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Merleau-Ponty's critique of Descartes' cogito


To: Mary J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Merleau-Ponty's critique of Descartes' cogito
Date: 10 October 2005 12:06

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your email of 27 September, with your essay for the Associate Award, 'Doubt, Certainty and Knowledge in the Context of the Critique of Descartes' Cogito in Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception.'

This is an excellent piece of work in which I can find very little to disagree with. But I will try.

In terms of the Associate Award, this is well up to the standard required. What I say here should not be taken as a recommendation for making changes or 'improvements' but rather for the sake of philosophical dialogue.

Various things strike me as very familiar (to an English-speaking academic philosopher) about the moves that Merleau-Ponty makes. There are two moves in particular which stand out:

First, there are shades of Wittgenstein in the claim that if I 'doubt the presence of something' I see, then 'neither can I be certain of my thought about that'. Again, the claim that 'the very experiencing of doubting brings a certainty... my act of doubting... occupies me and I am committed to it.'

One of the conclusions that can be drawn from Wittgenstein's considerations concerning a private language is that radical doubt about the validity of perception undermines the very conditions which make it possible for to follow the rule for the words which I use to describe my experiences. Wittgenstein also attacks the professed 'doubts' of the sceptic: a merely imagined doubt, he says, is not a *doubt*.

Again, there are shades of G.E. Moore's 'Refutation of Idealism' and the famous claim 'Here is a is another hand' in the assertion, 'I reassure myself that I see by seeing this or that.' I cannot doubt that what I see is a hand without doubting the very experience itself.

But I am worried about the 'brain in a vat' question and what Merleau-Ponty's response might be to it.

You say, '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.'

This seems to imply that Merleau-Ponty would flatly deny that I could have the 'same experience' as a brain (or body, what's the difference?) in a vat. In other words, the Matrix scenario is not just unlikely, but inconceivable. If, for one moment, I entertained the thought, 'maybe I am living in a Matrix world', a quick read of Merleau-Ponty would put me straight. If Merleau-Ponty is right, my experience in the Matrix world could not be 'just as' it is in the real world. Something would have to be different. But what, exactly? Or is that the wrong question to ask? If so, why?

I can accept the argument that it is not possible to genuinely entertain these 'doubts' (at least, until people start mysteriously disappearing and reappearing etc. etc.). Yet I want to say that Merleau-Ponty's analysis of embodied experience would simply carry over to the Matrix world. It could be argued that ultimately what matters for Merleau-Ponty is 'experienced embodiment'. An alternative Matrix world in which the subjects were not 'given' bodies but floated around like ghosts - a seeming possibility on Descartes theory - would indeed be inconceivable because the notion of experience and physical action are inextricably bound together.

(If you are curious to research this further, there were 464 references to my 'Merleau-Ponty' + 'brain in a vat' search on Google and 771 entries for 'Merleau-Ponty' + 'The Matrix'.)

You say, at one point, that 'Descartes... was aware of this reality' [that] '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, expresses this thought in his statement, 'I am not lodged in my body as a pilot in a ship.' That says it all. It is the logic of Descartes' argument, the logic that says, 'things could be just as they are for me now if the world was very different from what it is', that leads to the sceptical scenario.

Again, returning to Wittgenstein, one can hear Merleau-Ponty as stating, in response to Descartes, we *do not* doubt. (Wittgenstein: ''Are you not shutting your eyes to doubt?' My eyes are shut.') This is what human knowledge is really about, says Merleau-Ponty. As embodied subjects we are already in the world ('thrown' into it, to use his colourful phrase), and everything starts from that point.

One could say that as an analysis of the structure of knowledge, Descartes approach is fatally flawed because of its 'foundationalist' assumption, that everything must be derivable from an indubitable basis. But this point bears obliquely on the problem of scepticism as such.

All the best,