Merleau-Ponty & Wittgenstein

by Carl Pierer

Picture Frame

Perception lies at the heart of our everyday life. Both Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein have derived radical philosophical results from paying close attention to the structures of our perception. This essay attempts to illustrate a deep affinity between the two thinkers: not only do both discover a common dualistic ontology underlying their opponents' view, but they also face similar difficulties in trying to overcome this dualism. While Merleau-Ponty's project in the Phenomenology of Perception remains unfinished, it is Wittgenstein's radical conception of the philosophical project that allows him to truly subvert the dualism.

Merleau-Ponty's analysis uncovers aspects of perception that are inherently paradoxical for empiricism and intellectualism: “Thus there is a paradox of immanence and transcendence in perception. Immanence, because the perceived object cannot be foreign to him who perceives; transcendence, because it always contains something more than what is actually given.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964, p. 16)

Empiricism claims that all knowledge is derived from experience. Experience is grounded in the sphere of transcendence: the external world, things in themselves, objects. For empiricism, there is a direct input from this sphere, an atomic ‘sensation', and the richness of perception is constituted of such atomic ‘sensations'. However, as Merleau-Ponty shows, this ignores the fact that perception is always already meaningful: “To perceive is not to experience a multitude of impressions that bring along with them some memories capable of completing them, it is to see an immanent sense bursting forth from a constellation of givens without which no call to memory is possible.” (Merleau-Ponty 2014, p.23)

In this way, immanence, i.e. interiority, consciousness, and subjectivity, becomes an issue for empiricism: if the perceived object is not to some extent familiar in advance, in other words, not already meaningful for us, there is no point at which the richness and meaning of perception could be constituted. This thought is developed and motivated in great detail in the early chapters of the Phenomenology.

Intellectualism, in contrast, begins from the sphere of immanence. Consciousness imposes certain structures on our experience to organise it into a meaningful perception. However, this renders error inconceivable: “But if we see what we judge, how can we distinguish true perception from false perception?” (Ibid. p.36) The world would be perfectly clear and meaningful for us, without mistake or flaw since any experience would have to conform our organising structures. Because there are ambiguities in perception, intellectualism thus faces the problem that there is always something more to perception than what is given in the immediate sphere of immanence. It always contains a transcendent aspect. In other words, if the perceived object is already perfectly familiar in advance, then there could be nothing that escapes our perception.

This immanence-transcendence paradox, reminiscent of Meno's paradox[1], arises from both views' commitment to a fundamental partition of existence into a sphere of transcendence and one of immanence. It is a properly mathematical partition, meaning that everything that is has to belong to one and only one of the spheres. This commitment prevents a satisfactory account of the phenomenon of perception[2]. For, if any phenomenon has to belong to either sphere but not to both, then perception, which bridges the two, remains ambiguous, if not unconceivable. Yet, if indeed perception manages to bridge the two, then there is something which belongs to both/neither side/s of the dichotomy, thus showing that the dichotomy is not exhaustive. Moreover, because for Merleau-Ponty any inquiry is grounded in perception[3], the dichotomy cannot be fundamental.

Instead there is something prefiguring the dichotomy: Attention to perception reveals the body to be always implicated in perception. The body, as that through which we perceive the world, is always already there. In other words, it is the ‘primordial habit'[4]. Pre-reflectively, the body is neither an object nor a subject for us. It only becomes an object, if attention is focused on it[5].

Thus, Merleau-Ponty's analysis has revealed a common ontological dichotomy underlying empiricism and intellectualism. Perception's paradoxical air is owed to this dichotomy. His discovery of the body as implicated in perception does not only lead to a different, non-paradoxical theory of perception, but to a much more radical ontological claim: that the transcendence-immanence dichotomy is not fundamental, but derived from a primordial unity, which is exemplified in our relation to our body.


Wittgenstein's treatment of ‘seeing-as' parallels the previous line of argument. Departing, like Merleau-Ponty, from a serious consideration of Gestalt psychology's findings, Wittgenstein gives a careful analysis of the phenomenon of Gestalt shift.

For Wittgenstein, noticing an aspect means to begin to see the picture in a different way, such that the picture is radically transformed[6]. The prime example is that of the duck-rabbit: while initially I might see a duck, when I continue to look at the picture, suddenly I see the rabbit. While the picture itself, and also the visual organisation, remains unchanged, something in my perception of it has changed – now, I am seeing it as a rabbit[7]. Although parallels can be drawn here with Merleau-Ponty's analysis of the difficulties empiricism and intellectualism face in coping with visual illusions[8], it is more illustrative to follow Mulhall's (1990) lead and understand Wittgenstein's interest to lie in a much broader issue.

