Descartes considered the mind to be fully self-transparent; that is, he thought that we need only introspect to know what goes on inside our own minds.
In last month’s essay, I discussed the time-honored adage “know thyself.” According to tradition, this was first uttered by the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, and it’s certainly had staying power. It seems that most people—at least, most of the ones I talk to—think that knowing oneself is a really good idea.
But not everyone has been on board with this. Some very smart people have cast shade on the project of self-knowledge. The philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that self-knowledge is the gateway to mental illness. The German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had a different beef. He labelled the injunction to “know thyself” as a con, because it’s something that’s impossible to do. And here in the States, Mark Twain urged that if you know yourself you’ll inevitably despise yourself. Even old Thales reportedly said that knowing yourself is the most difficult thing that you can possibly do.
It’s tempting to imagine that self-knowledge is easy to come by. All you have to do is introspect—a word that literally means “look inside.” The idea comes from a philosophical tradition that’s associated with the 17th century philosopher René Descartes, who held that the mind is transparent to itself—the principle that each of us has privileged and incorrigible access to what’s going on in our own head. The mind is kind of like a clear glass fishbowl. If you want to know what’s going on, all you’ve got to do is take a look.
The problem with this way of looking at things came into sharp focus soon after the discipline of scientific psychology split off from philosophy towards the end of the 19th century. The first experimental psychologists were gung-ho on introspection as a tool for psychological research. They thought that if introspection could be experimentally regimented, its results would reveal the structure of the human mind. But the project of using introspection to construct the psychological equivalent of the periodic table of the elements was a scientific train wreck. Different labs produced strikingly different results. It was becoming apparent that introspection falls far short of what it’s cracked up to be. This gave rise to two, radically anti-Cartesian approaches to self-knowledge associated with two theorists whose views are usually seen as being at odds with one another: John Broadus Watson, the father of behaviorism, and Sigmund Freud, the papa of psychoanalysis.
Watson thought that introspective psychology is a mess, and said—sensibly enough—that you can’t build a science from a private, first-person perspective. Scientific data has got to be intersubjectivity validated to be of any use. So, Watson urged that we forget about private mental states and build the science of psychology out of observations of behavior. Behavioral data are open to third-person scrutiny and can—at least in principle—form the basis of an objective science of psychology.
What does this have to do with self-knowledge? Quite a bit, actually. The behaviorist says that we come to know ourselves only by observing our own behavior—and if you know yourself better than others know you, it’s because you’ve observed your behavior more than others have. After all, nobody but you has been in your company every minute of every day for all your life! On this account, self-knowledge is nothing but knowledge of your own behavior.
On this account you’d think that, contrary to the words of the sages mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay, everyone would know themselves very well. But they don’t. This is because the behaviorist perspective is only one part of the story: observation of behavior is only one component of knowledge. Knowledge isn’t just a matter of observation. It’s only created when we correctly interpret what we observe. So, even though each of us spends far more time with ourselves than anyone else spends with us, it doesn’t follow that we know ourselves better than anyone else knows us. If we don’t interpret our behavior correctly, then our vaunted self-knowledge is just a mirage. And we often misinterpret ourselves, because self-serving biases come into play that cloud our vision.
If you think that this is where Freud enters the picture, you wouldn’t be wrong. The idea that wishful thinking distorts our understanding of ourselves is central to Freudian theory. But Freud had a much more radical critique of introspection as a pathway to self-knowledge. People mostly think of Freud as a champion of introspection, and of the psychoanalytic process as a process of introspection punctuated by questions from the analyst. In fact, that’s pretty far from the truth—and any psychoanalysis that proceeds in that manner has gone off the rails.
Freud held that we do not have direct access to the workings of our own minds. He didn’t merely claim that it’s hard to tap into our own mental processes—he thought that it’s impossible. According to Freudian theory we are never acquainted with our own psychological goings-on. Our mental life is, by its very nature, unconscious. What seems to be direct, unmediated awareness of ourselves is actually awareness of our representation of ourselves: a picture concocted by unconscious mental mechanisms over which we have zero control. The psychoanalytic process, which is supposed to yield self-knowledge, doesn’t involve the patient introspectively excavating the deep layers of their psyche. Instead, it’s a matter of the analyst using clues in the patient’s speech to make inferences about hidden aspects of their psyche. So, psychoanalytic self-knowledge comes from the “outside,” just like behaviorist self-knowledge does.
But there’s yet another level to the Freudian critique of self-knowledge. For Freud, we human beings are—and must be—estranged from ourselves. This isn’t a pathology to be overcome. It’s a basic and unalterable condition of human life. The process of psychoanalysis can, when it works, produce a modicum of self-knowledge, but must and should leave the vast expanse of our inner lives untouched.