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Je sens du...

I have now finished a very rough draft of the Preface, which I’ll put up for comment later today. But before I do that I’d like to mention a tricky problem in the very first sentence of the introduction. I’m sure that Smith has done something wrong, but I can’t quite figure out the nuance of the French…

The very first sentence of the introduction reads as follows: En commençant l’étude de la perception, nous trouvons dans le langage la notion de sensation, qui paraît immédiate et claire: je sens du rouge, du bleu, du chaud, du froid. The final phrase of the sentence seems to me very tricky. Smith writes, “I have a sensation of redness, of blueness, of hot or cold,” but this seems to me wrong on at least three counts. First, the word sensation, from the earlier part of the sentence, is not repeated in the French, as Smith’s translation makes it seem. Second, the French speaks of sensing the colors rouge and bleu, which are not the same as the color properties “redness” and “blueness” that Smith’s translation suggests. Finally, the sens of je sens is homonymic with the noun sens, meaning, and this connotation is completely absent from Smith’s version. By contrast, Merleau-Ponty’s construction suggests that our ordinary way of speaking about “sensations” already includes in it the idea that it is meaningful colors and temperatures that we sense. For that reason, I prefer the translation, “I sense red, blue, hot, cold,” which captures much of this. The English verb “I sense” is homonymic, like the French, with a noun that implies the notion of meaning. And it is colors - red, blue - that we sense rather than abstract properties - redness, blueness.

There is nevertheless still something lacking in my translation. In the French there is what seems to me a slightly strange genitival construction: je sens du rouge. Smith tries to capture this in his phrasing: “I have a sensation of redness.” But I believe [IS THIS RIGHT??!!] that the construction is doing something totally different. When one says je sens du… instead of je sens la… it seems to me one is saying something like “I feel…” instead of merely “I sense…” There are many ways to understand the difference between sensing and feeling in English. But in this case I mean to be highlighting something like the difference between having an intuitive and immediate understanding of (“I feel your pain.”) and becoming aware of through the sense receptors (which is, after all, something that a mere mechanism could do: “The thermostat senses the ambient temperature.”) My hypothesis is that Merleau-Ponty uses the genitival construction here to give the more intuitive and immediate connotation.

To the native French speakers: does this seem right? How would you characterize the difference between je sens du… and je sens la…?

In any case, if I am right about this difference, then there seems to be sticky problem in the translation. That’s because I don’t know how to convey the difference between “feeling” and “sensing” in the English while keeping all the other connotations of the sentence. In some ways this may not be such a big issue. After all, the idea that I have an intuitive, rather than merely mechanical, way into colors merely reinforces what is already suggested by the idea that I sense meaningful aspects of objects and the environment. The thermostat doesn’t really sense how warm or cold it is in here; it responds mechanically to some abstract property of the immediate environment. So if the genitival construction is doing what I think it is, then I might not need to add anything else to highlight it. Still, I’d like to know…


Hi. A suggestion for the significance of ‘du rouge’ rather than ‘le rouge’: it may not be just to do with the difference between sense and feel. I think that the use of ‘du’ is to speak of something more generally than if one uses ‘le’. ‘Le’ almost has a kind of demonstrative sense. So M-Ponty is maybe indicating that he is not talking about any particular red thing, nor is he talking about Red (the universal).

Your suggestion makes a lot of sense, Komarine. I wasn’t thinking about the demonstrative connotation of je sens la rouge, but that certainly does seem relevant. What’s your preferred translation?

I think it depends on whether you think Merleau-Ponty is saying that in our ordinary language, one finds the confused notion of sensation, in which case I’d be tempted by ‘I sense redness…’, which implies the worrying notion of sensation, whilst sticking more closely to the French than Smith. Or whether you think he is saying that we ordinarily talk of sensing things (which is fine), but this ordinary and non-problematic talk then gets transformed by science, etc., into the confused notion of sensation, in which case, ‘I sense red…’ seems more appropriate. I think perhaps the former: I take it that sensation is a notion arising from objective thought, which includes common sense, not just science, implying that we find the worrying notion sensation in ordinary language.

