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The Impure Soul

Most theories of the soul (self/mind/consciousness) forge a distinction between the material and immaterial, giving preferential value to the immaterial due to its purification from the material. In this sense, what has been traditionally called a psyche or soul is seen as cleansed of the sin, mess, and confusion of the world in a way that brings hope to many that there may, at some point, be transcendence from the suffering of existence. We see this thinking in both Western and Eastern traditions and it normatively operates in our reflection of what the true self is, namely the soul, that which is purified of the illusion of the body and the material world. But, what if we take another road to the soul, one which is not only bound up with the body, but, rather, requires the material in order for the immaterial to appear? If we were to radically shift our thinking, to posit an impure soul, recognizing that in such impurity we find the marvel of all existence, would this not be a worthy investigation? Might it not be a story of redemption for our existential suffering?


This conversation is precisely the one I find in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of the inter-mixing of self and world, subject and object, in his mature work written soon before his death, “Eye and Mind.” Though a piece seemingly about the value of art, and indeed it is also that, “Eye and Mind” offers a full critical review of the Western tradition of thought initiated by Descartes, the thinker credited with the famous mind/body problem. In the mind/body problem, we note that what is self-evident to us is our own thinking and since there must be someone doing the thinking, the “I” or what we now call the self/mind/consciousness, must exist. Because we can deduct this through pure reasoning, the purity of the self is guaranteed. We come to this conclusion without any recourse to the information gleaned from the body and, for Descartes, thankfully so, as the body provides us with confusing data, through which we form all sorts of beliefs that are grounded on the shaky conditions of the world and our perception of it, a ground that is always changing, sometimes from moment to moment. Sense-perception, therefore, for Descartes, cannot provide us with reliable information about the world precisely because it is in contact with it.


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What is true and reliable then becomes pure thought, that which we can glean through the mind alone and the “I” is one of those things, self-evident through simple logic. What this means is that the body itself is merely an extension (in space), dubiously related to my self/mind/consciousness, a container for my mind, so to speak. My perception of the world, in this view, is a weaker form of truth precisely due to its contact with this mess of a world. Hence, only the purified mind can provide us with truths in contrast with the illusory world of the material. Something like vision can only be valuable if I turn it into thought and what our senses bring to thought are mere representations of the world rather than the world as it is. Such representations are the world as distinct in my mind, removed from the world as it is and while they are not the most reliable thoughts I have, being mere resemblances, they are truer than the world itself, which remains essentially unknown to me despite my body’s contact with it. For that matter, my body itself is less known to me because it is part of the world as it is. We are radically removed from the world through this purification of both sense and mind by establishing sense as mind, a mere modality of thought.


Merleau-Ponty’s discussion in “Eye and Mind” also provides a compelling revaluation of sense-perception, emphasizing vision and the medium of painting as a paradigmatic example of how being is accomplished through our bodily immersion in the world. Sense-perception, rather than being this messy and confused contact with objects of the world, is recognized as a profound condition of embodiment reflecting the inter-mixing of our self with the world through embodiment. The manifest or that which exists, therefore, becomes the vehicle for the appearance of reality AS seen, touched, heard, etc. Even more compellingly, the mind/self/consciousness makes its appearance through our embodied existence. Let us look in more detail into how this all works out.

Seeing, for Merleau-Ponty works as a revaluation of sense-perception, reflecting an “extraordinary overlapping” (162) that “opens onto the world” (162). Merleau-Ponty explains:

“The enigma derives from the fact that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the ‘other side’ of its power of looking. It sees itself seeing; it touches itself touching; it is visible and sensitive for itself. It is a self, not by transparency, like thought, which never thinks anything except by assimilating it, constituting it, transforming it into thought – but a self by confusion, narcissism, inherence of the see-er in the seen, the toucher in the touched, the feeler in the felt – a self, then, that is caught up in things, having a front and a back, a past and a future . . .” (162-163)


What Merleau-Ponty says here can be evidenced right now if you are to lay your hand on the table in front of you. Not only do you feel the table, but you feel your own hand as it touches the table. In this intertwining of the hand and table, you and the world are shown to be enmeshed. Similarly, with sight. If I am to look into a mirror, I make evident my own power of sight, which reflects the world around it through that power. In this way, in seeing, objects “awaken an echo in our bodies and because the body welcomes them” (164). Sense-perception, therefore, rather than a passive coinciding with the world is shown to be a powerful engagement with the world, through which the world itself is disclosed or made to appear and through which we are disclosed or made to appear through our involvement with the it. Merleau-Ponty continues:


“This initial paradox cannot but produce others. Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are encrusted in its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the very stuff of the body. These reversals, these antinomies, are different ways of saying that vision is caught or comes to be in things – in that place where something visible undertakes to see, becomes visible to itself and in the sight of all things, in that place where there persists, like the original solution still present within crystal, the undividedness of the sensing and the sense.” (163)


