Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Structure of Behavior. 1942

Source: The Structure of Behavior, published by Beacon Press, 1967. I am quoting some passages from the introduction and the conclusion.

Introduction: The problem of the relations of consciousness and nature

Our goal is to understand the relations of consciousness and nature: organic, psychological or even social. By nature we understand here a multiplicity of events external to each other and bound together by relations of causality.

With respect to physical nature, critical thought brings a well-known solution to this problem: reflection reveals that physical analysis is ‘not a decomposition into real elements and that causality in its actual meaning is not a productive operation. There is then no physical nature in the sense we have just given to this word; there is nothing in the world which is foreign to the mind. The world is the ensemble of objective relations borne by consciousness. It can be said that physics, in its development, justifies de facto this philosophy. One sees it employing mechanical, dynamic or even psychological models indifferently, as if, liberated from ontological pretensions, it were indifferent to the classical antinomies of mechanism and dynamism which imply a nature in itself.

The situation is not the same in biology. In fact the discussions concerning mechanism and vitalism remain open. The reason for this is probably that analysis of the physico-mathematical type progresses very slowly in this area and, consequently, that our picture of the organism is still for the most part that of a material mass partes extra partes. Under these conditions biological thought most frequently remains realistic, either by juxtaposing separated mechanisms or by subordinating them to an entelechy.

I As for psychology, critical thought leaves it no other resource than to be in part an “analytical psychology” which would discover judgment present everywhere in a way parallel to analytical geometry, and for the rest, a study of certain bodily mechanisms. To the extent that it has attempted to be a natural science, psychology has remained faithful to realism and to causal thinking. At the beginning of the century, materialism made the “mental” a particular sector of the real world: among events existing in themselves, some of them in the brain also had the property of existing for the selves. The counter mentalistic thesis posited consciousness as a productive cause or as a thing: first it was the realism of “states of consciousness” bound together by causal relations, a second world parallel and analogous to the “physical world” following the Humean tradition; then, in a more refined psychology, it was the realism of “mental energy” which substituted a multiplicity of fusion and interpenetration, a flowing reality, for the disconnected mental facts. But consciousness remained the analogue of a force. This was clearly seen when it was a question of explaining its action on the body and when, without being able to eliminate it, the necessary “creation of energy” was reduced to a minimum:’ the universe of physics was indeed taken as a reality in itself in which consciousness was made to appear as a second reality. Among psychologists consciousness was distinguished from beings of nature as one thing from another thing, by a certain number of characteristics. The mental fact, it was said, is unextended, known all at once. More recently the doctrine of Freud applies metaphors of energy to consciousness and accounts for conduct by the interaction of forces or tendencies.

Thus, among contemporary thinkers in France, there exist side by side a philosophy, on the one hand, which makes of every nature an objective unity constituted vis-‘a-vis consciousness and, on the other, sciences which treat the organism and consciousness as two orders of reality and, in their reciprocal relation, as “effects” and as “causes.” Is the solution to be found in a pure and simple return to critical thought? And once the criticism of realistic analysis and causal thinking has been made, is there nothing justified in the naturalism of science – nothing which, “understood” and transposed, ought to find a place in a transcendental philosophy?

We will come to these questions by starting “from below” and by an analysis of the notion of behaviour. This notion seems important to us because, taken in itself, it is neutral with respect to the classical distinctions between the “mental” and the “physiological” and thus can give us the opportunity of defining them anew.’ It is known .that in Watson, following the classical antinomy, the negation of consciousness as “internal reality” is made to the benefit of physiology; behaviour is reduced to the sum of reflexes and conditioned reflexes between which no intrinsic connection is admitted. But precisely this atomistic interpretation fails even at the level of the theory of the reflex (Chapter I) and all the more so in the psychology – even the objective psychology – of higher levels of behaviour (Chapter II), as Gestalt theory has clearly shown. By going through behaviourism, however, one gains at least in being able to introduce consciousness, not as psychological reality or as cause, but as structure. It will remain for us to investigate (Chapter III) the meaning and the mode of existence of these structures.

