Skip to main content

This essay interprets poems by Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur alongside illustrative anecdotes from philosophical works by Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The four texts have in common the attention they give to the human misperception of phenomena. Considered together, they make the case that occasional misperception is not a defeater for ordinary human confidence that our senses are reliable; they indicate, furthermore, that sometimes the capacity for misperception may be beneficial.

Richard Wilbur’s “April 5, 1974” at first seems unduly interested in a commonplace event. The poem narrates a walk through pastureland in early spring: the speaker’s vision is distorted by mist rising as the frozen ground thaws. It takes the speaker a second look before he understands the distortion and continues his walk. Most readers will have experienced similar phenomena and found them mildly interesting, but why memorialize them in a poem? The core of the poem, I suggest, is the phrase which I have used as a title; Wilbur takes the experience of momentary disorientation as (potentially) a benefit in which “a set mind” is “blessed by doubt.”1 “Set” here has the meaning we give it when we describe a person as “set in her ways”: it connotes problematic inflexibility in a person’s opinions, perhaps including an unwillingness to change. The poem recognizes value in challenging such inflexibility.

It might seem curious that Wilbur attaches this notion to a narrative of sensory (mis)perception, but Wilbur displays a persistent interest in understanding how we human beings relate to the world, including questions concerning the deliverances of the senses.2 To approach Wilbur’s point, we may reasonably begin with William Alston’s characterization of (sense) perception3 as a variety of doxastic (or, belief-forming) practice which moves “from sense experience (together, sometimes, with relevant background beliefs) to belief about things, events, and states of affairs in the immediate physical and social environment.”4 But in this poem Wilbur playfully confronts readers with what has traditionally been called the problem of perception. The problem is essentially this: in light of “the phenomena of perceptual illusion and hallucination … how can perception be what we ordinarily understand it to be, an openness to and awareness of the world?”5 (Alston similarly asks, “Why suppose that sense perception is, by and large, an accurate source of information about the physical environment?”6) Modern explanations of this problem largely follow Descartes and Hume, for whom “the immediate objects of perception are non-physical private entities of some sort, such as ideas or sense data,” representations in the mind rather than mind-independent realities (I will call this view “representationalism”).7

In order to work out the implications of Wilbur’s poem, I place it in three contexts. In the first section of the essay, I juxtapose close readings of Robert Frost’s “A Boundless Moment” and Wilbur’s “April 5, 1974.” These readings introduce and complicate the problem of perception. Although both poets accept human misperception of the world as likely, perhaps even inevitable, the personae in both poems achieve confidence that their final perceptions are veridical.

Neither poet philosophically defends this confidence; in particular, neither makes any effort to satisfy Cartesian or Humean representationalism. On the contrary, in the kind of attention they give to how human beings perceive, both poems approximate the phenomenological practice recommended by Edmund Husserl and appropriated in different ways by Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.8 (I cite Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty in an anticipatory way throughout the first section but postpone explaining their phenomenology until the second in order to address the poems on their own terms at first.) Beginning with a brief account of Husserl, the second section of the essay discusses examples from Heidegger’s Logic: The Question of Truth9 and Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.10 Like the poems by Frost and Wilbur, the phenomenological descriptions in Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty imagine movement through a landscape involving a particularized sequence of misperception, hesitation, reevaluation, and corrected perception.11

In their descriptions of perception, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty model a direct realism which accepts ordinary doubt as a feature of reliable perception but resists the methodological doubt (or skepticism) required by Descartes and Hume, though it is not my point here to establish the label “direct realism” for either the poets or the phenomenologists. My point, rather, is that whatever label we apply to the phenomenologists also suits the poets with respect to the particular examples I am considering. As I use it here, “direct realism” refers to the confidence that ordinary perception yields (veridical) knowledge of things as they are without requiring an intermediate assessment.12 (So “direct” indicates, specifically, resistance to the idea of a necessary mediating representation.) Understood thus, “direct realism” is a convenient name for what Frost, Wilbur, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty have in common. Its opposite here is the representationalism of Descartes and Hume.

The phenomenologists’ answer to Descartes and Hume participates in a broader cultural adjustment which has some significance for Christian practice in a pluralist context. In a third, shorter, section of the essay I take seriously Wilbur’s use of a (potentially) theological term, “blessed,” juxtaposing Wilbur’s insight with a more expansive version from the work of Lesslie Newbigin in order to suggest why a phenomenological account of perception might be attractive for Christians.

The Poets

Robert Frost’s “A Boundless Moment”13 describes the momentary interruption of two men’s walk together through New England woods. The first stanza explains why the men stop: they see something in the distance which they are not sure how to identify. In the second stanza, the narrator of the poem offers his companion a minimally plausible but false explanation of what they see. In the final stanza, the speaker expresses the truth about what they see, and the men continue their walk. The interruption and terse conversation seem unimportant, but the narrator’s editorializing invites readers to recognize significance in the exchange.

In Frost’s poem the occurrence of misperception interrupts ongoing action, and the interruption produces a question: “He halted in the wind, and—what was that / Far in the maples, pale, but not a ghost?”14 These opening lines establish a landscape with inhabitants. The “he” (I call him the man) and a companion (I call him the speaker, also construing the speaker as male) have been in motion, walk- ing through woods comprising mostly maple trees. They see something “pale” in the distance (an experience of visual perception). Branches perhaps break up the light, obscuring vision. The blowing wind may further complicate their perception, making branches sway and creating an accompanying sound.15 (Movement and its cessation underscore that perception occurs in time.) The phrase “not a ghost” exposes the man’s first instinctive answer to the question “what was that?” and, almost simultaneously, his rejection of that answer; even as a denial the phrase hints at an overactive imagination.16 (The speaker, in line four, confirms that the man is credulous, “too ready to believe the most.”) The man’s abrupt denial of his first impression simultaneously registers his surprise, his concern that the speaker will consider him superstitious, and his self-conscious commitment to natural rather than supernatural explanations for phenomena.17

