The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 6

The Experiential Self - 6.2.6
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2. Awareness as a State and Attention as an Activity

[6] The preceding section has given us the analytical means to determine the logical categories to which the concepts of attention and awareness belong. I shall argue that attention has the logical features of an activity and that awareness has the logical features of a state. If this can be established it will follow that both attention and awareness have the required temporal continuousness to make it possible in principle for attention conceived of as an activity to

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sustain awareness conceived of as a state, since both activities and states have been shown to possess temporal continuousness. The development of the argument will be as follows: I shall first contrast attention and awareness in order to show that awareness is a state and attention is not; I shall then concentrate on attention in order to show that attention is an activity and not a performance or a transitory act.

The first thing to notice is that the verb 'attend' has a continuous present tense (am attending) whereas the verb 'aware' does not: there is no construction with 'am awaring'. This immediately puts attention into the category of a doing of some sort and awareness into the category of a state. More importantly though, it is meaningful to answer the question 'What are you doing?' by saying, 'I am attending (i.e. paying attention) to X'. It would not be meaningful to reply 'I am aware of X'. Even stronger proof of the contention that attention is an activity and awareness a state is forthcoming in that I could give the reply: 'I am trying to attend to Mx', but not the reply 'I am trying to be aware of x'. To illustrate further that attention is a sort of doing, we need only consider that it is always legitimate to raise the question 'Why are you paying attention to x?' This invites a reply of the form: 'I am attending tox in order to . . . ' In the chapter on attention, I pointed out that in certain circumstances attention can be voluntary as well as involuntary. When we choose to pay attention and do so as a result of deliberation we can be expected to produce on request the reason for paying attention. Now not all attention is deliberate and it will be especially true of unordered attention that one may have no reason for attending. We can therefore deny that we have any reason for attending: we can say 'There is no reason, I just happen to be attending'. The point remains, however, that it is always legitimate to ask for the reason, even when there isn't one. The position is very different in the case of awareness. 'W1 y are you aware of x?' is not even intelligible unless it be understood as an elliptical way of raising the question 'Why did you put yourself in the position to give yourself the awareness?' It follows that the sentence form 'I am aware of x in order to . . . ' does not make sense. A fortiori one docs not strictly speaking have reasons for one's awarenesses. Finally, one may be ordered to pay attention, while one cannot he ordered to be aware: one can be ordered to do something, but not to be something (except in a very roundabout sort of way).

Awareness will have satisfied all the criteria for being a state if it

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possesses the feature of lasting through time which as we saw is one of the logical features of a state. Obviously this is the case. The meaningfulness of the question 'For how long were you aware of x?' establishes the fact that awareness lasts a certain length of time. In spite of the fact that an awareness has all the logical properties of a state, one philosopher in particular has given reasons for declining to call an awareness a state. These reasons will emerge shortly. 169 It is enough for the moment if we agree that to all intents and purposes awareness is a state.

I turn now to attention. It has been argued that when we are attending we are doing something. It remains to be shown that the sort of doing involved is an activity and not a performance or a transitory act. If attention were a performance it would follow that the statement 'A is attending to X entailed 'A has not attended to X'. But this is false, so attending is not a performance. On the other hand, a person may have been attending for a length of time, so attending is not a transitory act either. It must therefore be an activity. And indeed attention satisfies the grammatical criterion for an activity in that 'A is attending' entails 'A has attended'. That is to say, having attended is the resultc, of attending, and this result is brought about concomitantly with its sustaining activity. On this argument we would appear to be justified in calling attention an activity. However, just as in the case of awareness there is a difficulty about identifying awareness as a state, so too in the case of attention there is a difficulty about identifying attention itself as an activity. Unlike the case of awareness, however, there are no expository reasons to hold up an immediate discussion of the difficulty.

The difficulty arises if we accept Ryle's view of the nature of attention. Ryle's view is neatly summed up in this statement by Place:

There is no special activity called "attending", there is only the attentive performance of an activity. 170

This view may be described as the 'adverbial theory of attention', since it finds the paradigmatic examples of attention in our engaging

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in activities, carefully, or heedfully. The major implication of Ryle's view is that attention is not itself a separate operation or activity, which occurs concomitantly with the act or activity that is said to be engaging one's attention. As Ryle himself says in this connection,

