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International Phenomenological Society

The Three Worlds of Merleau-Ponty

Author(s): H. L. Dreyfus and S. J. Todes
Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Jun., 1962), pp. 559-565
Published by: International Phenomenological Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2105261 .
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Accordingto John Wild in a recent article,the phenomenologist,epitomized by the later Husserl and exemplifiedby MauriceMerleau-Ponty,
seeks"an accuratedescriptionof the concretephenomenaof the Lebenswelt
as they are experienced and expressed in ordinary language ..." 1 Merleau-

Ponty is doingthis kind of phenomenologywhenhe pointsout in Ph6nomenologiede la perception2 that I experienceobjectsnot in the homogeneous
space describedby the physical scientist but in a space which is oriented
aroundme as subject,and in which I distinguishobjects above and below
each other from those merely side by side.3 This is an example of what
Prof. Wild calls a "worldfact" and the fundamentalphenomenological
point he wants to stressin his articleis that "thereis an orderof worldfact
which is bound up with ordinarylanguage, and which is quite distinct
fromthe differentrangesand levels of scientificfact." 4
From this point of view two other interpreters of Merleau-Ponty,
Michael Kullman and CharlesTaylor, have utterly misunderstoodthe
purpose of Merleau-Pontyand of phenomenologywhen they oppose
phenomenologicaldescriptionto descriptionof the everyday world and
claim: "The Phenomenologyof Perceptionis for Merleau-Pontythe discovery and explorationof the world not such as everyday and scientific
discourse describe it but of the 'pre-objectiveworld' which it presupposes."5 Taylor and Kullmanjustify their assimilationof the Lebenswelt
to the pre-objectiveworld, and their subsequentoppositionof the world
describedby phenomenologyto the worldof everyday,as follows:
Husserl characterizedphenomenologyas "a return to the things themselves." This
watchwordmust not be misinterpreted.It does not mean a return to things in the
1 "Is there a World of OrdinaryLanguage?," The PhilosophicalReview, Oct. 1958,
p. 460.
2 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phen'omnologiede la perception,Paris: 1945, hereafter
cited as PP.
3 Op. cit., p. 470.
4 Ibid., p. 465.
5 "The pre-objective world of Maurice Merleau-Ponty," The Philo8ophicalReview,

Oct. 1958, p. 108.


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objective world (i.e., such as they are described in everyday and scientific discourse): if it did, phenomenologywould be superfluous.It means rather, a return
to things such as they are, or appearto be in our "original"experienceof them, before they have acquired the determinacy that everyday and scientific discourse
presupposethem to have.6

How can Wild'sobservationthat Merleau-Pontyis describingthe world

of ordinary experience in ordinary language be reconciled with this
theoreticaldenial of the value of such a descriptionand the claim that
Merleau-Ponty'smondeve'cuis not identicalwith but ratheropposedto the
worldof everydayexperience?
A careful study of Phenomnnologiede la perceptionreveals various
distinguishablebut inseparablelevels of analysisstartingfroma fundierende 7 analysisof the structureof appearing,progressingthroughan analysis
of the way in whichthings and personsappearin the worldwe live in, and
terminatingwith an analysisof the way in whichobjectivethought posits
an idealreconciliationof the contradictionsor ambiguitiesof appearance.
Merleau-Pontycarriesout his analysisin terms of a distinctionbetween
"figure"and "ground."At the first level, that of fundierendeexperience,
consciousnessfollowsout the solicitationsof a given figureinto its ground
and uncoversa new figurethere, only at the priceof the old figurepassing
back into the groundfrom which the new figureis uncovered.Therefore
there are at this level no unified perspectives,there is no recollection,no
recognition,no organizationof stable schemataor categoriesas unities in
respect to which diversity and change occur; there is no distinction
between veridical and illusory appearances.8Referenceand anticipation
are in a definitedirectionfrom the actual figuregiven, but lack a definite
image or virtual figureof that to which they refers;it is referenceto one
knows not what from what one knows; one is led on by each step to the
next step but one lacks any over-allsense of the route he is travelling.
If one wereto seemto see a completelystrangeobject- so strangeindeed
as not even to be recognizableas an object - as he investigated such a
phenomenon,he would find himself in this situation. Each aspect would
lead to anothercompletelyunknownaspect and would in turn be lost to
sight and to mind. One approachesthis experience when one is in a
state of disorientationin the everyday world, e.g., as one tries to
find one's way alone in a strange city. Dreams, too, often have this

Ibid., p. 110.
Merleau-Ponty speaks of fungierendeIntentionalitta,"1'intentionaliteoperante."
This "operativeintentionality,"introducedby Husserl to refer to the basic structure of
perceptual experience, is also referred to by Husserl as "founding" or "fundierennde"
intentionality. We will use the latter terminologyto emphasizethe primordialcharacter
of this experience.
8 pp, pp. 18-19.

