Radical Psychology
2007, Volume Six, Issue 1

Primal Experience in Merleau-Ponty's Philosophy and Psychology

Talia Welsh


In this paper, I explore three models of our chronologically primary (i.e., infantile) and our epistemologically primal experience: an embodied self, an intersubjective self, and an asubjective awareness. We find each model described in Merleau-Ponty's philosophical texts as well as his lectures in child psychology at the Sorbonne. Additionally, the first two -- the embodied and intersubjective selves -- have parallels in contemporary empirical research and contemporary philosophical applications. However, it is unclear in both Merleau-Ponty's work and in contemporary interpretations whether the embodied and intersubjective selves are to be understood as two aspects of the same original experience or if one has primacy over the other. A third, alternative reading exists in Merleau-Ponty's texts and lectures -- an asubjective awareness which has the hallmarks of an interpersonal and engaged experience but is devoid of selfhood. I will examine these perspectives and I will call into question the role of our sense of self in the conception of primal experience.


Is my sense of self and other primarily determined by my various acquired dispositions -- my upbringing, my class, my historical, and cultural milieu, or do I come to the world with a primal sense of my self and others through my very embodied condition? Is part of the human condition, a sense of "being human"? One of the debates that emerges in 20th century European thought is between phenomenological approaches which maintain the centrality of subjectivity and intersubjectivity for philosophy and those of post-structuralism and post-modernism which see the subject as a creation of particular linguistic, philosophical, and cultural traditions. The growing science of the human subject -- its physiology and psychology -- provoke similar divides between an emphasis upon human behavior being a product of innate instinctual forces and those that argue that human behavior results from our particular upbringing and environment.

Phenomenology has long had interdisciplinary roots -- using and influencing psychological theories and experiments. In the last years, there has been a trend to use empirical research to bolster phenomenology's claims that subjectivity and intersubjectivity are indeed essential components of human life. The hope is that through a study of human development we can expose more clearly how much the self is a cultural and linguistic product and how much of selfhood is an essential part of our being-in-the-world. Otherwise stated, we say that the ontogenetic story of human life has phenomenological relevance. Shaun Gallagher summarizes the theoretical relevance of the birth of the self:

When, in both philosophical and psychological traditions, the
sense of self is conceived as developing in a relatively later
time-frame it is frequently discussed in terms that are
explicitly related to cognitive development. Such cognitive
models of the self clearly imply that personal identity or a
sense of self may be primarily and for the most part a
psychological phenomenon . . . In contrast, if a sense of
self is operative earlier, and specifically, if we can find a
sense of self already involved in neonatal behavior, the
concept of self starts out closer to an embodied sense
than to a cognitive or psychological understanding
(Gallagher, 2005, p. 79).

If our sense of self is through and through determined by acquired, culturally relative meanings which create our psychological "selfhood," then we should turn to an analysis of those acquired symbolic systems to explore selfhood. Indeed, we might conclude that selfhood is itself a constructed product -- a thesis outside of the scope of traditional, Husserlian phenomenology. If, on the other hand, an ontogeny reveals a strong innate embodied selfhood, phenomenology's discussion of the self has a ground less subject to the criticisms that it's too naïve in the face of historical, cultural, and linguistic determination.

It is in this spirit that I explore the connection between Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of embodiment and intersubjectivity and his child psychology of early experience. I will discuss three possible models to understand how our historically primary experience forms our primal experience. I will discuss how his theory as well as contemporary research can be taken up as expressing an innate embodied and intersubjective self. I argue that these two senses of selfhood have critical theoretical tensions that remain unresolved. One alternative is to argue that the aware and social behavior that we see in the infant and in our primal adult life is not necessarily reflective of a primal selfhood. Instead, as Merleau-Ponty's own work suggests, a type of asubjective awareness is the true primal experience. This third model of primal experience will conclude the paper.

