Merleau-Ponty’s Examination of Gestalt Psychology (1)
The thought of Merleau-Ponty has recently moved from being present to being past for us. Among other things, including the passage of time in continental philosophy, this is no doubt due to his posthumous works becoming available and to the maturation of scholarship during the two decades since his death. If he is now a past figure, it is at least easier to subject him to historical study where his development, the internal harmony of the parts and phases of his thought, the influences on and by him, etc. are concerned, i.e., to treat him as having thought in history rather than as having dropped from the sky to challenge us.(2)
The present study contains the results of asking how Merleau-Ponty interpreted, criticized, and developed thought from one of his earliest and largest sources (the present author will deal with the other early large source, Constitutive Phenomenology, in another essay). No doubt there are deeper and subtler gestalt traces in the core of his position than are brought out here,(3) but it seems of importance to study how he dealt with a scientific movement at arm’s length, as it were, since this will show something of the assimilative technique as well as the results he gained. The published writings have been worked through chronologically and the several hundred passages where a gestaltist text or author is referred to or a matter is discussed in gestaltist terms noted.(4) Often Merleau-Ponty simply uses Gestalt Psychology approvingly, but often he also discusses it and shows why he accepts and rejects parts of it; hence the word “examination” in the title above. Given the magnitude of this task and the limits of space, it is hoped that merely an interpretation of this examination be accepted in lieu of an examination of it.
Merleau-Ponty read widely in philosophy and science and should be studied for how he relates to Bergson, Brunschvicg, Cassirer, Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Marcel, Sartre, Scheler, etc. Where scientists are concerned, some work has been done on the Saussure connection and on Marxism,(5) but work remains to be done on involvements with Freud and other psychologists, with Sociology and Ethnology, and indeed with the Human Sciences in general. Here the concern will be only with the Gestaltists, who for some reason have not received the attention they deserve in Merleau-Ponty studies, possibly because too few in philosophy take science as seriously as he did.(6) Anyone who has read any of his writings knows of this involvement and may even recognize that there is more than can be handled even in only an expository article, unless the Gestalt Physics of Köhler and the Gestalt Physiology (e.g. SC 33-47/ 33-46) and Psychopathology of Gelb and Goldstein are excluded,(7) in which case the signification of “Gestalt Psychology” in the title above is clearer. Speaking positively, “Gestalt Psychology” refers chiefly to the work of Wertheimer, Köhler, and Koffka, the leaders of the so-called Berlin School of the 1920s, which came to the United States about 1933, but Lewin and the influential French appreciator of Gestalt Psychology, Paul Guillaume, and such convergent investigators as Katz, Michotte, Rubin, and Tolman must also be mentioned.
Before turning to what Merleau-Ponty made Gestalt Psychology
out to be, we might survey his thirty-year involvement with it. In the 1920s,
Guillaume began writing, translating, and reporting on gestaltist works. It may
be that Merleau heard Köhler lecture on “La
Perception humaine” at the College de France in 1929,
although the publication of that lecture is not in his bibliographies. When
Merleau-Ponty and Gurwitsch met in Spring 1933 the younger man was already
familiar not only with phenomenology but also gestaltist thought and even
Gurwitsch’s dissertation, in which the attempt is made to relate that thought
to Husserl’s philosophy.(8) That April
Merleau-Ponty applied for a grant to study “the experimental investigations
From the rather abrupt decline in the frequency of references
to Gestalt Psychology once Merleau-Ponty had attained the phenomenal field at
the end of the Introduction of Phénoménologie de la perception (1945),
one might believe his interest in it began to decline. However, in his Sorbonne
lectures in the early 1950s he went on to discuss Wertheimer’s Productive
Thinking (1945) on the relations of intellection and perception (in a
course on the psychosociology of the child!) (BP 213 ff.), increased his appreciation
of Lewin’s work (BP 112, 116 ff., 159, & 195), and discussed Guillaume’s
work (BP 161-65). The Gestaltung of causation in Michotte’s work was
also appreciated after the war (P 98, BP 185 ff., cf. RC 14/ 6); it is unfortunate
this work had not preceded PP, for then that magnum opus would probably
have had a large place for lived causation. Hence, even though Koffka and
Wertheimer died during the war and the
The following exposition has two main parts. In the first, the attempt is made to summarize systematically the concrete gestalt-psychological thought accept by Merleau-Ponty. In the second, the conscious and creative perspective, including the opposition to Gestalt Psychology’s naturalistic self-interpretation, a novel frame of reference, and a different standpoint, will be presented. A chronological study of all texts did not reveal any changes in how this thinker, who knew most of the gestalt literature by 1938, comprehended Gestalt Psychology, and hence a synchronic or systematic exposition is legitimate.(10)
What Merleau-Ponty accepted from Gestalt Psychology without notable transformation can be arranged in relation to three questions: (a) What did he comprehend “gestalt” to signify? (b) Where, with respect to approach, did he believe he was merely agreeing with Gestalt Psychology? and (c) What gestaltist results did he plainly accept? Generally, the focus is on perception, although there are remarks on recollection, emotion, and volition; perhaps imagination was considered Sartre’s domain.(11) Also, while brutes are mentioned, the focus is also on the human.
The notion of gestalt is usually expressed in Merleau-Ponty’s writings with the word “forme,” properly translated into English as “form.” For purposes of discussion, however, it seems preferable to use the word “gestalt(en)” in a fully naturalized (uncapitalized) way, although “form” will appear in quotations. The word “configuration,” presumably from the English candidate which lost out to “gestalt,” also occurs.
Since von Ehrenfels, “gestalt” has been frequently defined as a whole not equal to the sum of its parts. Merleau-Ponty repeats this (SC 49/ 47, SC 163/ 150), but came to recognize it as merely “a negative, external definition” (VI 258/ 204). At the outset of his intellectual career he also offered this positive and perhaps internal definition: “The ‘Gestalt’ is a spontaneous organization of the sensuous field which makes the alleged ‘elements’ depend on ‘wholes’ which are themselves articulated into more extended wholes” (G 193). The part/ whole characterization is used in other general statements:
More precisely they are defined as total processes which may be indiscernible from each other while their “parts,” compared to each other, differ in absolute size; in other words, the systems are defined as transposable wholes. We will say that there is form whenever the properties of a system are modified by every change brought about in a single one of its parts and, on the contrary, are conserved when they all change while maintaining the same relationship among themselves. (SC 50/ 47)
Form . . . possess original properties with regard to those of the parts which can be detached from it. Each moment is determined by the grouping of the other moments and their respective value depends on a state of total equilibrium the formula of which is an intrinsic character of “form.” (SC 101/ 91)
Even in such general statements there is an emphasis on perceptual gestalten: “The form is a visible or sonorous configuration (or even a configuration which is prior to the distinction of the senses) in which the sensory value of each element is determined by its function in the ‘whole and varies with it” (SC 182/ 168) and “A ‘form,’ such as the structure of ‘figure’ and ‘ground,’ for example, is a whole which has a sense and which provides therefore a basis for intellectual analysis. But at the same time it is not an idea: it constitutes, alters, and reorganizes itself before us like a spectacle.” (SC 240/ 224)
In sum, a gestalt is a whole (ensemble) which may be within a larger whole and it has parts, elements, or moments within it such that if all the parts are, say, doubled in size, there is the (specifically) same gestalt, but if one part is changed, there is a different gestalt. Each moment is what it is only in relation to the others within the whole.
