The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 2 (Summer 2014)

The Art and Ethics of Attention

Thomas Pfau

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 2)

In a world defined by unparalleled degrees of specialization, “expert knowledge,” and an ever-expanding inventory of technical terms, we may easily lose sight of ordinary language as a source of insight. Words such as action, judgment, goodness, and attention routinely surface in everyday speech, even as we seem largely unaware of their conceptual richness and force. Indeed, it is only when we find ourselves or someone else failing to live up to the meaning of these words that we can glimpse their submerged complexity. How often has an exasperated “Why weren’t you paying attention?” or “Where was your judgment?” tumbled across the lips of a parent trying to fathom what went on in the mind of his teenage child, now slouching at the far end of the kitchen, red faced and sullen. Remaining for the most part outside our purview, the importance of a word such as attention will typically divulge itself only in moments of crisis or (less frequently, perhaps) wonder. An ideal honored more in the breach than in practice, attention seems all but inseparable from the particular situation that calls for it, but, often enough, does not receive it.

On the face of it, then, there is very little about the idea of attention that can be stated in general terms. It concerns some particular object, issue, phenomenon, or person and appears exclusively defined by the specificity and richness of what we attend to. As the philosopher and moralist Simone Weil put it long ago, “attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object … [or] in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is.” A first and provisional conclusion, then, might be that attention appears to be an antonym of control.

The Fateful Rift

It is easy to understand why the concept of attention, thus understood, should no longer engage modern and, especially, contemporary philosophy. Ever since René Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637) established the fateful rift between mind and matter as a principle of modern reason, and particularly after that rift was widened by David Hume’s skepticism and then Ludwig Wittgenstein’s shrewd agnosticism about “inner states”—the qualia of philosophical discourse—modern thinkers have been wary of mental phenomena that do not readily conform to their preferred methodological protocols. What kind of “evidence,” after all, could there ever be that someone is properly “attending” to something or someone, other than her verbal assurances that she is doing so? Yet in that case, the prototypical modern skeptic will be quick to insist on the difference between a verbal assurance (“I am paying attention”) and the putative fact of attention itself. To be and to report oneself as being in a state of attention (or love, anger, remorse, etc.) are evidently two separate things. For the modern skeptic, the first order of business thus becomes disentangling something as specious as inner states, such as attention, from the propositional language employed by individuals claiming to inhabit some such state. For it would be an unpardonable blunder, as well as an affront to the philosopher’s professional amour-propre, to be caught mistaking a simple proposition for the state to which it ostensibly refers.

Naturally, once inner states are deemed to lack objective, measurable criteria for their verification, it is but a small step to deny them any reality and legitimacy as topics for philosophical inquiry. If the mental phenomenon of attention can command any respect whatsoever from modern thought, it is only as a type of behavior such as can be captured in the verbal and physical trappings of outward representation. To the philosopher committed to objective, quantifiable verification, attention thus becomes fused with looking or behaving like someone who is paying attention. As is the case with other inner states or qualia—such as sincerity, faith, love, or grief—the reality of attention is assimilated into one’s making an effective rhetorical pitch for it, rather in the spirit of what the philosopher John L. Austin calls a successful (“felicitous”) performative utterance.1 Conversely, today’s heir apparent to Humean skepticism, neuroscientific reductionism, seeks to dissolve qualia such as attention into a distinctive, measurable data stream. Naturally, any explicit and putatively “conscious” assurance about one’s inner state (“I am in love” or “I am paying attention”) would be quarantined, per the neuroscientific paradigm, simply as a separate neural event.

Now in either scenario, the major premise driving modern inquiry will be that attention, if it is anything at all, amounts to a distinctive state of mind, that is, some measurable and quantifiable spike in the computational acuity with which an individual’s brain can be shown to process some specific data input. The skeptic and the reductionist thus tend to “solve” admittedly elusive and perplexing phenomena, such as that of “attention,” either by confining them within a pre-established matrix of objective measurement or, where such attempts fail, by disputing the reality of the phenomenon altogether.

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  1. John L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 12–24.

Thomas Pfau is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English and a professor of German at Duke University, with a secondary appointment on the Duke Divinity School faculty. His many books include Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, and Melancholy, 1790–1840 and, most recently, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge.

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