Phenomenology of Perception

Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Originally printed in 1945 by Editions Gallimard, with English translation published in 1958 by Routledge & Kegan Paul. I am referencing the 2002 Routledge Classics edition.


There are times in our lives when we notice the apparatus of our perception. Maybe we see a mirage emerge on the horizon, or grow determined to know why our ears are ringing. When we study such visual apparitions and sonic glitches, we align ourselves with generations of philosophers and cognitive scientists who have looked at perception’s outliers to help us understand what happens all along without our noticing.

This wonderfully readable book by Maurice Merleau-Ponty pulls back the curtain and reveals how the machines of our perception work. It also puts forth a compelling system for understanding the role of these machines in the construction of thought, painting a picture of the central tenants of phenomenology, a subdiscipline of philosophy.

I have wanted to read this book for a long time. When I brought it to the cash register at my local bookstore, I told the clerk, “I’m finally old enough to read this”. He was not amused, at least as far as I could perceive.

As a thinker, I developed for many years with a rather unusual fixation on the primacy of the role of my body in constructing thought (explained at length elsewhere). It makes sense I would be drawn to phenomenology. I have always had the hunch that phenomenology is my native tongue. That P and I are BFFs. However, in this period following my awakening, I find myself approaching this book with as much interest in knowing phenomenology’s limitations as knowing its possibilities. In particular, I’m curious to discovery how phenomenology might be applied to abstract concepts (certainty, justice, 4D polytopes) and what frontiers of consciousness its limitations might indicate. There are certainly other phenomenologists I’ll be reading after this (don’t worry, I’m thorough), but I wanted to start with Merleau-Ponty because he’s such a good writer.

Equipped with these simple questions and a relatively clear vision (rosy tints down), I set out on this adventure.


The good news is, we kick the book off agreeing that the world exists in advance of our perceiving it. Phew.

This is an important ground rule; our perception doesn’t create reality.

But we start to wonder, “do you and and I perceive the same reality?” Sadly, our lives have presented us with enough spats with lovers to show us that we don’t always agree with the reality perceptions of others. We are left, therefore, grappling with questions like, “If you and I have different perceptions of the same reality, given our independent perception systems, are we really just talking about the process of perception when we talk about reality with each other?“. Or, “Is it even possible to construct consensus on reality’s fundamentals? Do you see “red” and call it what I call “blue”? Oh god, is that what’s been happening all along?!?”

Before we start despairing, let us take heart in Merleau-Ponty’s reminders that, “philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing truth into being”. We will find a way together through this, our divergent perception systems be damned. Oh, and he also points out that philosophy is “an ever-renewed experiment in making its own beginning”. That sounds fun.

But we have hit upon something that Merleau-Ponty’s buddy and predecessor, Edmund Husserl, spent many years pondering - phenomenological reduction. Reductionism in philosophy is the pursuit of fundamental principles; the stuff under the stuff of our theories. The end game is to know how the world works, so it would be a pretty big snag if phenomenology got stuck on this issue of us each having these awesome experiences that don’t line up to tell us about something about the world. That’s the problem Husserl was pondering. I guess we’ll have to see how that plays out.


1. The ‘Sensation’ as a Unit of Experience

M. Marleau-Ponty wastes no time, diving in to parse out the elements of “the experience error” - reminding us that we tend to confuse our perception with the qualities and attributes of the objects we perceive, which apparently is a big phenomenology no no. To illustrate his point, he states, “We are caught up in the world and we do not succeed in extricating ourselves from it in order to achieve consciousness of the world”. Boom. That’s essentially the best explanation for why we have the scientific method. Way to go M-P.

So, how are we to proceed? In life, and in our exploration of phenomenology?

Well, he starts by picking a fight with psychologists over what he calls a “prejudice in favor of an objective world”. Snap. Rather than shaming them, he simply shifts gears and states, “the sensible is what is seized on by the senses”, moving our definition of sensation away from an exploration of what is seized on by our sense organs.

He begins to examine the clues that this lens shift could offer us in building a physiology explanation of perception. Basically, under this system, we have a stimulus, and a constant connection of correspondence with a an elementary perception on the other side of the line. He then fires off a series of challenges to this “constancy model”, questioning whether these examples can simply be justified by attention and judgement, or represent a fundamental flaw in the model itself. After marching through a somewhat snoozey list of cortical lesion examples, he arrives at a point, which is that there can not be a physiological definition of sensation because such a definition would have to include both biological and psychological laws. Put another way, the constancy model is not a reduced principle, since it has these two streams flowing into it.

Like a good dramatist, Marleau-Ponty doesn’t let this juicy expositional tension pass us by, stating, “We believed we knew what feeling, seeing, and hearing were, and now these words raise problems”. He quickly moves in to begin building up the space of phenomenology around these problems, highlighting the things we we miss in what psychology and physiology try to explain away, offering that “the perceived, by its nature, admits of the ambiguous, the shifting, and is shaped by its context”.

And here’s where he speaks directly to my deepest suspicions of what we have lost over the ages; the very crux of what we have sacrificed in the progression of human thought.

