Global Seed Fund Grant

ABSTRACT
This Global Seed Fund research project will investigate, from a cross-cultural philosophical approach, the role of attention in ethics, agency, and mind. It will bring together considerable research expertise in the three NYU campuses, unified under a common research theme. There will be an emphasis on drawing regional talent into a broad collaboration. There is considerable research interest across the campuses in the Arabic, Chinese, Buddhist traditions of thought about attention, as well as in its contemporary role in philosophical theory, developmental psychology, and cognitive science. The potential benefit from incorporating cross-cultural perspectives is especially evident in three areas: the question of whether attention is unified; the relation between attention and agency; and, the ethical implications of attentional habits.

While the importance of the notion of attention has long been appreciated by the global philosophical traditions of China, South Asia and the Arabic World, contemporary scholarship in the West is only now beginning to appreciate the centrality of this concept in ethics and the philosophy of mind. Our project will address this imbalance and in doing so demonstrate the potentialities afforded by the GNU model of a 21st century university. The project will impact across several fields, including psychology, philosophy of mind, and ethics.

The methodology to be adopted is one based on the newly emerging field of cosmopolitan philosophy. In this methodology, insight into philosophical questions is derived by careful integration of ideas from a plurality of distinct cultural locations. If one’s ambition is to discover a fundamental theory true of the human mind as such, it is methodologically essential to consider theories from a plurality of cultural locations. This is because theories of mind developed exclusively within individual scholarly communities will inevitably be prone to narrowness and provincialism. Our research program will demonstrate by example why rigorous investigation into the nature of ethics, agency, and mind should not be limited to any one community of thinkers, but rather should strive to learn from diverse cultures of investigation.

The specific goals will be: (1) to run three regional group meetings, one in each of the NYU campus sites. These are group brainstorming sessions for the purpose of developing the multi-author volume and the research network described below. (2) To publish a multi-authored volume, to be edited by the project-funded Postdoctoral Researcher, offering a collaborative and coherent philosophical investigation of attention from a variety of cultural locations. (3) To create an enduring network within the GNU of NYU faculty with long-term research interests in the nature of attention, and to seek out funding sources that will ensure the long-term continuity of the research collaborations that this project will seed.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION
This Global Seed Fund research project will investigate, from a cross-cultural philosophical approach, the role of attention in ethics, agency, and mind. It will bring together considerable research expertise in the three NYU campuses, unified under a common research theme. There will be an emphasis on drawing regional talent into a broad collaboration. There is considerable research interest across the campuses in the Arabic, Chinese, Buddhist traditions of thought about attention, as well as in its contemporary role in philosophical theory, developmental psychology, and cognitive science. The potential benefit from incorporating cross-cultural perspectives is especially evident in three areas: the question of whether attention is unified; the relation between attention and agency; and, the ethical implications of attentional habits. We will first describe the project objectives and goals, then how it will enable and foster long term research partnerships across the global network, and finally the significance of the research, its impact, methodology, and resources.

The Nature of Attention
Attention has been a topic of renewed interest in the Philosophy of Mind (see e.g. Mole et al. 2011). Some recent theorists have argued that the various aspects of attention can be seen as unified by their conceptual role (e.g. Mole 2009; Watzl 2011); others have assumed that attention is a unified psychological kind and set out to propose neural correlates for it (e.g. Prinz 2011). The need for a unified notion of attention may seem obvious from within the conceptual constructs and linguistic practices of English speakers. Yet both cross-cultural and empirical perspectives call this assumption into question.

It is striking, for instance, that in the Pāli and Sanskrit languages in which Buddhist philosophers have worked there is no single word that can translate the English “attention”. Indeed, work on Buddhist theories of attention suggests that the search for something that can be called the essence of attention is a mistake (see Ganeri forthcoming). Their view is rather, as we might put it, that many different kinds of attention are put to work to explain perception, memory, mindfulness, testimony, self-awareness, empathy, and end-of-life experience. Buddhist theoretical interest is in the problem of whether there is a plurality of kinds of attention, if so how they should be distinguished and characterised, and what explanatory work the kinds of attention do within a philosophy of mind.

The tendency in the recent empirical literature is likewise to treat separately distinct kinds of attention, including selective and sustained attention, retentive and reflective attention, attention through language to the world beyond one’s horizons and from other perspectives, attention to one’s own mind, and attention to the minds of others. These kinds of attention have distinct roles in explaining perception, memory, testimony, self-knowledge, social cognition, and the phenomenology of thinking. Thus attention, like memory, should not be presumed to be a single psychological kind.

Notions of attention play varied explanatory roles in justifying claims about the mind, agency, and ethics. These roles are even more varied across cultural contexts than within any one philosophical tradition. Thus, our first objective is to investigate from a cross-cultural philosophical perspective whether various notions of attention all appeal ultimately to some common, unifying function, or not. We will look at models of attentional selection, such as those available in the fifth century work of Buddhaghosa on manasikāra and the eleventh century work of Avicenna on tanbīh, in order to understand how their astute psychological insight can inform contemporary theories of the function of selective attention.

