In my last few posts, I’ve been working my way through the ideas set down by the late great Hubert Dreyfus. While I end up disagreeing with Dreyfus on a number of issues, particularly on the role of conceptuality in practical action, I still see him as largely setting the terms of the debate. As part of my effort to understand Dreyfus, I’ve been undertaking a parallel study of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who had a pronounced influence on Dreyfus. Below is a short summary of how I understand a few of Merleau-Ponty’s key insights. (Readers familiar with Merleau-Ponty won’t find too much ground-breaking interpretation in this post, but it does serve to ground the larger investigation I’ve been engaged in.)
His major work, Phenomenology of Perception, was first published in France in 1945. As the title indicates, the work deals with articulating a philosophy of perception. Drawing from his predecessors Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty in this effort gave primacy to the body’s practical comportment with the lifeworld (Lebenswelt), the historically situated and intersubjective horizon of experience from which all theoretical and scientific investigation begins, and to which it must always return. In emphasizing the body’s dynamic behavior as central to epistemological investigation—a move seen as early as his 1942 work The Structure of Behavior—Merleau-Ponty continued the work of his predecessors in returning to twentieth century philosophy the central role of embodiment in philosophy and psychology alike (the latter effort being greatly informed by gestalt theory and the neurological sciences of Merleau-Ponty’s day).
Everything in Phenomenology of Perception starts with our being-in-the-world (être au monde). In the opening pages of the work, Merleau-Ponty writes, “This world is not what I think, but what I live [ce que je vis]; I am open to the world, I unquestionably communicate with it, but I do not possess it, it is inexhaustible.” In emphasizing being-in-the-world, Merleau-Ponty places the two poles of this correlation—being, on the one hand, and the world, on the other—as co-constituting, or as mutually co-arising. As Taylor Carman has noted, this being-in-the-world correlation suggests that what we understand the world to be, on the one hand, is rooted in our bodily dispositions and capacities, and, on the other, that our bodily dispositions and capacities in turn are rooted in engagements with world, with how it solicits and demands certain responses from us. Merleau-Ponty’s account here holds some relation to his predecessor Husserl’s account of intentionality, which suggest that intentional content, or noema, is correlated with a mental act of representation, or noesis, the point being that every act of perception is directed toward an object that furnishes the material for our representation. In short, what we see in perception is limited by what we are capable of representing to ourselves in consciousness.
As a species of phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty shares a certain family resemblance with Husserl’s work; however, at the same time, Merleau-Ponty also observed that Husserl’s account, at least in its earlier formulations, placed too much emphasis on an abstract and intellectually distanced understanding of perception and representation, one that placed too much weight on the “I think” at the expense of the “I live.” Merleau-Ponty finds such representational accounts—which would include not only early Husserlian phenomenology but also Cartesian ideas and Kantian representations (Vorstellungen)—insufficient for accounting for the genesis of ideas and representations in the body’s prereflective understanding of the world. In other words, Merleau-Ponty sees in Descartes, Husserl, and Kant an account of perception that is not necessarily incorrect but is rather one that emerges only at a fairly late stage in the phenomenology of perception, the key insight being that what were for earlier philosophers foundations or adequate grounds for building up philosophy are in Merleau-Ponty’s estimation merely derivatives of a prior genesis of perception, rooted in the body.
In rejecting the priority of ideas and representations in his account of perception, both hallmarks of rationalist and intellectualist traditions, Merleau-Ponty seems well poised to articulate a new empiricist philosophy in the spirit of a John Locke or a David Hume. But Merleau-Ponty is neither an intellectualist nor an empiricist, in the strict sense, though he recovers important insights from both traditions. For example, on his reformed sense of intentionality, Carman writes, “Intentionality, he insists, is constituted neither by brute sensations, nor by conceptual content, but by noncognitive—indeed often unconscious—bodily skills and dispositions.” Thus while Merleau-Ponty rejected the traditional image of the “I” both as a Cartesian cogito and as a Kantian transcendental unity of apperception, he does not put in its place an empirical tabula rasa awaiting inscription by the contingencies of a relative cultural world. Instead, beneath the traditional cogito Merleau-Ponty finds what he a calls a “tacit cogito,” a body practically engaged with the world before any “I think” can transpire.
As Donald Landes has noted, Merleau-Ponty’s tacit cogito amounts to a rejection of both the empiricist and intellectualist traditions, whilst still recovering elements of both. On Landes’s telling, the empiricist explanation fails for Merleau-Ponty because its atomistic account of external causes of perception cannot ever add up to the kind of meanings, senses, and inferences that serve as the basis for encountering things in the first place. With this move, Merleau-Ponty sounds like a good Kantian—intuitions without concepts are blind, concepts without intuitions are empty. As we have already seen, though, Merleau-Ponty is no Kantian in the traditional sense, as he feels it is phenomenologically suspicious to suppose that a transcendental consciousness somehow stands apart from all empirical experience, constituting the unity of the objects of perception from afar. In this rejection, Merleau-Ponty takes the transcendental image of consciousness to task on empirical and phenomenological grounds.
As Landes goes on to describe, Merleau-Ponty offers a new version of the rational–empirical synthesis—an alternative to the older picture expressed in the Kantian synthesis of concept and intuition—by grounding perception in the dynamics of an intelligent body. In this dynamic, the perceived world is still tightly coupled with the perceiving subject, as in the traditional Kantian image, but in place of a universal and transcendental apparatus of cognition, Merleau-Ponty argues for a “transcendental field” rooted in the particular skills of the body’s engagement with the world. This is an existential notion of the transcendental, one which rejects the idea that perception is an intellectual determination executed by a detached subject. Instead, the embodied or existential structure is one wherein environmental solicitations draw responses from a subject who must navigate a complex and unfolding landscape of situated activity.
