Does attention exist?

Keith Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the introduction to the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau‑Ponty (2002: 34) states that ‘Attention, […] as a general and formal activity, does not exist’. This paper examines the meaning and truth of this surprising statement, along with its implications for the account of perception given by theorists such as Dretske (1988) and Peacocke (1983). In order to elucidate Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological account of perception, I present two alternative models of how attention might be thought to operate. The first is derived from the works of the aforementioned theorists and is, I argue, based upon a largely inaccurate computational or mechanistic understanding of the mind. The second is drawn from the works of Merleau-Ponty and Alva Noë, and takes into account recent neurological theories concerning the role of attention in human consciousness. On the basis of these models I argue that attention is an essential, rather than incidental, characteristic of consciousness that is constitutive of both thought and perception, and which cannot be understood in terms of the independent faculty or ‘general and unconditioned power’ (ibid. 31) that Dretske et al’s account requires. I conclude by considering two potential counterexamples to my argument, and evaluating the threat that these pose to the phenomenological model.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)153-168
Number of pages16
JournalBritish Journal of Undergraduate Philosophy
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2007


  • philosophy
  • perception
  • attention
  • Merleau-Ponty
  • phenomenology

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Does attention exist?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this