California at Riverside
Riverside, CA 92521
eschwitz at domain-
May 12, 2011
1. Thesis and Alternative Views.
My thesis is: Introspection
is not a single process but a plurality of processes. It’s a plurality both within and between cases:
Most individual introspective judgments arise from a plurality of processes
(that’s the within-case claim), and the collection of processes issuing in
introspective judgments differs from case to case (that’s the between-case
claim). Introspection is not the
operation of a single cognitive mechanism or small collection of mechanisms. Introspective judgments arise from a shifting
confluence of many processes, recruited opportunistically.
analogy might be helpful. Suppose you’re
at a psychology conference or a high school science fair and you’re trying to
quickly take in a poster. You are not
equipped with a dedicated faculty of poster-taking-in. Rather, you opportunistically deploy a
variety of processes with the aim of getting the gist of the poster: You look
at the poster – or perhaps only listen to a recital portions of it, if you’re
in the mood or visually impaired – you attend to what the poster’s author is
saying about it; you follow out implications, charitably rejecting some
interpretations of the poster’s content as too obviously foolish; you think
about what it makes sense to claim given the social and scientific context and
other work by the author or the author’s advisor, if you know any; you pose
questions and assess the author’s responses both for overt content and for
emotional flavor. Although the cognitive
systems involved range widely and are not dedicated just to taking in posters,
not just any activity counts as taking in a poster – one’s judgments about the
poster must aim to reflect a certain kind of sensitivity to its contents. Likewise for introspection, I will suggest:
The cognitive activities range widely and vary between cases – that is the main
claim I will defend – and yet, as I will suggest near the end of this essay, it
wouldn’t be natural to call a judgment introspective if it wasn’t formed with
the aim or intention of reflecting a certain kind of sensitivity to the target
As far as I can
tell, no previous philosopher or psychologist has defended both within-case and
between-case pluralism about introspection.
Although defenders of the view that introspection (or “reflection” or
“inner sense”) resembles sensory perception of the outside world could have
developed this view in a pluralist direction, historically they have not done
so (e.g., Locke 1690/1975; Kant 1781/1787/1997; Wundt 1888, 1896/1897). Some philosophers and psychologists have
distinguished between two types of processes that can lead to introspective or
quasi-introspective judgments, but two is not many, and often the point of such
distinctions is to isolate a unitary target process of interest (e.g., Brentano
1874/1973; Wundt 1888; Russell 1912; Nichols and Stich 2003).
philosophers tend to adopt one of two perspectives on introspection and
self-knowledge. One approach characterizes
introspection (or “self-awareness”) as the operation of a mental self-scanning
or self-monitoring process (e.g., Armstrong 1968; Lycan 1996; Nichols and Stich
2003; Goldman 2006). Typically, this
process is characterized as involving a single fairly simple detection or
monitoring mechanism or family of closely related, simple monitoring
mechanisms. Small complexities can
plausibly be added: Nichols and Stich (2003) couple the monitoring mechanism
with a second, sometimes-competing, sometimes-cooperating mechanism, involving
the application of a general “theory of mind”; Goldman (2006) couples monitoring
with a capacity to “redeploy” representational contents and to translate
representations from one type of mental code into another. But the addition of such complexities doesn’t
constitute broad pluralism.
A second approach
emphasizes mechanisms or procedures other than self-monitoring as the primary
ground of self-knowledge or of the privileged self-ascription of mental states. Broadly speaking, these approaches fall into
Self-ascriptions might involve embedding a target content within a
self-ascriptive content in a self-fulfilling way. For example, “I am thinking of a banana” might
be automatically true because the thought that I am thinking of a banana
contains within it the thought of a banana.
(See Burge 1988, 1996; Heil 1988; Gertler 2001, this volume; Papineau
2002; Chalmers 2003; Horgan and Kriegel 2007; Horgan this volume; and for a
somewhat different version, Shoemaker 1996, this volume; arguably this maneuver
goes back to Descartes 1641/1984.)
