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LIFE AND PERCEPTUAL INTENTIONALITY

by

RENAUD BARBARAS
Université de Paris-I Panthéon-Sorbonne

ABSTRACT
Husserl is the Ž rst philosopher who has managed to account for the speciŽ city of per-
ception, characterized as givenness by sketches (Abschattungen); but neither Husserl nor
Merleau-Ponty have given a satisfying deŽ nition of the subject of perception. This arti-
cle tries to show that the subject of perception must be conceived as living being and
that, therefore, the phenomenology of perception must lead to a phenomenology of
life. Here, life is approached from an existential point of view, that is to say, as a speciŽ c
relationship to the world. However, life cannot be characterized from human existence
in a privative way, as in Heidegger’s philosophy: on the contrary, human existence,
and particularly perception itself, must be understood from vital existence, and accord-
ingly, an “additive” anthropology must replace the privative zoology. The hypothesis
of this article is that it is by characterizing life as desire, we are able to account for
perception as givenness by sketches.

Husserl is the Ž rst philosopher who has managed to account for the
speciŽ city of perception, characterized as givenness (donation) by sketches
(Abschattungen, adumbrations). On the one hand, the sketch discloses or
shows the thing; it erases itself in favor of the object; it is self exceeding,
as Patocka writes. But, on the other hand, if it is true that the object
appears “in person,” it cannot appear exhaustively just as it really is.
The sketch masks or covers the object that it shows insofar as it rep-
resents its own appearance as being the object, thus giving the impression
that the object is no diVerent from its appearance. In this way, the
object is given through new appearances and in fact is considered to be
nothing more than the law of the development of these appearances.
If we take into account the fact that this is an eidetical characteriza-
tion, which means that even God could not reach the thing exhaus-
tively but would also perceive it by sketches, then we must conclude
that every perception involves a dimension of distance or transcen-
dence. This distance is not the consequence of a human limitation but
is in fact the very determination of that which appears, whatever it is.

Research in Phenomenology, 33
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands 2003
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It is exactly this relationship between appearance and distance, prox-


imity and withdrawal, that Merleau-Ponty tried to deŽ ne in his the-
ory of the invisible, that is to say, through the idea of an invisibility
constitutive of the visible perceptual object. As a matter of fact, this
is rather obvious, for if a perceptual object is really transcendent, that
is to say, diVerent from me, it cannot be known exhaustively since it
remains out of reach. If it were not out of reach, it would be con-
sidered a lived content (Erlebnis). But here the diYculty is that the two
determinations of distance and proximity do not refer to two diVerent
dimensions or faculties, as they do in a classical approach where dis-
tance comes from the sensible appearance and proximity from under-
standing or thought; rather, these two determinations are two abstract
sides of the same situation. It is only as a thing is considered as visi-
ble that the thing is invisible, and by the same token, the invisibility
of a thing as such necessarily involves a visibility. As Merleau-Ponty
writes in The Visible and the Invisible, “to see is always to see more than
one sees.”1 There is no doubt that Husserl neither manages to account
for this situation nor respects these conditions, and therefore he remains
within the classical approach. Indeed, in accordance with the phe-
nomenology of reason, he has to identify the existence of the thing
with its complete determinability. Thus the sketches become imperfect
determinations of the object; the appearing sketch itself becomes an
appearance—something which is not the object itself. To be neces-
sarily means to be known; therefore the invisibility of the perceived
thing is no longer thought of as a condition of visibility but as a nega-
tion of it. Anyway, this is inevitable as long as the sketch is deter-
mined as an immanent datum, that is to say, as a sensation in the
empirical sense of the term. From this standpoint, the sketch is nec-
essarily diVerent from the object, and therefore, the object necessarily
diVerent from the sketch, such that the sketches appear as imperfect
and gradual determinations of the same object.
However, even though Merleau-Ponty describes the perceived world
in a very relevant way, I think there is still a problem in the sense of
an inconsistency in his approach. This inconsistency consists in a dis-
crepancy between the Ž nal description of the world in terms of the
visible and invisible (a description which seems to me unquestionable),
and the determination of the subject of perception as lived body or
 esh. This approach from the lived body serves mainly a negative
function for Merleau-Ponty. First, it enables Merleau-Ponty to criticize
the Husserlian philosophy of consciousness insofar as it is still within
life and perceptual intentionality 159

