III: Merleau-Ponty on Gestalt Psychology and Phenomenology

Our third reading is our first foray into Phenomenology, as we try to get to grips with Merleau-Ponty’s relationship with Gestalt Psychology. We’ll be looking at two fairly short pieces. The first is the 1947 essay ‘The Metaphysical in Man’, an exploration of Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the human sciences which begins with some reflections on Gestalt Psychology before moving on to consider linguistics and sociology.

The second reading consists in some excerpts from the Introduction to the Phenomenology of Perception. I’ve picked some of the passages where Merleau-Ponty is explicitly drawing on Gestaltist results or reflections, and a couple of places where he adds caveats to his admiration of Gestalt Psychology. The first excerpt consists in a few pages from the initial ‘Sensation’ chapter of the Introduction and is intended to provide some brief context for the next passages in the selection. Merleau-Ponty introduces the claims that there is a fundamental indeterminacy to perceptual experience, and that perceived qualities exist only as parts of complex structured wholes. Next are some pages from the second chapter, on ‘Association and the Projection of Memories’, where Merleau-Ponty makes further use of some Gestaltist work in his characterization of the structure of the perceptual field. Some of his remarks here anticipate his partial critique of Gestalt Psychology in the next chapter, ‘Attention and Judgment’, from which the penultimate excerpt is drawn. Finally, I’ve included a few pages from ‘The Phenomenal Field’, the last chapter of the Introduction section of the Phenomenology, which focus both on the concept of gestalt, and Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the relationship between psychology and his Phenomenology.

For those new to Merleau-Ponty who’d benefit from some brief orientation before diving in to these readings, Taylor Carman’s ‘Merleau-Ponty and the Mystery of Perception’ provides excellent relevant backdrop.

As always, remember that you can continue to comment on this and our other posts at any time, and that we welcome suggestions for further readings at the intersection of Phenomenology, Gestalt Psychology and Embodied Cognitive Science. Enjoy!


Carman, Taylor (2009). Merleau-ponty and the mystery of perception. Philosophy Compass 4 (4):630-638.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2012). Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris: Gallimard, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes. (excerpts available here)

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1947/1964) “The Metaphysical in Man,” in Sense and Non-Sense, translated by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), pp. 83-98. (available here)

5 thoughts on “III: Merleau-Ponty on Gestalt Psychology and Phenomenology

  1. Hi all,

    I wanted to offer just one brief comment on the readings for this week. It regards Merleau-Ponty’s conception of “that fertile contradiction of human consciousness” as distinguished from “the inert contradiction of inconsistent concepts” (The Metaphysical in man, fn.6).

    I take it that the ‘fertile contradiction,’ understood at the most general level, is the opposition of two points:
    1) the “double sense of the cogito” which Merleau-Ponty regards as “the basic fact of metaphysics: I am sure that there is being — on the condition that I do not seek another sort of being than being-for-me” (p.93)
    in tension with
    2) a refusal to let this lead to radical internalism, skepticism, or solipsism: “From the moment I recognize that my experience, precisely insofar as it is my own, makes me accessible to what is not myself, that I am sensitive to *the world* and to *others*, all the beings which objective thought placed at a distance draw singularly near to me” (p.94).
    These points together constitute the theme of metaphysics for Merleau-Ponty: “Metaphysics is the deliberate intention to describe this paradox of consciousness and truth, exchange and communication…” (p.94).

    I suggest that a radical philosophy of form/structure/Gestalten underlies Merleau-Ponty’s conception of this “fertile paradox,” and that for him, the same paradox is the heart of the problem of perception (see for example /La Structure du Comportment/, p. 219 in the Fischer translation, pp.235-6). If this is so, we ought to be able to get a usefully concrete illustration of this fertile paradox by looking to some of Merelau-Ponty’s discussions of perception.

    A nice example, if I’m right, is provided by the discussion of the Mueller-Lyre illusion, at the start of the excerpts provided from the /Phenomenology/. Merleau-Ponty maintains that the lines in the illusion are “neither equal nor unequal,” and “the visual field is this strange milieu in which contradictory notions intertwine because the objects… are not here placed in the domain of being where a comparison would be possible” (Landes’ p. 6).

    My own reading of what is at issue here concerns the native intelligibility of lived perception. On my reading of MMP (which I won’t try to justify here), an object of perception is a dialectical unity, and such dialectical unities can contain (what objective thought would regard as) contradictory theses and antitheses. It’s not that I experience contradictory objects (as some suggest in connection with the “Waterfall illusion,” for example); its that perception is pre-predicative, such that the ‘objects’ of perception may themselves involve an inner tension and turmoil, a fluidity that is destroyed in any act of objectification. Every moment of lived perception is a fertile paradox.

