Papers in progress:

“Merleau-Ponty and the Problem of Perception”

What does it mean for our perceptual connection to the world, if perceptual error is possible? One articulation of the “problem of perception” goes like this: “perception seems intuitively to be openness to the world, but this fact of openness is threatened by reflection on illusions and hallucinations” (Crane 2016). In other words, the fact that our perceptual experiences can be wrong undermines our confidence that perception connects us directly with the real, external world. There are two relatively common types of responses to this problem. One is to argue that we do have some kind of indirect connection to the world, where perception presents us with ideas, representations, “quale,” or other such mental items that are taken to refer somehow to the external world. The other perhaps more pessimistic response is to wonder whether perception reliably puts us in contact with an “outside world” at all. That is, given that our perception is evidently sometimes wrong, how can we be sure when it is right, or even that it is ever right?

The first view typically falls under the heading of “indirect realism,” whereas the second takes up a skeptical attitude towards our perceptual relation to the world. But, importantly, both of these positions end up denying our initial intuition that perception just presents us with the world itself. The possibility of error suggests that the content of perception and the world itself come apart, thus “greas[ing] the skids for the slide into representationalist theories of mind” (Wrathall 2009). These views argue that, in light of the threat presented by perceptual errors such as illusions and hallucinations, the best we can do is hope that our own mental representation of the world accurately represents what’s actually out there, or is in other words “veridical.”

Merleau-Ponty rejects this idea. However, in rejecting both of the typical responses mentioned above, Merleau-Ponty’s response to the problem of perception must explain how it is that we could have a direct relation to the world in perception and nonetheless still sometimes be wrong. In other words, he will have to (1) explain how illusions and hallucinations are possible, despite our direct engagement with the world (thus rejecting the indirect and the skeptical responses to the problem), and (2) effectively distinguish between illusory, hallucinatory, and veridical perceptions (thus rejecting what I will call the “really naive” view).

I will argue that Merleau-Ponty has an account of perceptual error that adequately meets these requirements. First, I will consider Merleau-Ponty’s account of illusion, and in particular what I call “everyday illusion,” such as mistaking a dot on your office wall for a spider. For Merleau-Ponty, these illusions are errors of a certain sort, which we might more properly call perceptual deceptions. But, for Merleau-Ponty, our ability to be deceived in this way reinforces rather than threatens the notion that we are in fact in direct contact with the world in perception. I will argue that Merleau-Ponty takes both veridical perception and illusion to be varieties of genuine perception, whose defining characteristic is not veridicality but rather a certain kind of responsiveness to the world. Ultimately, both veridical and illusory perception are part of the same direct and normatively structured engagement with the world that characterizes perception proper, in which perceptual ambiguity plays a central rather than an undermining role.

Next, I will consider Merleau-Ponty’s account of hallucination. Hallucination is a different matter: hallucination involves a “break” with the world that illusion does not. However, Merleau-Ponty argues that this break is only possible in virtue of the nature of our usual direct engagement with the world in perception. From the analysis of illusion, we come to understand our engagement with the world in perception as a two-sided relationship in which we reach out towards the world as it invites us to engage with it, and we respond to the world as it reveals itself to us. Hallucination involves a breakdown of this sort of mutual engagement: in hallucination, we “reach out” for the world unprovoked, and orient ourselves towards a pseudo-reality that is not really there. For Merleau-Ponty, hallucination is not part of perception proper because it is not appropriately responsive to the actual world, and can thus be investigated as a distinct variety of experience. Nonetheless, hallucination is dependent on genuine perception in that it borrows certain features from perception, without which the hallucinated pseudo-reality could never be “convincing.” In other words, hallucination is only made possible by (and reveals something important about) the structure of perception because it involves a breakdown of that very structure.

Finally, I will investigate how the above account of hallucination is, for Merleau- Ponty, supposed to “verify” his theory of perception more generally. Having rejected “indirect” views of our relation to the world in perception, we might also consider the more broadly “skeptical” responses. The possibility of perceptual error threatens our everyday, uncritical sense of not only what perception is, but also what it can do: whether or not its structure is “direct,” one might still be concerned that perception may not put us in contact with the external world reliably — or that it may not even be the kind of thing that connects us with such a world at all. I will argue that Merleau-Ponty strongly rejects this latter option, while accepting the former. In fact, acceptance of the former comes along with recognizing ambiguity as a key “positive” feature of Merleau-Ponty’s picture of our relation to the world, and it is a reason to reject the latter. While Merleau-Ponty accepts the idea that any particular perceptual experience could be shown to be erroneous, he welcomes this possibility as an integral part of our communion with the endlessly rich and vast world.

