Phenomenology of Perception
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Phenomenology of Perception

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

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eBook - ePub

Phenomenology of Perception

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

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First published in 1945, Maurice Merleau-Ponty's monumental Phénoménologie de la perception signalled the arrival of a major new philosophical and intellectual voice in post-war Europe. Breaking with the prevailing picture of existentialism and phenomenology at the time, it has become one of the landmark works of twentieth-century thought. This new translation, the first for over fifty years, makes this classic work of philosophy available to a new generation of readers.

Phenomenology of Perception stands in the great phenomenological tradition of Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre. Yet Merleau-Ponty's contribution is decisive, as he brings this tradition and other philosophical predecessors, particularly Descartes and Kant, to confront a neglected dimension of our experience: the lived body and the phenomenal world. Charting a bold course between the reductionism of science on the one hand and "intellectualism" on the other, Merleau-Ponty argues that we should regard the body not as a mere biological or physical unit, but as the body which structures one's situation and experience within the world.

Merleau-Ponty enriches his classic work with engaging studies of famous cases in the history of psychology and neurology as well as phenomena that continue to draw our attention, such as phantom limb syndrome, synaesthesia, and hallucination. This new translation includes many helpful features such as the reintroduction of Merleau-Ponty's discursive Table of Contents as subtitles into the body of the text, a comprehensive Translator's Introduction to its main themes, essential notes explaining key terms of translation, an extensive Index, and an important updating of Merleau-Ponty's references to now available English translations.

Also included is a new foreword by Taylor Carman and an introduction to Merleau-Ponty by Claude Lefort.

Translated by Donald A. Landes.

