It is hard not to be in awe of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961). If Woody Allen had made a Midnight in Paris movie for aspiring existential philosophers, the journey back to the past may have located the protagonist in late 1920’s Paris where Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty were students together. What would it have been like to go late night drinking with this crew, ashtrays piled high with cigarette butts, arguing at length on how we understand the world? Sartre wrote many years later that Maurice convinced him of the validity of Marxist communism, but they eventually fell out because Sartre remained aligned with communism while Maurice distanced himself from the contemporary interpretations. One source of agreement between this group however is likely to have been a rejection of their lecturer Edmund Husserl’s view on phenomenological transcendence. Transcendence didn’t cut the mustard with this bunch of existentialists, they didn’t concur that perception went beyond the physical limits; for them phenomenology was concrete, the lived experience was the driver of our knowledge of the world.
It is no surprise then that Merleau-Ponty’s 1945 seminal work The Phenomenology of Perception, in which he sets out his thesis for the irreducibility of corporeal know-how to either scientific correlations or Cartesian theatre philosophy, is often liberally cited in contemporary post cognitive publications like those of Hubert Dreyfus, Alva Noe and Francisco Valera.
His wonderful treatise on art, Essays on Painting, published not long before he died in 1961 (his pre-mature death probably not unrelated to his chain smoking habit) and more particularly the chapter titled Eye in the Mind, elevates art above science for the exploration of ‘brute meaning that operationalism had ignored’. The need to re-assess the understanding of the world, after the failures -as Merleau-Ponty would see them- of both Science and Philosophy, can start again with the questions of ‘what is light’ and ‘what is depth’, not just in themselves but as they pass through us and surround us. Merleau-Ponty’s friend the sculptor Giacometti believed that ‘Cézanne was seeking depth all his life’ and it is obvious that Merleau-Ponty gets Cézanne, big time. For both of them, depth is not science’s third dimension of space, indeed if depth is a dimension at all it should be the first one. Forms and definite planes only emerge to the viewer when she can judge how far the different parts of those forms are from her. Hence Merleau-Ponty’s very logical proposition is that a first dimension that contains the other two dimensions can no longer be described as a dimension. Science can measure the heights, depths and widths to abstract the forms, but in painting we see a reversibility of dimension that gives us the plane from which we can abstract the measurement. Maurice poses depth as an enigma because he sees things, not separate in dimensional-space but each of them in their place, precisely because they eclipse one another. This understanding of depth allows Merleau-Ponty’s global ‘locality’ where everything is in the same place at the same time. The abstracted measurement yields the voluminosity we express when we say something is there.