Ontology — Badiou and Merleau-Ponty — Part I

“Why should I read Badiou?” is no longer the question — “Why wouldn’t you read Badiou?” – Dr. Jonathan Widell.

I think Badiou’s thought is often initially difficult to engage with partly because it is not very obvious how it relates to other ontologies. In order to show how this relation, I thought I would put Merleau-Ponty’s unfinished attempt at an ontology into dialogue with Badiou’s Being and Event.

M-P takes the same starting point as Heidegger: Being is said in many different senses. The recent advances in science increasingly broaden the scope of what is said to exist. Stars are said to exist, though their light takes years to reach us; particles are said to exist, though they may exist for a fraction of a second; I exist and you, my reader, exist. Can we say that all of them exist in the same sense? Though physicists acknowledge that there are many different kinds of beings, it does not think that it is necessary to develop an ontology that would take these differences into account. If a being can be measured, then it exists and that which cannot be measured must be cast aside.

Merleau-Ponty is not satisfied with the naïve ontology that satisfies the physicist, nor is he satisfied with the widespread view that only science can speak truth. Merleau-Ponty holds that the answers to these questions are extremely complex. Propositions like, “all we are is chemical reactions, all we are is a series of objects” are flawed because they ignore our experience of different variations of beings. In this case, human beings affect us differently, and with greater power, than other beings. I can say that humanity is one animal among others, but there is no question that the experiences I have with other people influence me far more than those of animals -– sometimes their absence (like a death) affects us more than their presence. And I can say that all people are, at bottom, are objects ( a person is an object just as a table is an object) and that I can choose to feel how I want to feel, but when I look at my day to day experience of people, I realize that I do not interact with someone as I would a pencil, or desk, or even the stars, nor do I think of myself as an object. For example, I say that the table is next to the chair, but I do not say that my hand is next to the glass. These types of examples, analyzing these common ways of speaking, continually arise in Merleau-Ponty’s work as a possible indication of what is true. This leads M-P to use ordinary speech as a possible tool for grappling with questions such as “what is Being? What is true? How are beings structured?”

The Editor, Claude Lefort, writes this description of Merleau-Ponty’s work in the forward (one of the best forwards I have ever read, btw):

“But if speech, which is born from silence, can seek its conclusion in silence and make that silence not be its contrary, this is because between experience and language there is in principle, exchange; it is because experience is not something one could coincide with, because it bears a transcendence, since already, in itself, it is differentiation, articulation, structuration, and because in some way it calls for language; it is because language is also experience, because there is, as Merleau-Ponty writes so well, a being of language in which the enigma of being is repeated, because beyond the movement of the pure significations there remains the silent mass of the discourse, that which is not of the order of the sayable, and because the greatest merit of expression is to disclose this continuous passage form the word to being and from being to the word, or this double openness of the one upon the other. To think through this exchange is no doubt what The Visible and the Invisible was to devote itself to, at the end.” Xxix

In other words the study and interpretation of being. Interpreting being meant, for Merleau-Ponty, a proper account of being’s exchange with the language of our experience, and in experience in general. And perhaps the difficulty of elucidating the meaning of this exchange led Merleau-Ponty to ask whether or not a new style of language was needed in order to study wild and brute being. Though he hesitant to conclude that language was needed to be used in a new way, he was confident that only a method of inquiry that let the things themselves speak could be possible by departing from experience and all of the variations that are found in it. He believed that fruitful research was no longer possible where research departed from assumed categories like God, nature, or humanity because this type of research often detaches thought from its experience and cease to be a faithful interpretation of the world. Thus, a large part of his work and method focused on the interrogation and clarification of ambiguities that tangled up better paths towards a truthful exegesis of being.

The bulk of M-P’s unfinished ontology focuses in on the true and those “various vibrations of being” that produce the true and how the true can remain, despite the presence of deception, lies and the false which throw the true into question. In other words, how we can have the world (yes something is true) and yet not have it (moments later we find it is false)? How can we have a world that does not close in on over itself? In the end, Merleau-Ponty, the famed phenomenologist, was no longer satisfied describing the world. He died before he could finish the project.