The notion of aspect-dawning opens up space for a third term, sitting in between aspect-dawning and knowing: “the ‘continuous seeing' of an aspect”. Wittgenstein gives the example of the drawing of a step, used for some ‘topological demonstration'[9]. To follow the demonstration it is necessary to see the step, that is to hold this perception fixed without constantly finding “(…) that the flat aspect alternates with a three-dimensional one (…)” (Wittgenstein 1953, p. 203). In continuous aspect perception, it does not make sense to talk of seeing it as something else[10]. It is precisely the continuity of the aspect perception that makes this impossible. Seeing something as something else requires a genuine change, the dawning of an aspect, while in the continuous case the picture simply is the aspect being perceived:

“Perhaps the following expression would be better: we regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, the landscape, and so on) depicted there.” (Wittgenstein 1953, p. 205)

Wittgenstein's claim here does not confuse levels of representation: we do not forget that the photograph stands for the object, but to continuously perceive it as a picture of the object we regard it as the object itself. The ‘continuous seeing' of an aspect reveals a special relationship we have to the picture. It is our natural attitude to the picture. If I see a painting of a landscape, I do not say: “Now it's a landscape”, as I would if the aspect dawned on me. Nor do I first see these lines, their angle and colour, and then infer that they are a painting of a landscape. This would be an interpretative stance, characteristic of knowledge. Hence, seeing a painting is something immediate, neither the dawning of an aspect nor knowing what the picture represents.

It would be mistaken to confine this treatment to the realm of visual perception. Rather: “Once it is established that aspect perception is at stake with respect to pictures and schematic figures, the question of whether the same can be said of specifically linguistic symbols (words and sentences uttered or written) arises immediately (…)” (Mulhall 1990, p. 127) For Mulhall, Wittgenstein answers this question affirmatively. The details of this transfer are revealing, but beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say that for Wittgenstein, aspect perception is universal.

This in turn means that the special relation of continuous aspect perception which we have to pictures, is but a special instance of a more general special relation we have to the world. This relation is one of immediacy, one that is always already meaningful. Noticing ‘objects' is the dawning of an aspect of the thing that we simply use:

“It would have made as little sense for me to say “Now I am seeing it as (…)” as to say at the sight of a knife and fork “Now I am seeing this as a knife and fork”. This expression would not be understood. – Any more than: “Now it's a fork” or “It can be a fork too”.” (Wittgenstein 1953, p. 195)

Conversely, Wittgenstein argues that there is no need for aspect-dawning for a thing in the world to be meaningful:

“One doesn't ‘take' what one knows as the cutlery at a meal for cutlery; any more than one ordinarily tries to move one's mouth as one eats, or aims at moving it.” (Ibid.)

There is thus an already meaningful relationship we have to the world, which, as we have seen, empiricism cannot account for. At the same time, the fact that there is aspect-dawning illustrates a change in perception, which remained a mystery for intellectualism. It thus transpires that the immanence-transcendence dualism is not in line with our everyday experience of the world. Instead, our experience suggest a primordial relation to the world that prefigures the dualism. It is here that the affinity of Merleau-Ponty's and Wittgenstein's thought is at its most profound.

The phenomenon of seeing-as demonstrates the unity of seeing and thinking. As we have seen, this idea is also at the heart of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy[11]. This insight reveals the transcendence-immanence paradox to belong entirely to the sphere of philosophical thought, for pre-reflectively, in our being in the world, there is a unity which goes beyond the transcendence-immanence dichotomy.


For Merleau-Ponty, our perception of the world figures a body we inhabit, a ground that lets us perceive. This body, then, is conceived as the middle ground between transcendence and immanence. It prefigures the dualism, because it is that through which there is a world for us. It allows us to bridge the unbridgeable gap between immanence and transcendence, precisely because it is antecedent to the dualistic picture.

The difficulty for Merleau-Ponty, then, is to account for the body's ontological precedence while avoiding the initial dualism. In his later works, Merleau-Ponty criticised his account in the Phenomenology as still too committed to the dualistic picture. The characterisation of the body given there takes consciousness as a prerequisite for our being in the world. This, however, could never explain how events in the sphere of transcendence can have a devastating effect in the sphere of immanence[12].

More problematically still, if the ‘objective' body is constituted by and grounded in the ‘phenomenal' body[13], then the latter remains wedded to the dualism. For, the ‘objective' body, as part of the sphere of transcendence, is thereby reduced to an epiphenomenon of the ‘phenomenal' body, which belongs to the sphere of immanence. The dualism is simply reiterated at a higher level.

