In The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of our Experience of Other Persons, Susan Bredlau argues that, beginning in infant-caregiver relations, others are integral to the form of our experience of them, and claims that this gives rise to interpersonal trust as “the condition of healthy perceptual development” (3). The major contribution of her study, Bredlau claims, is the phenomenological analysis, or “the concrete working out” of how, beginning in infancy, our experiences of other people are formative of our existence as subjects and of our experience of dwelling in the world. While this might seem to be a well-discussed point central to phenomenology, Bredlau takes this discussion further. She develops a comparison between the formative experiences of early childhood subject development, where we emerge from what might be considered a complete and unchosen vulnerability to the existence of others, into a world that “demands our adherence to what has already been established” (89), and the voluntary high stakes vulnerability of our subjecthood in adult sexual relationships.
Overall, Bredlau’s book is a philosophically rich text. A range of philosophers, for example, Heidegger, Hegel, Beauvoir, and Gallagher, and child development researchers, including among others, psychologist Daniel Stern, are key to the discussion of human behaviour. Primarily, however, Bredlau brings together the thinking of three philosophers—Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Russon—relating these thinkers to each other and to what is a central trajectory of thought in phenomenology, and in so doing, continuing the discussion in thoughtful and insightful ways.
The text is essentially divided into two sections of two chapters each: the first two chapters are structured to cover each of the three philosophers in turn, in this way highlighting both their debt to and differentiation from the work of their predecessors, and establishing the phenomenological perspectives that will be applied in the second half of the book. Central to these discussions is Husserl’s focus on experiences of ‘pairing’, that is, “an experience of actually perceiving—rather than imagining or remembering—another human body.” (31) Here, “[t]he experience of perceiving—in contrast to the experience of imagining or remembering—is inseparable from the body’s position” (31) and as Husserl argues, “The other body there enters into a pairing association with my body here and, being given perceptually, becomes the core of an appresentation.” (Husserl, cited in Bredlau, 31) The final two chapters cover two key aspects of experience whereby our ‘pairing’ with others shapes this experience of the specific other as in some way essential to us. Bredlau argues that it is this pairing that founds our intersubjective relationships throughout life and goes on to claim that, therefore, “trust is the essential medium of our erotic relationships, relationships that in principle carry an equivalent sort of ethical weight to that of caregiver relationships [in childhood]” (4). That is, trust is at the core of her claims regarding the “ethical questions that pervade the intimate bonds we form, whether we form these bonds in affirmation or in denial of the freedom and responsibility that is constitutive of intersubjective relationships” (96).
Bredlau handles the phenomenology of our perception of others particularly well, identifying and concretely mapping out how what is happening in perception goes well beyond perception and encompasses the development of our personality and character, our sense of having a world, and what Merleau-Ponty refers to as ‘the body schema’ through which we experience self and others. This insight will be familiar to readers of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Russon, and it is to Bredlau’s credit that she builds so respectfully on these works. One of the great merits of The Other in Perception is its sensitive exegesis of the nuances of each philosopher’s thought and the insights into what amounts to a significant philosophical conversation that is being had over time. In the opening chapters which might be seen as preliminary to the presentation of Bredlau’s own arguments, we find that phenomenological concepts are presented carefully and methodically, with the implications of such thinking made clear. The development of the ontological implications, and how the different philosophers have taken them up, is carefully traced and the commonalities that then appear among them add weight to Bredlau’s overall intentions. On the concept of infant “pairing”, for instance, Bredlau clearly presents both Husserl’s original insights and use of this concept, but also the differences between Husserl’s understandings and Merleau-Ponty’s later thinking about the child’s relations with others. There is a culmination in Bredlau’s presentation of Russon on pairing and how “the significant people with whom we are involved in our lives function more as aspects of the form of our perception than as its contents or objects” (39). Russon’s notion of polytemporality, a concept that references musical experience to draw out how “the many non-thematic dimensions of experience that must be operative if we are to perceive the present sound—the note—as music… provide[s] a basic logic for understanding the larger structure of the world that contextualises our everyday experiences” (17), also serves to demonstrate the affective structures and sense of temporal layering that are produced by such pairing, and how these reflect the situated historical context of all perceptual experience. Importantly, Bredlau then goes on to establish how this developmental capacity can be opened up to renewal through our intimacy with others.
