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Consciousness, Attention, and Communication

The types of communication conveyed through consciousness and attention

We depend on truthful communication for exchanging reliable information with one another, and we unsurprisingly have norms and conventions to promote this reliable exchange of information through conversation. The linguist Paul Grice called these well behaved conversations “talk exchanges”, and we will be interested in the forms of individual and collective attention that underlie these truth-directed linguistic exchanges in a series of upcoming columns here. However, our linguistic intentions quite often lack this pious commitment to truth. We often don’t care all that much about the truth or falsity of our linguistic contributions. We lie to ourselves and others, we intentionally deceive, pretend, joke, praise, and offend one another. We have a rich array of norms, conventions and expectations for these non-alethic uses of language, and we greatly appreciate this intentional distance from the plain truth provided by poetry, metaphor, and analogy. When it comes to lying, some lies are mild and polite; others are terrible and consequential. Some kinds of deceit are commercial, some are social and political. And so on for all forms of not plainly truthful language: some instances of deceit are good and some are unacceptable. Three questions about this kind of non-assertive language arise:

1) Why is so much of human communication not geared towards truth and facts?

2) With so much language directed towards politeness, entertainment, etc., how do we manage to coordinate action through factual and truthful language? and,

3) What is the role of consciousness and attention in all this?

With respect to question (1), shouldn’t the main purpose of language be to coordinate action based solely on truth? If truth were the sole purpose of language, the forms of language described in the previous paragraph would be rare exceptions. But that is clearly not the case, and it actually seems that the opposite occurs. The not so epistemic purposes of language certainly are very important to us. Deceit can entertain us through humor or puzzles. They provide a moral and aesthetic dimension to language that speak to deep and important aspects of human nature.

The fact that we are “two faced” with respect to truthfulness in these ways clearly shows flexibility of the human language-capacity. It requires considerable linguistic and attentional dexterity to be competent in both truth-directed and non-truth directed discourse. It is this flexibility that also makes our minds flexible and interested in many things. So how do these two dimensions of language relate to consciousness and attention (question 3)? In the next few blog entries we shall argue that attention is fundamentally related to the communicative, truth-seeking and relevance-determining aspects of language and that, although attention might be involved in all forms of linguistic communication, it is fundamental for the epistemic functions of language.

Is it good to have such a flexible and multi-purpose language capacity? The answer is clearly yes. Our lives are very much enriched by the diversity of speech acts we are capable of producing. Romanticism, irony, camaraderie, friendship; these are relations that have linguistic manifestations, carefully tuned to social contexts. This leads us to wonder about the pious regard for truth we display in our better moments: what exactly is the place of truth in linguistic communication? This is not the “truth” of the heart or of emotions, but the kind of truth scientists seek. In a very concrete way, it is the truth about the reliable information and facts that keep the edifice of language safe. Without the truth-guaranteeing and truth-seeking functions of language, the luxuries of romantic, poetic, artistic, and entertaining language would ultimately dissipate—the

Orion8/People talking
Source: Orion8/People talking

edifice of language, as a whole, would collapse. The frequency of non-alethic linguistic intentions noted above should not lead us to diminish the value or importance of truth-directed “talk exchanges”; truth is the foundation of any intentional departure from itself.

A useful analogy here is to think of this epistemic function as a vital energy of language: a kind of sacred fire that speakers must protect. Keeping this fire alive requires caring about the rules of assertion: what you assert is something I can rely on because I assume you are being serious and helpful. I pay distinctively close attention to the assertions of those I trust, and regularly act upon these assertions. Trust-building is the most essential function of truth-oriented language—and of language as a whole. Once trust is built into our assertions and testimonies, we can “relax” and talk in more entertaining and ornate ways. We do not begin building trust by entertaining ourselves just to arrive at truth later on, as if by accident or as an afterthought. Trust begins with truth.

For example, suppose I borrowed your car and you really need it. If you ask me where I parked your car and I systematically respond with poems, metaphors and jokes you will legitimately get frustrated and angry with me. “Why don’t you just tell me where it is?”, you plead. If I never tell you where it is and instead I keep telling jokes, how could you trust in me again? By contrast, once I convey reliable information regarding the whereabouts of your car a joke might be funny (although a poem might still be out of place). If we were incapable of asserting and being truthful the language edifice would crumble—the fire would go extinct.

What are the psychological foundations of the edifice of language? This is the main question that we plan to address in the next posts. Socially, the foundations of reliable linguistic communication are coordination principles and maxims for relevance, truthfulness and sincerity. Psychologically, these principles and maxims depend on the communicative intentions of speakers. Here is where joint attention is fundamental (when two or more people are attending to the same object or task). Joint attention for reliable linguistic communication must coordinate the intentions of speakers to speak truthfully, sincerely and in a relevant manner. Without this type of joint attention, which might not necessitate any kind of phenomenal conscious content, the sacred fire of reliable language could not be kept aflame. This is our proposed solution to question (2).

It is interesting to think about cultural differences which determine that some languages are in a more “assertive mode” than other languages in which politeness and ornament is considered more important. Language in some cultures may come across as more bluntly honest than others, which navigate the intricacies of social décor with more indirect and less truth-oriented language. But any language must keep the fire of truth alive, regardless of cultural conventions. Otherwise, coordinated action and the most basic of conversational needs would permanently be unfulfilled.

To this end, one needs to explain what exactly is the relation between language and attention, as well as consciousness. In the next posts, we focus on attention, especially joint attention, to account for the crucial epistemic function of language—preserving the fire that must be kept alive by speakers of a language: their mutual trust in each other. We then focus on the peculiarly flexible aspects of language, which might be uniquely human, and which might depend on emotions and phenomenal consciousness. The consciousness and attention dissociation (Montemayor, and Haladjian, 2015) can help explain these roles, and support some of the points made previously in this blog, by highlighting the epistemic and empathic dimensions of language. For example, the dissociation between attention and conscious experience might facilitate the ability to deceive, by separating conscious awareness related to emotions and aesthetic experiences from the epistemic functions of attention. Our lives would be very boring if we didn’t play with language in artistic and entertaining ways. The beauty of language in many of its artistic expressions is one of the distinctive features of the human condition. But, we shall argue, language plays an even more important role, a trust-building one. And this role is best explained by attention (Fairweather and Montemayor, 2017).

Carlos Montemayor, Abrol Fairweather and Harry Haladjian


Fairweather, A. and Montemayor, C. (2017). Knowledge, Dexterity, and Attention: A Theory of Epistemic Agency. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Montemayor, C. and Haladjian, H. H. (2015). Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.