Why was everyone all always talking about Attention?


Attention is a central concept in our thinking. Few concepts have changed as dramatically throughout their diverse and sordid histories, and few have had as many theoretical or incestuous liaisons. Yet “attention” has manage to convince us that its meaning is atemporal, or at least consistent. In the 1700s, attention was entangled with Reason, and they were strict allies. Later, that bond would be slowly loosened by the discourses of Madness during the late 1800s. “Attention” has been the name of Western thought’s most foundational principle, and the most fragile element, of the human situation.

Both the Enlightenment practice of introspection and empirical scrutiny of our instruments, the two driving technologies of our current intellectual cultures, presume that attention can constantly organize, and come to terms with, the substances of the world and our experiences. However, attention’s temporal and functional consistency is not that of an unchanging concept, a trustful truth. At its most abstract, attention does name an assemble of roles, rules, and a vast collection of moments. But in the sublime expanses of human history, attention seems, concurrently and consistently, resolutely ancient and utterly new. And this should trouble us.

At John Hopkins in 1889, Reverend Lemon L. Uhl submitted a doctoral dissertation in philosophy, called simply Attention. Within the first pages, Uhl’s laments how the very idea of attention had been unjustly ignored by the history of philosophy: “Works in mental science and psychology in our day all have something — some of them much — to say about attention, but this was not the case in similar writings even in the eighteenth century, not to mention earlier periods.” Uhl hoped that his own efforts would, at last, bring some retrospective stability, some historical narration, to the unsung philosophical legacy of attention.

But this stability was not to be. Seventy-four years later, in 1964, a similar lament was heard from philosopher Alan R. White in his own book, also called Attention. He too complained that not enough attention was given to attention. (In the study of this subject, this pun is unavoidable, mostly because there seems to be a consensus that it is true.) One hundred and twelve years after Uhl’s attempt at stabilizing “attention”, others, like Jonathan Crary, are still lamenting our inability to attend to attention, because attention, itself, was changing.

Further Reading

Alan R. White. Attention (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1964).

Crary, Jonathon. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001).

Lemon L. Uhl. Attention: A Historical Summary of the Discussions Concerning the Subject Diss. (John Hopkins, 1890).


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