Maurice Merleau-Ponty First published Mon Jun 14, 2004



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Maurice Merleau-Ponty

First published Mon Jun 14, 2004

Born in 1908, Merleau-Ponty died in 1961 at the age of 53. This essay will follow the basic contours of his thought, beginning with the first published work, The Structure of Behavior (SB), followed by the Phenomenology of Perception (PP), and concluding with the posthumously published The Visible and the Invisible (VI). It will include only brief excursions into his writings on politics and art. Although I have no interest in dividing his oeuvre into three distinct periods, nonetheless, each of these works marks a stage in the philosophical itinerary of his thought, culminating with an ontology of the flesh elaborated in his later thought.

1. Neither Naturalism Nor Objectivism

2. The Third Dialectic

3. Critique Of Transcendental Philosophy

4. The Philosophy Of Language

5. Merleau-Ponty And Saussure

6. Political Philosophy And History

7. Ontology Of The Flesh

8. Merleau-Ponty in the 21st Century

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1. Neither Naturalism Nor Objectivism

The first sentence of The Structure of Behavior reads, “Our goal is to understand the relationship of consciousness and nature: organic, psychological or even social” (SB, 3). In the philosophical field that Merleau-Ponty entered, the question concerning the relationship of consciousness and nature was dominated by two distinct approaches: on the one hand, what Merleau-Ponty would call ‘objectivism’, understood as naturalism in philosophy, behaviorism in psychology, and mechanism in biology; on the other hand, what he calls ‘intellectualism’, that is, the neo-Kantianism which loomed large in France at that time, particularly the thought of Brunschvicg. Merleau-Ponty's own position emerges as he critically negotiates his way between these two approaches. In The Structure of Behavior, he argues against naturalism and objectivism, however, he does not employ the epistemological resources of the Kantian tradition. In his rejection of an epistemological starting point, Merleau-Ponty's position resembles that of Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit. The Hegelian influence on The Structure of Behavior should not be underestimated. Like Hegel, Merleau-Ponty ‘starts from below’, which is to say, he does not begin with an analysis of a subjectivity which would constitute the condition of possibility for the appearance of objectivity. Rather he turns his attention to the research that was currently being done in the psychology and the biology of his day, attempting to demonstrate that the actual results of this research contradict the explicit ontology that subtends it.

Merleau-Ponty's strategy is to critically appropriate the critique of classical behaviorism that had been elaborated by the Gestalt psychologists. Without rehearsing the details of their analyses, what they had shown is that in order to arrive at a ‘basic’ unit of explanation, for example, ‘sense data’ or the ‘reflex arc’, it is necessary to simplify analytically what actually had been given phenomenally in experience. Merleau-Ponty evokes the simple experience of seeing a spot of light on a wall in a dark room. In this situation, the subject speaks of his attention being attracted by a spot of light, of his being pulled along by it. As such, this behavior is teleological and meaningful; it has a direction. He often evokes the ambiguity of the French word sense as both, or either, ‘meaning’ or ‘direction’, as for example, the street sign, sens unique, a ‘one way street’. According to classical behaviorism, the characteristics of my behavior toward the phenomenal light must be rejected as not being fundamental. Rather the spot of light must be explained by means of the causal action between the real light, conceived of as vibratory motion in the real world, and my body, conceived of as a part of the real world that exists partes extra partes. The spot of light on the black background must be decomposed, analyzed, into atomic units of ‘sense data’ which act upon distinctly localizable anatomical places of my retina. My behavior, which is phenomenally experienced as motivated, is, in ‘reality’, caused. My vision is not viewed as ‘attracted by’, ‘pulled toward’, rather it considered to be a response to a causal stimulus.

