Friday, October 12, 2012

Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Ontology of the Flesh

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (14 March 1908 – 3 May 1961) was a French phenomenological philosopher, strongly influenced by Karl Marx, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. He was a central figure in French philosophical circles, being close friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Merleau-Ponty was also one of the central 20th century philosophers to bring the body back into the equation of experience and consciousness, rejecting the dualism that had reigned since Descartes. His work sought to demonstrate "a corporeity of consciousness as much as an intentionality of the body," offering a counter to Descartes.

This is a section from the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Merleau-Ponty and his philosophy, written by Bernard Flynn.

Flynn, Bernard, "Maurice Merleau-Ponty", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Ontology Of The Flesh

Let us now return to our discussion of Merleau-Ponty's ontology. The guiding thread that we had been following was his critique of transcendental philosophy, particularly the notion of subjectivity that is implied in this philosophical project. In The Visible and the Invisible this critique is deepen and further developed. One could argue that, historically, the project of transcendental philosophy begins as a refutation of skepticism. By taking this stance, we begin by putting ourselves on the side of the negative. Like Stanley Cavell, Merleau-Ponty sees that the skeptic radically transforms the ordinary meaning of the question, “Do I know that?” Extending this question to everything changes its meaning. Merleau-Ponty claims that philosophy elects certain beings' “sensations, representations, thoughts, consciousness, or even a deceiving being--in order to separate itself from all being” (VI, 107). He argues that the radical skeptic borrows something from our experience, absolutizes it, then in his quest for complete certainty, he uses it to terrorize our experience of ‘inherence in the world’, an experience that Merleau-Ponty, in The Visible and the Invisible, calls “perceptual faith.” Those who would begin philosophy by attempting to refute skepticism must also agree with the skeptic's rejection of our inherence in Being; they do so in the name of establishing absolute evidence which would deliver us from our contingent insertion into Being. Merleau-Ponty sees this ‘desire to be delivered from contingency’ operative in critical philosophy's effort to “undo our natural pact with the world in order to remake it.” Its attempt to follow backward the path taken by the ‘subject who has constituted the object’ in order to arrive at the unity of subjectivity. It does so in a manner similar to the way one could walk indifferently in either direction from Notre Dame to the Etoile, or from the Etoile to Notre Dame.

It is Merleau-Ponty's contention that it is not possible to achieve this return to subjectivity. Reflection is always secondary, that is, it must recognize itself as founded on a pre-reflective experience of Being that cannot be assimilated, employing the felicitous phrase of Adorno, “without remainder.” This reflection which must always be mindful of its own situated character is what Merleau-Ponty names “hyper-reflection.” This sort of reflection is expressed in an excellent manner by a line of Kafka, cited by Lefort in his Preface to The Visible and the Invisible, “that things present themselves to him not by their roots, but by some point or another situated towards the middle of them” (VI, xvvi). Merleau-Ponty evokes our ineluctable inherence in Being as evidence that Husserl's project of free variation, while being useful, was not able to accomplish what Husserl desired of it. Free variation was Husserl's way to move from the register of ‘fact’ to that of ‘essence’. One begins with a real factual experience, then by means of free variation one transforms it in imagination up to the point where it is no longer an object of the same type. At this point, Husserl claims that we intuit its essential structure.

Merleau-Ponty agrees that we can vary our experience in imagination, that we can move from the real to the virtual, that is, we can give ourselves leeway. However, we cannot “complete” the circuit by which the real would become simply a variant of the possible. He writes, “On the contrary, it is the possible worlds and possible things that are variants and doubles of the actual world and of actual beings” (VI, 112). It is the ineluctability of our inherence in the world that forecloses both the attempt to move from the fact to the essential structure and the project of completing the phenomenological reduction.