Some illustrations may make this clearer. Of course a melody is a gestalt which is preserved when all the notes change in pitch to the same degree. Other gestalten involve movement, rhythm, and spatial arrangement (BP 8). In the last connection, the example can be quite concrete: “The whole of dots
. . . . . . . . . . . .
is always perceived as ‘six pairs of points two millimeters apart’ . . .” (PP 503/ 440, cf. SNS 86/ 48). Then again, “the body image [schema corporeal]” is “a global conscious grasp of my posture within the intersensorial world, a ‘form’ in the sense of Gestalt Psychology” (PP 116/ 100) and it would seem this description also falls under the definition: “An object is an organism of colors, smells, sounds, tactual appearances which symbolize and modify one another and harmonize [s’accordent] with one another according to a real logic . . .” (PP 48/ 38). In contrast to intellectual contents, Merleau-Ponty repeatedly characterizes gestalten as perceived styles (e.g., BP 180) and especially with the metaphor of physiognomy (see SC 181/ 166 for a literal usage):
Beneath the intentionality of the act or thetic intentionality, and as its condition of possibility, we found an operative intentionality already at work prior to any thesis or any judgment, a “logos of the aesthetic world,” an “art hidden in the depths of the human soul,” and which, like every art, is only known in its results. The distinction which we made previously between structure and signification was clarified thereafter: What makes the difference between the gestalt of the circle and the signification Circle is that the second is recognized by an intellect which engenders it as an area of points equidistant from a center, the first by a subject familiar with his world and capable of grasping it as a modulation of this world, as a circular physiognomy. (PP 490/ 429, cf. PP 74/ 60 & PP 441/ 385)
The above passage also brings us to the contrast of perception and intellection and to the question of whether “structure” is coterminous with “gestalt.” In the latter regard, there is of course a close affinity between the notions, such that they do sometimes seem synonymous,(12) but Merleau-Ponty usually uses “structure” to designate specifically how a gestalt is organized: “What is profound in the notion of ‘Gestalt’ from which we started is not the idea of signification but that of structure, the indiscernible joining of an idea and an existence, the contingent arrangement by which the materials coming before us have a sense, intelligibility in the nascent state” (SC 223/ 206, cf. G 193 f.). As has been in part documented above, he uses “structure” in relation to figure/ ground organization, but he also refers to other structures (PP 30/ 22, PP 118/ 102, PP 257/ 224, etc.). There can be no doubt of the importance of this notion, especially when as the equivalent to “immanent signification” it is contrasted to “ideal signification,”(13) the misunderstanding of which, coupled with the frequent confusion of “signification” and “sens” in the one English word “meaning,” has misled some scholars.
As for perception and intellection, it is already plain that Merleau-Ponty always at least focused on perceptual gestalten as primary and in the earlier work he goes further: “Hence the form is not a physical reality, but an object of perception; moreover, without it physical science would have no sense since it is constructed with respect to it and in order to coordinate it” (SC 155/ 143). “Fixation as a temporal form is not a physical or physiological fact for the simple reason that all forms pertain to the phenomenal world” (PP 268 n./ 232 n.). At present, what needs to be emphasized is that for Merleau-Ponty gestalten are not intellectual forms imposed on sensuous stuffs. This is clearest in the earliest texts we have.
The experimental investigations undertaken in
This organization [i.e. gestalt] is not like a form which would be placed upon heterogeneous matter; there are only more or less stable and more or less articulated organizations. (G 193, cf. BP 206)
Before shifting focus from this basic category to matters of approach, it may be well to establish that the other extreme from the atomistic sensation is also precluded from Gestalt Psychology as Merleau-Ponty views it. “If everything really depended on everything else, in the organism as well as in nature, there would be no laws and no science. Kohler’s whole-processes admit of an internal cleavage, and Gestalt Theory stands at an equal distance from a philosophy of simple coordination (Und-Verbindungen) and a romantic conception of the absolute unity of nature” (SC 45/ 43).
With this general conception of gestalt in hand, we can wonder about how gestalten are approachable in research. It goes without saying that this is research on the level of empirical and indeed experimental science, although not of a sort with widespread popularity today, unfortunately.
B. Gestalt Procedures.
When we raise the question of what approachs Merleau-Ponty seems to have believed he simply accepted from the Gestaltists, we find three topics. The first concerns the relation between internal and external observation. The introduction of this issue is hardly unobtrusive.
A purely objective method can delineate the structure of the universe of “colors” in butterflies by comparing the reactions which are evoked in them by the different colored stimuli—precisely on the condition of limiting oneself strictly to the identity or difference of the responses in the presence of such and such given stimuli and of not projecting our living experience of colors into the butterfly’s consciousness. There is an objective analysis and an objective definition of perception, intelligence, and emotion as structures of behavior
The mental thus understood is graspable from the outside. Even more, introspection itself is a procedure of knowledge which is homogeneous with external observation.
Nothing is changed when the subject is charged with interpreting his reactions himself, which is what is proper to introspection.
The object which external observation and introspection intend together is then a structure or signification which is reached in each case through different materials. There is no reason either to reject introspection or to make it the privileged means of access to a world of psychological facts. It is one of the possible perspectives on the structure and immanent sense of the conduct which [is] the only psychic “reality.” (SC 197/ 183, cf. SC 238 f./ 221 f. for relations of this method to Sartre explicitly, Scheler implicitly, the role of language, and the origin of error.)
In SC this doctrine is attributed to Paul Guillaume’s “L’Objectivité” en psychologie” (1932). That same source is cited in PP (112/ 95 f.), but only to draw a consequence. In “Le Primat . . .” we read, however, that
Without doubt one of the most important acquisitions of this theory has been its overcoming of the classical alternatives between objective psychology and introspective psychology. Gestalt psychology went beyond this alternative by showing that the object of psychology is the structure of behavior, accessible both from within and from without.
As Gestalt psychology has shown, structure, Gestalt, [sense] are no less visible in objectively observable behavior than in the experience of ourselves—provided, of course, that objectivity is not confused with what is measurable. (P 23 f.)
In BP the point is added that such a compound approach can be taken to oneself as well as to others, for the recourse is to behavior (BP 176), and the attribution is again to Guillaume, although Koffka is credited with a certain transcending of mere introspection as well as of a focus on knowledge (BP 158). Then more is told about the matter thus approachable both from within and without as well as the prejudice which inhibits us from comfortably employing such a two-fold approach.
The Gestalt Psychologists reveal such a close relationship between perception and motoricity that to dissociate them seems impossible to them: they must be considered two aspects of the same phenomenon (cf. D. Katz, Der Aufbau der Tastwelt).
Gestalt Psychology hence obliges us to reconsider the problem of sensation and movement: it is necessary to speak of a perceptual side and a motoric side of conduct, i.e. of two aspects of the same reality.
It is difficult to make this effort; the classical distinction is based on deeply rooted philosophic reasons, such as the notion of a contemplative consciousness. The Gestaltists ask us to renounce this conception of a contemplative consciousness detached from action: they replace it with that of an active consciousness for which the body is the instrument for exploration of the world. (BP 174, cf. G 185 for passages from “Titres et Travaux” relating the projects of SC and PP to “the junction sought between the objective point of view and the subjective point of view”).
If observation from without and from within give access to one and the same phenomenon, there is, in the second place, an alternative between procedures more specifically employable within each of these perspectives. This is the alternative of ordinary and analytic attitudes in perception. No particular fuss is made about it in SC, although it would seem assumed in much scientific work. What is the difference?
I am sitting in my room and look at the sheets of white paper laying about on my table, some in the light shed through the window, others in the shadow. If I do not analyze my perception, but keep to the global spectacle, I shall say that all the sheets of paper look equally white. However, some of them are in the shadow of the wall. How is it that they are not less white than the others? I decide to get a better view [regarder mieux], I fix my gaze upon them, which means that I restrict my visual field. I can even look at them through the cover of a match box, which separates them from the rest of the field, or through a “reduction screen” with a window in it. Whether I use one of these devices or am contented with observing with the naked eye, but in the “analytic attitude,” the aspect of the sheets changes: this is no longer a white paper covered by a shadow, it is a grey or steely blue [bleutée] substance, thick and badly localized. (PP 261/ 225)
Such an alternation can occur also in the spatial perception of size and distance. Ordinarily, one is not aware of such matters as apparent size and ocular convergence, which are nevertheless there (PP 298/ 257), but Gestalt Psychology has shown that they are revealed in analytic reflection (PP 58/ 47, cf. SNS 87/ 49, BP 179, S 62/ 49, & VI 38/ 21).
Finally, the object in the ordinary attitude has priority over the products of analysis (which are nevertheless not without value) and with respect to such prior objects he can speak of how, “according to the very principles of Gestalt Theory, . . . behavior must be comprehended in its immanent law, not explained by a plurality of separated causes . . .”(SC 130/ 120, cf. SC 169/ 156). Then again, he can write as follows.
