Knowing the Source of Intuition


As my first official post apart from commenting on another, I thought I should bring up a conundrum I’ve been unable to resolve in myself for some time now.  Namely, the question is: what exactly is intuition and what is its source?

To illustrate what I’m trying to get at better, and to let you know how I’m using (or misusing) the word intuition, I’ll try to describe it more experientially.  Most of my decisions are made by relying on some combination of two mental processes.  My little decisions throughout the day are made very quickly and easily through relying on habituated responses, like deciding to wash my face and brush my teeth first thing in the morning. Bigger decisions rely on a mental-emotional analytical process in which I sort out and weigh things, like practical concerns, foreseen consequences, the social impact, how I feel about the situation, and responses of friends, family or those affected by my decision, etc.

However, when I more regularly engage in meditation or other spiritual exercises which quiet the mind and reactive impulses, I find in almost all situations there to be some sort of background urge that is pushing me in a particular direction, which I “know” (or feel or sense) is what I “should” do—the “right” decision.  A fair number of times this urge is different from what I would otherwise have chosen to do and is often to my immediate personal detriment, so I know it’s not just my hidden, id-driven desires surfacing.  This “urge”—or what others might refer to as “a little inner voice” or something along those lines—is what I am referring to with the word “intuition.”

When I was younger (which is really ridiculous given that I’m still quite young) I always assumed this intuition to be arising from some deep, divine source.  Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing with the heavy emphasis on conscience, Holy Spirit, etc. being a gift from God that I was so unquestioningly comfortable with that answer.

As I’ve progressed in my education and become more socially aware, I have encountered another compelling answer to this question: socialization.  Many anthropologists, philosophers and sociologists from Durkheim and Weber onwards have pointed to the fact that we as human beings are essentially social creatures.  Ways of being and thinking in the world are taught and trained into us from a very young age through a plethora of social mechanisms such that we internalize them as our own.

More recent post-structuralist thinkers like Foucault and Bourdieu have pointed out how deeply each individual unconsciously internalizes social structures and dynamics which reproduce the social order and its power hierarchies not only through adopting ideas and behaviors, but also more insidiously through structuring how we think, feel and process the world around us.

Here’s an unadulterated shot of some of the genius of Bourdieu: “The schemata of perception and appreciation which are at the root of our construction of the social world are produced by a collective historical labor but on the basis of the very structures of that world: as structured structures, historically constituted, our categories of thought contribute to producing the world, but only within the limits of their correspondence with pre-existing structures.”

So perhaps this urge, this intuition is in fact a manifestation of my deep socialization.  William James had theorized that the extent of the human will is choosing or privileging one habituated behavior over others, which without the assertion of the will would nevertheless lead to one habit dominating in the ensuing struggle amongst habits.  Sartre and other Existentialists have said that we must will ourselves to be human, for not to do so is to leave us to our impulses and habituated behavior like animals. Perhaps it is good that the conscious will dominates over this intuitive urge, and the only purpose of quieting the mind is to make apparent the socialization manifested in that urge making me feel a certain decision is “right.”

Thus, I am left in a conundrum.  It is not simply an either/or question as to whether intuition is divine inspiration or socialization—although I welcome such responses…I’m always up for a healthy debate.  Rather, my question is: how is one to know—how does one identify intuition as one or the other?  If both are possibilities, how does one discern and distinguish which is operating or urging at any given moment?  I’d like to think it is a voice arising from a much wiser Inner Self, given how “right” it feels.  However, I also don’t want to be played the fool.