Merleau-Ponty’s “The Spatiality of One’s Own Body and Motility.”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty begins the third chapter of Phenomenology of Perception by exploring aspects of consciousness as they relates to one’s understanding of their own body. Bodies are comprehended insofar as how they connect to the space that they occupy. He writes: Let us first of all describe the spatiality of my own body […] This is because its parts are inter-related in a peculiar way: they are not spread out side by side, but enveloped in each other. For example, my hand is not a collection of points (112).

Repeatedly throughout this chapter, Merleau-Ponty is trying to grapple with the idea that the body should not be looked at as a composition of individual parts that make up the whole, but rather as a whole entity that should not be split up into bodily functions. He continues:

Hence they form a system and the space of my hand is not a mosaic of spatial values. Similarly my whole body for me is not an assemblage of organs juxtaposed in space. I am in undivided possession of it and I know where each of my limbs is through a body image in which all are included (112-3)

This is Merlea-Ponty’s way of seeing the body as more than a collection of organs that all occupy different spaces. Even though a hand can reach into a different space than that same person’s leg, for example, it is still one body and occupies one space.

‘Body image’ was at first understood to mean a compendium of our bodily experience, capable of giving a commentary and meaning to the internal impressions and the impression of possessing a body at any moment. It was supposed to register for me the positional changes of the parts of my body for each movement of one of them, the position of each local stimulus in the body as a whole (113).

Merleau-Ponty uses the term “body image” as a way to explain the wholeness of bodily experience, rather than looking at the body as a diminution if its parts. It seems that for him, descriptions and terminologies such as “organ” reduce the body into independently disconnected parts that have their own functions, rather than a joint, totalizing function of the entire body.

If my body can be a ‘form’ and if there can be, in front of it, important figures against indifferent backgrounds, this occurs in virtue of its being polarized by its tasks, of its existence towards them, of its collecting together of itself in its pursuit of its aims; the body image is finally a way of stating that my body is in-the-world (115).

The body image is therefore a concept that cannot be understood as a region within the context of objective space, for the each person’s body image or body space is the basis for their capacity to organize and perceive bodily movements.

We are therefore feeling our way towards a second definition of the body image: it is no longer seen as the straightforward result of associations established during experience, but a total awareness of my posture in the intersensory world (117).

We should not be looking at the body image and its parts with reference to how they perform their functions, or what we associate our body parts with based on experiences. There will now be a more totalizing awareness of the body and how it experiences a unity of multiple simultaneous senses.

A second topic I’d like to touch on, and what Merleau talks about in the latter half of the chapter, is what he terms “morbid motility,” which shows us the fundamental relationship between the body and space. Merleau-Ponty spends some time exploring the interactions and self-perceptions of a patient who is “psychically blind” and who cannot understand the “body schema” without visual reference.

A patient whom traditional psychiatry would class among cases of psychic blindness is unable to perform ‘abstract’ movements with his eyes shut; movements, that is, which are not relevant to any actual situation […] He manages the abstract movements only if he is allowed to watch the limb required to perform them, or to go through preparatory movements involving the whole body […] the same subject who is unable to point to order to a part of his body, quickly moves his hand to the point where a mosquito is stinging him (118).

In this case study, the patient must intellectually grapple with motion and action instead of being able to do it automatically. He cannot convert thought of movement into movement, but can both think and move. He can swat a mosquito that is stinging him, but cannot tell when a part of his body is being touched, and the size and shape of what it touching it. This kind of vision of the body reduces the body to a mechanism, and reduces the mind to an abstract symbol processor.

Motility, then, is, and, as it were, a handmaid of consciousness, transporting the body to that point in space of which we have formed a representation beforehand. In order that we may be able to move our body towards and object, the object must first exist for it, and our body must not belong to the realm of the ‘in-itself.’ Objects no longer exist for the arm of the apraxic, and this is what causes it to remain immobile. (161).

What Merleau-Ponty means by “in-itself” is admittedly unclear, though I suspect he is talking about the perception of the body as a summation of its parts. When he talks about the apraxic, he is referring to the person who is missing a limb and thus cannot perform actions with a prosthetic hand, for example, because he or she has lost the ability to perform coordinated movements using something that they do not consider to be a part of their body. At the beginning of the chapter, he briefly introduces this:

The fact that the paralysed limb no longer counts in the subject’s body image, is accounted for by the body image’s being neither the mere copy nor even the global awareness of the existing parts of the body (114). This lack of “global awareness” is the inability to look at one’s body as one thing, one entity, rather than a summation of many parts.

Returning to the blind patient Schneider, who is able to swat a mosquito that is biting him but is unable point to a place on his body that is being touched, Merleau-Ponty suggests that the problem lies with his inability to think of his body hypothetically. This is not a loss of visual content, for Merleau-Ponty insists: Until some means has been discovered whereby we can link the origin and the essence or meaning of the disturbance […] until phenomenology becomes genetic phenomenology, unhelpful reversions to causal thought and naturalism will remain justified (145).

What he means here, I believe, is that this type of “motility” will support consciousness and allow these connections by projecting other bodily possibilities onto us, thereby solidifying the wholeness of our bodies.

Some further passages to consider:

[…] it is not enough that each sensation of the left hand should take its place among generic images of all parts of the body acting in association to form around the left hand, as it were, a superimposed sketch of the body […] the spatiality of the body must work downwards from the whole to the parts, the left hand and its position must be implied in a comprehensive bodily purpose (114)

Psychologists often say that the body image is dynamic. Brought down to a precise sense, this term means that my body appears to me as an attitude directed towards a certain existing or possible task (114)

[…] because the form is accessible only through the content. Bodily space can really become a fragment of objective space only if within its individuality as bodily space it contains the dialectical ferment to trans- form it into universal space. This is what we have tried to express by saying that the point-horizon structure is the foundation of space(117).

We must therefore avoid saying that our body is in space, or in time. It inhabits space and time (161).

If habit is neither a form of knowledge nor an involuntary action, then what is it? It is knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort. The subject knows where the letters are on the typewriter as we know where one of our limbs is, though a knowledge bred of familiarity which does not give us a position in objective space (167).

Works Cited:

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “The Spatiality of One’s Own Body and Motility.” Phenomenology of Perception. 112-170.


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