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MP draws upon various pathological experiences as illustrations. In the

experience of certain brain injured patients there is
a dissociation of the sensory field which does not remain fixed as the subject
perceives, which itself moves following the subject's movements of exploration
and retreats as one investigates it. There is vague location. This contradictory
phenomenon reveals a pre-objective space which certainly has extension, sincseveral points of the body when touched simultaneously are not confused by the
subject, but in which there is no unique location because no fixed spatial framee
work subsistsfrom one perceptionto another (PP, 37).

This level of analysis is obviously inadequate to interpret the world of

things and persons in which we live, the Lebenswelt.At the same time, it is
a study of structures which are necessary if not sufficient to characterize
the Lebenswelt.The relevance of the primordial figure-ground structure to
the Lebensweltcan be shown only if this structure is supplemented by that
of the virtual figure. MP distinguishes an actual or effective figure, the
only kind of figure appearing in original experience, from a virtual figure,
which is an image of a figure purported to be still uncovered in the ground
of an effective figure. The virtual figure guides the references of the actual
figure to its ground and consists of a definite expectation of the figure that
may actually be uncovered from that ground. The expectation embodied in
this virtual figure may or may not be verified by the actual figure which is
revealed in the indicated place. For example, what looks like a house seen
from the front may turn out to be a facade. Thus, a distinction remains
between anticipation and reference on the one hand and realization and
actuality on the other. But the most important result of the appearance of
the virtual figures is the stabilization of experience. Past figures which are
no longer effective, having sunk into the ground upon the appearance of
new effective figures, are now preserved in the form of virtual figures. In
this way, the formation of perspectives, based upon recognition and
recollection becomes possible, and expectation becomes definite instead of
With the virtual figure comes the possibility of belief, but not yet of
certainty. Certainty is possible only with the appearance of a permanent
figure. A permanent figure is to be distinguished from a temporary figure
and appears at the moment of "maximum prise." At some point in perspectivally organized experience we gain an optimal view, revealing
figures which will presumably never thereafter be proven illusory although
they may of course cease to be effective and become merely virtual. At
this point we presumptively unify perspectival experience in terms of
these permanent figures so as to "engage the whole perceptual future"
(PP, 415). The presumption that these permanent figures will never prove
to be illusory is based merely upon a perceptual faith - we would be
astonished upon disillusionment - but our experience is organized as if we

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had a perceptualguaranteeto supportthis faith. At this point we are said

to know particularnatural objects (PP, pp. 343, 348, 367). Thus, once
we have walkedaroundand inside of a house, it appearsdefinitelyto be a
house;we see all aspectsof it as aspectsof a house; and it wouldthen seem
incredibleif on turning a cornerfor a second time we discoveredit was
merelya facadeafter all.
The use of the expression"I am certain"as analyzedby John Austin in
his article "OtherMinds"9 reflects this perceptualambiguity. After sufficient relevantinvestigationwe arejustifiedin saying we are certain,and
in saying this we "guarantee"our claim althoughit remainstrue that we
may still turn out to be mistaken.
As one advances from fundierendeappearanceto appearancein the
Lebenswelta similardevelopmenttakes place in the form of the subject.
The subject of fundierendeappearance is a pre-personal subject: universal,
neutral, and without an ego. With or after the appearance of the virtual
image and the attendant development of perspective in perception, there
appears intersubjectivity, an "etre a deux," expressed primarily by

