The World of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty

“To love reason…-to crave the eternal when we are beginning to know ever more about the reality of our time, to want the clearest concept when the thing itself is ambiguous–this is to prefer the word ‘reason’ to the exercise of reason. To restore [the Cartesian ideal] is never to reestablish; it is to mask.” (82, and I don’t doubt that the last sentence sounds much better in French).

Of course there’s a lot of good here. It’s short, first of all (especially compared to The Phenomenology of Perception), very, very clear (e.g., “We can no longer draw an absolute distinction between space and the things which occupy it”), and the introduction, by Thomas Baldwin (who edited the Basic Writings (Routledge, 2003) of Merleau-Ponty), is suitably impatient with MMP’s lapses (e.g., MMP’s exaggeration of the independence of works of art from referentiality). (The introduction, however, should not have omitted MMP’s troublesome Humanism and Terror from its summary of his career).

Of course I can praise MMP for phenomenology itself. I’m glad to see pretensions of mastery confounded and a community of bodied selves replace the doubting individuals of Descartes. It is even at times a world that calls us into self-consciousness (65), where the world conditions us (“Humanity is invested in the things of the world and these are invested in it”). It also includes a chapter on “animal life” that argues that we should “live alongside the world of animals instead of rashly denying it any kind of interiority” and speaks against “project[ing] onto animals the principal characteristics of human existence.” Yet it flits away from these insights almost as soon as they’re made.

The world it considers is a world primarily of objects, encountered from our individual, always shifting vantage points, and it is, above all, a world of other people. But its phenomenology is strangely unerotic, and throughout anthropocentric: it spreads the human out, but leaves it intact; and where I expected a bodied self in ecstatic motion in/with the world and other self-objects, I found a subject considering, and considering its considering. Let’s blame existentialism for MMP’s choice to discuss the bodiment of anger (instead of love, or eating) and for his references to the burden of being called to action in a “world which excludes neither fissures nor lacunae.” But let’s also blame “perception” itself, which doesn’t consider enough what happens when the world looks back at us, when it touches us, when we discover ourselves in it rather than (just) perceiving it, when it ceases to be an it.

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