December 24, 2013, by Stephen Mumford


The holidays are a time for seeing friends and family, being sociable and outward facing. It would seem that there is not much opportunity for introspection. To keep our sanity, though, we will always need to strike an appropriate balance between attention to self and attention to others. At least some of the time during breaks should be spent attending to one’s self, if only to allow a proper enjoyment of the moment.

I am sometimes criticised for being too introspective. Certainly one shouldn’t be self-obsessed as concern for others is what keeps us from psychopathy. Bertrand Russell said that in life one should look less and less inward, be less and less selfish, and look more and more to outside interests such as politics, philosophy and history. When one reaches old age, all interest in oneself might then have passed and death holds no fear. Schopenhauer said similar things: one ought to be liberated from personal striving.

Now I certainly think the boundaries of the self are neither entirely sharp nor fixed. The external world finds its way into the interior. But I think introspection is a welcome part of our psychology and ought never be scorned for too long. Self-doubt is often depicted as a weakness, especially from our leaders. But how else can we question our own prejudices and mediate them rationally? This plays a crucial role in our free will. A wanton has desires and even a chess-playing computer can work towards some end. But through introspection, one is able to question one’s desires and have higher-order desires about them. One might want some cake but at the same time wish that one didn’t want cake. The ability to have critical thoughts about one’s own thoughts is the foundation of our introspection, and thus arguably a basis for our freedom.

Introspection also gives us a sense of our own agency, for it is here that we find wants, hopes, plans and intentions that accompany our actions. And part of what it is to be an agent is to perceive and be aware of the surrounding world. How could one be an agent unless one could sense and respond to the world? The active needs also the passive. This ability to sense provides us with a splendid reward: there are all sorts of sensible and sensual pleasures awaiting us in the world that accompany the pleasures of pure rational thought within. The winter holiday season is there in large part for us to enjoy those experiences through food, drink, relaxation, the company of others and speculative contemplation. These can be savoured all the more when joined with a bit of introspective self-reflection.

Posted in ExistentialismHistoryMetaphysicsPhilosophyPoliticsTheology and Religious Studies