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Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception

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Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception

Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception
Shaun Gallagher
Published online: 9 May 2010
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010
In Merleau-Ponty’s ‘‘Preface’’ to his Phe
´nome
´nologie de la
perception (1945), he asks ‘‘What is phenomenology?—
and he suggests that it is still in a process of being defined.
Not so untimely, this remains true today, and understand-
ably so, since any philosophy which is still alive continu-
ally transforms itself. Yet Merleau-Ponty’s own response
to the question remains true: that phenomenology is ‘‘a
philosophy which places essences back into existence and
does not think that human beings and the world are com-
prehensible except on the basis of their ‘facticity’’’ (i; vii
1
).
In this work he is concerned with showing that an expli-
cation of the facticity of the body, the medium that we are,
and that puts us in-the-world, is central for understanding
human existence. Precisely in this way Merleau-Ponty’s
text continues to be relevant for contemporary thought, not
only in the area of the phenomenology and philosophy of
mind, and philosophy of science, but also in regard to
ethics in the most general sense.
The Phenomenology of Perception was influenced by
the work of Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre, but Merleau-
Ponty puts phenomenology to use in a way they did not. He
carries phenomenology across new boundaries, as, in his
attempt to understand perception, he considers the results
of empirical psychology, neurology, and studies in psy-
chopathology. He sees no problem in using phenomeno-
logical philosophy to reinterpret the results of empirical
studies. This is all the more significant in contemporary
debates about naturalizing an approach that lays claim to
being transcendental, and whether such an enterprise is
possible, or even justified. ‘‘Phenomenology is a tran-
scendental philosophy which indeed suspends the affir-
mations characteristic of the natural attitude. But it does so
only in order to shed light on them ’ (Ibid). To the extent
that phenomenology is capable of shedding light on our
everyday existence, it is not in opposition to the sciences
that are concerned with the same phenomena, even if these
disciplines approach the subject-matter from a different
perspective. Merleau-Ponty gives a certain methodological
primacy to phenomenology, however, insofar as science
can only ever begin with an already experienced perceptual
world.
The Phenomenology of Perception begins with a Preface
that critically comments on what phenomenology had
started to become and what it continued to be in several
decades following this book’s publication. Succinctly put,
phenomenology as a philological commentary on text goes
nowhere; we need to engage in phenomenology as it arises
in our own experience. As it arises in our own experience,
however, phenomenology is not a narrowly conceived
subjectivism or idealism; it rather reveals a two-way
dynamic process that Husserl attempted to capture in his
noesis-noema distinction. By way of noematic reflection
we find that ‘‘the world is there prior to every analysis’’ (iv;
x). Moreover, the world is not something that can be traced
back to the constructive powers of the pure transcendental
subject; nor is it the product of a synthesis of sensations.
Merleau-Ponty rejects both the idealist and the empiricist
S. Gallagher (&)
Philosophy and Cognitive Sciences, Institute of Simulation and
Training, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA
e-mail: gallaghr@mail.ucf.edu
S. Gallagher
Philosophy Department, University of Hertfordshire,
Hertfordshire, UK
1
Pagination is from the French Gallimard edition, followed by the
page number from the English translation by Colin Smith. All
translations used here, however, are from a new unpublished
translation by Richard Rojcewicz.
123
Topoi (2010) 29:183–185
DOI 10.1007/s11245-010-9079-y
accounts as abstractions from what he calls the ‘‘finely
textured fabric’’ of the world (v; x). In effect, Merleau-
Ponty begins with a radical phenomenological reduction:
he brackets not only common-sense explanations, and
empirical science; he also brackets any recourse to tran-
scendental idealism. At the same time he reminds us that
‘bracketing’’ in this sense does not eliminate whatever
these kinds of analyses might deliver; and in any case, the
phenomenological reduction is always incomplete.
Merleau-Ponty thus practices an impure phenomenol-
ogy, where anything like transcendental unity is already
disrupted by the transcendence of the experiencing subject
who is embodied and is thereby ‘‘out there’’ in a world, in
the perceptual field, and most importantly, in the perceptual
field of others. Not unlike Sartre’s analysis of the gaze of
the other, for Merleau-Ponty, the fact that others can see us,
and touch us, and interact with us makes it impossible to
reduce them, or our own bodies, to constituted unities in
our own consciousness; it puts flesh on the noema and
makes the noetic correlation something more than an intra-
individual occurrence. The motivation for taking the phe-
nomenological attitude of the reduction is just this fact that
we are immersed in the world—we need to step back a bit
to try to discover the lines that draw our connections; at the
same time our being-in-the-world—our facticity—is also
precisely the issue that prevents the reduction from being
complete. We can never step back completely. The
acknowledgment of this facticity and this finitude is in part
why we consider this work to be existential as well as
phenomenological.
If Phenomenology of Perception is a book about per-
ceptual consciousness, it is also about the fact that con-
sciousness is embedded in the physical world, the social
world, in time, and in history, and such insights force us to
rethink the large concepts of intentionality, language, and
rationality, but also the very specific conceptions that have
shaped philosophical discourse about perception: sensa-
tion, association, attention, the phenomenal field. The real
beginning, for Merleau-Ponty, however, is the body, which
he deals with in great detail in Part I. Here he offers a
critique of mechanistic physiology and classical psychol-
ogy. After treating topics such as phantom limb and kin-
aesthesia, he turns to the pathological case of Schneider, a
patient of Gelb and Goldstein’s who has suffered traumatic
brain damage. This case helps to clarify the notions of
movement and spatiality—not Cartesian geometric space,
but the space within which we live and act—as well as the
concept of sexuality. Merleau-Ponty’s analyses lead us out
of the abstract cul-de-sacs where philosophy often leaves
us, and back to what we already knew and simply lost sight
of. One should wonder that we have to be reminded that
‘sexuality is not a mixture of ‘representations’ and
reflexes’’ (528; np) but philosophers, psychoanalysts, and
scientists alike understand how we can be misdirected into
such conceptions. That’s right, an instinctual drive plus a
belief does not add up to a desire.
