The Phenomenology of Perception is Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s second book, following La Structure de comportement (1942; The Structure of Behavior, 1963), a critique of psychological behaviorism. The Phenomenology of Perception, which incorporates some insights from the earlier work, defines the main lines of the philosophical position that Merleau-Ponty held for most of the rest of his life, with significant changes in the direction of his thinking clearly emerging only in the various fragments that were published posthumously as Le Visible et l’invisible (1964; The Visible and the Invisible, 1968).
The Phenomenology of Perception is in some respects less, but in many respects more, than its title suggests. It is not a systematic orderly analysis, along Husserlian lines, of perception regarded in isolation from other modes of human consciousness. Rather, it is a kind of ontology of human existence, in which perception is shown to play a most fundamental role. In the range of its topics—which include embodiment, sexuality, the relation between self and other, self-knowledge, temporality, and freedom—the work is comparable to Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956). Indeed, the influence of Sartre, who was Merleau-Ponty’s friend and associate for many years, is often apparent, although Merleau-Ponty avoids the abstract oppositions and paradoxes of Sartre’s thought and presents a subtler, more concrete conception of these matters.
In the working out of his position, Merleau-Ponty also comes to terms with such giants of modern philosophy as René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. His work also reflects his familiarity with twentieth century French thinkers such as Henri Bergson, Léon Brunschvicg, and Gabriel Marcel, and with psychological literature, particularly that of the Gestalt school. However, the most significant influence on his thinking is clearly phenomenology, as represented by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Max Scheler.
In the preface to his work, Merleau-Ponty says that phenomenology involves an attempt to recall the prescientific experience of the world on which scientific knowledge is based but which is often passed over by an attitude that (mistakenly) takes scientific knowledge to be absolute. He credits Husserl with developing the method by which the absolutist pretensions of science could be criticized but declines to follow Husserl in the idealistic direction that characterized much of his work. Phenomenological reflection does not lead, Merleau-Ponty says, to recognition of oneself as a “transcendental consciousness” somehow apart from the world but to the revelation of one’s “being-in-the-world” (“being-in” to be understood as meaning not simple spatial location but “inhabiting” or “being involved in”). Moreover, reflection on “essences” does not disclose essences as a separate sphere of being but rather should serve as a means for clarifying concrete existence, one’s living experience of the world and oneself.
Sensation and Consciousness
In the introduction, “Traditional Prejudices and the Return to Phenomena,” Merleau-Ponty critically examines certain concepts and assumptions that have had the effect of obscuring, rather than illuminating, the true nature of our perceptual experience. Chief among such concepts is that of sensation . Sensations are usually conceived of as isolated, inner states that the perceiver undergoes as a result of external stimuli. The “constancy hypothesis” in psychology postulates that uniform stimuli produce uniform effects of this sort. However, this attempt to construct a causal account of perception is inadequate, Merleau-Ponty argues; nothing in one’s actual experience corresponds to this concept of sensation. One’s perceptual life is not composed of isolated states; in it, every element has some meaning in relation to the whole. Perceptual consciousness is not the sheer feeling of an inner state but...
(The entire section is 3,854 words.)