Embodied Self

Merleau-Ponty writes that the lived body is "a horizon latent in all our experience and itself ever-present and anterior to every determining thought" (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1996, p. 92). Kant, not one known for his study of the body, acknowledges that "all our cognition begins with experience," but argued further that "even though all cognition starts with experience, that does not mean that all of it arises from experience" (Kant, 1781/1787/1996, B1). Are we saying something more than the fact that before cognition, we have to have bodies? Does such an admission have any philosophical relevance? Or rather are philosophers correct in leaving such bodily concerns to the capable minds in the human sciences? For Merleau-Ponty, the body is more than the vessel or location where thought arises. Merleau-Ponty (1945/1996) writes that the body is not merely an object in the world like other extended objects, but it is, in fact, the condition of possibility for understanding any object. Without my body providing the center from which I observe objects and even simply think of them, I would never be able to take a position in relationship to any object and either perceive or conceptualize it. As such, the body is never an object of perception in the way a physical object is since it precedes and upholds all particular experiences. I can turn my attention toward a dissection of the body -- the nervous system, the muscular-skeletal structure -- but, in so doing, I have failed to capture my embodied experience, my lived body (Leib), and, instead I have captured my body as an assemblage of physical parts, the body as an object (Körper).

Our first interpretation of our original self is, thus, the embodied self. The embodied self is not the self-conscious individual; it is not the self who is aware of her cultural traditions or her values, judgments, and thoughts. The embodied self is the primal meaningful engagement with the world. It is a background or horizon that determines our later relationships with things in the world, with ourselves, and with others. Our intellectual endeavors rest upon our embodied condition -- "Our body, to the extent that it moves itself about, that is, to the extent that it is inseparable from a view of the world and is that view itself brought into existence, is the condition of possibility, not only of the geometrical synthesis, but of all expressive operations and all acquired views which constitute the cultural world" (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1996, p. 388).

This embodied self has been championed in some contemporary developmental literature as an accurate model of our earliest experiences of the world. The emphasis upon the grounding nature of bodily experience dovetails nicely with the concept of an ecological self. The psychologist Ulric Neisser has done much to clarify this conception. He emphasizes that the ecological self must be aware of its position in the world and of its ability to act in the world. [1] To simply witness a being acting in a meaningful way will not suffice; we must see the being display some kind of selfhood. After all, bees and ants display sensible, purposeful behavior but we do not conclude that this demonstrates a primal sense of self. Selfhood requires that I am not just responsive and thus potentially demonstrating intentionality, but also that I display a sense of awareness of my situation in the world as embodied. "Intentionality may be a necessary condition of selfhood -- no passive and purposeless entity is a self -- but it is not sufficient. More stringent criteria are needed. The most fundamental of themes, I believe, is awareness of one's situation in an independent, spatially extended environment" (Neisser, 1995, p. 23). This awareness is what Neisser (1995) understands to be the ecological self's embodied condition.

A wealth of experimental data supports the theory that we demonstrate innate embodiment. Infants are constantly adjusting their bodies to their situation. For instance, we can cite research on infant arm movement. When provided with a video image of their arms in a resting symmetrical position, one arm is lightly weighted so as to move it in juxtaposition from the resting arm. The infants resisted the slight pull of the weighted arm in order to return it to its original symmetrical position (Van der Meer, Van der Weel, & Lee, 1995). We thus witness not just an instinctual reflex or a reactive response in the infant, but one which suggests that the infant can be made aware of the location and position of her body in a given situation and will desire to adjust herself to an equilibrium. [2] We can also cite the many experiments by George Butterworth that demonstrate how babies use the external environment to stabilize themselves (Butterworth and Cicchetti, 1978; Butterworth and Jarrett, 1991). These experiments suggest that we come to the world already structuring it and already attuning our movements to it.

Merleau-Ponty did not argue that we possess an innate intentional, bodily motility. He shared the commonly held assumption that the neonate was neither aware of her surroundings nor in control of her body (Merleau-Ponty, 1960/1964, p. 121). Yet, given his broad research in the human sciences, I am certain he would have followed contemporary research and revised his understanding of the neonate in a manner similar to his discussions of the older infant whom he understood to be capable of vision and motor control. Merleau-Ponty argues that the young child has sensible, organized experiences, but ones that are qualitatively different than the sensible ones of adult experience. He acknowledges that the young child is not aware of her surroundings in the same way the adult is, but he does not conclude that this indicates that the child's experience is therefore impoverished in some manner. Typically, developmental psychology assumed that the child's immaturity results in a kind of conceptual, cognitive confusion which moves the child toward frustration or investments in interior states and/or fantasy worlds. Such a model reinforces the theory that adult experience is richer and more reflective of the perceived world.

