Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Sensible World and the World of Expression. Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953

The Sensible World and the World of Expression: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953 Book Cover The Sensible World and the World of Expression: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Translated from the French with an introduction and notes by Bryan Smyth
Northwestern University Press
Paperback $34.95

Reviewed by: Antonia Schirgi (University of Graz)


Merleau-Ponty suddenly died in 1961, at the young age of 53, at a time when he was still in the process of developing his thoughts and was working on a major book in which he wanted to further his thoughts and present a new ontology beyond a strict distinction of subject and object. For many years thereafter, notes that Merleau-Ponty drew up in preparation of this book that were posthumously published under the title The Visible and the Invisible and his  second thesis (habilitation), the Phenomenology of Perception, were considered to be his most important works. Apart from some published articles and books, Merleau-Ponty left a number of unpublished manuscripts and working notes (more than 4000 pages). Some of these unfinished works and notes were published in the years after Merleau-Ponty’s death. In 1992 the majority of Merleau-Ponty’s notes were donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France by his family and, since then, some previously unpublished materials have been published. These notes allow their readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts from his early works to the later ones, to see continuities, moments of self-criticism as well as to understand his engagement with certain philosophical and other literature (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 7).

After the completion of his second thesis, Merleau-Ponty was affiliated to the University of Lyon (1945-1949), later he held a professorship for child psychology at the Sorbonne (1949-1952). In 1952 he was elected to the Collège de France, he assumed his position there the same year, held his inaugural lecture on the 15th of January 1953 and began his regular teaching activities the following week (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). The Sensible World and the World of Expression (Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression) was the title of one of the two courses that Merleau-Ponty gave that year. The Collège de France is a unique institution; even if it is a public university, it does not offer regular introductory courses. The courses taught at the Collège are lectures and colloquia that permit the professors to present their ongoing thoughts and recent research to advanced students and/or the general interested public. Holding a chair in philosophy at this institution permitted Merleau-Ponty to further his philosophical thoughts, to return to some the phenomena that he treated in his first and second thesis as well as to some issues of his approach that he became aware of during the years after the completion of these books, and to present these thoughts to his audience. This return does, however, not present a break with his work and thoughts from the years at Sorbonne; rather, the insights that he gained during these years enriched his perspective on the phenomena (perception, the union of body and soul etc.) that he re-started to deal with.

In this review, I will discuss the translation of the posthumous edition of Merleau-Ponty’s notes on The Sensible World and the World of Expression. Furthermore, I want to give a brief overview of the course and of some of the key innovations that can be found in these notes. However, I will not discuss the content of the book in detail here.

The Manuscript

Detailed preparatory notes for the course on the sensible world as well as some further workings notes were part of the materials donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF “don 92-21 de Suzanne Merleau-Ponty”, NAF 26993 X). Merleau-Ponty himself published a brief summary of this course (cf. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard, 1968, 11-21), as he did of every course that he held at the Collège de France, but he did not publish any further materials. The preparatory and working notes were transcribed and published by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen in 2011 (MetisPresses).

Merleau-Ponty wrote up these notes in order to present the thoughts they contain to his audience; however, they are not immediately written for a public (like it would be the case with an article or a book). The manuscript contains some paragraphs that are written in full sentences. Nevertheless, large parts of the manuscript consist of incomplete sentences, bullet points, or listings of keywords. The editors of the French edition “strove to present Merleau-Ponty’s notes in a virtually verbatim form, and meticulous effort was made to keep the page layout as close as possible to that found in the actual notes themselves” (xliii). This effort of the editors is of high value for those working with Merleau-Ponty’s notes, as it permits readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts in the way he developed them and not to be simply guided, and potentially misguided, by the interpretation of the editors. However, interpretations of a text like the present one, are challenging. As Merleau-Ponty’s notes are, to my knowledge, the only materials available (no student notes or similar document have been published or included in the collection at the Bibliothèque nationale de France), it remains unknown how Merleau-Ponty elaborated and discussed his thoughts during his lectures. Smyth argues for a limited interpretation of this manuscript. Even if these notes were of importance as they date back to a crucial moment in the development of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts, the thoughts they contain were thoughts and work in progress. According to Smyth one should not over-hasty draw conclusions from these notes, from the perspective of a present-day reader who knows the further development of Merleau-Ponty’s work. Furthermore, the course notes should not be interpreted “in isolation from his other courses at the College de France” (xxxvi). Merleau-Ponty himself stated in his official course summary that it would still be necessary to further explore linguistic expression in order to define the philosophical meaning of the analyses perused during this course (cf. xxxvi; Merleau-Ponty 1968, 21). Therefore, Smyth argues that “we should be cautious about drawing any firm conclusions from them [these notes, A.S.] at all” (xxxvi). His call for a cautious interpretation of a manuscript like the present one seems adequate and valuable, but it might be a bit too far reaching. In this manuscript Merleau-Ponty discusses issues from a different angle than he did in other texts, and he elaborates thoughts more in details than he did in his published writings. Even if these notes were still work in progress, they can help readers to understand where Merleau-Ponty was coming from – which sources he considered important, in which direction his thoughts developed etc. To name an example, the importance of the writings of the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder for Merleau-Ponty’s development of the concept of the body schema can only be understood from the present manuscript, not from Merleau-Ponty’s earlier writings (in the Phenomenology of Perception Schilder is only mentioned once). His discussion of the body schema in the present preparatory notes does not only deepen the thoughts Merleau-Ponty already developed in the Phenomenology of Perception, but it also shows new directions that he has been about to take with regards to this concept. Smyth is right that these preparatory notes should not be interpreted in isolation from Merleau-Ponty’s notes for his other courses and other materials, but does this not hold true for all of Merleau-Ponty’s writings? Even if certain writings, like the Phenomenology of Perception, were published by Merleau-Ponty himself, now that we know from courses like the present one as well as from articles and manuscripts that Merleau-Ponty himself was critical of some of his early positions and descriptions, it seems wrong to interpret the position he presented there as the position of Merleau-Ponty. Besides that, the problematic status is not unique to the manuscript of the course on the sensible world. None of the posthumously published manuscripts was intended to be immediately published. Even if Merleau-Ponty’s most renowned mature work – The Visible and the Invisible – is the publication of a manuscript that Merleau-Ponty prepared for publication, the manuscript that Merleau-Ponty left when he died in 1961 seems to have been far from a final version. We can only speculate how he would have further developed this manuscript would he had been given the time to do so.

