Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the Injured Body and Johann Schneider

June 20, 2017 in General

During the First World War, on 4 June 1915, a 24 year-old mineworker, Johann Schneider, a soldier in the German Army, was severely injured by the impact of embedded mine-splinters within the back of his head and remained comatose for four days afterward. The exact scope and extent of his injuries is difficult to ascertain, but there is general evidence that he suffered from a major brain injury.

Schneider was admitted to the Hospital for Brain Injury in Frankfurt in February 1916. He then became the patient of a hospital psychologist, Adhémer Gelb and its attending neurologist, Kurt Goldstein.

Gelb and Goldstein wrote several papers on the case. In their first paper, Gelb and Goldstein diagnosed Schneider as a case of “visual agnosia”, the diagnosis of which provided significant theoretical interest as a significant example of a variant version, apperceptive visual agnosia and consequential perceptual impairment. The term apperceptive visual agnosia had been devised by Lissauer to identify patients who had failed tests of normal visual object recognition, despite their retention of other visual acuity in areas such as perceptions of luminosity and otherwise preserved cognitive functioning. However, it should be noted that there is considerable contemporary debate about whether or not their study of Johann Schneider was marred by a priori reasoning and ‘coaching’ of their subject to achieve the requisite (pseudo) “symptoms” of wordlessness/alexia, selective vision, tactile sensory loss, apparent inability to identify areas of his own body, apparent inability to identify his own spatial location, apparent inability to count and apparent inability to engage in abstract reasoning.

Even today, a century later, there are ongoing professional debates about the scope of apperceptive visual agnosia and there is no consensus about how Johann Schneider’s case should be understood within the profession of contemporary neuro-psychology. Marotta and Behrmann note that Johann Schneider recovered to the extent that he could run his own grocery shop from 1932 until 1944 when his house was bombed. After the Second World War, he became mayor of his local town. Today, his wartime experiences form an important aspect of the phenomenological analytical framework of French philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty (1908-1961), who used Gelb and Goldstein’s case study as the basis of his own theories about the importance of intention in spatial perception and motor movement within ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ human bodies. R.T Jensen and others have queried the assumptions reached by Merleau-Ponty insofar as this element of his phenomenological analysis is concerned due to its allegedly faulty premise, albeit caused by Gelb and Goldstein’s ‘unreliable’ observation of Johann Schneider in 1915.


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