The Gestalt theorists had shown experimentally that even the most elementary experience is always structured, the most basic structure being that of the figure/ground. They argued that in terms of learning, the organism is not subjected to a causal process by which a certain ‘reflex arc’ becomes privileged through repetition; it does not ‘learn a response’ to a definite stimulus, rather it responses to a form, a gestalt of stimuli, a typical stimulus. “It is not the violent reaction which follows a painful experience that is established in a child's behavior, but rather the reaction of protecting himself, and although both reactions have the same meaning [not to touch the hot stove], they do not have the same appearance.” Merleau-Ponty writes, “learning is not a real operation” (SB, 98–99) and reaction is a type of behavior directed to a typical stimulus. The Gestalt theorists, Koehler and Koffka, had shown that the atomic units of perception and learning, namely, ‘sense data’ and ‘the reflex arc,’ are not elementary but derived and a structure is not reducible to the interaction of atomic units. According to Merleau-Ponty, the Gestalists had misunderstood the ultimate implications of their own work, because they believed that the notion of structure can be thought within the naturalist ontology that subtended the thought of the atomists whom they had criticized. The Gestalt theorists believed that structures existed in nature and that they do not cause atomic responses but rather structured responses. According to this view, behavior is still defined as a product of causality, but it is now a structural causality in which the structure remains a thing-like being. “The integration of matter, life and mind is obtained by this reduction to a common denominator of physical form” (SB, 135).

Against this position, Merleau-Ponty claims that the introduction of the concept of the Gestalt necessitates a complete revision on the level of both epistemology and ontology. Permit me an extended citation from The Structure of Behavior inasmuch as I think this passage is the pivotal point of the book.

That in the final analysis form cannot be defined in terms of reality but in terms of knowledge, not a thing of the physical world but as a perceived whole, is explicitly recognized by Koehler when he writes that the order in a form ‘rests’ …on the fact that each local event, one could almost say ‘dynamically knows’ others. It is not an accident that, in order to express this presence of each moment to the other, Koehler comes up with the term ‘knowledge’. A unity of this type can be found only in an object of knowledge. Taken as a being of nature, existing in space, the form would always be dispersed in several places and distributed in local events, even if these events mutually determine each other; to say that it does not suffer this division amounts to saying that it is not spread out in space, that it does not exist in the same manner as a thing, that it is the idea under which what happens in several places is brought together and resumed. This unity is the unity of perceived objects. A colored circle which I look at is completely modified in its physiognomy by an irregularity which removes something of its circular character and makes it an imperfect circle. (SB, 143)

Merleau-Ponty argues that the Gestalt exists for a perceiving subject; it is not a part of the world as it is in itself. The stimulus does not unilaterally affect the organism in virtue of its absolute physical and chemical properties; it becomes a stimulus only insofar as the organism constitutes for itself a vital milieu which it projects around itself. The mouse in The Metropolitan Museum of Art is affected by the crumbs of cookies on the floor, but not by the Velázquez painting on the wall. In the milieu that the mouse constitutes, the crumb is desirable and the painting does not exist.

Through his analysis of the notion of Gestalt, Merleau-Ponty arrives at the threshold of transcendental philosophy; however, he does not simply cross it. In the Introduction to The Structure of Behavior, rhetorically he asks, “Is the solution to be found purely and simply in a return to critical thought?” (SB, 4) According to him, there is something in naturalism which must be both understood and transposed. In his attempt to accomplish this understanding and transposition, he employs the notion of Gestalt, a notion which will become a guiding thread throughout his thought. In a Working Note to The Visible and the Invisible dated September 1959, he begins with the question: “What is a Gestalt?” (VI, 204).

In The Structure of Behavior, he elaborates the notion of three types of Gestalten, namely, the physical, the vital and that of the human order. Within the physical world, viewed as a world of appearances, there are structures, for example, the oil spot on water, the distribution of an electrical charge and so forth. Merleau-Ponty, in fact, argues that all scientific laws are expressions of structural relations. In the area of vital structures, he makes a distinction between different structures on the basis of their capacity to generalize, that is, their ability to remove themselves from a concrete situation. Syncretic structures are tied to the concrete, for example, a frog who is shown a fly which is separated from it by a glass panel will, nonetheless, snap at the fly as long as it sees it. Whereas amovable structures are connected to a certain type of situation, for example, a chicken can be taught to distinguish between the different shades of the color of his food; thus he is able to pick the lighter colored corn even though he has never encountered any corn of this particular shade. One could say that he has learned the opposition between lighter and darker.

