Philosopher specialising in Business Ethics - ESSCA


A recent article in the “Strategy” section of the HEC Montréal’s Revue Gestion predicted an “uncertain and complex climate for organisations” over the coming months, before offering this advice: “To find your way back to the north, there is one golden rule: listen to your inner voice.” The expression “inner voice” is often used (72 occurrences in the French press, according to Europress, between the end of February and the end of March 2024). In the business world, it refers to the attribute of an “authentic” leader or a collective force geared towards fulfilling an organisation’s vocation. An article in Academic Business Ethics links it to a specific perceptive capacity, one that is said to have manifested itself to Socrates through a daimonion – a sign produced by what is improperly called his “demonion” – whose effective and efficient presence could almost give the phrase “inner voice” a literal meaning. But this phrase has a metaphorical character, and the exploration we are conducting in this article is aimed specifically at assessing its practical value as a metaphor.

Illustration par Margaux Anquetil

If we are considering the metaphorical dimension of the inner voice, it is not only because the expression includes the noun “voice” – literally a sound produced by the mouth – to designate a mental representation (1). It’s also because this metaphor takes on different forms beyond just the “inner voice.” Hélène Lœvenbruck points this out in connection with “endophasia,” i.e. “the act of speaking to oneself silently, mentally,” or “the silent expression, intended for oneself, of thought in the broad sense, in a verbal form” (we give the French version):

“On dit aussi parole intérieure, parole interne, parole silencieuse, monologue intérieur, dialogue intérieur, parole en puissance, parole imaginée, langage intérieur, discours privé, voix privée, pensée verbale, parole subvocale, imagerie auditive, petite voix dans la tête, vagabondage mental, rêverie éveillée…” (2)

Hélène Lœvenbruck observes that these names only capture part of the phenomenon of the inner voice – this is why she prefers the word “endophasia” – which she analyses in her book by considering its three characteristics:

  • condensation (the “shortening of inner language,” described by the psychologist Lev Vygotski as follows: “With inner speech, the subject – indeed the whole conversational situation – is known to the individual who is thinking. Here, speech consists almost entirely of predicates. We do not have to tell ourselves what this speech is about.”);
  • dialogality (“We are equipped to manage several voices, several perspectives, in our minds. [...] There is no language without an exchange between an ‘I’ who utters, who challenges, and a ‘you’ who listens, who responds. There is no language without dialogue.”);
  • and intentionality (“We can speak in our minds voluntarily”, but “our inner language is sometimes not deliberate. This happens most often in moments of day-dreaming, what in the cognitive sciences is called verbal mind-wandering”) (3).

After underlining the complexity and “profusion of sensory and cognitive processing” that occurs constantly in the human mind, Hélène Lœvenbruck offers a provisional conclusion:

“Endophasia can be intentional, i.e. deliberate and controlled, when we are attentive to our mental productions, or unintentional, when our cognitive control is less strong. When we let go, as they say. It then seems to occur in a vagrant, unexpected way, without us having the impression of having triggered it, and with the sensation that the words are interfering with us, playing with us: the game words play, les jeux de mots…”

“The sensation that the words are interfering with us” suggests that the “mystery” of the inner voice should be solved exclusively scientifically, without appealing to an occult, esoteric or divinely inspired cause. Cognitive philosopher Andy Clark has pointed out the ambiguity of the inner voice metaphor, which, while giving the impression of a single voice, and even suggesting the intervention of a “super-agent” capable of speaking inside us, does not reflect the workings of the human mind. In the following passage, the person speaking in the first person is Andy Clark himself. He imagines himself to be a human brain:

“I am not one inner voice but many. I am so many inner voices, in fact, that the metaphor of the inner voice must itself mislead, for it surely suggests inner subagencies of some sophistication and perhaps possessing a rudimentary self-consciousness. In reality, I consist only of multiple mindless streams of highly parallel and often relatively independent computational processes. I am not a mass of little agents so much as a mass of non-agents, tuned and responsive to proprietary inputs and cleverly orchestrated by evolution so as to yield successful purposive behavior in most daily settings. My single voice, then, is no more than a literary conceit.” (4)


