Discussions of attention often cite William James's definition of it as the mind seizing on “one of several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.” In a different idiom, more recent treatments speak of it in terms of the flexible deployment of “limited computational resources” (Lindsay 2020). The underlying model, however, remains the same: there is a landscape of stimuli, out of which “attention” selects a specific set of data for further processing or connecting. It is a model that gets us only so far; and what I hope to do here is both to note where it needs amplifying and reworking, and to draw out some of the implications of such reworking for a wider approach to our understanding of knowledge itself. Central to this interrogation of the widespread model mentioned is the work of Maurice Merleau‐Ponty, especially in his Phenomenology of Perception ( 1962); but Iain McGilchrist's monumental recent work, The Matter with Things (2021) also provides some significant prompts for rethinking the more simplistic versions of the conventional approach. And in the light of this, we shall also be revisiting the way in which “attention” is used by some philosophers as a morally and spiritually charged phenomenon, in the hope of seeing whether there is any kind of bridge between the psychological and neuroscientific investigation of attention and this more “humanistic” discourse.
Merleau‐Ponty devotes a chapter at the beginning of Phenomenology of Perception to “‘Attention’ and ‘Judgement’”, in which he explains at some length the paradoxical character of traditional appeals to the simplicity of sense experience and argues that both mechanistic materialism and idealism involve a series of strategies for avoiding the actual operation of sense experience. What the senses in fact deliver is indeterminate, inconsistent, and radically incomplete; and sustained reflection—including scientific examination—needs to begin with the awareness, not of a set of discrete and ready‐made external data, but of a modified consciousness, “a transformation of the mental field” (29). What the senses “literally” deliver is a field of inchoate perception with which we actively negotiate, which we interpret, connect, and organize before we begin reasoning about it. Merleau‐Ponty uses as an instance here the processes by which an infant learns to discriminate colours after about nine months: it is not that the infant's mind is receiving a set of colour‐coded stimuli and failing to sort them out “accurately”; what is going on is that the infant consciousness is being introduced into a field in which it progressively adjusts to a stream of information, developing more or less consistent protocols for sorting it. After a certain point, it is able to formulate a kind of narrative in which what are now seen as discrete colours can be understood as potentially present in the earlier and indeterminate phase. To put it more concretely, it is not that the infant is seeing “green” but seeing it inadequately; she is mapping a perceptual territory in which “green” finally emerges as a durable and useable component of that map. Although Merleau‐Ponty does not explicitly make the point, this is consistent with the fact that different cultures notoriously divide up the palate of colours in different ways (especially at the “darker” end of the spectrum, where purple, blue, grey, and green are “clustered” differently in different taxonomic vocabularies).
In this sense, attention is not essentially a focusing of internal resources on preexisting external objects so as to pick them out correctly against their background; it constitutes such objects by creating particular boundaries or outlines within the previously indeterminate perceptual field. Elements in this field combine to activate elements in the modified consciousness, and what emerges is the object we then, so to speak, file for further reference. Subsequently, that cooperatively generated object is presupposed in acts of “judgement” when certain features of a perceived environment give sufficient leads for us to suppose the presence of the object: “The men I see from a window are hidden by their hats and coats, and their image cannot be imprinted on my retina. I therefore do not see them, I judge them to be there” (32). This “judgement” is not an explanation to make sense of—or even “correct”—confusing percepts; it is an act of interpretation that produces the very possibility of a coherent object. It is, in that regard, a “transcendental” action, one that relates to establishing the possibility of consistent experience. Merleau‐Ponty speaks of a “perceptual syntax” (36) which gives structure to the various relationships with our environment in which we stand. The key word here is “relationships”: to speak of an object that is “constructed” by judgement or imagination or a sort of synthetic instinct is not at all to say that objects are born from the ego or the mind as pure self‐reflection; they are held together as what could be called a continuous strategy of responding to certain stimuli. Both an empiricist and an intellectualist, or an idealist scheme operate with an unexamined notion of sensation, and a timeless model of the normative object; empiricism presupposes that this normative object is simply there as a source of orderly and connected stimulus, while intellectualism presupposes that this orderly and connected unit is generated by the individual consciousness as a determination of its own immanent capacities. What Merleau‐Ponty is sketching is an account of objects of attention that takes seriously the location of consciousness in space and time—the involvement of consciousness in the body's immediate negotiation with what surrounds it, and the processes by which consciousness gradually constructs its strategies of judgement. “Consciousness must be faced with its own unreflective life in things and awakened to its own history which it was forgetting: such is the true part that philosophical reflection has to play, and thus do we arrive at a true theory of attention” (31). This “true theory” is one that reckons with the active and formative role of attention and the need to see it in relation to time and learning.
