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
2019
Hardback $80.00
138

Reviewed by: Fiona Utley (University of New England, Australia)

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.[1] 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).

References: 

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.


[1] 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).

Thomas Szanto, Hilge Landweer (Eds.): The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Emotion, Routledge, 2020

The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Emotion Book Cover The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Emotion
Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy
Thomas Szanto, Hilge Landweer (Eds.)
Routledge
2020
Hardback £190.00
648