The Translation

Editing notes, like Merleau-Ponty’s notes on the sensible world, is not an easy task; the same holds true for their translation. The present edition is a translation of the French edition (not of the original notes) (cf. xliii). The peculiar style of the manuscript that is, as I already mentioned, excellently reflected in the French transcript, has largely been preserved in the English translation. This means, for example, that words that Merleau-Ponty underlined, are underlined in the book, words that he crossed out, are included in the text, but crossed out as they were in the manuscript and so on (cf. xliv). Nevertheless, a translation is not simply a reproduction of a text in a different language, but it is the outcome of a process of interpretation. Smyth makes very clear that he is aware of his own interference in the text, when he states: “It is not possible […] to translate the notes as they stand without engaging in some disabbreviation, for there are simply too many uncertainties and ambiguities at the level of the words themselves.” (xlv) Hence, while the French edition in general does not add any terms to the text itself, but sticks to the original manuscript and its abbreviated style, the English translations “adds a very large number of terms within the text itself” (xiv). Thereby Smyth wants to enhance the readability of the text, “to facilitate as clear and unambiguous a reading of Merleau-Ponty’s notes as possible” (xiv), and to outline the “intended meaning of the transcribed words” (xiv), or rather the transcribed words as they were read and interpreted by the translator. Further to the additions that Smyth made to the text itself, his translations “includes a new and expanded set of annotive notes” (xliii), that go beyond the notes included in the French edition. In addition, Smyth outlines his choices concerning the translation of some crucial terms that are not easily to translate – the “hard cases” as he would say (cf. xlvi-li).

The Structure of the Course and of the Book

In general, Merleau-Ponty held two courses per year, each one comprised fourteen to fifteen lectures (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). Often the topics of the two courses corresponded – this was also the case in 1953, when Merleau-Ponty dealt with issues of language in his second course – and on two occasions the two weekly courses were merged in order to develop one single issue more in depth (1956-1957 and 1957-1958, when Merleau-Ponty gave two intense courses on nature).

The Sensible World and the World of Expression comprises fourteen lectures. The course can be divided into four parts: (1) the first three lectures serve as a general introduction and overview of the course, (2) in lessons four to ten Merleau-Ponty discusses space and movement from a phenomenological point of view (including depth perception, a phenomenon that has become highly important for Merleau-Ponty), (3) the lessens ten to thirteen are dedicated to the body schema and (4) the last lesson dealt with expression (primarily with non-linguistic expression, but Merleau-Ponty gave some indications concerning linguistic expression too). As Smyth points out, Merleau-Ponty did not intend to discuss linguistic expression in detail in this course; however, he did intend to discuss “the passage from expression at the level of the sensible to cultural expression that is not yet language” (xvii), as it is the case in visual art. Nevertheless, Merleau-Ponty took more time than planned to elaborate the basis of his thoughts and therefore he could only discuss this move in his last lesson. Hence, the four parts were not given equal attention in the course (cf. xvii).

The book (the French and the English edition) contains the notes preparing the course, as well as working notes that Merleau-Ponty developed while preparing the course. These notes were not dated or classified by Merleau-Ponty. The editors of the French book categorized them thematically for their edition (cf. 129; Saint Aubert 2011, 171).

Merleau-Ponty’s Thoughts on the Sensible World

In The Sensible World and the World of Expression Merleau-Ponty primarily deals with the relation between the bodily human being and the sensible world. As I already mentioned, the relation between the world of expression is briefly touched in this course, but dealt with more in detail in his courses and writings on language. So, how does Merleau-Ponty understand this sensible world and what did his course aim at?

Sensible world = things

World of expression = cultural things, ‘use objects,’ symbols. (I didn’t say: universe of language)

Double goal:      — deepen the analysis of the perceived world by showing that it already presupposes the expressive function.

                             — prepare the analysis of this [expressive] function through which the perceived world is sublimated, produce a concrete theory of mind. (9)

This brief definition and equally brief statement concerning the double goal of the course present the first lines of the preparatory course manuscript of Merleau-Ponty. Even if these first words seem to indicate a strong division of the sensible world and the world of expression, in what follows Merleau-Ponty makes clear that they are not separated, but “enveloped” (27) in each other. He is less interested in their analytic distinction, than in the dynamic passage from the one to the other in and through movement. As explained above, Merleau-Ponty did not follow his original plan for the course, in particular did he not manage to extensively discuss expression. Therefore, the course dealt more with the first part of his twofold goal than with the second part; indeed, after spending more time than expected on topics related to the first part of his general aim, only the last lesson remained for the second part (cf. xvii).

The main concepts that Merleau-Ponty deals with in this course are perception and expression (in its relation to the sensible world). Already on the first page of his manuscript Merleau-Ponty criticises his own approach towards perception, as he presented it in the Phenomenology of Perception and in a lecture that he gave at a meeting of the Société française de philosophie in late 1946 on the issue of the Primacy of Perception (lecture and discussion published with Northwestern University Press, 1964). He argues that his earlier works did not present strong and clear enough a break with classical positions, concepts and terms. With reference to the critique by Jean Hyppolite and Jean Beaufret, following his lecture in 1946, Merleau-Ponty acknowledges that readers and listeners could have gotten his thoughts wrong, as (1) one could have thought that the “primacy of perception” as he presented it was primacy in the classical sense, a “primacy of the sensory, of the natural given”, even if for him “perception was essentially a mode of access to being” (10); (2) one might have missed Merleau-Ponty’s ontological thoughts and taken his work as “only a phenomenology” (10); (3) therefore readers might have thought “that being was reduced to the ‘positivism’ of perception”, even if the perceived is “not possessed” by the philosopher, but “unquestionably before us” (10; underlining in the original). With reference to this discussion, Smyth argues that the main innovative aspect of this course “is that Merleau-Ponty is also revisiting the phenomenological analysis of the perceived world itself.” (xvi, emphasis in the original) However, Smyth presents an even stronger claim concerning the shift in Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts as he outlined them in the present course. According to him, Merleau-Ponty realized that his manner of presenting the problem of “how the sensible is taken up expressively […] made it unsolvable” (xvi). Perception was an “encounter with the sensible” and as such it was “already expressive” (xvi). Hence, Merleau-Ponty “came to realize […] that he didn’t get the phenomenology of phenomenology right, because he didn’t get the phenomenology itself right in the first place. So, he was still building his phenomenological method, not building on it” (xvi-xvii; emphasis in the original). Even if this reading indicates a strong shift in and important innovations of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on phenomenology and the phenomenological method, it does not negate the continuity of this development.