To understand attentive perception as the construction of a field to be explored is to refuse (on the one hand) a simple cause‐and‐effect picture of what happens in the conscious registering of the world around, and (on the other hand) the idea of a sequence of finished conceptual crystallizations of the subject's own reflexive awareness. The argument is one that aims to dissolve a set of unhelpfully exclusive binaries—the Cartesian opposition of extension and thought, the separation of sign and meaning, the opposition between cause (external determination) and reason (a principle of intrinsic constitution) (49). William James's formulation about “simultaneously possible objects” needs to be nuanced a bit, so as to do justice to the recognition that these “possible objects” are not simply lying around ready‐made. And this recognition is very importantly inflected by the ways in which we now know that different brain areas construct different kinds of object, or (as we might put it) different qualities of “objecthood”. Thus in Iain McGilchrist's The Matter with Things (2021) we are introduced to the diversity between what is projected by left brain and right brain. Right hemisphere damage (affecting the left visual field), for example results in a perceptual world in which there are fewer or no tools for what I have called “negotiating” the full range of “possible objects”; the modification of consciousness is partial, and so what is seen is partial. But what is most striking is that this partial consciousness has no means of understanding that it is partial: “As far as your left hemisphere is concerned, what it no longer attends to is not just unseen, but ceases to exist. The left hemisphere, it seems, is a Berkeleyan idealist.” (74) Further, it appears that radical impairment of right hemisphere activity results in a dysfunction in the understanding of time. This can manifest as a forgetfulness of previous perceptions, as the breaking‐down of the continuities of perception into a kind of “freeze frame” effect, as the inhibition of previously familiar bodily skills and so on. It is a condition, in fact, which makes impossible precisely the “awakening of consciousness to its own history” of which Merleau‐Ponty speaks. But the dysfunction also extends to location in space; McGilchrist gives several dramatic instances of what this can mean, including the suppression of depth perception. The activity of the right hemisphere, in short, is what secures continuity both in time and in space [75–83], and its severe inhibition makes it impossible to recognize the temporal character of consciousness.
In this context, attention needs to be refigured as a much more complex process than the plain selection of discrete stimuli. Whatever the exact nature of the stimuli that modify the field of consciousness, they are not helpfully represented as fixed items of information. We have to take seriously the roots of the very word “information”: consciousness is given form by what it encounters, but simultaneously gives form to this. A reciprocal activity is taking place in which “outer” and “inner” flows of energy combine to produce a settled habit of perceiving—a protocol, as I called it earlier, for dividing up the field in which consciousness finds itself—and a coherent, narratable relationship. In this reciprocal activity, granular perception of significant detail in a field is consistently framed by the temporal sense which allows objects to be seen continuously, so that any particular moment (like Merleau‐Ponty's instance of looking down on the figures in hats and coats) can be prereflectively grasped as belonging in a series that can be assumed to be a continuous succession of perceptions altered by different stances, locations, or perspectives on the part of the perceiving subject. But what is philosophically interesting here is that a concept of attention informed by these considerations is not simply a specific deployment of “computational” resources (though it is at least that for certain purposes); it is also something shaped by the need, pressure, or desire to chart a path through time and space in which the subject can safely and intelligently move. And because of this, no supposedly granular item in the perceptual field can be seen or analysed in isolation, or regarded as a wholly fixed reality. If I “create” an intelligible object, it is as part of a wider strategy; in William James's terms, it is bound up in a “train of thought”. And as the global context of such a train of thought or comprehensive strategy shifts, so do the boundaries of the object.
