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Posts Tagged ‘Merleau’

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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