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Professor Eldon Wait

I am from the Philosophy Department of the University of Zululand. Unizul, as it is often referred to, is in the northern part of South Africa. The university is less than one hour’s drive from two very famous game parks, Hluhluwi and Unfolozi. I have been afforded the privilege of spending my sabbatical leave at SIU in the Phenomenology Research Centre.

The philosophy department at Unizul is a Philosophy Department at an African university where most of ther students come from an African background. This means that many of our students find themselves torn between a traditional African view of life, a Christian view and the scientific view, which many of them are now coming across in their studies. There is a need, therefore, to help students orient themselves in the face of these conflicting world views.

Our aim is to offer courses appropriate to these circumstances. Being a continental department we feel that we are in an advantageous position to illuminate the intersection of these three worldviews. Because existential phenomenology locates meaning in the student’s own lived experience, it puts the Unizul students to some extent on the same footing as their mother tongue English speaking peers.

The Research I wish to carry out during my stay at SIU is the implementation of a method developed by Merleau-Ponty, to investigate certain problems in Neuropathology and Psychology. Throughout much of his published works, but more particularly in the Structure of Behaviour and the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty corroborated his phenomenological descriptions of our experience of the body with references to the psychological and neurological research of his day. His argument is that we can account for behaviour, only if we accept that the body is in itself as we experience it to be in a pre-scientific manner, and not what it is as an object of scientific scrutiny. At a pre-scientific level however, the body emerges as a paradoxical synthesis of body and consciousness, the so called phenomenal body, a synthesis which defies thinking. We are able to render intelligible the notion of the ‘phenomenal body’ through a description of what it is like to be such a phenomenal body, what it is like to encounter one, and by showing that the perceptual and behavioural powers revealed in psychological and neurological research are explicable only as those of such a ‘phenomenal body’. Since his death there has been an enormous increase in both the quantity and quality of this research, enabling us to take up his project in a far reaching manner.

At the present moment I am about to complete a study of the ‘gaze’ or the ‘look’ of someone with whom I share the world. Provided I approach the other as a fellow subject engaged in perceiving the world with me, rather than as an object of scientific scrutiny, her conscious life may appear on the periphery of my experience in the form of her ‘gaze’ or her ‘look’. I argue that even though I cannot scrutinise the gaze or represent it as an object of thought, I cannot assume that every experience of a gaze is necessarily subjective or illusory, and that this can only be decided on the basis of experiential evidence. Simultanagnosia is an agnosia which affects the saccadic eye movements and the ability to see more than one object at a time. I argue that we can make sense of the syndrome only as a disruption of the gaze. Since the gaze cannot be scrutinised or represented in thought, the descriptions and arguments which follow will also demonstrate the possibility of an intelligibility more radical than that of thought.

Once the phenomenon of the gaze has been established I intend to work on a series of experiments carried out by prominent psychologists interested the perception. The first on the list is Irwin Rock. Irvin Rock is widely recognised today for highly imaginative experiments on perception which often produced unexpected and even counter intuitive results. One of his experiments is held to have directed him away from Gestalt psychology towards empiricism. In order to account for the results of his experiments however, he was obliged to complement a strictly empiricist account of perception and argue that perceptual experience is the outcome of a process of unconscious ‘descriptions’ of the perceived world, and unconscious inferences from these descriptions. I will argue that the introduction of such unconscious processes is problematic, and that it conflicts with our experience of perceiving and undermines any assurance we as perceivers have of constructing an objective rational science of the world. I will argue that his empiricist assumptions hide the true significance of his results for a theory of perception, and I will show how, once divested of these assumptions, an unbiased  reflection on these results leads to significant insights into the nature of perception and recognition, insights which open up possibilities of a mutually beneficial dialogue between his research and recent trends in developmental psychology and psychopathology and between empirical research on perception on the one hand and a philosophy of perception, like that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty on the other.

After Rock I intend to work on Kellman and Eleanor Gibson who have revealed that neonates are able to respond meaningfully to depth. I propose to explore this research, and to show that the abilities they have revealed not only challenge both classical empiricism and rationalism but also corroborate our pre-scientific experience of the body.

Contact email: eldonwait5@gmail.com