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The Flesh of the World: Maurice Merleau-Ponty

April 13, 2012

Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty emphasized the body as the primary site of knowing the world, a corrective to the long philosophical tradition of placing consciousness as the source of knowledge, and that the body and that which it perceived could not be disentangled from each other. The articulation of the primacy of embodiment led him away from phenomenology towards what he was to call “indirect ontology” or the ontology of “the flesh of the world” [la chair du monde], seen in his last incomplete work, The Visible and Invisible, and his last published essay, “Eye and Mind.”

To Merleau-Ponty, perception was not a channel that simply filters in information from a separate environment, but rather it is a kind of interconnected interaction of body/environ. ‘Consciousness’ is the result of this interaction.

“(Merleau-Ponty)… takes out all the existential stuff… anxiety, risk, that doesn’t interest him. What interests him is coping, how you are able to be an expert and respond to the particular situation. The Phenomenology of Perception is a brilliant book that goes against the whole philosophical tradition. You don’t need concepts, you don’t need rules, they don’t guide action, they don’t organize your perceptual experience. It’s the way your body has of emmediatley grasping the gestalt of what’s going on, or failing to, and then doing it better next time.” -Hubert Dreyfus

“The basic idea in Merleau-Ponty, is that we are always moving to get an optimal grip…even in perception, just in perceiving… He says if you get to close, there are to many details, if you get to far away, you lose the details. He talks about how in a museum your body is just led by a picture to move to the optimal distance, where you see the maximum richness, as he put’s it, of the detail, and the maximum clarity of the form. When you perceive ordinary objects you move around them and so forth, and you are led by the object, calling on your body, it’s just outside of what your mind does or could do. The object just calls you to get in the best relation to see it.” – Hubert Dreyfus on Phenomenology of Perception by Merleau-Ponty

“When you are skillfully coping, in flow, without thinking, without rules, your body in its skills is drawing you to get this optimal grip on the situation.” – (ibid)

Merleau-Ponty coined the term “primacy of perception.” We are first perceiving the world, then we do philosophy. What is characteristic of his account of perception is the centrality that the body plays. We perceive the world through our bodies; we are embodied subjects, involved in existence. Further the ability to reflect comes from a pre-reflective ground that serves as the foundation for reflecting on actions. His account of the body helps him undermine what had been a long standing conception of consciousness which hinges on the distinction between the for-itself (subject) and in-itself (object) which plays a central role in Sartre’s philosophy.

Sensations for Merleau-Ponty are the ‘unit of experience’. He wants to explore the ‘pre-objective realm’ of our lived experience. We cannot understand the ‘objective world’ without lived experience of the world. The senses in perceiving the objects in the world are not separate, but overlap and ‘transgress’ each other’s boundaries.(Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, (Routledge, 2000) p. 422)

When I perceive a motorcycle drive past me, I see it, but I am also hearing the engine, smelling the fumes and feeling its vibrations. All of these sensory imputs(sensations) come together as an experience of a “motorcycle”.

“All the senses are fundamentally, one sense. They are various forms of touch.” -Alan Watts (‘The World as Self’ Lecture, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmvrFuc6bdc)

There are no pure sensations for Merleau-Ponty. The closest thing we get to a pure sensation is imagining the world around us, imagining the things in our world being around us. As Merleau-Ponty puts it: “the greyness which, when I close my eyes, surrounds me, leaving no distance between me and it”.(Merleau-Ponty, PP, p. 9)

Basically, you can’t perceive something, unless there is something to relate it to, otherwise there is oneness/nothingness.

The lived body has an essential structure of its own which cannot be captured by the language and concepts used to explain inanimate objects in the world, that is, the lived body is directed toward an experiencing world. The world of everyday experience is described as the “lived-through-world”.(Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, Northern University Press, 1964) p. 71)

This contrasts from Descartes idea of the body. Our lived and objective body allows us to perceive the world as one entity; Merleau-Ponty claims that the unity of experienced objects is not accomplished through the application of mental rules and categories, but through pre-conscious power of bodily synthesis. One does not separate the senses individually, such as auditory and visual experiences, the synthesis of the senses of the body allow us to perceive a unified world. This extends beyond the sense organs in that we move spatially in the world, extending sensation into perception. One can perceive objects in the world relative to their purpose and significance to the lived body’s needs and capacities. The objects in the world display themselves, in other words to look at an object is to inhabit it.(Merleau-Ponty 1964: 68)

The world is not a spectacle with the body as an observer; rather the world is given as a system of possibilities, not as an “I think” but as an “I can.”

