Classical Texts in Psychology
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THE CASE AGAINST INTROSPECTION
Knight Dunlap (1912)
First published in Psychological Review, 19, 404-413.
Posted April 2000
It is rather generally agreed among English psychologists that there is something (state, process, act, relation, or whatever) which may properly be called introspection. There is also rather general agreement in the definition of the term, whatever may be said of divergences in regard to its practical application. The greatest disagreements have been over the temporal nature, the difficulty, and the reliability of 'introspection.'
It is now high time that we should question, more seriously than has been done heretofore, the existence of 'introspection' in the traditional sense. It is for this purpose necessary to present some actual usages of the terms 'introspection' and 'consciousness' in English psychology, although it is not at all necessary to go over the whole field of psychological writings and cull every instance in which use has been made of these terms. The discussion of the uses of Selbstbeobachtung, Bewusstheit, and other German psychological terms, is an entirely different piece of work which may or may not be profitable; it certainly is not profitable in English and I have no intention of engaging therein.
'Introspection' is usually defined in terms which are equivalent to the expression consciousness scrutinizing itself. Such definitions are significant only when 'consciousness' and 'scrutiny' and 'itself' or whatever terms are substituted for them are more explicitly defined. Typical statements from psychological texts are given below.
James says: "It means of course the looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover. Every one agrees that we there discover states of consciousness" ('Principles,' I., 185).∑ Angell: "It consists simply in the direct examination of one's own mental processes" ('Psychology,' 4th ed., 5). Judd: "In observing this conscious state, he introspects." Stout: "To introspect is to attend to the workings of one's own mind" ('Manual,' Introd., Ch. 2, 2). Stratton: "This direct acquaintance with the state of our minds which all of us to some extent possess" ('Experimental Psychology,' 2). Yerkes, in discussing 'introspection': "It is by observing my own consciousness that I directly study the objects of consciousness" [p. 405] (Introduction, 4I). Maher, the exponent of Thomism: "States of consciousness can only be observed by introspection -- that is, by the turning of the mind in on itself" ('Psychology,' 4th ed., 11).
The technical use of the word 'introspection' in this way is of recent introduction (see Oxford Dictionary). But the signification is very old. We need not pursue it back farther than Reid, Hamilton, Bain and James Mill, to get a definite understanding of the extent to which 'self-consciousness' is involved in British theories. The discussion here runs into the consideration of the term consciousness, to which we must give a little space.
Bain distinguishes and lists 13 different senses in which the term was used. The catalogue is now too short, for James's usage of the term does not belong anywhere in it. With the greater number of the uses we have no great concern. We should point out, however, that Reid made of consciousness a separate faculty, practically the 'introspective' observation of the modern psychologists (First Essay, Chapter 1). Hamilton while having some agreement with Reid in the use of the term, contended that consciousness is involved in every mental act: "Can I know without knowing that I know? Can I desire without knowing that I desire? Can I feel without knowing that I feel? This is impossible. Now this ... common condition of self-knowledge, is precisely what is denominated consciousness" ('Metaphysics,' Lect. IX., p. 110, in American ed., of 1880. The whole of this lecture is especially important).
What we now call 'introspection' is described by Hamilton as follows: "In an act of knowledge, my attention may be principally attracted either to the object known, or to myself as the subject knowing: and in the latter case, although no new element be added to the act, the condition involved in it-- I know that I know becomes the primary and prominent matter of consideration" (Lecture XI., p 135).∑
In strong contrast with the use of the term 'consciousness' by Reid and Hamilton, we find James Mill declaring: "To say I feel a sensation is merely to say that I feel a feeling, which is an impropriety of speech. And to say that I am conscious of a feeling is merely to say that I feel it.... In the very word feeling all that is implied in the word consciousness is involved ('Analysis,' Ch. V.). To which Bain felt constrained to add a footnote correcting what he considered a serious error.
The modern views of 'introspective' consciousness are best represented by the statements of Stout and James, because these [p. 406] two have made the attempt to work out a system in which 'introspection' is not only admitted, but is really provided for. I shall confine my discussion therefore to these two authors. Other introspectionists have simply claimed that 'introspection' occurs without trying to show the nature or details of the process.
In Stout's writings there is less confusion between consciousness (in the cognitive aspect, at least) and the objects of consciousness, than in the writings of other psychologists. "Psychical states as such become objects only when we attend to them in an introspective way. Otherwise they are not themselves objects, but only constituents of the process by which objects are recognized" ('Manual,' p. 124). "The object itself can never be identified with the present modification of the individual's consciousness by which it is cognized. This holds true even when we are thinking about modifications of our own consciousness. The conscious experience in which we think of another conscious experience is always at least partially distinct from the conscious experience of which we think" (pp. 58-59).∑ If we confine our discussion for the present to the realm of sensational consciousness, we find that the objects which the sensation cognizes are 'sensible qualities' (p. 57) or 'sensory elements' (p. 120).