Let’s turn to Badiou. Being able to say “what is true” does indeed play a central role in Badiou’s work, e.g., determining the validity events and looking at the state of the situation and so on. But he does so by incorporating mathematics. At first glance this might seem contrary to Merleau-Ponty’s project.

Does not mathematics occupy itself to the fullest extent with the measurable? And would it not be a step in the wrong direction, towards the naïve physicist, to place mathematics as the definitive mode of ontological exploration?

However, Mathematics has no objects – it merely formalizes relations. It is grounded upon the central idea that “insofar as it exists, then ….” The requirements for a being’s existence are whatever one would like them to be. But those requirements are not found in mathematics. Mathematics is simply there to formalize these requirements. Hence, the gap between knowing whether something exists and the meaning of these existing things might mean is traversed in an instant by mathematics.

Without losing any real substance of M-P’s ontology, one could easily imagine that it occupies itself entirely with the motto of mathematics: “insofar as it exists…” What does existence mean? What is it? How can I know what either mean? Primarily concerned with proofs, mathematicians tend to leave these questions to philosophers.

To put it as simply as possible: mathematics are capable of formalizing any ontology. And so far, set theory, more specifically, Zermelo-Frankel Set Theory seems to be the most adequate, according to Badiou. Insofar as there are beings in the world, mathematics can formalize them. The world, though, is that which is made up of objects. Which is where physics comes in. Physics is concerned only with objects. Mathematics merely formalizes the relations between these objects.

The final answer for what an object is is rather difficult to find in the work of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. But they are able to talk about them. They are capable of having a discourse on objects, beings and truth without too much difficulty. The difficulty lies in finding definitive answers. This is why they can’t be said to be “doing physics.” They are not speaking purely about the relationship objects have to one another.  They are concerned with objects and beings, insofar as they exist for us, that is, insofar as they matter to us.

Merleau-Ponty’s demand for a new language to speak more rigorously about Being might be met in the work of Badiou. Indeed, Badiou does speak about Being in a new way. And Badiou explicitly states that his work is not about the world, which deals with objects: it is about discourse. Discourse is meant in the broadest possible sense. This discourse is about our experience of the world and how we communicate this experience. And since how I speak about the world affects my relationship with it, the better my discourse, the better I can engage with beings insofar as they exist. Or as mentioned earlier in the quotation: “language is also experience, because there is, as Merleau-Ponty writes so well, a being of language in which the enigma of being is repeated.”

In sum, Badiou follows Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty by stressing the importance of Die Frage nach dem Sinn von Sein. It revealed our incapacity to fully declare and define what Being is in its many vibrations. But Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty were not successful in finding any sort of answer to the question. The success their work has lies primarily in keeping the question of Being open which promotes a certain ethos of understanding, a perspective that moves back and forth between ignorance and knowledge and enjoying a kind of rest in this movement. Badiou also accepts this position. But he wants to know how we are able to distinguish between beings and the saying of being in many senses. Instead of the question “What is meant by the fact that we say beings exist in many senses?” he asks “How do we distinguish between two beings? How do we distinguish between many beings and one being?” To answer this, he turns to mathematics.

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About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

3 thoughts on “Ontology — Badiou and Merleau-Ponty — Part I

  1. There’s some great work here. This is an exciting project. I hope to see more soon!

    I really appreciate this effort to delve into the ontology in *The Visible and the Invisible*. It’s a daunting task and I find your summary quite helpful. Some questions about it – I don’t think they undermine what you’re trying to do (though I wouldn’t rule that out either), but I invite you to see them as invitations for exploration in your future posts.

