Introspection, the direct examination of the contents of our own minds, seems itself to be in many minds at the moment. The latest issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies was devoted to papers on introspection, marking the tenth anniversary of the publication of The View from Within, by Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear (which was itself a special edition of the JCS); and now Eric Schwitzgebel has produced a new entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The two accounts are of course quite different in some respects. The encyclopaedia entry is a careful, scholarly account, neutral and comprehensive; the JCS issue is openly a rallying-cry in support of a programme flowing from Varela’s work. This, it seems, called for an end to the ban on examination of lived experience; the JCS gives the impression that it was something of a milestone, though Schwitzgebel’s piece does not mention it (he does cite an earlier paper by Varela, once again in the JCS).
What’s all this about a ban? Well, back in the nineteenth century, psychologists had no fears about using introspective evidence; it was thought that a proper scientific effort would lead to an objectively verifiable kind of phenomenology. We should be able to classify the elements of mental experience and clarify how they worked together, just by examining what went on in our own heads. A great deal of work was done on all this (It was a great disappointments for me to discover, on first opening Brentano’s Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, that it consisted almost entirely of this kind of thing, and that the only passage about intentional inexistence, the interesting issue, was the couple of paragraphs which I had already read as quotes in several other books.). There was a gradual refinement of the methods involved, leading on to the great heyday of introspectionism, with Wundt and Titchener in the lead. Unfortunately, it became clear that the rival schools of introspectionism had begun to come up with results which in some respects were radically different and incompatible, and since our own introspections are by their nature private and unverifiable, all they could really do by way of settling the issues was to shout at each other.
This embarrassing impasse led to a reaction away from introspection and to the rise of behaviourism, which not only denied the usefulness of examining our inner experience, but actually went to the extreme of denying that there was any such thing as inner experience. Behaviourism in its turn fell out of favour, but according to Varela there remained an instinctive distrust of introspection which continued to put people off it as an avenue of research. This is the ‘ban’ he wanted to see overturned.
Was there, is there, really a ban? Not exactly. Apart from the most dogmatic of the behaviourists, no-one has ever tried to exclude introspection altogether. In recent times, introspective evidence has been widely accepted – the problem of qualia, thought by some to be the problem of consciousness, depends entirely on introspection. I think the real problem arises when we adopt special methods. In order to obtain consistent results, the old introspectionists thought extensive training was necessary. It wasn’t enough to sit and think for a bit; you had to have mastered certain skills of discrimination and perception. The methodological dangers involved in teaching your researchers what kind of thing they could legitimately look for are clear.
Unfortunately, it seems to be very much this kind of programme which the JCS authors would like to resurrect – or rather, have resurrected, and wish to gain acceptance and support for. Once again we are going to need to learn how to introspect properly before our observations will be acceptable. What makes it worse for me is that the proposal seems to be tied up with NLP – Neuro-linguistic Programming. I don’t know a great deal about NLP: it seems to be a protean doctrine which shares with the Holy Roman Empire the property of not really being any of the three things in its name – but for me it does nothing to render another trip down this particular blind alley more attractive.
I don’t know about that, but aren’t they right to emphasise the potential value of introspection? Isn’t it the case that introspection is our only source of infallible information? Most of the things we perceive are subject to error and delusion, but we can’t, for example, be wrong about the fact that we are feeling pain, can we? That seems interesting to me. Our impressions of the outside world come to us through a chain of cause and effect, and at any stage errors or misinterpretations can creep in; but because introspection is direct, there’s no space for error to occur. You could well say it’s our only source of certain knowledge – isn’t that worth pursuing a little more systematically?
Infallible? That is the exact reverse of the truth: in fact all introspections are false. Think about it. Introspection can only address the contents of consciousness, right? You can’t introspect the unconscious mental processes that keep you balanced, or regulate your heartbeat. But all of the contents of consciousness have intentionality – they’re all about things, yes? So to have direct experience of mental content is to be thinking about something else – not about the mental state itself, but about the thing it’s about! Now when we attempt to think directly about our own mental states, it follows that we’re not experiencing them in themselves – we’re experiencing a different mental state which is about them. In short, we’re necessarily imagining our mental states. Far from having direct contact, we are inevitably thinking about something we’ve just made up.