Overall, this is a book that argues for the value of phenomenology. At the outset, Husserl’s radical idea is established: that we must put aside our thoughts about whether things we perceive “correspond” to the things themselves, and start by describing the things we perceive; it is through the process of phenomenological description that we can come to recognise that we perceive real things rather than mental representations. Bredlau takes this up from the outset, carefully explaining that when Husserl describes a physical object as transcendent to consciousness, “he is not claiming that the things we are conscious of as physical objects first exist independently of our consciousness of them, as we presume in [what he calls] the ‘natural attitude’; he is describing the way in which these things exist within our experience.” (9).
Also central is Husserl’s description of pairing as a “second kind” of relation other than object experience: that is, “we “live through”, or “perceive with” another human body and find ourselves in a world as perceived by the other rather than simply by us” (33). Our experience of others is of beings who are themselves conscious of the natural and cultural world as perceiving subjects (not as thinking subjects). We are aware of them as “making specific perceptual sense of their specific physical situation” (29). As such, and central to Bredlau’s argument, there is the understanding that subjectivity is embodied, with our behaviour the activity of a perceiving body.
Thus, such pairings, which are “formative of our self-identity in a way that shapes the very form of our perception,” are the founding, formative context of our perceptual life. Bredlau closely examines pairing at the level of “intrinsic embeddedness of others in our very bodily comportment” (45), evident in infant-caregiver relationality, utilising Merleau-Ponty’s work in “The Child’s Relation to Others”. Here Merleau-Ponty argues that the infant does not “reason by analogy” using reflection on comparisons between her own visible behaviour and that of others. Rather, the infant has not seen her own expressions as she intends to bite the care-giver’s finger and thus what might initially be theorised as reflective behaviour, needs to be understood as “the baby’s direct perception of [her care-giver’s] behaviour as perceptive, as intending a meaningful world” (47). This is, Bredlau stresses, “behavior that is as much expressive of an orientation as it is responsive to a setting” (47). This point is crucial to the parallels Bredlau later draws between infant behaviour and adult intimacy. Also important, Bredlau stresses, is that this is a situation of “play”; the world is there for the infant, “appresented” through the care-giver’s body as a meaningful world; the baby is not strictly speaking imitating, but is, rather, participating in the caregiver’s specific way of perceiving the world, and the baby’s perception is “inherently collaborative” (49).
What is vitally important here, therefore, is, Bredlau’s conclusion: “How, then, the particular caregiver with which a particular infant is paired perceives the world will be of lasting significance for an infant’s perception of the world” (62). Via discussions of how the intentional shifting of the caregiver’s affective tempo, or pace, can influence the infant’s affect or arousal, we see the ethical dimensions of Bredlau’s work coming into sharp focus. It is through the body that the infant experiences how their caregiver sees them and how they belong in the immediate world of the caregiver, and what this world is like. Such understandings become incorporated into our experiential structures through our body schema.
In her second study of a phenomenological understanding of pairing, Bredlau claims that it is reasonable to understand adult intimate relations as another instance of great interpersonal vulnerability, and being thus, “like childhood intimacy, sexual intimacy is ultimately a matter of trust” (87). Here she draws significantly on Russon’s work to demonstrate how, while “what is at stake in sexual experience is mutual attraction and the mutual realization of our autonomy, the vulnerability entailed by sexual experience often leads us to deny these stakes.” In this way, Russon’s work is central to Bredlau’s concrete working out of the ways in which “our sexual practices can embody such denials and thus amount to betrayals of trust—of the intersubjective bonds that are constitutive of our experience” (87).
These betrayals, and it is important that we keep in mind that these are ultimately betrayals of trust, can take two forms: the first being in the form of theft—“claiming what is ours to be solely mine” or; secondly, these can be of a form that “pretends that a bond does not require judgement and appropriation, that it is not ambiguous and shared but is an obvious and settled piece of reality” (87). The first form takes us to thinking about the power plays operating and often indeed seen to be norms of sexual behaviour—where each person is imposing their sexual behaviour on the other while at the same time this other is imposing their sexual behaviour on them, the result being that one of either is controlling the relationship dynamic (theft) or pretending not to be implicated in it (88).
The second form is that whereby we treat sexual relations as “situations governed by pre-existing standards and thus…Both our bodies and other bodies may retreat into explicit codes of sexual conduct or implicit sexual norms and act as if these codes or norms—rather than the unique desire of uniquely embodied subjects—determine how sexual experience should unfold” (88-89). Drawing on Russon, Bredlau argues that “if we take our culture’s definition of a fulfilling relationship as definitive for our sexual relations, we actually deny the reality of our sexual relations” (89). I think that it is important here to point out how Bredlau’s preliminary discussion of male and female sexuality, drawing on Beauvoir, comes back into play and we see the significance of how these two forms of betrayal often overlap and thus compound the betrayal of trust; many of our cultural norms around sexuality point towards women being submissive to the normative ideal of the powerful male.
