Phenomenology

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By David Wood, Robert Bernasconi

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I perceive, for instance, the lamp at some moment, but this focus also points to moments beyond. It bears the sense that the lamp was there before I looked (the past), and that it will be here later (the future). In fact while I have been maintaining my gaze, time is passing; it is already later. Our basic perceptual experience then is not a collection of sense-data given as distinct snapshots. Rather it is lived as an engagement with what is beyond me, what exceeds and transcends my gaze and caress: coherent, holistic things, other living beings, and a three-dimensional locale with temporal dimensions.

Well, then, let’s try closing our eyes tightly, or going into a sensory deprivation tank. The blackness there might be taken as a simple, context-free sensation. However, Merleau-Ponty argues that this procedure for identifying a pure sense-datum, by definition, is to not sense: “A really homogeneous area offering nothing to be perceived cannot be given to any perception” (PP 4). In other words, to sense is to sense something; this third tactic (sensory deprivation) tries to identify simple sensory content by eliminating all such content.

One front of his critique is against the notion that, in perception, the mind or brain creates ideal duplicates of things by building up atomic sense-impressions. This, Merleau-Ponty argues, is an abstract theory predicated on the sensation fallacy, a theory that ignores and contradicts what we live in perception. The second front is closely related to the first: it targets the notion that perception is located in my mind or brain, that perception is an internal screen covering the external reality.

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