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Introspection falls

Knight Dunlap may have started it, but let’s let him alone

This is an essay I wrote recently for a History of Psychology class. As you may gather, my professor suggested I read a certain article and write about it.
    This essaie is going to take the form of a large set of scribbles. It won’t be quite as bad as James Joyce’s “stream of consciousness” in Ulysses, but it may be similar. I can only wait to find out. (I have much longer to wait than you, as you are only reading, and I am laboriously writing.)

    You recommended that I read Knight Dunlap’s 1912 essay called “The case against introspection.” I did. Now I am going to recommend to you that you never recommend it to a student again. (you might still want to recommend it to acquaintances upon whom you wish to inflict pain) Then again, you have said that the best things to read are those that you find completely unintelligible. Well, this came pretty close. I will try to vary my arguments throughout this paper, but I imagine I will come back frequently to the refrain of “I have no idea what Dunlap meant by…”. I do have other criticizms, and maybe also a few “I did understand that” and “Well, this was neat”. So, let’s begin.

    The first problem I encountered when I began Dunlap’s paper is that while he proposed to discuss introspection, he immediately makes clear that he is going to ignore its very roots. He decided to limit his discussion to English thoughts on introspection, dismissing the German work as “an entirely different piece of work which may or may not be profitable [to discuss]”, saying that he had “no intention of engaging therein”. I’m not sure what his difficulty was. Did he have no German translations? Was he upset at Germans for WW1 sorts of issues? With the cradle of introspection residing with the likes of Wundt and Külpe, I do not trust an author who dismisses that body of work as “not profitable in English”. And if he is leaving it to the English authors, I would ask where Titchener is (Titchener was English, despite his bypassing England as he moved from Leipzig to America)? Titchener receives only a short note at the end.

    Dunlap does discuss William James at length, but James is one of the few names I recognized. I may just be displaying my ignorance, but I must say that Dunlap’s mention of Angell, Judd, Stout, Stratton, Maher, Hamilton and Bain did not enlighten me. Maher and Hamilton are the only ones of which I might have heard, but even they have no recollection attached to them, only a slight recognition. I was relieved to see Reid, James Mill and Yerkes mentioned as well, since they hold some meaning for me.

    So what was Dunlap’s purpose in writing his unintelligible paper? As far as I can tell, he surveyed the different English definitions of the idea of introspection (dipping into many introductory psychology texts). Then he contrasted the views of James and Stout. He apparently felt Stout’s definition was more modern than James’, but he had (what he felt to be) lethal arguments against both of them. The bulk of the article consists of his refutations of those two notions of introspection. (I still have no idea who Stout is.)

    The definitions which he describes involve plenty of references to “turning the mind in on itself”, and “observing one’s own consciousness.” Dunlap quotes Hamilton in an explanation of reflexivity of thought: “Can I know without knowing that I know?…Can I feel without knowing that I feel? This is impossible,” and his definition of introspection: “In an act of knowledge, my attention may be principally attracted either to the object known, or to myself as the subject knowing: and in the latter case, although no new element be added to the act, the condition involved in it — I know that I know becomes the primary and prominent matter of consideration.”

    It is at this point in the paper that I began to get a bit lost. Dunlap delved into relating Stout’s considerations of introspection, commenting that in Stout’s writing “there is less confusion between consciousness (in the cognitive aspect, at least) and the objects of consciousness, than in the writings of other psychologists.” The parentheses were Dunlap’s, and I ask of him, what other aspect is there of consciousness than the cognitive one?

    Dunlap says of Stout’s scheme of introspective consciousness: “A sensation, as such, is not an object, but the awareness of an object; hence it is not observable, but an observation. This Stout sees clearly, and grants freely, and so far we can go with him. But, demanding that the sensation shall be nevertheless observed …, Stout assumes that the sensation which primarily is consciousness, or awareness, is, or may be, secondarily what it is not primarily, namely, an object for another awareness which may be either subsequent to the first awareness or simultaneous with it.” Here, we see a strong argument against introspection: Who is observing the observer? Stout, according to Dunlap, proposed that the mind’s attention is split in two, and it observes both objects. However, Stout’s observer and object are distinct, and it is a conflict to say that they are the same.

    Dunlap then moves on to James’ views on introspection, saying that they differed from Stout’s in that James focused more on the “knowing of the knower, not of the knowing” and that James’ introspection was always retrospection. I understand the issue of retrospection. If one cannot observe an object and observe one’s own observation at the same time, then one should still be able to observe the object and then remember the experience of observing the object. It is the other part of Dunlap’s comments about James that I do not understand. What is the difference between these things? I think I am just having trouble following the convoluted grammar that these arguments require, since there are no better words to distinguish between such vague things.