In his Sorbonne lecture, The Psycho-Sociology of the Child, he underlines how the young child is not in a "pre-logical" mental state which simply anticipates the adult state. This discussion is part of one of the main themes of the lectures: Merleau-Ponty distinguishing himself from Piaget and another other psychologists whom he considers to have an "intellectualist" view of the child. Merleau-Ponty argues that we must not view the child as having a limited experience in comparison with the adult. Rather, the child's perception is fully meaningful even if it is not structured like the adult's. The danger of considering the child's perception as a primitive form of adult perception is that this implies the adult is "more ‘attentive' to the same ‘sensations'" (Merleau-Ponty, 1949-52/2001, p.249). [3]

Instead, Merleau-Ponty argues that the child's perception is fully meaningful given the child's embodied condition. Our intellectual ordering of the world is laid upon this basic perceptual structure, just as our conscious, cultural knowledge is laid upon our embodied existence. Intellectual acquisition does not make us more attentive, it merely directs our interest (Merleau-Ponty, 1949-52/2001, pgs. 248, 250, 261). His later work on embodiment as cited above is clearly the adult inheritance of this early organization. It appears common in discussions of embodied/ecological selves to assume, like Merleau-Ponty, that this self does not disappear later in development, but undergirds adult experience as well.

Intersubjective Self

A closely related, and often conjoined thesis with the embodied self, is the second interpretation of our earliest sense of self: an interpersonal or intersubjective self. Merleau-Ponty's earliest discussions of self- and other-awareness in The Structure of Behavior are obviously influenced by the Hegelian thought of his time, in particular that of Alexander Kojève. Merleau-Ponty argues that self-awareness and other-awareness are co-extensive. [4] By importing a particular interpretation of Hegel's dialectic, Merleau-Ponty stresses not just the fact that perception must be understood in the framework of consciousness, but also that human consciousness is unique in its intersubjective, historical nature. Self-awareness and other-awareness are thus regarded as contemporaneous developments.

The influence of his research into Husserl's phenomenology strengthens Merleau-Ponty's commitment to intersubjectivity as a critical component of subjectivity. However, in the Phenomenology, (1945/1996) Merleau-Ponty distinguishes himself from the Husserlian thesis of the Cartesian Meditations (1931/1988) that intersubjectivity is based in an intellectual appreciation of the other's similarity to one's own being. Merleau-Ponty concludes, along with Scheler, that it is not the case that I must self-consciously think about how I could be you in order to achieve intersubjectivity -- "There is nothing here resembling ‘reasoning by analogy.' As Scheler so rightly declares, reasoning by analogy presupposes what it is called on to explain" (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1996, p. 352). If I can engage in a comparison of myself and the other, I already have achieved intersubjectivity. I already have a place for "other" and "myself" if the very structure of analogy makes sense to me. How can I even begin to see the other as possibly "like" me? Any kind of reasoning by analogy merely helps me further clarify my pre-existing understanding of the other's place. The birth of intersubjectivity must precede such comparisons.

What then accounts for intersubjectivity? Instead of the self-conscious subject, Merleau-Ponty argues that it is our bodily experience in the world broadly construed. In my everyday embodied life, I am hardly the master of the richness of my experience. Not only does this underline that I cannot make perceptions bend to my will, but also that the world extends far beyond me. Yet, at the same time, this very world which extends beyond me does constitute my experiences. My limitations do not reduce the richness of experience; rather, the richness is how my experience participates in something beyond itself.

