Re: On Introspection (by AB) (Revised)

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sat Mar 02 1996 - 18:38:13 GMT

> From: "Alexandra Bilak" <>
> Date: Tue, 27 Feb 1996 15:12:12 GMT

> 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
> 2+2=4.

How did an individual "explain" a toothache? What calls for explanation
there? With 2 + 2 = 4 what needs explanation is how you knew it was 4,
give the 2 + 2. What needs explanation in the case of a toothache is (1)
how tooth damage produces pain and (2) what tole, if any feeling that
pain plays in anything else you can do (such as avoid dmaging the tooth
further). Can you find any of that out from introspection?

> 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.

What are actual examples of how this is an EXTRA problem, over and above
the privacy, hence nontestability, of introspective observations?
That self-inspection can influence what you are inspecting is an
interesting fact, but what follows from it, if anything?

> 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
> all.

This is just a repetition of the fact that the working of the mind are
inaccessible to consciousness; this is true regardless of whether or not
Freud's psychodynamic theory about "the unconscious" (mind) is correct.

> 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.

Essay should have discussed explicitly WHY obervability is important.

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