Paying Attention

A few entries back, Brother Steve, who has a BA in philosophy, mentioned in response to an email from Brother Dan, William James’ philosophy or theory of attention. James lived at a time when people were becoming more and more aware of the person as a creature of stimulus as something pushed about and controlled by his or her environs.  This of course had a good deal to do with Darwin.  But with other scientific research of the day, also.


In many ways his whole philosophic endeavor circled around the attempt to find some space in the mechanism for free will.  While understanding and acknowledging the materialist argument that we are all creatures of the environment and nothing else, he developed the idea of attention as a possible circle, however tiny, of free will.

He wrote:

Attention, implying a degree of reactive spontaneity, would seem to break through the circle of pure receptivity which constitutes ‘experience,’ and hence must not be spoken of under penalty of interfering with the smoothness of the tale.

But the moment one thinks of the matter, one sees how false a notion of experience that is which would make it tantamount to the mere presence to the senses of an outward order. Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind – without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground – intelligible perspective, in a word. It varies in every [p. 403] creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive.

Here he points to “attention” as a relatively spontaneous and also uncontrolled activity that serves to give shape to experience.  Were we not paying attention to something or other, we would have no experiences at all.  This though does not necessarily rescue freedom since this form of attention can and usually is shaped by the forces around us, beliefs we have absorbed perhaps, or habits, or social forces saying pay attention to this. I don’t agree with his claim in other words—at least as presented here—that “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”  In fact, that’s begging the question—to say that one can agree or not agree.


Still there’s a thin margin here for freedom.  One can will attention or pay or not pay attention.  One can shift one’s attention from this to that, and this that might be something relatively unknown or previously unnoticed and by shifting attention one may concentrate and give shape to the thing previously unnoticed or unknown.

Why would one do this?  Simple curiosity might suffice.

I am thinking here about how I so frequently fail to get students to pay attention.


The same sunset using different settings or two sunsets? 


One Reply to “Paying Attention”

  1. the idea behind “cognitive therapy” is that you can direct attention away from things too….things that are bumming you out….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *