A New Definition of Intuition

In our modern scientific world, the idea that great thoughts and insights can come from a person who simply uses his mental capacity to study and gain understanding of human nature (or the human condition) has receded into the realm of legend: Aristotle, Socrates, Plato (The Greek pantheon), Rousseau and the French pantheon, Hume and the English/Scottish philosophers, Laozi, and countless others from many parts of the world.

In the 1960s through the late 1980s, Paul Johnson (PJ), a Greenwich Village artist and writer, made his own journey to study the way in which we develop our intuition, how we use our perception and intellect, and how we relate to one another based on these.

PJ discovered that the “intuition” is not ESP, or some magical process, but a rational one. In the “building of the intuition” the use of reason is elemental. Beginning before consciousness or at least consciousness of memory, a child interacts with his body, other people and the environment, beginning to learn of the effects of his actions and reactions.

There is a qualitative value assigned to each experience. At its most fundamental, this can be expressed as either positive or negative. Human beings’ interactions with others and the environment are fraught with emotions, impacts on self-development and image, and one’s sense of “being a good person,” that is, innocent. Placed in a compendium are both the positive or amiable, and the negative or hostile experiences.

Thinking of his childhood and observing others, PJ was able to describe how the “intuitive program” begins. Seeing a child punished in the park for picking up a piece of glass, he said, “That child was amiable when he was born. He felt no guilt. Until someone slapped his hand and said, No, don’t do that! And he felt hostility for the first time.”

“The little one is beginning to make up his own program. He builds up an unconscious memory bank of what would do him the least harm of his actions and reactions.”

This collection, or breviary, of amiable and hostile experiences may be given the name: intuition. The intuition, PJ explained, determines one’s response to a situation as either an amiable or a hostile one. This response is instantaneous and unconscious (although one can become more attuned to it). The intuition is only an intermediary between stimulus and response. It directs the nature of the response.

All of this happens below the level of consciousness. British professor Guy Claxton states that the intuition is “a mental process which is non-conscious, but nevertheless rational.” That is, it follows certain implicit rules. 1 (Claxton uses the word “non-conscious” to separate it from the Freudian concept of the “unconscious.”)

As PJ did, Claxton recognizes the levels of consciousness, and the need as well as the ability to access these levels. PJ came to his conclusions through “tapping into the subliminal stream of consciousness.” In this way he was able to discover his motivations, and to evaluate his actions and their consequences.

This paper will be followed by others on Memory and Intuition, Guilt and Innocence, and Perceptive Intellect.

PJ’s story is told in Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, 2013. Available on:

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1 Han Baltussen, 2007. Did Aristotle have a concept of ‘intuition’? Some thoughts on translating ‘nous’. In E. Close, M. Tsianikas and G. Couvalis (eds.) “Greek Research in Australia: Proceedings of the Sixth Biennial International Conference of Greek Studies, Flinders University June 2005,” Flinders University Department of Languages – Modern Greek: Adelaide, 53-62. Archived at Flinders University: dspace.flinders.edu.au. This paper is available on academia.edu

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6 thoughts on “A New Definition of Intuition

  1. Very interesting, Mary. I believe that instinct is more substantial than just ‘a feeling’ – that it does use information, experience, and other tools that also serve our reasoning. But, there is something inexplicable, too. Maybe, it’s just about paying attention and being open so we may educate and evolve our responses and actions … and, even, non-actions. Thanks for sharing!

  2. The incident of the child being punished for picking up a piece of glass should serve to caution us that children should never be punished for being curious. If anything should be punished, it’s the repression of such childlike innocence, which will be outgrown soon enough if not encouraged, or at least handled in a kinder, gentler fashon.

    • I agree that there is a kinder, gentler way. That was PJ’s view as well. In that incident, after the mother slapped the child’s hand, his older brother came over and gave him a push. The use of violence, and expression of hostility, was being taught.

  3. You, Mary, or any of your readers, who are interested in a layperson understandable explanation (I hope) of how neuroscience is in agreement with PJ’s intuition (in an updated modern form) might go to my website http://ieor.berkeley.edu/People/Faculty/dreyfus.htm and get the second entry on my publist, System 0. I would like to correspond by email (subject: system 0) about this subject. My only complaint about what you wrote is calling what is created in the brain through reinforcement a “collection or breviary”. The learning is simply embodied in appropriate synaptic connections that are the intermediary between stimulus and response.

    • I’ll check out your website. PJ did say (or I summarized what he was saying) that the intuition was “an intermediary between stimulus and response.” I think it makes sense to give this embodied learning a name.

      • Thank you, Stuart, for our conversation about the nature of intuitive action. The study of “affective consciousness” is most interesting. It has certainly added to my understanding of this area of inquiry.

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