According to Mallin, Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the facticity of human situation can be understood with the help of the notion of “thrown structures” or “regions of subjectivity”, which constitute human facticity, human being in the world. These are a) linguistic-cognitive, b) motor, c) affective and intersubjective, and d) perceptual. (Mallin, 33-34) It is through these structures that we are in the world, it is through them that we are in touch with things and other people, perceive them and deal with them.[…]
It is important to highlight right away the bodilyness of all four regions. For Merleau-Ponty, cognition and affectivity are bodily functions just like perception and motility. Here Merleau-Ponty is in tune with Nietzsche, who through Zarathustra states: “body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body” (Nietzsche, 146). For Nietzsche, reason is just like feelings and senses only a tool of the body, not the body’s ruler, as it has been claimed by the majority of Western philosophers throughout history. Similarly, for Merleau-Ponty cognition (and affectivity for that matter) is a function of the body to the same extent as perceptivity and motility, however the body is understood not narrowly in physiological/scientific terms as a chunk of matter or a composite of cells, but as a “lived body”: a flesh with integrity and intentionality. Such an “escrowing” of reason or cognition (together with logic) from its traditionally dominant position should not be seen as a mere “flipping of an omelet” within the same traditional body/mind dichotomy. Rather, it should be taken as re-grounding reason and cognition back into the body. For Merleau-Ponty, solving a mathematical problem or being in love is no less “visceral” (using Gilbert’s terminology) than playing tennis or making love; the thought dances around the difficult equation just like the eyes dance around the features of the loved one, just like passions swirl deep inside, just like the lips travel along the lines of the other body. […]
First, let me address the “traditional” cognitive region, which includes what Gilbert calls “classical logical” mode, as well as more generally language, imagination, reflective and conceptual abilities. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with cognition except the fact that it has been claimed as the highest and the only legitimate mode to conduct argumentation, as well as in the more general terms – to make decisions and live the life by. Such an elevation of the cognitive, and, consequently, belittling of the other modes is not justified. Moreover, Mallin goes as far as to say, that the region of cognition is ‘parasitic on perception or, more generally, on our natural contact with the world.’ (Mallin, 167) If cognition is released from the illusions of superiority and self-sufficiency and grounded back into the flesh of the body, thinking and reflectivity are helpful in living the life. Moreover, because it is supposed to be a specifically human ability, it defines out humanity to a certain extent. However, the healthy attitude to life (and for that matter argumentation) is not possible if other regions of human existence (other modes of argumentation) are neglected. This is perfectly expressed by Merleau-Ponty as follows:
The world as we have tried to show it, as standing on the horizon of our life as the primordial unity of all our experiences, and one goal of all our projects, is no longer the visible unfolding of a constituting Thought, not a chance conglomeration of parts, nor, of course, the working of the controlling Thought on an indifferent matter, but the native abode of all rationality. (Merleau-Ponty, 430)
Let us move on to the other regions.
b) Perception and motility
The region of perception is one that Merleau-Ponty is particularly interested in, because it is primarily through the senses that we are thrown into the world, and it is through the senses that we are called by the world and things to act. ‘Perception is not the science of the world, it is not even an act, a deliberate taking up of a position; it is the background from which all acts stand out and is presupposed by them.’ (Merleau-Ponty, x-xi) Unlike monads that “have no windows” (Leibniz, Monadology, 17), human being is indeed one huge window which opens into the world through the senses. The motor-practical region is closely related to that of perception. While perception invites us into the world, it is through motility – through ability to move and act that we actually respond to the world’s invitation. We exercise our motility not necessarily as actually moving, that is changing our position in the world, but also as simply being (being attuned, being ready). Whether we play or work, whether we are cautious or relaxed, whether we are bored or excited, there runs through our body a certain attitude, a certain intentionality by means of which we are in the world, through which we take part in the world and so become a part of the world. However, it is not like perception comes first, and then motility follows. Rather, they both are there, they both fine-tune each other, and they both enable each other. It is through movement that the perceptions can be confirmed or corrected, it is also because of the ability to move and act that the perceptions are meaningful in the first place. […]
With this example we can see again the inter-dependence of the motor and perceptual regions: on the one hand, motility relies on perception and requires perception in order to be enacted (we need to perceive the situation in order to respond to it); on the other hand, without motility, without the ability to make a gesture, to put forth an argument, there would be no point perceiving the situation in the first place. Motility also gives ground to future perceptions. Through a movement, a gesture, an “argument”, we give a response to the situation, and re-position ourselves with regard to the situation, it is only after we have responded, that we can listen and perceive again. It is through perception and motility that a two-sided connection between me and the world (including other people) is established and maintained. It is through them that any communication and so any argument can take place.
