The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 3

Attention - 3.1.3 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

I. Consciousness and Change

[3] I shall begin by considering the view of the philosophically-minded psychologist James Ward. Essentially what he maintains is that attention and consciousness are identical. 52 That is to say we cannot be aware of anything without giving it some attention, and this for the simple reason that to be aware of it is to attend to it. This means that as far as Ward is concerned it would be meaningless for one to say that he was aware of something but hadn't given it any attention. The most he could say is that he was aware of it although he hadn't given it much attention. Seeming absence of attention is explained in Ward's theory as a low degree of attention.

To better acquaint ourselves with the issues involved, it will be helpful to find out whether there is any difference between a state of inattention and a state of nonattention. Webster's Dictionary treats the words 'inattention' and 'nonattention' as synonymous, but their use does seem to have different 'pragmatic implications', We use the word 'inattention' to describe a state of mind of one who is not paying attention to what he is supposed to be doing. An inattentive person is one whose attention is diverted from that to which he is supposed to be giving his attention to something to which he is not supposed to be giving it. When, however, there is

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nothing to which a person is supposed to be paying attention, it would be misleading to say that he was inattentive, but correct to say that he was nonattentive.

This suggests that Ward's theory would be true of inattention but not of nonattention. He could retort, however, that the fact that there was nothing to which a person was supposed to be paying attention would not preclude its being the case that he was nonetheless paying attention to something. Thus Ward could not so easily be made to abandon the theory according to which every element of consciousness is an object of attention of at least some degree. Let us therefore see how his theory stands up to a paradigmatic counterexample - a state we would call sheer nonattention. Such a state is described by William James, who puts forward a theory of attention which contradicts Ward's by maintaining that there is a condition of consciousness which is free of any trace of attention whatsoever:

Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatter-brained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.

We all know this latter state, even in its extreme degree. Most people probably fall several times a day into a fit of something like this: The eyes are fixed on vacancy, the sounds of the world melt into confused unity, the attention is dispersed so that the whole body is felt, as it were, at once, and the foreground of consciousness is filled, if by anything, by a sort of solemn sense of surrender to the empty passing of time. In the dim background of our mind we know meanwhile what we ought to be doing: getting up, dressing ourselves, answering the person who has spoken to us, trying to make the next step in our reasoning. But somehow we cannot start; the pensee de derriere la tete fails to pierce the shell of lethargy that wraps our state about. Every moment we expect the spell to break, for we know no reason why it should continue. But it does continue, pulse after pulse, and we float with it, until - also without reason that we can discover - an energy is given, something - we know not what - enables us to gather ourselves together, we wink our eyes,

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we shake our heads, the background-ideas become effective, and the wheels of life go round again. 53

Now certainly on his own description of attention, James is quite right when he avers that anyone in this condition is not paying attention. Nevertheless, it seems to me that he lays himself open to attack from Ward's quarter by equating attention with the highest degree of attention. When James describes attention as the mind's taking possession of an object 'in clear and vivid form', we are given a description that best suits optimal attention. If therefore in conformity with Ward's position we look for traces of minimal attention in the state of distraction so vividly described in the above passage, we should not be altogether surprised to find what we are looking for. The clue is given in James's reference to the 'foreground' and 'background' of consciousness. In the state of ennui described, consciousness is still differentiated, according to James, into a foreground and a background. Ward would no doubt argue, and I see no reason to disagree with him, that the division of consciousness into a foreground and a background is the hallmark of attention. Indeed these are the very words frequently used for the precise purpose of describing the effect of attention on consciousness. What is more, the picture of a foreground against a background is also implicit in James's own characterization of attention when he says of it: 'Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence.'

James's passage is introspective writing at its best, but I question his belief that attention is entirely lacking even in as 'distracted' a condition of consciousness as the one described. After all the presence of attention is implied by his own words when he says 'Every moment we expect the spell to break'. For surely expectation is a state of attention. 54

There is a possible ambiguity in his thought on the question of attention-free states of consciousness. As we have seen, in his description of attention he refers to the mind taking possession of an object in a clear and vivid form, but this is open to two interpretations.

On the one hand, attention may take a clear and vivid form because the object of attention is itself clear and vivid: clarity and vividness in this sense being intrinsic to the object itself. On the

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other hand, the object may itself be vague and amorphous, and the more clearly and vividly attention is given the object, the more vague and amorphous it is seen to be. Thus in the first case, even if a less than optimal degree of attention were given to the object, the object would still be clear and vivid. While in the second case, even if optimal attention were given to the object, it would remain vague and amorphous. These constitute two distinct senses in which the mind can take possession 'in a clear and vivid form', and it is apparent that James's description is ambiguous as between them.

If we now bear in mind these two possibilities, and return to the passage we are examining, we notice that James describes the foreground of consciousness as filled 'by a sort of solemn sense of surrender to the empty passing of time'. Now if anyone senses anything of the sort, he certainly would not want to describe what he sensed as 'clear and vivid'. But this does not preclude the person from trying to give his whole attention to such an experience. It may be that the more he attends to the experience the more convinced he becomes of its essential vagueness and indeterminateness. The same may be said for the experience James allies with it, in which 'the whole body is felt'. He has no right to conclude, therefore, that if the foreground of consciousness consists of elements which are not clear and vivid, attention has not been brought to bear. I conclude that although James's view of attention is inconsistent with Ward's, the example he has given of a condition of consciousness lacking all attention, fails of its purpose. Nevertheless the failure is a lesson in itself. If such a state of distraction as the one described exhibits an important characteristic of attention, this is itself strong evidence for the conclusion that no consciousness will be found without the presence of at least a dim flicker of attention. For if that is not an example of a consciousness devoid of attention, one may well ask what is.

The condition of consciousness in question would be better described as one characterized by the diffusion of attention, rather than by its total absence. However, the notion of a diffused attention runs directly counter to the description James gives of attention when he says of it that 'Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence'. This assertion seems to express the orthodox opinion on the subject. Hamilton, too, says of attention, 'It is consciousness concentrated'. 55 In view of the importance of this

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contention, it must be given closer scrutiny to determine whether it really is at odds with Ward's claim that some degree of attention is present under all conditions of consciousness.

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52. James Ward, Psychological Principles (Cambridge, 1918), ch. III, sec.1 and 2.
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53. James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1, pp. 403-4.
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54. My attention was drawn to this point by John Schumacher.
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55. Bowen, The Metaphysics of Sir William Hamilton, p. 160.
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