Merleau-Ponty in this sense accepts the rationalist or transcendental position that argues all sensation must be situated within a larger field of sense not provided by immediate empirical experience, but he also accepts with the empiricist that this field of sense must have a genetic basis in the contingent encounters of living beings in the world. However, in also rejecting parts of the empirical account of perception, Merleau-Ponty argues that sensation cannot be merely an aggregate of pure sense impressions. “If we return to phenomena,” writes Merleau-Ponty, “they show us that the apprehension of a quality—exactly like the apprehension of size—is tied to an entire perceptual context, and the stimuli no longer give us the indirect means that we sought for delimiting a layer of direct impressions.”
In appealing to this “field of sense,” Merleau-Ponty suggests that there is no “elementary” event or impression that can be built up into “higher-level” functions. In other words, “punctual sensations” cannot be the basis for building up a phenomenologically robust account of perception or experience, and thus Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is also a rejection of traditional empiricism. He writes that we only mistakenly “place pure sensation at the beginning [of experience] and believe it to be anterior to knowledge.”
Stated more forcefully, Merleau-Ponty writes, “The contiguity and the resemblance of stimuli are not prior to the construction of the whole,” rather, the whole of perception, along with its various empirical details, emerges simultaneously, and in fact it is only because of the mutual arising of a whole within which empirical details can be said to a have sense in relation to one another that we achieve something like intelligible experiences at all. In more poetic language, Merleau-Ponty continues to draw out the same point, “By returning to phenomena, we find, as a fundamental layer, a whole already pregnant with an irreducible sense . . . to perceive is not to experience a multitude of impressions that bring along with them some memories capable of completing them, it is to see an immanent sense bursting forth from a constellation of givens without which no call to memory is possible.”
Merleau-Ponty here clearly rejects a philosophy of experience built up piece-by-piece through atomistic sense impressions, but as we’ve also seen, he also overturns the representational account of the rationalist tradition. In rejecting both traditions, Merleau-Ponty writes, “What was lacking for empiricism was an internal connection between the act it triggers. What intellectualism lacks is the contingency of the opportunities for thought. Consciousness is too poor in the first case and too rich in the second for any phenomena to solicit it.”
In the place of empiricism and intellectualism, Merleau-Ponty offers his own descriptions of perception as always a kind of active interpretation, drawn forward by the solicitations of the environment. “Vision,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “is already inhabited by a sense that gives it a function in the spectacle of the world and in our existence.” In other words, vision is from the start a kind of sense-filled understanding, a specific mode of interpretation; even at the level of physiological perception a horizon of sense anchors experience. Merleau-Ponty continues, “Once perception is understood as interpretation, sensation, which served as the point of departure, is definitively left behind—every perceptual consciousness being already beyond sensation.”
In other words, the matrix of associations active between sensations requires, alleges Merleau-Ponty, a horizon of sense within which perceptions can be meaningfully apprehended. To be sure, Merleau-Ponty’s notions of the horizon does bare a passing resemblance to earlier Kantian notions of a transcendental subject; however, whereas the transcendental subject was conceived as unchanging and transparent to itself, the horizon is partial, lived, and perspectival. As Merleau-Ponty notes of this shift, “The center of philosophy is no longer an autonomous transcendental subjectivity, situated everywhere and nowhere, but is rather found in the perpetual beginning of reflection at that point when an individual life begins to reflect upon itself.”
While Merleau-Ponty commits himself here to a coordination between sense and perception, as we have already seen he is no traditional representationalist. And yet, in his notion of vision and perception as always filled with sense, it is hard to ignore the presence of something like an organizing idea within his phenomenology of perception. On this point, as Landes notes, the idea is refigured less as a unit of representation stored in the intellect and more as a specific mode of apprehension in the body. “An idea is not a thing; it is a field that includes a depth of latent intentions and sedimentations that immediately orient me and give me its sense.” As a consequence of this view, Merleau-Ponty argues, “Judgment presupposes an already accomplished recognition in the structure of the field of perception itself.”
Merleau-Ponty’s reflections here move from the explication of an existing transcendental structure (as in Kant), to an account of its genesis and variability, to a recognition of our being-in-the-world prior to any intellectual or scientific reconstruction of our situation, to the historical inheritance of subjectivity and its conditioned and situated character. In this realization, says Merleau-Ponty, “Consciousness must be brought face to face with its unreflective life in things and must awaken to its own, forgotten, history—this is the true role of philosophical reflection” where “the fundamental philosophical act would thus be to return to the lived world beneath the objective world.”
 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, lxxx–lxxxi.
 Carman, “Foreword,” x–xi. This tight coupling between being and world seems to commit Merleau-Ponty to an aggressive anti-realism about the more-than-human-world. However, he’s clear that “world” does not refer to anything but our understanding of the overall environments we inhabit, not the universe itself. Merleau-Ponty clarifies, “The notion of a universe (a completed and explicit totality where relations would be determined) exceeds the notion of a world (an open and indefinite multiplicity where relations are reciprocally implicated)” (Phenomenology of Perception, 73).
 Ibid., x.
 Landes, “Translator’s Introduction,” xxx.
 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 9.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 23.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 52.
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 63.
 Landes, “Translator’s Introduction,” xlv
 Ibid., xxxix.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 57.