dialogue.In dialogue,I and anotherare in perfectreciprocity,as peaceful

collaborators, and our perspectives glide into each other's without break

and without opposing polarization(PP, 407). With internal monologue,

however,private individualsubjectivity develops;each personis isolated
from and opposed to the other (PP, 407, 414). Each individual,like an
object of whichwe have maximumgraspin terms of permanentfigures,is
at once shut in on himself in opposition to others by having his own
individualprincipleof unification(e.g., the Cartesiancogito),and is at the
same time opened out toward an indefinite future focused upon an ideal
of objectivethoughtin whichthese oppositionsareresolved(PP, 409, 221).
We are thus broughtto the thresholdof MP'sthirdworld,the objective,
scientificworld. Since this is not a perceptualworld,MP's account of the
structureof its appearanceis not explicit, but the
followingaccount seems to be in the spirit of his views. On this level it
seems that there is no groundat all; there is merely figure. Furthermore
there is no distinctionbetweenactual and virtual figure,and thereforeno
distinction between referenceor anticipation and actualization or realization. To anticipate and to refer is not merely to do so in a definitedirection as in fundierendeexperience,nor is it to refer by means of some
definitevirtual content which may fail to be verified.Rather,it is so fully
to imply that which is "referredto" that it actualizesits own anticipated
objectin the very act of anticipationor reference.
Thus,for example,a theoreticalconsequence,once revealedas following
from theoretical assumptions,is "given" in the same sense as the as9 John Austin, "Other Minds,"Logicand Language(secondseries), Oxfordi 1955.

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sumptions themselves. This contrasts with the case of perceptualimplication in the Lebenswelt
wherean effectivefigurerevealsanotherfigureas
merelyvirtual; and wherewemust followout the referenceof the effective
figure in order to reveal another effective figure, instead of the second
effectivefigureitselffollowingfromthe given one. Thevirtualfigurewhich
follows from the perceptually given figure may be misleading. E.g.,
followingfromthe facade of a house, illusorilytaken to be a house, is the
virtual figure of the back of that house. But the theoreticalconsequence
which follows from the theoreticallygiven figure (the given assumption)
is identicalwith that to which the given figurerefers,so that there is no
such thing as a misleadingor virtual theoretical consequence.From a
theoreticalgiven, whateverfollows,followsvalidly.
In pre-objectiveexperiencethe transition from figure to figure is not
made by figure alone but requiresmediationby an act of consciousness
which is not legislatedby the figuresbut is free to follow or not to follow
their demand,thus showingthat the figuresdo not legislate one another
but are contingentlygiven to one anotheras the circumstance,occasion,
or evocative context of each other'sappearance.This primordialcondition
that figures do not legislate one another into existence but are merely
given to one another through the mediation of consciousness,the appearanceof one figure being merely the circumstanceof the appearance
of another,is the persistenceof the fundierendemode of appearancein the
Lebenswelt.On the other hand, -the appearanceof the virtual figure as
supplementary to the actual figure, forming thereby a "perceptual
implication"10by whichthe actualfigurerefersdeterminatelyto its ground,
is the foreshadowingor intimation of the scientific world in the lived
world. For the virtual figure,in mediatingbetween $he actual figure and
the figure concealedin the ground,partiallytakes the place of the act of
consciousness.In the scientificworld this tendency is merely brought to
final fulfillment,and consciousnesswith its free assent does not mediate
between figure and figure at all. Consciousness,the thinking subject,
merelyhypothesizesor posits the premisesof an ideal conditionand is then
the enthralledspectator of, not the participantin, the unfolding of the
implicationsof the posited figures. This explicitationis accomplishedby
the figures themselves, as if each actual figure implied another not by
means of a virtual figurebut ratherby directlyimplyingthat figureitself.
In so far as this is true, scientific figures are purely self-revealing.They
have no groundand arenot in any way concealed.Theyhave overcomethe
ambiguityof appearingas the revealingof what is concealed.
We may also note how the appearanceof permanentfigures of the
is intermediatebetweenthe appearanceof temporaryfiguresof

A phrase used by Aron Gurwitsch in Theuorie

du champ de la conscience.

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and the appearanceof fully revealedfiguresof the scientific

