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Merleau-Ponty offers a significant renewal and deepening of the phenomenological

project by introducing the body itself as the locus of the “upsurge of the world.” His

career represents an unfolding revelation of this fundamental insight, beginning with a

realization of the inadequacy of objective/mechanistic psychology and eventually moving

toward a never completed project of re-imagining ontology in terms of the self revelation

of the world as living existence. In this paper, I concentrate on the first phase of Merleau-

Ponty’s career, which includes his challenge to the objectivist tendencies in biology and

psychology and his alternative phenomenological vision of life and significance. In

Phenomenology of Perception, in particular, Merleau-Ponty argues that scientific

knowledge passes over the true nature of perception and, therefore, misses its origin in

the silent immersion of the body in a world with which it is always already intimate.

Indeed, for Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology reveals, in perceptual experience, the birth of

meaning as it is lived by bodies in the subtle dance that is existence.

Early Psychology

From its beginnings, phenomenology as a philosophical movement has been closely

associated with the field of psychology. For one thing, it traces its roots and takes some

of its inspiration from the founders of psychology as a discipline. Edmund Husserl, the

acknowledged founder of phenomenology, originally aligned his work with the

descriptive psychology of Franz Brentano, which the latter also called phenomenology.

Secondly, throughout its history, phenomenology has found, in the developing science of

psychology, both a source of insight and an intellectual adversary. Husserl himself,

although he at first saw his work as continuous with psychology, soon began to explicitly
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reject what he called “psychologism,” the tendency to explain everything in terms of the

workings of human thought.1 Because of the original and continuing relationship between

phenomenology and psychology it may be useful to offer a brief history of the discipline

of psychology.

Modern psychology as a scientific discipline was founded simultaneously by Wilhelm

Wundt (1832-1920) in Germany and William James (1842-1910) in the United States,

both of whom set up psychological research laboratories in 1875. According to

voluntarism, the school of thought developed by Wundt, a subject can analyze his

immediate experience into its objective and subjective “elements” as they arise through

the volitional processes of the subject.2 The objective element is a discrete sensation

such as a sound or a sensation of color considered in itself. The subjective element is the

affective or feeling portion of the experience. Wundt held that these subjective processes

form the basis of psychological experience, rather than judgment and the association of

ideas, as intellectualism held. His primary methodology was objective introspection, in

which a subject would observe and record the elements of immediate experience.

Franz Brentano (1838-1917) was a contemporary of Wundt and founder of act

psychology. Where Wundt advocated an experimental and explanatory approach to

psychological phenomena, Brentano favored a descriptive and empirical approach. He

introduced a less rigid version of introspection, for which he used the term

phenomenological introspection, or simply phenomenology. The focus of

phenomenology would be what he called intentionality, or the meaning content of mental

activity. Consciousness is always consciousness of some meaning, and the aim of

descriptive psychology is to describe the mental acts by which this meaning arises. These
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acts come in three varieties, ideating (sensing/imagining), judging, and loving/hating, and

these are directed at, or intend, an object, which may or may not correlate to some real


By the first decade of the twentieth century, the relatively young field of psychology

was in serious disarray. Consciousness, which had been the conceptual cornerstone and

primary subject matter of early psychology, was facing serious criticism, beginning with

the famous essay by William James, “Does Consciousness Exist?” published in 1904. As

Robert Wozniak writes, “in a single stroke, James obliterated the traditional view of

consciousness on which psychology as science had been built.”4 Exacerbating the issue,

James’s student Ralph Barton Perry published an article, soon thereafter, which

challenged not only the existence of consciousness, but its very meaningfulness as a

concept.5 During the three previous decades, many of the primary research

methodologies in psychology had been based on some variety of introspection, defined as

the direct observation of conscious experience by a consciousness, and psychology as a

science identified itself in terms of the study of consciousness. Consequently, in light of

growing disagreement on the usefulness of consciousness, even as a concept, the new

field of psychology was clearly in trouble.6

Psychology was desperate for fresh ideas, and two new and quite different approaches

emerged to answer this need. In 1913 James B. Watson published a landmark article

entitled, Psychology as the behaviorist views it. With his so-called “Behaviorist

Manifesto,” Watson launched an all out attack on the mainstream of psychological

research, insisting that science cannot admit any reference to the inner life of animals or

humans and must concern itself exclusively with the objective observation of behavior.7
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Behaviorism, however, was merely one manifestation of a logical positivist mood

sweeping through psychology. This was exemplified by the research programs of C. S.

Sherrington and Ivan Pavlov, whose separate work on the physiology of behavior won

each of them a Nobel Prize.

Meanwhile, another set of fresh ideas was emerging, beginning with an article by

Max Wertheimer in 1913, which marked the appearance of Gestalt Theory. Drawing on

anomalies in the classical account of perception, Gestalt theorists challenged the atomism

and mechanism of the standard theories of sensation. Against the classical idea that

perception has its foundation in the reception of individual sense impressions, the Gestalt

theorists proposed that most elementary components of perception are irreducible

configurations. These wholes, or gestalts, the most basic of which is the figure against a

ground, are perceived with an intrinsic significance. The reduction of the whole into a

sum of parts through decomposition into sensations is recognized as an artificial activity,

which Gestalt Theory simply “abandons.”8 Gestalt Theory will play a crucial role in the

thought of Merleau-Ponty, informing his critique of classical psychology and providing

scientific support for his alternative theory of perception.

Early Phenomenology

Phenomenology as a philosophical movement was officially initiated by Edmund Husserl

in his Prolegomena to his Logical Investigations in 1900. In this and later works, Husserl

describes a brand new method of doing philosophy, which entails a rejection of the idle

metaphysical speculation of the past and a return to the “things themselves.” Following

Franz Brentano, one of his primary influences, Husserl employed the concept of

intentionality to emphasize that all consciousness is consciousness of some object. The

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role of the phenomenologist is to describe these “objects for consciousness,” and the

meaning-intending acts which give rise to them, in order to discover their a priori

structures. Husserl claims that, by attending carefully to these acts of meaning, we can

provide knowledge with that elusive foundation, and realize the unfulfilled promise of the

modern project. Husserl, therefore, proposes that phenomenology is the meta-science

through which we might gain the rigorous conceptual and epistemological clarity

required to ground science, logic, and mathematics.

At the heart of Husserl’s methodology is the phenomenological reduction. First

introduced soon after the publication of Logical Investigations, and arguably implicit

even within that work, this approach to philosophy calls for a suspension of, or a ‘putting

out of play,’ our standard way of relating to the world. In order to do philosophy

properly, one must methodically eliminate the many presuppositions with which the

world is typically engaged, particularly the “natural attitude.” The natural attitude is that

network of assumptions drawn from common sense and science, which introduces

additional factors into the experience of an object, which are not in the phenomenon

itself. For example, the assumption that objects are really out there in objective space

obscures one’s ability to attend to the intentional process structuring the experience.

The goal of the reduction9 is to reveal the essences that comprise the basic building

blocks of all knowledge. Husserl claims the reduction enables the individual to become

aware of the way that the actual essence of an object is arrived at by intuition. Self-

evident knowledge such as 2+2=4 provides his paradigmatic example of intuited truth.10

According to Husserl, these sorts of intuitions are not limited to the realm of

mathematics, but inform the most basic acts of meaning. At the core of our knowledge,
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even of ordinary objects of consciousness, are intuitions of the object’s essence. When I

see a tree, for example, I do not simply recognize a collection of sense data that shares

external features with previously seen trees; I intuit an essence “tree” that cannot be

understood in terms of the contingent features of particular trees. This essence is the self-

evident basis for knowing “treeness.” The phenomenological reduction is thus

reminiscent of Descartes’ famous thought experiment, in which he asks the reader to

imagine a piece of wax deprived of its “accidental” features (color, shape, size, etc.) in

order to recognize that the idea wax is prior (metaphysically, not temporally) to any

encounter with particular wax objects.

