Archive for February, 2011

“A philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring.”  *


The argument of communication and the mind centers on the use of language; the development of human understanding; and the derivation of meaning (especially in philosophical literature). Wittgenstein says that language in itself creates philosophical arguments. Many theorists have debated the complex problem of human language and communication, but none have come close to Wittgenstein and his ability to untangle the complexities that have arisen. Descartes and Locke have also written about language and more contemporary theories have come into fashion, such as semiology, which is concerned with signs. The greatest contribution to the study of signs is Saussure. One of the great troubles of communication and language is the interpretation of sensations and dispersal of ideas throughout subjects such as intellectual writings, philosophical problems and ideas.

Cartesians mystify human understanding, while semiology over-simplifies it.

In the next few blog posts I am going to discuss the philosophy of human communication and meaning, through an examination primarily of Locke, Saussure and Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s argument of Private Language in the Philosophical Investigations has had a profound impact on theories and theorists alike. He argues that language understood by its user can not exist objectively, as a necessary confusion arises. This idea is commonly misunderstood which accounts for the controversy surrounding Wittgenstein’s writings.[1] The confusions that are supposedly integrated in human language also underlie and are subjected to philosophical language, notions, theories and method. This accounts for the lack of substantial movement from Platonic and Aristotelian thought. We cannot move forward because our language is deceiving us.


Wittgenstein moves away from the previous Cartesian thought that it is internal processes that guides the interpreter to understand the message confronted to them. The message cannot be private, Wittgenstein argues. The processes of meaning and understanding are thought to be immaterial and taking place in a ‘spiritual’ recess of the brain. Wittgenstein argues that meaning and understanding are not processes at all. The language surrounding the description of mental processes needs clarification. Wittgenstein goes on to say that mental processes are processes in so far as they have a beginning, middle and an end, can be interrupted and described, but what is important is that they are not perceptible by others.[2] Articulating sensations and experiences are what make the whole process possible. Mental images in our minds do not give rise to language or words to describe these images, but the words in our vocabulary give rise to the meanings we prescribe objects. As Wittgenstein argues “Language is itself the vehicle of thought”.  It may be the case that we have no natural descriptors or expressions for all of the sensation that are perceivable by human consciousness, but Wittgenstein is saying that our language restricts us from accurately describing them. The problem is that one may not know if what an individual describes as a sensation is an accurate descriptor of it. While we describe sensations, we merely ascribe names to the sensation. However, the Private Language argument has been highly contested by commentators. Some believe it is supposed to prove something about language, others think it is supposed to prove something about  the following of rules, and some think it is supposed to prove something about sensations. Some think he was not trying to prove anything at all.[3]

[1] The Private Language Argument, First published Fri Jul 26, 1996; substantive revision Fri Nov 30, 2007. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 04/04/08. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/private-language/

[2] Kenny, Anthony John Patrick. 1931 – Wittgenstein. Pp 140-141.

[3] Teichman, J, 1988. Philosophy and the Mind. Pp. 50.


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Referencing APA style

Referencing is an essential part of research and allows a standardised method of acknowledging sources of information and ideas that you have used in your assignment in a way that uniquely identifies their source.

The most common referenced items include:

  • Direct quotations
  • Facts and figures
  • Ideas and theories, from both published and unpublished works

If ever in doubt – include a reference.

However, there is a plethora of items from which you can reference, including podcasts, films and brochures. In this post, I’m going to run through the most important considerations when referencing, specifically drawing from the APA method (same as Harvard referencing except with technical differences in citation and bibliography).

Okay, first things first – stick to one style of referencing per assignment. You cannot jump from footnotes, to Harvard to APA. It looks clumsy and that you don’t know what you’re doing. Your assignment/thesis/essay is an academic representation of you and your ability to comment on a particular area. It should be tidy and have a consistent flow. If you’re using multiple styles of referencing you are literally throwing marks/grades away for something that can be easily accounted for.

Referencing is necessary to avoid plagiarism, to verify quotations, and to enable readers to follow-up and read more fully the cited author’s arguments.

A reference list only includes books, articles etc that are cited in the text. In contrast, a bibliography is a list of relevant sources for background or for further reading. The reference list is arranged alphabetically by author. Where an item has no author it is cited by its title, and ordered in the reference list or bibliography alphabetically by the first significant word of the title. The APA style requires the second and subsequent lines of the reference to be indented, as shown in the examples below, to highlight the alphabetical order.

The following are a step by step guide to referencing APA style. Click on images to enlarge.

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For the empirical sciences, the world consists of clearly identifiable objects with different sets of determinants such as size, shape, and colour, described independently of each other. This exists in its own right or somehow constituted by a transcendental status. The denial of the possibility of transcendental reduction of the life-world sets Merleau-Ponty apart from Husserl and goes beyond that, as it centres the body as not merely an object in the world. Perception for the empiricist tries to provide causal explanations for what is perceived. On the other hand, intellectualists try to reconstruct what is perceived by reference to the subject’s exercise of its cognitive powers. Merleau-Ponty sees this taking for granted of how humans perceive the world a fundamental error. This is not simply an ‘objective’ world, but a world consisting of objects whose determinants are not fully explainable.

Merleau-Ponty was accused of a kind of relativism in his emphasis of the body in perception. This comes from his claim that it is impossible to transcend history, we can never grasp the world in its totality but we grasp it according to the mode in which we inhabit it. Humans can only understand the world as it is revealed and uncovered to humans with our specific forms of being-in-the-world. There is a denial of any absolute truth about the world in this relativism; there is always only what is ‘absolutely for us’.[1] Merleau-Ponty shows that the body is not an ‘object ‘in the sense given to this term by objective thought. Its properties are not determinate; its activities defy the empiricist attempt to provide causal explanations which depend upon scientifically testable claims about external relationships; and its spatiality is that of situation, rather than location.

For Merleau-Ponty, perceptual objects have an impact on our consciousness that refers to actual things in the external world. This allows the individual to differentiate objects in the external world relative to time and space. The human body is a Being-in-the-world which attributes distinctness to the objects in the world and is characterized by individual actions. The “lived-body” is a medium for perceptual interpretation of the world. This goes against Heidegger in that ‘I do not have a body, I am my body’ and against Descartes Cartesian dualism in which he claims ‘I think therefore I am’ and conceives the body as nothing more than a machine. Through his examination of the phantom limb and brain damage, Merleau-Ponty shows that the empiricist and intellectualists are fundamentally wrong in their approach to the body in the objective sense and that this does not accurately represent a perceptual body. He also shows what is wrong with the intellectualist’s conception of the subject as a disembodied consciousness. Taking the case of Schneider, he notes that the empirical approach would be to provide a causal explanation of Schneider’s defective motility. The intellectualists, he notes, will regard Schneider as having effectively lost the basic powers of a human subject. He has lost the ability to perform spatially awareness tasks.

Merleau-Ponty overcomes this through his existential-phenomenological and psychological enquiry. Taking an example of a bird singing, we do not independently perceive the auditory stimuli and visual stimuli separately; it happens simultaneously and involves experienced consciousness through the participatory action of ‘Being-in-the-world’. There is a marginalisation between objective thought and the lived body for him which I have discussed in the last four blog posts. It is Merleau-Ponty’s essential contribution to the philosophical enquiry of perception. He remains one of the most important and profound phenomenological thinkers in modern philosophy.

Final Bibliography

– M. Hammond; J. Howarth; R. Keat, Understanding Phenomenology, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford, 1991

– R. Kearney. Modern movements in European philosophy, Manchester University Press, 1984

– R. Kearney, Twentieth-century continental philosophy, Routledge, New York, 2003

– M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of perception. Humanities Press, 1962

– M. Merleau-Ponty, Primacy of Perception, Northern University Press, Translated by James M. Edie p. 12-42, 1964

– D. Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, Routledge, London, 2000

– J. Reynolds, Merleau-Ponty andDerrida: intertwining embodiment and alterity, Ohio University Press, 2004

[1] Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, p. 430

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The lived body or “lived flesh” describes the role of sensation in perception. Our perceptual awareness is of real objects in the world. We are not altogether aware of our consciousness of our perceptions, for example visual stimuli. We see the object as a representation of the world through “lived flesh”.  This cannot be reduced completely as a rationalist approach attempts to, there are no pure sensations for Merleau-Ponty. The closest thing we get to a pure sensation is imagining the world around us, imagining the things in our world being around us. As Merleau-Ponty puts it:

“the greyness which, when I close my eyes, surrounds me, leaving no distance between me and it”.[1]

Photo by froodmat

Merleau-Ponty differs considerably from Husserl in this sense, whereby Husserl takes an approach of pragmatic representational accounts of perception. Sensations for Merleau-Ponty are the ‘unit of experience’. He wants to explore the ‘pre-objective realm’ of our lived experience. We cannot understand the ‘objective world’ without lived experience of the world. The senses in perceiving the objects in the world are not separate, but overlap and ‘transgress’ each other’s boundaries.[2] The lived body has an essential structure of its own which cannot be captured by the language and concepts used to explain inanimate objects in the world, that is the lived body is directed toward an experiencing world. The world of everyday experience is described as the “lived-through-world”.[3]

This is contrasts from Descartes idea of the body. Our lived and objective body allows us to perceive the world as one entity; Merleau-Ponty claims that the unity of experienced objects is not accomplished through the application of mental rules and categories, but through pre-conscious power of bodily synthesis. One does not separate the senses individually, such as auditory and visual experiences, the synthesis of the senses of the body allow us to perceive a unified world. This extends beyond the sense organs in that we move spatially in the world, extending sensation into perception. One can perceive objects in the world relative to their purpose and significance to the lived body’s needs and capacities. The objects in the world display themselves, in other words to look at an object is to inhabit it.[4]

In The Primacy of Perception, Merleau-Ponty speaks of the cogito in terms of grasping myself in terms of reflection outside of perception. This is achieved through the experience of being a living body in the world. When I say “I think” I do so immediately and without the possibility of being able to doubt it. Doubting it puts all possible objects of my experience into question.

“This act grasps itself in its own operation and thus cannot doubt itself.”[5]

The fact that I have a perceptual body means that I am engaging with the objects of the world. Through engaging with the objects I am certain of my existence. The primacy of perception attempts to get closer to living reality, which can be applied to language, knowledge, society and religion on man’s relation to perceptual experience. It places perception at the heart of human understanding.

[1] Merleau-Ponty, PP, p. 9

[2] Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, (Routledge, 2000) p. 422

[3] Merleay-Ponty, PP, p. 71

[4] Merleau-Ponty, PP, p. 68

[5] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, (Northern University Press, 1964) p. 22

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The world which is given perception according to Merleau-Ponty is the concrete, inter-subjectively constituted life-world of immediate experience. He claims that there are “many ways to be conscious”. We never completely escape from the realm of perceptual reality and even the seemingly independent structures of categorical thought are ultimately grounded in perception. We are always immersed in the world and perceptually present to it. Merleau-Ponty is similar to Heidegger in that he agrees on the unitary character of ‘human reality’ as a world-directed active intentionality in whose experience in the world is constituted as the human-life world. They differ however in the primacy of perception and his recognition of the perceived world as the primary reality as giving us the first and truest sense of ‘real’. For Heidegger, it is not this world but the being of Beings which is the primary reality and any analysis of human experience, perceptual or otherwise is only a means to pose the more fundamental question of this Being.

In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty concentrates on the formation of the human awareness of the world. He tries to re-establish the roots of the mind in its body and in its world, going against doctrines which treat perception as a simple result of the action of external things on our body as well as against those which insist on the autonomy of consciousness. Our interpretation of the world is manifested in our corporeal nature; our bodies and specific formation of the sense organs reveal the world for us in an extraordinary way. This pre-reflected awareness cannot be caught in transcendental reflection as Husserl had thought. Examining the body brings to light the hidden procedures that are assumed in our conscious state.[1] Objective thought fails to recognise the active, purposeful nature of one’s own body, its practical orientation toward something. To provide an adequate phenomenological description of one’s own body, one must attend to this.[2]

Merleau-Ponty studied the psychological impact of brain damage and explored its philosophical consequences. Schneider, a war veteran who was studied by Geld and Goldstein was a case which had philosophical consequences that were explored by Merleau-Ponty. Schneider was brain damaged and unable to perform bodily movements in the normal manner, although his motor abilities were intact. He could see shapes and outlines, however he had to infer the nature of objects by a process of reasoning. He was unable to infer mentally actual bodily moment and explore movements virtually before actually performing it. In other words, he was able to perform everyday, concrete tasks but was unable to perform abstract movements, unable to detach himself from immediate practical tasks at hand.  Merleau-Ponty notes that we instinctively have a ‘virtual body’ where we can explore our hands in space before actually moving them. We see his account of the ‘phenomenal body’ and not the ‘objective body’ which is moved when we imagine moving our hands in space. He portrays the inadequacy of empiricism in accounting for human experience. It objectifies the body in a sense that separates it from its sense organs. His expression of the ‘objective body’ with his account of the phantom limb describes the ambiguity of the ‘objective’ world described by the empiricists. The phantom limb phenomenon describes the way the amputee refuses to accept amputation questioning and creation of and feeling in the phantom limb. The body is a way of stating that my body is ‘in-the-world’ in the objective sense. Merleau-Ponty claims we should seek out the reasons we do this and not the human behaviour. He attempted to show that one’s own body cannot be described in the categories of objective thought. We must see the body as:

“an irresolvable consciousness which is wholly present in every one of its manifestations”.[3]

Human reflexes do not arrive from objective stimuli, but “moves back towards them”, and invests them with meaning which they do not possess taken singly as psychological agents, but only when taken as a situation. Perception of the stimuli is an intention of our whole being, which is a modality of a pre-objective view which is what we call being-in-the-world. Prior to the stimuli we must recognise the determinants that our reflexes and perceptions are able to aim at in the world.[4]

Merleau-Ponty starts by developing the intellectualist’s point of view and within the empiricists framework that Schneider’s difficulty performing abstract movements were caused by damage to his visual senses. This is overcome by Merleau-Ponty in that normal people with intact visual senses can perform abstract spatial tasks with their eyes shut [5] Schneider’s disability cannot come from a visual impairment alone. The empiricist argues that it may not be a visual impairment causing Schneider’s deficiency but tactile sense impairment. This is overcome in that:

“the facts are ambiguous… no experiment is decisive, and no explanation final”.[6]

No such experiences are purely visual and not purely tactile i.e. resting upon the sense of touch. Merleau-Ponty triumphs the empiricists and intellectualists argument. Schneider has lost the ability of ‘projective’ power. Another type of thought is required to investigate this further, that of existential-phenomenological investigation.

[1] D. Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, (Routledge, 2000) p. 419

[2] M. Hammond, J. Howarth and R. Keat, Understanding Phenomenology, (Basil Blackwell, 1991) p. 165

[3] M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, (Humanities Press, 1962)  p. 140

[4] Merleau-Ponty, PP, p. 79

[5] Hammond, Understanding Phenomenology, p. 169

[6] Merleau-Ponty, PP, p. 116


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Merleau-Ponty is a French philosopher who has rejected both realism and idealism stating his work as a purely phenomenological enquiry. He defines phenomenology as the study of essences and that it is a method of describing our perceptual contact with the world. He offers an alternative standpoint to both intellectualism and empiricism and is strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl.

Merleau-Ponty’s most notable work: The Phenomenology of Perception, discusses the main theme of his phenomenology, that is, man’s body and Being as the source of meaning and human existence. He saw meaning as arising from man’s ‘insertion to Being’.[1] His phenomenology recognises that the body is not an object amongst objects, but that through our bodies we perceive the world and are entities of intentionality. He argued that we chose our world and that our world chooses us.[2]

This introduces the concept of a “lived-body” to existential-phenomenological thought.  He deals with the relation between corporeal sensation and overall perception, how preconscious and conscious perception functions and how conscious existence has its base in the preconscious physical existence. His existential-phenomenological epistemology and ontology shows how both empiricism and rationalism fail to account for the perceptual awareness of the world around us.

