Notes on Sensation

In his fine new book Levinas Unhinged,┬áTom Sparrow writes about how Alphonso Lingis both radicalizes Levinas in the direction of materiality, and goes beyond the accpunt of perception elaborated by Merleau-Ponty. Lingis insists upon the radicality of sensation, something that orthodox phenomenology excludes. For Merleau-Ponty,Sparrow says, “our most elementary experiences are always already meaning-laden, figural, given to us as a thing that we can get our hands around.”

Now, as far as I can tell, Merleau-Ponty is basically saying the same thing that Wilfrid Sellars is saying, when he denounces the “myth of the Given” and insists that all our experiences are always already conceptualized or theory-laden. These two philosophers come from very different traditions, and their terminology is correspondingly different. (Thus Sellars denounces the idea of what he calls “givennnes,” but Merleau-Ponty uses this very same term to refer to the way that, for him just as for Sellars, what we experience is already conceptualized and meaningful).

The parallel between Merleau-Ponty and Sellars is that they both descend ultimately from Kant; they are both affirming the Kantian principle that “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” And doubtless, Kant, Sellars, and Merleau-Ponty are all correct in rejecting what we might call the illusion of simple presence.

Nonetheless, as Sparrow points out, sensation for Lingis is a point at which the Kantian/phenomenologica/Sellarsian structures break down. Lingis, in contrast to all theseearlier figures, “reminds us that ‘to sense something is to be sensitive to something, to feel a contact with it, to be affected by it’.” (Sparrow quoting Lingis). Sparrow also (rightly, I think) aligns this affirmation of sensation with a moment in Levinas where Levinas is asserting the priority of the aesthetic, rather than (as he usually does) the ethical. It is true that we should beware (as Kant, Merleau-Ponty, & Sellars all tell us) to simply hypostasize non-conceptual (or non-categorical) aesthetic sensation as a higher or more pure form of presence. But it is equally true that we need to avoid the error of thinking that what does not fit into our conceptual categories does not exist at all. Sparrow finds this latter concern in Levinas and in Lingis. I find it, initially, in Kant himself, in the discussion of aesthetics in the Third Critique, where we have “intuitions” (sensory impressions) that cannot be contained within any concept. I find traces of this also in Deleuze (with his aesthetics of sensation), in Laruelle (with his insistence on the radical immanence of the photograph), and also in Erin Manning’s account of autistic thought.

The larger point is that both cognitivists and phenomenologists affirm the Kantian idea of subordinating sensation or affect to cognition, or conceptualization, or meaning; and yet both cognitivism and phenomenology offer us margins, or moments, where we still encounter a radical, non-categorizable aestheticism. (These margins can be found, for instance, in Metzinger’s discussions of “Raffman qualia”, and in some of Merleau-Ponty’s more speculative gestures, including those where he is writing under the influence of Whitehead — for which see this book). I think that David Roden’s recent discussion of “dark phenomenology” fits here too (although I don’t agree with Roden’s conclusion that this might be accessed via third-person naturalism).

Both in the book I am finishing now (on speculative realism) and in the two that I hope to write next (one on theories of mind in science fiction, and the other on post-continuity in contemporary film and video) I am pursuing these aesthetic margins.

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