The main focus of philosophy in the 21st century will be focus.

Philosophy changes direction from time to time. Philosophy in the 20th century was mainly occupied with questions of meaning. Before that, philosophy was about knowledge, and before that, truth. The oldest recorded Western philosophy is concerned with persuasion. Now it seems that the new questions in philosophy are questions of focus.

You can see this in philosophy’s biggest popular culture phenomenon so far this century, the book and movie The Secret. The Secret focuses on the law of attraction and has been summed up with these lines:

Focus on what you want. Don’t focus on what you don’t want.

The law of attraction might be ancient, but it was not widely described in terms of focus until the late 1990s. This prominent role of focus in philosophy is relatively new. Perception did not get much attention until the 18th century. This was the origin of the famous question about what happens when a tree falls in a forest and no one is present to observe it. But the limitations of perception were not yet fully appreciated.

The essential subjectivity of perception was not widely acknowledged until the 20th century. It took a series of psychological experiments to establish that people’s perceptions could be completely changed just by directing their attention in different ways. Initially it was thought that these effects could be minimized by removing anything that could distract or misdirect and giving a subject undivided attention. But in a world where attention is always divided, how realistic is that? In the 21st century, the question about the tree could be rephrased to ask what happens when a tree falls in a forest and no one is paying attention.

All the old questions of persuasion, knowledge, truth, and meaning get more tricky when you put them in the context of people’s divided attention. How can you know what is true when your focus is constantly shifting? How can you be sure what things mean when the world around you is manipulating your focus?

These are the kind of difficult questions that only a philosopher can hope to answer. And they are the questions, that, in the 21st century, we desperately need answers for.

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