In his 1913 masterpiece, Psychological Types, Carl Jung proposed four basic functions: thinking (T), feeling (F), sensing / sensation (S) and intuition (N). He chose these terms, at least in part, because they were already commonplace in language, thus allowing them to be broadly palatable and understood. Jung also believed that the ordinary use of these terms might constitute evidence of their conceptual utility. Of course, Jung did proceed to further enumerate the nature and roles of these functions, including their introverted (Ti, Fi, Si, Ni) and extraverted (Te, Fe, Se, Ne) offspring.
Of Jung’s four basic functions, thinking seems the most obviously distinct from the rest, at least on its face. There’s a sense in which feelings, sensations, and intuitions are less distinct insofar as they all, to some extent, are said to be “felt” (e.g., intuitions as “gut feelings”). Thoughts, by contrast, are considered more detached and characteristically less visceral; they are observed rather than experienced. But since we all have thoughts on a regular basis, what differentiates the thinking (T) type?
According to Jung, thinking “brings the contents of ideation into conceptual connection with one another”; it uses concepts as its chief currency. Jung goes on to associate the thinking function with active (a.k.a., “directed”) as opposed to passive (a.k.a., “undirected”) thinking. Active thinking is experienced as willful, deliberate, and intentional, while passive thinking feels accidental or involuntary.
Jung also believed that emotion-based thinking cannot be properly construed as thinking at all, since it “doesn’t follow its own logical principle but is subordinated to the principle of feeling.” Perhaps you’ve seen this play out in thinkers that you know, who, when gripped with emotion, forsake their usual calm and measured demeanor in favor of impetuous rationalizations or actions (e.g., “road rage”).
This brings us to another feature commonly attributed to thinking— its slow pace. If thinking involves moving through all the steps of solving a math problem, for instance, we can see why Jung considered it a slow and deliberate process.
Challenges to Jung’s Conception of Thinking (T)
Just when we think we’ve captured the essence of the thinking function, David Keirsey, in his classic work, Please Understand Me II, chimes in with the following:
Jungians think ISTPs are just like INTPs with only minor differences, but… INTPs are logicians, philologists, and architects… ISTPs are completely disinterested in these pursuits.
Similarly, Lenore Thomson, in her book, Personality Type, observed how ISTPs and ESTPs seem to operate differently than other thinking types:
Introverted Thinking (Ti) feels instinctive, the types who use it best may be least likely to recognize it as rational. Most of them are ESTPs and ISTPs, who associate its right-brain character with physical dexterity and the ability to improvise.
In other words, both Keirsey and Thomson see thinking assuming a drastically different form in more kinesthetically-oriented STPs. Namely, for such STPs, thinking operates more tacitly, that is, in the background of their awareness, as they engage with the world in concrete ways.
As an example, Thomson suggests that Introverted Thinking (Ti) plays an instrumental role in the process of hammering a nail—an activity requiring rapid incorporation of an array of contextual information (e.g., size and location of the nail, weight of the hammer, thickness of the board, etc.) in order to do so effectively. This style of thinking, in contrast to that described by Jung, is not deliberate or conceptual, but quick and instinctive.
As an INTP, I must confess that when I first encountered Thomson’s work, I felt a bit resistant toward this depiction of Ti. After all, it’s fairly rare to hear someone associate kinesthetic intelligence with thinking. But the more I read and thought about it, the more her ideas seemed to make sense. Thomson helped me understand Ti as more of a right-brained thinking style versus the left-brained operations of Extraverted Thinking (Te). While Jung’s definition of thinking generally suffices for NT and TJ types, it isn’t broad enough to explain its workings in concrete activities.
Thomson’s conception also helps us understand how thinking might operate tacitly in animals. Even if animals aren’t having conscious thoughts, they can use implicit logic to effectively navigate their environment.
In case you’re wondering, Keirsey opted to classify the 16 types according to four “temperament” groups—SPs (“Artisans”), SJs (“Guardians”), NTs (“Rationals”), and NFs (“Idealists”). By pairing T with N in this fashion, he effectively avoided the difficulty of having to reconcile what can be stark differences in the thinking style of ST vs. NT types. And while this is certainly a viable way of classifying the types, it omits a number of interesting nuances and complexities which Thomson managed to preserve and explain.
