In his lecture Man Seen from the Outside Maurice Merleau-Ponty expounds his unconventional idea about the way in which a human body shapes such cognitive processes as emotions in a brain, and how physical interaction with other entities serves to establish the humanity as a single being. First, the author presents his personal image of the process of perception. Afterwards, he addresses several ideas of this subject that already exist, particularly the views of Descartes, which he scrutinizes in order to illustrate how they differ from his own concept. In support of the latter, Merleau-Ponty provides the clear example of how emotions exist only in their actual manifestations. This paper examines the contradiction between Merleau-Ponty’s vision of the origins of human perception and the ideas of Descartes as well as practical examples provided by the former in order to support his concept.
In the beginning, Merleau-Ponty alludes to Descartes views that concern body and mind, visible and invisible aspects that form a human being as a creature. He describes how Descartes developed his concept of spirit by proving that spirit is indescribable, since it does not have physical space and, thus, cannot be apprehended as a part of one’s body, but rather indivisible essence of a man. In contrast to this idea, Merleau-Ponty claims that he cannot see a spirit in anyone else apart from himself, as he is the embodiment of his inner self. Here the author presents his central thesis which states that one can learn another human being only through the actions, words, and movements rather than through the imagined entity that resides within. A human is more than a body to him, but without the interactions in space, he cannot connect with a person. Without these motions the spirit is enclosed, and an outside observer cannot see it. Therefore, the author concludes that the external observation of a human being reveals certain distinctions between mind and body.
Developing his thought, Merleau-Ponty continues with an example of human interaction, which is set to explain that emotions cannot exist without their physical manifestations. If a person is angry with his interlocutor, one might say that his anger resides inside his mind. Merleau-Ponty, however, states that this feeling exists solely due to one’s actions - facial expression, smallest motions, and the sounds production. The interaction happens between two people in a particular space, and without this interaction one cannot detect signs of anger or any other emotion of his interlocutor. Furthermore, the author concludes that emotions cannot exist apart from a body, even though one may claim that he or she can generate emotions without involving the body. However, while analyzing the situation afterwards, Merleau-Ponty remarks that the source of anger is still the thought that the other person deserves to be hurt, which is immaterial, thus, the origins of one’s emotions lie in the mind of a human. At this point, it seems as if Merleau-Ponty fails to provide a conclusive argument against Descartes ideas, since apparently, he returns to the statement that mind is indeed the origin of emotion. However, he continues with his analysis by addressing the fact that Descartes believed in a distinction between body and mind, yet this ancient scientist did not consider the latter to be in charge of a body, and describes these two aspects as a unity. Merleau-Ponty does not deny the fact that such union exists, but he rather defends his right to independently differentiate between the work of mind and the actions of a body. He claims that despite the existence of interconnectivity, he still can define a person without thinking of his or her spirit.
As an example, Merleau-Ponty continues with an observation of how a person appears to himself as a reflection in the mirror, ultimately proving that the existence of an invisible entity in the cases such as this one is irrelevant to the perception of the person. When one sees his body as an image, one can only observe the body, as any ideas that concern the inner processes in one’s brain are the result of his or her process of thinking that has no influence on the space that surrounds the person. If we address to the situation where one studies the reflection of another individual, it will mean that the interaction, if it is present, is solely physical, while the image that a person creates of any inner thoughts of an interlocutor is always the advancement from how the latter positions himself in space. It includes the merest face expressions, the eye movement, the general body position, etc. Furthermore, Merleau-Ponty provides the example of an infant who adopts self-consciousness by observing other humans, and the way they speak, move and interact with each other. He argues that we become aware of other people before we learn about ourselves. A toddler recognizes emotions of other people, but cannot develop them without interactions. Ultimately, Merleau-Ponty uses this example to argue, that one cannot operate freely in the world without perceiving other people’s actions. This idea stands to prove that not only children but adults as well are the part of an on-going process of exchange that we cannot avoid, since it is crucial to the existence of the humankind. Whether or not we realize the true nature of our actions and thoughts, we use the collective knowledge embodied in culture and traditions. Separation from such sources would mean that the mind is empty and that the spirit is not present, thus, such entity cannot exist as a human being,
This development brings the author to the position where he explains, why the world, despite the traditional views, cannot be seen as a sum of individuals, but rather as a single entity, where an individual eventually re-absorbs into another one. By influencing one another in subtle and sometimes significant ways, we create the world where everyone is a part of all-consuming relationships between human beings. Merleau-Ponty argues that ultimately all solutions lie in the collective knowledge. Finding one would mean extracting it from the depth of already existing ideas, transforming and re-shaping original that is somewhere beneath the layers of communication. From these facts, it is clear that we should focus on the connections and express ourselves clearly while communicating, because constructive dialogue can result in the transition that can shape the society as a whole.
In conclusion, Merleau-Ponty’s intention is not to directly oppose Descartes, but rather to use Descartes’ concept as a keystone in developing his idea. The author does not agree that emotions reside solely in the mind, and provides his insight on the physical manifestation of emotion that matters to those who perceive it. Afterwards, he undertakes the unity of mind and body, as described by Descartes, stating that it is more than possible to examine the body as a reflection in the mirror without addressing to a mind. Using the example of a newborn child that starts to observe other people, Merleau-Ponty argues, that a human being cannot become aware of oneself unless he or she understands others. All these thoughts leads to the realization that humanity, instead of being the sum of free spirits or independent individuals, is, instead, an indivisible entanglement of human interaction that resides primarily in how we see others, in their actions and words, rather than our imaginations of the work of their minds.