Conclusion: Structure and signification; the problem of perceptual consciousness

Yet until now we have considered only the perspectivism of true perception. Instances in which lived experience appears clothed with a signification which breaks apart, so to speak, in the course of subsequent experience and is not verified by concordant syntheses would still have to be analysed. We have not accepted the causal explanation which naturalism provides in order to account for this subjectivity in the second degree. What is called bodily, psychological or social determinism in hallucination and error has appeared to us to be reducible to the emergence of imperfect dialectics, of partial structures. But why, in existendo, does such a dialectic at the organic-vegetative level break up a more integrated dialectic, as happens in hallucination? Consciousness is not only and not always consciousness of truth; how are we to understand the inertia and the resistance of the inferior dialectics which stand in the way of the advent of the pure relations of impersonal subject and true object and which affect my knowledge with a coefficient of subjectivity? How are we to understand the adherence of a fallacious signification to the lived, which is constitutive of illusion?

We have rejected Freud’s causal categories and replaced his energic metaphors with structural metaphors. But although the complex is not a thing outside of consciousness which would produce its effects in it, although it is only a structure of consciousness, at least this structure tends as it were to conserve itself. It has been said that what is called unconsciousness is only an inapperceived signification: it may happen that we ourselves do not grasp the true meaning of our life, not because an unconscious personality is deep within us and governs our actions, but because we understand our lived states only through an idea which is not adequate for them.

But, even unknown to us, the efficacious law of our life is constituted by its true signification. Everything happens as if this signification directed the flux of mental events. Thus it will be necessary to distinguish their ideal signification, which can be true or false, and their immanent signification, or-to employ a clearer language which we will use from now on-their ideal signification and their actual structure. Correlatively, it will be necessary to distinguish in development an ideal liberation, on the one hand, which does not transform us in our being and changes only the consciousness which we have of ourselves, and, on the other, a real liberation which is the Umgestaltung of which we spoke, along with Goldstein. We are not reducible to the ideal consciousness which we have of ourselves any more than the existent thing is reducible to the signification by which we express it.

It is easy to argue in the same way, in opposition to the sociologist, that the structures of consciousness which he relates to a certain economic structure are in reality the consciousness of certain structures. This argument hints at a liberty very close to mind, capable by reflection of grasping itself as spontaneous source, and naturising from below the contingent forms with which it has clothed itself in a certain milieu. Like Freud’s complex, the economic structure is only one of the objects of a transcendental consciousness. But “transcendental consciousness,” the full consciousness of self, is not ready made; it is to be achieved, that is, realised in existence. In opposition to Durkheim’s “collective consciousness” and his attempts at sociological explanation of knowledge, it is rightly argued that consciousness cannot be treated as an effect since it is that which constitutes the relation of cause and effect. But beyond a causal thinking which can be all too easily challenged, there is a truth of sociologism. Collective consciousness does not produce categories, but neither can one say that collective representations are only the objects of a consciousness which is always free in their regard, only the consciousness in a “we” of an object of consciousness in an “I.”

The mental, we have said, is reducible to the structure of behaviour. Since this structure is visible from the outside and for the spectator at the same time as from within and for the actor, another person is in principle accessible to me as I am to myself and we are. both objects laid out before an impersonal consciousness.” But just as I can be mistaken concerning myself and grasp only the apparent or ideal signification of my conduct, so can I be mistaken concerning another and know only the envelope of his behaviour. The perception which I have of him is never, in the case of suffering or mourning,, for example, the equivalent of the perception which he has of himself unless I am sufficiently close to him that our feelings constitute together a single “form” and that our lives cease to flow separately. It is by this rare and difficult consent that I can be truly united with him, just as I can grasp my natural movements and know myself sincerely only by the decision to belong to myself Thus I do not know myself because, of my special position, but neither do I have the innate power truly knowing another. I communicate with him by the signification of his conduct; but it is a question of attaining its structure,” that is of attaining, beyond his words or even his actions, the region where they are prepared.

