Category Archives: Books

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.

Ang Lee Puts Martel’s LIFE OF PI on Film

Director Ang Lee (of Brokeback Mountain; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hulk, and several others) has made a film adaptation of Yann Martel‘s extremely innovative book, Life of Pi (2001), for which Martel won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2002.

The storyline isn’t easy to sum up, and I’m short on time. So, here’s a blurb from the Wikipedia précis:

Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The protagonist, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck, while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

It’s a truly remarkable book, one of the most creative pieces of fiction I’ve read in the young 21st century. It couldn’t have been an easy story to put to film. The trailer is, well, interesting. On the face of it, there appear to be far more streaks of sparkling fantasy than I’d care to see, especially given my recollection of Martel’s entirely dusty and down-to-earth portrayals of Pondicherry and the open waters. But maybe my memory isn’t serving me well right now. It has been a while since I looked at the book. Whatever the case may be, I’m excited this story is being brought to an even wider audience than it had in the past ten+ years in print. And I’ll no doubt try to catch Lee’s film adaptation this winter.

Book Thread

So what’s everyone reading?  I’m about halfway through David McCollough’s John Adams.  I’ve been meaning to read it for years and now I can’t put it down.  He is an excellent historian whose works read more like literature than studied analysis, though it has plenty of that.  Vibrant and fast-paced, I cannot recommend it enough.  (Duh – it only won a Pulitzer).  I should finish it in the next couple of weeks but may be detoured a bit by an upcoming trial.  Any recommendations for summertime reading would be appreciated, fiction or non.

E. Gene Smith

This obituary appeared in the New York Times, finally, on 28 December 2010. E. Gene Smith was not just an extraordinary scholar; he was, by all accounts I have read and heard (I never met the man, though I know folks who knew him well), he was also an extraordinarily generous and kind human being. I personally cannot claim that without Mr. Smith’s lifelong efforts to preserve Tibetan literature I would not be able to do what I do today, as, for example, most Tibetologists in the western world today rightfully claim (see, e.g., David Germano’s remarks in this obit). But a handful of my teachers over the years, at least one of which has played a significant role in my professional career to this day, are enormously indebted to the labors of Mr. Smith. So I’m a generation or two removed from E. Gene Smith in terms of my professional pursuits. All the same, I am awestruck by his vision, his achievements, and his magnanimity. This obit is clearly superficial in its coverage of E. Gene Smith’s life and work. Yet, I think anyone who reads just these few paragraphs about the man will be moved.

NB: Click on the image to read the piece; you should have a magnifying glass option to enlarge once it appears in a new window.

Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

Frontline (India) published an interesting, if unenlightened, review of Louis Begley’s latest book, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. I am tempted to pick up this book, not so much because of the review, but because I’ve often taught the Dreyfus Affair as an historical turning point in the academic career of Émile Durkheim and his views on religion, especially insofar as they pertained to notions of community and sacrifice. It wasn’t only Durkheim who was deeply affected by the Dreyfus Affair, but most of the intellectuals associated with L’Année Sociologique, especially Marcel Mauss (not to mention countless other artists, academics, politicians, private citizens, and so on), were vehement Dreyfusards during Alfred Dreyfus’s trials and captivity. Of course in academia nowadays it’s often chic to try to find historical parallels with such recent events in U.S. domestic and foreign sociopolitical life, such as 9/11, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. Some are merely attempts to make scholarship sexy, and they are not worthwhile to use in the classroom; but some have actually been well thought out and argued, nicely demonstrating the usefulness of history and careful hermeneutics to teach the importance of reading history for understanding our present circumstances. I am not sure what to expect from Begley’s latest effort, but the Dreyfus Affair itself has already been helpful in the latter regard for me. I just don’t know if I’ll have a need (or desire) to lecture on G.W. Bush’s presidency and reactions to 9/11 anytime soon. Of course, for just about any scholar of religion, 9/11 changed the playing field — in terms of theory for sure, but as Begley’s book attests, in terms of historical analysis as well. It forced us to reconsider our assumptions and adjust our foci in the classroom and in our writing to discuss religion in the full context of the various institutions that constitute culture (e.g., education, politics, medicine, entertainment, etc). That there might be clear and incisive parallels between Dreyfus and some of the detainees at Gitmo, and the treatment of these people by leaders in late-19th century France and early 21st century America, is not surprising. And religion is, I am fairly certain, integral to all of these parallels.