The term introspection might be defined as the direct, conscious examination or observation by a subject of his or her own mental processes. The term is derived from two Latin words, spicere ("to look") and intra ("within").
From at least the time of René Descartes up to the early twentieth century, it would have been considered unproblematic that the mind can reflect (or bend its attention back) upon itself. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, if not earlier, self-reflection began to be interpreted, in the main, as introspection. In turn, to introspect one's own mental processes was explained in terms of the capacities (1) to focus the full glare of one's conscious attention upon the task of observing some particular, first-level, conscious process (or mental act), which was an item in one's stream of consciousness, and (2) to report in a privileged and incorrigible way upon the results of such observation. This introspective act was considered to be a form of inner, though nonsensuous, perception, and deliberate parallels were frequently drawn between it and ordinary outer perception by means of our senses, such as those of vision or hearing.
In the nineteenth century, Franz Brentano and other philosophical psychologists were at pains to distinguish introspection (sometimes called inner observation) from its close relative, self-consciousness (sometimes called inner perception). Introspection was a deliberate act of focusing a subject's attention on some inhabitant in his stream of consciousness. Self-consciousness was an indeliberate but inescapable, though partial, concomitant awareness on the part of a subject of at least some features of some of his first-level conscious mental acts. To put it metaphorically, introspection was a deliberate ogling with the inner mental eye; self-consciousness was unavoidably catching sight of something out of the corner of one's mental eye.
However, even as this canonical version of introspection was being formulated, doubts were being voiced about the possibility of splitting consciousness into two processes that operated at two different levels at the same time. Pushing aside these doubts, the early psychological introspectionists—such as Wilhelm Wundt, Edward B. Titchener, Narziss Ach, Karl Bühler, and William James—believed that either introspection proper or some version of self-consciousness was nevertheless the only possible method for inaugurating a truly empirical, that is, scientific, psychology. For only the subject of mental acts or processes can have "eye witness," knowledge by acquaintance of the denizens of his or her stream of consciousness. So, the very first psychological laboratories were devoted to introspection (for this term came to be used for both introspection proper and for scientific versions of self-consciousness). In carefully designed laboratories bristling with chronograph and tachistocope, subjects were asked to produce detailed introspective reports on various aspects of the inner conscious effects of carefully controlled stimuli applied to their senses.
These experiments resulted in some of the most tedious literature that psychology has ever produced. Also, there could be found little or no agreement about results across schools or from one laboratory to the next. Yet another consequence, which Wundt, for example, readily admitted, was that introspection experiments seemed confined to a study of comparatively trivial mental episodes.
Surprisingly, the failure of introspectionism did not lead many people to question the inherent model of introspection. As psychology and philosophy wound their way through behaviorism and versions of the mind-brain identity theory to contemporary forms of physicalism, such as functionalism, both were faithful to the original, classical model of introspection. They abandoned the Cartesianism of the psychological introspectionists and questioned the privileged status of introspection reports, but they did not question the basic two-level picture—that introspection was a second-level monitoring, observing, registering, or tracking of some first-level process or processes.
Thus, classical psychological behaviorists such as John Broadus Watson or B. F. Skinner gave, as at least one account of one employment of introspection, that it was a literal monitoring by the subject of his thinking (which for a classical behaviorist was to be analyzed as inner truncated movements in the muscles of speech, or "stopped short" speech). Only the repeated failure of experiments seeking to verify this theory led to the abandonment of that particular, and now notorious, explanation.
The philosophers, or most of them, also championed some version of the two-level account of introspection, and still do. Even the most tough-minded of the physicalists, such as David M. Armstrong or Daniel Dennett, stick resolutely to a two-level monitoring account of introspection. Thus, in A Materialist Theory of the Mind Armstrong describes introspection as one part of the brain scanning another part of the brain such that the subject, whose brain it is, generates (in entirely causal fashion) a belief about the nature of the first-level, scanned, brain process. In Content and Consciousness and again in Brainstorms and Consciousness Explained, in an uncompromising functionalist account of mind, Dennett describes introspection in terms of one part of the brain "accessing" another (like one part of a computer accessing another) and then, via the speech center, "printing out" the results.