    “Only a method of inquiry that let the things themselves speak could be possible by departing from experience and all of the variations that are found in it.” Are you saying that he found that it was through a method that took Dasein and its engagement with beings that allows beings to speak? In other words that a certain kind of engagement with beings is the best way to let them truly be (https://idolsandicons.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/according-to-merleau-ponty-engagement-with-the-things-is-the-way-to-truly-let-them-be/)?

    “In the end, Merleau-Ponty, the famed phenomenologist, was no longer satisfied describing the world.” I’m not sure I follow you all the way here. Are you saying that M-P was no longer satisfied with description because we don’t quite coincide with our experience and our experience doesn’t quite coincide with reality? If so, is there room to say that in response M-P turned to our pre-objective experience and then also to the foundations of that experience to describe the structures of reality? If so, I’m not sure it’s right to name this as a departure from phenomenology.

    “They are concerned with objects and beings, insofar as they exist for us, that is, insofar as they matter to us.” I think this is to too easily reduce H’s and M-P’s thinking. I see both of them (and especially M-P, but see also Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism”) as rejecting on the one hand the objective scientifism that you describe in this post. But on the other hand they reject a Sartrian subjectivism (what M-P calls negative philosophy in *The Visible and the Invisible). I think that this sentence is in danger of reading M-P as a negative philosopher. I also think that a heightened awareness in this post of the tension between us needing the world (receiving ourselves from the world) and the world needing us (to be “world”) might make a marriage between M-P and Badiou a little more difficult, partly because in this formulation there’s a sense in which “world” is all that really matters.

    “Without losing any real substance of M-P’s ontology, one could easily imagine that it occupies itself entirely with the motto of mathematics: “insofar as it exists…” What does existence mean? What is it? How can I know what either mean? Primarily concerned with proofs, mathematicians tend to leave these questions to philosophers.” I need more before I’m convinced. I read M-P as trying to demonstrate the wrongness of starting phrases with “Insofar as it exists…” The argument is that we ought not to put the world in question as a matter of course even as this does not result in a positivist ontology (i.e., prevent us from asking questions *of* the world or prevent us from identifying falsehoods). And this argument is not incidental. It is at the heart of M-P’s “wild” world that surrounds and engages us with depth and at the heart of a subject that can be said to be free precisely as it is bound to the world.

    ‘“What is meant by the fact that we say beings exist in many senses?” he asks “How do we distinguish between two beings? How do we distinguish between many beings and one being?”’ Doesn’t M-P have an answer of sorts to this – namely that we *do* distinguish beings from each other all the time and that this fact is what is interesting. This fact also makes him turn to the body; our embodied existence is what enables us to make distinctions, to the extent that most of the distinctions (another word would be “identifications”) we make are, crudely put, pre-conscious. It’s worth noting here how essential the turn to the body is in M-P’s thought, from beginning to end. I also think this turn to the body allows us to name M-P’s work a success: his was not simply a “keeping the question of being open” but a body that could exist, could only be itself or even a self, with many other bodies, together with which it could be said to participate in a world. This world, this intercorporeal ontology of bodies, calls forth ways of flourishing and ways of diminishing the self, of flattening Being, so to speak. Instead of trying to figure out how we might distinguish between beings, he finds that we already do so and finds that we do so because we are bodies and this leads to a quest to name what bodies look like if bodies must participate in being and what being is if it is embodied or at least constituted by bodies.

    Sorry if that’s too much… There’s a lot going on here that very much interests and excites me. I could probably go on, but you’ve promised future posts. It’s probably best that I reserve a full post response for the series as a whole when it concludes.

