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I have a very generalized question about the Objectivist ethics.

As I understand it, the central point of the Objectivist ethics is to "focus," but, in spite of trying for rather a long time and reading much of the Objectivist literature on focus (some of it several times), I can't figure out exactly what people mean when they talk about focus.

At one point, I identified the concept of focus with concentration. However, a while ago Harry Binswanger made the following claim: "let's look again at Mr. Butler's statement: 'What about Immanuel Kant? He was focused.' I commented on his post: 'Absolutely not! You are confusing concentration with focus. Focus is the will to understand, the commitment to full awareness of reality. Kant had neither.'" (Excerpted from the 7/14/2009 HBL.)

So, focus isn't concentration. Looking through the rest of the Objectivist literature turns up useless generalities like, but not limited to, the following: "a quality of purposeful awareness in a man's mental state" (OPAR, p. 56), "a man is in focus when and to the extent that his mind is set to the goal of awareness, clarity, intelligibility, with regard to the object of his concern, i.e., with regard to that which he is considering or dealing with or engaged in doing" (The Psychology of Self-Esteem, p. 41), and "a quality of one’s mental state, a quality of active alertness" (The Ayn Rand Lexicon).

I did not simply stop with these definitions, of course, but also read elaborations and concretizations presented by these authors which I did not find very illuminating.

At least one critic of the Objectivist ethics has charged that it is vague virtually to the point of meaninglessness: "I simply wanted to mention some of the other virtues that Rand draws from that ever fecund principle: man's life qua man. She draws from it seven specific virtues, out of which arises a kind of Objectivist septalogue. Two of the virtues, rationality and honesty, we have already examined. The other five are: independence, integrity, justice, productiveness, and pride... The problem with these virtues is that they are all rather empty and vague: they fail to specify the precise conduct that is expected to result from following them. This enables the adept casuist to use them to justify just about anything under the sun. And indeed, this would appear to be precisely how Rand proceeded in her personal life. She arbitrarily decided what her moral system meant in practical terms and then expects all the members of her inner circle to act accordingly." (Excerpted from Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature by Greg S. Nyquist, page 270, all emphasis in original.)

I have a similar suspicion about the injunction to focus. Maybe it doesn't really mean anything to tell someone to focus.

tl;dr - What is focus? How does one focus? How do I know if I am in focus or not? (And so on.)

Edited by ctrl y
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At one point, I identified the concept of focus with concentration. However, a while ago Harry Binswanger made the following claim: "let's look again at Mr. Butler's statement: 'What about Immanuel Kant? He was focused.' I commented on his post: 'Absolutely not! You are confusing concentration with focus. Focus is the will to understand, the commitment to full awareness of reality. Kant had neither.'" (Excerpted from the 7/14/2009 HBL.)

I want to say that this formulation seems off. I never understood focus to be a commitment to the full awareness of reality, only a choice to think. Commitment to reality and will to understand sounds like what is meant by the virtue of honesty. Focus would be something more along the lines of focusing your eyes. Things wouldn't be a constant blur of sensation; your gaze is pretty much directed at a specific point. When it comes to a conceptual faculty, it would mean directing your thoughts on a particular point of importance. Even evasion requires focus, because that would require consciously ignoring or rationalizing a particular thought. Evasion is certainly not a commitment to the full awareness of reality. That's why your Binswanger quote doesn't make sense to me. However, if the discussion was about *full* focus to the highest degree, then it does make sense. Still, I think the difference between full focus and evasion is a matter of degree.

How would you know if you're focused? That is difficult to say, but I'd say as long as you are trying to figure something out, and you aren't letting words/sights/etc flow over you like they don't exist, you are in focus. It would also mean paying attention to something of importance, and not putting as primary complete trivialities like spending hours on deciding whether or not to eat a waffle or cereal for breakfast. As I understand it, the latter choice is a matter of concentration. This is an introspective process of course, so no one except yourself can answer if you're focused.

Another way to go thinking about a difference between concentration and focus is to consider people who have obsessive compulsive disorder. It sure would require a lot of concentration to make sure everything on your desk is perfectly lined up, but doesn't that basically distract from important matters like a report that needs to be written?

Edited by Eiuol
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That's an interesting interpretation, Eiuol.

Ive always seen 'focus' as the polar opposite of 'blank- out'.

You are saying I think, that even blanking- out requires focus, for the rationalizing that follows by necessity.

It bears consideration.