In the next two lines the speaker comments on the man’s frame of mind, noticing his credulity, but also discerning reason in his response: “He stood there bringing March against his thought.”18 The “thought” cannot be the initial interpretation of the perceived thing as a ghost (the date is irrelevant to whether ghosts exist). We may reasonably guess that the man is casting about for an alternative to his first unacceptable explanation (a ghost), and that the thought occurs to him that the thing may be—could it be?—a flower, yet his recollection that the season is still late winter makes him hesitate. The speaker, intuiting accurately the tendency of the man’s thoughts, mischievously encourages the man to accept this second identification, even though the speaker knows it to be false: he speciously “confirms” that the pale thing is a flower, complicating the lie by asserting its plausibility (using a word, “truly,” which suggests veracity): “truly it was fair enough for flowers.”19 The next two lines further problematize the poem’s story of perception: “We stood a moment so in a strange world, / Myself as one his own pretense deceives.”20 Instead of distancing the speaker from the man, the speaker’s lie momentarily distorts his own perceiving, drawing him into a curious solidarity with his victim so that both are alienated from actuality. Their solidarity appears in the repetition of the verb “stood”: at first the man (singular) “stood there bringing March against his thought,” but after telling his lie, the speaker joins the man in the temporary stasis of misperception: “We stood a moment so” (plural). Initially, the man individually brings “March against his thought,” but after the deception, the speaker, also, specifies the time of year as inconsistent with the explanation he has offered: we could have believed the explanation, he admits, “Had we but in us to assume in March” the possibility of flowers (emphasis added).21 Even after accepting this disconfirming evidence he stands “as one his own pretense deceives,” stalled by the attractiveness of his imaginary explanation. “Pretense” carries its usual meaning (“deception”),22 but also connotes a powerful act of imagination (“pretending”).

The last two lines bring closure to the disorienting openness of the world misperceived; recalling the title’s “boundless,” we may say that these lines restore normal boundaries and bonds. The speaker finally says “the truth” and dismisses the “strange world” imaginatively made present by the speaker’s “pretense,” allowing the two men to continue their walk (“we moved on”23). What they have actually seen is “A young beech clinging to its last year’s leaves.”24

As an analysis of perception, the poem raises a number of considerations, including at least the following: (a) the evidential value of prior experience (previous experience of March as cold influences their evolving perceptions); (b) the limiting character of point of view (both distance and, probably, angle/obstruction of vision interfere with perception);25 (c) the potential utility of corroborative testimony (even though testimony initially misleads here, it also effects correction). Both men exhibit confidence in their ability, eventually, to identify the truth, despite the potentially unsettling effective power of misperception which both experience.26

Surprisingly, the poem’s final commitment to fact remains ambivalent. Despite the ready dismissal of the first characterization of the thing perceived (it is “not a ghost”), the acknowledgment of the second characterization as “pretense” and deception, and the apparent satisfaction of both characters with the final correct identification of the thing as a young beech, the poem also finds something attractive in the “strange world”27 imagined by the speaker (it would be nice if there were flowers in bloom). This attraction appears in the stasis both men experience, but also in the title, which indicates that the moment of seeing the world differently is “a boundless moment,” a moment when the usual limits do not apply. For this moment, the men imagine a world appealingly different from the actual world. In a relevant prose piece, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost calls poetry “a momentary stay against confusion,”28 and this poem explicitly brings both characters to such a “stay” while they see the world made strange. “The Figure a Poem Makes” represents such a “stay” as beneficial, a respite from the world as it is by means of an imaginary rendering of the world as it might be, so that the strange world the men imagine in “A Boundless Moment” anticipates Wilbur’s blessing.29

Wilbur’s “April 5, 1974” is simpler than “A Boundless Moment.” It involves a single character, the speaker, who narrates his experience. The poem therefore lacks the complications of dialogue. Furthermore, the speaker’s misperception is not compounded by the deceptive manipulation of another human agent. The title functions like “March” in Frost’s poem, specifying the season (transitional April rather than windy March) and indicating limited duration (the perceived phenomena are transient). Like Frost’s poem Wilbur’s playfully nudges us towards a deepened awareness of our experience of perception.

Wilbur’s poem similarly describes a walk interrupted by momentary misperception. Here the speaker is strolling in a pasture in early spring when it seems to him that the still-frozen ground shifts under his gaze. Responding with a double take, the speaker realizes that mist rising from the thawing ground has distorted his seeing. The opening lines provide straightforward exposition: “The air was soft,30 the ground still cold;” the setting is a “dull pasture.”31 The speaker of this poem admits that he “could not believe” his eyes,32 recalling the not-a-ghost reaction in “A Boundless Moment.” The speaker’s withholding of belief thus performs the same function as the denial of a ghost in Frost’s poem; it establishes the speaker’s reliance on prior experience33 and, probably, some explanatory commitment to natural or material (rather than supernatural) causation; the speaker has internalized practices which he considers reliable with respect to belief formation.

The next six lines elaborate the speaker’s internal conflict as he tries to make sense of his perception. The governing verb for lines four through six, “appeared,” indicates moderate skepticism. The speaker knows that, ordinarily, “dead grass” does not “slide and heave,” especially when “too frozen-flat to stir.”34 He knows that, ordinarily, “rocks” do not “twitch”35 (the details depend on tactile perception as well as visual; one sense confirms another). Lines seven through nine humorously exaggerate the speaker’s reaction to these stimuli: “What was this rippling of the land? / Was matter getting out of hand / And making free with natural law?” “Out of hand” foregrounds the human perspective of the poem because it presupposes matter’s responsibility (as it were) to behave in predictable ways for the sake of human beings who count on its consistency (even presuming to have dominion over it—to have it “in hand,” so to speak). Like “getting out of hand,” the phrase “making free” connotes impropriety, a transgression of established norms (boundlessness, in fact), whereas the reliability of “natural law” makes possible that cumulative experience by which we confirm or correct our perceptions.

As with the characters in “A Boundless Moment,” the speaker’s confused perception produces temporary stasis: he stops. Realizing that what he sees diverges from what he expects, he uses conventional means for clearing his vision: he blinks.36 What he then sees, however, is “A fact as eerie as a dream.” The line establishes that the man’s eyes have not caused his misperception: what he sees still looks strange. But blinking refocuses his eyes, redirecting his attention from solid objects in the landscape to the “subtle flood of steam / Moving upon the face of things”37 which he then recognizes as causing the unexpected appearance; blinking also registers the cognitive adjustment which lets him re-interpret the stimuli.38

More directly than the speaker of Frost’s poem, this narrator interprets his experience. Lines fourteen and fifteen specify causal sequence: the misperception is an effect of mist; the mist “came from” snow melt. The next two lines supplement material explanation with personification: the mist “came of winter’s giving ground / So that the freeze was coming out.”39 The shift in preposition—“came from” becomes “came of”—suggests personal agency: winter gives ground as a person relinquishes a right.40 In the last three lines, Wilbur moralizes. Just as the winter freeze has made the ground rigid, overconfidence makes a mind rigid so that thinking is unproductive (nothing grows there). In such cases, doubt blesses because it compels a loosening of that binding intellectual rigidity, a reconsideration of what one thinks one knows, and reconsideration enables beneficial adjustment: “a set mind, blessed by doubt, / Relaxes into mother-wit.”41 With regard to sense perception, relaxing into mother-wit means trusting as reliable the deliverances of one’s senses—and including in that trust the understanding that these deliverances are dynamic and corrigible.

