Episode 48: Merleau-Ponty on Perception and Knowledge

Discussing Maurice Merleau-Ponty's "Primacy of Perception" (1946) and The World of Perception (1948).

What is the relation of perception to knowledge? In M-P's phenomenology, perception is primary: even our knowledge of mathematical truths is in some way conditioned by and dependent on the fact that we are creatures with bodies and senses that work the way they do. Science is great, but it doesn't discover the truth of things hiding behind perception: it is an abstraction from certain kinds of perceptions. Other modes of approaching things, e.g. art, can equally well give us knowledge, though of a different kind.

Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan argue over whether this thesis is just a bunch of truisms and despair over not having read The Phenomenology of Perception, the longer work which what we did read was meant to summarize. Is M-P just saying that scientific knowledge is defeasible, which scientists already believe? Read more about this topic.

Buy "The Primacy of Perception and its Philosophical Consequences,"or read it online. Buy World of Perception,or read online.

End song: "Write Me Off" by Mark Lint and the Simulacra. Read about it.

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:


  1. Ryan says

    First, I very much enjoyed this reading and listening to the accompanying podcast. Even if it turns out I didn’t learn anything, Ponty’s voice in the radio broadcasts was also just enchanting all on its own. I saw this as a strongly self informed take on phemonology outside of the commonly acknowledged series of husserl, heidegger, and sartre, and hope I can get around to reading the phenomenology of perception soon. I do think you were too hard on Ponty for expressing what you seemed ready to chalk up to so many seemingly banal truths. I suggest rather than what you were feeling toward Ponty was shock and surprise as his very modern view. How many scientists in the present day are willing to allow any real precedence in understanding of the world to the arts? Even more importantly to where Ponty is coming from, how many modern Heideggerian informed artists are willing to allow any say to the scientists without corrupting their precious radical subjectivity? What he expresses is a speculative synthesis of these programs which to the artist or scientist will often still be found unacceptable, while to a philosopher like yourself could be seen as being very uncontroversial.

    Dylan – ‘What is the ontology or metaphysics of this situation? … What I really want to know is what the world is, and what things are, and what kind of beings are found in it.’

    I think this is exactly my problem with the reading. Ponty was speaking during a time when advances in empiricism were coming to a head. While we had developed rigorous views in biology and physics, neither of these empirical programs really had anything to say about human consciousness, and interest in the philosophy of language and mind was only just beginning. Ponty’s writings were published just before the fifty years of dogmatically anti-scientific philosophy Dylan had a short angry outburst against. He can’t be held accountable in the same way, he offers a genuine understanding of the empirical sciences up the modern physics of his time, only he doesn’t recognize the closed account we’re often asked to accept simply at face value. However, now today we are developing the empirical methods to study consciousness itself in the same way as we do all other perceived entities. At some point we have to come to terms with that the findings we reach in the sciences are always informed by the human mode of perception, but do not simply result out of it alone. What could macroscopic perceptions have to do with the invisible interactions that we now understand primarily compose both this world and our consciousness as embodied in it?

  2. says

    — It seems to me, the example of the football game is most pertinent to M-P’s gist, underscoring the primacy of perception before that of consciousness while keeping in tandem the paradox of the same world as being witnessed by all subjects involved, as opposed to the other example put forth, of a scholar trying to explain to a toddler the Pythagorean theorem. The reason being, simple: there is no opportunity to engage and persuade, no forum to orate and rhetorically influence the other subject. Where one subject is watching/perceiving one particular facet of the game (the QB) and the other subject — situated or couched next to them with their field of perception being not only relative to former said subject affixed on the QB’s movements but intensely, passionately so, thus preparing or grounding the opportunity to be suaded in the first place — perceiving yet another relative facet of the game (the Safety backing off), now there is, amid the multi-faceted fields of perception in which said subjects eagerly gaze upon the same world/phenomena — termed “the game” — the brilliant opportunity to present ones case of import in what is dynamically taking place as the game. And upon further expression, the two subjects couched before the game may indeed realize the greater gestalt involved here: that the two perceptions, in tandem, have the potential to wed together a greater understanding (the Safety is backing off because the QB called an audible; or the QB is calling an audible because the Safety backed off, thus prompting a hot route; and, further, upon instant replay, a third and final perspective comes in, most persuasively, where the latter view proved to be a more accurate/skillful view than the other (thus scoring the same world idea of M-P, of more “accurate” perspectives)). But in the end, both subjects, prior to the third and ultimate view, had a dog in the fight and both had plausible takes. The scholar’s ivory tower impinging upon the toddler, on the other hand, does not have an opportunity to do any persuading here, even less if ones counterpart were a bee or a dog. That is, not if you are going for an absurdist, Lynchian persuasion, where two disparate things are placed alongside one another with relative ease, like seeing in the fridge leftover fettuccine alfredo placed next to a neatly and carefully saran wrapped human head.

