The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 3

Attention - 3.2.7 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]


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

[7] In arguing that consciousness is structured even in conditions of nonattention, I have deliberately described the form this

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structuring takes, in the vaguest possible way, in terms of foreground and background. The minimum possible claim was all my argument needed. Nevertheless it might be helpful if I were to give some more definite idea of the manner in which I conceive a thought or an element of consciousness to occupy the foreground of consciousness. This can only be done by analogy. When speaking about an object in the vicinity it is usually possible to point to it. The visual field, the auditory field, or whatever sense-field it is, then organizes itself about the object. It becomes the centre of attention. Very much of a parallel situation is found, I suggest, in consciousness generally. When I have a thought, for instance, the thought becomes the cognitive referent around which consciousness organizes itself. It is as though, when I had a thought, I had already pointed out to myself which thought I was having. Now of course I do no such thing. But it is as if the reason I do not need to point it out to myself is that it already occupies precisely the position it would have, had I pointed it out. In this way it presents itself.

I have found reason to agree with Ward that some degree of attention is to be found in even the most distracted conditions of consciousness, whether it be pure sensuous consciousness or a state of reverie. In both forms of consciousness the need was found to differentiate consciousness into a foreground and background. Provided this feature of consciousness is recognized, it matters little whether it is identified as a rudimentary type of attention, or whether the word 'attention' is reserved for application to a less distracted condition of consciousness; for what James and Hamilton call 'consciousness concentrated'. If a feature of attention, which seems intrinsic to its 'marked and typical' forms, is also found to be present in nonattentive consciousness, this is worth pointing out. It might after all provide the link between nonattentive consciousness and fully attentive consciousness, and this in turn might explain how a state of nonattention could pass into a state of full attention.

It is a quite proper theoretical procedure to extend the scope of a concept to a phenomenon not previously falling under it in order to uncover a resemblance between such a phenomenon and the phenomena to which the concept was previously restricted. This, it seems to me, is what Ward has done when he alleges that some degree of attention is to be found even in conditions of consciousness normally believed to be antipathetic to its existence. If we have

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succeeded in tracing attention back to its earliest beginnings in consciousness, it would be churlish to object to our describing what we have found as 'rudimentary attention'. It is opportune at this point for me to make clear where I stand in relation to Ward's theory on the general question of the relation between consciousness and attention. At the moment I can give no more than a bare statement of my agreements and disagreements with him, because it is not until the next chapter that the reasons for my own position become fully evident. His view that there are degrees of attention I take to be important and true. I also agree with him that there is no consciousness without some minimal degree of attention. My fundamental disagreement with him is over his claim that to be aware is to attend, and by inference that every element of consciousness receives attention. Ward in effect makes it an analytic truth that to be aware is to attend. I do not. For me the concepts 'awareness' and 'attention' are logically different from each other. Thus I shall be arguing, in a way that Ward's position would preclude him from arguing, that although in each total temporary state of consciousness some element will be receiving attention, normally there will be many unattended elements belonging to it as well.

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