Modes of Introspective Access: a Pluralist Approach


Several contemporary philosophical theories of introspection have been offered, yet each faces a number of difficulties in providing an explanation of the exact nature of introspection. I contrast the inner-sense view that argues for a causal awareness with the acquaintance view that argues for a non-causal or direct awareness. After critically examining the inner-sense and the acquaintance views, I claim that these two views are complementary and not mutually exclusive, and that both perspectives, conceived of as (what I call) modes of introspective access, actually broaden the notion of introspection. I then propose a useful distinction between (what I call) stimuli-induced introspection—i.e., a receptive process whereby some specific mental states induce introspection—and (what I call) self-triggered introspection—i.e., a selective process whereby the individual’s own interest and volition initiates introspection. I argue that that distinction may eliminate the false dichotomy which claims that only one of those types of awareness, either the causal one or the direct one, is conducive to introspection or is defined as introspection.

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  1. 1.

    My discussion is intended to be neutral concerning other accounts that might be considered theories of introspection: a “higher-order state” (Gennaro 2012), a “higher-order perception” (Lycan 1996), a “third-order thought” targeting a current mental state (Rosenthal 2005), or a “meta-awareness” distinct from merely having an experience (Jack & Shallice 2001; Schooler & Schreiber 2004). Theories that have normative implications, such as “rationalist” accounts that involve rational conditions, responsibility, or rational agency for attitudes via practical reasoning (Burge & Peacocke 1996), deliberation or theoretical reasoning (Moran 2001), and “self-shaping,” “self-fulfillment,” or “containment” accounts which claim that introspective judgments shape, create, or contain the target state, or argue that judgments involve pre-existing, current, or immediate future states (Dennett 1991; 1987; Hogan & Kriegel 2007; Chalmers 2003; 2002; Shoemaker 1994).

  2. 2.

    For antecedents of the inner-sense view, see Locke (1689/1975) and Kant (1781/1929).

  3. 3.

    For objections to inner-sense theories, see Shoemaker 1988; 1994;1996; Nichols and Stich 2003; Byrne 2005; Gertler 2011; Butler 2013.

  4. 4.

    For antecedents of the acquaintance view, see Russell 1912.

  5. 5.

    The claim that an individual is introspectively aware of a state in virtue of having the introspected state echoes a “primitivist” view: being in a state seems sufficient to put oneself in a position to know that one is in that state (Shoemaker 1996). For Gertler, however, it is not the mere presence of a pain what makes the target of introspection a pain, but the judgment that accompanies the pain as that which is present.

  6. 6.

    For objections to acquaintance theories, see Horgan & Kriegel 2007; Stalnaker 2008.

  7. 7.

    For an assessment of both the inner-sense and the acquaintance views with respect to their epistemic merits, see Gertler 2011, 2012. My discussion is intended to be neutral concerning the superiority of one view over another.

  8. 8.

    If introspection were to involve a distinctive phenomenology, as Gertler maintains, introspection would not be definable in physical terms, which goes against the goal of the inner-sense view (2011: 76, 140).

  9. 9.

    For objections concerning assigning phenomenal character to states, see Schwitzgebel 2008: 263.

  10. 10.

    Whether the inner-sense view entails a “type-physicalism” concerning qualitative properties as identical with neural properties goes beyond the present purview.

  11. 11.

    It is worth mentioning that “peculiarity” does not imply superiority—i.e., the claim that introspection bears an epistemic status superior to that of perception or other cognitive mechanisms. Additionally, claiming that introspection is peculiar is not to suppose that it is the unique kind of awareness or way of learning about our minds.

  12. 12.

    Although “peculiarity” is sometimes construed as a sort of “privilege” in the philosophical literature—i.e., enjoying either a first-person authority about our mental lives or a range of attributions provided by a first-person’s method—I distinguish “peculiarity” from “privilege.” Privileged access refers to our “epistemic position vis-à-vis propositions ascribing current mental states to [ourselves]… [This access] is [or may be] favorable [or authoritative] in a way no one else’s position is” (Alston 1971: 230).

  13. 13.

