Merleau-Ponty's transcendental theory of perception

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Merleau-Ponty's Transcendental Theory of Perception
Sebastian Gardner

This paper is concerned with the status of Merleau-Ponty's account of perception. Since my primary aim is to determine the kind of theory that is offered by Merleau-Ponty, I will not enter into detailed discussion of Merleau-Ponty's highly original treatments of particular topics in the theory of perception, such as sensation, spatial awareness, or the role of the body. Instead I will argue that Merleau-Ponty's account of perception should not, in fact, be understood at all as a theory of perception in the familiar sense, namely as a theory formulated with a view to the solution of problems of epistemology and psychological explanation and constrained accordingly; rather it should be understood as belonging to transcendental philosophy, conceived as a form of idealist metaphysics. From this it follows that the evaluation of Merleau-Ponty's claims about perception need to be cast in terms remote from those that a philosopher of mind applies to a theory of perception. Though I will not attempt here a full evaluation, I will set out what I take to be the basic justification offered by Merleau-Ponty for his transcendental claims.

There is a general issue concerning the relation of writings in the phenomenological tradition to analytic philosophy of mind. On the one hand it would seem that, whatever else it may comprehend, phenomenology is concerned in the first instance with the same topic as philosophy of mind: the phenomenologist is interested, it would seem, in mental states or phenomena and is engaged, like the philosopher of mind, in making claims about their essential nature, necessary and sufficient or constitutive conditions, and so on. Accordingly it seems reasonable to expect that, allowing for differences of vocabulary and methodology, on matters of substance numerous points of convergence between phenomenology and philosophy of mind will be found, and indeed the recent literature has suggested a number of these.1

However, if what I argue below is correct, then this view, for all its apparent plausibility, is mistaken with regard to Merleau-Ponty. Though nothing follows directly from this regarding phenomenology in general, it does suggest a more general conclusion: namely that something essential to the phenomenological project necessarily goes out of focus in the attempt to read Husserl, Sartre or Merleau-Ponty as if their writings address the same questions as the philosophy of mind.

The paper is organised as follows. In the first two sections I will describe two competing interpretations of Merleau-Ponty. Section I outlines what I call the Psychological Interpretation, which is the view that suggests itself from the perspective of seeking Merleau-Ponty's convergence with the philosophy of mind, and identifies the considerations which support this interpretation. Section II states briefly the Transcendental Interpretation, which views Merleau-Ponty in the light of the history of transcendental philosophy and claims to discover at the heart of his philosophical project an original form of idealism. The next two sections develop this interpretation. Section III considers how, on the Transcendental Interpretation, Merleau-Ponty's theory of perception is related to his metaphysics. This, it will be seen, requires consideration of Merleau-Ponty's transcendental turn. Section IV discusses in some detail Merleau-Ponty's use of the notion of perceptual ambiguity, since this, I argue, allows us simultaneously to identify a clear line of descent from Kant and to understand Merleau-Ponty's fundamental metaphysical thesis. Section V addresses certain objections to the claim that Merleau-Ponty belongs to the transcendental tradition. Section VI offers some concluding remarks on the relation of phenomenology and philosophy of mind.

I will concentrate throughout on the Phenomenology of Perception, and refer to earlier and later writings for supporting considerations.2 Arguably the Phenomenology of Perception does not represent Merleau-Ponty's final, all-things-considered view of perception, but it does bring out sharply the contrast of the Psychological and Transcendental Interpretations. In any case, the position that Merleau-Ponty adopts in his later writings, though arguably different, is not independent from that of the Phenomenology of Perception, and it only strengthens the conclusion for which I shall be arguing.

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