Merleau-Ponty tells us that the most important lesson of the phenomenological reduction is that a complete reduction is impossible. Why? Because that “subject” to whom we are returned is not a transcendental subject, but a subject that emerges from nature.

David Abram explains Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “flesh” (chair) as “the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,” and he identifies this elemental matrix with the interdependent web of earthly life. (Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than Human World. Pantheon Books, New York. pp. 66.)

This concept unites subject and object dialectically as determinations within a more primordial reality, which Merleau-Ponty calls “the flesh,” and which Abram refers to variously as “the animate earth,” “the breathing biosphere,” or “the more-than-human natural world.” Yet this is not nature or the biosphere conceived as a complex set of objects and objective processes, but rather “the biosphere as it is experienced and lived from within by the intelligent body — by the attentive human animal who is entirely a part of the world that he, or she, experiences. Merleau-Ponty’s ecophenemonology with its emphasis on holistic dialog within the larger than-human world also has implications for the ontogenesis and phylogenesis of language, indeed he states that “language is the very voice of the trees, the waves and the forest.” (Abram 1996: 65. )

Merleau-Ponty himself refers to “that primordial being which is not yet the subject-being nor the object-being and which in every respect baffles reflection. From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break…” (The Concept of Nature, I, Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France 1952-1960. Northwestern University Press. 1970. pp. 65–66.)

Among the many working notes found on his desk at the time of his death, and published with the half-complete manuscript of The Visible and the Invisible, several make evident that Merleau-Ponty himself recognized a deep affinity between his notion of a primordial “flesh” and a radically transformed understanding of “nature.” Hence in November 1960 he writes: “Do a psychoanalysis of Nature: it is the flesh, the mother. (The Visible and the Invisible. Northwestern University Press. 1968. pp. 267.)

“Phenomenological philosophy had, since its inception, aimed at a rigorous description of things as they appear to an experiencing consciousness. Yet the body had remained curiously external to this “transcendental” consciousness. Merleau-Ponty was the first phenomenologist to identify the body, itself, as the conscious subject of experience. Transcendence, no longer a special property of the abstract intellect, becomes in his Phenomenology a capacity of the physiological body itself—its power of responding to other bodies, of touching, hearing, and seeing things, resonating with things. Perception is this ongoing transcendence, the ecstatic nature of the living body.

Our civilized distrust of the senses and of the body engenders a metaphysical detachment from the sensible world — it fosters the illusion that we ourselves are not a part of the world that we study, that we can objectively stand apart from that world, as spectators, and can thus determine its workings from outside. A renewed attentiveness to bodily experience

The sensible world that surrounds us must, it would seem, be recognized as a sensitive physiology in its own right.” (Abram, D. “Merleau-Ponty and the voice of the Earth”) (http://www.wildethics.org/essays/merleau_ponty_and_the_voice_of_the_earth.html)

For Merleau-Ponty, the world and the sense of self are emergent phenomena in an ongoing “becoming.” This is a Taoist and Zen motif, heavily discussed in Alan Watt’s book The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.

Consciousness in not located in your brain or heart or anywhere in the body. It is also not located outside of the body. Consciousness is not a thing. Consciousness is the interplay, the action, the verb, of bodies/environment. Essentially, even the term environment is unnecessary; it’s just interactions of bodies, plant and animal bodies with planetary bodies, planetary bodies with stellar bodies, stellar bodies with galactic bodies, etc.

The Earth and myself are of one mind– Chief Joseph (Nez Perce)

I salute the light within your eyes where the whole universe dwells. For when you are at the center within yourself and I within mine, we shall be as one– Crazy Horse (Lakota)

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