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Response to PoP IV: The Being and the World

In the beginning and towards the middle of “Part Two: The Perceived World” of his PoP, Merleau-Ponty describes the way in which the world manifests itself within the milieus of our bodies. If “Part One” was about the unique constitutive whole of the body through which the phenomenology of perception is mediated, “Part Two” is about the world that exists out there, which is then taken up by this perception of the body. This unique totality of perception, is one of the key ideas that Merleau-Ponty emphasizes on, in that it constitutes the reality of being, and is irreducible to any third-person perspective. The uniqueness of our being in the world, and our perception of it, compromises of the unique combination of the senses of our body that allow us to perceive reality in ways that are irreducible into neither empiricist, nor intellectualist concepts, ideas, and functions.

One of they key aspects that demonstrates the synthesis of two senses, not only by ones that diverge in their function (such as the senses of taste and smell), but also when two organs of the same sense (such as two ears or two eyes) are combined to produce a form of perception that is irreducible to the perception of these individual organs, which when together combined, constitute a unique synthesis of perception. Such is the case of the “double vision” permitted thanks to the presence of two sight organs1. What occurs in the synthesis of binocular vision, is not reducible to a “third person process” that would categorize the occurrence as a assimilation process by the two organs of sight, but as a constitutive totality that generates a “unique gaze” through which spatial objects are taken up by the senses of the body. In the transition from monocular to binocular vision, one will experience how the perceived object would no longer pose as something being “vaguely in front of the things”—comparable to the flatness that one would find in the depictions of still life paintings—and instead, the object is “absorbed” into the world in which being encounters the world through its particular body schema2. What Merleau-Ponty suggests we can learn from binocular vision, is the way in which two senses, when enacted simultaneously, produce a new type of synthesis of perception that transfigures the spatial object in certain ways3.

Although the transition from monocular to binocular (or theoretically even, decacular, if one had 10 eyes) vision presents a potential of our perception to grasp objects in their complete perspectival totality, this never becomes phenomenologicaly possible—and is almost a contradiction in terms. To demonstrate this difficulty, a previous example by Merleau-Ponty can be given: a house, which can be only seen from a particular angle—whether is from the street, an airplane, or inside it—but which can never be seen from all perspectives at once4. When one grasps an object in its complete “reality”, one also “steals it from [their] possession” but also objectifies it, while also annihilating it: the house would no longer be anything since “the house itself [becomes a] house seen from nowhere”. Another example consists of a cube, which according to the third-person empirical view, and the intellectualist theoretical view, is considered to be an object with six equal sides5. But according to the first-person body point of view, the cube never has six equal sides, and what constitutes the perception of the cube is a mediation of bodily experience that produces a movement which conditions the perception of the object. When one attempts to conceive an object in its complete perspective, through a “reflective analysis”, one also takes for granted the object while not wondering what the object really is, which also destroys “the objects internal structure”6. What occurs in this total perspective, is a transition from a particular, spatial, and phenomenological point of view, to a form of a totalized intellectualism7, which is physically and phenomenologicaly impossible since a total conception of an object also requires a complete transcendence of our perception of the object.

If grasping an object in its complete perceptual totality through the limited faculties of our perception is impossible, can intellectualism or empiricism fulfill this requirement? For Merleau-Ponty, this appears to be impossible, because the object must “ceas[e] to exist in order to know”8. Although Merleau-Ponty does himself question whether his phenomenological view is plausible, he does suggest that if reflection “wants to justify itself as reflection … as progress towards the truth, then it must not limit itself to replacing one view of the world by another.” If reflection seeks to replace the unreflective, pre-objective, phenomenological point of view, then it must first clarify and understand what exactly it is replacing. Just as a philosopher, who “might describe the fauna of a distant land–without noticing that he himself also perceives”, must first realize that his first-person experience also provides a unique phenomenological account of the object of his thought–before choosing to denounce it in favor of an intellectualist description of the fauna9. Here, the perspective that we take in order to account the world surrounding the milieus of our bodies, can only occur within the finitude of our faculties of perception. Out of all the milieus of perception, we handle only one perspective at a time–which is never total nor infinite and finding what the thing-in-itself according to some a priori principles is something we can never achieve. But nevertheless, the synthesis of our organs of perception constitutes the particularity of the way we perceive objects in the world–which for Merleau-Ponty, is an a priori in itself.

  1. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 241 

  2. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 242 

  3. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 233 

  4. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 69 

  5. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 209 

  6. Phenomenology of Perception, pp. 210-11 

  7. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 242 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Phenomenology of Perception, pp. 214