The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 4

Unprojected Consciousness - 4.1.1
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I. The Structure of Consciousness

[1] I give the name 'unprojected consciousness' to those elements of consciousness that together make up the background of consciousness when attention is paid to an object. In this chapter I explore the relationship between those elements of consciousness which may be said to form the object of attention and those which do not (unprojected consciousness). An initial thought is likely to be that there is no connection between the object of attention and unprojected consciousness. The latter would then be looked upon as a residue, which may be ignored as simply redundant. My contention is that this is very nearly the opposite of the truth. I shall argue that unprojected consciousness is as indispensable to attention as is the object of attention itself: the object of attention is to unprojected consciousness as one side of a coin is to the other.

Attention is always attention to something or other. It is an absurdity to claim to be paying attention but not paying attention to anything. It is not necessary for me to be able to make a sortal identification of the object of attention in order for me to pay attention to it, but I must at least be able to make a referential identification of it. The question 'What has your attention?' is always a valid question which cannot be answered in the negative once one has conceded that one is paying attention. Moreover, this question itself presupposes that one Could be paying attention to any of a number of possible objects of attention - could, because they enter one's awareness at the time. This point is sometimes made by describing attention as 'selective' 78 While this does convey the idea that there is always more to consciousness than has the subject's present attention, the description is unfortunate in that it wrongly suggests that all attention is deliberate, i.e. the product of conscious selection. Even when my attention is compulsive and I cannot disengage it at will, I must - if I am to recognize my state -

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at least be aware of the presence of other elements of consciousness to which I could turn my attention if I were able.

If our consciousness were such that we were never aware of anything except the objects of attention, we could not know that we were attending: we would have no contrast between attention and nonattention. Let us imagine the possibility of a consciousness the total temporary state of which consisted of but a single element. The question could then be raised whether it would be meaningful to talk of that element of consciousness holding the attention of the person who experienced it. If it could, we should have to be prepared to explain in what respect attending to that element of consciousness differed from simply having it.

Let us suppose that an excruciating toothache constituted an example of total temporary state containing one element. We should have to imagine the toothache pervading the whole of consciousness, thereby blotting out all other elements. If this were possible, it would be an entirely homogeneous consciousness. What I wish to point out is that in those circumstances it would be impossible on logical grounds to distinguish between attending to the toothache and having it. The sufferer could only distinguish the two possibilities if attending to the toothache were something over and above having it. This might consist in his belief that the toothache now felt worse than it did a minute ago. But as soon as some feature is specified which is the basis of the distinction between having and attending, the attending entails the presence of some element of consciousness in addition to the toothache: viz., in the present instance, the belief that it is getting worse. This example makes it clear that the normal case is one in which our attending to A cannot be fully described without some mention of a concomitant awareness that we are not attending to B, C, or D - where this awareness is evinced by our readiness to regard a shift of attention to B, C, or D, as a distraction. It is in this sense that the existence of elements of consciousness to which we are not paying attention provides a foil to those elements to which we are paying attention.

It is frequently the case that we are first made to realize that our attention has been engrossed by an object, upon being distracted from it by one of the elements of consciousness that erstwhile belonged to unprojected consciousness. That is to say, a shift in attention may make us realize both that we had been paying attention to an object and that we had ceased to do so.

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To revert to the example of the homogeneous consciousness, in which there is by definition no unprojected consciousness, nothing could correspond to that element's ceasing to receive attention apart from the disappearance of the state of consciousness itself. But where nothing would count as failing to attend, nothing could count as attending. Such circumstances would render the concept of attention vacuous. It would be like claiming that a landscape painting could have a foreground without a background and that would be an obvious impossibility. For these reasons it would be wrong to think that the existence of a plurality of elements of unprojected consciousness is quite accidental and irrelevant to the operation of attention.

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Footnotes

78. For this view, see James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1, p. 402,and R. G. Collingwood, The New Leviathan (Oxford, 1947), p. 22.]
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