Attentional Self-Regulation, Agency, and Selfhood
Many psychologists today view attention self-regulation – the ability to selectively focus and sustain attention on an object, while inhibiting distraction – as the sine qua non of self-control (Posner & Rothbart 1998). For example, influential work by Walter Mischel and colleagues indicates that the ability of children to distract attention from an appetizing reward increases the ability to delay gratification and predicts a variety of positive life-outcomes (e.g. Mischel et al. 2011). According to these researchers, attention self-regulation is a crucial component of “willpower,” understood as “skill in overcoming tempting immediate rewards, distractions and frustrations in favor of greater but delayed rewards” (Mischel et al. 2011, p. 254). Surprisingly, however, philosophers of mind have written little about the importance of attention for self-control, despite recent philosophical work on self-control and the will (e.g. Holton 2009), as well as an upsurge of philosophical work on attention. Indeed, none of the main extant philosophical theories of the nature of attention (Mole 2009; Prinz 2011; Smithies 2011; Watzl 2011; Wu 2011) addresses the constitutive function that attention plays in self-control.

The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school of India can be interpreted as pointing out that in order to distance oneself from some conscious motivation, and regard it as not one’s own, one must occupy a stance of endorsement towards some other motivation (Ganeri 2011). Attempts at self-control provide a pointed example of this; in being motivated to control one kind of desire, non-Buddhist Indian philosophers might suggest, one necessarily endorses as one’s own a motivation not to endorse that desire. A similar focus is found in contemporary theories such as Frankfurt’s work on second-order desires (Frankfurt 1971, 1988).

According to these theorists, the myth of a self as detached from all our attending, a self which is the sole author of our thoughts and intentions, is to be rejected. However, a role for the self may yet remain in accounting for the double-aspectual nature of owning a state of mind, where a phenomenological aspect faces inwards and a normative aspect faces in the direction of the space of reasons. Agency and ownership may be distinct; it for this reason that Ganeri (2011), for one, defends a notion of self as common owner, but dispenses with the notion of self as agent. A recent review of clinical and experimental data about “rubber hand” illusions, out-of-body experiences and schizophrenia supports the view that while “many recent authors have thought that agency is a necessary condition to actualize minimal phenomenal selfhood […in fact…] a passive, multisensory and globalized experience of owning a body is sufficent” (Blanke and Metzinger, 2008: 12). Likewise studies of self-awareness in dreaming suggest that selfhood requires not agency but rather “immersive spatio-temporal location” (Windt 2010; cf. Thompson 2014). Again, there is good evidence from neuroscience that the subpersonal mechanisms responsible for a sense of bodily and mental agency are quite different from those that give rise to the sense that one’s thoughts are one’s own (Gallagher 2000; Carruthers 2010, 2011; Synofzik et al. 2008), with multifactorial, comparator and metacognitive models of the sense of agency all under review.

It is here that Arabic philosophy of mind has a substantial contribution to make. Ibn Sīnā (the Latin Avicenna) is most famous for the “flying man” thought experiment, which purports to demonstrate that a self which consists in pure self-awareness is not essentially corporeal. The entire framework of his discussion in the Shifā’: Fī al-nafs, however, begins with attention: the purpose of the thought experiment is to direct the attention by serving as a ‘reminder’ (tanbīh; drawing attention) or a ‘call for attention’ (ishāratan saddīdata al-mawqi) (see Kakua 2015; Marmura 1986; Rahman 1952). Kakua rightly speaks of the “new focus on attention” in Avicenna (Kakua 2015: 34). What is of principal philosophical and psychological importance is the new idea that states of self-awareness can be attended to or neglected, and the topic of attention to self-awareness is explored in the Avicennan tradition far more thoroughly than it is in the West. Thus, for the later philosopher Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī (d.1164) the notion of “awareness of awareness” must be explicated in terms of explicit reflective attention (see Kakua forthcoming).

Thus, our second objective is to investigate from a cross-cultural philosophical perspective how the regulation of attention is related to notions of agency and to notions of self-awareness and ownership.

The Ethics of Attention
William James remarked that “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will” (James 1890, Chapter 11). More recently, a small number of theorists including Goldie (2004) and Brady (2010, 2013) have debated the role of “virtuous habits of attention” in facilitating the kinds of understanding required for moral development and ethical behavior: understanding of what is dangerous, what is shameful, what is praiseworthy, and so on. Yet, in contrast to these Western theorists, Buddhist traditions offer extensive practical directions for training attention in ways they claim can facilitate wise judgment and virtuous behavior. Moreover, to justify these claims, Buddhist philosophers also provide sophisticated analyses of attention, intention, cognition, and agency (e.g., Heim 2013; Ganeri 2011, forthcoming). Similarly, early Chinese philosophy provides an important counterpoint to the decision-making model implicit in modern Western ethical theorizing. Slingerland (2010, 2011) has argued that the early Confucian ideal of effortless attention and of training habits of ethical action to the point of automaticity stands in direct contrast to the ethical ideal held by theorists such as Kant, who elevates reason as the means to overcome unprincipled impulses. For these reasons, contemporary cross-philosophical scholarship in dialogue with Western philosophy of mind and cognitive science (e.g., Slingerland 2010, 2011; Coseru 2012; Davis & Thompson 2013; Thompson 2014; Garfield 2015; Ganeri forthcoming) provides crucial resources for analyzing the role that various notions of attention play in justifying claims about ethics, agency, and mind.

