The World of Perception

Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues for three broad theses.  First, perception depends on a unity of form and content, or in other words, that the essence of a thing is inseparable from the appearance of the thing.  Second, perception, rather than being a transcendental act of synthesizing disparate qualities into a single whole, is based on our bodily interaction with the world.  Finally, it is our experience of art (broadly construed) that teaches us to acknowledge this embodied perception of unified form and content.

Lecture 1: The World of Perception and the World of Science

The world of everyday life seems obvious to us, but it is an “unknown territory” so long as we see from the practical or utilitarian attitude.  One of the great achievements of art and philosophy of the last century “has been to allow us to rediscover the world in which we live, yet which we are always prone to forget.” (50)

MP says we tend to think that if we want to know what light is, we need to ask a physicist and not consult our senses.  Only the methodical investigations of science can tell us what light is, and the data our senses give us is irrelevant: “The real world is not this world of light and colour; it is not the fleshy spectacle which passes before my eyes.  It consists, rather, of the waves and particles which science tells us lies behind these sensory illusions.” (52)

Descartes figured this was obvious; the ball of wax could change in many ways, but still be the same ball of wax.  The wax is a piece of matter with no consistent properties – at most, it has an ability to fill space and take on properties.  The essence of the wax is not present to my eyes.  Only the intellect can access the wax: “The relationship between perception and scientific knowledge is one of appearance to reality.  It befits our human dignity to entrust ourselves to the intellect, which alone can reveal to us the reality of the world.”

When he says, contra to that, that modern philosophy and art have rehabilitated the perceived world, it is not an attack on science.  It is not an attempt to limit science; “Rather, the question is whether science does, or ever could, present us with a picture of the world which is complete, self-sufficient and somehow closed in upon itself, such that there could no longer be any meaningful questions outside this picture.” (54)  The point is to defend forms of enquiry that do not begin with measurement and end with laws of physics.  It is an attempt to do justice to the world as we perceive it through painting and poetry.

Lecture Two – Exploring the World of Perception: Space

In this lecture, MP argues against the idea that there is a clear distinct between space and objects, or in other words, between form and content.  Objects do not inhabit an empty, neutral space, but rather exist in distinct spacial regions and are affected by those regions.  He connects this to painting by arguing that modern painters like Cezanne do not make a strong distinction between objects and the world around them.

It seems to be obvious that space is a uniform medium in which things are arranged in three dimensions, and are not altered by their position.  If you move something from a pole to the equator, its weight or shape might change slightly, on account of the temperature change – but this is about its physical conditions, not its location in space, and consequently “the fields of geometry and physics remain entirely distinct: the form and content of the world do not mix.” (61)  Non-Euclidean geometry (I would have thought relativity) forces a change in this idea of space.  We can think of space as being curved or composed of different regions and dimensions.  We can even think of these spacial regions as effecting changes in the bodies within them.

The distinction between identity and change is no longer clearly defined – objects cannot be considered entirely self-identical, since form and content are mixed: “We can no longer draw on an absolute distinction between space and the things which occupy it, nor indeed between the pure idea of space and the concrete spectacle it presents to our senses.” (62)

He claims that these findings of modern science “coincide” with those of modern painting.  Classical doctrine had distinction between outline and colour – the outline of the object is first drawn, and then filled with colour.  Cézanne, on the other hand, said “as soon as you paint you draw.”  Neither the perceived world nor the picture can help us distinguish between the outline of the object and the point where the colours end or fade.  The colours “encompass all that there is the object’s shape, its particular colour, its physiognomy and its relation to neighbouring objects.” (62)

Cézanne basically tries to create the outline of the object the same way nature does, through the arrangement of colours.  That’s why his apple “ends up swelling and bursting free from the confines of well-behaved draughtsmanship.”  