The sensible configuration of an object or a gesture, which the criticism of the constancy hypothesis brings before our eyes, is not grasped in some ineffable coincidence, it is “comprehended” through a sort of appropriation which we all experience when we say that we have “found” the rabbit in the foliage of a puzzle, or that we have “caught” a movement. Once the sensation prejudice has been set aside, a face, a signature, a conduct cease to be merely “visual data” whose psychological signification is to be sought in our inner experience and the psyche of the other becomes an immediate object, a whole charged with immanent signification. (PP 70/ 57)
In sum, where method is concerned, Merleau-Ponty accepted from Gestalt Psychology that there is one subject matter—”active consciousness” or “perceptual behavior” (a better name could be found, e.g., “living”)—approachable both from within and from without in oneself and in others, that in approaching such a matter one may have recourse to an analytic attitude, but that the ordinary perceptual comprehension is prior.
C. Gestalt Descriptions.
Under the genus Gestalt fall a number of specific descriptions adopted by Merleau-Ponty without obvious modification. In the first place, for most people, what “Gestalt Psychology” brings to mind is the figure/ ground structure and in this respect Merleau-Ponty is no exception. This species of the general organization exhibited in sensuous fields is alluded to him probably a score of times. He accepts from the Gestaltists that it is the simplest sensuous datum, commenting that it is not contingent but rather essential to perception (PP 10/ 5, cf. PP 81/ 61, BP 113, & BP 206). A spot, e.g., the dot we use to express a full stop in punctuation, is a case of this (SC 101/ 92), but the opening example in PP is more richly described.
Suppose a white patch on a homogeneous ground. All the points in the patch have a certain “function” in common, that of forming themselves into a “figure.” The color of the figure is more dense and as it were more resistant than that of the ground; the edges of the white patch “belong” to it and are not part of the nevertheless contiguous ground: the patch appears to be placed upon the ground and does not interrupt it. Each part announces more than it contains and this elementary perception is hence loaded with sense. (PP 9/ 3)
Already a “figure” on a “ground” contains . . . much more than the qualities actually given. It has “contours” which do not “belong” to the ground and are “detached” from it, it is “stable” and of a “compact” color, the ground is unbounded and of uncertain color, it “continues” under the figure. The different parts of the whole—e.g. the parts of the figure nearest the ground—hence have, beyond a color and qualities, a particular sense. (PP 20/ 13, cf. PP 32/ 24 & PP 119/ 102)
To this description several points may be added. First, such an account means that our original (primative) perception bears more on relations than on isolated terms, these being perceived and not excogitated relations. Second, there must be a greater change in the color of the ground than of the figure for the gestalt to change (G 193, BP 206). Finally, this structure puts attention in a different perspective than is traditional: “To pay attention is not only further to clarify preexistent data, it is also to realize a new articulation in them by taking them as figures.”(14)
While figure/ ground is basic, it should not be overlooked that Merleau-Ponty recognized other species of gestalt structure. That of illumination/ illuminated seems next most of interest to him (e.g. PP 354/ 307) and has its relations with figures/ ground (PP 352/ 305 & 368/ 323). Furthermore, “the relationships ‘figure’ and ‘ground,’ ‘thing’ and ‘non-thing,’ [and] the horizon of the past would hence be structures of consciousness irreducible to the qualities which appear in them” (PP 30/ 22).
Space, especially as seen, is also emphasized by Merleau-Ponty, apparently due to his opposition on to the traditional emphasis on its structures as intellectually imposed. But depth is as intrinsic to what we see as figure/ ground and height, breadth, verticality, and obliqueness are not established through a mental reference to the meridian of the retina or the axis of the head or body (G 194 f, cf. BP 179). Rather, there are “anchoring points” in our sensuous field which determine the spatial level and there are lines in this field (which is a field of tensions—PP 60/ 48), which are immediately affected with indices of upwardness and downwardness (G 195, cf. SC 99/ 90, FP 287/ 248, BP 179). Illumination and the organization of the entire visual field play a role regarding the perceived constancy in size of objects at different distances (PP60f/ 48 f., PP 264f/ 229, PP 351f/ 305, etc.). Moreover, “Köhler has shown very well that perceptual space is not a Euclidean space, that perceived objects change properties when they change place” (SC 156/ 144, cf. G 196 on “naive statics.”). In addition, there is at least a systematic place for temporal gestalten.
Gestalt Theorists have by no means limited the use of the notion of “form” to the instant or the present. They have, on the contrary, insisted on the phenomenon of form in time (melody). (P 121)
A melody, for example, is a (sonorous figure and does not mingle with the ground noises which may accompany it (such as the siren one hears in the distance during a concert). The melody is not a sum of notes, since each note only counts by virtue of the function it exercises in the whole, which is why the melody is not sensibly changed when transposed, that is, when all its notes are changed while their relationships and the structure of the whole remain the same. On the other hand,” just one single change in these relationships will be enough to modify the entire physiognomy of the melody. Such a perception of the whole is more natural and more primary than the perception of isolated elements. (SNS 87/ 49)
Moving things are discussed under the heading of space in PP but plainly involve time as well and Merleau-Ponty is quite aware of work done here by Wertheimer and even Duncker (PP 315 ff./ 272 ff, BP 180, RC 14/ 5). And of course he was aware that separate discussions of seen space and heard time are abstract.
For people under mescaline, sounds are regularly accompanied by spots of color whose hue, form, and vividness vary with the tonal quality, intensity, and pitch of the sounds. Even normal subjects speak of hot, cold, shrill, or hard colors, of sounds that are clear, sharp, brilliant, rough, or mellow, of soft noises and of penetrating fragrances. Cézanne said that one could see the yelvetiness, the hardness, the softness, and even the odor of objects. My perception is therefore not a sum of visual, tactile, and audible data, I perceive in an undivided way with my whole being, I grasp a unique structure of the thing, a unique way of being which speaks to all my senses at once. (SNS 88/ 50)
More generally, and still without the intellect making any contributions (SNS 91 f./ 51 f.), much of what we have discussed comes under the following description.
I can at will see my own train or the train next to it in motion whether on the one hand I do nothing or on the other wonder about the illusions of motion. But “when I am playing at cards in my compartment, I see the neighboring train move off, even if it is really mine which is starting; when I look at the other train and look for someone there, it is my own train which is set in motion.” The compartment which we happen to occupy is “at rest,” its walls are “vertical” and the landscape slips by before our eyes, and on a hill the firs seen through the window appear to us to slope. If we stand at the window, we return to the great world beyond our little world, the firs straighten themselves and remain stationary, and the train leans with the slope and speeds through the countryside. (PP 324/ 288)
One other passage, in which gestaltist thought is employed on matters of special interest to Merleau-Ponty may be quoted in the present connection.
The word “here” applied to my body does not designate a determinate position in relation to other positions or in relation to external coordinates, but the installation of the primary coordinates, the anchoring of the active body in an object, the situation of the body in face of its tasks. Bodily space can be distinguished from external space and envelop its parts instead of spreading them out because it is the darkness in the theatre necessary to the clarity of the spectacle, the ground of drowsiness or the reserve of vague power against which the gesture and its goal stand out, the zone of non-being before which precise beings, figures and points, appear. In the last analysis, if my body can be a “form” and if it can have privileged figures on indifferent grounds before it, this is insofar as it is polarized by its tasks, that it exists toward them, that it collects itself in order to reach its goal, and the “body image” is finally a way of expressing that my body is at the world. As far as spatiality is concerned, which alone interests us at the moment, the owned body is the third term, always tacitly understood, in the figure-ground structure and every figure stands out against the double horizon of external and bodily space. One must therefore reject as an abstraction any analysis of bodily space which takes account only of figures and points, since these can neither be conceived nor be without horizons. (PP 117/ 100)
In sum, it is plain that Merleau-Ponty accepted much in the way of descriptive results as well as procedure from the gestaltists on a fairly concrete level.