Merleau-Ponty similarly recognizes a connection between doubt and the ability to correct an error: “the express recognition of a truth … presupposes questioning, doubt, a break with the immediate, and is the correction of any possible error.”42 The event in Wilbur’s poem illustrates the benefit of doubt; doubt motivates a reconsideration of the speaker’s first impressions, yielding a more adequate understanding of the phenomena. The benefit will be “flowers,” not merely as a normal feature of May, but as indicative of the flourishing that can result from accepting change.

The Philosophers

Before turning to Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, it will be helpful to review Edmund Husserl’s understanding of perception, since he influenced both of the later thinkers. Dermot Moran identifies a central feature of Husserlian phenomenology. He says,

Both Husserl and Heidegger believed that the real philosophical issue in the traditional sceptical [sic] worry about the existence of the external world was not the need to find rational grounds to justify our belief in this world, but rather to explain how this kind of worry could have arisen in the first place. Both Husserl and Heidegger rejected the traditional representationalist account of knowledge, the Lockean way of ideas [the view associated above with Descartes and Hume], which explained knowledge in terms of an inner mental representation or copy of what exists outside the mind. Phenomenology rejects this entire representationalist account of knowledge as absurd. Our experience properly described must acknowledge that it presents itself as the experience of engaging directly with the world.43

Husserl worked throughout his career to clarify his explanation of these fundamental concepts.44 In doing so, he introduced a number of influential terms of art, and it will be useful to mention a few of these here. For the most part I will follow Hopp’s summary in his essay “Perception,” which uses the example (drawn from Husserl) of a wooden box.45 First, a perceptual experience is about something; this “aboutness” is what Husserl calls intentionality. When I experience a wooden box, then I intend a wooden box because a wooden box is what my perceptual experience is about. Second, “perception presents its object [it has a presentational character]. Unlike imagination, it [perception] presents it [the object of perception] as existing.”46 Third, Husserl distinguishes between the contents and the object of perception. “The object of an act is what it is about. Its contents are those parts and features of the act in virtue of which it is about its object in a determinate manner.”47 When I perceive a box, the box itself is the object of my perception; its sides and top and bottom (and so on) are the contents of my perception. Some of these contents are intuitively fulfilled in the sense that they evoke in me an immediate confidence that they are present. Other contents of the box remain intuitively empty with regard to my perception in the sense that I do not directly experience them in this moment of perception (though I might in another; for example, in my first perception, I might not be able to perceive the back of the box, but I might be able to confirm that the box has a back with a second act of perception—say, by walking around it to look at its back; “what was merely emptily prefigured becomes intuitively fulfilled,” as Hopp puts it48). Nevertheless, what I perceive (the object of my perception) is a box with a back. (The distinction between an object and its contents figures in the correction of misperception in Husserl’s account of a wax-figure, which I consider below.)

Husserl is habitually abstract, but he occasionally supplies a clarifying example. In the one I cite here, from Logical Investigations V, Husserl is illustrating the point that “the underlying perceptual presentation … will be completed by a belief-character;” that is, that the perception will be fulfilled in intuition. A percept is fulfilled in intuition (more or less) when its presence achieves self-evidence for the perceiver. (This achievement is not a matter of rationally assessing evidence and reaching a conclusion; Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty describe it with reference to a gestalt shift.) I quote at length for the sake of the details:

Let us discuss the matter more closely in the light of a concrete example. Wandering about in the Panopticum Waxworks we meet on the stairs a charming lady whom we do not know and who seems to know us, and who is in fact the well-known joke of the place: we have for a moment been tricked by a waxwork figure. As long as we are tricked, we experience a perfectly good percept: we see a lady and not a waxwork figure. [That is, a lady presents herself, so we intend a lady, though this intention is empty.] When the illusion vanishes, we see … a waxwork figure that only represents a lady. … The percept of a wax-figure as a thing does not therefore underlie our awareness of the same figure as representing the lady. The lady, rather, makes her appearance [presents herself] together with the wax-figure and in union with it. Two perceptual interpretations, or two appearances of a thing, interpenetrate, coinciding as it were in part in their perceptual content. And they interpenetrate in conflicting fashion, so that our observation wanders from one to another of the apparent objects each barring the other from existence.

It can now be argued that while the original perceptual presentation does not achieve an entirely detached existence, but appears in conjunction with the new percept of the wax- figure, it does not serve to found a genuine percept: only the wax-figure is perceived, it alone is believed to be really there. … But, when the fraud is exposed, presentation amounts to perceptual consciousness resolved in conflict. … It is only the contradiction which this tendency towards believing perception encounters … that prevents us from really yielding to it, a contradiction due to the percept of the mere wax-doll, which in part coincides with our lady and in other respects rules her out, and due especially to the note of belief49 which informs this latter percept.50

Husserl’s illustration recognizes the possibility of misperception that is corrected as an experience of perception unfolds. Both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty give attention to this aspect of perception.51

Martin Heidegger would accept the basic conclusion of Wilbur’s poem, that a set mind is blessed by doubt. In Being and Time he says that if we think we grasp the world with absolute certainty, then “we … completely fail to recognize the existentially positive character of the capacity for delusion.”52 Heidegger explains with a brief anecdote in Logic. The book is one of several works in which Heidegger challenges the dominant Western philosophical account of truth as the special domain of propositions. In this version of his argument, he distinguishes λόγος (truth understood as validity, the truth associated with propositions) from νοῦς (truth understood as intuition). He does not mean to deny λόγος-truth, but to recognize its basis in a more primordial, more immediate grasp of being. What he calls here “intuition” (or νοῦς-truth) is truth understood as disclosure.53 Being is disclosed to human beings (when their comportment to things is such as to let beings be) so that human beings directly recognize what is as something; such recognition precedes, and grounds, judgments concerning the correctness of propositions.