In one obvious sense, this is an elementary observation on the history of science. The ongoing refinement of investigative techniques changes the way we divide up the perceptual field. But the phenomenology of attention so far outlined presses this a little further. It is not only the technical close‐focus changes that shift definitions of finite substance, but the new constraints of the kind of world‐view that is emerging, with the acknowledged needs and questions that come with this. Thomas Kuhn's classic work on paradigm shifts (1962/1970) observed this; but—as some critics noted—his initial use of the term “paradigm” was loose, and the question of the nature of attention itself is not directly addressed. Changing world views change the questions that are asked; but recognizing this—if it is not to be a doorway into simple relativism or constructivism—should alert us to the question of what it is that shifts the questions asked, in a way that goes rather deeper than merely noticing previously unresolved problems. And Kuhn's thesis about the incommensurability of comprehensive scientific theories does less than justice to what the phenomenological approach assumes, which is that it is possible to suppose a shared world of information flow in which diverse maps and taxonomies are not incommensurable in the crude sense of being wholly mutually exclusive but continue as “compossible” readings of what that world allows. What consciousness learns about itself in the processes of scientific study is that exposure to its own history that is needed in order to liberate us from the illusion that the normative model for attentive knowing is the simple turning of a specific beam of illumination on a set of fixed data. We are, it seems, primed for the construction of diverse narratives of the consistency of what we encounter, narratives whose diversity is conditioned by the diversity of relations in which, at different times and places, we stand to that encountered flow of information. Attention will crystallize different clusters of informational content into a strategy or protocol, depending not so much on the problems we want to solve as the connections we wish—in this specific kind of relationship—to clarify or articulate.
What is more, thinking of attention as part of a reciprocal process sharpens our awareness that our own perception shifts the parameters of what is possible for the object. If the subject is finding their way through a complex environment, adjusting and negotiating, then in some sense the object is also adjusting to an environment in which the subject's interaction with it shifts the boundaries of its reality by modifying the object's field of possibility (the field of what relations are available for it). This is the point at which some exponents of classical scientific method show signs of alarm at what may be represented as panpsychic mythologizing; but it seems to be an unavoidable implication of both the general model presented here of attention as the formation of a strategy of relating, and of the ontology associated with discourse around quantum mechanics. Carlo Rovelli's introduction to this perspective (Reality is Not What it Seems, 2014/2016) summarizes the point lucidly:
What if the electron could be something that manifests itself only when it interacts, when it collides with something else; and that between one interaction and another it had no precise position? (100)
When an object (atom, electromagnetic field, molecule, pendulum, stone, star, and so on) interacts with something else, the values computed are those which its variables can assume in the interaction. (104, my italics)
If the flow of information to an embodied consciousness is indeed the creation of a relation rather than the mere registering of data on a passive recording device, we can reasonably speak about our knowledge of objects as a stage in the global adjustment of fields of exchange. The activities of an object are from one point of view just as much habitual ‘strategies’ as are the conceptual tools with which we find our way around and with them (cf. Rupert Sheldrake's discussion in his ambitious and still controversial 2012 essay on The Science Delusion, esp. 99–104). And in this context, we might return to McGilchrist's treatment of lateralized brain functions, to note that left hemisphere activity is, in effect, only an occasional and limited vehicle for relation, since it is not able fully to process the passage of time—the processes of adjustment as well as the experience of consistency—in which relatedness is actualized. McGilchrist speaks of the “loss of the whole at the expense of the parts” in the body's defective self‐representation in a condition of right hemisphere damage or inhibition and contrast the left hemisphere as that which “sees the body as an object ‘out there’ in space”, as opposed to the right hemisphere's sense of the body as a whole as an inhabited point of orientation (99). He goes on to note the dominance of right hemisphere activity in small children—as if the primary need for the developing consciousness was to secure habits of connection in the perceiving of the object world (103–4) before refining its capacity for detailed cataloguing of its environment. In McGilchrist's terms, it goes for “depth” before “precision” (104); precision is in fact possible only when depth has been settled, that is, when there is a recognition of how objects are fitted into a multi‐dimensional perspective and are apprehended continuously—though flexibly—over the passage of time. The very idea of an object or a substance requires the coherent framing of the right hemisphere's activity. But at the same time, such framing is not simply the more accurate mapping of an external territory which the consciousness looks “out” upon; it could be described as a set of instructions both for how to organize incoming information and for how to find an intelligent and consistent way around what resists my own body in its movement in the world. It creates not the map of a detached landscape but a path through what I already inhabit and engage with. It populates this space in which I am engaged with objects or substances whose precise activity upon me is given form by the specific questions I pose or problems I seek to resolve; and I need to keep alert to how, when questions change, I may expect new “resistances”, new capacities or possibilities to come into focus. And in thinking about this, it is helpful to bear in mind that an artificial computational system will be able to negotiate an environment only to the extent that it has been provided with responses to a determinate set of informational input: in Kazuo Ishiguro's remarkable 2021 novel, Klara and the Sun, we have a vivid description of the “sensory” confusion of the eponymous “Klara”, an advanced AI device, when confronted with a physical environment beyond the existing programme's limits.
So, to sum up so far: the attention we give to the world around us is indeed a necessary narrowing of our conceptual and “computational” resources in order to negotiate our way with certain kinds of resistance and difficulty, and to realize certain kinds of possible relationship. But it is important not to reduce this to a simple picture of discrete subjects “out there” which we are trying to see more accurately; even more important, arguably, to avoid the seductive idea that there is one set of clear data which will prove to be fundamental in understanding what is in front of us, so that we can safely ignore or at least downgrade other kinds of descriptive response because these will provide “inferior” levels of explanation. Attention must attend to the inescapable multi‐layered diversity of object‐construction that is going on, even though it can only develop one particular line of engagement at a time. The unhelpful stand‐offs between reductionism and holism, the arguments about the relative status of, say, chemical, biological, mathematical, and ergonomic explanation, are radically misplaced (I acknowledge a debt here to unpublished work by Professor Conor Cunningham on the difficulties with the idea of a “basic” explanation in the sciences). The issue is not about which explanatory discourse is the one on which all others depend, since (just as in the Aristotelean vocabulary about different sorts of causality, material, efficient, formal, and final) there can be no viable or sustainable account of how to negotiate a path in relation to the environment that systematically ignores any one coherent set of possibilities for discourse. Furthermore, attention to the diversity of the object‐construction that is going on is bound up with Merleau‐Ponty's insistence on consciousness registering its own temporal and flexible character, its own process of learning how and why diverse questions are worth asking. As revisionist science has often insisted in the last century or so, it is not that (say) Newtonian physics is a mistake from which we need to be delivered; the point is that what is coherently thinkable is not exhausted by those questions; and to suppose that it is, would be to set in stone a refusal to attend as comprehensively as we need to.
But this begins to steer us towards a very different sort of discourse about attention, which on the face of it seems to have little or nothing to do with what we have been considering so far. Since the publication of Simone Weil's essays and notebooks (Waiting on God in 1951 and two volumes of Notebooks in 1956), her concept of “attention” has been repeatedly revisited and elaborated. It is one of the focal themes of her writing: attente is defined as that quality of awareness of what is other (the other person, the object, the grammatical rules of a language, or the procedures of mathematics) that necessarily “suspends” the self‐preoccupation of the ego so as to allow the independent reality of the other to be fully received into the subject. She will write of this in terms of “decreation”, the necessary sacrifice of the self in the process of learning, and she argues that educational and scientific work so understood is an intrinsically spiritual activity, in that it creates a space between subject and object in which the compulsive violence and acquisitiveness towards the other that characterizes the habitual life of the ego is negated. As Nigel Tubbs puts it in his Philosophy of the Teacher (2005), the implication is that education is not solely about the truths associated with the content of the teaching process but about the truth “in the relationship that the student has to the content” (127).
