Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are few things more unpleasant than reading a book that you do not understand. One is writing a review of one. But as this is the life I have chosen, I must come to terms with the hardship. There are various strategies for this predicament, none perfect. You can admit that you do not understand (embarrassing), pretend that you understand (risky), or try even harder to understand (exhausting). I have found that the surest method is usually to mix all three, hopefully keeping the reader guessing as to which strategy was employed at any given moment.* On we go.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, along with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, formed the third wheel of the great existentialist tricycle that rolled through the twentieth century. While his two flashier comrades were busy plotting all sorts of revolutions in cafés (social, political, philosophical, aesthetic, sexual), Merleau-Ponty—more respectable, more sedate, and, dare I say, more bourgeois—was busy editing the magazine, Les Temps Modernes, shaping a solid academic career for himself, and enjoying the married life. The Phenomenology of Perception, his most famous contribution to philosophy, was just one of many triumphs in a parade of intellectual distinction.

Now, to cut to the chase, I did not enjoy this book very much, nor did I ultimately agree with much of what Merleau-Ponty (henceforth MP) had to say. But the man was brilliant and must be given his due.

The most influential parts of this book are concentrated in Part 1, on the body. It is telling that, before the twentieth century, this subject was almost entirely neglected by the philosophical tradition. For this alone, MP deserves quite a lot of credit. He also includes a chapter on sex, a subject that had hardly been touched since Plato advised that it is best avoid it entirely (the act, not the subject). Perhaps it helped that MP was married. (The list of unmarried philosophers is virtually identical to the syllabus in an introductory course.)

Another great virtue of MP is his engagement with psychological research. There is a long section devoted to the phenomenon of phantom limb, and an even longer one about a patient with brain damage known as Schneider. This latter case is quite fascinating, as Schneider’s injury profoundly impacted his ability to function, without either impeding his intellect or his motor function. His impediment consisted, rather, in his ability to sense his body, known as proprioception. That is, for Schneider, his body is rather like an object that he clumsily manipulates rather than an extension of his being. When asked to, say, draw a circle in the air, he must first wave his hand in the air, making shapes at random, until he can see what he is doing and, by trial and error, finally make the circle.

This is not an Oliver Sacks book, however; this (unfortunately) is a tome of French philosophy. So what is MP trying to say with all this? In a nutshell, his philosophy is Anti-Cartesian. By this I mean that he wants to dislodge the view that our subjective consciousness and the objective world stand irreconcilably opposed, totally distinct yet somehow in communication. MP prefers to see the subject and the world as two poles of a continuous field, with the body smack dab in the middle—both object and subject. This is in contrast to scientific materialism, which seeks to reduce the subjective to the objective, or to philosophic idealism, which seeks just the opposite.

Throughout the book, MP is at pains to contrast his own views with both the materialistic and the idealistic views, intending to sail a middle course that avoids the pitfalls of both. His solution is to turn reductionism on its head—that is, in characteristic phenomenological fashion, to regard basic human experience as fundamental and everything else as derivative. This basic human experience normally takes the form, in his view, of a gestalt—of a totality that transcends the combination of elements that compose it.

This is entirely within the tradition of Husserl and Heidegger (the two great influences on this book), in which logical arguments are discarded in favor of what an anthropologist might call a “thick description” of consciousness—that is, rather than trying to explain the world in the manner of a scientist, with theories about causal underpinnings, the phenomenologist operates more like an ethnologist writing a study of a particular village.

Advocates of this approach will argue that it is both logical and honest, since of course our experience is the only reality we have direct access to, and arguably all of our other theories and ideas are evolved from this primordial pool. And MP cannot, in fairness, be compared to the mystic or the monk who issues verdicts on the nature of reality based on his own private experience. As I tried to indicate before, MP’s philosophy is anti-Cartesian, by which I mean that he hardly even believes in “private” experience, much as Wittgenstein did not believe in private language. Experience is fundamentally worldly and only accidentally secret. In one of MP’s more poetic turns of phrase, he describes humanity as a “hollow” or a “fold” in being, “which can be made which can be unmade.” (This is in contrast to Hegel, who considered us a “hole,” and Sartre, who considered us a “nothingness.”)

This is reasonable enough. What irks me is that MP substitutes description for explanation. It could be perfectly valid, for example, to argue that depression—which responds to both medication and therapy, and which seems to have both physiological and psychological causes—is a non-reducible gestalt. And a phenomenologist as brilliant as MP may be able to pinpoint the exact structure of the depressed experience. Nevertheless, if we want to actually help a depressed patient, the irreducible richness of human experience will do little to avail us. We need either a therapy (inevitably based on some theory of the mind) or a drug (based on theories of biochemistry). In short, we need reductionism.

This is why much of MP’s philosophy rang hollow for me: it lacks the essential characteristic of an explanation, to reduce the complex to the simple. I must immediately grant, however, that reduction can easily be taken too far. As MP ably shows, for an awfully long time reductionist theories of human consciousness effectively ignored the uncomfortable fact that we have a body in addition to a mind. Similar criticisms can be lodged at any number of sociological or psychological theories of human behavior. Often these dogmas can blind us to the reality of the phenomena under study. Careful observers (and MP certainly qualifies) perform a great duty in puncturing these errors.

In short, my opinion of MP’s philosophy is rather mixed. But my opinion of his writing is decisive: I hated it. Whoever taught MP and Sartre how to write (someone at the École nórmale supérieure presumably) apparently did not believe in paragraphs. This book is one long block of text. I know this sounds petty, but for me the paragraph is the unit of writing, the fundamental organizing principle of prose. It tells us when one train of thought ends and another begins. At the very least, it provides a ledge where the mind can take a break from the relentless climb. Without at least two paragraphs per page, I feel lost and adrift. And it did not help that his prose is rather awkward and cumbersome:

The Gestalt of a circle is not its mathematical law but its physiognomy. The recognition of phenomena as an original order is a condemnation of empiricism as an explanation of order and reason in terms of a coming together of facts and natural accidents, but it leaves reason and order themselves with the character of facticity. If a universal constituting consciousness were possible, the opacity of fact would disappear.

The result is a book where some very sharp thinking is covered in dross and surrounded by masses of unfocused material. After Part 1, in which he makes impressive and original contributions, he spends the next two thirds of the book taking up every philosophical problem he can think of, fiddling with it, and then moving on, as if he thought the psychological material was not heavy enough. Thus it is a book that, while quite profound, is not nearly as profound as its author intended it to be. But if you shoot for the stars…

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*A fourth strategy is to write about something else entirely and hope nobody notices.

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