This is not the place for a developed account of Heidegger’s investigations of truth-as-disclosure.54 In Logic he responds to Aristotle’s description of propositional statements. Aristotle says, “Not all speech is indicative … but only speech in which being-true or being-false is present.” Following Aristotle, the Western tradition locates truth in propositions. One way Heidegger counters is by asking how “being-false” comes about. He considers what happens when a human being construes the world erroneously, demonstrating that the determination of λόγος- truth follows an intuitive, time-conditioned grasping of the world.

Heidegger illustrates with the following scenario:

Say I am walking in a dark woods and see something coming toward me through the fir trees. “It’s a deer,” I say. … As I get nearer to it, I see it’s just a bush that I’m approaching. In understanding, addressing [that is, intending], and being concerned with this thing, I have acted as one who covers-over: the unexpressed statement [“It’s a deer”] shows the being as something other than it is.55

Heidegger presents the unspoken statement as a representative empirical proposition, by definition verifiable or falsifiable: “the thing I perceive is a deer.” In this case, the proposition turns out to be false, and Heidegger asks what conditions were necessary for the misperception to occur. (He is considering the phenomenology of the occurrence rather than verification or falsification of the proposition.) As he explains the scenario, three conditions make the misperception possible. First, he says, “Always already there is a priori disclosure of a world.” In other words, for a proposition (a predication determining a state of affairs) to be possible, something must already be given, “something coming toward me” in its self-disclosure.56 “If something did not already encounter me from the outset, there would be no occasion to regard it as,” that is, to designate it as something specific. In the moment of understanding, disclosure of a thing precedes predication concerning the thing. Heidegger insists that the self-disclosure of things characterizes both veridical and mistaken perception.

Regarding as is the second condition of misperception: “It is also necessary that, as I approach the thing, I take it as something.” In other words, the human perceiver anticipates that an encounter will unfold in ways which make sense, so that understanding jumps ahead of the details, tentatively seeking a suitable determination of the experience even before all the relevant evidence is in play. In the scenario, the shape ahead vaguely suggests a deer, and the man’s senses work to fulfill that first intention, responding more readily to details which tend to confirm the pre-understanding and neglecting details which disconfirm it. In the occurrence of understanding the mind expects closure in determination/identification (the expectation of closure is what Husserl calls our “tendency towards believing perception,” the expectation of fulfillment in intuition).

Identification of a thing as something depends on the third condition of misperception, the fact that the human perceiver already has a world. When perceiving a deer, a perceiver already has world-familiarity. As Heidegger explains, his identification of the something as a deer can occur “only because, along with the encountering-being and the other things present in this world … something like ‘a deer’ can indeed be present among the trees.”57 An accumulated experience of walks in the forest conditions (again, in advance of propositional predication) his attempt to make sense of what he encounters; in terms of that experience (world-familiarity), encountering a deer would not be unexpected and would make sense. On the basis of prior orientation to this world, Heidegger says, “I would not, in fact, think that what was approaching me was the Shah of Iran, even though something like that is intrinsically possible. The Shah is a being that could appear among the trees in a German forest at night.”58 The appearance of the Shah, though not impossible (in 1925, anyway), would be highly unlikely in the specified context (a German forest). Heidegger finishes the thought by distinguishing the unlikely from the impossible: “there is not a chance that I would see anything like the cubed root of sixty-nine coming toward me.”59 Heidegger’s taxonomy partly corresponds to distinctions in Frost’s poem. The “cubed root of sixty-nine,” like the “ghost,” represents an impossible category; the Shah, like “the Paradise-in- bloom,” represents a conceivable-but-unlikely category; and both “the deer” and the “bush” like the “young beech,” represent a likely-and-plausible category.

Heidegger’s summary yields two points. First, the basic structure of human perception is the same for both correct perception and misperception. Human encounter with the world always requires (is always enabled by) some degree of world-familiarity, which makes possible the perception of a thing as something in particular, given that the thing discloses itself (is present) for the encounter. Human being is already situated, already acclimated to a world prior to any encounter which produces understanding. The world-familiarity conditions openness. Human availability for encounter with the world means openness to the world—but the openness which makes possible an encounter productive of new understanding is precisely the same openness which unavoidably risks misunderstanding.60 Yet it works both ways: the possibility of correcting a misperception presupposes the possibility of perceiving something new, the possibility of gaining an insight that alters the “world” of the perceiver.61

The second point is that the structure of human encounter with the world is temporal. Heidegger reaches this point by considering “the unexpressed presuppositions” behind Aristotle’s conflation of truth with being. At the heart of the definition of truth as disclosure, he says, is “presence, presenting.”62 The encounter of the human perceiver with a thing is an “act of relating”:

The act of relating to something must have its presentative character as an act of relating. An act of relating … is presentative insofar [as] it means ‘rendering present’ or … ‘making- something-present.’ By making present, the act of relating lets a present thing encounter us.

The act of making present is the human perceiver’s response to the given thing. “Corresponding to the act of making-present or rendering present there is the presence of the thing that underlies and fulfills the making-present, the thing that gets uncovered and disclosed in the very act of making-present.”63

Explaining the act of relating as making-present lets Heidegger clarify the positive element which enables misperception/deception:

In the case of deception, as we have said, the supporting structure and primary condition of the deception is the act of constantly letting the already-given encounter me. This constant letting-something-encounter-me is nothing but the simple and direct making-present of something in its immediate presence, specifically something that is already there prior to its representation. This act of making-present in which I constantly live … offers the possibility that something can encounter me; that is, it offers the possibility that a present being is uncovered and can be present.64

So the possibility of being mistaken is a condition of my openness to the other, and this openness characterizes functional human life in the world.

His elaboration of the structure of making-present compels Heidegger to consider the reality that in the world as we know it, pure accomplishment of making-present is rare:

What gets disclosed in the act of making-present is … something we encounter in a now- moment, something that, in this now-moment, can appear in its presence. But the presence of the thing we encounter need not be already and completely present-now, that is, it need not be completely uncovered.65

The possibility that the thing might become more (or less) purely present involves temporality: “Presence-now is a characteristic of time. To understand being as presence on the basis of presence-now means to understand being in terms of time.”66 With respect to Heidegger’s illustration about his walk in the woods, the temporally determined structure of openness to the world (letting-be, making-present) which lets him falsely perceive the something as a deer also lets him correct the misperception by moving forward in time (and space).