One of the paradoxes of Weil's moral and spiritual analysis of attention is that it requires the consciousness to be aware that its own self‐consciousness is one of its most serious problems. The self's awareness of its own needs or desires can reduce the object to the dimensions of what the subject is looking for, and no more; and the self's awareness of its “performance” in relating to or negotiating with its environment becomes an object in itself, which impedes or distorts the capacity of the informing energy of the other to affect the subject. Radical attente is both the recognition of the ambiguity of self‐awareness and the discipline of exposure to structures that have to be received in their otherness for them to be truthfully engaged. Because the learning of a language—to take one of Weil's favorite examples—involves the sheer labor of internalizing rules we have not chosen, it serves as a paradigm for undertaking labor that does not immediately produce gratification. We acknowledge the risks in the centripetal force of the ego's customary habits, and we also register (as Merleau‐Ponty would insist, it is worth noting that he, like Weil, had been influenced by the epistemology of Alain [Emile Chartier], though he has criticisms of its details) the necessity of seeing how we have in fact learned, how the consciousness has been modified. Hence a voluntary engagement with disciplined study becomes a tool for detaching the conscious self from its own initial concerns and priorities: the good student is one who does not measure what is studied by its congruence with their own supposed needs or interests, and equally one who does not constantly observe themselves studying.
The register of this discussion is of course very different from the philosophical and methodological concerns with which we began, but there is a point of contact in the rejection, shared by both approaches, of the model of conscious attention as a “searchlight” of individual mental activity directed at a selected set of discrete phenomena. The attention discussed by Merleau‐Ponty and others is receptive to an active other so that the active subject may become more adequately attuned to the object's agency, while also acting upon the field of that object's possibilities, so as to give it consistent and intelligible presence in the consciousness. The intrusion of a precritical set of projections or expectations on the part of the perceiving subject will get in the way of a truthful, sustainable strategy of response to the incoming information; and the outcome of the encounter is the modification of the subject's field of operation and awareness. We have to turn our backs on the idea that there is a fixed self‐appropriating functionally useful information about a set of fixed phenomena, and consider the model of a constant flow backwards and forwards of information leading to adjustment and modification on both sides. For Weil and those how have followed her, the decentring of the ego and its portrait of its needs and agenda is the fundamental principle of any action that can be considered moral or spiritual. The modification of the consciousness in attentive observation and the knowledge that emerges from it is inseparable—whether the connection is acknowledged or not—from the relativizing of the ‘I’ that is necessary if ethical action is to be possible.
And for Weil, there is a further dimension: the decentring of ego in the work of disciplined knowledge prepares the finite self for the apprehension of the infinite. This is to go well beyond the categories of the phenomenological analysis of attention we have been sketching, but it is worth exploring what convergences may be traced. We might begin by asking what the most comprehensive form of the modification of a field of consciousness would entail. In the perspective here outlined, such an optimal level of awareness is certainly not something that could be thought of in terms of a final and definitive mapping of information received in distinct causal and conceptual packages—and certainly not in terms of reduction to a supposedly “basic” matrix of causal factors. It would be the recognition of a diffused but also connected informational energy in which subject and object were alike involved, the recognition of what David Bohm famously called the “implicate order” (Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980). By definition, this could not be the awareness of a determinate object separate from the observer; it would be to recognize a comprehensively dependent and relation‐defined position (or continuous series of positions) in the immeasurable and Protean pattern of exchange that constitutes the finite universe. It would be a “knowledge” of the method or process of intelligent observation rather than the concept of some comprehensive system, let alone an infinite “object”. And the further—obviously contestable—point that a religious moralist like Weil would make is that this bare, but at the same time, “global” awareness of one's own condition as ceaselessly being‐informed presupposes an imperative always to move the ego out of the centre of any discourse or policy; while at the same time presupposing that what arises when this decentring has taken place is the establishing of a space in which diverse life may blossom without the constraints of force or power exercised by another finite reality. In such a condition, there is an implicit recognition of a kind of ideal equilibrium in finite life which allows each strand in the interactive complex to fulfil its potential as both gratuitous and well‐ordered—beautiful, if we have to use a shorthand. The very form of finite interaction in its most unconstrained working takes us beyond the level of function or stimulus and response to the idea of a maximal manifestation of congruency, order, and harmony for its own sake. And the universal schema of congruent energy in unceasing exchange leaves us with a question about the generating and unifying ground or context which has made manifest in the temporal processes of exchange; a question which some will dismiss as unnecessary, even inappropriate, but which has recurred with some regularity in cosmologies through the ages.