Even where it is appropriate to speak of acts of attention, the word "act" carries very little of its ordinary luggage. In ordinary contexts we apply very multifarious criteria in determining what constitutes one act. Perhaps making one move in chess is performing one act; perhaps doing enough to warrant prosecution is performing one act; and perhaps getting from the beginning to the end of a speech without being side-tracked is one act. But a person who has, say, hummed a tune from beginning to end, not absentmindedly but on purpose and with some application, has not performed two acts or accomplished two tasks, one of humming plus one of giving his mind to reproducing the tune; or, at any rate, he has not performed two acts in that sense of "two acts" in which it would make sense to say that he might have done the second but omitted the first. Giving his mind to reproducing the tune is not doing something else, in the way in which a person sawing wood while humming is doing something else besides humming. We should say, rather, that a person who hums a tune with some concentration is humming in a different way from the way in which he hums automatically, for all that the difference might make no audible difference. It makes his humming a different sort of action, not a concomitance of separately performable actions.' 171

There is at least this indisputable basis to Ryle's argument; namely that it is impossible to pay attention without paying attention to something, but it has been convincingly argued by Penelhum that the dependence of attention on other sorts of episodes does not rule out the possibility of its being an episode itself. 172 There is, besides, another respect in which exception may be taken to the way in which Ryle describes attention. In the passage quoted above, Ryle refers to attention as an 'act', and one of his arguments

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in favour of an adverbial view of attention consists in pointing out the logical embarrassment occasioned by the belief that attention is an act. For instance he says,

Philosophers and psychologists sometimes speak of "acts" of attention. This idiom too is partially appropriate to certain contexts and quite inappropriate to others. When a person is actually bidden by someone else or by himself to attend, there is something which with some effort or reluctance he does. Where his attention had been wandering, it now settles; where he had been half-asleep, he is now awake; and this change he may bring about with a a wrench. But the spectator at an exciting football match does not have to try to fasten or canalise his attention. To the question "How many acts of attention did you perform?", his proper answer would be "None." For no wrenches had occurred. His attention was fixed on the game but he went through no operations of fixing it. 173

Now it seems to me that the proper answer to Ryle here is to deny that attention is an act, and to affirm instead that attention is an activity. His failure to distinguish an act from an activity leads him to take for granted that if it is inappropriate to call something an act, it follows that it is not a separable episode. But once it is recognized that we are dealing with the different proposition that attention is an activity (and here it is vital to distinguish between activity in the generic sense and activity in the Schwayderian sense in which it is a series of acts), it at once becomes obvious why Ryle's question 'How many acts of attention did you perform?' is inappropriate: while an activity is going on, it is continuous, and that is why we cannot count the number of isolable occurrences of attention, or acts of attention. It cannot be denied that an activity is as much an episode while it is going on, as is an act while it is being performed. I conclude that what Ryle says about 'acts' of attention tends neither to strengthen nor weaken his adverbial view of attention, but is simply beside the point.

All the same, Ryle's adverbial theory makes a negative point, which he is quite right to insist upon. If attention itself is interpreted as an activity, instead of interpreted as a manner of engaging in activities, we seem to imply that attention is a purely inner mental operation which we trigger off in conjunction with our

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bodily activities but which is logically distinct from them. Now while I do not reject this view for the reason Ryle does (namely, his rejection in principle of inner mental operations), I find myself on his side in challenging it. I have been maintaining a general thesis to the effect that all activity is bodily, and that thesis will be strengthened if it can be sustained even in the case of such a seeming non-bodily activity as paying attention. Furthermore, those who claim that attention is an inner mental act or operation are themselves involved in great difficulties when it comes to substantiating their claim. This alone is reason for preferring an account which manages without postulating any such inner mental operation. Beyond this point, however, I am in disagreement with Ryle. From what he has written on the subject he gives the impression that paying attention is much simpler than it is. He maintains that paying attention is reducible to doing something with care, or heedfully, or with enjoyment. In each case we are given the picture of an individual act or activity which is practised in a certain 'style' so to speak, and we are led to believe that that is all there is to it.

I do not wish to deny that this simple account might cover some cases of paying attention. What I do want to insist upon is that there are many cases in which we can be sure that this is not the whole story. I think we need to take cognizance of the fact that in these cases it is a precondition of our engaging in an activity attentively that we are simultaneously engaging in another activity. What I have in mind is quite simply this. Often in order to give our attention to what we are doing, we have to think about what we are doing, and often the thinking that is required is not thinking in a dispositional sense, neither is it thinking in the sense of 'being-thouaht-in-action' but rather thinking in the sense of having overt thoughts directing what one is doing. The thinking in this sense may be openly theoretical and propositional in nature. Now it would be a very tough-minded man indeed who would commit himself to the proposition that the entertaining of propositional thoughts is never a necessary condition of attention of any kind. If we are not to be unreasonable we must admit the possibility that on some occasions engaging in an activity attentively necessitates engaging in the activity of thinking - in the sense of having thoughts - at the same time. What is not implied by this contention, is the idea that such a second activity is itself a sui generis activity of attending. And yet this was the idea Ryle was anxious to deny. He could perfectly properly have denied that, without having to deny

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that the presence of some other sorts of concomitant activity might be detected, which had a role to play in attention.

