Merleau-Ponty on Perception and Imagination

French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes how the lived body makes sense of experience in the phenomenal world.

When I begin to reflect my reflection bears upon an unreflective experience; moreover my reflection cannot be unaware of itself as an event, and so it appears to itself in the light of a truly creative act, of a changed structure of consciousness, and yet it has to recognize, as having priority over its own operations, the world which is given to the subject because the subject is given to himself. The real has to be described, not constructed or formed. Which means that I cannot put perception into the same category as the syntheses represented by judgements, acts or predications. My field of perception is constantly filled with a play of colours, noises and fleeting tactile sensations which I cannot relate precisely to the context of my clearly perceived world, yet which I nevertheless immediately ‘place’ in the world, without ever confusing them with my daydreams. Equally constantly I weave dreams round things. I imagine people and things whose presence is not incompatible with the context, yet who are not in fact involved in it: they are ahead of reality, in the realm of the imaginary. If the reality of my perception were based solely on the intrinsic coherence of ‘representations’, it ought to be forever hesitant and, being wrapped up in my conjectures on probabilities. I ought to be ceaselessly taking apart misleading syntheses, and reinstating in reality stray phenomena which I had excluded in the first place. But this seems not to happen. The real is a closely woven fabric. It does not await our judgement before incorporating the most surprising phenomena, or before rejecting the most plausible figments of our imagination. Perception is not a science of the world, it is not even an act, a deliberate taking up of a position; it is the background from which all acts stand out, and is presupposed by them. …

Intellectualism set out, it is true, to discover by reflection the structure of perception, instead of explaining it in terms of a combination of associative forces and attention, but its gaze upon perception is not yet direct. This will be seen better by examining the role played in its analysis by the notion of judgement. Judgement is often introduced as what sensation lacks to make perception possible. Sensation is no longer presupposed as a real element of consciousness. But when it is desired to delineate the structure of perception, it is done by joining up the points of sensation. Analysis is then dominated by this empiricist notion which, however, is accepted only as the boundary of consciousness and serves merely to throw into relief a power of co-ordination of which it is itself the antithesis. Intellectualism thrives on the refutation of empiricism, and here judgement often has the job of offsetting the possible dispersal of sensations. Analytical reflection makes its canon firm by carrying to their logical conclusions the realist and empiricist theses, and validating their opposite by showing their absurdity. But in the reductio ad absurdum no contact is necessarily made with the actual workings of consciousness. It remains possible that the theory of perception, ideally starting from a blind intuition, may end compensatorily with some empty concept, and that judgement, the counterpart of pure sensation, may degenerate into a general function of an indifferent linking of objects, or even become once more a psychic force detectable in its effects. The famous analysis of the piece of jumps from qualities such a smell, colour and taste, to the power of assuming an infinity of forms and positions, a power which lies beyond the perceived object and defines only the wax of the physicist. For perception there is no wax left when all its sensible properties have vanished and only science supposes that there is some matter which is preserved.


Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012 [1945]. The Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge. pp. xi, 37. || Amazon || WorldCat


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