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Knowledge of The Body and Desire

The main subject matter of Phenomenology of Perception is concerned about perception and its particular milieu of being that grounds a subject’s existence in the world. Marleau-Ponty’s concept of the “body schema”, “intentionality”, and “the phenomenal field”–which play the underlying role for constituting the totality of a body’s subjective experience—draws many parallels with Butler’s Hegelian understanding of desire. For Butler, desire is itself a certain way for the subject to attend the world through its milieu of being, and therefore, is a particular form of knowledge about the world. Marleau-Ponty problematizes the approaches of knowledge that seek to objectively describe experience and sensation; in his view, the Empiricist approach presumes that ‘things in the world’ can be formalized and reduced to their objective characteristics; among these ‘things’, includes the phenomena of perception itself. What this essay will seek to demonstrate, is the profound relation that body and desire have on mind and knowledge. What was is considered to be a monodirectional relation of the mind on the body, according to the classical Cartesian paradigm, will be challenged through Marleau-Ponty‘s and Butler’s views about the way in which the body attends the world in a particular fashion, which in turn, constitutes a particular form of knowledge that a body has of its being and existence in the world.

Similar to the way Marleau-Ponty problematizes the empirical approaches for understanding physiology and psychology, Butler problematizes the two predispositions that constitute a subject’s relation to the world: one, is “to desire the world” and two, is “to know its (the world’s) meaning and structure”; both of these predispositions for Butler, have become two enterprises that are in conflict with one another1. For Butler, the subject of desire has been predominately suppressed by philosophy; since it cannot be fully silenced and obliterated, many philosophers chose to “formulate strategies that seek to silence and control” desire 2. Merleau-Ponty essentially gives a similar critical account of empirical approaches that deal with perception as if it were a physiological subject matter that is reducible to concepts. Just as Butler problematizes philosophy, Merleau-Ponty problematizes what he refers to as “Intellectualism”—which stems from the Platonic theory of forms, but most predominately embodied in Kantian philosophy of categories—and its predisposition to apprehend phenomena of perception purely through philosophical concepts.

When one reduces a phenomena (whether it is a perception, desire, etc.) to either intellectualist categories or empiricist concepts; the phenomena ceases to be a ‘perception’, ‘emotion’, or a ‘contact’ with the truth in order to become pure ‘idea’ and ‘vision’ of truth. When one attempts to conceive an idea of an object in its complete perspective, through a process of “reflective analysis”, one also takes for granted the object while not wondering what the object really is, which also destroys “the object’s internal structure”3. As Merleau-Ponty states, “The world must cease to exist around me in order to become a pure object in front of me”4. This points to the fact that not only does the object of knowledge dissipates once it is attained through an idea of it, but also that an idea of a phenomenon can be subjected to perpetual Cartesian doubt, which puts in question all mediations that occur between cogito and reality—until one settles the claim by introducing God as a mediator, as Descartes had to. To escape the Cartesian perplexity of perpetual doubt of every ground on which knowledge can be grounded, Merleau-Ponty suggests to re-integrate the “I think” with “I am” as apposed to having the later to be fully contingent on the former. To step away from the Cartesian prioritization of the mind, which has an overarching status of defining body and its existence, Merleau-Ponty seeks to give priority to the first-person phenomenological perspective, where consciousness (the ‘I think’) is re-integrated into existence (‘I am’), and vice versa. Through this bidirectional movement, existence is no longer fully contingent on its essence, but rather, it gains a priority for defining essence itself. Here the dichotomy between knowledge and existence become mutually interdependent which sets the ground on which phenomenological experience can be established.

Butler conveys a similar thought in regards to how an explanation of the phenomena of desire, cannot be adequately expressed by an explanation external to it, and must instead be explained from within it. Desire for Butler, is a way of conceptualizing the disparity and ruptures of a consciousness which do not allow it to fully actualize5. Since Desire is a certain kind of reflexivity through which the subject attends the world, it becomes a certain kind of “metaphysical knowledge” that is unique to that particular being6. Eventually as the Hegelian dialectic unfolds, the totality of these predispositions form the self-consciousness of the subject: “consciousness thus relinquished itself as consciousness in the process of explaining what it knows.”7 Thus, the process of becoming a consciousness is defined by how a subject attends the world through the faculty of its desire. As Butler puts it, “reality is not coextensive with appearance, but always sustains and is sustained by a hidden dimension”8. This “hidden dimension”, is not contingent on determinate objects of the spatiotemporal world which is merely a Cartesian res extensa that awaits its mediation and apprehension by the cogito. Instead, consciousness seeks to find its own way through which it can spatiotemporally organize the empirical world in which it is in, but it nevertheless denounces this world and gains its own ontological knowledge of the world through a consciousness that is self-generating and self-subsisting9.

