Academic Philosophy

Attention: Between Materialism and Spiritualism

  • For the master course 'history of philosophy' of the Radboud University Nijmegen





3.Middle Paths

4.Evaluation and Conclusion




The question for attention is a question which asks for attention. For attention as theme is closely connected to many other themes which often have a rather essential place in the history of philosophy. Think for instance of the epistemological question or the question for consciousness as such. Closely connected to the question for attention is also the question for materialism or spiritualism. For the manner in which attention shall be thematised and the manner in which a theory of attention shall come to look like shall be (also) dependent upon the stance that is taken as point of departure; materialism or spiritualism. Of course are middle positions (and different theories) also possible. A theory does not definitely have to choose radically for one or the other extreme. However the entire field of possible theories with regards to materialism or spiritualism do become clear by showing the extreme borders thereof. And because these extreme borders regard here the opposites of materialism and spiritualism we are able to recognize the importance to thematise these two points of departure in relation to the question for attention. Thus in this essay we ask the question: 'is attention a material phenomenon which can be explained fully through natural science, or is it a spiritual phenomenon which does not allow an explanation through natural science?' This question shall firstly be thematised by explicating the two extreme points of departure with which then the field of possible theories can be demarcated. Subsequently on base of that some middle positions can be touched upon (for more than that is no space), and eventually a position can be taken somewhere within this total field of possible theories.

1. Materialism

In this paragraph we ask the question for a materialistic theory of attention. Without daring to pone conclusive definitions we are able to approach this question descriptive and thematic. We are able to bring some characteristics of such theories to the fore and illustrate and elucidate them through existing theories. The first clear characteristic of a materialistic theory of attention regards of course the materialistic point of departure. The emphasis with materialism is on the reality of matter. This we see for instance with the natural sciences in their complete width and diversity. Natural sciences study nature as matter. Empirical observation and experimentation provide the elementary data on which knowledge of reality is based. A natural scientific, empirical and experimental approach shall thus be part of a materialistic theory of attention. 'Objectivity' is in such theories guarded as the highest good, and the empirical approach is radically considered then also based upon observation of objects. The relation between objects is thereby usually explained in a mechanical way, such as on base of movement. Thus we shall in a materialistic theory of attention recognise a thematising of atomic data which work on each other in a mechanical way.

A classic example of such a theory of attention we find with Thomas Hobbes. In his theory of attention he reacts to the dominant immaterialist oriented Aristotelian tradition of the middle ages.1 For this tradition explained perception through immaterial concepts such as 'soul' and 'species'. Immaterial species were sent out by objects and subsequently received by the senses and registered by the human soul.2 Thus Hobbes, as a reaction to that, came to write about movement which by the external object was exerted on the senses.3 From there this movement found through 'tubes' a way to the heart, which bounced the movement back to the senses through which external observation originated.4 The best argument which for such a position could be used is probably the objective grounds on which such a theory is built. For the basis here regards the intersubjective observation of the same objects which then further doesn't need to be an evident source of dispute. With other words; the objective materialism has the possibility to replace the speculative in a theory by a presumed objectivity. Thus in Hobbes' theory the speculative species, the speculative in the space floating invisible images, are replaced by an explanation with visible objects which through movement work on each other.5 The price which is paid for this explanation against speculation is however high. When truly radical such a theory has no place for an autonomic subject (for the Aristotelian model with a soul was finished with). The whole notion of attention becomes a completely passive happening, a random play of in lesser or more measure being affected by impulses. Selective attention additional to simple perception becomes problematic. For the overruling of less powerful impulses by the more powerful impulses (this is selective attention in a materialistic theory explained) contains in essence no selectivity.

That in a materialistic theory of attention there can also be attention for non-material notions Wundt proves. Like Hobbes explains perception and attention through particular physical pressure and movement, there Wundt explains attention through particular contents of feeling, which he by the way eventually lets root in the physical brains.6 Thus shall Wundt for instance a notion like will (and therewith also selective attention) explain through feelings of lust and non-lust.7 Even the notion of 'I' is reduced to a feeling of coherence of particular feelings.8 Hereby does Wundt let his theory support, fully in line with materialism, on empirical executed experiments.9

Now what under this paragraph definitively must be mentioned, and this shall do no good to materialism, is that within the materialistic method of the thematisation of attention and perception there is a reflexivity or self-reference. And among others Bertrand Russell pregnantly brought to the fore that reflexivity in formal theories is far from unproblematic.10 The here meant reflexivity has to do with the given that materialism bases its claims of truth with regards to perception on perception. Paradoxes and endless progressions are evidently lurking here. The nature of the perception determines the nature of the perception, so to speak. Materialism is thus able to investigate many things objectively, but does not appear to have the best method at its dispense to give the last word about perception and attention.