In the last chapter of the never completed The Visible and the Invisible entitled “The Intertwining–the Chiasm,” Merleau-Ponty begins to give a positive elaboration of the ontological position to which he has been led. In a number of respects, his last work distances itself from certain central notions in the phenomenological tradition. Nonetheless, in one respect it is mindful of Husserl's injunction, “Return to the things themselves.” Merleau-Ponty wishes to begin in a dimension of experience which has not been “worked over, that offers us, all at once, pell-mell, both subject and object--both existence and essence--and, hence, gives philosophy resources to redefine them” (VI, 130). When Merleau-Ponty speaks of “perceptual faith” his notion of faith is perhaps the very opposite of the agonized Kierkegaardian “leap of faith.” It is a faith the commitment of which has ‘always already’ been made, a faith which subtends the avowal of responsibility by which personal identity is formed. Perceptual faith is a faith that I am in no danger of losing, except in the philosophical interpretation of it which portrays it as knowledge. This chapter on what Merleau-Ponty calls the Chiasm is a continuation of his study of perception, however, at first viewing it may not appear as such. In the Phenomenology of Perception, he insisted upon making a distinction between operative intentionality and act intentionality, but in The Visible and the Invisible this distinction is deepened in such a way that the concept of intentionality itself is thrown into question. In his critical reflections on Sartre, which due to spatial constraints we have not been able to develop here, Merleau-Ponty said that for a subject defined as For-itself, as consciousness of itself, passivity could have no meaning. He argues that, defined as such, consciousness could not but be sovereign.

In his late thought, Merleau-Ponty poses the question whether a consciousness, defined as intentional, is adequate to think a notion of perception viewed as the self-revelation of the sense of a world in and through a being which is itself a part of the world, flesh of its flesh, a world which “... is much more than the correlative of my vision, such that it imposes my vision upon me as a continuation of its own sovereign existence” (VI, 131). For him, to see is not to pose a thing as the object pole, much less a noema (Husserl), of my act of seeing. Rather seeing is being drawn into a dimension of Being, a tissue of sensible being to which the perceiving body is not foreign. Merleau-Ponty speaks of the perception of the color ‘red’ as not merely the awareness of a quality belonging to an object. He claims that for an experience ‘prior to being worked over’, it is an encounter with “a punctuation in the field of red things, which includes the tiles of rooftops; the flags of gatekeepers and of the revolution; of certain terrains near Aix or Madagascar. It is also a punctuation in the field of red garments, which includes, along with the dresses of women, the robes of professors, bishops and advocates general...and its red is literally not the same if it appears in one constellation or in another … . A certain red is also a fossil, drawn up from the depths of imaginary worlds” (VI, 132). When seeing, I do not hold an object at the terminus of my gaze, rather I am delivered over to a field of the sensible which is structured in terms of the “difference between things and colors, a momentary crystallization of colored being or visibility” (VI, 132).

When we turn in the direction of the seer, we do not discover a transcendental ego but a being who is itself of the sensible, a being which “knows it before knowing it”(VI, 133). The sensate body possesses “an art of interrogating the sensible according to its own wishes, an inspired exegesis” (VI, 135). If I wish to feel the cloth of a coat that I am about to purchase, it will not suffice if I pound it with my fists or quickly wisk my hand over it. Rather it must be touched as it wishes to be touched and for this my body needs no instruction. Like the cloth, my hand is a part of the tangible world; between it and the rest of the tangible world there exists a “relationship by principle” (VI, 133). My hand which touches the things is itself subject to being touched. “Through this crisscrossing within it of the touching and the tangible, its own movements incorporate themselves in the universe that they interrogate, are recorded on the same map as it” (VI, 133).