It thus seems necessary to show how the body can be both at the same time transcendent and immanent, that is, how these two concepts are woven into each other. This is Merleau-Ponty's project in his later philosophy. However, its treatment lies beyond the scope of this essay. The important insight of this section is that to overcome the dualism, Merleau-Ponty is required to effect a radical change in the way he talks about the body.

It is an ongoing argument whether Merleau-Ponty's later philosophy is indeed a break, and not a continuation of the thoughts present in the Phenomenology. Perhaps it is most sensible to suggest that the later development is a more rigorous treatment of the body, aware of the difficulties arising from applying inherited, dualistic concepts to the body.


It is a commonplace that philosophical activity, for Wittgenstein, should not result in new and better theories. Rather, it is an activity with the aim of effecting change, and in particular a change in our way of seeing.[14]

For Wittgenstein, a (philosophical) theory is like a picture[15]. It offers us a way of looking at the world. Such pictures inform our language, and because of the close tie between language and thought, the pictures present the space in which our thought has to develop. Now, philosophical questions, for Wittgenstein, are not some ethereal eternal problems but rather informed by a certain way of seeing. Philosophers, then, mistakenly forget about these underlying structures, and begin to address the question. Thereby, these structures, the way of seeing, is tacitly incorporated as fundamental, pushed beyond the realm of discussion. A case in point is the above transcendence-immanence dichotomy.

To dissolve these problems, for Wittgenstein, the picture itself has to be changed. Since it is the picture that structures our way of thinking, and this thinking leads us into philosophical confusion, the change has to be radical. This means, as the concepts and ideas employed in our thinking are remnants of the picture we desire to overcome, thinking itself becomes problematic. Hence Wittgenstein's injunction to look, not to think[16]. For it is through attention to our experience, which prefigures the problematic philosophical picture, that this picture can be overcome.

The parallels with Merleau-Ponty's difficulties are striking: as was suggested, Merleau-Ponty is caught by the polarised philosophical terminology available to him. He is required to renounce the primacy of consciousness and to show not only how ‘objective' experience can be grounded in conscious experience, but also how the converse is possible. This necessitates a drastic reversal of concepts, or put differently: a change in the way of seeing.


Through a careful analysis of perception, both Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty discovered a relation to the world that prefigures the transcendence-immanence dualism. In order to overcome this dualism, which is unfit to account for this relation, it was shown that both philosophers have found it necessary to fulfil a radical change in concepts.



BIBLIOGRAPHY Carman, T. (2008). Merleau-Ponty. London & New York: Routledge.

Dillon, M. (1997). Merleau-Ponty's Ontology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Genova, J. (1995). A Way of Seeing. New York & London: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences. In J. M. Edie, The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics (pp. 12-42). Northwestern University Press.

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

Mulhall, S. (1990). On Being In The World – Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Seeing Aspects. London: Routledge.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. (G. Anscombe, Trans.) Oxford.

[1] Cf. (Dillon 1997, pp. 35-57)

[2] Cf. Preface, pp. lxxiii-lxxiv in (Merleau-Ponty 2014)

[3] “The perceived world is the always presupposed foundation of all rationality, all value and all existence.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964, p. 13)

[4] Cf. (Merleau-Ponty 2014, p. 93)

[5] Cf. (Ibid., p. 94)

[6] Cf. (Mulhall 1990, pp. 6-15)

[7] Cf. (Wittgenstein 1953, pp. 194-196)

[8] Cf. Introduction in (Merleau-Ponty 2014)

[9] (Wittgenstein 1953, p. 203)

[10] Cf . (Wittgenstein 1953, p. 206)

[11] “By returning to the phenomena, we find, as a fundamental layer, a whole already pregnant with an irreducible sense” (Merleau-Ponty 2014, p.23)

[12] “One will never understand, starting from that distinction, how a particular fact of the ‘objective' order (a particular cerebral lesion) could entail a particular disturbance of the relation with the world” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, The Visible and the Invisible, cited in Carman 2008, pp. 121-122)

[13] Cf. (Merleau-Ponty 2014, p. 213)

[14] Cf. Genova (1995), p. 2: “Indeed, even theoretical possibilities do not interest him; only chage itself. If the new picture frees one from a fly-bottle, take it and run – no questions asked.”

[15] Cf. (Genova 1995, Introduction)

[16] “(…) For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, ad a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! (…)” (Wittgenstein 1953, p. 31)