The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 3

Attention - 3.3.11 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

3. The Varieties of Attention

[11] In this section I propose a different way of making a distinction between types of attention, and I show that this alternative is vaguely foreshadowed in the theories of Ribot and Hamilton. In the chapter as a whole the discussion has concentrated on attention as it is exhibited in its most diffuse forms. I am referring, of course, to pure sensuous consciousness, and the state of reverie. Now these forms of consciousness share the characteristic that in them our intelligence seems to be at its least active. Accordingly, in these states our attention is, in a sense, idle. Since we are not attempting to accomplish anything in such states, no success or failure conditions for attention can be specified. This would be the most reasonable ground on which to base a denial that such states of consciousness are states of attention. Nevertheless, this feature they share with another form of attention that it would be absurd to deny to be a form of attention. Such is sense-organ attention. If I find myself looking at or listening to an object of attention, no question of success or failure arises. Nevertheless, these forms of attention need to be distinguished from those to which successful conditions apply. Accordingly, I shall name attention of this type 'unordered' attention. (The point of this choice of term will become apparent as I proceed.) It covers Hamilton's 'mere vital attention', Ribot's 'spontaneous attention' and my 'sense-organ attention'. Unordered attention may be usefully contrasted with two types of attention about which there could be no dispute that they are varieties of attention. The first of these I shall call 'interrogative' attention. This is the attention we pay to an object in order to enlarge our knowledge. Interrogative attention is the attention of a probing intelligence in search of the answer to some question, or the solution to some problem. It comes into operation whenever one is puzzled by something, wondering about it, or determined to find out about it. In this case it is possible to fail in one's quest because one gave insufficient attention to the task. In interrogative attention one's mind is actively engaged; it is attention guided by thought.

The second I shall call 'executive attention'. This is the attention we have to give those of our performances that require a technique for their execution; a technique that cannot be applied unless one

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has one's mind on what one is doing. The more sophisticated or skilled activities require attention in this sense. Executive attention differs from interrogative attention in that although for its success it is often necessary to bear things in mind, what one has in mind need not be in any way problematic. It may demand that one give oneself self--instruction, or that one warn oneself in connection with tricky parts of the performance, but it does not follow that at the end of the performance one will know something that one did not know at the beginning, or that the performance has failed if one does not end up with some additional knowledge. It is perfectly normal for executive attention and interrogative attention to be found together, since often theoretical problems arise over the perfecting of a technique. But they are distinct none the less. Whereas it is necessarily the case that interrogative attention is propositional, it is not necessary for executive attention to be propositional in form. That is, it is not necessary for one to be bearing in mind some consideration that could be communicated verbally in order for one to be engaged in executive attention. In the case of interrogative attention its success will eventuate in some conclusion being reached, or some facts being noticed. Executive attention need not have a 'noticing' as its result. Its success is not a 'noticing' but a completed performance that has been well done.

Attention may be of the unordered type to begin with and later be transformed into interrogative attention. When this happens our curiosity is said to be aroused. We then view the object of attention in a very different light. By bringing our understanding to bear on the matter, we start noticing aspects of the object that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

The threefold distinction I have introduced is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the varieties of attention, but is intended as a hopefully more fruitful form of demarcation than those introduced by the writers I have been considering. I shall now indicate how this threefold schema can clear up some of the difficulties we found facing these writers.

I shall begin with a passage of Ribot's which contains a good example of unordered attention (sense-organ attention), and also a good contrast with interrogative attention.

'Thus we may observe how spontaneous attention is natural and devoid of effort. The idler, who loafs around in the street, will stare with gaping mouth at a procession or passing masquerade,

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and preserve perfect imperturbability as long as the procession lasts. If at any time effort appears, it is a sign that attention changes in character, that it becomes voluntary, artificial.' 77

As is plain from Ribot's description, the man gawking at the procession exhibits a complete absence of interrogative attention. The description would not lead us to expect the 'idler' to be asking himself where the procession had come from, what it was all about, how it was organized or indeed any set of questions that displayed intellectual curiosity. And yet we can certainly describe the procession as holding his attention. As I mentioned, it is possible for unordered attention to turn into interrogative attention, and this it would do as soon as any of the above questions arose for the spectator. This change, however, need not involve any feeling of effort, and there would be no point in calling it voluntary. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that Ribot has in mind the very transition to interrogative attention that I have been describing. This is easily explicable in my terms. For interrogative attention is associated with precisely those of our 'doings' that are deliberate and hence voluntary. To try to find out something, or to try to solve a problem are 'doings' which we do decide to do, and which we may decide to stop doing. They would qualify as voluntary, and this would explain why the attention associated with such doings should itself be thought of as voluntary. Executive attention would be voluntary for the same reason.

That Hamilton and Ribot really had interrogative attention and executive attention in mind when they referred to voluntary attention is further borne out by their claim that voluntary attention is taxing. For although it is not necessarily true that an activity voluntarily engaged in is per se taxing, it is the case that interrogative attention and executive attention are both taxing - they demand concentration. My distinction would also account for the further point Ribot makes that voluntary attention is learned. For while it is implausible to argue that all our voluntary activities are learned, it is unquestionably true that interrogative attention and executive attention have to be learned.

The examination of attention I have undertaken has up to this point concentrated on the object of attention itself. Wherever attention was present, consciousness was seen to divide into a foreground and background. It has been the foreground that I have

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associated with attention. The background has been left in the background as seemingly irrelevant to the operation of attention. I have deliberately kept it out of the way, so that a number of observations could be made about attention, without the picture being obscured by premature over-complication. The point has now been reached, however, at which a further understanding of attention can only be had by an investigation of the role of the background of consciousness in attention. Moreover the notion of a background of consciousness is to play a crucial role, not only in the analysis of attention, but also in the view of the self developed in chapter five. An understanding of the significance of the back-ground of consciousness, and in particular an appreciation that it plays an active role in attention, is, accordingly, vital to my whole enterprise. It is the subject of the next chapter.

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77. Ribot, The Psychology of Attention, p. 14.
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