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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...

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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

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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

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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 linked to the limb) nor purely psychological factors (such as memory of the lost limb or refusal to face its loss). Rather, a phantom limb is experienced when objects are implicitly taken to be manipulable, as they were before loss of the limb. It is a matter of one’s projecting oneself into a practical environment, of one’s embodied “being-in-the-world,” of one’s ambiguous concrete existence at a level before the abstract distinction of the “physical” and the “psychological.” The body is no mere “thing”; it is a “body-subject,” the seat of one’s habits, of one’s innate and acquired capacities and orientation toward the world. As such, it provides the general background from which one’s most conscious, personal, and rational acts emerge.

Merleau-Ponty subsequently deals with the nature of bodily movement and its relation to perception. Consciousness does not move the body as one moves an “object” through space, he argues; rather, the body moves insofar as it “inhabits” space, insofar as it is oriented in relation to objects. One’s perceptual powers are themselves intimately interrelated. The unity of the living body is the unity of a “style,” comparable to the unity of a work of art; its powers work together in disclosure of the world.

Merleau-Ponty’s account of the body concludes with discussions of sexuality and of “the body as expression and speech.” His discussion of sexuality—which involves some very subtle reflections on Sigmund Freud—depicts it as a general atmosphere that suffuses life in such a way that it can neither serve as a total explanation of our existence nor be isolated from the other modes of our being-in-the-world. Neither a matter of mere “physiology” nor a matter of sheer consciousness, sexuality is a mode of one’s being-in-the-world, a basic manner in which one embodied being can exist in relation to another.

In his discussion of speech, Merleau-Ponty criticizes empiricist psychologies that construe one’s use of words as the mere result of physiological processes and rationalist conceptions that take words to be merely external accompaniments of thought, linked to it by mere association. Both of these views deprive the word itself of meaning. However, he argues, thought and speech—either external or internal—are essentially bound up with each other. Contrary to most of the philosophical tradition since Greek philosopher Plato, Merleau-Ponty denies that meaningful speech must be preceded or accompanied by a separate process of thinking. Rather, we think in speech; and although thinking sometimes seems to run “a step ahead” of speech, it nevertheless requires linguistic expression to establish itself. The phenomenon of speech must ultimately, he adds, be understood as similar to other modes of bodily “gesture”—their meaning is immanent in them. The whole expressive dimension of our embodied existence stands as one more proof that the rigid Cartesian dualism of thinking substance and extended substance is inadequate.

The Perceived World

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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

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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 united in relation to the perceptible thing, so one’s perspective and that of the other “slip into” one another and are united in the world, in which our communication is possible.

Language and the experience of dialogue play an important role. People’s thoughts are woven together in living, reciprocal speech. However, Merleau-Ponty adds, the plurality of consciousnesses, their differences from one another, is an inescapable fact. For example, the anger or grief that I grasp in another’s behavior does not have the same significance for both of us; he lives what I merely perceive. We have common projects, but each participates in it from his own perspective. Solitude and communication, Merleau-Ponty warns, must not be taken as exclusive alternatives; rather, they are two aspects of our ambiguous human condition. Thus I can recognize that the other is imperfectly known by me only if I do have experience of the other. Merleau-Ponty proceeds to criticize Sartre’s claim that I must either make an object of the other or allow the other’s “gaze” to make an object of me. Another person’s gaze is felt as unbearable, Merleau-Ponty says, only if it replaces possible communication, and the latter retains its truth. He concludes by asserting that I am neither in society as one object among others, nor is society in me as an object of thought; rather, the social is a “dimension of existence” in which I live.

Self-Knowledge, Time, and Freedom

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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 more certain that one sees than that the thing one sees exists. Nor does one possess absolute self-knowledge in respect to one’s will or feeling; one can, for example, think that one is in love without truly being so. One does not know oneself so much in oneself, in some inner and immediate self-presence, as in action. It is by action and expression in the world and through the body that one achieves determinacy and clarity for oneself, so that the cogito is inherently conditioned by temporality. Thus, “I think” is dependent on “I am.” Even in the sphere of so-called “pure thought”—geometrical thinking, for example—one’s grasp of truth is dependent on one’s bodily orientation to the world, through which one can fundamentally grasp what a “triangle” or a “direction” is. Moreover, thought is inherently dependent on speech, and the clarity achieved in a given thought is dependent on an always somewhat obscure context that has been formed by past acts of expression. The centrality of this phenomenon of “acquisition” in mental life points again to the inherent temporality of a person’s grasp on truth.

These critical reflections on doctrines that would grant to the mind an absolute grasp of itself or of the world do not, however, lead Merleau-Ponty to reject the cogito altogether. There is, he says, a presence to self that precedes and conditions one’s explicit grasp of oneself or of the world, a “tacit cogito” that precedes the “spoken cogito.” However, this tacit cogito is inchoate and must be expressed in a verbal cogito in order to attain clarity. The ultimate subject, Merleau-Ponty concludes, is not a sheer self-present nonworldly ego that “constitutes” the world, but a being that belongs to the world.

