Attentiveness is a quality to be prized, distractedness detrimental, especially when it comes to the things that really matter in life. Philosophers, psychologists, and Christian authors have long studied attention and its importance. As Scriptures says, “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your mind to my knowledge.” (Proverbs 22:17). In today’s world, however, not only can we access information of all sorts. We are bombarded by it incessantly. We are driven to distraction. As a result, our attention span diminishes. We may even lose the centre. Increasingly, we recognise the need to think about attention and form it.

In this interview Gregory Reichberg, discusses some of the best books on attention.

A philosopher by training (with a Ph.D. from Emory University), Gregory Reichberg is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, where he writes on historical and contemporary issues in military ethics. His current work focuses on artificial intelligence and its implications for military ethics. He is the author of Thomas Aquinas on War and Peace (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and co-editor of several volumes, including The Ethics of War: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Blackwell Publishing, 2006), Religion, War, and Ethics: A Sourcebook of Textual Traditions (Cambridge U P, 2014), and Robotics, AI, and Humanity: Science, Ethics, and Policy (Springer, 2021). His articles have appeared in Catholic journals and magazines, including The Thomist, La Revue Thomiste, Nova & Vetera (English Edition), Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, Commonweal, and America Magazine. On attention, he has published, "Studiositas, the Virtue of Attention," in The Common Things: Essays in Thomism and Education (Edited by Daniel McInerny); “Thomas Aquinas on Moral Responsibility in the Pursuit of Knowledge,” in Thomas Aquinas and his Legacy (edited by David M. Gallagher); "Toward A Thomistic Theory of Attention" (The Thomist, forthcoming).

  1. The Principles of Psychology
    by William James
  2. On The Trinity (De Trinitate), Book 11
    by St. Augustine
  3. Summa theologiae, Secunda Pars
    I-II, qq. 1-70) (I-II, qq. 71-114 )
    II-II, qq. 1-56) (II-II, qq. 57-140) (II-II, qq. 141-189)
    by St. Thomas Aquinas
  4. Treatise on the Love of God
    by St. Francis de Sales
  5. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
    by Tim Wu
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links in this post.

You have a forthcoming article in vol. 88 (2024) of The Thomist: “Toward a Thomistic Theory of Attention.” Did you become interested in attention for purely speculative reasons, as a philosopher and scholar of St. Thomas, or because you were concerned about the detrimental impact of modern mass media on our capacity to concentrate on what really matters?
Originally, I became interested in this as a subject of theoretical inquiry, in 1990, just after I had finished my doctoral dissertation and was starting out as an assistant professor of philosophy at Catholic University of America. Only in the last few years I have become interested in how the teaching of Augustine and Aquinas on attention is relevant to contemporary issues, such as the impact of digital media.

What drew me to the topic was my dissertation, Moral Choice in the Pursuit of Knowledge: Thomas Aquinas on the Ethics of Knowing. In it, I showed how the uses to which we put our minds are an important topic for ethical reflection.

Take, mathematics. It is hard to find any moral matter within mathematics as such. Nevertheless, applying our minds to mathematics instead of thinking about something else can have moral significance. So, my dissertation studied the moral significance of our speculative intellectual acts.

During my research, I came across a distinction that Thomas Aquinas makes: between the specification or object of thought and the exercise of thought.

Often, the specification of our thought falls outside the realm of freedom. Take 2 + 2 = 4. I do not choose this to be the case. Rather, it is something I see or perceive. There are many other such examples. However, thinking about 2 + 2 = 4 is a free act. I could just as readily think about something else. This hinges on free will. With free will, ethics comes into play. Ethics is about how we use our freedom.

Soon after, I realised that whenever Aquinas talks about the exercise of thought, he could have used another term: attending to objects or paying attention to them. Around the same time, I discovered that within psychology there was a large body of literature on attention.

