Publication 7688

Rigato J., Rennie S. M. & Mainen Z. F. (2021) The overlooked ubiquity of first-person experience in the cognitive sciences. Synthese 198(9): 8005–8041. Fulltext at
Science aims to transform the subjectivity of individual observations and ideas into more objective and universal knowledge. Yet if there is any area in which first-person experience holds a particularly special and delicate role, it is the sciences of the mind. According to a widespread view, first-person methods were largely discarded from psychology after the fall of introspectionism a century ago and replaced by more objective behavioral measures, a step that some authors have begun to criticize. To examine whether these views are sufficiently informed by actual scientific practice, we conducted a review of methodological approaches in the cognitive science literature. We found that reports of subjective experience are in fact still widely used in a broad variety of different experimental paradigms, both in studies that focus on subjective experience, and in those that make no explicit reference to it. Across these studies, we documented a diverse collection of approaches that leveraged first-person reports, ranging from button presses to unstructured interviews, while continuing to maximise experimental reproducibility. Common to these studies were subjects acting as sensors, intentionally communicating their experience to the experimenter, which we termed “second-person” methods. We conclude that, despite views to the contrary, first-person experience has always been and is still central to investigations of the mind even if it is not recognized as such. We suggest that the conversation ought to be reframed: instead of debating whether to accept subjects’ first-person knowledge we should discuss how best to do so.


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