Primacy of Perception?

Having mentioned Merleau-Ponty in passing the other day, I should say a bit more. Merleau-Ponty was the leading exponent of existential phenomenology in the 20th century. One of his most central theses was what he called the primacy of perception, developed in his most famous work The Phenomenology of Perception.

The Husserlian and existential phenomenological traditions generally put strong emphasis on immediate consciousness or something like it as a universal common-denominator medium of all apprehension and experience. This is a stance quite opposite to that of Hegelian phenomenology, in which “Consciousness” specifically names the lowest and least adequate of many stages of development, and mediation rather than immediacy comes first in the order of explanation. Nonetheless, there is much of interest.

For Merleau-Ponty in particular, perception was the favored term. He was also especially concerned with our experience of embodiment. “The evidence of the perceived thing lies… in the very texture of its qualities…. We experience in it a truth which shows through and envelops us rather than being held and circumscribed by our mind.” (Merleau-Ponty, The Prose of the World, p. xii.) This is a nice alternative to the narrow mentalist, representationalist views of Descartes and Locke that still tend to dominate, even today.

Merleau-Ponty’s investigations of perception occupy the same general territory as Kant’s synthesis of intuition, but are concerned with a yet much finer-grained level. They show perception already in itself to be anything but simple and direct. I think Aristotle would have welcomed such elaboration.

From my perspective, the primacy of perception is superseded for us talking animals by a primacy of normative reason and meta-ethics, but most of the detail of Merleau-Ponty’s investigations can stand independent of what happens with the primacy thesis, and thus can be incorporated into a larger perspective framed by meta-ethical considerations. A more limited primacy of perception might apply to the at least analytically distinguishable organic layer of our being — what Aristotle would call the parts of the soul that talking animals have in common with other animals, and Brandom would call our sentience.

As is also the case with Husserl, in spite of a misguided core commitment to an immediacy-first strategy of explanation, Merleau-Ponty’s actual accounts of things are full of subtlety and nuance, and of lasting value for their rich detail. Intellectual honesty led both Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in spite of themselves to exhibit what I would interpret as abundant evidence for the always-already mediated character of what presents itself as immediate. They were both already sensitive to the shortcomings of empiricism as it is usually understood, while embodying the best strengths of what might very broadly be considered an alternate vision of empiricism, somewhat related to what William James called “radical” empiricism. (Husserl explicitly adopted a number of notions from James. Merleau-Ponty’s focus on perception and non-adoption of Husserl’s Ego concept brought him even closer. See also The Non-Primacy of Perception.)