Minding Our Minds   /   Summer 2014   /    Minding Our Minds

The Art and Ethics of Attention

Thomas Pfau

The Traveler Remembers_Friday, 1987, by Nancy Goldring; courtesy of the artist.

As a creative and ethical act, attention allows itself to be filled by the reality of what we attend to.

In a world defined by unparalleled degrees of specialization, “expert knowledge,” and an ever-expanding inventory of technical terms, we may easily lose sight of ordinary language as a source of insight. Words such as action, judgment, goodness, and attention routinely surface in everyday speech, even as we seem largely unaware of their conceptual richness and force. Indeed, it is only when we find ourselves or someone else failing to live up to the meaning of these words that we can glimpse their submerged complexity. How often has an exasperated “Why weren’t you paying attention?” or “Where was your judgment?” tumbled across the lips of a parent trying to fathom what went on in the mind of his teenage child, now slouching at the far end of the kitchen, red faced and sullen. Remaining for the most part outside our purview, the importance of a word such as attention will typically divulge itself only in moments of crisis or (less frequently, perhaps) wonder. An ideal honored more in the breach than in practice, attention seems all but inseparable from the particular situation that calls for it, but, often enough, does not receive it.

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