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Mary Jennings

Doubt, Certainty and Knowledge in the Context of the Critique of Descartes' Cogito in Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception

Descartes' decision to "devote [himself] sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of [his] opinions" was aimed at establishing "what was stable and likely to last" by way of knowledge about himself and his opinions, the world he lived in and particularly what he refers to as 'the sciences'[1]. The method he chooses is to put everything into doubt — what his senses tell him, what he experiences in sleeping and dreaming — to the point that he even speculates that an 'evil deceiver' might be behind the knowledge he has of himself and the world. But, on further reflection, he comes to the conclusion that, fundamentally, he is a thinking thing: "I think, I exist," he says in the Second Meditation[2]. This he cannot doubt and therefore the capacity to think becomes the foundation that is 'stable and likely to last'. The 'I' '"necessarily exists" he says, even if at this point in his meditations he does not have a sufficient understanding of what this means. He begins to explore himself and the world on this basis.

Having meditated on a piece of wax — which he can touch, see and picture in his imagination — he concludes that the perception of bodies (in this case a piece of wax) "derives not from their being touched or seen but from their being understood"[3]. For Descartes, there is a clear separation between mind and body and for him, it is the mind or intellect which ultimately provides the means he has of knowing not just 'bodies' in the world, but himself: "very little about corporeal things [that] is truly perceived, whereas much more is known about the human mind", he says in the Fourth Meditation[4]. In the Sixth Meditation, he says that material things are at least capable of existing in that they are" the subject matter of pure mathematics" — things he can perceive "clearly and distinctly"[5] and it is by this route that he can know them.

He goes on in the Sixth Meditation to say that his own body is "simply an extended, non-thinking thing", whereas the 'I' that thinks is "simply a thinking, non-extended thing": accordingly, he concludes — without doubt now — that, "it is certain that I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it"[6]. He describes imagination and sensory perception as "special modes of thinking" which could not exist "without an intellectual substance to inhere in". But, it would appear, there are very unreliable connections between these modes of thinking and the more foundational intellect — between the unreliable senses and imagination and the clear and distinct ideas of the mind.[7] In the end, Descartes believes that God, who is "not a deceiver", would not 'transmit' false ideas via the body and imagination to the mind. In this way, Descartes can "attain the truth" even in the face of the unreliability of some of his faculties and "knowledge of the truth ... seems to belong to the mind alone, not to the combination of mind and body"[8].

In Descartes philosophy therefore there is a split between subject and object, between the 'I' and things outside of the 'I'. He gives primacy to the intellect which has no direct access to the outside world. As Dreyfus says, "modern scepticism about the existence of the external world begins with Descartes"[9] since, if Descartes is correct, all we can know is what is in our own minds; we are sealed within this chamber. In this scenario there is every possibility that we would have the same experience of the world as a 'brain in a vat' as we do with a brain in a body.

Merleau-Ponty, in contrast to Descartes, gives primacy to perception as the way to know ourselves and the world we live in: "When Descartes tell us that the existence of visible things is doubtful, but that our vision, when considered as a mere thought of seeing is not in doubt, he takes up an untenable position". For Merleau-Ponty it would not make sense "to revert with Descartes from things to thought about things". It would not make sense for him to say that the perception could not be doubted but the thing perceived can be doubted: "to see is to see something": this is of the essence of vision — to see something. If we doubt the presence of something we 'see' then neither can I be certain of my thought about that. This is the untenable position he ascribes to Descartes' doubting of his capacity to know things. But if I grasp my thought with certainty this involves the assumption of the existence of the thing towards which that thought is projected, Merleau-Ponty contends.

What then is perception for Merleau-Ponty? "Perception is the background from which all acts stand out and is presupposed by them". It provides us with 'access to the truth', he says. We must not "wonder whether we really perceive a world... the world is what we perceive" and later he sums up by saying "the world is not what I think, but what I live through"[10]. The world is not an object; it is the situation in which we as embodied beings find ourselves and towards which all our efforts strain or intend, — "the subject as a process of transcendence towards the world". Explaining transcendence, he says that it means "we do not possess [things]... I blindly exert their bare existence".[11]

For Merleau-Ponty, "the certainty of some external thing is involved in the very way in which the sensation is articulated and unfolded before me: it is a pain in the leg" (his italics)[12]. I do not just have pain, but I have pain in a very particular place, in my leg. But "the body is not an object... I have no means of knowing it except by living it, losing myself in it".[13] My body is 'an original intentionality', a manner of relating to 'objects of knowledge'. We do not have a thought about the body or have it as an idea, we experience it and through it we experience the world. Descartes, he claims, was aware of this reality but subordinated this kind of knowledge to the understanding we have of it, through the idea we have of it — we have true knowledge 'through the mind alone' Descartes says. For Merleau-Ponty, consciousness is neither a 'passive noting' of an event that leaves me in doubt of what I perceive nor a ' constituting power' that links up with the object without leaving its inner world he says. On the contrary, I "reassure myself that I see by seeing this or that".[14] This is because, in essence, our existence, he says, is 'open to the world'. We are open to the world because we are embodied. For Merleau-Ponty there is no subject-object divide, no mind body separation and there is no doubt but that we are beings-in-the-world.

