Phenomenology of Perception by Merleau-Ponty


Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) defines phenomenology as:

"the study of essences ... all problems amount to defining essences, such as the essence of perception or ... consciousness." 

His quest was to describe and analyse the structure of consciousness from a first-person perspective. 

Husserl (1859–1938) was the first to introduce phenomenology and he held that reality is composed of phenomena, events and objects as they are perceived in thoughts, memories, emotions and desires. He argued that the world exists previous to human perception of it so that the philosopher must rediscover this basic contact with the world and describe essential human experience with regard to its objects.

Husserl affirms that human perception involves intentionality which means seizing an object and adding personal associations such as assumptions, memories and anticipations.

Merleau-Ponty, however, disagreed with Husserl's idea of consciousness in perception. He contended there there only exists embodied experience which is sensorial and includes the mind. It is similar to the experience of a child who brings things into being for herself. Phenomenology is a return to things in themselves.

In 1945 Merleau-Ponty joined the existentialists, Sartre and de Beauvoir, in founding the literary and political journal Les Temps Modernes in 1945. 

Merleau-Ponty disagreed with Sartre, and Freud, in the continuity between the conscious and the unconscious at the prereflective level. Sartre described this link as a repressive voluntary movement and ascribes it to self-deception of the consciousness shrinking from the implications of its own freedom. Merleau-Ponty understands repression as a habitual process of functioning at an unreflective level in which the body's response becomes its repetitive style of dealing with existence tinged with negativity. In this way the anorexic response of a girl who is forbidden by her family to see her lover is not interpreted like Freud as a phase of infantile sexuality, nor a rejection of responsibility like Sartre, but a withdrawal from the social world of eating and talking which becomes a habit of responding to negative events orally. 

Merleau-Ponty rejected the concept of absolute choice preferring to argue that:

"It is impossible to determine precisely the 'share contributed by the situation'' and the 'share contributed by freedom.'" 

The author's circumscribed freedom was the opposite of Sartre's concept of radical freedom and this led to their separation. When they heard of the atrocities committed by Stalin in Russia Sartre responded by solidarity with the Communist Party while Merleau-Ponty distanced himself and resigned from the editorialship of Les Temps Modernes in 1953.

Another movement that influenced Merleau-Ponty was gestalt theory. He maintained the gestalt theory that perception and cognition are relational. He presents the case of a soldier wounded in the brain by shrapnel. He sought to demonstrate that both empiricism and transcendentalism could not adequately describe the soldier's condition which involved a degeneration of the body resulting in aberrant behaviours in memory, sexuality, expression and spatiality. In general he refused to accept radical distinctions between transcendental and empirical approaches which have polarised opinions.

Merleau-Ponty also rejected Descartes' epistemological dualism. This affirmed that you can only know the physical world after you know that you exist as a mind. He questions this approach as well as the body/mind dualism of cartesianism.

For the author both empiricism and intellectualism are flawed:

“In the first case consciousness is too poor, in the second too rich for any phenomenon to appeal compellingly to it. Empiricism cannot see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it, and intellectualism fails to see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or equally again we should not be searching."


The Phenomenology of Perception (1945) was Merleau-Ponty's Ph.D. thesis. He summarises his arguments in the preface.


This opens with a definition of phenomenology:

"the study of essences ... all problems amount to defining essences, such as the essence of perception or ... consciousness." 

The author will seek to describe and analyse the structure of consciousness by examining its building blocks. He distinguishes his phenomenology from that of Husserl by rejecting his 'facticity' (the world exists previous to a human's perception). The author believes hat the philosopher must rediscover human experience as direct contact with the world.

Merleau-Ponty starts by recognising that objects, customs and language already exist within the individual. In his phenomenology there is no boundary between world and mind. The phenomenologist should not analyse or explain but describe. The author asserts that:

"I cannot think of myself as part of the world... Everything I know about the world, I know from a perspective that is my own." 

He argues that the scientific perspective must come second to becoming aware of experience in the world. This is a first person perception, whereas science requires a third person account. He denies that science can ever have a true sense of the perceived world:

"I am an absolute source ... To return to the world close to self is to return to the world prior to knowledge. Thus the world does not impose itself on us." 

The Preface returns to the author's differences with Husserl. On seeing a tree, for example, Husserl states that the observer brings to the experience a panoply of assumptions such as memories, associations and expectations. Perception, for Husserl, is intentionality of thought and associations. Merleau-Ponty believes that there is no consciousness to perception, only the raw experience.

The author maintains that perception takes place through noncognitive, unconscious, bodily skills. Meaning is constructed through sensorial experiences of the surrounding world. Perceiving arises from corporal living in the world, not thought. 

