Body, Space and the Notion of Corps Propre: Insights into Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception
Jeanne Degortes, 2021
The outer space, spatial exploration, needing some space for myself, finding a space to park my car, an advertising space, putting a space between two words when typing on a computer. A lot of our everyday expressions involve the concept of space. Yet what they refer to is not always clear: do they point to a particular place, maybe some empty expanse that one can fill, in the universe, or on a blank sheet of paper? It seems to depend on the context, on the expression, on what we are talking about. Furthermore, the way we interact with that space is even less clear: what relationship can we have with galaxies that are light years away? It certainly is no the same as the relationship we can have with a space in which we park our car. Our common use of the term space does not tell us what exactly we are talking about nor the kind of interaction we can have with space. But we still use it and understand it because, somehow, the concept of space is intuitive to us, as it seems inextricably bound up with living in a spatial world and having a body.
Yet, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a major figure in the occidental philosophy of space, has attempted to understand what is really at stake behind this concept of space which is so familiar to us. More specifically, he tries to understand the nature of space and the nature of our interaction with it in his Phenomenology of perception, published in 1945, by attributing a special role to our body.
But before exploring the role he attributes to the body, let me define what space is usually taken to mean, out of the context of our everyday expressions. Space refers to the expanse with which we physically interact. The concept of space is what allows us to think about places, bodies and material objects, distances, and more generally, to think about the environment in which we live, with which we interact and which we perceive. This means that I can understand the concept of space because I am in a spatial world and surrounded by spatial objects. Space is not tangible: I cannot touch, see nor perceive it in any way; it is rather the way the world seems to be structured. It is also commonly opposed to the concept of time, which refers to the changing aspect of the spatial environment, allowing us to think of evolution and movement.
I would like to highlight a peculiar point of this broad definition of space. Thanks to this spatial structure of the world, I can think the physicality of the objects and the bodies that I perceive. But here, a difficulty arises: I can only perceive physical objects with my body, which is itself a physical object. So, if I understand physical objects through the physical object that my body is, how do I understand and make sense of my body? Do I perceive my body like any other physical object, or do I perceive it differently? If so, does it mean that it has a special status, that I make sense of it differently?
It is precisely this tension around the status of the body that Merleau-Ponty uses to elaborate his philosophy of space. Before getting into the main aspect of his reflection, it is important to acknowledge the fact that he is part of the philosophical tradition of phenomenology. Phenomenology is considered to have been founded in the 20th century by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, who expressed the will to refound philosophy as a rigorous science. Phenomenology, according to Husserl’s perception, deals with the study of phenomena, that is to say things as they appear to us, as we experience them, without any concern for how these things are in themselves, essentially. For instance, the phenomenon of a chair is the experience I have of it, what I perceive of it according to the different angles from which I look at it, the feeling I get when touching it, etc. Thus, we only perceive and interact with phenomena, with the way objects appear to us, and not with what they truly are. We are, in a way, limited by our senses. What Husserl suggested to do with phenomenology was to study phenomena in order to understand the structures that make our perception and experience of them possible. He starts from the concreteness of our experience of the world to study the structures of our thoughts that make us perceive the world the way we do. The phenomenological gesture initiated by Husserl is thus, to put it briefly, a rigorous refoundation of philosophy and a return to experience as the primary element in understanding the human representation and comprehension of the world.
Belonging to this philosophical tradition of thought, Merleau-Ponty tries to understand space through the perception we have of it. Where Husserl focused on the structures of thought that allowed us to make sense of the world, Merleau-Ponty focused on the structure of perception, hence the title of his major book, Phenomenology of Perception. In his attempt to understand the structure of our perception of space, he focuses especially on the role of the body and on its particular status in our experience of the world.
The core of this insight on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical account of the body will now follow three steps. The first one will explore in more depth the particular status that the body has according to him. I will then be able to focus specifically on the role Merleau-Ponty gives to our body in our apprehension of space, the most central aspect of his phenomenology of space. After these important considerations, I will be able to go into more detail about his major concept of corps propre, which will complete this insight.
