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By Inbar Graiver
The period of transition from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages, known as late antiquity, gave rise to some of the elements that have since constituted the identity of the Western self. It also gave rise to new lines of psychological investigation, of which Western psychology is the remote heir. Psychology, however, did not exist in the ancient world as an independent science, nor was a distinction drawn between scientific and moral or religious elements of psychological knowledge. Accordingly, this important source of evidence has been neglected by scholars investigating the history of Western psychology, who have tended to focus on the 19th-century roots of scientific psychology. This post argues for the need to broaden the focus on the history of the discipline of psychology to include the history of psychological knowledge, and demonstrates some of the benefits to be derived from this endeavor.
Of course, the numerous textbooks on the history of psychology often begin with short references to the Greeks, and sometime also to St. Augustine.[i] While Augustine represents Western Christianity, no less important developments took place in the monastic movement of the Eastern Roman empire, especially in Egypt, which was the most important and influential site of early Christian monasticism. Not only do these developments constitute an important stage in the history of Western psychology, but I would like to argue, moreover, that without them there could be no modern discipline of psychology.
Ancient Greek philosophers have already developed detailed theories of the soul or mind. Nevertheless, in antiquity there was no clear-cut discussion of the peculiarity of the individual person. As John Rist shows in his study of ancient philosophical ethics, Plato generally ignored or dismissed the problem of individuality, and in Aristotle too there is almost no discussion of individuality (since Aristotle thinks that philosophy can deal with individuals only in so far as they are members of classes).[ii] Such an attitude suggests that although individuals exist, their individuality itself has no importance. Greek philosophers, therefore, were not interested in an inner, subjective realm, nor do they claim to have knowledge of subjective states. In fact, it has been suggested they did not even presuppose the existence of such states.[iii] It was only during the first centuries CE that an interest in the inner life of the individual emerged.
One indication of the growing interest in the individual and the particular in this period is the great increase in the portraiture of the individual in writing and art. It has been suggested that this shift represents the start of a more advanced idea of individuality that will be fully realized in the Christian world of later antiquity.[iv] Another indication of this growing interest is the insistence in the texts of the first centuries CE on the need to pay attention to oneself, or what Michel Foucault described as “an intensification of the relation to oneself.”[v] This general shift towards introspection gave rise, especially within Stoic thought, to a tendency to focus on the interior disposition of the individual.
Nevertheless, the Stoic doctrine that the ruling part of man is itself a segment of the divine Reason (segments which are qualitatively equal and identical) prevented any development along modern lines. With Plotinus (204/5–270 CE), the problem of the recognition of human individuality presents itself in a clearer form. Yet, in Plotinus’ ethics the older Platonic way of thinking of perfection—leading to the postulating of a set of perfectly identical beings—is still too influential.[vi] It seems that the ancient notions of individuality could not be reformulated until Platonic assumptions about perfection had been cleared away.
In Christianity, new theological concerns have resulted in a significant shift in the understanding of the human person and culminated with the notion of a radical reflexivity of the self.[vii] This process is related to Christian conceptions of God as well as to the doctrine of resurrection of the body, which required a more sustained reflection on the uniqueness of the self’s individual identity.[viii]
This shift in perceptions resulted in the Christian notion that the individual consciousness can be a special object of investigation. This notion, in turn, was closely linked with the investigative practice of introspection, which is the main subject of this paper.
Historian of psychology Kurt Danziger has argued that introspection is a historically recent invention, which he traces back to developments in Immanuel Kant’s epistemology. While earlier philosophers did appeal to the subjective self-awareness of their readers, these appeals, he argues, do not constitute a methodology, since they made no distinction in principle between mere awareness of mental states and deliberate observation of such states.[ix] As we will see, however, the advance of introspection from an occasional use to a self-consciously employed method of investigation occurred much earlier.
Late antique roots of introspection
The radical reflexivity of the self in Christianity was dependent upon theological conception unknown to the classical world: the biblical idea that man was created in God’s image, which implies that to turn upon oneself is an essential step in the search for God. Accordingly, the central means of acquiring self-knowledge was introspection, and the acquisition of such knowledge was, in turn, a form of searching for God. Hence, Christian monks were instructed: “You want to know God? First know yourself” (Evagrius, Maxims 2.2).[x]
This maxim, which implies a close link between self-knowledge and metaphysical knowledge, is but one expression of a more general feature of ancient thought. Unlike the modern break between an inner subjective realm and the external world, or between ontology and epistemology, a lack of such dichotomy has been repeatedly described as one of the central features of pre-modern modes of being in the world. Charles Taylor argued that the sharp partitioning of inside and outside, the psychological and the physical, is a result of the modern disengagement from the cosmic order. Consequently, the human agent could no longer be understood as an element in a broader, meaningful order. This shift produced a new sense of self, which places within the subject what was previously seen as existing between the subject and the world, linking them together.[xi]
In an early monastic context, one expression of this interplay of interior and exterior causality is the belief in demons and in their capacity to influence the inner processes of the self. In particular, the demonology of the monastic movement stresses the effect of demons on the human mind through thoughts. Since the goal of the monk was to devote himself single-mindedly to contemplation of God, the ever-changing stream of earthly thoughts was the greatest enemy of contemplative monks. This mental activity was ascribed a demonic source: In their effort to prevent monks from progressing on the path toward virtue, demons speak to them interiorly, through their thoughts (logismoi). In this way monastic authors were able to fit the demons into an explanation of human cognition.