Self-ascriptions might tend to be true because in making a self-ascription one is
committing to a certain way of thinking or acting, presently or in the future, in
accord with one’s self-ascription. For
example, the self-ascriptive thought “I hate laundromats” might be casually
influential in creating or sustaining hatred of laundromats. (See Moran 2001; McGeer and Pettit 2002;
Self-ascriptions like “that hurts!” or “I don’t wanna” might essentially be
complicated ways of wincing or frowning, or of saying “ow!” or “that stinks!” –
that is, they might be self-ascriptive linguistic variants of ordinary
spontaneous expressions, which require no prior self-scanning. (See Wittgenstein 1953; Bar-On 2004; Gordon
inference: Self-ascriptions might be derived inferentially, or
quasi-inferentially, directly from judgments about the outside world, requiring
no more introspective self-scanning than does ordinary inference. For example, from P, just as one might straightaway conclude P or Q, without introspecting one’s judgment that P (presumably not all inference requires
introspection), similarly one might straightaway conclude I believe that P. (See
Dretske 1995; Tye 2000; Byrne 2005, this volume.)
inference: Self-ascriptions might be largely grounded in observations of
one’s own behavior, combined with the theories of folk psychology. For example, from the fact that you often
drive across town to get Thai food, you might infer that you like Thai food. (See Bem 1967; Nisbett and Wilson 1977;
For a fuller review of these
approaches to self-knowledge, see Schwitzgebel 2010. Advocates of such views tend not to embrace
broad pluralism, though they may emphasize a single competing process.
Prinz (2004, 2007)
and Hill (2009, 2011) both defend explicitly pluralist views of introspection,
but their pluralism appears to be only between-case: Although they suggest that
many different kinds of cognitive mechanism can yield introspective knowledge, they
tend to portray individual introspective judgments as issuing each from the
operation of a single mechanism. (Prinz
also seems to regard as “introspective” many processes that most philosophers
and psychologists would not ordinarily regard as introspective, such as,
apparently, ordinary simple recall; see also my discussion of Hill in
The blind men have
each, it seems to me, nicely described a piece or two of the elephant. But none have adequately displayed the pieces’
integration into a messy, moving organism.
Visual experience. I look out
the window and reach the judgment not only that there’s a tree outside but also
that I’m having a visual experience of that tree. I have greenish visual experience of the leaves,
and the tree’s spreading branches seem to dwarf the mountain in the
background. It has just rained, and in
the re-emerging sun, the tree sparkles strikingly. Focusing my gaze on the rightmost branches, I
notice a fluttering indistinctness in my experience of the left side of the
tree. I cross my eyes, thinking it might
make the tree double, but instead the tree only swims around my visual field,
blurring and flattening. So, how do I
know all this about my visual experience?
Let’s begin here:
You, standing next to me, seeing me look attentively out the window, might reach
some of the same conclusions about me.
Minimally, you can safely guess that I’m having greenish visual
experience of some sort. After all, you
know (a.) that I am looking at a green thing in good conditions, and (b.)
(let’s suppose) that I’m not colorblind.
Now of course I, too, know (a) and (b) about myself. Might (a) and (b) be part of my grounds in thinking
that I’m having a greenish visual experience?
They seem unlikely to be the sole
grounds of my judgment – presumably, if I were to have gone suddenly and
unexpectedly colorblind (through, say, the secret action of a prankster neuroscientist)
I would notice that I’m not in fact having greenish visual experience, despite
my looking attentively at what I know to be a green object in plain view. But even if (a) and (b) aren’t the sole
grounds of my judgment, it seems reasonable for me to allow my knowledge of outward
objects and my own capacities to play some causal and justificatory role in my
knowledge of my visual experience. If I
know that I’m looking at an evenly painted white surface, I might more naturally
reach the judgment that I’m having a visual experience of even whiteness than
if I know that I’m looking at a surface with a gradual shift in color. If I know that the burrito I’m biting into
has cheese in it, I might be naturally and justifiably primed to judge that it
tastes “cheesy”. If I see you move
behind me with a red-hot poker and then suddenly I feel a startling touch on my
neck, I might swiftly and readily judge that I’m feeling heat and pain, not
coolness, even if you have actually touched me with an ice cube. (Maybe I do, in fact, for a split second feel
heat and pain, or maybe not; what’s at issue right now isn’t that, but only the
contribution my expectations do and should make to my judgment about my
experience.) I know the tree has leaves;
I know it has just rained; I know what trees in general are like, and what the
scene from that window is normally like.