According to Jung, thinking finds its opposite in feeling (F). However, considering Keirsey’s pairing of N and T, as well as Jung’s propensity to partially conflate the two, it seems reasonable to first look at intuition (N) while our discussion of T remains fresh in our minds.
Jung defined intuition as the function that “mediates perceptions in an unconscious way… and has the character of being given.” In contrast to his view of thinking, which he saw as conscious and willful, Jung envisioned intuition as working more passively, with little need for conscious effort. Rather than being deliberately formulated, intuitions are like gifts from the unconscious (e.g., “aha” moments).
Intuitives are also “idea people”—open to exploring a breadth of ideas, values, and possibilities. They are typically contrasted with sensing (S) types, who prefer to engage with reality in more predictable (SJs) or concrete (SPs) ways. As I’ve said before, the clearest N-S distinctions are evident in INJ versus ESP types, with the former being the most abstract and the latter the most concrete of the types.
Like thoughts, we generally think of ideas as being conscious phenomena. There are, however, times when intuitive ideas affect us in less conscious ways. If we are willing to associate “gut feelings” with intuition, this could serve as an example of how intuition speaks to us in a non-cognitive manner. That said, intuitions most commonly take the form of ideas or imagery, rather than gut feelings, at least for N types. In other words, their intuitions are experienced as cognitive phenomena.
In many cases, intuitions reveal an answer, insight, or possibility in an “out of the blue” fashion. Especially for users of Introverted Intuition (Ni), intuition can engender a sense of certainty or knowing, but without the privilege of understanding exactly how they came to that knowledge; they simply know. This is why Jung considered intuition a non-rational function. Unlike deliberative style of rational thought, intuition doesn’t reach an answer through step-by-step logic, but through revealed ideas or insights.
Sensing / Sensation (S)
Like intuition, Jung considered sensing / sensation (S) to be a perceiving (as opposed to a judging) function. Both sensations and intuitions have the sense of being given rather than earned; we simply receive them into consciousness.
Most people are familiar with the five basic senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting. Sensing, or more specifically, Extraverted Sensing (Se), apprises us of relevant physical details in our immediate environment.
Noting the difficulty of attending to sensations and intuitions simultaneously, Jung conceptualized S and N as dichotomous opposites. I think it’s fair to say that intuition has a more cognitive flavor than what we experience through the five senses. As I mentioned earlier, intuitions, especially for N types, typically consist of ideas and/or imagery. And in order to engage with our intuitions, we must divert our attention (usually unwittingly) from the sensory world toward what is happening in the mind. And this is precisely why intuitives are said to be more abstract than sensing types are.
That said, the concrete-abstract distinction is less useful when it comes to Introverted Sensation (Si). Si references past experiential data to inform the present, which is essentially an abstract type of operation. For the same reason, Si seems significantly more cognitive in its workings (i.e., left-brained), while Se is more experiential (i.e., right-brained).
This is one reason I’ve been slow to jump on the bandwagon of using the term “cognitive functions,” since some functions (and types) seem more experiential than cognitive. It would be misleading, for instance, to consider an ESP type to be equally cognitive as, say, an INTJ. While neither experience nor cognition is inherently better than the other, they do present rather differently in consciousness.
So what about the feeling function? Is it more cognitive or experiential? I suspect the vast majority of people would consider it more experiential. Here’s what Jung had to say:
Feeling is a process that imparts… a definite value in the sense of acceptance or rejection (“like” or “dislike”). The process can also appear isolated, as it were, in the form of a mood. But even a mood… [or a sense of] indifference expresses some sort of valuation. Hence, feeling is a kind of judgment… Valuation by feeling extends to every content of consciousness.
In concert with many of his predecessors, Jung understood feeling as the function that weighs and conveys the value of things. As indicated in the above excerpt, he believed that nothing escapes this valuation process, even the things we feel indifferent toward. The values of the feeling function, which are essentially judgments, play a salient role in shaping our beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes.
