Attention, Not Self

The Nature of the Conscious Mind

From June 2016 to August 2016

Attention performs work traditionally attributed to a self. Conscious perceptual experience is a form of active, attentive, involvement with the world, yet there is no role for a conception of self as centralised agent of thinking, believing or perceiving. Attention is the reason there can be action without a centralised actor, thinking without a thinker, because there is intention in attention, above intention to attend: attention is already an activity of mind. Yet attention is disunified: like memory, it is not a single psychological kind. The distinct kinds of attention include selective and sustained attention, retentive and reflective attention, attention through language to the world beyond one’s horizons and from other perspectives, attention to one’s own mind, and attention to the minds of others. These kinds of attention have distinct roles in explaining perception, memory, testimony, self-knowledge, social cognition, and the phenomenology of thinking. An attention-theoretic approach brings important new options to the table in contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science, providing new directions to recent work on the pervasiveness of the mental, embodied cognition, cognitive phenomenology, intersubjectivity and the experience of time, organised around the possibility that attention to attention renders otiose the positing of a centralised agent in the understanding of perceptual experience, intentional action, and reflective thought. A role for the self remains, in accounting for the nature of owning a state of mind. Self is about ownership, not agency: in matters of agency, what does the work is attention.

Philosophy of mind is a trans-cultural undertaking: the search for a fundamental theory of mind must never limit itself to the intuitions and linguistic practices of any one community of thinkers but should be ready to learn from diverse cultures of investigation into the nature of mind and mind’s involvement in world. The attention-theoretic philosophy of mind defended here is inspired by one powerfully articulated by a philosopher from 5th century India and Sri Lanka: Buddhaghosa. In Buddhaghosa we find a philosophy of mind completely free both from the grip of a picture that has captivated—and enslaved—speculation about the mind in the west: the picture of the mind as ‘mediational’, and equally from enslavement to narrow understandings of physicalism and naturalism. Buddhaghosa argues against representations and so against representationalism, and he dispenses with an earlier perceptual model of introspection; yet he is in favour of the inseparability of intentional content and phenomenal character. He anticipates thinkers from Simone Weil to Iris Murdoch who claimed that sympathy, the concern for others’ emotional and intentional states, is attentional. Buddhaghosa anticipates the concept of working memory, the idea of mind as a global workspace, the thesis that vision occurs at three levels, and the concept of the extended present. A thinker of enormous originality, his ideas are yet the culmination of a thousand years of observation and reflection in the context of a research programme initiated by Śākyamuni the Buddha himself.

Image: Sri Lanka (Ceylan), POTIER Jean-Louis

Jonardon Ganeri

Principal Investigator