Re: On Introspection (by EF)

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sun Feb 18 1996 - 21:44:00 GMT

> From: "EMMA FLETCHER" <>
> Date: Sun, 18 Feb 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.

To put this in context: The different sciences each have their own
territory, which they then observe, and then provide theories to
explain the observations. Physics observes and then explains matter and
energy, biology observes and then explains living organisms, geology
observes and explains the earth, and so on. In this scheme of things, it
looks as if psychology would observe and then explain the mind. But how
are we to observe the mind? Is introspection (observing one's own mind)
the right way?

> 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.

Since consciousness is already such a problematic thing, it's best not
to use to many different words for it. "Experiencing" or "having experiences"
is what "consciousness" means, for present purposes, so "without being
conscious experiences would not exist" is a bit redundant: It just
means: without experiencing, there would be no experiences!

You're right that it's quite natural to want to observe what's going on
in one's own mind. After all, what could be more important to each of
us, or more interesting? ("Interest" itself, is, after all, an
experience. And "importance" is always importance TO someone -- what is
important to me may not be important to you. So what is important for
each of is is also an experiential matter, even [and this is a subtle
one] if we are altruists, and what is most important to us is what's
important to others! It's still the importance to US that is the measure
of importance, so it's an experiential measure.

But the fact that experience is important and interesting, and probably
the reason you are studying psychology in the first place, is no
guarantee that observing our experiences (introspection) is the right
way to study psychology -- if, that is, we want to study psychology as a
"science." Remember, though, that all I mean by "science" is LUNCH:
Whenever you have to be serious about how to go about getting something
to eat, it's important that you get things RIGHT. Otherwise you end up
with airburgers instead of vegeburgers.

To get things RIGHT, there has to be a way to get them WRONG too, and a
way to test whether it's one or the other. So if I tell you there's a
vegeburger around the corner on the left, you can test whether or not
what I said was correct by going around the corner and OBSERVING whether
you find a vegeburger there to eat. If lunch was there, it was correct; if
lunch was not there, it was incorrect. That's science, and that's really
all there is to science: Just common sense about how to get lunch (and
about other things that are like getting lunch) by testing statements
through observations.

On the other hand, if I had told you, when you asked where lunch was:
"Man does not live by vegeburgers alone" -- Would that statement get
you any closer to lunch? (We have to suppose that this happens every
day, and whereas you can afford to listen to philosophical statements
about "life" on some days, most days you really need to get lunch,
otherwise you starve.)

Would the opposite of that statement "Man DOES live by vegeburgers
alone" get you any closer to lunch? So if neither that statement nor
its opposite gets you lunch, what good is it? Is there ANY way to check
whether the statement is right or wrong? Are there some observations
that could confirm or disconfirm it? Perhaps, but they don't have to do
with lunch. And it was lunch that I used here for an example. (If
instead of getting lunch the problem had been illness caused by
overeating, or perhaps failures caused by too much concern with eating,
that statement might have been a LITTLE helpful, but we were just
talking about the problem of getting lunch.)

> "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 Putnam 'Philosophy and Our Mental life'.

No need to worry about the subtler issues here, but the fact is that
Putnam's paraphrase of Descartes here -- and probably Descartes own
original way of putting it -- probably goes a LITTLE further than one
can really go without being open to doubt. The only thing that is
absolutely immune to doubt is that experiencing is going on. The
specific CONTENTS of the experience, however, are not certain. It makes
no sense to doubt I FEEL a toothache when I feel a toothache, but the
experience is no guarantee that there's something wrong with my tooth,
or even that I HAVE a tooth. It only guarantees that I'm having the
EXPERIENCE of a toothache.

So what about "lives, remembers,understands, wills, thinks, knows and
judges"? Which of these is just an experience. Let's start from the end:
I "judge" that OJ was guilty. I FEEL he's guilty. I can't doubt that I
feel that, but can I not doubt that he IS guilty? Can I not doubt that
my judgment is correct?

Let me leave "know" for a second and move to "think": No problem here: I
think OJ's guilty. No doubt about that.

"Will": I will my hand to move. I could be wrong that there's a hand
there, I could be wrong that I'm the one who made it move (maybe someone
stimulated my brain), but I can't be wrong that it FEELS as if I made my
hand move.

