Posted by: Xhyra Graf | 1 February 2007

Maurice Merleau-Ponty Thus we see that the consciousness for which the Gestalt exists is not an intellectual consciousness, rather it is a perceptual consciousness. He writes, “The real is a closely woven fabric” (PP, x). It is not constituted out of acts of judgment, or acts of predication. If this were the case, then it would have the character of probability. I would be constantly readjusting the synthesis which gave my representations the status of reality. He argues that this is not the case, and that even the most improbable phenomena are immediately accepted as real. For example, if I were to see a number of cows in the corridor of The New School for Social Research, my first question would be, “What are these cows doing in The New School?” It would not be, except on the worst of days, “Are these cows real?

Merleau-Ponty contests the idea that perception is a process by which the “external world” is somehow imprinted on the subject. According to him, perception is a behavior effected not by consciousness but by the body, but not by the body as a piece of the physical world, rather by the body as lived, a living body. He refers us to both the experience of our body considered in relationship to scientific knowledge, that is, the objective body, and the “other knowledge which we have of it, in virtue of its always being with us. And of the fact that we are our body” (PP, 206). For this “other knowledge,” 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.” The reduction, according to Husserl, returns us to the subject. Whereas 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. In an article entitled “The Subject in Nature: Reflections on Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception,” Rudolf Bernet writes: “Nature is something at the heart of human existence that does not properly belong to the human subject: a ground (Grund) of its constituting capacities, that is at the same time, a non-ground (Abgrund), a capacity that evades constituting reason” (Merleau-Ponty in Contemporary Perspectives, Kluwer Publishers, The Netherlands, 1993). Bernet contrasts Husserl’s thought with that of Merleau-Ponty showing that, for the former, there is a reduction of natural life, whereas, for the latter, there is a reduction to natural life. Merleau-Ponty elaborates a gestural theory of language. According to him, when I speak, “I reach back for the word, as my hand reaches toward a part of my body which is being pricked; the word has a certain location in my linguistic world and is a part of my equipment” (PP, 180). To speak is to make a gesture in one direction of my linguistic world. Immediately a difficulty emerges. It is clear that I can gesture, or point, to a tree in the visual world, a world which is shared intersubjectively. However, there is not only one given linguistic world. Nevertheless, Merleau-Ponty argues that there is a shared linguistic world, one that is the product of a sedimentation; it is the sedimentation of an intersubjective practice. This shared linguistic world exists not as the natural world, but rather as what Hegel refers to as “objective spirit.” It is an institution at the interior of which one can, indeed, gesture in the direction of a word and be understood. Merleau-Ponty insists that when I understand another’s speech, I do not somehow reproduce, in my own mind, his mental processes. Nevertheless, if there is an institution, then it must institutionalize something. He writes: “Our view of man will remain superficial so long as we fail to go back to that origin, so long as we fail to find, beneath the chatter of words, the primordial silence, and so long as we do not describe the action which breaks the silence. The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning the world” (PP, 184). [Ontology of the Flesh] It is Merleau-Ponty’s contention that it is not possible to achieve this return to subjectivity. Reflection is always secondary, that is, it must recognize itself as founded on a pre-reflective experience of Being that cannot be assimilated, employing the felicitous phrase of Adorno, “without remainder.” This reflection which must always be mindful of its own situated character is what Merleau-Ponty names “hyper-reflection.”