As we have seen, the behaviour of another expresses a certain manner of existing before signifying a certain manner of thinking. And when this behaviour is addressed to me, as may happen in dialogue, and seizes upon my thoughts in order to respond to them – or more simply, when the “cultural objects” which fall under my regard suddenly adapt themselves to my powers, awaken my intentions and make themselves “understood” by me-I am then drawn into a coexistence of which I am not the unique constituent and which founds the phenomenon of social nature as perceptual experience founds that of physical nature. Consciousness can live in existing things without reflection, can abandon itself to their concrete structure, which has not yet been converted into expressible signification; certain episodes of its life, before having been reduced to the condition of available memories and inoffensive objects, can imprison its liberty by their proper inertia, shrink its perception of the world and impose stereotypes on behaviour; likewise, before having conceptualised our class or our milieu, we are that class or that milieu.

Thus, the “I think” can be as if hallucinated by its objects. It will be replied (which is true) that it “should be able” to accompany all our representations and that it is presupposed by them, if not as term of an act of actual consciousness at least as a possibility in principle. But this response of critical philosophy poses a problem. The conversion of seeing which transforms the life of consciousness into a pure dialectic of subject and object, which reduces the thing in its sensible density to a bundle of significations, the traumatic reminiscence into an indifferent memory, and submits the class structure of my consciousness to examination-does this conversion make explicit an eternal “condition of possibility” or does it bring about the appearance of a new structure of consciousness? It is a problem to know what happens, for example, when consciousness disassociates itself from time, from this uninterrupted gushing forth at the center of itself, in order to apprehend it as an intellectual and manipulable signification. Does it lay bare only what was implicit? Or, on the contrary, does it not enter as into a lucid dream in which indeed it encounters no opaqueness, not because it has clarified the existence of things and its own existence, but because it lives at the surface of itself and on the envelope of things? Is the reflexive passage to intellectual consciousness an adequation of our knowing to our being or only a way for consciousness to create for itself a separated existences quietism? These questions express no empiricist demand, no complaisance for “experiences” which would not have to account for themselves. On the contrary, we want to make consciousness equal with the whole of experience, to gather into consciousness for-itself all the life of consciousness in-itself.

A philosophy in the critical tradition founds moral theory on a reflection which discovers the thinking subject in its liberty behind all objects. If, however, one acknowledges-be it in the status of phenomenon-an existence of consciousness and of its resistant structures, our knowledge depends upon what we are; moral theory begins with a psychological and sociological critique of oneself; man is not assured ahead of time of possessing a source of morality; consciousness of self is not given in man by right; it is acquired only by the elucidation of his concrete being and is verified only by the active integration of isolated dialectics-body and soul-between which it is initially broken up. And finally, death is not deprived of meaning, since the contingency of the lived is a perpetual menace for the eternal significations in which it is believed to be completely expressed. It will be necessary to assure oneself that the experience of eternity is not the unconsciousness of death, that it is not on this side but beyond; similarly, moreover, it will be necessary to distinguish the love of life from the attachment to biological existence. The sacrifice of life will be philosophically impossible; it will be a question only of “staking” one’s life, which is a deeper way of living.

If one understands by perception the act which makes us know existences, all the problems which we have just touched on are reducible to the problem of perception. It resides in the duality of the notions of structure and signification. A “form,” such as the structure of “figure and ground,” for example, is a whole which has a meaning and which provides therefore ‘ a base for intellectual analysis. But at the same time it is not an idea: it constitutes, alters and reorganises itself before us like a spectacle. The alleged bodily, social and psychological “causalities” are reducible to this contingency of lived perspectives which limit our access to eternal significations. The “horizontal localisations” of cerebral functioning, the adhesive structures of animal behaviour and those of pathological behaviour are only particularly striking examples of this. “Structure” is the philosophical truth of naturalism and realism. What are the relations of this naturised consciousness and the pure consciousness of self? Can one conceptualise perceptual consciousness without eliminating it as an original mode; can, one maintain its specificity without rendering inconceivable its relation to intellectual consciousness? If the essence of the critical solution consists in driving existence back to the limits of knowledge and of discovering intellectual signification in concrete structure, and if, as has been said, the fate of critical thought is bound up with this intellectualist theory of perception, in the event that this were not acceptable, it would be necessary to define transcendental philosophy anew in such a way as to integrate with it the very phenomenon of the real. The natural “thing,” the organism, the behaviour of others and my own behaviour exist only by their meaning; but this meaning which springs forth in them is not yet a Kantian object; the intentional life which constitutes them is not yet a representation; and the “comprehension” which gives access to them is not yet an intellection.

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