the intellectualist framework, a framework that prevents Husserl from


preserving the speciŽ city of the perceptual level. But also, by showing
that the subject of perception is an embodied subject, he shows that
the form or the signiŽ cation is inseparable from the matter, thus reduc-
ing the distance between form and matter, meaning and sensible datum.
In the end, however, he does not overcome these dualities. In The
Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty takes a step in the direction of
overcoming them when he manages to give up the concepts generally
used to describe perception (matter, form, etc.) and deŽ nes the speciŽ city
of the meaning of being of the perceived world. Accordingly, he rad-
ically criticizes the philosophy of consciousness and recognizes that it
is necessary to take another starting point; that is, he recognizes that
one must seriously take into account the fact of embodiment. However,
this new starting point still maintains the duality of subject and object,
consciousness and material body, because it is described in terms of
the visibility of the seeing and the unity of touching and touched.
Of course, the diYculty is not due to the fact of starting from the
body, since it is obvious that the body is the subject of perception,
and it is also obvious that we perceive in or through our body. The
problem lies in the fact that Merleau-Ponty does not question the
meaning of the being of the body and, consequently, remains depen-
dent on the concepts of the philosophy of consciousness. This is the
reason why the body is deŽ ned as touching and touched, seeing and
visible, that is, why it is deŽ ned in terms of both activity and passiv-
ity. However, such a deŽ nition amounts only to a re-posing of the
problem and not a solving of it. The revised question can be posed
as: how can we understand the body as a unity of activity and pas-
sivity? Or in what are these two seemingly opposed dimensions founded?
To put this yet another way, there is a gap between Merleau-Ponty’s
very radical characterization of the being of the perceived world and
his description of the subject of perception, a description that, I might
add, made no progress beyond what was given in The Phenomenology of
Perception and, because of that, remains dependent on a classical con-
ceptuality. Owing to this, I think that the concept of chiasm is very
confused. According to Merleau-Ponty, since the touching is also
touched, it is part of the world; and if it is part of the world, then
we can say that it is the world itself that comes into manifestation.
But in fact it is because he took as starting point the duality of pas-
sivity and activity, touched and touching that Merleau-Ponty is led to
account for perceptual intentionality through this intricate relationship,
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this intertwining. This is a duality that comes from the fact that his
account of the way of being of the body lacks depth. After all, to
describe the body as touched and touching amounts to saying that it
is both sensitive consciousness and an object. In other words, the con-
cept of chiasm is used to bridge the gap between the speciŽ city of per-
ception and the use of irrelevant concepts coming from the Husserlian
philosophy of consciousness. So the problem can now be revised to
read: allowing for the fact that perception escapes from the classical
distinctions, how can we deŽ ne the subject of perception, or more par-
ticularly, how can we deŽ ne the being of the lived body as condition
of the originary unity between visible and invisible?
I am suggesting that the subject of perception must be conceived
as living being and that therefore the phenomenology of perception must
lead to a phenomenology of life. This means that to a certain extent
we must apply the phenomenological reduction to consciousness itself
and approach the body from a neutral standpoint vis-à-vis the diVerence
between the body as object and the body as lived body. In order to
reach the meaning of the being of the body, we must deŽ ne it as life
in a neutral sense; that is to say, we must deŽ ne it in terms that are
independent of the diVerence between lived and living, between erleben
and leben. As a matter a fact, to approach the body as lived body, as
Merleau-Ponty does, amounts to privileging the consciousness side of
the equation and prevents him from discovering the genuine meaning
of body.
Indeed, the body is alive, and we must raise the question about the
meaning of life. But the meaning of life is linked to the possibility of
perception from life; thus the meaning of this life will take shape in
contact with perception. These concepts are interdependent; each one
clariŽ es the status of the other one. To Ž nd this neutral ground, we
must refuse the objective biological point of view and the vitalist one
as well. The fact is, biology does not work on life itself but on its
chemical and physical contents, and this presupposes an ability to rec-
ognize living beings; it is vitalism that Ž lls the deŽ ciency of this level
of explanation by positing a vital force. But merely positing a vital
force does not clarify anything; indeed it serves only to highlight the
problem. So, since we reject both the objective determination of life
as seen in the physico-chemical laws and the internal determination
of life as consciousness, we must strive for a determination of life that
arises neither as a modality of the subject nor as a modality of the
object. We must see life from an existential point of view, as a speciŽ c
relationship to the world; i.e., we must see it as a mode of existing.
life and perceptual intentionality 161