In attempting to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of empiricism and rationalism,

Husserl sought to radicalize both. Like Hume, he refused to rely on ungrounded first

principles to justify or support his epistemology. Like Descartes, he sought to ground

knowledge in inner self-evident truth. He went beyond both, however, with his

recognition that the natural attitude must be suspended in order to navigate this narrow

passage. Despite the novelty of his methodology, though, he ended up sharing some

fundamental aspects of the Kantian epistemological framework. Specifically, as the

reduction led Husserl to put more emphasis on the constitution of the objective world by

a subject, the need for inter-subjective truth pushed him toward an emphasis on the

transcendental nature of subjectivity. In fact, he claims that his phenomenological

research led him to a discovery of the transcendental ego, the existence of which he had

earlier rejected.11

Husserl began his philosophical career with what he claimed was a radical new

approach that would revolutionize modern thought, and permit him to complete the
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project, begun by Descartes, of providing a firm foundation for knowledge. Yet despite

his lofty ambition and rhetoric, his conclusions are remarkably compatible with existing

lines of European thought, such as neo-Kantianism and Idealism. The reason for this, I

suggest, is that, notwithstanding his claim to have transcended the assumptions of his

predecessors, Husserl did share one major presupposition with many of his

predecessors—that knowledge and meaning are products of human consciousness. For

modern philosophers, the differences between empiricism and rationalism concern the

particular source of valid knowledge about the world—the world in itself for the former

and consciousness for the latter. For both groups, it seems, without consciousness, there

can be no meaning. And consciousness, whether understood as a spiritual force or as a

purely natural process, is treated as something that coexists with the body, but is

essentially independent of it. This means that knowledge and meaning must also be

independent of the body. It is precisely this Cartesian framing of the problem that

demands a transcendental solution. Although Merleau-Ponty did not initially overcome

the notion of transcendental subjectivity, his recognition of the role of the body in the

constitution of meaning sowed the seeds of a novel approach, the fruits of which would

eventually open new vistas in Western philosophy. In the next section, we will begin to

see these seeds take root with Merleau-Ponty’s critique of mechanistic approaches to

animal psychology.

The Body as Machine

In the 1930s, when Merleau-Ponty began writing, the influence of logical positivism had

already transformed psychology, and the work of C. S. Sherrington and Ivan Pavlov, in

particular, dominated contemporary theory. Sherrington had discovered the reflex-arc,

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which is a localized neural pathway by which a reflex is produced in response to a given

stimulus. Pavlov had developed a theory of learning, according to which behaviors are

learned through the acquisition of conditioned reflexes. Sherrington and Pavlov shared a

commitment to the idea that, eventually, all behavior could be explained in terms of

physiological reflex mechanisms. In The Structure of Behavior, Merleau-Ponty addresses

his criticisms largely to the ideas of these two scientists.

According to the reflex theories of Sherrington and Pavlov, animal behavior is based

entirely on reflexes. Complex behaviors are simply complex reflexes, which are built up

out of elementary reflexes. Each elementary reflex, especially for Sherrington,12 is

associated with a reflex-arc, the nerve pathway that carries an impulse from a stimulated

receptor organ to a motor neuron, which then activates an effector organ, such as a

muscle. In this way, discrete stimuli deterministically generate specific reactions, which,

taken together, account for observed behavior. The stimulus, in this model, is understood

as an event in the physical world that excites a receptor organ. Merleau-Ponty writes,

In this linear series of physical and physiological events the stimulus has the dignity

of a cause, in the empirical sense of a constant and unconditioned antecedent; and the

organism is passive because it limits itself to executing what is prescribed for it by the

place of excitation and the nerve circuits which originate there.13

An event occurs in physical nature—sound waves ripple through an ear drum, light

strikes a retina—and a cascade of mechanical interactions is initiated that traces out a

chain of causation leading from excitation to reaction. The organism is conceived as a set

of mutually external parts, juxtaposed in space, passively awaiting the excitations that

will release particular behaviors.

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Drawing on Gestalt Theory, Merleau-Ponty identifies important aspects of animal

behavior not accounted for by the above model, and suggests that it is therefore

inadequate to explain the phenomena of life. First of all, consider the purely causal

relationship between the stimulus and the reflex, which is supposed to underlie all

behavior. A major problem with this understanding is that it implies a fixed

correspondence between excitation and reaction. The body is conceived to be an

elaborate vending machine: the receptor organs are like buttons, and the body is a passive

mechanism, poised to release predetermined behaviors like varieties of soda. As Merleau-

Ponty points out, however, a particular stimulus, which is defined in terms of its physical

properties, will elicit different reactions depending on many factors, and identical

reactions are often observed in the presence of varying stimuli. He notes, for instance,

“the same stimulation on the arm of a starfish evokes a movement toward the stimulated

side if the arm is extended on a horizontal plane and, in contrast, a uniform movement

toward the tautest side if the arm is hanging down.”14

A second challenge that the classical understanding of behavior as reflex must

confront is how elementary reflexes can somehow add up to adaptive behavior. As

Merleau-Ponty argues, if it is granted that there are objective stimuli and definable

anatomical structures corresponding to particular reflexes, the adaptation of a reflex to a

stimulus would remain unexplained because a reflex would have to involve a specific

movement, which would require a fixed initial placement of the body part to be moved.

When I reach for a piece of food, my hand and arm might initially be at my side or

scratching my head. These two situations would require very different chains of
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elementary reactions, and it is difficult to imagine how it would be possible to have a

sufficient number of elementary circuits to deal with every possible bodily situation.15

Merleau-Ponty also addresses the classical learning theory exemplified by Pavlov.

Pavlov is concerned with behaviors that emerge over time as a result of conditioning and

is best known for his famous experiment in which a dog learns to salivate at the sound of

a buzzer. The idea is that after repeated exposure to an arbitrary stimulus (the buzzer)

along with an unconditioned stimulus (meat powder), the animal will become conditioned

so that the new stimulus causes the instinctual response (salivation). This new stimulus-

response relationship is called a conditioned reflex. As Merleau-Ponty points out, this

term is misleading since it suggests that the relationship between stimulus and response is

fairly stable, which it is not. Pavlov’s own experiments reveal all sorts of irregularities

and dissociations for which he was forced to introduce a convoluted network of laws

governing the inhibition and disinhibition of reflexes. One of the essential problems with

these reflex theories is that they conceive of the stimulus objectively, as an event in

external nature, best understood in terms of its physical properties. However, according

to Merleau-Ponty, “the adequate stimulus cannot be defined in itself and independently of

the organism; it is not a physical reality.”16 Ultimately, behavior and its motivations can

never be understood without taking into account an organism’s entire situation in its

biological significance. This claim will be explained in more detail in the section on

perception, below.

Beyond Empiricism and Intellectualism

Traditionally, philosophers interested in theories of knowledge have concerned

themselves with perception, either advancing or questioning the importance of perceptual

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experience to human knowing. In the modern period, these contrasting inclinations are

recognizable in the approaches which Merleau-Ponty identifies as empiricism and

intellectualism. Drawing once again on Gestalt Theory, Merleau-Ponty argues that the

way perception is understood within both of these approaches fails to capture the actual

relationship between perception and knowledge, either in science or in our experience of

the world. In this section, I shall present Merleau-Ponty’s critique of empiricism and

intellectualism, culminating in his recognition of the assumption on which both are based,

the rejection of which anticipates the anti- foundationalist turn in contemporary thought.

