What conception of phenomenology does Merleau Ponty present in his Preface to the Phenomenology of Perception – how cogent is it?

09/12/08

Merleau Ponty appears most sympathetic to Husserl: like him, he wishes to dispense with alternate causal explanations available via history, science and sociology, and return to the things themselves as they are directly given. Also, he sees the reduction as being central to phenomenological method. Further, phenomenology should be descriptive and not analytical. One understanding of this is that if a picture has consequences matching our intuitions, then that can be evidence for its validity.

However, he had his own position in respect of the Other: “For Husserl, on the contrary, it is well known that there is a problem of other people, and the alter ego is a paradox.” This relates to the difficulty of intersubjectivity whereby there must be a representation of myself in the perspective of others and that this representation cannot be identical with myself. Merleau Ponty solves this problem by the radical step of appealing to the common lived world and denying the self: “we are all one light and participate in the One without destroying its unity”.

This also implies a distinction between the position of Sartre and Merleau Ponty. Moran reminds us how Sartre sums this up in what might be a type of embodiment of philosophy: “Alone, each of us was too easily persuaded of having understood the idea of phenomenology. Together, we were, for each other, the incarnation of its ambiguity” . This rather tart remark is somewhat reminiscent of Derrida’s criticism of the Platonic reluctance of Levinas to write; Levinas is accused of thereby missing an opportunity to highlight his central concept of alterity: the absence of the author is implied in writing but not in speech.

Merleau Ponty was critical of Sartre’s sharp distinctions between the self and others. Merleau Ponty subliminally invokes Hegel: “The paradox and the dialectic of the Ego and the Alter Ego are possible only provided that the Ego and the Alter Ego are defined by their situation and are not freed from all inherence”; “the Alter and the Ego are one and the same in the true world which is the unifier of minds”. This implies two possible related approaches, both tending in the same direction. Paradox, Sartre’s embrace notwithstanding, is presumably to be avoided, perhaps by freeing ourselves of the illusion of separate selves housing isolated egos. Or, we could regard the Ego and the Alter Ego as the thesis and antithesis to be synthesised in the Hegelian sense. Either approach leaves us without clearly defined human individuals.

Merleau Ponty defends this position by recasting the Cartesian project. The cogito must “reveal me in a situation” and can no longer “define the subject’s existence in terms of the thought he has of existing” . This now seems reminiscent of a Heideggerian line whereby the split between consciousness and the world is illusory; what is given from a phenomenological perspective is just being-in-the-world.

How plausible is this? We can certainly accept that people are social animals, we can agree that we have much in common including common structures underlying perception and which are automatic; language and communication are arguably crucial to any fulfilled human existence. So to take the argument on its own terms, we must ask whether after a phenomenological reduction we are left with a unique perspective that outlines us an individual. Why can Descartes not say that even phenomenologists must agree that he feels pains only in his one body?

Gardner also brings out the link between the two central concepts for Merleau Ponty of perception and the body: “Merleau-Ponty differs from his predecessors in holding that there is in perceptual consciousness an indissoluble unity of subject and object […] and that consciousness is necessarily embodied and that its bodily incarnation determines its total nature” . While other phenomenologists did in fact see a close unity between subject and object, for example Heidegger: “Self and world belong together in the single entity Dasein” , embodiment does seem key for Merleau Ponty. As Moran puts it, “Our whole understanding of the world is grounded in our corporeal nature” .

Further support is given to this line via Husserl’s reduction, which reflection “slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice”, but “The most important lesson which the reduction teaches us is the impossibility of a complete reduction”. By this, Merleau Ponty means to re-emphasise the indissoluble union of ‘self’ and ‘world’ and the links between them. In fact, this forms in sum his view of the main aim of his work: “Probably the chief gain from phenomenology is to have united extreme subjectivity and extreme objectivity in its notion of the world” . This may also be expressed as the denial of both of the views that the world is all that exists and that the self is all that exists. Phenomenology thus opposes itself to any objective stance that would be essential to the complete success of reductionist science and also to an immoderate reading of Kant that “makes the world immanent in the subject” .

A further distinction with Sartre comes in the recasting of the slogan to read ‘we are condemned to meaning’, in Moran’s paraphrase . An interest in psychological results gained from studying subjects with brain damage was an innovative feature of Merleau Ponty’s work. Also, as Flynn reminds us, he “undercuts […] the opposition between subject and object” in that “I never, at the same instance, experience my hand as touching and as touched” . For all these reasons, he would have been interested in the phenomenon of Anton’s blindness whereby subjects become blind but deny it and confabulate stories to explain why they have walked into a wall. Further: “A patient presenting with an Anton-Babinski syndrome accompanied by a delusional conviction recognised her left upper limb with the aid of her right hand, but immediately denied its existence when she viewed it directly” which lends empirical support to Merleau Ponty’s ideas that embodiment is central to perception and also that where no meaning exists, we will create it.

Given Merleau Ponty’s interest in perception, it is unsurprising that he takes a close interest in art. In fact, he sees painting as analogous to his idea of the reduction, in that it can record what is seen before interpretation and thus allows a return to the things themselves. He drafts Cezanne to the phenomenological cause; this choice of painter is instructive in light of his iconoclastic role in art history.

“In such still lifes as Dish of Apples Cézanne ignores the laws of classical perspective, allowing each object to be independent within the space of a picture while the relationship of one object to another takes precedence over traditional single-point perspective”

This denial of the existence of the unique privileged observer even within a single self, because the possession of two eyes already means that one individual has two ‘outlooks’, has a close parallel to what the reduction is supposed to achieve. The picture is flat; it lacks depth – we are forced to confront the absence of Husserl’s ‘adumbrations’ in the given. Thus Cezanne, by ignoring the conventions, has ‘reduced’ his vision in the same way as we are required to reduce ours: also a reduction can only happen in relation to a world it is supposed to put in brackets. This is why a complete reduction is impossible – the intentional threads can only be slackened. And this lack of a unique perspective is another problem for an objective approach to the world.

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