Does Attention Exist?
The introduction to the Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau‑Ponty 2002: 34) states that “Attention… as a general and formal activity, does not exist”. This paper examines the meaning and truth of this difficult and surprising statement, along with its implications for the account of perception given by theorists such as Fred Dretske (1988) and Christopher Peacocke (1983).
In order to elucidate Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological account of human perception, I present two alternative models of how attention might be thought to operate. The first is derived from the works of the aforementioned theorists and is, I argue, based upon a largely inaccurate computational or mechanistic understanding of the mind. The second is drawn from the work of Merleau-Ponty and cognitive scientist and philosopher, Alva Noë, and takes into account some recent neurological theories concerning the role of attention in human consciousness.
On the basis of these models I argue that attention is an essential, rather than incidental, characteristic of consciousness that is constitutive of both thought and perception, and which cannot be understood in terms of the independent faculty or ‘general and unconditioned power’ that Dretske et al.’s account requires. I conclude by considering two potential counterexamples to my argument, and evaluate the threat that these pose to the phenomenological model.