“The Merleau-Pontyan Perspective”

There has been debate among contemporary phenomenologists and phenomenologically-inclined philosophers of mind in recent years about the perspectival nature of perception, and how to account for the three-dimensionality of what we see. To take a popular example, consider a spinning coin: one might wonder how to explain what and how we perceive when we perceive the coin at an angle (see e.g. Kelly 2005; Noë 2012). One might debate about e.g. whether we ever actually see the coin as elliptical, or how to account for the way that all the different possible angles of the coin form part of one whole experience of the same coin, but what is not up for debate is the basic idea that perception is necessarily perspectival in some way. This is typically taken to mean that perception necessarily involves some context: perception is always from the “point of view” of a perceiver. But what these discussions seem to assume is that this context is primarily a matter of relative spatial orientation. Even when discussing the difference between distance as a standardized spatial measurement (e.g. 200 ft) and distance as we perceive it on a Merleau-Pontyan phenomenological account (e.g., something I would need to walk towards in order to see better) (see Kelly, 2005), the presumption is that a “point of view” is characterized by its spatiality.

My paper will have two main sections. First, I will spend some the time discussing perspective in the more traditional sense of the subject’s spatial orientation towards objects in the world. For Merleau-Ponty, each perspectival experience of something presents the subject with the full object itself, albeit ambiguously: each perspectival moment includes all the others as part of the horizonal structure of the object, and the variations in perspective that we experience when e.g. walking around a cube-shaped object are just a matter of a continued exploration of that horizonal structure (and more broadly, a continued bodily engagement with and exploration of the world). Merleau-Ponty’s view here is unique, and important to get on the table in order to better understand the nature and consequences of the more radical claim that I will discuss in the second section — that perceptual “perspective” should be conceived of not only in terms of spatial orientation but also in terms of one’s historical, cultural, political, and personal situation.

After considering Merleau-Ponty’s account of perspective in terms of spatial orientation, I argue that Merleau-Ponty’s sense of a “point of view” is a much richer notion, one that includes the subject’s orientation in historical time, in culture, in personal history and values. In the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty describes the relationship between the world and the experiencing subject as an “intentional arc,” writing that “perceptual life… is underpinned by an “intentional arc” that projects around us our past, our future, our human milieu, our physical situation, our ideological situation, and our moral situation, or rather, that ensures that we are situated within all of these relationships”(PoP 137). In this paper, I will explore what a Merleau-Pontyan “point of view” looks like, and what consequences this richer notion of a “point of view” has for his theory of perception. I will argue that, for Merleau-Ponty, the perspectival nature of perception means that each individual has privileged access to unique aspects of the world in virtue of their particular socio-cultural and personal situation, or in other words, in virtue of the unique way in which their point of view situates them in the world. I will conclude with a discussion of some epistemic, social, and moral consequences suggested by this model of perspectival perception.

“Merleau-Ponty and Standpoint Theory”

Feminist standpoint theory is a variety of feminist epistemology that has been active since the 1980s. Its two central tenets are (1) that knowledge is necessarily situated within a socio-political context, and (2) that certain socio-political positions or standpoints are epistemically privileged when it comes to “reveal[ing] the truth of social reality” (Hekman 1997). Over the course of its history, standpoint theory has encountered a number of problems which have revealed stark divisions among its supporters over certain fundamental philosophical commitments (e.g., a commitment to realism about empirical claims). In this paper, I sketch out a phenomenological account of perception that can begin to address these problems, drawn largely from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.

There are two major issues that I believe a Merleau-Pontyan view of perception can help alleviate. One is that there has never been a thorough articulation of a theory of perception underlying standpoint theory’s central claims. This is surprising, since arguments in favor of standpoint theory often emphasize that occupying a certain standpoint enables one to see the world differently. In what is arguably the most influential early articulation of standpoint theory, Nancy Hartsock’s 1983 book Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism, Hartsock writes that “the concept of a standpoint rests on the fact that there are some perspectives on society from which, however well intentioned one may be, the real relations of humans with each other and with the natural world are not visible” (Hartsock 1983). Other later theorists take up this language of visibility — Lorraine Code, for instance, writes that from different standpoints “the world looks quite different from the way it might look ‘from nowhere’” (Code 1996). There is no particular reason to believe that this “looks” is always and only meant on a strictly metaphorical level: the claim seems to be that the world literally looks different to people occupying different standpoints. And yet, feminist standpoint theory never discusses an underlying theory of perception in any depth. My paper aims to provide some suggestions towards what such a theory might look like.

