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Chapter: Psychology: Consciousness

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Introspection and the Functions of Consciousness

The study of consciousness may be psychology’s most difficult endeavor.

INTROSPECTION AND THE FUNCTIONS OF CONSCIOUSNESS

The study of consciousness may be psychology’s most difficult endeavor. This is not because we are methodologically inept, or lack the right high-tech gadgets. Instead, it is a direct consequence of what consciousness is—namely, our moment-by-moment awareness of ourselves, our thoughts, and our environment. Crucially, this awareness is entirely “personalized.” As William James put it many years ago: “The universal conscious fact is not ‘feelings and thoughts exist,’ but ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’”. Inevitably, then, this awareness is an entirely private matter. You cannot experience someone else’s consciousness, nor they yours, and this raises a thorny issue: How can we find out about the nature or the contents of consciousness? As mentioned above, we’ll start with what seems to be the most straightforward proce-dure, in which we ask people to introspect—to look within themselves and then describe their subjective experience.

Introspection is a useful method for psychology, but there are clear limits on what it can tell us. At the same time, though, these limits on introspection are interesting on their own. As we’ll see, they provide information about the role of consciousness within the broader fabric of our mental lives. Let’s get started by looking at what we can learn from introspection. We’ll then turn to the limits and find out what we can learn from them.


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