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  • Rudy Bauer

Merleau Ponty’s Field Theory

By Rudolph Bauer, Ph.D., Diplomate in Clinical Psychology, A.B.P.P.


Rudolph Bauer, Ph.D, Author


1. In phenomenology of perception Merleau Ponty used a field theoretical frame to discuss the nature and structure of perception and generally human existence and the world. Merleau Ponty describes the natural world and the social world as fields.

The history of the field concept

2. Merleau Ponty rejects Husserls understanding of transcendental consciousness  which seemingly provides and objective and witness conscious view of the world and moreover the view of the world is constituted by this witness consciousness. For Merleau Ponty there must be radical reflection on  the experience of perception. All reflection is situated in cultural context and cultural dependency. Merleau Ponty uses Husserls understanding of horizon and the life world as well as Heideggers being in the world to formulate a field orientation within his work. This language of fields takes him beyond subject object duality as well as reification and objectification of the knowner and the known. The field orientation helps him go beyond idealism and objectivism. The extreme of idealism places the knowner as an idea and the extreme of realism places the knower as an object among objects. The language of field also opens to him understanding the body not as a thing but the medium of the field and the embodiment of the field.

In Merleau Pont’s expression and articulation of Being he presents Being as a field manifesting the field of Being within all the beings. The indivisibileness of the field takes him beyond duality and into the realm of non duality within the context of dual appearance. Thus Merleau Ponty is able to go beyond the radical split of the non dual and dualistic phenomena. Many philosophys enter non duality by foreclosing duality. Or they remain in may remain duality by foreclosing non duality.

3. Merleau Ponty first refers to Gestalt psychology for his introduction into field theory. Khohler and Koffka are at times his sources for their criticism of association thinking in that these associated elements do not have an inner relation to one another. The association is mechanically caused by external forces. This form of causation permeates early Buddhist thinking.

4. Gestalt psychologist showed that in perception the undivided forms which are meaningful to a subject are immediately given in the perceptual field. The psychologist showed that these meaningful structures belonged to sensory, perceptual and behavioral fields. It is within a field that the parts are structured in a mutual interdependence and this structuring occurs according to certain laws of perception or gestalt principles. The connected parts of the field are not arbitrary and the forces are not external to the parts and that there are influence from the complex to the simple. Another way of phrasing this is that gestalt psychology is an experiential system field theory.

5. The subject within field theory is an agent and actively related to the world and takes part in the worlds configuration. And the world is a field and within the basis of the bodily subject. The medium of the field organizes the subjects’ perceptions. Both the subject and the phenomena of the field form one system. The world then is a phenomenal field to be described by means of direct experience and the language of direct experience which is phenomenology.

6. Merleau Ponty focus on the ontological primacy of the phenomenal world in which human existence is so deeply. The gestalt psychologist referenced the field theory of physics. Koffka used the electro magnetic field theory of Faraday and Maxwell and the gravitational field of Einstein. Kohler also refers to the field dynamics within physics. The gestalt psychologist adopted a field theoretical explanation of psychological experience and he recognized the direct dynamic relations between the perceptual field  and behavioral world.

7. Before Faradays introduction of the field concept into the science of electricity and magnetism the field approach had a long history. The electro magnetic field theory in physics has great power and influence. Magnetic and electric fields show many similarities and they influence each other by induction. Light phenomena are also covered by field theory. Lightwaves only differ from other electro magnetic waves by their wave length. From Maxwell equations the understanding arose that electric and magnetic waves travel together with the velocity of light.

The ontological status of the field in physics was often considered to be merely a descriptive model, namely a theory. While at the scientific usefulness is undisputed. The model has proved its worth in generating new experiments and by its explanations of relations between various phenomena has provided the basis of understanding. The fact that electric magnetic field and light field theory mutual relatedness shows the value of this understanding. For many physicist the field concept is more then theory in scientific research. As Einstein and Infield wrote: in the beginning the field concept was no more than a means for facilitating the understanding of phenomena from the mechanical point of view. The recognition of the new concepts grew steadily until the substance was overshadowed by the field. The electro magnetic field is for the modern physicist as real as the chair on which we sit. There has been this shift from theoretical reality to reality itself.

