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Response to PoP I: The Problem of the Empiricist and Intellectualist Account of Perception

In his introduction to Phenomenology of Perception titled “Classical Prejudices and the Return to Phenomena”, Marleau-Ponty problematises the empirical approach which seeks to objectively describe subjective experience and sensation. This view is what Marleau-Ponty refers to as the Empiricist approach, which presumes that ‘things in the world’ can be formalised and reduced to their objective characteristics; among these empirical ‘things’, includes the phenomena of perception itself. According to this analysis, the categorisation of perception occurs through an objective, linguistic categorisation into concepts like ‘red’, ‘green’; ‘quality’, ‘size’; etc.–all which are qualities that are then ascribed to various phenomena in the world.

Marleau-Ponty points out how an account of perception as an object which causally reacts to external stimuli, employs a method of deconstruction that reduces all of the constituents of sensation to its physico-chemical properties1. The problem with this outlook, is that our sense of perception is not merely a ‘conductor’, as copper for example is, a metal that has relatively high electrical conductivity and is therefore used in wires for conducting electricity. This presupposition compromises of an understanding of an empirical world in which situated perceiving subjects act in accordance to the same principles and generalisations that inanimate objects are subject to. According to this paradigm, the sensible is defined as an external stimulus that follows the laws of causality—just like a copper wire that conducts electricity from its source, to its destination. This form of understanding about perception is particular prevalent in physiology, where perception is assumed to be an intricate variant of the more simple reflexes in which there is a receiver on one end and a transmitter on the other2. Based on these sensations and stimulation that are causally conducted through the physico-chemical properties of the body’s neural paths, a perception of an external object is then derived.

Marleau-Ponty points out a problem with this method and to which he refers to as the “science of subjectivity”. By employing this science, the understanding of our visual field can never be understood the same scientific generalisations that we make about the empirical world3. As an alternative, Marleau-Ponty offers a way of perceiving the world in terms of relationships, that are not defined in strict and abstract concepts4. Things like the apprehension of the size and the qualities of objects, are dependant on their perceptual context, which exemplifies that the external world is not merely copied by our sense of perception, but constituted by it.5 With an example provided with the red rug, Marleau-Ponty demonstrates that the ‘redness’ of the carpet, is a quality that depends on the spatial surroundings of its environment such as light and interior; along with the material qualities of the carpet itself6. These circumstances along with the qualities of the object, then act as a totality of relationships that becomes defined by our perception as the ‘redness’ of the carpet.

Memory is another capacity of the mind that provides our faculty of perception a context grounded in our past associations, experiences and their relationships. As Marleau-Ponty states, the quality of red of an object, is not merely a transfer of the quality of ‘redness’ from the object to the subject, but a ’redness’ that the subject dominates over the object through their gaze7. This projection of perception onto the external world, is what makes the phenomenological account of the world unique based on the contexts that are associated by the subject. Due to the unique circumstance in which impressions occur, “one impression can never, by itself, be associated with another impression”8. What precludes the association of one impression with another, is the a form that the two impressions lack in common. This view goes inline with Marleau-Ponty’s favour of the Gestalt theory, in which perceptions are deemed as products of complex interactions among various stimuli—in a world that is seemingly chaotic in nature, and which has no structured components through which perception can be objectively defined and categorised. This account of impressions, serves Marleau-Ponty’s critique of not only the Empiricist view, but also the Intellectualist point of view, which seeks to generalise phenomena into precepts and ideas.

By accounting the perceptual context of a sensation and its unique relationships based on memory, past experience, surroundings, etc.; Marleau-Ponty does not necessarily provide a method for establishing certainty like empirical sciences seek to do, but instead, asks us to tolerate ambiguity when attempting to describe the phenomena of perception. He goes on to say that “knowledge can never get hold of its objects” because perceptual phenomena does not have pre-established abstract concepts like numbers do in mathematics, and any attempt that claims to have such an understanding of phenomena, is likely a “deception and illusion”9. Since both, the Empiricist and Intellectualist world views seek to generalise and segregate the meaning of perception into laws, forms, and regularities; Marleau-Ponty offers an account of perception and subjectivity that seeks a middle ground between these two views.

  1. Phenomenology of Perception, p.11 

  2. Phenomenology of Perception, p.7 

  3. Phenomenology of Perception, p.7 

  4. Phenomenology of Perception, p.4 

  5. Phenomenology of Perception, p.9 

  6. Phenomenology of Perception, p.5 

  7. Phenomenology of Perception, p.14 

  8. Phenomenology of Perception, p.18 

  9. Phenomenology of Perception, p.16