DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2009
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

1. Attention in early modern thought

Attention was assigned to various explanatory roles during philosophy’s early modern period, and it was assigned to these roles for a variety of reasons. These disagreements as to the nature of attention often went unremarked, leading William James to say:

So patent a fact as the perpetual presence of selective attention has received hardly any notice from psychologists of the English empiricist school. The Germans have explicitly treated of it [...] but in the pages of such writers as Locke, Hume, Hartley, the Mills and Spencer the word hardly occurs, or if it does so, it is parenthetically and as if by inadvertence.

(James 1890: 380)

This is a little unfair. Attention may not have been a topic that the early modern philosophers explicitly debated, but their writings contain traces of issues that continue to be in contention today.

In Descartes’ work attention plays an epistemological role. Descartes’ account of how knowledge is possible famously depends on the claim that clearly and distinctly perceived ideas cannot be misleading. His proof of this general claim is a complex matter, depending on theses about the perfection of God and the imperfection required for deception, but Descartes also claims that the guarantee of truth in particular cases of clear and distinct perception is given, not by this complex general proof (for then circularity would threaten) but immediately from the perception of the idea itself so long as the thinker is properly attentive. By casting attention in this role Descartes replies to the objections about circularity that were made against his use of clear and distinct ideas to support the premises of the theological argument for the truth of clear and distinct ideas (see Descartes, R. §7). In a reply that is usually taken to be making a point about memory, rather than attention, he writes that:

So long as we attend to a truth which we perceive very clearly, we cannot doubt it. But when, as often happens, we are not attending to any truth in this way, then even though we remember that we have previously perceived many things clearly, nevertheless there will be nothing which we may not justly doubt so long as we do not know that whatever we clearly perceive is true.

(Descartes 1642: 309)

The claim that it is only when we are attending that clear and distinct ideas are indubitable enables Descartes to strike the delicate balance of claiming to have entertained doubts about all his ideas, while also claiming that some ideas have a degree of clarity that puts them beyond doubt.

Bishop Berkeley, like Descartes, invokes attention in addressing what appears to be a weakness in his philosophical picture, but, like Descartes, Berkeley shows no interest in developing a theory of attention. The place where Berkeley invokes attention is in his account of the possibility of abstract thought. Berkeley’s criticisms of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (see Berkeley, G. §5) depend on denying the existence of abstract ideas, but Berkeley needs to find a way to deny abstract ideas without thereby committing himself to the manifestly false view that all our thoughts are about concrete particulars. Berkeley mentions a role for attention here, if briefly and rather grudgingly:

[I]t must be acknowledged that a man may consider a figure merely as triangular, without attending to the particular qualities of the angles, or relations of the sides. So far he may abstract: but this will never prove that he can frame an abstract general inconsistent idea of a triangle.

(Berkeley 1710, Introduction to 2nd edn §16)

Berkeley does not develop his suggestion that selective attention puts us in a position to use particular ideas in thinking about abstract matters any further, but the idea of a connection between attention and abstraction was taken up by William Hamilton and, less earnestly, by Peter Geach. Both Hamilton and Geach think that attention is so closely related to abstraction that neither one can figure in the explanation of the other. Hamilton thinks that attending and abstraction are simply the same thing, writing that: ‘Attention and Abstraction are only the same process viewed in different relations. They are, as it were, the positive and negative poles of the same act’. (Hamilton 1876: 88). Geach is more brusque:

So far as I can see, it is quite useless to say the relevant sense-perceptions must be attended to; either this does not give a sufficient condition, or else ‘attended to’ is a mere word for the very relation of judgement to sense perception that requires analysis.

(Geach 1957: 64)

Locke has a more developed, and more modern-sounding, theory of attention than either Descartes or Berkeley (although he too devotes no more than a few sentences to the topic). Locke’s view is that the ideas to which attention is given are ones that have been selected for various sorts of additional processing. When first making this point he emphasizes the processing responsible for the storage of ideas in memory, writing that:

When the ideas that offer themselves (for, as I have observed in another place, whilst we are awake, there will always be a train of ideas succeeding one another in our minds) are taken notice of, and, as it were, registered in the memory, it is attention.

(Locke 1689: II, 19 §1)

But memory is not, in fact, essential here: Locke’s discussion also mentions forms of processing not connected with memory, and treats these other processes as also constituting ‘various degrees of attention’.

Locke’s view of the metaphysics of attention is that attention, like ‘studying’, is a ‘mode of thinking’. According to this view attention is not a distinct psychological phenomenon in need of its own explanation or capable of figuring in the explanations of other things, just as ‘study’ is not a distinct phenomenon, additional to perception, contemplation, memory etc. or capable of figuring in the explanation of them. Study is simply the exercise of perception, memory, etc. in a certain way and for a certain purpose. We do not need to identify a particular process of studying when giving a philosophical or scientific theory of the mind – we have already accounted for it once we have an account of perception, memory, etc. Locke’s view is that attention belongs in the same category: to be attending to an idea is not to be executing any particular process, over and above the processes involved in memory, perception, and so on. Nor is attention the sort of thing that explanations of these can legitimately invoke.

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