    And so, perhaps M-P is hedging against a perspectivalism while also hedging against the Cartesian realism of infinite forms outside of us, where worlds become merged after hacking at it with different axes until the thing is fell, fallen down into a real and tangible conclusion that we can agree upon. Isn’t this the purpose of cultural relics? Icons exist outside of us but we choose to engage in them not because of sheer faith, but because it has plausible stuff to it. We follow football teams and serve them, in a sense, because they are cultural, which is to say, they exist outside of us but at the same time through us — dynamically so — and without us they would cease to exist. And within this relic, are finer more distinguished relics or items of thought, where we can understand QB and Safety patterns of actions, which heightens or “intoxicates” us further, if you will (and, really, you must!). In think early-Heidegger would have something to add here, where the angst or caringness of it all would pair objects/phenomena with that of subjects or beings in the world together, as we watch our teams through a clearing in the woods, trying to perceive and persuade subjects making their way through the same wood, sun aglow, dying down, offering and inviting reflection.

  3. says

    Or maybe a more accurate, helpful definition/description of existentialism is, humans retain the ability to choose and that those choices will in turn have serious consequences for not only us but those around us, no matter the ultimate terms of philosophical/religious creeds of fate or destiny which often subsume and corral our choices. That said, the sad fact is, traditionally things like Fate which are guided by outside influences all too often usurp this existential awareness, and so our utterly free ability to make choices and take responsibility for those choices is never fully realized.

    To understand a profound example of this dynamic, read Camus’ short story “The Guest.”

  4. David Buchanan says

    I don’t know how MMP would answer Dylan’s ontological question but my hunch is that he’d answer like James would. Based on what I’ve just heard in the recent episode, MMP seems to be about a half inch away from James on just about everything else. Anyway, IF James is a proper proxy, then what’s real is phenomenal reality as such and any things or entities or categories of substance that are always going to be secondary and conceptual.

    Since ontologies are usually supposed to be about the ground of reality and the causes or conditions of experience, this view tends to baffle and perplex. But it just means that reality is experience itself and all ontologies are hypotheses, are secondary and conceptual and abstract – as opposed to experience as it is immediately felt and lived in the concrete. One could think of this radical empiricism as a kind of robust anti-reification program. On this view, even “matter” loses its grand ontological status and is reduced to the ranks of the conceptual. It’s an awesomely handy concept in almost any situation, so successful that it’s easy to mistake this concept for reality itself. If this reification doesn’t occur, then problems like reductionism and scientism are much less likely to occur.

  5. Anonny says


    On experience at all levels, could you take up Pirsig’s description of carbon and freedom in ‘Lila’ and explain what you are saying by answering

    What is the experience of an embodied carbon molecule?

  6. Amir Zaki says

    It seems that Solomon, while discussing Sartre, attempts to indirectly address Dylan’s frustration regarding the Merleau-Ponty podcast. It is around 24 minutes in – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vGzpEqKK-Y

    I think I understand Dylan’s frustration (anger?) to be directed at the apparent uselessness (without practical application) of phenomenological observations. They aren’t after solving some particular problem. This sounds like a general critique of any number of endeavors, mainly in the arts, where one cannot point directly to the purpose of what one is doing, in the way that one can directly point to the purpose of a scientific experiment. Before I continue, Dylan or any other PEL folks, is this an accurate interpretation of what I heard on the podcast?

