The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 6

The Experiential Self - 6.2.5
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2. Awareness as a State and Attention as an Activity

[5] The word 'activity' is a very general word used to describe all sorts of goings on. This would lead one to expect that it did not possess a very strict logic of its own. However, philosophers have recently realized that the word is also used to describe a very specific kind of change, which cannot be described as precisely by means of any other concept. 164 It is activity in this generic sense with which I shall be concerned. That is, I shall not be concerned with the use of the word 'activity' as found in such sentences as: 'The activities of the secret society are subversive', and 'Mountaineering is a challenging activity'. In both these sentences a large variety of things people do are brought under the heading of activities. In this wider sense 'activity' is a polymorphous concept which has as its instantiations 'goings-on' and 'doings' which are not themselves activities in the sense in question. In contradistinction to its usage in such sentences as these, I hope to identify a sense of the word 'activity' in which it is not implied that an activity is composed of a number of 'doings' that are not themselves activities. 165 In the

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sense I am after, a definite distinction must be made between an activity and an act such that it is not the case that an activity consists of a succession of acts. I give the name 'generic activity' to any activity of which this is true. (When in future I refer to an activity I wish it to be understood that I am referring to a generic activity, unless I give an explicit indication to the contrary.)

Before I am in a position to give a definition of an activity, certain preliminary distinctions have to be made. In the first place, I wish to make use of a distinction made by von Wright, between the result of an act and the consequence of an act. 166 The purpose of this distinction is to bring out two totally different ways in which an act may be connected with the changes effected by it. When the connection between the act and the change is intrinsic, or logical, von Wright calls the change the 'result' of the act. When the connection is extrinsic (von Wright regards this extrinsic relation as primarily a causal one), the change is the 'consequence' of the act. For example, if the act is an act of opening the window, it is logically necessary for the window to be opening. The fact of the window's opening is the result of the act. If the window were not opening, the act could not be described as an act of opening the window, but would have to be described in some other way, such as the act of trying to open the window. On the other hand, if the opening of the window caused the door to slam, the slamming of the door would be a consequence of the act of opening the window and not the result of that act. In other words, my act would in this instance be one of opening the window regardless of the slamming of the door (consequence) but not regardless of the fact of the window's opening (result).

Von Wright also notices two possible interpretations that may be given to his use of 'result', and although he believes it to be a matter of indifference which interpretation we adopt, for my purpose the distinction is important. As von Wright explains:

By the result of an act we can understand either the change corresponding to this act or, alternatively, the end-state of this change. Thus, by the result of the act of opening a certain window we can understand either the fact that the window is opening (changes from closed to open) or the fact that it is open.' 167

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I shall record this distinction in the following way: when the term is interpreted to mean the change corresponding to the act, I shall identify it as 'resultc', and when it is interpreted to mean the end-state of the change, I shall identify it as 'resulte'. Now when an agent is said to be doing something, we may describe his doing as the bringing about of a certain result. Two possibilities present themselves: the agent may either bring about resultc or resulte. We may at once proceed to identify an activity in terms of these possibilities. An agent is engaged in an activity (in the basic, or generic sense) when he brings about a resultc, and he does not stop as soon as resultc, comes about. A better appreciation of activity is gained by contrasting it with what in the literature has come to be called a 'performance'. In my terms an agent is engaged in a performance when he brings about a resulte, and it takes time for resulte, to be produced. To complete the picture, we may identify a third possibility, which is neither an activity nor a performance, but which may be called a 'transitory act'. An agent performs a transitory act when he brings about a resultc, or a resulte, but in the first case stops as soon as resultc, comes about, and in the second case resulte is produced almost instantaneously.

The contrast between an activity and a performance comes to this: in the case of an activity, the result obtains from the very moment the activity commences until the moment it ceases; in the case of a performance the result comes into being cumulatively and is only fully realized at the termination of the performance. Let me illustrate this in the case of an activity and a performance, respectively. If I am whistling, then it will be true that I will have whistled from the moment I started, until the moment I stop: the resultc, that I have whistled will obtain right from the beginning, and will not be more fully realized after the activity has been going on for some time, than it was after the first moment. If I am making a bookcase, it will not be true that I have made a bookcase, until the bookcase is produced. The resulte, that I have made a bookcase will only be realized upon completion of the 'performance'.

