Merleau-Ponty and the Other

There are times when the appropriate question to ask yourself is: “What would Merleau-Ponty do?”.

Such as when you come up against an occasion when a person treats another person like an object. Or on the other hand when someone shows true compassion and empathy. What to make of these contradictions?

I think Merleau-Ponty would think very hard about it. And so he did, and wrote (in Phenomenology and Perception, Other Selves and the Human World):

The reply will be once more that I see a certain use made by other men of the implements that surround me, that I interpret their behaviour by analogy with my own, and through my inner experience, which teaches me the significance and intention of perceived gestures. In the last resort, the actions of others are, according to this theory, always understood through my own, the ‘one’ or the ‘we’ through the ‘I’. But this is precisely the question: how can the word ‘I’ be put into the plural, how can the general idea of the I be formed, how can I speak of an I other than my own, how can I know there are other I’s, how can consciousness which, by its nature, and as self-knowledge, is in the mode of the I, be grasped in the mode of Thou, and through this, in the world of the ‘One’? (p.406)

Yet the analysis of the perception of others runs up against a difficulty in principle raised by the cultural world, since it is called upon to solve the paradox of a consciousness seen from the outside, of a thought which has its abode in the external world, and which, therefore, is already subjectless and anonymous compared with mine. What we have said about the body provides the beginning to the solution to this problem. The existence of other people is a difficulty and an outrage for objective thought. (p.406)

At least M-P didn’t say, like Jean-Paul Sartre in the play Huis Clos (No Exit), that “Hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les Autres”).

The body of another, like my own, is not inhabited, but is an object standing before the consciousness which thinks about or constitutes it. Other men, and myself, seen as empirical beings, are merely pieces of mechanism worked by springs, but the true subject is irrepeatable, for that consciousness which is hidden in so much flesh and blood is the least intelligible of occult qualities. (p.407)

There are two modes of being, and two only: being in itself, which is that of objects arrayed in space, and being for itself, which is that of consciousness. Now another person would seem to stand before me as an in-itself and yet to exist for himself, thus requiring of me, in order to be perceived, a contradictory operation, since I ought both to distinguish himself from myself, and therefore place him in the world of objects, and think of him as a consciousness, that is, the sort of being with no outside and no parts, to which I have access merely because that being is myself, and because the thinker and the thought about are amalgamated in him. There is thus no place for other people and a plurality of consciousnesses in objective thought. In so far as I constitute the world, I cannot conceive another consciousness, for it too would have to constitute the world, and, at least as regards this other view of the world, I should not be the constituting agent. Even if I succeeded in thinking of it as constituting the world, it would be I who would be constituting the consciousness as such, and once more I should be the sole constituting agent. But we have in fact learned to shed doubt on objective thought. (p.407)

By the way, M-P defines objective thought as “the system of experience conceived as a cluster of physico-mathematical correlations” (p.408). Despite the apparently hopeless attempt to find a way out of the dilemma of the problem of “other minds” M-P triumphantly manages to do so. “Under these conditions the antinomies of objective thought vanish.”, he says on p. 409. I thought he showed admirable restraint by using a full stop at the end of that sentence and not an exclamation mark. The argument that he uses to achieve this coup is quite subtle (understatement of the century). That means I have not quite understood it yet. When I think I have, you will be the first to know. I will finish this post with an arresting passage:

The other transforms me into an object and denies me, I transform him into an object and deny him, it is asserted. In fact the other’s gaze transforms me into an object, and mine him, only if both of us withdraw into the core of our thinking nature. If we both make ourselves into an inhuman gaze, if each of us feels his actions to be not taken up and understood, but observed as if they were an insect’s. This is what happens for instance when I fall under the gaze of a stranger. But even then the objectification of each by the other’s gaze is felt as unbearable only because it takes the place of possible communication. A dog’s gaze directed towards me causes me no embarrassment. The refusal to communicate , however, is still a form of communication. (p. 420)


About middleeuropeanmelancholy

64 year old Australian born male. Into travel, poetry, philosophy, music, popular physics, mathematics (especially topology)...
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3 Responses to Merleau-Ponty and the Other

  1. DylanTrigg says:

    Happy to have found your blog – looks very promising.


  2. Thanks Dylan. Very kind of you to say so.

    I am glad I found your blog, It’s fascinating and very helpful, although I am just a beginner at thinking about these issues, not a professional philosopher like youself. Hope you don’t mind me linking to your blog, I am naïve about net etiquette I am afraid.

    All the best,
    normanlovesgames “at”

  3. DylanTrigg says:

    Hello Norman,

    That’s fine to link to my blog – I’ll return the link when I next update. As for beginners and professionals – I tend to agree with Husserl in thinking of phenomenology as being a perpetual beginning!


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