I’m leaning towards “I sense red…” over “I sense redness…,” though I can see your way of looking at it. We both agree that we ordinarily talk of sensing things not of sensing abstract properties. The question is whether this ordinary way of talking already explicitly includes the worrying notion of sensation. I think our ordinary talk is probably ambiguous: it allows for the worrying notion of sensation, which gets developed in science and other forms of objective thought, but doesn’t require it. To say that the worrying notion of sensation is already included in our ordinary talk is to suggest that our ordinary talk is itself already completely rigid and objective. But I think, and I think Merleau-Ponty does too, that this is not right. After all, ordinary talk is replete with metaphors and other manners of expression that, as MP says somewhere, undulate with the world. You suggest that “common sense” is already part of objective thought, and this may be true. But I don’t think “common sense” is the same as our ordinary way of using language.

That said, there is something else about the difference between red and redness that seems to me to go in your favor. The du rouge construction, if I understand it right, points towards the idea that what I’m related to is only a part of what constitutes red - I haven’t got the thing here as a whole in my experience. I’m thinking of the way the waiter asks, “Du poivre?” “Would you like some pepper?” He’s not offering you all the pepper there is, just some portion of it. It seems to me that when you say, “I sense redness…” you get this notion of a portion - there’s some redness around here and I’m sensing it. But you lose this when you say, “I sense red.” We might try, therefore, “I sense some red…” This phrase seems to have the kind of ambiguity that I suspect ordinary language should. It could easily be developed in the objective way into “I sense some property of redness.” But it leaves open a more phenomenologically accurate interpretation too: “I sense some aspect of red which, in my very experience of it, points to a color that extends beyond what I’m experiencing now.”


One native French speaker suggests that, although Je sens du rouge is ordinary French, to translate it into ordinary English you’d have to say something like, “I’m bathed in red.” This seems to me to go all the way in the other direction - a completely anti-objectivizing expression. Thoughts? (This person is not a philosopher, by the way…)

I like the thought that our ordinary talk is ambiguous - I hadn’t thought of it in that way particularly, but I think you’re completely right about Merleau-Ponty’s view. “I sense some red” sounds awkward to me. I’m maybe leaning back towards “I sense red”.

Yes, “I sense red” feels like the winner to me too. Funny after all this is should turn out to be so prosaic…

You could try it a different way, if you want to capture more of the feeling of immersion and ongoingness, and preserve the “of” construction, viz: “I have a feeling of red, of blue, of hot, of cold.”

I agree that “redness” etc is not the way to go — apart from philosophical considerations, it’s not what MP said, and it’s a less elegant way to say what he did say. Also, “I sense…” seems a bit too abrupt. One of my thesauruses puts “have a feeling” right up near the top of words or terms that are close to “sense”. And “have a feeling” captures a bit more of the notion that this can be a continuing experience.

Also, I should have mentioned this in my earlier note: I do need a better French dictionary, but in the small one I have (Kettridge), under “sentir” the word “sense” does not appear, but “feel” does (and “be conscious of”, which may be close to “sense”, does). And, going the other way, under “sense” (or under “sensation”, the verb form) “sentir” does not appear. So it may well be that “have a feeling of” closely enough captures what MP had in mind by “sens du”. Another option, taking off from the dictionary entry: “I am conscious of red, of blue, of hot, of cold.”

There is a real danger with “of” constructions in English, including “I have a feeling of…” and “I am conscious of…” Namely, their very grammar makes it seem as though there is some thing (the grammatical object) of which the perceiver is conscious or has a feeling. Once you think of the color or the warmth as a thing, it is very tempting to ask what kind of thing it is; and in particular to ask whether it is the kind of thing that exists independently of my experience of it. Once we are asking these kinds of questions, we’re off into the traditional philosophical discussion of whether colors, for instance, are primary qualities (entities that exist independently of my experience of them) or secondary qualities (entities that are entirely dependent upon, and defined in terms of, my experience of them). This is precisely the kind of traditional philosophical approach that MP thinks is misguided, and what he is referring to in the second sentence of the introduction when he says the notion of “sensation” has led traditional philosophers to miss the phenomenon of perception. Now, it may be that MP thinks that even our ordinary way of talking has this kind of misguided-ness built into it. If so, then the kinds of English “of” constructions you suggest would be pushing in the right direction. (So too with Komarine’s earlier suggestion, “I sense redness,” as discussed above.) But there are independent reasons to think this is not MP’s view of ordinary language (again, as discussed above). So my tendency is to want to stay away from renderings that push in the direction of reifying the object of experience.