When we fail to account for the differences we observe with the reduced truths we arrive at in our measurements of objective reality, we arrive at “objects purged of all ambiguity, pure and absolute, the ideal rather than the real themes of knowledge”.

I will now give you and I both a few moments to mourn how that central cultural belief, long held, has marred humanity.

2. ‘Association’ and the ‘Projection of Memories’

We begin to tease apart one of sensation’s problems, which is the way the hungry meaning-making mind swoops in and begins immediately relating previously-experienced sensations in an endless cascade of associations. It seems this is pointing to a further need to define what it is we are doing when we are analyzing what we are seeing in order to understand its “fixed” position in the world, but in any case, it seems whatever process we would define is not what we do by course - it would be an adopted perceiving attitude; a lens perhaps.

Slight digression. This chapter starts to point to the development of object recognition, and the processes of using knowledge of object to parse out the visual field, and vice versa (looking for data in the visual field to reinforce the concept of objects). I just want to flag that this brushes up against research on how this develops “naturally” in infancy/early childhood, as well as how that understand gets grafted onto language constructs. If we don’t zoom in on that grafting in our conversation about phenomenology, we will never be certain if our entire conversation is rooted in the experience of perception or the failure to convey that experience with language. Just wanted to point that out.

I believe we’re getting to the concept of noema, which is one of the few things I know about phenomenology. In fact, I made a journal called noema a few years back, because I thought the concept was so cool - that there is a unit of knowledge that precedes the association effect of knowledge Merleau-Ponty is laboring to help us understand. But we’re not there yet.

We reach an experiment, one in which subjects have difficulty applying rules across word games to examples already learned, but have more facility applying the rules of a new game. We find our expectations start competing with reality, making the cross-application game hard. And there we have it - memory affects perception.

But what of illusions? Am I remembering a horse when I see the shape of one in a cloud? Well, not memory in the conscious sense, but yes, my brain is “relieved” to find a meaningful shape in the clouds, built up of the patterning of objectness that has proven successful before.

We close out this chapter with a belief that to perceive is to see “an immanent significance” that precedes any accessing of memory.

3. ‘Attention’ and ‘Judgement’

A brief jaunt through the relationship between empiricism, intellectualism and attention, followed by an exploration of what psychology offers, with attention offered as a “transformation of the mental field, a new way for consciousness to be present to its objects”. Again MP carries us along to the discrepancy between what we actually perceive in the world and the “corrections” of consciousness that intellectualism fosters, and how any theory of attention must seek to address that which we actually perceive, even if it differs from what we know about reality.

Where does judgement begin? Does it begin at the reading of phenomena as having meaning, and thereby judgeable?

OK, here’s a MP gem: “everything that exists exists as a thing or a consciousness, and there is no half-way house”. And then boom, follows it with “Perception is just thought about perceiving”. I can’t stop, nature is “merely duplicated throughout its extent by a thought which sustains it”. I’m left wondering how this understanding of perception stacks up against other models of perception, and what do we lose in the duplication? Do we make up the difference when we stitch back in understanding from our scientific discoveries? And how do such discoveries mesh with what we experience directly from our duplicated reality?

But we still don’t know the role of judgement, although we know encounter Descartes’ conundrum - how we can know things as unified and distinct at the same time, which is what would be required to reconcile the “truths” of our perception with the all encompassing reality of what already is, which includes our perception as a sub-set. In fact, it would do us good to take a slight detour, and compare judgement as understood by MP against Descartes and Kant.

4. The phenomenal field

I always find myself wanting to reconcile what is explored in philosophy of perception with what has been empirically studied by biologists and cognitive scientists. How does the picture we are painting about sense experience graft onto what we know is happening chemically, biologically, and structurally in our sense organs? I’d love to draw some pictures of how those ideas come together. Furthermore, I’d love to define the challenges we run up against in getting our heads around the complexity of perception as AI problems, not simply to “test” what we know about ourselves, but to advance the complexity of our AI systems (which I am becoming more and more hopeful for as collaborators in warding of our mass extinction).

MP describes sense experience as a vital communication between “perceived object” and “perceiving subject”; an “intentional tissue which the effort to know will try to take apart”. This is important because it situates our exploration of the phenomenal field. We are breathing complexity into this space. He doesn’t hold back here, describing the act of “treating perception immediately as knowledge and forgetting its existential content” as a “mutilation”.

MP also speaks to our broader program of locating in the history of thought the origins of certainty of the world. He does so by directing his attention to one of the central consequences of science’s “developing the concept of the thing”, which is the disregard of being. “The living body, under these circumstances, could not escape the determinations which alone made the object into an object and without which it would have had no place the system of experience”. We thus, in our journey into the phenomenal field, endeavoring to reclaim the beingness of the living body.

We encounter in this section an articulation of what we stand to gain when we commit to a phenomenology program - we “shall be able to grasp the theoretical basis on less than the limits of that objective world, restore to things their concrete physiognomy, to organisms their individual ways of dealing with the world, and to subjectivity its inherence in history”.

The case is being made for phenomenology, and he takes time to underscore that it is not situated in an inward-focussed obsession. We are reminded that we will still be participating in the world. Put simply, we are becoming aware that the condition of the observer is becoming inextricable from any exploration of the value of the observed.