Understanding the world through perception

ABC Radio National’s excellent The Philosopher’s Zone recently broadcast a great programme on one of the most influential philosophers in cognitive science – the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The first part of the programme deals with a broad overview of his life and ideas while the second section discusses his most famous work where analysed concepts behind the psychology of perception.

Merleau-Ponty was a phenomenologist, a philosophical tradition that aims to understand the structure of the mind through the analysis of conscious experience.

Introspection and subjective judgements about the mind get a bad rap in modern psychology but actually form the basis upon which much cognitive science rests.

To study something scientifically, it needs to be distinguished from other things – so we need to decide what sorts of things there are before we can apply science. As philosophy is essentially ‘conceptual engineering’, one of its most important roles is to make sure that these distinctions are based on sound concepts.

Many of the phenomenologists were interested in how we generate these concepts and looked to the structure of the human mind for clues. They came to the conclusion that there may be certain aspects of the mind that lead us to understand the world in specific ways.

Merleau-Ponty strongly argued that perception, including the whole experience of the body, was one of the most important influences and that if we rely solely on an objective and abstract science we will never understand lived-experience itself.

Link to the Philosopher’s Zone on Merleau-Ponty.

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