I find the other, in her own embodied condition, is likewise situated in the world. Within this context, my everyday perception of the other is not one of being confronted and confused by the other "mind." I do not have to wonder -- Is she a robot? Is she like me? We are both "beings which are outrun by the world, and which consequently may well be outrun by each other" (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1996, p.353). The other is participating in the same embodied existence as I am. We are not directing ourselves at each other, curiously evaluating similarities and differences, but rather immediately directed together at the experience of the world. "It is precisely my body which perceives the body of another, and discovers in that body a miraculous prolongation of my own intentions, a familiar way of dealing with the world" (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1996, p.354). Our embodied intersubjectivity is not a conscious objectification of bodies as similar-looking things in the world, but of a mutual presence in the world. To bolster his description of embodied intersubjectivity, Merleau-Ponty uses examples of infant behavior to illustrate how it is our embodied condition which ties us to the other, not our intellectual appreciation of other minds. He describes how a baby of fifteen months will open his mouth if one pretends to bite one's own fingers -- " ‘Biting' has immediately, for it [the infant], an intersubjective significance"(Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1996, p.352). The baby knows the sense of an act not out of intellectual appreciation, but out of a shared embodiment.

Research in the past three decades has increasingly demonstrated that the intersubjective self reaches further back into childhood than previously assumed. Certainly the most oft-cited literature about our early intersubjective behavior surrounds neonatal imitation (with the discovery of mirror neurons gaining ground as another popular empirical reference for phenomenological theories of intersubjectivity.) (Gallagher, 2005) Neonatal imitation explores how very young infants are able to imitate a variety of facial gestures, in particular -- tongue protrusion, mouth opening, and head movement. The theoretical relevance of such studies reveals not just that infants are much more in control of their bodies and visually aware than previously thought, but that we come to the world with some knowledge that the other is "like me." Otherwise, how could neonates imitate successfully given they have no experience with mirrors (to draw the comparison) and have not been conditioned by caretakers. Elsewhere it has been argued that the thesis that neonatal imitation is imitation proper and that it therefore defends an innate sense of self and other-awareness is a hasty and ultimately undefended conclusion (Welsh, 2006). However, for our purposes here, I will follow the lion's share of contemporary theory that uses neonatal imitation to defend innate self and other-awareness.

We could simply take neonatal precocious behavior to be indication of the embodied self: the infant displaying an understanding of her place and existence as an embodied creature. Yet, the fact that infants almost immediately post-birth can respond meaningfully to human faces highlights that the first embodied experience might indeed also be intersubjective. Neonatal imitation demonstrates that we don't first acquire our own sense of embodied self and at some much later point acquire a sense of others, rather, "In contrast, the studies on newborn imitation indicate that the intermodal translation is operative from the very beginning. More precisely, and strictly speaking, no ‘translation' or transfer is necessary because it is already accomplished in the embodied perception itself, and is already intersubjective" (Gallagher, 2005, p. 80). We find that such abilities demonstrate that previous conceptions of an internally preoccupied selfless state of infancy were incorrect. Moreover, we find that the infant is always already engaged with the social world.

For Merleau-Ponty, imitation extends outward to a commonly-held structure of experience. If my style of expression is integrally tied to my situation, my immersion in the world and not a result of an internally motivated reflex or instinct, then it holds that another person and myself would share a common structure insofar as we share a common world experience (Merleau-Ponty, 1949-52/2001, p. 562). Imitation demonstrates the primordial truth of intersubjectivity in that it demonstrates our common world experience and shared embodied experience.

