Some years ago a book of mine appeared and told the story of the discovery of the ice age. The idea of an ice age met a lot of resistance at first because it seemed profoundly unscientific. Glaciers the size of continents were unknown and sounded like the sort of fantasy that dreamers always propose. Back then scientific geologists believed that the same slow processes visible in 1840 were enough to explain all the geological markings on the earth. Furthermore, glaciers were believed to be unable to flow uphill. Rivers can only flow downhill, and what were glaciers if not frozen rivers? There was plenty of physical evidence of a recent ice age, left over moraines and large boulders scattered about, and every so often a geologist would look at this evidence and be converted. But that process was slow and it took decades for geologists as a group to come around.
One of the interesting features of the book Attention and Meaning is the way different authors have personal stories about how they found their way to interest in attention. Chapter 4 is by Kai-Uwe Carstensen, whose web page either boasts or confesses, "I am one of the few who believe that selective attention plays an important role in cognition, much more important than currently acknowledged." His chapter is titled, "A Cognitivist Attentional Semantics of Locative Prepositions," and states early on, "Attention-related phenomena… seem to have come to the fore only recently…. In this chapter, I will show that this is by no means warranted and that… attention must be regarded as a phenomenon at the heart of the field, and as an essential link in the relation of language and space" [p. 94].
Sometimes I still enjoy listening to my old, analog LP records, even with their snaps, crackles and pops.
If we are going to argue that language is a system for harnessing attention, we ought to be clear which of the two general theories of attention we are talking about, information oriented or consciousness oriented.
Information oriented attention was proposed by Donald Broadbent in the 1950s and is still favored by artificial intelligence investigators who seek to model attention on a computer. It defines attention as a filtering process that buffers some input before it moves on to short term storage; however, it is very different from the sort of attention considered on this blog.
Last June I posted a three-part series titled "I'm Tired of Chomsky" in which I summarized Chomsky's theory, put forth an alternate theory, and reached some conclusions (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, All 3 in 1 PDF). At the end I found that there was some overlap in our ideas about language:
Internal language: Although I do not accept Chomsky's theory of innate, elementary concepts, I do believe that humans enjoy a subjective, sensory knowledge that language can evoke but not reproduce.
A Merge system: I disagree with Chomsky's idea that language is produced by combining symbols for elementary concepts, but I agree that language is created by combining words into a string. In my view, the words direct attention to evoked knowledge.
But, as the saying goes, you can't beat something with nothing. Chomsky and his many admirers have produced an elaborate system of analysis that has its limitations—how seriously can anybody take an account of language that does not explain how we are able to communicate knowledge?—but has the great virtue of actually existing. I have felt for some time that somebody ought to produce an account of how language can evoke not just images, but complete ideas that hang together.
Attention is much older than the genus Homo but we have turned it into a liberating power. Attention began as a reflex action. Something unexpected happens—there is a sudden noise, bright color, disgusting scent, hard poke—and an animal focuses on it, becomes aware of it. I was once on a walk in Zambia and far away, maybe a quarter of a mile distant, viewed from one ridge to another, a giraffe came out of a clearing and began walking down a slope toward water. It was the first time I ever saw a giraffe before it saw me. One of the people I was with whispered, "Look," and the giraffe heard the word. It stopped and stared straight at us. Then it turned and retreated back into the woodlands. There you have the classic animal use of attention: focus, awareness, action. This behavior is millions of years old and allows animals to include some adaptability in their actions. Animals with attention have an either/or switch in their system. They can focus, become aware and act in either of a couple of ways. They are not bugs accidentally orbiting a light bulb until either they drop in exhaustion or the light goes off.