More generally, I enjoy Rand's "Your ideal as a thinker is to keep the universe with you at all times."

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I agree with Eiuol. Binswanger's quote may be being taken out of context - e.g. as Eiuol says, "full focus" versus "focus". I have always thought of the choice to focus as a choice to "activate your conceptual faculty". You can let your mind wander in a daydream where pictures and words float around disjointedly, or you can actively process information and integrate it into your conceptual hierarchy.

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Right, focus and concentration not synonyms. Concentration means using your focus towards a particular goal, but the ability/choice to focus is sort of the "atom" of concentration. And, the visual analogy works: focus means how sharp any given frame is, such as if you imagine a freeze-frame of a tennis ball about to be served -- the frame can be blurry or sharp, distorted or correctly aspected, etc. Whereas concentration refers to how the frames are sequenced, e.g., concentration is what it takes to actually cause the racket to hit the ball in the process of serving. So focus is like the individual frames of a filmstrip, whereas concentration is the choice of what sequence of frames to consider.

- ico

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I notice that focus requires direct use of my given faculties in a given moment, whereas concentration requires sewing together the data of my faculties, moment to moment, using my power of choice to re-focus my faculties with each heartbeat (and realizing that choosing to remain focused on the same thing for two beats is also an exercise of my power of choice).

The power of choice is expressed, axiomatically, as the choice to focus: the act of focusing both invokes and demonstrates, in self-evident fashion, the power of choice (free will). That is why free will must be axiomatic: just try to "do" without it!

- ico

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To be in focus is to maintain the full awareness of existence as such, not only its particular part which is attention. Focus in Objectivism is a precondition of rationality. My problem, however, with this concept is that focus defined in Objectivism as primary choice.In OPAR Dr.Peikoff wrote: “The choice to focus is man’s primary choice. Until a man is in focus his mental machinery is unable to think, judge or evaluate. The choice to throw the switch is thus the root choice on which all the other choices depend”

But choice is already a function of volitional mind. " Choice"-Ayn Rand observed-"starts with the first syllogism". Presumably a man who has to make this primary choice is not in focus-otherwise he wouldn’t need to make such a choice. To choose volitionally to be in focus, one has first to recognize his condition-to be aware that he’s not in focus. Then one has to understand that this condition is undesirable and he would be better off if he’s in focus. This is value-judgment. Then he has to be willing to change this condition and to decide to be in focus. This is the decision-making process. Then he makes a volitional mental effort and thus becomes in focus. All those actions require a very high level of awareness. The obvious question is how the person, who’s out of focus and hasn’t made his primary choice yet, would be able to perform such a formidable feat. It would be as the drunk in the middle of an alcohol induced mental fog would suddenly decide not to drink anymore. To make a volitional decision to be in focus a man has to be in full focus already. Does anybody has an idea how to solve this contradiction?

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I see Leonid's point. The problem is with the light-switch analogy. Doesn't sit well with me, either.

I notice that my mind never stops "running", is always "on" -- even when I am not really paying attention to it. I can control what I think about (focus), when I think about it (concentration), and how I think about it (conceptualization).

It's not like I have a choice to think or not; rather, I have a choice of what/when/how to think -- and how much effort to devote to thinking, which means: directing my thoughts, managing my emotions, piloting my body, navigating to my goals, constructing my soul.

I think of myself as being able to change directions, but not fundamentally alter the motive power except by turning it against itself (which is what mental evasions end up doing, poking holes in the perceptual substrate).

I am a navigator: a process of consciously directed evolution towards a goal.

- ico

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I have a very generalized question about the Objectivist ethics.

As I understand it, the central point of the Objectivist ethics is to "focus," but, in spite of trying for rather a long time and reading much of the Objectivist literature on focus (some of it several times), I can't figure out exactly what people mean when they talk about focus.

I think it's a great question.

Before I talk about what focus is, however, it's important to ask what one should be focusing ON. What principle or criteria to use to determine the content? Otherwise, without identifying the criterion, one can claim that we should focus on anything and everything random. Focus on the birds at the side of the road, or on what the teacher is saying, or whatnot.

So being focused has to come after a standard. The standard is your life or your happiness (the big, abstract goal, which is the abstraction behind all your daily occurrences, such as working, talking to a friend, etc').

So being focused means that the method of cognitive functioning you function on is such that puts effort into achieving mental clarity on those things which are relevant to your well being (small or large, of the immediate moment or that belong to your long term happiness).

