At the moment, I am a visiting researcher at the Center for Subjectivity Research between January and July 2017. During my stay, I am working on my post-doctoral research project with the working title The Art of Attention. The plan is to publish several articles and eventually also a book that deals with the faculty of attention and a cluster of philosophical difficulties that are related to how we understand attention.
One puzzling question that I have mainly been working on during my stay is related to events in which we, as subjects, are faced with a world or an environment that is not known to us from before. What happens when the unknown becomes known? For example, what happens when I move to a new city and walk around in a part of town that is completely unknown to me – what happens between that moment and a situation later on when that same place is no longer alien to me, when it has become habitual? The story of what happens between these two moments has something to do with a change that occurs within the subject. The same place can play existentially very different roles in our lived experience – it can feel foreign, alien and strange, or familiar, inhabitable and inviting – and one part of this story has to do with the role of attention.
It is in relation to these kinds of questions that I examine the role of attention in encounters with the unknown. I claim that encounters with the alien reveal some existentially significant characteristics of how our attention works. Here I mainly rely on work within the phenomenological tradition. I started out with a reading of Merleau-Ponty’s and Bernhard Waldenfels’ writings on perception and attention, but my stay here at the Center has exposed me to the depth of the tradition of phenomenology. One such discovery has to do with the central part that feelings of alienness, otherness, unfamiliarity or estrangement have played in the phenomenology of emotions and affectivity from Husserl to Ratcliffe. A thread that first seemed to be somewhat under-represented, has become more highlighted for me.
This is how a philosophical environment should work. Topics and philosophers that are new to me appear in the new working environment. In seminars and everyday discussions with colleagues, pieces of the puzzle that I am working on, are revealed to me. Sometimes this can work in a very straightforward way, but I think the most intriguing part happens when insights arrive through unpredictable paths. I ask a question and sometimes I get an answer that I would have not expected that opens up a new thread in my enquiry. Or, I attend a seminar with a topic that seems to be completely unrelated to what I do and suddenly a connection is made to something that opens up a new aspect of my own project. It is these occasions that build on intuition that I think are completely necessary for a functioning philosophical environment. At the same time, it is this aspect that makes philosophy both rewarding and challenging.