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Gendlin, E.T. (1964). Review of Merleau-Ponty's The structure of behavior. The Modern Schoolman, 42, 87-96. From

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Eugene T. Gendlin, Ph.D. University of Chicago

The structure of behavior. By Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Trans. Alden L. Fisher. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

The first English translation of Merleau-Ponty's La Structure du comportement (1942) will be received in America with distinct joy and wide interest. For many years now, Merleau-Ponty has been known as one of the great existentialists in the sequence stemming from Husserl, beginning with Heidegger, and continuing with Sartre and Merleau-Ponty himself. Merleau-Ponty is the most recent not so much in time as in outlook. He was contemporary and closely associated with Sartre in the postwar existentialist movement. He was one of its leaders, along with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Merleau-Ponty died, at the age of fifty-four, in 1961. In viewpoint he broke with the abstract dialectical schematism, Marxism, and pessimism of Sartre, and developed an existentialism more applicable to psychology and other sciences, with a far greater emphasis on the concrete, the lived, the felt, and the ongoing.

Husserl had focused on concretely ongoing experience (Erlebnis). He had found that, even when considerations of reality and objective location are bracketed or shelved and only experience as such (experience as had) is examined, even then it always has intentionality; it is always of something. There is no experience which is not of something. Thus, Husserl's phenomenology emphatically was not a psychologism; it did not reduce things to percepts or feelings or entities located in a psyche. Rather, experience, when examined just as we have it, includes what it is of. Increasingly, as Husserl followed this direction, he found the whole human world implicit in experience. Heidegger (and existentialists since then) views experience as including the world and man as a being-in-the-world. Feeling (Befindlichkeit) is not an entity in a subject. Rather, it is a being-in-the-world. (Always, we feel about something; we feel toward something or someone; our feeling is our openness to being affected in the world. Being affected is the very crux of what we are—that is what we are, this affectable being-in-the-world.) Sartre offers numerous dialectically paired concepts (for example: en soi/pour soi; pre-reflective/reflective; presence/ that to which something is present; the present-absent "self"/the referring [Page 88] "I"; facticity/ surpassing). With these dialectical pairs one can delineate basic aspects of how man is and yet in another sense is only his being-in-the-world. Sartre teases his readers with the paradoxes which beset any attempt to say what man is (or what any aspect, value, purpose, of man is), for except in this dialectical polarity nothing about man is. Read rightly, Sartre's concepts are powerful and promising modes of conceptualizing human phenomena.

To Merleau-Ponty, Sartre's concepts exert too strong a pull toward abstract schematicism. He opposed what he considers Sartre's translation of lived concreteness into these (or any) conceptual patterns. Sartre seems to him to replace concreteness with pure ideas which do not touch the lived concrete of science and history. (Sartre touches science little and falls back upon accepting the current historical choice between Communism and capitalism just as Marxist concepts pose it, without really affecting it centrally.) Merleau-Ponty can be said to move beyond this too-general stage. He is concerned with the specific kinds of concepts needed in biology, in psychology, in history, given the primacy of the lived over the conceptual. I can say that Merleau-Ponty is the most advanced because I see or create the vision of a trend within which he so appears. That trend, already emphasized by Husserl and Heidegger, is the emphasis on the concrete, the felt, the lived, the here-and-how available to you and me. But of course if one is to stay true to the lived and yet have concepts, then there must be a way in which concepts can be related to (without replacing) the concretely lived. We will see how far Merleau-Ponty succeeds in giving his concepts a relation to the felt and lived without making the felt and lived into conceptual patterns.

With translations available, [1] Merleau-Ponty's work may become a widely read philosophy in America. Sartre is known largely through his plays, novels, and essays. Merleau-Ponty's philosophy is readable for many for whom Sartre's is not. Merleau-Ponty's language is more straightforward. His concerns with science and concreteness will also make him more congenial to American readers.

Merleau-Ponty's philosophy develops between two alternatives he rejects. He rejects any philosophy that "juxtaposes externally associated terms" (the physicalist, reductive sort of explanation which reduces the living process to arrangements of dead pieces); he rejects equally a philosophy that "discovers [in phenomena] relations which are intrinsic to thought" (the sort of explanation which reads cognitive patterns into concrete life and then [Page 89] explains everything in terms of these patterns). Life is reducible neither to arrangements of things nor to patterns of thought. This is true generally of biological life and more true of human life.

