Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Summary of Maurice Merleau-Ponty: "Phenomenology of Perception"

(Routledge; trans Colin Smith. Quotes from the book are in single quote marks).

Perception is not a science of the world. Sensations are only determinate for us in so far as they are significant objects for our life’s (body’s) projects. The body is the vehicle of being in the world. The bodily subject is always involved in projects.

The body is an “object” which cannot leave me – so it is not really an “object” at all in any normal sense, it is an object which exhibits both physical spatiality and subjectivity; these features intersect in the non-causal nature of the body’s motility (a spatiality of situation and possible intentional movement, not a spatiality of position), and in the spatiality of perception and of the self (“My foot is the pain-area”; not, then: “I have a mental pain sensation, which I assign to the constructed or absolute space where my foot is”).

We should replace the extreme and idealistic dichotomy of “perception/object” and “subject” with a primordial, more accurate one, described by phenomenologists, in which we have ‘the world itself... contracted into a comprehensive grasp’ and the spatial body-subject with its motility.

The body constitutes an orientated space in which it lives, and space is always “set” in relation to the body and it’s possible motor projects. This is why e.g. in experiments when people wear vision-inverting spectacles, after a while their vision is reintegrated into their world and they are able to live in it. “Here” is not a place in objective space, it refers to where the body is. Everything we see, touch etc stands out against a double horizon of 1. objective- and 2. orientated(bodily defined)- space. It is the body-subject which learns possible movements and their actualisations, not the disembodied mind. Abstract movement requires the ability to have projects “in front of” a bodily subject. Consciousness is essentially “I can…”, and not: “I think that…”. To get used to a hat, a car, or a stick is to incorporate these objects into the intentional project of our body.

Language works by inducing similar intentional situations in other people, we understand the speaker’s projects, significances and movement through “re-enacting” as directed by his “sedimented” gestures. Language presupposes a primordial silence in which words first receive a use and a meaning through re-enactment. ‘This is why consiousness is never subordinated to any empirical language, why languages can be translated and learned’.

The spatiality of the bodily subject and it’s perception allows us to exist primordially i.e. without always assuming the subject-object dichotomy…’As I contemplate the blue of the sky I am not set over against it as an acosmic subject…it ‘thinks itself within me’, I am the sky itself’. There is no lucid, self-evident “experience of being the subject of my perception”. Sensation is prepersonal, primordial. All senses are spatial and all open onto the same orientated space, reaffirming for us the existence of the one world we inhabit totally. It is actually more difficult to “separate” sensation as philosophers try to do, since this goes against the natural tendency of sensation.

The privileged position of vision among sensations is that it seems to present greater spatially separated distances to us “simultaneously”, whereas tactile sensations explicitly take a certain time to “have”. But vision too implies the possibility of traversing the distance from a “here” to a “there”.

Using mescalin allows you to collapse some of the barriers established in the course of evolution between senses – ‘the sound of a flute gives a bluish-green colour’. This and other neuroscientific data e.g. the emotional aspect of colours, support the view of sensations as primarily carrying significance for our projects, and not of sensations as a putative bunch of atomic sense-data from which the subjective or objective world is to be philosophically (re-)constructed.

The focusing of the gaze is a prospective activity, drawn by the primordial anticipation of objects for our projects, a natural synthesis affected by our body and not an intellectual merging of two monocular images using perspective. Perspective is the derivative concept. Similarly, the various senses ‘interact in perception as the two eyes collaborate in vision’. Lighting is structurally different for us than what is lighted, it directs our gaze and our gaze can be thought of as a kind of lighting too. This is why lighting becomes “neutral” for us in perception e.g. indoors we quickly lose the “yellowness” of electric lighting. The other elements in the visual perceptual structure are the organisation of the field and the thing illuminated. The constancy of colour vision is only one instance of this constancy of the seen-thing-illuminated.

Tactile localisation of objects in space is by definition bodily. With touch, we intuit the bodily nature of perception more easily. Hence tactile experience ‘never quite becomes an object’.

Depth is usually thought of as “breadth seen from the side”, but it isn’t. Depth is logically given before any apparent sizes of objects, it is the possibility of bringing an object to be in front of me, in my intentional grasp. Similarly, breadth and height are derivative relations orientated according to my body, which defines the base coordinates.

The constancy of sizes and shapes in perception is not an intellectual synthesis, it is a bodily synthesis for our projects. Hence the moon on the horizon always appears larger than at its zenith.

Animals are not as clever as us and don’t have full consciousness (p327 – just have to disagree with this]

It’s impossible to conceive of a subject without a world – ‘any definition of the world would be merely a summary…conveying nothing to us’… the fact that primordially or pre-philosophically we perceive and have an idea of subjectivity, is actually a condition of being able to analyse it any further.

Being a bodily subject is not some kind of “limited subjectivity”, rather it is exactly this fact which gives us the chance to experience the world in its entirety.

The real is what is continually explorable and investigatable. The difference between hallucinations and real experience is that a spatio-temporal path logically exists both for the subject and the subject’s intersubjective companions to confirm the experience further.

When involved in dialogue or other projects with other people, “we have here a dual being… we are collaborators for each other”.

When I think of someone else, I don’t think of ‘a flow of private sensations indirectly related to mine through the medium of interposed signs’; instead, I have with me someone ‘who has a living experience of the same world as mine…as well as the same history, and with whom I am in communication through that world and that history’.

A mathematical hypothesis is already intuitively presumed to be true – without this intuition, we wouldn’t look for the “rational” proof to confirm it; as Socrates says in the Meno, we can’t look for something if we have no idea at all what we are looking for. A triangle is an act of the productive imagination, my power to always draw new triangles through a possible project of motor-movement or motility through space-time, and not the positing of a Platonic idea of a triangle.

Memory is an effort to “re-open” the past, including the tenses of relations to other events past and future to which it stood at that time. The time in which we live is essentially subjective. Past and future are defined against the present of and presence to a subjective body. When laid out as “before” and “after”, time loses it’s subjectivity, but for us to understand events we need to unlock the events in such a way that we resituate ourselves as the present in relation to other events – ‘I know that I was in Corsica before the war, because I know that the war was on the horizon of my trip there’ (p414). ‘Time is not a line, but a network of intentionalities’(p417).

Freedom is determined by what projects I have in the world. A rock is only an obstacle if something or someone wants to get round or over it. Free decisions also lead to commitments to not constantly abandon those projects which the free decisions set in motion. Freedom is not determined by motives or reasons, since there are always reasons to justify any decision.. We are not entirely free, in so far as we don’t choose everything about how the world we inherit now is (or was, or will be), or what our bodily possibilities are, but we are free in so far as we can decide on projects which can possibly be carried out.

‘Even a philosopher’s thought is merely a way of making explicit his hold on the world, and what he is’ (p455)

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