Modern empiricism has its beginnings in the ideas of Francis Bacon and John Locke,

both of whom insisted that all valid knowledge must originate in sensory experience.

Locke explicitly claimed that the human mind begins as a blank slate, onto which

knowledge of the world is inscribed through the receipt of sense impressions. He was

arguing against the rationalist position of Rene Descartes, according to which knowledge

begins with clear and distinct ideas placed in the mind by God. The Lockean and

Cartesian approaches to the origins of knowledge are the precursors to the empiricist and

intellectualist tendencies identified by Merleau-Ponty in classical psychology. The

empiricists still insist that we must seek the roots of knowledge in sensation, and the

intellectualists, while no longer theological, remain committed to the role of thought in

the constitution of knowledge.

Both empiricism and intellectualism accept the idea that perception, regardless of its

importance, is comprised of sense impressions, rarely questioning what the Gestalt

theorists call the “constancy hypothesis,” the idea that there is a direct correspondence

between the data of sensation and the elements of perception. Yet, although it is generally
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accepted that pure sensation “corresponds to nothing in our experience,”17 psychologists

continue to treat the elementary sense impression as a theoretical fact underlying more

complex perceptual experience. As Merleau-Ponty points out, the theoretical

commitment to the concept of the sense impression is a consequence of a tendency,

common to both empiricists and intellectualists, to assume that the external world is a

locus of determinate qualities.

However, if we imagine that perception is really built up exclusively from elementary

sense impressions, it is difficult to account for the facts of perceptual experience. The

recognition of a shape, for example, presents a formidable challenge to empiricists. If the

sense impression is conceived of as an “undifferentiated, instantaneous, dotlike

impact,”18 it is far from evident how it could convey form or pattern, in itself. Neither,

though, could it communicate the rules by which a shape could be perceived as a shape.

Quite often, therefore, empiricists are forced to reintroduce mental capacities to account

for the constitution of meaningful structures. They casually refer to the recognition of

spatial or temporal relationships, without acknowledging that they are contradicting their

own doctrine.19

I will not reproduce the details of Merleau-Ponty’s argument here, since Merleau-

Ponty himself concedes that it is not possible to decisively refute empiricism. In any case,

the fact that empiricists tend to be less interested in the phenomenon of experience than

in the atomic constituents to which they have hypothetically reduced it does have

consequences. The cultural world, for example, becomes unreal compared to the

fundamental qualities out of which it is constituted, and a large portion of human

existence is thereby falsified. The realm of cities and art and commerce, with which most
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of us, including empiricists, concern ourselves most of the time, is consigned to illusion,

since the rich texture of meaning it seems to have cannot be quite real. Yet, for

experience itself, if we choose to embrace it, the perceived world is a thickly woven

fabric of significances. “When we come back to phenomena we find … a whole already

pregnant with an irreducible meaning.”20 Not just shapes and patterns, but non-sensory

qualities such as beauty and horror are perceived at the level of immediate experience as

aspects of the actual (phenomenal) world.

The often dogmatic insistence by empiricists on the primacy of sense impressions

naturally provides fodder for the intellectualist position, which thrives on the limitations

of the former. Intellectualists point to the failure of empiricists to account for the

perception of significance, and counter that an ordering principle must already be present

to consciousness prior to perception. Although the theological aspects of the Cartesian

position were undermined by the empiricist arguments of Locke and especially Hume,

the real workhorse of intellectualism, judgment, has remained a persistent feature of

psychology and philosophy of mind. Granting that the empiricists are correct about the

nature of sense data, judgment is proposed as that faculty by which a coherent world can

nevertheless be apprehended. Judgment is the power to transform the ambiguities of

sense data into coherent perception as, for example, when Descartes judges the coats and

hats on the street below his window to be men, or when the two upside down images on

the retina form a unified, upright object. After initially losing ground to the first wave of

empiricism, the intellectualist position was given new life with the Kantian synthesis and

has remained a forceful theme in psychology right up through present day cognitivism.21
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While intellectualism avoids some of the pitfalls of empiricism, the insertion of

judgment into the perceptual process has its own problems. A significant problem arises

from the fact that, when judgment is placed at the very root of experience, sensation

becomes practically irrelevant. A reliance on individual judgment for perceptual

knowledge places epistemology on a rather slippery slope. The claim that perception is

judgment, deprives the latter of its particular role as an arbiter of perceptual experience—

as a power to judge true from false perception and illusion from reality. All seeing thus

becomes “thinking one sees.”22 In the event of conflicting perceptions, who’s to say

which perception accords with the facts? Kant’s solution to this problem, which

influenced others, including Husserl, was to posit a transcendental subject, somehow

present behind individual subjectivity, constituting and judging the world according to a

universal Reason. Contemporary cognitivism depends on the structure of the brain and

the rules governing language to provide itself with a consistent computational


As with empiricism, intellectualism is unlikely to be refuted by some definitive

argument. Empiricism and intellectualism are not theories as much as they are styles of

approaching psychological facts. Therefore, they do not depend on particular facts for

support, and cannot be refuted using facts. Furthermore, there is a kinship between the

empiricism-intellectualism dichotomy on the one hand and the mechanism-vitalism

dichotomy on the other. The pure sense datum of empiricism is equivalent to the

objective stimulus of mechanism, and, similar to intellectualism, vitalism thrives on the

limitations of its opposite, mechanism. Moreover, both sets of alternatives arise from the

single movement in modern thought through which, according to Merleau-Ponty, “the

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living body became an exterior without interior [and] subjectivity became an interior

without exterior, an impartial spectator.”24

This seemingly contradictory development was no accident. In fact, as Merleau-Ponty

points out, it was an entirely natural consequence of an even more deeply ingrained

assumption, that of a universe “perfectly explicit in itself.”25 Both intellectualism and

empiricism conceive of the world as a complete spectacle awaiting the gaze of the

modern subject the way a shoreline awaits a searchlight beam. Merleau-Ponty rejects this

naïve epistemology in favor of a phenomenological realism in which the real world exists

for the perceiver as a pole in a perceptual dialectic. In recognizing the essential

indeterminacy of the unperceived, he moves beyond or between the modern dichotomy of

empiricism and intellectualism and begins to restore the phenomenon of perception to the

realm of existence.

Perception and Vital Significance

In the previous sections, the reflex theories of behavior and the empiricist and

intellectualist theories of perception were subjected to a critique that owes its core

insights to Gestalt Theory. Although Merleau-Ponty goes beyond Gestalt Theory with his

rejection of determinate being in itself, it is also clear that he considers this step to be

implicit in the theory itself. In a particularly telling footnote, he writes,

Gestalt psychology cannot see that psychological atomism is only one particular case

of a more general prejudice; the prejudice of determinate being or of the world, and

that is why it forgets its most valid descriptions when it tries to provide itself with a

theoretical framework.26
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Thus, while Merleau-Ponty continues to utilize the data and concepts of Gestalt theory, it

is always in the service of his own phenomenological theory of perception. In the present

section, I shall begin to unravel his theory with an exploration of the ways in which the

perceptual world of every living being is literally informed by vital significance.

First of all, as a correction to both the classical theory of the reflex and the constancy

hypothesis, Merleau-Ponty offers an alternative explanation of the organism’s encounter

with its world, which overcomes the inadequacies of both of these classical approaches.