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Part One

The Body


[a. Experience and objective thought.]
Our perception ends in objects, and the object, once constituted, appears as the reason for all the experiences of it that we have had or that we could have. For example, I see the neighboring house from a particular angle. It would be seen differently from the right bank of the Seine, from the inside of the house, and differently still from an airplane. Not one of these appearances is the house itself. The house, as Leibniz said, is the geometrical plan [le géométral]2 that includes these perspectives and all possible perspectives; that is, the non-perspectival term from which all perspectives can be derived; the house itself is the house seen from nowhere. But what do these words mean? To see is always to see from somewhere, is it not? If we say that the house is seen from nowhere, are we not just saying that it is invisible? And yet, when I say “I see the house with my eyes,” surely I am not saying anything controversial, for I do not mean that my retina and my crystalline lens, or that my eyes as material organs are operational and make me see the house. With only myself to examine, I know nothing of these things. With this assertion I wish to express a certain manner of reaching the object, namely, the “gaze,” which is as indubitable as my own thought, and which I know just as directly. We must attempt to understand how vision can come about from somewhere without thereby being locked within its perspective.
To see an object is either to have it in the margins of the visual field and to be able to focus on it, or actually to respond to this solicitation by focusing on it. When I focus on it, I anchor myself in it, but this “pausing” of the gaze is but a modality of its movement: I continue within one object the same exploration that, just a moment ago, surveyed all of them. With a single movement, I close off the landscape and open up the object. The two operations do not coincide accidentally: the contingencies of my bodily organization, such as the structure of my retina, are not what necessitates my seeing the surroundings as blurred if I wish to see the object in focus. Even if I knew nothing of cones and rods, I would still understand that it is necessary to suspend the surroundings in order to see the object better, and to lose in the background what is gained in the figure, because to see the object is to plunge into it and because objects form a system in which one object cannot appear without concealing others. More precisely, the inner horizon of an object cannot become an object without the surrounding objects becoming an horizon, and so vision is a two-sided act. For I do not identify the detailed object that I now have with the one I glanced over a moment ago through an explicit comparison of these details with a memory of the initial overview. Compare this to a film when the camera focuses on an object and moves in to give us a close-up of it. In this case we can surely remember that we are seeing an ashtray or a character’s hand, but we do not actually identify it as such. This is because the screen has no horizons. In vision, however, I apply my gaze to a fragment of the landscape, which becomes animated and displayed, while the other objects recede into the margins and become dormant, but they do not cease to be there. Now, along with these other objects, I also have their horizons at my disposal, and the object I am currently focusing on – seen peripherally – is implied in these other horizons. The horizon, then, is what assures the identity of the object throughout the exploration, it is the correlate of the imminent power my gaze has over the objects that it has just glanced over and the power it already has over the new details that it is about to discover. No express memory and no explicit conjecture could play this role – they could only provide a probable synthesis, whereas my perception is given as actual.
The object–horizon structure, that is, perspective, thus does not hamper my desire to see the object. Although it may be the means that objects have of concealing themselves, it is also the means that they have of unveiling themselves. To see is to enter into a universe of beings that show themselves, and they could not show themselves if they could not also be hidden behind each other or behind me. In other words, to see an object is to come to inhabit it and to thereby grasp all things according to the sides these other things turn toward this object. And yet, to the extent that I also see those things, they remain places open to my gaze and, being virtually situated in them, I already perceive the central object of my present vision from different angles. Each object, then, is the mirror of all the others. When I see the lamp on my table, I attribute to it not merely the qualities that are visible from my location, but also those that the fireplace, the walls, and the table can “see.” The back of my lamp is merely the face that it “shows” to the fireplace. Thus, I can see one object insofar as objects form a system or a world, and insofar as each of them arranges the others around itself like spectators of its hidden aspects and as the guarantee of their permanence. Each act of seeing that I perform is instantly reiterated among all the objects of the world that are grasped as coexistent because each object just is all that the others “see” of it. Thus, our formula above must be modified: the house itself is not the house seen from nowhere, but rather the house seen from everywhere. The fully realized object is translucent, it is shot through from all sides by an infinity of present gazes intersecting in its depth and leaving nothing there hidden.
What we have just said about spatial perspective could also be said about temporal perspective. If I examine the house attentively and unreflectively, it seems eternal, and a sort of wonder emanates from it. Of course, I see it from a certain point in my duration, but it is the same house that I saw yesterday when it was one day younger; an old man and a child gaze upon the same house. The house surely has its own age and its own changes; however, even if it collapses tomorrow, it will always remain true that it existed today. Each moment of time gives itself as a witness to all the others. It shows, by taking place, “how this was bound to happen” and “how it will have ended.” Each present definitively establishes a point of time that solicits the recognition of all others. Thus, the object is seen from all times just as it is seen from all places, and by the same means, namely, the horizon structure. The present still holds in hand the immediate past, but without positing it as an object, and since this immediate past likewise retains the past that immediately preceded it, time gone by is entirely taken up and grasped in the present. The same goes for the imminent future that will itself have its own horizon of imminence. But along with my immediate past, I also have the horizon of the future that surrounded it; that is, I have my actual present seen as the future of that past. Along with the imminent future, I also have the horizon of the past that will surround it; that is, I have my actual present as the past of that future. Thus, thanks to the double horizon of retention and protention, my present can cease to be a present that is in fact about to be carried off and destroyed by the flow of duration and can rather become a fixed and identifiable point in an objective time.
