Intuition, Logic and Women

Dear Harvey,

These are questions I've always wanted to ask you. They have to do with thinking. I will ask them in a personal way because I can't abstract them yet, although I know the issues have wider implications.

I remember being in college and being expected to critique Kierkegaard or Niebuhr and finding myself at a loss about how to do it, despite years of being a brilliant student and writing "good" papers. It wasn't until I had my first course in ethics that I felt tremendously excited - at last a method for how to analyze problems. I remember the teacher doing a presentation and some male student challenging him and I could hardly follow what they were doing. BUT, I knew I wanted to think like that. I also knew, to some degree, their skills were learned, probably in courses in logic or in philosophy. I remember telling people of my excitement about that course but also that "my mind just doesn't work that way."

Simultaneously, while I wanted to acquire this mode of logical debate these men engaged in, I also knew that a lot of it was done just to be argumentative, to compete, to challenge just for the sake of seeing if you could catch the other person. That is, the goal wasn't for true understanding or penetration to some truth or agreement, but to attack on any front you can, and if you say it well, pompously, and articulately, people will think you are doing something important.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have ventured forth on that very unfamiliar terrain of logical attack and counterattack, trying to really communicate, only to have some male come along and point out a misuse of grammar or of a word and ignore the thrust of what I was saying. Sexism. Okay.

In The Benign Reality you speak very highly of rational thinking as logic. As a woman I can state that my mind does not work that way. I almost never sit down and think through a problem analytically, directly, logically, systematically. Do you want to know how my mind works? (Even if you don't, I want you to know.) I think about issues (abortion, war, how to counsel someone, what to teach in class) only very indirectly, on-the-side, and between the lines. I do most of my thinking while reading about something else. For example, when I read a book by Kierkegaard, I do my best thinking about another issue. I've learned to keep two pages of notes: one on Kierkegaard and one on all the other thoughts that I have. It takes me a long time to think through issues. The end result is a very logical analysis - certainly my M.A. thesis and other things I've written are cogent.

I remember once - exactly once - forcing myself to think through something logically - sitting myself down and forcing my brain to do it. I succeeded and got an A+, but it was unnatural.

Questions? Is this some distress that I have? Is it a myth that logic is really the way people think? The effects of sexism on women make this tremendously difficult to evaluate. As Mary Daly points out over and over again, of course it is difficult for women to think in a language that excludes us and in categories that exclude female experience, and from a perspective very different than our own.

I am not saying that women think differently from men inherently. But, the women who make it are the ones who learn to think like men.

Harvey, would you help me with this? If it is distress that keeps my thinking in the back of my mind and indirect, I have never touched it in seven years of counseling. There's a lot of grief and rage surfacing as I write all this. About the most vulnerable thing I can do is tell a male that my mind works differently than his. I can trust you to be thoughtful and really think about this.

To end with an example. When you first introduced the Golden Ring I was terrified. It assumed that people think in the same ways (e.g., like you). I almost never sit down and logically say, "Here is the material, here is the contradiction, here is the direction." I counsel well and have given great directions, but I certainly arrive at them by some other means.

Now either I'm hot on the trail of something important or it's amazing that I've done what I have done given this handicap.

If you think you can help with this, please do.

There is no love like respect of one mind for another.

Judy Kay
Berkeley, California, USA

Dear Judy,

Farther down in the pile I find your letter of January 6th. I am delighted.

I think you have a genius for asking the right questions, or important questions, and I think you are on an important one here. Many other people struggle to ask the question, but you have put it the best that I know and in a way that I think I can hear. I will try to answer it, and both of us should keep in mind that I am of necessity answering it from my framework, from "the way my mind thinks." However, I am quite sure that our minds work exactly the same basically, and that the differences are differences in how our functioning has been occluded by the oppressions and distresses that we have endured.

I think when people speak of "women's intuition," that the phrase has great meaning in the sense that we use "intuition" in Re-evaluation Counseling discussions to mean the very swift, untrammeled, unchecked-out operation of human intelligence. I don't think it is a different process that takes place; it's just that the intuition or the intuitive leap is where we allow the mind to operate flexibly and freely without being suspicious of each step and checking on it so carefully. In the article, "Thinking About Thinking," I tried to hold this out as a necessary way of thinking, but to be substantiated by the careful checking out to be done later. I think this is basically a good way, even though women have been so invalidated that they are afraid to try it, because the sexism sneers at them or laughs at them, or finds tiny faults in order to shut them up all the way through the process. In the actual operation of society, women's "unchecked" (in the usual sense of no laborious step-by-step demonstration) thinking is often much more accurate than the laborious but distorted-by-patterned-intrusions operation of men's "logic."

I think when you say that you use Kierkegaard to help you think about other things, you are putting your mind on a very important process. I have to work with my hands to think freely and well about a difficult process. To go on vacation, see a movie, read a good book of fiction, or do anything else is almost universally reported to be the way to solve a knotty problem. I think that anything that distracts us from our anxieties which operate in the name of "carefulness" allows our mind to function well enough and gives us enough confidence that we can fill in the missing parts even when we are once again being critical and self-conscious.

There's an old joke about a small boy replying "I don't know" to a bewildered traveler's repeated requests for directions in a country district. Finally, the exasperated traveler yelled, "You don't know much, do you?" To this the small boy replied, "No, but I ain't lost, either." It's like this with "women's intuition " vs. "men's logic." Many men give very "logical" demonstrations of "why war is necessary," and most women are quite clear that it isn't and that it must be stopped. This has something to do with why women are taking much more leadership in the present important drive to eliminate nuclear weapons.

This is all I'll say for now. I'll keep a copy of my letter and a copy of yours and try to work it out a little more clearly, and perhaps we have the foundation for another one of our famous collaboration articles.

Please call me if you would like to talk about it.

With much love,

Later: As this discussion progresses, I note a tendency to assume intuition and logic are different and opposite. I would like to save the holistic nature of intelligence and logic, by talking of intuition as "fast logic" and deductive reasoning as "carefully checked-out logic" and treasure and respect both as complementary processes. They might be thought of as analogous to "writing a first draft" and "proofreading the final copy." Appeared in Present Time No. 51.

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00