All this knowledge influences, it seems plausible to suppose, not only
my experience but also my expectations about my experience, my readiness to
make certain judgments about my experience, and thus those experiential
judgments themselves. If my experience
is other than expected, I am called up short; I hesitate; it takes a little
time, perhaps, and some reconfirmation before I come around, if indeed I do
When I try
crossing my eyes and don’t receive, or don’t think I receive, the expected
double vision of the tree, I react in part by wondering whether I have really
succeeded in crossing my eyes; so I try again, wiggling my eyes in various
ways, using some combination of motor intentions, proprioceptive feedback, and
visual feedback to assess the state of my eyes.
I wonder, too, whether there might be a double image of the tree that I’m
failing, at least momentarily, to notice (Helmholtz 1856/1909/1962; Titchener
1910; Schwitzgebel 2011a, ch. 2). When I
hold my eyes fixed on the tree’s rightmost branches and fail to discern the
details of the leftmost, my failure in that seemingly outward visual task is
part of the basis of my judgment that my visual experience is indistinct away
from the point of fixation. My sense of
my visual experience is probably shaped, too, by culturally available
metaphors, especially painting, photography, and movies, which might draw me
toward thinking of my experience as in some way flat like a painting or as
possessing distinctness of shape and color well into the periphery (Noë 2004;
Schwitzgebel 2011a, ch. 2). Why am I
inclined to think of the tree as dwarfing the mountain? Does this have to do with the projective size
each would have on flat media, or the visual angle subtended? Is
there also a sense in which the mountain looks much bigger than the tree? How stable and well-grounded and culturally
variable are such judgments about the experience of size? The tree sparkles in the sunlight in a way I
find striking, and my judgment that this aspect of the scene is striking is
partly phenomenological, partly cognitive or aesthetic – a judgment that
probably interacts loopingly with my knowledge of the environment, my knowledge
of my visual experience of the environment, and my knowledge of other aspects
of my reaction to the scene. I hear
myself speak, inwardly or outwardly, I shift my gaze, I shift my attention
without shifting my gaze, and those processes, too, influence both my visual
experience and my apprehension of my visual experience.
My judgments about
my experience, then, are influenced by at least: my expectations about my
experience, my knowledge of the outward environment, my knowledge of what I can
and cannot discern, culturally available metaphors and general theories about
visual experience, and my knowledge of other aspects of my psychology, in
temporally entangled loops. Is there,
embedded within this tangle, a distinct, genuinely introspective process,
separable at least in principle from any non-introspective influences upon the
various emerging judgments? I feel the
pull of that idea. The arguments in some
of the subsequent essays in this volume appear to turn on the possibility of
isolating, in principle, a purely introspective process from amid such noise (especially
Gertler this volume; Sosa this volume; Zimmerman this volume). My suggestion in this essay, however, is that
it is best to resist treating introspection as distinctive and isolatable.
There is no important, cognitively distinct process that is the process of
The view that
introspection of visual experience is a process distinct from the processes of
visual perception, when that view is combined with a broadly self-monitoring
approach to introspection, appears to invite the following cognitive model:
First there is a process of visual perception, and then afterwards begins the
process of introspecting one’s perceptual experience. Maybe the first process, the perceptual
process, continues while the introspective process works at a delay upon its
results, always a stage or more behind.
However, I doubt this is the best way to conceive of the cognitive
processes involved in my example of looking at the tree. It’s more useful, I suspect, to treat the
ordinary perceptual processes of vision in that case as part of, or as
overlapping with, the introspective processes that shape my judgments about my
experience. My visually obtained and
constantly updated knowledge of the objects around me is a crucial part of the
cause and grounds of my judgments about my visual experience of those same
objects. So is the process of trying and
failing to visually discern properties of the world. If perception is a complex looping process
involving activities of the body such as the movement of fingers and eyes (e.g.,
Hurley 1998; Noë 2004), so too, I suggest, is introspection in the example
above: My activity of holding my eyes still and attempting to discern the shape
of the leaves in the periphery, my activity of trying to determine if I have
successfully crossed my eyes, my looking around, my recruitment of general
knowledge and knowledge specific to the situation, are all part of a
multifaceted project that it is artificial to try to divide into introspective
and non-introspective pieces.