    • M says

      Though he turned aside to cook, to eat, to swing his ax into a fallen birch, the sensation remained, singing in the spaces between the ax strokes, permeating the day. It was within reach, the graduation he sought, the final clarity, a tissue width removed from apprehension; it was waiting for him to be totally still. Then, he knew, this vaporous presence would condense into words and pour itself generously into his mind. He bathed, dried himself, dressed in fresh clothes he had himself washed in the brook and to whose clean faded fibres adhered a few reddish granules of sand, like sacred salt. He composed himself on the broad flat threshold, and listened. A single twig lay half in, half out of an oval of moisture that the shape of the stone had collected. A breeze transparently touched the treetops, and in a flickering of green the high leaves sharpened themselves against whetstones of light. A silence embraced all phenomena; the sound beneath the silence approached. Stanley leaned back against the door frame, wondered vaguely what the wood itself felt, and relaxed into a joy not very different from fear. 

  7. parrhesiastes says

    Two quick points, a thought and a suggestion, first, on perception and Dylan’s point of parallel lines (around 29-ish minute), for ancients (Euclid) the perception of “infinity” was somewhat different – as Nagel and Newman mentions, while explaining parallel and asymptotic lines, in Gödel Proof (p. 9):
    Euclid defines parallel lines as straight lines in a plane that, “being produced indefinitely in both directions,” do not meet. Accordingly, two lines are parallel is to make the claim that the two lines will not meet even “at infinity.” But, the ancients were familiar with lines that, though they do not intersect each other in finite region of the plane, do meet “at infinity.”
    Second, on building up Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology via Dreyfus, do check out the Samuel Todes’ Body and World (http://www.amazon.com/Body-World-Samuel-Todes/dp/0262700824) – his only book/dissertation.

  8. Profile photo of Will Yate says

    If anyone’s interested in giving M-P’s larger work a shot, I’ve proposed a group where we read the Phenomenology of Perception starting in January. It might be difficult for people without a background in philosophy (especially Heidegger), but I’d welcome those people too: it never hurts to try to break things down into the everyday English we all speak!

    I’m thinking 25 pages a week is reasonable, but if you’re thinking about joining but want to change the pace and/or other parameters, I’m open to any suggestions.

  9. mart says

    i’m surprised at how overly complicated you’re making this… why, for example, are you bringing up the pythagorean theorem as a counterargument? to me, the fact that a 2 year old or dog cannot make use of it shouldn’t call into question MMP’s idea, but rather the value of the pythagorean theorem itself! it is notionally true only within its own structure and its value beyond that structure seems limited at best.

    MMP proposes that there is a reality and that our embodiedness within that reality structures our perception of it. Our having OUR body IS the primary structuring principle for all our engagement with reality, whether that engagement is sensory, social, scientifically abstract, ethical, etc.

    The dog’s having the DOGS body is the reason abstract math is lost on the dog. Same for the 2 year old.

    I love what you guys are doing, but sometimes I think you’re missing the forest for the trees.

  10. Dasein says

    As a point of order, to ensure that M-P is not ignored in future podcast projects, let there be no doubt that his other works really do offer an extension of the heideggerian view into the body. His language, while he tries very hard to show sympathy to Husserl, is clearly on the side of Heidegger; it gives you spine tingles if you’re into Heidegger.

    His take down of Kant’s view of judgment and perception would I think deserve time in itself.

    For a future podcast– “The Body with Heidegger”– there is a problem: M-P didn’t dissolve the subject until after his magnum opus (P of P). So perhaps you’ll need to do a reading of Visible and the Invisible.

    Please don’t give up on him. It is not simply a trope that he extends Heidegger.

  11. says

    One answer to the ‘but what difference does all this make?!’ is Perls, Hefferline and Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy. A phenomenological and humanist psychotherapy.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *