Think Piece

On Intuition and Creativity: Invention in Early Soviet Thought

by guest contributor Aleksandra Bessonova

By Aleksandra Bessonova

The sixth sense, instinct, unconscious perception, tacit knowledge, religious or irrational experiences – these all allude to a specific way of knowing that is not limited to the intellect. This mode of knowing is often called intuition, a concept for which there is no unitary understanding, despite its importance in philosophy. As recent work on the topic reveals – ­for example the volume Rational Intuition: Philosophical Roots, Scientific Investigations edited by Lisa M. Osbeck and Barbara S. Held – intuition encompasses a variety of topics and meanings, and can thus be defined as “a process (intuitive judgment), a product (intuitions of, or that), a foundation or precondition for knowledge, and a method for obtaining it.” (p. 3). Its meanings differ significantly not only across fields of knowledge – philosophy or psychology – but also across historical contexts. Thus, intuition has a range of definitions, formulated by different historical actors with their own perspectives and agendas.

As Osbeck and Held indicate in their introduction to the volume, even if intuition has only recently become the subject of extensive academic interest, “its allure is long-standing” (p. 2). Especially in the first decades of the twentieth century, references to intuition were ubiquitous. The term was central to the philosophy of Henri Bergson, whose works became influential not only in France but in other European countries as well, including Russia where intuition was closely associated with religious and mystical doctrines. In pre-revolutionary Russia, debates on the nature of intuition and Bergson’s philosophy appeared in journals addressing both philosophical questions and the occult. During that time, the religious philosopher, Nikolai Losskii, developed his own related theory – intuitivism. A more surprising fact might be that intuition survived into the Soviet period, when it was reimagined and applied in different ways.

After the revolution of October 1917, in fact, intuition was supposedly meant to become irrelevant due to its close associations with the idealistic tradition in philosophy. Yet the idea of acquiring knowledge intuitively remained important even in the ostensibly anti-idealistic USSR. What was meant by intuition in the Soviet Union could differ significantly, however. For philosophers, psychologists, literary critics, members of occult movements, and the general public, the term often had contradictory meanings. These definitions were based on different epistemological foundations. Uncovering them sheds light on different practices and modes of knowledge production that are not easily recognized within the Soviet context.

In the 1920s, Soviet thinkers debated the possibility of intuitive perception, and ideas articulated around this concept continued to fuel discussions throughout the 1930s. Literature was one the most important arenas in which questions of intuition were discussed in the early Soviet years. The prominent critic Aleksandr Voronsky, for example, stressed the role of intuition in the creative process. In a pivotal essay published in 1925 and titled Freidizm i iskusstvo (Freudianism and Art), drawing on Freud’s concept of the dynamic unconscious, Voronsky defined intuition as the “acting subconscious,” which explained the feeling of intuition’s “exteriority.” In the early 1930s, Voronsky was criticized for holding “Bergsonian” views about literature and art.

Literature was not the only venue for discussions of intuition. A number of authors focused on questions of intuition in science and technical invention, highlighting the universal nature of the creative process. Already in the early 1920s, the philosopher Ivan Lapshin published Filosofiia izobreteniia i izobretenie v filosofii: vvedenie v istoriiu filosofii (Philosophy of Invention and Invention in Philosophy: Introduction to the History of Philosophy), which became the first major work on the theory of invention in early twentieth-century Russia.There, Lapshin explained that intuition is not a specific creative act. Instead, he proposed to separate intuition into several phenomena—chutkost’ (sensitivity), pronitsatel’nost’ (perspicacity), and chuvstvo tselostnoi kontseptsii (a feeling of the holistic concept) (p. 142). He defined sensitivity as “the memory” of the value of images, thoughts, and movements. Perspicacity described an ability to use “this sense of value” in the processes of imagination, cognition, and movement. The “holistic concept” referred to the ability to feel an affinity between images, thoughts, and movements.

Lapshin based his theoretical formulation on first-person accounts of famous scientists and inventors, in which they described having an insight or a sudden realization. Overall, he cited sixty-five “substantial statements,” which constitute the evidence for his argument that intuition is a turning point in the cognitive process. He lamented that some scientists attempted to present the product of their research “as a mystical intuition bestowed upon them from heaven” (p. 242). Therefore, Lapshin rejected the idea that such “leaps forward” in the cognitive process reach the human mind from the outside and denied their mystical nature. For him, intuitive realizations are not subconscious and just remain either poorly recognized or unnoticed.

Lapshin’s clear anti-metaphysical stance was not without criticism in the early 1930s.  For example, the psychologist Pavel Iakobson, who wrote a two-part work on the cognitive processes of inventors, critiqued Lapshin’s work. Iakobson’s own work was somewhat similar to Lapshin’s, but it differed methodologically. While Lapshin relied on accounts written and published by famous inventors, Iakobson was commissioned by the Moscow Institute of Psychology and the All-Union Society of Inventors to conduct interviews with workers and amateur inventors in 1932 and 1934. The state’s involvement was the result of an increased emphasis on industrialization and rationalization in the early 1930s, and Iakobson’s work operated within this shift. Iakobson published the first part of his findings, titled Protsess tvorcheskoi raboty izobretatelia (The Process of Inventor’s Creative Work), in 1934; the second part, Puti i priemy tvorchestva izobretatelia (Creative Ways and Methods of an Inventor), however, remained unpublished. In the 1934 volume, Iakobson lamented that the psychology of inventors was understudied and that existing works on the subject were too general. He intended to provide a more nuanced account by focusing on different stages of the creative process in the first volume and on specific intellectual operations in the second.

