September 09

Intuition, Understanding and the Science of Subjectivity

In our last session we explore how our thinking is trapped in words – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. because our language shapes what can be thought of.

The Romantic thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries realized this. They saw how language in its normal discursive form limits what we can understand. Samuel Taylor Coleridge the English poet realized this, but he also saw, as we alluded to yesterday, that understanding is not the only way of knowing.

Coleridge created a distinction between Understanding and what he called Reason. Understanding is the kind of knowing that happens in language and symbolic representation. Reason or Intuition is a direct knowing prior to language. It is a kind of mental sensation of ideas and feelings before they have been interpreted by the mind using language. Once the intuitions of reason are interpreted by the mind they become understanding.

What is important to remember is that language, as we have already discussed cannot capture all of we can know through the intuitions of Reason. We cannot understand everything that we can know. This is the point that we have been making. Our experiences of Radical Inclusivity are revealed to us through the intuitions of reason. What we remember of them and are able to express intelligibly in language later is only part of the original intuited experience.

Coleridge had a particularly beautiful and intriguing way of describing the nature of Reason. He used phrases like a “seeing light,” “the eye of the soul” and “a power that sees by its own light” to explain this form of knowing. He wrote of an “enlightening eye” that revealed the mind’s “reflection” of a “universal light.”

I find Coleridge’s idea so intriguing that I want to explain it more fully. Imagine being out in the darkness with a flashlight pointing up toward the night sky. You don’t see any light because it is all moving away from you. In order to see the light beam from the flashlight it would need to strike something so that the light would reflect back at you. If there is nothing to reflect the light back into your eye it simply spreads out into space and you don’t see it at all. As soon as something appears, say a bird that flies by, the light will bounce of the bird and into your eye and you will see the bird.

Coleridge saw consciousness as a field of empty space bathed in the light of consciousness. Whenever a thought or feeling would appear the light of awareness would automatically reflect back to us and we instantly become aware of it. This instantaneous awareness of whatever arises in the field of consciousness is what he called Reason or Intuition. The act of knowing in this way was also called reflection and the book that Coleridge wrote about his theory of consciousness was called Aides to Reflection.

The mental sensations of reason can themselves become the objects of further understanding. We have an instantaneous revelation of reason and then an understanding about it that revelation begins to develop. The initial revelation comes in the form of an intuition of pure spontaneous knowing. The understanding that follows comes in the form of conclusions, associations, and distinctions about the original knowing generally, but always, contained in language.
Again, what is important here is that not everything that can be known through Reason or Intuition can be translated into Understanding and language.

We are making a distinction between two kinds of knowing for simplicities sake during the rest of this course we will distinguish them as Intuition and Understanding. Intuition is the direct knowing of something that is gained spontaneously through contact with the thing known. Understanding is the knowing about something that comes in conclusions, associations and distinctions usually, but not necessarily, contained in language.

We have already discussed the limitation of Scientific Fundamentalism and now we have set the stage for the introduction of an alternative conception of Science. The way of doing science that is what we commonly call science was developed during the 16th and 17th centuries during the European Enlightenment. One way to understand that way of doing science is as a process of objectification.

Science as we have all come to know it best is an attempt to separate from the world, to assume a detached uninvolved stance from it and then to make observations free from bias. It is a science of objectification. In this view the ultimate verification of truth is for it to be observable by another scientist. If two or more scientists make the same observation then it is verifiably objective and therefore true. Otherwise the observation might only be the imagination of one person.

Historically we can understand why a group of thinkers living in the wake of the superstitious world of the Medieval Church wanted all truths to be publically accessible. At the same time later thinkers recognized a particularly virulent form of Vicious Intellectualism at work here as well. If all truths must be validated by the observation of more than one person there is an inherent invalidation of all forms of private inner realization.

Romantic thinkers like Coleridge objected to this blanket rejection of inner revelation and one of them, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, developed a powerful alternative way of doing science that is important for us to consider. Although best known as a poet and playwright, Goethe himself considered his greatest achievement his scientific method that was offered as an alternative to the scientific method practiced by Sir Isaac Newton and other scientists of his day.

The method of science that Goethe practiced was in certain respects diametrically opposed to the objective science described above. Goethe believed that the outer physical world and the inner world of our senses were mirror images of each other, the inside and outside view of the same reality.

Paying attention to the outer world generates inner responses that reveal the essential nature of whatever is being observed. The science that Goethe advocated was one in which we simultaneously observe the outer world as well as our inner responses to it. It is in a sense a mystical approach to science, a science of subjectivity rather than objectivity.

Goethe came to believe that all of life unfolds through the repetition of patterns. Everything that exists is a record of a unique pattern of unfolding and when you observe anything deeply enough you will see the unique underling pattern that is its essential nature.

Radical Inclusivity is the direct knowing of the nature of reality. When we liberate our minds, at least to some extent, from its current perceptual framework. We begin to see the underlying pattern of reality that normally lies hidden beneath our conventional awareness.