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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved April 29, 2017, from

Article Summary

Attention is a contentious topic, partly because the nature of attention itself is disputed, and partly because there are open questions about attention’s explanatory relations to several other philosophically puzzling phenomena.

One of the phenomena to which attention seems somehow to be related is consciousness. Commonsense psychology suggests that if you pay attention to one sequence of events while ignoring another then you should expect the one sequence, but not the other, to figure prominently in your conscious experience. It therefore seems that there must be some connection between attention and consciousness. But there is controversy about how close this connection is, and controversy about whether the connection is essential, or is a contingent consequence of the way in which our brains happen to work.

Some theorists, especially in the field of psychology, think that the connection between attention and consciousness is very close indeed, so that the two phenomena are really the same thing, or are the result of the same processes. Some think that attention is at least necessary for consciousness, so that only the things to which we pay attention can figure in our consciousness. Others think that consciousness is necessary for attention, so that paying attention to something requires one to be conscious of it. Yet others think that attention and consciousness exert an influence on one another, but that there are no necessary connections between them.

Related to this 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 agency. 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 one who acts is paying attention. The responses that we make when not paying attention are, in contrast, experienced as rather automatic. It might therefore be that an understanding of attention can help us to understand free will and the exercise of rationality, but it is unclear whether elucidating the relation of attention to free will would gives us any sort of explanation of free will. As before, 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 connection with the puzzle about word meanings, some philosophers have claimed that attention figures in the explanation of reference, and that it has a particularly 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 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 somehow related to a puzzling and philosophically important phenomenon, but in each case the nature and import of the relationship 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.

Citing this article:
Mole, Christopher. Attention, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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