DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2009
Retrieved January 19, 2018, from

Article Summary

Attention is related to several puzzling phenomena. But its nature, and role in their explanation, is contentious.

One such phenomenon is consciousness. Commonsense psychology suggests that if you pay attention to one sequence of events while ignoring another then you can expect one sequence, but not the other, to figure prominently in your conscious experience. It therefore seems that there is some connection between attention and consciousness. But there is controversy about how close the connection really is. Some think that attention is necessary for consciousness, so that only the things we pay attention to can figure in our consciousness, some think that consciousness is necessary for attention, so that paying attention to something requires one to be conscious of it. Others think that attention and consciousness are associated with one another, but that there are no necessary connections either way.

Related to the controversy about the connection between attention and consciousness is an older controversy concerning the connection between attention and free will. Writers such as William James suggest that the direction of attention is what produces the experience of freely willed action. This suggestion has some intuitive force since the clearest cases of freely willed action, and of deliberate, rationally executed thought, are cases in which the agent is paying attention, whereas the responses that we make when not paying attention are experienced as being rather automatic. It might be, therefore, that understanding attention can help us to understand rationality and free will, but it is unclear whether elucidating the relation of attention to free will gives us any sort of explanation of free will, and it is unclear whether the relationship between these two phenomena is a necessary one.

Two further philosophical puzzles to which attention has been thought to be related are about how words get their meanings and about how we can come to have warranted beliefs about the minds of others. In both cases there is, as before, controversy about whether the relation to attention is explanatory. In connection with the puzzle about word meanings, some philosophers have claimed that attention figures in the explanation of reference, and, in particular, that attention has a central role in determining what is being referred to when we use demonstrative expressions like ‘this’ and ‘that’ and ‘there’. Others (notably Wittgenstein) deny that the attending/referring relation provides us with a route by which reference can be explained. In connection with the puzzle about the minds of others, there is an established view among developmental psychologists that an infant’s ability to respond to its mother’s attention provides the first step towards the development of an understanding of what the mother is thinking. Some philosophers have recently adopted this idea as possibly providing an explanation of how the mental states of others can be known.

In each of these cases attention seems to be related to a puzzling and philosophically important phenomenon, but in each case the nature of the relation is unclear. It is particularly unclear to what extent articulating the role of attention in these phenomena can provide us with a philosophically satisfying explanation of them. Partly on account of this unclarity the topic of attention has been discussed more often by experimental psychologists than by philosophers. The best worked out theories of attention are scientific theories about neural mechanisms and cognitive architecture. The philosophical project of saying what attention is and of articulating its relationship to other phenomena has, with a few exceptions, been relatively under-explored.

    Citing this article:
    Mole, Christopher. Attention, 2009, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V042-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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