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...

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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 is (in the phenomenological sense) intentional, is directed toward, is consciousness of something other than itself. The empiricists’ conceptions of “association” and “projection of memories” or the rationalists’ conception of (for example) “judgment” as processes that remedy the deficiencies of sensations reflect the inadequacy of the concept of sensation. Association and memory must somehow be suggested, “motivated” by present experience, which thus cannot be a blind sensation. Judgment is based on a perceptual field having some inherent structure, which it seeks to make explicit.

The fundamental error of both empiricist and rationalist accounts of consciousness, Merleau-Ponty argues, lies in what he calls the “prejudice in favour of the world.” These accounts presuppose a conception of a fully determinate “objective” world and attempt to understand consciousness on this basis—either as a mere effect of this world or as objective knowledge of it—rather than beginning with an unprejudiced examination of that perceptual experience through which there comes to be a world for oneself. Such reflection will disclose perception as neither the passive undergoing of sensations nor the active, rational “constitution” of the “objective” world but as a living relation to an ambiguous, prescientific, perceptual world.

The Body

Having thus set the essential task of his work, Merleau-Ponty turns to the crucial topic of the body. His discussion—which occupies the first main division of The Phenomenology of Perception—proceeds largely through reflection on scientific findings about the body, findings that he contends have been seriously misinterpreted by scientists. He attempts to establish that the human body is not an object in the world (a mere “physical object”) and that concept of the body is an abstraction from the concrete, “lived” body, which is one’s point of view on, one’s openness to, and the base of one’s orientation toward the world. Because the theory of the body and the theory of perception are of necessity closely related, Merleau-Ponty’s account of the body provides an avenue to disclosure of the concrete perceived world that underlies the “objective” world depicted by science.

Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on the body are extraordinarily rich, and only some of their most basic themes can be indicated here. He points to a number of considerations that preclude the body’s being adequately conceived of as an “object”—as something that is related to other “objects,” or whose parts are related to one another, only externally and mechanically. The study of the nervous system has shown, he says, that no simple localization can be assigned to the ability to perceive a specific quality. Sensible qualities are not mere effects of stimuli but require that the body be somehow “attuned” for their perception, as the hand, in moving around an object, anticipates the stimuli that will reveal the object to it. Merleau-Ponty provides a particularly illuminating discussion of “phantom limb” experiences, in which people seem to feel (for example) pain in an amputated limb. He argues that this phenomenon can be explained neither in terms of mere physical factors (such as stimuli affecting the nerves that had been...

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The Perceived World

In the second main division of The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty turns to an explication of the concrete structures of the perceived world. Again he attempts to delineate an alternative to both empiricism and rationalism. Both views, he argues, simply presuppose a fully determinate objective world. Empiricism locates the subject as a thing in that world, construes the relation of world to subject as causal, and constructs its account of experience on that basis. Rationalism takes the world to be for a knowing subject and analyzes experience accordingly. Neither takes its stand within that ambiguous living experience in which objects come to be. Accepting this task, Merleau-Ponty provides accounts of people’s concrete experience of sensible qualities, spatial location, depth, movement, shape, size, the “natural thing” as a unity of sensible qualities, and finally of the world as that open unity that forms the ultimate horizon of all human experiences. Preeminent in all these experiences is the role of the body—its capacity to “merge into” a given perceptual situation (as when, without any thought, it manages to grasp the true colors of things despite abnormal lighting conditions that change the “objective” stimuli that are present), to respond to the solicitation of ambiguous data, to grasp through the unity of its perceptual powers the unity of qualities in a thing, and to be present through the perceptual field to a world that is ever incomplete.

People and the World

The last and perhaps most interesting chapter dealing with Merleau-Ponty’s account of the perceived world examines “the other self and the human world” and draws on many of the basic insights developed in earlier sections. People not only are conscious of natural objects, he notes, but also perceive the artifacts and inhabitants of a cultural and social world—a human world. The first, the most basic “cultural object,” he argues, must be the body of the other person; only on the foundation of one’s perception of others is a cultural world made accessible. However, “objective thought” would make perception of the other impossible by construing all bodies as mere objects, and the subject as a pure “for itself,” a sheer self-conscious, rational surveyor of the objective world. This would make it unintelligible that a body could ever be truly expressive of a subjectivity and that there could ever be another for-itself for one. However, as Merleau-Ponty has shown, one is not a sheer for-itself; one is, rather, an embodied, perceiving, behaving subject, and thus the other’s body is not for one a thing, a mere in-itself. One’s experience of embodied subjectivity allows one, before any sort of explicit analogy or judgment, to grasp another consciousness in its embodiment. The perceived world, as that unity that forever outruns one’s determinate grasp of it, is also crucial here; as one’s different perspectives “slip into” one another and are...

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Self-Knowledge, Time, and Freedom

The final main division of The Phenomenology of Perception deals with “being-for-itself” and “being-in-the-world.” Here Merleau-Ponty discusses self-knowledge (the cogito), temporality, and freedom. Developing the position of Descartes, idealism has argued that objects must be for a subject which is for itself, which knows itself, which somehow contains within itself the key to every object that it could possibly encounter. However, the mind is not a sheer for-itself, Merleau-Ponty maintains; the cogito does not involve an absolute and total self-knowledge. Thus, he undertakes a critique of traditional doctrines of the cogito. He argues first that, contrary to Descartes, one can be no...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996. This book is not an analysis of Maurice Merleau-Ponty but a very vivid demonstration of his thinking, especially with regard to perception and language. Abram uses Merleau-Ponty’s ideas with great power in developing his own original ecological philosophy.

Bannan, John. The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967. Bannan offers overviews of much of Merleau-Ponty’s writings, especially with respect to consciousness’s relations with the world and with others.


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