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s account of misperception resembles Heidegger’s, but adds a few nuances. Heidegger highlights the participation of the perceiver in a world experienced in time; Merleau-Ponty focuses on the embodiment of the perceiver in a world experienced as space. According to Merleau-Ponty, “the truth of perception can be read off only from perception itself.”67 (This amounts to much the same point that Heidegger makes in insisting that νοῦς-truth precedes λόγος-truth—perception first, then validation of the truth of perception.) Merleau-Ponty continues:

If, on a sunken path, I think I can see, some distance away, a broad, flat stone on the ground, which is in reality a patch of sunlight, I cannot say that I ever see the flat stone in the sense in which I am to see, as I draw nearer, the patch of sunlight. The flat stone, like all things at a distance, appears only in a field of confused structure in which connections are not yet clearly articulated. In this sense, the illusion, like the image, is not observable, which means that my body has no grip on it, and that I cannot unfold it before me by any explanatory action.68

The point here is that the perceiver, in making the preliminary judgment that the thing seen is a stone, does not yet have sufficient confirmatory evidence to justify the judgment (the intention is not fulfilled in intuition); the judgment anticipates the evidence (as with Heidegger’s unspoken predication, “it’s a deer”). The instinct to understand (to seek closure in identification, to make sense of) elicits a tentative judgment: “And yet, I am capable of omitting this distinction [essentially, that between empty and fulfilled intuition] and of falling into illusion. It is untrue that, if I confine myself to what I really69 see, I am never mistaken and that sensation … leaves no room for doubt.”70

In other words, he really sees the stone because a plausible anticipatory explanation of what he perceives presents itself—just as Heidegger really sees the deer, until it turns out to be a bush. Merleau-Ponty explains, “Every sensation is already pregnant with meaning, inserted into a configuration which is either obscure or clear, and there is no sense-datum which remains unchanged when I pass from the illusory stone to the real patch of sunlight.”71 Merleau-Ponty thus agrees with Heidegger that the percept is already perceived as something. “I [really] see the illusory stone in the sense that my whole perceptual and motor field endows the bright spot with the significance ‘stone in the path’. And already I prepare to feel under my foot this smooth, firm surface.” (The whole body responds interpretively, and synaesthetically, to the world.)72

Merleau-Ponty insists that the experience of perception does not fit the ex- pectations of determinate thought (it does not achieve the verification demanded by the representationalist bias):

The fact is that correct and illusory vision are not distinguishable in the way that adequate and inadequate thought are; as thought, that is, which is respectively consummate [evidentially air-tight] and lacunary [“full of holes,” we might say]. I say that I perceive cor- rectly when my body has a precise hold on the spectacle, but that does not mean that my hold is ever all-embracing; it would be so only if I had succeeded in reducing to a state of articulate perception all the inner and outer horizons of the object, which is in the nature of the thing impossible.73

Illusory vision is incomplete and thus compounds error with accuracy, but the same must be said of what we regard as correct vision. As Heidegger insists, human finitude entails that covering up always accompanies uncovering: “the presence of the thing we encounter need not be already and completely present-now, that is, it need not be completely uncovered.”74 (As Wilbur affirms, in “Fabrications,” “it is not true / That we grasp nothing till we grasp it all.”75) In other words, ordinary, finite human perception sufficiently apprehends, but never completely comprehends (we perceive with greater or lesser inadequacy, but never with total adequacy).

Both Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger conclude that all human knowing is, at best, relative and finite, and Merleau-Ponty addresses the corollary fear that not having certainty means not knowing anything. He reacts optimistically:

In experiencing a perceived truth, I assume that the concordance so far experienced would hold for a more detailed observation; I place my confidence in the world. Perceiving is pinning one’s faith, at a stroke, in a whole future of experiences, and doing so in a present which never strictly guarantees the future; it is placing one’s belief in a world. It is this opening upon a world which makes possible perceptual truth and the actual effecting of a Wahr- Nehmung,76 thus enabling us to ‘cross out’ the previous illusion and regard it as null and void.

The possibility of correction enacted by the men in Frost’s poem, the narrator of Wilbur’s poem, and Heidegger as actor in his own example all likewise demonstrate this trust in a world and openness to the world; they all experience “crossing out” the illusion and relaxing into a confidence which has passed through doubt. Merleau-Ponty continues,

My adherence to the world enables me … to catch up with the truth of my thinking beyond its appearances. In the very moment of illusion this possibility of correction was presented to me, because illusion too makes use of this belief in the world and is dependent upon it while contracting into a solid appearance, and because in this way, always being open upon a horizon of possible verifications, it does not cut me off from truth. But, for the same reason, I am not immune from error, since the world which I seek to achieve through each appearance, and which endows that appearance, rightly or wrongly, with the weight of truth, never necessarily requires this particular appearance. There is the absolute certainty of the world in general, but not of any one thing in particular.77

Implications for Christian Thought

The experiences described by Frost, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty resemble that described by Wilbur, and their explanatory insights with respect to perception illuminate aspects of his poem. Wilbur’s poem invites another insight worth noticing, however: “blessed” gently reveals his latent Christian awareness. As a third context for the poem, therefore, I want to place the poem next to a thinker who shares with the phenomenologists their reservations concerning (positivistic) materialism, but who orients his reservations to Christian faith. Lesslie Newbigin similarly assesses the consequences of Cartesian doubt. He asks, “Must we not say that it is part of the deep sickness of our culture that, ever since Descartes, we have been seduced by the idea of a kind of knowledge which could not be doubted, in which we would be absolutely secure from personal risk?”78 He goes on to note that that seduction includes “scientism which supposes that science is simply a transcript of reality, of the ‘facts’ which simply have to be accepted and call for no personal decision on my part, a kind of knowledge which is ‘objective’ and free from all bias of subjectivity.”79