I think it is important to precisely examine the connection that is being made between adult relations and infant relations and how this might be contextualised within the broader philosophical discussions of trust. For Bredlau, both forms of relations involve experiences of vulnerability and intimacy, with much at stake, both physically and existentially. The crux of the connection is that, similarly to infant relations, where questions “that our bodies can never answer for themselves and must, instead, turn to other bodies to answer” (87), sexual situations are situations of great vulnerability, and thus, “like childhood intimacy, sexual intimacy is ultimately a matter of trust” (my italics, 87).
This claim asks us to undertand all that Bredlau has presented about infant perception and the formation of meaning as subjectivity and subjectivity of our world, as ultimately a matter of trust. Given this claim, we might now expect some significant discussion connecting perceptual experience to trusting experience. Yet, in the whole text, there is only one section that is specifically directed towards the question of trust; Chapter 3, “The Institution of Interpersonal Life”, titled Pairing and Trust. This might be anticipated to be not only a culmination of thought as it pertains to Bredlau’s central argument regarding trust, but also a bringing together of this phenomenological work with some of the broader philosophical discussion of trust. Yet, this is not the case, and nor does Bredlau return, in any substantial discussion, to matters of trust directly. While Bredlau is clear that her discussion of forms of betrayal are about betrayals of trust, this needs, I believe, the modes of trusting be made visible, if we are to see how trusting is iressolvably intertwined with our experience of subjectivity “precisely as embodied”, and this is to be considered a substantial contribution to philosophical thinking about trust. My point is that Bredlau does not present trust to us through a conceptual lens. That said, she is contributing phenomenological work important if thinking about trust is to deepen; she is contributing phenomenologically rich descriptions of lived experiences that are themselves trusting or concerning our trusting, and that we recognise them as such. We generally know what trusting is without the exact contours of the philosophical concept being explained to us.
In order to highlight the significance of Bredlau’s phenomenological insights and identify how these contribute to a broader discussion of trust, I think that it is important to go beyond Bredlau’s text and bring some of the broader philosophical work on trust into the discussion. For example, discussions of trust often refer to the way that trust seems to be everywhere, is amorphous and difficult to define. Bredlau’s work, identifying the ways that the contextual intimacy of perceptual experience that is foundational to world and self development is essentially about trust, can give us insights into how it is that trust might appear to be everywhere. Perhaps more specifically significant is to bring Bredlau’s work into the context of Annette’s Baier’s reflections on how we might understand infant trust. Baier, who has written at length and insightfully about trusting, refers to the experience of ‘innate’ trust. Innate trust is unreflective and unwilled and can readily be seen in the situation of infants who will generally respond to parents without apparent concern for assessing threats to their vulnerability (Moral Prejudices, 107). She goes on to argue that, for trust to be trust proper, the situated context of this innate trust, as it occurs in our adult experience, must also come into my awareness as a situation of risk that requires evaluation and commitment by me, while the trust that seemingly got going without me, is maintained. Baier does not explain the innate capacity of the infant but, importantly, she does describe its fundamental forms and makes some significant caveats, including, in particular, that infants
… cannot trust at will any more than experienced adults can … One constraint on an account of trust which postulates infant trust as its essential seed is that it not make essential to trusting the use of concepts and abilities which a child cannot be reasonably believed to possess. (Baier, Moral Prejudices, 110)
It is this very point that directs analysis of infant innate trust to the various stages of infant development, pointing to, for example, the development of basic social emotions in early childhood. What Baier calls innate trust is also, in philosophical investigation, called “basic” trust, suggesting that it might be, perhaps, more in tune with instinct. Indeed, Baier is drawing the same sort of line in the sand; while identifying the importance of trust, she indicates there is something called trust proper, that is, the trust that is warranted in its relationship to the trustworthiness of others. Innate or basic trust has thus tended to be considered as not of consideration as concerns trust and moral development, separated because we do not choose it, while it merely exposes us to the underdetermined trustworthiness of others. These are serious and significant moral issues, and any connection between infant trust and adult reflective trust must come to grips with these questions.
