The Intertwining of the Self and the World: A Phenomenological Approach

the curious relationship between the self and the world

As much as the world can feel separate from our discrete selves, upon closer examination, we will see that our whole experience of reality (and so reality itself) is acutely dependent on our inner world. The self and the world are inextricably intertwined. And this curious relationship between the ‘I’ we imagine sitting behind the eyes and the world ‘out there’ is a piece of wisdom that has been picked up on by various philosophers and thinkers.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Phenomenology

In his seminal work, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty expounds his own interpretation of phenomenology, a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with direct experiences. Through his own analysis, Merleau-Ponty arrives at the conclusion that sense perception is “living communication with the world that makes it present to us as the familiar place of our life.” In his view, there is a dynamic relationship between the self and the world. We imbue the world with our own value and meaning, which is crucial to how we subjectively experience the world.

However, in the exposition of his philosophy, Merleau-Ponty draws a much deeper connection between the self and the world. In Phenomenology of Perception, he writes that “Inside and outside are inseparable. The world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside of myself”. Now, this is certainly a challenging perspective to adopt. How can the world – including all the various objects and other sentient beings – be inside exactly? What does it mean to be inside? It could be said that the world is produced by one’s thinking, perceiving mind and is, therefore, always inside our consciousness, as it were, which is not a view that has to be solipsistic (positing that only one’s own mind exists) since we can still maintain that other selves exist. Imagining ourselves being out in the world is, perhaps, a more baffling idea to grapple with. Am I really over there where the table is? Is my self really embedded in the space around me?

Of course, the aim of phenomenology is to focus on the nature of direct experiences. So, in Merleau-Ponty’s view, when we give up our philosophical preconceptions, such as the belief that the objective world is a ready-made, static reality, then we will understand more clearly the deep entanglement between the self and the world. Elsewhere, he notes:

The world is… the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions. Truth does not inhabit only the inner man, or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself.

Indeed, if we pay attention, we will see that the world is in flux, just as we are. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous (1996), the philosopher David Abram draws on the similarities between the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty and those of indigenous cultures all over the world, and argues that if we view give primacy to perception, then we will see that the world is distinctly dynamic and participatory, rather than inert and passive. Perception isn’t just a viewer (the self) passively looking at the world; rather, it involves an act of communication and reciprocation. According to Merleau-Pointy, human subjectivity is paradoxical in nature – we are a part of the world but also coextensive with it. We constitute the world and are constituted in it.

The World as the Great Mirror

We can think of the world as the great, inescapable mirror of the self. While we often say that the eyes are the window to the soul, we can also add that a person’s subjective experience of the world is another such window – and that if we really want to understand ourselves, we should focus on how the world really appears to us. Does the world seem inviting and interesting or draining and drab? When we encounter people on the street, what are these figures like based on our first-hand experience? Do other people seem unrelatable, distant, and at odds with us or is there a sense of connection and unity? Our inner state largely determines how the world presents itself to us, which is something we all too often forget (or never realise in the first place).

When we catch the eyes of another in the street and feel a sense of threat, judgement, or discomfort, this usually isn’t because we are actually detecting these qualities in another; instead, we are seeing the reflection of ourselves in the outside world. In contrast, the world at large completely changes its tune when our inner state is characterised by calm and peace with oneself. Thomas Dreier, an American writer and business theorist, famously said:

The world is a great mirror. It reflects back to you what you are. If you are loving, if you are friendly, if you are helpful, the world will prove loving and friendly and helpful to you. The world is what you are.

Hermes Trismegistus, the purported founder of the philosophy of Hermeticism, also encapsulated this wisdom in a phrase from the Emerald Tablet: “As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul”.

The Self, the World, and Our Mental Health

In states of poor mental health, we can see quite palpably how profound the connection is between the self and the world. During a depressive episode, for example, the world can appear dull, grey, flat, pointless, meaningless, alienating, out-of-reach, devoid of possibilities, and extremely challenging to participate in. Indeed, with Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical position in mind, we can say that a mental illness involves a stark alteration in one’s world, not just one’s mental and emotional states. When you suffer from depression, reality itself can take on an imprisoning and hopeless quality because those are the inner states you are carrying around with you, which act as a projector – a projector that churns out reality itself and places you firmly in it.

As already discussed, other people reflect characteristics that reside in the self. This is a phenomenon that is highlighted by various people’s first-hand accounts of their depression and how the condition affects their perceptions of others. Many depressives will describe the world as frightening and full of threatening, untrustworthy people with bad intentions. Patients may feel that people are out to judge, criticise, or mock them, making the world seem like an unsafe place. People may appear angry or irritated with you during a depressive episode, which could reflect intense self-directed anger and the irritation that exists in yourself. A depressive episode may also be associated with a feeling of painful separation from others, which could be a sign that you are disconnected from yourself in some important manner. Indeed, according to certain branches of psychology, such as the Jungian and humanistic schools of thought, mental health conditions like depression arise when we are not whole – when parts of ourselves are not integrated or have not been actualised.

The curious relationship between the self and the world calls on us to keep a watchful eye on what our direct experience of the world is like. How the world appears to us day-by-day will give us a clue as to what’s going on inside. Sometimes, it may seem like the world is the problem, an intractable reality that will always be a source of uneasiness, anxiety, and inner chaos. Now, it would certainly be trite and unrealistic to say that happiness depends completely on yourself; after all, the world is full of turmoil and suffering that you have absolutely no control over. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t gain some level of mastery over the relationship between the self and the world.

If we are mindful of this connection and understand how to achieve a psychologically healthy sense of self, the world itself will start to become a more peaceful and enjoyable place to navigate.

Leave a Reply