Eric Schwitzgebel and Brie Gertler

Eric Schwitzgebel (left) and Brie Gertler (right) on introspection.

How well do we know our own minds? According to an optimistic view associated with Descartes and Locke, introspection is a reliable and profoundly special source of self-knowledge. According to a pessimistic view associated with Wittgenstein and Ryle, introspection is like ordinary perception: a confluence of fallible processes, and therefore not especially trustworthy. In this conversation, Gertler defends a version of the optimistic view, while Schwitzgebel defends a version of the pessimistic view.

Related works

by Gertler:
Self-Knowledge (2010)
Introspecting Phenomenal States” (2001)

by Schwitzgebel:
Introspection, What?” (forthcoming)
The Unreliability of Naive Introspection” (2008)
Blog: The Splintered Mind

More video:
Tamar Gendler and Eric Schwitzgebel (PTV)

14 comments to Eric Schwitzgebel and Brie Gertler

  • L

    I never understood why standard philosophers of mind must assume Descartes is necessarily admitting “internal knowledge” above “external knowledge” (to put it very simply). That;s the dogma.. I am not sure where exactly in the original Latin/French this distinction is made as such by Descartes, unless if you read him “ad literam” and I am not sure at all that Descartes’ project was meant to underline the supremacy of “internal self”/internal knowledge above “the external self”/external knowledge. Rather Descartes was preoccupied with the nature of the cognitive ability. This interpretation of Descartes follows the Wittgensteinian canonical interpretation (Hecker and Becker et al) according to which Wittgenstein would say that there are two types of philosophers: those who acclaim the “internalist view” and those who decline it. Overall I see here a double misinterpretation, first of all of Descartes’ theory, and second, of Wittgenstein for it is not that clear that Wittgenstein will reject “internal knowledge” although in his PI, paragraph 244, he seems committed to the one of the most outrageous ideas contemporary neurology rejected. But this, you will say, is on old story. OK. Let’s go to the “mental content”. Take any empirical neurological “event”. What is the content of such “event”? None, for there is nothing you can prove as being given as “mental content”. This is to say that standard empiricism will not provide any explanation for the dynamics of consciousness.

  • We have direct and infallible access to all phenomena, whether of an extended reality perceived to be outside ourselves or of emotional or other states perceived to be internal – while the true reality of anything at all is entirely beyond our cognitive reach. Berkeley puts this brilliantly:

    But say you, though the ideas themselves do not exist without the mind, yet there may be things like them whereof they are copies or resemblances, which things exist without the mind in an unthinking substance. I answer, an idea can be like nothing but an idea; a colour or figure can be nothing like but another colour or figure. If we look but ever so little into our thoughts, we shall find it impossible for us to conceive a likeness except only between our ideas. Again, I ask whether those supposed originals or external things, of which our ideas are the pictures or representations, be themselves perceivable or no? If they are, then they are ideas, and we have gained our point; but if you say they are not, I appeal to any one whether it be sense to assert [that] a colour is like something which is invisible; hard or soft, like something which is intangible; and so of the rest.

    I think analytic philosophy, as exemplified by this video conversation, is way off track. It seems to me they simply overlook the crucial epistemological issues that should be the beginning of philosophy, and which would transform philosophical inquiry in general into something much more counterintuitive. What they are doing instead is, in my view, irrelevant technical maintenance work in what, at bottom, is just the naive commonsensical view of the world. But I could never stomach to actually study analytical philosophy properly, so I might be missing something. I don’t think I am, but there is always a possibility. Point out the error of my ways if you can.

  • Scott J Belford

    Great discussion. I haven’t thought about this subject so particularly before, so it was great to hear a bit about the thoughts related.

    Me wondering: I understand in the asking of the what-is-this-like of the carefully attended to of a phenomenological inquiry, but what i don’t understand is how you can not make relations to what is this LIKE. I need a palette to paint, right?

    • Brie Gertler

      Hi Scott,

      I do think that the “knowing what it’s like” locution is misleading, in that it suggests that such knowledge is _comparative_. (Perhaps this was initially introduced in the context of understanding what someone else’s experience was like, where understanding this depends on grasping the phenomenology of a similar experience.) As applied to one’s own current experience, I don’t think that knowing what it’s like is essentially comparative. This is a substantial and controversial claim, since some theories about what’s required for concept possession will claim that any genuine concept-involving knowledge is essentially comparative.