While discussing reflex theory, I called attention to Merleau-Ponty’s rejection of the

stimulus, misconceived as an independent event in the physical world. In place of that

misconception, he proposes that the stimulus be understood in formal rather than

physical/chemical terms. A stimulus, then, is actually just a moment in an organism’s

pattern of activity within a living situation. In fact, Merleau-Ponty argues, the organism

participates in the formation of the stimulus in the way it presents its sensory receptors to

the environment:

Since all the stimulations which the organism receives have in turn been possible only

by its preceding movements which have culminated in exposing the receptor organ to

the external influences, one could also say that the behavior is the first cause of all


The animal body is not passive like a hunk of wax upon which events in the world make

impressions.28 It moves into and engages its milieu in patterns, and these patterns form

the world for it. Therefore, not only is it a mistake to conceive of the organism as a

passive physical machine responding to physical stimuli, it is misleading to overstate the

distinction between stimulus and response, since they are actually abstractions from a
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single pattern. Perception is an organized mode of behavior and behavior is a means of

formal perception.

A second point, which is certainly related to the formal nature of perceptual behavior,

is that, as Gestalt Theory has shown, the most basic element of human perceptual

experience is a figure against a ground. That is, perception is always perception of

something, some intelligible form, which is not decomposable into more elementary

experiences. If I am confronted with an image of a circle, there is nothing in my

experience that I can identify, which preceded the spectacle as a whole. The size, the

shape, the outline, the inside, the outside, the colors, each of these aspects can be picked

out of the total experience by reflection, but only after the fact. Perceptual experience

itself arises in its totality, and its significance outruns those sensible qualities on which it

is supposed to depend. In a particular perception, there is an apprehension of an overall

style or physiognomy, which may not even include the sense data of which it is

supposedly composed. This is why, as Merleau-Ponty points out, one can know the face

of a friend intimately and yet be unable to report the color of her eyes. Indeed, perception

is not the registering of sense impressions, but the grasping of a significance.

The significance with which perception is concerned is ultimately not merely the

physiognomy of abstract features such as shape and size. Rather, perceptual experience

seems to involve the immediate apprehension of the vital significance or biological

meaning of a situation. Classical reflex theories are unable to deal elegantly with the fact

that physically identical stimuli evoke varying responses, and physically distinct stimuli

evoke similar responses because of their commitment to a reality composed of mutually

external parts. As noted earlier, even the simple fact that I can easily reach for an object,
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regardless of the initial position of my body, is a problem for reflex theory. Once it is

recognized that behavior involves a global engagement with the vital milieu created by an

organism’s own activity, these old problems disappear. Behavior is not a set of

mechanical reactions to physical forces, it is an organism’s meaningful interaction with

what matters to it.

The way in which behavior is directed toward significance, rather than produced

mechanically, is illustrated by the phenomenon of substitution. Merleau-Ponty cites a

class of experiments in which the limb typically used by an animal to perform a particular

function is removed.29 After the amputation, the animal will substitute an alternate limb

to perform the same function. For instance, after losing a leg, a dung beetle is

immediately able to walk as if it had always had five legs. The animal functions as a

whole system adapted to cope in a general way with the general features of its milieu,

responding to the significance of its situation. Moreover, the fact that this substitution

phenomenon exists for organisms such as insects highlights the fact that there is no

intellectual calculation involved. In fact, in cases where the limb is immobilized rather

than severed, the animal will not substitute for it, but will, instead, direct its attention

toward freeing the bound limb.30

For the human, of course, vital significance takes a much more complex form. The

capacity for symbolic thought and language has permitted the development of an intricate

system of value that shapes the human’s vital milieu in the way that is not reducible to

biological meaning. The world of the human abounds with significances that have

complex historical, mythical, and individual creative origins. Yet despite the socially

constructed nature of the human milieu, in perception, the world arises in experience
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fully formed. Perceptual experience is not simply an appearance on which we then pass a

judgment. The experience arises with its intrinsic value and meaning intact, regardless of

the degree to which these have been historically constituted. I do not see a building and

subsequently judge it to be impressive or dilapidated. I perceive it in its significance, no

matter how constructed, at the same moment it resolves itself into a thing and perhaps

even before I perceive it as brown or large.31 A more detailed discussion of the human

milieu is included in the “Language and Meaning” section below.

Perception and Motor Significance

As we have seen, perception and behavior are intricately intertwined in a living pattern of

engagement with the world, and the world for a perceiver is a realm of meanings,

constituted by natural and, for the human, cultural history. The above suggestions about

significance and meaning, however, while steering us well clear of the Scylla of

empiricism/mechanism, could, if we are not careful, draw us dangerously close to the

Charybdis of intellectualism/vitalism. As Merleau-Ponty warns, a critique of mechanism

that does not avoid the prejudice of determinate being leads to vitalism.32 Though it was

said that behavior can be seen as “the first cause of all stimulations,” this must not be

understood to imply a living force piloting the physical body. In order to avoid this

hazard, it will be necessary to return to the notion of the reflex and examine the role it

plays in the existential origins of meaning.

Indeed, Merleau-Ponty’s vigorous critique of reflex theory should not be interpreted

as a complete rejection of the concept of non-voluntary bodily response. On the contrary,

it would be no less absurd to imagine that all vital activity is deliberate than to accept that

it is all determined mechanically by pre-established reflex-arcs. Certainly the flowers do

Gregory Mengel Page 20 6/16/2009

not choose to bloom, and I do not choose to see and hear. Merleau-Ponty elaborates a

middle way between a meaningless determinism and an absurd voluntarism with the

notion of motor significance. The world for an organism, the milieu toward which its

activity is directed, is indeed a world of meaning, but this meaning is biological rather

than rational. Perception is a dialectical process in which, as the organism moves through

its world, it discovers a world that compliments the expectations embodied in its

movement. While a behavior pattern may form for itself a vital milieu, the pattern of

behavior itself is informed in that process by the way perception evokes motor responses.

The case of color perception in humans is a telling and perhaps surprising example of

the way that body and world are engaged in what David Abram calls a “silent

conversation.” Traditionally, color has been understood as paradigmatic of pure

sensation, a surface feature, essentially distinct from particular objects. This flower may

be blue, but it could just as well be red and it would still be the same flower. Color,

according to this view, is abstract and accidental—a secondary quality. Research has

shown, however, that color experience actually evokes motor responses and can, in fact,

contribute substantially to the way an object is experienced. Red and yellow, according to

Merleau-Ponty, produce agitation, prodding a person outward and toward a more active

disposition, while green and blue draw one inward, toward repose.33 In this way, color

insinuates itself well beneath the surface of the visual spectacle, and participates in its

very formation, affecting even the perception of size and distance.

The fact that our perception and bodily comportment are effected in this way by color

is inexplicable according to traditional understandings of color. While we might be

tempted to imagine either that the objective properties of a given color somehow produce
Gregory Mengel Page 21 6/16/2009

effects by physical causation (light of a certain wavelength striking the retina), or else,

that the felt experience of a color produces the effects by mental causation (blue reminds

me of water, which is relaxing), neither of these can be correct. Motor effects are

observed when the color is created indirectly, eliminating physical causation, and at

levels of color intensity below which the color is visibly discernable, ruling out mental

causation. Merleau-Ponty writes that color has a “living significance” for us, such that,

even before we see or feel a color, it “is already the amplification of our motor being.”34 I

cannot overemphasize how different this view is from the traditional understanding of

color as a mere surface characteristic, represented in consciousness. What Merleau-Ponty

is suggesting is that color experience, in the typical form of “I see a blue patch,” emerges

as a consequence of a certain blue manner of existence. “We must therefore stop

wondering how and why red signifies effort or violence, green restfulness and peace; we

must rediscover how to live these colors as our body does, as peace or violence in

concrete form.”35 When someone says that she is “seeing red” or “feeling blue,” her

words have real meaning only to the extent that color is regarded in the existential sense

considered here. Color is not, then, merely a surface feature of experience but a mode of

being in the world.

