Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Phenomenology of Perception

[Readings] (08.29.08, 4:57 pm)


Phenomenology is about essences. This idea seems to be potentially relevant for thinking of essences of meaning to be carried over in translations or adaptations.

Science is a separate order of expressing the world. So, Merleau-Ponty wishes to return to things-in-themselves. So, it is necessary to return to a world that precedes knowledge. Must use describing, instead of analysis or construction. Perception is the background on which all acts are projected.

There is no inner mind, the mind is in the world, and you can only know yourself in the world. Contradicts Descartes argument by insisting that true cognition must be anchored in the world: “The true Cogito does not define the subject’s existence in terms of the thought he has of existing…” (p. xiv)

Consciousness is consciousness of *something*: it rejects that contemplative thought is sufficient. Consciousness is necessarily what connects individuals to the world.

We are condemned to meaning (allusion to Sartre) (p. xxii). There is no such thing as original choice, namely freedom as defined by Sartre (Moran p. 396). We are in a world of meaning, so any experience takes on significance and history. Phenomenology is about having its own foundation, without external things, but like artistic expression, brings truth into being. (?)

Empiricisim denies meaning? Merleau-Ponty wants to avoid the observational approach, but understand the intimate, reflexive relationship between the body and the world. Defining a difference between cause and reason. Empiricism seeks to uncover causes, which reduces, but denies meaning.

Chapter 3: The Spatiality of One’s Own Body and Motility

Merleau-Ponty opens by exploring some aspects of bodily sensation and comprehension. Bodies are comprehended in space, and in relation to each other. Descriptions and terminologies such as “organ” reduce the body into independent disconnected parts. He uses the term “body schema” as a device for collectively relating the wholeness of bodily experience.

What is important is space, not in terms of position, but in terms of situation. (p. 115) Merleau-Ponty wishes to quell the sense of space as composed of points (in the Cartesian sense, imaginably), especially as this orients and imposes values and external objectivity on the situation. Nonetheless, we can imagine reconstructions of coordinates in relative terms (modern physics is especially attentive to this).

Merleau-Ponty spends some time exploring the interactions and self-perceptions of a patient who is “psychically blind” that is, cannot understand the “body schema” without visual reference. This patient requires certain extensive gestures to be able to position himself blindly in space, and cannot distinguish tactile sensation in different parts of the body.

Note: Additional studies have been made of this sort of thing extensively. Eg, “The Disembodied Lady” in Oliver Sacks, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”. The study involved a patient with an intense feeling of disembodiment, and a loss of “proprioception”. However, in her case, she was still able to act very willfully, relearning to perform normal action without the proprioceptive sense. The feeling was distinctly unnatural, but still did not result in the lack of direction and intent described in the patient later.

Normal individuals can do these things automatically, and this is because sensation is reckoned with. The patient must intellectually grapple with motion and action instead of being able to do it automatically. (p. 126) He cannot convert thought of movement into movement, but can both think and move. This means that the patient lacks something in between, a “motor project” or “motor intentionality”. Essentially, a situation of movement in context of the world and the body.

Diagnosis of patient wrt traditional psychology (or empiricism): this is an example of a sort of reduction, illustration of the patient is a kind of denaturalization of the body to illustrate things we take for granted. Empiricism is lacking an understanding of meaning in that sense. Understanding the difference of the self to an object (as the patient might see it)

On concrete and abstract: In the perception of phenomena (namely movement), movement is either “for itself” meaning that stimulus is an object (the individual moved consciously?), or in itself, being objective within the body, unknown externally (like the hand swatting a mosquito). This difference of in-itself vs for-itself is also called “Greifen” and “Zeigen”. (p. 140) Differentiating these cannot be done if the body is categorized as an object. Vision of the body as in-itself reduces the body to a mechanism, vision mind as for-itself reduces the mind to an abstract symbol processor. So, either extreme is fundamentally lacking, and in reality, the line is blurry. (right?)

Matter and form are connected in phenomenology by a relationship of “Fundierung”, a symbolic function that uses vision and ground. This also relates to the concept of analogy, which people can understand without needing to analyze. This is because in normal thought, things are understood in accordance with the analogy of their function. (p. 148)

More on the patient’s condition: he perceives of things in instances, without external connections, or sense of a whole, “He never goes out for a walk, but always on an errand, and he never recognizes Professor Goldstein’s house as he passes it ‘because he did not go out with the intention of going there'”. (p. 155) This discussion connects with the quote Dreyfus used to criticize AI, that life is subtended by an intentional arc.

Note: The patient is basically (and this ties into Dreyfus very neatly) an extreme example of cognitivist learning. He approaches things much the way that traditional AI might try to. That is clearly unnatural, and we can see that in his behavior.

Further, Merleau-Ponty returns to motility: “Motility, then, is, and, as it were, a handmaid of consciousness, transporting the body to that point in space of which we have formed a representation beforehand. In order that we may be able to move our body towards and object, the object must first exist for it, and our body must not belong to the realm of the ‘in-itself’.” (p. 161) Existence for-it, or for-itself, seems to couple nicely with both intentionality and affordance. There is more: “We must therefore avoid saying that our body is in space, or in time. It inhabits space and time.” Movement is not a matter of memory, but of perception?

On habit: Dreyfus looks at Merleau-Ponty in application to learning of skills, the approach to skills as habits is explained in some detail here. Traditional philosophy and mechanistic theory run into problems when understanding habit. The of habit could be understood as a special kind of understanding or significance. In habits, perception is adapted: The feather in a woman’s cap is perceived as a part of herself, the walking stick of a blind man extends as a part of his perception. Explained: “If habit is neither a form of knowledge nor an involuntary action, then what is it? It is knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort. The subject knows where the letters are on the typewriter as we know where one of our limbs is, though a knowledge bred of familiarity which does not give us a position in objective space.” (p. 167) Further, “To understand is to experience the harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance–and the body is our anchorage in a world.”

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMerleau-Ponty, Maurice
TitleThe Phenomenology of Perception
Tagsdms, phenomenology, embodiment
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

1 Comment »

  1. This is a great resource; much appreciated!

    Comment by Ric — April 28, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

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