The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 6

The Experiential Self - 6.2.4
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2. Awareness as a State and Attention as an Activity

[4] Having elaborated the concept of an awareness I am now in a position to advance my main claim. I wish to argue that the continuousness of consciousness is explained by the fact that our awarenesses are kept in being by our bodily activities. For this theory to be intelligible I might give the reminder that I have defined as a bodily activity any activity which cannot be fully described without mention of the sense-organs used in that activity. 157 Thus looking, listening, tasting, feeling tactually, etc., are bodily activities. Now these activities can be practised for a variety of purposes, and so we can make further differentiations according to the purpose for which they are practised. Very often prepositions that go with the verbs designating the activities reveal such differentiations. In the case of the verb 'look' we have 'look for' 'look at', 'look about' and 'look (to see) whether' In the case of the verb 'listen' we have 'listen for', 'listen to', and 'listen (to hear) whether'. In the case of the other verbs of perception there is a less rich prepositional vocabulary to go with them, and we have to be inventive in finding ways of describing the activities into the description of which they enter. No doubt the reason for this is that our remaining senses are less discriminating.

Of the diverse activities designated by the verbs 'look' and 'listen' in conjunction with prepositions (I shall concentrate on

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these two verbs from this point onwards), there are two of particular importance: they are designated by the expressions' looking at' and 'listening to' Looking at x entails seeing x, and listening to y entails hearing y. Here we have two activities that entail corresponding awarenesses. Furthermore, the point of the activities in question is to keep in being a visual awareness and an auditory awareness, respectively. 158 To generalize, there are specific bodily activities whose function it is to sustain perceptual awareness. Obviously whether or not an awareness can be sustained is not dependent upon the sustaining activity alone. If I continue to see an object because I continue to look at it, my seeing it is still conditional upon the object's remaining before my eyes. As Sibley points out, in those cases in which there is a danger of losing sight of the object we describe our activity as one of 'keeping it in sight'. 159 Where there is no such danger, we do not: we simply look at it. None the less both activities are equally retentive.

Philosophers, particularly sense-datum theorists, have been prompted to ask how long an awareness can last. Thus for Russell it was meaningful to entertain the idea that a sense-datum might last a few seconds, 160 and Don Locke suggests that whatever answer we give is arbitrary. 161 However, the connection between the bodily activity and the awareness that goes with it enables us to give an entirely natural and satisfactory answer to this question. The awareness lasts as long as its sustaining activity lasts. Thus if I am looking at a tree, I can correctly claim to see it as long as I continue uninterruptedly to look at it. If, however, I take my eyes off it and then look at it again, I can say that I had seen the tree twice. It is only when we overlook the connection between awareness and bodily activity that we get into difficulties about what constitutes 'one awareness'.

From the criterion of what constitutes one awareness which I have just given it follows that a single awareness may exhibit qualitative change and even will usually do so. For instance, while looking at a tree I can notice various features of it without moving

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my eyes and while remaining motionless. In addition while I am looking at the tree the sun may go in and this will alter the quality of my awareness. Thus sameness of awareness must not be taken to mean sameness of quality of awareness. Probably philosophers have had difficulty in deciding how to distinguish between awarenesses because they have taken it for granted that sameness of awareness was dependent upon sameness of quality of awareness. If that was insisted upon then nothing but an arbitrary answer could be given. However, we may reject the assumption that nothing can retain its identity if it is subject to change, for this assumption engenders Heraclitian-type paradoxes of identity.

The next step in my argument is to make a connection between attention and those bodily activities that sustain awareness. This is quite simply done by pointing out that the activities in question must be attentive activities. In this manner we establish the connection between attention and awareness. I shall try to substantiate this claim in respect of the activities of looking and listening. A minimum condition of looking at an object is that one keep one's eyes on it. If they wander this is not careless 'looking at': it is not 'looking at' at all. The same is true of listening to an object. If one is paying no attention at all to what one claims to be listening to, then it is just not true that one is listening to it. In short, 'looking at' and 'listening to' are paradigm cases of attentive activity. One might wish to deny this in view of the commonness of such remarks as: 'He listened attentively to what I was saying." But this is not a counter-example when properly understood. If listening is an attentive activity then it would seem to be otiose to say of a person, that he listened attentively. The point of such a remark, however, is to stress the fact that he listened with more than usual attention, not that on this occasion he listened with attention as compared with other occasions on which he listened with no attention at all. Because listening is an attentive activity it is not ordinarily necessary to point out that it is done attentively. That is to say, all such concepts as looking, listening, smelling, feeling, and tasting are attention-laden concepts. So also are the higher order concepts such as observing, examining, scrutinizing, and watching. One may practise these activities with greater or lesser attention, but not with no attention.