Wilbur’s doubt is not the Cartesian variety which expects to prevent risk. On the contrary, Wilbur, like Newbigin, recognizes a doubt congruent with trust which allows the experiencer to understand that her adherence to natural science, or to a received orthodoxy, does not free her, as a fallible human being, “from the risk of error.” (The insight parallels Merleau-Ponty’s insistence that perception “throws me open to a world, but can do so only by outrunning both me and itself … it cannot present me with a ‘reality’ otherwise than by running the risk of error.”80) The point is not that nothing is certain. Wilbur, like Newbigin (as well as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty), acknowledges and appreciates empirical fact. But he recognizes that human beings are limited; human knowing is marked by finitude, contingency, and development. For historical beings, the risk which opens us to error also allows us to correct errors in our knowledge; the same risk opens us to new knowledge or a renewed sense of wonder concerning things we already know. When the experience of doubt contributes to the correction of a misunderstanding or to the acquisition of new knowledge, then doubt is a blessing. In fact, as Newbigin argues, doubt endured may be a means of sanctification, “an example of that pruning which is promised to the Church in order that it may bear more fruit (John 15:1ff.)” He continues,

When that happens it is painful. But Jesus assures us, “My Father is the gardener.” He knows what he is doing, and we can trust him. Such experience is a summons to self-searching, to repentance, and to fresh commitment. It is not an occasion for anxiety. God is faithful, and he will complete what he has begun.81

Wilbur’s representation of doubt as a blessing succinctly allows for exactly this summons to self-searching, repentance, and fresh commitment. Flowers will come of it.

Of the four writers I have emphasized, only Wilbur shares (in general) Newbigin’s theological commitments.82 Nevertheless, in their phenomenologically limited descriptions, all four recommend an epistemological humility which they treat as compatible with epistemological confidence.83 In particular, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty seek to correct the same Cartesian attitude which Newbigin labels “scientism.” Their recommendation of epistemological humility serves as a useful reminder to Christians as well as to non-Christians. Wilbur’s characterization of doubt as blessed accepts the reality that Christians cannot, but also need not, insist on comprehensive access to absolute truth in order to live confidently.


The writers who have been my focus agree that openness to shifting perceptual experience is necessary for human beings, whose knowing relies on experience. Although openness to the world involves the risk of making mistakes and the risk of being deceived, the very same openness enables correct perception. Moreover, when risk results in error, correction of the error requires commitment to the world in persistent openness, confidence in what Merleau-Ponty characterizes as “the concordance so far experienced.” Such commitment pertains even in cases involving deliberate deception; correction requires confidence in the world, and specifically in the reliability of sense perception—and excessive suspicion defeats knowing.

Openness to the world confers additional benefits on the poets. The capacity to perceive includes the capacity to see something new—an illuminating resemblance that might be expressed in a newly coined metaphor, for example.84 As Wilbur insists, “It is a fundamental impulse of poetry to refresh the aspect of things.” Although the poet cannot “make or unmake the world” in the sense of changing the laws of nature, the poet can “interact with the given world, see and feel and order it newly,”85 including imagining a world that is other (and perhaps better) than the world as we know it, so that the poet’s invention may help actualize what had been only potential and thereby change what and how a culture perceives.

Both Christians and non-Christians benefit from the ability to correct an initial misperception. Beyond this correction, both may also benefit from the contribution which sense perception makes to human understanding of spiritual realities. When Jesus called God the Father a gardener, he made available to human perception a truth about God which could not be known apart from God’s accommodation86 to human understanding. Herman Bavinck rightly recognizes that essentially all human understanding of spiritual realities depends on sense perception. As he explains,

Human beings are corporeal, sense-oriented beings. All their knowledge originates in and arises from sense perception. Our thinking is bound up with our senses, just as our soul is with our body. We never perceive spiritual realities directly but only by the medium of material things. We see things “dimly.”87 Not only God but also the soul and the entire spiritual world only become known to us through the medium of the world of the senses.88

(Merleau-Ponty approaches this insight when he says, “The parables of the gospel … are the only way of conveying the relations of religious life, as paradoxical as those of the world of sensation.”89) Bavinck’s confident assertion goes beyond what Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty consider, but expresses a tacit aspect of Wilbur’s poem. When Wilbur moves from a corrected account of what he has perceived bodily to the generalization that a “set mind” is “blessed by doubt,” his physical description models spiritual correction. Though this move is more subtle in Wilbur than it is in Bavinck or Newbigin, it tends in the same direction.

Cite this article
William Tate, ““A Set Mind, Blessed by Doubt”: Phenomenologies of Misperception in Frost, Wilbur, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:4 , 351–370