When we turn to the remainder of Merleau-Ponty’s examination of Gestalt Psychology, we find interesting efforts at critique, reconstruction, and extension of that thought in a perspective he considered phenomenological. In this higher-level and more creative element, he can be said (a) to have elaborated a frame of reference (to which his discussion on perception and intelligence is closely related) and, after (b) rejecting the naively naturalistic philosophical position the Gestaltists tacitly endorsed, (c) to have reflected on how to regard matters gestaltist from a new and phenomenological viewpoint.
A. Frame of Reference.
At least on the scientific level, Merleau-Ponty’s central contribution to Gestaltist thought is his articulation of three species of behavioral structures, the “syncretic,” the “amovible,” and “symbolic” forms. But before this doctrine can be expounded, a crucial issue must be settled. This is the matter of intentionality, which he does not dwell upon in this connection, perhaps because he considered it obvious. If one observes behavior from within and/ or from without, there is plainly a difference between the behavior and what is behaved toward in the behaver’s surroundings. The related words “structure” and “form” can be applied either to the object “behaved,” as it were, by the behaver or the “behaving” which is under such possibly double observation or, insofar as the matter observed includes the behaving and the behaved, both of them. A behaving/ behaved distinction is not made in so many words, but it is presupposed in the discussion of the structures of behavior and establishable from what is said in various places:
Gestalt Theory is a psychology in which everything has a sense; there are no psychic phenomena which are not oriented toward a certain signification. In this way, it is a psychology founded on the idea of intentionally. Only this sense that resides in all psychic phenomena is not a sense that derives from a pure activity of the mind; it is an autochthonous sense that is itself constituted by the alleged elements. (BP 148)
Presumably “signification” here is ‘immanent’ and thus equivalent to “structure.”(15) The same comment applies where Merleau-Ponty speaks of “an authentic phenomenon which philosophy has the function of making explicit. The proper structure of perceptual experience, the reference of partial ‘profiles’ to the total signification which they ‘present,’ would be this phenomenon” (SC 233/ 216, cf. SC 187/ 172). Within “The Description of the Structures of Behavior” we find first a mention of the “intentional character, i.e. . . . relation to the situation” in a polemical context whereby it is something overlooked in conditioned-reflex theory (SC 103/ 93). Then again, in the subsection on “amovibles forms,” we read that “The behaviors of the preceding category [“syncretic forms”] definitely include a reference to relations” (SC 115/ 105), and it will be recalled that such relations are in perceptual gestalten (see above, p. 99). “Thus objective description of behavior discovers a more or less articulate structure in it, a more or less rich internal signification, the reference to ‘situations’ which are sometimes individual, sometimes abstract, sometimes essential” (SC 119/ 109).
Nowhere does Merleau-Ponty say that all behavior is behavior of . . . but plainly he could have. In the light of the foregoing we can now interpret the key statement, whereby it is alleged to be possible to classify behaviors “according to whether the structure in them is submerged in the content or on the contrary it emerges from it to become, at the limit, the proper themes of the activity” (SC 113/ 103). This is a matter of the structure that is only intentionally in the behaving, i.e., it is actually a structure of the object behaved. On this basis we can turn to the three species.
Instinctive behavior corresponds (intentionally) to syncretic forms the peculiarity of which is that it is a complex of special stimuli or it is an abstract character of the situation which is reacted to: “If a fly is put in its nest, the spider does not treat it as prey. Its instinctive behavior is not a reaction to the fly but a reaction to a vibrating object in general and it would be initiated just as readily by placing a tuning fork in the middle of the web” (SC 107/ 97) and “An ant placed on a stick allows itself to fall on a white paper marked with a black circle only if the sheet of paper is of definite dimensions, if the distance from the ground and the inclination of the stick have a definite value, and finally if there is a definite intensity and direction to the lighting.” (SC 114/ 104). Such behavior includes a reference to the relations in the concrete situation and is not, properly speaking, learned. The instinctually “behaved” structures in question are submerged in the perceived objects.
Changeable (amovibles) forms are “relatively independent” of the object (SC 115/ 105), which seems to mean that they can be established and altered through learning. Kohler’s work on chickens shows that again it is a relation, e.g., the comparative colors of sheets with grain on them, which is behaved toward. The emphasis here is first on “sign gestalten” where the subject has learned to perceive something as a means to something else, e.g., color to food. But there are cases where it is an obstacle rather than an access which comes to be seen due to learning and Merleau-Ponty’s description can focus alternatively more on the behaving than on the behaved.
The activity of the organism would be literally comparable to a kinetic melody since any change in the end of the melody qualitatively modifies its beginning and the physiognomy of the whole. It is in the same manner that the closing of an alley in a labyrinth immediately confers a negative value, not only on the entrance to this alley, but on that of a second alley which, after a detour, falls on this side of the barrier; and this is so even if the animal has not just gone through it. The failure has the effect of changing the sign of all the stimuli which have a determined structural relation to the place where it took place. (SC 117/ 107)
(It might be inserted here that Merleau-Ponty accepts from Koffka that “an object looks attractive or repulsive before it looks black or blue, circular or square” (PP 32/ 24). There are many subspecies of structures of this sort, Merleau attempts to organize some of them in relation to space and time, but he recognizes the artificiality of this in that “natural structures” have a priority, e.g., a tree branch as something to swing on must be reorganized to become something with which to rake food into one’s cage (SC 124/ 113 f.). There are limits to what brutes can learn, e.g., “the box-as-seat and the box-as-instrument are two distinct and alternative objects in the behavior of the chimpanzee and not two aspects of an identical thing” (SC 127/ 116). It is a “universe of use-objects” (SC 188 n. l/ 245 n. 95).
“It is necessary to admit, above the replaceable [amovibles] forms available to the chimpanzee, an original level of conduct where the structures are even more available, transposable from one sense to another. Symbolic behavior is where the thing structure is possible” (SC 130/ 120). Signs for brutes are always signals but for humans symbols are also possible. Merleau-Ponty dwells on how activities like piano playing involve intending musical phrases through the instruments (SCI31/ 120), improvisation (even on new types of instruments), and again regards the behaving-behaved situation in a gestaltist manner:
The character of the melody, the graphic configuration of the musical text, and the unfolding of the gestures participate in a single structure, have in common an identical nexus of signification. The relation of the expression to the expressed, a simple juxtaposition in the parts, is internal and necessary in the wholes.
The true sign represents the signified, not according to an empirical association, but inasmuch as its relationship to other signs is the same as the relation of the object signified by it to other objects.
With symbolic forms, a conduct appears, which expresses the stimulus for itself, which is open to truth and to the proper value of things, which tends to the adequation of the signifying to the signified, of the intention and what it intends. Here behavior no longer only has a signification, it is itself signification. (SC 132 f./ 121f.).
Corresponding to symbolic behavior there would then be a “spiritual field” (SC 141/ 131) with “cultural objects” beyond human “use objects” (SC 175/ 162).
The three-fold classification of behaviors according to the forms they intend can be seen to culminate in the following passage focused on the problem of the differentia of the human.
What defines man is not the capacity to create a second nature, —economic, social, or cultural—beyond biological nature; it is rather the capacity of going beyond created structures in order to create others. And this movement is already visible in each of the particular products of human work. A nest is an object that only has sense in relation to the possible behavior of the organic individual and if an ape picks up a branch in order to reach a goal, it is because he is able to confer a functional value on an object of nature.
For man, on the contrary, the tree branch which has become a stick will remain precisely a tree-branch-which-has-become-a-stick, the same thing in two different functions and visible for itself under a plurality of aspects. (SC 189/ 175)
The structures of behavior do not seem to play a significant role in PP or in Merleau-Ponty’s later writings. The words “symbolic function” come up relevantly (S 141/ 112, cf./ 140 f./ 122 f.), but not the qualifiers “syncretic” or “amovibles.” In part this is no doubt due to his not returning to brute behavior, in order words to his focusing on the human. But the thought does appear again in the discussion of intelligence in BP. “Intelligence” appears chiefly to be a matter of problem solving. On the other hand, while Merleau-Ponty generally de-emphasizes the intellect, it should be borne in mind that he did recognize the cogitative, particularly when he argued that the constructs of a gestaltist sort relevant in physics and physiology are modeled on perceptual objects (SC 100/ 91, SC 141/ 131, SC 156/ 144). This is not irrelevant to acts of intelligence in the preeminent signification.
