"All consciousness is perceptual...The perceived world is the always presupposed foundation of all rationality, all value and all existence."

"[the phenomenologist returns] to the world which precedes [scientific description], [the world] of which science always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific characterization is an abstract and derivative sign language, as is geography to the countryside."


Paul Ricoeur has called Merleau-Ponty "the greatest of the French phenomenologists." Along with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty introduced phenomenological thought to France. Drawing upon the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the existentialist orientation of Heidegger and Marcel, Merleau-Ponty can be credited with introducing the conception of the "lived body" to existential-phenomenological thought (already latently present, for example, in Heidegger's distinction between the "ready-to-hand" and the "present-to-hand" in Being & Time). Merleau-Ponty held the chair of child psychology and pedagogy at the Sorbonne, which was later held by Jean Piaget. He then became professor of philosophy at the College de France. He died young and suddenly in 1961 while working on his uncompleted manuscript, The Visible and the Invisible.

Merleau-Ponty's masterpiece, Phenomenology of Perception, was a bold, internally coherent attempt to overcome the problems of empiricism and rationalism in the Cartesian tradition of modern philosophy. As Dillon has shown in his Merleau-Ponty's Ontology, it is pedagogically instructive to introduce Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology as an attempt to resolve Meno's paradox. Meno's paradox, of course, is from the dialogue between Meno and Plato in Plato's Meno. Meno poses a dilemma to Plato: "But how will you look for something when you don't in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don't know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you found is the thing you didn't know?"

Merleau-Ponty's existential-phenomenological epistemology and ontology can be seen as resolving the problem of Meno's paradox, and it does so by relentlessly demonstrating how both empiricism and rationalism fail to do so. Merleau-Ponty writes: "Empiricism cannot see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it, and intellectualism (rationalism) fails to see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or equally again we should not be searching." (Phenomenology of Perception)

All of philosophy is at stake with Meno's paradox, and, with it, the individual sciences, too, are at stake. To see how Merleau-Ponty resolves the problems of empiricism and rationalism, it is necessary to understand how each are problematic on their own terms.

Empiricism claims that consciousness is shaped by the transcedent world. By the transcendent world, we mean the world outside of human experience. But this is a problem. If all we can know is the transcendent world, which is outside of experience, how will we know that we've found what we're looking for once we find it? By thinking out of Descartes' philosophy, empiricism begins with a split between subject (consciousness) and objects (things ouside of consciousness). The question becomes: How does the subject come to know objects? For empiricism, the subject comes to know objects through experience. On this point, phenomenology agrees. But empiricism has several assumptions which cause it problems.

With Descartes, empiricism argues that truth is certainty. Because empiricism begins with this idea of truth, it has to argue that what is true in perception must be absolutely determined and unambiguous. Thus, the empiricists begin with the atomistic sense-impression. But as Gestalt psychology has demonstrated, we never experience atomistic sense impressions; rather, we experience Gestalts. We discover things in a context, as a foreground against a background. Merleau-Ponty argues that the assumption of empiricism is due to the "experience error."

The "experience error" is the error of attributing to a phenomenon what prior concepts dictate should be found in it. In psychology, this became a major problem with E.B. Titchener's introspectionism. Titchener began with the assumption of atomism, and this lead to problems with his method, ultimately leading to a rejection of his method by psychological science. Empiricism, due to the experience error, views the phenomenon as always hard-edged and determinate. This is how the empiricist arrives at the abstract idea of the "atomistic" sense impressions which, in truth, we never experience. The empiricist invents the idea of the "atom" by borrowing this metaphor from Newton's physics rather than from reflection on pre-objective experience. Instead, Merleau-Ponty begins with the everyday, lived engagement with the world (what Heidegger would call the "ready-to-hand") and what he finds is that we originally experience things as rich and multi-determinate, always within a context. As such, this "pre-objective" experience is ambiguous, like the Necker Cube made famous by Gestalt psychology:

Note that you can view the front of the cube as either facing down and to the right or up and to the left. The cube is an ambiguous figure.

This idea of the "experience error" leads to a second mistake for empiricism, which Merleau-Ponty refers to as "the constancy hypothesis." The constancy hypothesis maintains that there is a point-to-point correspondence and constant connection between the stimulus and any basic perception. For each point on the surface of a stimulus (what is seen), there is a point of stimulation on the retina. This leads to the reduction of the thing and percept to atomistic elements. Problems arise for the constancy hypothesis when determinate stimuli produce ambiguously determinable perceptions, such as the Necker cube above.

