Susan Bredlau, The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of Our Experience of Other Persons. New York: State University of New York Press, 2018; 126 pages. ISBN: 978-1438471730.
Reviewed by Alexandra Morrison, Michigan Technological University.
Susan Bredlau’s The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of Our Experience of Other Persons is a rich phenomenological exploration of the nature of embodied sociality. Bredlau focuses her attention on childhood development and adult sexuality as paragons of the phenomenon of intersubjectivity, in which we are able to glimpse the basic structures of embodied existence. The book challenges individualist descriptions of subjectivity, deftly demonstrating that when we pay attention to our habitual, embodied practices, they reveal a co-enactment of shared meanings; this approach bypasses the “problem of other minds” as a pseudo-problem and “opens up distinctive avenues for ethics.” (93) Drawing on the philosophical works of Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and John Russon, as well as recent research in child psychology, Bredlau lays bare the existential significance of perception, showing how perception is always already contextualized in a meaningful shared world. Thus, rather than the empty reception of images or objects in an already-given world, our seeing is more accurately described as the achievement of sense or meaning.
The first chapter sets up the basic philosophical terms of a phenomenology of perception that will be deployed throughout the book: Husserlian intentionality and its elaboration of the immanent meaning of the things that we perceive; Merleau-Ponty’s description of the lived sense of the engaged body as “body schema” (le schéma corporeal), according to which subjectivity is understood fundamentally as an “I can” rather than an “I think” (Phenomenology, 139); and Russon’s description of the musical polytemporality of experience that articulates the layered temporal complexity shaping the figure-background structure of experience. This opening chapter subtly but emphatically conveys the way in which phenomenological inquiry into everyday experience is neither easy nor obvious. The task of the phenomenologist, as Bredlau describes it, is to uncover “deeply submerged prejudices, commitments, and expectations, deeply submerged structures that have precisely become the structure” for the meaningful unfolding of our lives. (25)
Drawing on Husserl’s description of our experience of others as rooted in a kind of lived sense of relatedness that he calls “pairing” (Paarung), Bredlau’s second chapter presents the phenomenological concept of intersubjectivity as the fundamental form of passive synthesis that enables us to have the experience of another subjectivity. Bredlau’s characterization of Husserl’s phenomenology importantly emphasizes its foundation in embodiment, a somatic pairing that is an immediate experience of the world as oriented around the other’s perceptive human body. This is not a pairing that imaginatively constructs or, by way of analogy, posits, or infers, the other object-body as imbued with consciousness. This is why Merlau-Ponty’s introduction of the neologism “l’intercorporéité” (“intercorporeality”) is a helpful clarification of intersubjectivity, insofar as it underscores the bodily transfer of sense evident in Husserl’s descriptions. “[P]airing happens when I perceive the behavior of another living body as reflective of my own body’s motor capacities…facilitating what Husserl calls an ‘analogical transfer’ of sense between my own body and that of the other person.” (“Intercorporeality,” 197)
Building upon Husserl’s description of our immediate experience of the world as oriented around others, Bredlau then develops, through Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the body schema, an account of how our shared body schema makes possible a shared world. This chapter in particular makes effective use of everyday experiences to bring the phenomenological concepts alive. Following Merleau-Ponty’s lead in the Structure of Behavior, where he describes a soccer player’s experience of the pitch, Bredlau engagingly reflects on the player’s perceptual grasp in play, artfully kicking, running and sliding, precisely because she sees the pitch not simply from her own singular perspective, but rather because her own perceptions actually pass through her teammates’ perspectives. Thus, Bredlau concludes, while our perception does not lay bare the precise orientation of the other, our collaborative participation in experience forms “the very fabric our enactment of our own bodily life.” (38)
Bredlau deepens the layers of this intersubjective fabric by turning to Russon’s description of experience in terms of the “‘polytemporality’ of melody, harmony, and rhythm.” (38) This move enables her to reframe the psychological dimensions of these primary embodied relations, including the problems that can emerge in the habitual navigation of the intersubjective terms of embodied life. This part of the chapter begins to draw out the implications of phenomenology for psychology, for conceptions of mental health, and ultimately for political life. A phenomenologically-informed conception of “mental illness,” for example, would not frame it in terms of a “disease” of the mind, but rather in terms of an “incompatibility between our habitual patterns of behavior and the demands of our present life.” (41) This chapter carefully sets up the reader’s entrance into the next chapter’s concern with uncovering the deeply-submerged intersubjective structure of experience in the particular and absolutely critical context of childhood development. So, while the first two chapters offer the reader a reprise of well-known phenomenological insights on intersubjectivity, albeit in a helpfully clear and accessible manner, in the third chapter, Bredlau contributes some original insights through a reframing of contemporary research in child development and infant psychology along phenomenological lines.