Under the heading of “Relationships between Intellectual Functions and Other Psychic Functions,” the general view is that the order of (presumably ‘ideal’) significations is closely linked to the concrete order of perception. Wertheimer investigated productive thinking from the standpoint of results and conceived of “insight” as the capacity the intelligent subject has of “apperceiving” a signification which will solve his problem in a given figure or situation. “Insight is that by which the given intellectual situation becomes capable of giving rise to a reorganization of the elements it includes” (BP 138, cf. VI 246/ 192). This is something not every perceiver can do. Köhler showed that chimpanzees must have optical contact with the things that change structure and that their objects cannot have two functions at once, as was just seen to be the case with “amovible” forms. Humans can restructure structures and perceive a plurality of aspects to the same thing. Reasoning, moreover, is not only perceiving relationships between two objects but apperceiving a new or third relationship between the two.
Intelligence is not perception. There exists a difference between the organization of the field in the perceptual act and the reorganization of the field in the intellectual act.—In intelligence the reorganization is not inspired by the same data of perception, but responds to a question which the subject poses. Two structures which succeed one another are not independent, they appear to us two aspects of an identical reality. . . . .—In perception, the structuration is inspired by the data. What suggest this or that transformation are the very properties of the sensible figure. (BP 139)
The same matters are approached in the section called “Transition from Perception to Intellection among the Gestaltists,” but the emphasis is on how lower processes of perceptual behavior (which are already intelligent, since problem solving) are transcended by the properly “intelligent” processes. Merleau-Ponty is first concerned to avoid the misunderstanding whereby intellection is considered a species of perceptual gestalt formation (reading “Gestaltung” for “Gestalten” at BP 210), which certain texts of Wertheimer could stimulate. There is a parallelism between finding the middle term of a syllogism and, for one of Kohler’s apes, finding a stick with which to extend one’s reach. In both cases there is gestalt formation, but in the case of perception the initial object in effect disappears. In the syllogism, by contrast, what is peculiar is that the three terms remain identical through the varying appearances and even though entering into different relations” (BP 210).(16)
The discussion then follows sensorimotor, animal, and human levels very like the earlier structures of behavior. Both perception and intellection have a sense, “but the sense of the perceived is not the intellectual sense” (BP 211). When a card is moved slightly, the eyes move in order to handle the two images and thus let us go on seeing one spot. “The stimulus does not act upon two symmetrical points [on the retinas], but are fused as if, given the analogous function of the two points, the look anticipated the result” (BP 211). Above such sensorimotor problem solving there is an “animal level” where practical intelligence occurs, which humans also have. This is the ability to “replace the signification given an object by another signification” (BP 212; the signification here must be “immanent” rather than ideal). Here the body plays a role in solving problems which are not posed by the intellect. This form of intelligence is not conscious of itself, it is found in habits, not actually those rather rare mechanical ones but in the habit-aptitudes, “those which enable us to respond to situations of the same type by adapted and subtle behaviors (knowing how to dance, knowing how to swim)” (BP 212). This seems the level of “amovible” forms.
In peculiarly human intelligence, organization is oriented toward a solution; for example, in geometry, finding the sum of the angles of a triangle or, in algebra, solving an equation of the second degree. In both cases, “its very form of the figure (or the equation) that gives rise in me to the idea of a construction to be performed or a theorem to be used. There is a sort of anticipation; one acts for the result one has not yet found; it is not by chance that we are guided by a sort of flair” (BP 212). This constructive character is characteristic. While, secondly, there is little latitude on lower levels, “in the case of an intellectual problem there is a very great number of ways of transforming what is given” (BP 213) and total insight is possible. Thereby, a grasping of relationships could be complete in each experience and, independent of varying psychological events, it would tend toward a truth. “When I perceive, I organize my field of experience by utilizing the contingent properties of objects, when I organize intellectually, I utilize general traits, essential and not contingent properties, I retrace an essential dynamism” (BP 213). Finally, intellect differs from perception in that there is a recreation and not an adaptation of the phenomenal field. Yet the perceived world furnishes us with “prototypes” for intellectual organizations. In short, intelligence is not a species of perception, but it also forms or organizes gestalten, in so doing it is free, unlimited in its ability to contact the true and deal with the essential. It is difficult not to understand this as what was called in SC symbolic behavior.
This frame of reference is elaborated by Merleau-Ponty in a perspective, but for us to understand that perspective and other things he does in it, it will be well to follow his opposition to the perspective in which the Gestaltists did their work.
B. Against Naturalism.
Merleau-Ponty opposes the naturalistic and even physicalistic philosophical assumptions of Gestalt Psychology in two phases, the second more complex than the first. The first phase is prominent in SC but reiterated in BP. Essentially, the view opposed consists in the reduction of psychological gestalten (and one would imagine those of the behaving as well as those of the behaved) to physiological gestalten and thereby to physical gestalten. “Gestalt Theory thinks it has solved the problem of the relations of the soul and the body and the problem of perceptual knowledge by discovering structural nerve processes that have the same form as the psychic, on the one hand, and are homogeneous with physical structures, on the other. Thus no epistemological reform would be necessary and the realism of psychology as a natural science would be definitively conserved.” (SC 145/ 135) Later Lewin, Guillaume, and Koffka are found to have versions of this naturalism (BP 159-61). Merleau-Ponty has several arguments against this view. If there is no structural difference between mental, vital, and physical orders, then there is no difference at all and consciousness would be literally what happens in the brain (SC 146/ 136 f.). Further, it is not obvious that there are physiological substrata for all behavioral structures, especially the complexes described in Psychoanalysis (SC 83 n. l/ 76 n. 93). Finally, for now, only for pathological cases or under laboratory conditions, where they are removed from their action contexts, are perceptual behaviors explainable with physical models (SC 163/ 150). This reductionism is objected to again in PP (268 n./ 232 n.2).
The more elaborate version of this naturalism is explicated and rejected in relation to the notions of constancy hypothesis and prejugé du monde. The critique of the Konstanzannehme was already accepted by Merleau-Ponty in 1934, where it is defined as the postulation “of sensations as the primary data of consciousness which one supposes to correspond term for term with the local excitations of the sensory apparatus in such a way that a given excitation always produces the same sensation” (G 192, cf. PP 263/ 228 & BP 190); because the visual and auditory organs are separate, it is also believed on the basis of the constancy hypothesis that auditory and visual data are separate (PP 133/ 114). To understand this hypothesis and the objections to it accepted by Merleau-Ponty, we need also to grasp the distinction between “geographical” and “behavioral” environments, which can be expressed in a slightly different way: “Koffka distinguishes an objective world, in which all things are in themselves, and a phenomenal world in which things are for a conduct, according to the manner in which I treat the external elements and in which I form [dessine] the segregations of objects”(17) According to this distinction, two concepts of stimulus and also of response can be specified.
On analysis, the equivocal notion of stimulus separates into two: it includes and confuses the physical event as it is in itself, on the one hand, and the situation as it is “for the organism,” on the other, with only the latter being decisive in the reactions of the animal (SC 139/ 129).
Like that of stimulus, the notion of response separates into “geographical behavior”—the sum of the movements actually executed by the animal in their objective relation with the physical world; and behavior properly so called—these same movements considered in their internal articulation and as a kinetic melody gifted with a sense (SC 140/ 130).
This is an illustration:
Two chimpanzees placed in an identical geographical environment, i.e., in a cage where there is a box and bananas that hang from the roof; one then takes the box and uses it to reach the bananas; the other sits on the box.—If the geographic environments are the same, the behavioral environments are different. Immanent in the behavior is a valuing of the box-object now as something to climb on, now as something to sit on. (BP 155)
The gestaltists accepted the distinction between the two environments but not the specification of it whereby there is a one-to-one correspondence between physical stimuli in the objective or geographical world and elementary data called sensations in the phenomenal or behavioral world. The problem with this constancy hypothesis is that the sensations it posits are often difficult if not impossible to observe. “For example, the intensity of a sound under certain circumstances lowers its pitch, the addition of auxiliary lines makes two figures unequal which are objectively equal, a colored area appears to be the same color over the whole of its surface, whereas the chromatic thresholds of the different parts of the retina ought to make it red in one place, orange somewhere else, and in certain cases colorless” (PP 14/ 7). The sensation is not the only auxiliary hypothesis generated to make the constancy hypothesis work. “Even if what we perceive does not correspond to the objective properties of the stimulus, the constancy hypothesis obliges us to admit that the ‘normal sensations’ are already there. They must then be unperceived, and the function which reveals them, as a searchlight illuminates objects pre-existing in the darkness, is called attention” (PP 34/ 26, cf. BP 206). The notion of an unperceived sensation is of course absurd. Finally, “against the testimony of consciousness, the law of constancy cannot avail itself of any crucial experiment in which it is not already implied, and wherever we believe we are establishing it, it is already presupposed” (PP 15/ 8). In short, “objective” conditions do not govern the sensuous field part for part.
