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Merleau-Ponty’s Immanent Critique of Gestalt Theory

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Merleau-Ponty’s appropriation of Gestalt theory in The Structure of Behavior is central to his entire corpus. Yet commentators exhibit little agreement about what lesson is to be learned from his critique, and provide little exegesis of how his argument proceeds. I fill this exegetical gap. I show that the Gestaltist’s fundamental error is to reify forms as transcendent realities, rather than treating them as phenomena of perceptual consciousness. From this, reductivist errors follow. The essay serves not only as a helpful guide through parts of The Structure of Behavior for newcomers, but also offers a corrective to recent trends in philosophy of mind. Such influential commentators as Hubert Dreyfus, Taylor Carmen, and Evan Thompson have, I argue, risked serious misunderstanding of Merleau-Ponty’s view, by mistakenly treating “circular causality” as central to Merleau-Ponty’s own acausal (dialectical) view of forms.

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  1. Ted Toadvine laments commentators’ general oversight of SC, yet even he does not offer an analysis of SC’s engagement with the Gestaltists which “follow[s] the details,” (2009: 25), referring the reader to Bannan (1967). Heinämaa (2009) provides one of the most insightful analyses to date of Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with Gestalt theory, but discusses only the Phenomenology of Perception (hereafter, PP) and later texts. Embree gives a chronological overview of Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with Gestalt theory, but resorts to a brief list of claims to summarize SC (1980: 109).

  2. A focus on the Gestaltists does not license discussion of Ch. IV, as I explain below.

  3. A footnote here reads: “Concerning the facts which, in the physiology of perception, justify this hypothesis, cf. infra, Chapter II” (1943: 28 fn 3, printed on p. 28; 1963: 28 fn 53, printed on p. 228). As I read SC, it has been shown already that a description of behavior reveals the organism as actively co-constituting effective stimulation; the footnote foreshadows another kind of active contribution, uncovered by Ch.II’s description of perception. See section “The Proper Reality of Nerve Function” below.

  4. Some commentators count Goldstein among the Gestaltists (see, e.g., Welsh 2006: 549.) Others note he did not regard himself as such (see Carman and Hansen 2005: 12).

  5. In passages such as this, an asterisk marks where Merleau-Ponty footnotes a Gestaltist.

  6. Note that the “functionalism” of, say, James and Dewey in the early twentieth century is not to be casually read as synonymous with the functionalism of, say, Fodor and Pylyshyn in the later twentieth century.

  7. See footnote 6 above.

  8. Thus Merleau-Ponty does not stress the importance of what Clark (1998: 171f.) calls “continuous reciprocal causation”. Merleau-Ponty would have difficulty making sense of Gallagher and Zahahi’s (2013: 157f.) claim that an “objective piece of engineering” could “generate” a new experience. And Merleau-Ponty’s distinction between cause and form, between things and phenomena, cautions precisely against any quick route to Rowlands’ (2010: 196) thesis of the “amalgamated mind”—see pp. 83f.—so long as it is understood as an amalgam of realities.

  9. Madison at first misleadingly suggests that the “dialectical... nature of form” can be clarified with attention to Merleau-Ponty’s claims about “circular causality” in discussing the reflex (1981: 8f.). He later clarifies the more correct reading of Merleau-Ponty, in discussing human forms of behavior: the relevant circularity involves “meaningful structures,” not causal, “energetic forces” (1981: 10). On my reading of SC, this dialectical view of forms of behavior applies to all behavior—the “reflex” only appears in interruption of the normal dialectic between organism and milieu, and even then only because it is permitted to appear by the total activity of the organism (1943: 163; 1963: 150).

  10. Note that notion of “circular causality” is deployed nowhere in any of Merleau-Ponty’s later works. He speaks instead of “circular forms” (1963: 272), “circular physiognomies” (1963: 287, 453; 1973: 36), of a “circular physiognomy which no intellectual genesis nor physical causality explains” (1968: 271). For more on this point, see footnote 21 below.

  11. This passage is often cited as the locus of SC’s anti-reductivism. See, e.g., Bannan (1967: 43), Embree (1980: 109), and Flynn (2011, Sect. 1). Welsh (2006: 539) gives voice to a similar view, citing Madison (1981: 4).

  12. And for this reason, none of the commentators mentioned in the previous footnote get to the core or Merleau-Ponty’s critique by emphasizing this point alone.

  13. Rouse eventually discusses this point—see his (2005: 283)—but only in connection with PP, not as part of SC’s engagement with the Gestaltists. Welsh (2006: 539) also gives voice to this view, citing Geraets (1971: 49).