Allowing such a question to arise in and through the receptive understanding of the place occupied by consciousness in the flow of exchange, that is, the universe is tantamount to a comprehensive attending to what is not in any sense a particular. It begins with attention to the more and more complex strands of interaction in which we know ourselves to be involved, and culminates in an unavoidably paradoxical attention to the generative and cohesive but unimaginable agency out of which finite patterns of interaction flow. In the language of traditional theology, it moves from the “contemplation” of the universe's order to the awareness of this order as reflecting a living force, what scripture and tradition recognize as divine “wisdom”; and, inescapably, it points to action that cannot be imaged or conceived, to what is unlimited, unborn, and unavailable to language. ‘Attention’ culminates in the contemplation of what cannot be understood, but is the source of a life in which the subject may become more and more freely involved precisely as it resigns its claim to separateness or self‐authorship.
This is simply to rehearse in a more contemporary and abstract idiom what the early Christian teachers had to say about the interrelation of the different kinds of theoria in the growth of human awareness of the divine. Theoria may be translated as “contemplation” but its simplest meaning is “attentive looking”; in the scheme classically articulated around 400 CE by Evagrius of Pontus, praktike theoria opens out on to phusike, which in turn leads to theologia, the absorption of the finite subject in the intelligent life (logos) of God—“contemplation” in the sense usually given to that word. Praktike represents the training of the self in behaviours that are free from “passion”, the passivity in the face of instinct, compulsive desire, self‐oriented emotion, and so on which impedes the liberty of the intelligent subject, the nous; freedom from passion liberates the subject to see more fully the rational beauty of the created order, not as it exists in relation to the subject, but as it reflects the mind or wisdom of God; and that attention to the unifying structures of the phenomenal universe opens in turn on to the imageless receptivity to the creator which is the summit of all intelligent activity, the realization of what is distinctively human. It is imageless because the divine is not an instance of any kind of being, not a causal agent among others within the universe, and so not capable of being summed up in conceptual, let alone imaginative form. Theologia is a form of attention that is both the most natural of human activities and the most eccentric—natural in that it is the culmination of more localized habits of attention, eccentric in that it has no determinate/boundaried object, but is a state of simple receptivity to what cannot (unlike the self's other objects) be negotiated with or crystallized into conceivable form, since it is the principle or source of form‐as‐such, sheer active intelligence. For the early Christian writers who use this as a canonical structure, it is also crucial that the ultimate contemplative receptivity envisaged is configured as agape, love, since this is identical with an attention that is wholly directed away from the ego; it is the “space” in which the divine is most fully encountered, since the divine life/intelligence has no boundaried ego to defend, and so is met and engaged with as what can be thought of as unqualified “gift”, direction to the other. As for Weil, attention and love converge—but “love” in a sense very different from an emotional disposition.