Here is another
phenomenon that strains against the idea that introspection is a cognitively
distinct process sharply separable from the processes of outward perception:
Judgments about sensory experience can easily collapse into judgments about the
outside world with no crisp border between; and the two sorts of judgments, in
such cases, are often seemingly driven by virtually identical cognitive
processes. So, for example, if asked,
for each of a series of stimuli, to report on one’s visual experience of the
color of the stimuli, one might first say “green”, then “red”, then “green
again”, with the explicit intention of reporting only on one’s visual
experience, that is, on a piece of phenomenology rather than on properties of
the outward stimuli. But after settling
into the monotony of the task, it is quite natural to slip absent-mindedly into
expressing, instead, one’s judgment about the outward stimuli themselves – the
colors of the material objects – especially if there’s no reason to doubt that
one’s perception is veridical. Such
slipping was my frequent experience in reading Titchener’s famous manual of
introspective training and attempting to replicate some of his exercises; and Titchener
felt it necessary to repeatedly warn aspiring introspective experts against
such “stimulus error” or “R-error” (Titchener 1901-1905; see also Boring 1921;
Schwitzgebel 2005; 2011a, ch. 5). Where
one suspects illusion, “is green” and “looks green” express very different
judgments; where one does not suspect illusion, they can blur into each
other. Despite their different truth
conditions, the two sorts of judgment – one about the stimulus object, one
about the experience of that object – are often difficult to pull apart
psychologically. We generally use the
same terms to express both the objectual and the introspective judgment (e.g., “green”
for both the property of the object and the property of the experience the
object produces in me), and often, it seems, there is no discrete fact of the
matter which of the two judgments I am making or whether I am making both
simultaneously. We gradually, insensibly
traverse the distinction between introspective and non-introspective judgment. In such cases, introspection might be best
regarded as perception with a twist or with a slightly different aim that can
be half forgotten. The processes of
perception, then, would be part of
the process of introspection.
Emotion. I think about what,
if anything, I am emotionally experiencing right now. I notice, first, that my lips are pursed, and
I relax them; I notice some tension in my chest. But then I think to myself that emotional
experience is not, or might not be, entirely bodily. In fact, it seems a little odd that I should
leap straight to bodily self-apprehension in thinking about my emotion. Do I usually do this when I reflect on my
emotional experience? Some kind of
negative affect is present – perhaps I’m tense about writing this essay? A visual image of a blank word-processing
screen has come before my mind. But I
had been looking forward all day to finally having a chance to write! As I think about the little remaining time to
write this essay, I seem to become more unsettled. I am tense, I decide, about the looming
deadline. I find my lips pursed again
and rub them with my left hand. There is
a bit of an odd feeling in my cheeks, but I don’t know if it is associated with
the emotion. Being tense about the
deadline doesn’t seem like the only thing that is going on with me emotionally
right now – but what more there is I can’t quite put a finger on. I find myself listening to the freeway
traffic in the distance, calming myself a bit with eyes closed and head in
hands, and then I imagine how I would look to someone viewing me from behind. I think that thinking about this particular
introspective task is worsening my mood, making me tenser and maybe almost
angry. I would have liked a happier
example, one that better displays the sunny disposition and amiable character I
believe myself to have. Perhaps, partly,
I am distressed at the negativity of this example, and that distress is further
reinforcing the negativity. Maybe, too,
there is some self-shaping involved: Maybe what I was really experiencing was a
relatively undifferentiated negativity or tension, induced partly by
over-caffeination, and it became concretized, in part, as deadline anxiety
largely as a result of my entertaining that hypothesis.
My introspective –
or seemingly introspective – assessment of my emotional state seems to flow,
again, from multiple sources, including at least my knowledge of my social
environment (I am writing an essay under deadline pressure), proprioceptive
knowledge of my body (my lips are pursed, my throat tense), and knowledge of my
thoughts and imagery (knowledge which is, in its turn, presumably also at least
partly introspective); perhaps, too, there was some relatively direct causal
influence from my emotional phenomenology to my judgment about it. (See Section 4 for a discussion of whether
such direct causal influences might be what introspection really is.) The process was temporally extended, and I
noted how things seemed to shift as my mind moved from topic to topic. It’s almost like I was pulling together
pieces of a story. Jakob Hohwy (forthcoming)
has argued that introspective knowledge, like sensory knowledge, tends to be
exploratory: We have initial expectations or hypotheses, and on the basis of them
our cognitive systems make predictions about how things will change (or remain
the same) over time, across various conditions.
To test these hypotheses we often act to alter those conditions and we
adjust our assessment of the probabilities according to whether our implicit or
explicit expectations of change are confirmed or violated. In sensation, we might move the object or our
heads, or we might tap on the object. In
the present example, I fix my attention upon the hypothesized source of
anxiety, the looming deadline, and note what seems to change in me as a result.