“Empiricism cannot see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it, and intellectualism (rationalism) fails to see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or equally again we should not be searching.”[3] He believes all consciousness to be perceptual. “The perceived world is the presupposed foundation of all rationality, all value and all existence.”[4] Merleau-Ponty makes the distinction between the intelligible body and the fleshed mind.

In the next three posts I will discuss the role of the body in perception through analysis of Objective thought in opposition to The Lived Body.

[1] R. Kearney, Modern Movements in European Philosophy, (Manchester University Press, 1986) p. 73

[2] Kearney, Modern Movements in European Philosophy, p. 74

[3] J. Reynolds, Merleau-Ponty andDerrida: intertwining embodiment and alterity, (Ohio University Press, 2004) p. 5

[4] R. Kearney, Twentieth-century continental philosophy, (Routledge, 1994) p. 109

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Two of Aristotle’s great works, the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics, proposed a political state wherein citizens lived a good and just life; although this was a very different constitution to that of democracy which was the constitution of Ancient Greece. He called this proposed constitution the polis. He was not trying to create an ideal constitution of his own; he was influenced by the society of Ancient Greece and other constitutions that existed. He wanted the best possible constitution, but also the best constitution possible in the light of a city’s circumstances, in particular its social and economic basis. [1] This state, the polis, is described as an urban development, not unlike Athens at the time of Aristotle. He also claims that man is naturally inclined to live in a polis. Aristotle’s philosophy examines the different types of city-state and how they should be run. In this blog I will discuss how man is suited to live in a polis, the similarities and dissimilarities of the society of the polis with democracy and explain how, through the examination of Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, he arrived at the conclusion that man is inclined to live in a polis.

The polis is natural, not conventional, formed from several villages coming together. The people living in the polis are self-sufficient and live a good and just life. For this reason, the naturally occurring polis has a purpose. There is a contradiction here; something that was not created on purpose by some intelligent agent cannot have a purpose. Man-made objects have a purpose or goal in mind, for example a hunting tool. A naturally formed object, for example a rock, does not have a goal in mind. For Aristotle everything natural has a purpose, including man. This is because he was teleological in his approach. Man is a social animal and the governing framework of his good life is therefore to be found in the institutions that make up communal organisations. [2]

Aristotle believed that it is part of human nature to associate with other individuals in a city-state. A human living apart from a community is not really a human in the true sense. A person in solitude is not natural, a person needs human interaction to sustain a status or hold a quality that puts him above more primitive animals. It is suggested that the city-state comes before family, humans need to interact with other humans to be human, and this comes before human connection.

“…the city belongs to the class of things that exist by nature, and … man is by nature a political animal. He who is without a city, by reason of his own nature and not of some accident, is either a poor sort of being or a being higher than man…” [3]


Human beings are different to animals because we live in groups. We use language which helps the exchange of ideas and this is beneficial and productive. We perceive the differences between good and evil, just and unjust. We start to consider the best life for the individual, we are required to take notice of mans need for permanent association of others. [4]

Man is an emotional and complex animal. The best life for man will contain all the things recognised as desirable. Aristotle takes a commonsensical approach to what would constitute a good life. We should not, for example, put ourselves through any undesirable courses of action that is not overall beneficial or pleasurable in a sense to ourselves. Aristotle distinguished many different types of pleasure, activity and thought that was adventitious for man. When these categories are weighed up against each other in unequal amounts, conflict arises. Aristotle does not give details of how we should incorporate these things for making the good life for oneself. He does however clarify the interrelations and interdependencies of these various categories. Pleasure for example can be pleasure taken in action and action can be guided by thought. Man’s ‘function’ or distinctive nature, it is concluded, is a life whereby activity is in accordance with reason. [5] This is discussed extensively in the Ethics. We all want a happy life and obtaining this is possible through developing and exercising our capacities to live in a society. Self-indulgence and self-assertion will bring us into conflict with other people. [6] Aristotle distinguishes two different types of virtues for intellect. (1) Theoretical wisdom, necessary as a component to human happiness, (2) Practical wisdom, used as a productive agent that subsumes all those intellectual capacities in virtue which we aim at a true end, and are skilful in securing our aim. [7] So the maintenance of balance is essential. Happiness, although essential for life in the polis in certain amounts, is not found in personal isolation, thus Aristotle uses this in his argument that the polis is a natural and the best state to live in. We have the ultimate goal of being good in mind when we live in the polis. To prefer to an act because it is an instance of a good principle which we desire to realise as far as possible in our lives, is not the same thing as to select it because we think it will conduce to a good end. [8]