The practice of training sustained attention in “mindfulness” meditation is claimed to have a particularly central role in developing the ability to know for ourselves which ways of thinking, speaking, and acting are wise (Anālayo 2004). Many traditional and contemporary interpreters have suggested that Buddhist ethics is to be grounded in the realization that since there are ultimately no selves, all suffering is equally to be avoided, whether mine or yours. This “consequentialist” interpretation of Buddhist ethics, defended most prominently by Charles Goodman (2009) and Mark Siderits (2003), is closely aligned with the influential work of philosopher Derek Parfit, who himself makes an offhand remark claiming the Buddha’s support for his reductionist version of the “no-self” view (Parfit 1984, p. 273). However, in contrast to many Western traditions of ethical thought, Buddhist traditions claim that much of what makes an action right or wrong is the mental purity of the motivation behind it. In the lively recent debate over the grounding principles of Buddhist ethics (e.g. Keown 1992, Sidertis 2003; Goodman 2009), one proposal is that in the Buddhist context “purification of the mind can be seen as setting the goal and the parameters for moral injunctions” (Anālayo 2012). . Buddhist philosophy thus offers avenues that are novel in the Western philosophical context for thinking about the explanatory role of notions of attention in justifying ethical claims.

The philosophical traditions of China also have much to contribute to research on attention and ethic. Some strands of Chinese tradition seem to emphasize an ethical ideal of training habitual actions precisely so that one need not explicitly attend in order to act wisely (Slingerland 2010). Yet Hsün Tzu links the training of attention with the virtue of care: “Instead of thinking about things as things, why not attend to them so you don’t lose them”. This comment, incidentally, introduces again a distinction between sustained and selective attention: attention here means “holding in mind” rather than “bringing into view”. These claimed connections between attentional habits and ethical judgment require careful investigation from philosophical and empirical perspectives. Thus, our third objective is to investigate from a cross-cultural philosophical perspective the explanatory role of attention in justifying ethical claims.

Significance and Goals of the Project
While the importance of the notion of attention has long been appreciated by the global philosophical traditions of China, South Asia and the Arabic World, contemporary scholarship in the West is only now beginning to appreciate the centrality of this concept in ethics and the philosophy of mind. Our project will address this imbalance and in doing so demonstrate the potentialities afforded by the GNU model of a 21st century university. The project will impact across several fields, including psychology, philosophy of mind, and ethics.

The specific goals will be: (1) to run three regional group meetings, one in each of the NYU campus sites. These are group brainstorming sessions for the purpose of developing the multi-author volume and the research network described below. (2) To publish a multi-authored volume, to be edited by the project-funded Postdoctoral Researcher, offering a collaborative and coherent philosophical investigation of attention from a variety of cultural locations. (3) To create an enduring network within the GNU of NYU faculty with long-term research interests in the nature of attention, and to seek out funding sources that will ensure the long-term continuity of the research collaborations that this project will seed.

The methodology to be adopted is one based on the newly emerging field of cosmopolitan philosophy. In this methodology, insight into philosophical questions is derived by careful integration of ideas from a plurality of distinct cultural locations. If one’s ambition is to discover a fundamental theory true of the human mind as such, it is methodologically essential to consider theories from a plurality of cultural locations. This is because theories of mind developed exclusively within individual scholarly communities will inevitably be prone to narrowness and provincialism. Our research program will demonstrate by example why rigorous investigation into the nature of ethics, agency, and mind should not be limited to any one community of thinkers, but rather should strive to learn from diverse cultures of investigation.

EVALUATION PLAN
1. The project will fund three group meetings, together with project-related travel costs. These meetings are collaborative brainstorming sessions. Their function is to bring together a multiplicity of perspectives from a variety of cultural traditions in order to facilitate each member of the group to creatively develop their material in interaction with others. The success of these meetings will be evaluated by project outcomes (2) and (3) below.
2. The project will result in a multi-authored volume, to be edited by the project-funded Postdoctoral Researcher. It is rare for edited volumes to achieve coherence, and ours will be driven by the essentially collaborative nature of the whole project. Each contributor will have been an active participant in one or more of the group’s meetings and will have developed their analysis in close conversation with other members of the group. Our project is designed to facilitate a collective investigation into the topic, and the volume will reflect this. The editor will liaise regularly will all group members to ensure thematic, methodological and stylistic coherence. This volume will be an unprecedented demonstration of the value of doing research in the philosophy of mind and ethics in a cross-cultural setting.
3. The project will facilitate the formation of an enduring network of research collaborations across the whole NYU GNU. The members of the group include tenured NYU faculty with long-term research interests in the nature of attention. The project will demonstrate the viability of pan-NYU research partnerships in the humanities, and show how the regionality of the distinct campuses is a vital NYU asset. The project-funded Postdoctoral Researcher will be tasked with identifying future funding sources that will ensure the long term continuity of the research collaborations that this project will seed.

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