the Lebenswelt
in that
world.Permanentfiguresare like temporaryones of the Lebenswelt
they retain the distinctionbetween virtual and actual, and are therefore
accordingto the mannerof their appearancefalsifiableand groundedin
concealment.But they are like scientificfiguresin that any given permanent figurepertainingto a given object appearsas if it werenot falsifiable,
by appearing as if it wholly determined any other permanent figure
pertainingto the same object and as if it could be found wholly to determineits entire object. In the permanentfigurethere is thus an element
which appearsto escapethe ambiguityof the temporary
of the Lebenswelt
image and appearsas if what is revealedis entirely revealed. It makes a
claim to escape the ambiguity of the temporaryvirtual image but this
claim can be supportedonly by a perceptualfaith in the appearance,and
cannotbe guaranteedby the mannerof the appearanceitself. However,it
is by virtue of this faith that the ideal world of objective thought is
projected,and there figuresappearin such a mannerthat faith in them is
Thus, in summary,in the fundierende,pre-personalworld it is totally
true that what is revealed(figure)is concealed(ground).Figureand-ground
are inseparableand simply differentphases of a single figure-groundfield
of consciousnessand it is the entire figure-groundfield of consciousness
which is revealed as concealed.Every figure is given at once as having
arisenout of groundor concealmentin havingbeen madefigure;as passing
in its actual contentinto the concealmentof groundto whichit refers;and
as about to pass into the concealmentof groundin the attempt to reveal
its content presently concealed.In the scientific, objective world on the
other hand, what is revealedis entirelyrevealedand not concealed.There
is no ground;all figureis completelyself-revealingfigure.TheLebenswelt
in an intermediateposition. Insofar as there is any distinction between
virtual and actualfigure,one figuredoesnot appearto produceor legislate
another.Insofaras thereis any virtualimageat all, one figuredoes appear
to produceor legislate another and there is perceptualimplication; the
actual figure,by mediationof the virtual figure,indicatesnot merelythat
thereis anotherfigureconcealedin the ground,but indicatesalso what the
natureof this figureis likely to be. Insofaras the permanentfiguremay be
virtual, it is falsifiable;yet insofaras it is supportedby perceptualfaith it
is presumednot falsifiable.Fundierendeappearancehas a figure-groundperceiving-subject(prepersonal)form. Objectiveappearancehas a figurefigure-thinking-subjectform. Lebensweltappearanceis a synthesis in
antithesisof both these formsin such a way that the individualsubject is
the synthesisin antithesisof the perceivingwith the thinking subject,and
the virtual and permanent figures are in different ways syntheses in
antithesisof the figure-groundwith the figure-figurestructure.

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This ambiguouscharacterof the Lebenswelt,partaking as it does of

features of the originalworld and of the scientific world, explains why
both Taylorand Kullman,and Wildcan find supportin Merleau-Pontyfor
their differentviews of the boundarybetweenphenomenologicaland nonphenomenologicallevels of experience.Taylorand Kullman in opposing
the pre-objectiveworldto the worldof scienceand commonsense, assimilate the world of everyday experienceto the objective world of science
with which it sharesthe featuresof determinacyand certainty. Wild, on
the otherhand,focuseson the distinctionbetweenthe totally objectivenon
perspectivalcharacterof the world of scienceand the ambiguousanthroandoverlooksthe distinctionbetween
pocentriccharacterof the Lebenswelt,
the Lebensweltand the world of originalexperience.Kullmanand Taylor
cannot accountfor the fact that phenomenologists,amongthem MerleauPonty, have written elaborate descriptionsof our everyday world, and
Wild must ignore the equally substantial studies that phenomenologists
have devoted to geneticphenomenologyor fundamentalontology.
It is now clear that no dichtomyis adequate,for Merleau-Pontyrefers
to threeworlds. The Lebenswelthas, for him, characteristicsof both the
worlds it adjoins- not, however,by having a mixture of structuresfrom
each, but by exhibitingfunctionsunique to itself and mediatingbetween
those of the adjoiningworlds. Thus, these three worlds are not simply
describedand distinguished.Merleau-Ponty'sachievement is rather to
have traced the phenomenologicalgenesis of the Lebensweltand, more
sketchily,of the scientificworldfromthe primordialfundierendeworld.11

11 The trichotomy can be viewed as a dichotomy in order to emphasize certain

common features. Distinguish three worlds: the original world, the Lebenswelt,and the
world of science (perhapsbetter describedas a universe, since it is totally determinate
and has no horizon). We can then summarize the above remarks and clarify MP's
terminology, as follows: "Pre-objectiveworld"is generally used to refer to the first two
worlds the worlds prior to idealization - and to emphasize their incompleteness and
ambiguity. "Prepersonalworld"is used to referto the originalworld- the world priorto
stabilization - and to oppose this world of the pure field of consciousnessto the other
two worlds of which it is the foundation. MP does occasionally use "pre-objective"to
call attention to experience prior to stabilization, and it is this secondary usage which
leads Kullman and Taylor to oppose the pre-objective world to the world of everyday

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