Merleau-Ponty on Seeing


From The Philosopher’s Magazine, an article on Merleau-Ponty by Dermot Moran (h/t However Fallible)

Seeing has always been the privileged sense for philosophers, the sense that most closely approximates to the transparency of thought, the sense that seems best equipped to render the object as it really is, the sense that inserts a distance between us and the world so that we think we are removed from tampering with the seen. Sight doesn’t manipulate things; it is the detached, neutral observer. It is objectivity itself. Seeing is believing.

Seeing seems always to escape from the body outwards into the visible. We don’t have any sense that we create the visible, yet we ourselves are visible within this sphere of visibility: “my seeing body subtends my visible body, and all the visibles with it,” the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty says in The Visible and the Invisible. Seeing’s invisibility to itself is what makes it approximate to thought, to transform itself into “insight” to capture itself as “reflection”. We are always seeing; seeing can stand for consciousness as a whole. Our seeing reaches into sleep. We see even in our dreams. We need to pay careful attention to all the different kinds of seeing – staring, glaring, looking, glancing, gazing, inspecting. There is a rich plurality to the practice of seeing.

Merleau-Ponty describes very well in his Phenomenology of Perception the kind of floating grey sea of colour that we see when our eyes are closed “leaving no distance between me and it”. Hence we think we are enclosed; eyelids touching the eyes. In contrast, in his Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre asserts that the light that comes through the closed eyelids in the morning “is already a light-being”. Seeing yields being itself, never the experience of a subjective “quality” but of an objective reality. As Merleau-Ponty says: “to see is to enter a universe of beings that display themselves, and they would not do this if they could not be hidden behind each other … in other words to look at an object is to inhabit it.”

While seeing seems to be detached from the other senses, in fact it is folded in with them, especially touch. For Aristotle already, seeing is a kind of touch. Husserl points out that the eye is also a centre for touch sensations (the eyeball can be touched, we can feel the movement of the eye in the eye-socket, through “muscle sensations”, and so on). But he maintains that “I do not see myself, my body, the way I touch myself” (Ideas II ). Touch localises us in the world in a way that seeing does not. We can only see because we can touch. Yet, seeing seems to release us and floats us off into space.

Seeing can touch: it touches the texture of things. We literally see roughness and smoothness, for example, the coarse texture of the carpet. There are, moreover, strong continuities between touch and vision, as Merleau-Ponty confirms. Touch retains the sense of a distance between touched things just as sight does. We can touch something with gloves on and still feel the smoothness. Both sense modalities require that we move ourselves (eyes, fingers) across the surface of the object to see or touch the smoothness. It is often thought that the sense of touch disappears when one lifts one’s hand off one kind of surface before touching another surface. Merleau-Ponty, on the contrary, thinks a kind of indefinite trace of the sense of touch remains. It is not, Merleau-Ponty says, “a tactile nothingness” but “a tactile space devoid of matter, a tactile background”. The same is true in vision. In the movement of the gaze from one thing to the other, we do not drop into the invisible.

Reading is a kind of seeing that has transcended the seeing of the letters and marks on the page and resides in the pure incorporeality of the meanings. Sartre offers a wonderful description of the act of reading words with eye strain; when one is literally experiencing pain “in the eyes”.

In his wonderful “Eye and Mind”, Merleau-Ponty asks what the world looks like for whose eyes are lateral and don’t unite to give a single sense of vision What would the world look like if humans had eyes on either side of their heads – like birds? Would objects not be broken up and rearranged in totally different ways that not even Cubist paintings could capture? I remember travelling on the train from Aberdeen and looking out at green hills on one side and water on the other. Imagine the bird having to synthesise those two visual streams into just one holistic experience of landscape. We see differently when we try to see what others see. What do birds see? What do children see? What can I no longer see?

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