Classical doctrine is based on perspective; each of the objects in the painting are arranged according to the horizon.  Each object is rendered relative to a particular vanishing point on the horizon.  The landscape is arranged along lines running from the painter to the horizon: “Landscapes painted in this way have a peaceful look, an air of respectful decency, which comes of their being held beneath a gaze fixed at infinity.” (64)  The gaze is directed through the objects and beyond them, and they offer no resistance.  But that’s not how the world actually appears to us; at each moment, we have to adopt a particular point of view, our gaze is arrested.  It is only by interrupting the normal process of seeing that the painter can create a single, unchanging landscape – for example, he will close one eye and measure the size of a detail with his pencil.  By subjecting details to that sort of analytical vision, the painting “does not correspond to any of the free visual impressions.  This controls the movement of their unfolding gel also kills their trembling life.” (64)  

Many painters since Cezanne have not followed the laws of geometrical perspective because they are trying to reproduce our perception of the landscape.  This could end up looking like errors in perspective, but it is an attempt to portray a world in which no two objects are seen simultaneously, “a world in which regions of space are separated by the time it takes our gaze to move from one to the other, a world in which being is not given but rather emerges over time.” (65/54)  With this in mind, he says “space is no longer a medium of simultaneous objects capable of being apprehended by an absolute observer who is equally close to them all, a medium without point of view, without body and without spatial positions – in sum, the medium of pure intellect.” (65/54)

He quotes Jean Paulhan as saying that modern painting is “space which the heart feels,” and further, “it may well be that in an age devoted to technical measurement and, as it were, consumed by quantity, the cubist painter is quietly celebrating – in a space more attuned to the heart than the intellect – the marriage and reconciliation of man with the world.” (65)

Thus, “our relation to space is not that of a pure disembodied subject to a distant object but rather that of a being which dwells in space relating to its natural habitat.” (65)  This clarifies an optical illusion pointed out by Malebranche: the moon on the horizon appears larger than when in the sky. If we look at the moon through a cardboard tube, the illusion disappears, so the illusion must be created by the fact that when on the horizon, it is next to objects like trees.  Malebranche thought this was down to reasoning interfering with perception: the intervening objects indicate the great distance to us, so in order to look as big as it does, the moon must be very large.

But that is not how modern psychologists see it: “Systematic experimentation has allowed them to discover that it is generally true of our field of vision that the apparent size of objects on the horizontal plane is remarkably constant, whereas they very quickly get smaller on the vertical plane.” (66)

This is because we are beings “who walk upon the earth,” so the horizontal plane is where our most important activity takes place.  Malebranche thought the illusion born of intellect, but modern psychologists say it is a natural property of our perceptual field.  So just like in geometry, the idea of a unified space open to a disembodied intellect has given way to a divided space with “certain privileged directions,” based on our bodily features and our situation as beings thrown into the world.” (67)  Rather than man being “a mind and a body, man is a mind with a body.”  In a nutshell, we gain access to objects through our body.

Lecture 3 – Sensory Objects

Now he moves from space to the objects that fill it.  Classical psychology (sounding a little like Kant) says that an object is a system of properties which are united by intellectual synthesis.  An object is this property plus this property plus this property.  However, it is not clear how these properties are bound together, and it does appear as if a lemon is a unified entity.  The unity of the object is a mystery so long as we think of its properties as belonging to isolated senses, isolated worlds of sight, smell, etc.

Rather, each quality has an “affective meaning” which connects it with the qualities attached to other senses.  His example is choosing a rug for an apartment – a particular mood is associated with each colour.  The same is true of sounds and tactile data – so each colour can be the equivalent of a sound or a temperature.

When we restore a quality to its place in experience, back to its affective meaning, we can see its relationship to other qualities.  Our experience actually has many aspects that only make sense in a bodily context – like being honeyed.  It has a consistency and be grasped, but it creeps around the fingers and “reverses the roles by grasping the hands of whoever would take hold of it.”  The hand that tries to master it finds itself “embroiled in a sticky external object.”

