Attention, Hand and Brush: Condillac and Chardin

  • Michael Baxandall
Keywords: attention, condillac, chardin


Attention – my first topic in this chapter – is a notoriously unstable concept with an intricate history. Sometimes ‘attention’ refers to focused perception, sometimes directed perception, sometimes selective perception, sometimes conscious or active perception, sometimes even specifically retentive or constructive perception. Also, sometimes it is an action, sometimes a state, and sometimes a sort of faculty. Attention can be any or all of these. A similar state of affairs also existed in the mid-eighteenth century, and I am anxious not to have to spend most of this chapter exhibiting scruples about it. Yet some commitment to a meaning is necessary. Formal definitions – such as “Attention is the directing of the mind to one thing rather than other things” (Christian Wolff) –  evade the complex interest of actual use. Instead, it is better to call on a rough functional specification and the best I know for the period occurs in Wolff’s Psychologia Rationalis of 1734[1] (Appendix I). Wolff[2] had a good grasp of the thinkers who chiefly set the frame for eighteenth-century concern with attention, Locke and Malebranche as well as Leibniz, though he predates the radical French empiricist psychology of the mid-century. Attention here, then, will be understood as a narrowing of perception (Wolff § 359), a narrowing in proportion to its intensity (360) and one that treats its objects sequentially (380). It is both restless (373) and dependent on sense impressions (357). Internal conditions of attention (nowadays ‘endogenous’, ‘voluntary’, ‘conceptually driven’) are the will (362-3) and the act of reflection (380), and a desire for pleasure (371) or for novelty (368). External conditions (‘exogenous’, ‘reflexive’, ‘data-driven’) are the strength (369) or the clarity (367) of the sense impression and, in the absence of any other determining condition, the accident of falling in the centre of acuity (361).   * [Questo testo è apparso in The Beholder: The Experience of Art in Early Modern Europe, ed. by T. Frangenberg et R. Williams, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2006, p. 183-194. Ringraziamo l’editore per averci concesso di riprodurlo].