But again, my human gaze never posits more than one side of the object, even if by means of horizons it intends all the others. My gaze can only be compared with previous acts of seeing or with the acts of seeing accomplished by others through the intermediary of time and language. If I imagine, taking my own gaze as a model, the gazes that scour the house from all directions and define the house itself, I still have but a concordant and indefinite series of points of view upon the object, I do not have the object in its fullness. In the same way, even though my present condenses within itself the time gone by and the time to come, it only possesses them in intention. And if, for example, the consciousness that I now have of my past appears to me to match precisely what it was, this past that I claim to take hold of again is not itself the past in person; it is my past such as I now see it, and I have perhaps altered it. Perhaps in the future I will similarly misjudge the present that I am currently living. Thus the synthesis of horizons is but a presumptive synthesis, it only operates with certainty and precision within the object’s immediate surroundings. I no longer hold in hand the more distant surroundings, for it no longer consists in still identifiable objects or memories; rather, it is an anonymous horizon that can no longer provide precise testimony, it leaves the object incomplete and open, as it in fact is in perceptual experience. Through this openness, the substantiality of the object slips away. If the object is to achieve a perfect density or, in other words, if there is to be an absolute object, it must be an infinity of different perspectives condensed into a strict coexistence, and it must be given as if through a single act of vision comprising a thousand gazes. The house has its water pipes, its foundation, and perhaps its cracks growing secretly in the thickness of the ceilings. We never see them, but it has them, together with its windows or chimneys that are visible for us. We will forget our present perception of the house: each time that we can compare our memories with the objects to which they refer, allowing for other reasons for error, we are surprised by the changes the objects owe to their own duration. We believe, however, that there is a truth of the past, we base our memory upon an immense world-Memory in which the house figures just as it truly was that day and that grounds its current being. Taken in itself – and as an object it demands to be taken as such – the object conceals nothing: it is fully spread out and its parts coexist while our gaze skims over them one by one; its present does not efface its past, and its future will not efface its present. The positing of the object thus takes us beyond the limits of our actual experience, which throws itself against a foreign being such that, in the end, experience believes it draws from the object everything that experience itself teaches us. The ecstasy [extase]3 of this experience makes it such that every perception is perception of something.
[b. The problem of the body.]
Obsessed with being, and forgetting the perspectivism of my experience, I henceforth treat my experience as an object and I deduce it from a relation among objects. I consider my body, which is my point of view upon the world, as one of the objects of that world. I repress the consciousness that I had of my gaze as a means of knowing and I treat my eyes as fragments of matter. From then on my eyes are placed within the same objective space where I attempt to situate the exterior object and I believe that the projection of the objects upon my retina brings about the perceived perspective. Likewise, I treat my own perceptual history as a result of my relations with the objective world. My present, which is my point of view upon time, becomes one moment of time among all others, my duration becomes a reflection or an abstract appearance of universal time, and my body becomes a mode of objective space. And finally, if the objects that surround the house or inhabit it remained what they are in perceptual experience, that is, gazes limited to a specific perspective, then the house would not be posited as an autonomous being. Thus, the positing [position] of a single object in the full sense of the word requires the composition [or co-positing] of all of these experiences in a single, polythetic act. Therein it exceeds perceptual experience and the synthesis of horizons – just as the notion of a universe (a completed and explicit totality where relations would be reciprocally determined) exceeds the notion of a world (an open and indefinite multiplicity where relations are reciprocally implicated).4 I take flight from my experience and I pass over to the idea. Like the object, the idea claims to be the same for everyone, valid for all times and for all places, and the individuation of the object at an objective point of time and space appears, in the end, as the expression of a universal positing power.5 I no longer pay attention to my body, to time, or to the world such as I live them in pre-predicative knowledge, that is, in the inner communication that I have with them. I only speak of my body as an idea, of the universe as an idea, and of the idea of space and of time. Thus is formed “objective” thought (in Kierkegaard’s sense) – the objective thought of common sense and of science – which in the end makes us lose contact with the perceptual experience of which it is nevertheless the result and the natural continuation. The whole life of consciousness tends to posit objects, since it is only consciousness (or self-knowledge) insofar as it takes itself up and gathers itself together in an identifiable object. And yet the absolute positing of a single object is the death of consciousness, since it congeals all of experience, as a seed crystal introduced into a solution causes it suddenly to crystallize.
We cannot remain within this dilemma of understanding either nothing of the subject or nothing of the object. We must rediscover the origin of the object at the very core of our experience, we must describe the appearance of being, and we must come to understand how, paradoxically, there is for-us an in-itself. Not wanting to prejudge anything, we will take objective thought literally and not ask it any questions it does not ask itself. If we are led to rediscover experience behind it, this passage will only be motivated by its own difficulties. Let us, then, consider objective thought at work in the constitution of our body as an object, since this is a decisive moment in the genesis of the objective world. We will see that, in science itself, one’s own body evades the treatment that they wish to impose upon it.6 And since the genesis of the objective body is but a moment in the constitution of the object, the body, by withdrawing from the objective world, will carry with it the intentional threads that unite it to its surroundings and that, in the end, will reveal to us the perceiving subject as well as the perceived world.




