von Loredana Filip
Insight – in sight – inner sight. When something is in sight, it is visible to the eyes. ‘Inner sight’ entails the use of imagination, having a vision in the mind. Used frequently in everyday language, the word insight carries meanings and connotations that shape the ways we make sense of the world. The juxtaposition of inner vision and eyesight is usually taken for granted. But it can be traced back to the origins of the word:
The comparison between the exterior faculty of sight, called corporeal vision, and the interior faculty of understanding, called spiritual or intellectual vision, is as old as Plato and Aristotle, who discussed both how the eye sees and how the visual process [is] consummated in the intellectual apprehension of the object seen. Thus, the Middle English word ‘insight,’ which appeared in 1200, had had a long heritage in Latin. As visio intellectualis or intuitus, it was viewed by the Church Fathers as both analogous and antithetical to eyesight.1
The word insight accumulated a bundle of additional meanings and metaphorical nuances once its use began to steadily increase in the 19th century. This rise can be explained in connection to the popularity of contemporary confessional culture. In American self-help culture, confessions are envisioned as windows into personal thoughts and feelings; they contain pivotal moments, or “insights,” that bring about self-knowledge and self-understanding, while they also raise self-vigilance. And confessions themselves function as insights for the reader or the audience, too – They should inspire them to improve themselves. As such, they rely on managing the self by increasing its self-vigilance.
A search in Google books Ngram Viewer reveals an increase in the number of mentions ‘insight’ has had in English. ((The selected corpus has been: English (2019), rather than only British English (2019) or American English (2019). The time span included for the analysis: from 1800 to the present. As an interesting side note: only English Fiction (2019) shows a different development in the use of “insight,” as it has reached its peak in the 1970s and afterwards it kept declining. )) By comparison, the use of ‘vigilance’ in English has steadily declined since its peak in the 19th century. These two developments should be considered together. Vigilance in English presupposes alertness, watchfulness, attention/attentiveness. In such contexts as the popular slogan “see something, say something,” vigilance assumes an act of looking outward to spot unwanted behavior. It is an act of precaution or prevention – and it may be animated in dystopian scenarios that usually raise a warning. Insight, by contrast, suggests an inner journey, introspection, looking inward – a form of knowledge production that is individualist. Tangential to utopian thinking, insights express the desire for something to happen and a belief in progress. And yet, rather than being mutually exclusive, these two concepts feed off each other, just as the boundaries between utopian and dystopian thinking are fluid. As such, the recent popularity of ‘insight’ and seemingly sparse use of ‘vigilance’ do not necessarily mean a displacement of vigilance, but might rather be seen as its transformation. In other words, it could explain why self-vigilance has recently gained in importance, as the use of that term has been on the rise since the 1980s.
So, what are some of the underlying meanings of ‘insight?’ Used in such various contexts as scientific, mystical or psychological lexicon, insights promise access to greater knowledge, prophetic inspiration, scientific ingenuity, mystical feeling and inner visions. Thus, the word ‘insight’ seems to be loaded with romantic ideas of originality. Mobilizing ideas of innovation, higher states of consciousness, mind-power and self-knowledge – insights perpetuate a celebratory view of humanity.
Framed as “insights – original thinking that helps make sense of a problem,” scientific discoveries can lead to ‘paradigm shifts’ such as germ theory or Darwinian evolution, so they play a “substantial role in the generation of ideas.”2 Used interchangeably with eureka or aha moments, insights describe a specific form of scientific knowledge production – one that highlights the inner work of a scientist who is suddenly struck by genius. Isaac Newton’s apple is one of the most famous examples of such “light bulb” moments – of creative thinking or ‘thinking outside the box.’ It is worth noting that this way of apprehending scientific discoveries does not take into account all the hard work or communal effort that is put into a new discovery. And yet, it continues to be appealing, not least due to its “dreamy quality.”3
According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, one of the meanings of mysticism is “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight).”4 Insights mediate spiritual awakenings; they can describe altered states of consciousness that open the door to new levels of perception. As a transforming religious experience, insight can also been conceived as a switch in the brain: “from left-hemisphere to right-hemisphere dominance, from verbal/conceptual thinking to non-verbal insight ‘beyond’ the person’s dominant conceptual structure.”5 As such, the sense of ineffability and the impression of having contact with a ‘transcendent realm’ are explained as an experiment of the mind. Mystical insights have also been the goals of the American counterculture, as drugs were thought to enhance the mind. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception is a famous example that documents his psychedelic insights.
In psychology, therapy is meant to bring about insights, so they are a necessary part of working on the self and involve a high level of self-awareness. Insights heal traumas, solve problems, mediate self-understanding. “Insight, psychology definition experts will say, is key to anything we are trying to work out in therapy.”6 In other words, the notion of insight became a powerful “technology of the self”7 – the means by which the self can achieve happiness and quality of life. Insight Seminars promise a journey to self-discovery.8 In contemporary American society, insights are one of the most prevalent rhetorical tools of self-help culture. Interestingly enough, it is thanks to Oprah Winfrey that the “aha moment” is listed in the dictionary, a sign that her “cultural influence extends even to language;” however, her understanding of an “aha moment” is slightly different from the original meaning of a “moment of insight” and it becomes “a moment of insight into yourself.”9 As such, it is mainly an act of looking inward, so it also raises self-vigilance.
In conclusion, regardless of the context in which it is used, ‘insight’ reinforces an individualist model of cognition that celebrates the power of the mind. The term is particularly compelling because it carries the justifying authority of science, a sense of mystical transcendence and psychological potential. As calls to look inward testify, the multiple meanings of insight may shed light on the recent importance of self-vigilance. Self-examination and self-observation are thus framed in visual and intellectual terms: the self needs to visualize itself and desire to be the best. If insight becomes synonymous with looking inside, it makes every problem or solution internal. The power of “in” in the word insight could reflect the joy and ploy of a house of mirrors.
Cite this article as: Loredana Filip: InSight: Making a Case for Self-Vigilance, in: Vigilanzkulturen, 29/03/2022, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/?p=2935.
- Neaman, Judith S. “Sight and Insight: Vision and the Mystics.” 14th Century English Mystics Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 3, September 1979, 28.
- East, R., Ang, L. “Insight: The Key to Faster Progress in Science.” Found Sci 26, 503–514 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10699-020-09692-y
- Newman, Cathy. “How ‘Eureka’ Moments in Science Happen.” National Geographic, May 2017. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/eureka-insight-newton-archimedes-genius-science
- “Mysticism.” Merriam-Webster, Web, 21 February 2022.
- Gellman, Jerome. “Mysticism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/mysticism.
- Dean, Mary Elizabeth. “What Is Insight? Psychology, Definition, And Practical Examples.” BetterHelp, February 2022. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/psychologists/what-is-insight-psychology-definition-and-practical-examples/
- Foucault, Michel. “Technologies of the Self.” Lectures at University of Vermont Oct. 1982, in Technologies of the Self, 16-49. Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
- Insight Seminars Team. “Insight Seminars & The Journey to Self Discovery”, Medium, 28 July, 2018. https://medium.com/insight-seminars/journey-to-self-discovery-233af9261eef.
- Vincenty, Samantha. “Oprah Explains What an ‘Aha Moment’ Really Means.” Oprah Daily, September 19, 2019. https://www.oprahdaily.com/life/a29090436/aha-moment-meaning/.