The second problem that a Merleau-Pontyan account of perspectival perception may be able to address is the complex tension between standpoint theory’s two central theses (see Hekman 1997). Essentially, the problem is that positing that knowledge is necessarily situated seems to make it difficult to account for one single reality or world about which some particular group could be epistemically privileged. In particular, if we affirm that there is not one single standpoint that one monolithic group known as “women” occupy (as numerous theorists compellingly argued in the 80s and 90s), it becomes especially difficult to see how it wouldn’t be the case that (as Alison Wylie puts it) “standpoints fragment into myriad individual perspectives,” and standpoint theory reduces to a sort of empty relativism (Wylie 2004). Thus, there is some confusion about how it could be possible that different standpoints have different but nonetheless real experiences of some singular external reality in the first place, let alone how there could be some mechanism by which certain standpoints are privileged. Susan Hekman calls this issue the “central problem” for feminist standpoint theory: “given multiple standpoints… how can we talk about ‘better accounts of the world,’ ‘less false stories’? And, indeed, how can we talk about accounts of the world at all if the multiplicity of standpoints is, quite literally, endless?” (Hekman 1997). As Miranda Fricker points out, there seems to be a “need for an epistemology which gives a strong role to socio-political values,” but which nonetheless maintains a realist stance about beliefs drawn from experience (Fricker 1994).

I believe the second problem (the tension between standpoint theory’s two central theses) is at least partially derivative of the first (the lack of an adequate account of the perceptual basis for standpoint epistemology). The recognition of “myriad individual perspectives” need not lead to the aforementioned fragmentation, if we can reconcile the recognition of such perspectives with a realism about perceptual experience. Such a view would have to explain how distinct, sometimes even apparently conflicting, perspectives might nonetheless be reconciled as revealing genuine aspects of a single real world to which they all belong. Merleau-Ponty can help us begin to resolve these issues by providing an account of perspectival perception that includes a multiplicity of different perceptual standpoints that all nonetheless put us in touch with a single external world, and explains how it could be that some standpoints are better than others when it comes to accessing certain features of this world.

“Can a Phenomenologist be a Realist?”

Can a phenomenologist be a realist? Some commentators seem to think so; Sean Kelly, for example, remarks that direct realism in particular seems like “a natural position for a phenomenologist to hold” (Kelly 2007).  But to claim that any phenomenologist might be a “realist” will always be somewhat fraught: Merleau-Ponty tells us that phenomenology involves “describing, and not explaining or analyzing,” and ascribing a metaphysical position like “realism” to a phenomenologist would seem to accuse them of going beyond mere description. More than that, it might obligate them to certain background beliefs that stand at odds with basic features of the phenomenological approach, such as a sharp distinction or a problematic “gap” between subject and world.

There are two main reasons one might think that phenomenologists cannot be realists. First, there is a methodological question: you might think that it is not within phenomenology’s purview to make any kind of metaphysical claim at all. That is, you might think that there’s something about phenomenology as a methodology that precludes endorsement of any metaphysical position concerning the relation between subject and world. Then there is the more substantive question: even if you allow that a phenomenologist can coherently make metaphysical claims (or endorse theories with metaphysical consequences), you might believe that phenomenologists should endorse some other position besides realism, e.g., “transcendental idealism.”

Nonetheless, I want to argue “yes,” a phenomenologist can consistently be a certain kind of realist.  In particular, Merleau-Pontyan phenomenology does not methodologically preclude all forms of realism; it does, however, preclude any sort of idealism, including transcendental idealism.  I further suggest that Merleau-Ponty’s work demonstrates what a phenomenologist’s realism might look like, namely, the sort of realism that Charles Taylor describes as “a new sort of contact theory.”  According to Taylor, “the contact here is not achieved on the level of Ideas, but is rather something primordial, something we never escape.  It is the contact of living, active beings, whose life form involves acting in and on a world which also acts on them” (Taylor 2013, 73).  In keeping with Merleau-Ponty’s own terminology, one might refer to the uniquely Merleau-Pontyan form of realism as a “communion” theory (PoP 219).  It is the articulation of this theory that Merleau-Ponty takes to be the general project of the Phenomenology of Perception: “We must rediscover the origin of the object at the very core of our experience… and we must come to understand how, paradoxically, there is for-us an in-itself” (PoP 74).