Essay by Moa Sävenryd
Talking about phenomenology and the relationship between the mind and the body, or rather, the discussion that there is no separation between the two, relates (indirect and direct) to theories and concepts I have come across in my earlier studies in cognitive science. This both makes up for confusion and perspective, and this essay will discuss Merleau-Ponty’s perception in relation to the theories of perception I have studied in cognitive science.
Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception
Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is a phenomenology of perception, as the title to his book written in 1962 obviously states. Merleau-Ponty emphasises that phenomenology is about describing, not explaining, and hence accentuates the essence of perception (p. lxx-lxxxv, 1962). In his article concerning Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, Svanӕs describes Merleau-Ponty’s definition of perception (2013). Here Svanӕs writes that perception according to Merleau-Ponty cannot exist without action, that it is shaped by the ‘phenomenal field’, governed by ‘pre-objective’ intentionality and that it involves the whole body (and sometimes even artefacts). Stating that there is no perception without action explains that when we for example look at an object we do not stand entirely still and look at the object from just one angle. Looking at an object involves us moving our gaze around it, tilting our head to see it in different angles and maybe picking it up and moving it around. Evidently there is a series of actions involved in the simple act of looking at (perceiving) an object. Another example brought up by Svanӕs is that of the cocktail party. At a party with a lot of people we have the ability to focus on one conversation and ignore other conversations going on around us. This demonstrates that perception indeed involves actions, in this case to disregard other conversations to focus on and perceive a chosen one.
The ’phenomenal field’ is described as a person’s personal background, such as experiences and habits. Merleau-Ponty claims that the way we perceive things is shaped by this phenomenal field, this becomes obvious if you think of experiences in work for example. If I would take you to my old work at the sawing mill you would probably look at the machine shown in the picture without being able to understand what it does and how you operate it. Maybe what you see is the sawdust on the mat, or understand that the red and blue pedals must serve different (but unknown) purposes. I on the other hand would perceive it with experience of using it and see entirely different things. Such as that the red pedal is positioned good since it easily slides away when you press it with your foot. Furthermore, I would look to the left in the picture and see that the wood packing up before the red hitches could make a disturbance when starting the machine since it could be too much pressure and the machine would let out too many planks at the same time.
‘Pre-objective’ intentionality is about the fact that our intentions affect what we perceive. If my intention is to find the red house at the end of the street I might miss a friend that passes me by, because my intentions are making me perceive my surroundings in a different way. I have briefly mentioned that we use our body in perception in the example of looking at an object. It is also true that we can extend our body with artefacts and thereby extend our perception, such as the blind man’s stick is an extension of his perception of the path in front of him.
Cognitive science vs. Merleau-Ponty
Reading Merleau-Ponty’s definition of perception got me thinking about a few concepts brought up in my past education. In the course of cognitive psychology, I read about different theories of perception. Among those theories were top-down theories of perception. According to top-down theories, perception is driven by one’s knowledge and expectation as well as high-level cognitive processes (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2011). This agrees with Merleau-Ponty’s ideas of the phenomenal field and pre-objective intentions. Top-down theories takes intentions influence on perception one step further by claiming that if we are looking for a person we might think we see this person without it being there, thus we can perceive (imagine) things that are not there in reality. This seems to go hand in hand with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty too, since he says that imagination is a part of our perception and experience, thus a part of how we perceive the world (p. lxx-lxxxv, 1962).
The cocktail party problem is not an unfamiliar concept to a cognitive scientist, but it is more relevant in the field of attention than perception in cognitive science. It is discussed when describing selective attention, as a way of filtering stimulus to focus attention. Not only does the cocktail party problem describe our ability to focus on one particular conversation, it also discusses that although we filter our attention to one conversation, we are still on some level aware of the other conversations going on around us. This becomes apparent when you are listening to a conversation and another person in another conversation mentions your name, because then your attention will shift to that conversation (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2011). Svanӕs (2013) describes the cocktail party problem as the active distinction between listening and hearing, thus I would claim, in order to compare, that focusing on one conversation is listening and at the same time you are hearing the other conversations, even though your attention is elsewhere.
According to Merleau-Ponty, artefacts can become part of our body and extend our perception of the world, as I mentioned earlier. The concept of artefacts is also widely discussed in cognitive science, especially cognitive artefacts. Cognitive artefacts can simply be defined as artefacts to enhance cognitive abilities, such as perception or memory for example (Norman, 1993). Artefact to enhance perception could be binoculars or magnifying glasses, that is, things that are made to aid the perception of objects that are far away respectively small. Either if we talk about artefacts or cognitive artefacts, we talk about them as extensions of or body and mind. An artefact made to help me remember is an extension of my memory just as the stick is an extension of the blind man’s perception (and arm).
Although concepts are similar, as I have described above, between phenomenology of perception and perception in cognitive science, there is still differences between them. The difference is that of Cognitive Science and Embodied Interaction; cognitive science is mostly concerned with processes inside our mind and these processes have been examined with little connection to the actual world. Where instead Embodied interaction is more concerned with the relationship between the world, artefacts and people’s activities. Thus, the study of cognitive science is more interested in what is happening inside, than how the world outside effects what is happening. This you could see in the cocktail party problem; this is a problem within the domain of attention in cognitive science, as part of a description of how our mind focus on different things. Whereas in phenomenology it is part of the description of how we act and perceive in the world. This distinction is the essence of the difference; the ‘how do our mind focus attention to perceive it’ and ‘how we act in the world and perceive it’. Although I admit that the difference is somewhat ambiguous for me, since it has caused me some confusion during the course.
Merleau-Ponty, M. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, UK.
Norman, D. A. (1993). Things that make us smart: Defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Basic Books.
Sternberg, R.J., & Sternberg, K. (2011). Cognition. Wadsworth.
Svanӕs, Dag. “Interaction design for and with the lived body: Some implications of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology.” ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 20.1 (2013): 8.