Intuition and the Limits of Reason: A Cross-Cultural Study

Published: 25.12.2010
Updated: 30.07.2015


Series of 3 seminars on

Integrating Modern Science and Spirituality for Social Wellness:
A Challenge of 21st Century

Seminar "A"

Consciousness and Knowledge: Scientific and Spiritual Perspectives


Sundday, December 12, 2010

Session V: 12.30-13.00


Intuition and the Limits of Reason: A Cross-Cultural Study

The success of the scientific method in unlocking the secrets of the physical universe has given the typical modern mind a confidence in the power of reason that is almost without precedent. Historically, the spread of European rationalism coincided with the temporary decline of older cultures where intuitive approaches to knowledge were highly valued. But the ascendancy of the West now appears to have been a passing phase. Meanwhile civilization has been plunged into a crisis for which science and its offshoot, technology, seem largely to blame. As the prestige of rationalism is eroded, recent scientific and cultural developments have stimulated a revival of interest in intuition.

Before considering the scope and reliability of intuition, we have to clarify what we mean by it. Philosophers, psychologists and mystics in the East and the West have defined intuition in various ways. For some it is an inferior faculty whose operations, however indispensable, are liable to mislead us if not corrected by the rational intelligence. Others see intuition as a higher kind of knowledge for whose influx intellectual activity is only a preparation. In either case, reason and intuition play complementary roles. Science bases itself on the rational analysis of empirical data, yet paradigm-shifting discoveries often come in intuitive flashes. Spiritual teachings depend on intuition for their deepest revelations, but these are commonly supported by psychological observation and metaphysical thinking.

Western “epistemologies of limitation” discourage us from recognizing the access of intuition to unconditioned knowledge beyond the reach of the mind and senses. In the shadow of scientific materialism and the Western domination of global culture, intuition has fallen into comparative neglect. But even in the West there have been prominent thinkers in the last century or so - including William James, Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead - who have assigned a high value to intuition. More recently, the power of intuition has been studied by researchers in transpersonal psychology. Cognitive psychology has also enhanced our understanding of the workings of intuition.

Asian “epistemologies of enlightenment” favour the flourishing of spiritual traditions that foster intuitive insight. These traditions have adapted to changing times, creatively assimilating modern ideas such as that of evolution. In India, for example, Swami Vivekananda spoke of an ascending scale from subconscious instinct to conscious reason to super conscious intuition. A similar but more detailed theory of the evolution of consciousness, from the infra-rational through the rational to the supranational, was formulated by Sri Aurobindo. His writings contain an exceptionally comprehensive treatment of the subject of intuition, accounting for the apparently contradictory conclusions of several other psychological, philosophical and spiritual systems. Thus Eastern philosophies and the practical disciplines associated with them offer attractive alternatives to the limiting assumption that the reasoning intellect represents the summit of human possibilities.



Mr. Richard Hartz

Dr. Rudi Jansma
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