Introspection is a process by which people come to be attentively conscious of mental states they are currently in. This focused CONSCIOUSNESS of one's concurrent mental states is distinct from the relatively casual, fleeting, diffuse way we are ordinarily conscious of many of our mental states. "Introspection" is occasionally applied to both ways of being conscious of one's mental states (e.g., Armstrong 1968/1993), but is most often used, as in what follows, for the attentive way only.

Introspection involves both the mental states introspected and some mental representation of those very states (as suggested by the etymology, from the Latin spicere "look" and intra "within"; looking involves mental representations of what is seen). Because it involves higher-order mental representations of introspected states, introspection is a kind of conscious METAREPRESENTATION or METACOGNITION.

WILHELM WUNDT (1911/1912) held that introspection provides an experimental method for psychology, and relied on it in setting up, in 1879 in Leipzig, the first experimental psychology laboratory. Some challenged this introspectionist method, following Auguste Comte's (1830-42) denial that a single mind can be both the agent and object of introspection. This, Comte had held, would divide attention between the act and object of introspecting, which he thought impossible. These concerns led WILLIAM JAMES (1890) and others to propound instead a method of immediate retrospection.

Introspectionist psychology foundered mainly not for these reasons, but because results from different introspectionist laboratories frequently conflicted. Still, experimental procedures in psychology continue to rely on subjects' access to their current mental states, though the theoretical warrant for this reliance is seldom discussed.

The phenomenological movement in philosophy, pioneered by Wundt's contemporary Edmund Husserl (1913/1980), held that introspection, by "bracketing" consciousness from its object, enables us to describe and analyze consciousness, and thereby solve many traditional philosophical problems. This methodology encountered difficulties similar to those that faced introspectionist psychology.

Some have questioned whether higher-order mental representations of concurrent mental states ever actually occur and hence whether introspection, properly so-called, exists. According to Gilbert Ryle (1949) and William Lyons (1986), what we loosely describe as attending to current perceptions is really just perceiving in an attentive manner. But perceiving attentively itself sometimes involves attending to the perceiving, as when one is explicitly aware of visually concentrating on something. Moreover, when we report what mental states we are in, those reports express higher-order mental representations of the states we report; Ryle's denial that remarks such as "I am in pain" are literally about one's mental states is groundless.

It is often held that introspection involves some "inner sense" by which we perceive our own mental states. The seemingly spontaneous and unmediated character of perceiving generally would then explain why introspection itself seems spontaneous and immediate. This model could, in addition, appeal to mechanisms of perceptual attention to explain how we come to focus attentively on our concurrent mental states.

But introspection cannot be a form of perceiving. Perception invariably involves sensory qualities, and no qualities ever occur in introspection other than those of the sensations and perceptions we introspect; the introspecting itself produces no additional qualities. Moreover, speech acts generally express not perceptions, but thoughts and other intentional states (see INTENTIONALITY). So introspective reports express intentional states about the mental states we introspect, and introspective representations of concurrent mental states involve assertive intentional states, or thoughts. Introspection is deliberate and attentive because these higher-order intentional states are themselves attentive and deliberate. And our introspecting seems spontaneous and unmediated presumably because we remain unaware of any mental processes that might lead to these higher-order intentional states. Introspection consists in conscious, attentively focused, higher-order thoughts about our concurrent mental states.

Despite Comte's claim that attention cannot be divided, people can with a little effort attend to more than one thing. And attentive consciousness of concurrent mental states could in any case occur whenever the target mental state was not itself an attentive state.

A related concern is that attending to concurrent mental states may distort their character. But it is unclear why that should happen, inasmuch as attention does not generally alter the properties of its object. Introspection itself cannot show that distortion occurs, because even if it seems to, that appearance might be due not to the distorting effect of introspection, but to introspection's making us aware of more of a state's properties or of a different range of properties. Similarly for the idea that introspective attention might actually bring the introspected state into existence (Hill 1991: chap. 5). That may well happen, but it may instead be that, when that seems to happen, introspection simply makes one newly aware of a state that already existed.

Work by John H. Flavell (1993) has raised doubt about whether children five and younger have introspective access to their mental states. Four- and five-year-olds describe themselves and others as thinking, feeling, and experiencing. But they also describe people while awake as going for significant periods without thinking or feeling anything whatever. Doubtless these children themselves have, when awake, normal streams of consciousness. But they seem not to think of themselves in that way and, hence, not to introspect their streams of consciousness. Flavell also reports that these children determine what people attend to and think about solely on the basis of behavioral cues and environmental stimulation. So perhaps their inability to introspect results from their simply not conceiving of thoughts and experiences as states that are sometimes conscious (see THEORY OF MIND).

Some have held that introspective access to one's mental states cannot be erroneous or, at least, that it overrides all other evidence (see SELF-KNOWLEDGE). RENÉDESCARTES (1641/1984) famously noted that one cannot, when thinking, doubt that one is thinking. But this hardly shows that when one is thinking one always knows one is, much less that one is invariably right about which thoughts one has. In a similar spirit, Sydney Shoemaker (1996) has urged that when one has a belief one always knows one does, because a rational person's believing something itself involves cognitive dispositions that constitute that person's knowing about the belief. But the relevant rationality often fails to accompany our beliefs and other first-order mental states.

