The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 4

Unprojected Consciousness - 4.3.7
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3. Unprojected Consciousness and Executive Attention

[7] I shall now discuss the relation between unprojected consciousness and object of attention at an entirely different level, and this concerns the connection between the two as found in executive attention. I argue that we are able to exercise control over our attention, in the manner that we do, through the control we exercise over our activities. The next step in the argument is that we exercise control over our activities through the control we have over our 'bodily doings'. 88 I then seek to establish that our kinaesthetic sensations give us our ability to control our 'bodily doings'. Finally, I argue that the kinaesthetic sensations performing this function must belong to unprojected consciousness. In sum, therefore, the argument is that executive attention is dependent upon kinaesthetic sensation, and thereby dependent upon

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unprojected consciousness. The implication of this argument is that the operation of executive attention itself produces some of the elements of unprojected consciousness. In other words, it is shown that even if there were no independently existing unprojected consciousness to act as a foil to attention, the operation of attention in this instance creates its own unprojected consciousness.

I try to establish this thesis first of all in the case of those forms of attention that are necessarily related to 'bodily doings'. I then try to show that the thesis also covers that form of attention that seems to be logically unrelated to bodily doings; namely, reflection.

Ribot is interested in the part played by muscular activity in attention, and it will be useful to begin with a consideration of his view. He sets out his position as follows:

Are the movements of the face, the body, and the limbs, and the respiratory modifications that accompany attention, simply effects, outward marks, as is usually supposed? Or, are they, on the contrary, the necessary conditions, the constituent elements, the indispensable factors of attention? Without hesitation we accept the second thesis. Totally suppress movements, and you totally suppress attention.

The fundamental role of the movements in attention is, to maintain the appropriate state of consciousness and to reinforce it. 89

In his view the muscles perform their function in attention through the mechanism of inhibition: 'Attention, accordingly, means concentration and inhibition of movements. Distraction means diffusion of movements. 90

point about a type of activity, namely the activity that I have given the name of 'bodily activity'. 91 We may then understand the thesis as one which maintains Once again it is possible to turn Ribot's point about physical movement into a conceptual that we pay attention by controlling our bodily activities. This is the thesis I propose to examine in the case of executive attention.

We engage in executive attention by bringing parts of our bodies (not excluding the whole) into play, in order to accomplish some task or other. Now, executive attention may be called for either in a situation in which it would be best to keep still (keeping an eye on a

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remote object) or in a situation in which it would be best - even essential - to make certain movements (watching a football match). Ribot does seem to be thinking of the first situation to the exclusion of the second, for in the first but not the second it is quite true to say that it is necessary to inhibit movement if we are successfully to attend. Clearly the claim that movement is inhibited in attention is too stringent. However, the claim can be modified by being turned into one specifying that any movement of the body interfering with the attentive activity must be inhibited. This would make it possible for us to say that inhibition of movement occurs even in such tasks as threading a needle, without our being committed to the absurdity that one can thread a needle without making any bodily movement.

Ribot's point can best be appreciated by reverting to the case of sense-organ attention. 92 I argued that we engage in sense-organ activity in a spontaneous fashion. That is to say, of such activities as 'looking about', it is not always the case that a reason can be given for one's looking about. On many occasions the proper answer to give to the question, 'Why are you looking about?' is 'I have no reason, I just am.' This is the point I take Alexander Bain to have been making when he asserted: 'Movement precedes sensation, and is at the outset independent of any stimulus from without.' 93 Bain called such movements 'spontaneous', and if we substitute the notion of activity for movement we arrive at the conception of spontaneous bodily activities. It is these activities that have to be disciplined and subordinated when executive attention occurs, and this process of discipline and subordination is covered by what Ribot calls 'inhibition'. This interpretation of Ribot's position would still enable us to understand why he felt that attention was 'unnatural'. When spontaneous bodily activities are interrupted during executive attention the unwanted activities have to be held in check. This inhibition of movement requires muscular effort, and this effort is greater than that required to sustain the activities when they are spontaneous. In short, the exercise of spontaneous bodily activity is 'easier' than is the inhibition associated with executive attention, and this leads to a desire on the part of the attender to break off attention and return to the 'easier' condition at the earliest opportunity. In respect of executive attention Ribot is right to maintain, therefore, that attention is an unnatural condition.