More subtly, perhaps, I introduce and
track proprioceptive changes when I rub my lips. On this view, the motion of my hand against
my lips and the act of bringing the deadline vividly to mind are parts of, and
not simply preconditions of, the exploratory introspective process. If I pursue the wrong contingencies or draw
the wrong conclusions from them, then I have failed not only to set up the
preconditions of introspection in the way I would have liked, but I have failed
in the introspective task itself. For
example, I err introspectively if sinusitis is the cause of my cheeks’ discomfort
and yet the discomfort’s failure to recede when I turn my mind away from the
looming deadline contributes to a false impression that I’m anxious about more
than just the deadline. As in the visual
case, bodily, perceptual, and cognitive processes that are not intrinsically
introspective can become part of or overlap with the introspective process. On the approach advocated in this paragraph,
we cannot say that here on the one hand are the outward bodily and perceptual
processes and here on the other hand is the purely introspective process.
my knowledge that I’m afraid of the rattlesnake or (perhaps differently) that
I’m feeling afraid of it, might
derive in part from my general knowledge that rattlesnakes are dangerous and my
visual knowledge that one is only three feet away; it might derive in part from
my proprioceptive and visual knowledge that I’ve just flinched, from my
knowledge that I felt a tingling surge of what I would call adrenaline, from my
sense that I have the impulse to run; it might derive in part from my knowledge
that I just uttered an expletive, either in inner or outer speech, from an
awareness that I’m imagining the snake biting me, from a kind of numb paralysis
I feel; I might have an impulse to say to my hiking partner “I’m terrified of
that snake”, which I do or do not disinhibit.
Uttering those words, in fact, may help make them true – or at least
congeal my emotion and give it specific shape.
Probably too, there are some low-level neural or cognitive connections
that operate in none of these ways but work more directly from my fear to
enhance the likelihood that I will judge myself afraid. Note my appeal here to several of the
processes described in Section 1: self-detection, self-shaping,
self-expression, theoretical inference.
Imagery. In the morning on
the way to work, I blasted a tune on the car stereo, Sonic Youth’s “Kool
Thing”. Now it’s two in the afternoon
and I notice that that tune has been running through my head. It has been running for at least three
seconds, I think, maybe much longer, and not for the first time today. As I reflect, the tune seems to sharpen or
become more vivid. It seems that I can
choose to emphasize the vocals or the guitars, and I think about the extent to
which I can imagine both the vocals and guitars simultaneously. I conclude that I can do so, especially if I
nod my head in rhythm and do something that feels like using my mouth and voice
to track the lead guitar line (though no noticeable sound issues from my
Imagery is so much
under our immediate control that concurrent introspective judgments about it
seem bound, in most cases, to be supported to some extent by self-shaping, that
is, by the process of controlling my mental life in such a way that it conforms
to my judgments about it (rather than simply the other way around). Imagery judgments might even be
self-fulfilling, if the target image can be a part of the self-attributive
judgment about it. When I judge that I’m
visually imagining my mother’s face or hearing the chorus of “Kool Thing” in my
head, I am partly working to make these self-attributions true as I reach
them. However, it seems unlikely that I
can make just any judgment about my imagistic phenomenology true simply by
willing it to be so: If I judge that I am visually imagining the Taj Mahal with
every arch and spire simultaneously well defined, or that I am imagining,
simultaneously, the vocals, bass line, drums, and both guitars, or that I am
visually imagining a triangle that is neither equilateral, isosceles, nor
scalene but somehow all and none of these at once (Locke 1690/1975; contra
Berkeley 1710/1965), I might be wrong.
And hopefully if I am wrong, something in me – some influence, direct or
indirect, from the imagery experience itself – will lead me to refrain from the
attribution, or cancel it, or at least hesitate and feel uncertain. When I’m trying to determine if I can imagine
the lead guitar and vocals at the same time, it seems that I’m not only
creating or sustaining the imagery but also checking to see if I have successfully
created it as intended. Self-regulative
feedback is integral to bodily action, except in the swiftest ballistic
movements; we might think of imagery creation similarly.