Let us start with the specific status of the body for Merleau-Ponty. Firstly, to Merleau-Ponty, the spatial condition of human beings is an essential aspect in understanding the nature of their environment. The very fact that we are existing in the world implies that we are a part of it, i.e., that we are spatial. He is in fact opposed to the traditional Cartesian distinction between the body and the mind, as he claims that human beings are “not a spirit and a body but a spirit with a body”: a person is her body. Therefore, for Merleau-Ponty, the spatial aspect of human beings provided by their body is essential to them, it is part of who they are. But the body is not only the physical aspect of the human subject. It is also what allows her to have access to the world: my body carries the organs that provide me with the capacity of perceiving some aspects of my environment. So it is that through which I perceive my surroundings, the interface between my consciousness and the world. Merleau-Ponty qualifies it as “my point of view upon the world”, because it is exclusively from my body that I apprehend it.
In addition to that, my body is always with me. It is not a perspective upon the world that I can mobilise if I want to, but a point of view always accompanying me, everywhere and all the time. I cannot be separated from it. It has a special position of “permanence” to me, not in the temporal sense that would suggest that my body would last forever, but rather that it is permanent to me, that relatively to my perception of the world, it is always there.
However, it is not a regular physical object. I do not perceive my body like I perceive external objects, because, as Merleau-Ponty holds, it “always appears to me from the same angle”. External objects do not show all their sides at the same time either, but I can choose which one to see by moving around them, which is impossible with my body. It thus possesses a particular status: I constantly perceive it – and through it – yet it is unlike the objects it allows me to perceive.
Merleau-Ponty thus seems to answer our interrogations about the status of the body: it is a central element for the constitution of a human subject, with a different status than other physical objects. Now that this specificity has become clear, I will focus on the characterisation of the specific role of the body in the apprehension of space. Merleau-Ponty explains that:
“[it] is not just another external object [having] the peculiarity of always being there. If it is permanent, then this has to do with an absolute permanence that serves as the basis for the relative permanence of objects that can be eclipsed, that is, of true objects. The presence and the absence of external objects are only variations within a primordial field of presence, a perceptual domain over which my body has power.”
I will attempt to explain what this quote implies. Merleau-Ponty firstly deals with the specificity of the body compared to the other physical objects, which we detailed before. He reminds us that this is the absoluteness of the permanence of the body that allows me to think the relativity of the rest of the world, and that it is the basis of my perception. Then, Merleau-Ponty develops an important idea when using the expression “primordial field of presence”. By this, he means that the body’s power to allow the subject to have representation of the varying world, is in fact a priori to the perception. This means that I do not need to perceive anything to have a sense of spatiality. I can have a feeling of being in space and of belonging to a physical world without any physical perception. Try it yourself: stand up, close your eyes, don’t move. If you are in a quiet place, not too warm nor too cold, you might approach a state where you do not physically perceive any feature of your environment, or at least not noticing any. And yet, you do not stop feeling that you are in a spatial environment. And not just because you know it. According to Merleau-Ponty, it is because your body provides you with this primordial spatiality. The other physical objects can only appear to you because your body has first deployed this primordial spatiality. In other words, it is the body that makes spatial perception possible, both through the ability to think spatiality that it provides us with, as well as through the ability to perceive this spatial environment. Its permanence makes it the foundation of the capacity of perception. It is the means by which other objects in space can spatially be thought of and perceived. Merleau-Ponty will use a mathematical metaphor to express this, saying that the body establishes the “first coordinates”, meaning the basic elements to orient oneself in space. This is why he claims that the body is the first spatiality, prior to the constitution of objects. Once again, this is not to be understood in a temporal sense, which would mean that the physical objects would need the existence of the body to exist themselves. This is here a relative anteriority, relative to my perception of space: I can only perceive and think spatial objects because my body first frames spatiality, making possible the idea of other spatial objects for me.