"Understands" is tricky too: Doesn't it sometimes FEEL as if you
understand something, but once you try to give it a kid-brother
explanation, you realise you don't understand it after all?

"Remembers" is similar: Remember false memory syndrome? Something may
FEEL like it really happened, but it didn't. So again, that the
experience happens is not open to doubt, but what it TELLS you might be

"Live" is probably the weakest one, because there are all kinds of
theories about what "living" means. Biology says dead things can't
think, but that (like whether or not you have a tooth) does not come
with the force of certainty. So maybe I can think even if I'm dead.

Back to "know." OJ looks like a good example for this: You just KNOW
he's guilty -- but maybe he's not. Well then you didn't know, you just
THOUGHT you know, or, you FELT, you knew, you had the experience of
"knowing" (like the man who "knew" the secret of the universe while
under the effects of laughing gas) but you didn't really know.

Except for one thing. You can KNOW that you are experiencing when you
are experiencing. All the contents of the experience could be wrong
except the fact that there is experiencing going on. That you can know.
And about that you can have no doubts. That is Descartes' "Cogito Ergo
Sum" "I think therefore I exist" which Putnam is here loosely
translating as "I think therefore I live," but all you can REALLY be
sure about is that experiencing is going on. Maybe that's what we mean
by "live," rather than all the biological details...

The message in all this is that introspection can be trusted for one
thing, and one thing only: As direct observational evidence that
observation is going on. We also know that observation itself (external
inspection, rather than introspection) can be used for getting lunch,
and for testing statements about lunch. So the question is: Can
introspection be used to get "lunch," where lunch, for psychologists,
is explaining how the mind itself, the mechanism that is generating the
experiences, works?

> 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
> present.

First, you have to ask WHY Putnam is recommending that we "exclude from
our consideration everything which enters our acquaintance from the
outside by the bodily senses." He is trying to get you to do what
Descartes did. Descartes doubted everything he could doubt. And one of
the first things he saw were open to doubt were the data of senses: I
could be dreaming, or hallucinating. So my sense data are open to doubt,
whereas the FACT of my having experiences is not.

But that is all about certainty. The issue here is not about certainty.
Lunch (science) is not a matter of certainty but of high probability,
based on the evidence. But what is the evidence? It too is data, and
data are based on observations. The observations, however, must be
public, so that ANYONE can check them, not just me.

And that's where the problem with introspection comes in: No one can
check my introspections but me!

> 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.

It is a fact that by introspecting we do not discover how our minds
work. We don't know how we retrieve our memories. They just arrive on
call, like magic. We don't know how we accomplish the mental and even
physical skills of which we are capable. They just happen. Now is this
ignorance of the processes underlying all the things we can do a result
of the problem you describe, the fact that we are observing ourselves,
and this requires a "split"? I'm not sure. I suppose that for the
process of observation itself, one can't both do something and observe
how one does it (this is true even in trying to put one foot in front of
another). But you could observe it just before, or just after, when the
"it" is not actually in the process of happening. In principle, I don't
see why the workings of our minds need to be opaque to us. It is more
likely that the reason we don't have access to the "how" or the way our
minds work is that it would be a waste of capacity: As much mental power
would need to be exerted in seeing HOW we do all things we can do, as in
actually doing them. It's as if your car not only had to drive, but also
explain auto mechanics to you every step of the way!

Most of the things we can do, we can do because they, or the capacity to
learn to do them, were of some evolutionary advantage to our ancestors.
They helped them survive or reproduce better. But what advantage would
there have been not only in being able to DO those things, but in also
knowing HOW you do them? Every bit of brain power comes at a cost, both
in terms of the size and activity of the brain, and in what it would
have taken for evolution to "shape" the brain into being able to do
that. What would repay the cost of giving the mind access to its own
workings? Especially since, even without it, we do fine (i.e., we are
not missing anything), and, more important, we are not AWARE if missing
anything! Except when a psychologists asks, "Wait a minute, how do you
add 2 + 3, remember your dentist's name, recognise your friends?" we are
not only unaware that we don't know the answer to those questions, but
the questions don't come up at all; rather, we are convinced that we are
running the show, and of course we know exactly what we are doing, and

So I doubt it's the splitting of the observer and the observed that is
responsible for our ignorance of how our minds work. It is more likely
a combination of economy in what the brain bothers to do at all (nothing
unnecessary) plus the powerful illusion that our consciousness itself gives
us that there really are no unanswered questions here!