The 'sensible quality' red, and the sensation of red, one would think, differ in that the redness is in the quality or is the quality; the sensation should have no redness, for it is an element in the process of perceiving red. This is apparently what Stout means, so far as the sensation is primarily concerned. But the sensation has the property of becoming secondarily an object for another psychical state, and then, of course, it has objective qualifications. Obviously the only quality which we can consistently ascribe to the sensation of red in its secondary capacity is the 'sensible quality' it cognizes in its primary capacity: "If we compare the color red as a quality of a material object with the color red as a quality of the corresponding sensation, we find the redness as immediately perceived is an attribute common to both. The difference lies in the different relations into which it enters in the two cases" (p. 123). (See also footnote, page 58.) The sensation, as an object has intensity, as well as quality (p. 30), and when when [sic] referred to the physical world, is correlated with wave-length, and not with any 'sensible quality.'
Here we have the whole scheme of 'introspective' consciousness. [p. 407] A sensation, as such, is not an object, but the awareness of an object; hence it is not observable, but an observation. This Stout sees clearly, and grants freely, and so far we can go with him. But, demanding that the sensation shall be nevertheless observed (for what reason we shall see later), Stout assumes that the sensation which primarily is consciousness, or awareness, is, or may be, secondarily what it is not primarily, namely, an object for another awareness, which may be either subsequent to the first awareness or simultaneous with it (pp. 18-19).
We wonder indeed what the 'mind' is which 'one' attends to ('Manual,' Introd., 2) and we might indeed wonder what the 'one' who attends is: these apparently simple assumptions become exceedingly complicated and shaky when introspection is included. Surely the mind is not the mere sum of the processes, for we are told that "the most important drawback is that the mind, in watching its own workings must necessarily have its attention divided between two objects," implying that it is only one process after all which cognizes both objects; for that there should be any difficulty in one process cognizing one object and another process cognizing another object, whether the second object is or is not the first process, does not seem reasonable. Without question, Stout is bringing in here illicitly the concept of a single observer, and his introspection does not provide for the observation of this observer; for the process observed and the observer are distinct.
James's doctrine of 'introspection,' as stated in the Principles, is less inconsistent than Stout's. That James seriously doubted the actual existence of the machinery he built up in theory does not in any way lessen the need for its examination, since the influence of James's speculations concerning consciousness is unfortunately very strongly felt in psychology.
"There are realities, and there are 'states of mind,' and the latter know the former; and it is just as wonderful for a state of mind to be a 'sensation' and know a simple pain, as it is to be a thought and know a system of related things" (II., 5-6)∑
"The relation of knowing is the most mysterious thing in the world.... Knowledge becomes for him (the psychologist) an ultimate relation that must be admitted, whether it be explained or not" (I., 216).
Here is an unmistakable deviation from Stout. For Stout, the term 'mental process' applies to the knowledge; for James it is primarily the knower, and knowledge is assumed as an additional [p. 408] process, with which James concerns himself little, although involvin g [sic] it freely in his system. "The passing Thought then seems to be the Thinker" (I., 342)∑ This "thinker" knows external objects, and it also knows past thought.
"It may feel its own immediate existence -- we have all along admitted the possibility of this, hard as it is by direct introspection to ascertain the fact -- but nothing can be known about it until it is dead and gone" (I., 34I)∑
'Introspection' is then for James, first, the knowing of the knower (not of the knowing), and secondly is always retrospection. The division of attention in regard to which Stout trips, comes in here however more legitimately. "The Thought, which whilst it knows another Thought and the Object of that Other, appropriates the Other and the Object which the Other appropriated" (I., 340) is manifestly doing double duty; is simultaneously observing two different things at once.
James and Stout agree in postulating an 'introspection' which makes objective that which is primarily non-objective, but differ in that while James is postulating the objectification of the subject, and not dealing at all with the knowing, although specifically postulating it in addition to the subject, Stout is postulating the objectification of the knowing and deals with a subject only illicitly.
The objectification of the subject is for James not an occasional matter, but an essential aspect of the functioning of the 'stream of consciousness.' "The knowledge of some other part of the stream, past or future, near or remote, is always mixed in with our knowledge of the present thing" (I., 606) although "A mind which has become conscious of its own cognitive function plays 'the psychologist' upon itself. It not only knows the things which appear before it; it knows that it knows them" (I., 272-3). This psychologizing is apparently only a special development of the universal function of mind by which it preserves its unity through the present subject knowing or 'appropriating to itself' the past subjects.