In objecting to the constancy hypothesis in the above fashion, Merleau-Ponty was not, however, beyond Gestalt Psychology. This school had already performed this critique at its inception. Even so, it still wanted to explain the phenomenal world by means of the objective world. “So we are back in explanatory psychology, the ideal of which has never been abandoned by Gestalt Psychology, because, as psychology, it has never broken with naturalism” (PP 58/ 47). One can respect the integrity of the perceptual gestalt and thus not resort artificially to unperceived sensations and attention and still consider that a gestalt is at least in part the effect of physical events in the objective world. Where Merleau-Ponty goes beyond the Gestaltists is in proposing that something implied not only in the constancy hypothesis but also in the alternative gestaltist explanations with isomorphic physiological and physical gestalten is questionable. This is the prejugé du monde, the assumption of an external world or geographical environment which is as natural science tells us it is, even though it is by definition beyond what we can perceive. Justifying that seems a philosophical task not undertaken by the Gestaltists, who were then naively realistic indeed.
In Merleau-Ponty’s writings there are many remarks about how Husserlian Phenomenology, as Merleau-Ponty comprehended it, might replace the naive naturalism espoused by the Gestaltists. Fully to interpret what amounts to Merleau-Ponty’s examination of phenomenology, including his discussion of Husserl’s critique of Gestalt Psychology’s psychologism, is beyond the scope of the present study. However, something of the Gestalt Psychology-Phenomenology connection he saw should be dealt with here on the gestaltist side. Koffka is said expressly to have recognized his debt to Husserl (PP 62 n./ 50 n, P 47) and to have responded in an interesting way to the charge of psychologism: “The description of the ‘psyche’ in terms of structures, of form, as a vindication of the order of [ideal (?)] significations, would give satisfaction, essentially, to philosophy” (BP 148). Early on, Merleau-Ponty wrote that “one can maintain(18) that Husserl’s analyses lead to the threshold of Gestalt Psychology” (G 191). In SC there is call for a new philosophy of gestalt beyond substantialism and causalism (32ff./ 32ff.) and he writes programmatically:
To return to perception as to a type of original experience in which the real world is constituted in its specificity is to impose upon oneself an inversion of the natural movement of consciousness;(19) on the other hand, every question has not been eliminated: it is a question of understanding, without confusing it with a logical relation, the lived relation of the “profiles” to the “things” which they present, of the perspectives to the ideal significations that are intended through them.(20)
In PP we are told that criticism of the constancy hypothesis develops, as we have seen, into a critique of the dogmatic belief in the objective world (37/ 29).
However, the psychologists who practice the description of phenomena are not normally aware of the philosophical implications of their method. They do not see that the return to perceptual experience, insofar as it is a consequential and radical reform, condemns all forms of realism, that is to say, all philosophies which leave consciousness behind and take as given one of its results—that the teal sin of intellectualism lies precisely in having taken as given the determinate universe of science, that this reproach applies a fortiori to psychological thinking, since it places perceptual consciousness in the midst of a ready-made world, and that the attack on the constancy hypothesis carried to its logical conclusion assumes the value of a genuine ‘phenomenological reduction.’(21)
Just what such a “phenomenological reduction” might precisely signify cannot be discussed here, but it is clear that for Merleau-Ponty Phenomenology means, at the very least description of what appears without explanation by means of the external and unobservable factors naively posited in the prejugé du monde. If a phenomenological approach encorporating Gestalt Psychological results is therefore descriptive, what more can be said of it? For one thing, it provides allegedly a theory of the kind of reflection which the Gestaltists practiced (PP 62/ 50). This is difficult to construe, but perhaps it means that in approaching ordinary as well as analytic perceptual behavior from within and from without there is a constant effort to consider objects with respect to how they are for the perception or behaving of them and vice versa. Finally, Merleau-Ponty believed that in a phenomenological standpoint the categories for describing gestalten could be improved. “But what Gestalt Psychology lacks for the expression of these perceptual relationships is a new set of categories; it has admitted the principle, and applied it in a few individual cases, but without realizing that a complete reform of the understanding is called for if we are to translate phenomena accurately” (PP 60/ 49). Two types of category are reinterpreted by Merleau-Ponty:
Employing a concept of “motivation” drawn from Husserl and Edith Stein (PP 61/ 49 & PP 39/ 31, cf. SC 234/ 218), Merleau-Ponty endeavors to overcome a failure of Gestalt Psychology to describe the depth of the visual field adequately (Cf. PP 301/ 259 on apparent shape).
Gestalt theory has clearly shown that the alleged signs of distance—the apparent size of the object, the number of objects interposed between it and us, the disparity of retinal images, the degree of accommodation and convergence—are expressly known only in an analytic or reflective perception which turns away from the object to bear on its mode of presentation, and that we do not go through these stages in knowing distances. (PP 58/ 47)
For example, sitting on the bed in a hotel room one might look up and see a church steeple out the window against the sky as rather near, then stand up and, as the other buildings, streets, fields, etc. in between came into view, see the steeple become instead fairly distant. One could sit down again and have the steeple come close once more.
The objects interposed between us and the thing upon which I fix my eyes are not perceived for themselves; they are nevertheless perceived, and we have no reason for refusing marginal perception a role in the seeing of distance, since, when the intervening objects are hidden by a screen, the distance appears to shrink. The objects which fill the field do not act on the apparent distance like a cause on its effect. When the screen is removed, we see remoteness born of the intervening objects.
It is not, however, a question of a connection recognized by objective logic, the logic of constituted thought: for there is no reason why a steeple should appear to me smaller and farther away when I am better able to see in detail the slopes and fields between me and it. There is no reason, but there is a motive. (PP 60/ 48)
What then is “motivation”? First we have a general statement and then, deep in PP, a transfer from the traditional situation of how one act (or behavior) motivates another to the interrelationship of moments in the visual field.
One phenomenon releases another, not by means of some objective efficacy, like those which link the events of nature together, but by the sense which it holds out.
To the degree that the motivated phenomenon is released, an internal relationship to the motivating phenomenon appears and, instead of the one merely succeeding the other, the motivated phenomenon makes the motivating phenomenon explicit and comprehended, and thus seems to have preexisted its own motive. (PP 61/ 50)
What do we understand by a motive, and what do we mean when we say, for example, that a trip is motivated? We mean thereby that it has its origin in certain given facts, not in so far as these facts by themselves have the physical power to produce it, but insofar as they provide reasons for undertaking it. The motive is an antecedent which acts only through its sense and it must even be added that it is the decision which affirms this sense as valuable and gives it force and efficacy. Motive and decision are two elements of a situation; the former is the situation as fact, the second the situation is assumed. Thus a death motivates my trip because there is a situation in which my presence is required, be it to comfort the bereaved family or be it to pay “last respects” to the dead and, in deciding to take this trip, I validate this motive which proposes itself and I take up this situation. The relation of the motivating and the motivated is thus reciprocal.
