Describe and critically analyze Merleau-Ponty's theory of the subject-object dialogue. Is he right to say that this is the process by which meaning emerges?
Phenomenology is a part of the philosophical studies, which aims at the investigation of the problem of perception and human consciousness. The German philosopher and Edmund Husserl introduced phenomenology as a distinctive discipline and separate science, at the early 20th century (Zahavi, 2003). Soon after, the concepts and ideas of phenomenology have found a great reflection in the work of existentialists, including Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre and others. As a philosophical discipline, phenomenology discovers and examines the world of consciousness and peculiarities of perception and reflection of the outer world. Many researchers and philosophers find phenomenology as an opposite phenomena to the Cartesian outlook.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty is the representative of the philosophical phenomenology. His achievements consist in the attempts to identify the nature of the human "self" and the process of perception of the surrounding world. He developed the theory of subject-object dialogue, which explained the problem of perception and interrelations between the speaker and surroundings. The concepts of M. Merleau-Ponty are valuable and significant since they combine the study of human consciousness, experience and perception into one system in order to reveal the process of reflection of the objective reality. In addition, his studies and investigations are considered to be the culmination of the humanistic modernism.
In the Phenomenology of Perception, M. Merleau-Ponty represents the idea about the involvement of the whole world in a certain kind of a dialogue. This dialogue calls for the direction and sense (meaning) in order to provide the both sides of the dialogue with the development and evolution (Merleau-Ponty, 2002). Moreover, M. Merleau-Ponty emphasizes on the role of history and previous experience in the process of perception and reflection of objects, considering them to the key elements, which determine the situation of the dialogue and its modifications. In other words, the philosopher believes that the subject-object dialogue takes place in a completely new horizon, which is determined by the situation of communication as well as different historical, physical and mental factors.
The subject-object dialogue, created by M. Merleau-Ponty represents a completely new look at the problem of relations between the humans and outer world. Before that, traditional psychology and philosophy considered things to exist separately as fully determined objects, which perform a certain influence on the humans and their actions. Therefore, objects were separate and detached from the concept of subject. Such an opinion claimed that subjects and objects of the reality exist separately and influence each other remotely and occasionally. However, M. Merleau-Ponty suggests another opinion, which proves the permanent relations and connections between objects and subjects (Evans, &Lawlor, 2012).
According to his study, humans are always engaged with the objects, and the objects permanently influence and transform their decisions and actions. Human consciousness does not exist separately from the outer world. M. Merleau-Pontyadmits that "consciousness is always the consciousness of something" (Gianfranco, 2002). This idea witnesses about the continuous interdependence between subjects and objects of the reality. In addition, the philosopher argues that separating of consciousness from the objects is a great misunderstanding, which limits our imaginations about the nature of perception of the outer world. Similarly, defining objects as complete and full determiners is false since such an idea does not reveal their impact and effect upon human personalities and outlooks.
M. Merleau-Ponty develops his theory of the subject-object dialogue in two ways. Firstly, he supposes that subjects, involved in the dialogue with the surrounding objects, are called bodies. They are responsible of mental transforming of the things of the objective reality and their perceiving and understanding, in a certain way. Secondly, the phenomenologist believes that subjects do not only perceive and comprehend objects, as they exist, in the reality. On the contrary, every movement of a dialogue "ranges round the subject a world which speaks to him of himself, and gives his own thoughts their place in the world" (Evans, 2013). Such idea witnesses about the interrelations and interdependence of the subject and object in the process of perception and comprehension.
Simultaneously, subjects find the sense in the objects while the objects represent the intentions and ideas of the subjects (Spurling, 2013). In other words, subjects can realize and perceive the outer world in case they find the sense and meaning of objects, determined and identified in their consciousness and previous experience. In such a way, subjects and objects get a full degree of unity and are ready to be engaged into the direct dialogue. At the same time, this subject-object dialogue does not destroy the authenticity and originality of both sides. On the contrary, it just provides them with the direction of perception and gives all possibilities for protecting their ambiguity and indeterminacy, as well(Evans, &Lawlor, 2012).