Provided that this important qualification is made to Ryle's adverbial theory of attention, we may agree with him that attention is not itself an activity. We can then accept his claim that attention is a 'polymorphous' notion, 174 covering a variety of activities whose special characteristic is that they cannot be engaged in at all, unless they are engaged in attentively. Such activities as perceiving, thinking, watching, and enjoying belong to this class. They are all 'attention-laden' activities. On this interpretation, to say that attention is an activity is an elliptical way of saying that there are activities that entail attending. Once it is realized that this is what is meant, there is no harm in referring to attention itself as an activity - as a form of short-hand for this position. This I shall do.

Having sided with Ryle on the question of the nature of attention, I must defend him, if I am to defend myself, against the refutation of the adverbial theory put forward by Place. I must at once confess that I do not really understand Place's argument to the effect that Ryle's case breaks down. According to Place,

The logical consequence of this theory is that the individual's own activities are the only sorts of things to which attention can be paid.

His objection to this position is as follows:

If Ryle's theory were correct it should be nonsensical to talk of someone paying attention to anything other than an activity which he himself is performing. In fact, of course, we can speak with perfect propriety of the paying attention to any kind of object, phenomenon or sensation which is visible, audible, tangible, or otherwise perceptible. In such cases there is no activity which is being performed attentively or heedfully. 175

My difficulty with Place's argument stems from the fact that I can only pay attention to a visible object by looking at it, an audible object by listening to it, and a tangible object by feeling it; and as I shall show 'looking', 'listening', and 'feeling' are activities. But if this is true, I pay attention to such perceptible objects in virtue of

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engaging in attentive activities: it is as much activities which are attentive in these cases as in the cases of actions bringing about changes external to the agent.

Penelhum agrees with Place on this issue. But it is interesting to see that he recognizes the existence of the line of defence I have just offered. I shall quote his remarks about this, but I must just point out that Penelhum is thinking specifically about 'enjoyment' rather than 'attention' as such. Nevertheless this does not affect the argument, since Penelhum is in agreement with Ryle's view that enjoyment is itself a species of attention. We are therefore free to make a mental substitution of the word 'attention' for the word 'enjoyment' in the following passage without violating its intent:

A possible way out is to insist that what we are enjoying is some activity of our own, viz., that of watching or noticing the actor's performance. But this clearly entails the un-Rylean view that watching and noticing are activities, and therefore occurrences, and although I would not resist this, to hold it in the interest of a dispositional theory of enjoyment would be to construe one heed concept as episodic and another as dispositional, which is hardly compatible with claiming that both species are of the same genus. What is compatible with this is claiming that all heed-concepts are episodic, and that some form of attention is part of the meaning of the word "enjoyment". 176

In this passage Penelhum mentions the solution I have proposed and then argues that Ryle cannot adopt it. I believe Penelhum is right about this. My response is that if Ryle puts forward a theory of attention that does not square with his general philosophical position, so much the worse for his general philosophical position. All that I am interested in is getting it right about attention, and if I think that Ryle is right on this question, he has my support. I therefore accept Penelhum's way out. It is also evident from my general remarks about consciousness, that, unlike Ryle, I have no wish to avoid 'episodic' accounts of such concepts as 'perceiving', 'thinking' and 'heed- concepts' in general.

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Footnotes

169. See below, p. 210.
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170. U.T. Place, 'The Concept of Heed', The British Journal of Psychology, XLV, 4 (1954), reprinted in Essays in Philosophical PsychologyD. F. Gustafson (New York, 1964), p. 217 (all page references to the latter source.)
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171. G. Ryle, 'Pleasure', Proc. Arist. Soc., suppl. Vol. XXVIII (1954), reprinted in Essays in Philosophical Psychology, pp. 200-1 (All page references to the latter source).
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172. T. Penelhum, 'The Logic of Pleasure', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, XV11 (1956-7), reprinted in Essays in Philosophical Psychology, (All page references to the latter source.)]
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173. Ryle, 'Pleasure', p. 200.
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174. Ryle, 'Pleasure', p. 202.
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175. Place, 'The Concept of Heed', p 217.
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176. Penelhum,'The Logic of Pleasure', pp. 243-4. The one claim in this passage from which I wish to dissociate myself is Penelhum's claim that noticing is an activity. Noticing is disqualified from being an activity because it lacks the verbal form of the continuous present tense. I can't say 'I am noticing". Noticing is not something that can go on for a length of time.
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