The quality of being honeyed only makes sense “in light of the dialogue between me as an embodied subject and the external object which bears this quality.  The only definition of this quality is a human definition.” (72)  So every quality is related to qualities associated with other senses: e.g., honey is sugary, a matter of taste.  Sugariness is sweetness, which Sartre says is “an indelible softness that lingers in the mouth for an indefinite duration, that survives swallowing,” so it has the same sticky presence that honey does with regards to touch.

There is a kind of equivalence between viscosity and sugariness.  Honey is a way the world has of acting on my body – that’s why it is not a set of qualities that are merely side by side, but are identical as they all reveal the honey’s being.  “The unity of the object does not lie behind its qualities, but is reaffirmed by each one of them: each of its qualities is the whole.”  Cezanne said you should be able to paint the smell of trees.

“The things of the world are not simply neutral objects which stand before us for our contemplation.”  Each one has a particular way of behaving and provokes reactions in us which are favourable or unfavourable.  That’s why people’s tastes and character can be discerned from the objects they surround themselves with, or their preferences for certain colours or where they go for walks.  “Our relationship with things is not a distant one: each speaks to our body and to the way we live.”  They are all parts of forms of life.

What we get out of all this is that “the relationship between human beings and things is no longer one of distance and mastery such as that which obtained between the sovereign mind and the piece of wax in Descartes’ famous description.” (77)  That total proximity means we can’t describe ourselves as pure intellects separate from things, and we can’t describe things as pure objects lacking in all human attributes.

Lecture 6: Art and the World of Perception

He has repeatedly referenced painting because it draws us into the world of perception. In Cezanne and others, there are objects that do not simply pass by our gaze, but hold it and convey “the very mode of their material existence.”

It is impossible to separate things from their mode of appearing.  If you give a dictionary definition of a table – a flat surface supported by three or four legs – that is defining, not perceiving.  It requires withdrawing one’s interest from the uses one makes of it, from the moulding, from the shape of the feet.  For perception, no detail is irrelevant.  The grain, the age and colour of the wood, the graffiti.  The “table” only arises out of all those details.

Why art, then? “If I accept the tutelage of perception, I find I am ready to understand the work of art.  For it too is a totality of flesh in which meaning is not free, so to speak, but bound, a prisoner of all the signs, or details, which reveal it to me.”  Art is just like the object of perception.  It is to be seen or heard; analysis is only a way of taking stock of the experience.

That’s not immediately obvious.  Paintings often represent objects, portraits represent people.  Painting might be no different than the arrow pointing to a subway exit.  Paintings also often seem like photographs, which retain all the essential features of the object.  If that is the case, then the significance of a painting would like entirely in its subject – but modern painting is in opposition to this conception.  Cezanne said that the painter takes a fragment of nature and ‘makes it entirely painting.’” (107)

Painting does not try to “imitate the world, but to create a world of its own.”  A painting does not send us back to the natural object, and a portrait’s worth is not in its resemblance to its model.  When painters are working with real objects, they are not trying to evoke the object itself – but to create “a spectacle which is sufficient unto itself.” (107)  The distinction between the subject and the manner of the painting is untenable, because in aesthetic experience, “the subject consists entirely in the manner in which the grape, pipe or pouch of tobacco is constituted by the painter on the canvas.” (107)

But this is not to argue that only form matters.  Rather, form and matter – what is said and the way it is said – cannot be separated.  The argument: I can get a clear idea of a tool from a description of its function – but in contrast, an analysis of the subject of a painting tells me nothing about the painting.  Talking about the model or the historical event doesn’t help me make sense of the painting;  “Rather, as in the perception of things themselves, it is a matter of contemplating, of perceiving the painting by way of silent signals which come at me from its every part, which emanate from the traces of paint set down on the canvas, until such time as all, in the absence of reason and discourse, come to form a tightly structured arrangement in which one has the distinct feeling that nothing is arbitrary, even if one is unable to give a rational explanation of this.” (108)

