One of the first stumbling blocks for the nascent field of psychology dealt with its fundamental methods of operation, namely the two critical forms of observation: first, the observation of the mental states and processes taking place in our own minds, and second, the observation of the behavior of others by means of which we may infer the presence and nature of their mental states. These two forms of observation are necessary for psychology. Without the first, we could never have an intimate first-hand acquaintance with the facts of consciousness, and without the second we would know nothing of consciousness outside our own minds. Thus, the claim of some that the first type of observation is not scientific was a central issue to the validity of psychology and its development as a social science.
The first form of observation gives us direct knowledge of our own conscious life and has been termed introspection, i.e., looking within. Introspection is the observation of our own mental states. This self-observation does not, however, presuppose a new process or method of observation introduced by the psychologist. Introspection does not differ fundamentally from the observations employed in the other sciences. The difference lies only in the material upon which it works. Introspection in psychology is the observation of mental facts while observation in the other sciences is the observation of material facts. Introspection has sometimes been taken to be an inner consciousness in distinction to an outer consciousness which knows the outer world of objects. But there is no valid ground for such a distinction. All consciousness, whether it be awareness of mental states or of material objects, is of the same character. The distinction of inner and outer has no meaning when applied to consciousness itself. The awareness of a material object is just as much inner consciousness as the awareness of a mental state. Both are contents of consciousness. The ability to introspect improves with training and practice. The novice in psychology is quite as helpless as the beginning student in biology when given his first high-power microscope. Expertness is needed no less for the accurate observation of mental states than for the accurate observation of material specimens in biology, physics, or chemistry.
Objections have been raised against introspection as a scientific method on the ground that its results cannot be verified. The claim has been made that the results of introspection cannot be confirmed because no one can observe directly the conscious states of another. On the other hand, the objects of material sciences are said to be common property. Anyone may observe them and confirm the reports of others. This distinction of the private nature of consciousness and the public nature of objects is not as far-reaching as it seems at first sight. All the sciences are built up by means of observation.
But every observation is the observation of one particular person. The observation itself is always a private and personal affair. Different observations can be brought together and made to agree only when reduced to a common unit of measurement. By means of this unit of measurement, uniformity may be established. In the material sciences, uniformity is measured in terms of units of quantity: the millimeter, the gram, etc. In psychology, uniformity is measured in terms of quality of experience. The units of quality are descriptive units or language symbols. The facts of consciousness discovered by means of introspection may be reduced to the common terms of descriptive language. If when measured by these common terms, the experiences of different observers show uniformity, how is such uniformity any different than the singular observations that are aggregated by the biologist? These descriptive units in psychology of the quality of experience are sufficient verification when established by a multitude of observers as has been done in psychology. The claim that psychology is not a science because of its reliance on first-hand observation of one’s own mind is empty.
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