That said, I think you may have a good point about the English “sense” for sentir. Some French/English dictionaries don’t even list “sense” as one of the possible meanings, although some do. (It is worth noting, though, that “to sense” is the principle meaning of the Latin root - sentio, sentire - from which the French sentir is derived, and is also the principle meaning of the homonymous Spanish word sentir.) In French, however, the word seems to have the connotation that one is somehow immersed in the thing that one sent, and as if to prove this most dictionaries that I’ve seen give “to smell” as one of the primary meanings. I suppose this is why the native French speaker suggested “I am bathed in red.” But now there seem to be so many issues with this apparently simple phrase, that I’m starting to despair and think that the simplest rendering will be the best. I’m still inclined to “I sense red.”

From the point of view of a french native-speaker, “I sense red” seems the best option. First, because “I feel red” would refer, in french, to the sentiment level and not to the sensation, which are both etymologically related to sentir, but in different ways : sentiment is related to feelings like pleasure, etc., whereas I sense red, blue, etc. Besides, in french, sentir as to feel (I feel blue) would mean “je (me) sens bleu”, i.e. I feel blue, just like one can feel depressed, etc - a pure mood, a Stimmung, without the dimension of contact involved in the sentir as in “je sens du rouge”.

Second, in French, it is true that “je sens du rouge” does literally means “I sense SOME red”, i.e. I have an experience which refers to a quality that extends beyond what I now sense. Which goes with the claim made in the chapter “le sentir” according to which to experience phenomenologically a color, one has to immerse oneself in it, in such a way as to stop experiencing it as being the color of something - cf what he says about it becoming an ambient atmosphere. Which is what the french “je sens du rouge” renders, and what, to me, “I sense some red” conveys : since it is no more a quality of a thing, but an atmosphere, it is not present in my experience as belonging to a thing. This indeterminate, general presence, is what the generality of “du rouge” refers to.

But “some” does not seem to be necessary, since the english “I sense red” seems to me to convey the fact that my experience points to the red by means of my experiencing some of it ; whereas “some” could mistakenly refer to my experiencing some red without this experience pointing towards the red as present - even though beyond the extent of actual experience. Since in French, “du” is the contraction of “de+le” : “je sens du rouge” is the contraction of JE SENS DE LE ROUGE, i.e. literally “I sense some of the red”. The relation rendered by the french “du” is between the actual experience in which I am fully immersed (some red) and what it points to (the red), not between me and the red quality I am experiencing since it would imply its being as an individual thing in front of me. So it seems to me “I sense red” is the best solution.

Sean — I have continued to be troubled by “I sense red”, and I wrote a longish note on it. But I deleted it, because I think you are right. “I sense red” may be the best way to go. And for another reason than so far stated. MP speaks of “the notion of sensation, which seems immediate and clear…” If the notion is “immediate and clear”, then the following should be “immediate and clear” as well. And “I sense red” is pretty immediate and simple, if not totally clear. And trying to capture more of the full-bodied feeling of “bathed” or the subtleties of “some of the red” would take one down a path or paths, using different words, that are not so immediate and clear.