Because the empiricists begin with the assumption of atomism, they then have to create a way to put all these atomist sense impressions back together again in order to form the whole percept. Thus, the empiricsts resort to "association" as the glue which holds the atoms together. This, of course, leads to a new problem. If association happens in the mind, how do we know that the way the atoms are put together in the mind (the immanent) are the same as the way they appear outside of our experience (the transcedent)? This leads to a kind of skepticism, of which Berkeley is a case in point. The world becomes unknowable outside of human existence. In the end, what we are left with is an inability to solve Meno's paradox. If the world is unknowable, how will we know we've discovered something true?

Rationalism, like empiricism, is also rooted in the tradition of Descartes. It also understands truth as certainty. And it too begins with a split between subject and object, immanence and transcendence. Within these same assumptions, however, it takes an opposite stance from empiricism. While empiricism claims that all knowledge of the world comes from experinece, the rationalist holds that all knowledge is a priori, already known by the subject prior to experience. The mind organizes or constitutes the things in experinece, and we can never know the thing in itself outside of experience (Kant is a good example of this perspective).

Rationalism cannot solve Meno's paradox, either. If I already know what I am seeking to discover, why bother searching? If rationalism is correct, philosophy and psychology, as well as the sciences, are a pointless endeavor. Yet, we do search, and we search because the transcendent world is a mystery to us; yet we believe that, with a search for truth, we can discover and understand the world.

Merleau-Ponty begins his phenomenology by giving primacy to perception. The phenomenologist, says Merleau-Ponty, returns "to the world which precedes (scientific description), (the world) of which science always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific characterization is an abstract and derivative sign language as is geography in relation to the countryside."

Beginning with things as they show themselves in perception, Merleau-Ponty discovers that things do not simply impose themselves on consciousness as atomistic sense impressions, nor do we construct things in our minds. Rather, things as we experience them are discovered through a subject-object dialogue. In order to understand how Merleau-Ponty understands this subject-object dialogue, we first need to understand a new idea, something which Merleau-Ponty brought to phenomenology: the idea of the lived body.

For Merleau-Ponty, consciousness is not just something that goes on in our heads. Rather, our intentional consciousness is experienced in and through our bodies. With his concept of the lived body, Merleau-Ponty overcomes Descartes' mind-body dualism without resorting to physiological reductionism. Recall that for Descartes the body is a machine and the mind is what runs the machine. For Merleau-Ponty the body is not a machine, but a living organism by which we body-forth our possibilities in the world. The current of a person's intentional existence is lived through the body. We are our bodies, and consciousness is not just locked up inside the head. In his later thought, Merleau-Ponty talked of the body as "flesh," made of the same flesh of the world, and it is because the flesh of the body is of the flesh of the world that we can know and understand the world (see The Visible and the Invisible).

To demonstrate this concept of the lived body, Merleau-Ponty uses the example of the phantom limb. A phantom limb would not be possible if our bodies were just machines. If a part of the machine was severed from the rest of the machine, it would simply go without using the limb. Yet, people who have a limb amputated still feel the limb, and they are still called to use the limb in situations that call for its use, even though it is no longer there. In this same sense, the whole lived body is an intentional body, which is lived through in relation to possibilities in the world. Even when the limb is gone, the possibilities for its use remain, but are unable to be taken up as a project in the world. This is why the phantom limb phenomenon is so awe-ful; the arm is gone, and yet the person still feels the call to use it.

It is important to understand that Merleau-Ponty is not resorting here to physiological reductionism. The physiologist, at least traditionally, sees the body as separate parts that work together like a machine. For Merleau-Ponty, however, the body cannot be understood as separate parts but must be understand as a whole, as it is lived. The body as it is lived is an experiential body, a body that opens onto a world and allows the world to be for us. Physiology is not pointless; it has value, no doubt. But it does not get at the lived body. If we want to understand the body as it is lived in our experience, we have to use a phenomenological method. Merleau-Ponty would go so far as to argue that physiology is a second-order, intellectual abstraction from the primordial, lived body. In this sense, phenomenology can understand and incorporate physiological insights, but physiology is unable to incorporate phenomenological insights when it begins with a reductive approach.

The idea of the lived body allows Merleau-Ponty to resolve Meno's paradox. The body is both transcendent and immanent. It is the "third term" between subject and object. I know that transcendent things exist because I can touch them, see them, hear them. But most importantly, I never know things in their totality, but always from an embodied perspective. Because I am a body, I can only see things from a certain perspective, and yet, because I am a body, I can also experience the thing as being more than that partial perspective. The thing exists "in itself" because it resists my knowing it with total certainty. However, the thing exists "for me" because I always experience it in relation to my own body. A chair, for example, is something to sit on. A desk is something to sit at and write on. Things allow for certain bodily engagements while closing off others. In this sense, things are both transcedent and immanent; things as given to experience are each an "in-itself-for-me."