The enlarged moon on the horizon has long been explained by the large number of interposed objects which emphasize the distance and consequently increase the apparent diameter. It follows that the phenomenon of “apparent size” and the phenomenon of distance are two moments of a whole organization of the field, that the first stands to the second neither in the relationship of sign to signification not in the relationship of cause to effect, and that, like the motivating factor to the motivated act, they communicate through their sense. Apparent size as lived, instead of being the sign or indication of a depth invisible in itself, is nothing other than a way of expressing our vision of depth. (PP 299/ 258)
To ascertain what is motivating for something motivated, the recourse would seem to be to an analytic attitude. Thus not only would one reflect upon and confine oneself to describing gestalten but one would also on occasion analyze them, although what one thus investigates “phenomenologically” is neither reflective nor analytic itself. “When I look freely, in the natural attitude, at the parts of the field acting on one another and motivating this enormous moon on the horizon, this magnitude without measure is still a magnitude. Consciousness must be brought into the presence of its unreflective life within the things and awakened to its own history which it was forgetting, this is the true role of philosophical reflection. . .” (PP 40/ 31)
In addition to motivation there is another categorical reworking, which can be presented beginning with an example.
If I walk along the beach towards a ship which has run aground, and the funnel or masts merge into the forest bordering the sand dune, there will be a moment when these details suddenly become part of the ship, and fuse with it. As I approached, I did not perceive resemblances or proximities which finally came together to form a continuous outline of the ship’s superstructure. I merely felt that the look of the object was going to change, that something was imminent in this tension, like to storm is imminent in storm clouds. Suddenly the spectacle reorganizes itself, satisfying my vague expectation. Only afterwards did I recognize, as justifications for the change, the resemblance and contiguity of what I call “stimuli”—namely the most determinate phenomena, seen at close quarters, and of which I compose the “true world.” (PP 24/ 17)
This concerns the gestalt laws of Wertheimer, the laws of proximity, resemblance, etc. In Gestalt Psychology, on Merleau-Ponty’s view, these terms apply to relations between “objective stimuli,” physical things in the “objective” world, the geographical environment. In his phenomenological reformulation of the gestalt laws, Merleau-Ponty first of all has no place for promimity, resemblance, etc. as “objective.” But as phenomenal or behavioral, in the second place, these factors require a change of attitude to be grasped, which the passage quoted only begins to indicate. “There are no indifferent data which commence as a whole to form a thing because the defacto contingencies or resemblances associate them; on the contrary, it is because we perceive a whole as a thing that the analytic attitude can then discern resemblances and contiguities.”(22)
Where such gestalt laws are concerned, Merleau-Ponty expresses, however, the following reservation.
Its favorite subject of study was those forms whose appearance, especially in the laboratory, is more or less regular, given a certain number of external conditions, i.e., the anonymous sensory functions. It was willing to pay any price for precision in their formulae, even if this meant abandoning to some extent the more complex forms which affect the entire personality, are less simply dependent upon given external conditions, and are for that very reason more difficult to discover but also more valuable for the knowledge of human behavior. (SNS 149/ 85, cf. BP 245/ CAL 62, VI 38f./ 20f.).
Already in the examples of riding in trains and walking on the beach we nevertheless have seen Merleau-Ponty attempt to use gestaltist thought beyond the laboratory. In writings after PP he applied it also to the film (SNS 85ff/ 48ff.) and regarding painting, e.g., the distinction between Cézanne and the Impressionists (SNS19f./ llf.), presupposes it. In relation to other disciplines he finds matters which he also comprehends in gestaltist terms. Regarding Linguistics, consider these assertions.
The only reality is the Gestalt of language.
French is not an objective reality which can be sliced up along strict boundaries in space and time; it is a dynamic reality, a Gestalt in the simultaneous and the successive.
Language would not be a Gestalt of the movement, but a Gestalt in movement, evolving toward a certain equilibrium. Moreover, the Gestalt would be capable of losing this equilibrium, once it has been obtained, by a phenomenon of wearing down and of seeking a new equilibrium in another direction. (BP 256/ CAL 92-100)
While gestaltist elements are perhaps swamped by structuralism in discussions of Sociology and Ethnology (cf. S 123ff/ 98ff & S 143ff/ 114ff), Merleau-Ponty’s treatment of Marxist Historiography is rather interesting. Regarding Freud as well as Marx on the question of why the sense of our behavior might be hidden from us, we are told that “it is not a question of an unconscious which plays tricks; the phenomenon of mystification pertains to how all consciousness is a privileging consciousness of ‘figure’ and tends to forget the ‘ground’ without which it has no sense” (BP 112). In a much broader way, there is the following statement.
To be a Marxist is to believe that economic problems and cultural or human problems are a single problem and that the proletariat as history has shaped it holds the solution to that unique problem. In modern language, it is to believe that history has a Gestalt, in the sense German writers give to the word, a total process moving toward a state of equilibrium, the classless society, which cannot be achieved without the effort and action of men, but which is indicated in the present crisis as their solution—the power of man over nature and the mutual reconciliation of men. In music a given note on the strings requires a note of the same pitch from the wind and brass; in an organism a given state of the respiratory system requires a given state of the cardiovascular or sympathetic nervous system if the whole is to have the greatest efficacy; in an electric conductor of a certain design the charge at a given point must be such that the whole obeys a fixed law of distribution. In the same way, history, according to Marxist politics, is a system which proceeds by leaps and crises toward proletarian power and the development of a world proletariat, the norm of history, calling for determinate solutions in each domain, each partial change being necessarily retained in the whole. (HT 139/ 130, cf. HT 165f./ 153, SNS 222/ 126, AD 105/ 77, and PP 73ff./ 60f.)
From this it is clear that the reservation regarding gestalt laws and laboratory work quoted above, and also the last and related complaint, namely: “But the enthusiasm is no longer with it; nowhere have we the sentiment of approaching a science of man” (VI 39/ 21), are about the letter and not the spirit of gestaltist research.
PRIMARY SOURCES USED IN THIS STUDY
Note: Numbers in citations before the slash refer to the French editions and those after the slash refer to the English translations.
AD = Les Adventures de la dialectique, Paris, Gallimard, 1955 / Adventures of the Dialectic, trans. Joseph Bien, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1973.
BP = “Maurice Merleau-Ponty à la Sorbonne, Résumé de ses cours établi par des étudiants et approuvé par lui-même, “Bulletin de Psychologie, Vol, XVIII (1964). Thus far, only one of these seven courses has been translated (but cf. P, below), namely: Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language, trans. Hugh J. Silverman, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1973.
EP = Éloge de la philosophie, Paris,
Gallimard, 1953 / In Praise of Philosophy, trans. John Wild & James
Theordore F. Geraets, Vers une nouvelle philosophie transcendentale,
HT = Humanisme el terreur. Paris,
Gallimard, 1947 / Humanism and Terror, trans. John O’Neill,
P = The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie, Northwestern University Press, 1964. In addition to items subsequently retranslated elsewhere, this title contains translations of “Le Primal de la perception et ses conséquences philosophiques” (1947), “Un inedit de Maurice Merleau-Ponty” (1952), and, in versions slightly different from those in BP, the courses “Les Sciences de L’homme” (incomplete) and “Les Relations avec autrui chez 1’enfant” (1950-51); it has not seemed necessary to consult the originals of these translations.
PP = Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris,
Gallimard, 1945 / Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith,
PW = La Prose du monde, Paris, Gallimard, 1969/ The Prose of the World, trans. John O’Neill, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1973.
RC = Resumes de cours, Collège de France 1952-60, Paris, Gallimard, 1968 / Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France 1952-60, trans. John O’Neill, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1970.
S = Signes,
SC = La Structure du comportement, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, Second Edition, 1949 / The Structures of Behavior, trans. Alden L. Fisher, Boston, Beacon Press, 1963.
SNS = Sens et non-sens, Paris, Nagel, 1948 / Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus A Patricia Alien Dreyfus, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1964.
(1) Published in Research in Phenomenology Vol. 10 (1980): pp. 89‑121. A sketch of this study was read in the symposium on The Philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty at the meeting devoted to French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century of the Society for the Study of the History of Philosophy meeting with the American Philosophical Association in December 1978.
