Aesthetics and Ethics of Attention

Every day we struggle with and for attention. Especially in western societies attention has become both an indispensable currency and a limited capacity. Various socio-psychological phenomena such as the rise of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Burn-Outs or the influence of social media networks such as Instagram or Facebook are just some examples of a general feature of today`s accelerated and condensed life.

But what is attention anyway and in which different forms does it occur? What is it good for, and is there an appropriate use of it?

Defined minimally, attention is a selective capacity of the mind. As William James wrote, it allows us to focus on some things and withdraw from others “in order to deal effectively” with the objects that we focalise (James 1981: 382). According to this definition, attention is an integral part of our consciousness, our perception, and our actions. Beyond that, attention also is something we pay to other people and their claims, and in this regard it can be understood as a social effort or a moral virtue.

The research group investigates the nature and role of attention in different contexts, especially in aesthetics, ethics, politics, as well as against the background of the challenges of our digital society. One aim is to explore whether there is a normative concept of both attention and inattention that can help us to understand their socio-political impact more clearly. To this end, the project will, for instance, explore the concept from an original perspective, namely via aesthetic experience.

Three of the specific aims and steps of the project are:

1. To examine the nature and role of attention in aesthetic experience and to develop a normative concept of attention.
2. To bring this conception of attention to bear on the debate on embodiment and mindfulness.
3. To apply the results of 1 and 2 to ethics and to clarify the impact of attention for the interpersonal, ethical, and practical domains of attending to other people.

This project is funded funded by the SNSF as a PRIMA-Project.

Collective Hermeneutic Attention

Isabel Kaeslin’s research

Within the Ethics and Aesthetics of Attention project, I am mainly interested in the ethical and political aspects of how we pay attention. My research has three components:

– the nature of attention
– how we can think of collective attention
– how we can think of hermeneutic (conceptual) attention

In the nature of attention, I build on Sebastian Watzl’s work, who says attention is:

1. a mental process
2. that structures its contents into foreground and background
3. that is ongoing/occurrent, like e.g. an ongoing thought
4. that is content-neutral; hence, it has no restricted range of quality
(in that it is different from e.g. emotions; e.g. anger has a certain range of objects it can be directed at, and thus has a certain range of what it is like to be angry)
5. that is under agent-control; it is a personal, not sub-personal process. It is something we do, rather than something that happens to us.

I add to this a 6. criterion: Attention is an act of keeping one’s mind open, in that one keeps oneself prepared to notice things within a specific domain.

The open-mindedness criterion of attention:

When attending, one keeps one’s shutters open to notice things within a specific domain. I am actively waiting for something to strike me (which I then foreground). That is, it is not the same as the mere fact that I am currently not occupied by something; rather, it is an active keeping-oneself open for something to strike.
It is not the same as looking for something, either. Looking for something would mean an adjusting of the settings of your lens in a specific way so as to see/find a specific thing (imagine a photo camera whose settings you can alter in a way so that it only picks up green things within its scope). By contrast, actively waiting for something to strike me (open-mindedness) is unspecific about what ‘the something’ is – green, big, round; only in hindsight can one say why it is this that got picked up by one’s attention within that domain. A looking-for-something would exactly preclude the possibility of such an open-mindedness, because it expects something specific to come up.

In collective attention, I investigate the ethical and political aspects of how we collectively pay attention. For that, we first have to be clear on how we can say that groups pay attention. If we take attention to be a mental process, we thus have to respond to the question of how collectives can be the subject of mental states and processes. Even though in the social sciences and in everyday speech we are used to making collectives the subject of beliefs and other mental states, it is not clear whether we take ourselves to speak metaphorically in those instances. I argue that these attributions of mental processes to collectives is not metaphorical; that collectives can literally have mental states – and thus be the literal subject of attention. I qualify, however, that we need to think more carefully about which different kinds of collectives there are – e.g., institutions, groups, social classes – and that their respective nature determines whether we can attribute attention to them or not. For instance: Does a collective need an explicit internal structure in order to be the potential subject of attention? Do the members of the collective explicitly need to understand themselves as such in order for the collective to be able to pay attention? – not all members of a social class do so, for example. I thus develop an ontology of collectives in order to tackle the question of which of those can be the subject of mental processes, such as attention.

In hermeneutic attention, I argue that when we deliberately bring about conceptual change or amelioration, what we do is precisely to pay hermeneutic attention. It involves the two key features of attention: foregrounding and backgrounding on the one hand, and an active open-mindedness for something new to strike me as relevant, on the other.
Foregrounding: Concepts help us organize phenomena and experiences. Different concepts organize experiences and phenomena in different ways, thus different aspects get foregrounded and backgrounded. Concepts function as “tuning devices”, as it were. A concept organizes a phenomenon by making some features salient while obscuring others.
Open-Mindedness: In (re-)conceptualizing an experience, I actively turn to a domain of which I suspect that there might be something I haven’t picked up on yet (something for which I don’t yet have an appropriate concept). I am actively waiting for something unconceptualized to strike me.

The concept of hermeneutic attention is a useful conceptual tool to be able to ask questions that otherwise might remain obscured. For instance:

  • Who pays this conceptual form of (deliberate) attention? (it is most often a collective subject)
  • Who has the responsibility to pay attention to which concepts?
  • Who has the responsibility to notice yet-unconceptualized experiences or phenomena?
  • Who decides, or how do we collectively decide, which experiences or phenomena deserve (more) hermeneutic attention (and thus conceptualization or amelioration)?