seeing as communion: merleau-pontyâ€™s embodied phenomenology of vision and the...
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DESCRIPTIONI aim to show here how Merleau-Ponty’s account of vision (which situates us as subjects al- ways already involved in a world that transcends us, on which we depend for the possibility of our existence, and yet in which we have freedom), and the ontology of ‘flesh’ which he develops on the basis of it, may be transformed by a theological transfiguration. Explaining how Merleau-Ponty’s fundamentally relational account of seeing, and of being, responds to the Cartesianism which he thinks remains hidden in modern thought, I will bring it into dia- logue with John Zizioulas’ development of the personalist ontology of the Cappadocian fa- thers developed in Being as Communion, bringing philosophical and theological terms into a mutually enlightening intertwining.
Orion Edgar firstname.lastname@example.org
Seeing as Communion: Merleau-Pontys embodied phenomenology of vision and the Trinitarian ontology of John Zizioulas
Paper originally presented at The Centre of Theology and Philosophy conference on The Soul, St Annes College, Oxford 28th June1st July 2013
I aim to show here how Merleau-Pontys account of vision (which situates us as subjects al-ways already involved in a world that transcends us, on which we depend for the possibility of our existence, and yet in which we have freedom), and the ontology of flesh which he develops on the basis of it, may be transformed by a theological transfiguration. Explaining how Merleau-Pontys fundamentally relational account of seeing, and of being, responds to the Cartesianism which he thinks remains hidden in modern thought, I will bring it into dia-logue with John Zizioulas development of the personalist ontology of the Cappadocian fa-thers developed in Being as Communion, bringing philosophical and theological terms into a mutually enlightening intertwining. Merleau-Pontys phenomenology begins in a developing account of perception: for him there is no doubt that to understand vision correctly we must find a way of speaking about the soul.1 Martin Jay contrasts Merleau-Pontys version of Phenomenology to his friend Sar-tres obsessive hostility to sight, saying that this may plausibly be called a heroic attempt to reaffirm the nobility of vision on new and firmer grounds than those provided by the dis-credited Cartesian perspectivalist tradition.2 It is certainly the case that Merleau-Ponty does not hesitate to treat vision as paradigmatic for perception, bucking the trend of anti-ocularcentrism in twentieth-century French thought.
1 It is the soul that sees and not the eyes, Descartes said in order to get rid of the little images flutter-ing through the air. The evolution of modern physiology shows that this expression must be taken abso-lutely literally and turned back against Descartes himself. It is the soul which sees and not the brain; it is by means of the perceived world and its proper structures that one can explain the spatial value assigned to a point of the visual field in each particular case. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behav-iour, translated by Alden L. Fisher (London: Methuen, 1965), 192. 2 Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: the denigration of vision in twentieth-century French thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 298.
Merleau-Pontys theory of vision builds on work in psychology, which he thinks makes in-evitable a reconfiguration of the understanding of vision.3 He rejects the idea that percep-tion can be broken down into atomic sensations, which would be built up into perceived objects either according to some principle in the world itself (as in empiricism) or according to a fundamentally interior, mental principle (as in what he calls intellectualism). Drawing on the Gestalt psychologists, but quickly going far beyond them, he argues that there can be no such thing as sensationthat perception is always-already structured in a way that gives it meaning.4 In his essay entitled The Primacy of Perception and its Philosophical Conse-quences he makes the claim that meaning and signs are the form and matter of percep-tion, insisting that the matter of perception is always pregnant with its form.5 Perception does not present things as a simple surface, but always also offers some intima-tion of their depths: things are always signs at one level or another, and meaning bursts forth in them.
