The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 4

Unprojected Consciousness - 4.2.6
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2. Unprojected Consciousness and Interrogative Attention

[6] If my reasoning is on the right lines, we are in a position to correct a weakness in Ribot's theory of attention. 85 On his analysis, the effect of attention on consciousness is to suspend the change from one total temporary state to the next, i.e. each total temporary state is succeeded by one identical with itself during the period of attention. That hypothesis, together with the hypothesis that consciousness cannot long survive the suspension of change, entailed the conclusion that attention was a condition inimical to the normal life of consciousness. As against this position I have been arguing that attention has nothing to do with the suspension of change and therefore nothing to do, either, with producing a state of mono-ideism. The unity that comes about when attention is given is the unity of a system, and not the unity of a content. Attention is at its maximum when the elements of consciousness are related in a relevancy system, and not when their number is 'frozen'. Far from demanding the suspension of change, the relevancy system may in fact operate through the occurrence of changes in the elements of consciousness. Thus, if it were possible for change to be suspended, it could well turn out that we would want to say 'X has ceased to pay attention'.

Ribot in fact made a qualification to his theory, which showed his unease about maintaining that attention was a state of monoideism, and this qualification is certainly in the direction favouring the position I have suggested. 'Is attention a reduction to a sole and single state of consciousness?' he asks:

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No; for inward observation teaches us that it is only a relative monoideism; that is, it supposes the existence of a master-idea, drawing to itself all that relates to it, and nothing else, allowing associations to produce themselves only within very narrow limits, and on condition that they converge toward a common point. It drains for its own use - at least in the proportion possible - the entire cerebral activity. 86

This passage exhibits in embryonic form the relation between unprojected consciousness and object of attention that I have called a relevancy system. But the success of attention is not dependent upon eliminating the change from one state of consciousness to another: it is neither monoideism nor relative monoideism.

Possibly Ribot thought that attention did produce a state of monoideism, because he failed to distinguish, as I have done, between a single relevancy system and a single object of attention. I have already shown how easily one can be driven to the conclusion that maximal attention is achieved when only a single object engages attention. I have also argued that we should resist being driven in this direction. Ribot's position nicely illustrates the embarrassments to which it gives rise. There is, indeed, a unity of consciousness when attention is engaged, but the unity is the unity of a system, and not the unity of sheer identity, as Ribot seems to believe. The unity is achieved when, as Sartre puts it, consciousness 'organizes itself around' the object of attention; or as Ribot himself recognizes, when attention is determined by a 'master-idea'. These two ideas are not merely alternative ways of expressing the same thought. The object of attention around which consciousness organizes itself is not itself the 'master-idea'. The position is rather the reverse: the master-idea organizes consciousness around an object of attention. It is evident that the master-idea is none other than that idea in unprojected consciousness which at the time directs the particular instance of interrogative attention, in a way that has already been described.

This is a natural point at which to stop and summarize the conclusions that have been reached so far. I first used a form of transcendental argument to prove that we could not make sense of any form of attention without presupposing the existence of an unprojected consciousness that was not itself engaging attention. I then attempted to show that in the non-intellectual forms of

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attention, which I have called unordered attention, there is relative separation between unprojected consciousness and object of attention. By contrast the discussion showed that interrogative attention was characterized by a functional inter-relation between unprojected consciousness and object of attention. It has been shown that the concept of 'an object of attention' must not be thought to have the implications of precision and freedom from vagueness which, in the literature, is taken for granted. Finally, I have contended that the connectedness or relatedness between the elements comprising unprojected consciousness and the object of attention must be looked upon as constituting a relevancy system. Attention is concentrated, on this view, when the elements of consciousness are ordered in a single relevancy system. Attention is diffused when its objects cannot be integrated within the reigning relevancy system.

A major implication of the argument is the conclusion that unprojected consciousness contains cognitive elements in addition to sensory ones. This follows from the assertion that unprojected consciousness may contain elements which I have referred to as master-ideas, and that in interrogative attention a number of its elements form a relevancy system together with the elements forming the object of attention. It can thus be appreciated how wrong it would be to look upon unprojected consciousness as a residue of unattended sensory experience.

Some of the ideas advanced in this chapter receive the support of an obscure nineteenth-century writer quoted with approval by James in his The Principles of Psychology. The following is the passage in question:

At every instant of conscious thought there is a certain sum of perceptions, or reflections, or both together, present, and together constituting one whole state of apprehension. Of this some definite portion may be far more distinct than all the rest; and the rest be in consequence proportionably vague, even to the limit of obliteration. But still, within this limit, the most dim shade of perception enters into, and in some infinitesimal degree modifies, the whole existing state. This state, will thus be in some way modified by any sensation or emotion, or act of distinct attention, that may give prominence to any part of it; so that the actual result is capable of the utmost variation, according to the person or the occasion . . . . To any portion of the entire scope here described there may be a

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special direction of the attention, and this special direction is recognized as strictly what is recognized as the idea present to the mind. This idea is evidently not commensurate with the entire state of apprehension, and much perplexity has arisen from not observing this fact. However deeply we may suppose the attention to be engaged by any thought, any considerable alteration of the surrounding phenomena would still be perceived; the most abstruse demonstration in this room would not prevent a listener, however absorbed, from noticing the sudden extinction of the lights. Our mental states have always an essential unity, such that each state of apprehension, however variously compounded, is a single whole, of which every component is, therefore, strictly apprehended (so far as it is apprehended) as a part. Such is the elementary basis from which all our intellectual operations commence.' 87

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85. See above, p. 84.
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86. Ribot, The Psychology of Attention, p. 10.]
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87. Jas. Wills, 'Accidental Association', Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol XXI, part 1 (1846), also quoted in James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1, p. 241.
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