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Thomas Reid and the dangers of introspection

Juan Gomez writes…

In the upcoming symposium we are hosting here at the University of Otago, I will be giving a paper on the features of the experimental method in moral philosophy (you can read the abstract). One of the salient features of this method was the use of introspection as a tool to access the nature and powers of the human mind. In fact, some Scottish moral philosophers acknowledge introspection as the only way we can get to know the nature of our mind. George Turnbull and David Fordyce were proponents of such claims, as well as Thomas Reid. The latter, in the Introduction to his Inquiry into the Human Mind (1764) draws an analogy with anatomy where he tells us that, in the same way we gain knowledge of the body by dissecting and observing it, we must perform an ‘anatomy of the mind’ to “discover its powers and principles.” The problem is that unlike the anatomist who has multiple bodies to observe, the anatomist of the mind can only look into his own mind:

    It is his own mind only that he can examine with any degree of accuracy and distinctness. This is the only subject he can look into.

Reid notices that this is not good for our experimental inquiry into the human mind, since a general law or rule cannot be deduced from just one subject:

    So that, if a philosopher could delineate to us, distinctly and methodically, all the operations of the thinking principle within him, which no man was ever able to do, this would be only the anatomy of one particular subject; which would be both deficient and erroneous, if applied to human nature in general.

But this obstacle doesn’t persuade Reid to give up introspection (Reid uses the term ‘reflection’) since it is “the only instrument by which we can discern the powers of the mind.” What we have to do is be very careful:

    It must therefore require great caution, and great application of mind, for a man that is grown up in all the prejudices of education, fashion, and philosophy, to unravel his notions and opinions, till he find out the simple and original principles of his constitution… This may be truly called an analysis of the human faculties; and, till this is performed, it is in vain we expect any just system of the original powers and laws of our constitution, and an explication from them to the various phaenomena of human nature.

Scottish moral philosophers were faced with this dilemma. On one hand, in order to access the nature of the human mind, they had to rely on a tool that could only examine and observe one particular mind, making the generalization of the principles discovered impossible; on the other hand, introspection was the only way to access the human mind, since by observing others we cannot gain any knowledge of what goes on in their minds, at least not accurately. The solution, consistent with the spirit of the experimental method, was to focus only on what we can experience and observe, and follow this evidence only as far as it can take us. Therefore as Reid points out, we are to use reflection with

    caution and humility, to avoid error and delusion. The labyrinth may be too intricate, and the thread too fine, to be traced through all its windings; but, if we stop where we can trace it no farther, and secure the ground we have gained, there is no harm done; a quicker eye may in time trace it farther.

These comments by Reid show that even when the problems of relying on introspection were explicitly recognized, the Scottish moral philosophers still used it as their way to access the nature of the human mind. Since introspection was considered to be the only reliable way into the workings of the human mind, they had to be very careful with the use they made of it. This caution was achieved by following the methodology of the experimental method, where they could  only go as far as their observations would take them, and their conclusions had to be confirmed by the particular experience of many.  But such limits to the conclusions drawn from introspection cast doubt on the status of the exercise of reflection: could introspection really be considered ‘experimental,’ or was the justification given by the moral philosophers (Reid  in particular) just a rhetorical device? This is a problem that requires a lot more space than a blog post, but if you have any particular thoughts and comments I am looking forward to receiving and discussing them with you.

5 thoughts on “Thomas Reid and the dangers of introspection

  1. I should begin my comment with two notes about my expertise (or lack there of): 1) I’m not (yet) a professional philosopher. I’m an undergraduate in philosophy. 2) I also do not focus on experimental philosophy and don’t know a lot about the longer conversation in which you’re participating.

    Those warnings aside, your premise seems pretty absurd. You’re claim seems to be that a sufficient condition for (or, at least, a unique characteristic of) experimental philosophy is the impetus to “follow… evidence only as far as it can take us”. If that’s a definition of experimental philosophy, it’s easy to see how experimental philosophy has been around for a long time (something you ExPhiers seem to want to establish), but it’s also difficult to see how experimental philosophy is anything beyond good analytical philosophy. The principle seems to be assumed in any philosophical inquiry.

    Can you make this seem more plausible?

  2. It seems that you are interpreting the term “experimental philosophy” in this post following its modern use (X-phi). This is not the way we are using the term. As Peter Anstey has mentioned in one of his posts (, Early Modern experimental philosophy is not the same as modern X-phi. In this post I am talking about Early Modern experimental philosophy, and the role it might have played in moral philosophy texts in the Scottish Enlightenment. This being said, the caution to “follow… evidence only as far as it can take us”, is not a sufficient condition for the experimental philosophy of the time, nor it is unique. It is rather an expression of the anti-hypothetical attitude of experimental philosophers, who condemned systems of philosophy that were built upon mere conjectures and disregarded facts and observations. It is just a warning and a statement that the methodology of experimental philosophy would not make any claims that were not deduced from experience and established laws and principles.

    I would be happy to forward you the paper I will be giving at the upcoming Symposium (, where I sketch the features of the experimental method of moral philosophy in the Scottish enlightenment. The other papers of the Symposium are also very interesting and give you a good idea of the experimental/speculative distinction and early modern experimental philosophy.

  3. Thank you for responding.

    I understand the confusion I was having, but your response leaves me with as many questions as answers, many of which I’m hoping I can find in your paper (… I appreciate the offer).

    I now understand you to be making a much weaker claim. Namely, that the work of Thomas Reid might exemplify one characteristic (of a possible infinitude) of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy.

    Is that a fair characterization of your post?

  4. Hi Ben,

    I have sent my paper to your email, and please let me know if you are interested in any of the other papers. I would also welcome and appreciate any comments you have on the paper.

    Your characterization of my claim now looks a little bit more accurate. There is not an infinitude of characteristics of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy. Although there is a range of characteristics, we believe that we can actually reduce them to a set number, which is one of the aims of the project. My specific research looks at this experimental philosophy but only in the realm of moral inquiries, and the paper I sent you tries to sketch what an “Early Modern Experimental Moral Philosophy” would amount to. The caution I mentioned in the post is in fact one of the characteristics of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy. I hope this helps clarify the issue, and again I suggest reading the other posts on the blog so you can get the bigger picture of the project. I am also interested in your thoughts about the topic, so you can contact me through my email address ( if you want.

  5. Hi, I’m an undergrad as well and I just finished a senior project on Thomas Reid. I really enjoyed this post. Reid gives an interesting description of his introspective methods in a letter to Hume:

    “When I present an Object to any of my Senses in order to attend to the impression that is made upon the mind, I endeavor to withdraw my thoughts from every thing external, to turn them inward and consider purely what I feel. I suppose every external existence annihilated, every impression and thought I ever had before quite obliterated, and that I begin a new Scene of Existence with this single Impression. What is it? To what is it like? I view it narrowly on every side, and resist every thought that would divert my Attention until I be well acquainted with it, and able to make it an object of thought.”