Although color presents a striking example of the way that perception is informed by

our motor being, it is by no means unique in this sense. As the above example suggests,

modalities of sensory experience are intertwined in the body in unexpected ways. Motor

significance, not only reveals the existential origins of meaning, however, it offers a

conceptual thread with which our erroneously fragmented ideas about perception might

be woven into a singular fabric of being in the world.

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Perception and Embodied Knowledge

Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology suggests a way of understanding knowledge that is very

different from the views that have dominated modern and postmodern thought.

Modernism has tended to adopt either an empiricist or an intellectualist stance, while

postmodernism has pressed these modern notions toward a hyper-subjectivism. What

modern and postmodern thought have in common is the notion of an epistemological

subject36 irredeemably alienated from an objective world, to which his only access is

profoundly mediated. Knowledge, therefore, is understood to consist of ideas,

representations, propositional attitudes, or social constructions, which are inside the

mind, and which may or may not correspond with an outside world. In contrast to this

recipe for skepticism, according to which the best we can do is hope that perception

reveals something true, for Merleau-Ponty, perception is defined as access to truth.37 In

this section I explore how this “perceptual faith” is justified phenomenologically in the

way that perceptual experience is lived.

Merleau-Ponty’s approach represents a radical departure from traditional

understandings of knowledge, in that he abandons determinate being without abandoning

the world. Existence, for Merleau-Ponty, is inherently ambiguous, possessing no

determinate meaning prior to becoming a concrete existence for a perceiver. The creative

element in Merleau-Ponty’s account of perception should not be misunderstood as

subjective and arbitrary, however. First, perception is not subjective because, as he

writes, “I am no more aware of being the true subject of my sensation than of my birth or

my death.”38 Sensory experience arises from a pre-personal existence and informs my

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present moment of subjectivity; sensibility is a general and anonymous setting which “I”

merely inherit from my body’s being in the world.

Second, far from being arbitrary in its relation to the world, for Merleau-Ponty,

perception operates as if drawn toward a goal or a norm. That is, perception is informed

by a sort of immanent teleology which transports the perceiver to the moment of “the

upsurge of a true and exact world”39 This norm which is built into the nature of

perception provides a buffer against the epistemological relativism that threatens some

efforts to deal with the creative aspect of perception. The words “true” and “exact” are

not meant to imply that knowledge of the world is somehow absolute or certain, as this

would require a world that is determinate in itself. Rather, this is another way of saying

that perception is true by definition. Indeed, this is a sort of ontological relativism,40 but it

is not radical since it is constrained by the ambiguous determinism of perception.

This somewhat bewildering account may be clarified by a closer examination of the

teleology that informs perception at the level of motor being. According to Merleau-

Ponty, the sensory-motor system operates as if it were moving toward an equilibrium that

can only be achieved by a maximum grasp of the world. The eye, for example, moves

reflexively to provide itself with the richest possible stimulations. This is evident in cases

of hemianopsia,41 in which the neuromuscular functioning of the eye is reorganized so

that the intact areas of the retina are optimally exposed to visual stimulation. I experience

this lure in my body when I find myself driving along a rural road at night, and a car

approaches from the horizon. My eyes are ineluctably drawn to the oncoming headlights,

and as I force myself to look away from them, I can feel that deviation as a certain
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ejemplo: tension in my body. It is in this way that the sensory-motor body finds itself situated on a
del color gradient sloping toward an optimal grip on the world.

Let us consider the example of color perception, once again, this time with an eye

toward understanding the telos implicit in perception. In the same way that my eyes are

drawn in the direction of approaching headlights, when I look at an object, my eyes lead

me to where the lighting allows the optimal experience of the object’s color. Color is

experienced as if my gaze already knows its way through the sensible world and has, as

an implicit goal, the object’s “real” color. Indeed, this real color seems to underlie the

experience of color constancy, which somehow transcends lighting conditions. When I

look at a blue carpet, under an artificial light and partially in shadow, I do not see it as

multicolored, based on the various objective color qualities. I see it as a single blue under

different aspects—with a shadow cast on it, or, a few hours earlier, with sunlight pouring

on it through the window. I do not see different colors; I see the same color, the real

color, looking different. The real color, according to Merleau-Ponty, is never actually

perceived, but “persists beneath appearances as the background persists beneath the

figure, that is, not as a seen or thought-of quality, but as a non-sensory presence.”42

Though present only indeterminately, the real color, therefore, exists as a norm from

which every actual perception is experienced as a deviation. Implicit in this account is the

idea that the body always knows how the lighting or my point of view would need to be

different so that this deviation might be minimized. There is a bodily tension created by

the difference between how the color looks at a given moment and what color I

experience the object to be.43

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Beyond color, all the various features of the world seem to be subject to this same

perceptual teleology. Consider the perceptual grasping of an object. According to the

traditional view, I am presented with a series of perspectives from which I must infer the

existence of a three dimensional object. In fact, I must, by some accounts, even infer the

third dimension, depth, from my experience of breadth.44 All of this sounds sensible

enough, but that is because we are thoroughly accustomed to thinking of space as a

“juxtaposition of points”45 in which our bodies are objects among other objects. In taking

depth as given, we pass over the moment of its constitution in our grasping of the object.

Against the traditional view, Merleau-Ponty argues that the object is not known by way

of a sum of perspectives, but, like the varying appearance of a color in different lighting

contexts, “perspectives present themselves only as so many steps toward the thing

itself.”46 Also, like color, the object’s size and shape exist in an indeterminate

background which provides a norm for my bodily engagement with it. Thus, my body

knows implicitly that there is a best place from which to get a visual grip on a particular

object, including an optimal angle and distance. He writes, “an oblique position of the

object in relation to me is not measured by the angle which it forms with the plane of my

face, but felt as a lack of balance, as an unequal distribution of its influences upon me,”

and “the distance from me … a tension which fluctuates round a norm."47 The real object

is not real by virtue of determinate qualities, which it possesses in itself, but in terms of

its “perceptual self-evidence” which it has in relation to my motor being.

The teleological nature of perception, informed by my body’s intimacy with the

world, therefore, brings me into direct contact phenomena and safeguards my experience

from the mischief of Descartes’ malicious demon. Although, my knowledge can ever be
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perfect or complete because the perceptual process dissolves on all sides into a

spatiotemporal horizon of anonymity and ambiguity, it tends in the general direction of

truth. While it is always possible to be mistaken in perception, the very possibility of

realizing a mistake presupposes the ability to discern truth from error. “We know that

there are errors only because we possess truth.”48

The Phenomenal Body

In the previous sections, I demonstrated the way that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of

perception overcomes the skepticism to which modern epistemologies are subject through

a retrieval of the body and its pre-subjective intimacy with the world. The emergence of a

real world through perceptual experience, however, cannot be properly understood

without an appreciation for Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the phenomenal body, the

alternative he proposes to the body as it is conceived by science.

