It Took One to Know One

The latest in from France (those boats are slow sometimes): Simone de Beauvoir has written a review of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. The result is a charming philosophical duet. Not heretofore translated into English, as far as I know. Gendered pronouns as in original, so if you have problems, tell Simone.

One of the essential goals that early education assigns itself is to make the child lose the sense of his presence in the world. Morality teaches him to deny his subjectivity, to renounce the privilege of affirming himself as an “I” against the other; he must consider himself as one human being among others, subjected, like the others, to universal laws inscribed in an anonymous heaven. Science orders him to escape from his own consciousness, to turn away from the living and meaningful world that that consciousness had unveiled for him, which science will now do its best to replace with a universe of frozen objects, independent of anyone’s gaze or thought.

Yet despite this moral instruction, every man experiences a mysterious intimacy with a unique existence—precisely, his own—and whatever science may say, each man sees with his own eyes. From this begins that so often remarked-on divorce between theory and practice, between asserted opinions and hidden beliefs, between memorized precepts and the spontaneous movement of life. Once the world has been torn away from the subject and the subject expelled from the world, it becomes impossible to possess both the world and oneself. Some throw themselves into external things and do their best to forget that they are losing themselves; others choose to turn back on themselves, but it seems to them then that the rest of the universe has eluded them.

One of phenomenology’s great merits is to have restored to man the right to an authentic existence by suppressing the opposition between subject and object. It is impossible to define an object by cutting it off from the subject by whom and for whom it is an object; and the subject only reveals himself through the objects with which he is engaged. Such an affirmation merely makes explicit the content of naïve experience, but its consequences are many: only by taking it as a basis can one ever achieve the aim of founding a morality that man can totally and sincerely espouse. It is therefore of the highest importance that this should be solidly established, so as to give back to man the childlike audacity that years of verbal docility have stripped from him: the audacity to say “Here I am.”

This is why the Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty is not only a remarkable specialist study, but a work that interests the whole man, and mankind as a whole: in it the human condition is at stake. Empiricism and intellectualism alike had separated the world from consciousness; so as to succeed in joining them back together, the former tried to force consciousness to abdicate before the opacity of the real, the latter dissolved reality in the light of consciousness, and in the end neither was equal to the task of accounting for this unique experience, the consciousness of reality. Merleau-Ponty shows us that the phenomenological attitude gives man access to the world and enables him to rediscover himself in it: in giving myself to the world I produce myself, and in taking responsibility for myself I get a handle on the world.

One existence in particular has been annexed by science to the universe of objects but restored to the possession of man by phenomenology, and this is man’s own body. In what are perhaps the most conclusive pages of his book, Merleau-Ponty demonstrates by the analysis of normal processes and pathological cases that it is impossible to treat our body as an object, even a privileged object. For example, none of the explanations so far proposed for the famous “phantom limb syndrome” are valid, or even plausible, insofar as they rely on the notion of the body as object; the phantom limb phenomenon becomes intelligible on the other hand once we define the body as our way of being in the world, as our “anchorage” in the world, or even as the totality of “handholds” we have on things; thereupon we can understand that the world, which has been constituted by my body as manipulable, remains so even after I have lost the power of manipulating it; the manipulable object refers me back to a hand that I no longer have, but the presence of which is assumed by the milieu surrounding me. Merleau-Ponty elsewhere analyzes a curious psychosis: a patient suffering from disturbances of the cerebellum is unable to indicate any part of his body or to perform any abstract movement, such as bending a finger or a leg on command, but he can take hold of his nose or ankle, he can find his handkerchief in his pocket, he can react to any concrete situation. That is, he has his phenomenal body at his disposition, his body has remained intact as the vehicle of his being in the world. He encounters an obstacle when he is asked to treat his body as one object among others that occupy the interval between the wall and the table, in objective space; he can live in his body, but not represent it to himself, which perfectly demonstrates that the represented body is a secondary construction added onto the reality of the lived body, a construction which can, in certain cases, become separated from it. Our body is not primarily sited in the world as a tree or a stone is; it inhabits the world, it is our general way of having a world; it is our body that expresses our existence, which means not that the body is an external accompaniment to our existence, but that our existence is realized in our body.

And so by restoring to us our body, phenomenology gives things back to us; through the body we can “join” the world, we can understand it, we can “have a world.” The space where we locate objects is not an abstract form imposed on us from without. Our perception of space expresses the way that we stretch into the future through our body and through things; perception expresses the total life of the subject. The experience of spatiality is our experience of our situation in the world; this gives us a way of understanding that there are distinctive spatialities for the savage, the schizophrenic, the visionary, the sleeper, the painter. It also enables us to clarify the classic problems of “reversed vision” and of depth perception. A subject made to wear glasses that invert the retinal image recovers, according to a well-known study, normal vision after a period of time; similarly, a subject who is made to see his room in a mirror set at a 45-degree angle orients himself so well in the end to this new perspective that he sees the oblique lines of his room as vertical. This makes sense only if one thinks of the body as constituting through its actions a perceptual ground, a basis for life, a general milieu for its coexistence with the world; the body performs the necessary adjustments to be able to live in a new perceptual field and take anchor there. Depth and size come to dwell in things without any comparison to a standard-giving object; they are rooted in our situation, they define themselves in relation to a certain range or calibration of our gestures, a certain grip on what surrounds us. Only this conception of space is adequate to account for phenomena of movement. If we are engaged in a milieu, movement will appear to us as absolute, and its relativity shrinks to the dimensions of our power to shift from domain to domain within one great world.

