By Susannah Leigh

The unity of the world, before being posited by knowledge in a specific act of identification is “lived”. 

Merleau-Ponty 2002, xix.

It is no secret that our ideas betray something of their legacies. Revolutionaries wade through the intellectual tradition like thick and muddy water, whereas classical philosophers and scientists often stand on the shoulders of giants. The works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty marked some of the most prominent contributions to the existential tradition. The theorists may even be constitutive of our notion of French twentieth-century existentialism. On the other hand, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre marked a revolutionary deviance from the well-wrought urn of the classical philosophical way of thinking; their ideas embarked on the premise that science is derived from (or at least secondary to) structures of human existence (Thomas 2006, 56). Instead of abiding by the so-called split between subject and object, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty sought to establish their theories of inner perception.

To transcend what Buck-Morss called ‘the constant plague of classical philosophy’ (Buck-Morss 1992, 13), (that so-called split between subject and object) is, however, an ugly task. In Existentialism and Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, ‘I have lately been told of a lady who, whenever she lets slip in a vulgar expression in a moment of nervousness, excuses herself by exclaiming, “I believe I am becoming an existentialist.”’ (Sartre and Philip 2007, 24). 

Sartre establishes a theory of inner perception known as the look, and Merleau-Ponty a phenomenology of perception. Whilst these theories purport to reveal something universal about our existences, they rely on the classically ocularcentric language of the Western philosophical tradition to establish their theories. By ocularcentric I mean the privileging of sight or visual faculties within the sensorium. If Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s theories rely on or dispense ideas about existence mediated through ocularcentric assumptions, their theories will fail to account for the experience of blindness. Dickel (2022) and Kleege’s (2005) phenomenological accounts of disabled experience point out the tiredness of the philosopher’s reliance on analogies appealing to classical philosophy’s able-bodied tradition; since they must therefore rely on the false idea that blindness is linked to limitations in one’s knowledge, as opposed to a sensory adjustment to one’s being in-the-world. Ultimately, the metaphysical dilemma of human existence was indeed outlined by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, if, to their benefit, bound to its contemporary nomenclature surrounding knowledge.

Loss of sight, or blindness, involves a period of bodily and existential instability (Irving 2017) wherein the primary locus within the sensorium must shift away from sight and towards a greater reliance upon material corporeality. Neither Sartre (2007) nor Merleau-Ponty (2002) directly consider the case of blindness, albeit Merleau-Ponty talks about blindness in relation to bodily experience.

I shall briefly set out an interpretation of Sartre’s notion of the Look in Being and Nothingness (Sartre and Philip 2007), which I interpret as purporting to explain the notion of selfhood or identity as conferred through a dialectic of looking and being looked at in our experiences of other people. In his notion of the Look, Sartre talks about the visual faculties in a literal way; the confusion surrounding our haphazard footing over the deeply metaphysically established notion that we ourselves exist, and possibly others too, can be captured through an exchanged glance with another. One spots another person’s gaze capturing oneself visually, but within this exchange, one is simultaneously made aware of their situatedness within that alien perceptual field of the other and, unwilfully extracted from the field of self, is made aware of one’s own existence within the context of the other, within their own complex life and their existential reality. One gains a sense of the self as captured by the other.

On the other hand, one does the same since all exchange is mutual, be it seeing and being seen, feeling and being felt; there is always a return, a symmetry of force when one engages with something outside oneself. In doing so, one incorporates the person to whom they are a subject into their presupposed situatedness within the world. In this sense, our ability to see the other captures something from them about themselves they seemingly cannot access. Vice versa, we see ourselves, that is, one’s own essence, stripped of one’s own control and captured by the other. This exchange serves as visceral proof of supra-somatic existence, and thus is the point at which we are introduced to the world in all its possibilities. In a great Homeric salvo, the point at which we find clarity on this otherwise foggy notion is also the moment it is captured from us, hence Sartre depicts this denouement: ‘my freedom eats  into my possibles’ (Sartre 2001, 260).

Consider the metamorphosis required of Sartre’s account if applied within the context of blindness. The dialectic of looking and being looked at would cease to be an ocular phenomenon; in a re-stabilization of selfhood in-the-world, one’s orientation within the sensorium is reordered whereby identity and selfhood must be conferred to a greater degree through material corporeality. This term captures the notion of a body of lived experiences rather than focusing on any particular mode of perception. This notion echoes what Kant described when he argued that ‘inner perception is impossible without outer perception, that the world, as a collection of connected phenomena, is anticipated in the consciousness of my unity, and is the means whereby I come into being as a consciousness’ (quoted in Merleau-Ponty 2002, xix). Anticipation was also a key concept for Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, where he says ‘the unity of the world, before being posited by knowledge in a specific act of identification is ‘lived’ (ibid.). On this basis, we ought to defend that Sartre’s account still holds weight upon capturing lived experience world-over, despite the fact it is valued in quite clearly a linguistically ocular currency. In other words, Sartre may talk about sight and truth, vision and knowledge the world over, however the subject of the dialectic he proposes is that entirely human phenomenon of existential and perceptual [in]stability.