To offer an example that ties Merleau-Ponty’s notion of intentionality and Butler’s conception of desire—and the ruptures that follow when a milieu of a subject remain unfulfilled—an example of a case study of a young woman who suffers from aphonia, can serve as an example. In this case study, Merleau-Ponty recounts how a young woman who was forbidden to see a young man that she loves, caused the young woman to no longer be able to swallow food and loosing her speech due to a phenomena called aphonia10. This inability to speak passes as soon as the woman regained the permission from her mother to see the young man that she loves.11 In the case with aphonia, cannot be considered as a mere conscious refusal by the young woman to speak, but a consequence of the sexuality of her body becoming subjected to a rupture that compels her to cut off her intersubjective relations and communications with others.12 Since language is a method of communicating with the intersubjective world that consists of other bodies—which also happens to be the source of the body’s repression—the body can no longer consider the outside world as a source for its “sense and form” in life, and decides to instead remain secluded within itself, in its own “life’s hiding place”. This kind of a response is what is generalized by Merleau-Ponty as a “flight into autism” caused from a quasi-existential trauma in which the external world cannot promise ontological significance for the body13.

In the example of the young woman suffering from aphonia, the subject attempts to disregard its intersubjective relations precisely because of its ontological realm in which her milieu of desire dwells, is not given the capacity to unfold and gain self-subsistence. This is what both Butler and Merleau-Ponty both call intentionality, which is a reflexive process through which a subject projects its being onto the world, but which encounters a rupture, a repression—a deadlock that does not allow the subject to fulfill this act. Merleau-Ponty highlights the attempts through which physiological paradigms seek to “fix” the subject out of this deadlock. Because the subject struggles to grasp phenomena through a body whose totality had been disrupted, subjects are frequently compelled to understand the world normatively, in objective, impersonal terms. Seeing a psychiatrist when one has some mental diagnosis, or seeing a physiologist when one has a damaged limb; are perhaps one of many examples in which normative standards of medical and mental treatment seek to normatively re-establish order of the body. Due to the impersonal nature of these acts, they are seen as an act of repression to the body of the subject, which cause them to feel a particular enxiety—an antagony against a force that imposes impersonal existence on the personal existence of body13. Marleau-Ponty distinguishes these two forms of existence as personal existence and impersonal existence; in the case of repression, the former is repressed by the latter14. As Marleau-Ponty explains, “[a]ll repression is thus the passage from first person existence to a sort of scholastic view of this existence”15. In the act of repression, the body finds itself in a situation in which it is unable to cope with, and renounces reality through “a flight into autism” which seeks to obliterate the objective world, and find renunciation with genuine personal existence16. For Butler, desire is precisely what determines reality for the subject and the way it becomes self-conscious of itself; it “emerges as a kind of knowing that is at once a mode of becoming; it is suffered, dramatized, enacted”17. To avoid ruptures and repressions of the body, a self-consciousness must form its own articulation of itself as apposed to an alien impersonal articulation that originates from an “ontological elsewhere”18.

The relation through which the subjectivity of a body is mediated through the empirical, scholastic and physiological paradigms; shows the profound influence of the Cartesian conceptions of the relation between mind and body. What Marleau-Ponty’s phenomenological account of perception, and Butler’s ontological account of desire demonstrate, is the profound influence that existence has on knowledge, body on the mind, and perception on phenomena: where previously these three dualities possessed a relation that was reverse and most predominately monodirectional. As Marleau-Ponty succinctly puts it, “I am conscious of the world by means of my body.”19 The world, and the phenomena within it, are perceived (and made conscious) by the body based on the circumstance in which it exists—the irreducible constituents of the body itself, and the “milieu” of being, its projects, social relations, intersubjectivity, and sexuality. As Simone De Beauvoir states in her The Second Sex, “to be present in the world implies strictly that there exists a body which is at once a material thing in the world and a point of view towards this world; but nothing requires that this body have this or that particular structure.”20 The attempt to categorize phenomena according to ideas and concepts is precisely the problem that Butler sees in the philosophical attempts to categorize the subject of desire. The concept of desire is in itself ambiguous since it is a constant strive for a particular self-affirmation and becoming. This, according to Butler’s understanding, is the Hegelian strife for negation; the process of becoming, is a constant “unilinear” and “cyclical process” of a subject that constantly strives for a self-identity of what it is not—its negation.21 In this process, the subject never really comes to a stage of discovering itself as a Substance which can at least be a grammatical definition of what it is—because as soon as it is defined, it immediately proceeds to become something that is not what it had just been defined22.

What these demonstrations show, is the the profound particularity of phenomena of perception, and the ways in which the subject’s intentionality of comprehending the world through the milieu of its desire, is a subject matter that is approachable only when ambiguity is tolerated to some extents. Since the phenomena of the body escape concrete definitions, this opens up a world of being that is not definable in its entirety, but one that on the other hand, is open and free.


Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage Classic, 2015.

Butler, Judith. Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France. Columbia Univ. Press, 2012.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Forgotten Books, 2015.

  1. Butler, Subjects of Desire, p.1 

  2. Butler, Subjects of Desire, p.2 

  3. Phenomenology of Perception, pp. 210-11 

  4. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 416 

  5. Butler, Subjects of Desire , p. 34 

  6. Butler, Subjects of Desire , p. 29 

  7. Butler, Subjects of Desire , p. 29 

  8. Butler, Subjects of Desire , p. 27 

  9. Butler, Subjects of Desire , p. 25 

  10. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 163 

  11. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 164 

  12. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 167 

  13. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 85  2

  14. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 86 

  15. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 85 

  16. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 88 

  17. Butler, Subjects of Desire , p. 28 

  18. Butler, Subjects of Desire, p.31 

  19. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 84 

  20. Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 36 

  21. Butler, Subjects of Desire , p.62 

  22. Butler, Subjects of Desire , pp. 20-1