Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a French phenomenologist of the highest rank. Phenomenology as founded by Edmund Husserl and defined by him as “The return to things themselves” preserved its original strength and intention only in the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, while others such as Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, though offered important and enlightening phenomenological researches, eclipsed the vast field of phenomenology opened up by Husserl.
Merleau-Ponty understood the method of Phenomenological Reduction for what it was, as a step back into the origin of the gaze in which the world makes its first appearance, or as Eugen Fink puts it, “as wonder in the face of the world.” Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception is a masterpiece that must be read by any serious seeker of contemplative temperament. Below I quote an excerpt from his preface to the Phenomenology of Perception which aims at waking us up from the dogmatic slumber through which we have come to believe that our perception of the world is caused by the world!
“All my knowledge of the world, even my scientific knowledge, is gained from my particular point of view, or from some experience of the world without which the symbols of science would be meaningless. The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression. Science has not and never will have, by its nature, the same significance qua form of being as the world which we perceive, for the simple reason that it is a determination or explanation of that world.
I am, not a ‘living creature’ nor even a ‘man,’ nor again even ‘a consciousness’ endowed with all the characteristics which zoology, social anatomy or inductive psychology recognize in these various products of the natural or historical process-I am the absolute source, my existence does not stem from my antecedents, from my physical and social environment; instead it moves out towards them and sustains them, for I alone bring into being for myself (and therefore into being in the only sense that the word can have for me) the tradition which I elect or carry on, or the horizon whose distance from me would be abolished-since that distance is not one of its properties-if I were not there to scan it with my gaze.”
“Scientific points of view, according to which my existence is a moment of the world’s, are always both naive and at the same time dishonest, because they take for granted, without explicitly mentioning, it, the other point of view, namely that of consciousness, through which from the outset a world forms itself round me and begins to exist for me. To return to things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relation to the country-side in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest , a prairie or a river is.”