Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Wundt on Self-Observation and Inner Perception

Wilhelm Wundt was a founding father of laboratory psychology and a grand visionary of psychology as a discipline -- of how it fit among the sciences, of the structure of its object (the mind), of its methods, most centrally introspection -- and also an author so vastly prolific that most of his work remains untranslated despite his importance. Among those untranslated works is his essay "Selbstbeobachtung und innere Wahrnehmung" [Self-Observation and Inner Perception"] (1888), with which I've been struggling. The essay is key to Wundt's view of "introspection" -- the usual English translation of the German Selbstbeobachtung -- since here he contrasts it with the seemingly related process of "inner perception". And unfortunately, the secondary sources are all over the map on this. I can find no good treatments.

To understand Wundt's distinction, it helps to know two bits of historical context. One is August Comte's influential criticism of the introspective method of psychology:

But as for observing in the same way intellectual phenomena at the time of their actual presence, that is a manifest impossibility. The thinker cannot divide himself into two, of whom one reasons whilst the other observes him reason. The organ observed and the organ observing being, in this case, identical, how could observation take place? The pretended method is then radically null and void (1830, using James's translation of 1890/1981, p. 188).
The other is Franz Brentano's (1874/1973) distinction between "inner observation" [innere Beobachtung] and "inner perception" [innere Wahrnehmung]. Brentano asserts that inner observation involves attending to conscious psychological processes as they transpire. This, he says with Comte, is impossible, or at least fails as a psychological method, because the act of attending to the process inevitably destroys or at least objectionably alters the target process. In "inner perception", in contrast, psychological processes are noticed while one's attention is dedicated to something else. They are noticed only "incidentally" [nebenbei], and thus undisturbed.

Wundt agrees with Brentano and Comte that observation necessarily involves attention and so normally interferes with the process to be observed, if that process is an inner, psychological one. Contra Brentano however, Wundt does not envision scientific knowledge of mental processes arising without attention of some sort, including planful and controlled variation -- attentive planned exploration, if not of the process as it occurs, then at least to a reproduction of that process as a "memory image" [Erinnerungsbild]. No science by sideways glances for Wundt. The psychological method of "inner perception" is, for Wundt, the method of holding and attentively manipulating a memory image of a psychological process. This method, he thinks, has two crucial shortcomings: First, one can only work with what one remembers of the process in question -- the manipulation of a memory-image cannot discover new elements. And second, new elements may be unintentionally introduced through association -- one might confuse one's memory of a process with one's memory of another associated process or object.

Therefore, Wundt suggests, the science of psychology must depend upon the attentive observation of mental processes as they occur. He argues that those who think attention necessarily distorts the target mental process are too pessimistic. A subclass of mental processes is relatively undisturbed by attentive observation -- specifically the basic mental processes, especially of perception. The experience of seeing red is more or less the same, Wundt suggests, whether or not one is aware of the psychological fact that one is experiencing redness. Wundt also thinks the basic processes of memory, emotion, and volition are largely undisturbed by introspective attention. These alone, he thinks, can be studied by introspective psychology. More complicated processes, in contrast, must be studied non-introspectively -- through the obsevation of language, history, culture, and human and animal development, for example.

Wundt's students tended to disregard his admonition to restrict introspective observation to such basic processes. E.B. Titchener, for example, held that practiced introspectors could observe even their "higher" cognitive processes without disturbing them. Arguably, the eventual fall of introspective psychology in favor of behaviorism (focusing only on outward stimuli and behavioral response, nothing "inner" at all) was hastened by the ambitious attempts of Wundt's students to extend introspective method to such higher cognitive processes, about which methodological and substantive disputes proved intractable.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

So in your opinion who would be Wundt's greatest philosophical influences?

Arnold Trehub said...

The distinction is a fundamental aspect of phenomenal content. I've thought of it as the difference between focal phenomenal experience and ambient experience and. Like reading the words here (focal via selective attention), and at the same time sensing an unanalyzed ambience/surround.

dejan said...

Could you expand on the last word in your post, 'intractable'? How does one determine that this particular scientific dispute was not just unresolved, as a matter of historical fact, but that it could not even in principle have been resolved (if that is what you mean by 'intractable'?).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wundt's philosophical influences? That's a hard question for me, because Wundt wrote a lot of philosophy as well as a lot of psychology, but the philosophy was not very influential, is almost entirely untranslated, and I haven't read it; so I don't know what the influences on that might be. The British empiricists did have a big influence on his psychology, though, with their focus on sensory and imagistic elements of experience and the association of ideas. On the German side, Kant and Herbart were among the largest philosophical influences on his psychology, from what I can see.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Arnold: I'm sympathetic to (at least roughly) the distinction you draw, though I note that there are many people -- with "thin" or "sparse" view of consciousness -- who believe that there is no consciousness outside of attention. (Mack and Rock for example.) Wundt does seem to think, along with you, that the unanalyzed perceptions without attention are consciously experienced.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Dejan: "Intractable" vs. merely contingently unresolved. You're right that's a tough distinction to draw. More cautiously, perhaps, what I should have said that that psychologists at the time appear to have judged such debates to be intractable. And I do think the debates were, at least, practically intractable, given the practices of the time.

dejan said...

I would have to read up on the history (I suppose you refer to the 'imageless thought controversy'), but I would guess that the 'psychologists at the time' that you mentioned had their own agenda, that is, that they were American behaviorists who used this dispute to discredit introspection as a whole. In that they were successful, but, in my opinion, using the term 'intractable' is accepting the version of history written by the winners. You may perhaps be right that this particular detail may in fact not have been resolvable at the time, but actually showing that would require a more thorough analysis of the controversy than I believe was provided by the behaviorists of that time.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I partly agree with you, Dejan, but my take is that part of the reason the behaviorists won is that the rank-and-file started to see disputes of this sort as intractable. The imageless thought controversy was perhaps the most famous such dispute but by no means the only one. Others included the dimensions of emotional experience and the nature of the experience of attention and what differences there were between sensations with and without attention. Admittedly, Wundt himself was a participant in the emotional experience controversy.

Mike Roberts said...

Wundt's statement that "The thinker cannot divide himself into two, of whom one reasons whilst the other observes him reason" is false. The exact situation he describes is SOP in my mind. There are two thought tracks playing. One is my conscious thoughts, and the second track sits above it observing what is going on. The second track frequently directs and offers comments to the first. There is some evidence of a third track, but I haven't been able to determine if it's a separate track, or if it's the second track time-slicing it's duties.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Mike: Yes, I agree that the claim about the impossibility of "dividing" is overstated as it stands. Sympathetically re-interpreted, however, the question is whether the observation of experience as it occurs in some important way alters the observed experience so as to hamper general claims about experience that is not introspectively observed. That problem, I think, is quite a serious one.