To a certain extent, this starting point is close to a Heideggerian


one insofar as Heidegger recognizes that life is a speciŽ c way of exist-
ing and criticizes the biological approach along with the vitalist one.
On the other hand, he takes it for granted that the only existence we
can reach is Dasein’s and then claims that life can only be attained
privatively through human existence. He writes: “Life, in its own right,
is a kind of Being; but essentially it is accessible only in Dasein. The
ontology of life is accomplished by way of a privative interpretation;
it determines what must be the case if there can be anything like mere-
aliveness [Nur-noch-leben].”2 This assertion, according to which living
existence is given privatively through human existence, aims at oppos-
ing the traditional thesis that human being would be a living being
plus something else, i.e., a rational animal (animal rationale). Thus, unlike
substantialist approaches, Heidegger acknowledges the speciŽ city of liv-
ing existence, but his desire to protect the speciŽ city of Dasein and its
distance in relation to other beings leads him to think life through
Dasein and, consequently, to miss life’s speciŽ city. In fact his starting
point, the question of Being, leads him to give to human being an
exceptional status, a status that is incompatible with the possibility of
accounting for human existence from vital existence, that is, incom-
patible with any form of continuity.
These cursory comments about Heidegger enable us to further reŽ ne
our question. In order to account for perception from life it is neces-
sary to think life as a singular mode of existing, and we will be able
to understand this mode of existing provided that we do not approach
it from human existence in a privative way. Unlike Heidegger, how-
ever, who thinks life in terms of existence, I am suggesting that we
think existence in terms of life. It follows that human existence must
be understood from vital existence; and if it is agreed that humanity
is not life plus something but only a new dimension of life, then an
“additive” anthropology must replace the privative zoology. In short,
I am suggesting that the condition for the possibility of perception lies
in the vital mode of existing.
We Ž nd in Hans Jonas’ philosophy a phenomenology of life that
seems to meet the conditions we have just established. Indeed, The
Phenomenon of Life (1966) starts with the assertion of just those very con-
ditions: “this volume oVers an ‘existential’ interpretation of biological
facts. Contemporary existentialism, obsessed with man alone, is in the
habit of claiming as its unique privilege and predicament much of
what is rooted in organic existence as such; in so doing, it withholds
from the organic world the insights to be learned from awareness of
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self.”3 This thinly veiled criticism of Heidegger shows itself when Jonas
sees continuity between man and animal where Heidegger sees an
abyss. Thus, for Jonas, self awareness is already pre-Ž gured in the
organic world itself. This is the reason why he writes: “A philosophy
of life comprises the philosophy of the organism and the philosophy
of mind. This is itself a Ž rst proposition of the philosophy of life. . . . For
the statement of scope expresses no less than the contention that the
organic even in its lowest forms preŽ gures mind, and that mind even
on its highest reaches remains part of the organic.”4 Life is therefore
that mode of existing that includes the possibility of mind, generally
speaking, and perception in particular.
Jonas refers to this mode of existing as metabolism and means by
this the process through which a form maintains itself as identical
through a continuous renewal (replacement) of matter. Thus, at any
two moments of time suYciently distant from each other, the form
carries none of the material from the Ž rst moment into the second
moment, while the organic conŽ guration and the individuality that is
expressed by this conŽ guration remains the same. Conversely, should
we Ž nd the same material content at two moments of time suYciently
distant, we can assert that this organism is dead. In fact, the form
only enjoys independence in relation to matter; thus the only way it
can maintain its own individuality is by continually taking matter in
anew. The freedom that the form enjoys in relation to such and such
a state of matter as it expresses itself through the aptitude to transcend
that state and to free itself from it, is at the same time a relation of
dependency on the new material state that will replace the old. Thus
metabolism reveals freedom in necessity or as necessity—a dialectical
freedom. Jonas says: “denoting, on the side of freedom, a capacity of
organic form, namely to change its matter, metabolism denotes equally
the irremissible necessity for it to do so. Its ‘can’ is a ‘must’, since its
execution is identical with its being.”5
In other words, the organic freedom accomplishes itself as need. It
follows that the living being has to get that which will permit this
renewal from outside itself. This means that the renewal of the vital
substance requires the form to have an original relationship with matter,
as Jonas himself has noted: “in order to change matter, the living form
must have matter at its disposal and it Ž nds it outside itself, in the
foreign ‘world’. Thereby life is turned outward and toward the world
in a peculiar relatedness of dependence and possibility. Its wants go
out to where its means of satisfaction lie; its self-concern, active in the
life and perceptual intentionality 163