Of course, self-shaping
and self-fulfillment can’t explain knowledge of very recently past imagery,
since self-shaping and self-fulfillment are necessarily present- or
future-oriented. And often, too, there
is little environmental or inferential basis for judgments about the contents
of one’s recently past imagery; nor does it seem that we can directly, and
non-introspectively, self-express past and gone mental states in the way,
perhaps, that we can directly and non-introspectively burst out with a “that
hurts!” or “I don’t wanna”. Thus,
recently past imagery is a case where relatively direct causal influences from
conscious experience to one’s judgments about it are most evident – thus
revealing the incompleteness of any account of self-knowledge limited to the
five non-self-monitoring procedures mentioned in Section 1: self-fulfillment,
self-shaping, self-expression, direct inference, and theoretical inference. (I am assuming here that the operation of
those five methods is not continuous or very frequent; otherwise, some
combination of those five methods plus memory of their outputs might explain
self-knowledge of recently past imagery.)
These relatively direct influences from immediately past imagery might
take a variety of possible forms: The influences might be mediated by
short-term memory, or iconic memory, or a looping process; or they might involve
fading activation or the normal temporal course of a feed-forward causal brain
process; or they might reflect a partial temporal overlap between cognitive
processes. The empirical question is
open, but here as elsewhere I’ll bet on multiplicity.
In noticing “Kool Thing”
running through my head, it seems likely, then, that I’m partly shaping it as
it transpires, to conform with my judgments about it, and partly exhibiting
some relatively direct sensitivity to the experience that is thereby
created. Plausibly, too, as in the
visual experience and emotional cases described above, my judgment about my
experience draws upon general knowledge that makes various experiences or
features of experiences seem more or less likely. That knowledge might include: what would be a
plausible memory image, given what I know about the band’s usual
instrumentation, about that style of music, and about that particular song; my
opinions about imagery in general (which are likely to be partly culturally
conditioned); and my possibly accurate or possibly distorted opinions about my
own imagery capacities (see Schwitzgebel 2011a, ch. 3). Perhaps, too, I am simply apt to burst into
song as a way of expressing, and simultaneously concretizing, my knowledge of
my imagery experience.
3. The Boxology of Introspection.
It’s often helpful
for cognitive scientists modeling psychological processes to describe the
mind’s functional architecture using boxes and arrows, with the boxes
indicating various functionally discrete processes or systems and the arrows
indicating the causal or functional relationships among those discrete
processes or systems. Figure 1 expresses
my view of introspection, using the “boxology” of cognitive science. The model in that figure may be contrasted,
for example, with the boxological models on pages 162 and 165 of Nichols and
Stich 2003, which feature tidy arrows in and out of the Belief Box, through a
Monitoring Mechanism, a Percept-to-Belief Mediator, and a Theory of Mind
Information store. You might also notice
a resemblance between my model in Figure 1 on the next page and recent
boxological models of visual processing, if the latter are squinted at.
Figure 1: The boxology of introspection
considerations favor this boxology of introspection. First, each of the methods of arriving at
self-knowledge described in Section 1 seems appropriate to some cases, and the
various methods appear to have considerable potential to compete or co-operate
in individual instances; and, furthermore, as Prinz (2004) and Hill (2009)
argue, it seems unlikely even on a pure scanning view that there would be a
single type of scanning mechanism for all possible target states. These considerations suggest substantial
between-case pluralism, at least. Second,
as I hope the examples of Section 2 illustrated, it seems plausible that in
many cases of apparently introspective self-knowledge a wide variety of
resources and capacities are brought to bear on the judgment, varying both
within and between cases. And third, the
more neuroscientists discover about the massive interconnection of the brain,
the more it seems architecturally likely that, generally speaking, people’s
conscious judgments will draw upon a large variety of influences, from the
short and direct to the loaded and circuitous.
It’s worth noting,
perhaps, that similar considerations recommend a similar boxology for other
broad, person-level cognitive processes, like memory, visual perception, and
decision. I support that generalization
of the diagram (and I briefly discuss the complex influences on memory judgments
in Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel 2011), with three qualifications: First, I don’t
intend to deny entirely the existence of simple or functionally isolated
cognitive processes – perhaps some of the processes operating early in the
visual stream are approximately functionally isolated, for example. But such processes, if they exist, are unlike
introspection, memory, or visual perception; they are not the broad types of
cognitive processes recognized by the terms of folk psychology and capable by
themselves of generating conscious judgments.
