Attention: Philosophical and Psychological Essays

Attention: Philosophical and Psychological Essays

Attention: Philosophical and Psychological Essays

Attention: Philosophical and Psychological Essays


Attention has been studied in cognitive psychology for more than half a century, but until recently it was largely neglected in philosophy. Now, however, attention has been recognized by philosophers of mind as having an important role to play in our theories of consciousness and of cognition. At the same time, several recent developments in psychology have led psychologists to foundational questions about the nature of attention and its implementation in the brain. As a result there has been a convergence of interest in fundamental questions about attention.
This volume presents the latest thinking from the philosophers and psychologists who are working at the interface between these two disciplines. Its fourteen chapters contain detailed philosophical and scientific arguments about the nature and mechanisms of attention; the relationship between attention and consciousness; the role of attention in explaining reference, rational thought, and the control of action; the fundamental metaphysical status of attention, and the details of its implementation in the brain. These contributions combine ideas from phenomenology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and philosophy of mind to further our understanding of this centrally important mental phenomenon, and to bring to light the foundational questions that any satisfactory theory of attention will need to address.


Christopher Mole, Declan Smithies, and Wayne Wu

When the disciplines of philosophy and psychology split from one another in the first half of the twentieth century, it was psychology that got custody of attention while philosophy was given responsibility for consciousness. For several decades, this arrangement seemed satisfactory to all concerned. The philosophers did not agree on the definition of consciousness, and none of them knew how to explain it, but that just made the topic all the more apt for philosophical investigation. The psychologists, for their part, were lacking a definition of attention, but the “widespread reluctance to define attention” (noted by Johnston & Dark in 1986) did not hold back their pursuit of a theory that would specify the mechanisms and processes involved in bringing it about.

When the discipline of cognitive psychology was getting under way at the end of the 1950s, nobody felt much need for a definition of attention. Research into the basis of attention could proceed without such a definition because there was almost universal agreement about which experimental tasks involve attention. One example, which was the focus of much early research, was the task of listening to a speech that is played into one ear while ignoring the speech that is played into the other (Cherry, 1953; Moray, 1959). Another example, studied some years later, was the task of visually searching through a crowded array of colored shapes while looking for one particular combination of shape and color (Treisman & Gelade, 1980). By studying these attention-demanding tasks, psychologists hoped to uncover the mechanisms responsible for implementing attention and they hoped, thereby, to explain it.

By the beginning of the 1990s, many researchers were becoming pessimistic about the explanatory ambitions of this research program. Several interesting phenomena had been discovered in the course of investigating a range of visual and auditory tasks in which attention is implicated. Those phenomena were studied, more or less independently, as research topics in their own right. But, for much of the 1990s, there was relatively little enthusiasm for the attempt to move from these piecemeal results to the building of a single explanatory theory in which a particular process was located, and identified as responsible for attention in general (see Pashler, 1998).

Over the last fifteen years, however, the prospects for a unified explanation of attention have been regarded with renewed optimism. Nobody now imagines that the explanation of attention will be easy, or that it will proceed by the identification of a single localizable mechanism. But there is a renewed sense that if progress continues in its current direction, then the result will be a complete picture, albeit a complex one, that enables us to understand what attention is, what it does, and how it is realized in the brain.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.