Yet, it was a single inner voice – a daimonion (5) – that inspired Socrates in order, according to Plato, to warn him that he should not act in a certain way – according to Xenophon and Plutarch, it was a genius that warned him also of what he should do (6). This inner voice manifested itself in banal or exceptional contexts without giving any further explanation, making interpretation necessary to understand its meaning, such as was evidenced with the oracles. Socrates often mentioned this to his interlocutors. He did so during the trial that led to his death sentence:

“You have heard me speak at sundry times and in divers places of an oracle or sign which comes to me […]. This sign, which is a kind of voice, first began to come to me when I was a child; it always forbids but never commands me to do anything which I am going to do. This is what deters me from being a politician. And rightly, as I think.” (7)

Plutarch proposed an analysis of the nature of this inner voice. If Socrates could hear it, it was because he was able to control the tumult of ideas and passions that, in the context of any active life, disturb the exercise of conscience and reason. Socrates was “pure and free from passion” (8). Anyone can hear an “inner voice,” but, as the philosopher James Hans notes, “those who are less disciplined than Socrates allow their minds to be overrun by other voices, the noise of desire, or the jabber of a disorganized consciousness that hears nothing but its own chatter because it has found no way to quiet itself” (9). This is what Plutarch had to say about the “unuttered words” of Socrates’ genius, the “divine sign” that produced in his mind “the perception of a voice:”

“Speech is like a blow​ - when we converse with one another, the words are forced through our ears and the soul is compelled to take them in -; whereas the intelligence of the higher power guides the gifted soul, which requires no blows, by the touch of its thought; and the soul on its part yields to the slackening and tightening of its movements by the higher intelligence. No constraint is exerted, as no passion pulls the other way, and the movements of the soul respond easily and gently, like reins that give.” (10)

Plutarch uses a lovely metaphor – “reins that give” – to express in a concrete image the disposition Socrates was in, which enabled him to keep his mind open to divine signs. And his metaphorical paraphrase of the “inner voice” (note also the metaphor of the “blow” that strikes his soul) seems to refer to James Hans’ observation that “Socrates’ daimonion is something for which we lack a word” (11).


Let’s turn now to the occurrences of the inner voice that we mentioned in the introduction. The first is from the HEC Montréal’s Revue Gestion:

(A) “The coming months promise to be full of promise as well as disruption, creating an uncertain and complex climate in organisations. Uncertain because supply chain disruptions and labour shortages are still being felt. Complex, too, because a rapid technological revolution is underway. To find your way back to the north, there is one golden rule: listen to your little inner voice.” (12)

The second is about the “authentic” leader:

(B) “Emotional intelligence begins with self-awareness – getting in touch with your inner voice. Leaders who hear their inner voices can draw on more resources to make better decisions and connect with authentic selves.” (13)

The third concerns a collective force directed towards the fulfilment of an organisation’s vocation or mission. Rather than a voice that speaks from within an individual’s mind, the “internal voice” (internal voice and not inner voice, inner designating what relates to the mind – but internal is used in (E) in the sense of inner...) here refers to public discourse or conversations between members of an organisation. However, the reference to a company’s culture presupposes an “internalisation” of this voice (in the sense of inner voice) in the minds of its employees:

(C) “The internal voice of a company is the story the company tells about itself to its employees, which is a key component of culture. […] A business expresses its internal voice through mission, values, and vision statements.” (14)

There are also two references to the Socratic inner voice that use the concept of intuition. The first is a recent one in the advertising and communications sector. It stresses the need for an accurate inner voice and the importance of having an open mind, rather like Socrates’ willingness to “hear” his divine sign:

(D) “You also have to listen to your intuition and let yourself be guided by that little inner voice that always pushes you in the right direction (if you can ignore the external noise).” (15)