For example: You are playing a game, the hour is getting late and you know you need to get up early the next day for work. You can either insist to hold the correct knowledge in the forefront of your mind, or to unfocus and continue playing. (I am assuming here that this work is a value which is more important to you than playing. Let's not get into "what if it's not" because that will not serve to illustrate the point).

Another example: Your wife, which you've been married to for a long time, starts acting irrationally. You can choose to inquire and study the subject, or passively unfocus and continue your daily routine, even though it means you are neglecting your pursuit of happiness.

Another example: You are at school, learning to be an engineer. The teacher is teaching a new subject which you know is relevant to what you want to do. You can either focus on it (maintain mental effort to make connections and make sense of the material) or unfocus and just write the formulas down.

Note: I think relaxation and fun are important activities which enhance productivity. I do not think a man should be a study-machine 24/7. This is why your well being comes first - it sets the standard on when to focus and what to focus on. Any attempt to judge one's focus outside that standard will be futile and can lead to a demand to be a "robot" to be perfect, (as many Objectivists hold) - that a moral man is a productivity beast, without a moment of relaxation and enjoyment. But that is not selfish at all, it is an attempt to gratify an external standard without actually pursuing one's well being or happiness.

So anyways, that's my answer. It's good, isn't it? I know. It's because I listen to Peikoff's lectures and I think a lot on my own, about a lot of things. I maintain a very high degree of focus :smartass:

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I see Leonid's point. The problem is with the light-switch analogy. Doesn't sit well with me, either.

I notice that my mind never stops "running", is always "on" -- even when I am not really paying attention to it. I can control what I think about (focus), when I think about it (concentration), and how I think about it (conceptualization).

It's not like I have a choice to think or not; rather, I have a choice of what/when/how to think -- and how much effort to devote to thinking, which means: directing my thoughts, managing my emotions, piloting my body, navigating to my goals, constructing my soul.

I think of myself as being able to change directions, but not fundamentally alter the motive power except by turning it against itself (which is what mental evasions end up doing, poking holes in the perceptual substrate).

I am a navigator: a process of consciously directed evolution towards a goal.

- ico

Focus (or thinking) is subject to automatization, so you may not feel like you have control on whether or not you think, but you do - both in an indirect way and a direct way. So if you trained your mind to keep analyzing things, and your subconscious is already convinced of its benefit, it may be harder to reverse the proecess, but possible. Suppose something happens to you such that learning the truth is painful - it creates an opportunity, a temptation to reverse that method, to tell yourself to unfocus in that instance, and it gravitates to other fields. So it's possible to reverse it (the other way around too - if you are a non-thinker and start to think more).

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Does anybody has an idea how to solve this contradiction?

Yes. Focus is a action, a skill which is increases in effectiveness with practice and therefore over time. Infants don't know how to focus their minds at all, but they (we all) learn how in one small increment at a time, as anything else is learned. Once learned, the state of focus can be recalled as a memory is recalled, and recall is experienced as happening all at once or at least relatively quickly. Deliberately switching between languages is similar to this in the way the skill is gradually accrued and then used.

Peikoff was asked whether focus was a discrete state or a continuum in a question and answer session to one of his lectures, and he conceded focus was actually a continuum despite the language about "switch throwing" and such. If there is a continuum then there is no chicken-or-egg conundrum. Note that the literal biological chicken-or-egg conundrum is itself solved with evolution, a slow process involving many small units called genes that approximate a continuum.

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"Peikoff was asked whether focus was a discrete state or a continuum in a question and answer session to one of his lectures, and he conceded focus was actually a continuum despite the language about "switch throwing" and such. If there is a continuum then there is no chicken-or-egg conundrum"

This is more or less what I also figured out. But if it so, then the concept of choice is not applicable to focus.Infants don't make volitional choice to be in focus. But if focus is not a result of choice, then what is the cause of it?

Focus is an action and as any biological action it has to be self-generated and goal-orientated.Infants who unable to speak and function on perceptual level cannot make any volitional choices. However they are observable in very high focus from practically day one of their life. During first 2 years of life a child absorbs and process more information then during the rest of his life. Infant learn to focus because for them it is the only way to achieve their goals, which is development of cognition. For them it is the mechanism of survival.Focus therefore is an inherent property of consciousness.