Merleau-Ponty emphasizes that he aims at a positive treatment, not merely a dual attack. He wants to do more than demonstrate the shortcomings of the physically reductive and mentalist views. His aim is to show "the essential features of the phenomenon, the paradox which is constitutive of it: behavior is not a thing, but neither is it an idea" (p. 127). Thus, the formula "not thing and not idea" is more than a dual denial. The formula is constitutive of behavior; it tells what behavior is.

Let us briefly trace Merleau-Ponty's steps in The Structure of Behavior.

He begins by discussing reflex reaction. He wants to show that even these primitive reactions are not explainable as arrangements of anatomical parts. For instance, conditioning cannot be explained in terms of the cerebral cortex, since such conditioning occurs also in invertebrates and even in protozoa. ". . . reactions are not linked to any particular anatomical device . . ." (p. 61). They cannot be defined simply as locatable parts.

". . . the dung beetle, after the amputation of one or several of its phalanges, is capable of continuing its walk immediately. But the movements of the stump which remains, and those of the whole body, are not a simple perseveration of those of normal walking; they represent a new mode of locomotion, a solution of the unexpected problem posed by amputation. Moreover, this reorganization . . . is not produced unless it is rendered necessary by the nature of the surface: on a rough surface where the member, even though shortened, can find points of application, the normal process of walking is conserved . . . " (p. 39).

Merleau-Ponty offers very many examples of this sort, citing aspects of biology and reflex psychology which require functional concepts rather than physicalist-reductive concepts. It is important to bring these examples, familiar to biologists, into philosophical discussion. If so many specific scientific discussions require and employ functional (nonreductive) concepts, if physicalist localization is impossible there, then philosophy certainly need not assume such reductionism. Also, Merleau-Ponty's many examples illustrate and give specificity to his philosophical discussion of reductive and nonreductive concepts. The general points are illustrated in one specific context after another.

One major conclusion is that biological reactions are not reducible to structural parts within the organism or to localized origins of stimuli.

But neither does Merleau-Ponty permit the introduction of an entelechy, a vitalist principle of some sort. Vitalism is merely the other side of the same error mechanism commits. "One needs to introduce an active prin- [Page 90]ciple of order, an entelechy, only when one tries to compose the organism by means of the summation of separated processes. For it is then that the whole, with its remarkable constants, seems to demand an ordering factor which maintains them." For Merleau-Ponty, there is no such vital principle. There is only the "functional dependence of variables." This requires concepts of embodied form rather than brute pieces in need of a superimposed, mythically causal form.

Merleau-Ponty wishes to show the extent to which the biology of the lower forms of life already requires nonreductive concepts. Therefore he begins his discussion with reflex behavior.

In this respect, Merleau-Ponty stands in useful contrast to many others. Quite often those who champion nonreductive concepts do so on the grounds that human phenomena require such concepts. One often attributes to the peculiar nature of man a whole range of characteristics which already belong to the most primitive biological forms. Much existentialism, for example, poses a sharp duality: a human type of being and an inanimate thing-like type of being. It is as though there were nothing in the world except human beings and stones (a city philosophy, one might say). Such a view not only attributes to man what belongs to life process broadly, but it also has the effect of splitting the human (the organizing, the "surpassing") off from the inanimate. Such a split makes the human seem abstract, separate, an alien in a dumbly concrete world.

For Merleau-Ponty, the biological is already both concreteness and organizing (surpassing). Thereby the creative, organizing, surpassing activity is not made into something separate (a pure form, a pure negativity, Sartre's pour soi) but already embedded, embodied, concrete.

Merleau-Ponty begins with the lower orders of biology and physics, and views them as already organized, already having a surpassing activity. Hence, when he moves from lower to higher orders of behavior, he is in a position to argue that the higher modes are not explainable as an added-on consciousness or form. The already organized concrete is never left behind. Any further forming reorganizes the whole (already organized) concreteness and is thus embedded in it. The higher orders are, therefore, not explainable wholly by added forms but only by seeing how the whole of the concrete is reorganized.

Thus, the higher and lower do not reduce to each other. It is easy to see that the higher cannot be reductively explained by the lower. It is more difficult to see how the lower is also not explained by the higher; or, to put it another way, the further organization does not alone explain.