We can become more aware of this thoroughgoing being-in-the-world through the Husserlian reduction which "slackens our intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice". Through this process we can learn about "the unmotivated upsurge of the world"[15]. We learn that the world 'is always there'. No Cartesian doubt here about the existence of the things outside the cogito. Ironically, the reduction and slackening of the 'natural attitude' is somewhat analogous to the Cartesian method of doubt, even if the result is quite different: both are aimed at clearing away the 'natural attitude' in the case of Merleau-Ponty and 'to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations' in the case of Descartes so that there can be a fresh start or new look at what we take for granted or gloss over as unquestioned common sense. In this way, we can begin to deal with the issues of certainty and doubt about the knowledge we have of ourselves and the world.

For Merleau-Ponty, unlike for Descartes, truth does not inhabit the 'inner man' for "man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself".[16] The cogito, for Merleau-Ponty, "must reveal me in a situation". It is not that we cannot distinguish ourselves from the world and from things he says, but the world is the permanent horizon of all that we know, in relation to which we are always situating ourselves. As sentient subjects, we do not simply posit things as objects, but enter into a sympathetic relationship with them, make them our own as when I look at the blue sky and allow my consciousness to be "saturated with this limitless blue".[17] Things exist not in consciousness but for consciousness.

It is not possible, he says, to 'lay bare and unfold' all the presuppositions that may be found in my experiences; these have a whole 'sedimentary history' which relate not just to the genesis of thought, but which, perhaps more importantly, determine its significance. It is not possible, he says, to produce evidence for the 'truth' of what we perceive. For that, it would be necessary, he says, " instead of being myself, I should become purely and simply one who knows myself and that the world should have ceased to exist around me in order to become purely an object before me"[18]. We have to come to 'rest in' self evident truths — giving up every notion of making them explicit. These may be contingent but they are 'something rather than nothing'; de facto rather than de jure. This, Merleau-Ponty says, is about restoring to the cogito "a temporal thickness... — if I think, it is because I plunge myself on into provisional thoughts"[19].

Merleau-Ponty points out that even in the case of doubting, as Descartes performs it, to doubt is to doubt something; the very experiencing of doubting brings a certainty — the certainty of doubting. If Descartes tried to verify the reality of his doubt, he would be launched into an infinite regress — what is doubted is the thought about doubting, then the thought about that thought and so on. He goes on to say, "he who doubts cannot, while doubting, doubt that he doubts. Doubt... is not an abolition of my thought but a pseudo-nothingness, for I cannot extricate myself from my being; my act of doubting creates the possibility of certainty... it occupies me and I am committed to it"[20]. The Cartesian proposition should, he says, really be simply ' I think' or 'something appears to me'; this is sufficient — in order to know that we think, it is necessary that we actually should think; this 'halts doubt in its tracks'.

Descartes, Merleau-Ponty says, is not simply thinking he is doubting, he is performing the act of doubting. This is what Merleau-Ponty calls the 'blind plunge into doing': "hence it is not because I think I am that I am certain of my existence.... my love, hatred and will are not certain as mere thoughts about loving, hating and willing... I am quite sure because I perform them"[21]. In this way, he says we accomplish our own existence. He also says that "in the proposition, I think, I am, the two assertions are to be equated with each other, otherwise there would be no cogito".[22] This is not to say that my existence is brought down to the consciousness I have of it, he continues, rather the reverse; consciousness is re-integrated into existence.

Continuing his theme of certainty and doubt, Merleau-Ponty says that the very foundations of certainty arise in intuitive thought; "formal relations are first presented to us crystallized in some particular thing"[23] — in a particular triangle for instance. I have a way of relating to and describing a triangle which is based on how I am situated in a particular perceptual field — what is considered to be 'up' or 'down', 'right' or 'left'. The concepts of angle and direction have meaning in so far as I place myself at a point and so on. A triangle is not then a collection of objective characteristics but expresses a 'certain modality of my hold upon the world'. It is through this kind of perceptual consciousness that we arrive at the essence or eidos of things; the thing — the triangle — displays itself to me — I perceive it through my body and in projecting myself towards the thing, there is "a completed synthesis in terms of which we have defined the thing", he says.[24] The description of a triangle is thus an act of productive imagination according to Merleau-Ponty, and the triangle is not, as Descartes asserts in the Fifth Meditation, "a form... which is immutable and eternal and not invented by me or dependent on my mind".[25]