(2) With Vers une nouvelle philosophie
transcendentale, la genése de la philosophie de Maurice Merleau-Ponty jusqu’a la Phénoménologie de la
(3) That there is more going on in Merleau-Ponty’s thought than is dealt with here even where the assimilation of gestaltist thought is concerned is perhaps most directly conveyed by this passage. “By a natural development, the notion of ‘Gestalt’ led us back to its Hegelian meaning, that is, to the concept before it has become consciousness of self. Nature, we said, is the exterior of a concept. But precisely the concept as concept has no exterior and the Gestalt still had to be conceptualized as unity of the interior and exterior, of nature and idea.” (SC 227/ 210)
(4) To save space, time, and energy, the many references offered here are presented textually and in accordance to the usually self-evident abbreviations with initials set forth in the appended list of primary texts. The page number before the slash refers to the French edition used, that after it to the English translation.
(5) See Steven Watson, “Merleau-Ponty’s Encounter with Saussure,” in Phenomenology, Selected Essays from the Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty Circles, publisher being sought, Joseph Bien, “Man and the Economic: Merleau-Ponty’s Interpretation of Historical Materialism,” Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. III (1972) and Osborne Wiggins, Jr., “Merleau-Ponty and Piaget: An Essay in Philosophical Psychology,” Man and World, vol. 12 (1979).
(6) The prominent exception here is Martin C. Dillon, “Gestalt Theory and Merleau-Ponty’s Concept of Intentionality,” Man and World, Vol. 4 (1971). On the basis of what is undertaken in the present essay, the present author will discuss Dillon’s interesting treatment on another occasion.
(7) Where Gelb-Goldstein is concerned, two passages deserve quotation. “Gelb and Goldstein conclude . . . that the first task, prior to any attempt at physiological interpretation, is to give as exact an interpretation of the morbid behavior as possible. But the experiments to be performed in order analyze the consciousness of the patient would be plainly suggested by the guiding ideas of a psychology of normal perception On the case of Gelb and Goldstein by those of Gestalt Psychology).” (G 190, cf. SC 70 ff./ 64 ff.) “The procedures of traditional psychology are strangely mixed with concrete emphasis derived from Gestalt Psychology in the writings of Gelb and Goldstein. They recognize clearly enough that the perceiving subject reacts as a whole, but the totality is conceived as a mixture and touch receives from its co-existence with sight only a ‘qualitative nuance,’ whereas according to the spirit of Gestalt Psychology two sensory realms can only communicate by being integrated as inseparable moments into an intersensory organization. Now if tactual data, along with visual ones, constitute a whole configuration, it is clearly only on the condition that they themselves, on their own terrain, realize a spatial organization, for otherwise the connection between touch and sight would be an external association, and the tactual data would remain, in the total configuration, what they each are taken to be in isolation—two consequences ruled out by Gestalt Theory.—It is fair to add that, in another work (Bericht über den IX. Kongress für experimentelle Psychologie in München, “Die psychologische Bedeutung pathologischer Störungen der Raumwahrnehmung”), Gelb himself points out the inadequacy of the work just analyzed. We may not even speak, he says, of a coalescence of touch and sight in the normal subject, or even make any distinction between these two components in reactions to space. The purely tactual experience, like the purely visual experience, with its space of juxtaposition and its represented space, are products of analysis. There is a concrete manipulation of space in which all senses collaborate in an ‘undifferentiated unity’ (p. 76) and the sense of touch is ill-adapted [impropre] only to the thematic knowledge of space. (PP 138 n./ 119 n.).
(8) Personal communication. Cf. Lester Embree, “Biographical Sketch of Aron Gurwitsch,” in Lester Embree, ed., Life-World and Consciousness, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, for Merleau-Ponty’s contact with Gurwitsch, two of whose publications—on Gestalt Psychology and on Psychology and Phonological Linguistics—he helped with linguistically. On the other side of this connection, see Lester Embree, “Gurwitsch’s Critique of Merleau-Ponty,” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, forthcoming.
(9) Geraets reports as follows. “In a course on The Foundations
of Psychology, taught at the Faculté des Lettres at
(10) Because the existing English translations are often so inadequate where passages on Gestalt Psychology are concerned, an unusual quantity of freshly translated passages is included here.
(11) One could think that in presenting the world as a whole of ‘images,’ Bergson wanted to suggest that the ‘thing’ could not be resolved into ‘states of consciousness’ or sought beyond what we see, in a substantial reality. In a much less precise language, this would be, certainly, an anticipation of the noema of Husserl. In the same way, one can find that Sartre is a severe judge of the distinction between matter and form in the image, when he finds it in certain psychologists . . . and too quickly grants to Husserl his distinction of hylé and morphé,—one of the points of his doctrine which has been challenged even in Germany and offers in fact the most difficulties.” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “J.-P. Sartre, L’Imagination,” Journal de Psychologie normale et pathologique, Vol. 33 (1936), p. 761. (The allusion is, of course, to Gurwitsch’s work.))
(12) Psychologists used [“structure”] to designate the configurations of the perceptual field, those totalities articulated by certain lines of force, and where every phenomenon has its local value” (S 146/ 117, cf. SNS 153/ 87 & BP 211).
(13) The following is the original key passage. “But, even unknown to us, the true signification of our life is no less the effective law of it. Everything happens as if it oriented the flux of psychic events. Hence it will be necessary to distinguish their ideal signification, which can be true or false, and their immanent signification,—or, to employ a clearer language which we will use henceforth: their actual structure and their ideal signification.” (SC 237/ 221) Attention has been drawn nicely to this distinction by Claude Panaccio, “Structure et Signification dans l’oeuvre de Merleau-Ponty,” Dialogue, Vol. 9 (1970). This distinction seems obscure for some Merleau-Ponty interpreters and it would be interesting to read through that oeuvre in relation to it.
(14) PP 38/ 30. “Gestalt Theory has emphasized the existence of a structuration proper to individuals of the categories of adult and child and if one rejects the hypothesis of the constancy of the object, attention finds itself reduced to an abstract name for designating the changes of structuration which intervene in our perception. It is no longer a question of an attention which more or less illuminates an unchanging field but rather of a power of restructuring, of making components of the countryside which did not exist phenomenally appear. Hence there is no longer an illumination of pre-existent details but rather a transformation of the object.” (BP 131) cf. p. 110 below.
(15) See Note 13 above.
(16) The curious objections to Gurwitsch expressed at BP 210 and BP 214 must be discussed in another context and on another occasion, where Merleau-Ponty’s position(s[?]) on ideal objects is thematized. Attention is called on the above matters to Gayne Nerney, “The Gestalt of Problem-Solving: An Interpretation of Max Wertheimer’s Productive Thinking,” Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, Vol. 10 (1979).
(17) BP 155, cf. SC 139/ 129, SC 171/ 158, PP 94/ 79, PP 130/ 112, etc.
(18) Merleau-Ponty’s note: “Gurwitsch, “Phänomenologie der Thematik und des reinen Ich,” Psychologische Forschung, 1929.”
(19) Merleau-Ponty’s note: “We are defining here the ‘phenomenological reduction’ in the sense which is given to it in Husserl’s final philosophy.” Earlier Merleau-Ponty wrote (“Christianism and ressentiment,” La Vie Intellectuelle, Vol. 36 (1935), p. 288): “We must describe consciousness without prejudice as it appears immediately, the ‘phenomenon’ of consciousness in all of its original variety. Nevertheless, the claims of a phenomenology of emotional life do not reduce to those of a descriptive psychology. The ‘suspension’ (epoche) of the natural movement which carries consciousness toward the world, toward spatio-temporal existence, and locks it in there [l’y enferme], this phenomenological reduction does not only bring about a more accurate [fidele] introspection: it truly introduces a new mode of knowledge, which bears as much on the world as on the ego. For, nevertheless, if we no longer grant any unreflective priority to things, to states of consciousness enmeshed [engagés] in space and time, and to the causal explanations which they let in, if we follow the articulations of the ‘phenomena’ within living consciousness, the properties, the connections which they manifest with evidence,—new laws appear to us, there is a necessity which is no longer physical but essential . . .”
(20) (SC 236/ 220) Merleau-Ponty’s note: “The notion of ‘intentionality’ will be of help in this regard.”
(21) Merleau-Ponty’s note: “See A. Gurwitsch, Review of Nachwort zu meiner Ideen by Husserl, pp. 401 ff.”
(22) In “Gestalt Law in Phenomenological Perspective” (Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, Vol. 10 (1979), the present author has advanced an account which silently incorporates this view but perhaps goes beyond it.