2. The Third Dialectic

The human order opens what Merleau-Ponty calls a ‘third dialectic’. Tied neither to a fact, nor to a delineated type of situation, it institutes a domain of culture in which the object is in no immediate sense related to a biological function. This ‘third dialectic’ is characterized by “the Hegelian term ‘work’” (SB, 163). Following Kojève, Merleau-Ponty regards ‘work’ as instituting a delay between a biological stimulus and a response, thus opening a domain of culture. He argues that Language, as a domain of signification, radically transcends the domain of a singular fact. Then he shows that between these three structures there is no equality, inasmuch as the study of nature, inanimate or animate, is accomplished in language. It is at this point that he cites Hegel approvingly: “The mind of nature is a hidden mind. It is not produced in the form of mind. It is only mind for the mind that knows it.” Then Merleau-Ponty continues, “In reality, we have already introduced consciousness, and what we have designated under the name of life was already consciousness of life. The concept is only the interior of nature, says Hegel. And already it seemed to us that the notion of a living body could not be grasped without the unity of signification, which distinguishes a gesture from a sum of movements” (SB, 161–162). Between consciousness and nature there is not a relation of exteriority. At this period in Merleau-Ponty's thought, Husserl's notion of intentionality has not yet been integrated into his thinking. It could be said that the role Hegel played in The Structure of Behavior has, in his later work, been displaced by Husserl. Nonetheless, the quote from Hegel's Philosophy of Nature cannot but strike the reader of The Visible and the Invisible where Merleau-Ponty speaks of the Invisible as the Invisible of the Visible, as its lining.

In both the Phenomenology of Perception and The Visible and the Invisible, he elaborates a conception of the relationship between the body and the soul that both retains and transforms the conception presented in The Structure of Behavior. Against Descartes, he claims that this relation is not a relationship between two substances which would in some way connect with one another. On the contray, the three structures are integrated, one into the other, in such a way that it reminds the reader of Hegel's notion of sublation (Aufhebung) whereby the lower is both cancelled, as independent, and also retained. When this synthesis is accomplished, the autonomy of the lower is annulled; however, the synthesis can become undone, in which case the autonomy of the lower structure re-emerges. When this synthesis is effected, the lower structure does not exist as such. “The appearance of reason and mind does not leave intact a sphere of self-enclosed instincts” (SB, 181). Merleau-Ponty insists that when speaking of the physical, the vital and the human structures, one should not conceive of them as acting on one another in a causal manner. “Each of them has to be conceived as a retaking and ‘new’ structuralization of the preceding one” (SB, 184). Insofar as the ‘third dialectic’ has fully integrated the physical and the vital structures so that they no longer act as autonomous systems, one could say that “body and soul are no longer distinguished” (SB, 203). Nonetheless, when they disintegrate then they are experienced as distinct. Merleau-Ponty writes, “This is the truth of dualism” (SB, 209).

