On Introspection (by EF)

From: EMMA FLETCHER (EJF195@psy.soton.ac.uk)
Date: Sat Feb 18 1995 - 18:27:07 GMT

Is Introspection the Right Method of Studying Psychology?

For many years introspection provided a foundation to psychological
research. Critical examination of such self observation methods, has
provided insight into the fragile nature of introspection's
relevance to the study of psychology. Introspection, derived from
the Latin "intro" and "specio" (literally meaning to look into) may
be seen to be the process by which an individual directly examines
his own thoughts or mental processes.

Man appears to have had an ageless fascination with introspection,
and "the way in which the mind perceives itself", Augustine, De
Trinitate. For example, the ancient Greeks emphasised the importance
of "knowing yourself" Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. This interest is
perhaps common to the human population; as to have knowledge of the
processes of the mind, based on personal experience, is to grasp
something of the nature of consciousness itself; for without being
conscious experiences would not exist. "no one can possibly doubt
that he lives, remembers,understands, wills, thinks, knows and
judges. For even if he doubts he lives."
Descartes 1640, cited in Putman 'Philosophy and Our Mental life'.

Despite what appears to be a common need for introspection,
introspection can only be relevant to the individual as it is
chiefly concerned with self reflection. To achieve a situation which
is conducive to such examination is in itself a feat, as in order to
focus on the process of the mind Putman suggests the would- be self
observer must try to remove himself from immediate contact with the
environment, "we have to exclude from our consideration everything
which enters our acquaintance from the outside by the bodily
senses". Putman 'Philosophy and Our mental Life'

But surely this suggested method of introspection is paradoxical as
to totally remove the subject's perception of his surrounding
environment would render him unconscious :as consciousness is
founded on perception? However presuming a relatively pure state of
self reflection can be obtained (that is "the mind coming to reflect
its own operations about ideas it got by sensation and storing new
sets of ideas", Putman 1986) the problem of public access is still

Introspection is private and therefore may be viewed as a
nonscientific method of studying psychology: as the thoughts or
mental processes, perceived by the observer cannot be exactly
replicated in another independent observer. Consequently it can be
said that self reflection is a subjective operation. Introspection
can only portray "the way things seem to you not the way they are"
Stevan Harnad, 1995. That is introspection is reliant not only on
personal perception but also upon the individual's understanding and
interpretation of the observed factors. This makes introspection
between observers futile as conflict may exist in two forms.
Firstly, due to the personal nature of introspection, the observer
cannot experience or replicate the exact experience of another.
Secondly the observer may believe to be influenced in the same way
by the same experience, although in reality the experiences of both
observers are very dissimilar. For example, introspector 'a' may
remember a time when he felt sick before going onto a stage to
perform. Introspector 'b' ( if able to confirm this feeling at all)
may also remember being nervous in a similar situation; but in
reality introspector 'a' was experiencing a much more intense form
of stress. Can the introspectors therefore be experiencing the SAME
feelings? In effect no one can experience what another person
experiences as only the person experiencing the situation has an
experience of it. The conundrum presented here is that there is, and
can be, no conclusive proof, or even evidence to suggest that both
observers experience the same or even similar mental states."Who can
be sure that two given feelings are exactly the same" William James.

Another paradoxical situation which is evident is the conflict of
the observer observing the observed. Does therefore introspection
involve a split consciousness? Introspection by nature necessitates
the observer to inspect the way in which his own mind operates.
However accepting that the mind only has two states, one of
consciousness and one of unconsciousness, and that in no way can two
conscious states function together, how can the observer that is the
subject, provide an objective assessment of the mental processes
which he himself is inducing. To observe, in itself, is influencing
the state of the mind, by evoking mental processing. This distortion
of the observed mental processes is inevitable, after all "a thinker
cannot divide himself in two" Comte. James provides a superficially
plausible explanation in that "a fact may be shielded through the
medium of memory, not at the very moment of our perceiving it, but
the moment after: and this is the mode in which our best knowledge
of our intellectual acts is generally acquired". That is, that
introspection, far from being related to a 'split consciousness'
(which does not exist) is the inspector of memory; or retrospection.

Only the instigator of the thoughts, himself, knows the true nature
of their being. Nevertheless, even this can be argued against as the
ultimate source of knowledge may not be apparent to the thinker, as
introspection is unable to probe deep enough to locate the exact
birth place of thought or experience.

  " we are all faced with events which occur at the private level and
  which are important to the organism... which may someday be made
  accessible to every one"

Burhus, Frederick, Skinner, cited in Ibid., p273- 275.

