The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 3

Attention - 3.2.6 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

2. Rejection of the Notion of an Attention-Free Consciousness

[6] This brings me to the second form of consciousness with which I wish to test the hypothesis that all consciousness is thus structured - the state of reverie. When in such a state the mind wanders from one thought to another in a course dictated largely by the accidental association of ideas. Thoughts are interrupted by perceptions, and perceptions are in turn interrupted by thoughts. The mind seems to be free-wheeling.

Such writers as James and Ribot clearly regard this condition of consciousness as a paradigm case of the absence of attention. Ribot, for instance, referring to scatter-brained people, gives a description of their condition that applies equally to reverie in general:

We call "distracted" people whose intelligence is unable to fix itself with any degree of persistence, and who pass incessantly from one idea to another, at the mercy of their most transient whims, or of any trifling events in their surroundings. It is a perpetual state of mobility and dispersion, which is the very reverse of attention. 67

We may note, before continuing, that Ribot cannot mean that these 'distracted' people are unable to attend spontaneously in the way in which he says animals attend to their sense experiences in the struggle for survival. They must at least be capable of what he has called 'spontaneous attention', and yet in this passage we are led to believe that 'distracted people' are incapable of any attention whatever. He must mean that they are incapable of what he has called 'voluntary attention'. Once again we see Ribot making generalizations about attention in all its forms from features that are applicable to only some of its forms. This is the penalty he pays for

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generalizing unqualifiedly from instances of attention which are 'marked and typical'. Nevertheless, apart from a theoretical description of the matter, Ribot is undoubtedly staying close to ordinary usage when he describes 'distracted' people as people incapable of attention. And it is certainly the case that a person in a state of reverie would ordinarily be described as a person in a state of nonattention. Ribot's own words fit such a state perfectly: 'It is a perpetual state of mobility and dispersion, which is the very reverse of attention.'

Now inasmuch as some of the elements of consciousness found in a state of reverie may correspond with those belonging to a pure sensuous consciousness, they have already been shown to fall into the pattern of foreground and background. This leaves the other elements comprising a state of reverie: viz. recollections, mental images, and thoughts. Probably no one would dispute the testimony of introspection, which supports the claim that consciousness exhibits the typical structure of foreground and background in the state of reverie. In reverie there is always some element in the centre of consciousness. Nevertheless there is no need to rely on introspection alone. The very expressions we use to describe reverie tell the same story. We speak of a succession of ideas crossing the mind, and I do not think it would be going too far to say that we imagine them crossing in single file. We also use the expression 'a train of thought' and in reverie the train would be describable as aimless. Whether we speak of ideas 'crossing' the mind, or a 'train' of ideas, in each case the metaphor suggests that at any one time some idea must be in the middle of its passage, and that idea is then said to be 'before' the mind. Now it will be recalled that I have argued that a total temporary state of normal consciousness will reveal the presence of a plurality of elements. Since reverie is normal consciousness in this sense it must follow that if one element in a total temporary state has the position we describe as being 'before' the mind, there will be other elements in the state of which this is not true. We may conclude from these premisses that when in reverie some idea is before the mind, it is not the only element existing in consciousness at the time. This state of affairs can be described without misrepresentation as one in which the element in question occupies the foreground to a consciousness which must also have other elements in the background.

It is possible for a person to interrupt a state of reverie, and to try to recall the ideas that have been passing through his mind.

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The task is not easy. At the best of times it is difficult to recall events that received but scant attention, and we are dealing with reverie about which our concern is whether it is not perhaps a state of absolute nonattention. Nevertheless, because of the propinquity of the ideas to be recalled, we can hope for some success. Now it is not necessary to my argument that we be able to recall with any great fidelity what transpired in a state of reverie we have just come out of. It is sufficient for the argument if some of its elements can be recalled. A description of what is recalled will take the form of mentioning one idea, which gives rise to another, suggests a third, recalls a fourth, and so on. In other words the description will suggest a linear pattern in which we advance from one idea to the next. No matter how fragmentary each individual thought is, it will for a fleeting second occupy the focal position in consciousness, and it is for this reason that it should seem entirely fitting for a description of what happens to mention one idea after another. In other words, we do not protest that language cannot capture the true nature of reverie owing to the fact that in language we are forced to describe ideas one at a time, whereas in reverie there is no such linear pattern. Quite the contrary. The sequential nature of description of ideas in language accurately captures the impression of their order in the mind. The position is very different from the one we meet when we describe a visual scene for instance. For there we see a number of things at once, but have to describe them one after the other.

This point can best be substantiated by quoting a piece of writing describing a state of reverie. In James Joyce's Ulysses we find Bloom in a carriage on the way to a funeral, lost in reverie:


Imperthnthn thnthnthn.
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue bloom is on the
Gold pinnacled hair.
A jumping rose on satiny breasts of satin, rose of Castille.
Trilling, trilling: Idolores.
Peep! Who's in the . . . peepofgold?
Tink cried to bronze in pity.

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And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.
Decoy. Soft word. But look! The bright stars fade. 0 rose!
Notes chirruping answer. Castille. The morn is breaking.
Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.
Coin rang. Clock clacked.
Avowal. Sonnez. I could. Rebound of garter, Not leave thee.
Smack. La cloche! Thigh smack. Avowal. Warm.
Sweetheart, goodbye.
Jingle. Bloo.
Boomed crashing chords. When love absorbs. War! War!
The tympanum.
A sail! A veil awave upon the waves.
Lost. Throstle fluted. All is lost now.
Horn. Hawhorn.
When first he saw. Alas!
Full tup. Full throb.
Warbling. Ah, lure! Alluring
Martha! Come!
Clapclop. Clipclap. Clappyclap.
Goodgod heneverheard inall.
Deaf bald Pat brought pad knife took up.
A moonlight nightcall: far: far.
I feel so sad. P.S. So lonely blooming.
The spiked and winding cold seahorn. Have you the? Each
and for other plash and silent roar.
Pearls: when she. Liszt's rhapsodies. Hisss. 68

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67. Ribot, The Psychology of Attention, p. 78.
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68. James Joyce, Ulysses (Hamburg, 1935), Vo1 I, p. 264.]
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