A rebuttal of mediational epistemology PART II: The Intentional Arc: primordial intentionality

My ongoing transactions are with an evocative world. This is true of its multi-layered empirical background and also of the intentionally motivational Lifeworld that makes up its foreground. Because my existence is concernful and my situatedness is characterised by a perspectival tetheredness, my intentions are provoked by the world and receive a response from the world. This evocative exchange which enables my worldly engagement, this ‘feedback loop’ between me the questioning being, and the questionable perceptual world, Merleau-Ponty has termed the ‘intentional arc.’[1]

The Intentional arc; an organic vector, mobile in every direction.

The Intentional arc; an organic vector, mobile in every direction.

One’s identity, an accretion of meaning which arises through one’s appropriation of the world, is profoundly dependent upon the body. My body’s appropriating role is truly an expression of singular identity because it is both consciously and subconsciously fuelled by my singular desire for significance and capacity for purpose and it proceeds in a manner unique to my body and the way in which I live through it; my ‘style’. [2] Its existential texture is furthermore unique because it is situated in a life-blend of gendered, cultural, historical and geographical specificity which profoundly delineates my appropriating.

Indebted to the body therefore ‘the life of consciousness – cognitive life, the life of desire or perceptual life – is subtended by an ‘intentional arc,’ which projects round about us our past, our future, our human setting’.[3] My reciprocal relationship with the world consequently, can be described as a ‘dialectical or circular relation of milieu and action’;[4] the  relations between me the organism and my world ‘are not relations of linear causality but of circular causality’.[5]  In a dialectical manner then, one finds that in learning, past experience is a catalyst for the development of the learner’s perceptual world and in turn a catalyst to further action. My Lifeworld projects, derived from a singular quest for significance and expression of purposive capacity, ‘polarize the world’, bringing says Merleau-Ponty, ‘magically to view a host of signs which guide action, as notices in a museum guide the visitor’.[6] Merleau-Ponty’s terminology has won over few empiricist critics, and subsequent scrutiny of his pathological case studies has seen them refuted by recent science.[7] Nevertheless, it has been argued that  new scientific models indicate that simulated neural networks enable the brain of an active perceiver to form an intentional arc not reliant on brain representations.[8] Though this phenomenological thesis is not the place for an extended consideration of that hypothesis, nevertheless Merleau-Ponty’s insights continue to resonate with experience.

One can envisage an intentional arc not reliant on brain representations.

One can envisage an intentional arc not reliant on brain representations.

The world is directly encroaching upon me though my bodily engagement with it.

The world is directly encroaching upon me through my bodily engagement with it.

I have in the previous chapter made mention of the worldly tetheredness which epitomises the questioning being whose conscious interaction with the world is inevitably characterised by ‘states of mind’. In the bodily intentionality of Merleau-Ponty also, the global sense one makes of incoming stimuli experienced in the body is accompanied at any time by a particular mindset. The situation we are in and our phenomenal or living body combine to shape the complex of projects to which we commit,[9] even so this projective outlook, is pre-objective in every case, and largely involuntary. This state of mind is usefully construed as a middle term between the psychic and physiological and so for example, ‘Someone who has recently lost a leg may therefore leap out of bed and attempt to walk, only then noticing the loss of the limb in a cruel and active manner’.[10]

My body though projective towards the world, is largely unperceived and analogous to two layers; an habitual and a present body. Skills such as ‘telling’ the time, tying my shoelaces or opening doors, become ingrained as habits and I lose sight of them as a result. Acquired skills, such as driving, habitually at the disposal of my present body orient me toward certain situations in certain ways without being intrusively perceivable. Indeed, I take them for granted, until for example, as an Englishman I drive off the ferry at Cherbourg and must reorient myself to driving on the right.

As a result of this habituality the body at my disposal can become ‘anonymous’ and as Merleau-Ponty writes somewhat whimsically, ‘A woman may without any calculation, keep a safe distance between the feather in her hat and things which might break it off. She feels where the feather is just as we feel where our hand is’.[11] Engrossed in my writing I am not attentive to my height, my social standing, my appetite, my cholesterol level or my relation to sea-level. Though my body situates me in these ways, and I can turn my attention to each in turn, nevertheless I write anonymously, disconnected even from the appellation ‘Peter’.

My reciprocal relationship with the world consequently, can be described as a dialectical or circular relation of milieu and action.

My reciprocal relationship with the world consequently, can be described as a dialectical or circular relation of milieu and action.

Beneath intelligence and perception then is a more fundamental function, ‘a vector’, mobile in all directions enabling us to direct ourselves towards anything, in or outside ourselves.[12] Thus is the life of consciousness as an ‘intentional arc’ projecting round about us all that is for us spatio-temporally and situating us in all these respects.[13]

Merleau-Ponty prompts us to revise our epistemology and the role of the body in it. ‘To understand is to experience the harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance- and the body is our anchorage in a world… habit has its abode neither in thought nor in the objective body, but in the body as a mediator of a world’.[14] In the previous chapter I noted that one’s identity-sense is an audit; as such it is indicative of this understanding precisely. I am embedded in the world and define myself by that appropriation of the world which satisfies my search for significance in tension with my capacity for purpose. My identity-sense is an audit of the extent to which I have succeeded in harmonising the significant aspects of the world to this end.