Now it will be noted that from a grammatical point of view I use the perfect tense to describe the results of activities and performances. This is important, because it enables us to distinguish between activities and performances on grammatical grounds. Thus, let the verb describing the activity or performance be represented by 'has Øed.' It is then possible to distinguish between activity and performance as follows: in the case of an activity 'A

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is Øing' entails 'A has Øed', in the case of a performance 'A is Øing' entails 'A had not Øed'. We have already seen that this grammatical distinction operates in the case of the activity of whistling, and the performance of making a bookcase. It will be observed that there is a natural time limit in the case of a performance. The performance continues for as long as it is necessary for the completion of the result. It is possible, therefore, for a performance to be incomplete, or, for instance, half finished. It is for this reason meaningful in the case of a performance to raise the question 'How long does it take?' In the case of activities there is no such natural time limit, and it does not make sense to ask of an activity 'How long does it take?' Performances are completed; activities just stop. The above analysis also supports Kenny's contention that performances take time, while activities go on for a time. 168

I have stressed the contrast between activities and performances, not because this is the distinction I most want to utilize, but for the purpose of making the concept of an activity stand out all the clearer. I now come to the contrast between an activity and a state, which for this enquiry is the crucial one. Kenny and others have maintained that the distinction could be made in terms of whether or not the verb describing the putative activity or state possesses a continuous present tense. If the verb has no continuous present tense, it describes a state; if it has a continuous present tense, it describes either an activity or a performance. The characteristic function of the continuous present tense of verbs is to describe what an agent is doing at the time he is doing it. It is perfectly reasonable to expect, therefore, that a verb which does not describe something an agent can do, should lack the tense which implies that it does describe something an agent can do.

The fundamental distinction between an activity and a state is, accordingly, that an activity is a sort of doing of an agent, and a state is not a sort of doing at all. We talk of the state of a person or thing, or conversely, of a person or thing being in a certain state. In so far as we speak of being in a state, there is a contrast with doing: a person is in a state when he is undergoing something or something is happening to him; and 'undergoings' and 'happenings' are not 'doings'. It must be granted that a person may be able to induce a state, or put himself in a state, but this only means that he is able to bring about the conditions that give rise to the state; it does not mean that he brings about the state itself.

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It is essential to recognize that there are non-dispositional as well as dispositional states. In the case of a dispositional state a person may be said to be in a state under conditions in which he is undergoing nothing in connection with it at the time. Thus Othello may be said to be in a state of jealousy over Desdemona even when he is not feeling any jealousy or behaving jealously, because at the time there happens to be no occasion for jealousy. As opposed to dispositional states there are occurrent states which a person can only be said to be in when he is actually undergoing a certain experience at the time. Among such states are states of shock, pain, drowsiness, excitement, agitation, anger, and depression. Some philosophers have been puzzled about the relation between 'being angry' and 'feeling angry'; 'being depressed' and 'feeling depressed' and so on. The difference between the two types of description, I suggest, is that the former describes a dispositional state and the latter describes an occurrent state. Thus, if a person is angry this means that he is liable to do predictable sorts of things under specified circumstances, but if he feels angry he is in a certain occurrent state at the time regardless of what he might do next.

Unless otherwise stated, the type of state I shall be discussing and contrasting with activity is the occurrent state. The concept 'state' also implies the idea of its persistence through time. A state which existed for but an instant would less misleadingly be called an event. States, therefore, last for a time. The important characteristic that activities and states have in common is that they are both continuous through time, but, as we have seen, activities may be said to go on for a time, whereas states last for a time. These descriptions of the manner of their temporal endurance reflects the fact that an activity is a certain sort of doing of an agent, and a state is not. This is as far as we need carry the formal analysis for our purpose. I come now to the application of these distinctions to the concepts of attention and awareness.

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Footnotes

164. See Z. Vendler, 'Verbs and Times', Philosophical Review Vol. LXVI (1957), A. Kenny, Action, Emotion and Will (London, 1963), Ch. 8, T.C. Potts and C. C. Taylor, 'States, Activities and Performances', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Suppl. Vol., 1965, and C. O. Evans, 'States, Activities and Performances', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 45, December 1967.
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165. The sense of "activity" that I am here ruling out is just the sense that Schwayder believes to be the only sense of the word, and which he summarizes thus: 'The activities of life are distinguished from acts one might do, possibly when engaged in those activities. The background field of activity engaged in often provides the setting against which we may fix units of action. Also, we may begin to analyse a field of activity by specifying kinds of action necessarily or characteristically done when engaged in that activity.' D. S. Schwayder, The Stratification of Behaviour (London, 1965), p. 39. Schwayder also claims that whereas 'action is a technical idea', 'activity is a commonsense notion'. My own position is that while I agree that activity is a commonsense notion, its use is not confined to the one described by Schwayder. I should also add that I am not considering the use of 'activity' when it is applied to processes in nature, such as sun-spot activity, or volcanic activity. I have given a more extensive treatment of the ideas I am developing here in the article referred to in note 164.
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166. G.H. von Wright, Norm and Action (London, 1963), p. 39 ff.
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167. Ibid., p. 39.
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168. Kenny, Action, Emotion, and Will, p. 176.
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