    Speaking of grammar, it seems that such things were quite important to James. Not only were subject, object and a knowing of the object the essential parts of James’ scheme, he believed that some parts of speech were more difficult to introspect than others. Conjunctions and prepositions were, apparently, “not remembered as independent facts” and were, therefore, not easily observed, since inner observations were only accomplished through memory.

    I believe that my confusion with this material stems not from my own inability to understand inherently understandable material, but from the pure fact that this stuff is … well, I’ll let you be the judge of this passage: “To assume that the thought of a cabbage knows a feeling of regret, and that the thought of a cabbage may in another moment be known in turn by the thought of a red necktie, is ingenious but ineffectual. As the knower in the act of knowing is not known, but is known only after it has finished its cognizing, the assertion that what is known was once a knower remains a mere assertion to the end.” I think that the primary point of this passage should be that there is a dire need for new terminology.

    Right after the previous passage comes a very sharp comment on James’ system: “All that James’ system really amounts to is the acknowledgement that a succession of things are known, and that they are known by something. This is all any one can claim, except for the fact that the things are known together, and that the knower for the different items is one and the same.” This comment applies to the whole spectrum of introspection, and I think it is commendable of Dunlap to say it, since he is in the middle of the introspection era (near the end, I suppose).

    On pages 410 and 411, lie side-by-side the worst and best passages of this paper. The worst passage is that because it displays the most convoluted explanation of a reasonably understandable idea. It says: “There can be no denial of the existence of the thing (knowing) which is alleged to be known or observed in this sort of ‘introspection.’ The allegation that the knowing is observed is that which may be denied. Knowing there certainly is; known, the knowing certainly is not.” It means: We observe an object, but we cannot really observe the process of observing the object. I think Dunlap should have taken to poetry if he really was more interested in making his writing sound rhythmical than making it understandable.

    And why was the best passage vaulted to that lofty peak? It was because, on my first reading of the article, two pages from the end, it was at this passage that I finally began to understand some part of Dunlap’s argument. Dunlap first explained a possible foundation of the “introspection-hypothesis”: “If one is not aware of awareness, he does not know that it exists. If one denies that he is ever aware of a thing, and that any one else is ever aware of it, he has no right to say that there is such a thing.” He then continued to say that “The force of this argument is purely imaginary. It may sound paradoxical to say that one cannot observe the process (or relation) of observation, and yet may be certain that there is such a process; but there is really no inconsistency in the saying. How do I know that there is awareness? By being aware of something. There is no meaning in the term ‘awareness’ which is not expressed in the statement ‘I am aware of a color (or what-not).’” So, he is saying that we do not have to be aware of the processes of our thoughts to know that they exist. This makes sense to me because we also don’t have to be aware of subatomic particles to know that they exist, and we don’t have to be aware of every neuron firing. We know they exist by observing their effects. Why should we make believe we can be aware of the internal processes of a thought? If we are extra vigilant, they must be there, we think. Why?

    Dunlap then made another observation which I think is rather astute. He indicated a psychological reason which may have make introspection appealing to many psychologists. He pointed out that it is very appealing to think that the physical correlates which go along with making an observation (say, listening to a sound) have a more ‘internal’ feeling, and promote the idea that those physical sensations are actually how the body observes the sound. So, observing those sensations, one would think, is really observing the observation of the sound. Hence, one has introspected. But really, one has observed the sound with a different portion of the body’s senses. Dunlap pointed out that those researchers who conduct introspection by describing the bodily sensations which they experience, and even include the actual stimulus of their introspection in their list of sensations, are really only adding a nonsense layer of a phantom observer to their experience. Dunlap said, “in other words, there would seem to be really nothing to observe except the observation of something else!” Emphatically, he concluded that “there is, as a matter of fact, not the slightest evidence for the reality of ‘introspection’ as the observation of ‘consciousness’.”

    I seem to have gotten a little off track in my degradation of this article, and appeared to have liked it a little bit. Let’s not be mistaken. I did not like the article. I did not like it because, although Dunlap had good ideas, and he turned out to be right (or at least able to tickle my common sense), I had to dig through a kilometer of syntactic rubble to get to those arguments. How many variations of the verb “to know” exist? I’ll bet they all are present in Dunlap’s paper, plus a few invented especially for the occasion. Furthermore, it is pointless for students of History of Psychology (Psyc 3580) to read his paper, because all his arguments are presented in a more understandable form in the readings. And there, we can see recognizable names attached to them. I suppose that Dunlap’s claim to fame is that he wrote this paper before any other serious attacks of introspection were made, and that he was being bold, but there are advantages in waiting for the dust to settle. Unless you are a historian who wants to see the messy transitions,… what am I saying, that is the best part of history. Anyway, Dunlap was commendable, but should be left alone.

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