2. Spiritualism

Where materialism is placed on the one side of the extremes, there spiritualism is placed on the other side of the extremes. Also here we don't dare to pone definitions, but search through a descriptive and thematising approach, whereby the specific characteristics of this theory can be brought to the fore, and this then where possible illustrated through existing theories. The most characteristic of a spiritualistic theory, and thus also of a spiritualistic theory of attention, regards the assumption of the existence of an autonomous subject or an autonomous soul. This assumption is especially important for the explanation of selective attention. For selective attention is herewith chosen and is thus truly selected attention. Selective attention does not longer find its ground in random, naturalistic and materialistic happenings, but finds its ground in an autonomous subject which chooses to what it directs its attention. This autonomy and choice make it thereby also possible to place attention in an ethical perspective. Think for instance of Augustine's philosophy wherein the directedness on god has such an important place.11 A spiritual theory also offers the possibility to see a more than random coherence in all notions that have to do with attention. Attention does for instance not anymore have to consist of a random gathering of all kinds of particular feelings, as is in a certain way the case with Wundt.

The method of spiritualism is among other things rationalistic. To see this we only have to look at the way in which Descartes arrives at his assumption of the res cogitans.12 Spiritualism is further also more intuitive than materialism because the assumptions eventually seem to be closer to our personal experience of attention. Most people will not reduce all their choice (among which ethical choices) to feelings of lust and non-lust, and neither shall most people let themselves be reduced to simply a random coherence of feelings. Also does the problematic reflexivity of the materialistic method put the spiritualistic method in a brighter daylight. A light which can darken however severely when no intersubjectivity is built in. For without that a spiritualistic conception of attention may quickly deteriorate to a solipsism which can be marked as counter-intuitive. Also an idealism lurks with pure spiritualism when matter as reality is indeed not taken in consideration.

3. Middle Paths

After having thematised a materialistic and a spiritualistic conception of attention in the previous two paragraphs we shall in this third paragraph pay some attention to the possibility of a middle path. The possibility for a theory which is not located at the border of the extreme possibilities, but which tries to unite the best of both extremes. Three methods are here to be mentioned, and the first regards the maintenance of a dualistic stance, comparable with that of Descartes. He states in his theory of attention in the end that attention may be directed voluntary (spiritualism), but that this voluntary directedness can nevertheless be distracted by the power of overruling sternal stimuli (materialism).13 Problem in such a dualistic theory always stays the finding of a plausible answer to the question how matter and soul, as essentially different in nature, are able to interact with each other. There is a gaping chasm between the pituitary gland, which eventually is affected by the stimuli, and the inspecting soul, and vice versa.14

A second possibility to bring the two extreme theories together regards the method of the Hegelian dialectics. Exemplary here is of course Hegel's philosophy of the subjective spirit wherein a dialectic process is described which goes from a passive experiencing 'anthropologic human' to an active willing 'psychological human' wherein the 'anthropologic human' then is elevated and synthesized.15 A comparable dialectic is also recognizable in Bergson's theory of attention. For there does Bergson bring two other extremes together (pure memory and action) by synthesizing them in an oscillating process between those two, which in the end comprises (attentive) perception.16 Dialectics have the advantage over a dualistic method that the chasm between the two opposites is dialectically bridged or overcome by elevating both in a synthesis.

Closer than to a dialectic method Bergson's theory stand however perhaps to the third method wherewith materialism and spiritualism can be brought together, namely the phenomenological method. Phenomenology wants to make the original meeting of man and world visible,17 and takes therewith spiritualism (and the thereto related subjectivism) and materialism (and the thereto related objectivism) together in such a way that they are from the start synthesized in the notion of phenomenality (and thus need no further dialectics). Herewith we may for instance think of Heidegger's 'Da-sein' which places man from the start already in the world, near the things and with the people.18 In a certain way this also takes place in a comparable manner with Bergson. For the present moment of action is there the place where pure subjectivity as pure memory and pure objectivity as material world are present together.19 The price which is paid with a pure phenomenology is however that spiritualism and materialism cannot be saved in their own (oppositional) characteristics. With this the phenomenological method could be except as 'middle path' also be labelled as 'outside path' or perhaps even as both. Phenomenologists themselves shall this loss of oppositional characteristics however not see as a price which is paid but rather as a price which is gained. Bergson's theory is with the maintaining of oppositions and dialectics thus not a pure phenomenological theory, although it does strongly tends towards it.