Second, empirical investigation can weave a bit of order out of the
chaos, allowing us to reify features of the swirl into a large variety of
interacting sub-processes, partially isolatable, at least as an
approximation. This has already occurred
to some extent for memory and visual perception, and it may start to occur for
introspection as psychology starts more seriously to contemplate its mechanisms. However – and this is my third qualification
– there are well-established partial deficits of memory and vision that suggest
a certain degree of functional separability among sub-processes; there is
currently no parallel taxonomy of partial introspective deficits – no clear
pattern, for example, of functional double dissociations among introspective
sub-processes (pace Nichols and Stich 2003; see Carruthers forthcoming).
4. Introspection, What?
I doubt that we
can draw sharp lines through this snarl, cleanly isolating some genuinely
introspective process from related, adjoining, and overlapping processes. What we have, or seem to have, is a cognitive
confluence of crazy spaghetti, with aspects of self-detection, self-shaping,
self-fulfillment, spontaneous expression, priming and association, categorical
assumptions, outward perception, memory, inference, hypothesis testing, bodily
activity, and who only knows what else, all feeding into our judgments about
current states of mind. To attempt to
isolate a piece of this confluence as the
introspective process – the one true introspective process, though influenced
by, interfered with, supported by, launched or halted by, all the others – is,
I suggest, like trying to find the one way in which a person makes her
parenting decisions, the one cognitive process behind writing a philosophical
essay, or (to return to the example from the beginning of the paper) the one
cognitive process of taking in a science poster. The causes, the influences, the
considerations, are too rich within most cases and too variable between cases
for any but a radically pluralist account to do justice to the phenomena.
One might try to go
subpersonal: If there is a cognitive subsystem with the task of keeping a bead
on happenings in other parts of the mind, then perhaps that is the
introspective system, even if it alone is not responsible for the judgments we
arrive at? But surely there are many
such systems, if there are any: The mind is thoroughly entangled and the
different parts, and subparts of those parts, are designed to track and respond
to goings-on elsewhere, at the micro-level as well as the macro-level, from
relatively early to relatively late stages of processing, often beyond what we
would normally consider to be our introspective ken. This kind of inter-system tracking seems hardly
sufficient for introspection, at least in any ordinary sense of the term. What must be added to such processes to render
their operation the operation of introspection proper? I suggest that they must get tangled up with
the whole variety of processes that drive person-level conscious judgment.
One might attempt
some sort of self-fulfilling content embedding story (as briefly described in
Section 1, a view that seems recently to have gained momentum): Introspection
involves loading target mental states into judgments about those very states:
“I’m thinking about a hedgehog”, “I’m experiencing [this]” (see, e.g., Gertler’s
and Horgan’s contributions to this volume).
We can reach infallible judgments in this way, perhaps (just as when we
say “this sentence refers to itself” we necessarily speak the truth) – but that
very infallibility shows that we have missed our target, or at least the target
that I and probably most other people have in mind when we think about
introspection: For introspection in practical use is not infallible; we don’t always get it right in our introspective
judgments about our emotional states, about the level of detail in our imagery,
about the various features of our visual experiences, our pains, our inner
speech. Elsewhere, I have argued that we
err very often (Schwitzgebel 2011a, ch. 7), but the frequency of error isn’t as
much the present issue as the possibility of error. The kind of introspection that matters to
human affairs and to the methods of psychology and consciousness science is the
kind of introspection that involves the fallible application of categories in
explicit, conscious judgments – and thus involves the wide variety of resources
we flexibly bring to bear in reaching such judgments.
But it would be a
wacky sort of pluralism that counted every cognitive process as introspective,
so let me conclude by suggesting some boundaries. The kinds of examples I have offered, and the
kinds of cases I think most philosophers have in mind when they discuss
introspection, are cases in which we arrive at explicit, conscious judgments
about our own current or very recently past mental states. So perhaps we can say that we ought not
regard as introspective any confluence of processes that fails to issue in that
sort of judgment, or fails at least to be headed in the direction of issuing in
that sort of judgment (though it may be cut short or collapse for some
reason). And if the proper product of
introspection is a conscious judgment, then we can also say, I think, that
introspection consumes attention, on the assumption that forming a conscious
judgment necessarily consumes attention.
