Phenomenology of Perception  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Phenomenology of Perception (Phénoménologie de la perception) is a 1945 book by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in which Merleau-Ponty expounds his thesis of "the primacy of perception". The work established Merleau-Ponty as the pre-eminent philosopher of the body, and is considered a major statement of French existentialism. The relationship between Phenomenology of Perception and Merleau-Ponty's late, unfinished work has received much scholarly discussion.

The text features the case of Johann Schneider, a patient with visual agnosia, who was described by Adhémar Gelb and Kurt Goldstein in 1918.


Following the work of Edmund Husserl, Merleau-Ponty aims to reveal the phenomenological structure of perception. However, Merleau-Ponty's conceptions of phenomenology and the dialectic do not precisely follow those of Husserl or Martin Heidegger.

Merleau-Ponty's central thesis is that of the "primacy of perception." We are first perceiving the world, then we do philosophy. This entails a critique of the Cartesian stance of "cogito ergo sum", resulting in a largely different conception of consciousness. Cartesian dualism of mind and body is called into question as our primary way of existing in the world, and is ultimately rejected in favor of an intersubjective conception or dialectical and intentional concept of consciousness. What is characteristic of his account of perception is the centrality that the body plays. We perceive the world through our bodies; we are embodied subjects, involved in existence.

Further, the ability to reflect comes from a pre-reflective ground that serves as the foundation for reflecting on actions. In other words, we perceive phenomena first, then reflect on them via this mediation of perception, which is instantaneous and synonymous with our being in perception, as an outcome of our bodyhood, i.e., embodiment (as in Gestalt psychology). Merleau-Ponty criticizes the sense datum theory of perception, maintaining that there is nothing in experience corresponding to "pure sensation" or "atoms of feeling".

Merleau-Ponty's account of the body helps him undermine what had been a long-standing conception of consciousness, which hinges on the distinction between the for-itself (subject) and in-itself (object), which plays a central role in Sartre's philosophy. (One of his main targets was his colleague Jean-Paul Sartre, who released Being and Nothingness in 1943.) The body stands between this fundamental distinction between subject and object, ambiguously existing as both. Merleau-Ponty devotes a chapter to "The Body in its Sexual Being".


Phenomenology of Perception has received praise from several philosophers. Robert Bernasconi writes that Phenomenology of Perception established Merleau-Ponty as the pre-eminent philosopher of the body, and along with Merleau-Ponty's other writings, found a more receptive audience among analytic philosophers than the works of other phenomenologists, while G. B. Madison writes that the work was "immediately and widely recognized as a major statement of French existentialism", and is best known for Merleau-Ponty's central thesis of "the primacy of perception". Merleau-Ponty was criticized on the grounds that, by grounding all intellectual and cultural acquisitions in the prereflective and prepersonal life of the body, Phenomenology of Perception results in reductionism and anti-intellectualism and undermines the ideals of reason and truth. According to Madison, Merleau-Ponty sought to respond to this charge in his subsequent work in the 1940s and 1950s. Madison adds that the relationship between Phenomenology of Perception and Merleau-Ponty's late, unfinished work The Visible and the Invisible, edited by philosopher Claude Lefort, has received much scholarly discussion, with some commentators seeing a significant shift in direction in his later thought, and others emphasizing the continuity of his work.

A. J. Ayer criticizes Merleau-Ponty's arguments against the sense datum theory of perception, finding them inconclusive and open to several different objections. Helmut R. Wagner describes Phenomenology of Perception as an important contribution to phenomenology. Roger Scruton, writing in Sexual Desire (1986), describes Merleau-Ponty's chapter on "The Body in its Sexual Being" as "surprisingly unhelpful". David Abram writes that while "the sensible thing" is "commonly considered by our philosophical tradition to be passive and inert" Merleau-Ponty consistently describes it in the active voice in Phenomenology of Perception. Abram rejects the idea that Merleau-Ponty's "animistic turns of phrase" are the result of poetic license, arguing that Merleau-Ponty "writes of the perceived things as entities, of sensible qualities as powers, and of the sensible itself as a field of animate presences, in order to acknowledge and underscore their active, dynamic contribution to perceptual experience."

In a 1999 interview with the critic Louis Menand in The New Yorker, American vice president Al Gore mentioned Phenomenology of Perception as an inspiration.

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