    I don’t claim to have clarified all of that very much. Rather, I mean to suggest that it may be possible to understand Merleau-Ponty’s more programmatic claims about “the metaphysical” by working out his commitments regarding fairly concrete instances of perception. If that’s so, then (assuming we can work out his view of perception) it might be helpful, since we’ll have an instance of fertile paradox to keep in view. If it’s not so, then (assuming we can work out his view of perception) it would still be helpful, since we’ll be able to draw some very informative distinctions between the gestalt character of perception and the more general conception of “metaphysics” that Merleau-Ponty has in mind.

    (FWIW, I agree with others in thinking that perhaps the ontologically-centered introduction to gestalten that Smith provided may not be the notion we need to make sense of Merleau-Ponty’s work).

    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks for this extremely rich comment – I found it very helpful! Placing this notion of a ‘fertile contradiction’ at the centre of MP’s notion of experience (I’m taking it that this is just another way of saying that experience has a kind of ‘dialectical’ character for MP), I think, really helps tie a bunch of superficially different stuff he says together for me.

      I’m not sure, though, that I completely see how to phrase MP’s criticism of Gestalt Psychology in these terms. Here’s one attempt: MP thinks that it’s an essential fact about lived perception that it involves this ‘fertile contradiction’, which manifests itself as an inescapable ambiguity – as when the Muller-Lyer lines look indeterminately differently-sized, or the Zollner illusion lines look indeterminately non-parallel. What these illusions reveal as pervasive is the fact that experience always presents itself to us as something that could be re-structured – we see objects as things that could serve as grounds as well as figures, for example. The Zollner lines look *indeterminately* non-parallel, for example, because the illusion places us between two different ways of structuring the scene – when trying to attend to the illusion as a whole the lines look convergent; when trying to attend to one pair of lines in isolation, following them from right to left, they look parallel. So perhaps MP’s fundamental objection to Gestalt Psychology’s ‘reifying’ tendencies – i.e. its desire to analyse experience in terms of determinate Gestalt laws and principles – is that this obscures the ways in which Gestalten actually figure in our ongoing experience. Just as in the Zollner illusion, any given experience always implies potential ways of re-structuring, and so analysing an experience in terms of some single determinate form/Gestalt necessarily distorts it.

      However, I’m neither sure whether this is an accurate characterisation of what MP thinks he’s up to, nor whether this is a criticism which Gestalt Psychologists could feel troubled by. I’d be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on either of these points!

  2. In line with my comment in response to Ben’s post above, I’m curious about whether people think MP has really given Gestalt Psychology fans anything to worry about. My conception of his attitude to GP in a nutshell is: MP likes that it makes form/structure central to an analysis of perception; MP doesn’t like its tendency to reify/objectify those structures in its descriptions and theories (see Ben’s comment, and my comment above, for potential reconstructions of why not).

    But here it seems perfectly possible (and, as a Merleau-Ponty fan, I think appropriate) for the Gestalt Psychologist to admit that their objective descriptions of Gestalt structures and principles don’t faithfully characterise the way in which such structures and principles figure in our unfolding experience, but that if we want a science of these principles then objective descriptions are necessary. This is just to say that pursuing a science of Gestalt Psychology is not the same as pursuing a Phenomenology of lived experience – though the two pursuits can and should influence each other.

    My knowledge of Gestalt Psychology is too sketchy for me to be confident here – but it doesn’t seem to me that any of the methodological commitments of GP make this kind of response problematic. Sure, some ways of pursuing GP (e.g. Smith’s implication that the goal of a proper, scientific GP will be solid ontological foundations) might be incompatible with responding in this way – but is there anything written into the constitution of GP in general that rules out this kind of response?

    Moreover, from what I know of Koffka and his view of the relationship between Gestalten and plans/intentions, some ways of pursuing GP seem very nicely compatible with how I’m understanding MP here.

    I wonder if I’m missing something about MP’s critique here, though – or if I have the wrong view about GP’s foundational commitments…

    • Dave,
      I’ll identify 2 main places in our selections where I see MP making some clear critique of GT, and I’ll offer a few thoughts on he might respond to your suggestion that GT has a suitable response to MP. In doing so, I’ll try to clarify why MP thinks that an analysis of perception in terms of either “Reasons” or “Causes” is unsuitable. Of course, MP might be wrong about all this, but the hope is to clarify how he would try to bar GT from what he regards as a suitable response.

      C1) In the “Association and Projection of Memories” portion of the Introduction (esp. Landes’ pp.17-18), Merleau-Ponty’s objection seems to be that any realistic analysis of perception will misconstrue perception. This it does by presupposing not only that an experience of perception has been lived (unquestioned) but further:
      “we [must] presuppose around it a milieu in which all of the cross-checking that will be performed by analytical perception are already inscribed, and all of the norms of actual perception will be justified — a realm of truth, a /world/” (17).
      Presumably, any conception of GT as a ‘science’ will require commitment to the task of uncovering the ‘truth’ about perception, and so will incur these realistic commitments.