In philosophy and psychology since the 1950s, there has been a minority view that this two-level account of introspection is simply mistaken. Humans have no such second-level inspecting or scanning or monitoring capacity. Earlier, Gilbert Ryle (1949) argued convincingly that this two-level account did not make theoretical sense. Unfortunately, he substituted for it an unconvincing behaviorist account (in terms of the ordinary perceptual "retrospection" of ordinary behavior). More recently, psychologists and philosophers (such as Wilson and Nisbett 1977 and Lyons 1986) have suggested that, besides those theoretical grounds for rejecting the two-level account of introspection, there are also empirical grounds for rejection drawn from contemporary experimental psychology, anthropology, and the brain sciences. In contemporary introspective experiments subjects produced reports that were more like stereotyped and predictable "folk" interpretations than detailed eyewitness accounts of inner events. Besides, it seems that in cultures more or less uninfluenced by European culture people do not claim to have powers of introspection. More important, there does not seem to be any part of the brain that functions as a monitor of those neurophysiological states that maintain and control conscious states. Finally, it seems both possible and more plausible to give an account of what humans are doing, when they claim to be introspecting, in terms of the exercise of the internal but quite ordinary capacities of memory and imagination. This opposition of views has not yet been resolved, and, because of this, introspection (like consciousness itself) is likely to receive more direct and sustained treatment in the future.
Armstrong, D. M. A Materialist Theory of the Mind. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.
Brentano, F. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874), edited by O. Kraus and L. McAlister. Translated by A. C. Rancurello, D. B. Terrell, and L. McAlister. New York: Humanities Press, 1973.
Churchland, P. M. Matter and Consciousness: A Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.
Dennett, D. Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology. Montgomery, VT: Bradford Books, 1978.
Dennett, D. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little Brown, 1991.
Dennett, D. Content and Consciousness. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.
Dretske, F. "Introspection." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94 (1994): 263–278.
Hamlyn, D. W. "Self-Knowledge." In Perception, Learning, and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of Psychology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.
Lyons, W. The Disappearance of Introspection. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.
Ryle, G. The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson, 1949.
Boring, E. G. "A History of Introspection." Psychological Bulletin 50 (1953): 169–189.
Danziger, K. "The History of Introspection Reconsidered." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 16 (1980): 241–262.
Hebb, D. O. "The Mind's Eye." Psychology Today 2 (1969): 55–68.
James, W. The Principles of Psychology (1890). 2 vols. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.
Miller, G. Psychology: The Science of Mental Life. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1966.
Nisbett, R. E., and T. D. Wilson. "Telling More than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes." Psychological Review 84 (1977): 231–259.
Titchener, E. B. A Primer of Psychology. New York: Macmillan, 1898.
Wundt, W. An Introduction to Psychology. Translated by R. Pintner. London, 1912.
other recommended titles
Cassam, Quassim, ed. Self-Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Hill, Christopher. Sensations: A Defense of Type Materialism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Kornblith, Hilary. "Introspection and Misdirection." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 67 (4) (1989): 410–422.
Lycan, William. "Consciousness as Internal Monitoring." In Consciousness and Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.
Rosenthal, D. M. "Thinking that One Thinks." In Consciousness: Psychological and Philosophical Essays, edited by Martin Davies. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.
Shoemaker, S. "Self-Knowledge and 'Inner Sense.'" Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 54 (2) (1994): 249–315.
William Lyons (1996)
Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)
The careful observation of one's consciousness to ascertain its states and activities. It is one of the methods used in the science of psychology to study the facts of psychic life. Such facts can be studied from different points of view and are accessible to different methods of investigation. But of all methods, introspection alone is capable of reaching psychic facts in their immanent character. Without it, the psychologist would know psychic life only analogically—through relationships between mental states and their bodily resonances—much as a blind man might be said to know colors. Yet introspection as a method also has its limitations, and for this reason is not relied upon exclusively by most contemporary psychologists.
Uses. Some kind of introspection has always been used in psychological investigation. aristotle, regarded by many as the founder of psychology, dealt mainly with sensory perceptions, images, dreams, intellectual operations, and affective states. The first of these, for instance the perception of colors or of tones, would be impossible without the direct experience of certain sensitive qualities, e.g., the blue of the sky and the tone of a flute. It was precisely by means of such introspection that Aristotle collected the extensive material on which his psychology was based. Yet, for him, introspection was not a method for solving psychological problems, but rather a technique for acquiring psychical facts. E. B. Titchener has referred to this as an "information introspection," a type of introspection that has always been used in human medicine. The veterinarian, lacking this, is comparatively handicapped, for his patients are not able to tell him when they feel sick, where they feel pain, etc.
maine de biran in France and the British associationists made extensive use of introspection in their psychological investigations. Their method, however, was logical rather than observational (see associationism). Careful observation of consciousness was first developed in the 19th century by W. Wundt, who may rightly be considered the founder of modern psychology. Titchener, one of his disciples, brought the Wundtian tradition to the U.S.