By no means all awarenesses are sustained by bodily activities. Some instances of awareness are fleeting as when we catch a glimpse of a rabbit, or catch the scent of a flower. If I caught sight of my

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opponent's cards it would be a serious imputation to say that I was looking at them. Nevertheless the important point is that I cannot give my attention to an awareness without engaging in the attentive activity which keeps it in being. This suggests the view that paying attention to an awareness just is attentively engaging in the bodily activity that sustains it. We will find reason to reject that view, 162 but that in no way shakes the conclusion that it is a precondition of paying attention to an awareness that we engage in the requisite attentive bodily activity.

It is now possible to fill in the account for those bodily activities about which I have so far said nothing. I am referring in particular to 'looking for', 'listening for' and 'feeling for'. Do they entail 'seeing' 'hearing' and 'palpating'? The normal situation is one in which we are seeing something when we are looking for an object but are not seeing what we are looking for. Similarly with the other senses. In the course of our visual search we look at this and that, and after a brief look to determine that the object is not the one we are looking for we pass it by. Should this account be accepted it would mean that 'looking at' was the basic activity in respect of sight, and 'looking for' an activity dependent on it.

There is obviously something to this, but it will not do as it stands for precisely the reason that it was found misleading to say of the cards that caught the eye that they were being looked at. That is to say, the concept of 'looking at' is conceptually too loaded with the implication of retentiveness to be used to describe a situation in which an awareness is summarily dismissed. Obviously we need a less conceptually enriched concept for the purpose, such as the concept of spotting. Then we could argue that 'looking for' is dependent upon 'spotting'. We would have to imagine an analogous concept for the other sense modalities. 'Picking up' is probably the counterpart to 'spotting' in the case of hearing. If this contention were accepted, it would still remain true that 'looking for' entailed seeing, 'listening for' entailed hearing, and so on for the other senses. But even this can be questioned. In other words, it can be questioned whether 'looking for' logically entails seeing at the time one is looking for. Is it not possible to look for an object at a time when one can't see a thing? I think we must allow this possibility, although the natural thing to say in those circumstances is 'I am trying to see.' But if the point of trying to see is that one's

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inability to see is impeding the activity of 'looking for', then it could be held that failing to see is one of the ways in which one may fail in one's activity of 'looking for'.

The safest conclusion to draw is that 'looking for' is conceptually of a higher order than 'looking at' and is dependent on being able to engage in the activity of 'looking at' and hence seeing. This could be said without it following that no 'looking for' can occur without it being true that on every occasion on which one is 'looking for', one must also be 'looking at' (or rather, 'spotting') at the same time. Essentially the same argument applies to the other senses, and so I shall not go through them one by one.

I do not want to suggest that keeping an awareness in being is the only purpose of perceptual activities. At least two others are important, but they both presuppose the ability to keep an awareness in being. Firstly, one often engages in a perceptual activity in order to give oneself an awareness. Thus I look at the sunset because I want to give myself an awareness of the sunset, and I do this usually because I enjoy sunsets. My enjoying them, however, is premissed upon my ability to retain my awareness of them. Secondly, one often engages in an activity such as 'looking at' in order to see something better, or in order to scrutinize it. If that is one's purpose it is likewise premissed on an ability to retain the awareness.

Up to this point I have tried to establish that perceptual awarenesses are kept in being by certain bodily activities, and I have argued that these activities are exemplifications of the polymorphous concept of attention. I have yet to show how these points establish the fact that consciousness is continuous. Might it not be, for instance, that attention is made up of a series of flashes of attention, or discrete 'quanta' of attention? As we saw James thought of attention in terms of a series of acts of short duration. 163 If this were the case it would be difficult to see how attention could sustain a continuous awareness. What I need to show, therefore, is that attention is an activity, and that activities have precisely the property of continuousness that would account for the continuousness of awareness that we are looking for. I shall then show that awareness is a state sustained by activity and that the continuousness of the activity is transferred to the state which is sustained by it

To this end I shall first give an analysis of the notion of an

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activity and the notion of a state in order to show that activities and states possess precisely the logical feature we are looking for. After this excursus into the logic of 'activity' and 'state', I shall show that what I have been calling 'bodily activities' satisfy the criteria of an activity, and that what I have been calling 'awareness' satisfies the criteria of a state. It may be remarked that in what follows a more sophisticated treatment is being given of Ribot's thesis that consciousness is dependent upon movement (of the body).

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157. See above, p. 71.
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158. See F.N. Sibley, 'Seeking, Scrutinizing and Seeing', Mind, Vol. 64 (1955). All page references to its printing in The Philosophy of Perception, ed. G. J. Warnock (London, 1967), p. 140 ff. Sibley calls the activities I am referring to 'retentions'. I reached the above conclusion before I read Sibley's valuable article, and although my argument goes beyond his, it is reassuring to have such strong support for one's position.
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159.Sibley, 'Seeking, Scrutinizing, and Seeing', p. 145.
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160. B. Russell, Logic and Knowledge, ed. R.C. Marsh (London, 1956), p. 203.
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161. Locke, Perception and Our Knowledge of the External World, pp. 160 and 179.
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162. See below, p. 207.
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163. See above, pp 93-4.
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