The last instance comes from an article in the Journal of Business Ethics that looks at the influence of imagination on decision-making. The author refers to Socrates’ daimonion:

(E) “On the surface, [the internal voice] seems to function as more of an intuition, a non-analytical ability to grasp the moral import of a case that can dramatically affect choices of action.” (16)

Occurrences (A), (B) and (D) suggest that what is called the inner voice is the expression of a self, freed from disturbances arising from worldly concerns, uncontrolled internal desires and drives, or even evil impulses. They imply conceiving the “authentic self” as an entity oriented towards the good, even if this conception does not exclude that the self can be demonic in nature. The epithet “little,” attached to the “inner voice” in (A) and (D), forms a litote which implies that this voice, far from being “little” in the sense that it would have a weak intensity or a weak value, possesses a great intensity and a great value. It even plays the role of a compass, because, according to (D), it “always pushes us in the right direction,” and, according to (A), it allows us to “find our way back to the north.” This optimism is not endorsed by (E), however, because the fact that an agent “grasps the moral import of a case” does not logically imply that he or she will act morally.

Occurrences (D) and (E) emphasise the idea that the phrase “inner voice” is a metaphor for the concept of intuition, a word derived from the sensory domain of vision. According to Noël Mouloud, intuition refers to “any form of immediate understanding, and concerns very diverse layers of knowledge” (17). He adds what might be considered a description of the inner voice: “We can speak just as much of the intuitive assurance we have of the presence of things, which requires a sensory signal, as of the intuitive certainty we have of a rational truth, that is to say, of an evidence freed from sensitive reference points.”

We can add that occurrence (A) suggests that we can, through willpower, hear our “little inner voice,” and that (B) uses the quasi-telephonic metaphor of “getting in touch” to explain how a business leader can perceive it.

Occurrence (C) presents a slightly different conception, in which the inner voice resembles other metaphors often used in relation to organisations, such as the “corporate conscience.” The philosopher Kenneth Goodpaster quotes one such metaphor: “The foundation of ethics in management [...] lies in understanding that the conscience of the corporation is a logical and moral extension of the consciences of its principals” (18). The metaphors of the inner voice and the conscience of the corporation are undoubtedly of heuristic interest: to perceive reality in a new, comprehensible and suggestive way. As Paul Ricoeur pointed out, quoting Aristotle, it is still necessary to “metaphorise well.” Ricœur added on this point:

“To metaphorise well cannot be taught; it is a gift of genius, of nature […]: Are we not now back at the level of finding or inventing, of that heuristic that we said violates an order only to create another, that dismantles only to redescribe? All of modern creativity theory confirms that there are no rules for invention, no recipes for the concoction of good hypotheses, only rules for the validation of hypotheses.” (19)

Each reader will judge the relevance of the inner voice metaphors (A) to (E). Of the metaphor “He is a tortoise,” the linguist Charles Bally said that “we have not only conceived, but expressed an abstract thing (slowness) by a comparison borrowed from the sensible world, from which has resulted the use of a certain form of language and a characteristic word (tortoise)” (20). The use of the name “tortoise” plays on resemblance, it is singular and inventive, and even though it is rarely used, it has entered common parlance (“tortoise” can be “someone or something regarded as slow or laggard,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary). It is doubtful, however, whether the metaphor of the inner voice in (C), for example, resembles the reality it is intended to express, and whether it really has any heuristic value – it would then be merely “ornamental,” or even worse. The other statements may not escape this criticism, but (D) and (E) have the merit of being based on the well-known concept of intuition which, although not without its own difficulties, provides a cautious interpretation of the inner voice metaphor.



(1) Voice is litterally the “sound produced by vertebrates by means of lungs, larynx, or syrinx” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). Linguist Pierre Fontanier defines metaphor, the etymology of which means “to carry beyond,” as follows: “By metaphor, a word is transported, so to speak, from an idea to which it is assigned, to another idea whose resemblance to the first it is capable of bringing out.” (Les Figures du discours, 1821-1830, Flammarion, 1977).