Part I


This is a study of the origin of objective thought which includes space, time and the body. For example, a house can be viewed, but only through separate views depending on the location of the viewer. We look for the origin of the object in our experience, but it is only one moment in the perception. The origin of perception is a record of being, not a description, a record of being en-soi (in-itself).

Chapter 1 : The Body (The Body as an Object and Mechanistic Physiology)

Objective thought presents the body as an object and behaviour as stimulus response. However Merleau-Ponty claims that the body as an organism links to stimuli in a variety of ways which are unpredictable. He maintains that perception precedes objective knowledge which in turn destroys perception. There is no exterior causality since it is not the stimuli but the receptive nervous system which determines the response. The phantom limb, for example, is conditioned by something before the brain's response.

Phenomenology places human experience between the physical and the psychic. Reflexes are conditioned by being-in-the-world: temporality and location. This is the link between physiology and psychology. This implies that the cartesian split cannot describe existence because the body and the 'soul' communicate. But he begins from the body.

Chapter 2 : The Body (The Experience of the Body and Classical Psychology)

Traditionally psychology distinguishes between the body and objects, yet often treats the body as an object. 

The author affirms that the body is not an object because a person cannot observe it as an object. We observe our body from only one unalterable angle, yet it enables us to observe objects from many perspectives. 

The classic psychologist takes the scientific position of researcher as observer. Their study of experience is thus a study of representations of experience, not experience itself.

Chapter 3: The Body (The Spatiality of One's Own Body and Motricity)

Awareness of the body as incarnated intentionality means shifting from the perspective of the body as an object to understanding it as experience since the body includes the idea of purpose. 

The author uses the Gelb and Goldstein case study of impaired motricity as a support. It involved a wallet maker who sustained a head injury which limited his movements. He could accomplish reflex or habitual movements like cutting or assembling a wallet but he could not raise his arm unless he was paying attention to it. Most people experience the body as motor intentionality but the subject couldn't. 

Merleau-Ponty concludes that the body is an expressive space in which intentionality is realisable. It is this power of projection that determines being-in-the-world. This is the author's basic dialect through which he rejects empirism (stimulus-response reflexes) and intellectualism (conscious reflection).

Chapter 4: The Body (The Synthesis of One's Own Body)

The authors premise is that the body is a live intentionality inhabiting space and viewing itself in relation to a perceived world. It projects itself onto the world as a force.

The sensorial unity of the body is a dynamic structure in which, for example, you look at an object and know that you can touch it. 

The unity of the body has to do with systemic dynamic, a structure in which powers can compensate one for the other.

Chapter 5The Body (The Body as a Sexed Being)

The author takes as an example the sexuality of Schneider, Gelb and Goldstein's brain-injured patient. The man can perform sexually, but a partner has to commence the meeting. Merleau-Ponty concludes that the patient has lost the intentionality of his body and reverted to habit. He states that normally sexuality is not a reflex action but is born of an intentionality inherent in existence. 

He adds that Freud revealed the unconscious aspect of sexuality which is thus integrated into existence. A person's sexuality is part of their way of being in the world. The author agrees with Freud that there are sexual symptoms at the origin of all neuroses. 

Chapter 6: The Body (The Body as Expression, and Speech)

The author reconsiders the nature of language in this chapter. A child knows an object through its name which carries the sense:

 "the name is the essence of the object and resides in it, just like its color or its form."

The names allow the child to become part of a language community. The word is more than a sign, it lives inside things and has meaning. Speech does not translate thought; it is speech that accomplishes thought. Likewise hearing words is more than sound, it is an action on the body. The author maintains that words are extracted from the objects they represent and express their emotional essence.

Part 2: 


Merleau-Ponty reviews perception in a definition as a pre-reflective synthetic experience in which the world and the body are linked together.

Chapter 1: The Perceived World (Sensing)

The author cites studies of individuals with diseases of the right frontal cortex or the cerebellum concluding that a sensation is not a state or quality, nor the awarenwss of such. These patients experience changes in the visual colour field in gestures of raising or moving their arms. Merleau-Ponty says that the pre-reflective effect of colour functions environmentally on us, with green or blue as peace and red as violence. When we gaze at an azure sky we feel peace. This is not due to cause and effect.

He considers sleep which includes physiological changes such as deep breathing, closed eyes and relaxes muscles. Sleepiness is a meaning and sleep a situation. There is a mutual effect between the sentient being and the sensible since they occupy the same field.

Merleau-Ponty reverses Kant´s insistence on consciousness since perception depends on our primal, unconscious, contact with the world. Spatiality is included in being-in-the-world because the lived space is not separable from our experience. Hallucinogenic drugs confirm the unity of the senses and the intellectual approach which makes sensation an object should be abandoned in favour of a phenomenology of radical reflection.