First of all, I want to make clear what is being rejected in Merleau-Ponty’s

replacement of the physical body with his own notion of the phenomenal body. The

former is, of course, that objective system of causes and third person processes, which

was found wanting in the “Body as Machine” section above. This physical body is

conceived as a bundle of mechanical reflexes awaiting release by the proper physical

stimulus, or sense datum. Although, the sort of extreme mechanism represented by reflex

theory is no longer dominant, biology is still tacitly committed to physiological

reductionism, and therefore Merleau-Ponty’s critique continues to be relevant. Of this

body-for-science he writes,

How significance and intentionality could come to dwell in molecular edifices or

masses of cells is a thing which can never be made comprehensible … It is simply a

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question of recognizing that the body as a chemical structure or an agglomeration of

tissues, is formed, by a process of impoverishment, from a primordial phenomenon of

the body-for-us, the body of human experience.49

This body, which is understood by science as an object in itself, then, is not our

immediate concern. In its place, we will consider the phenomenal or existential body, the

body as a being in the world.

To begin to understand the phenomenal body, it will be helpful to take up, once again,

the perception of objects. In one particularly intriguing passage, Merleau-Ponty discusses

the way that we encounter an object in its object-horizon structure. An important aspect

of our perception of an object, he claims, is the multitude of possible perspectives, and

the way these are implicit in the horizon. When I attend to a particular object in my field

of vision, the surrounding objects fade into the background and become part of the

attended object’s horizon. This horizon still plays a role, however, in establishing the

norm that informs my perceptual experience. Kelly50 points out that one way to

understand the background in relation to the norm is to consider each background object

as a place-holder for the potential perspective that I could have from that angle and

distance. This is evidently what Merleau-Ponty means when he defines the other sides of

things as the side that they show to the objects behind them. This is possible because

background objects “remain abodes, open to my gaze, and, being potentially lodged in

them, I already perceive from various angles the central object of my present vision.”51 In

other words, there is a sense in which the object is seen from everywhere, but

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What can Merleau-Ponty mean, exactly, when he writes that I am potentially lodged

in a background object? What is it to be lodged in an object? The key to this curious

claim is to be found in the nature of the phenomenal body. We have established that the

phenomenal body is the existential mode of being in the world from which the

physiological body for science is derived, but this mostly tells us what it is not. To

understand the phenomenal body, we must consider Merleau-Ponty’s treatment of

intentionality. Recall that intentionality is one of the founding concepts of

phenomenology, adopted from Brentano by Husserl, to account for the way in which

objects for consciousness are constituted by what he calls “meaning-intendings.”52 For

Husserl, intentionality is an aspect of subjectivity through which the essential structure of

conceptual meaning is intuited. For Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, intention is the

sine qua non of bodily existence. The body is a motor project directed toward the world;

it is a “system of possible actions … with its phenomenal ‘place’ defined by its task and

situation.”53 Here, it should be noted, intention acquires a meaning much closer to its

everyday sense in which it denotes an action aimed at the world. Indeed, when Merleau-

Ponty writes about being lodged in an object, he means that I apprehend it as an object

for my motor intentions. I inhabit the object in the sense that it is now part of my world;

it is in my domain of potential motor activity. The phenomenal body, then, exists through

its motor intentions and actions. It is an intentional project, located in potentia throughout

its sensory-motor domain, which is its world.

The world of the phenomenal body has its own spatiality, which is known in a way

that is quasi-independent of the intellect. Space for the body is the enveloping, practical

domain of a “dynamic body schema,” constituted in my movement, and forming the

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background against which I perform those movements. In other words, it is “a spatiality

of situation” rather than “a spatiality of position,”54 and it is lived through motor

intentionality. The space of the intellect, on the other hand, is an abstract space, which is

derived from lived space. While the integration of these two modes of space in a normal

individual is so seamless as to be transparent, they are two different sorts of spatial

knowledge, and they can become dissociated.

Consider the brain-damaged patient (the infamous Schneider) who, although able to

engage habitual body movements in the normal course of events, is unable to make those

same movements when directed to by his doctor. 55 His hand can find his nose when it

itches, but if asked to point to it with a ruler, he cannot. He is able to perform certain

abstract movements (movements not directed toward a concrete task in which he is

involved) only by observing himself, or by embedding his movement within a larger

habituated routine.56 The patient can understand what he is being asked to do; he is

simply unable to make the connection between his intellect and his motor intentions. If

movement in space were an intellectual operation, based on a representation of uniform

external space, there should be no problem. However, movement is always undertaken

against a background of lived space constituted by the phenomenal body as motor


The phenomenal body as a power to inhabit the world is neither tangible nor visible.

It can neither be seen in the act of seeing, nor felt in the act of feeling.57 It is that

“primordial presence” which is the background against which meaning is performed, a

style of existence through which the world acquires determinate meaning. In the next
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section, we will examine the additional powers gained by the phenomenal body with the

acquisition of language.

Language and Meaning

The phenomenal body, for Merleau-Ponty, is that motor project through which meaning

is enacted out of the indeterminate background of body and world. In the previous

section, I discussed the role of motor intentionality in the formation of the dynamic body

schema, through which we know objects in space as aims for our intentions. It is one

thing, though, to recognize the way the phenomenal body informs the shape and color of

objects and quite another to recognize the expressive role of the body in the constitution

of the cultural world, with its extraordinarily complex and layered fabric of meaning. As

should be evident from what has been said, there is no question, for Merleau-Ponty, of

situating the origin of meaning anywhere other than embodied existence. How cultural

meaning emerges from the overflow of natural existence that is language must now be


Traditional approaches to the relationship between language and meaning have

tended toward empiricism/mechanism or intellectualism. For the former group, language

is nothing but a motor reflex evoked by physical stimuli. There is no need of a theory of

meaning, since there is no meaning. Finding this position untenable, intellectualists have

sought the meaning of language in thought/consciousness. For them, the world is

represented in consciousness, and meaning is essentially conceptual and cognitive. Words

are nothing but signs used to represent concepts to which they bear an arbitrary or

conventional relationship. In neither case do the words themselves have any intrinsic

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In contrast to the nominalism that infects the traditional approaches, Merleau-Ponty’s

treatment of language begins with his affirmation that words do indeed possess

significance. Against intellectualism58 he argues that thought cannot be supposed to

precede speech, with the latter merely reproducing the former. For one thing, it is clear

from our own experience as speakers that when speaking we are not involved in a

thought process separate from the speech act itself. It may be an overstatement to insist

that “the orator’s ‘thought’ is empty while he is speaking,”59 but the point is clear. The

speaker is not translating her thoughts into words as she speaks; she is thinking aloud.

Moreover, thought itself, even when undertaken in silence, is still conducted with words:

“In reality, this supposed silence is alive with words, this inner life is an inner

language.”60 All thought is verbal and all originating speech is active thought.

Furthermore, the meaning of words is not a matter of mere conceptual signification.

“Expression,” Merleau-Ponty writes, is not “the translation, into an arbitrary system of

symbols, of a meaning already clear to itself.”61 Rather, authentic expression depends on

the fact that words have existential meanings, beneath their conceptual ones, which cling

to them, and which can communicate something even to those who do not know the

language. These existential meanings exist at a sort of midway point between the purely

symbolic realm of conceptual meaning and the almost concrete realm of motor

significance. In fact, the bridge between these two realms is the gesture. Recall that

significance emerges in patterns of behavior that establish the world as a vital milieu. The

gesture is that pattern of behavior through which humans seek to coordinate their

experience and establish a shared milieu. In the sharing of existential significance

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through the coordination of behavior, a community of significance is established.62

Merleau-Ponty writes,

The human body is defined in terms of its property of appropriating, in an indefinite

series of discontinuous acts, significant cores which transcend and transfigure its

natural powers. The act of transcendence is first encountered in the acquisition of a

pattern of behaviour, then in the mute communication of gesture: it is through the

same power that the body opens itself to some new kind of conduct and makes it

understood to external witnesses.63

The gesture, then, is a “new kind of conduct” through which the human body

accomplishes the direct exchange of meaning and becomes “a power of natural


Therefore, speech, according to Merleau-Ponty, is best understood as a mode of

gesticulation. It is not that words exist for me simply as a vocabulary, containing so many

entries, which I can draw from to convey my thoughts. Rather, as is the case for non-

verbal gestures, words exist for me as “one of the possible uses of my body.”65 They are a

part of my overall power of expression, of communicating meaning to other subjects.

