Volume 5, Issue 1, January 2004
The Philosophy of Perception
Consciousness and Perceptual Attention
A Methodological Argument
Our perception of external features comprises, among others, functional and phenomenological levels. At the functional level, the perceiver’s mind processes external features according to its own causal-functional organization. At the phenomenological level, the perceiver has consciousness of external features. The question of this paper is: How do the functional and the phenomenological levels of perception relate to each other? The answer I propose is that functional states of specifically perceptual attention constitute the necessary basis for the arising of consciousness in a perceiver.
Widely studied within cognitive psychology, perceptual attention is still awaiting a thoroughgoing philosophical treatment. The paper presents and draws upon Anne Treisman’s feature-integration theory of attention (cf. A. Treisman & G. Gelade, “A Feature-Integration Theory of Attention,” Cognitive Psychology, 12, 1980. Pp. 97-136). According to this theory, attentional mechanisms are responsible for the binding of perceptual features into coherent and stable objects of perception. By itself, I will claim, the theory of feature integration does not allow a straightforward reduction of consciousness to the functional processing underlying it. However, on the basis of Treisman’s theory we can produce a methodological argument for endorsing the non-reductivist thesis that attentional states constitute the necessary basis for the arising of consciousness in a perceiver. The paper closes by presenting this argument, according to which the thesis is implied by a unified account of the common representational natures of attentional and conscious states.