acquisition of new matter, is essential openness for the encounter of


outer being.”6 What Jonas has told us here is that the transcendence
of form in relation to matter, insofar as it requires a renewal of matter,
implies an active transcendence toward the world. The temporal dimen-
sion of self-perpetuation founds the spatial dimension of exteriority. It
follows that the self-concern, which deŽ nes the organism, requires a
sensibility, however primitive it is, to that which is not the living being.
Jonas marks this need when he writes that “there is inwardness or
subjectivity involved in this transcendence, imbuing all the encounters
occasioned in its horizon with the quality of felt selfhood, however
faint its voice. It must be there for satisfaction or frustration to make
a diVerence.”7 Thus Hans Jonas manages to reveal a structure of vital
existence that he calls metabolism that makes it possible to account
for the intentional relationship with exteriority, which relationship, in
turn, is the condition for the possibility of perception. While Heidegger
claimed to explain what must be the case if there can be anything
like mere-aliveness, Hans Jonas explains what life must be like if there
is to be anything like intentionality. By understanding the living being
as “dynamical exceeding” in relation to its own matter, Jonas man-
ages to provide the foundation for the self-exceeding of the living being
on which the possibility of perception is grounded. He provides us
with the Ž rst theoretical example of a phenomenology of life as the
foundation for a phenomenology of perception.
However, even if it is methodologically relevant, this position is not
completely satisfying. The way in which Jonas understands life does
not enable him to account for perception. Because it is based on the
renewal of the vital matter, the orientation towards exteriority is pre-
viously determined by the vital needs in such a way that it does not
disclose a genuine transcendence but only a vital environment. That
is, it is related with the objects of the need and not with the object
as such. Therefore, it remains to be shown how this description of life
accounts for the structure of manifestation—for the appearing of some-
thing apart from needs. Or, in Jonas’ terms, what we need is an
account of how the mind is “preŽ gured” in the organism.
It seems to me that this diYculty to account for intentionality stems
from the deŽ nition of living being in terms such as “self-concern,” “in
view of itself,” and “self-aYrmation against the threat of death.” To
put the matter another way, Jonas never calls into question the tra-
ditional deŽ nition of living being as a self-centered individuality whose
aim is its own perpetuation, i.e., its own survival. In fact, for a living
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individual subject already separated from the world, life can only be
self-conservation and, therefore, satisfaction of needs. But, if we base
the living intentionality on need, we will be unable to explain the per-
ception of some neutral thing that is not bound to the living inten-
tionality by the relationship of need, since it will be existing in itself
and not as a possible future part of the organism. By the same token,
if we are to account for perception from life, then we must do it on the
condition that we give up this deŽ nition of life as self-perpetuation or
self-concern, i.e., as need, since such a deŽ nition requires us to treat
the living being as an already constituted individuality—a self.
It is for this reason that I have chosen to characterize life, that is,
to deŽ ne the being of life, as desire. Let me take as a starting point
for this thesis a very impressive text from Der Aubbau des Organismus (by
Goldstein): “every creature, in some sense, simultaneously expresses a
perfection and an imperfection. Considered in isolation, it is perfect,
structured, and living in itself; with regard to totality, it is imperfect
in varying degrees. The particular creature, in relation to the totality
of being, presents the same species of being as is presented by a phe-
nomenon isolated from the organism; in relation to the totality of the
organism, it displays imperfection and rigidity, and its only being lies
in totality, in being borne [ portée] by totality . . . this imperfection is
expressed by individuality, and stems from the artiŽ cial separation of
the individual from the whole.”8
This conclusion is based on a metaphysical principle according to
which the imperfect becomes intelligible as a form of the perfect with-
out the converse ever being possible. This assertion poses a lot of prob-
lems concerning the status of that totality of which the living being is
a part; but it has, without a doubt, an important phenomenological