Indeed, the fact that speech is continuous with a wider existential sphere of meaning is

what makes communication possible. If words were empty signs with no intrinsic

meaning, communication would only be able to convey external facts, such as, perhaps,

“the cat is on the mat.” As Merleau-Ponty points out, however, the meaning conveyed in

speech or writing allows us to take up the thought of others; it awakens in us new

understandings because the conceptual meaning of words is not externally related to the
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words but is originally derived from their gestural meaning.66 The meanings of words are

thus implicit in the gestural style in which they are situated.

Of course, Merleau-Ponty does not mean to suggest that language is reducible to

gesture, or that the meanings of words carry nothing beyond what is conveyed by the

sounds. On the contrary, with language the body achieves an “open and indefinite power

of giving significance.”67 This power of giving significance finds its richest expression in

literature. It is in the poem or the novel that we find language, as it has been previously

constituted, being reshaped for a new purpose, as when “a telling utterance or a good

book impose their meaning upon us.”68 In artistic speech and writing, as well as other

instances of original expression, therefore, we find the human body exhibiting its unique

power to bring novel meaning into existence. “The process of expression,” Merleau-

Ponty suggests,

brings the meaning into existence as a thing at the very heart of the text, it brings it to

life in an organism of words, establishing it in the writer or reader as a new sense

organ, opening a new field or a new dimension to our experience.69

A great work of literature is, thus, not simply the result of a concrete creative act,

whereby an artist has preserved an insight in external form. Rather, like any organic

creation, literature has a life of its own, outrunning its creator and coalescing around its

own inner law, which is its meaning. Authentic expression, then, is more than a means of

communication; it is the “ever-recreated opening in the plenitude of being … which, like

a wave, gathers and poises itself to hurtle beyond its own limits.”70

Of course, Merleau-Ponty, by no means, intends to ascribe this special power of

language to “artistic” expression exclusively. Indeed, as the above samples of his writing
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reveal, literary style can be instrumental in the philosopher’s own effort to elaborate new

meaning. If the body has found in language the power to transcend itself and to forget its

existence as a body, Merleau-Ponty’s writing demonstrates that this same power can be

used to reaffirm the essential unity of body and world.

The Unity of Meaning in Body and World

Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology makes a significant contribution to philosophy by

demonstrating that the body must be recognized as the foundation of knowledge and the

starting point of thought. Undoubtedly, philosophy, at least since Darwin and Nietzsche,

has done a better job at recognizing the importance of the body, and, fortunately, it is no

longer fashionable to treat it with derision. However, for many philosophers, the body

remains little more than a place holder for the assertion of immanence. The fact that one

of the chief puzzles for contemporary philosophy is called the “mind-body problem,”

exemplifies this failure to take seriously the true nature of the body in the way prescribed

by Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception is not merely a retrieval of the body as

a theme for philosophy, but a re-envisioning of the very meaning of the body. Indeed,

Merleau-Ponty’s recognition and insistence in the essential ambiguity of embodied

existence has radical implications for the meaning of meaning itself. In this final section,

I shall briefly reflect on how these insights alter the landscape of our understanding of

meaning in body and world.

The preceding sections considered some of the ways in which, according to Merleau-

Ponty, meaning is lived by bodies as they dialectically unfold a world for themselves

through perception, intention, and expression. We learned, for example, that perception is

not caused by sense impressions. In contrast to the retinal excitations of classical

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psychology, for example, Gestalt Theory shows that “vision is already inhabited by a

meaning.”71 Moreover, even color is not a superficial quality; it has a motor significance,

which influences my bodily comportment, as well as an existential significance which

colors my whole manner of being in the world. I do not simply see blue or yellow, but, in

some sense, become that color in its living significance.

These facts about perception are a consequence of the manner in which the body, by

way of its subtle sensory-motor attunement, attempts to obtain an optimal grip on its

world. Objects, which are typically taken to be self existent, derive their determinate

existence as things for me from the vital significance and motor physiognomy that they

have as objects for my body’s intentions. These meanings, then, arise for me, but I am not

involved in any conscious way in positing them. Since I do not choose to see that blue

car, “[it] thus poses the problem of a genuine in-itself-for-us,”72 emerging from the pre-

personal horizon that is the body’s being in the world. As a conscious subject, I therefore

find myself always already existing world shot through with meaning.73

My world arises, then, as a gathering of meanings lived by and as my body. Merleau-

Ponty, in this regard, suggests that the body is similar to an artwork, such as a novel or a

musical performance in that, for each, the meaning is inseparable from its individual

expression. Recall from the discussion of literature above that the inner meanings of a

text are not independent of the words, but live among them. This is even more evident if I

imagine being in the presence of a painting or listening to music. Neither could be fully

communicated except by the experience itself, because the meaning is born in the

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Similarly, a body, for Merleau-Ponty, is “a nexus of lived meanings,”74 inseparable

from its individual existence. I recognize my friend or lover, not simply by the

components his appearance, such as his height and facial features, but by his whole

manner of existence, which defines him, even as he changes over time. His actions, his

bodily bearing, the intonations, facial expressions, and bodily gesticulations that

accompany his speech, all reflect a certain style that is unmistakably recognizable as him.

Moreover, although my knowledge of him is “true and exact,” in its self-evidence, it is

never complete. Like a great novel or painting, his existence offers me an inexhaustible

source of fresh meanings, which, once revealed, are retrospectively obvious.

It should be no surprise, based on what has been said about meaning, that the

knowledge I have of my friend or lover is the paradigm for my knowledge of the world.75

Throughout life, we perpetually try to make sense out of our world, and elaborate ever

more complex understandings of our experience. And during all that time, though the

world may undergo many subtle and profound reorganizations of meaning, it remains

essentially the same world. In fact, I experience the unity of the world, according to

Merleau-Ponty, as if “I am in communication with one being, and only one, a vast

individual . . . which persists on the horizon of my life.”76 I know the world, not as an

explicit spectacle, but as a style. I experience it the way I experience a friend, a familiar

town, or a work of art—never completely, yet inexhaustibly. Merleau-Ponty writes,

The natural world is the horizon of all horizons, the style of all possible styles, which

guarantees for my experiences a given, not a willed, unity underlying all the

disruptions of my personal and historical life. Its counterpart within me is the given,
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general and pre-personal existence of my sensory functions in which we have

discovered the definition of the body.77

Indeed, the style of the world for me is a reflection of my own style, and body and world

are two sides of a single phenomenon, a unity of essence and existence.