As we have seen, the Gestalt does not exist as a thing in nature, rather it is viewed as an object of ‘knowledge’ for a subject. Thus we see that Merleau-Ponty comes to the threshold of transcendental philosophy, however, it is his ‘interrogation of the subject’ which blocks his entry into critical philosophy proper. He views this subject as neither the substantial subject of Descartes, nor the Kantian “I think” that can accompany any possible experience, rather it is a subject which has itself been constituted by a dialectic of physical and vital structures. He tells us that we must relativize the notion of body and soul, since each moment of the dialectic is “…soul with respect to the preceding one, and body with respect to the following one” (SB, 210). The subject for whom nature appears is itself the result of a dialectic which is, in the sense indicated above, a part of nature. Thus, to the question that forms the title of the last chapter of The Structure of Behavior, “Is there not a truth to naturalism?”, the answer is “Yes.” Merleau-Ponty's reflections on the being of the Gestalt led him to Hegel who claims that “Nature is the exterior of the concept” (SB, 210), but for Hegel, when the concept becomes conscious of itself, it comes to see that it has no exterior. On the contrary, for Merleau-Ponty the Gestalt must be conceived of as a unity of both nature and idea. This unity is intractable. There is in experience an “original text which cannot be extracted from its relationship to nature. The signification is embodied” (SB, 211). Thus we see that the consciousness for which the Gestalt exists is not an intellectual consciousness, rather it is a perceptual consciousness. According to critical philosophy, nature becomes a system of representations which exists for a consciousness whose activity is the condition of its possibility as appearance. Its unity is engendered by the synthesis which the subject effects of itself by its apperception and which it articulates in the “Table of Judgments.”

The movement from The Structure of Behavior to the Phenomenology of Perception is one in which critical philosophy, at whose threshold Merleau-Ponty hesitated in the last pages of the former book, becomes an object for critical reflection. As we have already noted, the philosophy of Husserl does not loom large in The Structure of Behavior. We note that The Structure of Behavior was published in 1941, and that beginning in 1939 Merleau-Ponty visited the Husserl Archives a number of times. Between then and 1945, the year in which the Phenomenology of Perception was published, the work of Husserl comes to exert a strong influence on his thinking; but in no sense can we argue that Merleau-Ponty uncritically absorbed Husserl's position. Although he often returns to the thought of Husserl and, towards the end of his life, writes a particularly brilliant article on him, “The Philosopher and his Shadow,” for our purposes here, the Preface to the Phenomenology of Perception can serve as the place where Merleau-Ponty elaborates upon his encounter with the thought of Husserl. It begins with the question, “What is phenomenology?” (PP, vii) Then he evokes a series of antimonies which he refers to as contradictions in Husserl's thought. Phenomenology is both a knowledge of essences and also a philosophy which puts essences back into existence, insisting that man and the world can be understood only on the basis of facticity; it has both a static and a genetic moment. All these different tensions will be resolved in Merleau-Ponty's thought, but for the most part not in the direction that Husserl, at least as he is conventionally interpreted, would have approved.

3. Critique Of Transcendental Philosophy

The Phenomenology of Perception repeats and deepens Merleau-Ponty's critique of objective thought. As in The Structure of Behavior, this is not accomplished from an exterior epistemological perspective, rather he follows through the implicit critique of objectivism that was implied in the researches of empirical psychology and biology. In this brief introduction to Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, I will not pursue this thread of his thought further, but I must insist that he continues, to the time of his death, to remain in touch with the empirical sciences, particularly psychology but not absolutely excluding biology and physics. Nonetheless, there was on his part no attempt to found, or to prove, his philosophy on the basis of science, a project which for a phenomenological philosopher would be absurd. He writes, “The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to a rigorous scrutiny, and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world, of which science is the second-order expression” (PP, viii). Unlike Heidegger, he does not have a dismissive attitude towards science, namely, that it “does not think” or that it is merely calculation. On the contrary, in Merleau-Ponty's thought there is a constant dialogue with the sciences in the hope of a mutual clarification.

