The Non-Primacy of Perception

Some time ago, while in the midst of reading many works by the late Paul Ricoeur, I noted his comment that Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s project of a phenomenology of perception was ultimately untenable, because it aimed to recover a pre-linguistic layer of human experience in perception. Though Merleau-Ponty also wrote on language, his main interest was in embodied perceptual consciousness, which he regarded as a pre-linguistic and pre-conceptual level.

I quite admire the detail of Merleau-Ponty’s very non-reductionist account of perception, which brings out all sorts of interesting nuances. In life, I thoroughly relish the aesthetic dimensions of perceptual experience. But ultimately, I have to agree with Ricoeur’s gentle criticism.

I frequently translate Aristotle’s definition of the human as “talking animal”. I am also impressed by Hegel’s remark that “language is the Dasein [literally, “being there”] of Spirit”. It seems to me that a pre-linguistic perceptual consciousness could only be pre-human as well. The perception that we have as humans is always already affected by our immersion in language. (See also Meaningful “Seeing”.)