Phenomenology of Perception

Presentation to the Melbourne Philosophy Forum Sunday, March 6, 2011, 12.40pm

1.0 A Definition of Phenomenology

1.1 Phenomenology is the study of consciousness of phenomenon from a first-person point of view based on the primacy of experience and intentionality. Intentionality, in philosophy, must not be confused with ordinary-language "intention".

"Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction toward an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity." (Franz Brentano, Psychology From an Empirical Standpoint, 1874)

1.2 The historical movement of phenomenology - crossing philosophy, sociology and psychology - is primarily a 20th century tradition. Franz Brentano (late 18th century), Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Alfred Schütz, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas, Don Ihde et al. It has been described as a split in the Kantian approach:

"Neo-Kantianism evolved during the nineteenth century, and by the twentieth century two main forms had emerged. One form was Structuralism, of which Ferdinand de Saussure was a prominent exponent, representing the broadly rationalist wing of Kantianism. The other was Phenomenology, of which Edmund Husserl was a prominent representative, representing the broadly empiricist wing of Kantianism." (Stephen Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, 2004)

1.3 Early phenomenologists in particular (Bretano, Husserl) argued that phenomenological knowledge was primary to all others as one must have intentional consciousness before they can have any other sort (e.g., scientific, hermeneutic etc).

1.4 Phenomenology is therefore the conscious intentionality from the experience of the appearance of reality (phenomena, rather than nomena) and may include fictions (e.g., emotional states towards a character). It incorporates a complex of temporary awareness (the stream of consciousness), spatial awareness (perceptual senses), self-awareness (persona, roles), awareness-of-others (intersubjectivity, empathy, communication), focus and distance ("horizonal instances").

2.0 The Philosophy of Perception

2.1 A simplistic concept of perception argues for naïve, or direct, realism; what we see, feel, etc is what actually exists or "seeing is (mostly) believing". Direct realism does account for perceptual dependency on our sense organs and perceptual variability that results. A similar recognition can be made for physiological illusions (rainbows, Müller-Lyer's arrow, the Hermann grid illusion and Mach bands, Adelson's same-colour illusion etc). It has difficulties wiht multiple views of the same object (e.g., Rubin vase, Necker Cube or Wiggenstein's "duck-rabbit") - and it certainly cannot account for how value-judgements are chosen in perception. Most importantly from a phenomenological perspective, direct realism cannot account for consciousness or intentionality; there is no thought involved.

2.2 A more sophisticated account of perception argues for 'representational realism' which do provide for variant perceptions. Following Kant, it argues we cannot perceive the world as it "really" is, rather we perceive it through "a veil of perception", derived on ideas and interpretations. This "indirect" realism has had a number of advocates in the history of philosophy, including René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and Betrand Russell. However, indirect realism came under some criticism for the need to define where the interpretative ideas come from, with subjectivist accounts for consciousness as an epistemological foundation being highly unsatisfactory.

2.3 Following linguistic philosophy, the problem of consciousness moves from subject-centered to shared symbolic values for the purpose of meaning and even, in some cases, modifications to perception itself: Shefif, Social Psychology, 1952, Asch's conformity experiments 1951, 1955 and 1956, the Milgram experiment 1963, Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (1971). These experiments indicate a limit of the phenomenological approach; that behaviour can be altered on an unconscious level which intentionality does not apply in a reflexive manner.

3.0 The Phenomenology of Perception

3.1 The title is the main book by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945), where a claim is made that perception is primary, rejecting a mind-body split in favour of embodied subjects where the world is perceived first and then the opportunity exists to reflect. A significant component of the book discusses the existential distinction between the body-in-itself (the objective status) and the body-for-itself (subjective).

3.2 The aforementioned problems with the intentional phenomenological approach exist in The Phenomenology of Perception, and Merleau-Ponty felt that it that it needed further elaboration. He attempted to adopt phenomenology to account for the linguistic turn and unconscious drives in his unfinished work, The Visible and the Invisible. In other words, Merleau-Ponty grew to reject a pre-reflective "phenomenological" consciouness existing prior to linguistic mediation. The following is from his working notes on The Visible and The Invisible:

"What I call the tacit cogito is impossible. To have the idea of thinking (in the sense of thought of seeing and thought of feeling), to make the phenomenological reduction to the things themselves, to return to immanence and to consciousness, it is necessary to have words. It is by the combination of words that I form the transcendental attitude."

3.3 External reality is independent of our perceptive capabilities and linguistic mediation. Our knowledge of reality is representational even prior to perception itself, providing different "Ways of Seeing" (Peter Berger, 1972). Only through the process of dialectical reflection (Merleau-Ponty pushes this to "hyper-dialectic" and "hyper-reflection" to emphasise the polemical requirements), to transcend the distortions of a represented reality.