If we now return to Bredlau, we see that what has been achieved is a concrete presentation of how it is the experience of perception in infanthood that is the experiential medium instituting meaning of self, world and others. Bredlau argues that in adult experiences of sexual intimacy we are opened to the possibility of a fundamental recognition and thus re-emergence of subjectivity. She claims that it is these experiences of perception that are essential to trusting. I agree most ardently with Bredlau on this point and see that it is exactly the sort of work that Baier’s caveats require. This is not bringing adult forms of knowing and judging into infant experiences of trusting in order to explain how infant experience is one of trust. Bredlau’s work re-centres the focus of examination in order to show how adult experiences of trusting are grounded in on-going perceptual experience that begins in infancy. However, on my reading of her text, while her claims around trust provide a most interesting perspective on the work being undertaken, it is a perspective that, in the end, might be easy to overlook. There remains much important work to do, bringing the insights that Bredlau has made look easy to the broader philosophical discussion of trust. We can all be grateful for Bredlau’s contributions to this discussion, and how this future work might itself be just that little bit easier because of her contributions.
In closing, I would like to draw attention to one final point, one that assumes we take Bredlau’s claims about the significance of trusting as given. While Bredlau speaks here to sexual intimacy as offering a prime example of high stakes vulnerability, and this as having ground in the development of the existential intimacy of the infant and her meaningful world, there are, of course, other experiences that demonstrate the profound significance of understanding “subjectivity precisely as embodied” (85). The forms of perception that Bredlau presents are ways of bodily “thinking” and “judging” that necessarily involve others and our capacity to trust them, the circumstances we find ourselves in, and our own capacity to respond, and these are developed experientially over time. A difficulty that emerges in most discussions of trust is the way that there is, at some level, a trusting that is assumed. This is an issue that needs close attention as we take up Bredlau’s claims about infant perceptual experience being essential to trust.
The world is largely presented here as a place to be trusted, and, in this, situations are trustworthy, or not; the caregiver’s capacity to trust and be trusted belongs to this world that is directly experienced by the infant. Our developing sense of the world as trustworthy is informed therefore via the caregiver’s capacity to trust, which is itself shaped by intersubjective experiences beginning at this foundational level. The significance of this was not lost on Susan Brison, for example, who, after being raped, experienced post-traumatic flashbacks and panic attacks about a world that had become untrustworthy—a profound example of what is discussed by Bredlau as a form of betrayal of the intersubjective bonds that are constitutive of our experience. Brison, on becoming pregnant some years later, becomes acutely aware of the need to bring her child into a world that will be perceived as trustworthy and not wanting her one experience to create a whole world for her child. Through Brison’s experience we catch a glimpse of how the infant-caregiver relation is one of mutual intimacy and vulnerability, with the collaboration mutually transformative. Brison says:
While I used to have to will myself out of bed each day, I now wake gladly to feed my son whose birth, four years after the assault, gives me reason not to have died. He is the embodiment of my life’s new narrative and I am more autonomous by virtue of being so intermingled with him. Having him has also enabled me to rebuild my trust in the world around us. He is so trusting that, before he learned to walk, he would stand with outstretched arms, wobbling, until he fell, stiff-limbed, forwards, backwards, certain the universe would catch him. So far, it has, and when I tell myself it always will, the part of me that he’s become believes it. (Brison, 66)
This work by Brison serves to emphasise the potential of Bredlau’s work. The body, and our perceptual relations with others, offer the opportunity for authentic experience that has the capacity to continue the processes of intimate pairing. These processes, that shape the infant’s lived sense of “I can”, also continues the adult’s world building, and this is both beyond and incorporated into the life of the infant. These insights mean that we can begin to think about how the opportunities that are our body as our opening onto a world of meaning, are numerous, and in many instances, ordinary, all instituting trust as a “pattern in the weave of life”, with this patterning “under the aspect of meaningfulness and purpose” (Lagerspetz and Hertzberg, 36).
Susan Bredlau. 2018. The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of our Experience of Other Persons. State University of New York Press.
Susan Brison. 2002. Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Annette Baier. 1994. Moral Prejudices. USA: Harvard University Press.
Olli Lagerspetz and Lars Hertzberg. 2013. “Trust in Wittgenstein.” In Trust: Analytic and Applied Perspectives, edited by Pekka Makela and Cynthia Townley, 31-51. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.
Phillipe Rochat. 2010. “Trust in Early Development.” In Trust, Sociality, Selfhood, edited by Arne Grøn, Claudia Welz, 31-44. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
 See for example, Phillipe Rochat, who, as developmental psychologist, argues that trust, as a concept, is used to refer across a variety of experiences covering “basic social emotions and affectivity to cognition, morality, the laws, politics, economics, and religion” (Rochat 2010, 31) and identifies that the common ground to the various experiences to which the concept is referred is the sense of “holding expectations about people and things” (33); from our earliest existence, we are inclined towards creating “stability and unity over constant changes, to construct some mental anchorage for harnessing the constant flux of perceptual experience” (33).
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.
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.
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