Merritt, M. M., & Valaris, M. (2017): Attention and synthesis in Kant's conception of experience

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  author = {Merritt, Melissa McBay and Valaris, Markos},
  title = {Attention and Synthesis in Kant’s Conception of Experience},
  shorttitle = {Attention and Synthesis in Kant’s Conception of Experience},
  journal = {The Philosophical Quarterly},
  volume = {67},
  number = {268},
  pages = {571–592},
  year = {2017},
  abstract = {},
  file = {~/Library/Mobile Documents/iCloud~com~sonnysoftware~bot/Documents/be-library/merritt2017_Attention_and_Synthesis_in_Kant’s_Conception_of_Experience 7984.pdf; merritt2017_Attention_and_Synthesis_in_Kant’s_Conception_of_Experience.pdf},
  doi = {10.1093/pq/pqw085},
  url = {},
  langid = {},
  location = {},
  keywords = {},

The basic claim is that attention is (the capacity for) selection of representations for consciousness. Here I broadly agree.

They also claim that

we should understand Kant’s claims about the role of the understanding in perceptual experience in terms of the idea that perceptual contact with objects requires directed attention. (585)

This strikes me as misleading. Non-rational creatures are also capable of directed attention. The issue is how it is directed.

Here’s a nice summary of the position and opposition to Lucy and my view:

Allais (2015) and McLear (2015 and 2016) grant that full-blown experience (Erfahrung), as empirical cognition (see note 9 above), requires us to unify states of perceptual consciousness under concepts. However, on their view, the perceptual states (intuitions) that get unified under concepts carry their cognitive significance anyway—independently of any top–down influence or guidance by the understanding. More specifically, their status as states of acquaintance or awareness of external objects is independent of any such activity by the understanding. Intuitions—which, on the views under question, possess only spatiotemporal, and not categorial, unity—are supposed to provide us with representations of particular objects—where such a particular is a ‘distinct, bounded thing to which the subject can pay individual attention’ or which ‘the subject can pick out as a unit’ (Allais 2015: 147n2, 154).

But our reading suggests that this is not Kant’s view. We grant that sensory consciousness is possible without the understanding. However, Kant suggests, the states that get unified under a concept are not simply conscious sensory representations, but rather observations, which—as argued above—involve exercises of our faculty of selective attention. And, as we have already seen, selection via attention is directed by the understanding—in accordance with ‘the combination that it [the understanding] thinks’ (B156-7n), or by the need for unity ‘under a single concept’ (H 7:398). This is because in attending to and tracking particulars in the world, we need to treat them as relatively persisting unitary objects that follow causally continuous trajectories through space. Thus, the objective cognitive significance of intuitions is not there anyway, independently of their being unified (or, perhaps, independently of their potential for being unified) under concepts. On our reading, it is because we possess the capacity for directed attention—a capacity governed by the understanding—that we are capable of sensory states with objective cognitive significance at all. (588-9)

So, I think the position is Intellectualist insofar as it makes intuition conditional on the understanding. It also seems to systematically ignore the intuition/perception distinction, at least insofar as it gives no serious treatment of the possibility that what directed attention unifies is intuition, as the bringing to consciousness an object. Indeed, the Handschrift quote speaks of “observation” glossed as “absichtliche Wahrnehmungen” (H 7:398) – so really it is perception that is at issue here and not intuition. They try and address the distinction between intuition and perception in note 11 (576) but they don’t really take the measure of Tolley’s discussion, and in any case, the gloss they give of the issue is very limited and doens’t really take into account other possibilities.

I also am a little perplexed as to just what the position amounts to. On the one hand they seem to make consciousness of objects dependent on directed attention by the understanding. On the other hand they allow that non-rational animals might have “some capacity for directed attention” and have representations (intuitions?) with “some degree of objective reference” (note 29, 587). I’m not really sure what ‘objective reference’ means here. And I don’t understand the hedging with degrees here. It seems like representation of causation or substance is an all or nothing thing—e.g. one either represents universality and necessity or not. So how could there be a degree-based argument here?

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