Yesterday, I suggested that we need a theory of attention that gives attention a central place in the mind and serves as a unified framework that integrates different approaches to attention, both in philosophy and in the empirical sciences. Today, I will sketch the priority structure framework and give some reasons why we should accept it.
I will first introduce the framework with a metaphor. Consider the various elements that characterize your current state of mind: you are thinking about attention; you see the various words in front of you, but also – somewhat dimly – the color of your window; in the background, you hear some music; you feel an urge for another cup of coffee and a lingering worry somehow colors the whole situation. Think of these elements of your mind as little stories that tell you about various aspects of the world and yourself. Attention is not another story, another element of your mind. Instead, attention concerns how the elements are arranged. Attention is the newspaper that contains the stories. It has the thoughts, perceptions and feelings as parts. Just like the newspaper is structured by the story placement, so your mind is structured by what is prioritized relative to what. The front page is just one place where a mental state can appear in our attention. What makes a mental state front page (what makes it occupy your attention at some time) is a relation to what is pushed to the back or into the small print. Priority structure is about how a mental life is formed from its parts. Attention consists in the activity of regulating those structures: pushing elements up and down in the priority ordering, or maintaining a structure for some period of time.
The priority structure framework shows how to integrate attention with other aspects of our mental life. How is seeing related to visual attention? Or thought to intellectual attention? On the one hand, attention depends on other aspects of the mind. In order to attend to an object, you must either perceive it, think about it, imagine it, or be, for example, worried about it. Generally, as I argue in Structuring Mind, it is impossible to attend to something without being in some other mental state that is about that thing. On the other hand, attending to something is also never identical to any of the mental states on which it depends (or any combination of them). Visually attending to something, for example, is never just an instance seeing that thing, since you have direct voluntary control over what you are visually attending to, while you have no direct voluntary control over what you are seeing. This pattern of both dependence and independence is best explained by a view that treats the other elements as parts of attention – parts, though, that even together do not exhaust the whole.
What more is there to the whole than its parts? We get a clue by thinking about how attention involves a comparison. That is what makes various metaphors attractive: attention as a spotlight that illuminates one part of a scene more than others; or as a limited resource or capacity that at each moment feeds one aspect of the mind more than others. From this we get the view that attention is constituted by a structure in which mental states are related or compared to one another. The whole consists of the mental states (the parts) and their relations (the structure). It is possible to change the relations between the parts without changing the parts. With voluntary control, you can, for example, change from organizing your visual world around seeing this text to organizing it around seeing the color of your window. The parts are the same, but their relation has changed.
This gives us the skeletal version of the priority structure framework: attention is constituted by a structure of the mind, where mental states are related to each other. The fundamental notion is that relation. I call it the priority relation. The other aspect of the structure are the elements that occur in it. In my view, these are personal or subject level mental states, not aspects of sub-personal mental processing (though the personal level structure will be mirrored by the structure of that mental processing: here the view makes contact with empirical studies). I think that all aspects of our current mental life are parts of our priority structures. Indeed, I am inclined to think that what makes a state a state of the subject, as opposed to a state of her subsystems, is in part that it is caught by a single net of priority relations. The newspaper is what connects the stories.
With the priority relation, we can unify all the forms of attention. Here are some examples. Visual attention to a word or color consists in prioritizing seeing that word or color over other aspects of your visual state. Intellectual attention to an idea consists of prioritizing thoughts about that idea, relative to other thoughts, but also relative to perception, emotion or feeling. In these cases, attention has an external object. Attending to such objects gets explained in terms of the relative priority of mental states that are about those objects (the intentional directedness of attention gets explained in terms of the intentional directedness of the structure elements). But priority structures contain more information than what you attend to: it is one thing to attend to a person with a positive, loving emotion, and quite another if all your attention is directed at them in spite and hate. Both emotions may have the same intentional objects, but your attention differs depending on which of them is prioritized. What is prioritized may also be the aspects of the mind – experiences, goals and intentions – that are constitutive of an activity, like playing soccer: if they are, you engage in the activity attentively.
Priority structures have many shapes. Some of them are what I call spiky: one element is prioritized over everything else. Think of intense visual focus on a single object or location, adequately described as a spotlight on that thing. But attention can also be more like a lantern, dispersed through a whole scene and taking in what comes. Priority structures may be flat with everything in equal priority, like when you are “taking in” the whole surrounding world on a pleasant vacation. The latter is again different from being “on alert”, like in a sketchy neighborhood where your mind is attuned to something that isn’t yet there, the danger that could come from anywhere. Here fear organizes the perceptual world around itself (its thematic field, a notion from the phenomenologist Aaron Gurwitsch, which in Structuring Mind I show how to define – together with terms like the margin or the fringe of consciousness that are other structural “invariants”, as Gurwitsch calls them, of the character of lived experience).
What does it mean for one aspect of the mind to be priority related to another? I have come to think that we should not look for anything like a conceptual analysis or metaphysical reduction. We need to accept that attention is a basic feature of the mind that cannot be identified with anything else. In this respect, it is probably like knowledge or perception. Any attempt to define the relative priority of mental states will either be subject to unwelcome counterexamples, or quickly run into circles. We can, though, describe its functions, and we have a grip on how priority structures shape the field of consciousness. Tomorrow I will write about the function with a post on attention and agency. The day after, I will write about its reflection in conscious experience.
 Some of the metaphors treat attention as the cause of the structure, rather than as constituted by the structure: but such a view cannot explain the dependency noted above.
 Alison Gopnik, in her book The Philosophical Baby, argues that babies operate in lantern mode much more than adults.