  1. Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems 1943-2004 (Orlando: Harcourt, 2004). My title adapts line 18.
  2. Consider, as examples, “A Chronic Condition,” and “Epistemology.”
  3. More simply, perception is becoming aware of something through the senses.
  4. William P. Alston, The Reliability of Sense Perception (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 7. Though Alston was an “analytic” philosopher, his work usefully frames some of the issues.
  5. Tim Crane and Craig French, “The Problem of Perception,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (PDF version), Spring 2017 ( entries/perception-problem/), 1.
  6. Alston, Reliability of Sense Perception, 1.
  7. Walter Hopp, “Perception,” in The Routledge Companion to Phenomenology, eds. Sebastian Luft and Søren Overgaard (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 146.
  8. For overviews see David Woodruff Smith, “Phenomenology,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (PDF version), Winter 2016 ( entries-phenomenology/) and Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology (London: Rout- ledge, 2000). As Moran explains, “Phenomenology … emphasizes the attempt to get to the truth of matters, to describe phenomena … as whatever appears in the manner in which it appears, that is as it manifests itself to consciousness, to the experiencer” (4).
  9. Heidegger, Logic, trans. Thomas Sheehan (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Uni- versity Press, 2010).
  10. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962).
  11. Mark Wrathall mentions both passages in Heidegger and Unconcealment (Cambridge: Cam- bridge University Press, 2011), 57-71.
  12. Jack Lyons discusses a number of possible nuances of the term in “Epistemological Problems of Perception,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (PDF version), Spring 2017 (https://plato. His most general usage of the term suits my usage.
  13. Frost’s poem is well known, but I have not found anywhere a detailed reading which resembles mine. There are useful brief comments in Reuben Brower’s The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), esp. 92-95; see also Richard Poirier’s Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 213-214. My approach has been more fully informed by several essays on Frost by Walter Jost; though none of these interprets “A Boundless Moment,” they pioneered a particular kind of philosophical reading of Frost’s poetry. These have been collected in Rhetorical Investigations: Studies in Ordinary Language Criticism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004).
  14. Frost, Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1995), 1-2.
  15. As Hopp observes, “sight, in natural perception, carries references to what can also be discovered by the other senses. Synaesthesia is the norm” (“Perception,” 154).
  16. Philosophers tend to group illusion, hallucination, dreams, and sometimes imagination as analogous phenomena. Heidegger considers hallucination a form of imagination and regards both as similar to perception/deception; see The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 60.
  17. Both Frost and Wilbur exhibit ambivalence with respect to this materialist bias. For Frost, see Robert Bernard Hass, Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002); and Peter J. Stanlis, Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007).
  18. Frost, “Boundless Moment,” 3.
  19. Ibid., 5-6.
  20. Ibid., 9-10.
  21. Ibid., 7-8.
  22. Heidegger sometimes equates pretense with deception: “To deceive means: to pretend something, to present something as something it is not.” (Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, 310); he continues, “For precisely whenever I want to pretend something to someone else, I must first already be in a position to want to point something out to him. The other person in general must in advance take my discourse as having this tendency to point out; only in this way can I deceive him about something” (310-311). See also Logic, 155.
  23. Frost, “Boundless Moment,” 11.
  24. Ibid., 12.
  25. Both (a) and (b) are elements of what Husserl calls “horizon”; see below.
  26. The shared quality of the experience confirms its reality. Consider the following from Merleau-Ponty’s “The Primacy of Perception” (in The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays, ed. James M. Edie and trans. William Cobb, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964): “If a friend and I are standing before a landscape, and if I attempt to show my friend something which I see and which he does not yet see, we cannot account for the situation by saying that I see something in my own world and that I attempt, by sending verbal messages, to give rise to an analogous perception in the world of my friend. There are not two numerically distinct worlds plus a mediating language which would bring us together. There is—and I know it very well if I become impatient with him—a kind of demand that what I see be seen by him also” (17).
  27. Frost, “Boundless Moment,” 9.
  28. Frost, Collected Poems, 777.
  29. Frost’s “strange world” even suggests an analogy with Husserl’s “reduction” in which Husserl recommends the phenomenologist’s setting aside her ordinary awareness of the world in order to see more readily what would otherwise be obscured by familiarity. The setting aside is not deliberate in Frost; nevertheless it prompts in his speaker something like a spontaneous reduction, including heightened phenomenological awareness/description. Merleau-Ponty’s explanation of the reduction is helpful: “It is because we are through and through compounded of relationships with the world that for us the only way to become aware of the fact is to suspend the resultant activity, to refuse it our complicity…, to put it ‘out of play’. Not because we reject the certainties of common sense and a natural attitude to things … but because, being the presupposed basis of any thought, they are taken for granted, and go unnoticed, and because in order to arouse them and bring them to view, we have to suspend for a moment our recognition of them. The best formulation of the reduc- tion is probably that given by Eugen Fink, Husserl’s assistant, when he spoke of ‘wonder’ in the face of the world. Reflection … is consciousness of the world because it reveals that world as strange and paradoxical” (Phenomenology of Perception, xiii, emphasis added). Frost also commends making the world strange.
  30. In “A Boundless Moment,” “fair enough for March” implies a moderate air temperature. By means of “soft” Wilbur contrasts the air with the coldness of the ground (taking “soft” as indicating “mild”) as well as with its hardness.
  31. Wilbur, “April 5,” 1-2.
  32. Ibid., 3.
  33. He immediately recognizes that what he thinks he sees must be counterfactual; as in the Frost poem, questionable perception is measured against empirically derived expectations.
  34. Ibid., 4-5.
  35. Ibid., 6.
  36. Ibid., 10.
  37. Ibid., 11-13.
  38. Compare Merleau-Ponty: “Seeing, some distance away in the margin of my visual field, a large moving shadow, I look in that direction [refocusing] and the phantasm shrinks and takes up its due place; it was simply a fly near my eye. I was conscious of seeing a shadow and now I am conscious of having seen nothing more than a fly” (Phenomenology of Perception, 297).
  39. Wilbur, “April 5,” 16-17.
  40. See Rodney Edgecombe, A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1995), 137.
  41. Wilbur, “April 5,” 18-19.
  42. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 295 (emphasis added).
  43. Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, 5-6; compare Walter Hopp: “Husserl’s repeated in- sistence that perceptual consciousness places its subject in touch with the perceived object itself, rather than some representation that does duty for it, vindicates the commonsense and phenomenologically grounded belief that when a thing appears to us, it is precisely that thing, rather than some other thing (its ‘appearance’), that we perceive” (“Husserl on Sensation, Perception, and Interpretation,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 38.2 (June 2008): 219; Hopp’s article “Perception,” cited above, also considers Merleau-Ponty). Mark Wrathall similarly describes Heidegger’s position: “I will … show that Heidegger’s phenomenology supports a view on which the fundamental forms of intentional comportment are, at least for the most part, unmediated by mental representations” (“Intentionality Without Representa- tions: Heidegger’s Account of Perception,” Philosophy Today 42 [1998]: 182).
  44. For overviews of Husserl’s career see chapter 2 in Moran as well as J. N. Mohanty, “The Development of Husserl’s Thought” in The Cambridge Companion to Husserl, eds. Barry Smith and David Woodruff Smith, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  45. For discussion see Dallas Willard, “Knowledge,” and Kevin Mulligan, “Perception,” in The Cambridge Companion to Husserl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  46. Hopp, “Perception,” 148. The point is not to deny that imagination can make a thing imaginatively present, but rather to insist that ordinarily and when necessary we can distinguish reliably between imagined presence and actual presence.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid., 149.