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However, this does not give him an entitlement to make the same claim in respect of unordered attention.

I have been reinterpreting Ribot's theory of physical movement in terms of a theory of action. For 'movement' I have substituted 'bodily activity', for 'inhibition' I have substituted 'keeping in check' these activities. It now remains for me to give a translation of 'muscular movement'. That which from an observer's standpoint is a muscular movement, is from the subject's standpoint a kinaesthetic sensation. Our kinaesthetic sensations are our mode of sensing our own movements. Even more important, they are our means of exercising control over our movements.

Many of the skills that involve the use of instruments can only be practised successfully when executive attention is bestowed upon them. We need only think of the skills of the surgeon, of the maker of precision instruments, of the musician, and of the architect, to name a few. All these skills demand a high degree of coordination of movement, and an extreme sensitivity of movement to perception. Expertise in these matters is denied those who lack the very finest control over their movements. Now the important thing to realize is that it is not attention as such that gives us this fine control over our movements. A person can have great powers of attention, but lack the necessary manipulative skill. This manipulative skill is dependent on kinaesthetic sensation. Our kinaesthetic sensations give us the fine control over our movements that are essential to these sophisticated skills. (Needless to say, the value of kinaesthetic sensation is by no means confined to superior skills.)

It is also clear that when performing a manipulative task that requires great skill we do not consult our kinaesthetic sensations as we might consult a scientific instrument registering an effect, in order to determine the strength and direction of one of our movements. On the contrary we take our kinaesthetic sensations for granted. They give us control over our movements without our having to pay attention to them. All our attention can be given to the actual manipulation that has to be brought off. Were we in the circumstances to turn our attention to our kinaesthetic sensations, that would distract us from the proper object of attention; namely, the bringing about of a certain result. Indeed it would be true to say that one who in the circumstances turned his attention to his kinaesthetic sensations would by so doing be revealing his lack of confidence in his ability; revealing even that he was a novice at the

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job. In confirmation of this we need look no further than at the case of the golfer who gives his attention to his kinaesthetic sensations during his swing, instead of giving his attention to his shot: his doing so throws him off his whole performance. But, another way of saying that the kinaesthetic sensations accompanying an exercise of skill and guiding it must not themselves be the object of attention at the time is to say that they belong to unprojected consciousness. Those elements of unprojected consciousness that are the kinaesthetic sensations relevant to the practice of a skill have a role to play in its successful performance. They are necessary elements of the relevancy system linking unprojected consciousness and object of attention. Without them there could be no such thing as executive attention. We reach the conclusion, therefore, that executive attention is a form of attention in which it is not possible for unprojected consciousness to be merely the foil to attention. On the contrary, it is a form of attention which cannot be actualized without its bringing into existence certain elements in unprojected consciousness that are necessary to its actualization. Moreover, the role played by these elements is involved in the very notion of executive attention. From this standpoint it can no longer be looked upon as a happy accident that an unprojected consciousness happens to be available as a foil to attention. We now see that even if there had been no independent unprojected consciousness, executive attention would still have brought its own unprojected consciousness along with it. This means that attention not only produces an unprojected consciousness by the negative method of excluding certain elements from the forefront of consciousness, but also produces unprojected consciousness in a positive manner through the dynamics of executive attention itself. If successful, the argument has established the interdependence of unprojected consciousness and its complement.

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Footnotes

88. A word of caution needs to be given about the term 'bodily doing'. Since the investigation is at present concerned with consciousness as such, and not with its relation to the body, the term 'bodily doing' seems question-begging. It should be understood in the sense explained on p. 71 above. The description 'bodily doing' is really a third person description of a doing and as such is strictly ruled out on the self-approach. 'Bodily doings' should therefore be understood as those of our 'doings' that another person would describe as bodily. The connection between consciousness and the body will be examined in the final chapter.
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89. Ribot, The Psychology of Attention, p. 25.
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90. Ibid. , p 53.
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91. See above, p. 71.
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92. See above, p. 85.
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93. A. Bain, The Senses and the Intellect (London, 1855), p. 67.
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