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The Primacy of Perception From a previously unpublished text at the introduction to the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “Primacy of Perception”, a series of passages provides a wonderful insight into perception and the body’s role in perceptual and spatial orientation, which has significant meaning for architectural theory.

“…the body is no longer merely an object in the world, under the purview of of a separated spirit.  It is on the side of the subject; it is our point of view on the world, the place where the spirit takes on a certain physical and historical situation.  As Descartes once said profoundly, the soul is not merely in the body like a pilot in his ship;  it is wholly intermingled with the body.  The body, in turn, is wholly animated, and all its functions contribute to the perception of objects– an activity long considered by philosophy to be pure knowledge…We grasp external space through our bodily situation…A system of possible movements, or “motor projects”, radiates from us to our environment.  Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space.  It applies itself to space like a hand to an instrument…For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions…We also find that spatial forms or distances are not so much relations between different points in objective space as they are relations between these points and a central perspective– our body.  In short, these relations are different ways for external stimuli to test, to soicit, and to vary our grasp on the world, our horizontal and vertical anchorage in a place and in a here-and-now.” [p.5]

“Knowledge and communication sublimate rather than suppress our incarnation, and the characteristic operation of the mind is in the movement by which we recapture our corporeal existence and use it to symbolize instead of merely to co-exist.  This metamorphosis lies in the double function of our body.  Through its “sensory fields” and its whole organization the body is, so to speak, predestined to model itself on the natural aspects of the world.  But as an active body capable of gestures, of expression, and finally of language, it turns back on the world to signify it.  As the observation of apraxics shows, there is in man, superimposed upon actual space with its self-identical points, a “virtual space” in which the spatial values that a point would receive are also recognized.” [p.7]

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