Furthermore, it was widely held that demons adapt their strategies to the monk’s internal condition, and hence that knowledge concerning their activity can be acquired by introspection (e.g., Athanasius, VA 42.5). Demonology thus enabled monastic authors to develop detailed methodologies of introspection, which were of permanent value for later generations of Christian writers.
Especially influential were the writings of Evagrius Ponticus, who wrote towards the end of the 4th century. He was the first to offer a systematic account of how introspection should be done. Self-knowledge, according to Evagrius, is acquired by a detached self-observation of one’s mental content. Accordingly, the essence of his methodology is introspective. Evagrius advises: “Learn to know yourself by perceiving the secret dispersing of your thoughts” (Eulogios 29) and specifies how this should be done: As the monk observes his thoughts, he should “note their intensification and diminution, and their interconnectedness, and their timing, and which demons produces what, and which demon comes after another, and which does not follow after which” (Praktikos 50).
Yet Evagrius, like modern introspective psychologists, was well aware that introspection cannot always be done during the mental experience itself, but should sometimes be done in retrospection. Hence he recommends a form of introspection that involves a retrospective analysis of one’s interior experience, instructing: after the withdrawal of the demon, “sit down and examine where you started from, where you went, and the place in which you were caught by the demon… and how these things took place. Examine these events carefully and commit them to memory” (On Thoughts 9).
Evagrius’ disciple John Cassian transmitted his teaching to the Latin West in the beginning of the 5th century. Like Evagrius, Cassian promoted a detached mode of self-observation. He rendered this activity to Latin by using the Latin verb introspicere (in Coll. 10.9)—the root of modern “introspection.” Thanks to Cassian’s introspective reports, we have for the first time in Western history a description of the stream of thoughts. While William James is credited by modern commentators with coining the phrase “stream of thoughts,” the same metaphor—agmina cogitationum in Latin—has already been employed by Cassian (in Coll. 24.3).
Grounding his arguments in his own self-observation, Cassian describes the human propensity for mind wandering, observing that “the mind cannot possibly remain in one and the same state,” and that trying to stabilize it is like “trying to force a boat against the stream of a strong current (flumen)” (Coll. 6.14). Cassian’s account lends support to William James’ observation that “a ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it [the train of thought] is most naturally described.”
Thanks to the experiential basis of Cassian’s accounts of the stream of thoughts, they are in some respects very similar to modern accounts. Nevertheless, the evaluation of this panhuman cognitive phenomenon is radically different. Furthermore, the kind of knowledge that was derived from introspection was different.
For example, on the basis of both introspection and tacit theological presuppositions, Evagrius concludes that “all the thoughts fall into eight general categories, in which every sort of thought is included” (Praktikos 6). These categories, which are specific to the monastic experience, include, for example, thoughts about food and sex, thoughts related to anger, to gloominess, to boredom, and so on. Evagrius’ list of eight generic thoughts was transferred by Cassian to the West, where it provided the basis for the well-known list of the seven deadly or cardinal sins of Pope Gregory the Great. In other words, the seemingly dogmatic list of deadly sins ultimately rests on knowledge derived from introspection—a specifically Christian introspection.
What is important for our purposes is that introspective procedures enabled monastic authors to develop a system of knowledge about the mind, which was based on detailed observation of mental phenomena and on theoretical premises, as well as a practical, therapeutic psychology. In this process, theology and introspection were systematically combined to produce psychological knowledge, and this knowledge, in turn, was applied in psychological praxis. It is thus possible to carve up the field of psychological phenomena in a very different way than Western psychology does, and still end up with a body of systematic knowledge and strictly regulated practices.
This broad view of what constitutes psychological knowledge was displaced by a narrower one in the 18th century. In the middle of the 19th century, with the appearance of quantitative introspective methods, the study of the mind first took shape as an empirical, progressive, and laboratory-based science. But not everything was changed.
