Against Introspection

04 September 2019

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.  

Here’s why.

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.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Comments (13)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, September 4, 2019 -- 9:48 AM

I have said before that

I have said before that leadership, and its essential adjunct, decision-making are attainable through the processes of retrospect, prospect and introspect. (add the suffix, ion, to each of these, and you will anger a spell-check app, but get the chain-of-execution I am advocating for the tasks at hand) While we can all know ourselves, within given contexts, to know one's self completely is a tall order, which is probably why von Goethe considered it a non-starter. So, introspection is an algorithm---a tool for getting something; or somewhere; or both. And, if all these learned men were right (or at least partially so), maybe all that means is that they failed to consider introspection as a means, rather than an end; a tool, instead of an output at which the tool is directed. I cannot imagine how we might have gotten where we are without introspection: it is part of the big picture. Seems to me.'s picture


Wednesday, September 4, 2019 -- 12:34 PM

Introspection may be a

Introspection may be a motivator of behavior. It is subjective and may be biased. Even if it is it may be a starting point. Substantiating or failing to substantiate introspections requires seeking secondary unbiased sources. This can be both humbling and rewarding.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, September 12, 2019 -- 11:23 AM


I began reading Wilfrid Sellars this week: Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. He has some interesting things to say about introspection in Chapter IX.. His musings regarding thought and the role of linguistics are also instructive, but do not answer the question of whether humans had thoughts before they had language. It is as if imagining a cusp of sorts: at one point, when language was rudimentary (or non-existent), there was no thinking among humans---at least none, in the sense of what we now consider thought. Then, at some indeterminate time, after people discovered they had developed vocal cords that could conjure more than grunts and screeches, and after they invented words for common things in their lives and environment, language evolved, and with it, thought. This is all so mysterious, so, uh, metaphysical---almost like a fish with legs. So, when does one age of man end and the next one begin? Cusp-ish---decidedly, cusp-ish. But, is it an argument from philosophy? Anthropology? Or is it just another chicken-and-egg moment, enigmatic, yet hardly worth spending undue time with?

If we can grant that humans had thoughts, before they were able to vocalize them, we are more than halfway there---but this begs the other, more ultimate question: when did humans become human? That, is the right question. And the answer, if there is one, very much depends upon what we finally learn about evolution, if, and only if, we are able to learn anything more than we already know. Otherwise, we are just spinning our wheels...adding fuel to under-graduate and post-graduate fires. Much of what we know changes. Has to. That's the beauty of thought. And science. And philosophy.

MJA's picture


Tuesday, September 17, 2019 -- 10:21 PM

Michelangelo said if you are

Michelangelo said if you are looking for truth, study nature. And if by fortune you find the truth you were searching for, then you will also have found the truth of One's own self. Truth is indivisible, equal or One and the same. E pluribus unum! The inspection of nature is the introspection of self. In is out. The proof is in the measure. =

RepoMan05's picture


Wednesday, September 25, 2019 -- 8:31 PM

I agree, it takes a bit of

I agree, it takes a bit of practice and a few yoga fundamentals to manage an introspective. It's the core of one of my opinions as to why i think were're instict driven animals that think primarily through bias appeasement rather than the open minded rational humans that we thought we were

Most people(7billion minus one) cant even tell you what an equivocation fallacy is when reading the word "race."

RepoMan05's picture


Friday, September 27, 2019 -- 1:06 PM

If something is "perfect"

If something is "perfect" then it can only be as it was made to be. As perfect as all the other perfect things all making the exact same calculations. If that "perfect thing" takes on a flaw, then it becomes something unique. I think it's important that we take the time to consider our selves in altered and imperfect states as a way to gain self awareness.

João Ferreira's picture

João Ferreira

Saturday, September 28, 2019 -- 9:00 AM

“Knowing yourself” depends

“Knowing thyself” depends mainly on three factors: genetics, karma (in a broader sense than ethical only) and environment. The first two factors can be summarized as follows: we can say that the basic nature of each human being is a mixture of two basic features, either emotional or rational in the sense of strict reasoning or, better saying, in accordance with sciences. I have strong reasons to believe that, graphically represented and considering the duality mainly emotional/mainly rational, the basic nature of all humans, or of all human in a country, is a Gaussian curve. So and concentrating mainly in the curve extremes, people are either strongly emotional or strongly rational. For me it is clear that it is much more difficult for emotional people to know thyself (it is the known problem of the emotional intelligence). But here comes in the role of external environment. That is and characterizing, I believe it is possible, for an emotional basic nature to get through its lifetime a good knowledge of itself and, on the other end, for a basic rational nature to get a bad knowledge of itself.

RepoMan05's picture


Friday, October 4, 2019 -- 7:34 PM

True, but the commonality

True, but the commonality there is "basic" and or "shallow"

An emotive person is basic and shallow even if labyrinthine. A maze of subjectivity can be more complex than anything but it's still nothing.
0 x 1,729,537.00 = 0. So still very basic.

A basic rational person never had much to consider in the first place. Theyd be called savages by modern standards.

Natural or unnatural - is it not this?
Would you consider a chiefly emotive person as natural as a cheifly rational person?

Im not sure i ever would.

João Ferreira's picture

João Ferreira

Friday, October 11, 2019 -- 8:43 AM

Thanks for your comment and

Thanks for your comment and sorry for late reply. I´m new at this site and I´m not fluent in English. As I say in my post, I consider possible, for instance but being rare, that a 50 years old chiefly rational person, although had been born with a natural emotive basis, this basis was transformed by external envirement (education, etc). On the other end, I think it is possible although much less likely, a 50 years old chiefly emotive person coming from a basic rational nature. My best regards

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, September 30, 2019 -- 9:14 AM

Not sure how (or if) it may

Not sure how (or if) it may fit into this discussion, but I'm putting the finishing touches on a quip of mine concerning pride, hubris and vanity, and hope to share it soon with anyone reading the Philosophy Talk blog. Introspection is something we all ought to use more of, especially in view of the modern penchant for narcissism; extremism (of all sorts); and a lack of the 'intellectual humility' examined in another recent post. We are all just working these things out, as we go along, so it takes some time and effort to 'get it right'. We'll see how it goes.

RepoMan05's picture


Thursday, October 3, 2019 -- 9:07 AM

It takes a certain degree of

It takes a certain degree of intellectual yoga to be ready to take one's self in one's own hand. The easiest way to gain a foot hold on this ability is from having the oportunity to witness one's own self from a broken perspective. That is to say, you have to break your mold. How nature/genetics etc intends you to be vs how you are with a touch of brain damage.

Yall seem to want to bring value terms or connotations into influencing people to gain introspective. How can introspective be gained extrinsicly? Your premise is flawed at its foundation. You'll have to start all over again no matter how altruistic your goals.

RepoMan05's picture


Friday, October 4, 2019 -- 6:49 PM

Duality is really just

Duality is really just another way to say, "the state of being one's own contrarian." This could be seen as the first step to gaining introspective and rationality but the second step is realizing this much is simply two dimensional thinking. There are far more dimensions to intellectually colonize than simply your first verse and its first reverse.

RepoMan05's picture


Friday, October 4, 2019 -- 7:55 PM

I heard it best from Henry

I heard it best from Henry Rollins in a little expiramental band with Andrew Weiss called Wartime on an album named Fast Food For Thought in the song named "Wartime"
"You gottah look the lie right in the eye
And not be afraid to see too clearly"