At last, we come to the affective region. Even though it seems like Merleau-Ponty pays the least attention to the sphere of affectivity, and one is inclined to assume that there is not much “theory of emotions” in Phenomenology of Perception, such an assumption is not quite correct. Affectivity (emotionality) permeates our whole existence, especially those aspects of our life, which bring us in contact with other human beings. It is in the social sphere that we become most often “affected” or “moved”, and it is through our affectivity (love, care, compassion, as well as fear, hate, disgust) that we establish and maintain the bond, the relationship with others. […] Confirming the role of the affective in our lives, Merleau-Ponty states at the very beginning of the chapter “The Body in its Sexual Being”:
If then we want to bring to light the birth of being for us [“human”, as opposed to the mere “natural” world], we must finally look at that area of our experience which clearly has significance and reality only for us and that is out affective life. Let us try to see how a thing or a being begins to exist for us through desire or love and we shall thereby come to understand better how things and beings can exist in general. (Merleau-Ponty, 154)
While perception and motility throw us first of all into the “natural” world, it is emotion and cognition that open for us the “socio-cultural” world. Of course, such a division is not meant to be taken as a dichotomy: we know very well that both our perceptions and our motor expressions are deeply rooted in our cultural perspectives: we are blind to certain things and we move in certain ways rather than others. For instance, we, the westerners, are not able to see hundreds of shades of the white snow or the brown sand. Moreover, imprisoned in the structures of our cities and our values of production, consumption and profit, we are also growing blind and deaf to the trees, the sky, the waves of the lake, the “natural” world in general. At the same time, we grow blind and deaf to our own needs (never mind the needs of other people), we deceive ourselves constantly, and sublimate out yearning for human happiness through acquisition of wealth and power. […]
At first it seems a bit odd that Merleau-Ponty would discuss affective life and emotions in the chapter on sexuality. We seem to be inclined to divorce the realm of emotions or feelings (almost “pure feelings”) from the realm of physiological drives. […] However, through the study of the case of Schneider, a patient with a specific brain injury, Merleau-Ponty comes to a conclusion that affectivity, sexuality and sociality all belong to the same sphere, the sphere of the inter-subjective. The “erotic” is never merely “cognitive” (the emotion is never “pure” and “abstract”), neither is it merely physiological, rather, it always fuses both: the “natural” attitude of the body expressed in “raw sexuality”, as well as the “cultural” way of dealing with other people through beliefs, values, social institutions, personal predispositions. Indeed,
Erotic perception is not a cogitation which aims at a cogitatum; through one body it aims at another body and takes place in the world, not in the consciousness. A sight has a sexual significance for me, not when I consider, even confusedly, its possible relationship to the sexual organs or to pleasurable states, but when it exists for my body […] Even in the case of sexuality, which has nevertheless long been regarded as pre-eminently the type of bodily function, we are concerned, not with a peripheral involuntary action, but with an intentionality which follows the general flow of existence and yields to its movements. (Merleau-Ponty, 157, bold italics added)
Sexual-emotional attitude is bodily in Merleau-Ponty’s sense of the word: it is a kind of intentionality that puts us into the world, and, more specifically at the presence of other people. […]
In Merleau-Ponty’s example, Schneider, the patient with the brain injury, who has lost his interest in “sexuality”, has also lost his ability to relate to people and to the world in emotional, affective ways: ‘Faces are for him neither attractive, nor repulsive […]. Sun and rain are neither gay nor sad; […] the world is emotionally neutral.’ (Merleau-Ponty, 157) Similarly, in the case of psychoanalytic evaluation of the girl, who loses her speech as a result of the prohibition to see her boy-friend, what would be a “pure” case of sexuality, is not divorced from emotionality, and is taken to belong to the same sphere of co-existence:
In so far as the emotion elects to find its expression in loss of speech, this is because of all bodily functions speech is the most intimately linked with communal existence, or, as we shall put it, with co-existence. Loss of speech, then, stands for the refusal of co-existence, just as, in other subjects, a fit of hysterics is the means of escaping from the situation. (Meleau-Ponty, 160)
Re-interpreting a Freudian approach, according to which the case would be regarded as a fixation on the oral phase of sexual development, Merleau-Ponty points out that ‘what is “fixated” on the mouth is not merely the sexual existence, but, more generally, those relations with others having the spoken word as their vehicle.’ (Merleau-Ponty, 160) It is important to keep in mind this wider (or deeper, if you wish) notion of sexuality that Merleau-Ponty is employing in his writing: sexuality as the ability of flesh to be moved (thus e-motion), to be woken up (excited), by another flesh, to over-flow towards another flesh. In Mallin’s words, ‘sexuality, when maturely articulated, will be the material ground of our affections, of our sentiments, and correlatively of our socio-cultural world.’ (Mallin, 46) We can say that the girl (or girl’s body) makes a statement, an argument if you wish, which expresses not only her frustrated sexuality, not just an emotional trauma, but also a more general refusal to speak/communicate, a refusal to sustain the relationship with other people, a refusal to exist in a social world, in which both sexuality and affectivity are grounded. Paradoxically, even in its muteness, her body speaks; moreover, it speaks through her muteness, it makes a gesture of refusal, an argument, which is perfectly understood in spite of the fact that it might not be “rational” or even “conscious” (in the cognitive sense) and it surely is not verbal. Even in the refusal to belong to the social world, there is an expression of our deep rootedness in it, our inability to ever abandon it and abstract from it: even refusing to belong to this world, the girl still make an appeal to this very world. Thus we can see again, that sociality is yet another side of our facticity, our thrown-ness into the world, our human situation, of which affectivity and sexuality are the expressions.
Mallin, Samuel B. Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979;
Merleau-Ponty, Morice. Phenomenology of Perception. Transl. by Colin Smith. New York: Routledge, 2000;
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. in The Portable Nietzsche, selected and translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.