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  2. Thanks for your engagement. I just have a couple of thoughts for now:

    1. M-P’s uses the term is “experience” far more than “Dasein” probably because of its rich flexibility. He may also prefer the term because it doesn’t carry as many Heideggarian associations and M-P can carve out his own philosophy:

    “it is our experience, prior to every opinion, of inhabiting the world by our body, of inhabiting the truth by our whole selves, without there being need to choose nor even to distinguish between the assurance of seeing and the assurance of seeing the true, because in principle they are one and the same thing — faith, therefore, and not knowledge, since, rather than affirmed, it is taken for granted, rather than disclosed, it is non-dissimulated, non-refuted.” page 28 Visible and the Invisible

    2. Phenomenology is often taken to be a method which only seeks to describe and not explain, which is the business of Science. In the quotation you mentioned, I’m merely emphasizing the fact that M-P’s project was also very much concerned with the question of “why” there is openness and how it is bound up with experience. My point is just to highlight the explanatory aspects of M-P’s phenomenology, that is, he is not content just content to describe the world. In the following quote, it seems to me that M-P is speaking on behalf of himself and his discipline:

    “If philosophy is to appropriate to itself and to understand this initial openness upon the world which does not exclude a possible occultation, it cannot be content with describing it; it must tell us how there is openness without occultation of the world being excluded, how the occultation remains at each instant possible even though we be naturally endowed with light.” page 28 Visible and the Invisible

    3. I read M-P as trying to demonstrate the wrongness of starting phrases with “Insofar as it exists…” I’m not saying that M-P’s philosophy “starts with phrases like “insofar as it exists” and develops a philosophy based on its truth. I’m saying that M-P’s philosophy is occupied with every aspect of this phrase, every word and implication within it needs clarification. For M-P categories like this must always be tested again and again for their validity and truthfulness. The gap between possibility, existence, beings, and truth, is precisely Merleua-Ponty’s project in the Visible and the Invisible. It’s goal is to work with every term, see where there are problems, see how they relate etc. M-P is able to bridge the gap that the phrase “insofar as it exists” opens up. Am I being clear?

    4. “keeping the question of being open” As in, he doesn’t say what “being” is. He names many different kinds of beings and shows their importance in different realms. Or is your point that M-P says that beings are fundamentally bound up with each other. In other words, beings are fundamentally relational. In both cases I think that Badiou’s ontology works with M-P’s: Badiou’s ontology sets out to show that beings are fundamentally defined by their relations. Badiou does so by showing that there is no definition of the multiple. M-P has no definition of the multiple, or the one, that I am aware of. M-P might just say that a being is one insofar as I engage with it as a being within a setting of other beings. This is the exact point Badiou is making buttressed by the language of set theory.

    Does this help?

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  3. Yes. Very helpful.

    @2 I hadn’t read that quote as an indication of phenomenology’s inadequacy and the need to move to ontology, but I think you’re right. I think the reason I reacted is because M-P’s phenomenology had always done this, but perhaps at the end he recognized that what he was trying to do philosophically would work better with an adjusted method. Interestingly enough, however, I find “The Intertwining” by far the most helpful and profound chapter in The Visible and the Invisible, and it does employ a very phenomenological method, much like one sees in *POP*.

    @3. I see. I agree also with your reading. I will have to re-read this post in light that because obviously I missed some of what you were trying to say about M-P in it.

    @4 A few things here. First, I’m reacting to what I read as a critique of M-P, namely that he was “not successful in finding any sort of answer to the question.” To the extent that it is true, it is because he wants to drastically reframe the question before we ask it. But also, I do think he offers us some very helpful answers, and those answers tend to turn on the centrality of the body. This is part of why M-P’s ontology is called an ontology of the flesh. And I believe that while developing this ontology he says something along the lines of “Being is the reversability/chiasm/intertwining of the flesh of the world.” And this is how he gets past the subject-object dichotomy (or temptation to an ontological reduction to one or the other): because, very simply put, being requires and gives both. Second, I agree that beings are, at bottom, relational for M-P, but I don’t think that he reduces beings to their relationality. Bear in mind that, particularly in his earlier work, one of M-P’s primary purposes is to save the self and to articulate a philosophy of freedom for that self. Third, if there is an absolute “bottom” for M-P I’d suggest that corporeality has to be a part of it – there is no relationality without it (as, perhaps, there is no body without relationality, but I’d sooner put the former statement in M-P’s mouth than the latter).

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