In “Eye and Mind,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty examines how art, specifically painting, displays the act of viewing the world with openness and immersion that is more truly representative of the continuum of existence. The essay opposes scientific thinking that, according to Merleau-Ponty, views all things in the world with an objectifying appraisal and fails to see the lived world as the site through which the body perceives and associates itself with others and its surroundings. Because it is through the body that consciousness extends itself and is affected, perception becomes the means through which consciousness establishes itself as an integral part of the world. This perception is not a channel that simply filters in information from a separate environment, but rather it is a kind of interconnectedness that allows for a simultaneity in which one both perceives the world through observation and interaction, and experiences the world revealing itself through its very essence.
The essay explores how a painter must offer her body (through her eyes and hands) into and through the world in order to manifest it most truly in art. Merleau-Ponty describes this vision as a movement that both extends the body through the act of looking and opens the body to the world through this extension. The body sees and is seen. It is within this merging between the perceiver and observer that distinctions break down between the subject and the object, the real and the imagined, and enclosure/encapsulation and space. The painter, with her endowment of a clairvoyant-like vision, unveils the object, while at the same time the object makes itself known to her. The invisible is made manifest through the painter’s enactment of her vision and the object’s revelation of itself to the painter.
“Eye and Mind” moves beyond the Cartesian notion that the act of painting is simply a way of manifesting thought or empirical observation, and it rejects the conception that space is an entity separate from, outside of, and indeterminable by perception. In fact, Merleau-Ponty examines space as that which directs the viewer and painter back to themselves. The body is both born out of space and functions as the core around which all space expands. He argues, “I do not see [space] according to its exterior envelope; I live in it from the inside; I am immersed in it. After all, the world is all around me, not in front of me . . . ” (178). The question becomes not how to understand space, but rather how to make oneself open enough to perceive it. Space and content merge in their coming-into-being through the visible. And while the painter seeks to express this fusion through a concentration on depth, line, form, and color, she must uncover a “secret of preexistence,” an “internal animation,” or a “radiation of the visible” that exists as a kind of Ur-force in what she sees, what exposes itself to her (182). Line, for instance, does not exist as a clearly defined boarder that distinguishes objects from each other. Rather, it is suggested by space and content in their genesis into the visible. There is no actual distinction between the body and its environment, but rather an extension and expression of Being which permeates the painter’s vision.
What distinguishes Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological investigations from those of other philosophers, such as Sartre and Heidegger, is his insistence on the body as the center of perception and the medium of consciousness. His study of vision as an extension of the corporal shows us that in order for consciousness to unfold into a part of the world—to exist as a flourishing—it must be embodied. To perceive the world and be shaped by it, one must be in and of its flesh.