Here, Bredlau extends her use of the notion of “pairing” to make sense of research in the field of child psychology, referencing studies by researchers like Daniel Stern, Vasudevi Reddy, James Sorce, Robert Emde and Colwyn Trevarthan. In one intriguing example, Sorce and Emde placed pairs of infants just over a year old with their mothers at one end of a room, with a stranger on the other end, and a play area with toys in the middle. Half of the mothers were asked to remain totally absorbed in reading a newspaper, while the other half were asked to watch over their child and respond to them empathically, but to remain seated. The infants in both groups could clearly see their mothers’ faces. Sorce and Emde noted that the toddlers whose mothers were absorbed in reading both stayed farther away from the stranger and played with the toys in a detached and “business like” manner. (59) The infants whose mothers were absorbed in reading were thus, at once, less engaged with the mothers and less engaged with the toys, though they seemed to seek security in the mothers’ proximity. Sorce and Emde interpreted this to mean that the toddlers were responding to the emotional availability of their mothers, rather than to their faces. Bredlau complicates their interpretation to draw out two main phenomenological insights. First, she claims that, in order to understand the infants’ behaviour, we must see that the toddlers perceived their mothers not as objects, but rather as perceiving subjects whose proximity affects the sense of the whole situation, again challenging typical non-phenomenological conceptions of subjectivity. Second, she proposes that though the toddlers were no doubt able to perceive the toys that were not being co-perceived by their mothers (who were absorbed in reading), they did nevertheless cease to perceive the toys as “inviting their involvement,” thereby revealing the implicit value-laden character of intersubjective perception. (60) With this study, as with several others, Bredlau’s interventions reveal the importance of intercorporeal bonds for the development of trust and therefore point to the critical role of trust in the establishment of individual agency. Agency, understood in these terms, is conditioned by a sense of the world as an arena for one’s projects and concerns, a sense that is itself a shared accomplishment.
The fourth and final chapter further extends the insights of the preceding chapters to reflect on issues concerning human sexuality, drawing on the work of Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir, and Russon. Sexual desire, like other forms of embodied perception, is not primarily a cognitive achievement, but is rather the manner in which bodies as subjects are immediately attracted to other subject-bodies. (77) The sexual gaze then is not, in principle, an objectifying gaze, but has its foundation in the “pairing” that Bredlau uncovered in earlier chapters. Nevertheless, Bredlau’s claim that erotic relationships “carry an equivalent sort of ethical weight to that of [primary] caregiver relationships” (4) is perhaps not as convincingly argued as one might wish. While it does seem legitimate for Bredlau to draw parallels between these intersubjective milieux, as both are sites of intimacy and vulnerability, the suggestion that adult erotic relations are as crucial as early developmental relations seems a bit of a stretch. Those early relations, insofar as they are developmentally foundational, are arguably far less flexible or open to trial and error than adult sexual relations. This parallel is quickly established, it seems, because Bredlau wants to extend normative claims about the way in which mutual recognition and trust are needed to enable the child’s healthy sense of her own agency to a parallel notion of an “authentic erotic experience” that can be distinguished from neurotic or unhealthy forms of sexuality. (90) While I am in general very intrigued by her claim that sexuality is an exemplary terrain for the exploration of selfhood established through co-creative engagement with others, as well as her drawing out the tacit workings of trust in embodied life in general, this final chapter on the nature of erotic relations, as well as the conclusion where she very briefly outlines an “ethics of lived experience” is not quite as convincing in its argumentation as the previous chapters.
Nevertheless, this is a very engaging book for philosophers as well as an accessible one for educated readers, especially students across disciplines seeking an introduction to phenomenological thought and practice. Chapters 2 and 3 are notable in this regard –Bredlau’s vivid and engaging examples would encourage any reader to bear out the philosophical claims being made by turning to their own experiences. Chapter 2, in particular, delightfully demonstrates Bredlau’s facility with the phenomenological approach and, insofar as the last chapter and brief conclusion seems to invite the reader to take up the threads for herself, affords the reader an inspiring sense of phenomenology as a dialogical philosophy.
Additional Works Cited
Scott Marratto (2020), “Intercorporeality,” 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology, Gail Weiss, Ann Murphy & Gayle Salomon eds. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press), 197-202.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2012), Phenomenology of Perception, Donald A. Landes tr. (New York: Routledge).