More than an Object

by Carl Pierer

“(…) [M]y own body is the primordial habit, the one that conditions all others and by which they can be understood. Its near presence and its invariable perspective are not a factual necessity, since factual necessity presupposes them. (…) I observe external objects with my body, I handle them, inspect them, and walk around them. But when it comes to my body, I never observe it itself. I would need a second body to be able to do so, which would itself be unobservable.” —Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception, p. 93)

3149749131_ef741f9664_oHaving criticised the two dominant, opposing camps – one, broadly speaking, Humean, one Kantian – in the introduction, Merleau-Ponty tries to understand in the present section the role of our body in perception. He argues that the commitment to certain notions as fundamental shared by the two camps is mistaken; most relevant here are those of ‘subject' and ‘object'. In contrast to the inherited view that the subject-object distinction is fundamental, he argues there exists something more primordial: the body. For Merleau-Ponty, because of the body's priority, the accepted distinctions make sense only against the background of the body. To establish this, Merleau-Ponty first shows that our relation to our body is different from our relation to any other object. Then, he demonstrates that the former relation prefigures the latter.

In this quotation, Merleau-Ponty argues that the body cannot be thought as an object among others. If it could, then it would need to be given to us as an object of perception. But, unlike genuine objects of perception:

  1. The body as an object of perception is not the same as the body that perceives.
  2. Even as an ‘object' of perception, our relation to it is different from the one we have to any other object of perception. In particular, it features:
    1. ‘Near presence', and
    2. ‘Inevitable perspective'.

This essay will focus on (2.) to illustrate how thinking about its ‘near presence' and ‘inevitable perspective' reveals the inherited view to render our relation to the body ambiguous, one that fits neither that of a subject nor that of an object. This ambiguity will lead to the idea of the ‘primordial habit'. It would then be but a small step to show that the distinction is based on this primordial relation, yet to do so is beyond this essay.


On the inherited view, an object is something which can at least in principle be separated from the subject. It is an object because it is, or could be, distinct from the subject, “[i]ts presence is such that it requires a possible absence” (PoP, p.92).

By considering our perception of the world, Merleau-Ponty suggests we notice the body as something that is always already there, it is ‘near present' to us. Yet, it cannot be reduced to an object I constantly carry with me. My copy of the Phenomenology that I have on me wherever I go remains an object, for I could leave it at home when heading to the café. I cannot go to the café without my body; it is that through which I am going to the café. The point is subtle: it is not due to its constant presence, but rather because of its impossible absence that the body is not merely an object. Accordingly, Merleau-Ponty suggests, something that has become inseparable from me, cannot be counted as an object, but needs to be seen as part of me[1].

This is closely related to the second aspect: our perception is perspectival; things are always seen from somewhere (cf. PoP, p.69). An object is something that can be seen from different points: I see a cube because I can see its six sides from different perspectives. It is the possibility of taking various perspectives on it that make an object an object. The body cannot be dissociated from any of these perspectives. It is that relative to which these perspectives occur. In fact, Merleau-Ponty seems to suggest that this, the body's ‘inevitable perspective', is what unites the different perspectives (cf. PoP, p.94). But this is precisely the function of the subject. Again, the body becomes something that is more than an object.

Both aspects suggest that there is something about the body “(…) that renders its absence, or even its variation, inconceivable” (PoP, p.93). This something makes the relation to the body necessarily ambiguous on the inherited view, for it renders the body more than an object, yet prevents it from being a subject.

Merleau-Ponty further elaborates on this ambiguity: when we contemplate our own body, something escapes us; we cannot perceive our own body perceiving. When Merleau-Ponty writes: “(…) I can barely catch a glimpse of my living gaze when a mirror on the street unexpectedly reflects my own image back at me.” (PoP, p. 94) it is crucial that he should say ‘barely'. Understanding ‘living gaze' as signifying that which makes the perceiving subject what it is, the following presents itself: It is not so much that I cannot see myself, but rather that as soon as I realize that the reflection is me, I am seeing myself as an object of my perception[2]. The body can only become an object of my perception if it stands out to me, as something I am perceiving. This means, conversely, that normally the body does not stand out. I am immersed in its presence, or put differently: I am used to it.

These considerations lead to the notion of ‘primordial habit' [habitude]. According to Merleau-Ponty, the body is not something we merely live in, but that which we live by. This double nature is reflected in the sophisticated choice of the French ‘habitude', which – like the English ‘habit' – means custom, while the Latin root points to the more physical aspect of clothing [habits], inhabiting [habiter]. Pre-reflectively, the body does not appear to us as an object we might put to some use; we simply use it. Unlike the hammer, which we first need to find in the world, we do not have to locate the body. We intuitively direct it to where it needs to be.

Thinking of the body as a habit explains its ‘near presence' as well as its ‘invariable perspective': it is always there because we are used to it, and it forces a perspective on us because it is that through which we approach objects. Hence, the notion of the ‘primordial habit' captures our special relation to the body, which had to remain ambiguous on the inherited view.


Two worries.

First: when Merleau-Ponty speaks of the body's ‘near presence' he is using a spatial adjective to grasp a fundamental property of the body. But he also claims that concepts such as ‘space' are derived from being embodied. Prima facie, this looks dangerously like a contradiction: while ‘space' presupposes the body, the body requires the concept of ‘spatiality' to be properly described. Perhaps this is not so much a contradiction as precisely the point: it is because our body is spatial – it is the reason that we have a notion of ‘near' at all – that our fundamental embodiment grounds the concept of ‘space'. Merleau-Ponty's later develops this thought more fully into the ‘body schema' (cf. PoP, pp. 100-105), but its proper discussion exceeds the scope of this essay.

Second: What renders the body distinct from objects is that it can never be “(…) ‘completely constituted' (…). It is neither tangible nor visible insofar as it is what sees and touches” (PoP, p. 94). Simultaneously, it seems the object is plagued by an analogous incompleteness. If the object is the totality of perspectives[3], yet it is impossible to grasp this totality[4], then there is something about the object that is not visible insofar as it is an object. This would reapproach the structure of our relation to objects to our relation to our body. The problem is addressed by Merleau-Ponty in establishing a ‘phenomenal field' and locating the missing perspectives in the ‘horizon' surrounding the object (cf. PoP, pp. 52-65). Again, to properly elaborate on this lies beyond this essay.


After having set the context of the citation, this essay presented the details of the argument, addressing possible misunderstandings. Finally, two worries were raised, whose resolution points beyond the citation to the broader theoretical framework developed by Merleau-Ponty.


[1] At the same time, the body cannot simply be the subject (or part thereof) either, for – when I contemplate my hand – it can become an object of my perception.

[2] Cf: “To see an object is either to have it in the margins of the visual field and to be able to focus on it, or actually to respond to this solicitation by focusing on it. When I focus on it, I anchor myself in it (…)” (PoP, pp. 69-70)

[3] “(…) the house itself is (…) the house seen from everywhere.” (PoP, p. 71)

[4] “(…) my human gaze never posits more than one side of the object (…)” (PoP, p. 72)


(PoP): Merleau-Ponty, M. (2014). Phenomenology of Perception. (D. A. Landes, Trans.) London: Routledge.