  • Richard the sceptic

    I would agree with Gorm that we certainly have experiences but that doesn’t entail infallibility. Just as our perceptions are open to interpretation and influence by our beliefs, surely introspection can err? This is the subject of the debate between Eric Schwitzgebel and Brie Gertler.

    On “true reality”, doesn’t science give us increasing knowledge of the world and our place in it?

    • Of course both perception and introspection can err with regard to whatever reality it is we intend to refer to by interpreting them, if we have such an intention. My point is twofold: 1. that we cannot arrive at such a reality, and 2. that what we do have – purely phenomenal experience – is completely accessible to us. Here we are infallible, because the experience is not actually distinct from its object.

      Of course, we are unable to retrieve much of from memory, and when we start to analyze and interpret our experience, it changes a lot. Simplified, made to fit with experiences we have had at other times, etc. So our infallibility in this regard is not very useful. But it is still a valid theoretical point, and a useful one, because it reframes the debate.

      What science gives us is an economical explanatory model of what appears to us in experience, including of course theories of how and why some appearances are illusions, and hypotheses about what the reality behind them is. It doesn’t reveal reality, but postulates it, and suggests structures which, if real, would explain a lot of things. But the thorough epistemologist has to prefix all claims about reality with as-if. I’m not trying to undermine science here. In fact, I consider myself very scientifically-minded. But in the context of epistemology, we have to thread very, very carefully.

  • max

    It seems to me that the issue of interpretation needs to be parced more carefully.

    One can say (1) When an experience is influenced by background beliefs etc, the experience remains the smae, but our beliefs about it change

    But this is just wrong–at least it appears so to reflection. I have not experienced fraternity hazings, but I do experience the world as interpreted- I see a bicycle, not a neutral object I then consciously interpret to be a bicycle. the interpretation is built into the object itself–I mean the object for consciousness, which is the proper object for reflective awareness.
    I can know that this object is presented as a bicycle. I can know the drawing is now a duck, now a rabbit–. these are no less epistemically privledged from being conceptual

    Gorm: Maybe you have done this already, but do read Husserl.

    In other words, the fact that the given is concepualized does not make it any less given.

    • I absolutely agree with what you say, but the fact that the given is conceptualized does not make it reach out from our subjective domain to refer to the reality we suppose to be behind the given phenomenon.

      I haven’t really read Husserl. His writing is intimidating. But I know I should. Although there are plenty of other philosophers I think my position is just as close to, if not closer. Like, in no particular order, George Santayana, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Hans Vaihinger, the ancient skeptics, Antti Revonsuo, Thomas Metzinger and Steven Lehar.

  • Here’s a question for Eric Schwitzgebel: I’d like to know more about what’s going on, in your view, when one learns about one’s phenomenology. So, suppose that in the fraternity case, the initiate (Ed) soon realizes his mistake. His expectation of soon feeling heat led him to believe in the next moment that he was then feeling heat when in fact he wasn’t, but shortly thereafter, just by reflecting on his sensation, Ed corrects his initial, erroneous judgment. Suppose his realization that he has in fact been feeling coldness isn’t prompted by his seeing the ice cube, or by the other people laughing or telling him it was just an ice cube. Ed just reflects on how he feels and realizes he’s been feeling coldness. At first blush, this seems like an example of introspection correcting a less reliable source of knowledge about his sensation. How would you characterize what is going on here?

    Also — and this is directed to both Eric Schwitzgebel and Brie Gertler — I really like the discussion around the Wittgenstein example (around the 1-hour mark I think). Would one succeed in showing that one’s knowledge claim about one’s current experience was more substantive (and not just a blind ostension) if one could notice (or know about) a change in one’s phenomenology in the specious present? One won’t always be able to notice such a change (e.g., the disappearance of one speck in a speckled-hen image), but surely one can sometimes notice a shift in phenomenology just via the sort of introspection that Brie Gertler embraces. (?)

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your comments — and I like your question about the fraternity case.