As in the case of monastic psychology, introspection was of central importance in the emergence of modern psychology. Although psychologists at the turn of the 20th century disagreed on the appropriate introspective procedures to be used, there was a wide (yet short-lived) agreement that introspection is psychology’s essential method for gaining evidence on the mind.[xii] The supporters of introspection argued that its major merit is that it studies the phenomena of psychology directly, in a manner which is rarely the case in most psychological investigations. On the other hand, its criticizers argued that “we are fooling ourselves about the high reliability of introspection… about the idea that it is a matter of just ‘looking and seeing.'”[xiii]
A comparison of ancient and modern introspective reports can help us put these observations to the test: both the continuities and the differences between ancient and modern interpretations of introspective evidence can reveal the extent to which knowledge derived from introspection is cross-cultural, and the extent to which it is shaped by tacit theoretical premises on which different kinds of psychological theories rest.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy defines introspection as a process that generates “knowledge about mental events, states, or processes, and not about affairs outside one’s mind.”[xiv] This definition assumes a clear distinction between an inner, subjective world and an external, objective realm. This sharp partitioning of internal and external causality was an indispensable first step in the construction of a new field of study—the inner world of the isolated individual mind—and allowed the emergence of psychology as a empirical discipline.
This sharp partitioning is reflected in modern introspective accounts. William James’ account of consciousness provides a clear example. James, who was among the foremost advocates of introspection as a source of psychological knowledge, relies on his own introspective investigations when he argues in his Principles of Psychology (1:228-9):
In this room—this lecture-room, say—there are a multitude of thoughts, yours and mine…. My thought belongs with my other thoughts, and your thought with your other thoughts… The only states of consciousness that we naturally deal with are found in personal consciousness, minds… Each of these minds keeps its own thoughts to itself…. Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism, is the law. It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not “thought” or “this thought” or “that thought”, but “my thought”, every thought being owned.
For James, thoughts are necessarily part of a personal mind, which is perceived as a private space, a secluded entity in “absolute insulation.” Whereas James assumes that our thoughts, ideas, and feelings are “within” us whereas the objects in the world which these mental states bear on are “without” us, monastic theologians rather stress the correlation between the mind and the world, anthropology and cosmology. In this view, external powers continually act upon the mind, imprinting it and affecting it.
These different formulations of the same introspective evidence mirror different conceptual frameworks, and expose the degree to which description and explanation are intermixed in human thought. A juxtaposition of these formulations demonstrates the subtle ways in which the investigative method—namely introspection—and the object of investigation–namely the isolated individual mind of modern psychology, or the penetrable and porous mind of late antiquity—mutually confirm each other. Even an apparently private technique like introspection turns out to be, at least to a large extent, culturally constructed.
In saying that psychological knowledge bears the mark of the cultural context under which it is produced I do not intend to say that it is nothing but a reflection of this context. Nor do I intend to argue that introspection is by definition an unreliable method for producing psychological knowledge. What I do want to emphasize is that we cannot recognize what is, perhaps, cross-cultural in psychology and what is culturally constructed unless we confront different types of psychologies with each other. Here lies, I think, one of the benefits of studying the history of psychological knowledge, rather than focusing only on the history of the discipline of psychology.
[i] E.g., Kurt Danziger, Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); idem, Naming the Mind: How Psychology Found its Language (London: Sage, 1997); David E. Leary, “History of Psychology: A Survey,” Annual Review of Psychology 42 (1991): 79-107; Adrian C. Brock, “The History of Introspection Revisited,” Self-Observation in the Social Sciences 7 (2013): 25-43.
[ii] See John Rist, Human Value: A Study in Ancient Philosophical Ethics (Leiden: Brill, 1982), 145-63.
[iii] See Steven Everson, “The Objective Appearance of Pyrrhonism,” in Companions to Ancient Thought: Psychology, ed. Steven Everson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 121-47.
[iv] See Simon Swain, “Biography and Biographic in the Literature of the Roman Empire,” in Portraits: Biographical Representation in the Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire, eds. Mark Edwards and Simon Swain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 1-38.
[v] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 3: The Care of the Self (London: Routledge, 1986), 41.
[vi] See Rist, Human Value, 152.
[vii] See Guy Stroumsa, “‘Caro salutis cardo’: Shaping the Person in Early Christian Thought,” History of Religions 30/1 (1990): 25-50; Johannes Zachhuber and Alexis Torrance (eds.), Individuality in Late Antiquity (Burlington: Ashgate, 2014).
[viii] See Swain, “Biography,” 2; Alexis Torrance, “Individuality and Identity-formation in Late Antique Monasticism,” in Individuality in Late Antiquity, 111-127.
[ix] See Danziger, Constructing the Subject, 19-21.
[x] On the difference between the Delphic moral principle “know yourself” and the Christian notion of self-knowledge, see Michel Foucault, “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two Lectures at Dartmouth,” Political Theory 21, no. 2 (1993): 198-227.
[xi] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), 186.
[xii] See Kurt Danziger, “The History of Introspection Reconsidered,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 16/3 (1980): 241-62.
[xiii] Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991), 67.