Monday, February 6, 2012

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Space," Phenomenology of Perception

The phantasms of dreaming, of mythology, the favorite images of each man or indeed poetic imagery, are not linked to their meaning by a relation of sign to signified, like the one existing between a telephone number and the name of the subscriber; they really contain their meaning, which is not a notional meaning, but a direction of our existence. When I dream that I am flying or falling, the whole significance of the dream is contained in the flight or the fall, as long as I do not reduce them to their physical appearance in the waking world, and so long as I take them with all their existential implications. The bird which hovers, falls and becomes a handful of ash, does not hover and fall in physical space; it rises and falls with the existential tide running through it, or again it is the pulse of my existence, its systole and diastole. The level of this tide at each moment conditions a space peopled with phantasms, just as, in waking life, our dealings with the world which is offered to us condition a space peopled with realities. There is a determining of up and down, and in general of place, which precedes "perception." Life and sexuality haunt their world and their space. 

Primitive peoples, in so far as they live in a world of myth, do not overstep this existential space, and this is why for them dreams count just as much as perceptions. There is a mythical space in which directions and positions are determined by the residence in it of great affective entities. For primitive man, knowing the whereabouts of the tribal encampment does not consist in locating it in relation to some object serving as a landmark---it is to tend towards it as towards the natural abode of a certain peace or a certain joyfulness, just as, for me, to know where my hand is, is to link up with that agile power which is for the moment dormant, but which I can take up and rediscover as my own. For the augur, right and left are the sources of the lawful and the forbidden, just as for me my right hand and my left are respectively the incarnations of my skill and my awkwardness. In dreaming as in myth we learn where the phenomenon is to be found, by feeling that towards which our desire goes out, what our heart dreads, on what our life depends. 


  1. "The word perception indicates a DIRECTION rather than a primitive function. It is known that the uniformity of the apparent size of objects at different distances, or of their color in different lights, is more perfect in children than in adults. It follows that perception is more strictly bound up with the local stimulus in its developed than in its undeveloped state...It is like a net with its knots showing up more and more clearly. 'Primitive thought' has been pictured in a way which can be understood only if the responses of primitive people, their pronouncements and the sociologists' interpretations are related to the fund of perceptual experience which they are all trying to translate. It is sometimes the adherence of the perceived object to its context, and, as it were, its viscosity, sometimes the presence in it of a positive indeterminate which prevents the spatial, temporal and numerical wholes from becoming articulated into manageable, distinct and identifiable terms. And it is this pre-objective realm that we have to explore in ourselves if we wish to understand sense experience." Merleau-Ponty, "The Sensation as a Unit of Experience," Phenom. of Percept.

  2. Terry Eagleton, After Theory: "Take for example, hermeneutics, the science or art of interpretation. It is generally agreed that the founding father of hermeneutics was the German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher. What is not so widely know is that Schleiermacher's interest in the art of interpretation was provoked when he was invited to translate a book entitled An account of the English Colony in New South Wales, which records the author's encounter with Australian Aboriginal peoples. Schleiermacher was concerned about how we could understand the beliefs of this people even though they seemed desperately alien to us. It was from a colonial encounter that the art of interpretation was born."