      R1) MP seems to think, rather, that a proper understanding of perception cannot subordinate it to the norms of truth, as these are established through ‘analytical perception’ and then understood in objective thought. His argument (intuition-pump?) for this claim is clearest on pp.17-18. It is only after the anonymous work of perception is done that we are presented with what we regard as a ‘good’ perception of the world. Once this is done, we can retroactively rationalize it, identifying the “Reasons” for why we had the perception we did. “But these reasons, drawn from having properly perceived the [object], were not given as reasons prior to correct perception” (p.18).
      As MP expresses this point later in our selection, he understands perception (of form) as “the very appearance of the world…It is the birth of a norm, not realized according to a norm” (p.62) — e.g., not according to a norm of truth understood as any kind of correspondence with that very world which appears in perception.
      As we might express it in contemporary parlance: to suppose that the satisfaction conditions of perception involve correspondence to the world (or a “mind-to-world” direction of fit) leaps over precisely what perception accomplishes, in MP’s view, by presupposing that it makes any sense to appeal to a presupposed world in an analysis of perception. I take it that MP takes it that this undermines the possibility of any properly scientific analysis of perception, if we understand perception as the phenomenon (MP thinks) it is.

      C2) In the “Attention and Judgment” portion of the Introduction (esp. Landes’ pp.48-50) Merleau-Ponty’s objection seems to be that GT wants a specifically *causal* analysis of perception. (So, for example, perhaps you are suggesting that Koffka can draw upon the causal role of intentions to analyze such cases as the illusion of a moving object when I try to move a paralyzed eye). On MP’s view, such a causal account requires us to think that “consciousness… restrict[s] itself to receiving a ready-made illusory phenomenon produced outside itself by some physiological causes” (49) — what we might nowadays call ‘subpersonal’ causes.

      R2) MP seems to think that a causal account deforms the phenomena of perception. It’s not that there are some subpersonal, physiological causes that MP grants are truly relevant but which he wants to set aside in order to pursue a phenomenology — leaving open the logical space for an autonomous (causal) science of Gestalt psychology. Rather, his claim seems to be that there is a *constitutive* relationship between the experience of intending to shift one’s gaze and the experience of the object as moving:
      “The gaze and the landscape remain as if glued to each other, no sudden twitching dissasociated them [as one would dissasociate contributing causes], the gaze, in its illusury movement, brings along with [emporte avec lui] it the landscape and the sliding of the landscape *is* ultimately nothing other [n’est au fond rien d’autre que] than its fixity at the end of the gaze that is believed to be in movement. Thus, the immobility of the images upon the retina and the paralysis of the occulomoter muscles are not objective causes…” (49)
      Now perhaps MP is wrong. But I think he thinks that if we honestly return to the phenomena of perceptual consciousness, we do not find room for a ‘subpersonal’-causal analysis of the case. We could only pursue such an analysis, in his view, if we failed to grasp the phenomena as they appear.

      On both of these points, we might try taking a look at how Gurwitsch covers some of the same ground here. MP’s footnote 56 gives a nod to one source, but many of these ideas seem to also be explored in Gurwitsch’s “The phenomenological and the psychological approaches to consciousness”, which is Ch. IV in the Collected Works Volume II. See especially pp.104-105.

      Now, if we simply disagree with MP about the phenomena of perception, then these responses may not go very far. But hopefully this helps to flesh out a bit why, if we understand perception as MP does, the Gestaltist does not seem to have an apt response: their responses all require that we simply misunderstand what perception is, in MP’s view.

      • Hi Ben,

        I’ve been meaning to reply to this for ages – taking full advantage of the asychronicity of this reading group!

        I think all the points you make above are exegetically spot-on. But I think the parts of PoP you point to should be read alongside the conciliatory things MP sometimes says about analysing perception in terms of reasons or causes. I think there are important places (if I was feeling more scholarly I’d try to put some page numbers in here – maybe another time!) where he clarifies that ‘intellectualism’ about perception isn’t exactly false – it just starts its analysis in the wrong place (already constituted perception) in a way that obscures other properties of perception that should be of interest to us. Similarly, ’empiricists’ (those trying to give a causal analysis of perception) aren’t necessarily wrong about the causal processes that correlate with perception, and are right to insist that these causal processes should constrain our final understanding of perception (cf. his discussion of phantom limbs/anosognosia & Schneider’s case). But they are wrong to think that such causal processes could capture or entail the essential motivational and sense-giving character of perception.

        As I understand things, MP is trying to argue GP courts both sets of worries – it mischaracterises the role of laws in our experience, and it overestimates the power of causal analyses of perception (or underestimates the special character of the perception it’s attempting to analyse). I think I’m pretty convinced, for the sorts of reasons MP gives, that GP can’t thus be a complete and satisfying account of ‘lived experience’ – GP can’t be Phenomenology. But I nonetheless still wonder whether GP should care about this. Was it clear that it aspired to be something like a complete account of experience in the first place (rather than, for example, an illuminating way of studying and characterising the structures of experience and the causal processes on which those structures depend)? If some GPs did have such overreaching aspirations, can’t we safely jettison those and keep what’s good about GP as a scientific research programme?

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