The Phenomenology of Perception by M. Mer1eau-Ponty, translated from the French by Colin Smith. Published by Routledge and Kegan Paul in the series "International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method" 1962.
A Philosophy of Experience
Phenomenology, as the Preface explains, is the attempt, initiated by Husserl, to philosophise in terms solely of our given experience of "being in the world". Any notion of a transcendental consciousness, complete in itself and observing the world, is rejected. Our consciousness, in our immediate experience, is always "consciousness of something", and it cannot be separated off from the world: we find ourselves in the world and through our experience in the world. Both "my world" and "I" are only to be found through immediate experience. To think what the world is outside of our mode of being in the world is meaningless, for such a thought can have no content for us.
To accuse the phenomenologist of subjectivity is unwarranted. The world remains, in his philosophy, as something examinable by scientific methods, but the meaning of the results of science is changed for us when we come to see the world through an act of "reflection" that suspends our normal identifications with certain modes of thought and action. Then we confront it as an irreducible term of experience. It reveals itself as something impenetrable, mysterious and opaque to the intelligence, yet a source of wonder.
Merleau-Ponty initiates his exploration of the basic experiences of perception by a critique of the empiricist tradition. He attempts to bring forth the inadequacy of treating perception as a compounding of atomic "sensations", which are causally initiated and transmitted. Here his purpose is to prepare the ground for expressing how the world is for us in our experience, as against picturing it as an existing "something" with which we are in contact only through some causal process of sense-perception.
It is obvious from modern work on sense-perception that we are far from being passive when we perceive things. Perception depends on a very complex interaction and synthesis of various kinds of sensitivity to the world, and also integrally involves how we act in the world. Therefore, even from a scientific point of view, the old empiricist notions of man as a "blank sheet" written on by sense-impressions is quite out-dated. Where phenomenology goes further than science is in its treatment of the nature of immediate experience. For Merleau-Ponty, the immediate experiencing is based on a kind of "primordial experience", founded on the past. I am able to have the sensation of blueness only because the nature of my body and of the world have been interlocked: for me, now, the experience is impersonal. 'I' as 'I' do not need to be present. This primordial world, wherein my body and the world have been shaped together is what I coatact through the powers of sensitivity inherent in my body, but which I cannot penetrate with my intellect. The author often refers to the work of Cezanne to express this realisation, for the intuitive-aesthetic experience of the world has this quality of immediate and genuine contact with things tempered by a sense of their "opaqueness" to the mind.
In developing his theme through chapters on the "body", the perception of space, sexuality, things, the "cogito" time and freedom, the author brings out another way of understanding experience, which he exemplifies in a variety of ways. In his words "we are condemned to meaning". The desires, actions, judgements and perceptions of a man are bound into a unity of "intentionality" quite outside of any voluntary acts. He has an existence or nature as a consciousness which is characterised as a unique mode of existing. To understand anything in fact, is to grasp that unique mode of existing which is expressed in all the variety of detail peculiar to it. In the case of a civilisation, we have to find the "Idea in the Hegelian sense ... that formula which sums up some unique manner of behaviour towards others. Nature, time and death: a certain way of patterning the world which the historian should be capable of seizing on and making his own." Thus everything which is something has its own unique nature though at the same time it is a manifestation "of a single existence". It is with this contradiction that we come to meanings or significance in experience. It is in this sense that the author says "I know myself only in my ambiguity": for example, though in one sense I am my history, in another sense I am just what I am here and now. Though there seems to be an either/or choice between myself as causally determined from the past, ie. from the nature of the world beyond my finitude, and "an absolute freedom divorced from the outside", in reality, we are both "outside" ourselves and within ourselves. Thus, we are not determined from outside, or free from inside, and our real freedom depends on the degree of our engagement or commitment to the world as it is, for this is the foundation of our freedom, without which it could have no meaning. Our freedom is really our uniqueness in action, where action takes place in a complementing universality of existence.
Merleau-Ponty brings out not only the inherent contradictions in understanding the nature of something (since it must be both uniquely itself and a part of a generality); but also the ambiguity involved in understanding the individual life or experience. Really, in talking of freedom and action, we have already moved on to this third way of understanding. Our personal experience is through and through a network of relationships, which constitute the way in which we engage in the world, have experience, come to awareness of ourselves, act and so on. For the author, there seem to be three irreducible terms in this: consciousness, body, and world. As he expresses it, "the world is what I live through"1: the "project" of my consciousness, by means of being "in" the world, comes into life in my body. The sense of wonder in confronting the world is a special concentration of experience2 (it is after all the source of art, and, in a way, of philosophy). It is the body that gives us a sense of identity in being in the world;3 "I am my body" is the phrase which characterises the author's way of seeing this. The primordial common origins of my body and the world are such that my body, for example in perception, encompasses my possibilities of action in the world.4 Yet, it is also the foundation upon which my true freedom is based,5 as we have already indicated. All these various aspects of the primal relationship of consciousness - body - world bring out the rich implications which would be normally missed through simply taking the body as a means of "connecting" myself and the world6 which, in a crude way, was the notion of the empiricists.
These notes have been written with the aim of indicating something of the wealth of content in this book. Though scattered rather haphazardly throughout the work, there do appear these three distinguishable ways of understanding: all with the starting point of concrete experience, which correspond to the character of the first three systems spoken of in systematics. In distinguishing them I may have been guilty of distortion, but I believe that a greater clarity is achieved by this distinction than is possible without it.
The six aspects of the triad: consciousness-body-world, are indicated by indices as follows:
It could be argued from systematics that we could go on from the triad to a tetrad. Remembering, however, that the triad expressly refers to individual experience, we must realise that the four term system would bring us to the notion of an objective, supra-personal element as one of the sources of life activity. In fact, this can be deduced from Merleau-Ponty's material, though it demands an abrupt change in our mode of understanding. In characterising the world, in the sense of the totality in which we are, as a unity opaque in its depths to individual experience, the author has, in his own way, described the objective source. The actuality of present experience in the flux of temporality provides another source. And in the phenomenological doctrine of "intentionality" which is voluntary and deliberate, and "operative intentionality" which is natural and spontaneous we have the other two sources.