Chapter 2: The World as Perceived (Space)

The author exemplifies this chapter on spatial perception with two experiments. The first one uses glasses which inverts objects viewed, then rights them with the body inverted and finally the normal view. The second experiment allows the body to correctly adjust to the previous experiences. Merleau-Ponty concludes that these corrective movements demonstrate a third kind of spatiality. Time and distance are part of the constitution of space since all spatial relationships such as vertical, horizontal, near and far are abstractions around a single situated being and they designate the same relation between the subject and the world. Movement is part of perception; depth is in the gaze, not the consciousness. Usual perceptions can cease to function as in dreams, schizophrenia, myths, and drug-induced hallucinations. These are still perceptions, but the body's role has broken down.

Chapter 3: The World as Perceived (The Thing and the Natural World)

The author aims to replace idealist and empiricist visions of space with a description of the birth of space in a primal relationship between the body and the world. The problem with the transcendental ego is the differentiation between subject and object. Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology negates this binary vision. His pre-reflective cogito (rejected by traditional philosophy as a oxymoron) is a rejection of Cartesianism.

The second part of this chapter refers to a full integration of the senses and phenomena. He maintains that the unity of a thing is the:

"unique manner of existing of which its properties are a secondary expression." 

Glass is an example where its way of existing is fragile, rigid, transparent and with a crystal sound. It needs a unity of the senses to produce this reality. 

For example a glass's "single manner of being" is expressed in "fragility, rigidity, transparency, and crystalline sound": properties that call upon a unity of the senses to produce this "absolute reality."

It is the sensory experiences that relate us to our existence in the world. Even psychiatric patients distinguish between hallucination and perception since they don't relate the phantom experiences with what happens in the objective world. 

Chapter 4: The World as Perceived (Others and the Human World)

The author comments on the linkage between natural and historical time. The natural world is diffused to the centre of life and behaviours integrate with Nature and remain as culture.

He addresses the question of the I/you distinction. The problem of analysing others' consciousness and that of society is the paradox of a consciousness viewed from the outside since a thought from outside has no subject and is anonymous.

According to the author traditional philosophy cannot answer the problem of the mind/body coexistence. For him the subject is an embodied perceiver. There is no mind/body separation:

"We must rediscover the social world, after the natural world ... as the permanent field or dimension of existence."

Part 3 Being-for-Itself and Being-in-the World (The Cogito)

Chapter 1: The act of knowing is defined in this chapter as phenomelogical where things, even thought, maintain a certain ambiguity and imperfection. Knowledge of a tree, for example, means that the object provokes a primal knowledge in us. It also signifies that our finite perceptions participate in those of the universe:

"eternity ... would thus be the very definition of subjectivity."

This suggests that it is temporality which starts the link between perception and primordial knowledge. Formal thought has its basis in intuitive thought which forms the basis for certainty and truth. Being-in-the-world means having a perspective, not a particular perspective. The root thinking of phenomenology views language and history as integral parts of thinking since we accept facts and rationalise them, turning them into reasonable truths. These are cultural beliefs which create foundations for our thinking.

Chapter 2 Merleau-Ponty rejects the body-soul binary and maintains that individual consciousness is singular. The body subject replaces the traditional philosophical concept of the transcendental ego. Merleau-Ponty's reframes the relationship between subject and the world through time: through the distinction subject-time and object-time. An analysis of time shows:

"the subject and object as two abstract moments of a unique structure, namely, presence."

Experience of self-presence in the world allows you to understand that others also experience this. This pre-objective world is thus also a social world.

Chapter 3 makes a basic distinction between Being-for-Itself, living as an individual and Being-in-the-World which is leading a social existence. Sartre perceives the latter as alienation: "L'enfer c'est les autres." (Huis Clos) For Merleau-Ponty subjectivities are linked, which means that individuality includes commitment. By committing ourselves we achieve freedom and so avoid the trap of existentialist alienation.


Rejection of Husserl's principles.

Husserl's first principle of phenomenology was facticity: the world exists previous to human reflection on it. Merleau-Ponty disagrees and puts forward the concept of the body as intention incarnate. This means that the individual is inseparable from the perception of things which includes physical objects, people, language and culture. Perception is lived and there is no separation between mind and body. 

Husserl also presented intentionality as important in perception. He included memories, assumptions and anticipations in the perception of an object. Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, starts phenomenology before intention. Perception is prior to knowledge, which eliminates memory.

