At the centre of Merleu-Ponty’s philosophy lies the inseparability of the self and the world. He was equally opposed to those theories which see perception as a process of reacting to stimuli coming from outside and those that claim that consciousness is autonomous. The human mind is connected to both the body and the world. Our physical situatedness in the world affects our perceptions and experience. Perception is possible only from a personal perspective. How space, for example, appears to us, depends on the presence of a psycho-physical subject. Bodily intentions reside primary in our relation to the world, which has been constituted for us even before we encounter it in cognition.
Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world, since the world is flesh? Where in the body are we to put the seer, since evidently there is in the body only “shadows stuffed with organs”, the is, more of the visible?
The world seen is not “in” my body, and my body is not “in” the visible world ultimately: as flesh applied to a flesh, the world neither surrounds it nor is surrounded by it. A participation in and kinship with the visible, the vision neither envelops it nor is enveloped by it definitively. The superficial pellicle of the visible is only for my vision and for my body. But the depth beneath this surface contains my body and hence contains my vision. My body as a visible thing is contained within the full spectacle. But my seeing body subtends this visible body, and all the visible with it. There is reciprocal insertion and intertwining of one in the other. Or rather, if, as once again we must, we eschew the thinking by planes and perspectives, there are two circles, or two vortexes, or two spheres, concentric when I live naively, and as soon as I question myself, the one slightly decentered with respect to the other…
The flesh is not matter, in the sense of corpuscles of being which would add up or continue on one another to form beings. Nor is the visible (the things as well as my own body) some “psychic” material that would be brought into being by the things factually existing and acting on my factual body. In general, it is not a fact or a sum of facts “material” or “spiritual”. Nor is it a representation for a mind: a mind could not be captured by its own representations; it would rebel against this insertion into the visible which is essential to the seer. The flesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it, we should need the old world “element”, in the sense it was used to speak of water, air, earth and fire, that is, in the sense of a general thing, midway between the spatio-temporal individual and the idea, a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being. The flesh is in this sense an “element” of Being.
Merleau-Ponty is not just emphasizing the shared material physicality of the body and the world, he is emphasizing how they define one another’s character. His approach might be explained and further developed as follows. The shape, size, position, and perceptual characteristics of physical things are not absolute, but are correlated with the size, and perceptual abilities, of the particular kinds of creature which apprehends them.
The past can be recalled in virtual as opposed to merely abstract terms, i.e. in terms which invoke a sense of recollected fact’s original sensory vividness – its presence-to-body. An event in the past is a surface of a particular segment of the body’s total physical and psychological relation to the world at that time.
It is through corporeal imagination that we can make general sense of times and places which are not immediately given to us in perception, through being able to imaginatively project what they might be like.
Similar considerations hold vis-a-vis our sense of identity with or alienation from other people. Every human being can form an idea of what it is to be another human being. but this idea can only fully develop if it is accompanied by some corporeal realization of what it might be like to perceive the world as another perceives it.
Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
The Visible and the Invisible by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Phenomenology of the Visual Arts (Even the frame) by Paul Crowther
Immaterial Gateway by Matthew Stone