DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved February 18, 2019, from

2. Attention in later modern thought

In the eighteenth century attention began to be cited more frequently in psychological explanations, and there was, correspondingly, a move away from Locke’s explanatorily limiting view of attention as a mode of thinking, and towards the explanatorily more substantive view of attention, as being an independent phenomenon, describable in its own terms and in need of its own explanation.

Christian Wolff’s textbook on psychology (1732) was one of the first to devote a chapter to the topic of attention, and to attempt mathematically precise descriptions of the relations between attention and other phenomena (see Hatfield 1995 for discussion). The growing interest in attention in this period was not confined to academic psychology. Henry Home’s Elements of Criticism (1762) is a work of literary theory rather than of psychology, but it nonetheless ventures a psychological theory of attention, illustrated with literary examples, in its section of ‘Terms Defined or Explained’ (an appendix added in the 1769 edition).

By the end of the eighteenth century Locke’s view of attention as being merely a mode of thinking had been more or less abandoned, as attention came to be established (alongside memory, perception, imagination and ‘association’) as a distinct item on the research agenda of psychology. Opinions continued to change, however, concerning what sorts of phenomena attention can be used to explain.

Dugald Stewart’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1792) claimed that contemporary views of the explanatory remit of attention were too narrow. Stewart retains, and strengthens, Locke’s idea that attention is involved in memory, writing that ‘Some attention [is] necessary for any act of memory whatever’ (1792: 53). He adds to this an emphasis on the role of attention in the execution of outward behaviour, citing ‘the dexterity of jugglers’ as a ‘curious instance’ of this (and noting that juggling ‘merits a greater degree of attention from philosophers than it has yet attracted’ (1792: 62)).

This widening of attention’s explanatory remit continued throughout the period when the field of psychology was establishing itself as an experimentally driven discipline, with methods distinct from those philosophy. By the end of the nineteenth century the explanatory domain of attention had grown to such an extent that ‘attention’ ceased to seem like a well-defined concept. This prompted F. H. Bradley to complain that:

[I]f we cannot employ terms in something like their ordinary sense it is better to make new ones than to abuse and pervert the old. In the case of attention the abuse has even been carried to such a point that attention has been used to include and cover what every one does and must call a state of inattention.

(Bradley 1902: 1)

In claiming that ‘attention’ had been used to cover what would usually be called inattention, Bradley was not exaggerating. The sort of definition-widening that he was complaining about can be seen in James Ward’s Psychological Principles (published in 1918 but in preparation long before). Ward admitted that ‘attention’ must be given an unusually broad sense if it is to play the central explanatory role that his theory accorded to it, writing that:

this presentational relation [of an idea to a subject] implies what, for want of a better word, may be called attention, extending the denotation of this term so as to include what we ordinarily call inattention.

(Ward 1918: 49)

Ward provides some clarification of what he means by this, and his position was less strange than it might appear to be when taken out of context. The point Ward wanted make was that, just as the physicist need not treat coldness and hotness as opposites, but only as different degrees of the one phenomenon of temperature, so the psychologists need not treat attention and inattention as opposites, but only as different degrees of the one phenomenon of consciousness. Ward avoided putting the point in terms of ‘consciousness’ because there is no verb which stands to consciousness as ‘to attend’ stands to ‘attention’. It was this that lead to the somewhat awkward formulation that we have quoted above. Ward position is, then, a sensible one. It is, nonetheless, unsurprising that philosophers such as Bradley baulked at his broadening of terms.

Before Ward’s book had even been published the pendulum of philosophical opinion had already swung away from views that gave attention a major explanatory role in psychology, and towards stripped-down views that were explanatorily more modest. These took various forms. T. H. Ribot offered a theory that we would now classify as behaviourist (see Behaviourism, methodological and scientific), although no such school of thought existed when his La Psychologie de l’attention was published in 1889. Ribot asserts his behaviourist commitments with some panache:

Are the movements of the face, the body, and the limbs and the respiratory modifications that accompany attention, simple effects, outward marks, as is usually supposed? Or are they, on the contrary, the necessary conditions, the constituent elements, the indispensable factors of attention? Without hesitation we accept the second thesis.

(Ribot 1889: 25)

F. H. Bradley’s own response to the overburdening of attention with explanatory work was more pessimistic. In ‘Is There a Special Activity of Attention?’ (1886), Bradley argued that a mistake had been made in treating attention as a particular process with a particular function. Although Bradley does not mention Locke, the view that he suggests is something like a return to Locke’s ‘mode of thinking’ view. It is a view according to which: ‘Any function whatever of the body or the mind will be active attention if it is prompted by an interest and brings about the result of our engrossment with its product’ (Bradley 1886).

The culmination of nineteenth-century attempts to see attention as neither the explanatorily slight ‘mode of thinking’ suggested by Locke, nor as the explanatorily over-burdened process suggested by Ward, comes in Chapter XI of William James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890). This chapter, which continues to be widely cited, both by philosophers and by psychologists, displays the unwieldy range of topics that had come to be regarded as attention-involving. It includes sections on the perception of temporal succession, on the awareness of one’s own agency, and on the ability (now known as ‘subitizing’) to know without counting how many items are present when the number of these items is sufficiently small. James’s first move is to clear some of these topics out of attention’s explanatory remit. Of experiments into subitizing he writes: ‘It is obvious that such observations decide nothing at all about attention, properly so called’ (James 1890: 384).

The theory that James offers of the ‘intimate nature’ of attention is an explanatorily modest one. Attention is regarded either as a matter of pricking up one’s ears and pointing one’s eyes in the right direction – ‘The accommodation or adjustment of the sensory organs’ – or else as a matter of getting intellectually ready by imagining things relevant to the task at hand – ‘Anticipatory preparation from within of the ideational centres concerned with the object to which attention is paid’ (James 1890: 411). These ‘two physiological processes’, James says, ‘immediately suggest themselves as possibly forming in combination a complete reply’ to the question of attention’s fundamental nature.

Citing this article:
Mole, Christopher. Attention in later modern thought. Attention, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V042-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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