> 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.

It so happens that introspection does not give us any clues to the
MECHANISM underlying our actions and our capacities. Suppose it had.
Suppose our mental processes also wore a description of their mechanism
on their sleeves. Because of the privacy of introspection, we could not
be sure that these were the real mechanisms of the mind. They could be
just as wrong as the content of any other experience we have. To test
whether these introspective revelations were correct, we would have to
take them out of the realm of introspection into the realm of the
publicly observable. We would have to see whether we could build or
computer-simulate a mechanism designed along the lines we had
introspected, and then we would have to see whether it could really
deliver the goods, i.e., add and subtract, remember our dentist's name,
recognise our friends. If it could, then this would be evidence that it
could DO what we could do. But then the question would be whether that
mechanism could also have experiences: And there we would be stuck,
because, of course, the only one who could know that would be the
mechanism itself! We could never be sure, by observing what it can do,
that it also has experiences, as we do.

Or could we? This needs to be reflected on for a while: How do we tell in
one another's case? How can we tell in any case but our own, that there
are other minds out there? Whatever the answer is, presumably the same
needs to be true of the mechanism we have been speaking of.

> 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?

Fine, but remember to distinguish between what it is that introspection
ACTUALLY fails to reveal and what it COULDN'T reveal no matter what:
Introspection happens to tell us next to nothing about how our minds
work, but, in principle, there's no reason it could not. The only thing
is that if it DID give us some correct ideas about how our minds work,
we couldn't KNOW they were correct unless we tested them by a means
other than introspection.

> 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
> suggestible.
> 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 judgment,
> upon himself, as in doing so he is influencing the nature of the
> observed material. Descartes 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 judgment only that which presented itself to my mind so clearly
> and distinctly. I had no occasion to doubt it".

A few of things are being mixed together here. Descartes was talking
about certainty. Introspection CAN give you certainty, but only about
the FACT that introspection is going on. The rest of its content is not
certain; it is open to doubt. But openness to doubt is not the same as
being wrong or even unlikely. It's just that to test the content of
introspection -- or of any experience -- you cannot use just
introspection itself. You need public evidence that anyone, not just the
introspector, can check and confirm. You may have a vivid memory of a
past event. That event may or may not have happened. Introspection
cannot tell you. It has to be checked against public evidence -- say, a
videotape of the scene. The public evidence could confirm or disconfirm
the content of the introspection. The problem is not so much the split
between observer and observed, but the fact that introspection is IN
PRINCIPLE not self-sufficient, and IN PRACTICE not very revealing (when
it comes to the mechanisms of the mind).

> 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.

Whenever we interact and communicate, we "share," and hence to a degree
"test" descriptions of our introspections, our experiences. Since we
make a lot of sense to one another in that way, and we manage to
interact quite successfully, our assumptions about shared experiences
are probably right up to a point. But people typically don't interact
about the MECHANISMS of their introspections (except if they are cognitive
psychologists); they usually interact about common practical interests
in the world. And for that they get by with the illusion I mentioned
earlier that they KNOW how their minds work.

> 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?

Good point. On the other hand, it is this empathy, and our capacity to
get as far as we do get with our "shared" experience (even though we
cannot really share experience at all) that makes us social creatures.
It is probably also this empathic sense, this "theory of mind" we all
have about one another, that allows us to distinguish so well between
things that have minds and things that don't. It is probably this
empathic sense that "solves" the other-minds problem for us, or at least
manages it for day-to-day purposes...

> 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
> introspection.

Not just many of the processes of the mind are unconscious. ALL of the
mechanisms of what IS conscious are unconscious. Not because they had to
be, but because they happen to be. And even if they had not been
unconscious, we would not have known they were indeed the mechanisms of
consciousness until we tested them with a method other than

> References
> 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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