The aspect of the Phenomenology of Perception that I will bring to center stage is its deepening critique of transcendental philosophy and the implications of this for philosophy in general. Already in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty radically distinguishes his project from that of both Descartes and Kant whom he claims have detached the conscious subject from the world that is given in experience. Both of these thinkers proposed that “I could not apprehend anything as existing, unless I, first of all, experience myself as existing in the act of apprehending it” (PP, ix). According to Descartes, the subject's intuition of itself in the Cogito is the ground for its intuition of anything else. In the “Second Meditation” he tells us that he sees light and feels heat; but with the evil genius still on the loose, there is a distinct possibility that there is neither light nor heat. Nevertheless, that I see light and feel heat is as certain as the certainty of my own existence. However, this certainty is purchased at a price, namely, that of changing the object of perception into the thought, or the representation, of the object of perception. What Merleau-Ponty calls “analytic reflection” does not describe the world that is given to me when I open my eyes; rather it views the world as a product of subjective synthesis. This type of reflection does not describe my experience, but reconstructs it, thereby remaining true to Vico's maxim that ‘we can only know what we have made’. Merleau-Ponty, on the contrary, insists that we do not make the world that we experience. He writes, “The real is a closely woven fabric” (PP, x). It is not constituted out of acts of judgment, or acts of predication. If this were the case, then it would have the character of probability. I would be constantly readjusting the synthesis which gave my representations the status of reality. He argues that this is not the case, and that even the most improbable phenomena are immediately accepted as real. For example, if I were to see a number of cows in the corridor of The New School for Social Research, my first question would be, “What are these cows doing in The New School?” It would not be, except on the worst of days, “Are these cows real?”

It is from the observation of such phenomena that Merleau-Ponty concludes that perception and judgment cannot be accorded the same status. He distances himself from ‘analytic reflection’ in an important respect, particularly from the incarnation of it in the writings of Leon Brunschvicg. Gutting (2001) shows that Brunschvicg attempted to establish an identity between cognition and judgment by arguing that all cognitive activities are reducible to judgment. He claimed that in order to conceive, man must unite together certain characteristics and a certain understanding. Within the Kantian tradition, genuine knowledge requires receptivity and spontaneity. Spontaneity is conceived of as being intelligible through the “Categories of Judgment.” Much of the Phenomenology of Perception is written against this thesis, a thesis to which we will return in our reflections on The Visible and the Invisible.

The transformation of the object of perception into the thought of the object of perception, that is to say, the attempt to reconstitute the world in immanence, is pursued not only by analytic reflection; it is also accomplished by the phenomenological reduction, at least as it is proposed by Husserl (1913, Volume One). The reduction puts into brackets the thesis of the “natural attitude,” that is, the naive belief in the independent existence of a natural world, and, implicitly, that our perception of the world is caused by the world. After ‘the reduction’ the world remains, but now it is a world that is meant, a world which is the intentional correlate of acts of Sinngebung of a subject for whom this world appears. In this sense, Merleau-Ponty writes, “The phenomenological reduction is idealist” (PP, xi). He rejects those aspects of Husserl's thought which make the being of the subject coincide with its consciousness of itself, and which transform the experience of the world into the thought of the world. Nevertheless, he wishes to retain a certain attenuated, or weaker, conception of the reduction; he evokes Eugen Fink's characterization of the reduction as ‘wonder in the face of the world’. Merleau-Ponty writes, “Reduction does not withdraw from the world towards the unity of consciousness as the world's basis: it steps back to watch the forms of transcendence fly up like sparks from a fire; it slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world, and thus brings them to our notice. It, alone, is consciousness of the world, because it reveals the world as strange and paradoxical” (PP, xii). The reduction, as Merleau-Ponty conceives of it, disrupts our absorption in the world, thereby destroying its “ordinary character.” The Russian formalists claimed that the function of poetic language is to ‘defamiliarize’ language. It is in this sense that Merleau-Ponty wishes to retain a version of Husserls's notion of ‘reduction’. Writing on painting in the last published article in his lifetime, “Eye and Mind,” in The Primacy of Perception (Northwestern Univ. Press, 1964 ) Merleau-Ponty employs this conception of the reduction. He tells us that ‘the vision of the painter’ shows us what “profane vision” overlooks (literally) in its rush to posit objects. The painter's vision draws our attention to the play of light and shadow through which the visible object becomes visible. For Merleau-Ponty, it is often the work of artists that performs something analogous to his notion of the reduction. In The Visible and the Invisible, it is the writing of Proust in Remembrance of Things Past that breaks through the familiarity of ordinary language, showing us the “little phrases” which form the substrate of ordinary speech. We will return to this point when we consider his theory of language.


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