[a. Neural physiology itself goes beyond causal thought.]
The definition of the object is, as we have seen, that it exists partes extra partes1 and thus only admits of external and mechanical relations among its parts or between itself and other objects, either in the strict sense of a received and transmitted movement or in the larger sense of a relation of function to variable. In order to insert the organism into the universe of objects and to thereby seal off this universe, the functioning of the body had to be expressed in the language of the in-itself and the linear dependence between stimulus and receptor, or between receptor and Empfinder [the one sensing], had to be discovered beneath the level of behavior.2 Of course, it was conceded that new determinations emerge in the circuit of behavior. For example, the theory of specific nervous energy3 granted the organism the power to transform the physical world. But this theory in fact attributed to the nervous apparatus the occult power of creating the different structures of our experience, and although vision, touch, and hearing are so many ways of reaching the object, these structures were transformed into compact qualities and were derived from the local distinction between the organs in question. The relation between stimulus and perception could thus remain clear and objective; the psycho-physical event was of the same order as the relations of “worldly” causality.
Modern physiology no longer resorts to these tricks. It no longer links the different qualities of the same sense and the givens of the different senses to distinct material instruments. In fact, central lesions, and even lesions to conductors, do not translate into the loss of certain sensible qualities or of certain sensory givens; rather, they result in a lack of differentiation of the function. We have already shown this above: regardless of the location of the lesion along the sensory pathways, and regardless of its genesis, what is experienced is, for example, a decomposition of color sensitivity. All colors are initially affected, their fundamental shade remains the same but their saturation decreases. Then, the spectrum simplifies and reduces to four colors: yellow, green, blue, and red-purple. In fact, all colors with a short wavelength tend toward a sort of blue, while all colors with a long wavelength tend toward a sort of yellow. Moreover, vision itself varies from one moment to the next, according to the degree of fatigue. In the end, a monochromatic gray is reached, although favorable conditions (contrast, long exposure) may momentarily bring back a dichromatism.4 The progression of the lesion in the nervous substance thus does not destroy ready-made sensible contents one by one, but rather renders the active differentiation of the stimulations, which appears to be the essential function of the nervous system, increasingly uncertain. Likewise, in cases of non-cortical lesions of tactile sensitivity, if certain contents (temperatures, for example) are more fragile and disappear first, this cannot be because a determinate region (destroyed in the patient) enables us to sense hot and cold, for the specific sensation will be restored if an extended-enough stimulus is applied.5 Rather, it is because the stimulation now only succeeds in taking on its typical form for a stronger stimulus. Central lesions seem to leave the qualities intact and rather modify the spatial organization of the givens and the perception of objects. This led to the supposition of mystical centers specialized in the localization and interpretation of qualities. In fact, modern research shows that central lesions act above all by raising the chronaxies,6 which are twenty or thirty times higher in the patient. The stimulation produces its effects more slowly, they survive longer, and the tactile perception of roughness, for example, is compromised insofar as it assumes a series of circumscribed impressions or a precise consciousness of different hand positions.7 The vague localization of the stimulus is not explained by the destruction of a localizing center, but by the leveling out of stimulations that no longer succeed in organizing themselves into a stable whole where each of them would receive a univocal value and would only be expressed in consciousness through a definite change.8 So the stimulations of a single sense differ less by the material instrument they use than by the manner in which the elementary stimuli are spontaneously organized among themselves. This organization is the decisive factor both a...

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Citation styles for Phenomenology of Perception
APA 6 Citation
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2013). Phenomenology of Perception (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (2013) 2013. Phenomenology of Perception. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2013) Phenomenology of Perception. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.