Attention Deficits

I am, it seems, about to embark on a long, convoluted journey into the mysteries of meaning.  I’ve been mulling over this topic for some years now, but didn’t think I was going to write another book.  But it seems that I am.  I have agreed to give two talks next year that will force me to get my thoughts on the subject into some kind of coherent form.  Basically, I want to distinguish questions of meaning from questions of causation/explanation—and make the old time Dilthey case that the humanities and the arts are more inclined to investigate questions of meaning.  But this all involves actually thinking through “the meaning of meaning.”  To that end, I have just started reading C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richard’s classic of that title.  My pole stars in this investigation will be, to no surprise, the pragmatists and Wittgenstein.

So the William James interest in “attention” will be one focus.  What do we attend to, what do we note, in any situation?  Clearly there is always “more” to be seen and taken in than any single observer manages to process.  What we attend to would seem to have some connection to what we find meaningful.  We notice those things we are predisposed to notice, which is a way of defining one’s “interests,” of identifying what are matters of concern and care to one, as contrasted to things of indifference.  (We are highly likely to notice things that inspire hostility or disgust, so it is the intensity of the engagement, not its positive or negative valence, that seems determinative here.)

Psychology since James’s day has paid a lot of attention (pun intended) to the oddities and pathologies of what we notice and what we fail to perceive.  I grabbed this little survey of some of that work from the academic blog Crooked Timber—and lodge it here because I will want to chase down its links at some future date.

“If stereotypes are the cause, why don’t we just eradicate them? Stereotypes arise, in part, because they must.  They belong to a broader category of cognitive attention biases which arise because we simply cannot pay attention to all of the particulars.  We take shortcuts. We bin people into categories.  We lump to live.  That lumping may be the result of rational calculations – it’s not worth our time to consider every particular (rational inattention bias). It may be that we lack the cognitive capacity (behavioral attention bias) or the time or experience to draw precise inferences (categorical cognition bias).   Regardless of the cause, we could not navigate the world without categorizing reality and therefore stereotyping.”

From Scott E Page, Stephen M Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and the Santa Fe Institute; taken from a blog post on Crooked Timber, August 14th, 2019.

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