Moreover, just as I may discover new layers of meaning in a novel, and new

dimensions in my friend, the meanings that inform my world are sometimes substantially

transformed. Merleau-Ponty writes,

Sometimes a new cluster of meanings is formed; . . . our natural powers suddenly

come together in a richer meaning, which hitherto had been merely foreshadowed . . .

and which by its coming suddenly reshuffles the elements of our equilibrium and

fulfils our blind expectation.78

This is not merely a change in the way we interpret or judge what we see; it is a change in

the whole significance of what is seem. This capacity of the body to undergo a

reorganization of its perceptual world through the emergence of new meanings is very

mysterious, indeed. Complex meanings are somehow absorbed into the perceptual

process itself. “The light of a candle changes its appearance for a child when, after a

burn, it stops attracting the child’s hand and becomes literally repulsive.”79 The child

literally sees the candle differently. Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of this amazing

attunement to the significance of the world is that neither body nor world can be

understood separately or in the absence of the meaning which informs their

interdependence. In fact, according to Merleau-Ponty, “the miracle of the real world . . .

is that in it significance and existence are one.”80 Meaning is not a property of some
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things, or a gift bestowed upon some part of the vast universe by a nearby consciousness.

Meaning is part of the substance of the world as it is experienced.

This affirmation of significance is by no means a claim that there is an ultimate

significance, only that there is significance; it is a buffer, rather than a guarantee against

absurdity. Meaning as a positive phenomenon is not defensible except as arising from a

background of indeterminacy. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty writes, “the world appears absurd,

only if a demand for absolute consciousness ceaselessly dissociates from each other the

meanings with which it swarms, and conversely this demand is motivated by the conflict

between those meanings.”81 In the recognition that existence is incorrigibly ambiguous,

there is an opportunity to acknowledge the coexistence of absurdity and significance. The

affirmation of ambiguous significance is also a buffer against skepticism. If I can

relinquish the impossible demand for certainty and embrace the ambiguity of existence, I

will perhaps see, with Merleau-Ponty, “that the most intimate vibration of our psycho-

physical being already announces the world.”82 I may never have certainty about

anything in particular, but I cannot seriously doubt that the world exists.83

The phenomenon that is body and world is deeply mysterious, yet in many ways self-

evident. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception is a sustained effort to unravel

the deeply ingrained tangle of scientific and cultural assumptions, which informs the way

we think we know the world, in order to reveal its essentially embodied existence. The

result of his effort implies that our rational and common sense understanding of reality is

both completely true and critically in need of revision. Perhaps the despair and alienation

that plagues modern life is analogous to that tension that tugs at the body in the instant

before “our natural powers suddenly come together in a richer meaning.” Whether or not
Gregory Mengel Page 39 6/16/2009

such a gestalt shift is really imminent, Merleau-Ponty’s work suggests one possible

foundation for a new equilibrium—an appreciation for the body as the self-revelation of

the world.

Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology (London ; New York: Routledge, 2000).
Wilhelm Max Wundt, Outlines of Psychology (York University, 1897 [cited March 31 2005]); available
E. B. Titchener, Brentano and Wundt: Empirical and Experimental Psychology (York University, 1921
[cited April 5 2005]); available from
Robert Wozniak, Theoretical Roots of Early Behaviorism: Functionalism, the Critique of Introspection,
and the Nature and Evolution of Consciousness (Bryn Mawr College, 1997 [cited April 5 2005]); available
Kurt Koffka, Perception: An Introduction to the Gestalt-Theorie (York University, 1922 [cited April 6
2005]); available from
I am simplifying this discussion by treating the phenomenological reduction in the singular, whereas
Husserl distinguished between several different sorts. See Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology.
Ibid., 10.
Ibid., 170.
As Merleau-Ponty points out, Pavlov’s physiology is implicit, if not imaginary. See Maurice Merleau-
Ponty, The Structure of Behavior (Boston,: Beacon Press, 1963).
Ibid., 9.
Ibid., 22.
Ibid., 28.
, 31.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London ; New York: Routledge, 1962), 1,2.
Ibid., 1.
Ibid., 16.
Ibid., 25.
Taylor Carman, "Sensation, Judgment, and the Phenomenal Field," in The Cambridge Companion to
Merleau-Ponty, ed. Taylor Carman and Mark B. N. Hansen (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2005).
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception., 40. Also see Carman, "Sensation, Judgment, and the
Phenomenal Field."
Are the symbol processing rules of cognitivism really that different from Kant’s “categories of the
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 64,65.
Ibid., 48.
Ibid., 59. Fn. 45.
Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior, 13.
Indeed, we can trace the term impression back at least to Plato’s Theaetetus, in which the impression
made on a piece of wax by a seal ring was used as an analogy for the impression made by knowledge on
the mind. Plato, "Theaetetus," in The Works of Plato, ed. Irwin Edman (New York,: Simon and Schuster,
Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior, 39. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception.
The exception that supports this interpretation is the human. A human will actually substitute free limb
for an immobilized one.
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception.
Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior., 158.
Gregory Mengel Page 40 6/16/2009

Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 243-45.
Ibid., 245.
Of course, many postmodern thinkers reject the subject as implicated in a problematic metaphysics of
presence, but this explicit rejection does not entirely succeed in disentangling them from this assumption.
See Charlene Spretnak, States of Grace : The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age, 1st ed. ([San
Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception.
Ibid., 250.
Ibid., 62.
“Ontological contingency, the contingency of the world itself, being radical, is, on the other hand, what
forms the basis once and for all of our ideas of truth. The world is that reality of which the necessary and
the possible are merely provinces.” Ibid., 463,464.
Blindness affecting half of the retinal surface.
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 356.
See Sean Dorrance Kelly, "Seeing Things in Merleau-Ponty," in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-
Ponty, ed. Taylor Carman and Mark B. N. Hansen (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University
Press, 2005).
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 297.
Ibid., 353.
Ibid., 352.
Ibid., 344.
Ibid., 409.
Kelly, "Seeing Things in Merleau-Ponty."
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 79.
Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology., 93.
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 291.
Ibid., 115.
This is true for healthy people in regards to fairly specialized motor tasks, such as typing. It certainly
takes me longer to find the letters on a keyboard when I’m typing an unfamiliar word.
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 105.
Merleau-Ponty does not address the mechanist position. This is likely either because the intellectualist
critique has been adequate, or because the position is too absurd to warrant a serious response.
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 209.
Ibid., 213.
Ibid., 452.
This is somewhat of an oversimplification as communities of significance certainly exist among
nonhuman animals. For a detailed discussion of the distinctions between human and non-human animal
communication see Terrence William Deacon, The Symbolic Species : The Co-Evolution of Language and
the Brain, 1st ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 225.
Ibid., 211.
Ibid., 210.
Ibid., 208.
Ibid., 226.
Ibid., 452.
Ibid., 212.
Ibid., 229.
“A wooden wheel placed on the ground is not, for sight, the same thing as a wheel bearing a load.” Ibid.,
Ibid., 375.
“One day, once and for all, something was set in motion which, even during sleep, can no longer cease to
see or not to see, to feel or not to feel . . .” Ibid., 473.
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Ibid., 175.
Goethe also compared knowledge of the world to knowledge of an individual. C.f. "We labor in vain to
describe a person's character, but when we draw together his actions, his deeds, a picture of his character
will emerge." Goethe quoted in Fred Amrine, "The Metamorphosis of the Scientist," in Goethe's Way of
Science : A Phenomenology of Nature, ed. David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc, Suny Series in Environmental
and Architectural Phenomenology (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998)., 37. See also
the parable of the two suitors in Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche : Intimations of a New World View
(New York: Viking, 2005).
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 382.
Ibid., 385.
Ibid., 177.
Ibid., 60. See also the example of the old west movie set in Kelly, "Seeing Things in Merleau-Ponty."
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 377.
Ibid., 345.
Ibid., 472.
Ibid., 347.