The fundamental role of time in relation to all sorts of phenomena is indicated throughout The Phenomenology of Perception, but it becomes the explicit theme of Merleau-Ponty’s reflections only in the penultimate chapter of the work. He begins by arguing that time is inseparable from subjectivity; without a subject, there is no present in the world, and without a present there can be no past or future. However, what is the fundamental relation of time and subjectivity? The subject cannot, he says, be simply located in the “now,” and its consciousness of past and future explained in terms of physiological or psychological “traces” of the past. Such “traces,” being purely present, could not ground one’s opening onto past or future. However, neither could time be a constituted object for a nontemporal subject before whom past, present, and future were equally arrayed, for if they were all like present, there would be no time. Time, then, is inseparable from a subject, but this subject is itself inherently temporal, is situated in time, and grasps future and past on the horizon of a flowing present that accomplishes the transition between them. There is an essential interdependence between temporality and the “thrust” of concrete subjectivity toward a world and a future in which it can (in both senses of the term) “realize” itself.

The final chapter of The Phenomenology of Perception is a subtly reasoned and eloquently expressed reflection on human freedom. Initially, Merleau-Ponty notes, the only alternative to a causal and deterministic conception of the relation between the subject and the world (a conception that would, in effect, make a thing of consciousness) is a view of human consciousness as wholly free, independent of all motives, of nature, of one’s past temperament and history. In this view—which is essentially that expressed by Sartre in Being and Nothingness—even obstacles to freedom are in reality deployed by it; it is the individual’s choice to reach a certain destination that makes certain objects into obstacles.

However, Merleau-Ponty responds, this abstract conception of freedom would in effect rule it out completely. A wholly indeterminate freedom would lack even the possibility of committing itself, since the next instant would find it again indeterminate and uncommitted. Rather, he argues, a choice once made must provide some impetus to personality, must establish a direction that tends to conserve itself. Because one is not a sheer self-conscious subject but an embodied being like other human beings, one’s free choices take place against a background of possibilities that have a kind of preliminary significance. Thus mountains appear to be high whether or not one chooses to climb them. Because one is a temporal being, one’s established character and habits, although they do not cause behavior, do incline one to certain choices.

Freedom is always, then, a taking up of some meaning or some motivation that is offered by one’s situation in the world. One can reject one proffered meaning or motivation, Merleau-Ponty says, only by accepting another. Even if a person being tortured refuses to provide the information the torturers demand, this free action does not reflect a wholly solitary and unmotivated choice; it is supported by the person’s awareness of unity with comrades, preparation for such an ordeal, or long-established belief in freedom.

Humanity is neither a mere thing nor a sheer consciousness. Human life involves a continual synthesis of the for-itself and the in-itself, a taking up and shaping of one’s finite situation, a reciprocity of self and world. People are truly free not by denying their natural and social situation but by assuming it and living it. Thus philosophy recalls people to their concrete existence in the world, where, Merleau-Ponty suggests, their proper task is to commit their freedom to the realization of freedom for all.


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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.

Barral, Mary. The Body in Interpersonal Relations: Merleau-Ponty. New York: University Press of America, 1984. The author introduces Merleau-Ponty through an analysis of the importance he attaches to the body as the bearer of the dialectic of subjectivity and objectivity

Cataldi, Sue. Emotion, Depth, and Flesh: A Study of Sensitive Space. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. This book, a concrete application of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of embodiment to a phenomenology of place, covers the experience of emotion and its relations to the body and space. Very readable, with intensely moving phenomenological descriptions of spaces as they are experienced.

Dillon, M. C. Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Dillon presents Merleau-Ponty’s effort to overcome a subject-object dualism through his original phenomenological ontology of the flesh as found in The Phenomenology of Perception and The Visible and the Invisible.

Dillon, M. C., ed. Merleau-Ponty Vivant. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. An excellent collection by premier Merleau-Ponty scholars engagingly taking up a number of the philosopher’s significant themes. Their discussions help situate Merleau-Ponty in relation to late-twentieth century thought.

Langer, Monika. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1989. This text provides a very clear guide and commentary to Merleau-Ponty’s most influential book, The Phenomenology of Perception. A chapter-by-chapter reading renders its insights with grace and fluidity.

Madison, Gary. The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981. Madison surveys Merleau-Ponty’s major works very comprehensively but assesses the earlier works from the viewpoint of the later ones, looking particularly at Merleau-Ponty’s ontological analysis of Being and existence.

Mallin, Samuel. Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. This book presents Merleau-Ponty’s work as a unified and integrated whole. Mallin’s method is to analyze extensively the concepts that are central and original to Merleau-Ponty.

Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry 18 (1982-1983). This special edition of a journal gathers a variety of provocative essays on Merleau-Ponty’s work, relating it to psychoanalysis, phenomenological psychology, intersubjectivity, and sexuality. It also contains a new translation of a lecture course by Merleau-Ponty on the experience of others.

Surling, Laurie. Phenomenology and the Social World: The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty and Its Relation to the Social Sciences. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977. Surling argues that Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy can be understood as a dialectic between a discipline and a transcendental impulse and that it is this overall dialectical relationship that offers a coherent perspective on being in the world, especially on those areas of thought often considered to be the exclusive domain of the social sciences.

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