How could one experience the presence of a particular person, without that experience originating in sensory experiences that indicate more specific properties? To address this question, I want to emphasize the distinction between being in close proximity to another person and being with her. The latter is not exhausted by the experience of a specific object of perception occupying a precise location. What, then, does it consist of? We can get the beginnings of an answer by drawing on work by the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He suggests that a kind of presence is experienced when the bereaved person encounters the world in a habitual way that continues to presuppose his relationship with the deceased (Merleau-Ponty 1945/2012, Part One, Chapter I; Ratcliffe 2019). To explain further, how we experience our surroundings reflects both our capacities and our concerns. As I look around my office, the computer screen and keyboard appear salient and significant insofar as they reflect my current writing project, along with the bodily capacities that I take for granted in pursuing that project. More generally, the surrounding world, as we experience it, is imbued with a range of different significant possibilities, which are integrated in ways that reflect the coherence of our various projects. Regardless of whether or not such possibilities are to be regarded as specifically perceptual in nature, it is at least plausible to maintain that they are integral to pre-reflective experience of one’s surroundings, rather than being products of inference from experience. This is illustrated by those occasions when something in particular or the world in general appears strangely devoid of its usual significant possibilities, as sometimes happens when we are ill, jetlagged, hungover, or undergoing emotional upheaval (Ratcliffe 2008, 2015).
Our projects, Merleau-Ponty further indicates, can involve a particular person in such a way that the possibilities we experience imply his actual or potential presence. For instance, if a project is geared around doing something for him, the various activities that comprise it are only intelligible in relation to him. The same applies to some instances where I pursue a project with him. The point applies not only to goal-oriented projects, but also to habitual routines and pastimes. Consider how one’s home might be experienced in ways that implicate a partner: the sofa appears as something for us to sit on; these are the films we enjoy watching together; this is our bed. The suggestion is that, when the partner dies, a habitual world may remain largely intact for a time, despite an explicit, propositional recognition of the death. Things still appear as they did before and therefore imply the partner’s potential or actual presence, in a diffuse, non-localized way that cannot be attributed to a more specific inventory of perceived properties.
To elaborate on Merleau-Ponty’s discussion, this form of experience could be fleeting or enduring and localized or non-localized. For instance, a non-localized sense of presence might be punctuated by periods of absence, as when one encounters a scene in light of the person’s potential appearance, only to realize that she will never appear again. The dynamic can be construed in terms of an ongoing tension between two worlds, a past that one continues to inhabit and a present that is drained of meaning and seems curiously distant (Fuchs 2018). There may also be tensions between pockets of the world that continue to allow for the person and other parts of it that do not. Consider this passage, from Simone de Beauvoir’s account of her mother’s illness and death:
As we looked at her straw bag, filled with balls of wool and an unfinished piece of knitting, and at her blotting-pad, her scissors, her thimble, emotion rose up and drowned us. Everyone knows the power of things: life is solidified in them, more immediately present than in any one of its instants. They lay there on my table, orphaned, useless, waiting to turn into rubbish or to find another identity … . (1965, p.98)
The contents of the bag remain imbued with possibilities that relate to her mother, even though other parts of her surroundings are not. It therefore appears strange, somehow out of context. Hence, what we have here is not a straightforward experience of presence or absence.
Experiences of these kinds are not specific to bereavement; they encompass all manner of scenarios where habitual ways of experiencing, thinking, and acting endure to some degree, despite the explicit recognition that something has changed. Examples range from the mundane, as when one changes the password for one’s email account or reorganizes the kitchen utensils, to the extreme, as when one loses a job to which one has been dedicated for many years.
It could be argued that some of those experiences labelled as “hallucinations” are best thought of in this way. For instance, participants in a study by Steffen and Coyle (2011, p.586) described a range of sensed-presence experiences, including “feeling the deceased is standing close by”, “feeling the deceased is walking alongside”, and “feeling the deceased is around”. These, one might suggest, do not involve engaging in some activity plus experiencing the deceased nearby, but engaging in activities and experiencing one’s surroundings in ways one did when with that person. The person is not simply there, in the guise of a discrete object of perception, but implicated in a non-localized way by what is there.
However, the phenomenon identified by Merleau-Ponty is not quite what I am looking for. He suggests that preserving the habitual world is a way of not confronting the loss. It involves the avoidance of situations where one might expect to encounter the person who has died and have one’s expectations negated. Hence, this emphasis on one’s habitual world does not accommodate the manner in which that person’s presence can be a conspicuous aspect of the experience. Feeling that someone is walking alongside suggests something more than the preservation of practices that implicate the deceased. It is not merely that, as one walks, the surrounding world is imbued with possibilities that somehow presuppose a particular person. A personal presence is itself a salient part of the experience, amounting to more than the forgetting of absence. Furthermore, the experience of walking with someone is dynamic and changeable. As one walks, the relationship shapes how one’s surroundings appear, in ways that vary from moment to moment. Sensed-presence experiences of this kind can also involve an appreciation of ongoing “communication” and “mutuality” (Steffen and Coyle 2011, p.589). They are thus importantly different from a project that remains frozen in time after someone’s death. Unlike such a project, a companion with whom one walks can imbue the surrounding world with new and changing possibilities; things seem more alive with her than when alone. (This is what is sometimes meant when we talk of enjoying someone’s company.)