    The notion of “transparency” may be in play here. In its simplest form, when I make a judgment that p, my judgment of p is transparent if p is happening in my mind; and if p is happening in my mind, I must have a true belief about p. Namely, “if [I have] a mental state, then [I have] knowledge of that mental state, or at least [have] a belief to the effect that one has that mental state” (Mandik 2010: 125). Alternatively, if I have a mental state that p, and if I possess the right cognitive capacities such as intelligence, rationality, and conceptualization, then I know that I have p, and I am disposed to say, “I judge that p”—so, p is “self-intimating” (Shoemaker 1994; Shoemaker 1996; cf. Shoemaker 2012). Space prevents us from discussion.

  14. 14.

    It may also depend on some epistemic conditions of introspective access: (a) judging on the base of context, (b) no generalizing target states, (c) having authority of error, and (d) possessing the right cognitive capacities. Space prevents us from discussing these conditions in detail.

  15. 15.

    Although introspective judgments about mental states can be considered true according to some philosophical views, what is at stake in the current discussion is neither the truth value of introspective judgments nor the endorsement of ideal or perfect forms of privilege access to our mental states. For what is considered “true” comes only as a result “of a reliable process, causally linked to its truth maker—namely the presence of the self-attributed [mental state]” (Smithies & Stoljar 2012: 12–3). That is not relevant here. Also, direct awareness of mental states does not involve infallibility of introspection.

  16. 16.

    Goldman (2006) claims that introspection always works within processes such as perception and attention (aka., the “introspective self-attribution” view). Since the introspective self-attribution view claims that the introspective process is capable of performing some information-processing operations that are analogous to perception or to attention, this view reduces introspection to other cognitive processes or mechanisms. While my own view of introspection accepts that introspection involves several cognitive processes, I maintain that the operation of introspection remains distinct from the operation of other processes such as perception or attention, and thus cannot be reducible to them. Contemporary theories have provided several responses against various reductionist programs. Examining these responses is far beyond the scope of this project. Although introspection could be conceived of as a form of attention, my discussion remains neutral on this question (Montemayor & Haladjian 2015). Whether attention plays an underlying role in introspection, and whether introspection and attention operate in a similar way or not, go beyond the present concern. Additionally, although there are parallels in the operation of introspection and attention—e.g., both seem to involve the processing and organizing of information from mental states and then directing it to particular contents—this requires a different discussion that I cannot tackle in the paper. Moreover, introspection and attention are different processes. Introspection is not directed toward external stimuli, but to its target mental states only. Most importantly, introspection entails the mind’s awareness of itself; it involves both a mental state and a process. It is not my intention to connect “stimuli-induced” introspection to “exogenous attention” (or automatic control drawn towards the stimulus) and “self-triggered” introspection to “endogenous attention” (or voluntarily control directed towards the stimulus). My taxonomy here is independent of those specific applications to attention. This analysis on modes of introspective access neither tackles aspects of attention, nor does it involve those attentional shifts.

  17. 17.

    Whether reports can come in levels and degrees instead of yes or no responses, and whether the introspective individual executes self-attributions exactly when the experiences occur or not, go beyond the present concern.

  18. 18.

    Information-processing can be conceptually distinguished between SII and STI. A mechanism of selective introspection is critical to the story of classifying our conscious experiences, but it cannot be addressed here.


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Thanks to Grace Helton, Carolyn Dicey Jennings, Jesse Prinz, Kathy Ryan, Susanna Siegel, and Iakovos Vasiliou for useful discussion and/or comments on early versions of this paper. I am especially grateful to Nico Orlandi, Gary Ostertag, and the anonymous referees of Philosophia for helpful comments and for motivating clarifications that improved this paper.

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Correspondence to Adriana Renero.

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Renero, A. Modes of Introspective Access: a Pluralist Approach. Philosophia 47, 823–844 (2019).

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  • A pluralist approach to introspection
  • Modes of introspective access
  • Stimuli-induced introspection is a receptive process whereby a specific mental state can spontaneously or automatically cause introspective awareness
  • Self-triggered introspection is a selective process whereby the individual’s own interests or volitions initiate introspective awareness