For Wundt, the principal aim of psychology was to analyze the contents of mind. This analysis was to be effected not by ordinary reflection, but in a systematic, objective, and fully scientific manner. Because such a task was difficult, Wundtian introspectionists were given considerable laboratory training in special methods of observation. The subject matter studied by this "trained introspection" included sensations, images, and feelings. The introspectionist had to describe accurately what these looked like and how they were interrelated or combined; because of this Wundt's psychology was sometimes referred to as mental chemistry.
According to Wundt, the higher mental processes, thinking and willing, could not be studied by introspection because they were too abstract, the attention paid to them could hardly be controlled, the conditions under which they appeared could not be varied easily, and they could not be repeated. But many psychologists, among them several of Wundt's disciples, did not accept these strictures.
Oswald Külpe, for example, presented a "stimulus word" to his subjects with instructions to respond verbally to what the association of ideas suggested, and then to report what went through their minds while performing this intellectual operation. Again, he asked them to make judgments, e.g., determining which of two weights was the heavier, and then to give full introspective reports of the process. Others who did active work in this field include: R. S. Woodworth, K. Marbe, N. Ach, K. Bühler, K. Koffka, J. Lindworsky, and A. Willwoll.
Such introspective methods have considerably enriched man's knowledge of mental life, and many of their results have been incorporated into contemporary psychology. They furnish information not only about sensations, images, and feelings, but also to some degree about the higher psychic functions such as understanding, abstraction, reasoning, judgment, and choice.
Limitations. Yet introspective methods were vigorously attacked by many psychologists, particularly those with materialistic tendencies, and also Gestalt psychologists, psychoanalysts, and behaviorists. While some of their objections expressed simple prejudices, others had a real foundation in fact.
The limitations of introspective analysis as a "subjective" technique were brought out in the controversy among introspectionists on the theory of imageless thought. Observers trained by Wundt and Titchener found sensations in their thoughts, or, at least, images of sensations; subjects working in the laboratories of Külpe, Binet, and Woodworth, on the other hand, asserted that their thought was not made up of images or sensations, although they admitted that these accompanied thought processes.
Again, introspective methods have intrinsic limitations. They cannot be applied to children, to psychotics, or to animals. In addition, the question of unconscious or automatic psychic processes cannot be answered by introspection. The same applies to feelings, for as soon as one fixes his attention on these in order to observe them carefully, they lose their natural character or even disappear completely.
For these reasons, the exclusive use of introspectionist methods has long been abandoned by psychologists in favor of the more "objective" methods. Yet subjective and objective methods, when properly used, are complementary and capable of supplying useful information for psychological analysis.
Bibliography: p. siwek, Experimental Psychology (New York 1959). j. p. chaplin and t. s. krawiec, Systems and Theories of Psychology (New York 1960). t. g. andrews, ed., Methods of Psychology (New York 1948). e. g. boring, "A History of Introspection," Psychological Bulletin 50 (1953) 169–186; A History of Experimental Psychology (2d ed. New York 1950). a. gemelli and g. zunini, Introduzione alla psicologia (4th ed. Milan 1954).
The etymology of the term introspection gives a clear indication of its meaning: the mental activity of a subject who is attentive to her/his own psychic processes (who looks inside ).
Late nineteenth-century psychologists (Alfred Binet in France, the Würzburg school in Germany, Edward Bradford Tiltchener in the United States, to name but a few) considered introspection to be the sovereign method until its throne was usurped by objectivism and behaviorism.
The word has had a bad press in psychoanalysis. However, psychoanalysis was born from just such an effort at self-observation, with Freud's self-analysis (Anzieu). Unlike introspection, however, which focuses only on conscious processes, that self-analysis opened the way for the "Freudian revolution" (Robert): Freud's discovery, below the conscious level, of wishes and the obstacles in their way, of the roundabout processes such wishes use to achieve fulfill-ment—in a word, the unconscious.
Introspection should be clearly distinguished from the "capacity for insight," the patient's ability in the course of treatment to experience his or her own psychic dynamics in a new way—a major feature of the psychoanalytic approach (Blacker).
See also: Autobiography; Insight; Sartre and psychoanalysis; Self-consciousness.
Anzieu, Didier. (1986). Freud's self-analysis (Peter Graham, Trans.). London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1975)
Blacker, Kay Hill. (1981). Insight (panel). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 29, 659-672.
Robert, Marthe. (1964). La Révolution freudienne. Paris: Payot.
in·tro·spec·tion / ˌintrəˈspekshən/ • n. the examination or observation of one's own mental and emotional processes: quiet introspection can be extremely valuable. DERIVATIVES: in·tro·spec·tive / -ˈspektiv/ adj. in·tro·spec·tive·ly / -ˈspektiv-lē/ adv. in·tro·spec·tive·ness / -ˈspektivnis/ n.