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"Peikoff was asked whether focus was a discrete state or a continuum in a question and answer session to one of his lectures, and he conceded focus was actually a continuum despite the language about "switch throwing" and such. If there is a continuum then there is no chicken-or-egg conundrum"

This is more or less what I also figured out. But if it so, then the concept of choice is not applicable to focus.Infants don't make volitional choice to be in focus. But if focus is not a result of choice, then what is the cause of it?

Infants are occupied with very low-level learning about how to control themselves, perceive things, judge distances, distinguish sounds and words, and thousands of other details. Everything is new to them and nothing automatized. It is like their entire brain is an extension of their senses. This is when the phrase "a buzzing, booming, confusion" as used in philosophy to described the raw assault on the senses actually has merit and accuracy. After they have learned quite a bit of this and there is a "quiet zone" at the top of their mental hierarchy a sense of self and self-control can develop to which focus and volition can be ascribed which is of the same kind of phenomenon as an adult's.

Infants don't have the self control required for cognitive self-regulation. The learning which an infant accomplishes is not the consequence of an internally willed choice, so only a borderline version of the concept of focus can be applied. I think the way focus is learned is that children (beyond infancy) go into the various states of focus responding to what is around them spontaneously and then one day become self-conscious of it, either on their own or because a parent or teacher is making a point of it. The kids who "learn how to learn" definitely follow this path (not just the book smart but all forms of talented children). An adult can also be brought into an involuntary state of focus by startling with a loud surprising noise. It won't last, but the "w.t.f. was that?!" reaction provokes an acute awareness of reality, a type of focus. Teachers do it in classrooms occasionally.

In summary, the experience of being in focus to some degree must be non-volitional and familiar before it can be remembered and willfully reproduced.

Edited by Grames
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  • 2 weeks later...

Before I talk about what focus is, however, it's important to ask what one should be focusing ON.

I disagree. Focus can change, so yes, you must focus on SOMETHING; but what you focus on is not relevant to the power to focus per se, just as your eyes can focus or not, independently of what direction your head is pointed. The visual analogy is perfect once realize that the (essentially geometric) difference between the optical and conceptual aspects of experience can be abstracted out via measurement omission to leave the concept "focus" to mean what LP takes it to mean.

So being focused means that the method of cognitive functioning you function on is such that puts effort into achieving mental clarity on those things which are relevant to your well being (small or large, of the immediate moment or that belong to your long term happiness).

I disagree. Focus is distinctly NOT a method of cognition, but a prerequisite to any such method. First, you must focus. Only then can you think cogently, i.e. concentrate (change/keep focus on a well-defined sequence of related concepts). Focus simply allows you to see things for what they are in any given frame of experience (the axioms omit time measurements, i.e., omit frame change frequency), to the extent you are capable of doing so and without adding/subtracting any essential aspects. The degree of focus is the degree/percent to which you are extracting information from your surroundings, and the degree to which you are paying attention, in any given instant, to what you are doing.

For example: You are playing a game, the hour is getting late and you know you need to get up early the next day for work. You can either insist to hold the correct knowledge in the forefront of your mind, or to unfocus and continue playing. (I am assuming here that this work is a value which is more important to you than playing. Let's not get into "what if it's not" because that will not serve to illustrate the point).

Another example: Your wife, which you've been married to for a long time, starts acting irrationally. You can choose to inquire and study the subject, or passively unfocus and continue your daily routine, even though it means you are neglecting your pursuit of happiness.

Another example: You are at school, learning to be an engineer. The teacher is teaching a new subject which you know is relevant to what you want to do. You can either focus on it (maintain mental effort to make connections and make sense of the material) or unfocus and just write the formulas down.

Good examples of testing one's JUDGMENT; but focus is prior to judgment, and essential to discovering the necessary facts on which to base judgments.

Now, I may be coloring outside the lines here, but I think it important to distinguish the frames of conceptual experience, which can be switched more or less at mental will, and which are the atoms of focus; from the mental sequencing of the frames, which is higher-order conception than simple "focus". In particular, ethics and value judgments require more than focus; dogs focus on frisbees just fine, thank you very much; but a dog cannot conceptualize, so is limited to what it can hold in focus in any given frame, and some dogs do have quite high memories, can juggle quite a bit of information, but can't put 1+1 to get 2 -- focus is prior, and simpler, than conceptualization. That may not be strict Objectivist, but I think it is closer to the spirit, separating out the clearly identifiable, independent aspect of focus, from the subsequent sequences that allow validation of knowledge.

- ico

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