Just to add my two cents to this troubling issue of the translation of “je sens du rouge”—in large part, MP is raising a serious criticism of the notion of sensation as being some sort of discrete, quantifiable entity, as being something that is “immediate and clear.” Any time MP uses the words “immediate and clear” one should immediately sense, at the very least (he is also taking aim at the empiricist theory of sense data) a criticism of the intellectualist tradition coming out of Descartes. What we “sense” is precisely not “immediate and clear” because it is neither unmediated nor transparent—both of which notions are problematized by moving the analysis into the dimension of the body/world relation. While the translation “I sense red” should be “immediate and clear” to the uninitiated reader, that is definitely not the intention nor the meaning that MP is searching for. The use of “bathed” is probably too poetic, but I would strongly suggest that it does indeed capture the ambiguity and opacity of the lived body, the atmospheric quality of being surrounded by and immersed within a field of perception, the original indistinction among the sensory faculties (which is only subsequently dissolved into the familiar recognition of discrete sensory experiences). And don’t forget, in the background of the discussion of sensation is Erwin Straus, who had a very rich and robust phenomenology of sense/sensation. In short, I wouldn’t use “feel” at all—stick with “sense” if nothing better suggests itself.

This whole discussion bodes badly for the new translation. It’s hard for me to believe that someone who is tranlating PhP does not know how “du” works in French. For the sentence to mean “feel,” it would have to be reflexive: “je me sens.” “Je sens du rouge” means “I sense some (or something) red.”

Two of the claims that Leonard is making seem to me substantive. I’m afraid I disagree with both. First, he suggests that the transitive form of the verb sentir cannot mean “to feel.” But this can’t be right. The most straightforward and normal translation of, for example, “Je sens le froid” is “I feel the cold.” Second, he seems to be suggesting that the partitive du construction is always translated as a partitive in English. But I don’t see how this can be right either. The most straightforward and normal translation of, for example, “Je mange du lapin” is “I’m eating rabbit,” not “I’m eating some rabbit.” I suppose the upshot of all this is that I think the translation issue here - simple though it seems at first glance - is actually much more delicate and interesting than Leonard gives it credit for being.

I have to say I am fascinated by this window that Sean Kelly has kindly opened into the world and task of the translator. There is something courageous, in the Aristotelian or Platonic (I’m thinking Laches) sense, about opening it, especially to an audience of (it seems) to me, we could say, lovers of MP, who are of course in love with different MP’s from each other.

In this context, I wonder if a slightly different strategy and policy for translating the sentence might be helpful. The sentence starts: “In beginning a study of perception, we find in language the notion of sensation, which seems immediate and clear .” We then get an example of what is immediate and clear about the notion of sensation in the French language. And then the rest of the chapter dismantles what seems immediate and clear, as in fact being confused, contradictory, and at odds with experience (as Kim-Reuter suggested, this is what happens when MP says something is immediate and clear).

What’s needed in the final clause, I think, is something in English that does the job of (1) making a notion of sensation seem clear; (2) but makes clear a notion that will take itself apart. The points Sean and others have raised about the clause speaking of sens, not sensation, and the role of the du, and so on, to my mind reveal an underlying translation problem: that there is a different implicit grammar/ontology of sensation in French ordinary language, because of the way sens and du work. One of the things the translated clause should do, as I think is being acknowledged in the thread above, is anticipate the sorts of errors that will be taken up, namely, conceiving sensation as impression, quality, etc. On this count, while “I sense red” takes care of some of the problems, it might not capture what the du is doing, which is making “red” into something having a grammatical role that will be taken up in terms of doctrines of impressions, quality, stimuli, etc. I think adding the word “have,” an indefinite article, and a genetive, to the English might help: “I have a sense of red, of blue, of cold, of hot.” This, I think, turns the sense into something possesed like a state and turns red, blue, etc., into something like an impression or quality to be had. In other words the grammar of this English clause, to my ear, plays on the ontological keys that MP is going show are out of whack. I am pretty sure this is not quite capturing the original sense of the French, but I think it is opening up an equivalent problem in the English.

French discourse is like a linguistic tennis match.

Words become players, pitting energy against one another.

Look at

je sens du rouge, du bleu, du chaud, du froid

without emphasis on the very for a moment…

red… hot


As for the verb “sentir”, it is such a portmanteau, even bringing in the sense of smell.

There’s a certain amount of play with synesthesia involved, as one always expects from French writers.

Thank you for such an interesting post.

Following on from my last post, I would translate as follows:

“I apprehend red, hot, blue, cold.”

English is a much more pragmatic language.

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