Skinner's comment here may be seen to be contradictory to the nature
of introspection as private thoughts are literally personal. More
extraordinarily Skinner is suggesting that the causes of thoughts,
which remain a mystery even to the observer himself, will eventually
be made public. Introspection (like any method of psychological
study) is unable to reveal the causes of reasoning or mental
processes or indeed, the real motives or causes behind any action.
For example if observer 'a' introspects on the reason why he calls
the colour red, "red", he will ultimately be unable to produce a
feasible answer. He may conclude that he calls it red because he
learnt to call it such at an earlier point and therefore he is
simply recalling the term. On closer inspection he will be unable to
produce a reason for how he remembered that particular tone as being
called red. Consequently it can be said that introspection is
concerned with such unconscious reasons. William E. Lyons 1986,
describes introspection as "an eye witness account of items floating
by in the stream of consciousness". However if this is
introspection's main concern what relevance has it to the study of
psychology? Perhaps introspection can be used as a method of
confirmation to distinguish between repressed memory and
imagination, though retrospection. However here two flaws are
highlighted in this method of study, as people may be highly

Repressed memories may be seen as being memories which are forgotten
(generally for a purpose e.g. if the images are harmful to the
subject) but resurface at a later time to reveal something about the
past. The observer may be coerced, by an authoritative person into
believing that fake memories, that is unreal and imaginary images,
are in fact real through a process of suggestion. The problem of
suggestibility may be exaggerated if the memories are partially real
and partially imaginary, as confusion results over the reality of
the events that occurred. This in turn illustrates the unreliable
nature of introspection. Introspection itself relies on the
examination of memories. Such memories may be distorted by the
observer himself, or by new information collected from other
sources. Therefore if self reflection is centring around fake or
distorted memories, what can it reliably confirm? The problem is
highlighted, as the observer is generally unaware of the source's
bias. For example the introspector may know that something happened
to him, as introspection provides him with "confirmation" of the
suggested occurrence, but really he only thinks that it happened to
him. Here we return to the problem of the observer observing the
observed, as confirmation would be more valuable from an external
observer. The introspector can not provide a reliable judgement,
upon himself, as in doing so he is influencing the nature of the
observed material. Descrates perception of 'true knowledge' may, in
this way, be seen to be unreliable, "never accept anything as true
if I had not evident knowledge of it being so...and to embrace to
my judgement only that which presented itself to my mind so clearly
and distinctly. I had no occasion to doubt it".

It is also important to consider whether introspection has a value
to psychology. Introspection may be seen to be vaguely useful to
psychological research as it provides a general social model, though
the input of empathy and self character study. Nevertheless, because
of introspection's subjective nature, empathy too must be viewed
with caution. Can the observer be sure that his introspection is a
true reflection of others views or feelings? Perhaps here exact
replication of feelings, thoughts and mental processes is of less
importance as a general wider understanding will suffice. The use of
self character study must not be totally debased. However, as this
too may be seen to have some relevance in examining social concerns,
for example, cultural groups believe themselves to have similar
thoughts and feelings. Surely this understanding of each others'
views would have to reflect on a degree of introspection; as to
empathise with the views of others a member of the group must
firstly recognise his own being or "self". In this way introspection
may be used in psychology in order to initiate the formulation of
hypotheses; for occasionally a general understanding of the
population may be needed.

Another use argued by Heinz Kohut is that "introspection and empathy
are essential ingredients of psychoanalytical observation and that
the limits of psychoanalysis are defined by those of introspection
and empathy". However this may be viewed sceptically as the
potential limits of introspection and empathy are very restricted.
If an individual himself is unable to locate or understand the
causes of his thoughts what hope has another; even if it were
possible for the psychoanalyst to comprehend the exact introspective
thoughts of the patient?

In conclusion it can therefore be said that introspection has little
value as a scientific evaluation of the mind as this form of
experience is subjective, and therefore personal. Introspection can
only reveal the way in which the introspector examines and
understands the environment; and his own mental processes. Even this
is of limited value as self- reflection may be distorted by self-
observation; and also by the influence of others where the
introspector has a suggestible nature. Further more, true knowledge
of the workings of the mind can never be totally revealed using this
self- examination method, as many of the processes of the mind occur
due to unconscious causes. Therefore it is beyond the grasp of


Augustine, De Trinitate, bk.10, sec7, vol.8 Augustine:Later Works,
 trans. and ed. J.Burnaby (SCM Press 1955) p.80

Ibid., Skinner p.282. "About Behavioursim" p.17,27

Kohut, H.(1995) Journal of Psychotherapy. Practical and Research.
Spring vol 4, 163-177

Putman, "Philosophy and our Mental Life", p.291

Lyons,E., William,(1986) "The Disappearance of Introspection" The
Massachusettes Institute of Technology: MIT Press.

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