Kant, Coleridge and the Power of Intuition

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 11 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Dear Jeff, thank you for keeping the interest in philosophy so alive and fascinating. Every time a read one of your blogs I find something new that I absolutely want to know more about. This one is full of it. I immediately had to think about Catherine’s beautiful explanation of Steiner’s ‘Absolute knowing’. I just read in The passion of the Western Mind: ..at precisely the same time that the Enlightenment reached its philosophical climax in Kant, a radically different epistemological perspective began to emerge- first visible in Goethe with his study on natural forms, developed in new directions by… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Hello Jeff, the blog is nice and alive as always ! Recently , after having read the “Philosophy of freedom” of Steiner, I am undergoing a profound re-evaluation of my beliefs concerning knowledge. My vision of knowledge is completely shifting, with this notion that “thinking itself” is a door to the absolute. This is extremely close to the visions of Coleridge and Kant, but in my view Steiner is bolder and wilder in a subtle way. My view at the moment is that there is only two ways to access knowledge. 1. habits 2. pure thinking habits is what Kant… Read more »

Guilherme Fauque
10 years ago

Hi Jeff

When I began to learn english (actually I’m learning yet) my main objective was read good texts about philosophy. Reading this blog, I comprehend that the effort really worth!

Jonathan Speke Laudly
Jonathan Speke Laudly
10 years ago

Hi, Jonathan Speke Laudly here, Kant posits a world that we do not have direct access to: the “thing in itself”. But if we have no direct access then the existence of the “thing in itself” is an assumption, because there is no access to it which could prove it exists! Kant’s scheme is really is just another version of the mind/body problem. My own view is that whatever shows up is the world–what other world is there? And that reality is in plain sight every moment. Confused? Reality. Deep insight? Reality. Hallucination? Reality. The world is not bifurcated—it is… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
10 years ago

Jeff wrote: “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 to questions to ask even if I still retain some faith in intuition… Read more »

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

Chuch R says: “Most importantly, it [intuition] is not reliable. It appeared in humans during the course of evolution, primarily serving the purpose of sending a signal from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind that the unconscious had reached a decision, and it was time to act.” I say, what’s most important here is not that intuition is unreliable, but that we do indeed act and therefore survive and thrive. Carl, another contributor to this blog, teaches “fluency” where, through practice and experience, we get better and better at taking immediate and appropriate action. Those who wait for reason… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

One of the things I learned from this philosophy blog is that different people can have opposite meanings, but that both can be totally right. Just after reading your post I at random opened a book of Schopenhauer and I read (freely translated): when there are no real passions involved, practical concrete life is quite boring; but when passion is involved, it mostly ends in suffering. That is why people who have more intellect than is necessary for services to the will are very lucky. They have -next to there ordinary life- a life that is lively and pleasant. Free… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

“If you’ve ever been certain about something only to later discover you were wrong, then you’ve experienced the unreliability of your personal “certainty”.” as a scientist I ma in this situation all the time. 99% of the time I try a solution for a problem, feeling“certain” that it is the right one. Then I check and it is wrong. 1% of the time I try solution for a problem, feeling again “certain” that it is the right one; and this time it passes all the checks. So what to say about this mysterious “feeling f certainty”? the first observation is… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
10 years ago

Catherine: Re: “Certainty” in science and elsewhere. The book I mentioned elsewhere, “On Being Certain” by Robert Burton, M.D. (2008) speaks *exactly* to what you wrote about. ‘Certainty’ in science primarily serves the purpose of encouraging you to follow a line of thought, as you ‘feel’ or ‘believe’ it will be profitable. Experimentation, evidence gathering, etc. serves to determine if you ‘feeling of certainty’ was justified. If it wasn’t, try again, as you said. Certainty in fields other than science serves a variety of purposes. But in *none* of these fields (e.g. mystical experience) is the ‘feeling of certainty’ any… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Acquiring knowledge, believing what we learn, believing what we’re exposed to are choices, aren’t they? If we are disciplined thinkers, we try to put our ideas through a verification process based on what others think, what is presented through our life experiences and senses and all the other ways we come to believe what’s true from what’s not. There should be a balance between intuition, empirical knowledge and exposure to info, including education. There should also be a continuing monitoring of our ideas and beliefs, esp. when there’s new evidence that gives us pause in what we “know”. Without this… Read more »