In 1932 Iakobson and his colleague Mark Lebedinskii interviewed twenty-four workers and inventors, on which Iakobson based the first part of his research. There, he cited a Soviet worker and amateur inventor named Miropol’skii, who stated:

At one point something began to take shape, which was not yet a variant [of invention]. There was a feeling of inner calmness. I cannot say I was confident that this was exactly what was needed but there was this inner calmness. I saw that this was fertile soil. I had never had this feeling before. My inner sense told me it was what was needed. I was wondering what I had been waiting for, what reasons I had to be waiting for something. I had a vague pre-perception.

[В один прекрасный день наметилось нечто, что нельзя назвать вариантом [изобретения]. Получилось внутреннее успокоение. Я не могу сказать, что была такая явная уверенность, что это то, что требуется, но было именно внутреннее успокоение. Я видел, что предо мной благодарная почва. Такого состояния до того я еще не имел. Внутреннее чувство подсказывало, что это то. Я сам все время раньше удивлялся чего я жду, какие я имею основания чего-то ждать. Было смутное предчувствие.][1]

Miropol’skii’s words concern the nature of creativity, particularly with technical inventions. He was attempting to describe a feeling of a non-discursive realization as a vague pre-perception, grasped intuitively.

In 1934, Iakobson interviewed an additional fifty-eight workers and inventors, many of whom attempted, like Miropol’skii, to word their experience referring to the feeling of an intuitive, spontaneous realization. Many confessed to have started on their inventor’s path by trying to come up with the technology for creating a perpetuum mobile, a perpetual motion machine. Some mentioned arriving at their ideas while asleep or just after waking up. Moreover, the language used by the workers to describe the creative process is telling. Their answers differed, but they often described their ideas as if appearing on their own, from the external world, and sometimes accidentally (mimokhodom, samotiokom). One of the workers told Iakobson: “Sometimes I avoid my own thoughts but there is no escape. I do not want to think, but someone makes me think.”[2] According to the workers, having a sudden realization could also entail a feeling of happiness and a sense of beauty.

In his research, Iakobson introduced several terms that were supposed to replace the more ambiguous intuition, with its idealistic and mystical aura. One of them was “emotional podgolosok” (literally, a supporting voice in song). Another concept was “an intellectual schema,” which Iakobson defined as “condensed” information already present in the inventor’s mind. Finally, there are “conventional signs” and “anticipation.” It is unclear how the emotional notion of podgolosok related to the other, more intellectual, concepts. Yet Iakobson connected intuitive knowledge entirely to the workers’ experience, rejecting the notion of a heavenly gift. Here, he was close to Lapshin’s conclusions. While Lapshin emphasized distinguished inventors and scientists, Iakobson focused on workers, some of whom did not consider themselves inventors. Therefore, the notion of an inventor was expanded to include new proletarian subjects: the number of registered members The All-Union Society of Inventors ranged between 500,000 and 800,000 according to different sources. Through this, creativity and invention rhetorically were ascribed to the “broader masses” and were not confined only to great scientists, inventors, and writers. Iakobson separated intuition into several notions and implied that it manifested itself more in those with more experience, but not in women and children, who were ostensibly closer to nature.

Even though intuition became a highly problematic term after 1917, Soviet thinkers still addressed the ideas it encompassed. It was present either explicitly, as in Voronsky’s and Lapshin’s works, or implicitly, as in Iakobson’s research. Under the tightening ideological pressure of Soviet culture, Iakobson still attempted to analyze the non-rational processes in human cognition. His interviews with workers also show that the idea of a sudden realization or insight remained relatively widespread in relation to the creative process even if they were not articulated explicitly. The spontaneous was, to an extent, as important as the conscious.

[1] GARF, f. Р7752, op. 1, d. 625, “Iakobson P. M. Manuscript ‘Puti i priemy tvorchestva izobretatelia,’ 1934,” l. 121.

[2] GARF, f. Р7752, op. 1, d. 614, “Stenogramma besed s izobretateliami i otchet o provedennoi rabote issledovatel’skoi brigady NIS TsS VOIZ na electrozavode o formakh i metodakh raboty izobretatelei, 1933,” l. 100–101.

Aleksandra Bessonova earned her MA degree in history at HSE University in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2019. She is currently enrolled in a doctoral program of the History Department at the European University at St. Petersburg, Russia, and is expected to finish the program in 2023. There, she is working on a dissertation project on the conceptual history of intuition in late imperial and early Soviet Russia.

Featured Image: Shtranikh, V.F. Izobretai! Dorogu rabochei smekalke! Courtesy of the author.

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