Sartre’s notion of the Look described the dilemma we face when confronted by the reciprocal nature of our being. The language used to talk about knowledge surrounding identity and existence certainly invokes the visual faculties, not unlike the terms we often use today (An illuminating read; she shone light on the topic; look at things from my point of view; ahh- I see!). However, there is certainly also hope to locate the Look within the disabled embodied experience (see Kleege 2005 and Dickel 2022 for progress already made on this). Returning to the initial dilemma of selfhood, Sartre’s account explains why we must begin all understanding by acknowledging the metaphysics of self as a practical, intellectual and existential beginning point. The dialectic of looking and being looked at must, therefore be reconceptualized as using sight as an analogy for perception and being in the world. 

We may take issue with the fact Sartre’s account demands some metaphysical excavation in order for it to apply to the disabled embodied experience. Dickel (2022) and Kleege (2005) offer an account of the phenomenology of disabled experience, and point out the tiredness of the philosopher’s reliance on analogies appealing to classical philosophy’s able-bodied tradition. Dickel (2022) remarks that using analogies that associate sight and knowledge are inseparable from the tired use of blindness by analogy to demonstrate a lack of knowledge, thought and understanding in the ocularcentric western philosophical tradition, and as Kleege puts it, ‘that image is older than Oedipus’ (2005, 228). I have omitted Dickel and Kleege’s support for other aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, though they are right to propose that the language ‘could use a lick of paint’ (ibid.). 

In Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, blindness is not portrayed as a debilitating disability, though imbued with a sense of mysticism possessed in a deeply different way to how sighted people live; the physiological difference of blindness from a normal person confers a social category onto the imagined blind person. In his account of perceptual habit, Merleau-Ponty talks about  a blind person who incorporates the white cane into their body schema and then perceives their world through the cane (Dickel, 2022). When a blind person moves through the world with a cane, what they can anticipate in proximity through that cane is indeed affected by having low sight in a way that embodies a seemingly non-human object. In this sense, Merleau-Ponty provides a far-from traditionally ocularcentric position regarding embodied experience: since the blind person’s cane is analogous to the sighted person’s feather in their cap, Merleau-Ponty seeks to identify a universal human experience. For example, the flexibility of the physical boundaries of where one’s identity ends shows a diversified account of inner perception. ‘The blind man’s cane has ceased to be an object for him, it is no longer perceived for itself; rather, the cane’s furthest point is transformed into a sensitive zone, it increases the scope and the radius of the act of touching and has become analogous to a gaze’ (Merleau-Ponty 2002, 144).

The cane analogizes the ‘gaze’: a concept which is essential to this dialectic, and which, in the first part of this essay, I tried to justify as being fluid through the sensorium. In other words, it can be used even when sight becomes unavailable. I considered the legacy and tradition of an ocularcentric understanding of how identity is conferred through a dialectic of looking and being looked at. I argue that two core theorists, Sartre and Merelau-Ponty, can be perceived as belonging to that tradition whilst also being useful for its dismantling. Sartre and Merleau-Ponty are not core proponents of the notion of visual faculties having privileged access to truth.  The view is, however, implicit in both their accounts, only redeemed by their extraordinary departure from a classical subject-object or empirical approach.

Both accounts are products of their ocularcentric philosophical predecessors, however they provide a revolutionary practical application of a great metaphysical dilemma: our comprehension of our own existence, and the existence of others is at once impossible to prove (and therefore to be epistemologically sure of), but is also somehow metaphysically instantaneously grasped, in that we tend to live in a way which ensures that there are indeed other sentient humans. Since metaphysics concerns truth, and epistemology knowledge, it is generally regarded as impossible to talk about one if the other is a mystery; if one talks about or discerns something as being true, one implies themself in having knowledge of it being so. That Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s accounts reconciled this astral notion with human’s most pedestrian habit marks a revolutionary feat. 

Susannah Leigh is a recent undergraduate of the Social Sciences in Social Anthropology and Philosophy at the University of Manchester. Her research interests includes metaphysics, phenomenology, and existential anthropology, and lots of more amusing things.  

Edited by Thomas Furse

Featured Image: Ray, Man: Eye and tears. 1930s. Courtesy of NGV Collection Online and the Bowness Family Foundation.