Intuition and the Irrational in Early Twentieth-Century Russia: The Case of Theosophy

 [The Congress on Women’s Education’s] Exhibition Panel Extracurricular Education from Trudy 1-go Vserossiiskogo s”ezda po obrazovaniiu zhenshchin, organizovannogo Rossiiskoi ligoi ravnopraviia zhenshchin v Sankt-Peterburge: T. 2. St. Petersburg: Rossiiskaya liga ravnopraviya zhenshchin, n.d.

by Aleksandra Bessonova

The early twentieth century was a time of increased rationalization and modernization in Europe and beyond. At the same time, many intellectuals were turning to alternative, irrational forms of cognition. Among these was intuition, broadly defined as the ability to perceive higher truths not grasped by the intellect. The perceived irrationality of intuition was often linked to notions of womanhood as opposed to scientific rationality, gendered male. Philosophers attempted to conceptualize intuition in their work, and another tradition preoccupied with the irrational was esotericism. In Russia, theosophy was among the most influential esoteric movements, and its followers criticized excessive reliance on the intellect and expressed an overall dissatisfaction with modernity. In my paper, I focus on the concept of intuition and its relationship to the irrational in theosophy in pre-revolutionary Russia. I also examine how the concept of intuition informed theosophical projects of social and educational reform, presented at the Congress on Women’s Education in 1912-1913. The range of possible definitions and terms for intuition and related phenomena was quite broad: intuition, wisdom, conscience, the voice of one’s heart, and, finally, the higher nature or essence. It is, however, important to note that for theosophists themselves intuition and related phenomena were not constituted as irrational.

Author’s bio: Aleksandra Bessonova is currently a PhD student at the European University in St. Petersburg, Russia. There, she works on the conceptual history of intuition in late imperial and early Soviet Russia. 

Registered attendees received access to the video presentation and shared questions and comments below.

4 replies on “Intuition and the Irrational in Early Twentieth-Century Russia: The Case of Theosophy”

Hi Aleksandra, thank you for the fascinating exposition of the concept of intuition across varied manifestations, including Bergson and the Theosophical movement. Theosophy intrigues me as a competing model to philosophical coming-into-knowing, the latter of which might be said (since at least beginning with Socrates) to privilege discursive and intelligible modes of inquiry. You already note that theosophy was called by some “the illegitimate offspring of the Russian religious renaissance,” but speaking more generally, or from your own point of view: do you see any relevant relation between theosophy’s treatment of ‘intuition’, on the one hand, and mysticism, religious ecstasy, or notions of Revelation, on the other hand? I thought of these in particular connection to your conclusion that the theosophists saw intuitive cognition, not as non-rational per se, but instead as “directing the rational” by (in a sense) transcending it. In other words, intuitive modes of knowing do not need to stand in any distinct opposition to the rational, but enable or engender what we know as the rational, if I interpret you correctly. I wonder if you would be able to share more about what this conception of “directing the rational” consists in? Thank you again for the great research and presentation!

Hi Aleksandra, thank you for presenting your fascinating research! I enjoyed it particularly since the topic covers a lot of interesting aspects, some of which I was able to find echoes in my own paper. For instance, part of your research highlights the role of gender and how the female figure was seen as more natural to evolve intuition. Besant’s opinions on human evolution and that intuition could “serve the good of ‘the whole race’” also seem to carry a strong eugenic and Social Darwinist tone in relation to nation-building (especially since your focus is on the period before the October Revolution). If I recall correctly, some prominent suffragists in Edwardian England also employed theosophical theories to argue for the higher status of women, who were supposedly more evolutionarily “developed.” There seems to be an intriguing convergence here of feminism (motherhood), eugenics (scientific authority), spirituality (irrationality), and nationalism. So from my point of view, gender would be an aspect of the argument that you could maybe further amplify in your research. (Do you have any information on if the Theosophy Society chose to target the Congress on Women’s Education because of their gendered interest?)

Also, you mentioned that theosophy was described as the “illegitimate offspring of the Russian religious renaissance” and that the movement itself was heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. Intuition, as I understood from your research, is to perceive a level of universal truth that is ungraspable by intellect and transcends religious differences. So I would be interested to know how the more “orthodox” religious communities and theological scholars interacted with these theosophical ideas.

Hi Aleksandra! Thanks for an extremely intriguing paper—it definitely resonated with several issues I’ve been thinking about in my own work! I am sure there will be plenty of room for further detailed discussion when we meet, so here I will just limit myself to a raising a few questions/points that immediately came to mind in reading your work.

First, I’d be interested to hear more about the distinction between those aspects of theosophy which were common to the movement at an international level and those which were specific to Russia. You illustrate the ways in which Russian theosophists drew on, and re-elaborated, ideas from other parts of Europe; but what made Russian theosophy distinctive, and in what ways (if at all) did it draw on local traditions of thought? Did the “gendering” of theosophy which you describe only occur in Russia? What did Besant think about it?

Second, I would find it helpful if you could provide further clarification on the specifically religious nature of theosophy. In part, this stems from the immediate comparison I was drawn to between faith (as understood by the authors I work on) and intuition (as presented in your work). Do you think it would be fair to say that the difference between faith and intuition is that the former has its origin in something external, whilst the latter is a faculty of the mind? Or does the theosophists’ intuition also originate in God? And from a confessional/theological perspective, how would you describe the theosophists’ religious commitment? Am I right in thinking, on the basis of your account, that they subscribed to a form of deism? Finally—in connection with my earlier question—what was their relationship to Russian theological traditions? And you mention that they were critical of traditional religion, but what was their stance towards the local institutional Church (and vice versa, how were they regarded by this Church)?

Third—and again, connected to my previous question, I guess—your account of the Russian theosophists’ proposals for education reforms seems to suggest that they regarded intuitive knowledge as pertaining to the sphere of morality. Am I correct in my reading—and if so, were they at all concerned with epistemic faculties enabling access to theological knowledge, or knowledge on doctrinal points (the nature of God, the afterlife, etc.)? Would intuition also cover this sphere of knowledge?

Thanks again, and really looking forward to discussion!

Hi Aleksandra! Thank you for a really fascinating paper with an interesting topic! Lately, I have interviewed in my podcast two Finnish researchers who examine similar themes concerning esotericism and occultism (both belonging to the project called Uuden etsijät in Finnish or the Seekers of the New in English, you might want to look at this project ), so it was interesting to learn a new viewpoint to these theme watching your video presentation.

I was wondering whether the Russian revolutions changed the attitudes towards theosophical knowledge and knowing through intuition? Or how did you choose the time period for your paper?

Secondly I would like to know more of people supporting theosophical thinking intersectionally thinking. Was it more common among women (as Qingyang was proposing a gender viewpoint to your topic) and were the members of the Russian Theosophical Society only higher elite or middle class as well?

Thirdly, I just want to comment how beautifully you speak of the intuition as not non-rational or something that should be viewed through (Western?) rational thinking. Instead, intuition should be viewed from specific historical contexts where it was flourishing for multiple reasons.

Nowadays, the role of intuition has been pointed out again as a source of creative problem solving and innovating something new (for example, I have listened to a podcast episode where Finnish researcher Asta Raami was visiting; she has written a book called “Intuition unleashed” 2015 ). So, how would you see the significance of your research in the present day?

Great to see you soon!

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