  14. Contra Thompson (2007: 81), this follows from a mundane epistemology and semantics of science, not any implicit appeal to transcendental phenomenology. If Merleau-Ponty is right, it is hard to see how DST’s new mathematical tools change anything in principle.

  15. Contrast Bannan (1967: 44f.), who says that a law is the limit toward which knowledge tends.

  16. To illustrate with duckrabbits: this bit of ink cannot be the rabbit’s ears unless this bit of ink is the rabbit’s nose, and the intelligibility of the whole requires contrast with its background. The ink on one side of the page does not cause any change in the ink on the other side, nor does the background cause any change in the figure.

  17. This is why I believe Rouse makes an error in claiming that a body of laws should itself be regarded as a form (see section “The Inclusion of Law in a Structure” above). We do not encounter form in a body of laws (as objects of thought), but only in objects of perception, to which the laws refer us back. Thompson suggests the notion of form should be “enlarged and enriched” (2007: 86) by making it applicable beyond perception.

  18. Thus—at Merleau-Ponty is at pains to emphasize in Ch. IV of SC—circular causality, construed classically, is not even to be viewed as a necessary condition, enabling condition, or partial cause of the dialectical circularity of conscious (i.e., perceived) forms. One reason we have just seen for this is that “the physical” is the perceived physical phenomenon. Thus human consciousness is the “condition of possibility” for any (perceived) physical whole—not the other way around—and moreover, “there can be no question of a [classical] causal relation” between physical, vital, and human forms (Merleau-Ponty 1943: 218; 1963: 202). As we shall see more clearly in section “Vital Structures” below, it will not help to drag in the physico-anatomical nervous system as one relatum in a classical circular-causal interaction and treat this as a precondition for consciousness: nerve functioning is not to be understood merely physically, and (like physical forms) is inconceivable without borrowing the notion of form from perception (Merleau-Ponty 1943: 207; 1963: 192). On Merleau-Ponty’s analysis, the living body and the nervous system are not “annexes of the physical world in which the occasional causes of perception would be prepared [but rather] are ‘phenomena’” (1943: 221; 1963: 205). In any attempt to re-introduce circular causality (or any classical physical reality) as an enabling condition for consciousness, one simply “situate[s] themselves in a ‘complete’ and real world without realizing that perceptual experience is constituting with respect to this world” (Merleau-Ponty 1943: 235; 1963: 219). It remains true that physical forms—reconceived as phenomena of perceptual consciousness—play an important role in enabling the existence of higher forms and dialectics of animal and human behavior; but physical forms play this role precisely qua subordinated, dialectical unities, not as classical, circular causal systems (see, e.g., Merleau-Ponty: 1943: 218f.; 1963: 202f.). Whether any of this might (following Thompson 2007) be understood differently by invoking a non-classical conception of genuinely non-linear causality is again something I leave aside as incidental to Merleau-Ponty’s own view.

  19. Thompson (2007) seeks causal-yet-probabilistic laws of forms’ dialectical unity.

  20. Dreyfus (2005: 142f.) approaches this point, but speaks as if it is an issue of isomorphism between real organismic forms and real physical forms. He fails to underscore that it is only the perception of behavior, in phenomenal bodies, which is at issue. Puzzlingly, Thompson seeks to grant that our understanding of vital forms always derives from perception (2007: 163ff.), but maintains that we can still discover unperceivable isomorphisms between vital and physical forms (2007: 81–86).

  21. Barbaras (2005: 221–223) quickly draws upon Merleau-Ponty’s later work to flesh out the ontology of forms as simultaneously phenomena and real. My target here is simply SC; and if we remain focused solely on SC, I do not see that, Merleau-Ponty has made the “great discovery” of life as “real qua phenomenon” (2005: 219). These are exclusive categories in SC: phenomena are not real. There is an “index of real existence” in perception (Merleau-Ponty 1943: 235; 1963: 218), in virtue of which we are presented with “the very phenomenon of the real” (Merleau-Ponty 1943: 241; 1963: 224). Any approximate truth of naturalism derives from this. But in SC “it is realism itself which must be called into question” (1943: 197; 1963: 182) and the foregoing analyses have resulted in “establishing the ideality” of physical, vital, and human forms (1943: 199; 1963: 184).


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For helpful discussions on Merleau-Ponty that helped solidify the theses presented here, I think Dan Burnston, Rebecca Hardesty, Clinton Tolley, Phil Walsh, Jason Winning, and Peter Yong. I am also grateful to an anonymous referee for their feedback.

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Correspondence to Benjamin Sheredos.

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Sheredos, B. Merleau-Ponty’s Immanent Critique of Gestalt Theory. Hum Stud 40, 191–215 (2017).

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