Indeed, psychological research reveals many such lapses of rationality. In addition to the misrepresentations of one's own mental states discovered by SIGMUND FREUD, other work (e.g., Nisbett and Wilson 1977) shows that introspective judgments frequently result from confabulation. People literally invent mental states to explain their own behavior in ways that are expected or acceptable. Daniel Dennett (1991) in effect seeks to generalize this finding by arguing that all introspective reports can be treated as reports of useful fictions.

Introspection not only misrepresents our mental states, but it also fails to reveal many concurrent states, both in ordinary and exotic situations (see BLINDSIGHT and IMPLICIT VS. EXPLICIT MEMORY). And it is likely that introspection seldom if ever reveals all the mental properties of target states. Many, moreover, would endorse KARL LASHLEY's (1958) dictum that introspection never makes mental processes accessible, only their results. At best, introspection is one tool among many for learning about the mind.

See also

Additional links

-- David M. Rosenthal


Armstrong, D. M. (1968/1993). A Materialist Theory of the Mind. New York: Humanities Press. Rev. ed., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Comte, A. (1830-42). Cours de Philosophie Positive. 6 vols. Paris: Bachelier.

Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown.

Descartes, R. (1641/1984). Meditations on first philosophy. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 2. Trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flavell, J. H. (1993). Young children's understanding of thinking and consciousness. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2(2):40-43.

Hill, C. S. (1991). Sensations: A Defense of Type Materialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Husserl, E. (1913/1980). Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, vol. 1. Trans. T. E. Klein and W. E. Pohl. The Hague and Boston: M. Nijhoff.

James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. 2 vols. New York: Henry Holt.

Lashley, K. S. (1958). Cerebral organization and behavior. In H. C. Solomon, S. Cobb, and W. Penfield, Eds., The Brain and Human Behavior, vol. 36. Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Diseases, Research Publications. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, pp. 1-18.

Lyons, W. (1986). The Disappearance of Introspection. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books.

Nisbett, R. E., and T. DeCamp Wilson. (1977). Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review 84(3):231-259.

Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson.

Shoemaker, S. (1996). The First-Person Perspective and Other Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wundt, W. (1911/1912). An Introduction to Psychology. Trans. Rudolf Pintner. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Further Readings

Brentano, F. (1874/1973). Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. O. Kraus, Ed., L. L. McAlister, Eng. ed. Trans. A. C. Rancurello, D. B. Terrell, and L. L. McAlister. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Broad, C. D. (1925). The Mind and Its Place in Nature. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Burge, T. (1988). Individualism and self-knowledge. The Journal of Philosophy 85(11):649-663.

Cassam, Q. (1995). Introspection and bodily self-ascription. In J. Luis Bermudez, A. Marcel, and N. Eilan, Eds., The Body and the Self. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books.

Churchland, P. M. (1985). Reduction, qualia, and the direct introspection of brain states. The Journal of Philosophy 82(1):8-28.

Dretske, F. (1994/95). Introspection. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society CXV: 263-278.

Goldman, A. I. (1993). The psychology of folk psychology. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16(1):15-28. Open peer commentary, 29 - 90; author's response: Functionalism, the theory-theory and phenomenology, 101 - 113.

Gopnik, A. (1993). How do we know our minds: the illusion of first-person knowledge of intentionality. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16(1):1-14. Open peer commentary, 29 - 90; author's response: Theories and illusion, 90 - 100.

Locke, J. (1700/1975). Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Nidditch, P. H., Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lycan, W. (1996). Consciousness and Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books.

Metcalfe, J., and A. P. Shimamura, Eds. (1994). Metacognition: Knowing About Knowing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books.

Nelson, T. O., Ed. (1992). Metacognition: Core Readings. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Nelson, T. O. (1996). Consciousness and metacognition. American Psychologist 51(2):102-116.

Rosenthal, D. M. (1997). A theory of consciousness. In N. Block, O. Flanagan, and G. Güzeldere, Eds., The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 729-753.

Rosenthal, D. M. (Forthcoming). Consciousness and metacognition. In D. Sperber, Ed., Metarepresentation: Proceedings of the Tenth Vancouver Cognitive Science Conference. New York: Oxford University Press.

Titchener, E. B. (1909). A Text-Book of Psychology. New York: Macmillan.

Uleman, J. S., and J. A. Bargh, Eds. (1989). Unintended Thought. New York: Guilford Press.

Weinert, F. E., and R. H. Kluwe, Eds. (1987). Metacognition, Motivation, and Understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Weiskrantz, L. (1997). Consciousness Lost and Found: A Neuro-psychological Exploration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

White, P. A. (1988). Knowing more than we can tell: "introspec- tive access" and causal report accuracy 10 years later. British Journal of Psychology 79(1):13-45.

Wilson, T. D., S. D. Hodges, and S. J. LaFleur. (1995). Effects of introspecting about reasons: inferring attitudes from accessible thoughts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69:16-28.