Many are aware of the substantial body of research in the natural and social sciences on factors that contribute, positively or negatively, to our attentiveness and concentration. Do these studies make important new discoveries or simply confirm what we have always known about the necessity of attentiveness and the ordinary means for fostering it?Attention is a phenomenon. It is a feature of our experience. We have been aware of this for ages. However, as far as I can see from my studies on the history of philosophy, Augustine is the first to conceptualise this phenomenon of our mental life. There are allusions to attention in earlier thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle. However, it is Augustine who notices that something special is going on here and differentiates this aspect of our mental life from related ones.

In the modern period, beginning mainly with William James, there are attempts to build a theory of how attention functions. Some argue that we need several theories of attention to account for all its various aspects.

For instance, one aspect that the contemporary theory of attention examines is divided attention. We often refer to this as multitasking. However, is there such a thing as divided attention? Can attention really be divided at one and the same moment onto different objects or is something else happening? Are we simply switching very quickly between objects of thought? Much work has been done on this, beginning first and foremost with William James. This has become a major area within psychology, which often uses experimental techniques to sort out such issues.

Are the books that you have selected primarily speculative or practical? Do they describe the characteristics of attention as a cognitive act or show us how to form attentiveness as one or more virtuous dispositions?
The books cover a range of topics.

William James focuses mainly on the speculative aspects of attention. Nevertheless, towards the end of Chapter 11 of The Principles of Psychology, he makes powerful statements about the impact of attention on our moral lives.

Similarly, in De Trinitate, Augustine concentrates on the theoretical aspects of attention. At the same time, he is acutely aware of the impact attention has on our moral and spiritual life. In certain passengers of the Confessions, for instance, he is explains how attention can either draw us closer to God or away from him.

In the Secunda Pars of the Summa theologiae, St. Thomas brings the two prongs together: the moral psychology of attention and the actual ethics of attention.I have included a text from St. Francis de Sales’s Treatise on the Love of God because he delves into the spirituality of attention.

I round out the selection with a recent book, Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside our Heads. It is about the so-called attention economy. This takes us directly into sociology of attention, as well as its moral and political aspects. In the conclusion, Wu makes strong statements about the importance of preserving our attention. This is fundamental to a life well lived.

"God always has the first initiative in our spiritual efforts. He can draw out our attention in unexpected ways. This is basically what takes place in a conversion."

As you noted, Augustine, Aquinas, and Francis de Sales stress the importance of attention for the spiritual life. Should we not distinguish between secular conceptions and practices of attention and Christian ones? For example, mindfulness has become a buzzword in recent years. To a large extent, the practice of mindfulness is rooted in Eastern religious practices, whereas St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Francis de Sales are referring to specifically Christian forms of prayer and meditation. Do not many of the problems surrounding attention boil down to the fact that we do not dedicate enough time or effort to prayer?
The little I know about mindfulness is that it is about emptying one's mind and removing determinate thoughts. It seems to originate out of an impulse that is not distinctively Christian. It is not necessarily anti-Christian. That depends on how one practices it. However, in the Christian tradition, the idea is that emptying one's mind of certain thoughts and preoccupations renders it attentive to God. The emptying of one’s mind is not an end itself. It is instrumental to another end. This is perhaps the main difference.

There is another difference, one which is crucial to my reading of Augustine and Aquinas. The freedom of our attending is essential. At bottom, though, God always has the first initiative in our spiritual efforts. He can draw out our attention in unexpected ways. This is basically what takes place in a conversion.

A long time ago, I read a book written by André Frossard, a French journalist who was a militant atheist. One day, he went into Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and was just seized by the thought of God, the presence of God. He was startled by this and eventually became a Christian. It was as though his attention was directed toward something he had never thought about. Otherwise, he would have resisted such thoughts. God takes the initiative and we need to leave ourselves open to him. This is fundamental. We talk about listening, but we do not always know what it is we are going to hear.