      I’ll take a stab at your final question. Presumably Eric (and other opponents of the view I defend) would allow that we do sometimes notice changes in phenomenology, even in the specious present. But they might say that this noticing does not occur through purely introspective attention. It may instead involve non-introspective factors: e.g. if the change is from phenomenal redness to phenomenal blueness, I might pick up on this change by (to borrow from something Eric said) disinhibiting my urge to say, “whoa, that just turned blue!” (or some such). The difficulty will be in specifying a kind of awareness that must be introspective, and cannot be explained by other means.
      (I think the best way to do this is to use a Cartesian case, and to notice that certain judgments about my current phenomenology are especially secure, epistemically. The idea is not that one is infallible, but just that some judgments can achieve a level of epistemic security that could not be achieved by any judgment that depended for its justification on causal relations. This is a long story, of course, but that’s the key idea.)

  • L

    If you allow me to respond to your question: “when one learns one’s phenomenology”. There is no “one’s phenomenology”. I often noticed this particularly strange use of the word “phenomenology”. Phenomenology is a analytic method that may apply to a variety of phenomenon, i.e. subjective experiences (aka personal experiences) perceptive experiences, etc. No one has a “phenomenology” but one can use the phenomenological method in analytic purposes. See Husserl for more details.

  • Paul Raymont

    Okay, then replace “one’s phenomenology” in my above query with “the raw feel of one’s experience,” or “the qualitative nature of one’s conscious state.”

  • L

    I would take the “raw feeling of one’s experience” although “subjective experience” might be a better version. Certainly, by “subjective experience” I do not imply the existence of a “strong subject” (aka Cartesian) reality.
    Now, speaking of Wittgenstein: I honestly do not see how Wittgenstein’s pre-behaviorist account of consciousness (see Wittgenstein’s attempt to define consciousness in “Philosophical Investigation”) can be today of any use if considering neurology (e.g. Damasio). Yet this is not to say that a “transcendent” interpretation of Husserlian phenomenology is more welcomed… In the Anglo-American literature Noe, Damasio and some others, are probably among the very few to have developed the discussion on consciousness from the current stage on while standard philosophy of mind is a stagnant field searching to integrate neuroscientific arguments good for Husserlian phenomenology from a Wittgensteinian point of view. So the question we may ask is: after at least 50 years of analytic naturalism shall we continue to search for “mental contents” etc, or we should probably accept that analytic naturalism is doomed and so we should begin to update the philosophical assessment of neurology?

  • David

    Thank you for your discussion.

    On a very intuitive level, which I cannot completely articulate, I seem to agree with Gertler, that on rare occasions, introspection can give us access to the what-it-is-like thatness of (a) present moment experience. Outside of these rare introspective experiences, and even during some conscious attempts to achieve such introspection, I agree with the more interconnected web-like processes of personal experience that Schwitzgebel articulates.

    I do have a couple questions for Gertler though:

    At about 18 minutes with reference to the bridge example you say something like: “Introspection would not tell the causal source – fear or sexual attraction…Introspection would tell the pure phenomenology of experience – whether (it is) fear or sexual attraction is beyond introspection.” Then, a minute or so later you say, “Introspection on its own cannot distinguish one emotion from another.”

    What this seems to mean to me is that there is just one phenomenological experience of the world, or of existence…or something like, “oh, I know that I am.” This in its own, may be useful, but I am not sure how it would give any of the certainty you later refer to. In Schwitzgebel’s view (I think he was saying this) I’m not sure it would be useful at all, except maybe as personally enlightening.

    Further, I’m not really sure you can consistently hold this view and talk about cheesiness because the thatness of cheesiness would be just the same as the thatness of anything else, like love, fear or anxiety.

    I think it is at least plausible that introspection can notice? experience? sense? a thatness which is particular to love, fear, anxiety, cheese, etc. without interpreting it or (within an attempt for) understanding its causes. Could not a man on the bridge look inside and instantly hold/realize/acknowledge the existence of a thatness, which he knows comes from danger of death and not danger of being rejected through flirtations? What “it” is is registered, even though nothing else at all is associated with it.

    Finally, how does a theory of time, or as Schwitzgebel brings up, spatial experience, effect introspection? How immediate does it have to be? Can we hold ourselves in such a state for longer and longer durations, with say, practice?

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