Featured (All)

  • 1
  • 2

The world of perception, or in other words the world which is revealed to us by our senses and in everyday life, seems at first sight to be the one we know best of all. For we need neither to measure nor to calculate in order to gain access to this world and it would seem that we can fathom it simply by opening our eyes and getting on with our lives. Yet this is a delusion. In these lectures, I hope to show that the world of perception is, to a great extent, unknown territory as long as we remain in the practical or utilitarian attitude. I shall suggest that much time and effort, as well as culture, have been needed in order to lay this world bare and that one of the great achievements of modern art and philosophy (that is, the art and philosophy of the last fifty to seventy years) has been to allow us to rediscover the world in which we live, yet which we are always prone to forget.

This temptation is particularly strong in France. It is characteristic not just of French philosophy but also of what is rather loosely termed the French cast of mind to hold science and knowledge in such high esteem that all our lived experience of the world seems buy contrast to be of little value. If I want to know what light is, surely I should ask a physicist; is it not he who can tell me what light really is? Is light, as was once thought, a steam of burning projectiles, or, as others have argued, vibrations in the ether? Or is it, as a more recent theory maintains, a phenomenon that can be classed alongside other forms of electromagnetic radiation? What good would it do to consult our senses on this matter? Why should we linger over what our perception tells us about colours, reflections and the objects which bear such properties? For it seems that these are almost certainly no more than appearances: only the methodical investigations of a scientist – his measurements and experiments – can set us free from the delusions of our senses and allow us to gain access to things as they really are. Surely the advancement of knowledge has consisted precisely in our forgetting what our senses tell us when we consult them naïvely. Surely there is no place for such data in a picture of the world as it really is, except insofar as they indicate peculiarities of our human makeup, ones which physiology well, one day, take account of, just as it has already managed to explain the illusions of long- and short-sightedness. The real world is not this world of light in colour; it is not the fleshy spectacle which passes before my eyes. It consists, rather, of the waves and particles which science tells us lie behind these sensory illusions.

Descartes went as far as to say that simply by scrutinising sensory objects and without referring to the results of scientific investigations, I am able to discover that my senses deceive me and I learn accordingly to trust only my intellect.1 I claim to see a piece of wax. Yet what exactly is this wax? It is by no means its colour, white, nor, if it has retained this, its floral scent, nor its softness to my touch, nor indeed the dull thud which it makes when I drop it. Not one of these properties is constitutive of the wax because it can lose them all without ceasing to exist, for example if I melt it, whereupon it changes into a colourless liquid which has no discernible scent and which is no longer resistant to my touch. Yet I maintain that this is still the same wax. So how should this claim be understood? What persists through this change of state is simply a piece of matter which has no properties, or, at most, a certain capacity to occupy space and take on different shapes, without either the particular space filled or the shape adopted being in any way predetermined. This then is the real and unchanging essence of the wax. It will be clear that the true nature of the wax is not revealed to my senses alone, for they only ever present me with objects of particular sizes and shapes. So I cannot see the wax as it really is with my own eyes; the reality of the wax can only be conceived in the intellect. When I assume I am seeing the wax, all I am really doing is thinking back from the properties which appear before my senses to the wax in its naked reality, the wax which, though it lacks properties in itself, is nonetheless the source of all the properties which manifest themselves to me. Thus for Descartes - and this idea has long held sway in the French philosophical tradition - perception is no more than the confused beginnings of scientific knowledge. The relationship between perception and scientific knowledge is one of appearance to reality. It befits our human dignity to entrust ourselves to the intellect, which alone can reveal to us the reality of the world.

When I said, a moment ago, that modern art and philosophy have rehabilitated perception and the world as we perceive it, I did not, of course, mean to imply that they deny the value of science, either as a means of technological advancement, or insofar as it offers an object lesson in precision and truth. If we wish to learn how to prove something, to conduct a thorough investigation or to be critical of ourselves and our preconceptions, it remains appropriate, now as then, that we turn to science. It was a good thing that we once expected science to provide all the answers at a time when it had still to come into being. The question which modern philosophy asks in relation to science is not intended either to contest its right to exist or to close off any particular avenue to its inquiries. Rather, the question is whether science does, or ever could, present us with a picture of the world which is complete, self-sufficient and somehow closed in upon itself, such that there could no longer be any meaningful questions outside this picture. It is not a matter of denying or limiting the extent of scientific knowledge, but rather of establishing whether it is entitled to deny or rule out as illusory all forms of inquiry that do not start out from measurements and comparisons and, by connecting particular causes with particular consequences, end up with laws such as those of classical physics. This question is asked not out of hostility to science. Far from it: in fact, it is science itself - particularly in its most recent developments - which forces us to ask this question and which encourages us to answer in the negative.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, scientists have got used to the idea that their laws and theories do not provide a perfect image of Nature but must rather be considered even simpler schematic representations of natural events, destined to be honed by increasingly minute investigations; or, in other words, these laws and theories constitute knowledge by approximation. Science subjects the data of our experience to a form of analysis that we can never expect will be completed since there are no intrinsic limits to the process of observation: we could always envisage that it might be more thorough or more exact than it is at any given moment. The mission of science is to undertake an interminable elucidation of the concrete or sensible, from which it follows that the concrete or sensible can no longer be viewed, as in the classical paradigm, as a mere appearance destined to be surpassed by scientific thought. The data of perception and, more generally, the events which comprise the history of the world, cannot be deduced from a certain number of laws which supposedly make up the unchanging face of the universe. On the contrary, it is the scientific law that is an approximate expression of the physical event and which allows this event to retain its opacity. The scientist of today, unlike his predecessor working within the classical paradigm, no longer cherishes the illusion that he is penetrating to the heart of things, to the object as it is in itself. The physics of relativity confirms that absolute and final objectivity is a mere dream by showing how each particular observation is strictly linked to the location of the observer and cannot be abstracted from this particular situation; it also rejects the notion of an absolute observer. We can no longer flatter ourselves with the idea that, in science, the exercise of a pure and unsituated intellect can allow us to gain access to an object free of all human traces, just as God would see it. This does not make the need for scientific research any less pressing; in fact, the only thing under attack is the dogmatism of a science that thinks itself capable of absolute and complete knowledge. We are simply doing justice to each of the variety of elements in human experience and, in particular, to sensory perception.

While science and the philosophy of science have, as we have seen, been preparing the ground for an exploration of the world as we perceive it, painting, poetry and philosophy have forged ahead boldly by presenting us with a very new and characteristically contemporary vision of objects, space, animals and even of human beings seen from the outside, just as they appear in our perceptual field. In forthcoming lectures I shall describe some of what we have learned in the course of these investigations. (31-36)

[1] Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, in Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. by Cottingham, Stroothoff & Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), Second Meditation, p. 80.


Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The World of Perception.  Trans. Oliver Davis.  Routledge 2008. 

See Also

Lexicon Entries

The Most Basic Sphere of Concern is Schooling 

Works and Days






Tags: Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Sign Up for Email Updates