Psychological Analysis: Not Introspection Simpliciter

Part of the SpringerBriefs in Philosophy book series (BRIEFSPHILOSOPH)


If Titchener, as we argued above, rejected so many sources of important insight and areas of crucial practical application of psychology, did he at least have the benefit of psychological data derived from introspection? The present claim is that he did not. Despite the many calls for experimental introspection, Titchener had little regard for what we today would recognize as introspection.

7.1 Analogy: “Hydro-Monism”

If Titchener, as we argued above, rejected so many sources of important insight and areas of crucial practical application of psychology, did he at least have the benefit of psychological data derived from introspection? The present claim is that he did not. Despite the many calls for experimental introspection, Titchener had little regard for what we today would recognize as introspection. It is not the case, of course, that he never talked and wrote about introspection (he most certainly did), but what he actually meant by introspection as an investigative methodology was in fact a systematic experimental procedure of decompositional analysis applied, as it happens, to human psychology.

To appreciate the significance of this point, it might be helpful to consider the following analogy. Imagine that a theoretician advances hydro-monism, a modern version of the ancient Milesian claim that everything, everything, is reducible to water in its various states of matter. Imagine, further, that our imagined New Milesian system is constructed along the lines that we have here seen define Titchener’s psychology. The basic assumptions include the claims that (1) everything can be reduced to water, that (2) to be scientific within this domain of investigation means nothing other than to experimentally decompose things to water, and that (3) if some experiment seems to reveal that a compound cannot be resolved into water, this shows that there must have been a basic error of methodology (the stimulus error) that should be remedied with training in hydro-spection, a special kind of visual perception by means of which one finally realizes that all things consist of water.

Predictably, hydro-monism generates poor scientific results and is subsequently abandoned. Premises (1), (2) and (3) explain the scientific failure of hydro-monism—but what about visual perception? Suppose one holds that the failure of New Milesianism demonstrates the inherent fruitlessness of visual perception because, after all, hydro-spection formed an integral part of the failed theory, and this methodology did involve (to make the example humorously absurd) staring for hours at an object until one’s eyes start to water and the aqueous nature of reality becomes evident. To discount visual perception as a valid form of awareness on these grounds of cognition on these grounds, however, or even to declare it unsuitable for scientific investigation, does not follow.

The present claim is that introspectionism is similar to hydro-monism and that Titchnerian introspection should no more be taken to disprove the basic human capacity for introspective self-awareness than hydro-monism should be taken to disprove our biological capacity to discriminate features of our environment by means of lens-focused reflected light. Staring for hours on end without blinking and then interpreting profuse lacrimal gland secretions as evidence for a New Milesian metaphysics is an aberrant methodological approach, not an instance of visual perception being properly exercised. Titchenerian analysis was a similarly aberrant practice in psychology.

7.2 A Speculative Science

The prime textbook of associationism and the work that put Titchener “on the introspective track” (Titchener 1920a, p. vii) was James Mill’s Analysis—a work that itself was the fruit of little observation and much in the way of armchair theorizing. “Although in some ways a tour de force,” as Hearnshaw put it, “Mill’s Analysis is essentially a speculative construction supported by analytic reasoning and casual introspective observation” (Hearnshaw 1964, p. 2). Despite this, John Stuart Mill—following his father's approach approach to psychology, “had taken on the role of chief defender of the central status which introspection had always been accorded in British psychology” (Danziger 1980, p. 243). John Stuart Mill died in 1873 and two decades later Titchener was ready to take the baton.

Like associationism, Titchenerian experimental psychology was, at heart, a speculative rather than an observational endeavor. Countless “observations” of sorts were made, of course, but these were furnished by experimentalists trained to find only what was, on a priori, theoretical grounds, already assumed to exist—namely a mosaic-like mental world of sensory atoms. Titchener was, as we have seen, an experimental associationist at heart. The associationist theory of introspection required introspection to reveal the mental atoms and their lawful patterns of interaction. If introspection did not reveal atoms, on this view, psychology could never succeed in its aspirations to become a good Newtonian science.