For Merleau-Ponty, we do not know the world and ourselves as empiricism would have it through observation nor as rationalism would have it from a priori knowledge — these are 'derivative sign languages' — but through "direct contact with our existence. Self-consciousness is the very being of mind in action"[26]. What the cogito 'retrieves' he says, is not a coordinated pulling together of the separate events of my experience, but "the one single experience inseparable from myself... which is engaged in making itself progressively explicit... The primary truth in indeed 'I think', but only provided that we understand thereby 'I belong to myself' while belonging to the world".[27] As we have seen, Descartes' meditations on 'I think, I am' take us away from the world and from our own bodies, into the separate and more certain world of the mind, which, according to him, provides a certain means of knowing ourselves and the world, each philosopher claims in different ways.

For all the meditations, thought and wresting with certainty and doubt about what we know about ourselves, about the world, about truth, in both Descartes and Merleau-Ponty, with their attempts to provide coherent answers to the questions raised, a sense of uncertainty hangs over both of their works. For Descartes, despite his certainty that it is through this mind alone that he can have true knowledge, ultimately he relies on a God he cannot know with certainty to ensure that the whole structure coheres. In addition, with the clear separation he outlines between mind and body, there is no direct way for humans to experience the world, no certainty that what we see touch or smell, for instance, actually exists in the way that we take for granted in our everyday lives; in a sense then, we are thoroughly thrown out of the world, out of our bodies; scepticism, not certainty, is born.

In Merleau-Ponty's work, while the world is 'always already there' and as embodied beings we are thrown irretrievably into the world — simultaneously belonging to myself and to the world — moving through the world and 'having' it, there is a theme or flavour of uncertainty about what we 'have' running through the work as well. The perceived admits of 'ambiguous, the shifting and is shaped by the context' he says. Our thoughts and words are described as 'outrunning' themselves; the word 'fleeting' is frequently applied to our experience. While the idea of an object as being 'in-itself-for-me' opens up the possibility of subject-object dialogue, I see or experience things from the perspective of an embodied, living being; things are 'up' or 'down' according to where I am situated; experience is always a becoming, not a fixed 'having'. This 'uncertainty' is not necessarily a problem for Merleau-Ponty; we first and foremost live our lives without reflection; the latter is, so to speak, added on. But this world has meaning for us when I engage with it through my body. We come to know ourselves and our world through living through it, not by first reflecting on it, not by first doubting if any of what we experience is certain: the 'thisness' of the world is certain if, at the same time, not fixed.

There is a stark contrast then between Descartes' thinking thing and Merleau-Ponty's embodied being. It is the difference between understanding and engagement, between clear and distinct ideas and ideas that are ambiguous and shifting, between the life of disembodied mind and the life of the embodied mind, between 'I think' and 'I am', between doubt and certainty, between what we know and what we experience, between immanence and transcendence: these are some of the main issues that Merleau-Ponty points to and wrestles with in his critique of Descartes'cogito in his work, Phenomenology of Perception.

Select Bibliography

Descartes, Rene, Meditations on First Philosophy (Trans: John Cottingham) Cambridge University Press, 19986

Dreyfus, H L Telepistemology: Descartes' Last Stand (Internet site on Merleau-Ponty and Descartes)

Kearney, R. Modern Movements in European Philosophy, Manchester University Press 1986

Kenny, A (Ed), The Oxford History of Western Philosophy Oxford, 2000

Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception (Trans: C Smith). Routledge 2002

Moran, Dermot, Introduction to Phenomenology, Routledge, 2000

Priest, Stephen, Merleau-Ponty, Routledge, 1998

Primozic, D P. On Merleau-Ponty, Wadsworth 2001

Scruton, R, A Short History of Modern Philosophy Routledge, 2002


1. Descartes, Rene, Meditations on First Philosophy (Trans: John Cottingham) Cambridge University Press, 19986 p 12

2. Ibid p 17

3. Ibid p22

4. Ibid p37

5. Ibid p50

6. Ibid p54

7. Ibid p54

8. Ibid p 57

9. Dreyfus, H L Telepistemology: Descartes' Last Stand

10. Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception (Trans: C Smith). Routledge 2002 preface xviii

11. Ibid p430

12. Ibid p436-437

13. Ibid p231

14. Ibid p438

15. Ibid preface xv

16. Ibid preface xii

17. Ibid p249

18. Ibid p460

19. Ibid p464

20. Ibid p465

21. Ibid p445

22. Ibid p446

23. Ibid p448

24. Ibid p451

25. Descartes, Rene, Meditations on First Philosophy (Trans: John Cottingham) Cambridge University Press, 19986 p45

26. Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception (Trans: C Smith). Routledge 2002 432

27. Ibid p474