My specialty is to combine issues from the philosophy of mind with questions in virtue epistemology, ethics, and social-political theory, with a pragmatist bent. My most recent work is on attention and on metaphilosophy. My dissertation explored how non-cognitive feeling states can play a role in ethics.
Within the Ethics and Aesthetics of Attention project, I am mainly interested in the ethical and political aspects of how we pay attention. My research has three components:
– the nature of attention
– how we can think of collective attention
– how we can think of hermeneutic (conceptual) attention
In the nature of attention, I build on Sebastian Watzl’s work, whose account suggests, roughly, that attention is a mental process that structures contents into foreground and background.
I am mainly interested in what I call open-minded attention, as an important kind of attention besides focused attention. Roughly, it can be described as follows. Open-minded attention is an act of keeping oneself prepared to notice as-yet-unknown things within a specific domain. I am actively waiting for something to strike me. It consists in suspending one’s usual ways of foregrounding, so that the less-expected can come to the foreground. That is, open-minded attention is not the same as the mere fact that I am currently not occupied by anything; rather, it is an active keeping-oneself open for something to come up. In that sense, it is the opposite act of focused attention. Focused attention is the using of one’s usual ways of foregrounding and backgrounding.
In collective attention, I investigate the ethical and political aspects of how we collectively pay attention. For that, we first have to be clear on how we can say that groups pay attention. If we take attention to be a mental process, we thus have to respond to the question of how collectives can be the subject of mental states and processes. Even though in the social sciences and in everyday speech we are used to making collectives the subject of beliefs and other mental states, it is not clear whether we take ourselves to speak metaphorically in those instances. I argue that these attributions of mental processes to collectives is not metaphorical; that collectives can literally have mental states – and thus be the literal subject of attention. I qualify, however, that we need to think more carefully about which different kinds of collectives there are – e.g., institutions, groups, social classes – and that their respective nature determines whether we can attribute attention to them or not. For instance: Does a collective need an explicit internal structure in order to be the potential subject of attention? Do the members of the collective explicitly need to understand themselves as such in order for the collective to be able to pay attention? – not all members of a social class do so, for example. I thus develop an ontology of collectives in order to tackle the question of which of those can be the subject of mental processes, such as attention.
In hermeneutic attention, I argue that the two essential aspects of attention – an activity of foregrounding and backgrounding, and a particular form of open-mindedness – happen to be precisely the two tools we need in order to fill hermeneutic gaps and to correct hermeneutic distortions.
Foregrounding: Concepts help us organize phenomena and experiences. Different concepts organize experiences and phenomena in different ways, thus different aspects get foregrounded and backgrounded. Concepts function as “tuning devices”, as it were. When we engage in correcting hermeneutic distortions (conceptual amelioration), we work on which aspects to foreground as essential to the phenomenon.
Open-Mindedness: When we fill hermeneutic gaps, we engage in consciousness-raising or other forms of brainstorming about how to conceptualize a hitherto unconceptualized phenomenon. In order to be able do this, we need a particular form of open-mindedness, that is, open-minded attention.
The concept of hermeneutic attention is a useful conceptual tool to be able to ask questions that otherwise might remain obscured. For instance:
- Who pays this conceptual form of attention? (most often it is a collective subject)
- Who has the responsibility to pay attention to which concepts?
- Who has the responsibility to notice yet-unconceptualized experiences or phenomena?
- Who decides, or how do we collectively decide, which experiences or phenomena deserve (more) hermeneutic attention (and thus conceptualization or amelioration)?