The world of Merleau-Ponty’s perception

In 1948, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) published Causeries.  This aptly titled, thin collection of “talks” aired on the radio (vie la radio philosophique!) on Saturday mornings in France, typically in a lineup that included causeries by Georges Davy on so-called primitive psychology, M. Laignel-Lavastine on psychoanalysis, and Émile Henriot on psychology and literature.  Nearly sixty years later, in 2004, Routledge published seven of Merleau-Ponty’s radio causeries as, The World of Perception. This title is apt, too. The seven radio lectures covered in the Routledge volume include the following:

[1] The World of Perception and the World of Space

[2] Exploring the World of Perception: Space

[3] Exploring the World of Perception: Sensory Objects

[4] Exploring the World of Perception: Animal Life

[5] Man Seen from the Outside

[6] Art and the World of Perception

[7] Classical World, Modern World

René Descartes’s illustration of dualism. Inputs are passed on by the sensory organs to the epiphysis in the brain and from there to the immaterial spirit (from Wikipedia).

This book has been bouncing around my head since 2004, when I first read it (in English), after stumbling upon it and promptly buying it in a bookstore in Thiruvananthapuram, south India. I’d already read Phenomenology of Perception (PoP), for which Merleau-Ponty is most well known (but by no means his only great work on perception and the everyday human encouter with the world of objects).  PoP is a complex text, published in 1945, in which Merleau-Ponty envisions phenomenology as a renunciation of Cartesian science, especially empiricism (behaviorism) and intellectualism (cognitivism).  Phenomenology describes, Merleau-Ponty argued.  It does not analyze or explain; explanation is the task of science.  The whole undertaking of science is based on our direct experience of the world.  So, to subject science to rigorous scrutiny and investigate its efficacy, we must, Merleau-Ponty explained, “begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression” (PoP, ix).  The “basic experience” he invokes occurs with/in the body.  For its part, science then applies rationale and categories for basic experiences, such as consciousness, creativity, man, woman, et cetera.  Merleau-Ponty’s aim in PoP is to recover the antecedent of science, the embodied self.  Science always speaks about this primary experience and hence is always an abstraction from, a derivative of, this knowledge-prior experience.  This is to say, to use Merleau-Ponty’s phraseology, reflection bears upon unreflective experience, which occurs with/in our bodies.

Phenomenology of Perception is fascinating and, for me, a useful book (for many things, but especially for what it says about the importance of the somatic engagement for perceiving and creating one’s world). But it’s also truly confounding at times. The World of Perception, on the other hand, is quite accessible, and can be a highly valuable introduction to Merleau-Ponty’s work in general.

What is it exactly that we we perceive when we feel, smell, see, hear, and taste? This question is of course critical to any number of things—the contents of the so-called good life and happiness, for example, among other things. Merleau-Ponty was surely one of the most creative thinkers of the twentieth century on the question of perspectival engagement among humankind and in the world in general. We are worldly creatures, he said, because truth resides “out there” on the horizon, in the world, and it must be experienced. It’s not found only in contemplative navel-gazing. He famously wrote in PoP that “Truth does not ‘inhabit’ only ‘the inner man,’ or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself” (xii).  The idea that we experience truth socially, as subjects “destined to the world” is essential to ground oneself socially and somatically and to avoid overstating the self and the intellect as the origin of truth and meaning.  But where his ideas really inspire me, where they open up avenues for discussing the human condition and reading critically what others have argued about the role of the body in cultural institutions, such as religion, medicine, and politics, is not in the “what” of perception but in the “how.”

How does my position as an observer influence what I perceive?  How does my situation, physically, yes, but also intellectually and experientially, affect what I am experiencing?  Indeed, how do I create the world of perception within which I live year-to-year, month-to-month, day-to-day, moment-to-moment?

The perceived world is made up of things that are manifest to us through our experience.  Worldly things are not hidden behind a veil of appearances.  We experience meaning in our interactions with worldly things directly through our experience of them.  Therefore, meaning depends upon the relationship between our experience and the things perceived as such.  Meaning cannot reside (or depend upon), as in a representational illustration, in the relationship between the thing in the world and something extrinsic to it (e.g., a portrait simply evokes the person portrayed, but the essence of the portrait rests in the relationship between the person experiencing the piece of art and the piece if art in itself).  The point, then, is that we must learn to accept the fact that contestable theories and interpretations will always make up the world of humans.  Or, in other words, there cannot be any final principles – in science, theology, politics, literary criticism, etc – in the world when there is more than one perceiving subject.  That said, no matter what one devises as a “principle” (e.g., Newtonian “space” conceived of as the absolute within which physical objects have an absolute location at any given time and may move about therein without altering their inherent physical properties) must always be provisional.  Take, for instance, Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which posits the interdependence of physics and geometry.  Einstein’s theory showed that Newton’s principle of “space,” and along with it gravity, is incomplete.  The Newtonian understanding of space and gravity could not be a final solution, according to Einstein, for we must regard gravity not as a fixed principle in relation to space but as expressing the curvature of space, which is determined by the local distribution of matter (as shown in the Riemann-Clifford Hypothesis).  Consequently, as regards the subjective enquirer (the “scientist”), there cannot be an absolute and final objective space, for every particular observation is linked to the location and situation of the observer.

For all this, and more, j’adresse un grand merci à M. Merleau-Ponty! I’ve been working on his ideas lately, and no doubt I’ve many more years to come to think through some of this business. I’ll surely need it.

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