Introspection is also an important operation of reason and a necessary prelude to thoughtfulness. It attempts to look within our inner consciousness to see it apart from our relationship to external objects. Introspection works to isolate, observe and relate distinct feelings, moods, memories, ideas and values in the mind or soul. Perhaps Augustine’s Confessions does not conform exactly to my definition of introspection–which I admit is rather radical and “pure”–but it does provide an excellent example of the inward-turned eye that sorts and sifts motive from motive and feeling from feeling seeking deeper self-knowledge. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, though narcissistic and dripping with self-pity, also displays an astounding inward awareness that is quite instructive about what we can learn from introspection.
Without introspection our consciousness would be engulfed by wave after wave of sensation or lost in abstractions of thought. Socrates’ observation that “the unexamined life is not worth living” comes to mind here. Apart from some introspection there is no self-knowledge and without self-knowledge we could not distinguish between the life we freely enact and events that merely happen in, to or through us.
Notice how introspection relates to common sense and scientific thought. In distinction from common sense, introspection isolates the self from external relations by ignoring the external causes of internal experience. In analogy to science, it treats relations within the self like science treats relations among things external to the self. It wants to see its feelings and moods, beliefs and ideas and their interrelationships undistorted by their external relations. Whereas science wants to escape the distorting influence of internal subjectivity on our knowledge of external things, introspection wants to escape the clouding influence of external things on awareness of our internal condition. If science risks self-deception by ignoring the influence of the subjective on our knowledge of the external world, introspection risks self-deception by thinking it can isolate our internal subjectivity from the external world.
Introspection alone cannot lead to complete self-understanding because the self exists only in relation to the not-self, to the external world of people, nature and things. Nonetheless, introspection is valuable because we cannot think everything at once. We cannot think about the self in itself and its relation to external objects and the characteristics of the objects in themselves in one thought at one time. To achieve greater understanding we must move back and forth between part and whole, inside and outside, self and other to grasp all dimensions of something…even if that something is us.
To be continued…
Next time we will think about thoughtfulness itself…I promise.