Pre-cognitive processes and social connection

Thinking objectively warps lived experience since it creates gaps between us and others and the world. It leads to categorisation which separates and prevents social connection. The author makes the case for a bottom-up vision of perception, through subjective intentionality, to replace top-down analysis and categorisation. This requires envisioning the body:

"as a dynamic synthesis of intentionalities."

This reflection is radicalised since it is not preceeded by objective categories, facts or intentionality. Intentionality is subjective because it results from perception in the body-subject. This means that body and object are linked in a continuous dialectic.

For Merleau-Ponty this dialectical movement included physical objects, culture and our experiences of others. Our social world is based on our innate ability to perceive other subjectivities as they interact with our own. Pre-cognitive processes help social connections by opening the potential of social commitment.

Authenticity and Expression

Perception is normally ambiguous and incomplete. Merleau-Ponty asserts that the primary effect of artwork depends on repetitions which took place on your earliest sensing, which is the unevaluated impacts of seeing, hearing and touching. This occurs before thought and the novelty of an artwork depends on the value attributed to it. Ambiguity and incompleteness are the constants which lead the individual to accept or reject works of art.


For Merleau-Ponty the other is intertwined with the subject: self and non-self are two sides of the same coin. The observer, when observed by another, is already involved by that other's observation in an interdependence. This implies that the other, as part of our observation does not elude us, indeed forms part of us, yet is divergent. 

For the author there is neither a total coincidence between self and other, nor us there a great abyss between the two. He rejects Sartre's view of human relations where the other cannot be understood, yet he recognises distance between self and other:

“this infinite distance, this absolute proximity express in two ways – as a soaring over or as fusion – the same relationship with the thing itself. They are two positivisms…” 

In The Visible and the Invisible he insists that self and other overlap. 

In his novel Vendredi Michel Tournier depicts in fictional terms Merleau-Ponty's abstract ontological chiasm. He traces the evolution of his Crusoe character from a colonial-minded perception of his black assistant to an understanding of Friday as a companion. He also changes his impulse to dominate Nature to seeing himself as an integral part of the environment and the island as a partner.


There is a long line of dualist philosophers, most notably Plato and Descartes, who insisted that perception was separate from the body which perceives.

Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, interweaves both philosophers and their bodies and viewed the dualist approach as incoherent. Spinoza had already rejected cartesian causation by arguing for simultaneity between events in the body and the mind. Bergson's influence is evident in the idea of a process of mutual shaping between perception and the memories of behaviour. Bergson suggested that the senses are not extraneous to the body, but linked to how we use our bodies to move around and what we remember having done before. When viewing something we simultaneously assess both the senses and the action to understand the scene. In his chapter entitled The Theory of the Body is Already a Theory of Perception he describes how walking around his house looking at things involves both movements and perceptions. This can only be described as the views of a single object, the body, experiencing movement through space as it progresses. The body not only collects the sensory data but makes it intelligible. He therefore posits a reinforcing loop between bodily senses and activities:

"... the relations between the organism and its environment are not relations of linear causality, but of circular causality." The Structure of Behaviour

Husserl's phenomenology also paved the way for Merleau-Ponty's thinking, as did Nietzsche who wrote in his 1886 The Gay Science:

"... on a grand scale, philosophy has been no more than an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body."

Nietzsche's critique of rationalism focuses on the body's appetites arguing that the origins of philosophical thought are rooted in bodily desires, not detached contemplation. Both philosophers agree that the world is not arrived at through reasoning, but is already present and necessary to life in embodiment, the ground of philosophy. Nietzsche wrote:

“We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we are able to live – by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith no one could endure living! But that does not prove them. Life is not an argument; the conditions of life might include error.” The Gay Science

Merleau-Ponty contends that we speak about "I" when we refer to perception, but we conceive of our bodies as a third person. He criticises Descartes' suggestion of a sore foot as being the illusion that the pain is in the foot when it is really in the mind. He rejects that conception by insisting that the body is not something we live in, but it is something we are. We live our bodies, we do not simply interact with them:

“I observe external objects with my body, I handle them, inspect them, walk around them. But as for my own body, I do not observe it: to do so, I would need a second body, which would itself be unobservable." Phenomenology of Perception.

For the philosopher the body is the ground of perception, since it makes it possible to conceive perception in a way that other objects do not.

Merleau-Ponty also argues against the separation between perception and action. Kant made this distinction in his split between receptivity and spontaneity, as did Descartes in his notion that events in the body are caused by events in the mind. He followed the Gestaltists and Dewey rejecting these mechanistic explanations of sensation and action. He objected that perception is never without action and vice-versa.

Merleau-Ponty declared that the body was both the logical ground for thought and perception and also the shaper of that perception. Through this notion he not only placed himself above the low level Plato assigned to the body, but also aligned himself with the 21st. century findings of cognitive science. 

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