Besides perception, the other central concept that is discussed in this manuscript, is expression. Merleau-Ponty’s notion of expression is broad: Expression is “the property that a phenomenon has through its internal arrangement [son agencement interne] to disclose another [phenomenon] that is not or even never was given” (11; annotations and emphasis in the original). This definition already highlights the relational aspect of expression. Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of perception and expression presuppose and involve a certain conception of the human being. As he already did in his early works, also in this course Merleau-Ponty opposes dualist conceptions. It is the body (in its entirety) that perceives and expresses. A body that is able to perceive and to express, is a body “as [a] given organization, [as] ‘sensory’ activity” and a “body that moves itself”, it is a body “[as a] response to ‘natural’ aspects of the world” and a body “[that] returns to the world in order to signify it [or] to designate it” (28; annotations in the original).

Particularly during the first two introductory lectures Merleau-Ponty discusses consciousness. In the second part of his course, he deals with space and movement, especially with depth perception and the perception of movement. The following lectures are dedicated to the body schema (a part that Merleau-Ponty seems to have added in the course of the semester) (xxii). The notes to this course are the first writings in which Merleau-Ponty aligned depth perception and (the perception of) movement with the body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 10-11).

Thereby Merleau-Ponty further elaborates concepts and thoughts that he already discussed in his earlier works and at the same time he introduces new concepts and thoughts and present some major shifts with regards to some concepts. Some of the core innovations that he outlines in these preparatory notes are:

  • Merleau-Ponty rejects classical conceptions of consciousness (particularly in the first and second lecture). In his course on the sensible world, Merleau-Ponty introduces for the first time the concept of “écart” (generally translated as “divergence”) (xix). Merleau-Ponty elaborates this, not only but particularly well, by referring to the example of the perception of a circle. When a circle is perceived it offers its sense as a tacit sense (as opposed to the classical position, according to which sense is essence and given). The sense of a circle is a “certain mode of curvature” (13), namely the “change of direction at each instant always with the same divergence” [même écart] (20) and therefor the circle itself is a “mode of divergence” [mode d’écart] (20; underlining in the original). Merleau-Ponty develops this notion further in his preparatory and working notes for this course (e.g. working note on the Diacritical Conception of the Perceptual Sign or working note on Diacritical Perception, included in the present edition on the pages 158 and 159).
  • When Merleau-Ponty discussed the concept of the body schema in the Phenomenology of Perception he presented it mainly as a sensory-motor unity. The Sensible World and the World of Expression is the first document in which the body schema is “understood in a much more active (or enactive) – because expressive – way” (xxii). At the same time, this is the first document in which Merleau-Ponty elaborates its relational dimension – the relation of the body schema and the (sensible) world (cf. 123) as well as the relation between different body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 13). The extension of the concept of the body schema has important implications for Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of movement and expression as well as their perception (movement is perceived by the entire body schema) and the relation to the world and others.
  • In the context of his discussion of the body schema, Merleau-Ponty introduces the notion of praxis, a notion that he prefers to the notion of action (cf. 100). “The unity of the body schema is that of a praxis so construed, and the body schema is the background implied in [this praxis].” (100; annotation in the original) The praxis builds on the body schema (that is formed by the praxis, but that is more than a memory of previous praxis and/or experience) and continuously forms and transforms the schema. The praxis is a form of interaction with the world – it is not an “adaptation” to the world, at the same time it is not a world-less action performed by an isolated individual, it is “not only functional, but projection of the whole man” (100).
  • Merleau-Ponty intensively discusses movement – what movement is, how movement can be perceived and how movement can be expressed in visual art (How can something that is stationary express movement? (cf. xxxv)). For Merleau-Ponty movement is not displacement, a variation of relations, and a place is not a “relation to other places” (33; underlining in the original), rather it is “first of all situation” (35; underlining in the original). Movement requires that the moving is in movement, that movement is something different to a series of different spatial positions, but rather something “absolute”, something that is “in the thing in motion and not elsewhere” (52). Movement entails an encroachment of here and there, before and after; something that is only possible if movement is neither only in the moving thing nor only in the perceiving or observing subject, but if it occurs “through a sort of mixing of me and the ‘things’” (52). The perception of movement is not simply an intellectual undertaking, rather it is the body schema in its entirety that perceives movement (cf. 64-65).

Consequently, in visual art movement is not something that is depicted by signs that indicate a change of place, but by the “envelopment of a becoming in a stance [attitude]” (124, annotation in the original). It is, for example, the body of a horse that is painted in a manner that shows its intentionality of movement. Movement is indirectly presented or a reference of something oblique. The language of “écart” plays into Merleau-Ponty’s description of the problem of movement in visual art. Movement is “[reference] of signifying to signified that is elsewhere and only appears through [the signifying], presentation through divergences with respect to a norm that is itself never given. Presentation of the world through variations in modulations of our being toward the world.” (125-126; annotation in the original)

Because of these and some further innovations the book is a valuable source for researchers working on and with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. Together with his published writings from the early 1950s and the manuscripts of his other courses it can help to better comprehend the development of his thoughts and to enrich one’s interpretations of his concepts.


Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard.

Saint Aubert, Emmanuel de. 2011. “Avant-propos.” In: Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression. Cours au Collège de France. Notes, 1953, edited by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen, 7-38. Geneva: MetisPresses.

Selin Gerlek: Korporalität und Praxis, Wilhelm Fink, 2020

Korporalität und Praxis: Revision der Leib-Körper-Differenz in Maurice Merleau-Pontys philosophischem Werk Book Cover Korporalität und Praxis: Revision der Leib-Körper-Differenz in Maurice Merleau-Pontys philosophischem Werk
Phänomenologische Untersuchungen, Volume 38
Selin Gerlek
Wilhelm Fink
Hardback £115.00

Corijn van Mazijk: Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell

Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell Book Cover Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell
Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy
Corijn van Mazijk
Hardcover £120.00

Reviewed by: Tony Cheng 鄭會穎 (National Chengchi University, Taiwan)

In Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell, Corijn van Mazijk takes up an ambitious project of dealing with a group of central issues in western philosophy, namely: the nature of perception, the nature of reality, and the relation between perception and reality. He does this via explicating some aspects of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, and John McDowell. It is no news that McDowell’s thinking has a robust Kantian root, but McDowell’s relation to Husserl is less clear. McDowell himself never engages with Husserl’s thinking, and his engagements with the phenomenological tradition – with Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty via Dreyfus – have been reactive and minimal (2007a/2008a, 2007b/2008a). That being said, I believe van Mazijk is right in seeing the hidden connections between McDowell and Husserl. Generally speaking, both painstakingly explicate the nature of perception, the nature of reality, and the relation between these two poles. More specifically, both see close connections between intentionality and phenomenality. It is a basic dictum in Husserl’s thinking that consciousness is inherently intentional (Ideas I, 1911/1983), and though McDowell seldom remarks on the phenomenal or conscious aspect of our mental lives, he does think the intentional and the phenomenal are closely connected: “Not, of course, that we cannot distinguish sapience from sentience. But they are not two simply different problem areas: we get into trouble over sentience because we misconceive the role of sapience in constituting our sentient life” (1989/1998, 296). This sketchy remark seems to suggest certain version of representationalism (Cheng, forthcoming a), but even if not, it certain echoes Husserl’s idea that consciousness is inherently intentional.

The main text has only 172 pages, which means van Mazijk needs to be selective for both the topics – perception and reality – and the figures – Kant, Husserl, and McDowell. The book has six chapters, with two chapters for each figure. For Kant, ch.1 covers sensibility, perception, and reality; ch.2 covers concepts, deduction, and contemporary debates. For Husserl, ch.3 covers intentionality, consciousness, and nature; ch.4 covers perception, judgement, and habit. For McDowell, ch.5 covers concepts, perceptions, and connections to Kant and Husserl; ch.6 covers reasons, nature, and reality. Given the breadth of the grounds it covers and the space limit, the contents are necessarily compressed, but van Mazijk does an excellent job in explaining things clearly, and making sure the discussions of the three philosophers cohesive. Moreover, he does not aim for a historical study; “Instead, I develop my interpretations of both Kant and Husserl in part to show that history provides us with viable alternatives to McDowell’s theory of our perceptual access to reality” (7), van Mazijk writes. Given this, in what follows I will devote this brief discussion primarily on van Mazijk’s McDowell, as that reflects better his overall aim in the book. This should not be taken to imply, to be sure, that there is nothing more to be discussed concerning Kant and Husserl in the book.

In the two chapters on Kant, there are discussions of traditional Kantian themes such as sensibility and understanding, idealism, noumenon, ideality of space and time, intuition and concepts, synthesis, transcendental deduction, and incongruent counterpart. There are also discussions of contemporary issues such as the Myth of the Given, disjunctivism, and non-conceptual content. A substantive move van Mazijk makes in his interpretation of Kant is the attribution of “weak conceptualism,” “the view that all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercises” (4). More specifically, “the central thesis Kant sets out to defend here is that intuitions are always already at least in accordance with pure concepts, which commits Kant to weak conceptualism” (8). In these two chapters van Mazijk touches on convoluted relations between (sheer) intuition, categories, synthesis, and apperception. For example, he writes that “sheer intuitions have the appropriate unity to be conceptualized in the first place is said to rest on synthesis of the imagination, which brings intuitions in accordance with pure concepts” (46). This implies that sheer intuitions are themselves non-conceptual, though they have the potential to become conceptual. A stronger reading of Kant, though, is that the exercise of apperception already implicates categories, so sheer intuitions themselves have to be already conceptualised in a certain sense. I do not take side concerning this interpretative question on this occasion, but it is worth noting that what van Mazijk defends here is close to “sensibilism” in today’s terminology: “at least some intuitions are generated independently of the intellect itself,” and the stronger reading is called “intellectualism,” which holds that “the generation of intuition is at least partly dependent on the intellect” (McLear, 2020). It would be helpful for the readers if this context were explicitly flagged.

In the two chapters on Husserl, the distinction between traditional themes and contemporary issues seems less clear, but this is by no means a criticism: topics such as fulfillment, simple apprehension and perceptual explication, horizons, kinaesthetic habit, and constitution do have distinctive Husserlian flavours, but other topics such as the intentional approach to consciousness, sensation contents, the space of consciousness, fields of sensations, types of conceptuality, objects of thoughts, and pre-conceptual norms are both Husserlian and contemporary themes. This should not be surprising, as Husserl is closer to our time, and his influences on contemporary philosophy have been enormous and visible. There are two elements of Husserl’s thinking that van Mazijk highlights but has not noted their potential connections with McDowell’s thinking. The first is “cultural-linguistic upbringing” and “habit” (96, 111, 117) and their connections to McDowell’s Bildung; the second is “passive synthesis” (99, 103, 107) and its connection to McDowell’s conceptualism, especially the idea that “conceptual capacities are drawn on in receptivity” (McDowell, 1996, 9), and similarly, “conceptual capacities… are passively drawn into play in experience belong to a network of capacities for active thought” (ibid., p.12). Perhaps van Mazijk does not think the connections here are clear enough, but in any case I suggest these are further directions for connecting Husserl to McDowell. There are other highlights and potential points of contact with the analytic tradition as well, for example the “space of consciousness” (74 onwards) can be compared with the hard problem of consciousness (e.g., Chalmers, 1996), the “field of sensations” (98 onwards) can be compared with the tactile field debate (e.g., Martin, 1992, O’Shaughnessy, 1989, Cheng, 2019), and “lived body” (10, 96, 109) can be compared with Kantian spatial self-awareness (e.g., Cassam, 1997; Cheng, forthcoming b). And there are more. This shows that Husserl’s thinking has much to offer for contemporary philosophy, as van Mazijk rightly points out.

The two chapters on McDowell cover canonical McDowellian themes such as conceptualism, the space of reasons and the realm of law, and Bildung, and also broader issues connecting to Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Dreyfus, including skillful coping, animal consciousness, and transcendental reasons. In what follows I discuss some highlights and points of potential disagreements. First of all, although van Mazijk mentions the “realm of law” in several places (21, 148, 149, 161), he uses the label the “space of nature” much more (passim), and this can generate the harmful implication that the “space of reasons” is unnatural; for example, he writes that for McDowell some contents are “in some sense not natural, insofar as they stand in a sui generis space of reasons” (124). Charitably, we can say that van Mazijk specifies “in some sense,” and that leaves room for another sense in which the space of reason is natural, i.e., Aristotelian second nature. However, other remarks show that van Mazijk’s understanding of this crucial McDowellian divide between the space of reasons and the realm of law cannot be entirely correct. For example, in introducing this divide, van Mazijk mentions “causal order” to characterise the realm of law, or with his label, the space of nature. But this is problematic on two fronts: first, that might imply that the space of reasons has no causation, which is not true of McDowell’s characterisation: McDowell certainly follows Davidson (1963) here in that they both think, correctly I believe, that reasons can be causes. Second, McDowell also discusses Russell’s view that causation might not be a suitable notion for the realm of law (McDowell, 1996, 71; Russell, 1912-3). Now, such view has become quite unpopular nowadays, but even if Russell and McDowell are wrong in avoiding causation in the realm of law, McDowell would certainly insists on causation in the space of reasons (see also Gaskin, 2006, 28 onwards). Therefore, when we read van Mazijk’s discussions and criticisms of this McDowellian distinction, we need to bear in mind that the characterisation in the book might not be entirely accurate.

There are other oddities concerning van Mazijk’s understanding of the divide between the space of reasons and the realm of law, and relatedly, second nature. For example, consider this passage:

These refer to two ways of speaking about things, of finding things intelligible. However, as it turns out, both spaces ultimately consist simply of natural phenomena. The space of reasons thus fits entirely within that of nature. (van Mazijk, 2020, 150)

Taken literally, this passage might be a fine characterisation of McDowell’s framework. However, since for unclear reasons van Mazijk insists on using the “space of nature” to refer to the “realm of law,” the passage thus implies that the space of reasons is simply “one way of speaking about things.” That is, there is only one kind of things, but there are two ways of speaking about them or finding them intelligible. Now this looks like a description of Davidson’s anomalous monism (1970), which McDowell has emphatically rejects (1985). Whether McDowell’s criticism here is plausible is irrelevant; what is crucial in this context is that he does not hold anomalous monism, but van Mazijk’s characterisation of McDowell’s position makes it indistinguishable from anomalous monism. On another occasion I have argued that McDowell’s view should be interpreted as a kind of emergent dualism (Cheng, forthcoming a), but that requires much more elaborations, and arguably McDowell himself would refuse to acknowledge this classification. Concerning the space of reasons, van Mazijk says that “McDowell’s own definition of the space of reasons is what makes conceptualism attractive” (van Mazijk, 2020, 151). This is meant to be a criticism, but to this McDowell would reply that his invocation of the notion of “concept” is a matter of “stipulation: conceptual capacities in the relevant sense belong essentially to their possessor’s rationality in the sense I am working with, responsiveness to reasons as such” (2005/2008b, 129). His point is that given this stipulation or definition, let’s see what significant would follow. To simply point out that there is a definition involved here can hardly be an objection by itself.

Also relatedly, McDowell’s appropriation of Gadamer’s distinction between environment and world (1960/2004) is not acknowledged in the book, and that affects van Mazijk’s verdict of McDowell’s view on animal minds. Gadamer writes,

Language is not just one of man’s possessions in the world; rather, on it depends the fact that man has a world at all. The world as world exists for man as for on other creature that is in the world. But this world is verbal in nature… that language is originarily human means at the same time that man’s being in the world is primordially linguistic. (ibid., 440)

[Although] the concept of environment was first used for the purely human world… this concept can be used to comprehend all the conditions on which a living creature depends. But it is thus clear that man, unlike all other living creatures, has a “world,” for other creatures do not in the same sense have a relationship to the world, but are, as it were, embedded in their environment. (ibid.,  441)

Simply put, “environment” here refers to what philosophers normally call “world,” and corresponds to McDowell’s realm of law and first nature. By contrast, “world” here corresponds to the space of reasons and second nature. In Mind and World, Lecture VI, McDowell has explained how human animals like us can possess the world and inhabit an environment, while other animals can only do the latter. This also corresponds to McDowell’s later distinction between “being responsive to reasons” and “being responsive to reasons as such”:

The notion of rationality I mean to invoke here is the notion exploited in a traditional line of thought to make a special place in the animal kingdom for rational animals. It is a notion of responsiveness to reasons as such. (2005/2008b, 128)

And this “wording leaves room for responsiveness to reasons… on the other side of the division drawn by this notion of rationality between rational animals and animals that are not rational” (ibid., 128). That is to say, when other animals see predators and run, they are responsive to reasons, but they cannot recognise those reasons as reasons. With these dualistic distinctions in mind, let’s come back to van Mazijk’s texts and see why the interpretation there is not entirely fair.