4. Evaluation and Conclusion

In this essay we asked the question for attention against the background of the question for materialism and spiritualism; 'is attention a material phenomenon which can be explained fully through natural science, or is it a spiritual phenomenon which does not allow an explanation through natural science?' In the previous three paragraphs we explored the field and the boundaries of the field of possible positions. The outer borders regarded materialism and spiritualism, and within those borders we also found possible middle positions. The big advantage of materialism seemed in first instance to be the objectivity on which it appeals. However this objectivity turned out to be reflexive; it is on basis of the objective perception that statements about perception are being made. It also turned out that selective attention is problematic within materialism. In the passive scheme of materialism wherein attention regards only an undergoing of random and powerful or less powerful (material or feeling) impulses does no true selection take place. Spiritualism turned out to have space however for selective attention, and was fond to be more intuitive than materialism. Problem is that about the spiritualistic method also can be spoken as being speculative and subjectivistic. On top of that; when reality of matter and intersubjectivity are not guaranteed spiritualism may lead to idealism, or worse; a totally counter-intuitive solipsism.

It thus seems clear that we must avoid the reflexive of materialism with a non-materialistic method to thematise attention, and that we must avoid the solipsism of spiritualism with an intersubjectivity, or perhaps even better; reality (which also keeps an idealism at a distance). We thus here propose a middle path, and ask the question which of the three mentioned middle paths can provide us the most plausible theory of attention. In any case this will not be the Cartesian dualism. For the unbridgeable chasm herein is too unbridgeable to be plausible and attractive. A Hegelian dialectic may help here perhaps. For this one knows to save both positions in their characteristics and their polarities, and even to bridge them by elevating them in synthesis. The question which we must ask ourselves here is if we want to save both positions in their polarity. Is it not laborious, purely theoretical, and perhaps also unauthentic to first posit two oppositions, divided by a gaping chasm, which then subsequently in one way or the other have to be brought together? Is it not more simple and actually also more authentic to think the whole in which both can have a place from the start; to think both from the base of the whole? Do we thus not also arrive closer at the reality of human experience? Is a phenomenological position not more intuitive? It shall be in the second course that a more decided answer to these questions can be formed. For then the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, patriarch of phenomenology, shall visit us, or rather; be put by us in the searchlight. For in the last text of the first course Bergson may show us the virtues of a middle path between materialism and spiritualism, but he leaves us nevertheless thinking about dialectics and phenomenology. Two possible middle paths (or outer path in the second case) wherein he himself, by incorporating both in his theory, also again seems to find a middle path.

