Jorge Montesó Ventura delivers with his book Interest, Attention, Truth. A Phenomenological Approach to Attention (all translations in the following are mine) a valuable contribution to ongoing debates on the phenomenology of a particular phenomenon, that is, of attention. In general, phenomenological authors (e.g., Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Waldenfels, Depraz, Blumenberg, and many others) understand attention as a phenomenon that occurs mostly at the level of perception. Montesó’s book is no exception to this approach, although with some necessary distinctions, since for Montesó attention is also related to truth and to anthropological questions. In what follows, I will try to make this clear by pointing out the main ideas of the book, which could be of interest also for scholars who do not read Spanish.
From the start of the book it emerges clearly that Montesó adopts a perspective on attention which is clearly cognitive: on the very first page of the book it is expressively stated that attention occurs when we “want to know” something (2). This cognitive approach is also clearly visible in the title of the book, which gives attention the central role between interest and truth.
These three concepts (attention, interest, and truth) are also the main concepts of the three parts into which the book is divided, although the first (and longest) part of it deals with attention, which therefore emerges as the leitmotif keeping interest and truth connected together. That this is possible is due precisely to the fact that the author understands attention in a cognitive fashion. Attention is powered by our interest to know truth.
But the stress I lay on the author’s cognitive approach should not be taken as the claim that the author’s view is blurred by a lens that allows him to see only the cognitive aspects of the phenomenon he wants to analyze. Quite the contrary: the cognitive dimension is the starting-point for an analysis that is focused throughout on the human being as such. The enquiry is therefore at once existential, anthropological, and cultural. The book ends with a call for the development, out of a phenomenology of attention, of a philosophy of culture as such.
A word should be said about the meaning of “phenomenology” in this book. The author has already published a monograph dedicated to José Ortega y Gassett, surely the most prominent phenomenological and existential philosopher to write in Spanish (La atención en el piensamento de Ortega y Gassett, Centre D’Estudis Antropològics ACAF, Castellò 2016). And Ortega y Gassett remains the point of reference for the way in which phenomenology must be understood in this newer book as well. This means that we are dealing not so much with a phenomenology in the sense of Husserl, with all the different technical means he developed for the analysis of a pure experience, but with an existential phenomenology mediated by Scheler and by Heidegger. An approach of this kind to the phenomenology of attention is quite unusual and therefore deserves careful engagement.
In the first part of the Book Montesó delivers a balanced reconstruction of some of the most important points in the history of the concept of attention and of its philosophical, but also psychological, analysis. Wherever possible, Montesó complements philosophical insights with the results of empirical research in neurosciences and psychology, although he never precisely discusses the methodological problems related to this way of proceeding. This omission is somewhat problematic. Obviously, the aim of the book is not to provide a general methodological framework, but if the reference to empirical literature is to be more than the simple attempt so “spice up” the philosophical soup, then one should make clear when the recourse to empirical sciences makes sense and when not, at least in a very preliminary and superficial way.
Nevertheless, the attempt to merge phenomenology and empirical sciences is obviously laudable and profitable in many respects. This first part of the book is cleverly designed as the piece-by-piece assembly of the definition of attention; the full definition is delivered after the single parts have been introduced and discussed at length.
“[…] Attention presents itself to us as a singularity of intentionality in its cognitive or understanding capacity, as the token or expression of the tendencies of the subject in its possibilities to apprehend something cognitively. For this, it works like a lighthouse which, requested or solicited, emerges to reality (be it sensible or imaginary) through a systemic mobilization of the body, selecting (voluntarily or automatically) the things on which the light falls, the things it discovers” (104).
As we can see from this definition, attention is conceived in a fairly straightforward way, since – as Merleau-Ponty already pointed out in the Phenomenology of Perception – the use of a spotlight metaphor when discussing attention was already common in the 1940s. If we add the idea that this light not only makes things stand out more clearly from the background but selects those things, we add to the classical metaphor of attention as a spotlight the equally classical view of attention as a selection mechanism, a metaphor that goes back (as Montesó briefly but exhaustively reconstructs) to the work of Broadbent in the 1950s. This selection mechanism can be voluntary or automatic – that is, in the parlance of current research, top-down or bottom-up. Moreover, attention is an entirely cognitive capability and does not create anything but only illuminates things (cf. 70).
However, building on the basis of this classical understanding, the phenomenological and existential approach of Montesó adds that attention is a bodily gesture that expresses and betokens the tendencies of the subject. In this aspect of attention, which Montesó rightly stresses more than many other researchers on this phenomenon, we have two moments, on the one hand the necessary relation of attention to interest, and on the other the necessary relation of attention to corporeality.
Indeed, this point of novelty is also the point that allows Montesó to construct his own narrative about attention. Precisely by diving into the phenomenon of interest, in the second part of the book he is able to stress the fact that attention is always already shaped by the culture in which the active subject is embedded, because culture is one of the most important builders of interests, if not indeed the single most important. Indeed, the world in which we live is shaped, according to Montesó (and to Ortega y Gassett), first of all by the way in which the culture we live in interprets the surrounding things and phenomena. And in this collective act of interpretation, interests play a crucial role and are the real “motivators” of attention: the phenomenon of interest “plays the same role as the fuel that gives energy to the attentional gesture, it is the impetus that moves attention from one part of reality to another” (129). The idea is basically that interest is the “hand that moves the attentional lamp” (41). Attention rises, in the eyes of the author, always on the basis of some previous interest. Against some of the most classical ideas, according to which only the material features of the object attract our attention, Montesó stresses the meaningfulness for our lives that is the basis for interests to be built and therefore for attention to rise and, as the Author says, “come to reality”: “The life-project of the subject activates and deactivates in each case the functioning of attention, thereby creating her own landscape, her own truth” (101).
Through the interest, attention raises and allows the subject to select her own perspective on realty, within which each subject then selects her own “truth”: “the couple interest-attention is responsible for our particular view of the universe” (181). The notion of truth, which is clearly derived from Heidegger’s understanding of truth as Unverborgenheit (cf. 229), remains fairly open and unclear. Montesó seems to understand truth in the sense of discovery. Attention and interest allow the subject to discover the surrounding world in her peculiar way. This way is certainly subject-centered and peculiar, but not therefore already completely relativistic (in the negative sense of the term), since an intersubjectively shared culture functions as the motor of interests and, therefore, of discovery of the surrounding world: “every culture represents a specific regime of attention within which every individual acts as a unique organ of perception” (119). Attention and interest gives rise to the particular Weltanschauung of a particular people in a particular time (cf. 246).
In the end, one could argue that the concept of attention for Montesó is excessively vague and that it encompasses many different phenomena, from the perceptual, to cultural forms of attention, all to way to love (some nice analyses are developed on falling in love and neurasthenia – cf. 218 ff. – following Ortega y Gassett) and so on. But precisely this is one of the most important achievements of this book: keeping together many different ways (many different “cognitive phenomena”, 20; cf. also 41) in which we speak about attention in a view that defines accurately the phenomenon itself, but which also keeps this phenomenon in the broader context of other phenomena without which attention would be incomprehensible, such as interest and the anthropological striving for truth and knowledge. Furthermore, the author seems to explicitly go in that direction and to recognize the (necessary) vagueness of the concept of attention when he states that “everything is attention” (254). And this way of understanding attention as a “constant and unavoidable gesture” (16) reflects the main intuition of Ortega y Gassett on attention: “tell me what you attend to and I’ll tell you who you are” (Ortega y Gassett, quoted on 117).