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Thomas Reid on Consciousness and Attention

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 39, Number 2, June 2009
pp. 165-194 | 10.1353/cjp.0.0044

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I Introduction

It was common enough in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to find philosophers holding the position that for something to be 'in the mind' and for that mind to be conscious of it are one and the same thing. The thought is that consciousness is a relation between a mind and a mental entity playing the same role as the relation of inherence found between a substance and qualities belonging to it. What it is, on this view, for something to 'inhere' in the mind is for that mind to be conscious of it. Locke was explicit in his acceptance of such a claim, writing, for instance,

[T]o be in the Mind, and, never to be perceived, is all one, as to say, any thing is, and is not, in the Mind.1

The implication here is that it is a flat contradiction to assert that something is in the mind and 'unperceived' where a mind 'perceives' something, in this context, just in case it is conscious of it. On this issue, as on many others, Locke's position was accepted almost verbatim by the most influential Anglophone philosophers of the century that followed, including even those, such as Thomas Reid, who opposed many of the tenets of Locke's philosophy of mind.

If it follows from this analysis of the notion of presence in the mind that anything that is in a person's mind is something the nature and qualities of which he is in position to understand and accurately describe, then the position would be quite obviously mistaken; there's an awful lot going on in there about which we know nothing or about which we are positively wrong. But probably no philosopher of the period, and certainly not Locke, accepted this implication. Much more common was the view that there are things of which we are conscious about which we understand very little and can articulate even less. It is one thing for a substance to have a quality, and quite another for that substance to know what quality it has; correlatively, it is one thing for a mind to be conscious of something - for that thing to inhere in the mind - and quite another for it to understand the nature of that of which it is conscious. Rather, to know anything about the objects of consciousness2 we need not just to be aware of them - after all, since consciousness is a form of awareness, one is ipso facto aware of any object of consciousness - but to have another, superior, form of awareness of them. We need to make them objects of 'attention,' or 'reflection' or 'contemplation' and not merely objects of consciousness. This, then, raises a question: What is it about this superior form of awareness that provides us with knowledge about them? And how does this superior form of awareness differ from consciousness? Thomas Reid made more progress on these questions than most philosophers of the period. This paper aims to articulate his contribution by explaining what the difference is, for Reid, between attending to an object of consciousness and merely being conscious of it.3 As we will see, Reid's conception of attention provides him with a tool for defending the methodology of introspective psychology to which he, and many of his contemporaries, was wedded. Because of what attention is, we have reason to trust that the deliverances of introspection are often telling us the truth about the nature of our minds.

Section II explains the importance to Reid of the distinction between attention and consciousness. That distinction plays an important role in his case against the theory of sensory perception (he takes to be) advocated by many of his predecessors and in his case for his own alternative theory. What emerges in section II is a challenge to his employment of the distinction: it can seem that he is not entitled to reach the results that he reaches, since it seems perfectly possible for the objects of attention to be different when they are attended to than when they are not. This challenge is clearly articulable in connection to Reid's striking treatment of binocular vision, which...

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