Attending to attention proves to be a many‐dimensioned task. We have begun from the methodological and philosophical point that the data of the senses cannot be taken as fixed quanta of information delivered to a passive observer; thinking of them in such a way prevents us from looking clearly at what is actually before our senses, and leads us to ignore the inescapable role of what I have been calling negotiation between inner and outer, the gradual construction of habits of seeing in which consistent objects are formed, as simultaneously, the consciousness is modified, informed by what impinges upon it. When we attend to something—an object, a series of phenomena, an argument, or an artefact—we are drawing out of it a possible structure which will contribute to one particular instance of world‐building. A truthful or adequate structure will be one that proves its coherence and durability over time; and attention also requires us to be aware of the time‐taking, so as to protect us from a mythology of timeless and unrelated objects waiting to be known. We need to be aware also of the imbalances in conscious apprehension associated with lateralized functions in the brain, as a reminder that the idea of an object or substance is impossible without the “transcendental” dimension of a temporal and dimensionally spatial environment being present. Attention of this kind thus entails a generalized awareness of the presence of what we do not perceive specifically as objects, and of the possible diversity of paths of realization for potential objects. And this carries with it a critical recognition of the limits of the individual ego's capacity to produce any single comprehensive or definitive structure. The most damaging mistake we could make in thinking through the phenomenological approach to attention would be to imagine that the subject's constructive or world‐building role was the imposition of a pattern devised by the mind's power, rather than the product of discerning what coherent structure of aspects in the object might find place in one strand of a generally adequate ‘strategy’ of sustainable relation with the world around.
This offers a bridge into the discourse around attention associated with Weil and others, for whom the suspension of the claims of the individual ego is fundamental not only for truthful knowledge but for moral action. The subject in attention suspends the potential violence of manipulating the object into one final determined pattern, recognizing that it is dealing with forms of active energy that share a process of constant mutual adjustment with the action of the knowing subject. This subject is thus neither passive nor omnipotent, neither determined nor context‐free, and arbitrarily powerful. But in addition to its negotiation with particular flows of information in its routine operations, the subject is also capable of “attention” to what makes information and energy possible, but is beyond strict conceptualization; its detachment from its ingrained self‐preoccupation through both the ethical life and the disciplined life of intellect, both of these entailing an attention that is receptive and flexible, may prepare it for this radical openness to a sort of undifferentiated communication, the sheer “bestowal” of generative gift or love. And this in turn reinforces the habits of ordinary ethical and intellectual attention.
It follows that some of the physical habits which enable deeper attention in relation to both finite and infinite otherness are related. The practices that are associated with meditation—silence, attention to the breath and heartbeat, drawing inwards towards a physical point of focus, so as to minimize unnecessary movement and so on—will assist in receptivity towards finite phenomena. As Merleau‐Ponty's analysis suggests, adequate or truthful knowledge emerges from an early phase in which there is an openness to the indeterminacy of what is perceived such that we are subliminally aware of potentials other than those about to be realized in granular conceptualities. And the experience of such openness in the ordinary history of consciousness, the practice of relaxed but alert physical and sensory focus, can help to demystify and support the more unrestricted receptivity demanded in meditative or (in the stricter sense) contemplative states. As Weil argues, the ethical and intellectual can be construed as “indirect love” for the unconditioned, for God, to the extent that it works by “waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it.” (Waiting on God ) Weil's phrasing is not without its problems. When she says (149) that “seeking leads us astray”, so that we must always wait upon a new scientific truth to deliver itself to us because our attempts to master it will be distorting, she comes close to denying the active role of a consciousness that inevitably learns to map its environment by deliberate trial and error; and her insistence on the destruction of ego—as if the specific locatedness of the particular subject had no contributory significance—remains an area of tension and even contradiction in her thinking, comparable to her extraordinary animosity towards her own Jewish identity and heritage. But the overall structure she outlines, in which all real learning entails the suspension of the unexamined ego, is one that permits essential connections to be made between pedagogy, compassion, and the love of God. If “[t]he giving of one's attention to learning is of the same quality as the giving of one's attention to suffering” (Nigel Tubbs ), and if attention to suffering is one of the clear marks of an awareness of and participation in the divine perspective, “the plane of supernatural love” (Weil 112), there is a thread leading from research to meditation which opens up a consistent and challenging doctrine of human learning and knowing, and requires a commitment to understanding the process of knowing as a necessary dimension of any learning worth the name. In the general task of brokering the conversation between scientific discourse and the world of religious reflection and discipline, an attention to attention may yet prove a fertile field; I hope that these very preliminary thoughts may contribute to a more systematic and extended treatment.
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