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Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological critique of natural science

  • Thomas Baldwin (a1)
Abstract

In his Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty maintains that our own existence cannot be understood by the methods of natural science; furthermore, because fundamental aspects of the world such as space and time are dependent on our existence, these too cannot be accounted for within natural science. So there cannot be a fully scientific account of the world at all. The key thesis Merleau-Ponty advances in support of this position is that perception is not, as he puts it, ‘an event of nature’. He argues that it has a fundamental intentionality which configures the perceived world as spatio-temporal in ways which are presupposed by natural science and which cannot therefore be explained by natural science.

This is a striking and original claim. When one looks in detail at the considerations Merleau-Ponty advances in support of it, however, these turn out to be either inconclusive or to draw on idealist presumptions which a contemporary naturalist will reject. So while there is much of interest and value in Merleau-Ponty's critical discussion of naturalism, he does not succeed in establishing his central claim.

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1 Merleau-Ponty, M., Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Landes, D. (London: Routledge, 2012), lxxii. I have generally adopted the new translation of Merleau-Ponty's Phénoménologie de la perception by Donald Landes (hereafter PhP 2012). But I have occasionally departed from it. For example in this passage Landes has translated ‘l'expression seconde’ as ‘second-order expression’. It is not obvious what Landes means here by ‘second-order’ (presumably nothing connected with second-order logic); but ‘seconde’ often means ‘second-hand’, and that is surely the meaning in play here.

2 Merleau-Ponty, M., The Primacy of Perception, trans. Edie, J. (Evanston, IL, Northwestern University Press, 1964)

3 Ibid.

4 PhP 2012, note 1, lxxxiv.

5 PhP 2012, 54–5.

6 PhP 2012, 54–5.

7 PhP 2012, 26.

8 PhP 2012, 315.

9 PhP 2012, 345.

10 PhP 2012, 349.

11 Merleau-Ponty, M., Nature, Course Notes from the Collège de France, trans. Vallier, R. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003).

12 Merleau-Ponty, M., The Structure of Behavior, trans. Fisher, A.L. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1963), 145.

13 Ibid., 145.

14 See for example Merleau-Ponty, Structure of Behavior, note 1, lxxix.

15 PhP 2012, 215.

16 Sartre, J.P., J-P. Being and Nothingness, trans. Barnes, H.E. (London: Methuen, 1969), 439.

17 PhP 2012, lxxxiv.

18 PhP 2012, 45; emphasis in the original.

19 Merleau-Ponty, Structure of Behavior, 154–60.

20 Ibid., 39.

21 Ibid., 158.

22 Ibid., 184.

23 Ibid., 145.

24 Ibid., 176.

25 Ibid., 184.

26 PhP 2012, 215.

27 PhP 2012, 10–11.

28 PhP 2012, 69.

29 PhP 2012, 341.

30 PhP 2012, 22–3.

31 PhP 2012, 51.

32 PhP 2012, 51.

33 See, e.g. PhP 2012, 50

34 Gibson, J., The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1966).

35 Marr, D., Vision: A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2010).

36 See, for example, Van Gulick, R., ‘Functionalism, Information and Content’, Nature and System 2 (1980), 139–60

37 PhP 2012, 349.

38 PhP 2012, 74.

39 PhP 2012, 74.

40 PhP 2012, 456.

41 Sacks, Oliver, The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat (London: Picador, 1986), 64.

42 PhP 2012, 137.

43 PhP 2012, 127.

44 PhP 2012, 117 –21.

45 PhP 2012, 121.

46 Merleau-Ponty, Structure of Behavior, 176.

47 PhP 2012, 111–2.

48 PhP 2012, 214–5; the reference here to a ‘flaw’ in a ‘great diamond’ is an allusion to a famous poem by Valery, ‘Le cimetière marin’.

49 PhP 2012, 69.

50 PhP 2012, 264.

51 PhP 2012, 334.

52 See, for example, PhP 2012, 16.

53 Gregory, R. (1966). Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson

54 PhP 2012, 456.

55 PhP 2012, 293.

56 PhP 2012, 287.

57 PhP 2012, 290.

58 PhP 2012, 449.

59 PhP 2012, 451.

60 PhP 2012, 439.

61 PhP 2012, 349.

62 PhP 2012, 288.

63 PhP 2012, 435.

64 PhP 2012, 433.

65 PhP 2012, 434.

66 PhP 2012, 433.

67 See McTaggart, John M.E., ‘The Unreality of Time’, Mind 17 (1908), 457–73.

68 Shoemaker, Sidney, ‘Causality and Properties’ in Inwagen, P. van (ed.), Time and Cause (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1980), 109–35.

69 PhP 2012, 349.

70 cf. Kripke, S., On Rules and Private Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982).

71 PhP 2012, 315–6.

72 PhP 2012, 264.

73 I am indebted to Brendan Harrington for this suggestion.

74 PhP 2012, 45.

75 PhP 2012, 25.

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Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
  • ISSN: 1358-2461
  • EISSN: 1755-3555
  • URL: /core/journals/royal-institute-of-philosophy-supplements
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