In chapter 5, van Mazijk notes that McDowell holds “animals see things or items in the outer world ‘no less’ than we do,” and argues that:

But it is difficult to see how this fits into the conceptualist thesis as discussed so far. For wasn’t the whole idea of conceptualism to take the very givenness of things as a result of conceptual functions of an understanding only rational creatures like us enjoy? It seems that… McDowell contradicts his own conceptualism, which rests on the idea that the sensible presentation of things in the outer world relies on functions specific to rational creatures like us, namely on concepts and the capacity to judge. (131)

We can readily give a “No” to the query in this way: for McDowell, other animals can perceive things or items in the outer world in the sense of Gadamerian environment, while rational animals can perceive things or items in the outer world in the sense of Gadamerian world. This can also be seen that in later writings, McDowell speaks of “world-disclosing experience” (2007a/2008a, 319): rational animals like us enjoy experiences that can disclose aspects of the world, while other animals are also capable of experiencing, but of their environment only, not the world. This view can be found already in Mind and World, and McDowell further develops it in recent decades. It is worth noting that this view has a clear Heideggerian flavour as well (1927/2010). Similar considerations are applicable to van Mazijk’s discussion in 132, and in chapter 6, especially from p. 150 to 153 on animal consciousness. I shall not repeat my response elaborated just now.

Another point is that van Mazijk does not distinguish between “propositional” and “conceptual”; for example he writes that many philosophers “hold that our thoughts have propositional or conceptual content” (2, my emphasis). It is true that in most cases they coincide: the constituents of propositions are concepts, one might say. However, in relatively recent writings McDowell seeks to set them apart:

I used to assume that to conceive experiences as actualizations of conceptual capacities, we would need to credit experiences with propositional content, the sort of content judgments have. And I used to assume that the content of an experience would need to include everything the experience enables its subject to know non-inferentially. But these assumptions now strike me as wrong. (McDowell, 2008c/2008b, 258)

“What we need,” McDowell carries on, “is an idea of content that is not propositional but intuitional, in what I take to be a Kantian sense” (ibid., 260; my italics). Now, whether this position is plausible or coherent is not important for our purposes (van Mazijk argues that it is implausible in p. 129); what is crucial is that McDowell does hold that view since 2007 or so, and that needs to be taken into account for interpreters. In effect, McDowell’s intuitional content seems to fit weak conceptualism as van Mazijk defines it. McDowell writes,

If it is to become the content of a conceptual capacity of hers, she needs to determine it to be the content of a conceptual capacity of hers. That requires her to carve it out from the categorially unified but as yet, in this respect, unarticulated experiential content of which it is an aspect, so that thought can focus on it by itself. (McDowell, 2007a/2008a, 318)

Now, recall that weak conceptualism has it that “all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercises” (van Mazijk, 2020, 4). So van Mazijk is right in noting that McDowell has hold strong conceptualism, but he might have missed, or at least does not believe, that later McDowell has retreated from that to weak conceptualism since 2007 or so. Elsewhere I have argued that McDowell’s new view might disqualify his conceptualist credential, and might cause trouble for his environment/world distinction (Cheng, forthcoming a), but those are quite different matters.

A final point I would like to highlight is van Mazijk’s understanding of the nature of McDowell’s overall project. He writes,

I want to deal with conceptualism as McDowell understands it – not as a theory concerning the psychology, phenomenology, or epistemology of perception, but as one purporting to address a problem regarding our access to reality. (van Mazijk, 2020, 121)

It is understandable to make such a division, but it is unclear how the above domains can be set apart from one another. It is true that McDowell’s primary concern is not psychology and phenomenology (understood as consciousness), but how can “our access to reality” fail to be epistemological? In the next page van Mazijk rightly reminds that McDowell thinks epistemological anxieties do not go to the root; the problem of intentionality itself is the deepest problem. However, in that context by “epistemology” McDowell means questions concerning justification or warrant; he certainly would not deny that “our access to reality” is broadly (and rightfully) an epistemological issue. Moreover, although the problem of intentionality is McDowell’s primary concern, what he says for that purpose imply theses in psychology and phenomenology (understood as consciousness), and it does not help to insist that the project is transcendental and therefore human psychology is irrelevant (van Mazijk, 2020, 147): for example, if the possibility of intentional action presupposes certain kind of body representation (O’Shaughnessy, 1995), this transcendental conditional can be falsified by what we know about human psychology (Bermúdez, 1995). Van Mazijk mentions that “McDowell’s theory [pertains] to ‘rational relations’ rather than, say, sub-personal psychological contents” (van Mazijk, 2020, 122; quoting Bermúdez and Cahen, 2015). However, McDowell’s view can be about personal psychological contents (McDowell, 1994/1998). This shows that at least some “misunderstandings” concerning arguments for non-conceptual contents van Mazijk tries to point out (137 onwards) are actually not misunderstandings, but it will take us too far if we go into those details.

Overall, van Mazijk has offered a substantive and original effort of explicating aspects of Kant’s, Husserl’s, and McDowell’s philosophy, and identifying various strands in their thinking. It would be unfair to demand any such book project to be close to comprehensive. This is not the first contemporary discussion of the relations between these figures (e.g., Christensen, 2008), and will certainly spark many further investigations into these interrelated themes. My critical points above should be taken as my will to carry on the conversations, and I am sure many others will join and make the exchanges even more fruitful.


I would like to thank Cheng-Hao Lin and Kuei-Chen Chen for helpful inputs. Daniel Guilhermino also reviews this book for this journal; I have made sure our reviews do not overlap much.


Bermúdez, J. L. 1995. “Transcendental Arguments and Psychology: The Example of O’Shaughnessy on Intentional Action.” Metaphilosophy, 26(4), 379-401.

Bermúdez, J. L., & Cahen, A. 2015. “Nonconceptual Mental Content.” In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Cassam, Q. 1997. Self and World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chalmers, D. 1996. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cheng, T., Deroy, O., & Spence, C. (Eds.) 2019. Spatial Senses: Philosophy of Perception in an Age of Science. New York: Routledge.

Cheng, T. 2019. “On the Very Idea of a Tactile Field.” In T. Cheng, O. Deroy, and C. Spence (Eds.), Spatial Senses: Philosophy of Perception in an Age of Science. New York: Routledge.

Cheng, T. (forthcoming a). John McDowell on Worldly Subjectivity: Oxford Kantianism meets Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Cheng, T. (forthcoming b). “Sensing the Self in World.” Analytic Philosophy.

Christensen, B. C. 2008. Self and World: From Analytic Philosophy to Phenomenology. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Davidson, D. 1963. “Actions, Reasons, and Causes.” The Journal of Philosophy, 60(23), 685-700.

Davidson, D. 1970. “Mental Events.” In L. Foster and J. W. Swanson (Eds.), Experience and Theory. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Gadamer, H-G. 1960/2004. Truth and Method. Joel. Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall (trans.), New York: Continuum.

Gaskin, R. 2006. Experience and the World’s Own Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heidegger, M. 1927/2010. Being and Time. J. Stambaugh (trans), Albany: State University of New York Press.

Husserl, E. 1911/1983. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy: First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. F. Kersten and D. Haag (trans.), Boston, Lancaster: Martinus Nijhoff.

McDowell, J. 1985/1998. “Functionalism and Anomalous Monism.” In E. LePore and B. McLaughlin (eds.) Actions and Events: Perspectives on the philosophy of Donald Davidson. Oxford: Blackwell, pp.387-98; reprinted in his Mind, Value, and Reality, pp. 325-40. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDowell, J. 1989/1998. One strand in the private language argument. Grazer Philosophische Studien, 33/34, pp.285-303; reprinted in his Mind, value, and reality, pp.279-96. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDowell, J. 1994/1998. “The Content of Perceptual Experience.” The Philosophical Quarterly, 44, pp.190-205; reprinted in his Mind, Value, and Reality, pp.341-58. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDowell, J. 1996. Mind and World, 2nd edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDowell, J. 1998. Mind, Value, and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDowell, J. 2005/2008b. Conceptual capacities in perception. In G. Abel (Ed.), Kreativität: 2005 Congress of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Philosophie, pp. 1065-79; reprinted in his Having the world in view: Essays on Kant, Hegel, and Sellars, pp.127-44. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDowell, J. 2007a/2008a. “What Myth?” Inquiry, 50, pp. 338-51; reprinted in his The Engaged Intellect: Philosophical Essays, pp. 308-23. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDowell, J. 2007b/2008a. Response to Dreyfus. Inquiry, 50, pp.366-70; reprinted in his The Engaged Intellect: Philosophical Essays, pp.324-8. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDowell, J. 2008a. The Engaged Intellect: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDowell, J. 2008b. Having the World in View: Essays on Kant, Hegel, and Sellars. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McDowell, J. 2008c/2008b. “Avoiding the Myth of the Given.” In J. Lindgaard (Ed.), John McDowell: Experience, Norm, and Nature, pp.1-14. Oxford: Blackwell; reprinted in Having the World in View: Essays on Kant, Hegel, and Sellars, pp. 256-71. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McLear, C. 2020. “Kantian Conceptualism/Nonconceptualism.” In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Martin, M. G. F. 1992. “Sight and Touch.” In T. Crane (Ed.), The Contents of Experience: Essays on Perception. New York: Cambridge University Press.

O’Shaughnessy, B. 1989. ‘The Sense of Touch.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 67(1), 37-58.

O’Shaughnessy, B. 1995. “Proprioception and the Body Image.” In J L. Bermúdez, A. J. Marcel, & N. Eilan (Eds.), The Body and the Self. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Russell, B. 1912-3. “On the Notion of Cause.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 13, 1-26.

van Mazijk, C. 2020. Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell. New York, NY: Routledge.

Raymond Ruyer: The Genesis of Living Forms, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019

The Genesis of Living Forms Book Cover The Genesis of Living Forms
Raymond Ruyer. Translated by Jon Roffe, and Nicholas B. de Weydenthal
Rowman & Littlefield International
Hardback £60.00

Jorella Andrews: The Question of Painting: Re-thinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty

The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty Book Cover The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty
Jorella Andrews
Hardback £76.50

Reviewed by: Nikoleta Zampaki (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens,

The Question of Painting. Re-thinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty offers a unique and refreshing perspective on fields including visual studies, phenomenology, ecophenomenology, inter-artistic relations, and studies of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. By developing an inter-artistic approach, Jorella Andrews demonstrates how phenomenology is relevant for painting. The title indicates the central thesis: perception and experience are aesthetic, so that there is an art of painting and an art of perception. Perceptual experience is open to interpretation in a way that is analogous to works of art.

The book is organized around a chronological account of Merleau-Ponty’s works and thought and its connections with art, highlighting how painting, as a way of exploration and artistic expression, articulates its contents and discourses on many aspects of daily life. Indeed, in the Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty points us in this direction: “Essence and existence, the imaginary and the real, the visible and the invisible, painting blurs all our categories in unfolding its oneiric universe of carnal essences, of efficient resemblances, and of silent significations”. (1) The instauration of appearing as such in painting is interpreted extensively through Andrews’ book. Painting represents but at the same time paints the invisible visibility of the visible. The focus here is on Merleau-Ponty’s later works, especially The Visible and the Invisible, Eye and Mind, and the Notes de cours 1959-1961. Andrews’ aim is to illuminate and trace a new ontological perspective as it emerges in these works.

Andrews reads works of art, particularly paintings, as disclosing a certain mutation of man and being. Moreover, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology examines the embodied and interactive perception as well as the matter of experience. Phenomenological and artistic reflection are closely connected and this book clarifies how artistic standpoints ought to be examined in parallel with phenomenological investigation. In Merleau- Ponty’s thought aesthesis and aesthetics are intertwined. Embodiment has its own vitality and the feedback between artist and artwork represent the relation between body and world. Thus, Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of art centers on bodily presence, representation and feelings in the context of experience. The book also describes Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic world as an opening contraction of the human world. Sensory experience is implicated in aesthetics and both are grounded in the body. The painter both experiences the world through the body and draws the world’s Totality. It is insofar as he or she is in contact with the realm of the visible that she or he is able to experience this Totality. This cosmic model of representation can be described as a Gestalt.

Andrews analyzes nature, rationalism, empiricism, dualism and behaviorism through the cognitive field that remarks the significance of Gestalt. In place of empiricism and intellectualism, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology offers a vision on the matter of subjectivity and world as an accommodation of thought. Merleau-Ponty’s critique of Cartesian representationalism and its consequences has been taken up within cognitive philosophy and the philosophy of mind. Cartesian rationalism was unable to overcome the central artistic dimensions of depth. Andrews describes all these fields deeply and thoroughly, and she frames and places Merleau-Ponty’s thought within an artistic context.

