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Response to PoP V: Objectivity of Phenomena and the Problem of Intersubjectivity it Entails

In “Section III: The Perceived World” of his PoP, Merleau-Ponty sets to describe—and question—whether an objectivity of a thing or a phenomena can be established. The basic premise of what is, for example, the size of an object, and how this attribute can be objectively determined and agreed upon—which would also establish the foundation on which further knowledge of the object can be established—is a simple proposition that entails numerous complications1. At first, concerning the size of the object; coming up with a standard that would empirically determine size through a unit of measurement—might at first seem as a method sufficient for establishing objective properties of an object. However, this form of objectification disregards the perspective through which an object is seen, which is the qualitative totality of the object and ones unique experience of it through the phenomena of perception2. The problem of establishing attributes that would objectively determine the qualities of an object—and the way it is perceived—is a question that puts many things at stake. If all properties of an object are subjective and unique, is there any possibility for reconciling the multiple experiences that are manifested in the milieus of different bodies? If everyone has a solipsistic conception of reality which cannot be externalized through expression and communication, what implication does this have on our intersubjective relations with others? If objectivity of things and their reality must be established, does that mean we must omit phenomena like hallucinations?—Which for Marleu-Ponty, are fictions that are counted as reality by hallucinating subjects in a manner analogous to the operation by which “reality” is reached and established by normal subjects3.

If we start with the very basic question of what really constitutes the quality of an object, one immediately falls into numerous difficulties. In the example of two large boxes containing an eye-hole—“the first one painted white and the other painted black, the first one weakly illuminated, the other strongly illuminated, in such a way that the quantity of light received by the eye is the same in both cases.”4 What is demonstrated in this experiment, is that becomes nearly impossible to discern the box that has a white interior from the box that has a black one, even if these are two opposite colors. One only starts to discern which box is black or white when one puts a sheet of paper with a contrasting color (a white sheet for the black box, a black sheet for the white box) inside the box. What the box experiment demonstrates, is precisely the difficulty of discerning and objectifying a quality of an object, whether it is its color, size, quality, etc. The problem that is entailed behind this, is a similar problem encountered in “Part One” that talks about the problem of intentionality of the body. Here is particular, the difficulty arises in the the separation of foreground (the object itself) from its background. As Merleau-Ponty quotes Goldstein from his Über die Abhägigkeit:

We execute our movements in a space that is not “empty” and without relation to them, but which is, on the contrary, in a highly determined relation with them: movement and background are only, in fact, moments artificially separated from a single whole. 5

What this quote demonstrates, is the difficulty of establishing an attribute of a specific phenomena or an object without also artificially separating it from the totality of circumstances in which it was perceived. The same could be said for determining the color, size, and quality of objects. This also applies to other examples (which perhaps, also points to the point about intersubjective relations between a multiplicity of bodies), particularly when two bodies touch, both of them can interpret the touch differently depending on the circumstances and milieus of these bodies. Here, a tactical experience of a touch cannot be reduced to the mere physical tactical stimulation that one receives on the ends of ones fingertips, or other parts of the body. If one takes the situation where one touches the hand of another person, the body schemas of the two people would have a particular relation to that specific touch; whether it is an accidental touch by a stranger on the subway—which the body may experience a slight repulsive feeling towards, or when one touches a person towards whom one feels affection: both touches emerge into something beyond what is empirically accounted as two bodies merely touching one another, but instead, the phenomena of touch emreges into something unique that constituted out of “the totality of the actual or possible phenomenal body” of the two bodies that are touching6. In both cases, the phenomena of touch is not a mere stimulation since the particular “echo” that resonates within each of these bodies is unique, which make them respond differently to what can be empirically considered to be a touch with already established properties.

If one where to apply a stimulation to the body while the body doesn’t even notice, the phenomena as such, cannot be even thought to exist. This is precisely what marks the distinction between an all encompassing perceiving God, and a body which feels through the finitude of its being and body schema7. For M-P, If I’m not part of the experience, then I’m outside of it, and can only view perception thought the finite “horizon of all perception”. If nothing occured within this horizon, then it didn’t happen simply because a body is not an infinite substance that is capable of perceiving all phenomena at once—as if it where an all encompassing God whose infinitude allows to grasp all phenomena there can possibly be. Here, Merleau-Ponty puts an emphasis on the importance of phenomena as it is grasped through our body, as apposed to relying on some form of synthesis that is done through the faculties of our understanding.8 One of the methods that is employed by our faculty of understanding is categorizing phenomena and things into their attributes.

But if common attributes of things cannot be established, how are intersubjective relations even possible? It appears that Merleau-Ponty does not offer a definite way out of the solipsistic mode of sharing and living in a world with others—in which objects and phenomena do not have attributes that could be fully communicable, and all that we are left with, is not “being-with-others”, but a “solipsism-shared-by-many”9. However, this does not necessarily entail a problem with grave consequence, but something that can be potentially embraced. Even if solipsism cannot be fully overcome, certain aspects of existence of the body can be mediated and worked out, while others cannot be. This opens up dual-mode of being; where one is being-in-itself which can be extended throughout out empirical space, while the other is being-for-itself which entails a uncomunicability of ones particular milieu and body schema10. Merleau-Ponty however, introduces a “third genre” of being which is a synthesis of the first two, in which on one hand “withdraws from the objective world”, and on the other, losses its subjective “purity” and becomes integrated into a form of primordial unity of a “body-for-us”.11 This new, third mode of being, opens up a new potentiality of being that one transcends towards—but never fully does. It is this transcendence which opens up a precondition for a new dimensionality of being where on shares an intersubjective world of relations with others.12

  1. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 313 

  2. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 312 

  3. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 358 

  4. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 321 

  5. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 139 

  6. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 330 

  7. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 317 

  8. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 343 

  9. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 376 

  10. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 365 

  11. Phenomenology of Perception, pp. 366-7 

  12. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 379