If we can understand this idea of the "in-itself-for-me," we can see how experience as it is given to us is always a subject-object dialogue. I can never experience things independent of my experience as a bodily engaged being in the world; the meaning I bring to my perception is a preceiving which is embodied. It is by virtue of my embodiment that I can experience things as being up or down, as having insides or outsides, as being close or far away. Space is always in relation to my body as situated within the world. The same is true of time. I can never be two places at once as a body. I am always situated in the present, on the way somewhere as having been somewhere. Thus, experience is always in the process of becoming. Just when I am aware of things as determinate and thematic, new possibilities emerge on the horizon and the past fades away as more ambiguous. Thus, when I experience a thing within a context, this spatial-temporal context is temporary and unfolding over time, and thus subject to change (within limits, of course--such becoming has a direction).

With the idea of the lived body, Merleau-Ponty solves Meno's paradox. How do I know if I've found what I'm looking for? I know when I've found what I'm looking for because the world is already pregnant with meaning in relation to my body. Things begin as ambiguous but become more determinate as I become bodily engaged with them. On the other hand, I do not already know what I am looking for, because the world transcends my total grasp. At any given time, the world as it is given includes not only what is revealed to me, but also what is concealed.

Merleau-Ponty, inspired by Husserl's concept of "life-world," introduced his concept of the "world-horizon." Things are always given to me within a world, and this world has the structure of a horizon. A thing given as determinate is always against the background of an indeterminate and ambiguous background or horizon. The configuration of this horizon (what Heidegger similarly refers to as our "referential context of significance") is constantly changing depending on the context. What was determinate becomes indeterminate and what was indeterminate becomes determinate.

Merleau-Ponty also makes a distinction between the pre-reflective and the reflective. When we reflect on experience, what we reflect on is viewed as hard-edged and determinate; as having definite dimensions and specific meanings. This reflected experience can be determinate and hard-edged only against an indeterminate, ambiguous horizon or background. Experience is then built upon an orginal, pre-reflective, ambiguous ground which is the world-horizon. Experience begins in the pre-reflective, and reflection is always an abstract derivative of this primordial, pre-reflective, lived experience (the ready-to-hand). Reflection is like the map compared to the unreflected as the country-side.

Merleau-Ponty's philsophy is much richer than I can do justice to here. But one application is to understand the psychoanalytic unconscious from a phenomenological perspective. As we've seen, for Merleau-Ponty, lived experience is prior to abstract reflection; it is pre-thematic. We live it, but don't explicitly think about and calculate what we are doing. When I am most typically engaged in a task, I do not reflect on the task, and this mode of ready-to-hand engagement is the primordial, experiential ground which makes reflection possible. Whenever we reflect intellectually on experience, we have to go back to the lived world of our experience prior to that reflection. This is a way to think about the unconscious without necessarily buying into a Freudian meta-psychology. From this perspective, the unconscious can be viewed as the pre-thematic, pre-objective, lived, concrete, latent experience of our engagement with the world (with others and alongside things) prior to reflection. It is what we live out but do not speak or think. When we thematize it, bring it to reflection, we make it thematic or "conscious." From here, we can understand repression as a lived, pre-reflective and motivated refusal to thematize or reflect on that lived experience (Sartre called this "bad faith.").

Robert Romanyshyn gives an excellent example of this. He gives an example of a woman who is walking down the street. Whenever a man walks by her, she unreflectively pulls her coat across her breasts in order to hide her breasts. She is not reflectively aware of doing this, but at a bodily, lived level of engagement, this is an intentional, meaningful act, even if pre-reflective. Now, suppose someone notices this and calls it to her attention. She may then, perhaps even with suprise, note that she was not aware of this act. Yet if she explored this, she would likely discover that this pre-reflective act is meaningful and has a history. One can imagine that the woman sees men as sexual predators who objectify her body and are a threat. The act of covering her breasts is an act which disallows her breasts to be objectified by the gaze of those men.

If we explored further with this woman, we may find that she had been raped in the past and that the man who raped her had stared at her breasts prior to violating her. All of this history is contained in that lived, embodied, pre-reflective act of covering her breasts as she walks down the street. Merleau-Ponty would say that our history becomes "sedimented" in our bodily gestures, contained there as latent and unreflected upon even though it is meaningful and lived out in the world. To make these meanings thematic and subject to reflection is the process of, in a sense, making the "unconscious" "conscious"--or making the pre-thematic thematic. There is a kind of freedom in this: in freeing her lived, prereflective experience to the level of thematic reflection, what had previously been lived prereflectively can then be subject to a choice. The woman may choose to no longer fear men, to move beyond her aweful past, and to cease her previously latent act of covering her breasts, if she wishes to do so. This is at least one way to view a phenomenologically-oriented psychotherapy, without resorting to Freudian meta-psychology. With this phenomenological understanding of the unconscious, we can understand the unconscious as a "lateral depth."

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