In many of the secondary source pieces which discuss intersubjectivity, we find a similar dissolution of the self-other divide. Eva Simms, in her article "Milk and Flesh," notes how this intersubjective mother-child relationship is actually part of a larger relationship with the world -- "The dyad [mother-child] is actually a triad: the flesh of the world, the third, transcends the two. Both are turned to and turned into the sensory properties of a shared world, and express the assumption that this world is the same for both of them" (Simms, 2001, p. 34). The mother and child seamlessly engage with each other's mutual presence in the world. No intellectual appreciation is required, nor any objectification of the relationship itself. In a similar vein to Merleau-Ponty's understanding of intersubjectivity as being primarily about embodiment, Simms notes that the mother's body is not simply an object in the world the infant's body explores. Drawing upon Merleau-Ponty's late work on flesh, she writes that the infant is already destined to be engaged with the mother. "The primary experience of the human infant is the experience of moving toward a world of things and others that is already pre-figured in one's own body. We cannot not move toward the (m)other with our mouth and gaze" (Simms, 2001, p. 26). Our intersubjective life is one of participating in a larger experience rather that simply exchanging stimuli over a distance -- "We begin life not as separate monads, but as mingling presences, as aspects of significant wholes where the newborn's action finds its complement and completion in the actions of the (m)other" (Simms, 2001, p. 27). We can find that such evocative language is common in discussions of intersubjectivity in Merleau-Ponty and other like-minded thinkers. Simms asks us to stretch our sense of self to include the other rather than to reduce all self-other interactions down to subjective operations on part of the individual agent.

Conflicts between embodied self and the intersubjective self

This description of intersubjectivity above results in a critical ambiguity. What is the relationship between the embodied and the intersubjective selves? Is the embodied self a condition of possibility for the intersubjective one? We discovered descriptions of embodiment that seemed to be not necessarily related to the other embodied subject, but rather to any objects in the world. Indeed, the majority of Merleau-Ponty's published texts do not stress the role of the other in embodiment. The other does not appear integral to my own self-knowledge qua embodied self. Although Merleau-Ponty's work is often the antithesis of Cartesian dualism, only in the chapter "Others and the Human World" in the Phenomenology of Perception do we find an extended discussion of the nature of intersubjectivity. Surely I must have a sense of myself as embodied and in the world before I can appreciate the other.

At the same time, however, Merleau-Ponty follows the tradition that any kind of selfhood is typically seen as indicative of an awareness of the other as other. On a Hegelian reading the embodied self alone could not be called a "self" since there is no acknowledgment of the other. Thus, the intersubjective self seems primary in any discussion of a primal selfhood.

One answer is to not distinguish between an embodied and an intersubjective self. We should include intersubjectivity as part of embodiment, not as something independent from embodiment. If Neisser (1988), among others, argue that they are contemporaneous in human development, why not just assert an intersubjective embodied self is the primal self? Embodiment and intersubjectivity are two aspects of the same essential being-in-the-world.

Indeed, this is the popular conclusion of researchers who take up empirical research to bolster phenomenological claims (Strawarska, 2003, Zahavi, 2001, Zahavi, 2005, Gallagher & Meltzoff, 1996, Gallagher, 2005). This conclusion is problematic. First, I can easily conceive of a being who demonstrates what has been argued for as an embodied self, but who does not display a sense of self and other-awareness. It would appear much of the non-human animal kingdom falls into this category. Alternatively, perhaps I never achieve embodied awareness without intersubjectivity. For instance, consider cases of extreme isolation and neglect in childhood which seem to suggest that freely willed intentional behavior might require proper interpersonal development (Ayers, 1979, Dennis, 1973). [5]

A reply would be to suggest that the intersubjective, embodied self that the infant displays is the basis for a very primal and not robust, individuated, conscious selfhood. All the various, complex philosophical arguments about what exactly the self is as well as the diversity of self-formation based in psychological, physiological dispositions and environmental contexts would still hold. Obviously, extreme environmental situations will alter one's natural development, but this does not disprove that a primal sense of one's embodied, intersubjective self does not exist. The point is not to discredit the complexities of subjective and intersubjective life but to suggest that they emerge from a common initial, intersubjective experience.

Yet I worry that we return too quickly to a lack of meaningful distinctions which would make the assertion of an innate embodied, intersubjective self a meaningless or a forced conclusion. As an existential phenomenologist, I accept that my all-too-human embodied condition is the condition of possibility for my selfhood even in my most abstract and "disembodied" reflections. However, even if I depart from this position -- selfhood requires embodiment -- it does not follow that if embodiment is present, selfhood must present. This is the critical leap of faith which appears to be based in a rewriting of our ontogenetic development. Why couldn't the intelligent, responsive, social behavior we see in infants be something other than the basis for our sense of subjectivity and intersubjectivity? Can we conceive of awareness without selfhood? The last section explores this alternative in Merleau-Ponty's lectures and texts.