Merleau-Ponty’s rich chapter on language, gesture, and
embodied expression continues to offer inspiration to
contemporary theorists (e.g., McNeill 2005; Johnson
2007). His analyses of sense perception, spatial perception,
depth, size, color, the constancy of sounds, temperatures,
weights, and his discussion of hallucinations are all
informed by Gestalt psychology. Merleau-Ponty could
have easily stopped there and we would still call the book a
classic. But he goes on to explore the philosophical
implications of these analyses for the topics of intersub-
jectivity, self, temporality and freedom. This is why I
suggested that this is also a book that addresses ethical
issues in the most general sense. In this respect it is no
surprise that the last lines of the book consist in a quotation
from de Saint-Exupe
´ry: ‘‘You yourself are your act. You
have exchanged yourself for your act.Your meaning is
what shows itself for all to see. Your meaning is your deed,
your hatred, your love, your fidelity, your discoveries.A
man (L’homme) is nothing but a web of relations; with
regard to man, only relationships count’’ (520; 456). Per-
haps the principle that guides these investigations is best
expressed at the beginning of his chapter on temporality:
Our existence cannot be anything – spatial, sexual,
temporal – without entirely being such, without
appropriating and assuming its ‘attributes’ and turn-
ing them into dimensions of its very being. Accord-
ingly, even a minimally insightful analysis of any of
these ‘attributes’ will actually disclose subjectivity
itself. There are no dominant and subordinate prob-
lems: all problems are equally central (469; 410).
Let me raise two critical issues that are in some ways
tied to the facticity of Merleau-Ponty’s own situation, and
specifically to the time period in which he wrote. We
cannot fault Merleau-Ponty for the state of art that science
itself was in at the time he wrote the Phenomenology of
Perception (1962).Merleau-Ponty knew the scientific lit-
erature (especially neurology, experimental and develop-
mental psychology) very well. Some of his specific
conclusions, consistent with that science, may not be
consistent with views informed by current scientific
knowledge. No doubt future commentators will say the
same thing about the current generation’s understanding, if
we’re remembered at all. Most current views concerning
the body schema, for example, agree that ontogenetically it
exists much earlier than Merleau-Ponty and the science of
his day suggested. This would seem to have some inter-
esting implications for questions about the onset timing for
imitation, for claims about pre-linguistic experience in
infancy, and possibly about the basis for intersubjective
184 S. Gallagher
123
understanding (see Gallagher 2005). Again, we could
easily claim that if we were trying to sort out the case of
Schneider today, we would know a lot more about his brain
via contemporary brain-imaging technology, and that
might better inform our analysis. Merleau-Ponty’s analysis
of Schneider is creatively insightful, and often guided by
Goldstein’s first-hand accounts. Yet neuroscience had
some distance to go to get to what we consider today to be
an improved but still inadequate understanding of brain
processes; and Merleau-Ponty was also at a certain remove
from a first-hand examination of Schneider.
This last point raises an issue about the limitations of
Merleau-Ponty’s methodology. Although he studied the
empirical and clinical literature, Merleau-Ponty worked in
a traditional philosophical way, in his case employing
phenomenological analysis to guide his critical reinter-
pretations. His reinterpretations clearly supported the
philosophical position he was developing, but in most cases
they remained untested. Merleau-Ponty read across disci-
plines, but did not work in an interdisciplinary way; he was
not in contact with Goldstein, for example, and never
observed Schneider, and one wonders what he might have
learned if he had, or if he could have tested out his con-
clusions. Today it is not unusual for philosophers to team
up with scientists, to learn from them and to contribute to
their experimental efforts. The important point is that there
needs to be some way to test out any philosophically
inspired reinterpretations of empirical data, and those tests
are missing in Merleau-Ponty.
Despite any limitations imposed by the contemporary
science or his lack of interdisciplinary methodology,
Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception holds up
well. For example he had an excellent understanding of
what the study of pathologies can tell us about non-path-
ological behavior. In a case as complicated as Schneider,
for example, as Tony Marcel (2003) has suggested, we
need to carefully distinguish between normal functions that
manifest themselves more clearly in pathological cases,
and functions that emerge as compensatory within the
pathology. Merleau-Ponty was careful in just this way not
to claim that the more concrete ‘‘motor intentionality’
(128; 110) remained intact when, in the case of Schneider,
abstract movement was stripped away. Rather, he saw the
odd character of Schneider’s movements as compensatory
for a loss of the lived spatiality of action.
In addition, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological account
of embodied perception anticipated and helped to inspire
much of the recent embodied and enactive accounts that
are redefining good portions of research in the cognitive
sciences, starting with Varela, Thompson, and Rosch’s The
Embodied Mind (1991),and running through a number of
recent works (e.g., Berthoz and Petit 2008; Clark 1997;
Gallagher 2005; Noe
¨2004; Shusterman 2008).
For these reasons Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of
Perception remains an important book and not so untimely.
Throughout his analysis there are rewarding detailed phe-
nomenological descriptions of embodied action; there are
insightful criticisms of traditional philosophy and con-
temporary science; and within his often flowing and
flowery French, there are revelatory passages that can only
be called philosophically beautiful.
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123
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