Phenomenology of Perception (book review) Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Colin Smith(Translator)


210818: this is on my 'read twice or more' shelf. i believe i have read only the first half twice, and that about eleven years ago, though i remember the powerful effect. it is part of the merleau-ponty-m shelf which includes now 74 works that have something to do with him, several of which are art, which reflects one of the reasons he is favourite, that he uses art as examples, though [book:Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Basic Writings|203362] is more global, more extensive, includes his final works. for this is m-p's original masterwork from 1945 and his thought continues to develop until his unfortunately early death in 1961...


introduction: extensive analysis of traditional philosophical/psychological prejudices of perception, here m-p investigates ideas of 'sensations' as 'units' of experience and finds theories of 'gestalt' more descriptive, over 'association' and 'projection of memories', over 'attention' and 'judgement', resulting in concept of 'phenomenal field'. rather than atomistic 'quale' there is holistic, reversible, gestalt relationships of ground fore and back. m-p argues against extremes of both empiricism and idealism, which only appear opposite metaphysics but both presuppose the same abstracted, separate, concept of perception, which can be 'objectively' measured without reference, without sense, of the embodied perceiver. m-p asserts neither perception is in any sense real. he refers to the muller-lyer illusion, which of course only works in parallel and not isolation. m-p asserts this is model of all our perceptions and why they must be 'field', and this field is developed by the human body...


the body: for this is m-p's greatest concern, greatest contribution, to 20th century continental philosophy. the body. this is the longest section of the long book. first m-p poses it as a problem. how can objective body be reconciled with subjective, analytic thought. m-p says we have erred in conceiving 'substances' or dualism of mind and body, rather there is substance and style or 'how', we are body, and embodied consciousness, we are being certain way, and this is sensed through perception. how this body image is not merely the physical, anatomical, 'mechanistic', which we as bare consciousness inhabit, but how this body is always, ever, where our world begins, how it precedes cartesian certainty, or maybe reverses the order- not 'i am because i think' but 'i think because i am', how there is necessary 'motility' of how we can sense the world, by movement, by focus, through our 'intentional arc'... this is his signal innovation to phenomenology inherited from husserl, beyond his 'cartesian meditations', continuing where husserl left off- the fact there is the body to fulfill his insistence that as humans, in addition to the 'tacit cogito', there must be a body that serves the 'i am', not simply a thinking cogito, but an 'i am able to', for there is 'pre-predicative' essence, there is being, there is body, before all else. m-p observes the body as object and mechanistic physiology, then experience of the body in classical psychology, then spatiality and motility of own body, then synthesis of own body, then sexuality of own body, then body as expression and speech. here m-p investigates implications of 'phantom limb'. here m-p builds his arguments philosophically and not through the causality of natural science, which he does not deny but places after perception, that is, after our being in the world. m-p seems to describe and elaborate from scientific experiments, primarily to demonstrate that, if not simply mistaken, they are incomplete because they remain abstracted from the perceiving subject. he does engage in some speculative interpretation of sufferers of brain injuries, of the essential difference between abstracting, thinking, oneself, and the more primordial, originary, embodiment, in other words, the difference between 'pointing' and 'grasping'. m-p refers to how perception has become emptied of meaning, that is, provokes or enables no emotional qualities, in stories retold, in sexual possibilities. m-p sees that as we human bodies have similar capabilities, so our expressions, our speech, will be derived from our style of being and perception. i have no idea what current psychological interpretations are...


the world as perceived: m-p says that the theory of the body is necessarily, essentially, theory of perception. this might be as far as i read the first time. certainly if 'gestalt' is key term in the introduction, m-p uses 'ambiguity' and 'style' extensively here. in sense experience m-p offers another model of sense rather than scientific, cause-effect, of any indefinite form, but rather than sensor and sensible in opposition they are unified, invaded, such that it is not blue sky above me but that i am of that blue sky, that there is sense to which i am attuned. space is next up, with m-p contrasting monocular and usual human binocular vision, insisting it is not after the fact we integrate images but that the image is necessarily seen that way, as he demonstrates with certain experiments conducted altering perceived walls/floors according to eyes and balance. again i have no idea what current psychological interpretations are. he also argues about our human perception of depth, and how this is not merely width turned sideways, but a different sense. then m-p looks at the thing and the natural world, and again how he insists there must be human perception to introduce meaning, causality, time, as the world is 'timeless' and 'meaningless' without. against solipsism m-p then talks of the other and the human world, and how we are implicated in shared perceptions...


being for itself and being in the world: here is the most directly philosophical explorations of m-p, of the cogito, of temporality, of freedom. if you have read this far, you have good idea of how m-p will look at these. i have read many philosophers since, but for me, throughout this text, i find fulfilling that he can argue and offer exemplars through the arts. because i have always had some skill in the arts, but my father was scientist and i was convinced science was truth, i had undervalued art as intellectual appreciation of the world. m-p cured me of said affliction. this book, then everything else i read of m-p, helps me to better understanding, even as i cannot say i understand it all...

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