Asubjective awareness

I argue that there is a pressing ambiguity, almost an ambivalence, about seeing our primal experience as being indicative of a primal "self." Many descriptions in Merleau-Ponty's texts describe our primal awareness as a kind of asubjective awareness, a kind of selfless experiencing. I bring up this much more amorphous and much less well-defined primal sense of awareness because it challenges the concept that aware and social behavior must be construed as presenting us with evidence of selfhood. The third model of primal experience calls into question if the first two are, either collectively or separately, our most primordial manner of being.

Merleau-Ponty discusses an early kind of infant syncretic sociability which isn't intersubjective, but instead is depicted as a state where there are a lack of subjective-objective distinctions. Syncretic sociability assumes a transfer of intentions and emotional states between beings, where I have not yet isolated my body as 'mine' and yours as 'yours.'

His most well-known theme, perception, is absent in his discussions of early infant syncretic sociability. Perceptions, insofar as they are perceptions of something, are decisive for subjecthood. Since infants lack the physical capacity to focus upon objects and have yet to identify their bodies as their own bodies, Merleau-Ponty concludes that a large part of early syncretic sociability, or "transivitism," can be correlated with an early pre-perceptual stage. He (1960/1964) writes that since children under six months of age do not have a visual notion of their own bodies, they are unable to "limit" their lives to themselves -- "To the extent that he [the infant] lacks this visual consciousness of his body, he cannot separate what he lives from what others live as what he sees them living. Thence comes the phenomenon of ‘transitivism,' i.e., the absence of a division between myself and others that is the foundation of syncretic sociability" (p.135). Transitivism is not simply an immature stage which is overcome; it's the basis of all social interactions. "If the child under six months of age does not yet have a visual notion of his own body (that is, a notion that locates his body at a certain point in visible space), that is all the more reason why, during the same period, he will not know enough to limit his own life to himself" (Merleau-Ponty, 1960/1964, p. 135). Interpersonal relations do not spring from reciprocal relationship between two isolated subjects or from an acknowledgment that this other acting being must be a thinking, intending being like oneself. Instead, interpersonal relations are grounded upon a stage of early life where the subject does not distinguish its life from the lives of other 'subjects.'

We could pause here and suggest that since we have definitely proven that infants are quite visual from birth this notion of infantile transitivism is a moot point. But Merleau-Ponty does not merely write about the infant post-birth, rather he extends his analyses back into the prenatal arguing that this amorphous experience persists in adult experience:

For example, in pre-natal existence, nothing was
perceived, and therefore is nothing to recall.
There was nothing but the raw material and
adumbration of a natural self and a natural time.
This anonymous life is merely the extreme form
of that temporal dispersal which constantly
threatens the historical present. In order to have
some inkling of the nature that amorphous existence
which preceded my own history, and which will bring
it to a close, I have only to look within me at that
time which pursues its own independent course, and
which my personal life utilizes but does not entirely
overlay. Because I am borne into personal existence
by a time which I do not constitute, all my perceptions
stand out against a background of nature.
(Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1996, p. 347)

Our anonymous existence is not just a period of the subject's prenatal and early life; it's interwoven within everyday experience. [6] Birth does not usher in a self, but this primal asubjectivity, what Merleau-Ponty (1945/1996) calls an "inborn complex" and a "prepersonal cleaving" to the world. Merleau-Ponty notes that this independent, anonymous existence asserts its presence even in the midst of the strongest and most personal sentiments -- "While I am overcome by some grief and wholly given over to my distress, my eyes already stray in front of me, and are drawn, despite everything, to some shining object, and thereupon resume their autonomous existence" (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1996, p.84). Our existence qua subjective, conscious individuality is precarious and cannot be the ground upon which meaning in one's life is built -- "Personal existence is intermittent and when this tide turns and recedes, decision can henceforth endow my life with only artificially induced significance" (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1996, p.84).