  1. Cees Leijenhorst, in: 'Attention Please!', in: J.J.M. Bakker & M.M.H. Thijssen (editors), Mind, Cognition and Representation, The Tradition of Commentaries on Aristotle's De Anima, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007, p. 207. "[…] anti-Aristotelian thinkers such as Descartes and Hobbes."
  2. Cees Leijenhorst, 'Sense and Nonsense about Sense, Hobbes and the Aristotelians on Sense Perception and Imagination', in: P Springborg (editor), The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes's Leviathan, CUP, Cambridge, 2007, p. 84.
  3. Cees Leijenhorst, in: 'Attention Please!', p. 207. "Instead, they [early modern thinkers, like Hobbes] spoke of local motion exerted by the external object on our sensory organs."
  4. Ibidem, p. 227.
  5. Cees Leijenhorst, in: Ibidem, p. 207. "Early modern thinkers rejected the mysterious sensible species, portrayed by Descartes as 'little images flying through the air'."
  6. W. Wundt, in: Grondriss der Psychologie, Leipzig, 1905, p. 247. "Diesen Zusammenhang der Rindenelemente des Gehirns können wir als den physiologischen Ausdruck des im Bewuβtsein gegebene Zusammenhangs der psychischen Vorgänge, die Funktionsteilung der verschiedenen Rindengebiete als das physiologische Korrelat der mannigfachen Verschiedenheiten der einzelnen Bewuβtseinsvorgänge betrachten."
  7. Ibidem, p. 268. "Die Willensrichtung ist nämlich offenbar angedeutet in den Hauptrichtungen der Lust und Unlust, […]."
  8. Ibidem. "Dieses Gefühl des Zusammenhangs aller individuellen psychischen Erlebnisse bezeichnen wir als das 'Ich'."
  9. T. H. Leahey, in: 'Something old, something new: Attention in Wundt and modern cognitive psychology', in: Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 15, 1979, p. 250. "Moreover, Wundt's theory receives as much empirical support as any modern theory, […]."
  10. D.A. Whewell, in: 'Self-Reference and Meaning in a Natural Language', in: Steven J. Barrett & Peter Suber (editors), Self-Reference, Reflections on Reflexivity, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordtrecht, 1987, p. 31. "[…] for the view that all self-referring statements are meaningless was originally advanced by Russell as a direct consequence of his ramified theory of types."
  11. Gary Hatfield, in: 'Attention in Early Scientific Psychology' in: Richard D. Wright (editor), Visual Attention, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1998, p. 10. "Augustine thus described involuntary shifts in attention (without using the term "involuntary"), implicitly contrasting them with cases of voluntary control."
  12. René Descartes, in: 'Discourse de la Methode',   in: H. van Ruler, De uitgelezen Descartes, Boom, Amsterdam, 1999, p. 139. "Wel leerden deze voorbeelden mij dat ik alle meningen die ik tot dan voor waar had aangenomen, het beste resoluut opzij kon zetten, om plaats te maken voor betere of om dezelfde later weer in te voeren, maar dan op redelijke wijze doordacht."
  13. Gary Hatfield, in: 'Attention in Early Scientific Psychology', p. 11. "Descartes here posits a balance between the power of fixation and the strength of involuntary changes in attention. He indicates that within limits we can retain our fixation, but that these limits can be surpassed by loud stimuli, and presumably by strikingly novel stimuli."
  14. Cees Leijenhorst, in: 'Attention Please!', p. 225. "Nevertheless, how these two completely different substances can actually work together, how physiology and psychology can interact, remains a mystery."
  15. G.W.F. Hegel, Enzyklopӓdie der philosophischen Wissenschaften III, 1830, uitgave: Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 1986.
  16. H. Bergson, Matter and Memory, London, 1929, p. 196, 197.
  17. R. Bakker, in: De geschiedenis van het fenomenologisch denken, Het Spectrum N.V., Utrecht / Antwerpen, 1964, p. 21. "De fenomenologie wil deze oorspronkelijke ontmoeting van mens en wereld zichtbaar maken."
  18. Martin Heidegger, in: Sein und Zeit, 1927, uitgave: Max Niemeyer, Tübingen 1967, p. 54, cursivering door Heidegger. "In-Sein ist demnach der formale existenziale Ausdruck des Seins des Daseins, das die wesenhafte Verfassung des In-der-Welt-seins hat."
  19. H. Bergson, in: Matter and Memory, p. 197. "In other words, it is from the present that comes the appeal to which memory responds, and it is from the sensori-motor elements of present action that a memory borrows the warmth which gives it life."
  • R. Bakker, De geschiedenis van het fenomenologisch denken, Het Spectrum N.V., Utrecht / Antwerpen, 1964.
  • H. Bergson, Matter and Memory, London, 1929.
  • J. Crary, Suspensions of Perception. Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2000.
  • René Descartes, S. Voss (editor / translator), Hackett, The Passions of the Soul, Indianapolis, 1989.
  • René Descartes, S. Gaukroger (editor / translator), The World and Other Writings, CUP, Cambridge, 1998.
  • René Descartes, 'Discourse de la Methode',   in: H. van Ruler, De uitgelezen Descartes, Boom, Amsterdam, 1999.
  • Gary Hatfield, 'Attention in Early Scientific Psychology', in: Richard D. Wright (editor), Visual Attention, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1998.
  • G.W.F. Hegel, Enzyklopӓdie der philosophischen Wissenschaften, Dritter Teil, Die Philosophie des Geistes, Mit den mündlichen Zusätzen, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 2003.
  • Thomas Hobbes, R. Tuck (editor), Leviathan, CUP, Cambridge, 1996.
  • Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 1927, Max Niemeyer, Tübingen 1967.
  • William James, The Principles of Psychology, Volume 1, Harvard UP, Cambridge, 1981.
  • T. H. Leahey, 'Something old, something new: Attention in Wundt and modern cognitive psychology', in: Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 15, 1979.
  • Cees Leijenhorst, 'Attention Please!', in: J.J.M. Bakker & M.M.H. Thijssen (editors), Mind, Cognition and Representation, The Tradition of Commentaries on Aristotle's De Anima, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007.
  • Cees Leijenhorst, 'Sense and Nonsense about Sense, Hobbes and the Aristotelians on Sense Perception and Imagination', in: P Springborg (editor), The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes's Leviathan, CUP, Cambridge, 2007.
  • .A. Whewell, 'Self-Reference and Meaning in a Natural Language', in: Steven J. Barrett & Peter Suber (editors), Self-Reference, Reflections on Reflexivity, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordtrecht, 1987.
  • W. Wundt, Grondriss der Psychologie, Leipzig, 1905.