(2) H. Lœvenbruck, Le mystère des voix intérieures. Qui dit « je » en moi ?, Editions Denoël, 2022. A literal translation of this passage reads as follows: “We also say inner speech, internal speech, silent speech, inner monologue, inner dialogue, potential speech, imagined speech, inner language, private speech, private voice, verbal thought, subvocal speech, auditory imagery, little voice in the head, mind-wandering, day-dreaming...” (2)

(3) L. Vygotski, Thought and language, 1934, edited and translated in part by E. Hanfmann and G. Vakar, and in part by N. Minnick, The M.I.T. Press, 1962. Cited by H. Lœvenbruck.

(4) A. Clark, Being there. Putting brain, body, and world together again, The M.I.T. Press, 1997.

(5) We base our use of the word daimonion on this statement from Luc Brisson’s introduction to the French version of The Apology of Socrates: “Strictly speaking, the term daimon designates a class of polymorphous entities characterised only by their status as intermediaries between the human and the divine; in a broader sense, it can even designate a god. For its part, the substantival adjective daimonion can designate either a phenomenon caused by some daimon, the sign that Socrates makes such a big deal of, for example, or a being that belongs in one way or another to the class of daimones.” The reference to the ‘improper’ nature of the use of the word daimonion mentioned in our introduction comes from Louis-André Dorion’s article, “Socrate, le daimonion et la divination,” in J. Laurent (ed.), Les dieux de Platon, Presses universitaires de Caen, 2012.

(6) See my recent radio philosophy column (in French) on the euradio channel: “De la démocratie européenne au démon de Socrate,” 22 February 2024.

(7) Plato,The Apology of Socrates, translated by B. Jowett, Roberts Brothers, 1882; Xenophon, Memorabilia, translated by A. L. Bonnette, Cornell University Press, 1994; Plutarch, De Genio Socratis, published in Vol. VII of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1959.

(8) Plutarch, op. cit.

(9) J. S. Hans, Socrates and the irrational, University of Virginia Press, 2005.

(10) Plutarch, op. cit.

(11) J. S. Hans, op. cit.

(12) C. Ménard & C. Huot, “Tendances 2024 : de grandes avancées par de petits pas,Revue Gestion, HEC Montréal, 28 February 2024.

(13) D. Goleman,The Focused Leader,” Harvard Business Review, 51, 2013.

(14) Marc Emmer, “Apple tells its story through 2 voices. How your company can do the same,” 6 January 2023.

(15) “Thomas Jamet (UDECAM): ‘Il était temps de donner aux jeunes la place et les responsabilités qu’ils méritent dans nos métiers !’,” The Media Leader, 19 March 2024.

(16) Paul T. Harper, “The symbolic imagination; Plato and contemporary business ethics,” Journal of Business Ethics, 168(1), 2021, pp. 5-21. The author states that “Socrates highlighted the role of the daimonion, or internal voice, in decision-making.”

(17) N. Mouloud, “Intuition,” Dictionnaire de la philosophie, Encyclopædia Universalis France, 2016.

(18) K. Goodpaster, “Business ethics and stakeholder analysis,” Business Ethics Quarterly, 1(1), 1991, pp. 53-73.

(19) P. Ricœur, La métaphore vive, Editions du Seuil, 1975, translated by R. Czerny with K. McLaughlin and J. Costello, S. J., The rule of metaphor: Multi-disciplinary studies of the creation of meaning in language, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978. The quotation from Aristotle comes from his Poetics.

(20) C. Bally, Traité de Stylistique française, volume 1, Librairie Georg & Cie / Librairie C. Klincksieck, 1951.



To cite this article: Alain Anquetil, “Is the metaphor of the “inner voice” a good metaphor?” The Philosophy and Business Ethics Blog, 13 April 2023.


Share this post:
Share with FacebookShare with LinkedInShare with TwitterSend to a friendCopy to clipboard