All in all, this quote carries two major ideas. The first one deals with the absoluteness of the body. By its permanence and its particular status of being both perceiving and perceived by me, my body is a stable basis that allows me to make sense of the changing world I live in. The second important idea contained in this quote is that not only does the body allow me to perceive and make sense of the other objects and of my environment, it most importantly provides me with the possibility of thinking spatially, even before perceiving anything. It establishes the spatial frame through which I can think spatiality and spatial objects. The body is that by which space and objects can be.
With these elements, I believe we are equipped to understand the central concept of Merleau-Ponty’s book: the concept of corps propre [own body]. The concept emerges from a simple reflection: my body is a spatial object, and yet it is through it that spatiality and spatial objects are possible. It seems a bit paradoxical, which is why Merleau-Ponty acknowledges a form of duality inherent to the very nature of the body. On the one hand, it is organic, abiding by the rules of biology and evolution, it has a weight and it is three-dimensional, in other words, it is a spatial object. On the other hand, it belongs to a human entity, whose will controls its actions (reflexes excepted), and frames the possibility of spatial perception. With this distinction in mind, Merleau-Ponty distinguishes the physical extension of my body from the own body. The own body is therefore nothing other than the body’s capacity of structuring spatiality. It is thus not what I see in a mirror nor when I stretch my arm before me, but rather what makes me think of myself as a spatial being and able to move without looking at my body. It provides me with the notion of my own spatiality and, therefore, of the world’s spatiality as well. The concept of own body is in fact the conceptualisation of all the characteristics developed earlier. It is a tool to distinguish the physical body that I can touch and see from the structuring aspect that my spatiality, provided by my body, has upon the world and my perception of it.
A way of formulating this distinction between the own body and the physical body would be to think of it as a distinction between the objective body and the subjective one. The objective body would thus be my body as it is biologically and physically. It is also the representation that we have of our body. This objective body is thus secondary, for Merleau-Ponty. The subjective body would indeed have the primacy over the objective one because the same way my subjective body allows me to perceive and to think the other physical objects, it allows me to elaborate the idea of my body as a physical object, that is of my objective body. The subjective body is here to be understood as a synonym of own body, that is my body in the way it makes me perceive physical objects and makes spatiality exist.
All in all, Merleau-Ponty attributes a specific status of the body among the other physical objects. It is the vector of the spatiality of human beings, and as such, a central element in their constitution as subjects. But moreover, it is people’s perspective upon the world, because it is through our body that we perceive our environment. It then has the particular property of being both perceiving and perceived by me. Therefore, it has a position of absoluteness: it is what provides me with the possibility to think spatiality and spatial objects. This particular aspect of the body is in fact conceptualised by Merleau-Ponty through his concept of corps propre [own body], referring to this spatially framing aspect of the body, opposed to its physicality and the representation I have of it. To sum it up, this insight has shown that for Merleau-Ponty, the body is central in the constitution of the human subject, in her perception of the world, and most importantly, to the latter’s very spatiality.
 It is important to note that there are other conceptions of phenomenology that reject the more idealist implications of Husserl’s theory in favour of different approaches with alternative ontological implications.
 He says so in a radio interview broadcast the 09/10/1948 at the Radiodiffusion Française (RDF). The archive Ina-Radio France is available at this address : https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/les-nuits-de-france-culture/heure-de-culture-francaise-maurice-merleau-ponty-la-pensee-et-lart-modernes-09101948, consulted the 25/06/2021. My translation, the author underlines orally.
 Phenomenology of perception (PP), p. 73.
 PP, p. 93.
 PP, p. 94.
 PP, p. 103.
 Even if “corps propre” literally means “own body”, in French, the most common way of saying “own body” would be to say “propre corps”. The specificity of the expression “corps propre” therefore lies in the inversion between the noun and the adjective, which can be reflected through the similar inversion in the English expression “body of my own”. This being said, Landes’s translation to “own body” might be clearer for the understanding and the fluidity of the sentences.