thinking and pure reason was a “knowing” that was built into the way that we thought. By interpreting Kant’s pure reason as intuition, Coleridge was making a different distinction between understanding and reason. Coleridge still saw understanding  as  a kind of “knowing” that was constructed by thinking, but he interpreted pure reason to mean anything that you know just because you know it – hence intuition. And it was this interpretation that came to the American Transcendentalists and was adopted, particularly by Emerson, as the driving engine of their creed.