  49. Belief here, fulfilled intuition, entails for Husserl epistemological confidence.
  50. Husserl, Logical Investigations, trans. J. N. Findlay (New York: Humanities Press, 1970), 609-610; note that belief is not a reasoned response to a completed perception, but emerges with the perception; see page 611.
  51. I emphasize Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s illustrations rather than Husserl’s for two main reasons. First, the narratives they develop more nearly resemble the narratives of the two poems. Second, Husserl’s work as a whole is ambiguous with respect to direct realism. As Mulligan explains, “[Husserl’s] central thesis concerning what we see is that the primary object of perception is public things, the things we all think we see most of the time. … In this respect Husserl is decidedly a naive realist. But he also wants to claim that this direct, straightforward perception of public things is mediated by what he calls perceptual content: we always see what we see in a particular way. … A critical realist or representationalist (like Hume, for example) may feel that there is only a verbal difference between Husserl’s view and his view that we are aware of perceptual contents and infer to the existence of public objects. For such a representationalist, the very application to perception of the act- content-object schema is enough to make perception an indirect affair” (“Perception,” 169). For Hopp also “it remains an open question whether Husserl’s theory is a form of direct realism” (“Perception,” 151).
  52. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Harper & Row, 1962), 177/138.
  53. See Heidegger, Logic, 110-111. Heidegger’s “disclosure” approximates Husserl’s “presence.”
  54. See Wrathall’s Heidegger and Unconcealment and Daniel O. Dahlstrom, Heidegger’s Concept of Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  55. Heidegger, Logic, 158. In Being and Truth (trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt) Heidegger appropriates a similar anecdote from Plato’s Theaetetus: “if someone in Athens takes a man who is approaching him for Socrates (when in truth it is Theaetetus)” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 193.
  56. Notice that “coming toward” indicates the percept’s self-disclosure rather than movement. Husserl’s “we meet … a charming lady” suggests a similar ambiguity.
  57. Heidegger, Logic, 158.
  58. Ibid., 159.
  59. Ibid.
  60. Heidegger reviews this point later: “We … treated this same phenomenon when speak- ing about deception (the example of the deer). There we began with a false statement, but again we showed that, as a statement … it too was grounded in a prior knowledge. … We said that the prior act of letting something encounter us is a comportment within which we constantly live” (Logic, 176).
  61. Heidegger says elsewhere, “By way of this decision [to reconsider one’s initial perception], the world is seen in a fundamentally new way” (Being and Truth, 195).
  62. Heidegger, Logic, 159.
  63. Ibid., 162.
  64. Ibid.
  65. Ibid., emphasis added. This incompleteness is what Husserl calls inadequacy. Develop- ing Husserl’s box image, Hopp explains, “Because the box, along with each of its parts and properties, cannot be completely disclosed in any single experience, my experience of them is inadequate. But inadequacy is the price to pay for having physical objects given in perception” (“Perception,” 149).
  66. Ibid., 163.
  67. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 296.
  68. Ibid.
  69. When he says “really,” Merleau-Ponty evidently has in mind the contents he (actually though mistakenly) intends as distinct from the object that emerges as actually there. Recall Husserl, “As long as we are tricked, we experience a perfectly good percept: we see a lady and not a waxwork figure” (Logical Investigations, 709).
  70. Ibid., 296-297.
  71. Ibid., 297.
  72. Kevin Eames similarly observes, “perception of a large rock intuitively evokes expecta- tions of spatiality (it exists in time and space) and physicality (it is a solid, cohesive entity without independent means of movement). From these expectations we can infer that we would hurt our knee should we strike it” (Cognitive Psychology of Religion, Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2016, 44).
  73. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 297. Hopp’s explanation of Husserl’s box clarifies how inadequacy and inner and outer horizons are related: “The empty intentions [such as the side of the box which is opposite the perceiver and therefore not perceived] constitute an act’s inner horizon … the body of contents that specify, more or less determi- nately, the box’s unperceived features and the possible courses of future experience of the box that harmonize with my present one. … Since I am already familiar with the box, the inner horizon specifies its properties fairly specifically. … Furthermore, the box is perceived as an object in an environment thanks to the work of the outer horizon. … The surrounding environment is there for me despite the fact that I do not attend to the objects making it up, and [it] provides the ground against which the box appears” (“Perception,” 148-149).
  74. Heidegger, Logic, 162.
  75. Wilbur, Collected Poems, lines 27-28.
  76. Wahrnehmung is “perception,” etymologically “a grasping of truth.” Compare Hans- Georg Gadamer: “To perceive something is not to collect together utterly separate sensory impressions, but is rather, as the marvelous German word wahrnehmen itself says, ‘to take something as true.’ But that means that what is presented to the senses is seen and taken as something.” See “The Relevance of the Beautiful” in The Relevance of the Beautiful, ed. Robert Bernasconi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 29.
  77. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 297.
  78. Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 30. Alston, like Newbigin, regards Cartesian doubt as going too far. He adds that Hume extends Cartesian doubt: “Hume takes his stand on the awareness of ‘impressions and ideas’ and relations among them, and takes sense perception of the external world and inductive reasoning to be questionable pending a verdict of innocent before the bar of impressions and ideas [that is, representations]” (Reliability of Sense Perception, 126).
  79. Ibid. “Scientism” here indicates an excessive confidence in the pronouncements of empirical science.
  80. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 377.
  81. Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 244.
  82. They are all interested in Christian theology, however. On Frost’s interest see, for example, John H. Timmerman’s Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, and London: Associated University Presses, 2002), chapter 4, “Theological Ethics.” On Heidegger see Benjamin Crowe, Heidegger’s Phenomenology of Religion (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008); and Crowe, Heidegger’s Religious Origins (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006). On Merleau-Ponty, see the “Introduction” by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus to their translation of his Sense and Non-sense and his essay “Faith and Good Faith” in that collection (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964). Moran comments on Merleau-Ponty’s strong interest in the Incarnation (Introduction to Phenomenology, 430).
  83. Consider the following, from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception: “We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive. In more general terms we must not wonder whether our self-evident truths are real truths, or whether, through some perversity inherent in our minds, that which is self-evident for us might not be illusory in relation to some truth in itself. For in so far as we talk about illusion, it is because we have identified illusions, and done so solely in the light of some perception which at the same time gave assurance of its own truth. It follows that doubt, or the fear of being mistaken, testifies as soon as it arises to our power of unmasking error, and that it could never finally tear us away from truth” (xvi).
  84. See Eberhard Jüngel, “Metaphorical Truth,” in Theological Essays, trans. and ed. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1989), 16-71.
  85. Wilbur, “Some Notes on ‘Lying,’” in The Catbird’s Song: Prose Pieces 1963-1995 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997), 139.
  86. John Calvin’s teaching concerning divine accommodation appears succinctly in his famous observation that “as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us.” He continues, “such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity” (Institutes 1.13.1, trans. Ford Lewis Battles and ed. John T. McNeill, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).
  87. See 1 Corinthians 13:12.
  88. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, trans. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker Aca- demic, 2004), 106.
  89. Merleau-Ponty, “Faith and Good Faith,” 175. Moran relevantly comments, “Merleau-Ponty’s claim … that we have no idea of the mind without somehow employing the image of the body … is close to the claim of Wittgenstein that the best image of the soul is the body” (Introduction to Phenomenology, 433).

William Tate

Covenant College
William Tate is Professor of English and Dean of Arts and Letters at Covenant College.