He then turns to other forms of art.  Keeping in mind that these lectures were composed in the 1940s, this line is especially interesting: “Cinema has yet to provide us with many films that are works of art from start to finish: its infatuation with stars, the sensationalism of the zoom, the twists and turns of plot and the intrusion of pretty pictures and witty dialogue, are all tempting pitfalls for films which chase success and, in doing so, eschew properly cinematic means of expression.” (108)

Like any other work of art, a movie should be something one can perceive.  Beauty in film is not in the story, which could be recounted in prose, and not in the ideas behind it, and not in the style of a director, which is no more relevant than a writer’s favourite words.  Rather, “What matters is the selection of episodes to be represented and, in each one, the choice of shots that will be featured in the film, the length of time allotted to these elements, the order in which they are to be presented, the sound or words with which they are or are not to be accompanied.” (109)

Together, these things create a rhythm peculiar to movies.  He says that once we have more experience making movies, we will have a better idea of film’s logic, grammar or stylistics.  But as with all rule books, this will only make explicit what was successful in completed works and to inspire others.

Even with that rulebook in hand, the creators of the future will have to discover new relationships: “then, as now, the viewer will experience the unity and necessity of the temporal progression in a work of beauty without ever formulating a clear idea of it.  Then, as now, this view will be left not with a store of recipes but a radiant image, a particular rhythm.  Then, as now, the way we experience works of cinema will be through perception.” (110)

Counterpoint: Wilfred Sellars, Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man

(Link to summaries)

Sellars argues that there are two competing images humans have of themselves and the world.  The manifest image tell us that the world really is the way it appears; the world is explainable as a series of empirically perceivable, manifest objects. Humans are explainable through perceivable psychological objects such as thoughts, desires and beliefs.  The scientific image, on the other hand, insists that the world is not the way it appears.  Rather than the world being a series of basically perceivable objects like tables, the real truth of the world is that these perceivable, manifest objects are underlaid by unperceived objects that we theoretically postulate: atoms, or super strings, or something else.  As for the human, rather than being fundamentally explainable via perceptible thoughts and intentions, it is actually a neurophysiological system.  Sellars believes that these two competing images can actually be brought together in a synoptic image.

There have been several past attempts to reconcile the manifest world with the imperceptible world.  The ancient Greek concept of the atom was, for a long time, considered to be the basic imperceptible building block of the world. Three possible relations between perceptible objects (this table) and their imperceptible atomic parts have been proposed.  First, the table and its atoms are the same thing, like a forest is identical with its trees.  Second, manifest objects really exist, and atoms are abstract or symbolic tools used by humans.  Third, it is the atoms that really exist, and the manifest objects are merely human appearances.

Sellars is most concerned with the first and third options.  That objects and their parts are identical is not an obviously paradoxical idea – we just need to show that systems can have properties that their parts do not.  A good example is a ladder; all the parts need to be arranged in a certain way in order to form a ladder.  However, a pink ice cube cannot be like that; atoms are not pink.  The pink ice cube presents itself to us as homogeneous,  a completed, irreducible whole.

Is the pink ice cube really pink?  If what an object really is is a collection of smaller objects, then every quality the object has must be because its parts have certain qualities and have certain relations with one another.  The pinkness of the ice cube arises because of the qualities of the parts of the ice and the relations between these parts.  What this means is that the ice cube is not really pink; it only appears as such.  If an object is a system of imperceptibles, then it cannot actually have perceptible qualities.  The third option is correct: manifest objects are only appearances.

This flies in the face of common sense; of course the pink ice cube is pink!  But the third option is a challenge not to particular facts, but to the framework in which those facts are interpreted.  While “the manifest framework of everyday is adequate for the everyday purposes of life, it is ultimately inadequate and should not be accepted as an account of what there is all things considered.” (SPR, 27)

The practical objection is we use manifest objects to get around, so that is the way things really are.  It is a strong argument, but it is entirely possible “that the success of living, thinking and acting in terms of the manifest framework can be accounted for by the framework which proposes to replace it, by showing that there are sufficient structural similarities between manifest objects and their scientific counterparts to account for this success.” (SPR, 28)


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