This amazing quote shows us that in our intertwining with objects, objects become an extension of our body, so that where the one ends and the other begins becomes obscured, meaning that subject and object are not clean delineations that we can posit, as if we are a pure subject acting on the objects of the world “out there.” Objects, are, in fact, under this reading, not out there at all and neither, are we, “in here” in any clear way. Both are in and out, the outer and inner worlds reflect a deep ambiguity, which places radical questions on our traditional view of the self as a soul, mind, or consciousness; it questions the notion of a “true” self, detached from the manifest. It questions the notion of sense as an internal resemblance of things as they are “out there.” What this view shows is precisely the co-constitution of the self and world through our sensual immersion. The world speaks to us and through us, it echoes through us, just as we see our self through it. Paradigmatically, a painting reflects this deep inter-relatedness of the object as interpreted through the vision of the artist. The world speaks through the artist, which is translated somatically through the bodily extension of the paint brush onto a canvas, reflecting the disclosure of the world through the artists eyes. But, Merleau-Ponty makes art an example of how our own perception works every day, under the radar, under the dichotomy of mind and body normatively assumed in our Western attitudes.


I would like to posit a few important things that come from this discussion:

First, is that our welcoming of the world through our body enables the world to appear to us, to appear at all. This appearance, enables ourselves to appear through the body’s translation of the world or as Merleau-Ponty states, “It is, then, mute Being that itself comes to show forth its own meaning” (188). In this sense, vision is thinking, rather than thinking being something separate from the act of seeing. The mind, therefore, is found in embodiment itself, so that the notion of a mind and body or a soul residing in the container of the body are found to be one: The manifest (seen) and the un-manifest (unseen) are united, so deeply that the disclosure or appearing of one cannot occur without the other. The mess and confusion of the manifest, therefore, facilitates the appearance of mind. One “’thinks in painting’” (178) says Merleau-Ponty, quoting Cezanne, because seeing is thinking, it is thinking through the body. It is interpreting signs from the world (176). If we think this through to its full extent, we find all around us the marvel of existence, the magical speaking of the world through us and us through it. It is only in our embodiment that the soul/mind/self/consciousness comes to appear as an interpreter of the signs of the world.


What we call the “I”, then, may be seen as merely a marker or sign of the soul, the hidden ground of our being in the world. It is not self-evident. Rather, it arises into appearance through the manifest and co-creation of reality with objects and other human beings. But, what is important here, is noting that our being is IN THE WORLD. Being appears through its manifestation. The problem is that we identify with the “I”, Descartes famous “cogito,” the ego in psychoanalysis and psychology. We think the mark of the soul is us, we identify with it, but it arises only because our being is manifest through the marvel of life. This identification with the “I” is evidence of the normative influence of Cartesian thought and its influence on our understanding of the nature of the self that still conditions our relation to our self and the world.


The impure soul is an important and radical reminder of the miracle of our existence. We are wrapped up in this world, creating with it our reality. And this reality does not bear the certainty of our objective knowing. The object is imbued with the hue of our subjective processing and this processing leads to new and more engagements with the objects, so that there is ever new appearing of the real and of us within it. In this sense, our consciousness is ever shifting in this co-constitution of reality, it is shifting with the appearing and disappearing of the world and of ourselves. What is true, is therefore, never totally evident or certain. Our anxiety and/or disappointment at this impermanence Merleau-Ponty says:


“. . . issues from that spurious fantasy which claims for itself a positivity capable of making up for its own emptiness. It is the regret of not being everything, and a rather groundless regret at that. For if we cannot establish a hierarchy of civilization or speak of progress . . . it is not because fate impedes us; it is, rather, because the very first painting in some sense went to the farthest reach of the future . . . if no work is itself ever absolutely completed, still, each creation changes, alters, clarifies, deepens, confirms, exalts, re-creates, or creates by anticipation of all the others. If creations are not permanent acquisitions, it is not just that, like all things, they pass away; it is also that they have almost their entire lives before them.” (190)


What is created, or co-created therefore, reflects an extension backward and forward in time, connecting all creation together. While one thing may pass on, it lives in this integration of time in the living moment of creation itself. Further, it may pass away, but not before it opens new possibilities or new ways of seeing, a new vision of what can be in the world. This new vision of what can be requires a reawakening of our world immersion and our role in constituting reality. In this role arises a responsibility to co-create with our inter-relatedness with all life in mind, lest our appearing and the appearing of the world be rendered obsolete. The implications concerning the value of other life and even what we consider to be “dead” objects are considerable. Our being is bound up with it all and consciousness is in ambiguous relation with even what we consider not to be alive. They are alive, though, because they are bound up with the living and we are tied through all that is bound to life through time, into eternity. Extending the limits of respect seems the least one could ask, revaluating how we treat the world and all the beings in it that share the world.


Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind.” The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, edited by James M. Edie. Northwestern University Press, 1964, pp. 159-190