Aeon Magazine | 02 August, 2018
“According to Merleau-Ponty, European philosophy has long prioritised ‘seeing’ over ‘doing’ as a path to understanding. Plato, René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant: each, in different ways, posits a gap between the mind and the world, the subject and the object, the thinking self and physical things. Philosophers take for granted that the mind sees things from a distance. When Descartes announced ‘I think therefore I am’, he was positing a fundamental gulf between the thinking self and the physical body. Despite the novelty of digital media, Merleau-Ponty would contend that Western thought has long assumed that the mind, not the body, is the site of thinking and learning.
According to Merleau-Ponty, however, ‘consciousness is originally not an “I think that”, but rather an “I can”’. In other words, human thinking emerges out of lived experience, and what we can do with our bodies profoundly shapes what philosophers think or scientists discover. ‘The entire universe of science is constructed upon the lived world,’ he wrote. Phenomenology of Perception aimed to help readers better appreciate the connection between the lived world and consciousness.
Philosophers are in the habit of saying that we ‘have’ a body. But as Merleau-Ponty points out: ‘I am not in front of my body, I am in my body, or rather I am my body.’ This simple correction carries important implications about learning. What does it mean to say that I am my body?