I am greatly enjoying reading Merleau-Ponty’s work “The visible and the invisible”. He writes phenomenology in the form of poetry. This quote immediately touched me, and I read it over and over for the past few days:
Perhaps in many moments of my life the other is for me reduced to this spectacle , which can be a charm. But should the voice alter, should the unwonted appear in the score of the dialogue, or, on the contrary, should a response respond too well to what I thought without having really said it – and suddenly there breaks forth the evidence that yonder also, minute by minute, life is being lived: somewhere behind those eyes, behind those gestures, or rather before them, or again about them, coming from I know not what double ground of space, another private world shows through, through the fabric of my own, and for a moment I live in it; I am no more than the respondent for the interpellation that is made to me
I want to explain briefly why this quote touched me so much.
Phenomenology distinguishes between our private subjective worlds, which no one else but each of us can access, and the objective world, in which we exist only as objects.
The term “private world” refers to consciousness, mind and their consequent and continuous flux or stream of thoughts. It includes all subjective thoughts, perceptions and sensations: “Qualia“.
The objective world refers to the world in which I exist as an object. This world is important for me: it is in this world, rather than in my private world, that I can meet Others.
What is the relation between these two types of worlds? The naïve person, according to Merleau-Ponty, holds two contradictory premises regarding this relation: 1. People can penetrate things in the objective world. 2. Perception is embodied.
What does the second statement mean? What is the embodiment of perception?
I can only access things in the objective world through and by my body. Merleau-Ponty uses vision as an example. Think of the image created by using only one eye (monocular image), and then of the image created by using both eyes (synergic perception). The image in each case is of different quality: the image created by both eyes does not equal adding the image created by each eye separately. This means that perception concerns complex bodily actions, processes and intentionality. Our body creates and participates in perception (as Merleau-Ponty puts it “…[M]y body does not perceive, but it is as if it were built around the perception that dawns through it…”). Perception is thus not a synthesis but a metamorphosis. Our body manufactures the relation between our private world and the objective world.
What is my relation to my private world? My private world is infinity for me. I am conscious of the multiple potentialities of the life within me. I can tell that different parts of my mind simultaneously respond and react differently to the stimuli I encounter. The infinite richness of my qualia.But others refuse me this access to their private worlds.
I encounter the Other in the objective world where both of us exist as objects. Moreover, as we saw above, I have access to the Other only through the complex actions and intentionalities of my body. In other words, I can only meet the other through my interests and history. The Other is forever an object for me in the phenomenological sense of the word.
Intuition offers us one opportunity to transcend this split/gap. For example, when I genuinely approach the other, make my way toward the other, without using a third object to manipulate him or her. I look into his or her eyes. In that instant, I am struck by the recognition of a rich, infinite, private world behind those eyes. I arrive at this recognition through characteristics of a genuine encounter with the Other: 1. The Other can tell me things that I have never heard or thought or said before. The other can teach me something new (“should the unwonted appear in the score of the dialogue”). 2. The other can truthfully articulate what was silently said only in my mind (“I thought without having really said it”).
Merleau-Ponty captures this precious yet painful moment: it is precisely when I recognize the subjective world of the Other (“and suddenly there breaks forth the evidence that yonder also, minute by minute, life is being lived: somewhere behind those eyes, behind those gestures, or rather before them, or again about them, coming from I know not what double ground of space, another private world shows through, through the fabric of my own”) that I also recognizes that I appear to the Other only as object and that I am forever locked in my private world (“another private world shows through, through the fabric of my own, and for a moment I live in it; I am no more than the respondent for the interpellation that is made to me”). The wonder of recognizing the subjectivity of the Other is immediately accompanied by the recognition of our mutual separation.