However unlikely my indebtedness, like the water lily, I am embedded in the world

However unlikely my indebtedness, like the water lily, I am embedded in the world

In such a manner Merleau-Ponty reinstates the body as the locus of identity. It requisitions matters of fact for itself, sometimes habitually, sometimes purposefully. Human identity is found in intersubjective intentionality which, when it finds significance in a thing, enhances its existence. Accordingly, the life of consciousness, indebted as it is to this ‘intentional arc’ not only projects around us our past, and future, it projects the physical, ideological and moral characterisation of our embodied presence in its embeddedness. It is also s the means with which we harmonise our senses, intelligence, sensibility and motility, [15] though its processes are not necessarily explicit.

I began this phenomenological study of identity by stating that one’s identity is sensed holistically throughout one’s embodied being. The centrality of the body’s role for our intentional presence in the world demands that we no longer refer to the body as an implement; our bodies maintain our entire Lifeworld, and ‘a bodily crisis becomes, inevitably, a total crisis of that whole world’.[16]

The body is more than a matter of fact and more than the matter that envelopes the mind. As one philosopher explains, in surgery a patient submits to the doctor not just that marvellous mechanism that the hand is, but everything in life that the hand brings within reach of the patient. Under the surgeon’s knife is that patient’s livelihood; a painter maybe or even another surgeon. Under the knife are delicate caresses intended for children or for lovers and access to eating utensils or all kinds of tools. ‘The hand is… like the face, most deeply charged with that significance we speak of as personhood. And indeed even in death the hand retains this significance; medical students attest that the dissection of the hands of their first cadaver is among the most terrifying of tasks, second only to work on the face’.[17]

One’s body is an intending body, but the world to which our intentionality threads is not a world of static objectivity; it is the pregiven world, an intersubjective domain, whose demands become interwoven with ours.My face disfigured disrupts the other, my face enraptured intrigues. The other’s tormented face sighted through the razor wire is expressive, questioning. The presence of the other, charged with intentionality rebels against objectification and interrogates me. Whether or not the eyes are the window to the soul, they are a portal through which intentionality is glimpsed. The intentional arc explains how this can be so whether that questioning is articulated or articulable.

In Auschwitz the belongings infused with the intentionality of a living being calls for redress.

In Auschwitz the belongings infused with the intentionality of a living being calls for redress.

On an educational visit, I encounter the intentional other’s strident but silent supplication. Just as in life each questioning being interrogates the world’s meaning in pursuit of its projects, so too in death. Intentionality still speaks in the photographed faces of victims staring from the Polish, Jewish and Roma  Gallery walls of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Embodied fear, bewilderment, resignation and defiance in photographs whose taking itself constitutes an act of violence. In life and in death the other makes demands upon me.

Because the intentional arc does indeed requisition the body’s paraphernalia and intends through them too, I am silenced even by those that are sloughed off; I encounter in Auschwitz the slaughtered other in slag heaps of shoes, frivolous sling-backs and down-at-the-heel farmer’s boots. They speak to me through the glass, of my complicity in Europe’s revulsion and avoidance. Like the hat, the car, the stick, bodily extensions Merleau-Ponty considers, pots and pans and suitcases call out on behalf of the lives that incorporated this paraphernalia into themselves.[18]


[1] Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception, London, Routledge, 2006, 157

[2]For Husserl the fully concrete Ego is always laden with ‘habitualities’ which confer on one a ‘style’ and the Husserlian term habitus denotes an enduring ‘state’ wherein I ‘abide’ by conscious decision. Through these convictions I constitute myself as someone with a personal character’. Husserl, CM § 32, p. 67; Hua I 101, in Moran, Dermot, Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology of Habituality and Habitus, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Vol. 42, No. 1, January 2011, 61

[3]Merleau-Ponty, PP, 2006, 157

[4] Dreyfus, H. Merleau-Ponty and Recent Cognitive Science, in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, CUP, 2005, 132

[5] Dreyfus, ibid

[6]MP. PP, 2006, 129

[7] Romdenh-Romluc, K. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Merleau-Ponty and Phenomenology of Perception, 2011, 24

[8] Dreyfus, ibid, 132

[9] Moran and Mooney, 2002

[10] Merleau-Ponty, ibid, PP, 424

[11] MP. PP, 165

[12] MP, PP, ibid, 156f

[13] MP. Ibid, 157

[14] Ibid, 167

[15] Ibid, 157

[16] Schenck, 1986, 52

[17] Ibid, 50

[18] Merleau-Ponty, PP, 166


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