Titchener substituted for anything plainly resembling what we today would call introspection the exercise of a highly idiosyncratic brand of experimental methodology, in which suitably trained experimentalists-cum-subjects search for mental elements whose existence they were instructed by the Laboratory Manual to assume beforehand. Auxiliary control mechanisms like the stimulus error strategy ensured that only acceptable data were scientifically admissible and that competing attempts to use introspection in psychology could be dismissed as “scientifically illegitimate.”

The classical introspectionist approach was thus “bound up with analytic attention” (Koffka 1924/1925, p. 151). As Titchener explained in “The Schema of Introspection,” (1) “introspection always presupposes the point of view of descriptive psychology” (Titchener 1912b, p. 508) and (2) “[d]escriptive psychology must begin with analysis, because analysis is the first task that a given subject-matter assigns to science” (Titchener 1912b, p. 500). Rather than providing a report of mental phenomena taken at their face value, “introspection in the proper laboratories always yielded sensory elements because that was ‘good’ observation” (Boring 1953, p. 172).

The trained experimental subjects, then, were not like photographic film or like microscopic lenses. Rather, they were more like inference machines, experimental automatons delivering analytic “observations,” i.e. reports that were, invariably, mere confirmations of the associationist doctrine according to which they were programmed. Boring does not follow us quite this far in the evaluation of Titchenerian psychology, but he does grant that it was

[n]ever wholly true that introspection was photographic and not elaborated by inference or meanings. Reference to typical introspective researches from Titchener’s laboratory establishes this point… There was too much dependence upon retrospection. It could take twenty minutes to describe the conscious content of a second and a half and at the end of that period the observer was cudgeling his brain to recall what had actually happened more than a thousand seconds ago, relying, of course, on inference (Boring 1953, p. 174).

If there are no indivisible mental sensational elements to be found in normal human mental life, the whole Titchenerian project is misbegotten. Titchener held that scientific advance is “impossible apart from theoretical preconceptions” (Titchener 1912a, p. 438). This is true. However, it is also true that if those preconceptions turn out to be entirely wrong, scientific advance will not follow.

7.3 Repudiating the Facts of Introspection

Criticism of this approach to psychology was forcefully advanced by the Gestalt psychologists. In Koffka’s words, the classical introspectionist approach treats mental content as if it were “a material thing,” yet,

whatever the mind is, it is not a mosaic of solid unalterable things. Here we are face to face with what is to my mind one of the basic errors of traditional psychology. On this error the whole system rests. This error is the justification of the selection we are to make among our contents, and it leads consistently to the fundamental concepts of sensation, image and feeling as the mental elements. Reality, as it appears to each of us, is to be reduced to these simple terms, although the richness of our world transcends these limits and the purposiveness of our own mind may oppose our efforts after simplification (Koffka 1924/1925, p. 151).

Koffka argues, correctly, that a “science built upon introspection ought to acknowledge these difficulties,” and, “by not doing so it vitiates its own principles, over and over again repudiating facts of introspection and explaining them away” (Koffka 1924/1925, p. 151; italics added).

Indeed, Titchener warns against attempting to furnish a “phenomenological account of mind” by which he means “an account which purports to take mental phenomena at their face value” by recording “them as they are ‘given’ in everyday experience” as furnished by a “naïve, common-sense, non-scientific observer” (Titchener 1912b, p. 489). Paradoxically, then, Titchenerian introspection delivered precisely what no ordinary person in ordinary circumstances ever comes introspectively into contact with as part of normal mental life—namely a mosaic of psychological atoms.

According to Watson, “Titchener … has fought the most valiant fight in this country for a psychology based upon introspection” (Watson 1914, p. 8). In a similar vein, contemporary thinkers assume, as we saw in the introduction, that Titchener practiced the archetypal method of introspective psychology. Both assessments are part of the received wisdom today. In conjunction with the observation that Titchenerian psychology clearly failed as a scientific investigative project, we are led to the conclusion that scientific psychology can make little progress unless it excludes or ignores introspection.

