Susan Bredlau: The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of Our Experience of Other Persons

The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of Our Experience of Other Persons Book Cover The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of Our Experience of Other Persons
Susan Bredlau
SUNY Press
Hardback $80.00

Reviewed by: Peter Antich (Marquette University, Department of Philosophy, Milwaukee, WI, USA)

As conventionally posed, the problem of other minds concerns how, given that we can only observe the outward behavior of others, we can identify them as persons, as possessing minds. In phenomenology, this question more often takes the form, “How can we perceive others?” In other words, how can others figure as contents of our perception. Susan Bredlau’s new book, The Other in Perception, takes up not only this challenging question, but moves beyond it to ask how others become part of the very form of perception. The result is a helpful, insightful, and comprehensive treatment of our perceptual engagement with others.

Bredlau takes a phenomenological approach to the perception of others, i.e., she is concerned with describing the experience of others, both as contents of experience and as constituents of the very act of experiencing. Specifically, she aims to describe the role of others in perceptual experience, or more generally, in our embodied and pre-intellectual engagement with the world. Bredlau undertakes the project of describing this experience using the work of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and John Russon as her principal resources. Besides these three, Bredlau draws on a variety of other sources, including developmental psychology, Hegel, and de Beauvoir, to present a distinctive and insightful account of intersubjectivity.

Bredlau examines the role of the other in perception over the course of four chapters. The first explains the phenomenological framework Bredlau uses to analyze intersubjectivity. The second presents Bredlau’s phenomenology of interpersonal life, rooted in Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Russon. The third considers the formation of interpersonal life in childhood. The fourth analyzes the phenomenon of sexuality in order to provide insight into the nature and norms of interpersonal life generally. This leads Bredlau, in conclusion, to a reflection on the ethical dimension of the perception of others.

Bredlau’s first chapter provides the phenomenological account of perception she will use to analyze interpersonal life. This explanation involves three main parts. First, Bredlau introduces Husserl’s notion of intentionality, and explains some essential features of perceptual intentionality: its foreground-background and horizon structures. In doing so, Bredlau aims to establish the phenomenological account of the perception of things not as mental representations, but – to use Merleau-Ponty’s terms – in terms of there being for-us an in-itself. Second, Bredlau explains the embodied dimension of perception as described by Merleau-Ponty, arguing the embodied nature of perceptual experience is constitutive of its meaning and form. Drawing on Heidegger, she makes this point by noting that the meaning the world takes on for us is fundamentally rooted in practical rather than theoretical activity. Our practical engagement with the world, though, is shaped by the lived sense of one’s body as a capacity for such engagement, what Merleau-Ponty calls the “body schema.” Bredlau then turns to Russon’s concept of polytempoprality to show that every perceptual meaning is informed by a larger contextual meaning. The idea is that just as the distinct layers of a piece of music – its rhythm, harmony, and melody – fit together in a complex temporality which informs the meaning of each particular sound, so each of our isolated experiences is informed by the complex temporality of our lives. Each of our experiences, then, is embedded in a set of background meanings often not readily apparent to us.