Merleau-Ponty writes, “it is not different for vision.” He argues that it is essential that the seer itself must be visible, that is, seeable; he refers to the body as an “exemplar sensible” being both sensate and sensible. As in the case with touching, there is a pre-possession of the vision by the visible, and vice versa. The body, being itself visible, uses its being to participate in the being of the visible world. Rather than speaking of the act of seeing, one ought to speak of a “visibility, sometimes wondering, sometimes reassembled” (VI, 138). What Merleau-Ponty calls “flesh” is the generality of the sensible, “an anonymity innate to myself” (VI, 133). We see that there is a progression of Merleau-Ponty's ontology which moves from the notion of Gestalt in The Structure of Behavior, to the notion of ‘the one’ (the on) that is the ‘subject’of perception in the Phenomenology of Perception, then to the notion of the Flesh in The Visible and the Invisible. The flesh is neither some sort of ethereal matter nor is it a life force that runs through everything. Rather it is a notion which is formed in order to express the intertwining of the sensate and the sensible, their intertwining and their reversibility. It is this notion of reversibility that most directly problemetizes the concept of intentionality, since rather than having the model of act and object, one has the image of a fold, and of the body as the place of this fold by which the sensible reveals itself.

We see that this notion of intertwining does not only concern the relationship between the sensible and the sensate, between the body and the world. It also orchestrates the relationship between the visible and the invisible. As Merleau-Ponty undercuts, or if one prefers deconstructs, the opposition between subject and object, he also wishes to do the same for the opposition between the visible and the invisible, the sensible and the ideal. We have seen this project already operating in The Structure of Behavior, where he viewed the human order, which is to say the order of symbolic behavior, as a sublation of both physical and vital structures. Also in The Visible and the Invisible he searchs for an “infrastructure” of thought in the body. This infrastructure is located in the body's non-coincidence with itself. In his reflection on the touching-touched , he has shown that my hand, my eye, my voice is both touching, seeing and speaking, and at the same time tangible, visible and audible. However, between these two dimensions there is a non-coincidence; I never, at the same instance, experience my hand as touching and as touched. He writes, “Either my right hand really passes over to the rank of the touched, but then its hold on the world is interrupted, or it retains its hold on the world, but then I do not really touch it” (VI, 148).

There is a divergence (écart) which short-circuits the body's immanence with itself and creates an internal fissure in the visible, thereby generating differentiation rather than identity. There is, Merleau-Ponty says, a sort of reflection that the body effects on itself. Six pages before this incompleted text breaks off, he tells us that we have reached the “most difficult point,” that is, “the bond between flesh and idea, and the internal armature which [it] manifests and which it conceals” (VI, 149). The invisible, the idea, is not the contrary of the visible, it is the invisible of the visible. Merleau-Ponty evokes Proust's notion of the “little phrase” in the musical piece, which in Remembrance of Things Past signify Swann's love for Odette, as an instance of a meaning that cannot be extracted from its sensible incarnation but which, nonethelesss, is itself not strictly speaking sensible. Permit me to use another example. Harry Matthews, in my opinion a very important American writer, when he finished his undergraduate studies at Harvard University went to live in Paris where he has lived for the past 40 years or so. He is obviously completely fluent in French, but he writes in English. At a public lecture, someone asked if he ever thought of writing in French. His answer was a definite “no” because he said that to write in French, as he does in English, it would have been necessary to have attended high school in France. In the context, it was clear that he did not mean that there were certain expressions that French school children use that he does not know. Rather he meant that he did not have a sense of the sensible infrastructure which underlies forms of popular speech, like Proust's ‘little phrases’ which cannot be abstracted from their context. As Merleau-Ponty claims that there is “an ideality that is not alien to the flesh, that gives it its axis, its depth, its dimensions.”

There are meanings that can be abstracted from the sensible body but not from “another, less heavy, more transparent, body, as though it were to change flesh, abandoning the flesh of the body for that of language, and thereby [they] would be emancipated, but not freed, from every condition” (VI, 153). Language is a more diaphanous body, but body nonetheless, which is capable of sedimentation, of forming a world which, in Hannah Arendt's phrase, houses the speaker. The notion of “the invisible of the visible” continues the theme of a logos of the perceived world that we discovered in the Phenomenology of Perception, along with the theme of silence significance (pre-linguistic meaning), a silence which is not the contrary of language. In 1961 Merleau-Ponty's own voice fell silent. But insofar as it provokes speech, it was a silence which was not the contrary of language.
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