We view our original "position" as one of a lack of intersubjectivity. This would not be the thesis that the infant is internally preoccupied and later comes to recognize the other. Instead, the self is an artificial construct built upon a continuity of being. In the Sorbonne lectures, Merleau-Ponty argues that the objectification of one's own body permits the establishment of a sense of self and other -- what he calls a "partition" between myself and other. Previously there was a lack of distinction between the infant and other -- "Syncretism here is the indistinction between me and the other, a confusion at the core of a situation that is common to us both." (Merleau-Ponty, 1960/1964, p. 120). Dorothea Olkowski's description of the "impersonal" is fitting: there is no life of the subject "without the primordial level of impersonal life...concerning this we have no choice. It is already present in the natural world and in our bodies, as well as in the relations between them"(Olkowski, 1993, p. 105). Primal asubjective awareness precedes the historical development of the self and remains part of adult experience.


I have argued that three possible ways of understanding our most primal experience exist in Merleau-Ponty's work. The first two conceptions -- the embodied and intersubjective selves have also been taken up in contemporary empirical research. However, these depictions of primal experience conclude too quickly that selfhood must lurk at the bottom of such behavior. The last conception -- an asubjective awareness -- remains more speculative and less explored in contemporary empirical and philosophical research. However, it highlights the fact that an alternative reading of primal experience is possible.

What possible reading might incorporate this asubjective awareness and the first two senses of self? Least contentiously, if our prenatal experience is this fleshly transitivism perhaps it forms the basis for our later adult experience of ambiguous immersion in the world. Thus, our sense of self springs out of, but never completely overlays, a much more general experience. An embodied and intersubjective self certainly exists and has a developmental story. However, must we necessarily conclude that intelligent behavior in neonates and preverbal children has to arise from some very primal kind of selfhood? It is possible that the inheritance from our early life isn't just the progressive blooming of the self. The self is could be a creation upon a fluid continuum of being that continues to constitute our experience. Asubjective awareness describes a condition of active states that are aware and social but not defined by selfhood.

Why would one want to adopt such a speculative thesis? It seems impossibly indeterminate and certainly rife with anthropomorphic prejudice to say what non-verbal beings are "experiencing." When it comes to adult experience, I can say that I've had what I take to be elements of impersonal, asubjective experiences, but I can easily imagine someone saying that she hasn't and deny their relevance suggesting that the entire idea is far too "New Age-y" to be taken seriously. Are you really suggesting that I can experience other people's intentions? Come on! Someone might suggest that experiences of asubjective awareness indicates psychosis, drug-abuse, or are based in infantile fantasies to return to the womb. A phenomenologist could argue that the discussion of asubjective awareness should fall under the aegis of embodiment and intersubjectivity emphasizing that it is a very primal aspect of our subjective and intersubjective experience. A philosopher engaged with Merleau-Ponty's conception of flesh and the prepersonal could claim that such an ontic exploration, a study of experimental research and Merleau-Ponty's psychology, remains far too unphilosophical and imprecise to really capture the meaning of these ideas.

There is a Merleau-Ponty who embodies both the phenomenologist and the more postmodern thinker. One of these Merleau-Pontys remains largely committed to the Cartesian-Kantian-Husserlian tradition and one develops conceptions that push the limits of traditional philosophical thought but who, nonetheless, like Heidegger, remains suspicious of non-philosophical discussions. There is a Merleau-Ponty who writes of the primacy of philosophy and one who finds almost any exploration equally as revealing about our condition -- be it a psychological experiment, a psychoanalysis of a teenage girl, a painting, or a poem. This later Merleau-Ponty is the one taken up in this paper.

I cannot discredit all possible objections to asubjective awareness in the limits of a paper. These objections are pressing and deserve a full exploration. I can provide in conclusion, a few words to defend taking asubjective awareness as a possible alternative to understanding our primal experience opposed to the first two models -- the embodied self and the intersubjective self. This demands that one entertain the "interdisciplinary" Merleau-Ponty and more generally that interdisciplinary research with its all vagaries of terminology and practice is possibly revelatory for theory.

