Merleau-Ponty, Intentionality, and the Classroom

I’m listening to Bakewell’s The Existentialist Cafe. In it she has a chapter on Merleau-Ponty. I’m trying to figure out intentionality and its relation to MP’s being in the world:

MP says, more or less, my limitations are my situation, my home, my vista. I am me and me is I.

Am I a co-creator of the world? No, I am part of it, so co-constitution is more apt. The world is there. The extent to which I experience the world is the degree to which I can open my eyes (and other senses) to catch the “sparks of transcendence as they fly up.” I see and am seen. As I am part of the world, the world is partly me. The dulling of my senses is directly attributable to my being in the world, usually as a child. But if the body or a sense has been neglected, it is in the ways we have perceived it failing us. Or perhaps it has faded into the background. But I am still always my window on the world, and there is a fundamental part of me that cannot accept the perhaps socially constructed/inherited ideas that my window, my body, is lesser than another (?). It is the source of my limitation, and the foundation of my self, all at the same time.

Merleau-Ponty described us as enveloped in the world. What can this tell us about intentionality, and more specifically, the intentionality of teaching and learning? Co-constitution, it seems to me, is one of the primary assumptions that can be drawn from being enveloped, from being part of the fabric of the world in which we exist. The chiasm is the symbol for intentionality: my consciousness exists as it is directed to the world. As a student in a class, my world is with me: my tools (including my mobile device, a means to connect with my entire world), my body, and all the experiences that I bring that have made me who I am. When another person holds my attention, they may become figure, but the figure and the ground are multiplex: I see the body of the professor, the environment of the classroom. I hear the words, see the PowerPoint slides, sense the room and the others in it, and all that I may bring forth in terms of thoughts, memories, experiences, “knowledge.” My body may recede to the background if I am fully absorbed in the figure that is the story of a classmate of the professor. But even if we lose our body as we enter the world of the content being taught, it’s still there, carrying with it our history and a social context in which it developed.

The instructor can always say, “here we are.” But the degree of attention to the here and now of the participants varies greatly. Here we are, carrying along with the natural attitude? Are we experiencing the breaks and hiccups necessary for us to suspend it? Do we have time to describe and reflect? What is the relationship between intentionality, the natural attitude, and description?

In description, our intentionality is revealed: what we describe tells others what stands out to us—what our consciousness was conscious of. What stands out to us is what called us (vocare) as we experience it. In description, the natural attitude is likely to be disrupted, for we may assume an object of consciousness in its givenness, but as we describe it, we are likely to discover it. But maybe not. If we assume we know it, if we assume we have described it sufficiently, then no suspension of the natural attitude may occur. That’s where others come in. Their descriptions multiply our perspective. That brings us back to our limitations, our situation, our experiences, influence the ways we perceive. When we share an object of perception with another, worlds are brought together.


One thought on “Merleau-Ponty, Intentionality, and the Classroom

  1. A students comes to and laments…”Why, Shabazz, why can’t you just let me do this? I’m stressed! Just say it’s Ok okay?” I reply…”How many times have you had me (as a teacher)? You know how I work, what I expect. Does this even sound like something I would be OK with?” She sighs…”No”. I turn away to another task and hear her take a deep breath…”But, Shabazz, you could do it and I don’t see why not!”

    I relate this to ponder the fluidity and duality of both awareness and description. Our ability to hold fast to alternative and often competing “experiencing” – that always state of being, anomie, re-remembering, constituting, creation, absorption, adaptation…

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