Drawing on the concept of aesthetics, the book focuses on the presentation of the cooperative relationship between being and environment, as well as the structure of being and its presence in phenomenological and artistic context. Indeed, in the act of reading this book, all of our senses are participating to realize Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic experience. We can perceive its uniqueness, which can be described by Merleau-Ponty’s terms and experience. This books draws the visible invisibility to the visual field of phenomenology and aesthetics. Our nature is collaborating with the Gestalt to touch Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on art, a goal to which Andrews contributes with her magisterial writing.

The first part of the book reinserts phenomenology and its eco-spirit into the critical and theoretical framework of phenomenology and painting. Every being has its own consciousness and exhibits the structure of itself. The matter of embodiment and embodied perception are central axis of Merleau-Ponty’s thought throughout his works. Paul Cézanne was the painter who remains the basic example in in Merleau-Ponty’s works, thought he also draws on other painters, including Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. The formal philosophical thought of Merleau-Ponty intersects with the works of Cézanne and other painters as if they express what in transcendental phenomenology remains a mystery. The analysis of flesh follows from Merleau-Ponty’s recuperation of Cézanne, Klee and Matisse in their effort to capture the primodial and perpetual a priori opening to the open and the power of sense making. Flesh is the primordial instituting linguistic power that opens the world sensibly and instituting the human being as independent into the experience of the world.

Andrews refers to the theoretical framework of the art 20th and 21st centuries and engages a wider and better vision of the artistic discipline in order to introduce Merleau-Ponty’s thought on painting. Her reading of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh is relative to painting. There is a carnal ground binding into a style of particular differentiation between brushwork, coloration, and technical processes, for instance that of impressionism or expressionism. Many philosophical and artistic concepts cover and at the same time unfold the question of painting and its impact on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. Three basic phenomenological ideas are embodied perception, lived body, and visible matters. Perception relies on lived experience and requires the contribution of our body, making the embodied nature of cognition form our perception.

The second part of the book considers extended thought and draws an illuminating connection among the body, embodiment, and the matter of art. Andrews shows that embodiment plays a major role within art, enabling the artist to integrate the spatiotemporal features of the body’s environment. Perception amounts to the body’s engagement with the world and picture our reality, a co-constitution of the lifeworld and the brain. The subjective body (Leib) and the objective body (Körper) forms a dialectical unity. Andrews recalls that the subjective body is the background of all the forms of experiences and especially the artistic. Inter-corporeity is the basis of our experience and artistic dimension whereas objectification is secondary aspect.

In the third part of the book Andrews focuses on linguistic concepts and on the theme of representation both in Merleau-Ponty’s work and in art. The phenomenon of resonance between linguistic tool and art is investigated extensively. Discourse plays the major role in the expression’s tools and mechanisms of artistic references. For example, Merleau-Ponty’s metaphors, as Andrews makes clear, are used as expressions of the lived experience of the subject and show how his thought is formed around the aesthetic experience of the phenomenological process. His metaphors hide an experimental and experiential spirit. The author exposes Merleau-Ponty’s immanent expressivity and creation of meanings. Underlying Merleau-Ponty’s conviction that personal expression (speech) is more meaningful than the impersonal (sedimented language) is a fundamental naturalism.

The fourth part of the book focuses on Merleau-Ponty’s terms such as flesh, visible, invisible, and chiasm as the main points of reinserting painting and artistic discourse into phenomenology through an ontological perspective. The field of vision and its depth through being’s embodiment is given in a vivid spirit, through memorable examples. Merleau-Ponty holds that the perceiver is embedded in the aesthetic space and interacts with it through experiences and senses. Flesh is the bridge between Leib and nature. Andrews notices the linguistic frameworks that aim to take our lived experience and inter-corporeity into an account of art. Linguistic resonance is strongly at play in inter-affectivity and artistic responses and leads that involved the entire subject’s body.

The book demonstrates how deeply the phenomenological and artistic traditions are connected and draws a perspective through a prismatic discipline in the phenomenological context. Andrews presents and re-presents the matter of intra-corporeality in the sense that subjectivity and objectivity are in dialogue. The microscopic world of living is in dialogue with the macroscopic world of painting through the linguistic resonance of inter-artistic relations. Moroever, the picture of embodiment and embodied cognition that is developed here impacts debates concerning the dignity of the person and life. The accounts of perception and of art are organic, interdependent, and dynamic.

The whole book provides an overview of Merleau-Ponty’s thought. But it also offers new points of view on the fields described above and never loses sight of the phenomenological field of Merleau-Ponty’s eco-artistic perspective. Andrews reinserts the reader to Merleau-Ponty’s thought and way of thinking as living communication with the world. The book contributes significantly to the intense debate concerning oculocentrism in the 1980s and guided by phenomenology at every critical juncture. In conclusion, it addresses major topics and motivates readers to explore an interesting field of research, which is still open to new interventions. The book is a welcome affirmation of the fluidity and versatility of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, and promises to open the door to new intellectual and phenomenological creativity.


Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1964. Le visible et l’invisible, C. Lefort (ed.), Paris: Gallimard.

Petra Gehring: Über die Körperkraft von Sprache: Studien zum Sprechakt, Campus Verlag, 2019

Über die Körperkraft von Sprache: Studien zum Sprechakt Book Cover Über die Körperkraft von Sprache: Studien zum Sprechakt
Petra Gehring
campus verlag
Paperback €24,95

John Sallis: The Logos of the Sensible World: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenological Philosophy, Indiana University Press, 2019

The Logos of the Sensible World: Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenological Philosophy Book Cover The Logos of the Sensible World: Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenological Philosophy
The Collected Writings of John Sallis
John Sallis, edited by Richard Rojcewicz
Indiana University Press
Paperback $30.00

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.

Susan Bredlau: The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of Our Experience of Other Persons, SUNY Press, 2018

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

Jonathan Webber: Rethinking Existentialism, Oxford University Press, 2018

Rethinking Existentialism Book Cover Rethinking Existentialism
Jonathan Webber
Oxford University Press
Hardback £45.00