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Sloppy Phenomenology

by Bill Meacham on June 1st, 2020

The twentieth-century phenomenologists—Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir, et. al.—have done a great service to philosophy by emphasizing the first-person point of view. Many things become apparent when you quit looking at the world through the lens of objective scientific inquiry and instead pay attention to how it actually appears in your own experience. Neither viewpoint gives the whole truth, of course, but the phenomenological project as originated by Husserl encourages us to take into account aspects of the world that the objective approach tends to overlook: our essential interrelatedness with our surroundings that Heidegger calls Being-in-the-world; the way we, as embodied beings, perceive the world that Merleau-Ponty uses to clarify the relationship between mind and body; de Beauvoir’s emphasis on human freedom as the ultimate and unique end to which we should devote ourselves; and more.

The phenomenologists are exciting and provocative. They point out things that many of us overlook. Unfortunately, they are all too often sloppy thinkers as well. I have noted the faulty logic at the root Sartre’s analysis of what it is to be conscious. Today I want to point out some problems with Merleau-Ponty’s use of the term “consciousness.”

I don’t like the term “consciousness” because it is appallingly ambiguous. I have written a whole paper on the subject of how to speak about being conscious, which I’m told is fairly clear. Rather than summarize it, I urge you to read the paper itself.(1) In this essay I address some things Merleau-Ponty says in his influential and rather monumental Phenomenology of Perception.

  • “I discover in myself a sort of inner weakness that … exposes me to the gazes of others as one man among men or, at the very least, as one consciousness among consciousnesses.”(2)

Here the term “consciousness” seems to mean a conscious being, which might be human or might be something else, perhaps a non-human animal. Given the context, the meaning is not problematic. (Whether being perceivable by others is a weakness is another issue.) But consider this:

  • “… Consciousness itself [is] a project of the world.”(3)

Does “consciousness” here mean a conscious being? Probably not. Does it mean the ability to be conscious? Does it mean an episode or occasion of being conscious? My guess is that he means to say that every instance or occasion, or any typical instance or occasion, of being conscious is a project of the world. (What “project of the world” means I leave for another time.)

  • “But the notion of attention … has for itself no evidence from consciousness.”(4)

Does “consciousness” here mean episodes of being conscious, none of which provide evidence for the notion of attention? Perhaps it means a typical instance or episode of being conscious. (If so, is it really true that no episode of being conscious provides such evidence? That is a question for each of us to verify for ourself once we have sufficiently understood what Merleau-Ponty is asserting.)

  • “The determinate quality by which empiricism wanted to define sensation is an object for, not an element of consciousness ….”(5)

An object for consciousness, I take it, is an object of which we can be conscious, that we can perceive in some way. If so, “consciousness” means that which is conscious, the subject of an instance of being conscious of something. But what does he mean by “an element of consciousness”? “Consciousness” must mean something other than that which is conscious, because that which is conscious has no elements.

My guess is that he is alluding to Husserl’s distinction between noesis, structural elements in episodes of being conscious that help determine the manner in which we are conscious of something, and noema, the object of which we are conscious (which may or may not correspond to an actual object in the objective world we all inhabit). If I am right, “consciousness” in the latter phrase means a typical instance or state of being conscious of something. Merleau-Ponty is asserting that the qualities that we sense are not structural elements in such states but rather things (using the term “things” loosely) that we are conscious of through or by means of the structural elements. Regrettably, he uses the term “consciousness” in two different ways in the same sentence. No wonder the meaning is obscure.

I might be wrong about that, as I am just now diving into Merleau-Ponty, but my point is that one reason he is hard to understand is because he uses the term “consciousness” to mean different things in different places and does not make clear which sense he means in any given instance.

It’s already hard enough to speak in first-person generalities about experience because language is essentially public and we are trying to talk about what is private. Merleau-Ponty’s ambiguity makes it even harder. I am tempted to scold him: Bad phenomenologist!


(1) Meacham, “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’)”.

(2) Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. lxxvi.

(3) Idem, p. lxxxii.

(4) Idem, p. 7.

(5) Ibid.


Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’)”. Online publication and as of 31 May 2020.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Phenomenology of Perception. Tr. Donald A. Landes. Abingdon, Oxfordshire, and New York: Routledge, 2012.

From → Philosophy

One Comment
  1. Danny Schweers permalink

    That phrase is an interesting one: “Consciousness itself [is] a project of the world.” Without being overtly religious, to me the phrase suggests an over-arching consciousness beyond ourselves and our fellow conscious being.

    I remember liking Merleau-Ponty’s writings but never studied his work.

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