Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
AT the outset of the study of perception, we find in language the notion of sensation, which seems immediate and obvious: I have a sensation of redness, of blueness, of hot or cold. It will, however, be seen that nothing could in fact be more confused, and that because they accepted it readily, traditional analyses missed the phenomenon of perception.
I might in the first place understand by sensation the way in which I am affected and the experiencing of a state of myself. The greyness which, when I close my eyes, surrounds me, leaving no distance between me and it, the sounds that encroach on my drowsiness and hum ‘in my head’ perhaps give some indication of what pure sensation might be.
I might be said to have sense-experience (sentir) precisely to the extent that I coincide with the sensed, that the latter ceases to have any place in the objective world, and that it signifies nothing for me. This entails recognizing that sensation should be sought on the hither side of any qualified content, since red and blue, in order to be distinguishable as two colours, must already form some picture before me, even though no precise place be assigned to them, and thus cease to be part of myself.
Pufe sensation will be the experience of an undifferentiated, instantaneous, dotlike impact. It is unnecessary to show, since authors are agreed on it, that this notion corresponds to nothing in our experience, and that the most rudimentary factual perceptions that we are acquainted with, in creatures such as the ape or the hen, have a bearing on relationships and not on any absolute terms. But this does not dispose of the question as to why we feel justified in theory in distinguishing within experience a layer of ‘impressions’. Let us imagine a white patch on a homogeneous background.
All the points in the patch have a certain ‘function’ in common, that of forming themselves into a ‘shape’. The colour of the shape is more intense, and as it were more resistant than that of the background; the edges of the white patch ‘belong’ to it, and are not part of the background although they adjoin it: the patch appears to be placed on the background and does not break it up.
Each part arouses the expectation of more than it contains, and this elementary perception is therefore already charged with a meaning. But if the shape and the background, as a whole, are not sensed, they must be sensed, one may object, in each of their points. To say this is to forget that each point in its turn can be perceived only as a hgure on a background.
When Gestalt theory informs us that a figure on a background is the simplest sense-given available to us, wc reply that this is not a contingent characteristic of factual perception, which leaves us free, in an ideal analysis, to bring in the notion of impressions. It is the very definition of the phenomenon of perception, that without which a phenomenon cannot be said to be perception at all. The perceptual ‘something’ is always in the middle of something else, it always forms part of a ‘field’.
A really homogeneous area offering nothing to be cannot be given to any percept ion. The structure of actual perception alone can teach us what perception is. The pure impression is, therefore, not only undiscoverablr, but also imperceptible and so inconceivable as an instant of perception. If it is introduced, it is because instead of attending to the experience of perception, we overlook it in favour of the object perceived.
A visual field is not made up of limited views. But an object seen is made up of bits of matter, and spatial points are external to each other. An isolated datum of perception is inconceivable, at least if we do the mental experiment of attempting to perceive such a thing. But in the world there are either isolated objects or a physical void.
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