Taking the ‘inner eye’ out of introspection

Do you have an experience of inwardness? Do you feel inner activity which is known to you in a way it is not to others? Margaret Archer suggests that most people would assent to some claim of this sort. Obviously, this would not entail we ought to accept the report of this experience but it does mean we should take it seriously. However, it is often not taken seriously and one reason for that, argues Archer, is an over-reaction to the metaphor through which ‘introspection’ has tended to be construed.

This metaphor of ‘looking inwards’ implies that we have a special sense, or even a sense organ, enabling us to inspect our inner conscious states, in a way which is modelled upon visual observation. This analogy between perception and introspection is what has borne the brunt of criticism. Etymologically it derived from the Latin spicere (‘to look’) and intra (‘within’). Those who insisted upon the dis-analogy between perceiving and introspecting were surely correct. In perception, there is a clear distinction between the object we see and our visual experiences of it, whereas with introspection there can be no such differentiation between the object and the spectator, since I am supposedly looking inward at myself. Over the last half century, the critical response to this misplaced perceptual metaphor has been overkill. It generically consists in turning our heads inside out, so that our inner doings are learned from our external behaviour, rather than vice versa,where behaviour traditionally betokened the workings of the mind. (Archer 2003: 21).

This involved a first-person account being replaced by a third-person one, entailing that we “thus learn about our own intentions, motives, feelings, commitments and so forth by watching what we do or listening to what we ourselves say out loud, which is identical with how we come to know other people” (Archer 2003: 21). This turns ‘introspection’ into ‘extrospection’: I observe what ‘I’ am doing by observing what ‘he’ is doing, in the same way I would observe any other person. However the obvious problem faced by such a move is how it can deal with the possibility of covert mental acts i.e. those which have no behavioural manifestations. Affirming the existence of this category does not entail a blanket denial of the possibility of ‘extrospection’: Archer fully acknowledges that many mental states do have behavioural manifestation but places great stress on the ones for which this is not true. Upholding this claim poses three philosophical tasks,

To sustain a successful defence against behaviourism entails upholding three arguments coherently: (a) that there is a domain of mental privacy within consciousness, (b) which is inaccessible to ‘extrospection’ and, (c) of which the person has awareness through means other than introspective observation. (Archer 2003: 24).

In seeking to make these arguments Archer opposes what she sees as a justified “critical onslaught upon Cartesian notions of how we obtain knowledge of our mental doings, what authority our subjective reports posses and whether our internal deliberations are causally efficacious” which, partly deflected by a focus on the unnecessary and inappropriate metaphor of the ‘inner eye’, has nonetheless gone too far and jettisoned notions of ‘private knowledge’, ‘first-person authority’ and ‘subjective causation’ which she argues are integral to an adequate understanding of the social functioning of human persons (Archer 2003: 20).

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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