Merleau-Ponty begins to give a positive elaboration of the ontological position to which he has been led. In a number of respects, his last work distances itself from certain central notions in the phenomenological tradition. Nonetheless, in one respect it is mindful of Husserl’s injunction, “Return to the things themselves.” Merleau-Ponty wishes to begin in a dimension of experience which has not been “worked over, that offers us, all at once, pell-mell, both subject and object–both existence and essence–and, hence, gives philosophy resources to redefine them” (VI, 130). When Merleau-Ponty speaks of “perceptual faith” his notion of faith is perhaps the very opposite of the agonized Kierkegaardian “leap of faith.” It is a faith the commitment of which has ‘always already’ been made, a faith which subtends the avowal of responsibility by which personal identity is formed. Perceptual faith is a faith that I am in no danger of losing, except in the philosophical interpretation of it which portrays it as knowledge. This chapter on what Merleau-Ponty calls the Chiasm is a continuation of his study of perception, however, at first viewing it may not appear as such. In the Phenomenology of Perception, he insisted upon making a distinction between operative intentionality and act intentionality, but in The Visible and the Invisible this distinction is deepened in such a way that the concept of intentionality itself is thrown into question. In his critical reflections on Sartre, which due to spatial constraints we have not been able to develop here, Merleau-Ponty said that for a subject defined as For-itself, as consciousness of itself, passivity could have no meaning. He argues that, defined as such, consciousness could not but be sovereign.

In his late thought, Merleau-Ponty poses the question whether a consciousness, defined as intentional, is adequate to think a notion of perception viewed as the self-revelation of the sense of a world in and through a being which is itself a part of the world, flesh of its flesh, a world which “… is much more than the correlative of my vision, such that it imposes my vision upon me as a continuation of its own sovereign existence” (VI, 131). For him, to see is not to pose a thing as the object pole, much less a noema (Husserl), of my act of seeing. Rather seeing is being drawn into a dimension of Being, a tissue of sensible being to which the perceiving body is not foreign. Merleau-Ponty speaks of the perception of the color ‘red’ as not merely the awareness of a quality belonging to an object. He claims that for an experience ‘prior to being worked over’, it is an encounter with “a punctuation in the field of red things, which includes the tiles of rooftops; the flags of gatekeepers and of the revolution; of certain terrains near Aix or Madagascar. It is also a punctuation in the field of red garments, which includes, along with the dresses of women, the robes of professors, bishops and advocates general…and its red is literally not the same if it appears in one constellation or in another….A certain red is also a fossil, drawn up from the depths of imaginary worlds” (VI, 132). When seeing, I do not hold an object at the terminus of my gaze, rather I am delivered over to a field of the sensible which is structured in terms of the “difference between things and colors, a momentary crystallization of colored being or visibility” (VI, 132).

When we turn in the direction of the seer, we do not discover a transcendental ego but a being who is itself of the sensible, a being which “knows it before knowing it”(VI, 133). The sensate body possesses “an art of interrogating the sensible according to its own wishes, an inspired exegesis” (VI, 135). If I wish to feel the cloth of a coat that I am about to purchase, it will not suffice if I pound it with my fists or quickly wisk my hand over it. Rather it must be touched as it wishes to be touched and for this my body needs no instruction. Like the cloth, my hand is a part of the tangible world; between it and the rest of the tangible world there exists a “relationship by principle” (VI, 133). My hand which touches the things is itself subject to being touched. “Through this crisscrossing within it of the touching and the tangible, its own movements incorporate themselves in the universe that they interrogate, are recorded on the same map as it” (VI, 133).

The notion of “the invisible of the visible” continues the theme of a logos of the perceived world that we discovered in the Phenomenology of Perception, along with the theme of silence significance (pre-linguistic meaning), a silence which is not the contrary of language. In the academic year 1958-1959, Merleau-Ponty gave a course at the Collège de France entitled “Our State of Non-Philosophy.” He began by saying that ‘for the moment’ philosophy is in a crisis, but he continued, “My thesis: this decadence is inessential; it is that of a certain type of philosopher…. Philosophy will find help in poetry, art, etc., in a closer relationship with them, it will be reborn and will re-interprete its own past of metaphysics—which is not past” (Notes de cours, 1959-60, p.39. my translation). After writing this he turns to literature, painting, music, and psychoanalysis for philosophical inspiration.


Flynn, Bernard, “Maurice Merleau-Ponty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =



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