The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 3

Attention - 3.1.1 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

I. Consciousness and Change

[I] The object of this chapter is to show that consciousness is given a structure by attention. After certain preliminaries of a terminological nature, and a section on consciousness and change, I argue in support of Ward's doctrine that attention is a universal feature of consciousness. I give reasons for believing that what we take to be the presence of attention in consciousness is the polarization of consciousness into elements occupying its foreground relative to others which form its background. The hypothesis that all normal forms of consciousness have this structure is examined in the case of two of its forms which give least promise of supporting it. It is shown that even in such conditions of seeming nonattention the hypothesis is confirmed. Finally, distinctions between different forms of consciousness, proposed by Hamilton and Ribot, are examined and rejected in favour of distinctions between 'interrogative', 'executive', and 'unordered', attention.

In the preceding chapter I argued that although 'consciousness' was a collective name for our several experiences, it could not be eliminated in favour of direct reference to individual experiences, because no meaning could be attached to the assertion that at any one time an individual had a determinate number of experiences which could be exhaustively specified. Nevertheless it will be necessary to refer in a topic-neutral way to the experiences of which consciousness is comprised. I shall use the expression 'clement(s) of consciousness' - 'element(s)' for short - for this purpose. Unfortunately no designation which could be chosen entirely avoids misrepresentation of the position. Even the term 'element of consciousness' suggests a certain atomistic independence of one element from the next, and this could give rise to the idea that consciousness is an aggregate of such elements This is an idea I want to resist, and so when I refer to the elements of consciousness, it should be borne in mind that I do so with the reservation that I cndorse the view expressed by William James:

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The traditional psychology talks like one should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water. Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow. It is just this free water of consciousness that psychologists resolutely overlook. Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the image is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it . . .' 43

Besides needing to refer to the elements of consciousness, it is also necessary to be able to refer to their temporal relations to one another. James's metaphor of a stream has graphic value in this connection. He describes consciousness as a 'stream of thought'. This creates the image of elements of consciousness floating along in the current of time. For the breadth of the stream we can conceive of all those elements that are compresent at a particular moment, and for the length of the stream we can conceive of a series made up of a succession of such compresent elements. Philosophers have referred to this twofold organization of consciousness in different ways. Broad has described the counterpart of the breadth of the stream as the 'transverse unity of a cross-section of the history of a mind', and the counterpart of the length of the stream as the 'longitudinal unity' of a mind. 44

Grice has referred to the contemporaneous elements as a 'total temporary state' of consciousness. A continuous succession of elements (Broad's 'longitudinal unity' of the mind) Grice refers to as a series of total temporary states. 45

I shall adopt Grice's terminology because it is more convenient than Broad's. For the present we shall sufficiently understand what is meant by a total temporary state from the following explanation offered by Grice:

A total temporary state is composed of all the experiences any one person is having at any given time. Thus if I am now thinking of Hitler and feeling a pain, and having no other experiences, there will be occurring now a total temporary state containing as elements

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ments a thought of Hitler and a feeling of pain. Now since total temporary states may be said to occur at various times, they may be said to form temporal series.' 46

It is evident from the above account of a total temporary state that it is a theoretical possibility for a total temporary state to contain but a single element. It would represent the logical limit to consciousness in one direction. A total temporary state which lacked even one element would not be a state of consciousness at all. Now when in the course of my enquiry I have spoken of normal forms of consciousness, the qualification was intended to exclude precisely this possibility of a consciousness a total temporary state of which contained no more than one element. Special significance is attached to this possibility but the matter is left to succeeding chapters. The normal state of affairs, I maintain, is one in which total temporary states have a plurality of elements.

The proposition that a total temporary state normally contains a plurality of elements is indisputable. We do not cease to have visual impressions when we hear a sound; we do not necessarily cease to hear things when we have thoughts; we do not cease to be aware of any of these things when we have tactile sensations, and so on. Of course our absorption in any of these experiences might diminish our awareness of the others, but this I am not denying. When all our senses are working we receive impressions from them simultaneously, provided of course that the necessary stimuli are present. But even if it be granted that a total temporary state normally consists of more than one element, it is theoretically possible for there to be a series of identical total temporary states. This would constitute a perfectly static consciousness in which no existing element perished and no new element appeared. Accordingly, it also needs to be shown that this is not normallv, if ever, the case. I shall argue, on the contrary, that a series of total temporary states will be a series of changing elements, in which although some elements will persist from one state to the next, others will be new. It may be thought that the truth of this proposition goes without saying. Strawson, in his book on the Critique of Pure Reason, reveals his concurrence with Kant's acceptance of it. Speaking of Kant's thesis 'that experience essentially exhibits temporal succession', he says,

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The thesis is treated by Kant throughout as an unquestionable datum to which we cannot comprehend the possibility of any alternative, and as such we may be content to regard it. 47

Nevertheless, I shall attempt to account for this feature of experience as an introduction to one of the themes that will figure prominently in the later development of my position.

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43. William James, The Principles of Psychology (London, 1891), Vol I, p. 255.
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44. C. D. Broad, The Mind and Its Place in Nature (London, 1951), p. 560.
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45. H.P. Grice, 'Personal Identity', Mind, L (1941).
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46. Ibid., pp. 341-2.
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47. P.F. Strawson, The Bounds of Sense (London, 1966), p 25
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