On the whole, Aristotle believed that the purpose of the state was to produce and support a class of cultured gentlemen, such as Aristotle himself. He does not seem to understand that this is not always possible. This led him to criticise the other forms of government. To run a political state through tyranny, there is no room for Aristotle’s cultured and elite. The purpose of government is to enable its citizens to live the full and happy life.[9] He believed that a city should involve the participation of all its citizens in government. His theoretical approach to democracy and his practical experience of democracy have become intertwined. [10] He is opposed to extreme democracy, as he sees it as destructive and says it makes for an autocratic ruling.

“..rule by decree replaces rule of law; demagogues cleave the state in two and wage war against the rich” [11]


Aristotle looks at what a tyranny entrains, and criticises the amount of work the tyrant must have to do to maintain power. He criticises how petty the life goals of the tyrant, and the goals of an oligarchic society. The difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and riches. When man rules on account of his wealth, we have an oligarchy. Aristotle does not nor is suggesting the abolishment of private property. He does not wish to give free hand to the vice of the extreme, whether of wealth or of property. His normative judgement parallels that of a man of practical wisdom analysing the concrete situation to discern the mean. [12]

Aristotle believed that man was best suited to live in a polis. A democracy could not work.

“What if the poor, on the ground of their being the majority, divide up the possessions of the wealthy – is this not unjust? No, it may be said, it has been decreed by the sovereign in just form. Then what should we call the extreme of injustice?” [13]


The polis is a form of democracy, although not the democracy based on class interest. Aristotle contrasts sharply with Plato here. In the Republic, Plato describes a philosopher king that rules his utopia. This is an idealistic approach to the most suitable form of constitution for man. Aristotle on the other hand, describes how to run an actual state. He outlined effective courses of action for the success of this state. Man being a political animal is most suited to the Polis and its seductive promise of realising ones own potentiality. The Polis is not a state in which the best way of life is sought out, but rather to create a state beneficial to everyone and a final ‘good’ cause. Man may be best suited to live in a Polis because he is a social animal that requires interaction with others; he is by nature a political animal; the polis is a naturally occurring phenomena and other forms of government lead to corruption and an unhappy, unfulfilled life.



Ackrill, J.L. (1981). Aristotle the Philosopher. Oxford University Press.

Allan, D.J. (1970). The Philosophy of Aristotle. Oxford University Press.

Aristotle, Politics.

Edel, A. (1982). Aristotle and his philosophy. Chapel Hill Publications.

Linott, A. (1992). Aristotle and Democracy. Classical Quarterly 42 (i) 114-128

Magee, B. (1998). The Story of Philosophy.

Redhead, B. (1984). Plato to Nato: Studies in Political Thought.

[1] Aristotle and democracy. Classical Quarterly 42. pp.114

[2] Aristotle and his philosophy. Abraham Edel. Pp.318

[3] Politics. Aristotle. 1253a, p.224

[4] The Philosophy of Aristotle. D. J. Allan. Pp. 86

[5] Aristotle the Philosopher. J. L. Ackrill. Pp. 124-

[6] Plato to Nato – Studies in Political thought. Brain Redhead. Pp.30-

[7] The philosophy of Aristotle. D. J. Allan. Pp. 126

[8] The philosophy of Aristotle. Allan. Pp. 132

[9] Bryan Magee. The Story of Philosophy. Pp54-

[10] Aristotle and Democracy. Classical Quarterly 42. pp.115

[11] Politics. Aristotle. 1292a6 ff., 1310a4 f.

[12] Aristotle and his philosophy. Abraham Edel. Pp. 324

[13] Politics. Aristotle. 1281a14-17.

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