Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1908–61)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 23, 2024, from

3. The Phenomenology of Perception

Merleau-Ponty ends The Structure of Behavior with some enigmatic remarks to the effect that, just as there is no satisfactory causal account of perception, a realist account of the perceived world is equally unsatisfactory. With these remarks Merleau-Ponty points towards a main theme of his most important work, The Phenomenology of Perception (1945). An important difference, however, between the two books is that, as its title and preface (‘What is Phenomenology?’) indicates, the approach adopted in the second book is explicitly ‘phenomenological’. The central theme of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is that a full understanding of the natural and social worlds which we inhabit inevitably leads back to aspects of our experience through which, in some sense, meaning is bestowed upon the objects of experience. Thus he sees the primary task of philosophy as one of quasi-Platonic anamnesis (see Plato §§10–11), of re-awakening within us a recognition of these meaning-bestowing aspects of our own experience so that we can grasp how we are integrated into these worlds and how they, in their turn, are dependent upon us: philosophical reflection, he writes, ‘steps back to watch the forms of transcendence fly up like sparks from a fire; it slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice’ ([1945] 1962: xiii). In developing this phenomenology Merleau-Ponty often expresses his debts to Husserl’s late works, especially the unpublished papers which he had studied at Louvain. But how far, in fact, Merleau-Ponty is developing themes from Husserl’s writings is disputable. He himself indicates his rejection of the transcendental subjectivism that is a prominent theme of most of Husserl’s writings; similarly when he proclaims the impossibility of completing the phenomenological reduction and affirms the inseparability of essence and existence he is implying that Husserl’s project of essentialist phenomenological analysis can never be accomplished. Thus it is arguable that Merleau-Ponty’s conception of phenomenology is in fact closer to that characteristic of Heidegger’s Being and Time, and one can certainly use Merleau-Ponty’s detailed accounts of experience as a way of filling out Heidegger’s all-too-abstract characterization of human life.

Merleau-Ponty’s concentration upon perception rests on a thesis which is fundamental to his phenomenology, namely that perception is ‘transcendental’ in the sense that it cannot be adequately understood from within a fully objective, scientific conception of human life. In part this thesis just draws on the argument of The Structure of Behavior; but at a deeper level Merleau-Ponty argues that because perceptual experience is epistemologically fundamental it cannot be the case that perception itself is fully comprehended within the explanatory perspective of natural science, since this employs a conception of the world which draws on features that owe their significance to perceptual experience itself. Merleau-Ponty likes to adapt a phrase from the poet Paul Valéry to express this feature of perception: it is, he says, ‘the flaw in this great diamond’ since ‘we can never fill up, in the picture of the world, that gap which we ourselves are’ ([1945] 1962: 207). Merleau-Ponty’s argument is, therefore, that the realist naturalizing project faces an inescapable blind-spot in connection with perception. Whether Merleau-Ponty is right about this remains disputable – his critics will maintain that, once we separate epistemological from metaphysical priorities, we can see that it is legitimate to regard our own experiences as facts caught up within, and dependent upon, the causal order of the natural world, even if we also acknowledge that our beliefs concerning this causal order rest upon perception.

This is the kind of issue which realists and idealists can debate endlessly, but whatever the outcome of that debate there can also be agreement that Merleau-Ponty’s line of thought leads into one of the most innovative programmes of twentieth-century idealism. Central to this is his discussion of the status of the body. Merleau-Ponty once again uses Goldstein’s work – in this case his studies of a patient (Schneider) who had suffered brain injuries during the First World War. But what is new in The Phenomenology of Perception is the use that Merleau-Ponty makes of his phenomenology in the characterization of Schneider’s case and then, by an inversion, his use of Schneider’s case to revise the phenomenological approach itself. Schneider’s injuries, he argues, have brought with them the loss of the sub-personal perceptual fields, bodily spaces and tacit anticipations of possibilities that underpin ordinary human agency. So Schneider’s disability is not merely neurophysiological; nor is it just a disorder of a consciousness detached from behaviour; instead it bears witness to the normal sub-personal union of mind and body through which a form of intentionality is expressed in unreflective but organized bodily movement. Once the further step is taken of recognizing that this is the basic form of intentionality, it follows that the phenomenological perspective itself needs to be relocated from the personal sphere of explicit thought to the sub-personal domain of bodily movement; thus, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, Schneider’s case ‘forces us to acknowledge an imposition of meaning which is not the work of a universal constituting consciousness’ ([1945] 1962: 147) (see Intentionality).

Merleau-Ponty characterizes this revised phenomenological perspective as one in which the body is conceived as ‘a natural self and, as it were, the subject of perception’ ([1945] 1962: 206). Because of his transcendentalism concerning perception, the body thus conceived is not the body as characterized within the objective perspective of the natural sciences: ‘what prevents it ever being an object…is that it is that by which there are objects’ ([1945] 1962: 92). His term for the body thus conceived is ‘the phenomenal body’ ([1945] 1962: 106) and he argues that by following the intentional threads which link the phenomenal body to the world we will be led to recognize the inadequacy of a purely objective conception of the world as a totality of objects, and to replace it with that of the ‘phenomenal field’, conceived as ‘the horizon latent in all our experience and itself ever-present and anterior to every determining thought’ ([1945] 1962: 92).

At this point the similarity with Kantian themes concerning space will be obvious (see Kant, I. §5), and Merleau-Ponty provides an extended account of the a priori status of the practical horizon which, he holds, enters into all our perceptual fields. But what is distinctive about Merleau-Ponty’s account is its integration into a phenomenological psychology which preserves the basic metaphysics of transcendental idealism by making the body the transcendental subject. Arguably, however, in The Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty still replicates Husserl’s problematic transcendental/empirical division of the self with his distinction between the ‘phenomenal’ and the ‘objective’ body. Hence it is notable that when he returns to the topic in his final work, The Visible and the Invisible, he attempts to go beyond this distinction by arguing that there is a yet more fundamental conception of the body – as ‘flesh’, which is a conception of the body that admits both an objective specification as ‘a thing among things’ and a phenomenal specification as ‘what sees and touches’ ([1964] 1968: 137). Indeed, despite the title of the book, it is significant that Merleau-Ponty here treats the sense of touch as phenomenologically fundamental and even, implausibly, construes sight as a species of touch (as ‘a palpation with the look’ ([1964] 1968: 134)); for touch has often been regarded as the sense which by manifesting the independent resistance of things reveals most clearly their objectivity. But because the book is incomplete it is not clear just how far this rebalancing of emphasis, to give equal weight to the ‘objective’ and the ‘phenomenal’ sides of life which are ‘intertwined’ in the human body, implies the need for a reworking of his whole phenomenology in a more objectivist direction. But it is clear, I think, that the position remains recognisably idealist in spirit, partly indeed through his explicit affirmation of the ideality of ‘the flesh’ ([1964] 1968: 152).

Citing this article:
Baldwin, Thomas. The Phenomenology of Perception. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1908–61), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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