Chapter 2 turns to the phenomenology of experiencing others. First, Bredlau confronts the problem of other minds – the problem of how we can perceive others as minds, given that mind is not outwardly observable. Bredlau argues that widespread psychological answers to this question – such as the “simulation theory” and “theory theory” – are phenomenologically inadequate. A careful description of experience reveals that we can in fact experience others as subjects, albeit as subjects engaged in a shared natural and cultural world, rather than as detached minds. Here too, Bredlau draws on Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Russon. From Husserl, Bredlau draws the notion of a “pairing” relation, as an account of how I experience the other not just as a body distinct from mine, but as a perceiver. In Bredlau’s terms, this entails not just perceiving the other as within a world oriented around me, but perceiving the world as oriented around the other. With Merleau-Ponty, Bredlau emphasizes that the perception of others is not primarily a cognitive theoretical activity, but practical and embodied: there is a bodily pairing between two perceivers that Bredlau describes as a “shared body schema.” Thus, when I perceive an object, I perceive it as perceivable not just for me, but for any perceiver, such that we experience the world as jointly – and not just individually – significant. In this sense, even though my experience of an object is not identical with the experience had by another, neither are they wholly cut off from each other, since they both participate in a shared world. With Russon, Bredlau moves beyond the problem of other minds to argue that others are not just part of the content of perception, but part of its very form. If each of our particular experiences is shaped by a meaningful context, surely one of the most significant such contexts is our relations with others. A child’s relation to their parents, for example, informs the way they approach their future relationships. Following Russon, Bredlau demonstrates this point through an analysis of neurosis. Bredlau argues that neuroses are best understood as cases in which habitual modes of taking up relationships (i.e., the meaningful context) conflict with the demands of one’s personal life. Much like Merleau-Ponty’s phantom limb example, neuroses show how our relationships are sustained by habitual modes of relating to others that can nourish or sap one’s present projects.

Having presented this phenomenological framework, in Chapter 3 Bredlau confirms it through the example of the child’s relations with others. For Bredlau, the child’s interpersonal life is a matter of the institution or Stiftung, in Husserl’s terms, of “the form of a meaningful world” (45), and as presenting a fundamental form of our relations with others, childhood offers special insight into our relations with others. Bredlau’s central claim in this chapter is that even very young children perceive others not just as things within the world, but as perceivers, sources of meaning. Bredlau introduces this claim by drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s example of playfully pretending to bite a fifteen-month old’s finger, to which the child responds by opening its mouth, as if imitating Merleau-Ponty. This example illustrates that infants recognize and are able to adopt others’ modes of behavior – not through some sort of reasoning by analogy (an infant would be unable to recognize the similarity between her outward appearance and the outward appearance of the other, given that very young children cannot recognize themselves in a mirror), but by directly perceiving the other’s behavior as intentional. Bredlau draws our attention to an overlooked feature of this passage: that the child mirrors not only Merleau-Ponty’s action, but seemingly the very moodedness of his behavior, as playful. This indicates that the child is able to perceive the world as it has become meaningful to Merleau-Ponty through this mood, i.e., as a place for play. Thus, the child already perceives Merleau-Ponty, then, not just as an object, but as “expressing a meaningful perspective” (48).

In the rest of Chapter 3, Bredlau supports this account through an analysis of childhood intersubjectivity. Here, Bredlau largely draws on child psychology, demonstrating how such phenomena as “joint attention” and “mutual gaze” confirm that a pairing relation exists between very young children and their caretakers. Bredlau relies on two main phenomena to make this point. First, she focuses on infants’ capacity to interact playfully with their caretakers. Drawing on the research of Daniel Stern (1977), she argues that this capacity for playfulness, for coordinating behavior with a caretaker, indicates that children perceive their caretakers as perceptive, for if they merely perceived their caretakers as things, they could not play with their caretakers. Second, Bredlau turns to examples of social referencing in slightly older children. For example, she draws on Suzanne Carr’s finding (1975) that children prefer to stay within the gaze of their mother – a behavior which requires that they not merely see their mothers, but see them as perceivers. Bredlau then notes that one of the distinctive features of the child’s pairing relation is that it is one of trust, i.e., one of being initiated into a meaningful world. She draws on Russon’s work to show how a child gains her sense of validity or agency from her relationship with her parents.