If we grant that feeling weighs on every aspect of human life, regardless of our type, then how do we differentiate feelers from other types?
All personality types have a variety of values, many of which can be associated with one of its functions. Thus, each function might be seen as a sort of superordinate or “meta” value set. Unfortunately, this introduces a logical difficulty. As pointed out in my book, My True Type, it seems problematic to define feeling as a valuing function if all the functions possess their own set of values.
A better approach might therefore involve identifying which values are unique to the feeling function? In my view, what distinguishes feelers from thinkers is the degree to which they feel the value and importance of human life, perhaps even life in general. Feelers have a greater natural capacity for empathy, which commonly manifests as moral concern as well as a willingness to help and care for others (including plants and animals). While feeling is often described as a judging (J) function, feelers never need to decide whether human well-being should be prioritized, as this has already been predetermined by their feeling function.
Like other types, feelers may divert their gaze from their F values when exploring or developing other functions. They may, for instance, take interest in careers, such as computer science, that are typically inhabited by thinkers. Indeed, some feelers may be so fascinated by such pursuits that they mistype as T types. And while they are rarely exceptional logicians (although those of higher IQ may prove competent in this respect), their intrigue with their inferior T function is apparently strong enough to blind them to their true nature as feelers. Of course, the same thing happens with other personality types. For this reason, assessing our performance on different types of intelligence tests (e.g., emotional, spatial, kinesthetic, etc.) might help us better recognize our true strengths and personality type.
I think it’s also easy to confuse an interest area with the function being used to engage with it. Let’s say, for instance, that an INFP relishes learning and writing about science. Upon learning of her scientific interest, many people might assume she’s a T type. And while it may be true that her inferior T is fueling her interest in science, she may nonetheless rely on her Fi and Ne functions to guide and inform her studies and writing.
Jung also highlighted the difference between concrete feeling and abstract feeling. Here he is essentially referring to feeling judgments that arise in a concrete situation (i.e., “He’s being nasty.”) versus those installed as overarching / abstract values or beliefs. Jung points out that abstract feeling (which in my view amounts to combining N and F) can lead to universal / objective beliefs that may resemble those of abstract thinking (i.e., NT). In other words, a worldview can be just as readily and soundly built on feeling judgments as it can on thinking judgments. While T philosophers may be disposed to criticize certain feeling-based worldviews as illogical, they may fail to fully appreciate that certain truths are not derived logically but are simply self-evident if you’re a feeling type.
In light of the fact that both intuitions and feelings can have a sense of being given or self-evident, they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish. I suspect Jung would contend that, in NF types, the F function plays more of the active, willful, and deliberate role (i.e., the J role), in the same way that the T function does for NT types. For many people, this may seem a bit strange, since we typically think of feelings as being quick responders to the world rather than willful, deliberate guides. But if we remember that emotions, despite serving as the primary concern and content of the feeling function, aren’t synonymous with it, then Jung’s notion seems more plausible, perhaps even helpful.
Early in this post, we looked at the thinking function, which included a foray into Thomson’s view of the tacit ways in which Ti can operate. From there we moved to intuition in order to differentiate it from thinking. We learned that intuition is more passive than thinking, with intuitions floating up like gifts from the subconscious. Sensing was our next order of business. We determined that Se is characteristically more experiential and concrete, while Si is more cognitive and abstract. Finally, we wrestled with the feeling function, which in some ways is the most difficult to conceptualize. There, we explored its role in issuing value judgments, but concluded that it’s really the prominence of empathy and concern for human well-being that distinguishes feelers from other types.
It can also be refreshing to step back from this sort of granular analysis and envision the types according to our ordinary understanding of the terms thinker, intuitive, sensate, and feeler. Doing so can supply a surprisingly good ballpark idea of what these types are actually like. Although some people may balk at this sort of flip-flopping between ordinary and technical language, I think it can be beneficial. The ordinary understanding can keep newcomers from feeling totally lost, while the technical explanations afford serious students an opportunity to dive deeper into type nuances.
Learn more about the personality functions in Personality Junkie’s bestselling book, My True Type: Clarifying Your Personality Type, Preferences & Functions.