Intuition (Lat. intueri, to look into) is a psychological and philosophical term which designates the process of immediate apprehension or perception of an actual fact, being, or relation between two terms, and its results. Hence the words Intuitionism or Intuitionalism mean those systems in philosophy which consider intuition as the fundamental process of our knowledge or at least give to intuition a large place (the Scottish school); and the words Intuitive Morality and Intuitional Ethics denote those ethical theories which base morality on an intuitive apprehension of the moral principles and laws, or consider intuition as capable of distinguishing the moral qualities of our actions (Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Reid, Dugald Stewart). As an element of educational method intuition means the grasp of knowledge by concrete, experimental or intellectual, ways of apprehension. The immediate perception of sensuous or material objects by our senses is called sensuous of empirical intuition; the immediate apprehension of intellectual or immaterial objects by our intelligence is called intellectual intuition. It may be remarked that Kant calls empirical intuitions our knowledge of objects through sensation, and pure intuition our perception of space and time as the forms a priori of sensibility. Again, our intuitions may be called external or internal, according as the objects perceived are external objects or internal objects or acts.
The importance of intuition as a process and element of knowledge is easily seen if we observe that it is intuition which furnishes us with the first experimental data as well as with the primary concepts and the fundamental judgments or principles which are the primitive elements and the foundation of every scientific and philosophical speculation. This importance, however, has been falsely exaggerated by some modern philosophers to an extent which tends to destroy both supernatural religion and the validity of human reason. There has been an attempt, on their part, to make of intuition, under different names, the central and fundamental element of our power of acquiring knowledge, and the only process or operation that can put us into contact with reality. So we have the creation or intuition of the ego and non ego in the philosophy of Fichte; the intuition or intellectual vision of God claimed by the Ontologists in natural theology (see Ontologism); W. James’s unconscious intuition or religious experience (The Varieties of Religious Experience); Bergson’s philosophy of pure Intuition; the experience or experiential consciousness of the Divine of the Modernists (Encyclical “Pascendi gregis”). According to the Ontologists, our knowledge of notions endowed with the character of necessity and universality, as well as our idea of the Infinite, are possible only through an antecedent intuition of God present in us. Other philosophers start from the principle that human reasoning is unable to give us the knowledge of things in themselves. The data of common sense, our intellectual concepts, and the conclusions reached through the process of discursive reasoning do not, they say, primarily represent reality; but acting under diverse influences such as those of our usual and practical needs, common sense and discursive reason result in a deformation of reality; the value of their data and conclusions is one of practical usefulness rather than one of true representation (see Pragmatism). Intuition alone, they maintain, is able to put us in communication with reality and give us a true knowledge of things. Especially in regard to religious truths, some insist, it is only through intuition and internal experience that we can acquire them. “God“, says the Protestant A. Sabatier in his “Esquisse d’une philosophic de la religion”, p. 379, “is not a phenomenon which can be observed outside of the ego, a truth to be demonstrated by logical reasoning. He who does not feel Him in his heart, will never find Him outside… We never become aware of our piety without at the same time feeling a religious emotion and perceiving in this very emotion, more or less obscurely, the object and the cause of religion, namely, God.” The arguments used by the School-men to prove the existence of God, say the Modernists, have now lost all their value; it is by the religious feeling, by an intuition of the heart that we apprehend God (Encycl. “Pascendi gregis” and “II programma dei modernisti”).
Such theories have their source in the principle of absolute subjectivism and relativism—the most fundamental error in philosophy. Starting with Kant’s proposition that we cannot know things as they are in themselves but only as they appear to us, that is, under the subjective conditions that our human nature necessarily imposes on them, they arrive at the conclusion that our rational knowledge is subjectively relative; and that its concepts, principles, and process of reasoning are therefore essentially unable to reach external and transcendental realities. Hence their recourse to intuition and immanence (see Immanence). But it is easy to show that if intuition is necessary in every act of knowledge, it remains essentially insufficient in our present life, for scientific and philosophical reflection. In our knowledge of nature we start from observation; but observation remains fruitless if it is not verified by a series of inductions and deductions. In our knowledge of God, we may indeed start from our nature and from our insufficiency and aspirations, but if we want to know Him we have to demonstrate, by discursive reasoning, His existence as an external and transcendent Cause and Supreme End. We may, indeed, in Ethics, have an intuition of the notion of duty, of the need of a sanction; but these intuitive notions have no moral value if they are not connected with the existence of a Supreme Ruler and Judge, and this connection can be known only through reasoning. The true nature, place, and value of intuition in human knowledge are admirably put forth in the Scholastic theory of knowledge. For the Schoolmen the intuitive act of intellectual knowledge is, by its nature, the most perfect act of knowledge, since it is an immediate apprehension of and contact with reality in its concrete existence, and our supreme reward in the super-natural order will consist in the intuitive apprehension of God by our intelligence: the beatific vision. But in our present conditions of earthly life, our knowledge must of necessity make use of concepts and reasoning. All our knowledge has its starting-point in the intuitive data of sense experience; but in order to penetrate the nature of these data, their laws and causes, we must have recourse to abstraction and discursive reasoning. It is also through those processes and through them alone that we can arrive at the notion of immaterial beings and of God himself (St. Thomas, “Contra Gentes”, I, 12; “Summa Theol.”, I, Q. lxxxiv-lxxxviii, etc.). Our mind has the intuition of primary principles (intellectus), but their application, in order to give us a scientific and philosophical knowledge of things, is subject to the laws of abstraction and successive reasoning (ratio, discursus, cf. I, Q. Iviii, a. 3; II-II, Q. xlix, a. 5, ad 2llm). Such a necessity is, as it were, a normal defect of human intelligence; it is the natural limit which determines the place of the human mind in the scale of intellectual beings.
Concepts and reasoning therefore are in themselves inferior to intuition; but they are the normal processes of human knowledge. They are not, however, a deformation of reality, though they give only an imperfect and inadequate representation of reality,—and the more so according to the excellency of the objects represented,—they are a true representation of it.
GEORGE M. SAUVAGE.