Importance of Introspection in Artistic and Scientific Achievement

Gardner, Extraordinary Minds, 95-6

In centuries past, philosophers like Plato, poets like Dante, diarists like Samuel Pepys, and essayists like Montaigne have probed the depths of their own spirits and of human experience more broadly.  As we move to the twentieth century, there is hardly a literary figure or continental philosopher of significance who did not seek to convey something of his or her own experiences.  In a broad sense, Woolf belongs to the same philosophical species as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Frantz Fanon, and Simone Weil; the same literary species as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and William Faulkner; the same as the occasional inward-directed behavioral scientist, like Sigmund Freud or Claude Levi-Strauss, and in the parade of essayists and diarists like Anais Nin, Witold Gombrowicz, and James Baldwin.

By and large, creative artists and scientists introspect in the West as a means of securing material for their works.  Freud wanted to understand his mind as an example of all minds; Woolf sought to re-create her consciousness, and consciousness in general, and in her writing.  An entirely different tradition of introspection is associated with Eastern societies, such as those cultures influenced by Buddhism.  Individuals involved in meditation, and other modes of spiritual attention, can bring introspection to an exquisite point of development and they may be able to help others achieve comparable mental states.  But such introspective activity is carried out quite apart from any desire to make new objects; the activity is its own meaning, its own reward.

In contrast, if they are to be recognized by the field, Introspectors in Western societies must master a domain of communication–a public symbol system.  Usually that will be the written word, though there are certainly introspective dancers, like Martha Graham, and painters, like Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko…the Introspector needs an understanding of other individuals.  On occasion…he may also contribute to the creation of a new domain…But his primary challenge is to peer deeply into his own psyche, to understand himself in a way that others do not routinely understand themselves, as individuals, as members of a group, or as human beings.

What of the validity of introspections?  After all, when it comes to knowledge of the physical or biological world, any trained individual can gain access to the same body of information; and when it comes to knowledge of other persons, these data are also open for inspection.  But with respect to knowledge of oneself, clearly the knower has privileged information, data not available to others.  It is conceivable that the aspiring Introspector will relate a compelling story that is not valid; or, conversely, that a factually accurate account will strike others as unconvincing.

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