Seeing, for Merleau-Ponty, is bound up with my bodily imbrication with the world: it is never purely passive, but its activity is not a matter of subsuming experience under a con-cept; it is rather a matter of my living and breathing and moving around in a world of which I am a part but which always transcends me. This always involves what he calls a perceptual faith: because the world is not given to me in a series of pure experiences, I have from the first to assent to it, to give myself to it, to perceive at all. For him
there is a paradox of immanence and transcendence in perception. Immanence, because the per-
ceived object cannot be foreign to him who perceives; transcendence, because it always contains
something more than what is actually given. And these two elements of perception are not, properly
Sight, understood in these terms, is not the passive reception of light, as if the eye were simply a window into a mechanistic brain; nor is it a seeming representation of an outer world (which may or may not finally exist) in the realm of the soul. Rather, it is the living contact of the human person, soul and body, with a material world whose depths are inti-mated (but not laid bare) on the surface of things. There is more to the world than meets the eye, not because of the possibility of illusion, but because the visible world by its very
3 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception and its Philosophical Consequences, trans. James M. Edie, in Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays (Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 1964), pp.1242, 12. 4 This is the project of Merleau-Pontys Magnum Opus and his best-known work, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 2002), which he summarizes in The Primacy of Per-ception. 5 The Primacy of Perception, 15. 6 The Primacy of Perception, 16.
visibility situates the perceiver in a complex of relations, necessarily hiding its invisible (or more-than-visible) depths.
The world exceeds any anticipation I can have of it: it surprises me, affects me; and this is not simply a passive show, but a thick reality in which I am engaged. There is a sense in which this is inevitably narcissistic, indeed Merleau-Ponty notes that there is a fundamen-tal narcissism of all vision7: but it would seem that visual perception always also contains the seeds of an overturning of this narcissism, inasmuch as it cannot but see in the other a real presence which exceeds me. So he writes in the late work Eye and Mind
Visible and Mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its
cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around it-
self. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted into its flesh, they are part of its
full definition; the world is made of the same stuff as the body.8
The body inheres in the world, and it cannot exceed its own perspective on things. But just because of this it can acknowledge that other perspectives exist, that its own perspective is partial and not total, that the one world exceeds all perspectives on it. In this sense his ac-count of seeing is deeply intersubjective, and this intersubjectivity cannot be reduced to in-ternal perspectives but must be negotiated in the world.9
This is all in contrast to a philosophy and psychology which are still, Merleau-Ponty thinks, built on Cartesian assumptions, and which assume something like a Cartesian ac-count of the soul. The soul may be shrunk to a pure point in empiricism, becoming a simple absence in materialism, or expanded to the dimensions of the universe in intellectualism; but all these remain forms of Cartesianism. 7 Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, edited by Claude Lefort, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, Il.: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 139. 8 Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind, in The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays, (Evanston, IL.: North-western University Press, 1964), pp.159190, 163. 9 He writes: If I consider my perceptions as simple sensations, they are private; they are mine alone. If I treat them as acts of the intellect, if perception is an inspection of the mind, and the perceived object an idea, then you and I are talking about the same world, and we have the right to communicate among ourselves because the world has become an ideal existence and is the same for all of usjust like the Pythagorean theorem. But neither of these two formulas accounts for our experience. If a friend and I are standing before a landscape, and if I attempt to show my friend something which I see and which he does not yet see, we cannot account for the situation by saying that I see something in my own world and that I attempt, by sending verbal messages, to give rise to an analogous perception in the world of my friend. There are not two numerically distinct worlds plus a mediating language which alone would bring us together. There isand I know it very well if I become impatient with hima kind of demand that what I see be seen by him also. And at the same time this communication is required by the very thing which I am looking at, by the reflections of sunlight upon it, by its color, by its sensible evidence. The thing imposes itself not as true for every intellect, but as real for every subject who is standing where I am. The Primacy of Perception, 17.
In The Embodied Eye, David Morgan ex-amines the shift of visual cultures through examples of the work of Al-brecht Drer:10 the first is from his cycle of woodcuts called the Small Passion, an image of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Thomas, guiding his hand to the wound in his side, showing how for Thomas to truly see was to touch; the second is from a treatise on measure-ment, showing a draughtsman using a crude tracing device, a visual grid placed between him and his object, a woman lying on a table, with a corresponding grid on the desk befor