This state of misapprehension and confusion is a major cognitive challenge to the methodologically confident use of introspection in scientific psychology today (see Jack and Roepstorff 2002, pp. 133–134). Put simply, it turns out that one of the most widely taught lessons in the history of psychology reflects confusion rather than clear understanding. We should instead recognize that the standard story is wrong and that Titchenerian psychology did not implode because it was guilty of an over-reliance on introspection.

Introspectionism did implode, of course, and it did so because there were profound structural flaws in its experimental approach, but those flaws were not caused by introspection. They were caused by the speculative associationist assumptions upon which the system rested and, in turn, by the scientifically flawed methodology that was devised accordingly,1 a method that confusingly and regrettably was called experimental or scientific introspection by Titchener.

7.4 “Introspection” in Newspeak

Confusingly and regrettably, that is, but not purposelessly. In other words, to the extent that Titchenerian psychology relied on Orwellian Newspeak in its use of the term “introspection,” this was part of a deliberate epistemic strategy of reading a new meaning (psychological analysis) into an old term (“introspection”).

Introspection, then, is in a peculiar and exclusive sense the business of the psychologist, and it is well that this business should have a specific name. When, moreover, we have a traditional term, that is full of misleading suggestions to the student, it is wiser to adopt that term, reading the suggestions out and reading a sound definition in, than to pass by and introduce new coinage (Titchener 1912b, p. 488; italics added).

In other words, the

term Introspection, as we find it used to-day, is highly equivocal … I reserve the name henceforth for the methods that are scientifically available and that appear to have been actually employed (Titchener 1912b, p. 485, italics added).

The “methods that are scientifically available,” as Titchener saw it, were the systematic approaches already known in the physical sciences of breaking compounds down, first into simpler parts and then finally into atomic or elemental constituents.

In the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, to enjoy “goodthink” is by definition to think pro-Party thoughts. In Titchenerian psychology, to engage in “introspection” is, by definition, to engage in psychological analysis. About this sort of linguistic strategy Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a contemporary of Titchener’s in Oxford, wrote the following:

“[G]lory” doesn’t mean a “nice knock-down argument,” Alice objected. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’ (Carroll 1994, p. 100).

Schwitzgebel claims that “Titchener and other introspective psychologists … exhorted their observers to set aside their presuppositions” and, furthermore, “generally attempted to reduce or disarm their own expectations” (Schwitzgebel 2007, p. 225).2

There is a sense in which this is true. For example, the methodological injunction against the “stimulus error” was, in part at least, meant to stop overt theorizing by the subjects (e.g. “Since I know the second object is more massive than the first, it must have felt heavier against my skin”). Yet, as we have seen, there is a deeper sense in which Titchenerian psychology was all about associationist presuppositions and expectations.

The so-called “golden age of introspection” (Lyons 1986) was misnamed. It was really an age of associationism, and, most significantly, an age of elementism, reductionism and sensationism. As far as mental philosophy was concerned, it was an age in which the scientific breakthroughs in physics and chemistry were systematically (mis)applied to the study of the mind; in this respect it was an age of mental physics. Titchenerian analysis was the jewel in the crown of this distinctive approach to psychology.

This is how we should understand introspectionism in early scientific psychology.


  1. 1.

    Watson summed this up in his 1913 paper. “Psychology, as it is generally thought of, has something esoteric in its methods. If you fail to reproduce my findings … it is due to the fact that your introspection is untrained. The attack is made upon the observer and not upon the experimental setting” (Watson 1913, p. 163; italics added).

  2. 2.

    In a similar vein, Gertler and Shapiro hold that Wundt and Titchener “championed the judicious use of introspection” (Gertler and Shapiro 2007, p. 58; italics added).


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Media, Cognition and CommunicationUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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