The doctrine of the essentially retrospective nature of 'introspection' is very useful to James in defending the 'transitive' states of consciousness which he admits cannot be discovered by 'introspection.' "For a state of mind to survive in memory, it must have endured for a certain length of time. In other words, it must be what we have called a substantive state. Prepositional and conjunctional [p. 409] states of mind are not remembered as independent facts -- we cannot recall just how we felt when we said 'how' or 'notwithstanding.' Our consciousness of these transitive states is shut up to their own moment -- hence one difficulty in introspective psychologizing.
Any state of mind which is shut up to its own moment, and fails to become an object for succeeding states of mind, is as if it belonged to another stream of thought" (I., 643-644).∑
The essential points in James's scheme of consciousness are subject, object, and a knowing of the object by the subject. The difference between James's scheme and other schemes involving the same terms is that James considers subject and object to be the same thing, but at different times. In order to satisfy this requirement James supposes a realm of existence which he at first called "states of consciousness" or "thoughts," and later, "pure experience," the latter term including both the "thoughts" and the "knowing." This scheme, with ail its magnificent artificiality, James held on to until the end, simply dropping the term consciousness and the dualism between the thought and an external reality.
'Introspection' can hardly be bolstered up by James's mechanical psychology. To assume that the thought of a cabbage knows a feeling of regret, and that the thought of a cabbage may in another moment be known in turn by the thought of a red necktie, is ingenious but ineffectual. As the knower in the act of knowing is not known, but is known only after it has finished its cognizing, the assertion that what is now known was once a knower remains a mere assertion to the end. All that James's system really amounts to is the acknowledgment that a succession of things are known, and that they are known by something. This is all any one can claim, except for the fact that the things are known together, and that the knower for the different items is one and the same. This further implication James does not escape, in spite of the assumption of a series of different thoughts assuming the knowing function, for after all, the knowing function is the same in each case; the thoughts all take the same point of view in knowing other thoughts or things and it is the point of view which constitutes the real I or subject.
The real claim to admission which 'introspection' holds in James's original scheme is therefore not based on the turning of a subject into an object, but on the existence of two sorts of objects. There are, according to James's 'Principles,' thoughts, which are known; and [p. 410] the things corresponding to the thoughts, which are also known. A cabbage is known, and there is also in the stream of consciousness a 'thought' of a cabbage, which is known, no matter by what. If this sort of representationalism is accepted, there is no objection to calling the knowing of the thought 'introspection' meaning therefore by the term exactly what Reid meant by 'consciousness.' But the day for such psychical mechanics has gone by. The ghostly world of representational 'ideas' or 'states of consciousness,' dim shadows through which we may look at the real objects casting them, or on which alone we may fasten our gaze, attracts no longer faith nor interest. It is significant in this connection that James, in giving up the term 'consciousness,' abandoned his whole representational scheme, without however giving up the essential mechanics of his doctrine of knowledge. Hence, for his last psychology, there is virtually no 'introspection' possible.
There are probably no psychologists at the present time who hold to 'introspection' explicitly on the representational grounds of Reid and the older view of James. If there are any such, I certainly do not wish to argue the point with them. For one who believes in representationalism a belief in representationalistic 'introspection' is quite the consistent thing.
I am inclined to suppose that the greater number of those modern writers who explicitly presuppose 'introspection,' have in mind, however dimly, the sort of 'introspection' which Stout defines. The objections to Stout's theory are not of the same order as the objections to the theory of James, although just as profound. There can be no denial of the existence of the thing (knowing) which is alleged to be known or observed in this sort of 'introspection.' The allegation that the knowing is observed is that which may be denied. Knowing there certainly is; known, the knowing certainly is not.
I may observe, or be aware of, a color, an odor, or any other sensation (sense datum); I may be aware of relations and feelings; I may be aware of any combination of these; but, Stout to the contrary notwithstanding, I am never aware of an awareness.
The possible objection to the statement just made, and probably [p. 411] the logical foundation of the ' introspection'-hypothesis, is as follows: If one is not aware of awareness, he does not know that it exists. If one denies that he is ever aware of a thing, and that any one else is ever aware of it, he has no right to say that there is such a thing. The force of this argument is purely imaginary.