Since the newly reorganized concrete was already organized and since form exists only as the organization of the concrete now, therefore a new [Page 91] form alone cannot explain the whole which results. It further organizes the already organized with no line to be drawn between what was before and is retained, and what was before and is now changed. Therefore the new form cannot alone explain the new reorganization; and no pure pour soi is conceivable as such, or explains anything as such, apart from the way in which it is the pattern of the whole concrete somatic process in man.

In man "the somatic processes do not unfold in isolation, but . . . the advent of higher orders . . . give a new significance to the steps which constitute them. "

In the way Merleau-Ponty related lower and higher we see one application of the principle "not thing and not idea"; form is real only as embedded reorganizing of the concrete. Thus the book's movement from reflex psychology to the behaviorial and human illustrates at each transition the basic principle of the philosophy.

Merleau-Ponty's view of form aims to provide "the solution to the antinomy [of matter and idea]." We will be led to this solution if we ask "in what sense form can be said to exist 'in' the physical world, 'in' the living body . . ." (p. 137).

It is only a caricature of form when it is portrayed as abstract clearly thought laws (which, by their very clarity and separability leave over a residue of concrete parts). The two sides of the artificial split imply each other. For Merleau-Ponty, whether thing or law is separated out, the splitting off of one implies the splitting off of the other. He defines a specific embodied sense of form as in the concrete, as its functional organization. Even physics, he argues, already requires this embodied sense of form.

Merleau-Ponty's discussion of physics offers many examples of the following conclusion. "Physical systems . . . [are] forces in a state of equilibrium . . . such that no law is formulable for each part taken separately . . . each vector is determined by all the others." ". . . the system is no more composed of parts which can be distinguished than a melody (always transposable) is made of the particular notes" of the key in which, for the moment, it is written. But the laws of physical systems do not "stand independently." "Laws have meaning only as a means of conceptualizing the perceived world." "Lived perception . . . is prior to number, measure, space and causality. . . ." Yet it is through lived perception that we grasp "the intersubjective world, the determinations of which science is gradually making precise" (p. 219). There is, for Merleau-Ponty, a close crucial relationship between the lived as given and science, which makes it more precise. We want to see what science moves from (the lived) and how it may make more precise without falsely assuming this precision in advance [Page 92] and without fatally distorting or falsifying. Therefore, he is so much concerned with science and applies his concepts to specific scientific discussions. Science makes precise that which is not given precisely. Therefore no causal power can be attributed to laws. They are retrospective thoughts, afterthoughts. Only in thought do laws stand out clearly and independently. Physical systems illustrate what Merleau-Ponty is after—how form exists in matter.

In physical systems "each local change . . . will be translated by a redistribution of forces" so that the system remains in equilibrium, and "it is this internal circulation which is the system as a physical reality." Embodied form is really functional interdependence of variables. ". . . in a soap bubble as in an organism, what happens at each point is determined by what happens at all the others. But this is the definition of order (or form). There is, therefore, no reason whatsoever for refusing objective value to this category in the study of the phenomena of life, since it has its place in the definition of physical systems" (p. 131).

The chief point here is not a preference for wholistic conceptions. The point is not merely that the whole informs the parts. Especially, the point is not the Gestaltist argument that because physics is structurally organized, therefore so is perception. Merleau-Ponty criticizes the Gestalt theorists for deriving the perceptual and behavioral from the physical forms of a wholistically viewed physical environment. It is useless to argue that because the physical environment requires wholistic conceptions, therefore perception and behavior must be viewed as responses to wholistic conditions. Behavior is not a function only of the physical environment, however conceived. The character of an external event to which an animal reacts is already a function of its own kind of process of living. As we said, a reorganization of everything occurs at each level. In moving from physics to biology, "the actions . . . of living beings present the peculiarity of having behavior, which is to say that their actions are not comprehensible as functions of the physical milieu . . ." (p. 159). "While a physical system equilibriates itself in respect of the given forces of the milieu . . . the animal organism constructs a stable milieu for itself corresponding to the monotonous a prioris of need and instinct . . ." (p. 162). And, in further contrast, the human is then seen as a further reorganizing of these embedded patterns of need and instinct. "Behavior . . . is related to . . . the geographical environment . . . only by the intermediary of the environment proper to each species and to each individual" (p. 133). This "environment proper to" is not the geographical environment; but rather it is this environment reorganized, significant as a function of that animal's [Page 93] particular biological organization, not simply caused by geographical parts, or a geographical whole, conceived no matter how wholistically.

