On Introspection (by AB) (Revised)

From: Alexandra Bilak (AB495@psy.soton.ac.uk)
Date: Tue Feb 27 1996 - 15:12:12 GMT

The term "Psychology" comes from the Greek "psukhe"-the mind- and
"logos"-literally meaning "word", but more broadly signifying "the
study". However, this definition of Psychology as the "study of the
mind" is not very satisfactory because the term "mind" has several
significations which are difficult to understand precisely. It seems
more appropriate to define Psychology as the sudy of mental phenomena
:it observes human behaviours and searches for motives. More broadly,
it studies EXPERIENCES. It is also interesting to see that Psychology
differs from other sciences: Mathematics provide definite answers
because they can be PROVED, and other sciences, although they cannot be
PROVED, provide answers which are "probably true", because based on
evidence.Indeed, answers provided by science are usually accepted as
true, because they can be confirmed, checked by anyone. The scientific
law of gravity, for example, is only highly probable. It cannot be
PROVED that a pen on a table is going to fall to the floor if I push it
off: it can only be highly assumed, because past evidence has shown
that it did. Psychology differs from other sciences because its object
of study is different. What is different about Psychology is the
MENTAL, ie the collection of thoughts, experiences that go on in our
heads. Therefore if we consider that Psychology is different (and this
difference being closely related to the uniqueness of each individual's
experiences, private thoughts), we could ask ourselves if the right
method for studying the mind is by inspecting what goes in in our
heads. This particular approach would be "introspection", a science of
experience through inward inspection. It will be interesting to
determine whether this approach is reliable or not for studying

First of all, it is interesting to draw an analogy with other sciences,
and the way they study their subject matter. For example Biology, the
study of life, inspects living things, Physics inspects general
properties of matter (and establishes laws for them),or Astronomy
inspects planets and stars. It would therefore be expected that
Psychology should inspect its subject matter, ie the mind, by what
seems to be the most immediate method, inward inspection. Indeed,
introspection could be seen as precise, immediate self-knowledge or
self-observation, precisely because it is performed by the individual
himself, and because it seems easy to say that one DOES know something
about what is going on in one's head at any particular time.

It is interesting to consider a historical perspective about
introspection: some philosophers and psychologists believed very
strongly in introspection, seen as the ideal method of studying the
mind. This can be related to Descartes' "Meditations Metaphysiques", in
which he used the process of introspection to discover something about
what was going on in his head. It was introspection that was actually
the first step towards the elaboration of the "cogito". By sitting in
his armchair (a typical picture attributed to the introspectionists),
he established the fact that he "thought therefore he was".
Introspection here was to a certain extent an appropriate way of
studying the mind, although it is difficult to say that Descartes
actually DISCOVERED through introspection something about the mind :
he probably only discovered that the mind EXISTS (which is the essence
of the cogito), but not HOW it works.

The process of introspection has been compared to that of looking in a
mirror. This analogy establishes the fact that this "inward inspection"
should render a perfect and precise image of the mind. However, it is
not enough to say that psychologists simply examined what was going on
in their heads and reported it , it is important to see WHAT it was
they were actually seeking to discover and understand and HOW. For
example, a basic mathematical calculation like 2+2 is performed in the
head and the answer is immediate :4. What these psychologists were
trying to discover through introspection was HOW the mind would
actually work these things out. Introspection also appeared to be a
direct and reliable way of studying experiences.

A good example of this is the study carried out by the 19th century
psychologist Wundt, who used the process of introspection to study
experiences, using a method of IMMEDIATE report to describe
experiences. The observation and report of one's mental experiences
would follow immediately the process of internal perception. However,
he found that such an experiment was limited to mental phenomena that
are directly linked to physical influences. He found that what he
called "higher mental processes" could not be reached by this method of
experimental internal perception. For example, an individual would find
it easy to explain a physical sensation he would be experiencing, like
a toothache, but could not answer when he was asked how he found that

This is where it becomes essential to consider the "negative" aspects
of introspection, ie the limitations of this process. A vital element
to consider here is the subjective aspect of the matter, ie the fact
that this process does not seem to have any real existence OUTSIDE the
person's mind, precisely because it deals with an individual's own
private, unique mental life. The process is subjective because it
cannot be checked or confirmed by anyone else except the person
performing the inspection. Another person can only guess or imagine or
ASSUME that what the person says he/she is experiencing is true.
Because noone else can confirm an experience except you, it is
impossible to draw any relevant conclusions.

This is reinforced by the fact that introspection is a poor method in
discovering the mental processes underlying any of our choices. For
example, if I choose to pick up one pen instead of another after having
been presented with two identical pens, and I am asked to give the
cause of my choice, it will be impossible for me to answer. I might be
able to give what seems to be a reason, but probably not the underlying
CAUSE. It is impossible to determine the cause of our choices even by a
close enough inspection.

Introspection therefore does not provide any answers, does not reveal
anything about the mind (except that it exists, cf. cogito). It seems
to be a poor method for studying experiences.However, another approach
would be to try to see whether, not being able to reveal anything,
introspections can CONFIRM revelations. This is the case in very
complex psychological issues such as that of the unconscious. It is
often the therapists that pinpoint a repressed memory. Introspection
can then be used to confirm his therapist's assertions. Unfortunately
it would seem that this technique can strongly be criticised. Elizabeth
F. Loftus pointed out in The Reality Of Repressed Memories that it has
been noticed that therapists can suggest these memories/repressions to
their patients, who think that, by using internal observation, they
have accurately confirmed them, but, she emphasises, people are
suggestible and in those cases introspection is totally irrelevant.

It is important to look more closely at what makes introspection
inaccurate. First, in the process of introspection our reflection seems
to interfere with the actual life experience we seek to understand.
Indeed, once the process of introspection has started, the experience
is no longer what it would be if we were merely experiencing and not
trying to examine ourselves at the same time. The process of
introspection here can be contrasted with other sciences: when we
inspect the physical realm (e.g. Biology, Physics), our observation,
and all the more our knowledge of it, does not affect the object of
investigation itself, precisely because this object is exterior to us;
but when we inspect the inspection itself, our knowledge of it as it
exists at present interferes with the experience itself and may
influence it considerably.

Moreover, the limitation of introspection is reinforced by Freud's
theories of the unconscious, revealing the complexities hidden from the
introspectionists. Although Freud's theory of the unconscious simply
implies the existence of another "mind", a second layer of subjective
(should we say "sub-subjective" ?), unconfirmable "stuff", it seems
right to say that these complexities simply add to introispection's
inaccurate and incomplete nature. The idea of repressed memories
-unknown to the individual- clearly contrast with the idea of an inward
knowledge of what is going on in the mind.This theory can be linked
with the problem pointed out by Kulpe (1900); he conducted an
experiment to show that after several calculations, adding and
subtracting become automatic and does not require any previous "image
thought" of the numbers and operations. This process of "imageless
thought" becomes difficult for the participants to explain; they are
unable to explain how they answered the questions so spontaneously
without having to think about it beforehand. This clearly shows that
there are things going on in one's head that are not introspectable at

Thus although introspection would appear to be the ideal way of
studying Psycholohy, of understanding mental experiences, it is a very
doubtful way of doing it. Its results are fragile because they deal
with a subjective aspect of the mind. Introspection does not seem to
provide relevant answers to psychological questions because of its
subjective, easily influenced, and therefore fragile nature.It would
seem more reliable to turn to aspects of for example behaviourism,
which at least can be confirmed because they are clearly observable.


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