I am inclined to recommend
the following view: Introspection is the dedication of central cognitive
resources, or attention, to the task of arriving at a judgment about one’s
current, or very recently past, conscious experience, using or attempting to
use some capacities that are unique to the first-person case (like most of the
capacities emphasized in the accounts in Section 1), with the aim or intention
that one’s judgment reflect some relatively direct sensitivity to the target
state. It by no means follows from this
characterization that introspection is a single or coherent process or the same
set of processes every time. Now of
course I can arrive at conscious, explicit judgments about my current or very
recently past conscious experience without doing anything like what we would
normally consider introspection: For example, I might read the outputs of a
neuroimaging machine, apply a general theory about how those outputs relate to
consciousness, and (hypothetically at least) arrive at a judgment about my
current conscious experience on that basis alone. Thus the characterization above requires that
introspection involves the attempt to use capacities unique to the first-person
case and that reflect a relatively direct sensitivity to the target state. Likewise, there seems something odd about
calling a judgment introspective if it is entirely
a matter of creating the target state in the course of self-ascribing it with
no aim or intention that one’s judgment reflect sensitivity to that state. One further consequence of that last condition
is that self-attributions that pop to mind unbidden are not introspective – or
rather, they are not introspective unless
we are liberal about what counts as having the relevant aim or intention. Maybe we should be liberal. I prefer to leave the matter vague, allowing
for in-between cases and stronger and weaker senses of “introspection”. I also leave it vague what counts as
“relatively direct”. Attempting to
specify too precisely the boundaries of introspection would require, I suspect,
knifing more sharply through the spaghetti than the phenomena warrant.
Is this, then,
really a “multiple realization” view of introspection? And if so, is it consequently just a variety
of ordinary functionalism? In a way. But here’s the twist: Just as the functionalist
about pain denies that pain is a single type of physical process, because pain
can be variously realized at the physical level, so also would I deny that
introspection is a single type of cognitive process, since introspection can be
variously realized at the cognitive level.
Despite our ability to gesture at a class of cognitive activities we
might call “introspective”, no common cognitive core is shared by all and only
introspective processes. To make that
last point is, I think, just to restate (a modest form of) between-case
pluralism about introspection.
Within-case pluralism – at least as developed in Section 2 – adds the
further thought that the processes constituting any single introspective event
will normally be, in large part, a combination of processes that exist
primarily to serve non-introspective cognitive functions. If this view is functionalism, it isn’t the
type of cognitivist functionalism that treats diverse physical processes as
nonetheless cognitively unified. Whatever
unification there is, exists at a higher or different level of abstraction –
perhaps only amid the rather vague abstractions of folk psychology.
clarification: My characterization of introspection limits the targets of
introspection to conscious experiences.
Now while the most central and uncontroversial examples of introspection
– and all the examples I have used in this essay – take conscious experiences
as their targets, philosophers often suggest that introspection can also take
another important class of targets, to wit, attitudes, like belief and
desire. Can’t we also introspect
those? I propose the following: If an
attitude is consciously experienced, we can introspect it, and its availability
as a target of introspection is already permitted by the characterization above
as its stands. On the other hand, if an
attitude is not consciously experienced, then it seems – just as a matter of
empirical fact? – that we can learn about it only relatively indirectly, using
roughly the same variety of tools we use to learn about other people’s
attitudes (though supplemented with a more direct knowledge of potentially
related conscious states like inner speech, imagery, or emotional experience; see
Carruthers forthcoming; also Ryle 1949; Goldman 1993, 2006; Hill 2009). Thus it would be misleading to say that we
introspect non-conscious attitudes – misleading because it would suggest that
we can discover them in part by deploying capacities and processes, or a
certain range of capacities and processes, unique to the first-person case.
often characterized introspection as fundamentally epistemically superior to
perception, cognitively or structurally simpler than perception, and perhaps
also prior to perception and more foundational.
If the picture I have sketched in this essay is correct, such claims are
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helpful comments and discussion special thanks to Dorit Bar-On, Tim Bayne, Bill
Bechtel, Peter Carruthers, Dave Chalmers, Kevin Falvey, Brie Gertler, Chris
Hill, Jakob Hohwy, Linus Huang, John Jacobson, Tori McGeer, Rafe McGregor,
Russell Pierce, Cati Porter, Pauline Price, Charles Siewert, Declan Smithies,
Maja Spener, Daniel Stoljar, John Sutton, and Aaron Zimmerman. Many others, I’m sure, are unjustly
forgotten. I also thank audiences at
U.C. San Diego, University of Southern California, Toward a Science of
Consciousness, U.C. Riverside, Macquarie, Australian National University,
University of Bristol, Oxford, and York University England, as well as the
various people who have posted comments on my blog.