Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s magnum opus–his equivalent to Being & Nothinginess or Being & Time–is The Phenomenology of Perception. It is reputed (by Seth, at least) to complete Heidegger’s project by paying proper attention to our embodiedness: we have bodies, with specific perceptual limitations and are not only culturally but physically situated in ways that (as Heidegger insisted) make Cartesian doubt a sham. Scientism is a mistake, and in particular attempts to explain consciousness without allowing first person reports (i.e. by strictly applying the scientific method) will be hopeless, because all inquiry starts with, is founded on, and presupposes this situation of us already in the world, with other people, with all these layers of meaning packing up our conscious experiences and even our unthinking behavior, to be elaborated by phenomenology.
So the Phenomenology of Perception is a very fat book that purports to give an existential phenomenology, from an analysis of perception (attention, judgment, “the phenomenal field”), to the various aspects of having a body (its spatiality, sexuality, expression, and how mechanistic psychology and classical psychology teat it), to a consequent analysis of time and freedom. …All stated with much less of the horrific made-up terminology of Heidegger or B&T-era Satre than you’d expect.
However, that book is much too long, and takes a long time to get around to saying much, so instead, we chose to read a sort of presentation of that work to a lay audience.World of Perception,from 1948, is actually a series of radio lectures for a general audience, presenting on broad strokes what the viewpoint of the kind of philosophy he represents has to add the popular view of science.
You can even listen to these lectures yourself with subtitles:
Watch on YouTube.
The problem was, for our podcasting purposes, M-P’s presentation here was too high level, too general, with too much gesturing at the general character of his philosophy without giving us much meat. So, we threw in an essay: “The Primacy of Perception and its Philosophical Consequences”, from 1946, which is a presentation in outline of his Phenomenology of Perception at a conference, complete with him taking questions from other academics for around half of the page count. This is what we ended up talking about most of the time.
M-P argues for the phenomenological method over an approach that starts with the premise of scientific naturalism, including the subject-object distinction, and relegates all conscious reports to a tiny domain of psychology. He thinks his position is motivated by the findings of gestalt psychology, which argues against an atomic view of perception: we don’t take in sense data and then assemble them into something, and we don’t “represent” to ourselves, for instance, the parts of an object (its back, its underside) that we can’t at that moment see. Perception is irreducibly of wholes, of meanings. Far from merely alerting us to the presence of physical objects in space, it is rich and complicated, and begs for first-person analysis of its contents. Modern art is one way that we can be reminded of just how cool perception is, enabling us to back away from some of our purposes and theories that everyday life more or less make us ignore perception itself in favor of the information we need for whatever we’re trying to accomplish. He also talks up paying attention to the experiences of animals, children, and those outside of modern civilization: we tend to assume (and even phenomenologists do this) that “the world” is whatever it is that sane people thinking clearly agree that it is, but these cases of difference can help us focus on really how much more there is to it than that. The result is some form of relativism regarding science and ethics that will increase our tolerance for others, but again, given that we are who we are in the bodies we have, this is not a nihilistic type of relativism: it’s just some kind of less human-centered humanism, if that makes sense.