The role of the body is not limited to projecting into the space that it constitutes qualities whose heaviness or opacity would be foreign to space itself; sensation is neither a quality nor the awareness of a quality; it is a vital communication with the world, a web of intention; every so-called quality is lodged in a certain behavior and has a vital meaning. Laboratory experiments show for example that the gesture of raising one’s arm is modified by a red, yellow, blue or green visual field. To look at a blue surface is to give my body the particular way of filling space that “blue” is; the sensible is “a certain way of being in the world, proposed to us from a point of space and accepted and endorsed by our body”; and in order to be sensed, the sensible must be supported by my gaze or by the movement of my hand. To perceive the blue sky is not the same thing as positing myself before it. I must abandon myself to it, allow it to “think itself in me”; at the moment when I perceive it, “I am the very sky that draws itself together, combines itself and starts to exist for itself.” The “thing” will define itself, then, not primarily as a resistance, but rather as the correlative of my existence: it is a “structure” accessible to the body’s inspection, and that is why reality comes to us loaded with human meanings; this is why we cannot conceive any thing save as perceived or perceptible. Thus perception is not a relation between a mutually distinct subject and object. It connects us to the world as it does to our country, it is communication and communion, “the take-up in ourselves of an alien intention,” or conversely “the external achievement of our perceptual powers.” Things speak to us. Not to give these words a figurative or symbolic meaning, we should understand that nature is language, a language that would teach itself, where meaning would be secreted by the very structure of signs. So we can never fail to be at home in the world; the wildest desert, the most secluded cave still exudes a human meaning; the universe is our domain.

Yet at the same time as things offer this familiar face, they present another aspect: they are also silence and mystery, an Other which eludes us; things are never completely given to us, but rather always open; the world in the full sense of the word is not an object, it transcends any perspectival view I may have of it. Though real, the world is always incomplete, and this contradiction corresponds to the contradiction that sets the ubiquity of consciousness against its involvement in a field of presence. To perceive, I must be situated, and the same movement that allows me access to the world by rooting myself in the here and now also pushes the world away to the permanently inaccessible horizon of my experience. Indeed, I am not a timeless, impersonal consciousness; if I exist as a subject it is because I am able to tie together a past, a present and a future, it is because I make time. To perceive space, to perceive the object, is to deploy time around me, but perceptual synthesis remains eternally incomplete because temporal synthesis can never be completed.

Thus temporality accounts for the opacity of the world, and in temporality too is lodged the root of the subject’s opacity. Whereas Sartre in Being and Nothingness primarily stressed the opposition of what is “for itself” and what is “in itself,” the annihilating power of the subject confronting being and his absolute freedom, Merleau-Ponty, by contrast, chooses to describe the concrete character of the subject who is never, in his thinking, a pure “for-itself.” He thinks, that is, that our existence is never given to us in its naked form, but insofar as existence is expressed through our body; and this body is not imprisoned in the instant, but implies a whole history, even a prehistory. For example, the body cannot locate itself in space except by defining its present milieu in relation to a previously given spatial milieu which, in turn, refers to a prior level—never can one come to a stop at a first level which would have no anchor [in another level]. The perception of space, like all perception in general, supposes behind itself an indefinite past, a “communication with the world older than any thought,” concretized by the fact of my birth. My history takes flesh in a body that has a certain generality, a relation to a world that precedes me, and this is why this body is opaque to reflection, this is why my consciousness is “saturated by the sensible.” Consciousness is neither a pure “for-itself” nor, to quote a remark of Hegel’s that Sartre has adopted, a hole in being, but rather “a gap, a fold that has arisen and that may unfold.”

Starting from these definitions of the world and of man, Merleau-Ponty considers most of the great problems that concern the human condition, and he offers very rich suggestions, in particular as regards the questions of sexuality and language. But what seems to me most important about this book, both by the method it employs and the results it achieves, is the phenomenological elucidation of a lived experience, the experience of perception. Hegel says quite accurately that the only way to understand a truth is to connect it to the movement of thought that engendered it; the ideas that I have here too briefly expressed show their true value only by being connected to the concrete analyses that underpin them. Merleau-Ponty is not inventing a system, he begins with established facts and he shows the impossibility of accounting for them on the level of experimentation alone, showing that, rather, they imply a whole relation between man and the world, and this is the relation that he patiently excavates. One of the book’s main qualities is to be convincing; another is that it does not ask us to do violence to ourselves; it proposes, rather, to let ourselves follow the very movement of life which is belief in the things of this world and in our own presence.

Les Temps Modernes, 1:2 (November 1945), 363-367.
(tr. HS)