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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Art in Perception: Making Perception Aesthetic Again

  • Author(s): Matherne, Samantha Marie
  • Advisor(s): Keller, Pierre
  • et al.

Although separated by a century and a half, the relationship between Immanuel Kant and Maurice Merleau-Ponty has more recently come into sharper focus. It is now common to read Kant and Merleau-Ponty as offering two competing characterizations of perceptual experience. In the present work, however, I argue that pitting Kant against Merleau-Ponty in this way leads us to overlook the important and philosophically illuminating continuity between their views of perception. In particular, I show that Kant and Merleau-Ponty share a key commitment: both regard aesthetic experience, including both the production and appreciation of a work of art, as an invaluable resource for understanding the nature of perceptual experience more generally. It is, in particular, reflection on the role of what Kant calls the `productive imagination' and its creative and projective activities that both philosophers think sheds light on our more mundane perceptions. This work is, in part, an effort to clarify the development of this aesthetically inflected theory of perception from Kant's philosophy, through Neo-Kantians like Ernst Cassirer and Pierre Lachièze-Rey, and into Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology. However, once we expose the development of this line of thought between Kant and Merleau-Ponty, we shall find we have reason to revise the standard interpretation of the relationship between these two figures. As I argue in the first part of this work, rather than thinking of Kant as an anti-phenomenological `intellectualist', we find he is, as Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty took him to be, a forefather of the phenomenological movement of the 20th century. So too, as I argue in the second part of this work, instead of reading Merleau-Ponty as anti-Kantian, we should recognize that he self-consciously appropriated aspects of Kant's philosophy of perception and is, to this extent, a Neo-Kantian. Ultimately, what this revised understanding of Kant's and Merleau-Ponty's theories of perception offers us is a unified, subtle, and promising theory of perceptual experience that places the productive imagination and aesthetic experience at its very heart.

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