On Attachment: Cognitive? Or Noncognitive?

The things that humans care about range from abstract concepts to concrete persons and things, but why do we care about the particular things that we care about? Is caring a response to the value of something, or is something else responsible for our caring about particular things? For the sake of simplicity I will refer to the question of what we care about, as the question of attachment, as caring signifies that one has some attachment to that thing. I will outline two different ways of thinking about the question of what grounds our attachments. Furthermore, it seems to me that both approaches are flawed, but there is a way of thinking about this issue that better understands the issue of what grounds our attachments.

The first approach to the question of attachment sees attachment as a brute fact. On this interpretation what we care about is just a matter of chance and does not represent anything about the value of the object of our attachments. For example, according to this approach the fact that I have come to be friends with Lilith, and value romantic literature is not an indication of the value of Lilith as a friend, or the value of romantic literature. Rather it is simply a fact about me at this point in my time that I am attached to these things. Of course there are causal reasons for why I have come to have these attachments, but these causal factors do not imply anything about the nature of the object of attachment. In this sense attachment is not a signification of the value of particular objects.

What gives this approach a certain intuitive plausibility is that often we find that we are attached to persons or things, but cannot explain why in terms of any particular attribute of the thing. I may deeply care for my friend Lillith while not being able to explain my attachment to myself in terms of the value of Lillith as a friend. Lillith may be kind, considerate, and funny, but so are many people I know so why I am attached to Lillith and not those others? Likewise my commitment to becoming a musician may not be explicable in terms of the value of the activities typical of a musician, rather it may seem that this attachment is just a part of me like the colour of my hair, rather than a response to the value of these activities.

The second approach posits that attachment is a response to value in the world. We become attached to persons, things and ideas when we see recognize that they are valuable. Contrarily to approach one, approach two sees my attachment to romantic literature as a response to the beauty and literary excellence displayed in this genre. What give this approach its plausibility is that when we reflect we will often try to revise our attachments, in light of consideration about the value of persons, objects and ideas. We say to ourselves I should not care so much about what strangers think because it is really of very little importance, which implies that our attachments are, in some sense, responses to what is valuable in the world. So this approach has the virtue of fitting with certain experiences we have involving reflection on value and attachment.

The problem with approach one is that it has to say that our experience of revising our attachments does not really represent making our attachments correspond better with the valuable elements of the world, but rather merely signifies that certain causal factors have led to a change in one’s attachments. This is problematic because it means saying that an important element of ethical consciousness, reflection and revision of attachments, is not what it seems to be, and this seems quite hard to swallow, and implausible. This is of course not a knock-out punch for approach one, but it does make it seem that this approach is not able to capture certain elements of our intuitions.

Approach two also has a significant flaw. The trouble is that we sometimes find ourselves attached to people or things that do not seem to have value. A person who is trying to quit smoking, might still have a strong attachment to smoking even if he or she sees the activity as without value. Similarly, we may find ourselves in a friendship or romantic relationship with someone who we see as deeply contemptible, but yet nonetheless we may find ourselves deeply drawn and attached to them. So, it seems that even our experience of attachment attests to the fact that we can find ourselves attached to things or persons that do not seem to be valuable, consequently attachment cannot simply be seen as a response to value in the world. Thus, approach two seems to have a significant flaw.

The simplest way to overcome the flaws in both approaches is to recognize that attachment may not be a single thing, with a single underlying rationale. There may be attachments that we have that are just brute facts that do not signify a response to value in the world, while there may be attachments that we have that are responses to value in the world. The most obvious candidate for attachments that are brute facts are attachments that seem, to the person who has them, to be unchangeable facts about ourselves, rather than response to value in the world. In this case the person who has these attachments cannot explain why they have these attachments; they just happen to have these attachments. For example, the person who needs their house to be immaculate is attached to the idea of an immaculately clean house, but this person may not be able to explain why it is valuable to have an immaculately clean house, nor may they have some background understanding of value that requires them to keep their home immaculately clean. In such a case the person’s attachment does not seem to be a rational response to fact, it just seems to be a brute fact about that person, at that time in their lives. On the other hand, there seem to be attachments that we have that signify a response to a particular value in the world. An activist’s commitment to a particular cause is not seen by them as merely a brute fact about themselves, but rather as a response to a call to pursue some valuable cause that will improve the lives of others. In such a case the agent can either explain why their attachment is a response to value, or they have a background conception of the good which, while inarticulate, makes it plausible to see their activity as a response to value in the world. Thus, the commitment seems to be a response to value in the world. Consequently, there seem to be at least two forms of attachment. One is a noncognitive form of attachment in which our attachment is inexplicable in terms of the value of particular things, persons or activities, and the other is a cognitive form of attachment in which the attachment is best understood as a response to value in the world. We do not have to choose whether we want to be noncognitivist or cognitivists about attachments, because there are numerous varieties of attachments and some of them are cognitive while others are noncognitive. This may lead to a more complex picture than either approach elucidated above spells out, but while simplicity may be desirable in principle, in any explanation, complexity is sometimes necessary to do justice to the diversity of phenomena under consideration, and in this case the complexity seems to be necessary.


3 thoughts on “On Attachment: Cognitive? Or Noncognitive?

  1. A very interesting and thorough entry. In many ways I see these points as running parallel with the question of whether we desire things because they are valuable or value things because they are desirable. An instructive point about this parallel is that it might direct us to wonder, even if our attachments are now cognitive and non-cognitive, whether our attachments ought to be non-cognitive. In other words, if we were fully rational agents, would we have non-cognitive attachments at all, or would we rid ourselves of them? I’m curious as to what you think. Thanks for sharing this thought-provoking entry.

    • Thanks for commenting. I don’t think we would necessarily rid ourselves of non-cognitive attachments if we were fully rational. Non-cognitive attachments don’t seem to be inherently irrational, rather they are just brute facts about ourselves. I may love and be attached to the music of Abba, but also think their music is mundane, sentimental and relatively valueless, but this attachment to Abba does not necessarily damage my life in a way that would make it plausible to refer to these sorts of attachment as necessary irrational. Non-cognitive attachments only need to be purged by the fully rational agent when they get in the way of our pursuit of other goals that we deem to be valuable. For example, if I have a non-cognitive attachment that takes much of my time and attention and prevents me from making friends then it seems that this attachment is irrational, rather than merely non-cognitive and we ought to be rid of this attachment, as it is preventing us from doing something worth doing. But if non-cognitive attachments don’t prevent us from doing other things that are worth doing I see them as mere idiosyncrasies of individual people, rather than as forms of irrationality.

      Another interesting thing to think about in terms of the relation of attachment to value is that it is difficult to explain why we develop the particular cognitive attachments that we do. I find both the life of the mind and the life of self-denying service to others to be equally valuable, but I have an attachment to the former that I do not have the latter. I try to be humane, charitable and decent but I would be dishonest if I said I had a strong attachment to this latter ideal, as I don’t spend that much time thinking about how to end poverty, or of volunteering to help the worst off. In this sense while cognitive attachments seem to be a response to value, our experiences of value in the world are not sufficient to explain our attachments, as we end up having attachments to some values we experience, but not to others, even if we recognize the worthiness of all of these values.


      • Excellent points, I’m on board, your posed distinction on cognitive and non-cognitive attachments seems useful and allows for further nuanced understandings of different types of value, such as perhaps subjective and objective value.

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