Thus, the main feature of Merleau-Ponty's embodied form is not its wholistic aspect. This philosophy is not generated only by a preference for Gestaltist assumptions or generally by a dialectical preference for wholes that infuse every part. No doubt Merleau-Ponty prefers, accepts, and employs dialectical and wholistic modes of thinking rather than analytic, reductive, and constructive modes—this as a conceptual assumption which "makes precise" as science does. In not discussing it as such, he is at fault. However, it is important to see how his philosophy is not at all merely (or even mainly) derived from this preference for wholistic conceptions. Not the wholistic aspect of form but the embodied aspect of form is his concern. He argues that Gestalt, in preferring the whole, misses the reorganizing aspect of embodied form. Gestalt would transpose directly from the whole as given geographically to the whole as perceived.

In moving to the human order, Merleau-Ponty follows Hegel and Heidegger in making use and work basic. However (again the main point), the means-ends relation which seems implicit in use is secondary. One can look at human work and think about the purposive relationships to ends which seem (like laws) to explain activities. But that does not rightly explain human behavior; it is an afterthought and artificially pure pour soi. Human behavior is the concrete creation of new structures and the "capacity of going beyond the created structures in order to create others." Human activity creates use-objects and thereby also "has as its meaning to reject and surpass [given] use-objects" (pp. 175-76). Freud's psychological determinism and Marx's historical determinism cite only given complexes and given circumstances concerning means. These have deterministic force only to the extent that the human individual does not succeed in reforming the given, reorganizing it, endowing it with "a new significance" (p. 179). They explain man only to the extent he often fails at being properly human.

Human surpassing does not always and necessarily happen. We may be determined by the Freudian complexes and their force of "monotonous need and instinct." Hence Merleau-Ponty assigns these complexes a considerable role, the role of that already organized concrete which is then further organized.

In denying that given psychological or historical patterns have (the properly human) causal force, Merleau-Ponty differs from Sartre's acceptance of historical determinism. Sartre accepts as given the currently posed historical factors which Marx outlined. For Merleau-Ponty such factors are posed by and for our creative surpassing, and this means that properly human living would reject and reorganize this seeming historical [Page 94] determinacy. It is posed to us, yes. To the extent we fail at the properly human, it may determine us. The properly human, on the other hand, will be to reorganize the concrete even though it is historically given.

What was said of biological or physical laws is as true of psychological and historical laws. For Merleau-Ponty, they are disembodied afterthoughts, the temporary products of human living, not its explanatory causes.

Merleau-Ponty (like Sartre) holds that the lived exceeds the "representative consciousness"; that is to say, there is a process of thought and activity. This activity is prior to and wider than thought; it is "this sensible mass in which I live" (p. 211).

The lived activity is wider than any datum or "what" known or perceived. Hence it is also wider and prior to any inward datum of feeling or perception. From Husserl through Heidegger and Sartre, the point has been made that phenomenology does not consider experiences as inward subjective data. They can be viewed this way only by artificial effort. The world is not a spectacle of data. Behavior is not "something spread out in front of me" (p. 126). Felt living activity is always "in the world"; feelings are out being affected in it. For Merleau-Ponty, this process occurs in animals as well as humans, and its is observable externally. "Spinoza would not have spent so much time considering a drowning fly if this behavior had not offered to the eye something other than a fragment of extension. . . . The structure of behavior as it presents itself to perceptual experience is neither thing nor consciousness" (p. 127). Thus the problem of subjectivity, solipsism, and other minds comes from the split between concreteness and consciousness. Once we split them, we seem not to observe consciousness in animals and in other humans. It seems then as though we perceived no life except our own, and our own life only as inwardly given, cut off, subjective entities. It seems then that we must infer others, assuming them as analogous to our own subjectivity. No such problem occurs when consciousness is viewed as embedded form, the form of concrete activity, when "felt movements are linked together by a practical intention" in a situation rather than being inner entities, mental or subjective data spread out before us in reflection.