When speaking about the concept of body, it is essential to mention that M. Merleau-Ponty does not connect it with any physiological or anatomical features and characteristics. Rather, it is an abstract notion, which serves as the integral part of the subject-object dialogue and is responsible of perceiving things of the reality. As we have already mentioned, the exceptional role in the process of perception belongs to the consciousness. According to M. Merleau-Ponty, consciousness exists not in the heads of subjects, but is also experienced in and through our bodies. Consciousness is the primary element, which helps humans to perceive and comprehend the world. Therefore, the philosopher claims that subjects (bodies) of the dialogue are able to perceive, discover, understand and know the world, because the objects of the reality are similar to the human consciousness and its functioning.
Moreover, M. Merleau-Ponty emphasizes on the role of language in the subject-object dialogue. He supposes that language helps to express the emotional essence of the perception of world. The usage of language in the process of perception helps to name objects, define their structure and determine their place in the reality. Correspondingly, language is the essential element of perception and world comprehension. Furthermore, language is responsible of providing sense and meaning to the objects of the world. With its help, it is possible to express even the most abstract notions and ideas and fulfill the mission and purpose of the subject-object dialogue(Evans, &Lawlor, 2012).
Another important aspect of the subject-object dialogue is the concept of Gestalt. In the Phenomenology of Perception and some other articles M. Merleau-Ponty expressed the idea about the complex perception of objects by subjects. According to his opinion, consciousness perceives the whole picture or image of a thing and not just separate elements or features(Merleau-Ponty, 2002). The perception of every object is limited and is realized through the Gestalt. This opinion is quite significant for understanding the process of world comprehension. It explains that humans' consciousness achieves the complete picture of the objective reality and deals with it, in complex. Only in such a way, it manages to reveal the sense of the objects and discover their functions and purposes.
In fact, the subject-object dialogue is the only process of perception, which combines naming and comprehending of the things from the reality, at the same time. In addition, it is essential for finding the meaning of the objects and expressing them with the help of language. Generally, M. Merleau-Ponty argues that subjects cannot understand and perceive the outer world, without being involved in this dialogue. It is impossible to discover objects and find their sense without being directly connected with the surrounding world. From this point of view, the subject-object dialogue is necessary for finding the sense and meaning (Merleau-Ponty, 2002).
This idea is also supported by the fact that the meaning emerges in the humans' consciousness and experience. In case consciousness is separate and independent from the surrounding world, it cannot perceive the world and associate it with the previous experience and knowledge(Evans, &Lawlor, 2012). Respectively, subjects or bodies cannot perceive and comprehend the sense of objects, being detached from the space and time. In other words, the sense occurs only in the process of the mutual involvement of subjects and objects into common dialogue. Only in such a way, it is possible to perceive the objective reality, create mental images and reveal the sense and purpose of different things.
In fact, M. Merleau-Ponty reports that every movement of the subject-object dialogue possesses a certain sense. Meaning, in its turn, depends on many factors, including subject's experience, knowledge, intentions, cultural and social background. From this point of view, it is possible to conclude that every subject-body is a unique and separate perspective, which creates a different sense for the common world. As a result, we can speak about social, cultural, psychological, political varieties and modifications(Evans, &Lawlor, 2012).
To sum up, phenomenology is a philosophical study, which represents a new paradigm of the world perception, involving into this process the concept of consciousness, personal experience and interdependence of subjects and objects of the reality. This idea has found its reflection in the works of M. Merleau-Ponty, known for his theory of subject-object dialogue. The main idea of this theory consists in the interdependence and interrelations of subjects (bodies) and objects (things), their mutual influence and dependence. This dialogue is the form of perception of the outer world, which helps to name objects, discover their features and peculiarities and find their sense, simultaneously. Therefore, subject-object dialogue is the primary form of world perceiving and comprehending.