It may sound paradoxical to say that one cannot observe the process (or relation) of observation, and yet may be certain that there is such a process; but there is really no inconsistency in the saying. How do I know that there is awareness.? By being aware of something. There is no meaning in the term 'awareness' which is not expressed in the statement "I am aware of a color (or what-not)." So much for the logical foundation of 'introspection'; there is however a psychological reason for the rise of the theory. So many psychologists would not have assumed the reality of 'introspection,' if there were not some process or operation which simulates it. This process, I think, may be readily pointed out. When one observes some 'external' object, as for instance sound, there are simultaneously present a number of other objects which are intimately connected with the observing of the sound, and which may not be themselves observed clearly. The muscular sensations from the tympanum, neck, breast, and other regions; the visual 'images'; the feelings; the visceral sensations; all these are definitely modified in the listening for the sound, and yet may not be vivid. On the other hand, the attention may be turned to these accessory facts, and the importance of the auditory sensation may be secondary. In this case, there seems to be a turning of the attention from the 'outer' fact (the sound) to the 'inner' facts. These facts are 'inner' in that they concern, or are constituents, of the body, or objective self. By a rather natural step, accordingly, these inner facts are taken to be the process of observing the sound. Observation of them is therefore the process of observing the process of observing the sound -- introspection.
Stated in detail, this sort of 'introspection' is quite clearly the observation of things which are just as objective, considered from the point of view of knowledge, as is the sound; the trouble comes from the fact that we are apt to omit detailed statements. The double distinction between the subject and the object and between the self and the not-self, almost inevitably leads, in the absence of rigid analysis, to the identification of the objective self with the subject, and hence the vague conclusion that processes associated with the knowing of external objects are processes of knowing the same objects. [p. 412]
In actual practice, most psychologists who use the term 'introspection' and define it as the observation of consciousness not only do not seek to apply it in strict accordance with the definition, but they even apply it to the whole range of psychological observation. In giving 'introspective reports' on the observation of a sound, for example, the sound itself is usually included as one of the 'introspected' details. So colors, odors, after-images, and all other objects of consciousness, are quite commonly said to be 'introspectively' observed. This practice constitutes effectively the reductio ad absurdum of the 'introspection' theory. Starting as a distinctive kind of observation, the observation of an observation of something, it finishes as the only kind of observation. In other words, there would seem to be really nothing to observe except the observation of something else!
There is, as a matter of fact, not the slightest evidence for the reality of 'introspection' as the observation of 'consciousness.' Hence we must, in default of such evidence, cease the empty assumption of such a process. We might keep the word to apply to the processes we have described above (observation of feelings, and of kinesthetic and cúnesthetic sensations); a term by which to designate the observation of these factors would be very useful, and 'introspection' is the legitimate term for the purpose, since these factors are the real 'inner' ones of which psychology has been talking for so long a time; but in view of the word's quite disreputable past it is probably better to banish it for the present from psychological usage.
THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
NOTE. -- After the foregoing discussion was placed in the hands of the Editor, Professor Titchener's interesting 'Prolegomena to a Study of Introspection' appeared in the July number of the American Journal of Psychology. Professor Titchener discards the Hamiltonian doctrine of the mind being 'self'-conscious in every cognition. What he substitutes for this doctrine is not made altogether clear, but apparently it is a theory similar to that of Stout or else (and this is more probable) the scholastic doctrine. This is indicated by such things as the implicit application of the term 'introspection' to the observation of sounds (p. 436), the statement that the psychologist 'is observing his own mind' (439), and the statement that 'introspection is the interrogation of experience' (440)∑ The strongest indication is the contention that 'introspection' is not [p. 413] necessarily a conscious process (442 et seq.). This doctrine, which at first seems highly paradoxical, is quite intelligible if we remember that 'consciousness' in Professor Titchener's mind-scheme is made up of 'processes' which are by no means to be identified with cognitions of objects, but rather with objects cognized. It is quite consistent with this terminology to say that 'introspection' is not primarily a 'conscious process'; it is the observation of a conscious process.
 This of course does not apply to those who explicitly hold to the scholastic doctrine of introspection. I hope to show in a later paper that in the scholastic doctrine of the intellect there is a good foundation for the doctrine of introspection.
 I must confess that in the above quotations I find more 'mixed in with the knowledge' than James explains, especially in connection with the knowledge of the future, but I think the general meaning is clear.
 See for example, in addition to the authors above quoted, Calkins, 'Psychology' (1910), 68. Myers, 'Experimental Psychology' (1909), 3-5.∑ Pillsbury, 'Essentials of Psychology' (1911), 6-9; 'Attention' (1908), 212-217. Royce, 'Outlines of Psychology' (1903)16-18. Titchener, 'Text-book of Psychology' (1909), 15-25. G.E. Moore, 'The Nature and Reality of Objects of Perception,' Proc. Aristot. Soc., N.S., VI. (1905-6), 102-1104. None of these authors explicitly presents a theory of introspection, so that we cannot say positively that they agree with Stout.