All of us Christians have had experiences of this sort. Even Aristotle acknowledged that there are moments of attentiveness that come from without: the mind is turned in a direction to which it has not turned itself. In the Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle talks about chains of deliberation. At the starting point of that reasoning process there needs to be an insight. In that insight, the mind is directed toward something but has not directed itself. Aristotle concludes, therefore, that there is something divine at the beginning of thought. St. Thomas Aquinas develops this idea but Aristotle had already pointed to this fundamental aspect of human nature: our attention is directed from without to certain things.

"In reading a great book, you are submitting your mind to a teacher. Reading consists in being taught."

In a celebrated article, Leo Strauss defined the liberal arts education as the study of the great books as a means of entering into conversation with minds greater than our own. Attentiveness is both a condition and an effect of a liberal arts education. Over the last few years, I have noticed how students have increasing difficulty in summoning the concentration needed to read such books. This is understandable. So many of the things take up their attention. Is the study of the great books one of the main ways to develop attention to the fundamental questions of human life?
In one of his discussions of attention, St. Thomas notes that there are three fundamental ways in which our attention gets directed to something.

One is the way we can apply by choice the knowledge we have acquired about a particular subject. This is what is going on now. You are asking me questions. I have thought about them and can call to mind my knowledge in the manner of a habitus or intellectual virtue.

The third is the way our primary thoughts are set in motion by God. We speak of this in terms of divine inspiration.

However, there is an intermediate way in which our attention is directed: through others. Learning is such a process. The teacher points to signs, symbols, and experiences that can lead the mind toward a truth. This is an intermediate way in which our attention is directed to truths to which we might not have attended otherwise.

The human mind is open to the infinite. That is what it is to have in mind. The senses can be applied to a vast range of things, but the human mind is even wider in scope. So how do we end up focusing on this rather than that? Teaching has a lot to do with that.

In reading a great book, you are submitting your mind to a teacher. Reading consists in being taught.

Lately, I have been reading novels by Doris Lessing and have learnt a tremendous amount. I have become aware of facets of my own experience to which I had paid hardly any attention at all. The same thing happens, albeit in a different way, when you are reading a master like Thomas Aquinas. I have been reading him for almost forty years but am always discovering new things and seeing new connections. It is always enriching.

We have a tremendous amount to learn from the great books, whether those in the Western tradition or other traditions.

Within the literature on attention, there is a discussion over sustained attention and what promotes it. William James took the topic up. He says that it is very hard to sustain one's attention by a sheer act of the will. When you try to sustain it in this way, you need to keep renewing that act of will. This is borne out by the research within contemporary psychology. Highly focused attention is hard to sustain. In the end, as James notes, what carries attention along is our interest in the object and finding the topic pleasurable. Our mind is fixed on the thing being studied not so much by choice but is carried along by its salience. For something to become salient for me, it needs to resonate in some fashion with my emotional life (taken broadly as including the will). We cannot force oneself into attentiveness. Rather, we need to be carried along by objects that are attractive. The problem with certain forms of digital media is that they attract our attention in unhealthy ways. The flashiness, movement, and colours of the phone promote a sensory activation which the plain print of book does not.

Appreciating the pleasure of having one's imagination activated by reading a book is something that the world has only learnt relatively recently: since the Gutenberg Bible and the invention of the printing press, when books became widespread. Prior to that, most people had their minds activated in other ways, such as stained-glass windows.

The long and short of it is that finding the reading of a book appealing is the result of a learning process.



For the first books, you have turned, not to sacred teaching, but to psychology. Moreover, you have not turned to the recent literature, but to one of the discipline’s early classics: William James’ Principles of Psychology. Why have you selected this work?
It is a good place to start because James focuses on what attention is and is also good at separating the different parts of the question. How does attention arise? How is sustained? And so forth. Besides providing a nice overview, he is an excellent writer.

 There are some famous passages in James that all the literature cites. Take this one.

This post is for paying subscribers only

Sign up now and upgrade your account to read the post and get access to the full library of posts for paying subscribers only.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in