The Prehistory of the Concept of Attention

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Dr CiarŠn Mc Mahon - Psychology

†This thesis describes the origins and development of the concept of ‘attention’. An introductory chapter reviews the relevant extant literature; including an overview of modern theoretical framework provided Richards (1989; 1992) and Danziger (1997) and the research most comparable to the current project by Smith (1992), Kaufmann (2000) and Goldstein (2000); from which a set of foundational protocols is derived. It is argued that ‘attention’ as a reified concept of reflexive discourse does not emerge in Western literature until the 17th century and only after three distinct discursive traditions have waned in influence. Moreover, it is argued that ‘attention’, in any discursive form, is fundamentally an artefact of the physiomorphic assimilation of the practice of reading.

The second chapter deals with the earliest characterisations of ‘attention’, from an intersubjective perspective, as a practice conducive to the living of a philosophically sound life. From these beginnings, two separate traditions emerge concurrently. On one hand, from a projective perspective, ‘attention’ is characterised as an aspect of another person’s subjectivity, to be influenced by certain means. This perspective, heavily associated with oratory, is dealt with in chapters four and six. On the other hand, from a subjective perspective, ‘attention’ is characterised as universal to all people and part of one’s subjective relationship with God and the world in general. This perspective, heavily associated with religion, is dealt with in chapters three, five and seven. Both of these perspectives are seen to decline in influence in the early sixteenth century, with the rise of humanistic and natural philosophical influences. These developments, the establishment of a conceptual approach to reflexive discourse and ‘attention’ are treated in chapters eight and nine, where a concept qua object of ‘attention’ is seen to emerge. The final chapter summarises and concludes with a rebuttal of possible objections to this thesis, some general and specific derivations, and implications of the current research for future scholarship. Throughout the thesis an attempt is made to appreciate each occurrence of the object term in its discursive context, and the author’s social, political, philosophical, religious and economic circumstances. Fundamental to the development of the concept of ‘attention’, is however, the author’s specific literary practices.


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