Chapter 4 provides a study of sexuality, a facet of interpersonal life of special interest since sexuality offers a uniquely bodily mode of engagement with others; in sexual attraction, we intend the other as a body. But as Bredlau shows, sexuality does not intend the other as a mere body, but rather as an intentional body, i.e., as a bodily subject; sexual desire for the other is, ultimately, desire for the other’s desire. This allows Bredlau, drawing on Hegel’s account of recognition, to argue that what we are ultimately concerned with, in the sexual sphere, is “embodied recognition.” Bredlau makes this point by engaging with de Beauvoir’s distinction between the sexual body as expressive and as passive. The latter points out that while men’s bodies are habituated to expressivity, women’s bodies are not. Ultimately, this disparity undermines erotic desire for both parties, indicating that sexual desire is oriented toward the mutual expressivity and passivity of both bodies. According to Bredlau, sexuality is characterized by what Merleau-Ponty calls reversibility, in which each party is simultaneously touching and touched, expressive and passive. Sexuality is fulfilled when this reversibility is affirmed in mutual recognition, in which the expressivity of one body is not lived as opposed to the expressivity of the other. Sexuality, Bredlau claims, is a case in which “our autonomy is most fully realized only to the extent that the others’ autonomy is also most fully realized” (86). Following Russon, Bredlau illustrates this idea by exploring how the vulnerability entailed by this reversibility can be “betrayed” in numerous ways, e.g., by attempting unilaterally to take control of a sexual situation or denying the shared character of the relation. Ultimately, Bredlau’s claim is that sexuality is characterized then by a sort of normativity – it is normatively oriented toward recognition – which is not the same as normalcy: when authentic, sexuality is a site for free mutual creation, rather than beholden to received notions of normal sexual life.

This claim leads Bredlau to conclude with a reflection on the ethical dimension of this project. In her view, the experience of the other is never value-neutral, but reveals ethical demands.

Bredlau’s work leaves open some questions the reader might want to find addressed in a work concerning these topics. For example, Bredlau does not consider the complications that erotic desire can pose to recognition suggested by phenomenologists like Sartre or, for that matter, Merleau-Ponty (2010, 28-40). Or, in terms of childhood intersubjectivity, it might have been interesting to consider Merleau-Ponty’s claim of a primitive “indistinction” between self and other (1964, 120). Though not exhaustive, Bredlau’s work makes a substantial contribution to the existing literature.

Specifically, in my view, this work achieves three main goods. First, it succeeds in integrating and offering a concise and lucid exposition of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Russon on interpersonal life. There is some room for Bredlau to clarify the relation between these thinkers – for example, it is a question whether Merleau-Ponty would accept Husserl’s description of “pairing” (see, e.g., Carman 2008, 137-140) which for Husserl involves an association between the interior and exterior of myself and the other (see Husserl 1999, §§50-2) that Merleau-Ponty criticizes (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 367-8). Still, Bredlau has succeeded in drawing together these distinct lines of thinking into a single and compelling account.

The second good lies in having provided such a cohesive and convincing exposition of the phenomenology of interpersonal life. Bredlau makes these often difficult concepts more readily available, and contributes an insightful account of interpersonal life that should be valuable to anyone interested in this topic.

Finally, Bredlau’s most original contributions come in her rich and compelling analyses of childhood interpersonal life in Chapter 3 and sexuality in Chapter 4. Her argument in Chapter 3 draws on contemporary psychological findings to substantiate her points about interpersonal life, not only updating the psychology used in Merleau-Ponty’s work, but creatively augmenting the phenomenology of childhood intersubjectivity. Further, her discussion of immanent norms of embodied recognition in sexuality offers an insightful avenue for thinking about the normative dimension of the perceptual experience of others. These analyses are both creative and contribute a great deal of phenomenological weight to the framework Bredlau provides in Chapters 1 and 2.

In sum, Bredlau’s work makes a substantial and engaging contribution to the phenomenology of interpersonal life at the perceptual level.

Works Cited

Carman, Taylor. 2008. Merleau-Ponty. New York, NY: Routledge.

Carr, Suzanne J. 1975. “Mother-Infant Attachment: The Importance of the Mother’s Visual Field.” Child Development, 46, 331-38.

Husserl. 1999. Cartesian Meditations. Translated by Dorion Cairns. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Merleau-Ponty. 2010. Institution and Passivity. Translated by Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty. 2012. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald Landes. New York, NY: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty. 1964. The Primacy of Perception. Edited by James M. Edie. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Stern, Daniel. 1977. The First Relationship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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