8. The realism with respect to fields can be clearly understood. The field theory of gestalt psychotherapy has furthered the success of contemporary experiential psychotherapy, the understanding of human beings as a field phenomena and psychotherapy itself is viewed as a field relation. Gestalt psychotherapy, systemic field psychotherapy for couples and family psychotherapy, existential psychoanalytic therapy and it understanding of intersubjectivity being a field phenomena, Kurrt Lewin and group phenomena as fields as well as Burt Hellinger and his work within the generational are a few examples.

The field theory of Merleau Ponty restablishes the understanding of sense sensation beyond a associative and mechanical model. Sense and sensual experience is always inhabited by meaning and sensation in a direct and virtual ongoing communication with the world. The world and the sensation of the world are in non duality within the duality of the subjects as sensation. This means that the world is not longer experienced simply  as an objective and thing like phenomena   but  the world is experienced  as a field of phenomena which are meaningful for the subject who is within the field of the phenomena and the phenomena is within the field of the subject.

9. The phenomenal field means the world is a field of vital inherence. The world is the natural setting as a field and subject’s thoughts and perceptions are a function of the field as the world as it is lived. There is an interpenetration of the phenomena of the world and the phenomena of infinite subjects. The phenomenal field is not a field simply for external observation but is actual and intersubjective experience. The field is a non dual realm within the duality of phenomenal appearance. The field is existential and alive. The world is a field of being and not simply that of an object; The field is the field of being  of the world and there are corresponding  intentional fields of energy and subjectivity with the   world . Human Awareness is a field phenomena.  The field for and within the subject has certain horizon and a perspective in which the subject themself is bodily situated. The field is embodied within the subject as the subject. The embodied subject and the world of the phenomena are correlated and synchronized and co emergent. The subject and the field of things form one system. There is one phenomenal existential field.

10. The immediacy of field of ones own awareness of the immediacy of the situation can remain in the background within which the particular and singular things and forms have  our focus attention or focal interest. these focal interest  surge up and configurate within the field. As such, the field is experientially prior to the world of a things and coemergent within the awareness of the subject.  The field sustains and manifest both the world and conscious subjectivity.

11. The field manifest as both natural and social fields. We are thrown into a nature and arise within nature. Nature is also the openness  at the center of our  subjectivity. Merleau Ponty presents the power of the field of the lived bodily existence and life world and the coemergence of the field within the phenomena of  physical field of objects and the environment. The existential phenomenal field can never be fully objectified and always remains as human awareness.

12. The subject object duality can be a manifestation of and within the field. Non the less the very nature of the field manifesting phenomena and pervading phenomena opens up for human awareness the experience the non duality of the field pervading everywhere and everything and everyone.

13. Merleau Ponty’s later work The Visible and the Invisible, the field is articulated from an ontological view as the field of Being and out of this one flesh both subject and otherness arises. This is the primordial field in which polarities of subject and subject and subject and object arises. This field is no longer simply the function of subjectivity being in the world, but now is the primordial flesh out of which everything arises within this field but never out of this field.  Everything is configurations of this primordial field of consciousness. The Non duality of experience is of focus.

14. In  Merleau Ponty’s understanding of the field of Being which is invisible and yet manifest the visibility of all beings. Being manifest the Beingness of being in all of the beings. Being itself may be hidden but in Being is the manifestation of beings, Being become visible through beings. In his presentation of the field of Being the non duality of Being within all human awareness allows human beings to experience non duality within the phenomena of beings and the appearance of beings. Being is not separate from phenomena as Being manifest phenomena and phenomena is the manifestation of Being. Since Being is the field of beings in the field and living in the field, a human being can experience the beingness of being in themselves as well as other beings. Wonderfully appearance and the appearing of phenomena is the manifestation of Being. And so there in an indivisibility between Being and the manifestation of Being which is the world. And all of the infinite beings are manifestation of Being and so there is a natural duality of appearance of all the beings who are individuated and singular expressions of being and at the same time there is the non dual manifestation of Being within the infinite manifestations of singular beings . And so the wonderful view arises of non duality within duality and duality within non duality. With this understanding the mysticism of duality within non duality and non duality within duality emerges. The most fundamental splitting in philosophy is split between appearance and essence, or relative phenomena and ultimate phenomena. This true delusion is over through Merleau Ponty’s. cutting through methods of phenomenological understanding.

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