meaning for living being. The assertion shows us that living being is
deŽ ned by a kind of contradiction; it is at once autonomous and depen-
dent. On the one hand, it displays autonomy insofar as it constitutes
a close entity that is relatively independent from the rest of nature.
But, on the other hand, this is contradicted by the fact that the living
being always needs an appropriate environment in order to maintain
its identity. In this sense, the being of living lies in the environment, and
as biologists show, the living being searches for an environment that
will be in continuity with its own needs and which will correspond
with its own necessities or essentials. Of course, the realization of this
perfect environment is impossible because the environment of living
being is nature, and the laws of nature constitute its background. In a
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sense, the living being always tries to re-form the totality it enjoys with
the world; but this is an impossible task because its realization would
mean a form of negation of the laws of nature, a complete split between
environment and natural world. Moreover, that would mean the dis-
appearance of the living being as individual. This is the reason why
we can say that living being falls short of its own being and is con-
sequently deŽ ned by an ontological separation. The essence of the liv-
ing being lies outside of itself, and therefore, its life is characterized
by the fact that it always pursues or seeks for its own essence. So I
employ the term “desire” in a very speciŽ c sense and as diVerent from
need. Unlike need, desire cannot be fulŽ lled; thus the presence of what
is desired does not fulŽ ll desire but intensiŽ es it; or better, in desire
there is no diVerence between fulŽ llment and frustration.
I want to claim that this characterization of the essence of life as
desire arising from an ontological split enables us to account for the
structure of perception. As a matter of fact, to say that that which
fulŽ lls desire frustrates it and therefore intensiŽ es it, amounts to say-
ing that the object of desire does not fall under the principle of iden-
tity. Because the desire is intensiŽ ed, the object is smaller than what
the intensiŽ ed desire seems to call for; but as the object of the new
and intensiŽ ed desire, it is larger than itself when taken as the object
present. It seems as if the object of desire is not yet itself and falls
short of itself in such a way that its presence is at the same time its
own absence; the object of desire is present as absent in the sense that
it appears as its own lack.
But this description corresponds exactly to the characterization of
perception discussed above. There it was noted that, in the sketch, the
thing in question is present by means of the sketch yet absent because
it is only a sketch and does not exhaustively capture the thing itself.
Similarly with perception, the visible thing involves a kind of invisi-
bility and to a certain extent is its own invisibility. Therefore, if we
deŽ ne the fabric of intentionality as desire, we are in a position to
understand this originary unity between visible and invisible. As object
of an essential desire, that which is for a living being always remains
beyond its own manifestation because the object of desire frustrates
the subject when it fulŽ lls him by appearing short of itself; the object
of desire appears as its own absence or invisibility.
In conclusion, I think that the only way to account for perception
is by starting from the living body, which of course distinguishes my
position from a Heideggerian one. In spite of the fact that I think that
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concern (Sorge) reveals something important about the being of life, my


suggestion consists in something of a shift from a Heideggerian account;
however, it is also a shift from Merleau-Ponty’s explicitly held posi-
tion, because his account of the living body remains dependent on
consciousness. This is the reason why I think that the future of phe-
nomenology lies in an ontology of life.

Edited by John Cogan

NOTES
1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston:
Northwestern University Press, 1968), 247.
2. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson
(New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 75; originally published as Sein und Zeit, 7th
ed. (Tübingen: Neomarius Verlag, 1956).
3. Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (New York: Harper
and Row, 1966; reprint, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), IX.
4. Ibid., 1.
5. Ibid., 83.
6. Ibid., 84.
7. Ibid.
8. Kurt Goldstein, La Structure de l’organisme, trans. E. Burckardt and J. Kuntz (Paris:
Gallimard, 1983), 402, 443; originally pubished as Der Aufbau des organismus (The
Hague: M. NijhoV, 1934).