What should be retained from Merleau-Ponty’s account, I suggest, is his emphasis on the experience of significant possibilities. It might well be that some bereavement hallucinations and sensed presence experiences consist wholly or partly in non-veridical sensory experiences. Others, however, involve a dynamic, self-affecting experience of possibilities, something that is to be identified with the sense of being with a particular person. In these latter cases, sensory experiences associated with one or more externally directed sensory modalities might also be present. However, it would be wrong to assume that these are principally responsible for the sense of being with the person. They could be accompaniments to a core experience that is different in kind or sensory imaginings elicited by it.
More generally, interpersonal experience is not simply a matter of perceiving certain physical properties and inferring the presence of an internal mental life lurking behind them. Again, it is informative to consult Merleau-Ponty’s work, where a recurring theme is that we encounter the experiences of others as inherent in their expressions, gestures, and goal-directed actions. He maintains that we are able to do so because these activities always point to more than what is currently revealed to sensory perception. What they point to is not something currently hidden behind them, inside a head, the presence of which is inferred on the basis of what we do have access to. Rather, we experience gestures, expressions, and actions as infused with possibilities, including relational possibilities that are specifically personal. The experienced mental life of another person is encountered as a dynamic, unfolding configuration of possibilities. This is suggested by the following passage, which emphasizes how the sense of another person’s presence cannot be accounted for in terms of specific combinations of perceived properties or something distinct from those properties that is itself perceptually inaccessible:
… .the other is never present face to face. Even when, in the heat of discussion, I directly confront my adversary, it is not in that violent face with its grimace, or even in that voice travelling toward me, that the intention which reaches me is to be found. The adversary is never quite localized; his voice, his gesticulations, his twitches, are only effects, a sort of stage effect, a ceremony. [ … .] One must believe that there was someone over there. But where? Not in that overstrained voice, not in that face lined like any well-worn object. Certainly not behind that setup: I know quite well that back there there is only ‘‘darkness crammed with organs.’’ (Merleau-Ponty 1973, p.133)
In Merleau-Ponty’s terms, to encounter someone in a specifically personal way is to experience a distinctive type of style, an organized way in which possibilities interrelate and unfold. This, he adds, essentially involves being affected in a certain way: to experience someone else’s possibilities is to have one’s own possibilities altered in a subtle or more dramatic fashion (e.g. Merleau-Ponty 1945/2012, p.369). This same theme appears in the work of various other phenomenologists, albeit expressed in different ways and with slightly different emphases. The best-known example is Sartre (1943/1989), who construes our most fundamental sense of ‘‘the Other’’ in terms of being affected by their presence in a pre-reflective, bodily manner. With this, the world is no longer organized in terms of one’s own possibilities and one instead becomes an object for them. De Beauvoir (1947/2018) similarly emphasizes the self-affecting experience of others’ possibilities. However, in contrast to Sartre’s (1943/1989) account, she maintains that a sense of others’ freedom is essential to sustaining one’s own experience of an open future.
We also find a complementary formulation in the work of Løgstrup (1956/1997), who suggests that we are unavoidably responsible for others, insofar as any dealings we have with another person will unavoidably affect that person, in such a way as to “determine the scope and hue of his or her world”, making it “large or small, bright or drab, rich or dull, threatening or secure” (p.18). The effect he describes can similarly be construed in terms of reshaping the possibilities to which a person is open. Løgstrup goes so far as to say that relying exclusively on a determinate, image-like representation of a person, rather than letting that person “emerge through words, deeds, and conduct”, amounts to a “denial of life” (p.14). There is also empirical support for such a view. For instance, it is arguable that various forms of psychopathology are most plausibly interpreted as involving alterations in how one’s sense of the possible is interpersonally regulated (Ratcliffe 2015, 2017).Footnote 5
Hence, I maintain that there is a type or aspect of interpersonal experience that is neither exhausted by the contents of sensory experience nor dependent upon it in the form of an inference, interpretation, or embellishment. This accommodates not only the general experience of being with another person, but also that of being with a particular person. In short, things look different, depending on how we relate to specific individuals. The sense of being with that person involves being affected in a certain way by her unique style. A coffee cup, in contrast, is not self-affecting in a personal way and lacks this essential particularity.
Now, suppose some experiences of sensed-presence takes this form. That would explain why they are difficult to pin down and describe. They do not depend on specific sensory contents, and neither do they involve being able to point to particular properties or locations. Despite this, there remains an unequivocal sense of being with a specific individual. In some cases, this might be accompanied by more concrete sensory experiences of the person. After all, it seems likely that an ongoing sense of relating to someone in a patterned way will evoke sensory imaginings, as well as memories with sensory contents. Furthermore, these may be confused with current sensory experience (by the subject of experience or by others who attempt to interpret first-person descriptions of experience), given their close association with the sense of currently relating to someone.
If this is right, the relevant experience is not only distinct from a more concrete, determinate experience of a person; it can also be in tension with it, given that a sense of the possible is essentially indeterminate. It is therefore quite unlike an orthodox hallucination. Suppose one somehow managed to concoct a perceptual and cognitive representation of the dead person that consisted in an exhaustive inventory of all those properties associated with her; absolutely nothing is left behind. In fact, this would fail to capture her distinctive style. To experience that style is to be affected in a unique way. And this requires being open to possibilities that are not fully anticipated, to something that is not fully captured by the contents of one’s own mental states. In order to make this contrast clearer, I will now turn to a concrete example.