Where does "not thing and not idea" lead? Does it lead to ambiguity? Is that which is neither mere things nor clear-cut analytic ideas simply something unclear or unspeakable? Many discussions of Merleau-Ponty imply just that. Sometimes his opponents say it, but more often his admirers render him as a glorifier of the ambiguous. Merleau-Ponty is summed up as simply asserting the romantic, if confusing, priority of [Page 95] murky life over clear thinking. That is a poor reading, even when well intentioned.

It may be said that Merleau-Ponty does not solve the problem he raises. But the problem is not an embarrassment. A problem is an avenue for thought. Even if it were an inconvenient problem, it could not be thrown out without great loss. Humans, animal behavior, life of any kind, is neither pure brute things nor perfectly analytic logics of defined ideas and their necessary implications. To say "not fully analytic and yet organized" seems paradoxical. Yet, it seems true and obvious to say that living things, especially humans, are neither brute chaos nor analytic IBM systems. Let us then follow where the problem leads—this problem of the so-called ambiguous, more correctly the problem of the organized but nonanalytic activity which is reducible neither to external pieces of matter nor to ideational patterns.

If ideas cannot really picture or explain behavior, then have they any rightfulness at all? What, for instance, is the validity of all Merleau-Ponty's own ideas? The answer is that ideas, concepts, logical explication, can be based on, related to, the felt, lived, sensible concrete. Our question is, How? By what rules? In what respects? How may we tell if and when? These are later questions, questions to which Merleau-Ponty's views lead, but with which he himself did not deal.

Merleau-Ponty saw the new formulation of the problem in positive terms of this sort. He saw not merely an irreducible living activity but one which you and I may feel, and which may—for you and me—serve as a base for logical explication.

". . . in the experience of behavior I effectively surpass the alternative of the for-itself and the in-itself" (p. 126). What, then, is this crucial "experience of behavior"? It is opaque to the mind because it is neither thing nor consciousness. It is concrete and individual, yours and mine. It is "an individual consciousness and not the consciousness in general." The "sensible mass in which I live . . . is not a signification or an idea, although subsequently it can serve as base for acts of logical explication and verbal expression" (p. 211). "The problem of the relations of soul and body is thus transformed. . . . The distinction we are introducing is rather that of the lived and the known. Now it will be the problem of the relations [between] consciousness as flux of individual events . . . and . . . consciousness as tissues of ideal significations."

It is through this way, and because of these reasons, that existentialism has become so importantly related to psychotherapy. It is not alone that in psychotherapy there is manifest today the broad existential confrontation of the lack of established values and the responsibility of the individual. [Page 96] Really more basically, it is because psychotherapy is a process in which the individual engages his feelings, carries forward his felt meanings rather than only choice and thoughts. In psychotherapy the individual examines, evaluates, and rethinks his values and concepts, not as a pure consciousness, not as a traditional philosopher (this is called "intellectualizing," "rationalizing"), but via an experiencing process which serves as base of the tissue of ideas.

Merleau-Ponty sees and poses (though he does not deal with) the problem of this relationship between the livingly felt and the logically explicative. When "tissue of ideas" is related to the concretely felt, obviously it is grounded in quite a different way than when it is mere abstraction. In psychotherapy, too, we have had to formulate the fact that the client is not merely digging up some already given inner subjective entities but rather that feelings serve as a base for logical explication and are changed, carried forward, "surpassed" thereby.

We can thus see the import of the problem remaining over, when Merleau-Ponty's formulation concludes that there is a great deal to be said about how ideas interact with directly felt experience, how it serves as base for logical explication. A philosophic method is required. If the client in psychotherapy faces issues genuinely, experientially, with felt experiencing serving as base in a direct and describable way—why then should the philosopher be left hanging in an abstraction-mongering vacuum?

If experienced behavior (and lived perception) is as Merleau-Ponty says, if it is reducible neither to things nor to idea patterns, then either all thought about it is vain or we must ourselves have and use this experienced activity—use and study its function as base of what we say and conceive. That is directly where Merleau-Ponty was heading, and therefore his work is a vital link in the current development of phenomenological philosophy and psychology.


[1]Merleau-Ponty's other major translated work is Phenomenology of Perception (Phenologie de la perception, 1945), trans. Colin Smith (New York: Humanities Press, 1962).

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