We know that our development is hardly a seamless progression of ever increasing self-possession and self-control. If I come to the world with an innate embodied sense of myself and other, why is this development not more standard across my personal life and between myself and others? The assumption that the self is at the bottom of all aware, intentional, and social behavior is also based in the thesis that such behaviors inevitably indicate some kind of selfhood exists. While selfhood requires an embodied, intersubjective life, does all embodied and "intersubjective" behavior indicate a sense of self? Perhaps our human condition we bring with us at birth resembles the pre-natal rather than the post-natal. Finally, anthropological, historical, cultural, psychological, and philosophical studies indicate that in part selfhood is a constructed and learnt set of behaviors, practices, terms, values, and assumptions. It is challenging to locate it as an innate feature of human existence without reducing its qualities so significantly that the story of how my self-conscious, cultural, and linguistic self rose out of this primal selfhood is impossibly vague. Asubjective awareness could incorporate a constructed sense of self without denying the possibility of an existential phenomenological exploration of primal experience.


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[1] He writes that, "The ecological self is the individual situated in and acting upon the immediate physical environment.  That situation and that activity are continuously specified by visual/acoustic/kinesthetic/vestibular information" (Neisser, 1995, p. 18).  "An ecological self is an individual who is, and perceives herself to be, located at a given place (or moving along a given path) in an extended environment of surfaces and objects.  She has, and perceives herself to have, an extended body that is capable of interacting with the environment in a purposeful way . . . A first implication of this definition is that ecological selves are perceptually differentiated from their environments.  The individual is in the environment but partly independent of it, moves through it, interacts with it, and consistently perceives this differentiated state of affairs.  This achievement is only possible in species that are equipped with adequate perceptual systems, able to pick up the information that specifies the layout of the environment as well as the position and movement of the self" (Neisser, 1995, p. 21).

[2] Two of the authors of several studies of infant proprioception argue that such work indicates we should adopt a continuous, ecological, and dynamical systems model of development.  Like the embodied self, the dynamical systems approach argues that the entire situation of body and world must be analyzed in tandem (Van der Meer & Van der Weel, 1995). Unlike a model where the neurophysical development is considered primary, Van der Meer and Van der Weel argue the opposite, Awith neurophysical changes in the brain resulting from the system as a whole adapting to new levels of organization at more peripheral levels@ (Van der Meer & Van der Weel, 1995, p. 259).

[3] A complete English translation, by the author of this paper, of Merleau-Ponty's Sorbonne Lectures is forthcoming with Northwestern University Press.

[4] In French theory since the popularization of Hegel=s master-slave dialectic by Alexander Kojève and Jean Hyppolite, self-awareness is understood to entail other-awareness.  Merleau-Ponty himself attended Kojève=s popular seminars at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (Roth, 1988, p. 226). Merleau-Ponty is cited in attendance during the 1937-1938 year, the last year he was writing The Structure of Behavior.  The radical shift at the end of the book from a psychological/observational stance to a transcendental/phenomenological one is made more comprehensible knowing he was attending Kojève=s lectures during this period.

[5] Wayne Dennis' (1973) evocative book, Children of the Crèche, studied children in a Lebanese orphanage who were raised in extremely minimal environments.  The infants were almost never taken from their cribs except to change.  The toddlers were rarely encouraged in play and given few toys to play with and with which to explore their physical limits (p. 13).  The study found that at 14, the average crèche child had an I.Q. of 57.  The caretakers had no natural response to children's cries, as they themselves grew up in a world where crying was unattended ( pp. 17-21).

[6] M.C. Dillon also argues that adult emotion, especially love, is grounded in the pre-communicative stage. For Dillon, syncretic sociability and pre-communication are relevant in order to understand adult interactions.  He writes that syncretic sociability indicates Ahow it is possible for human beings to recognize each other as such and develop at a personal level the pre-personal communication that is our birthright@ (Dillon, 1997, p. 129).

Biographical Note:

Talia Welsh is U.C. Foundation Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

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